I actually met Michael Gove a couple of years back at a party held by a mutual friend. We ended up discussing the fact that my local area, Kingston, desperately needed a new secondary school and that an application for a Free School was with the Department of Education for approval. His parting words were ‘I’ll see what I can do‘.
A few months later, the school was in fact approved. Now, I don’t know if Michael did actually make good on his “promise”, but the fact the Secretary of State for Education has final say over whether a school opens or not, is wrong. How does the person holding that role know if the area really needs a school. S/he is unlikely to be be the MP for that constituency, so they are relying on the application in front of them for the facts rather than personal knowledge. And, facts can be written up to make the case for the company, group or consortium aiming to set up the Free School. This is why the situation is now arising of schools being approved where there’s no need for them, while other parts of the same borough are struggling to find places for their children.
The decision of where to open a new school needs to be put back in Council hands so communities and councillors can work together to get the educational establishments local people need.
However, that doesn’t mean the council needs to ‘run’ the school. As a governor of a school that is now an academy, I do believe that if a school has a good head and a strong Governing Body then being “outside” of council control can be a positive. But, heads can be tyrants at worst or benevolent dictators at best, and can leave. Meanwhile, Governing Bodies are, more often than not, run by people with little experience of education but much enthusiasm. Unless the governors are very dedicated and take up the training on offer, while giving a lot of their spare time to scrutinising the endless documents that are part and parcel of that role, as well as challenging the head, then it’s all too easy for them to pay lip service what’s put in front of them until the results come out and, disaster, the school is failing the children.
Then, who do the parents turn to? The Governing Body? And, if they’re part of the reason for the poor teaching. who’s next? The Department for Education and the Secretary of State for Education. Again, I say, how can the person holding this post be responsible for ensuring all schools in this country are doing the best for every single child? S/he cannot.
Schools need to be part of the local councils’ remit so parents/carers have someone to turn to rather than central government.