Will free schools reinvigorate the British educational system


For many students returning to school after a much-earned summer holiday, this September will herald a new epoch in the history of the British educational system. Britain’s very first free schools will be open for business (am I allowed to say that? Politicians are repeatedly asserting that they will all be non-profit making….). All over the country, charities, religious groups and overbearing parents will be setting up schools in abandoned buildings, churches and wherever else they feel like doing so, in the most recent attempt to overhaul our failing, miserable educational system.

The mastermind behind the advent of free schools is the Education Secretary and all-round good egg, Michael Gove. Gove is following the example set by similar schools in Sweden in his attempt to restore Britain to its former glory as the world’s standard bearer for education. A study performed by the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009 showed that Britain had sunk to 28th in the world for maths, 16th for sciences and 25th for reading. In other words, we are to worldwide mathematical education what Moldova is to international rugby union.

However, in recent months there have been many doubts over the success of free schools in Sweden. A study published in Research in Public Policy revealed that free schools in Sweden were making little or no impression on lower-class families. With social immobility being a key issue for the coalition, this will undoubtedly be giving Mr. Gove a few sleepless nights, whether he wants to admit it or not.

In spite of this, our educational system has been desperately crying out for a change for far too long after it was allowed to dwindle into the doldrums under the Brown-Blair Labour Government. It seems clear to me that we could do much worse than return to the golden age of the grammar school.

With the abolition of the grammar schools the hopes and dreams of the majority of lower-class British pupils vanished. Gone was their best chance of success. Gone was a system which could rightly be hailed as the best in the world. Gone was the competition that would make Britons succeed in the world. The grammar school system was an easy one to understand. If you were clever enough, you would pass the exam and would be on your way. Admission didn’t matter whether you were lower-class or upper-class, white or black. My father himself came from a lower-class family in the South Wales Valleys. He passed the exam into grammar school, and eventually went on to study medicine at Bristol University. The rest, as they say, is history. Stories like this should be the norm, not a rare occurrence.

Unfortunately, in these health & safety, politically-correct times, the powers that be seem to view competition as a negative. They would much rather see everyone fail equally, rather than see some succeed “unequally”. You only have to open a newspaper and read how yet another school has cancelled sports day for fear that the children can’t cope with the pain of losing, but in doing this we are also depriving some pupils of the ecstasy of winning. How on earth are these children going to survive in the competition for university place or internships if they can’t even experience coming fifth in the egg-and-spoon race? Competition breeds success, and this competitive streak and will-to-succeed was ingrained in the British children of yesteryear.

Yet another example of our dreadful system is GCSEs. The modular nature of these exams makes it much easier for students to attain good grades, thus making it even more difficult for universities to choose the best applicants. Today’s 16 year-olds also have a resit-mentality. They know that if they fail an exam, they have the opportunity to have another go in a few months’ time. How is this preparing British students adequately for their adult lives? In the 20th century, if you didn’t do well the first time, you only had yourself to blame. You couldn’t sue the teachers for not teaching you properly. Here, we have yet another reason for why our system is failing so miserably.

The behaviour of British children in lessons is appalling. Headmasters from the 1950s would be turning over in their graves. In recent years, there have been reports of unruly school children making false allegations against teachers simply because they do not like the teachers, or because they are not getting away with their poor behaviour. In such circumstances, the child’s testimony is always regarded as gospel, and the teacher is regarded as guilty until proven innocent. In my opinion, the behaviour of school children deteriorated the moment corporal punishment was outlawed in school. If a child misbehaves and knows the worst the teacher can do is tell them off verbally, why not take the chance? However, I dare any child to misbehave if they know five strikes of the cane would immediately follow. Perhaps I am being a little extreme in saying this, but certainly something must be done to improve drastically the decline in pupils’ behaviour.

Will free schools prove to be a success or not? Only time will tell, but certainly something needed to be done to address the pitiful state of British schools. Free schools may well fill the gap between comprehensives and private schools. It is wrong that in some areas a good education is open only to those who can afford the fees for a private school, but given the state of our state-education, can you really blame those who attend private schools? I’m certainly glad that I was lucky enough to attend a private school, and unless radical measures are undertaken, “social immobility” will only increase.

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