Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nick Clegg's speech: 'free schools' may be fine but miss the point about what's wrong with our schools

My decision to spend Saturday at the Liberal Democrat conference at the LSE left me so far behind with other pressing matters that I had no time to blog.

I get the feeling that Nick Clegg's proposal for 'free schools' has gone down better with the press and bloggers than it has with the party's local government family. As at least one person pointed out on Saturday, times have moved on since the days when schools were run by overbearing and often inefficient local authorities. These days LEAs are hands-off and light-touch, often merely passporting funds from central government to schools.

These days the powers are with governors and head-teachers. One imagines that the sort of people who might want to set up their own schools are those who are already running them. In fact, from my limited experience, I think there is some danger that school governing bodies can become self-selecting cliques not really accountable to anyone for the large amount of public money they spend.

I hope, however, that the Lib Dem local government family, LGA group, ALDC etc. don't react defensively to this in a 'councillors know best', 'get off my turf' sort of way. To do so merely reinforces the negative image that some in the party and many more in the wider world have of local government. Instead, they should engage in discussion with Nick about his proposal, accepting that it is a good and Liberal idea, but pointing out its limited application.

The more I think of it, the more I realise that no matter how good the facilities, well-motivated the staff or impressive the OFSTED reports, what parents really want from schools is that their children should fit in, make nice friends and be happy. Even exam league table results are probably less important than these things.

In this part of Hertfordshire, where there is a very strong culture of parental choice, there are at least two secondary schools which, despite their glowing OFSTED plaudits, dedicated teaching staff and state of the art classrooms and sports facilities are spurned by many middle-class parents because they are seen as 'rough'. So the ideal is an academically and socially balanced intake. But it is hard to achieve this without patrician feats of social engineering, taking power away from parents and giving them to educational officials. Academic selection just provides an escape route for a few, not better outcomes for everyone. 'Selection by estate agent' is more invidious still.

Even my preferred idea of a ballot to allocate places at popular schools is no panacea, since there will still have to be catchment areas, and it will be hard to make these sufficiently demographically balanced to ensure every school has a truly comprehensive intake.

How to create an education systems that allows for diversity in provision, parental choice, a fair admission system and high quality choice is a multi-faceted problem to which I don't pretend to have the answer. 'Free schools' may well be part of the solution, but if so, I suspect they will make at best a marginal difference.

No comments: