I am ambivalent about attempts to give schools more autonomy. We have seen some successful charter schools in the U.S. and free schools in the U.K. and we’ve also seen some poor ones. I know that’s meant to be the point – the market should do the sorting. But what of Sweden? Its autonomous schools all chased each other down the same rabbit hole.
Yet I can’t help reflecting on two schools in particular. The first is the Cape York Academy at Aurukun. It is run by Good to Great Schools, headed by Noel Pearson.
A few months ago, there was trouble in Aurukun. Reports suggest that youths who were not attending school had car-jacked the principal of the academy and attacked teacher accommodation. The Queensland government temporarily evacuated teachers and commissioned a report.
Oddly, the report blamed the ‘Direct Instruction’ teaching approach that Pearson had introduced to the academy from the U.S. Despite some opposition from the local community, the government withdrew the teaching method from the school. Pearson will now pull out of Aurukun.
The other school that has drawn my attention is Michaela Community School in Brent, London. Under the mildly eccentric leadership of Katherine Birbalsingh, Michaela is attempting to demonstrate that a strongly traditionalist approach to secondary education can work in the 21st century.
There was a minor scandal a few months back over the school’s lunch policy. No doubt, if it was under the control of local government then this would have been a trigger to move in and stamp-out the pedagogical non-conformism. But it’s not.
Twitter is full of impotent rage. Following a news report on the school in The Sunday Times, Natasha Devon, a former government adviser dubbed Michaela, ‘actual Hell on Earth‘ and claimed it was ‘abusive‘, all without apparently visiting the school.
Yet even Michaela is not fully autonomous. The one cloud on the horizon is that they are still subject to the English schools inspectorate, Ofsted. Ofsted inspectors have demonstrated clear views about teaching and marking and these don’t align with Michaela’s approach. So they could still be rubbed-out by what Michael Gove once referred to as, “The Blob”; the education establishment and the ways that it imposes its orthodoxy. Let’s hope that they can at least get through to a set of GCSE results – if good, these will be immediately discounted by critics but at least they will provide some evidence for the wider public.
Perhaps we need more freedom and more autonomy so that we can have more schools like Michaela that are prepared to try a different approach.