Yesterday I attended the New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference at the Commonwealth Club in central London. There was cross-party representation looking at the big issues on school reform whoever wins the next election. There was also a sample of guests from other countries to share their experiences of similar journeys. I’ll not bore you with the reason why I was there – I suspect that will be a whole blog post in its own right soon. Nor will I summarise what the New Schools Network is all about – you can find out all about them here.
What was interesting for me was listening to the three keynote speakers. We had (Baroness) Sally Morgan from Labour, David Laws from the Lib Dems and Michael Gove from the Conservatives. There was a surprising amount of consensus between the three. I don’t think I am misrepresenting any of the speakers if I pick out the following common themes:
- The Academy Programme has broadly been a force for good. As with any programme there are known exceptions but they should not distract from the overall picture.
- Whoever wins we will see a development/evolution of the thinking that went into Academy approach in the way we consider new schools
- Whoever wins we can expect to see more disparate groups – including possibly ‘for-profit’ organisations and more parent-led collectives – joining the roster of providers
- School Autonomy is a good thing. Nobody on the panel said it directly but the implicit flip-side to this is that Local Authority meddling can be a hinderance to good school governance.
The disagreements between the parties were more around the implementation details than the ‘big idea’ of letting more schools run themselves.
The thing that really struck me though was Sally Morgan’s seeming reluctance to press ahead with new schools unless the capital was identified to support them with best-in-class building provision. She hated the idea of schools opening in ‘converted office buildings where children cannot enjoy the richness of the broad curriculum that only a properly equipped school can offer’. This bugged me at the time, and having reflected on it for 24 hours it bugs me even more now. It is as if Labour believe that you cannot possibly be solving a problem unless you hurl money at it. Her argument boils down to that she would rather have kids in adequate buildings so they can have a wide curriculum albeit with the crumby teaching, poor leadership and sapped morale that is present in failing schools; rather than have a narrower curriculum in less ideal temporary buildings that do at least have quality teaching, strong school leadership and a sense of mission and purpose in the institution. Actually Sally, I would rather my children went to the second and how dare you and your lot deny me that choice. Quality of teaching is far more important than the shiny new facilities. Don’t get me wrong – ideally we aim for having both, but if the capital isn’t there now then let’s just get the quality of teaching and leadership up and get moving – the shiny new toys can follow as institutions start to prove their success. Gove gets this. You could see him bursting to just get on and get started. So whilst there may be consensus on the overall direction of educational reform, there is difference about the appetite for the pace and depth of it. This whole area is too important to pussyfoot about with for fear of hurting teaching union sensibilities. My vote is going to the chap with the hunger and sense of urgency to tackle this head on: Michael Gove.