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Ian Fordham: We must free up schools and headteachers even further to deliver the best education for British children

Picture 7 Ian Fordham is Deputy Director of the British Council for School Environments and co-founder of the Centre for School Design.

We all have a memory of that place we call school. A moment of insight or fun; a teacher that inspired; the classroom; the sports field; an art room; a playground; a science experiment; the awful toilets. Our childhood in our schools has for many a particular and enduring place in our memories. And schools stir great passions and great divides – when in fact there is more to connect us together than divide us. And in an increasingly competitive education system globally, there is now more to gain from having a common sense view about our schools – so we don’t fall further behind Singapore, Finland or China.

So what we must do is set our teachers free, set our schools free and set the system free. The trajectory of government legislation in this area is exceptionally positive – new academies provide greater freedoms in terms of staff pay, conditions and the curriculum and, as middle class parents are now saying in a recent Durham University report the results are starting to add up. Free Schools too have enormous potential to address a major problem of a lack of school places - resulting from a population timebomb of children coming into the system – and they put parents, charities and teachers into the driving seat of setting up their own school. Critically both policies are based on a growing evidence base in Charter Schools in the US, which have radically changed the education system in America.

But despite this, the education system – much like the National Health Service - is like a large tanker. It takes time to turn around, takes pioneering leaders to show the way and takes courage from the large majority of frontline teachers who, despite caricature, are small ‘c’ conservative in nature. So the question for us is – have we set the bar high enough? Are we being ambitious enough in the change we want in education? And can we free up schools even further so they and we are able to compete with other countries?

Our report launched this week, Free Schools Thinking, encourages teachers, parents and government to deliver even greater freedoms, at a faster pace of change and beyond just freeing up the model of schooling (academies and free schools) and the supply side (academy sponsors, chains of schools). More fundamentally we should be freeing up all schools in terms of:
  • the time when teaching and learning takes place, including longer teaching days;
  • the people who help to support schools including local businesses, entrepreneurs and even the armed forces;
  • the spaces where learning takes place including corridors, playgrounds and after school clubs;
  • the places where schools can be located including redundant offices, government buildings and factories.

Free Schools Thinking also entails an understanding that school environments can be a major tool for school improvement. Every top private school, academy and comprehensive knows they must invest some of their budget in creating ‘decent school environments’ to inspire and develop future leaders of this country. And this is not about the bricks and mortar or glass atriums - which we know are just a means to an end. This is about common sense elements such as light, temperature, air quality, acoustics and decent furniture – which are important in our workplaces but sadly not in all schools. It is vital to refresh, refurbish or reuse schools to ensure they function well, last for a generation and make a difference in terms of results and achievement.

The bureaucracy surrounding such programmes such as Building Schools for the Future were an insult to our architects, construction companies and suppliers who are in fact not just building some of the best schools in the UK, but are exporting British products and expertise to a global market. The waste represented in this policy represented the ‘Worst of Britain’. Freeing up our schools to think differently about the way education is delivered, reducing bureaucracy, stripping away planning laws and rewarding excellence is the ‘Best of Britain’ and vital if we are to compete with the fastest moving economies and education systems in the world. Let us be proud of our schools – let us set them free.


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