Why not trust teachers to set up schools?

12th March 2010 at 00:00
The shadow schools secretary wants the profession in the driving seat, setting the ethos - and safe in the workplace

I was asked recently by another newspaper who the biggest influences on my thinking had been when it came to education. I don't know if they expected me to cite Pliny the Elder or Margaret Thatcher or any other figure who would have fixed me ever more firmly in their camp of unrepentant fogeys. But I told them what I have told everyone who has asked since I took up this job. The biggest influences on me have been teachers.

The best thing about this job, the thing that really makes me approach every week - and I mean every week - with a sense of enjoyable anticipation is the knowledge that I will be visiting great schools.

Nothing is so uplifting as visiting a brilliant state school run on the undiluted optimism that would give any visitor a hope transfusion. The teachers and headteachers in these schools are an inspiration.

There is something else that I find an inspiration. It's a story about two young idealistic but determined American teachers. Back in 1994 they set up inner-city schools in Houston and New York. More than 70 per cent of their pupils go on to college. This compares with under 10 per cent for other similar local schools. They called their schools the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP).

Their success spawned other KIPP schools across America: there are now more than 82 schools in 19 states. They overwhelming educate the least well off. Eighty per cent of pupils are from low-income families and eligible for the reduced-price meals programme and 90 per cent are African American or Latino.

These schools provide an education to children that was previously the preserve of the rich. The reason they are so successful is that they are outside of government control. The teachers have freedom over how they run their schools and the ethos of the school.

I find it incredibly frustrating that in this country this inspirational tale could not have happened. This Government has taken the firm view that the man in Whitehall knows best - not only are teachers not allowed to set up their schools, sometimes it can seem like they are barely allowed to teach in the ones that do exist.

A Conservative government would have more faith in teachers. We would free teachers and leaders in all schools from bureaucracy - self-evaluation forms, national strategies, endless statutory policies and so on - to give them more space to innovate, to excel, and by excelling, to inspire others.

We would also give teachers a radical new right to found new schools, like the KIPP ones in America, and receive state funds for the pupils they attract. The New Schools Network - a charity set up to support those interested in establishing new state schools - has had well over 100 enquiries from teachers keen to realise their own vision of what education can achieve in their communities. We are desperate to release this potential.

A deputy head recently asked me why a lawyer can set up a law firm, a doctor can set up a medical practice but a teacher can't set up a school. Why don't we trust our professionals to do this? A Conservative government will.

So freedom for professionals is a crucial part of the reform package we hope to introduce if we win the election. But freedom to innovate is of little value if teachers are entirely constrained in how they manage difficult pupils and violence in the classroom. If I get the chance to be Secretary of State, I also want to do more to protect teachers in the classroom.

The Government may want to ignore it but there is a behaviour problem in our schools. A thousand pupils a day are excluded either permanently or temporarily for physical or verbal assaults. According to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers nearly a third of all teachers have faced physical aggression at the hands of their pupils.

Teachers no longer feel able to exert authority in the classroom. A no-touch rule is too often the norm even when violence breaks out.

Teachers are not trusted to use appropriate force to deal with dangerous situations. And I'm not surprised that they choose not to. Too often any sort of use of force will lead to accusations that can blight a good teacher's career forever.

I dread to think how many high-quality people have been put off teaching or left the profession because of fears over their safety. A recent survey found that 59 per cent of headteachers have had to deal with a false allegation against themselves or a member of staff in the past three years. It has become an occupational hazard. The Government has done nothing to protect you.

The Conservative Party will tilt the table back in favour of the teacher. We will change the law to make it easier for teachers to deal with violent incidents, remove disruptive pupils, and physically restrain disruptive children without fear of legal action. We will scrap the appeals panels that have reinstated children excluded for carrying knives. We will give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations, including anonymity, until guilt is proven and restrictions on the length of time investigations can take. We will legislate so that teachers can ban any items that cause disruption in the classroom and set same-day detentions.

We will trust teachers and headteachers to do the right thing. Yes there will always be a need for safeguards but we will return to the days of real adult authority in the classroom.

I know that teachers feel frustrated. You can and want to do so much more. But the Government does not believe in your ability - it hems you in with endless centrally-driven initiatives and programmes and constrains you in the classroom. We believe in you and we will give you the professional freedoms you need to deliver safe classrooms and high-quality schools for all.


Michael Gove, Shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families.

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