Check the small print before you shout 'Freedom!'

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

Until I read the new white paper on education, I hadn't realised quite how oppressed I was. It took me back to my teacher training days when, as part of the compulsory philosophy of education course, I learnt from Rousseau that "man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains".

Anyone would think that the last government had rounded up the whole teaching profession and locked us in a cellar somewhere. Now, blinking and amazed, we step into the shimmering dawn of freedom. This is how it must feel to be an extra in Les Miserables.

I say this because one of the most striking aspects of the white paper is to tell us how enslaved we are. It proposes "decisive action to free our teachers from constraint". Michael Gove is our liberator. His white paper is certainly an idealistic treatise, leaving us almost giddy with its heady plans and ideas. And there's much to applaud - the determination to raise the status of the teaching profession, to make teacher training more relevant, to improve educational standards, and to reduce control from Whitehall.

And, if all goes to plan, the English education system will once more be able to hold its own in the playground alongside the international big boys.

So what's not to like? After all, there are some concepts it is hard to argue against. Freedom, it is generally agreed, is a Good Thing. But before we allow ourselves to get too carried away by the paper's burnished prose and theme of liberation, there are some murky undercurrents that need examining. Less than a term into teaching brand-new GCSE courses and a year into new A-levels, many teachers will feel a rising wave of nausea at the prospect of yet another incarnation of the national curriculum and the ritual demolition of courses that contain modular learning.

I happen to agree that the emphasis on modules and re-sits has taken too many of our subjects and reduced them to hoop-jumping party-tricks for pupils. I want my students to share a love for English because it is inherently fascinating, not because there is another modular exam in sight. But not all teachers will agree, and many will feel frustrated that successive education secretaries feel so strongly that they have the right to recast the school curriculum to reflect their own whims and priorities - something that would be thought outrageous in, say, the Department of Health, where we wouldn't expect ministers to implement new approaches to, say, dementia or hearing loss without a bit of clinical evidence.

We have become used to evidence-based policy making, whereas the white paper is sometimes big on windy assertion. It's something we've just seen in the peremptory abandonment of the School Sport Partnerships - dismissed as a trendy bureaucratic gimmick rather than what so many of us knew as a magnificent programme for increasing pupils' engagement in sport and training for teachers.

Let's beware of accepting unquestioningly the rhetoric of freedom. One of the glories of the English education system is its sixth-forms, in which older students serve as role models for younger pupils. The white paper proposes to "end the disparity in funding for 16- to 18-year-olds, so that schools and colleges are funded at the same levels as one another". As last week's TES front page told us, that sounds ominously like cuts to sixth-form funding.

Similarly it's a very odd kind of freedom that proposes headteachers will be better able to enforce discipline in their schools with reined-in independent appeals panels, and at the same time be held accountable for the performance of the very students who have been excluded.

It also sneaks in one of the oldest tricks in the educational book: using league tables to drive change. Having criticised the way "secondary schools steered pupils away from GCSE courses towards less suitable qualifications" that nudged them up the league tables, the white paper plays the same game, with its 'English Baccalaureate' to reward schools that emphasise traditional subjects.

Let's be very careful about falling for that one. Let's resist changing what we teach to satisfy league tables. Instead, let's provide the curriculum that best serves the real needs of our pupils - for some of whom another language may be wildly inappropriate.

Before the history curriculum gets rewritten, it may be worth reacquainting ourselves with Churchill's comment: "Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested." That, of course, includes the power to say no. Let's use it more often.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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