One Year To Go

‘The opposition to free schools can be intimidating—you’d think we were building nuclear bombs, not setting up a school’

Katharine Birbalsingh

When I criticised our broken education system at last year’s Conservative Party conference I lost my job as a teacher. Nowadays, I live off my savings and I earn some money by writing and talking about our education system, attempting to give an alternative view to what is normally heard. I am also setting up a free school. This column will be a diary of my current journey, trying to make a difference to our schools.

Is it really possible that we live in a country where teachers are not allowed to speak out, to think outside of the box and to vote Conservative? Some lefties tell me that “someone like me” should know better. I belong to an ethnic minority, was educated at a comprehensive school, taught in an inner-city school, and am dedicated to improving the lives of underprivileged children. Yet criticising some of Labour’s policies of failing our children over the last decade has made me enemy number one in some circles.

I continue to speak out against these policies and the prizes-for-all mentality that I believe has crippled our school system for years because I want what is best for all of our children. British children are rated 16th in the world for science, 25th for reading and 28th for maths, according to the OECD’s 2009 Pisa report. The 2000 Pisa report ranked British children fourth in science, seventh for reading and eighth for maths. We now spend more than £80 billion a year (double what we spent in the 1990s) on education and yet British schoolchildren have plummeted in the international league tables. While more money is always a good thing, this doesn’t mean that lack of money is our main problem. Our school system is badly broken, and until Michael Gove started making his changes, I had given up all hope.

One of the bright lights in recent education policy is the free school movement. I am attempting to set up a free school in Lambeth, south London, to open in September 2012. It is a secondary school called Michaela Community School and it aims to bring tradition back to the inner city. I believe in imparting knowledge to our children, in high standards of behaviour and a smart uniform. I believe in allowing children to learn Latin and other academic subjects and “to win” without feeling a sense of shame. 

My steering group is filled with talented, committed individuals, including a local parent who is reduced to tears when he talks about his own child’s experiences with the school system. 

Twenty-four free schools opened last month, including Toby Young’s West London Free School in Hammersmith. It is a serious battle to set up a free school, especially in areas where the NUT (National Union of Teachers) and the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) are popular. When we had an open evening for our school, both of these organisations picketed the event, bussing in people from out of London to shout us down. “Tory teachers!” they chanted over and over, trying to intimidate parents who wanted to come in: parents from all walks of life, some middle-class, some from the local estates, and from many ethnic groups.

Some of the local primary schools won’t allow us on their premises to hand out flyers to interested parents. We have to stand on the street and, even then, staff have been known to try to get rid of us. All we want to do is set up a school in an area that has a massive shortage of school places. We are in Brixton Market regularly, handing out flyers, banging on doors in the estates, and have made every effort to ensure that our school will have a genuinely comprehensive mix of children. The whole point of our school is to make a difference to the inner city. Yet, there is a significant minority who wish to stop us. You’d think we were building nuclear bombs, not setting up a school.

For schools aiming to open in September 2012, the application deadline was in June this year. Two hundred and ninety-one applications were received by the Department for Education, demonstrating the significant interest people have in setting up free schools. Just over 100 of these made it to interview in August. Now, like all of the applicants who were interviewed, the Michaela Community School is waiting to hear whether or not we have been successful.

If we manage to clear that hurdle, then we have the even bigger challenge of trying to secure a building for our school. This is where free schools often fall down. Not everyone out there wants free schools to succeed and some councils can be downright obstructive. But we hold out hope for Lambeth. 

We hold out hope that the Department for Education will approve us and that by the time you read my November column the Michaela Community School will be a little bit further along on its journey towards opening its doors next year.

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