West London Free School Curriculum "not appropriate for all children"

Henry Stewart's picture
Today's Independent has a revealing article about West London Free School, due to open in September. Tom Packer, the newly appointed head teacher of the school, "acknowledges that its curriculum would not necessarily be suitable for every child." He is referring to its focus only on academic subjects.

So, if the school is offering only a route based on academic subjects and the headteacher is clear that it won't be suitable for every child, what will happen to those children for whom it is not suitable?

The focus of the founders of the Free School is in line with that of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who wants to "restoring academic rigour" into the curriculum. I think he is genuine in wanting more students from poor backgrounds to succeed in traditional subjects and go to top universities. But he seems to have no interest in students, whether from rich or poor backgrounds, whose strength is not academic.

At the school I chair, which has a creative specialism, many students choose creative subjects and go onto art college. And surely it is at least as vital to our future economic success that we have students doing art and design courses, and heading for careers in our creative industries, as it is that there are students doing Maths and History at Oxbridge. We have other students who are less academic and have focused on BTEC and similar qualifications. These are dismissed by some. (Katherine Birbalsingh has suggested BTEC qualifications are a symptom of 'all shall have prizes', though I'm not clear what is wrong with finding  each student a qualification that gives them an appropriate prize.) But I know students for whom BTECs at Key Stage 4 have been just right and enabled them to move on to studying at sixth form with qualifications likely to find them a job. What will happen to these students at West London Free School?

The academic-only approach is not supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Mossbourne Academy - that Gove claims to seek to emulate. "There will always be a proportion of children in non-selective-schools - and there are in my school certainly - for whom an academic education is not appropriate", explained Sir Michael in TES on 4th February 2011. The difference is that Mossbourne is a fully comprehensive school committed to enabling all its students to do well, with remarkable results.

I am not sure I have seen before a headteacher of a comprehensive school stating that its curriculum will not be appropriate for all. Indeed such a statement surely means it is not a comprehensive school. Instead is it a step towards creating a new divide between the academic and the non-academic?
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 15:16

Although this post is about a particular school, it is relevant to the whole free school agenda; is it fair on our children to have schools with wildly different curricula? Shouldn't the best schools devise inclusive curricula which engage ALL children, whatever their backgrounds?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 16:36

So we now have a comprehensive which is not really a comprehensive. I don't find this at all surprising. Contributors to this site have warned that one way of selecting pupils is to provide a curriculum which attracts only a certain type of pupil. It is obvious, therefore, that the West London Free School does not wish to take non-academic pupils.

The overview of the OECD Economic Survey of the UK 2011 published yesterday (16 March) said the following:

"Further reforms are needed to improve education outcomes in England, especially among disadvantaged groups... PISA scores remain static and uneven, and could be improved by focusing resources more on disadvantaged children. The new pupil premium is a step in the right direction, but funding should be even more transparent."


Mr Osborne has said he will address the education of disadvantaged children in the budget next week.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 16:57

I've just read the article and one of the comments following says:

"While the public sector, in their arrogance and hubris, flatly refuse to believe that the private sector can do a better job than they can, at any endeavor, despite all the mountain ranges of evidence accumulated over centuries, that the public sector is flatly wrong."

"Whenever someone tries to do anything better in the UK, the leftists and unionists rise up in mobs of screaming animals, desperately trying to stop any effort to improve the lives of people, and prove the leftist are wrong in their dim-witted, delusional ideology."

Leave aside the nonsense about "centuries" of evidence about the private sector superiority over public sector provision, we have the usual propaganda about mobs of screaming lefties.

The comment has been recommended by two people - one named Toby Young.

PS I'm still waiting for the OECD link to the evidence which shows that UK independent schools are allegedly the best in the world.

H & F Parent's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 17:24

The curriculum isn't for the children. It's for their parents.

H & F Parent's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 17:25

As in, the West London Free School curriculum.

Janet, can you reconcile your first comment above with your love of the Finnish system which divides pupils into academic and non-academic schools?

Also what is the relevance to this topic of you saying the following?

