Michael Gove has attacked LSN founders, Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, in The Evening Standard today
because he knows he's lost the argument about free schools. He is clearly worried about the damage that his critics are inflicting upon him and this policy. Melissa's excellent new book, School Wars
, contains the most sustained and cogent argument against this policy that we've read so far. The great thing about her book is that she is able to put the policy in its proper context; a considerable section of the book looks at English education policy since the Second War World. She shows how divisive the grammar school system was and how, when given a proper chance, comprehensives did amazing things for social mobility and raising the aspirations of all children. She then puts the free school policy in this context and powerfully illustrates that this is yet another education policy which is about social segregation rather than providing a great local school for all children. I'm sure the book and all the coverage it has received has rattled Gove. He tries to address its arguments in his short Standard article but the trouble is that he relies solely upon small anecdotes rather than the hard facts, cherry picking specific examples of free schools serving poor children.
But as many commentators have pointed out, ranging from Channel 4's Fact Check
to Radio 4 Today's programme
, the free school policy appears to be about giving taxpayer's money to wealthy parents, faith groups and private companies to segregate certain sections of children from the rest of the community, thereby draining resources from existing schools and lowering standards overall. Furthermore, the whole policy, though small, has been used to demoralise and demonise the rest of the state sector, except for some academies who have the ear of government. How many articles have we read by Toby Young et al on how terrible the state sector is? This is despite the fact that standards have gone up considerably in the last twenty years.
At least the previous administration, for all their faults, set up policies that aimed to help every child improve their performance. The National Literacy Strategies were flawed in many ways, but I've just attended the British Education Research Association's
annual conference where Roger Beard
, a very distinguished and painstakingly thorough academic at the Institute of Education, showed quite persuasively that this once dreaded policy did have a positive impact overall. His research is published in an important new book, The Great Literacy Debate
, which argues powerfully for a refinement of this policy if standards are going to rise. This seems to make eminent sense; unlike the free school policy which is very expensive and only benefits less than 1% of the school population, a decent literacy strategy helps EVERY child improve. I had problems with it at the time because it was implemented rather ineffectually, but we now know what works; empowering teachers, giving them more time to train and collaborate, focusing upon the teaching and learning in the classroom, improving assessment. The free schools policy looks like it's going to cost billions of pounds and yet only "help" 20,000 children at most; that money would be much better spent on helping teachers teach in all schools.