Editorial - How free do you really want to be?

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Those longing to loosen education's shackles may not want to shake them off entirely

How much freedom do you want? It is a question teachers should ask themselves because everyone seems keen to give them more of it. In Westminster, the Tories want to free teachers from the shackles of government control and restore professional autonomy. The unions have never thrown away those badges proclaiming "Teacher knows best", and even the Government seems to have realised that its paternalistic approach might make "poor" "adequate" but won't propel pupils much farther. Now Chris Woodhead has exhorted the Conservatives to be bolder, to jettison their hang-ups about for-profit schools and to scrap the constricting national curriculum (page 41). Even the starchiest gusset must quiver at the prospect of so much liberation.

How much freedom can you manage? If you are a head, would you like to choose your own curriculum, ditch all that citizenship nonsense and give them Cicero, or hang loose and do the full Montessori? Would you like to pay your staff what you think they deserve, or what the Secretary of State says they should expect? Would you prefer to rely on the local authority or tell it to take a hike and give you your top-sliced money back?

If you are a classroom teacher, what would emancipation look like? Would it be the freedom to start each year with a completely fresh lesson plan? Or the freedom to discipline without fear of rebellion, let alone prosecution? Or the sheer joy of going off piste, ignoring the curriculum and sharing with your pupils a passion for cacti, Camus or Coronation Street? Is that the kind of freedom you want?

Of course, freedom can be hard work, especially if one isn't used to it. Teachers may rail at the endless initiatives from government, the constant micro-management, the sheer amount of all-round nannying. But central direction does alleviate people of the necessity to think too deeply about where they are going and how they will get there. Limits and boundaries can be so reassuring. Ask an East German.

But we don't need to travel that far. In Wales, teachers breathed a collective sigh of relief with the abolition of Sats and league tables and have enjoyed extra freedom. But in England, many teachers have stuck to the script, despite key stage 3 tests being scrapped. What happened when academies were given the freedom to set their own pay - a rush to replicate the status quo. Is it conceivable that a profession denied autonomy for so long doesn't know what to do with it when it gets it?

If you are a government, how free do you really want schools to be? How relaxed would you be as those cheeky chappies from Hizb ut Tahrir set up a nationwide network of legally compliant but extremely distinctive schools? Or if those upstanding parents with irreproachable aspirations took state money to set up their own school and then barred the snotty kids from the council estate? Or if a spirited head woke up one morning and said: "Bugger phonics. I'm going to do it my way!"

Ah freedom! It's a wonderful thing - within limits, of course.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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