“The overview of the OECD Economic Survey of the UK 2011 published yesterday (16 March) said the following:

“Further reforms are needed to improve education outcomes in England, especially among disadvantaged groups… PISA scores remain static and uneven, and could be improved by focusing resources more on disadvantaged children. The new pupil premium is a step in the right direction, but funding should be even more transparent.”


Mr Osborne has said he will address the education of disadvantaged children in the budget next week.”

If indeed it is supposed to be relevant then it seems like you are displaying the same prejudice that Francis shows when he implies that people from certain backgrounds are less likely to have certain aptitudes and abilities.

Urban Head's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 21:40

Henry states:
"The focus of the founders of the Free School is in line with that of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who wants to “restoring academic rigour” into the curriculum."
He is wrong
The purpose of the founders is to create a school for children like theirs and in doing so exclude and put off from applying children who are not like theirs

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 17/03/2011 - 21:55

Many "ordinary" people remain very ignorant about free schools - what they mean, how they are set up, who benefits, the application process. But they seem to think that a free school widens local choice. I think many of these people will be alarmed to read that Tom Packer and the WLFS seem to be signalling to the less academic that they are, essentially, wasting their time applying to the school since they have admitted that it is, in fact, elitist, pure and simple. So not really a widening of choice for quite a few people in this area of West London.

He claims that the school will enable students "to think for themselves" but I suspect that, given Toby Young’s relentless and irrational diatribes against anyone who won’t conform to his mindset, they would feel it better to shut up, put up and toe the line, especially if they are gay, left wing or have a parent contributing to mumsnet.

Lucy Knight-Ballard's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 00:38

From the WLFS blogg 25/2/10 on research conducted on Kunskapskollen and IES Eskilstuna, very important questions about less academic children are raised but not sufficiently answered . . .

"Would such children be able to cope in either school? Would either school be able to cope with such children? How would IES, for instance, deal with a child who couldn’t read or write? And would Kunskapsskolan expect children with chaotic home lives to be self-starters, working under their own steam in a largely unsupervised environment?"

Is this what WLFS mean by their curriculum profile not being suitable for less academic children? If it is, we could see a repeat of what has happened in Sweden, where children are frozen out of the hot house, 'cafe style learning environments' because they simply aren't suitable for many children.
Last year Sweden amended its education bill to try and redress the balance that has been skewed since the introduction of big educational companies like Kunskapsskolan.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 07:27

It seems to be a theme - saying its for everyone - and then perhaps not. Either a curriculum, or recruitment issues makes it 'not necessarily for everyone'. Nobody knows much about Rivendale's curriculum, but its recruitment has been very peculuar.

This tidbit from the 17 Dec TES 'The Same but Different' :

The group is also aware of claims that free schools are exclusive: run by the middle class, for the middle class. “It is quite clearly a risk of the free schools policy,” admits Mr Woods, while Mr Ewen believes it is an “almost inevitable part of the policy”.

Despite this, both remain “apolitical” and say they are determined to make Rivendale work without being exclusive. “We’re looking to be responsive to the needs of the community,” Mr Ewen insists. “Parents can make it exclusive. If you can make it inclusive, that would be great.”

'Great'. Interesting and noncommittal in my view. It does seem essentially an acknowledgement that schools like these are naturally going to be formed of 'kids like ours' - at least a socially engineered first class - but with a real community school with local authority admissions rules, you'd have to do that via something like what WLFS has done.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 08:25

So the case against the WLFS is that it will not write off some of its pupils as only suitable for dumbed-down and worthless vocational qualifications?

The bastards.

The bizarre irony, of course, is that by arguing for a non-academic curriculum for other people's non-academic children then you actually make common cause with the supporters of grammar schools. You are objecting to the WLFS because it will be genuinely comprehensive and won't have a "secondary modern" track for working class students.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 08:37

Charlie: the Finnish educational system does not separate children until post 16. Until that age all Finnish children are educated in fully-comprehensive schools.


The relevance of the statement from the OECD Economic Review of the UK was that it addressed the problem of under-achievement by disadvantaged pupils which the original post touched upon. I'm sorry if I appeared to be suggesting that "disadvantaged" = "non-academic", which would be incorrect. However, there needs to be a recognition that education resources should be fairly distributed to all children - not just those who are academic.
In the case of the WLFS, finance is being provided to fund a school which is supposed to be all-inclusive but by its curriculum and its 10% aptitude test for music it will necessarily exclude certain pupils.

