Saturday, 19 March 2011

Free Schools and Me

I believe the Opportunity afforded by the Free Schools movement offers the best chance to improve Britains slide in international education standards. My interest is less of the practical mechanics of setting up and running a Free School, but to establish the philosophical background that is likely to ensure success and not just as lip-service.
Below is my take on the latest direction for Free Schools in terms of philosophy and mission, based on submission documents.

Section 3: Educational vision
  • A clearly focused vision that underpins the application
    I was instrumental in establishing the philosophy and mission statement of BBIS. Click here.     
  • Identify what will make the school distinctive in its vision and ethos.
    A large part of a successful school is the intimacy of the student/staff relationships and the collective responsibilities felt by all of the school community. Parents have a vital role to play in a school's success and should be closely involved not just with bodies like a PTA and fund raising, but also in their clear commitment to a true partnership with respective teachers for the benefit of the student. All too often there is an us-and-them mentality that stymies everyone's development.
  • Set out why you are establishing your Free School – curriculum offer/ pedagogy
    Since Free Schools do not have to address the National Curriculum, I would advocate abandoning it. The IB MYP allows, indeed demands that the schools determine their own curriculum within certain guidelines. This allows innovative approaches that builds a sound skills/content base for lifelong learning. The MYP specifies 8 subject areas, but I feel that the model falls down for Free Schools as far as commitment to the E-Bacc. (I use the original French diminutive) and its science stipulation.
    For years 7 through 9 an in-house innovative curriculum should be developed that is highly rational and contextualised with a framework (the big picture, as Brian Cox described it in a recent interview), e.g. In chemistry, an historical/heuristic approach, in physics, a curriculum based on energy as its central theme, in maths, an historical approach from Euclid onwards, modern languages, should reflect learning about the culture and learning the language is easily facilitated by focusing of words that are near homophones with their English equivalents. In this the principle of quot homines to sententiae can be applied since there are many novel ways to approach each subject that can allow the student to assimilate content while developing skills in a quick and efficient way. Students, like us all dislike mechanical memorising tasks, so curricula should be so design that content is assimilated while developing the skills.
    It is highly appropriate that the curriculum in this phase should also be driven by a true commitment to cross-curricularity, and here again, innovation is needed not just for the obvious, like between maths, science and technology, but also between the less obvious, like between maths/scinece and the arts The obvious is often missed in schools, e.g. I have very often had to teach remedial maths for my courses, because the maths courses seemed to have inculcated the idea that maths was restricted to the maths class and maths homework. Students very often improved in maths when its relevance outside the class/homework context was broadened. There are very many great opportunities for cross-curricular teaching and its benefits for the student in each individual subject cannot be stressed highly enough. It allows students to draw on different intellectual paradigms to analyse problems in novel ways.
    Students in this phase should be allowed and encouraged to take relevant GCSEs, since most students, properly taught can manage them long before the end of year 11
    In years 10 and 11, I would advocate a mix of GCSE, IGCSE, Higher E-Bacc, and early AS. There is a problem with how the QCA compare GCSE and IGCSE as equivalent for league tables, that is frankly risible, but early GCSEs can overcome this league table concern.
    With a bit of thought, these different qualifications can be addressed together in the same classes often, rather like HL and SL subjects in the IB Diploma.
    Pedagogy should be driven by personal warmth and mutual respect, teachers should know their students well and spend time with them individually and in small groups, both inside and outside the classroom. Students should be encouraged to ask questions whenever they have questions, since it helps teachers know their students better and how better to tailor their lessons for the individuals involved. In my experience, this simple strategy allows students to take ownership of their learning. For teachers, this is a gift, since it offers a learning opportunity based on the student's enthusiasms. In my experience, if a student asks a question, then about a third of the class has the same question, another third is not entirely sure, and those that know the answer either like the opportunity to answer the question or like to hear a different perspective. This requires the teacher to have a complete knowledge of their subject at this level, to be flexible and confident to approach a topic from a number of different perspectives. It requires the teacher to be a lifelong teacher themselves having intellectual enthusiasms beyond their specialisms from which to draw these different paradigms and analogies in addressing different perspectives and approaches. I have not encountered this approach from very many teachers, but those who do are very effective and popular teachers, and as such are assets to the school, for the academic and real bottom line, since their usefulness in PR is beyond measure.
    The curriculum should be planned according to principles of rational/causational flow as should each lesson, but, to incorporate the above, teachers should be flexible enough to accommodate students expressed needs.
Section 4: Educational plan

[What will be] [T]he experience that pupils will have whilst attending it. You should set out what pupils will achieve, how they will achieve it and how the school will evaluate performance, both of individual pupils and the school as a whole.

