Tuesday, 16 February 2010

All schools should be 'too big to fail'

The President of the Girls’ School Association, Gillian Low, writing in the TES this week issued a warning to the Conservatives about their plan to introduce up to 2,000 new schools. As well as the new schools, Ms. Low wrote, “The other schools must be able to continue to improve and not to fall off the bottom of the ladder.” In other words, with all the attention on new ‘parent-run’ schools, the Conservatives must not just ignore existing schools.

How do the Conservatives plan to do this when their whole policy is based on creating competition between schools (and a political need for the new schools to be ‘beacons of excellence’)? Their argument is that by introducing new schools to a certain area, existing schools will have to raise their game if they are to avoid an exodus of pupils (and therefore funding) to the new schools. Even the threat of new schools being opened should, according to the theory, put existing schools on high alert and encourage them to improve.

But what if, in reality, the opposite happens? If a school does lose pupils to a new school its ability to improve will be hampered as they will, according to the Tory policy of funding following the pupil, receive less funding whilst still needing to maintain buildings and pay teachers. With fewer resources and falling numbers of pupils at the school, more and more parents will withdraw their children until only those with the least aware or least supportive parents are left and, eventually, the school will “fall off the bottom of the ladder”, close and (most likely) be replaced by an Academy.

On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning Michael Gove argued that the financial costs of creating new schools could be met through efficiency savings. Marr was sceptical about this and pressed Gove on it to an extent. But what about the educational ‘cost’ to the pupils left in failing schools as their classmates are withdrawn around them? If, as is likely, engaged parents withdraw their children most quickly from a failing school, the students left behind will not only suffer from fewer financial resources but also lose the important benefit of peer-learning from those children who (given that they enjoy lots of parental support) are most likely to be well behaved and well motivated.

The Tories do pledge, in their draft education manifesto, that “any school that is in special measures for more than a year will be taken over immediately by a successful Academy provider.” Even if, however, an Academy that replaces a failing school is able to bring success quickly (and so far their ability to do so has been mixed) the education of pupils who remained in the failing school will have suffered greatly. If a school does need a ‘stimulus package’ of support, it is crucial that it receives it before parents begin to withdraw their children; if it comes too late the task of improving the school will, because the most engaged pupils will have left, be much, much more difficult. In the schools' market the Tories plan to create all schools should be ‘too big to fail.’

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

You gotta have faith

Imagine it is Sunday morning. Although you do not describe yourself as religious you decide to go to Church. As you walk to the Church (which is just five minutes from your house) you reflect on the fact that you are lucky that the Vicar (based on your sporadic visits) seems to share your values and his sermons include messages that make sense to you – except for the God part. Just as you are about to take a seat in one of the pews near the back, a Church warden taps you on the shoulder and says, “Sorry, you can’t sit there.” You apologise, thinking he must be saving the seat for someone and move towards one of the few remaining free spaces. You are about to take a seat when the Church warden appears again and says, “I’m really sorry about this but you can’t sit there either. In fact, you won’t be able to join us for the service today; we are full and we give priority to regular church-goers.” You walk out of the Church feeling slightly bewildered and let down and head for the Church down the road. You attend the service but don’t think much of the sermon and the building is cold and depressing.

It is hard to imagine a church treating people in this way isn’t it? Well, that is exactly how faith groups treat non-religious children applying to attend the schools they run when they give preference to members of their faith. If the Tories come into power, it is likely faith groups will be given the opportunity to run an increasing number of schools. David Cameron last week stated that “faith schools are an important part of our system, I support them and I would like if anything to see them grow.” His backing of faith schools is not surprising; it is consistent with the Conservative Party 2007 schools policy paper and their recent draft education manifesto in which they pledge to ensure barriers are “cleared away so there can be a significant increase in the number of new schools” and say these would be “set up and run by existing educational providers [including faith groups], charities, trusts, voluntary groups, philanthropists and co-operatives”.

The problem for Cameron is that, if he allows an increase in the number of faith schools without making an important amendment to the admissions code, he will seriously undermine the Tories’ stated wish for “every child to benefit from our reforms” because faith schools do not give “every child” a fair chance of being admitted. According to the code faith schools can, if oversubscribed (and very many of them are), “use faith-based oversubscription criteria in order to give higher priority in admissions to children who are members of, or who practise, their faith or denomination”. They can, for instance, ask for a letter from the local Church/ Mosque/ Synagogue, providing evidence that the child in question worships there regularly, or give priority to children who have been baptised. Non-religious families are, therefore, at a significant disadvantage in trying to secure a place at faith schools. Even if a particular school decides to set oversubscription criteria that allocates only a few places based on faith criteria, the non-religious are still discriminated against.

The single faith group that runs the largest number of faith schools in England is the Church of England which runs 25.3% of all state primary schools - that's 4,470 schools – and 5.8% of all state secondary schools - 220 schools. These numbers are rising and, as the C of E Board of Education schools strategy for 2007-11 makes clear, they are looking “for opportunities to increase the number of [C of E] secondary schools and academies”. David Cameron will be pleased, especially as a real concern for the “children from disadvantaged backgrounds” mentioned in his manifesto, comes across in the strategy:

“[The] Board of Education see Church of England schools as both distinctively Christian and inclusive communities.’ The distinctive and inclusive Christian character of a school leads directly to access for all: welcoming children and young people of all denominations and faiths and none, from all ethnic and social groups, with a bias to the disadvantaged and the poor, with a wide range of learning ability and with many types of physical ability, and regardless of family situation.”

The sort of school ethos that this passage suggests develop in Church schools is exactly why they are popular with parents. As Cameron argued last week, “faith organisations bring often a sort of culture and ethos to a school that can help it improve.” This is all well and good but when Church schools state on their websites and in brochures (as they very often do) some variation of: ‘We are a diverse school with a strong Christian ethos. We welcome pupils of all faiths and none’, they really need, in order to be accurate, to add in brackets, ‘(but we welcome Christians a bit more than others even if they are disadvantaged).’

The Conservatives say they want to offer all children, regardless of background, the same educational choices that are currently only available to the wealthy. A good way to show they are serious would be to pledge to amend the Admissions Code so that if and when more faith schools are started all children, regardless of whether they are religious or not, will have an equal opportunity to get into their first choice school.