Evidence given to House of Commons Education Committee by the Chief Schools Adjudicator, Dr Craig, showed concern about selection by aptitude tests:

Question by Pat Glass: "Your general response is that if it is about selection, that is what we should call it and that is what it is. Otherwise, we shouldn’t hide it under the cloak of aptitude.

Dr Craig: That would be my view. It is very difficult, in my view, to differentiate practically between ability and aptitude in many cases.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmeduc/uc782/... (uncorrected evidence)

So, according to Dr Craig, testing for aptitude = testing for ability.

Toby Young's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 11:09

Quite right, Andrew. We are being criticised for not having a secondary modern track for less academically able pupils. Why is a school which, in effect, duplicates the old grammar/secondary modern divide within its walls – and, by doing so, perpetuates the class divide in its local community – morally superior to one that just has a grammar school track but is for children of all abilities? We firmly believe it's possible to deliver a grammar school curriculum to an all-ability intake – that's what we mean by a grammar school for all. It's not designed to encourage "self selection".

Janet, are you aware that William Ellis, my old school and the school of which Fiona Millar, your glorious leader, is the Chair of Governors, selects 10% of its pupils according to their aptitude for music?


So if you think the WLFS is "necessarily excluding" certain pupils by admitting 10% on musical aptitude, then you must believe William Ellis is doing that, too. Does Fiona know that you think her school is flouting its obligations to be "all-inclusive"? I think she should be told.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 12:56

I think it is useful that Toby has raised William Ellis, as it is a school that proves why his arguments are so wrong. It is a very inclusive school - 38% of pupils on FSM, numbers of pupils with SEN well above the national average, a very wide range of ability, social and ethnic backgrounds taken from a very small local, socially mixed catchment area. At its heart the school still has a very academic curriculum, not that different to when Toby was a pupil there, and scored relatively well on the EBacc, in spite of other recent difficulties. However it also offers other more practical pathways. This is not the 'old grammar/secondary modern' divide, but giving students choice so they can mix some academic and non academic courses if that is what is right for them. Post sixteen it is in partnership with three other local comprehensive schools and offers a very wide range of academic and non academic subjects, some of which are taken by students coming in from the independent sector who wouldn't otherwise have those choices available to them. It , and its neighbouring schools, are real comprehensives both because of the intake and the range of subjects offered. I see that the head at the WLFS prefers to drop the word comprehensive from the original 'comprehensive grammar' strapline, presumably because he knows it isn't really a comprehensive school, given its narrow range of options. Now it is a 'grammar school for all'. No doubt in due course someone will tell us how many pupils on FSM/SEN/ from different ethnic groups are being admitted this year, then we will know if the 'for all' needs to go as well.

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 11:14

Andrew, no the case is clearly stated in the article heading: that WLFS is creating a curriculum which its own head believes is not appropriate for all children.

There is a problem with Gove's narrow definition of what is "academic", and the fact that he seems only concerned with success in the narrow set of subjects that make up his English Bac. Students studying art and design and seeking to be a future Jonathan Ive (the designer of the iPod & iPad and arguably one of the most influential Englishmen of our time) deserve the same level of recognition as those focusing on English and Science.

At a comprehensive school there aren't these divisions. Students take mixtures of subjects and the school seeks to help them find their strength. And this is fluid. I know one student who started Year 12 planning to go to art school and is now thinking of Oxbridge. I know another who has done the reverse of this.

The question is whether WLFS will be a comprehensive school, meeting the needs of all students..

Andy Smithers's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 15:14

I am confused - Is the Local Schools Network saying its ok for schools that they are Governors of, or their children attend, to select pupils on various specialism eg music at William Ellis BUT it is wrong if any academy or Free School duplicates this ??

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 17:12

The Chief Adjudicator for Schools has said that he believes selecting by aptitude is a cloak for selection because aptitude is so difficult to separate from ability. I would agree with his comments whatever the school.

