Co-operative schools? The reality is a fright

9 April 2010
The Times Educational Supplement
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An educationalist warns that the evidence suggests the Tory proposal for teacher-run schools would lead to chaos

What a great wheeze! Just think, if the Tories come to power, my teacher chums and I could be running our own co-operative schools.

For a teacher like me, having struggled to teach under the iron grip of state control for the past 20 years, at last I’ll be free. Shadow education secretary Michael Gove is suggesting that I’ll be able to get together with my mates, form a co-operative and set up my own school, enjoying more or less total control over admissions, curriculum and pay.

No more horrid national curriculum turning lessons into drudgery! No more annoying admissions codes that force us to teach children we don’t like. And, to make matters even better, if we get sick of the head – which we invariably do towards the end of the Christmas term – we can sack him. No more nonsensical pay conditions! And if that wasn’t enough, if we really draw in the punters we will be able to pay ourselves bonuses like the bankers. What joy!

This sounds more like it has been suggested by some radical 1970s Mr Gove. As a teacher who has been seduced by a great many policies during the past two decades, only to be bitterly disappointed when they have been implemented, I know the devil is in the detail.

At the moment, we don’t have a lot of that – Mr Gove and Tory leader David Cameron are being infuriatingly shy about the practicalities. However, we do have some clues. The New Schools Network, an organisation that aims to help with the setting up of new schools and run by a former adviser to Mr Gove, has published a guide on how to set up a school.

I grabbed it eagerly, but found my passion for a teacher “co-op” school soon ebbing. First, I would need to gather support for my idea from quite a few people apart from my colleagues, including parents, the local authority and local business people.

Then I would have to gather persuasive data suggesting that there is a real need for a new school, devise a feasible business plan, find a suitable site for the school, design a curriculum and philosophy for my school, make an application to local and national government, and then, if that is accepted, recruit the necessary staff and supervise the building of the school. Last – but not least – I would have to find pupils.

But hang on a minute: my friends and I are teachers. Aren’t we supposed to be in the classroom teaching? Setting up a school looks like a lot of time spent outside the classroom, making sure a lot of things happen. With that in mind, perhaps we are better off getting a bit of help from the likes of the New Schools Network. It very kindly has a list of private companies that can take all those boring, time-consuming tasks off our hands.

All we have to do is promise to pay them a lot of money when the cash starts rolling in, and sign a few contracts abiding by their rules. And aren’t we lucky? It appears that there are a lot of such companies hovering about in the wings waiting to help us: Edison, GEMS, Lilac Sky Schools, Cognita and Ark.

If we want to educate deprived children, perhaps we could even ask the American company that Mr Gove is always banging on about – KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Programme) – to run one of our schools.

They have been tremendously successful in the United States, making sure that huge numbers of their pupils get into university. If we don’t want to actually “contract” them to run our school, we could learn from some of their trusty techniques: boot out the pupils who don’t look like they are making the grade (in some KIPP schools 40 per cent of pupils drop out), ban teachers from joining a union and make teachers teach 10-hour days during term time and fill their holidays with school camps and trips.

It won’t matter that on average half the staff leave at the end of every year or even that we don’t get great results in the end because – guess what? – we can simply take away our name from the school before we are fingered for failing, just as KIPP has done for one in nine of their schools.

We can also relish the prospect of getting into huge fights with the other schools and community groups in our local area – the evidence from the United States and Sweden suggests that this happens a lot.

It is a trivial detail that these companies will take the lion’s share of the cash and tell us exactly how to teach – they are mostly very bossy like that – when we will be “running our own teacher co-operative”. Viva la revolution!

Mind you, there is another alternative that is far less glamorous: I could try to get elected as a teacher-governor of my current school. But that seems a bit of a yawn.

Instead of tossing taxpayers’ money around with private companies, instead of getting into rucks with the community, I’ll have to be in boring meetings with people who are not teachers: I’ll actually have to talk to parents and democratically elected officials. I’ll actually have to hold the school to account to see whether it is spending the nation’s money wisely.

On second thoughts, I’ll give the whole thing a miss and go back to my classroom and try to quell the riot that has been brewing there in the meantime.

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