What to teach and how? A 'bunch of amateurs' start from scratch

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Parent-school campaigner Toby Young and friends try to create a new curriculum

"I'm not sure you should be letting the BBC film this," whispered one of the teachers on my steering committee. About a dozen of us were sitting round my kitchen table trying to thrash out the West London Free School's curriculum and a BBC camera crew was there to record our progress. "Any teacher watching this will just think, 'What a bunch of complete amateurs,'" he said.

I was a little taken aback by this. Until then, I was feeling rather proud of the conscientious way we had gone about devising a curriculum. For instance, I had asked one teacher in the group to review all the latest research about the pros and cons of setting and even managed to supply her with a summary of John Hattie's book Visible Learning and a copy of a paper by Professor Jo Boaler entitled "The 'Psychological Prisons' from Which They Never Escaped: the role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities".

But he was undoubtedly right.

It was the fact that most of us were so clearly on a vertical learning curve that would grate with teachers. It would confirm their suspicion that a bunch of parents had no business trying to start a school.

At the beginning of the process, I thought all the key curriculum questions could be solved by doing some elementary research. Take the question of GCSEs versus the middle years programme (MYP) of the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Of course, MYP isn't an option at the moment, thanks to Schools Secretary Ed Balls' insistence that all new state secondary schools have to teach the national curriculum, but I'm hoping that his successor - Labour or Conservative - will be a little more flexible.

I met with a former headteacher of one of Britain's leading independent schools and she assured me that MYP was the answer to my prayers. "It's light years ahead of the national curriculum," she said.

But a couple of days later I met with another headteacher who told me that MYP was "politically correct nonsense". "It's designed to churn out pro-European social democrats," he said. "There's all this balls about 'joined up learning' and 'inter-disciplinary approaches'. What that essentially boils down to is indoctrinating children about global warming."

In the end, we decided not to go for MYP for the practical reason that the process of becoming an MYP-accredited school would add an additional layer of expense to our set-up costs.

Unfortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg. What about GCSEs versus IGCSEs? Or A-levels versus the IB? A combination of IGCSEs and the IB looked superficially attractive, not least because they both require a bit more intellectual rigour than GCSEs and A-levels.

But do universities take the "hardness" of IGCSEs and the IB into account when making offers? I checked with my old admissions tutor at Oxford and he told me that he regards an IGCSE "B" as the equivalent of a GCSE "A". Some teachers on my committee thought that underestimated just how much harder IGCSEs are.

We took the coward's way out. We decided to postpone the decision on whether to go for the IB or A-levels until our sixth form is up and running and leave the issue of whether to teach GCSEs or IGCSEs to our own heads of department. That is to say, it will be up to them to make the call on a subject-by-subject basis. The same goes for setting.

As a general principle, we want teachers to have as much autonomy as possible at our school. We want them to choose the syllabus that will best enable them to communicate their passion for their subject, and decide how best to deliver it to a mixed ability year group.

We most emphatically don't want them to "teach to the test", and one advantage of mixing up GCSEs and IGCSEs is that it will make it harder to rank the West London Free School in the league tables.

We also recognise that it would be premature to make too many curriculum decisions before our senior leadership team is in place.

We are very clear about our ethos and vision - we want our school to be rigorously academic, offering children a classical liberal education - but we're a little more flexible when it comes to the curriculum.

I hope any teachers watching us thrash out these issues on TV won't form too negative an impression.

As with so many aspects of starting a school, it's a question of figuring out what part of the process you can usefully contribute to and what is best left to the professionals.

When it comes to the nitty gritty of devising a curriculum, I've learnt the wisdom of Wittgenstein's maxim: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

For more on the West London Free School, visit www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk

Toby Young, Founder of the campaign for the West London Free School and author of 'How to Lose Friends and Alienate People'


The TES will be hosting a special debate on "free schools" - state-funded institutions which can be run by parents or companies - this Monday, April 19, in Ealing, west London.

Toby Young will be arguing in favour of the schools while the opposing view will be put by Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of teaching union the NUT, and supporter of the Anti Academies Alliance.

The event will be chaired by Michael Shaw, TES Comment editor, and held at the PM Gallery and House, Walpole Park, Mattock Lane, London W5 5EQ, starting at 7pm.

To find out more and to book tickets, visit www.tes.co.ukfreeschools.

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