I am a little puzzled why Toby Young should assume I have a "glorious leader". I contribute to this website because I support good, local schools for all children.

Toby Young's description of fully comprehensive schools is misleading - they are not strictly divided into grammar and secondary modern streams like the bi-lateral schools of the early sixties. They are all-inclusive schools which cater for the whole ability range.

The main point remains - the new head teacher of WLFS has said that the curriculum on offer is not suitable for all children, therefore it cannot be an "all-ability" school as it should be according to the DfE website.


olive's picture
Fri, 18/03/2011 - 20:52

The WLFS claims that its admissions process is not selective. If this is true, the intake will include children for whom a rigidly academic curriculum is not appropriate. If a child gets a place at the WLFS and it becomes clear that he or she is one of those for whom the curriculum is not appropriate, what will happen to them, I wonder? Will they be under pressure to leave at the end of the first year?

Janet, I hope you don’t think I am picking on you because I keep on addressing your comments, but …

What does suitability have to do with ability? You are implying that because the school has an academic ethos and curriculum that it is only suitable for stronger students.

In some ways I agree with you. It seems to me that easier vocational qualifications are on offer that claim to be equivalent to academic qualifications; this would imply that weaker students would be ‘better off’ doing qualifications that we are not planning on offering at the WLFS. This, though, is pandering to one of the aspects that I believe our country currently has wrong in education, we completely undervalue vocational education. It is seen as something to steer weaker students towards; something to keep kids occupied while they can’t do academic subjects. I think this is a tragedy. Vocational qualifications should be as rigorous and difficult as academic qualifications. Yes, different paths may differently suit different people, but the paths shouldn’t be difficult or easy, they should just be different.

That said, at the WLFS we are more than happy to have anybody who wants the educational program that we are offering. We will welcome pupils of all ability. We are founding this school on the principle of giving parents and pupils a choice they might not otherwise have. Olive, I don’t think we would ever want to take that choice away from them. We are non-selective, but have been completely upfront about what we are offering. Given the structure of qualifications in the country at the moment I wouldn’t be surprised if weaker or less aspirational students decided that they should avoid an academic education, but, as I say, that is a tragedy and I would urge them to reconsider. I think an academic education has an awful lot to offer a student even if it doesn’t directly lead to job specific skills. I also don’t accept that aspiration is limited to pupils and parents of particular backgrounds.

Wouldn’t it be great if pupils could just decide what they wanted to learn and explore without it impacting on the perceived status of their education?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/03/2011 - 09:34

Charlie - I agree with you that vocational qualifications are undervalued. However, that's not really what this post was about. The question being addressed was: The WLFS as a newly-formed free school is supposed to be all ability (this is made clear on the DfE website). However, the new Head of WLFS has said that the curriculum on offer will not suit all children. The conclusion is that pupils for whom an academic curriculum is not suited will not opt to go there. This is covert selection. I then addressed the question of selection by aptitude which the Chief Adjudicator of Schools has said is a cover for selection.

I agree with your last paragraph. There is an unacceptable divide between academic and vocational, with the former being seen as vastly superior to the latter. Unfortunately in this country we have an ingrained hierarchy in education with private schools perceived as being superior to state education (even Toby Young claims that the OECD has said UK independent schools are the best in the world, although he has not provided the link to evidence that supports this claim). The hierarchy persists in the state education: grammar schools "better" than comprehensive schools and the latter being "better" that creamed secondaries (who by their intake are inevitably at a low position in league tables and, therefore, deemed to be "failing"). This hierarchy is made worse by Government rhetoric about how wonderful Academies are, and how free schools will allow a thousand flowers to grow (or whatever) while completely ignoring the good work being done in thousands of local authority schools.

Justin Pieris's picture
Mon, 21/03/2011 - 23:48

Janet did say "this is covert selection".

Oh no it isn't. It's no more "selection" than if a comprehensive school chooses to specialise in say technology. Are those that aren't technology-oriented being covertly deselected by technology specialist schools? Of course not.

The WLFS is simply choosing to excell in 2 areas: Music and Academia. Why is that any worse than just specialising in one?

