Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How free can a 'free school' be?

I haven't really paid too much attention to the recently introduced concept of 'free schools' in the UK, other than to be vaguely pleased that the opportunity now existed for a different educational model.

Then, last night I was talking to someone who heads up an organisation that is applying to establish one in his local town.

We were talking about what his leadership team had in mind for the school. What they envisioned. How they planned to tackle the concept. He had some great ideas, looking at working with the local business community, and calling upon the expertise of real, live working people to contribute regarding the sort of work they do, and the skills required to do it successully.

I was thinking: what an opportunity! After all, many of us in this space agree that the current education model is broken. That repeated tweaking is not going to fix it. That it ought to be scrapped and a new one developed from the ground up.

My contention is that we should start at the end. We should ask ourselves what the ideal school leaver looks like: what can s/he do, what does s/he know, how does s/he approach challenges... all that stuff. And we shouldn't just make up our minds in a vacuum on this point. We should engage with entrepreneurs, business leaders, community leaders, etc. We should ask them what school leavers need, and then work backwards from that point, figuring out how we're going to help them get there.

I thought my companion was ideally situated to exactly that. To come up with a model of education that actually prepares young people for life and for the workplace. In theory, the establishment of a Free School would enable his organisation, as a charity, to lead the school as they see fit while being completely funded by the government.

BUT... the practice isn't going to be that straightforward.

The school would have to meet the same standards set by the government for all schools in the UK and as such will receive the same OFSTED inspections.
And it's this bit that worries me.

How far are these free schools going to be able to stray from the government appointed model, if they still have to jump through the same hoops?

For example, I envisage a model of education that more closely reflect real life and the workplace. People working together on a project and the end result being, well, the end result. People working in teams with a mentor who serves as a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage. People being encouraged to explore and to share their learning with each other. The teacher being on the journey with the students. No-one ever being shut away in a room and subjected to sensory deprivation, being expected to rely entirely upon their own memory, seasoned with understanding, to demonstrate in the space of 90 minutes that they are conversant with material they have spent the last x number of years studying.

But, if they are going to have to meet the same KPIs as existing schools and sit the state exams at the end of it anyway, in order to be placed on a bell curve and evaluated via the same mechanism as the production line model... well, is this really going to be possible?

I sincerely hope that they give it a jolly good try, and am certainly willing to contribute if called upon to do so, but I wonder if the term 'free' is entirely accurate. It sounds a little tethered to me.


V Yonkers said...

Your description of the ideal school fits my daughter's high school (secondary school) to a T. The New Tech school network are schools that follow all of the ideals you lay out ( However, in the case of my daughter's school, students must also meet the criteria set out by the state of NY.

For the most part, students do much better than expected, except for the Math exams. As my daughter puts it, the math exams test mathematics taken out of context, so the questions don't make sense to her. One way the network has addressed this is to create a new standardized test that measures learning differently, yet still addresses the standards established by colleges, universities, and government associations.

The school is graduating its first class this year and we are all waiting to see if this new way of learning will be accepted by colleges and universities. In terms of businesses and future employees, students have already begun their "careers", finding summer employment and winter internships (the school incorporates this into its curriculum for 3 weeks in January).

After 4 years, the school has finally gotten the notice of government officials and other school officials. Her school acts as a lab school in which different methods are tried and then other schools are trained in those methods. There has been great resistance by the school districts and last year, with the budgets down to the minimum, it looked like this was the end for the school. However, since the school was identified as a model for 21st century learning in a federal application that the state won, I think the school will be safe at least until my daughter graduates.

I see already some watering down of the ideals in order to conform to the federal and state standards and I wonder if the school can sustain its creativity in learning methods and teacher training, though.

Views from Malmesbury said...

Hi Karyn, I wholeheartedly agree that the educational system needs completely re-structuring and love your proposals for doing that. The focus should be in determining what the community needs and providing the appropriate education. That way, students would come out with the relevant skills to obtain employment. Nevertheless, I'm not sure about the idea of doing away with exams.

The population is more geographically mobile these days and therefore those educated in one part of the country need to be able to demonstrate to employers in another part of the country that they are the right person to fill a post. From an employer’s point of view, they want to be able to distinguish between job applicants. If different schools/regions use different methods of rating a student's ability then how can those methods 'travel'? A standardized exam system is portable. At least, I haven't been able to think of an alternative.

Perhaps exams could run alongside but not replace other forms of assessment? Ie a student comes out with exam qualifications, creativity assessments, logic assessments and whatever else. Then, when prospective employers looks at students’achievements they can concentrate on the area most suited to the job being filled and the rest provides additional, background information giving a more complete picture of an applicant’s abilities. Whatever happens though, surely we need to have a baseline for employers to measure against without having to make mental adjustments for different standards?

I’m a long time out of school and don’t have any children, sadly, so I’m not the best judge, but this does seem logical to me.

The upsycho said...

@Views Well, yes. But that of course, doubles the workload for the kids. They have enough, under the standard system as it is. Trust me on this - I have one just coming to the end of his schooling and the other has just finished. The workload is ludicrous.

Donald H Taylor said...

Hi Karyn

Here are the views of former teacher of the year Phil Beadle on free schools:

To summarize his view: free schools are politically, not educationally, motivated: "They are an entirely calculated wrecking ball, intended to break up local families of schools and destroy local education authorities."