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At times, I think Michael Gove deserves our congratulations. In championing the idea of the "free" school, funded by, but independent of, the state, the Education Secretary has done, I tell myself, all that could reasonably be expected of him. The concessions and compromises he has been forced to make were inevitable. Something genuinely radical might grow from these flawed beginnings. I cross my fingers and hope. More often, I despair.

Free Schools; Empower Parents; Slash the Bureaucracies: the populist headlines have wooed a naively enthusiastic right-wing commentariat. The truth is that the reality will not live up to the rhetoric. State schools will not, given the education policies Gove is pursuing, be free in any significant sense of the word. Parents will not be properly empowered. The bureaucrats will, I suspect, continue to exert their anti-educational influence. 

When I started teaching in September 1969, schools were, in respect of the curriculum and pedagogy, "free". Headteachers had to go cap in hand to their local authority to fix a broken window, but no politician dreamt of telling teachers what or how to teach. The curriculum, in a phrase that became popular at the time, was "a secret garden". That suited me, a revolutionary young English teacher. 

Did these educational freedoms mean, however, that standards were higher in the 1960s and 1970s than they are now following 13 years of Labour's bureaucratic prescription? Sadly, no. Freedom without accountability, and the transparency accountability brings, means that teachers can ignore the aspirations of parents and the legitimate concerns of an elected parliament. They can do exactly what, in their unprofessional arrogance, they want. "We teach children not subjects," I was told when I started to visit schools in the late 1970s. God knows what the teachers I met thought they were teaching their children, but the only thing that mattered to them was what they termed "the spontaneity of creative learning". The mastery of discrete academic knowledge was dismissed as a devilish right-wing plot and a Gradgrindian anachronism. In some schools, children benefited from the rigorous teaching of a broad and balanced curriculum. In many others, they were left to stew in the nonsense of their own tedious self-expression.

It took years for the political penny to drop, but gradually it did. The then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan gave his famous 1977 Ruskin College speech criticising educational standards. The so-called Great Education Debate began. Eleven years later, Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act became law. A national curriculum was introduced to stamp out the eccentricity of local provision and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was created to report, systematically and robustly, on the performance of individual schools. Twenty years ago, the overwhelming consensus was that the teaching profession had betrayed our trust and could no longer be allowed the freedoms it had abused.

Now the wheel has turned full circle. Everybody agrees that the years of Labour micro-management and target-setting saw billions of pounds of taxpayers' money wasted and good teachers demoralised. "Freedom and Trust" is the only show in town. The teaching unions must be celebrating far into the night.

Please miss, it doesn't add up: Short on detail, the government's education plan is at best a fudge, at worst deception

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June 29th, 2010
1:06 AM
This 'free schools' idea is a pointless waste of nonsense. What is needed is a return to the grammar school system and academic selection. It is not fair on the less able to lump them together with the very able, and vice versa. And to those claiming it is immoral to 'write a child off at 11,' you are implicity denigrating a very useful, practical form of education. Not everybody is geared for an academic education. The Chinese churn out millions of technicians, IT experts, plumbers, electricians etc. We should do the same.

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