The education system is somewhat in disarray – not least as a result of the unintended consequences arising from the changes made to school structures during the past few years. Local authorities have all but lost their power over schools, especially secondary schools, as government reforms have gained pace. Their avowed intention is for as many schools as possible to become academies, and free schools are more or less the only options for those wishing to open new schools.
Yet, all these schools – academies and free schools – are now technically under the direct control of the government, or rather that of the secretary of state. This is clearly too much for one man, or indeed woman, to bear, so others have been enlisted in support, such as the relatively new regional school commissioners and academy chains.
However, these schools are also deemed to be independent and not subject to the same legal and regulatory framework as state-maintained secondary schools. Academies and free schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, for example. They are “independent”, but they are not inspected under the same regime as those independent schools who belong to associations such as GSA, HMC and IAPS.
These all face a very rigorous regime of inspections by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), whose “regulatory requirements” for schools runs to 109 closely typed pages, with visits from relatively large inspection teams for four days at a time and no exemptions for outstanding schools.
As we are all very aware, the government is currently reviewing and revising regulations to ensure that all schools promote British values and to make sure that faith schools teach pupils to be tolerant of other religions and respect LGBT relationships.
In its zeal, the government is planning to introduce new regulations, including some aimed specifically at academies, free schools and all independent schools. I am firmly committed to the need for tolerance, respect and education about all such issues, but I do worry about new regulations being introduced in the heat of the moment and then schools immediately being inspected against them.
The aim is to promote community cohesion, but will this be the result? As long as anyone can set up a school, be it a faith group or any other community, then surely that is an invitation for them to promote and give precedence to their own values or beliefs?
One might argue that religion should be removed from schools entirely, as it is in much of Europe, and that being brought up in a particular faith is a matter for the family and the community. Schools would then teach about the religions of the world, but would not promote any one faith. Clearly, the UK education system has been set up in a completely different way, with many of our schools having their origins in religion.
I am a great believer in independent education, but it needs to be of a high quality, to have appropriate staff, curriculum and governance, and to protect and develop the wellbeing of its pupils, while ensuring that they fulfil their potential – academically and in other ways. If a government adopts a “let a thousand flowers bloom policy” for types of school, then that militates against uniformity and common standards.
Yet, we probably have one of the most over-regulated, tracked and inspected school systems in the world: everything is measured and reported on. But to what purpose? Yes – we want to ensure that every child gets the best possible educational experience, but I am not convinced that our current systems of accountability, regulation and compliance are achieving that.
Too often, new burdens are imposed on schools as a reaction to something in the news. Perhaps, if we removed education from the political arena entirely, we could make a fresh start?
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.