Failing a Free School

OfSted have recently placed the first Free School in special measures.  

The Free School movement is the jewel in the crown of Gove’s education reforms, but this is perhaps the first sign that all is not well. 


The clue is in the title.  State schools are not free in any sense of the word.  Whilst academies and free schools have some elements of freedom from local control, it is nonetheless the case that they must confirm to a tightly defined mandate of what education should entail.  High stakes testing and OfSted maintain a stranglehold over what occurs in classrooms, and different ways of thinking about teaching and learning are very risky. 


The Discovery Free School is a primary that models itself on a Montessori curriculum and approach.  This approach is popular with parents internationally, but until recently has only been available in the private sector.  The Montessori approach is characterised by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural curiosity and human development.  According to Wikipedia (founded by an ex Montessori pupil) it counts some of the most creative and successful entrepreneurs and business people worldwide amongst its alumni, including a Nobel Prize winner. 


On the day the Discovery Free School opened, Gove said: “These schools are opening because of demand from parents for a new or different type of education. Free schools offer a genuine alternative”.  It seems ironic then, that this school has fallen at the first hurdle, precisely because teachers and parents have dared to think differently about what education might look like.  The problem, perhaps, goes back to one of my favourite quotes from Terry Eagleton – the one that states that ideology, like halitosis, is what the other person has.  It seems to me that the flaw in minister’s thinking is tied up with the fact that they really cannot smell their own ideology.  They cannot imagine that any parents who want the best for their children could have ideas other than their own about what this might look like.  Parents and teachers are free to dream up whatever they like about education, provided that they re-discover what is in their minds, and what is enshrined by OfSted and systems of high stakes testing.  What education should look like is, it appears, so natural and self-evident that there are no risks in allowing the market to decide. 


But of course there are many ways of thinking about what education should look like, and many of the jurisdictions in the world that do better than us in terms of what their young people know and can do at age 18 are closer to Montessori than we are.  In many parts of Europe, children start formal education much later than is required by OfSted, and their developmental learning though discovery and play gives them a big academic advantage over our children, who start formal learning so early that they ultimately fall behind those who begin later.  There is nothing quite so sad as being in a primary school where very little children are sitting in rows learning by rote how to please the teacher, the headteacher, the inspectors, and ultimately, government ministers.  As a nation, we have to decide what we want – the appearance of learning, or deep learning through genuine engagement and creativity.  There is nothing more academically rigorous and excellent than that.