It seems to me that opponents of the concept of free schools are resorting to ever more tenuous arguments to oppose them, purely for spurious, out-dated ideological reasons.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 08:49

Worries about covert selection by aptitude were made by the Chief Adjudicator for Schools who said in evidence to the select committee that aptitude could be a "cloak" for selection. See my post above for links to the evidence.

An argument based on evidence is not "spurious". Far from being "tenuous", the concerns about selection by aptitude were made by the Chief Adjudicator of Schools, no less. But I suppose he was making them for "out-dated ideological reasons".

Tanino Cinà's picture
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 09:26

"So, if the school is offering only a route based on academic subjects and the headteacher is clear that it won’t be suitable for every child, what will happen to those children for whom it is not suitable?"

What happens to a vegetarian when a butcher shop opens?

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 10:09

It is truly disappointing that the new head of WLFS has stated that the curriculum is not going to be approprate for all children. Why not? I believe it is possible to set the toughest academic standards for every single child and they will succeed provided every teacher believes in the individual child and never gives up on them.

I think part of the issue is not academic versus non-academic/less academic/vocational. It is the sheer grinding boredom and irrelevance of chunks of the current NC - both academic and vocational - and the nature of the exam system that assesses it.

There are some truly inspirational teachers currently teaching in every type of school in the UK but they are horribly constrained by what they are expected to teach and how and where they teach it.

I can fully understand parents, students and educators wanting to find a system that truly inspires and gets results; but I'm not sure that setting up yet more schools is the solution.

How about creating a pool of gifted teacher-researchers (not governments or LAs or consultants) within every school? This is hopelessly expensive, I know, because the teachers would have to have greatly reduced timetables to give them time to think, observe,analyse, explore, discuss, share, design, motivate, implement (all things we should be doing now); but it would address the most important issue raised here recently - the long-term goal of an education system that is constantly open to transformation in line with the changing needs of our communities/society.

This is absolutely not about the government's latest idea to set up teacher training schools. It's about re-thinking how children learn. It's boringly obvious that and using teachers to do this rather than focusing so heavily on the themes of academic/non-academic

I am sure that this is at the heart of all the initiatives to create something 'better' than what we already have.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 10:14

sorry - ignore the last gobbldy gook two paragraphs. As ever, I'm not very good at editing out stuff before pressing submit! So much for being a teacher!

Janet said, “Worries about covert selection by aptitude were made by the Chief Adjudicator for Schools who said in evidence to the select committee that aptitude could be a “cloak” for selection.”

The Chief Adjudiactor said, “What I don’t want is for this to be taken as a comment about selection, because I have no view on that as Chief Adjudicator.”

He was raising concerns of the efficacy of some tests to distinguish between ability and aptitude.

Nor did he use the word “cloak” in his evidence.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 12:21

What Georgina Emmanuel suggests is what is happening in Finland (top performing European country in 2009 OECD PISA results). Pupils spend fewer hours in the classroom than other European pupils thereby allowing teachers to meet together to swap ideas, monitor pupils' progress and tailor a pupil's learning to his/her needs. Schools do not compete with each other and there are no league tables. In Alberta (another top-performing area) head-teachers meet regularly to exchange ideas. They co-operate.

It's very different here with schools competing with each other for pupils and worrying about their place in the league tables - a position which reflects the quality of intake and not necessarily the quality of teaching. Hence the need for selection - covert or otherwise.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 12:46

Charlie - please read my post at the top of the page. It reproduces word for word the evidence in Hansard where Pat Glass asks this question to the Chief Adjudicator:

“Your general response is that if it is about selection, that is what we should call it and that is what it is. Otherwise, we shouldn’t hide it under the cloak of aptitude."

Dr Craig: "That would be my view. It is very difficult, in my view, to differentiate practically between ability and aptitude in many cases."

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmeduc/uc782/... (uncorrected evidence)

Dr Craig might not have used the word "cloak" himself but he agreed with the questioner who asked him if he believed that selection should be called selection and not hidden under "the cloak of aptitude." Dr Craig replied: "That would be my view."

I don't think the statement can be any clearer than that but I'll repeat it anyway. Dr Craig agreed with the speaker who said that selection could be hidden "under a cloak of aptitude".

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