Education, Other Articles Mar 10 2010

Why parents don’t have to start their own schools to be “involved”

Its 20 years since my first child stated school. In that time parents have been urged to exercise choice, power, make representations, sign contracts, chivvy teachers, call in Ofsted, join governing bodies, start PTAs, help in the class room or simply make sure their children get to school on time, well fed and rested, wearing the right uniform, having done their homework.

The demands sometimes feel overwhelming, especially for parents who are working full time, but there is no doubt that parental involvement in schools and parental engagement in their children’s learning – two entirely different things by the way – make a difference.

The primary school my children attended was transformed partly by the determination of parents who stuck by the school when it was failing and fought to make it better.

And the research reviews of academics like Professor Charles Desforges have demonstrated how much a child’s achievement can be enhanced by parental support away from school. Too many children can’t count on love, encouragement, clear boundaries and aspiration at home. Schools that now excel with very challenging intakes often work tirelessly with their families to help these children thrive.

So given that I am a firm believer in parental involvement in education, why do the proposals to help parent promoters start ‘free schools’ which will sit outside the maintained system, make me uneasy. Many parent campaigns for new schools have been effective and necessary in areas where there simply aren’t enough places. I have supported several over the years.

But the context matters. At the heart of this proposal is the idea that, at a time of unavoidable spending cuts, money should be siphoned off from existing budgets and given to parents who want to start new schools, even if there isn’t a shortage of places locally.

In many areas this will create unfunded surplus places – manna from heaven for the sort of free marketeers who believe that unfettered competition drives up standards, but reckless and irresponsible from the point of view of heads and governors who are already having to contemplate year on year efficiencies, not to mention parents in other local schools which may see their funding draining away.

But where would you draw the line? The writer Toby Young wants a pseudo grammar school in his local area where he feels the local comprehensive, judged good with outstanding features by Ofsted, isn’t good enough for his children.

Does that mean every group of parents dissatisfied with their local provision should be indulged? What if they are rooted in fundamentalist faith groups or parents with quirky ideas about the curriculum?

And free schools will be just that -free of regulations that bind in other maintained schools. Indeed the Tories have promised members of parent promoter groups that they will jump the admissions queue and automatically get places in their own schools, inevitably ensuring they quickly become self selecting islands n their own communities, creaming of pupils as well as money from their neighbours.

Those of us who oppose this idea aren’t anti choice, or anti parent. We are for ensuring that choice can be exercised fairly in a system that values all parents and children equally. Giving parents who shout the loudest money we don’t have, to set up new schools we don’t need with freedoms their neighbours don’t enjoy, will do anything but that.

This article originally appeared in the TES  ( with a response from Toby Young) in February 2010




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