A school where they like to go every day; where they know they are valued and welcomed with warmth, affection and mutual respect ; where people believe in their ability to achieve and trust in the goodwill of those entrusted with their achievement; where they will achieve skills, social, life and intellectual: where they will achieve valued qualifications; where they will develop as lifelong learners and critical thinkers.

Physical evidence allows some evaluation. To evaluate the other aspects that relate directly to the ethos and philosophy, qualitative evidence from the school community and its neighbours.

Curriculum and organisation of learning

Set out expectations around the length of the school day, term and year.

My concerns here are for teachers. Great teachers work hard and want to do an exemplary job at all times. Unfortunately, there is too much bureaucracy, which great teachers will also want to do properly. Furthermore teaching is a tiring occupation, as the Chinese know and incorporate this notion into the Chinese teachers workloads. Therefore teachers should have more non-contact than is usually the case in British state schools and these should not be taken for cover.
Timetables that cover more than 5 days and classes that are taught by more than one teacher, result in diminished level of attainment in students, increased levels of stress for teachers and are difficult for teachers and HoDs to administer and coordinate. While these types of timetable allows SMT greater flexibility to reduce costs, they are a false economy, since teachers will have a very much larger number of students and they see them much less often and so cannot establish the worthwhile relationships that result in achievement, actual and holistic. It is also a false economy, since raised teacher stress levels will result in greater sick leave.

The school day should have time at the end of the day for homework, for extra- curricular activities and disciplinary sanctions.

Curriculum and organisation of learning

Describe the curriculum in detail, setting out how it will be broad and balanced and meet the different needs and interests of all pupils.

Since cross-curricularity is central to the development of critical thinking and approaching questions from a range of perspectives, the curriculum should include academic, including foreign languages, arts and sports.

Pupil development and achievement

Show how your school will define, measure and hold people accountable for the success of: i) the whole school; and ii) individual pupils.

The commitment to collective responsibility is central to accountability of all individuals in the community, where teachers and managers are mutually supportive.
For teachers, physical evidence, grades of students etc. Qualitative evidence, perceptions of parents and class visits & observations. SMT and other teachers should feel free to observe at any time, and feel welcomed to do so. This necessarily means that SMT and peers must have time in their day to do this.

Behaviour and Attendance

Show how the Free School will promote good behaviour, positive relationships and good attitudes to learning; and show how the Free School will maintain high levels of attendance.

Attacking the culture of us-and-them by promoting the ethos above.
Disciplinary sanctions should be timely (justice delayed is justice denied), proportional and carried out to preserve the dignity of the individuals involved and that of the school. Teachers should be allowed greater professional judgement in these matters.
Once a sanction has been carried out, teachers should treat the cause as past and the good relations are maintained. This should be made explicit by the teacher. Firm, but fair.
A small detail, I have found a system of merits and demerits has a salutary effect, especially if they have thresholds that automatically trigger further sanctions.

Community Engagement

Explain how when the Free School is established it will aim to foster good community relations and promote active contribution to modern British society, in line with the Equality Act 2010.

I have found that the school's neighbours are an unmatchable resource as guest speakers and sources of materiel and that the neighbours are only too pleased to get their message across. It is a win-win for both parties and only requires a telephone and a friendly manner.

Who can teach at a Free School?
Innovation, diversity and flexibility are at the heart of the Free Schools policy. In that spirit we will not be setting overly prescriptive requirements in relation to qualifications. Instead we will expect Free School proposers to demonstrate how they intend to guarantee the highest quality of teaching and leadership in their schools.
Selection of great teachers is at the heart of great schools. Candidates should be prepared to demonstrate not only knowledge in their own specialisms, but also have reasonable knowledge of other disciplines concomitant with lifelong learning. They should also be able to demonstrate that they can approach a topic from different perspectives and to think on their feet, effectively and with confidence. They should have unshakable commitment to the school ethos and the relentless, quotidian collective responsibility required to maintain it.

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