The BBC Sunday Politics yesterday examined the political issues around free schools, and specifically, in the West, the Stroud Steiner Free School bid.
Tristram Hunt, shadow Secretary of State for Education, was interviewed re the Labour Party’s policy on education, and was closely questioned by Andrew Neil on, among other topics, the question of whether free schools should be allowed to employ unqualified teachers, as they are currently.
Mr Hunt was categorical in his insistance that all teachers should be qualified, or if not, that they should demonstrate an intention to train for qualified teacher status (QTS). He added that unqualified teachers were a large part of the problem at the Derby Free School which recently closed.
This would present a problem for Steiner schools who in addition to some qualified teachers, employ many, some senior, teachers without QTS.
In the Westcountry section of the programme Bristol’s Mayor was also unequivocal in his condemnation of the downgrading of professional qualifications for teachers, and the Stroud Labour Party candidate David Drew, as a former teacher himself, also insisted that “I can’t build a house, why should an unqualified person be trusted to teach our children?”
The issue of the 600 surplus school places in Stroud was discussed, and the idea that these would be filled and therefore the proposed new school would be needed in the future was dismissed as untrue.
Sadly, when subsequently asked specifically about the “Steiner aspect” Mr Drew went on to state that he supports a local Steiner school and has tried to encourage them into the state sector.
I wonder how much Mr Drew really knows about Steiner education, and whether he has looked in detail at the standard of education provided at the particular school he supports. Is he aware, for instance, that the schools employ unqualified teachers? In my opinion the school in question has been wise not to follow Mr Drew’s advice.
Those who advocate “choice” and say that “market forces” are a good thing for education, are forgetting that public money is involved. To really provide choice for everyone, regardless of ability to pay, a vast array of all kinds of alternative, religious, specialist schools would need to be provided at public expense, all in one small town. It simply can’t be done.
Tristram Hunt described the imposition of free schools on towns like Stroud as “destructive market-driven events”.
He said we should transform bad schools, not just insert new ones, and that we should share excellence among existing schools, and pointed to effective, high quality leadership as the most important factor in helping schools improve.
The Sunday Politics reminded us that back in 2005 the then Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the Academies programme and maintained that these were a positive development in areas where parents were dissatisfied with existing schools.
It is as yet unclear what the labour education policy on Free Schools would be, and on the programme Estelle Morris the former teacher and Education Secretary under Labour, suggested that neither of the main parties will want to “pick unnnecessary fights” in the lead up to a general election. [correction – this was in fact Anthony Seldon -see below]
So despite criticism from both Labour and Liberal Democrats we are still in the dark over the important issue of whether towns such as Stroud will continue to be under threat from the “destructive market driven events” of Free Schools, should a different party or coalition form the next government.