Opportunity Knocks – Guest Blog by Meriel Stinson, Vice Chair of Governors
Guest blog from Meriel Stinson, Vice Chair of Governors
Earlier this year, Mr Ebenezer published a blog entitled “Why the free school movement will fail”. (click here to read). This guest blog is an unashamedly biased end of year reflection on some recent developments.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Parliament has debated anything other than Brexit in recent months. But on 5th December Fulham & Chelsea MP, and FBS Patron, Greg Hands won time to discuss the future of free schools and academies.
You can read the full debate here. But if you’d like some edited highlights, alongside my biased commentary, please read on.
Extolling Michael Gove’s 2010 reforms – the legislation that paved the way for schools like FBS to open – Greg Hands explained: “Nowhere is more exemplary of the benefits that free schools and academies bring to the system than the two boroughs in my constituency… an astonishing five new secondary schools have opened since 2010, and every one of them is a free school or academy. Kensington Aldridge Academy, Chelsea Academy, Hammersmith Academy, Fulham Boys School and West London Free School are providing places for more than 3,700 students.”
Pointing to what contributes to their success, Greg highlighted the schools’ autonomy and in particular: “When teachers play an indispensable role in nurturing the young minds of children, they should feel a part of the decision-making process, because recognising teachers as experts in their fields and empowering them in that way is a vital part of retention. Fulham Boys School is an excellent example of that…Remarkably for an inner-London school, in the past four years only five teachers have left—every one of them to be promoted, or because for life reasons they were moving out of London. It is possible to find other state-funded schools that have had a turnover of 100% in the same period.”
Another MP asked what lay behind this low staff turnover. To my mind, the answer was evident that evening at the Christmas gathering for staff, founders and governors. Fine wine, delicious food, excellent company. In itself, probably not in any manual for improving teacher retention. But at FBS, it summed up the extra-ordinary co-operative effort and common purpose that continues to drive the school forward.
Nick Gibb MP was charged with replying to Greg’s debate, as education minister. Back in 2014, as schools standards minister, he had attended FBS’s formal opening. We’d had to endure a fair few trials to get to that point and, just possibly, this recollection informed some of his speech: “Free schools have challenged the status quo and initiated wider improvement, injecting fresh approaches and drawing in talent and expertise from different groups… In answer to Alun Ebenezer, the headteacher who runs an excellent school in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, the free school programme is thriving.
“The whole essence of the free schools and academies programme is to empower teachers and headteachers and to promote the importance of innovation and evidence…There has been a resurgence—a renaissance—of intellectual thought and debate about pedagogy and the curriculum.
“Every child in this country, regardless of where they live or their background, should have the opportunity to benefit from the very best education. Free schools and academies have shown that professional autonomy in the hands of able headteachers and teachers can deliver a world-class education. “
“We want to go further to make sure that no one is left behind… Our ambition is for every local school to be a good school, to close the attainment gap between pupils from different backgrounds, and to ensure that every pupil, regardless of their background or where they live, can fulfil their potential.”
I can’t think many would disagree with this noble aim. Certainly none at FBS. But as was made evident last week there’s a chasm still to be breached before it’s delivered.
For all the innovation and ‘renaissance of thought’ going into secondary education, the old order has not been turned on its head. A report from the Sutton Trust two days after Greg’s debate found that eight schools have fed more pupils to Oxbridge in the last three years than 2,894 schools combined, and that private school students are seven times more likely to win places than their non-selective state-funded counterparts. There are huge and intrinsic barriers remaining.
Yes, FBS’s Sixth Form will be doing its all to rebalance this inequality. But just think:
- if annual Sixth Form per pupil funding in the state funded sector began to approach the termly per pupil investment made in the fee-paying Independent sector; and
- if each of those eight schools so predominant in feeding Oxbridge was obliged to reach out to eight local schools, with the target of sending eight of that local school’s pupils to Oxbridge every year
how the real diversity of views, backgrounds and opinions that bring so much to FBS might deliver something considerably richer than an entitled mindset to our leading university colleges and campuses. And onwards.
We’re serious about that equality of opportunity, Mr Gibb. But we’re still in the foothills of progress.