'Why can't we just have community schools, serving the community's children?'
I have a radical suggestion during this endless debate about grammar schools. Let’s scrap all of our current school identities and opt for one identity. Let’s have community schools, accountable to their community, serving the needs of the children of the community. Not comprehensive, secondary modern, free schools or academies. Simply community schools.
Academic selection won’t enhance social mobility, neither will selection by faith, house price or any other mechanism. The current proposals, which include lifting the cap on faith-school admissions, are being touted as the "solution" to house price premiums, choice and, as far as I can see, every other societal ill the government can think of.
If these new proposals happen, we will have chaos. If you think school admissions is complex now, just wait.
What makes a good school is dependent on the community that makes up the school – that means its leaders, teachers, admin staff and, most importantly, parents and their children. I’ve said it time and again – instead of obsessing about where you live, how to pay for the best tutor to cram for the 11-plus or, in a bid to fool the local priest that you are a devout Catholic, getting on your knees to avoid the fees, try making your local school the one you wish for your child.
Get involved, support the school, encourage other parents to get involved. Ask the school to widen its parent voice and to consult widely on what the parents would like. It works in other countries, such as Finland, where the system is such that they have very few indendent schools. We could make it work here. Instead of spending billions on creating academy trusts and rebranding schools, spend the money on things that actually make a difference. Why not provide community school support funds to encourage closer working relationships between schools, parents and other stakeholders? Then properly fund all schools so they can hire the best teachers and provide the best equipment etc.
Do parents actually have choice?
Will grammar schools improve choice? Let’s face it, the notion of "parental choice" has always been the emperor’s new clothing in education. Do parents actually have a completely free choice in where their child goes to school? Only if you can afford the fees. We need to stop pretending and admit what’s going on here. Successive governments (Labour and Conservative) have obsessed about structure and central control of schools. No government has actually heeded the advice of teachers, education experts and those whose business it is to know what’s going on. Their own ideological imperatives or political goals, such as the destruction of local authorities by the Conservatives or the destruction of selection by Labour, have always taken precedence over the needs of the community.
A government plan that simplified the numerous categories of schools, with their complex selection and admissions arrangements, would be something worthwhile to put into this Green Paper. And instead of short-termism in educational policy – always with an eye on how to appease your core voters in the next election – let’s concentrate on a longer-term generational plan to truly reform schools for our communities, led by the experts – the teachers.
James Williams is a lecturer in education in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sussex. He can be found on twitter at @edujdw