Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A further comment about Bradford and free schools (and Katherine Birbalsingh)


This evening Bradford Council debated free schools. Or rather a motion the Conservative Group submitted on school places. We firmly believe that the opportunities presented by Michael Gove’s liberalisation provide a solution – a blessed breath of fresh air – to the challenge facing Bradford’s education.

On one level the debate was polite, considered and informed – statistics about Bradford’s need for new school places were set before the Council and options for responding to the challenge were examined. But underlying all this was an unspoken disagreement. One captured by Ralph Berry, Labour’s Education Portfolio Holder repeatedly saying, as if to convince himself:

“I am not an ideologue. I am NOT an ideologue...”

In our motion we had innocently suggested that, rather than dealing merely with what turned up as a result of the free schools idea, Bradford Council might actively seek to promote new schools, might seek out the very best managers and leaders in education. For Cllr Berry this was too much and he started burbling about “Birbalsingh” and the “IT Free School”. I think he believes we all read the Guardian like he does!

Now Cllr Berry isn’t a teacher, he’s never led a school. He’s a social worker come Labour Councillor who too often blurs the ground between these two roles to the extent that we are unsure whether he is making a political point or expressing a professional opinion. Ralph knows his stuff! He can wax lyrical in fluent educationalist jargon and the gist of this is that he believes people like Katherine Birbalsingh to be tantamount to devils.

The only route to educational salvation is through the goodly direction of a local education authority. Without the Council, what would happen? Who would decide who goes to which school and how the buses run!

So back to what Cllr Berry called “Birbalsingh’s IT Free school”. I was curious since I’d seen reports on Ms Birbalsingh’s intention to set up a free school but knew little of her intentions. So here’s what she says;

The Michaela Community School combines tradition and innovation. It attempts to give inner-city youth a taste of the private sector, where knowledge is taught, benchmarking is common, and high expectations of behaviour and dress are the norm. But the Michaela Community School also recognises it is in the inner city. So there will be an extended day where children will be required to complete their homework, where there will be classes analysing media culture, something that is extremely destructive to our inner-city youth.

Not a mention of IT! But the truth about what Ralph doesn’t like is in that phrase “a taste of the private sector”. For the Cllr Berrys of this world the private sector in education – the world’s best schools – is simply not to be considered as a model for children’s education. And those schools focus on what we might call “traditional” subjects – you know, the one’s you and I learned when we were at school. English, Maths, Sciences, Geography, History and modern language or two. The essence of a ‘liberal arts’ education.

The sort of education that people are prepared to pay thousands of pounds each year to buy – delivered free to ordinary children from an inner city community. What could be a problem with that? Indeed, in Bradford, the idea of free schools has been grasped. Here’s the list (there may be more):

Dixons City Free Primary
Dixons City Free Secondary
One in a Million Free School
Kings Science Academy
Rainbow Primary
Bradford Girl’s Grammar School
Bradford Christian School
Netherleigh & Rossefield School
Bradford District Free School

The Council should wake up and take note of these innovations – this is the future of education in the City, these are the challenges to years of underperformance by the existing schools. And this is a faster, more assured and more effective way of meeting the future needs of the City than the bureaucratic, hand-wringing, jargon-loaded system Cllr Berry (and the Council’s professional leadership) promote.

We should note that, despite panels, boards, meetings, strategies, press briefings and hours of expensive officer time, these creative and innovative schools are the only ones addressing Bradford’s need for new school places – places in good schools.

So to answer Cllr Berry’s ignorant assertion – yes, I’d be delighted if a successful, effective and exciting educational leader like Katherine Birbalsingh came to Bradford to set up a school.


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