What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell us about Free Schools (part 3)

And here is Part 3:


Claim: Free Schools are using their freedoms to innovate and raise standards.

This is justified by quoting an NSN survey of free schools which asked schools whether they were planning a longer school day, a longer school year or variations to teachers’ pay and conditions. It showed that a significant proportion of those responding (arguably a self selecting group) were planning to do one or more of these. However there is no evidence offered to justify a claim that any of these changes have any effect on standards.

There is then a vague and unreferenced set of assertions about curriculum innovation. It is true that there are positive examples of real innovation amongst free schools. Peter Hyman’s School 21 is an example. Greenwich Free School was also regarded as a beacon until Ofsted found it needed improvement. Other kinds of innovation that may be less palatable are Steiner schools and schools built around transcendental meditation.

NAO concluded that “the Department has not made full use of a growing evidence base to enhance its programme management…. The Department does not routinely capture data on schools’ use of freedoms or the pattern of local demand. It has yet to fully consider which factors have most impact on school performance, for example, occupancy trends or the departure of head teachers. It has also yet to determine a full set of indicators to assess the impact of open Free Schools on other education provision in an area, or value for money

In other words, no one really knows what is going on and what works and what doesn’t.

Unqualified teachers

Claim: it is misleading to say that free schools employ unqualified teachers.

The number of unqualified teachers in schools was relatively high before 2005. This was largely teachers with overseas qualifications working in English schools at a time of significant teacher shortage. They were technically unqualified because they lacked UK qualifications but many were qualified in their own country. The teacher shortage was successfully addressed by the Labour government and the number of unqualified teachers decreased steadily between 2005 and 2010. Since 2011 it has increased. In all state funded schools, according to the 2013 workforce survey, 3.8% of teachers were unqualified. In academies nearly 6% of teachers were unqualified. In free schools 13% of teachers were unqualified.

It is not easy therefore to see how it is “misleading” to say that free schools employ unqualified teachers. They clearly do so in greater numbers than other schools.

This is justified by the assertion that schools are employing people who are experts “with a real passion for their subject”. There is no evidence that this is so. Nor is it a reasonable assumption that people with subject expertise do not need a teaching qualification. Teachers need to understand how children learn and develop, how to organise classrooms, how to manage challenging behaviour and how to assess and respond to pupils’ work. This is what being qualified provides.


Claim: The independence that free schools have over their budgets comes hand in hand with a very high standard of accountability. Their financial reporting responsibilities are significantly more rigorous than maintained schools.

The point made by NSN that free schools publish externally audited accounts while maintained schools do not, is  basically an irrelevant technicality. All schools are audited – for maintained schools some parts of the process happen at local authority level but that doesn’t mean there is no checking and monitoring

The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee made it clear how poor the financial oversight of both academies and free schools is. See:


Issues raised by the PAC include:

- A large number of breaches of financial regulations, especially around failure to submit financial reports.
– The Education Funding Agency lacks the capacity to be proactive in monitoring academy and free school finances. It relies heavily on whistle blowers.
– The EFA is not doing enough to address conflicts of interest : “We were concerned that individuals with connections to both academy trusts and private companies may have benefitted from their position when providing trusts with goods and services.”

It is also the case that academy and free school financial data is not shown in the DfE Performance Tables. Maintained school data is provided in a very accessible format but there is nothing for academies or free schools. The issues around this have been spelt out by Henry Stewart at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/01/academy-finances-neither-transparent-nor-accountable-2/. While this article is mainly about academies, it applies equally to free schools. Henry points out that this situation directly contravenes a commitment given by the Prime Minister to the Liaison Committee in March 2012.

Nor has the DfE responded to the PAC’s requirement in 2013 that “the Department must insist that every Academy Trust provides it with data showing school level expenditure, including per-pupil costs, and with a level of detail comparable to that available for maintained schools. The Department must then publish this data so that proper judgements and comparisons can be made by Parliament and the public.”

As a consequence of all these failings, the National Audit Office has refused to approve the DfE’s accounts.

What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell you about Free Schools (part 2)

Serving Deprived Areas/ Pupils

Claim: 50% of free schools have the same or more FSM students than their LA average.

The first wave of free schools came out very badly in terms of their provision for deprived pupils and areas. This has improved. Nevertheless the assertion that 50% of free schools have the same or more FSM students than their LA average means that 50% have less. That is not a normal distribution.

It is true that mainstream free schools have to follow the admissions code. However it is not uncommon for free schools to market themselves in various ways as appropriate mainly for abler and more middle class families … eg compulsory Latin, lack of vocational provision, focus exclusively on Russell Group as a destination, expensive uniform, religious tests and so on. We do not yet know what kinds of intake have been attracted by free schools, but one snippet (now fairly old) may or may not be typical:

A Freedom of Information enquiry to Hammersmith and Fulham Council by Ian McCauley has revealed the proportion of the Year 7 entry to the West London Free School that have attained level 4 or better in English and Maths for the 108 of the 120 students who live in that borough:
95.4% have level 4 in English, compared to 62.5% for the borough as a whole
89.9% have level 4 in Maths, compared to 59.7% for the borough as a whole.

And, entirely at random so not necessarily in any way typical, here is a contribution to Mumsnet:

“We have a Free School in our area. It’s generally felt to be successful, has a waiting list, and plans to expand at some point. BUT while it was founded “to create extra spaces”, its intake seems to mostly to consist of children poached from the surrounding schools (the remainder are bussed in by parents from miles away). The uniform is entirely bespoke from a private school supplier, so no Tesco items, it’s about £300 plus for a full set.”

Addressing shortage of places/ good places

Claim: Free schools are tackling the shortage of places in England

The distribution of free schools is essentially random – they appear where there is some group promoting a free school. The Department has received no applications to open primary Free Schools in half of all districts with high or severe forecast need for school places.

38% of approved free schools are primary and 42% are secondary. Given that secondary schools are at least twice the size of primaries, that means that many more secondary places are being created than primary. This is at a time of acute crisis in primary provision.

In 2013 NAO found that:

• around 70 per cent of the estimated 114,000 primary and secondary places from open or approved Schools are in districts forecasting some need;

• 87 per cent (27,000) of projected primary places in Free Schools opened by September 2013 are in districts forecasting high or severe need, 8 per cent (2,000) are in districts forecasting moderate need;

• 19 per cent (7,000) of projected secondary places in Free Schools opened by September 2013 are in districts forecasting high or severe need, 22 per cent (8,000) are in districts forecasting moderate need; and

• 42 schools have opened in districts with no forecast need, with estimated total capital costs of at least £241 million out of a projected total of £950 million for mainstream Schools

Claim: Just as importantly free schools are also tackling the shortage of good places in areas where existing standards are low

NSN justifies this claim by saying that 83% of primary free schools are in the two thirds of the country where results are lowest as are 70% of secondary free schools.

These immediately have the air of being statistics very carefully chosen to justify a particular conclusion. The “two thirds of the country where results are lowest” clearly contains significant areas where results are above average and is in no sense a meaningful grouping.

This data actually tells us almost nothing. Free schools could be in the lowest performing areas. Equally they could be in average areas or even in above average areas. And, for secondaries, even these figures show that a free school is just as likely to be in a high attaining area as in a low attaining one.

What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell you about Free Schools (Part 1)

The New Schools Network is putting round a document entitled “Free Schools Facts and Figures”. It tries, rather desperately, to make the case that free schools are something special and that all the criticisms of them are wrong.

Actually, you could hardly believe the number of holes in what they are claiming. So many that it’s going to take more than one blog post to cover it all. If you want to read the original alongside these comments you can find it at http://www.newschoolsnetwork.org/sites/default/files/Free%20School%20Facts%20and%20Figures%20briefing%207th%20July%20FINAL.pdf

Anyway, here is the first instalment of the commentary:

Who sets up Free Schools?

Claim: 63% of free schools have been set up by teachers, existing successful schools, academy chains or existing providers.

This fails to distinguish between genuine grass roots initiatives and large organisations without local links simply moving in on an area.

For example the 2014 openers list contains 9 Harris schools, 5 Ark schools and about 20 others clearly identifiable as promoted by existing academy chains. This is 20% of the planned schools.

In fact the number of free schools promoted by local parents groups is small. The list includes:
– Schools in reality promoted by local authorities to meet local needs
– Schools promoted by parents seeking a pseudo-grammar school as an alternative to often perfectly good local comprehensive provision.
– Schools promoted by particular religious groups – not always identified as Faith Schools.
– Schools promoted by other schools, colleges or universities – for a range of reasons ranging from altruism to empire building.

Successful parent groups, where they exist, are usually professional, middle class groups, sometimes with political connections. Amongst religious schools, Muslim applications are markedly less successful that those from other faiths.

It would seem likely that there is a significant social class bias in the process. There is also a clear trend in London for the introduction of highly selective post 16 institutions which will be at the expense of other sixth form and college provision and of the students in them.

Claim: Free schools have to prove that they are wanted by parents and students before they are allowed to be set up.

Proposed schools collect “expressions of interest” from parents. This may or may not translate into actual applications. There have been a number of cases where very few actual applicants have emerged and others where the impact on other good schools in the area has been ignored.

There is no transparency about the process of opening free schools. DfE has been forced by FoI requests to publish information and has resisted in the strongest terms. For example:

- DfE were forced to publish impact assessments on other schools by an NUT FoI in spring 2013
– DfE were forced to publish names, locations and faith affiliation of free school proposals by Humanist Association FoI. But even after this ruling in 2013, the DfE continued to refuse publication in relation to future waves of applications
– Laura McInerney put in an FoI for free school application forms and the government responses saying whether they were accepted or not. This too was resisted and was finally lost at Tribunal because the DfE argued that removing personal and sensitive information from so many was an excessive demand that the DfE was not resourced to cope with.).

For commentary on this see http://www.naht.org.uk/welcome/news-and-media/blogs/susan-young/free-schools-and-freedom-of-information/ and http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jul/15/how-i-lost-my-free-school-secrecy-court-battle


Claim: Free schools are popular with parents. On average free schools received 3 applications per place and 9 out of 10 primary free schools were over-subscribed.

This ignores the fact that applications systems enable parents to apply to up to 6 different schools for each child – different maxima in different places but never just 1. The real question therefore is how many chose a free school as first choice. This is not provided. The information given by NSN is not proof of being over-subscribed.

The application process requires proposed schools to gather “expressions of interest”. This is very different from actual applications. The reality is:
–   Some schools are popular and fill easily
–   Some fill because they’re meeting a local need for places
–   Some don’t fill.

No one has demonstrated a “free school effect”. It depends on the school and the local situation. As noted above, the DfE has consistently resisted providing any evidence about applications to open free schools, why they succeeded or failed and what the impact on other schools might be.
Ofsted outcomes

Claim: Free Schools are outperforming other state schools. They are more than twice as likely to be judged outstanding than their other state education counterparts.

The Ofsted data makes comparisons which are clearly invalid. It compares free school inspections between Sept 2012 and July 2014 with other inspections carried out in that period. This ignores the fact that good and outstanding schools are inspected much less frequently than others. So the sample of schools inspected in this 2 year period will not be a cross section of all schools – it will be heavily skewed to the less successful.

A more appropriate comparison is with the last inspection outcome for all schools. This shows (at March 2014) that 20% of all schools were outstanding, 60% good, 18% required improvement and 2% were inadequate. Amongst free schools, 24% were outstanding, 45% good, 25% require improvement and 6% are inadequate.:

It is claimed that free schools were inspected under the new “more rigorous” framework. In fact the inspection outcomes under the new framework were better than under the previous framework with the same proportion of outstanding schools and 10% more good ones. This suggests that the new framework is actually less rigorous and certainly means that the comparison in the table is a fair one.

More tomorrow!

The Guardian sings from the Crosby songbook

At the SEA Conference last month, Peter Wilby, distinguished former education correspondent and former editor of the New Statesman, discussed why it is that the quality of national political journalism is so low. One of the fundamental causes in his view was ignorance. That is ignorance of the detail of any substantive policy area and a determination to focus on Westminster village games – who’s in, who’s out, who’s up and who’s down.

There was a classic of its kind in yesterday’s Guardian by someone called Christina Patterson – who tweets, I kid you not, under the tag @queenchristina. So no false modesty there. Most of the article is simply a confection of village gossip – so we get the bacon sandwich, knowing the price of a pint of milk, the barrister wife earning maybe £200k (many QC’s wouldn’t get out of bed for that!) and cherry picked opinion poll findings.

No one would claim the polls are great but one thing they do show is that people think Cameron is hopelessly out of touch with their lives – so is any comparison made by Patterson between the two? Of course not. You would have to say that this goes beyond ignorance and is shading into malice straight out of the Crosby playbook. Or maybe journalists are really as totally innumerate as this would suggest?

At the heart of the article though is the now very tired accusation “we don’t know what he stands for”. If Patterson really doesn’t know what Labour’s position is on key issues, she really does need to get out more. Things we – that is she – doesn’t know include:

“will he carry on funding free schools” – absolutely clear, no successful school will be closed but they will be brought under local accountability arrangements. There will be no new free schools and decisions on new schools will be made by local Directors of School Standards.

“a price fix doesn’t amount to a vision for change” – quite right which is why Labour has been clear that this is the preliminary to a complete restructure of the energy market including separating generation from sales.

“if he hasn’t ruled out a referendum on Europe, when might he rule on in?” – there will be a referendum if a future treaty change involves transfers of powers to the EU – otherwise not. The fact that a few mouthy backbenchers panic and want something else doesn’t make the policy in any way unclear.

“many of us think that the government could be doing a lot better on education, youth employment and building industries for the future. But saying you’ll have a one nation approach isn’t the same as showing how you’ll make that nation better”. Where to begin … has she really missed the Adonis report on growth, the local government task force report, the Husbands report on 14 to 19 education and training, commitments on house building and so on and so on.

And that’s not to mention the first steps to controlling the private rented housing sector and the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act. Not everyone will like all these policies. But the accusation that there aren’t any is not one that can stand a moment’s scrutiny.

And then to cap it all, our (her?) obsession with primogeniture is wheeled out. “He wrecked his brother’s dreams … (this) certainly isn’t the usual definition of a “family man”. So older brothers have rights that younger ones don’t have. Are we still dominated in our thinking by the inheritance rules of the landed aristocracy? Is it not possible to imagine that people thought about how the party might move on from the Blairite cul de sac and who might be best placed to do this?

When you actually take an article like this apart, ignorance begins to sound like a generous assessment. My first question when reading any article like this is to ask, who wanted this in the paper.? In this case, was it the Blairite rump still seeking revenge for the defenestration of 2007? Or the Tory media operation? Because this could hardly be bettered as a presentation of their destructive argument … except that “Red Ed, the plaything of the unions” has unaccountably been missed out. I expect Patterson ran out of space!

Surely there must be an opening on the Mail for someone of her talents.

What we want from Labour’s Policy Forum

In a couple of weeks’ time, Labour’s Policy Forum will meet to consider the outcomes of the party’s policy review that has been running now for a couple of years. Quite what the relationship is between the material produced by the elected members of the forum and a wide range of specialist reviews is unclear. A lot of the latter have been published recently – in the education field the Blunkett and Husbands reports and in related areas reviews on various aspects of local and regional devolution. In many cases they make the policy forum papers seem rather dated and insubstantial.

Setting aside however the arcane mysteries of the process, SEA is pushing for the Forum to adopt some key changes to current proposals. Our fundamental premise is that:

“Education is not only about economic success. It impacts on the whole of our lives. …The next Labour government will need to provide the conditions for every child to flourish and have a full and rounded education…. Labour should build a one-nation education system where children of all backgrounds have access to the full range of educational opportunities. School should be a place where children learn to get on with one another. We cannot speak of a truly one-nation school system so long as children attend different institutions on the basis of their ability, their parents’ wealth or religious beliefs.”

Getting to this point will be neither easy nor quick. But a clear sense of direction is essential.

On specifics, we believe that the curriculum needs to properly reflect these broad aims. . We endorse the conclusions of the Husbands Review on the 14 to 19 curriculum but we think that Labour needs to say more about the rest of the school curriculum. We see no logic in a National Curriculum applying only to some schools. Nor do we believe that the whims of passing politicians should determine what is taught in our schools. The curriculum should be less prescriptive but it should recognise the place of skills, values and personal qualities as well as knowledge. And it should apply to all schools.

We believe that the current system of inspection needs radical reform. The top-down, punitive model has had its day and is a big reason why teachers’ workload is becoming intolerable. Fear of Ofsted is stifling innovation and focusing attention exclusively on the few things that Ofsted tries to measure. Moreover the process is too cumbersome and inconsistent to be effective. We need a new model of bottom-up accountability driven by peer review and local scrutiny by people who know their local patch.

Trying to run thousands of schools from the centre is a model that has clearly failed. It’s widely accepted that local decision making needs to be restored. SEA is clear that key decisions need to be made by democratically accountable bodies. If there are to be Directors of School Standards, as the Blunkett Review proposes, they must be properly accountable to their local communities. And we absolutely cannot have our schools handed over to be the play thing of Tory party donors.

It is time too to end the culture wars between academies and maintained schools. This has been massively wasteful both in money and in time and energy. It means there are two systems for doing everything with the result that nothing is being done very well.

“We believe that Labour should ensure that all schools have the same rights and responsibilities. In some areas this will mean increased freedom for all schools but it will also mean requiring all schools to adhere to key national expectations. This will include, for example, not employing unqualified teachers and adhering to national agreements on pay and working conditions. All schools will be funded through the same locally agreed funding formulae within a common national framework so that no school has a financial advantage purely as a result of their form of governance.”

We believe that Labour needs to be prepared for government. That is a lesson we should have learned from Michael Gove. Warm general statements won’t be enough. It’s not wrong to put a lot of stress on vocational work and on young people who won’t be going to university. But it’s not enough if we really do have the ambition to create a one nation education system.

500 at the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign launch rally

Professor Richard Hatcher of Birmingham City University writes

The Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign was launched last night with a huge public rally of at least 500 people (according to ITN News). In the two and a half hour meeting the main speakers included NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney, Birmingham Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, Shabina Bano of the Oldknow parents campaign, Tim Brighouse, former Chief Education Officer for Birmingham (on video), and Salma Yaqoob, ex-Respect leader and former Birmingham councillor. It is Salma who has played the leading role in creating this broad and inclusive campaign. There followed a series of short speeches from the platform including from community activists, Labour councillors (and one LibDem), and Birmingham NUT.

Speakers were united in rejecting the Trojan Horse allegations of a Muslim extremist plot and Gove’s exploitation of them to attack the Muslim community in Birmingham with biased Ofsted inspections. There was a strong sense of Birmingham’s identity as a multicultural city built by successive waves of immigration and determined to resist racist divisions. The campaign recognises that there are some governance problems in some schools, but those should be dealt with by the community in Birmingham, not by a politically-motivated assault by government.

In my short contribution I made two points. The first was about the policy tools which Gove has used to put his Islamophobic attack into practice. There are three. First, his unprecedented dictatorial powers as secretary of state. Second, his use of Ofsted as an arm of government policy, not an independent and supportive evaluator of schools. Third, creating a situation in which governors are unaccountable to the local community through a combination of the academies policy and the disempowering of local authorities. These are policies which the Labour leadership should commit itself to reversing – but so far has given no sign of doing so.

My second point concerned the next steps for the campaign. The huge attendance at the meeting makes clear that there is the desire and the opportunity to seize the initiative from Gove and create our own shared vision of what a high quality socially just education would be, through an ongoing dialogue between parents, teachers and the local community. Not stigmatised schools in a stigmatised community but a model which other schools and communities across the city and beyond (where problems of unaccountable governance can also occur) can learn from.

The Labour local authority should be part of this new partnership, but they have to change. The city council has set up its own inquiry into the Trojan Horse allegation, due to report in a month, but the Review members don’t include any representatives of parents, or of the local community, or of teachers and other school workers and their unions. The council needs to follow up the Review by creating an open, inclusive and democratic forum within which the dialogue the community wants can take place over the coming months, generating plans for action. Will the council be prepared to do this? (I asked the councillor responsible for ‘social cohesion’ last night but he had no answer.) If the council won’t take a lead the Putting Birmingham School Kids First campaign will need to do it itself.

These are the sorts of practical and political issues that the campaign will need to discuss now that the initial launch has demonstrated that it has mass support.

There is one other step that needs to be taken: to turn Gove’s attack on Birmingham into an attack at the national level on Gove’s education policies which have enabled it: dictatorial central control, an inspection system that urgently needs reform, a system of school governance that, in Tim Brighouse’s words, is broken, the abuse of academy freedom, the disempowering and in some cases virtual incapacity of local authorities (taking up the call by the Local Government Association for their restoration), and the place of religion in schools. There is a proposal that the NUT could take the lead in organising a conference on that basis in the autumn.

Should schools promote “British values” – a debate?

One response to the accusations of extremism against some Birmingham schools has been to revive calls for schools to teach “British values”. Michael Gove has issued draft changes to the funding agreement for new schools that would require commitment to “the fundamental British values” of (1) democracy, (2) the rule of law, (3) individual liberty, (4) mutual respect and (5) tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. Already, back in 2011, in its Prevent Strategy, the Home Office defined extremism as active opposition to these values.

On 25th June 2014 John Denham initiated a House of Commons debate on “British values and teaching”. In his opening speech he said that people tended to divide into two camps: (1) those supporting the government’s approach; (2) those who reject the idea of British values. Not fitting into either group, he said he felt a need for debate.

John Denham agrees with the government’s aim “of promoting British values” but is concerned that it has spent much of the last four years undoing the good work going on in schools (e.g. on citizenship) and that its emphasis on “constructing a legal basis for intervening in schools” is likely to be counter-productive. He criticised David Cameron’s rejection of “state multiculturalism” while putting nothing in its place. He argued that multiculturalism had been successful in “promoting respect for difference and in tolerance for new communities” but that it had “failed to emphasise or develop what we hold and value in common”. It had been clearer about what new communities could expect than what was expected of them. For this he blamed “value-free multiculturalism”.

The idea that schools should teach our “national story” was to the fore in John Denham’s speech (he used the expression ten times) and on this he is on the same page as Michael Gove, Conservative Home and the Daily Mail‘s Melanie Phillips who are also keen on the idea of schools promoting “our national story” as a basis for social cohesion, and presumably for the teaching of history.

John Denham advanced five recommendations for teaching “British values”. The Government should: (1) fill the gap left by their opposition to multiculturalism by endorsing the idea of nation building by means of a strong national story and shared values: (2) focus less on legal notions of British values and instead provide teachers and schools with the powers and resources they need to do the job well; (3) set out a simple test for all publicly funded schools—faith, community, academy or free—that they should be required to maintain an environment that is genuinely open and welcoming to all students of all backgrounds; (4) promote “strong national values” which should be restored to their proper place in the curriculum and inspected by Ofsted; (5) recognise the importance, not just of teaching national values, but of young people exploring and shaping them.

The difference between these ideas and those espoused by the government seem to me to be a matter of degree rather than kind. There is agreement on the idea that schools should work for social cohesion by promoting “British values” and telling a “strong national story”. The difference is about how this should be done. On that level I have no doubt about the validity of Denham’s criticisms of the government’s legalistic approach. Nevertheless, his general stance seems to me to prompt at least the following questions.

1. Doesn’t a “strong national story” imply a value-laden approach to history? It suggests a history taught with an eye to the moral to be drawn from it about who we are. If not, then what is the force of the “strong” in “strong national story”? And what exactly is a “national story” as opposed to a plain history of the nation?

2. After reading his speech several times I have little idea what he understands by “British values”. If he cannot be specific about this, then how can it be recommended to schools that it is something they should be teaching? It is difficult to distil anything more than Gove’s five points from what he says.

3. Isn’t describing “democracy” and “tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” as “British values” like describing paying taxes and obeying the law as “British values”. There is nothing specifically British about these things. Others worried about them before the formation of the British nation. Now we share those concerns with people around the world. Why would we want to call these things “British”?

4. Having schools that are equally welcoming to all children does not sit well with them having independent status nor with creating more faith schools, both supported by the Labour Party. John Denham proposes “a fresh look at how we ensure that students in mono-cultural or mono-faith schools” can meet and socialise with those from different backgrounds. Is this not a case of dealing with effects rather than looking to causes?

And then there is a fundamental pedagogical issue about what is meant by teaching values. Without greater clarity than that offered by John Denham this can easily slide into indoctrination. Despite his welcome recognition of the multiple and fluid nature of identity, his analysis and recommendations lack the depth and detail needed to avoid that. We need history well that is taught, not a “strong national story”. Schools should not “promote” values but should instead help young people to develop a critical awareness of them as a basis for thinking for themselves.

A response from John Bolt

I would argue that there is in fact a substantial difference between John Denham’s take on British values and how they should be addressed in schools. For example he states very clearly that values evolve and that one purpose of education is to enable young people to “shape the values they will share in the years to come.” For Denham, this is not about the story of the white, male British state. It’s about “how we came to be sharing this land”.

No one is suggesting that any particular values are unique to Britain. But it seems to me entirely valid to talk about the values that we hope will underpin our society. Whether other countries share them or who first thought of them is immaterial – the point is that they are the ones we are striving to identify and live by in this country. That is the sense in which they are British.

The left ought not to give up on these issues for fear of being tarred with the neo-con agenda personified by Gove and Phillips or because the British state has much in its history of which to be ashamed. We must aim to be better that we have been and if we are to achieve that we need to embrace the values that we need to underpin that ambition and reject those that led us into bad places in the past.

In my view, schools are most certainly in the values business. At the simplest level, they expect pupils to demonstrate through their behaviour that they understand that bullying and stealing are wrong. We oppose forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the end because of values. When I taught in the ILEA in the 1980’s, our work was underpinned by a very clear set of values about anti-racism and anti-sexism. Yes, we want children to be able to explore issues for themselves but we don’t come to it from a value free perspective. Children are not in the end free to become misogynistic bullies.

It’s clearly true to say that faith schools bring an unhealthy element of segregation into our society. But even without them, we would have a problem with mono-cultural schools. There are still plenty of pretty white bastions out there. The Cantle Report into riots in northern cities a few years ago demonstrated clearly the level of de facto segregation driven by housing patterns that exists in too many places. Short of bussing, the answers are not simple.

History too is very far from being value free. When David Starkey writes about the monarchy, he does so from a value-driven perspective. When Christopher Hill wrote about the revolutionaries of the 1640’s or E P Thompson about the formation of the working class, they too were informed by their values. Simply choosing what to write or talk about in history is a judgement based on values which is why the history curriculum is such a very political issue.

The left has tended to shy away from any debate about what happens when values collide within one society. Asking, for example, whether or not cultural relativism trumps gender equality has often led to a rather embarrassed silence. The Labour government’s Equalities Act gave us some answers as to where our priorities should lie – so B&B owners can’t discriminate against gay couples because society’s values trump their personal ones. But the debate is very clearly not over and it’s not surprising that one speech doesn’t give us all the answers.


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