This is a quick post and has no research whatsoever underpinning it. In fact, much like Michael Gove, I am basing this entirely on my own experience and I may be spectacularly wrong. If so, thankfully, unlike Michael Gove, I will have done no harm other than to express an opinion. But I really have reservations about those private schools becoming free schools. And I am compelled to write because I went to one of them.
I started secondary school way back in 1979 and attended a school called Ivy Bank High School in Burnley. Until 1979, it had been a Secondary Modern, and had that status continued, I would have attended for one year, then, all being ‘well’, would have passed the 11+ and gone off to the Burnley Grammar School for Girls. But I didn’t. I stayed at Ivy Bank High School where all the children in the years above were those who had not passed the 11+. Many of them were from the notorious Stoops estate in Burnley, where, oddly, not many people seemed to pass the 11+. My teachers did not have a lot of experience in teaching ‘O’ Level. Having ‘able’ children to teach was something of a novelty, although, to their credit, they had over the years done what many secondary moderns had not done – kept checking the children to see if they might be able to do ‘O’ Level and put some courses in place. When we arrived, most of the staff rose to the challenge well and I would say I received a good education from them. There was the amazing Mrs. Bowling who took me to see the Halle Orchestra playing Rachmaninov and changed my life. Mrs Fisk and her twitchy nose who picked me up and dusted me off when the older kids smacked my head on the tarmac for being a swot. Mr. Cook who finally got trigonometry and calculus to stick in my artsy head. All of them, firing on all cylinders to show that they could be as good as anywhere else. They weren’t all great, mind – there was a Physics teacher who used to sit on a step and have a cigarette and cup of coffee while we were expected to figure out the mysteries of the universe from a tatty textbook, but all in all, it was a good enough education to get me the bunch of O levels I needed to progress.
By then, my Dad had passed some exams of his own, and set up a business and could finally afford to pay for the education he thought I deserved. An avid supporter of Margaret Thatcher, he sent me to QEGS – a private school in the next town where, to his great disappointment, I was turned into a mild socialist! I mostly had a wonderful time at QEGS. No-body bashed my head on the concrete for being a swot. School plays were better resourced, the band played in tune and I made lots of friends. Some people sneered and looked down on me, but most were great – friends for life. But the teaching? In the first year, a clarinet teacher had to be dismissed for placing his hands on my chest and telling me it was necessary to ‘feel’ me breathing. The head dragged out his dismissal, suggesting that perhaps I had provoked his actions by wearing a shirt without a jumper over the top. My A Level music teacher told me I was a nuisance for having caused a fuss. I dropped music after that. I missed the lovely Mrs Bowling. No-one at QEGS took me to see the Halle.
Other teachers were sometimes great and sometimes poor. I remember entire lessons listening to one teacher reading slowly from Tacitus while we made notes. Nothing I couldn’t have done myself. But then, I’ll always have fond memories of Mr.Taylor, sweeping through the room in his robes, reading the Wife of Bath in what he assured us was the original accent. And I still remember large swathes of the text. In both schools, there was wheat and there was chaff. But in the second we were all mostly successful. Not because of the quality of teaching or facilities, but purely and simply because our parents were paying and when your parents are paying, they tend to push you for results. When your parents value education, they tend to push. Parent power led to an acceptance among peers that it was OK to learn – no bashing of heads on the concrete there. Parent power and peer power. The two most significant factors affecting the education of our young. So…
I have concerns about the reactions to private schools becoming free schools. The first, as I hope I’ve outlined above, is that we simply cannot assume that the quality of teaching in the private sector is better than that in state schools. It will vary. And as the intake into those schools changes, it will be tested more rigorously. But that will not be for some time. Because…
Those children currently in Years 8-13 will continue in that school. Their parents will save between £8,000 and £48,000 as a result of the change, but the classes that their children are in will remain unaffected – no riff raff there! So for the next 4-6 years, all the data coming from that school will show excellent results. Those children have already been selected on ability through entrance exam and the fact that their parents were prepared to pay for them assures some degree of parent power. When Ofsted come in, the data – the biggest driver in terms of outcome – will look great. So, it is more likely that this school will receive a good or outstanding grading. Not guaranteed, I know, as Sandbach spectacularly demonstrated, but more likely. And that will draw the attention of parents who are actively seeking the best for their children. A cycle of aspiration continues. Not a bad thing in itself, but there are consequences elsewhere.
In addition to that concern, there are others about the engineering of the catchment. The school’s 2014 admissions policy states that the children who attend the school from that date will be drawn from all ability groups – fair enough, of course. It will mark the end of an entrance exam providing the basis for entry for the first time in the school’s history. But there is another form of selection which is more social and geographical. QEGS is located within walking distance of the centre of Blackburn, a town which suffers from high levels of deprivation. But the school will not be drawing from the local area – instead, it intends to cast its net wider as it does now, from the Ribble and Calder Valley villages and towns that make up much of Lancashire. Clitheroe, Whalley, Fence, Downham, Gisburn and the like – pricey, middle class satellite villages of the bigger northern towns. With a catchment like this, the school can ensure that even if the ability factor is removed, there can be a reasonable chance that the kids will come from backgrounds where there is parent power. This school will not be competing on the same level as its local competitors who will be doubly wounded. They will be measured in the same local and national comparisons without being able to draw from so wide a catchment. Even if they could, parents from those villages would be unlikely to send their children to an untested school, whereas the QEGS name is well known in the area. Parents in Blackburn, considering their options for their child, who could never have afforded the private school, will now have the option of rejecting their local comprehensive, potentially draining the local school of its most willing, if not most able, student body.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that working class parents do not care about their child’s education – I’m the living product of two who did. But those who care will make sure that their child goes to the school they perceive to be the best. Those who don’t will make do with the rest. It all comes down to perception, and where perceptions are concerned, reality rarely matters. Factors combine to create self fulfilling prophecies. If parents jostle to get into QEGS, it won’t matter a bit whether it’s private, free or state – the effect will be the same – selection and segregation. Divide, divide, divide.
Surely, I think, we should be simply focused on one thing. That the school which is geographically closest to you is good enough for your kids. That there is no need to move house, attend church, employ private tutors, lie about your address, stress. That there is one rule for all – you go to your local school. And that there are measures in place to ensure that the local school is good. If that means that some schools in tough areas get more money, have smaller class sizes and whatever else it takes to level the playing field – counsellors, parent support groups, health centres and so on, then so be it. But what we should not be doing is creating a complex market place which lends itself to corruption, competition and crassness. And to do so in the name of equality is immoral. In my humble opinion.