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Tim KnoxTim Knox is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies

Imagine you are a parent in one of the more deprived areas of Oldham. You might think that a decent education is the best way for your children to do well in their lives. You might know that all of the local schools are pretty bad. You might know that only about 1% of children around you reach EBacc standards, the minimum level necessary to get to a good university.

Depressing stuff. But then you hear about a charismatic Muslim British army officer who is planning to set up a brand new Free School; a school where the head of studies is a former Tornado pilot who has also been Head of Science at three independent schools. A school where all teachers will have served at a senior rank in the British Armed Services. A school where one of the founders has been described by Michael Gove as the man “who has done more than anyone living in the fight against illiteracy in this country”.


It gets better. This school is identified as one of the 16 strongest out of about 250 Free School applicants by the New Schools Network. It quickly gains the backing of the local population, winning the support of nearly twice as many parents as stipulated by the Department for Education as necessary to set up a Free School. This school, its founders explain, has also been recruiting officers who have proved that they can produce excellent results with young men and women who have been failed by conventional schooling. This school will expect the 1% of local pupils who are currently getting decent grades to become 75%. This school will stamp out the chronic ill-discipline in our classrooms (discipline, of course being crucial: in a recent survey by Warwick University, 90 per cent of NUT members admitted that they had experienced disruption).

In just 14 months time, this school will open.

That was the plan, at least. But today the Department for Education has rejected the application from the Phoenix Free School (albeit with the provision that the founders, Captain Affan Burki and Tom Burkard, can re-apply next year). Why?

The DfE gave three reasons for its decision:

  • One, that their “curriculum plans needed further development and your approach to progression targets and how progress might be measured and compared to national attainment levels was not convincing.” That is convincing, given that the DfE is doing so well in Oldham at the moment. A 1% success rate is clearly good enough not to need the challenge of an alternative.
  • Two, that it has “concerns about the capability of your proposed Principal Designate, having no previous experience of senior leadership or teaching in a secondary educational environment and no other qualified teachers to support him”. So a Captain in the British Army, who has been a top instructor at the Afghan Counterinsurgency Centre, is lacking in leadership skills. And the designated Head of Studies (the former Tornado pilot) has only taught at independent schools. Obviously our private schools aren’t as good as those in Oldham then. And the officials overlook the fact that the Free Schools programme only demands one qualified teacher in each school, and there is no need for heads to have any previous experience in education.
  • Third, that “there was not strong evidence that the project was fully grounded in the local community and we had concerns that there had been a relatively narrow approach to wider community engagement”. Yes, the local Council was bitterly opposed to this school (don’t be cynical and assume that they might have been just a little bit concerned about their own failures being highlighted by such a school. I am sure that they had plenty of very good reasons for their opposition. But I still can’t think of what they might be).  But while the Council might have been hostile, the parents weren’t. Hence the massive oversubscription.

So here you have an innovative proposal, which clearly addresses all of the most pressing problems confronting schools in England, being squashed by the bureaucrats. An innovative idea which had won the backing not just of Michael Gove but also, this week, of Stephen Twigg, Labour’s Education spokesman.

You would be right to feel some sympathy for Captain Affan Burki and Tom Burkard, who have worked 50 hours a week for the last nine to get their proposal to this stage months; who had chosen Oldham as the site of their first school, a town torn by racial tensions in the 2001 riots, as they were passionate about the need to forge a common British identity between the Asian and white communities.

But you would be right to feel even more sorry for those parents of children who are living in Oldham who have had their hopes obliterated.

102 other Free Schools won approval today, which is an encouraging development. But temper your excitement, now and in the future, by thinking of two words: Phoenix and Oldham. And you would then be right to feel very angry indeed. You might even ask yourself the question of who is in charge of education policy: Michael Gove or his civil servants?

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