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Parental choice: the schools all look the same so do we simply get to choose our favourite colour blazer?

I am going to hazard a guess: I think a lot of parents heard the Conservative manifesto about the Big Society and the free school movement in 2010 and, quite understandably,  thought to themselves: ‘What a great idea! We get to have more say over our children’s schooling! We get to tailor it more to their needs!’ What an exciting opportunity! Free from the curriculum! And, apparently, it’s worked a treat in other countries so how can it possibly go wrong here?’

You see, Michael Gove did state in the 2010 white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ that ‘convincing international evidence’ existed to prove ‘the galvanising effect on the whole system’ of allowing ‘new entrants in areas where parents are dissatisfied with what is available’. He also went overboard with excitement about the ‘innovation’ this was going to lead to – twenty-eight times he mentioned some derivation of the word! Oh, and the autonomy these academies and free schools were going to experience would be the ripping off of those chains so tightly held by the hands of the State. It was going to be all about developing specialisms, ethos and character.

The picture created was utopian for any parent. Imagine, ‘Autumn Term Secondary School Open Evening Season’ begins in September, and you are skipping and weaving through a myriad of opportunities and innovations which blow your mind. You’re inspired to question thoroughly, ‘Where would my child be happiest? Here, this school is demonstrating advanced problem-solving skills with a strong focus on STEM through project-based learning, whereas yesterday, down the road, I listened to students’ compositions being performed by the school orchestra …’ Long-gone are the days of walking through the corridors of ‘OFSTED GRADED OUTSTANDING’ posters and tedious conversations with the Key Stage 3 coordinator for English about the texts they will be studying in preparation for the GCSE texts in a couple of years’ time, and watching some bored volunteer year 9 students fumble for answers to questions about what they like most about the school. This was to be the beginning of a new era: everyone engaged with education; everyone leading on education; everyone achieving in education. At last!

But, I am going to stop right there and take you back to that ‘convincing international evidence’ Michael Gove found. He was inspired by the free school movement in Sweden and the Charter School programme in The United States of America. Now, I looked extensively at the Swedish reform in 1993 introducing the free school system there and, quite simply, I don’t agree with him.

When, for example, the Swedish Education Minister, Bertil Ostberg, said in 2010, ‘We have actually seen a fall in quality of Swedish schools since the Free Schools were introduced’, what bit of that statement did Gove find convincing? Plus, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Country Note on Sweden, after the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, stated that the gap between rich and poor had increased since 2006 and was wider than the average across the OECD countries. Again, where does this support Gove’s pursuit of this policy? I mean, he did state clearly that one lesson to learn ‘of the best education systems is that no country that wishes to be considered world class can afford to allow children from poorer families to fail as a matter of course.’ If he wanted to achieve this, the OECD names Canada, Estonia, Finland and Japan as the best performers with regards to high levels of performance and high levels of equity in outcomes. Why on earth weren’t Gove’s minions out policy researching in these countries to discover how England – because it’s not the whole of the UK having to trot along with these inflicted reforms – could choose and adapt the most suitable practices from these nations to improve the equity here and address all those issues of social justice Gove wanted to tackle so desperately?

Because it was nothing to do with that. There is turmoil in Sweden, there is turmoil in the United States, and now we have a system in chaos right here in England. Where I live, a free school was given the go ahead in one of the early waves of agreed proposals. A group of parents led on it and immediately the local parents jumped on board! Straightaway, the free school was their first choice. Nothing to evidence its strength as an educational institution, but it was at the top of their list on the applications. Of course, I was grumbling about my dislike of the policy. If a government wants to ensure social justice, it holds on tightly to the institutions which will ensure this, not hand them over to anyone with their hand up…oh, and with a lawyer and an accountant in their steering groups in order to be able to actually navigate the process. I was asked numerous times, ‘But as a parent, what would you choose for your children?’ Somehow, I was supposed to want something different for my children than for those I taught. I never understood this distinction – I want my child to have as good an education as the next, and the next child to have as good an education as mine. But, yes, of course, this policy was based on individual needs, not societal needs. But then Gove did mention social justice a lot when promoting his reform. And the notion of social mobility is at the heart of recent Conservative rhetoric on education. Just look at the digging up of grammar schools, but that’s for another week.

Let’s move on a couple of years, after a false start and the school not opening when it was initially due to, and then a head teacher leaving after a year, and of course the school eventually opening on a temporary site (where it will remain for another four terms, at least), they now belong to a Multi-Academy Trust. This happens to be a MAT started by a Church of England school, so now the school’s ethos is based on ‘a Christian framework’ and the uniform is changing this September to fit the ‘brand’: tartan skirts and crosses on the blazer pockets. The parents who were singing and dancing about the new school five years ago now sound a little muffled. They didn’t sign up for a religious school. They were happy with the uniform. But now, the parents’ voices have been muted by the words ‘These changes are non-negotiable.’

The MAT is a powerful force. The Executive Head of a MAT is hard to find, let alone question. The parent is no longer anywhere near the centre of this policy. In fact, a recent report from the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Education Research stated only one out of five free schools have been opened by parents. It is the MATs and heavily-sponsored academy chains sweeping up schools – especially those still run by the LEAs whose money is becoming tighter, resources limited and therefore their futures overshadowed by the looming, grasping claws of Ark and Harris, or any of those being fed money by the Department for Education, as they willingly ride the Govian agenda and swot their impoverished competitors aside.

So, I am not excited about entering the ‘Autumn Term Secondary School Open Evening Season’ with my eldest in a couple of years’ time. My choice will be Ark down one road, a (now) Christian academy down the other, or my only LEA comprehensive which is now a little too far out of reach since the Christian school will be opening on its permanent site at the end of my road. I think I am going to be sold two brands, which fundamentally will look the same as they are corporate operations now, not innovative learning spaces, all being driven by the high stakes accountability game, undermining the whole concept of free schooling from the get go. I will still be listening to targets and data and how they prepare for GCSE from the day my children cross the threshold. Let’s face it, I won’t be skipping and weaving through anything apart from brand taglines, hefty blazers, and data. In fact, I won’t be skipping.

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