With the latest governmental plans to open a free boarding school in Sussex and the scandal surrounding fee estimates, the issues of funding education and the difference between academies and free schools has fuelled the open fire all over again. The utopian but dreary child of Adonis and New Labour, the Academy, free from local authority limitations and given enough funds to really invest in improving quality of teaching and learning, now has Cameron, Clegg and Gove staring, as bewildered Frankensteins, at the monster they have created.
Having recently taken part in an Access Roadshow visiting more than 30 schools in East London, what struck me most was not the particular lack of discipline or, in the workshops themselves, the student’s lack of interest or enthusiasm, but the cutting edge architecture, glossy open air interiors and top-of-the-range equipment.
Do not get me wrong, Building Schools for the Future is in many ways a noble initiative – many families cannot offer a supportive and pleasant environment to their children and having the school cater as a surrogate is an admirable move to beginning to adjusting social inequalities. In fact, in families with limited access to study spaces, musical equipment or even a personal computer, the availability of these for the entire local community creates an ease of learning and predisposes students to engage with things outside their established comfort zones – say the brand new cello their school has just bought.
And even though, when applied successfully, paternalism is can be an extremely effective plan of action, there is nothing worse than bad parenting.
Right now, it seems Cameron and Clegg are like the confused mother in the supermarket completely oblivious as to why her two year old baby does not stop crying. She is a little embarrassed because the whole supermarket keeps staring. She looks around in panic and buys the child an iPad. “Problem solved”, she assumes; “I mean, it was the most expensive tablet on offer.” Education has, thus, developed into a spiral of throwing money at screaming poor statistics and low literacy rates, which don’t simply go away, but rather require even more money to be thrown at them, until – perhaps accidentally – some of it hits the nail on the head in increasing the number of teachers rather than IT classrooms.
Giving a class of underachieving students brand new iMacs does not improve their grades. Rather, it is the easiest way for Michael Gove to wash his hands clean and proclaim most boisterously that the government is now doing its best to address the problem of educational disadvantage. In reality, Gove has approached a minute sample of experts, the occasional head-teacher, perhaps a handful of teachers, but, most importantly of all, no students whatsoever to give their opinions on how to improve the quality and standard of education offered across the country. Instead, in a deluded pursuit of massive government spending at a time of vigorous cuts in welfare, the government allowed all schools to apply for an academy status should they so wish.
Thus, even the proportion of money thrown at struggling schools in special measures which fortunately caused real improvement, the famous case being Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney which re-opened in 2004 and was ranked as one of the best state schools in the country by 2011, (although, mind you, their architectural plan is based on a 19th century prison) will now have to be diluted to accommodate for schools across the country which perform very well, but would quite like some new computers.
The problem continues to self-exacerbate, as more schools apply and less money is on offer those in most desperate need continue to decline. The baby is still screaming as Michael Gove is leaving PC World with a buggy and iPad in hand.