NB: The author is Tim Hewish, who I am glad to welcome as a local contributor. — Steve

Buckinghamshire is blessed with having Grammar schools and is complimented by a large number of successful State schools; however not all parts of the country are so privileged. I was fortunate enough to attend the release of Policy Exchange’s latest education report, Blocking the Best, which focuses on the obstacles people face when trying to set up their own independent state school.

Shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove MP, gave the keynote speech in which he centred heavily on how little access disadvantaged children have to a better education and improved horizons. You can read a bite-sized account of Michael’s vision here.

To provide a backdrop, the Conservatives are strongly in favour of Academies, which are a type of school that can be set up by parents, teachers, businesses; and charities that are free from the tangled web of constant assessment, league tables and the prevalent dumbing down of our education into issues based learning.

Mr. Gove spoke of the revolutionary KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Programme) in the US. (A video by its Founders can be viewed here) These schools sprang up 15 years ago and focused on the very poorest in urban America with 90% of the pupils from Afro-American and Latino descent. What KIPPs managed to achieve were that 85% of the total pupils succeeding to go on to college.

What are the secrets to their success?

KIPPs have a unique set of social conditions that operate across each of their 82 schools. They start each day at 7:30am and finish at 5pm; they also have 4 hours on a Saturday morning; the teachers are on call 24/7 to help the pupils’ needs; a strict rewards and punishment scheme is implemented – where good behaviour is rewarded by KIPP dollars that can be spent on educational goods. A full list can be read here.

The question therefore should be asked: Why can’t Britain set up a similar school system?

Both Policy Exchange and Michael Gove agree one of the key inhibitors is existing planning laws. Currently, only land which is marked D1 is available for school buildings. The simple solution to this would be to increased D1 land, however this is only part of the problem. What made KIPPs so easy to set up is that they could use any existing building to be designated fit for learning. This meant KIPPs sprang up in office blocks, church basements, abandoned housing – anywhere they could find support for these schools.

This desire is equally matched by teachers as Mr. Gove attests:

I was talking to a young teacher the other day who said, ‘If I was a doctor I would be able to set up my own practice, if I was a lawyer I could set up my own chambers but as a teacher I cannot set up my own school.’

The current feeling in the Labour Government is that it is ‘surroundings’ that count in a child’s development, one only has to look at the priorities of the Building Schools for the Future programme (note yet another money sapping Quango) to see that how a school looks has been given greater importance than what is actually taught inside them. Style over substance, if you will.

Another foundational problem is that Labour sees the National Curriculum as a target, not an entry level benchmark. Under a Conservative Government, these newly created independent state schools would be exactly that – independent and free from the shackles of a one size fits all policy to teaching.

Because of this, Conservatives believe that the methods for teaching the curriculum are currently far too proscriptive. If schools excel, be that in say leadership or performance, then the right to choose to take the International GCSEs, O-levels or the International Baccalaureate (something which Ed Balls took away) should be granted.

This same mindset would be carried on into vocational qualifications. The best ones are designed by businesses that act as licenses to practice, in that they are applied and practical as opposed to the Government’s philosophy of turning them into theoretical and academic courses.

Additional problems that hinder the growth of new independent schools are: not being allowed to select their own IT providers. While money for new school projects is being wasted on fees for unpopular and ineffective consultants – in some cases £500,000 is spent on the ‘option’ of choosing from about a dozen ‘approved’ Project Management Companies (PMCs) And also that Ofsted is increasingly focused on non-educational outcomes, whereby schools that may be providing an excellent education to its students, can be labelled ‘inadequate’ overall if Ofsted inspectors find fault with its procedures for promoting equality, or for safeguarding its pupils.

As Conservatives, we want to see the return of choice in the education system; restoring the attitude that parents do know what is best for their children, not the maligned control of the State; and the revival of traditional teaching methods that are located in practical knowledge, not theme or issues based teaching in subjects like Geography, Maths or the Natural Sciences.

This leads me to conclude that this country was promised education, education, education by Tony Blair in 1997, but after his limited success, Gordon Brown along with Ed Balls have stifled and undone what good Blair set out to achieve in principle. This legacy therefore falls to the Conservatives and under Michael Gove’s tutelage and understanding for policies such as KIPP – we will once again have a world class education system.

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