Choices: A Right or a Curse?

I find stating the obvious an attractive quality not usually associated with the British psyche.  The much missed Caroline Aherne, as her alter ego interviewer Mrs Merton, famously asked Debbie McGee, the much younger attractive wife of the magician Paul Daniels, “so what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” The skill and the humour was that of a waspish interviewer, being able to ask the question that everyone thought but did not have the courage to say. Sadly, a quality a good headteacher has to have!

Perhaps in this ‘post-truth’ era of 2017, teaching could lead the way in a year of professional and kind communication, where truth rather than supposition leads our thinking and how we make changes.

At a recent social event, I was cornered by a lovely yet protective Worcestershire woman who is the mum of a bright year 5 musical girl.  She asked the questions:

“Could you explain the different types of school available for my daughter?”, “What are her choices?” and “What is the ethos of each school?”

This innocent question should not be the impossible question, the lengthy and somewhat confusing way that I tried to summarise in the following answer; (after all, the premier education system British educators are guided to is Finland, which has one system, state run schools.  It is a model the Government support and the public understand.) My interpretation of the British model, as depicted in Worcester is, in no particular order:

  1. Private Education: in Worcestershire there are a number of prestigious and traditional fee paying schools where selection via income and aptitude prevails. I tried to hide my prejudices, after all my school loses a significant number of able Year 6 students to them annually. I need not have worried that the exorbitant fees and a desire for their daughter to mix with children from all walks of society, rather than a sanitised version, meant that private education was not an option for this family.
  2. Academy schools: as mine is, are known as standalone schools, or as was recently worryingly referred to by Regional Schools Commissioner ‘orphan’ schools. This may have been a Freudian slip but it aptly sums up the Oliver Twist analogy of single schools begging at the government trough of funding. Furthermore, it is an indication that the desire is for schools to not standalone but become part of a group of schools.  The ethos of each academy was often derived from a previous short term government scheme whereby schools received extra funding for becoming a specialist school in a key area. For my school, it had become a language college with the ethos still embedded in international status. Sadly, the school with performing arts at its core no longer offers extensive music provision.
  3. Multiple Academy Trusts (MATs): these are collaborative groups of schools. In Worcester, there is one school which is part of a significant MAT with schools in Solihull, Redditch with further schools to follow. They have the same name and similar ethos. The benefits of the larger organisation are economies of scale, recruitment and training opportunities. The Worcester school has a Saturday entrance exam. My views on some of the concerns regarding MATs are expressed in my blog ‘Multiple Academy Trust or Muddled and Troublesome’. I am not sure of the long term impact of these lifelong partnerships with central control being regained via expensive, unproven chief executives.
  4. Faith schools: Catholic and Church of England harmoniously co-exist in Worcester with a Christian ethos underpinning their values.
  5. A free school proposal: currently under review. State funded with the proposed specialism of Science, the school is aiming for 600 students, which will mean less funding for the beleaguered Worcester schools. It is unsurprisingly unwelcomed and as yet not widely consulted upon. Frustratingly, the number of free schools that close has risen to five (the latest in Oldham, open since 2014) with precious waste of public money and student and parental hopes.
  6. A small specialist studio school: for the vocationally minded student.
  7. A community school: they still exist, funded and supported by the Local Authority.

I had managed to avoid the grammar school proposals and was able to assure the mother that catchment areas do not matter, especially for bright girls. Yet, for the vulnerable ADHD boy this might sadly become a problem for some schools as some revert to very un-Christian admission policies.

These are the confusing choices available to a parent. Seven different types of school all within a 15 mile radius and all with differences in their particular system and all with a differing ethos. Dependent on your opinion this is fabulous parental choice or a broken un-coordinated system lacking government control. The problem with so many schools competing for bright musical girls is that nepotism and ethos dwindle as desperate Headteachers chase dwindling funds.

I was on a roll and started to widen the discussion to:

  • Public perception of teaching as a profession.
  • Assessment 9-1 for English and Maths GCSE 2017, A*-G for other subjects.
  • Syllabuses of current A-level and GCSE courses still not finalised by the exam boards.
  • Fairer funding being put back until 2020

Unsurprisingly, my gathering quickly left more confused than when I started. I know how to kill a party, muttering worryingly about the eighth option: home education.

I wonder how Mrs Merton would cut through the educational waffle and what question she would pose to the latest education secretary Justine Greening.  Perhaps, “Has the Prime Minister got an educational plan for you to implement 1970s education?”.