Also this week, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Biteback Publishing published "Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools" by former Labour Education Minister, Andrew Adonis. One theme of the book was presaged in an article written by Andrew Adonis for the New Statesman back in March this year: that the roots of current Government Academies and Free Schools policy lie in the work of previous Labour governments.
The opening of those new Free Schools this term and Adonis's March article were greeted (in the press, on twitter, for instance) with the now familiar arguments that Free Schools are elitist and divisive, drain other schools of funding, threaten standards at other existing local schools, reduce local democratic control and so on. Here, of course, are important issues of principle and of public policy to be debated and contested.
What is, perhaps, somewhat surprising is the position taken by some in the Labour Party since the 2010 election: opposing out of government what the Labour Party promoted in government and ceding all credit for the Academies programme and for Free Schools to the present Coalition Government.
I met Andrew Adonis in his office at Sanctuary Buildings in February 2006 thanks to, and accompanied by, our MP Angela Smith. By then, the first Academies had been created and just a few months before, in October 2005, the then Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly had published the Schools White Paper, inter alia setting out how parents would be encouraged to bring forward proposals to set up new schools – ‘Free Schools’ in all but name. (Higher Standards, better schools "This White Paper will create independent state schools, with the freedom to innovate and succeed, backed by new not-for-profit Trusts). Incidentally, at last years’ NASS AGM and Conference, I mentioned, to our conference guest speaker and Shadow Minister for Education with responsibility for SEN, Sharon Hodgson MP, that Free Schools were first proposed by the previous Labour Government. Shortly afterwards, I sent her a brief letter on the matter.
The encouragement that Paces took from the meeting with Andrew Adonis is captured in an email that I sent a week later to the late, highly respected, Jan Wilson, then Leader of Sheffield Council:
A brief and encouraging up-date on Paces Campus' news:
Last week, accompanied by Angela Smith, we met with the Minister for Education (SEN) Andrew Adonis. He was clearly interested in what he had heard and read of Paces Campus and expressed an intention to visit to see for himself. He seemed well-informed. A date for the visit is being arranged with his office.
(As a warmly amusing aside, we were surprising to be welcomed to Sanctuary Buildings by the very member of the Minister's staff who, when in a previous post, had been the woman who had processed Karen Hague's nomination for an MBE.)
Coincidentally, I heard on the same day from the Labour Party Policy Commission (with whom we have been in correspondence for over a year now) that members of the Education Policy Commission would like to visit Paces Campus on either 16th or 30th March. We are to expect between 4-6 people, possibly including Ministers and TUC-nominated members.
In both cases, we are seeking to present the Campus as an innovative model (a "Regional Achievement Centre") within the Government’s strategy 'Removing Barriers to Achievement' which set out a plan to create 'Regional Centres of Expertise'. ….
We were all very pleased that Jonathan Crossley-Holland [Note: Director, Children and Young People Directorate, Sheffield] recently took time out on what was clearly a very busy day to visit Paces Campus. He asked for us at Paces Campus to do three things which we are very pleased to do (a) to further our local community work with children and families through active support for the Service District pilot (b) to progress the specialist city-wide work with children with disabilities and their families through [Note: name deleted] (c) to attempt to assess, for him, the demand for conductive education in the city. We in turn hope Jonathan left with the strong message of support from all Campus-group managers for the C&YP Directorate and our willing readiness as a Campus to be an active partner.
Finally, although I am no longer directly involved in the lease negotiation, this having been taken over by High Green Development Trust as you know (and led by Ray Kohn as the Chair), I think it is fair to report that there is an all-round shared sense of guarded optimism as a result of recent conversation with Evelyn Milne.
It is very cheering to be able to make every single report here a positive one!
My regardsThat proved to be a high-water mark. To our great disappointment, Andrew Adonis never did visit Paces Campus despite Angela Smith’s strenuous further efforts. Nor did the visit take place from members of the Education Policy Commission - we never did find out why, our point of contact at the Commission having retired. Time passed: Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister, to be replaced by Gordon Brown; Brown moved Andrew Adonis from Education to Transport; Jonathan Crossley-Holland departed Sheffield Council to join Tribal Group; signing off the lease took a further, seemingly interminable, 2 years, until February 2009.
And so, during 2009, with an election looming that looked to most political commentators in the media one that Labour could not win, I as Paces CEO, began to take note of statements by Michael Gove, tipped to be Education Secretary. I already knew of American Charter Schools; now I learned of Swedish ‘Free Schools’.
Becoming evident to myself and others at Paces was that, as far as Free Schools were concerned, a potential change of government was beginning to look much more likely to be a continuation than a reversal of policy and that we should be ready to apply for Paces School to become a Free Special School.
There are undoubtedly differences between the political parties on how Academies and Free Schools have, and might otherwise have, developed depending on the political party in Government. However, in The Guardian on Thursday 13th September, Martin Kettle wrote:
“The single most striking thing about Adonis's insider's account of the launch of academy schools by the Blair government, and of their linear development in Michael Gove's free schools since the coalition took office in 2010, is that it describes what has now become a fait accompli.”
Neither Adonis or Gove, nor their advisors and civil servants seem to have expected that there might be parents coming forward to propose Special Free Schools. Repeatedly, both have described Free Schools as “all-ability” schools, as if the main concern was to forestall any notion that Free Schools could be selective schools. (Indeed, the DfE website still does so.) What’s more, I suspect, too, that the rules governing applications for Special Free Schools have still not yet been thoroughly thought through from first principles. Indeed, we may have to wait until the changes proposed in the Green Paper on SEN, now set out in Draft Legislation, are completed, such are the hurdles that face would-be proposers.
Children coming to Paces School at the start of this term might have been coming to one of the first Special Free Schools ever to open. However, despite being short-listed, our application was not, at the last, approved.
Martin Kettle continues “It is a mere decade since the first academy schools – independent state schools managed by private sponsors and accountable to national rather than local government – were established. Yet last week, at the start of the new school year, the Department for Education was able to announce that there are now 2,309 of them, representing more than half of the secondary schools in England. More than 2,000 of the total have been opened since 2010.”
These Academies and Free Schools represent a monumental change in the arrangements for schooling in England that is difficult to exaggerate; a change that, in my experience of talking to many people not professionally engaged in education (and, indeed, quite a few who are), has hardly been noticed. Furthermore (and although the complete – and later regretted - removal of Direct Grant Schools from the English system by the early Blair Government stands as a caveat to the contrary), it would seem to be a change that will not be reversed, not, at least for another generation.
What then for those managing, even perhaps struggling to manage, conductive education settings? Paces is considering a fresh application. Others, in my view, should do so. In the 1990s, when most current CE settings were founded, doors were very firmly shut to proponents of new special schools, unless they did so in the private sector, Paces School being one of the very few.
What now? Is there relevance for conductive education? In my view, becoming a Special Free School is an option that all conductive education settings should at least consider, as an aspiration for themselves: with this reservation, that it is not by any means an easy option, undertaken alone. For that reason, I would advocate all and any CE settings who are considering the option of applying to become a Special Free School of coming together and considering the benefits of doing so collaboratively with others of like mind.
Time, perhaps, to ditch old politics and look to the future?