No time to rest

Posted by Simon Goulden on 20 Aug 2015

It used to be a well worn joke, with more than a grain of truth to it that “those who educate our community neither slumber nor sleep”. So it was that, holidaying in the USA, I found myself discussing Jewish schooling with community leaders there. They simply could not believe that the government funds most of the costs of schools in the English VA and Academy / free school sectors and that parents are only asked to help fund the Jewish Education of their children. They were even more dumbfounded when they learned that the constraints of the National Curriculum meant that many schools could only offer 25% of the school day in Jewish education or could only afford to, as parents were not making the funds available to employ more teachers for longer. When I told them the sums being sought from parents they shook their collective heads, as tuition fees in America and Canada are at least comparable to top schools in the private sector here. Parents here simply do not appreciate how lucky they are and the fact that some parents choose not to pay (won’t pay, rather than can’t pay, which is of course a very different matter) is a matter of shame for them, their children and our community.

But no sooner had the wheels of the plane touched down at Heathrow, than our Prime Minister took to the airwaves and print, to discuss his plans for our schools. My reading of his comments is that his view is that every school in the country (England, that is) should become an academy, a move that would represent the most significant reform of the education system since the introduction of the National Curriculum, way back in 1988.

Every headteacher in England should be able to set their own curriculum and decide salary levels free from the influence of “bureaucrats”, Mr Cameron says. “I want every school in the country to have the opportunity to become an academy and to benefit from the freedoms this brings.”

So let’s quickly review what this could mean. Currently – and by that I mean in a government document published just one month ago - the ‘basic’ school curriculum includes the ‘national curriculum’, as well as religious education and sex education. The national curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject. Other types of school like academies and private schools do not have to follow the national curriculum. All the government says is that academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, maths and science. They must also teach religious education.

Currently, compulsory national curriculum subjects at primary school, for example, are:

English, maths, science, design and technology, history, geography, art and design, music, physical education (PE), including swimming, computing, ancient and modern foreign languages (at key stage 2). Schools often also teach personal, social and health education (PSHE), citizenship and modern foreign languages (at key stage 1). What this actually means for our schools is, of course, open to debate. However, there are now enough academies and free schools for us to start looking at what they teach and what they have decided to leave out and perhaps there is some research to be done on it shortly.

You will probably know that the government previously announced that thousands of schools deemed to be ‘failing’ will be taken over and turned into academies as part of a bid to drive up standards. It now seems that under the plans for “100 per cent academisation”, no schools other that those judged to be ‘failing’ will be forced to become academies. However, schools will be given more government support (as yet undefined) to help them to turn into academies. But what happened to the Nicky Morgan pledge that all ‘coasting’ schools will be turned into academies? I think some clarification will be needed – and quickly.

Mr Cameron says he wants to make it a priority to recruit more academy sponsors and support more headteachers in coming together in academy chains. Whilst it gives headteachers the freedom to run their schools with the ability to set the curriculum and pay their staff properly, it means that academy chains are clearly the way ahead. Are there such chains in our community? Should there be? Could there be, given the diversity of outlooks? We need to start the debate right now.

He says “I profoundly believe this is the right direction for our country because I want teachers not bureaucrats deciding how best to educate our children.” You might say that the devil is in the detail. I couldn’t possibly comment.

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