Time to let teachers run the show

20th November 2009 at 00:00
The director of a new group aiming to help families and others set up schools explains why she thinks it will work

As the schools adjudicator found earlier this month, an enormous number of parents are resorting to desperate measures to get their child into the right school. Clearly, parents should not be breaking the law. But the fact that otherwise law-abiding families believe that money or fraud are the only ways to get a good education for their child demonstrates that the system must change.

We launched the New Schools Network last month because we believe the system can change. Parents want do to their best for their child, regardless of their background. Teachers want to help children reach their potential, whoever they teach. And heads want to create a good and safe learning environment, wherever their school.

Yet there are still too many areas where children are not getting the education they deserve. Those areas are overwhelmingly the poorest. A lucky few can buy a good education - but homes can cost more than double if they are in the right catchment area, and school fees are out of the reach of all but a tiny minority.

Other parents who want a good school for their child are stuck with two unattractive options. They can hope their child will get into a good (and therefore oversubscribed) school. Or they can try to manoeuvre their way round a bad system.

The New Schools Network believes that where schools underperform and parents cannot access the right education for their child, they should be offered alternatives. Groups of teachers, charities, parents and other organisations should be allowed to set up non-selective schools that have the freedom to offer the best education.

Our organisation has only been running for a month, but we have already been contacted by parents across the country, from all walks of life, who would like to see a new school for their child. Many of those parents have also been teachers - they understand the education system, and know it could serve their children better. Many express frustration at the extent to which their hands are tied by a prescriptive curriculum or the wrong leadership. At the moment, whatever their experience and vision, they cannot set up a new school. That should change.

Other groups and organisations could be benefiting the poorest children, but are currently blocked from doing so. Montessori, for example, runs schools across the world. But here, if parents are not in the catchment of two state primaries in Manchester and Essex, the only way they can access a Montessori education is by paying fees.

There is increasing international evidence that allowing new schools improves education for all, especially the poorest. In the past 20 years, successful new schools have been founded in two countries considered polar opposites in the developed world: the US and Sweden. Those schools have not replaced the existing system - good state schools have continued to thrive - but they have provided an alternative for millions of children who were not receiving a good education.

These schools have one key thing in common: independence from politicians. They are not run by governments, although they are accountable to them. The headteacher and school governors have the freedom to run their school, without red tape and central interference. New schools have the ability to set their own curriculum, giving teachers more freedom in the classroom. And, of course, teachers could go and set up their own schools.

What has been the effect? A dramatic reduction in the attainment gap between the rich and the poor. A recent study of New York charter schools - independent state institutions - found that they reduced the difference between pupils in the richest and the poorest areas by 86 per cent in maths, and almost 70 per cent in English. Research from Sweden shows that new schools actually have a beneficial effect on neighbouring schools - providing them with the incentive and examples to do better.

Of course, there must be accountability, and there must be oversight. Groups applying to set up schools offering extremist teaching should not be allowed. If schools - maintained, academies or new schools - are not performing, they should either be given to new leadership or closed. But that accountability should be on how well children are being educated; on outcomes, not processes.

Some of the new schools in Sweden and the US have been set up by parents - and we have been contacted by an enormous number of parent groups here who would like to set up their own. But the driving force behind the American Charter School movement has been teachers - teachers who had exciting ideas about schools in deprived areas, and were frustrated by their experiences. Let me give one example.

KIPP (or the Knowledge Is Power Program) is a network of charter schools in the US. It has 82 schools in 19 states. Its founders? Two teachers in their 20s who had experience of teaching in the poorest areas and knew they could do better. Eighty per cent of KIPP students come from deprived backgrounds and 90 per cent are African American or Hispanic. Yet more than 80 per cent go to university.

KIPP has now joined up with two other federations of charter schools to form its own teacher-training college, feeding back what it's learnt from teaching in the poorest communities to train the next generation. Many of those teachers would otherwise have moved to schools in wealthier areas or quit teaching altogether.

Allowing charter schools has meant that the most dedicated professionals remain teaching the kids who need their talent most. We are working with Teach First alumni, with Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders to make sure the same happens here.

The education system in Britain works for many families, and there are a large number of schools that deliver an excellent education. But, unfortunately, the system not only lets down a significant number of families but it limits their ability to do anything about it. We do not need to tear up the whole system - what we need is to reform it by allowing the creation of new schools that will offer more people a second chance, and offer professionals and organisations the opportunity to provide the best education they can.


Rachel Wolf, Director, New Schools Network.

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