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Freedom?

This post was originally posted here on Labour Teachers.

A favourite piece of policy from our Education Secretary seems to be the introduction of new “Free Schools”. It was the baby of her predecessor and was an extension of the academies project.

I have a few issues with free schools. Firstly, they are often built in areas that have no real need, leaving a surplus of school places in some regions and a deficit in other. This can lead to some parents having to arrange travel over quite long distances to ensure their offspring can attend school. The fact that parents in less well off areas don’t have the means to ensure free schools open in their vicinity means that they are often the areas that end up with a deficit of places and larger travel bills.

The other main issue I have with them is the added freedoms they have, which I believe are the same freedoms given to academies. I worry that these freedoms can cause a larger inequality within the state education sector. I’m a fan of the idea of a national curriculum, a minimum standard that all students should be a party to, but academies and free schools don’t have to stick to it. This could put some young people in a much better place than others depending on their school.

I was against the principle of academies when the last Labour government introduced them. The idea that “state” education could be run by chains that were based on a business model clashed with my ideological viewpoint. But I could at least see the idea came from the right place, from the idea of putting more money into failing schools. The roll out under Gove to put more money into already outstanding schools seemed bizarre.

That said, I have now worked in a number of academies run by a number of sponsors, and I have enjoyed my time in them. I do think, however, that this has been down to those in charge. I have heard from friends in other chains that staff welfare is low in the priority list, that staff feel under pressure and that they feel their pay and conditions have suffered detrimental effects since academisation.

In my last role I was a union representative at a time when Gove was tearing up the burgundy book, introducing PRP and generally going to war. The unions were concerned about the particular academy chain we were part of and issued guidance on which specific policies we should reject. They didn’t come, after a while we arranged to meet the head to discuss,  the meeting was short and pointless really as we expressed our concerns and we’re told “I know, I couldn’t believe they expected me to implement those policies so I’ve sent them back with my views made clear and I’m waiting for their response.” It made me very thankful to have her as a head, but also worried a little about colleagues in other schools in the chain. The other sponsors I’ve worked for have been 2 and 3 academy trusts and they seen much better, but again I wonder how much the principals have protected us from.

In general, some academies and free schools are run ethically, with student and staff welfare at their heart but not all are. And that is still a major worry for me. Surely all schools should be subject to the same rules, the same regulations and the same protections.

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