Educational initiatives have come and gone, created mayhem with our teaching resources and cost a fortune. Yet we still languish in an educational programme that is beset with games rather than strategy.
Estelle Morris has always been a heroine in my eyes. As Secretary of State for Education she had the immense strength of character to resign in October 2002 saying that the job was too much for her and it did not deserve second-best. This statement was made despite her significant credentials and teaching experience. In these days of overpaid chief executives whose competence comes into serious doubt, yet hang on in the post, Estelle Morris created a landmark for honest and true people to follow.
Regrettably very few have had the courage to make the same declaration.I include in this category a number of subsequent Secretaries of State for Education who have been appointed, sometimes on a very short tenure, who failed to leave a lasting mark on the educational programme for the UK.
My opinion of Estelle Morris was confirmed by the recent publication of her thoughts and opinion on the negative effects of competition in schools and especially the development of free schools in the UK. Granted free school will enlist the talents and enthusiasm of a new breed of school governance but no one knows how or if this will last. This new development in the alternative operation of schools smacks of a policy that is far too open to the whims of enthusiasts whose commitment to the school could disappear as fast they appeared. Because they are single units aiming to improve the schooling opportunity in a particular catchment area they could be devastated by changes in population or social change. As Estelle Morris points out no one will be a position to plan any expansion needs. Schools will open and close far more readily as this FAD evolves or is replaced.
The educational system of the future in its various guises could fragment with schools pursuing options that are advantageous to their operation and abandoning national themes. I believe there are startling precedents that free schools and the Department for Educational should consider. When care for the elderly passed as an option to private companies a significant number of nursing homes were rapidly established. In theory, with a captive market they could not fail. The growing aging population would present itself at the door of the homes as customers. Yet behind the scenes lay an operational nightmare.
Staffing levels and competence became their Achilles heel. Getting the right number of qualified and experienced staff for the salaries being paid proved their downfall. Staff turnover became phenomenal. Care homes opened with a flourish and closed after a few years operation as costs rose and profit fell. Individual home were at as much risk as the slick multiple homes operations. As profits fell the payroll was adjusted downwards to balance the books. Staff turnover became even more horrendous. Staff left to seek better wages; training suffered as staff were needed operationally and could not be spared for development. The service level plunged and the many tales of horror started to emerge from many nursing homes.
A similar situation could occur in free schools. They will have to be competitive to survive and this could be their downfall. Staffing ability and moral will be crucial but without a national pay scale and an interrelationship with other schools to exchange academic ideas the better staff will leave to develop their career, inevitably seeking the highest reward. This could inject a teacher churn rate that will leave any school floundering. Standards could drop and place a free school in jeopardy as parents seek to relocate their children.
The introduction of academies, commercial operations and free schools has invoked an element of market forces previously only seen by independent schools. Although Independent schools have a reputation for high standards they also have to function as a commercial operation. In the current economic climate many have suffered, some terminally as parents move children to lower cost state school option. Estelle Morris’s believes the new school structure could invoke issues previously not seen in the state education. Free schools with their isolated structure could be at the greatest risk. And with the ebb and flow of suspect initiatives from the Department For Education she may be proven horribly right.