Michael Crowhurst is a history teacher at Kingsbury School and Sports College, a comprehensive in Birmingham, and is currently on the first year of the Teach First programme. He asked the question about improving educational opportunities at the BBC Leaders' Debate last week.
Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to ask a question at the final Prime Ministerial debate. As a new teacher on the Teach First scheme, which places graduates in the most challenging schools, I was keen to ask the leader of each party what they would do to improve opportunities for the children I teach, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I was impressed by the commitment the leaders showed to education and their recognition of its importance in society. However, I felt that the extent of the divide between the parties on how best to improve our schools, only demonstrated the contentious nature of the issue.
I believe passionately that education is the most powerful and effective force for change. If this is true, then it seems completely unacceptable that our school system should still present such huge differences in opportunity for young people. I was lucky enough to go to a state school which gave an excellent education to pupils from a wide variety of backgrounds.
My desire to teach in an inner city school, where pupils are at risk of educational disadvantage, is driven by the idea that they deserve no less. I think that we can and should be doing much more to improve the quality of education for those who need it most.
It’s not that our education system is broken; there are many schools which do a fantastic job for their pupils and teachers all over the country inspire young people every day. I do think, however, that education has now reached a point where simply throwing money at the problem is not going to improve things much further.
In my experience, lack of funds is not the factor holding back schools which are failing to provide the education their pupils deserve. What is needed is structural change, which will help shape the school system to be more efficient, innovative and professional in the drive for high educational standards.
When I was training as a teacher, my programme was run by a man from America who had set up his own school in a poor part of Texas after several years as a teacher. I know that the idea of a new, dynamic school, especially created to increase opportunity for disadvantaged young people really inspired me, and many of the other trainees. I found it hard to see a good reason why such a positive initiative was not allowed to take place in this country.
That is why I am so drawn to the idea of empowering parents, communities and charities to set up new schools. It’s a reform which I think brings together perfectly the three things we need to do to improve education:
- raise the status of those who teach;
- make schools more accountable to parents for the education they offer; and
- encourage innovation, so that schools can do everything that is needed to raise the achievement of their pupils.
New schools, run specifically for areas of educational disadvantage, would attract the most dynamic and dedicated teachers who wanted to address this. They would make education more responsive by allowing parents to choose only those schools which could offer their children the opportunities they deserved and they would be independent enough to create learning environments tailor made for the pupils they served.
I don’t think that ‘free schools’ are a magic bullet for education because other changes are needed to enhance the existing system. Head teachers need more power to raise the quality of their schools, more needs to be done to improve standards of teaching and we need to restore the expectation that all pupils can achieve academically.
A conclusive answer to how best to improve our schools wasn’t given on Thursday night and cannot be achieved in any one policy. But the idea of new schools, created simply to make education more equal for the poorest children in society, seems like a tremendously positive one. I think it’s exactly the kind of dynamic thinking our education system needs.