Guerrillamum's Blog

Is this the future we want? Private schools in 4 star hotels becoming Free Schools?

It’s hard to post about Free Schools without being mean and nasty and hurting people. I don’t mind being mean and nasty about politicians when I have to because they have put themselves in the firing line but I don’t want to upset other parents simply trying to do the best for their children. So, I am not naming the institution I am writing about, I will just use some of their press. 

This private school formed by a band of parents following the closure of its predecessor, has been set up with an initial cohort of fifteen pupils in a wing of a 4 star hotel.  The staff and Head teacher have almost wholly been transplanted from the old school, and the website looks very like the old one. 

I have no problem with parents who choose to opt out of the state education system.  However, this is an option they should expect to pay for.  Nor do I have a problem with this school setting itself up in a 4 star hotel, and providing the sort of education for these children that the parents have agreed to pay for.  I understand that the group undertook considerable fund raising activities to make their dream possible.  I am sure it will be a very good school and will provide a good all round education for the children who go there. 

The School’s governors have said that the school has applied to become one of the first free schools – a publicly funded, mixed-ability independent school set up to meet parents’ demand, and it will be free from local authority control. These schools will be able to set up their own curriculum, as they don’t have to follow the national curriculum and they will also be responsible for buying in services to meet special educational needs. 

This is where I begin to have a problem with this.  Michael Gove has funded his Academies and Free Schools projects by taking away money from the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) in order to give it to the Academies and Free Schools.  In fact, our mainstream state schools that are neither academies nor free schools are set to lose out twice: not only have they lost out after the cancellation of the BSF programme, but also the yearly funding costs of academies and free schools will be met by taking money from existing schools in any area where these schools are set up.

Pause for a moment to think of a select few children enjoying a publicly funded private school style education in a luxury hotel, and compare this to:

  •  images of children being educated in decrepit school buildings
  • school corridors with buckets lined up to catch the drips from leaky roofs
  • children in overcrowded portacabins
  • children wearing coats in cold classrooms due to broken and ill-fitting windows

Is this not indicative of a two tier education system with a vastly widening gap between the haves and have nots of society?

This new private school say that they have been praised by Ofsted for their policies, but these can not be seen on the website.  There is scant mention of managing the needs of children with special educational needs, and nothing about equality of opportunity or an admissions policy.  Not wishing to get too political, I happen to like the work done by the previous government in the areas of equality, disability discrimination and special educational needs, and my children have enjoyed these protections in their education.  Indeed, these policies are very evidently displayed on their school website and awareness of these issues in their school is generally very good. 

The new private school I am writing about here is still a fee paying school, but if it ever becomes a free school, it will end up being funded by public money, and the school, the governing body and no doubt many of the parents will be able to decide how this money is spent.  Not the government, not the Local Authority.  Now despite huge claims by Michael Gove that hundreds of groups had expressed interest in becoming Free Schools, there were at the last count only 16 set to open in September 2011, about which Mr Gove was reputed to be not very happy.  Perhaps, like me,  most state schools appreciate the protections offered to the vulnerable by continuing to keep their schools under local authority control?  This general lack of uptake does not bode well for the likelihood of free schools becoming a widespread and inclusive model for education. 

How can we sit by and let this happen without so much as a whimper?  This model is not an acceptable vision of the future of education for me.  Whether this model is an acceptable vision of the future of education for Mr Gove remains to be seen.  But why provide a luxury education for the few at public expense, if we can’t do it for the many?

Is the Coalition targeting SEN provision?

Question:  What is in just about every state primary school in Britain and is fundamental to improving education? Got it yet? It isn’t a high-tech gadget, a new learning system or syllabus but the Teaching Assistant. At the bottom of the Education pay scale, Teaching Assistants (TAs) are often mums who want a term time job so they can look after and be with their own children in the holidays. They may not be high-tech but they are excellent value for money.

Our two children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) have benefited hugely from some excellent work from their TAs. This has ranged from the coded reminder to go to the toilet, or the one to one support to help someone with poor spatial awareness to take on board the complexities of geometry.  They have turned failure into positive outcomes.  They have also helped our children deal with bullying and to integrate into their classes and make friends – please don’t tell me that most children are picked on at some time, and that this isn’t relevant to education.  No child can succeed whilst being bullied/ostracised or dealing with the emotions that this generates.  It is not positive and is in no way character building.

As well as these individualised tasks they support teachers in a whole class setting, give help to other children in the class and assist in enforcing standards of behaviour. When called upon, TAs with higher level training can be left in charge of classes and can deliver lessons on a limited basis.

The Education Minister has told us that he is keen to drive up standards in schools (for my thoughts on what he has done so far please see the previous blogs). If one accepts that TAs are a valuable tool for delivering better outcomes it is reasonable to think that the Minister would be looking to improve their training and status. Sadly this hasn’t happened and in fact the Government has removed the entire budget for higher level Teaching Assistant training (please see Phil Beale in The Guardian on this subject

Whilst this has the prospect to minimise their effectiveness in a whole class setting it will be felt most by those children with Special Educational Needs who cannot do without their support. I am tired of hearing from the Government ‘we need successful outcomes for all children not just those with Special Needs’ because that’s something we all want. What is often not recognised is that some children need more help to get to those successful outcomes, and without specialist help from suitably trained TAs they may not get there.

I started this blog with a question and I am going to finish with some more questions which need asking. Is this stealthy move on TA training the thin end of the wedge of a policy to drastically reduce spending on SEN?  We have recently seen public sector workers and benefit claimants vilified in the Press by government ministers.  Is SEN the Educational equivalent of ‘generous public sector pensions’ or ‘benefits cheats’?  Has SEN become a target for Coalition cuts?

Let’s hope not for all our sakes!