With the current furore around grammar schools, we mustn’t overlook the progress made and lessons learned in English schools in recent years.
And while the debate about school structures has largely been won, if discipline is poor, the curriculum is sloppy and expectations are low, it doesn’t matter whether your child is in a grammar, faith or free school – they will ultimately be failed.
For too long the key ingredients that made schools strong were overlooked or belittled by people who opposed them for ideological reasons, while all-too-often educating their own children in the very way that they publicly criticised for others.
It is now widely accepted that school autonomy is a fundamental driver in the improving educational outlook, and yet there are still too many places where the other key ingredients of educational excellence are missing.
One can’t help but notice that nearly all the top-performing schools in the country seem to have the following in common: a focus on the fundamentals of English and maths, within a curriculum rich in knowledge and the arts, that is taught to every single child and rigorously and regularly assessed, and underpinned by a culture of respect and firm discipline.
Given that these are making such a difference in the top schools, it is vital that we now make sure that they are available to children in all schools.
This is certainly what we offer students at my school, Bedford Free School, which I opened with a group of teachers and parents back in 2012. And there are an increasing number of other schools across the country that are taking a similar approach.
Speaking from our experiences in Bedford, we started from the premise that, given the right circumstances, every child is capable of extraordinary things. We’ve grown a school that we believe will, over time, turn out young people ready to take on and improve the world.
Giving children 'options for the future'
We’ve developed an academic curriculum that every child follows, teaching them the deep, meaningful knowledge that they need to truly make sense of the world. Of course, this prepares them well for external exams, too – which is important, as great exam results give students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, greater options for the future.
The initial signs are promising – last summer we were the top performing state school in our town at GCSE, and we’ve seen even stronger results this year, too.
However, we offer them much more than just the academic curriculum. Every single student now learns to play a musical instrument. They have dedicated time daily to read classic novels with their peers. We have a growing performing arts scene. Twice a week we stop everything and they get to choose from around 50 different clubs and societies – from rowing, Bollywood dancing and public speaking, to coding, knitting and cross-country running.
This can sound self-aggrandising. It’s not meant to. We know that many other schools across England are generating great results with their own innovative approaches. The point is really this: if we can do it, as a completely new school, with a diverse intake, then anyone can if they follow the sorts of principles that others are finding work best.
It is for this reason that I have joined a new campaign – Parents & Teachers for Excellence – which will promote the highest quality education possible. We want to create a national movement that promotes these key building blocks of success. We want to help spread the word to parents and teachers that this approach works – but also to get their help to spread the word to communities across the country.
All too often over the past decade, the education debate has ignored parents. I believe we were right to reform the structure of the education system as we did. But we can’t claim that in doing so we captured the imagination of the public. Clearly we didn’t. While we talked about structures, they kept their focus on standards.
And it is to this debate on standards within schools that we must return. This is what parents care about and it must be the focus of our efforts from this point.
Our school’s goal is to help every child have the greatest freedom and widest choices open to them in their futures. But we would also like to see England become the best place in the world for education, with more and more schools emphasising high standards of discipline and a knowledge-based curriculum, as well as regular, stretching assessment. I hope that anyone who supports this vision will join our campaign.
Mark Lehain is the principal of Bedford Free School and a member of the advisory council of Parents & Teachers for Excellence