Spoilt for Choice?

In thinking more about how to measure schools, and what should be measured, I’ve been looking through a couple of existing websites dedicated to reviewing schools – Schools.net and The Good Schools Guide.  The latter follows a set procedure and reviews schools – mostly independent schools – from a parent perspective, and looks at the school as a whole, rather than just at academic results.  Schools.net, on the other hand, is an open space where parents or others can submit reviews of schools they know – as there is no set review procedure these reflect personal experiences. These websites clearly serve a market, and it’s good that parents should get more of a feel for the schools they are considering than can ever be gained from reading an Ofsted report or a league table.  The problem with these sites for me, though, is that they start from the assumption that as parents we should be ‘shopping around’ for the right school for our children.  Shopping around makes sense when paying for a private education – in the same way that it makes sense when choosing a house to live in. And it is of course true that each school (whether state or private) has its own culture and all children are different – so by implication, some children will thrive more easily in some schools than in others. But is extending the choice of schools available really the answer to making sure that our state schools can provide most effectively and consistently for our children?

It seems to me that pursuing Choice as driver of the system just increases people’s dissatisfaction with the provision which already exists, by making us focus on what we might have, rather than on whether what we are offered is appropriate.  I appreciate that one of the reasons for pursuing increased choice in the system is to  increase diversity of provision and raise standards through encouraging people to engage more with the services they are using. But by definition, an education system cannot provide an tailored individual experience for each child; yet proposing a consumer model makes us expect just that and feel dissatisfied when  what we want is not available.  No-where is this dissatisfaction – and its consequences – clearer than in Suffolk.

Education results in Suffolk – both at Key stage 2 and at GCSE – have been considerably below where they might reasonably be expected to be, given the demographics of Suffolk, for some time now – as any follower of the local media will be aware.  There is much speculation as to why; reasons put forward (singly or as contributing factors)  include low funding per capita, low aspiration (parental and school), poor LEA leadership, the 3-tier school structure (primary, middle and upper schools). Alongside repeating that “it is not good enough” (as if stating the obvious actually facilitates improvement), the LEA have responded to this position by effecting the wholesale (and largely unpopular) closure of middle schools, and commissioning the RSA to lead a review.

Set school performance in Suffolk against the national political backdrop of constant denigration of our schools, and the result is fairly widespread anxiety amongst parents whose children are yet to go through school. The consequence here in Suffolk?  Twenty bids to the DfE to set up free schools, over three ‘waves’ of applications (one special school – which is needed – has been approved as have four 11-16 schools in the grounds of former middle schools – all additional provision).  Note this figure does not include any bids submitted in the 2013 application round, and one (a Steiner-influenced school) is now on its fourth bid to the DfE. These bids are all on the the list finally published by the DfE last week, as a result of the British Humanist Association’s persistent efforts to force the DfE to act more transparently in regard to free school applications. To put this in context, there was only one free school proposal for Essex (which also has below-average GCSE performance) over the same time period.

By any standards, this is a high level of free school activity in a county with an ageing population and a large surplus of school places already. And all these proposals  do (bar those for special/alternative provision) is extend choice for parents.  They make no attempt to improve the system as a whole (this is not their intention, I appreciate). Nor, as I’ve outlined previously on this blog, do they provide the kind of breadth of educational offer that will provide our children with the choices they need. Instead they seek to provide brief respite for a minority of parents in this dissatisfied world where the expression of the right for individual choice obscures what it is that we really need our school system to deliver, and how to achieve it.

Turning back to my starting point, I can’t help thinking that we are setting our schools up to fail before we have even started, by reducing discussion about them to a narrow set of criteria which are fairly easily measurable – and rarely placing this in context anyway.  Existing schools can fail to live up to expectation in accordance with the measured criteria, but new schools and proposed schools have no track record on these same criteria so can’t fail. And, except for those few state schools which have been reviewed by the Good Schools Guide, there’s no other point of reference in reports currently that enables us to understand something of the experience of being at a particular school  and how our local school compares on these grounds with other schools. The result, in Suffolk at least, is more parents seeking personalised provision, but no more clarity about why our existing schools aren’t living up to expectation or how to help them do so. I believe that if we were having a proper debate about what our existing local schools do (in total, not just in tests) and how we as parents contribute to our children’s schools to increase our satisfaction with them, we would then be monitoring our schools to ensure that they are delivering what is needed – not finding reasons for going elsewhere.

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