Free schools: do parents or teachers know best?
Parents are doing it for themselves. Well, sort of.
Certainly parent power is in vogue in English schools. Education Minister Michael Gove’s big idea is to back the likes of writer and celebrity parent Toby Young in allowing parents to set up their own ‘free’ schools. It is claimed these will be truly local schools, with boards of governors consisting of parents of children at the school. The New Schools Network already has 450 parent groups on its books from across the social spectrum. This suggests substantial dissatisfaction with the state of British education. Who can blame so many parents for reacting against the previous government’s target culture, factory schooling, its devaluation of subject-based academic learning, the micromanagement of everything from homework to school dinners, dumbed-down examinations and watered-down curriculum? Despite the ‘education, education, education’ rhetoric of New Labour, many parents simply don’t trust the state to educate their offspring. While it’s understandable that parents want to ensure their children get the best schooling possible, opponents of the free schools policy, from teachers’ unions to former education ministers, complain it will divert resources from state provision and that only ‘the sharp-elbowed and better off’ will set up free schools.
Less remarked upon is the possible effect of parent power on teachers’ autonomy. Might pushy parents intervening in the minutiae of school life undermine the authority of teachers? Do mummy and daddy always know best when it comes to judging how children should learn, what should be taught? If parents claim they know what is best educationally for their particular child, where does that leave the ideal of universal access to decent education for all and teachers control in the classroom? Indeed might it foster a climate of mistrust between teachers and parents? Already in state (‘unfree’?) secondary schools from September 2010, parents will have the right to monitor every aspect of their child’s schooling online; every interaction between a pupil and teacher must be recorded and made public. Will such surveillance improve teaching standards or hinder teachers’ freedom in disciplining and teaching the young?
More broadly, what will society’s attitude be to those parents who don’t want to be more involved in their child’s education? Might they be stigmatised as indifferent and irresponsible? What will our attitude be to those children whose parents are not interested in becoming self-trained pedagogues or amateur educational bureaucrats? Might their parents be scapegoated for poor educational attainment? Who will govern the parent governors?
Fiona Millar, columnist, educationguardian.co.uk; author, “The Secret World of the Working Mother”
Anastasia de Waal, director, Family and Education, Civitas; author, “Unqualified Success”
Sally Millard, founder member, Institute of Ideas Parents Forum; opinionated mother of two
Kevin Rooney, Head of Social Science, Queen’s School, Bushey and Institute of Ideas Education Forum
Siôn Humphreys, assistant secretary (secondary), National Association of Headteachers
Ralph Surman, deputy head teacher; chair, Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers