‘Freedom is more than a word’

Congratulations to Leora Cruddas on her appointment as the new Chief Executive of FASNA, Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association. Leora has joined FASNA from ASCL, another of the alphabet soup of initials that is the fate of any policy area in the modern age. Leora was very supportive of TeachVac this time last year and I was grateful for her kind words. I wish her well in her new appointment.

I will watch the development of FASNA with interest. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a view about local accountability of schools, especially primary schools and the feedback that active local politicians can bring to the education scene. This can be lost with remote Regional Commissioners and Chief Executives of MATs that don’t understand the importance of customer care and working for the better education of the local community

However, I am encouraged that Freedom is linked to Autonomy in the title of the organisation. Freedom to innovate can be a good think; freedom to ignore the place of local schools in society isn’t, as my campaign for places for looked after children demonstrates. Freedom over admissions must not be used to discriminate against certain groups in society: especially the most vulnerable. Public money is to be used for public benefit, not for some, but for all, however uncomfortable a challenge that may sometimes be.

The issue is raised today in terms of whether a school can refuse to accept a pupil on roll into the next year group because of inadequate performance or likely poor performance in the future. In the old days, it was clear that a pupil could only be taken off roll in certain limited circumstances. I think this was regardless of whether or not they were over the school leaving age. The issue was the roll not the leaving age. I am sure that there is case law on this point. I assume that a school could refuse to enter a pupil in a public examination if it felt that they wouldn’t achieve the grade a school wants, but again, the issue is who is the school working for? Does it have a duty to pupils on roll to educate them to the best of its ability unless it formally excludes them and can it exclude for academic reasons associated with a minimum standard of performance?

With its connections to the Church of England, the relevant diocese ought to take an interest in this school’s approach to selection. How free should a state funded school be to decide this sort of policy? No doubt these are able pupils, they passed the entry exam to the school, so the standard is relative and they would be welcome elsewhere, but why should their education be interrupted in this way?

Where are the boundaries of freedom. I don’t agree with C S Lewis, the Christian apologist who wrote in 1944 the following that seems very close to the position being taken by the school trying to exclude its own pupils.

A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly “high-brow.” In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and who can know … It must, in a certain sense subordinate the interests of the many to those of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university. Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.  C. S. Lewis, “Notes on the Way,” Time and Tide 25 (29 April 1944), 369–70. Lewis’ own title for this essay was “Democratic Education.” From https://tifwe.org/resource/c-s-lewis-and-the-meaning-of-freedom/ by Steven Gillen




Why all schools must be good

For some parents this Easter will be a time for celebration as the results of ‘destiny day’ – the day when children starting formal schooling were told which school they will be attending in September – is celebrated. For other parents, whose children have been assigned their second or third choice of school; or in some cases none of those they asked for, the mood will be no doubt be more downbeat. I can sympathise. As I have mentioned before, in 1952 my brother and I failed to secure places at the first choice school identified by our parents, a small one form entry Church of England primary school, and instead went to a four form entry infant school that was admittedly nearer to where we lived.

So, parents of children born in years when the population is growing in an area are always going to struggle to secure a place at the school of their choice, especially as it doesn’t make good sense to have too many places standing empty when they are not needed, even though a reservoir of places to cope with peaks in demand is sensible.

What may worry parents more these days is if the expansion of places to meet growing demand isn’t always in the best performing schools. Now I am aware that Ofsted judgements are moveable feasts; and school can and do improve, as well as in some cases perform less well over time. Also, some new schools haven’t even been inspected by Ofsted. However, the DfE has recently published a Basic Need Scorecard with interesting data about the distribution and cost of new places in each local authority.

Some 25 local authorities were coded red in the DfE dashboard as the percentage of new places in school deemed ‘good’ or better by Ofsted up to 2103 was seen as concerning. Many of the authorities in the code red group were small unitary of other urban authorities. Interestingly, only three were London boroughs where the most noise about this issue seems to be generated in the press. Only one authority, Westminster, was an inner London borough. By contrast, there were eight shire counties in the group, ranging from Shropshire to Essex, and from North Yorkshire to Wiltshire. I suspect that if we were able to find the individual schools in these counties where places been increased, even though Ofsted was less then complimentary about aspects of the school, we would find them concentrated in the market towns and larger settlements within the counties rather than in the more rural areas. Answering that question might make an interesting research study for someone to conduct.

When the report on the admissions process is compiled by the Adjudicator, it will be interesting to see whether any other authorities than Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, raise concerns about academies not being willing to cooperate over placing pupils even where they have spare capacity. It would be a real irony if choice, meant choice by school as to how many pupils to take, but also an outcome resulting in more cost to rural authorities in additional school transport expenditure because some schools weren’t willing to help accommodate the growing number of pupils.