Sunday, 8 May 2011

Michaela Community School

All the drama of national politics came to Camberwell last Thursday at what was supposed to be an information evening for the Michaela Community School, a "free school" due to launch in Lambeth in 2012.

On the same day we hit the polls to vote yes or no on AV, the meeting at the Sun & Doves pub on Coldharbour Lane degenerated into a referendum on the free-school movement. Outbursts of partisan clapping followed questions on both sides of the argument and the evening closed with a women behind me literally screaming "you're destroying our education system".

A bit of background. The driving force behind the Michaela Community School is Katherine Birbalsingh, the controversial Lambeth deputy-head who spoke out against current educational standards at last year's Tory party conference. She has already got a so-called steering group together (a bit like a board of governors) to put in the application for public funding. Now she needs two things: a building and, most importantly of all, a list of willing parents.

The building issue is tricky because Labour-led Lambeth Council is being obstructive. Westminster Council has eagerly offered sites, but Ms Birbalsingh wants the school to be in Lambeth, which has a greater schools shortage. She has identified a suitable building - the now-empty Old Lilian Baylis School in Vauxhall - but Lambeth, which owns it, is against free schools and is currently refusing to lease it to the project.

But this meeting was not about the building problem, which is between the steering committee and the Council (and it was not discussed). It was about getting the support of parents. To secure funding, the school needs 120 commitments from parents, 60 each from years 5 and 6, to include the Michaela Community School on their list of six preferred schools. So the steering group came to the Sun & Doves on Thursday to convince local parents of their competence and educational values. (I don't have children, but went along because I live five minutes away, have been supportive of the free-school idea in a loose liberal sort of way, and was curious to see what one would look like in practice.)

It would be impossible to fault the steering group on grounds of competence or background. In addition to Ms Birbalsingh, who would be the head teacher, there was a head teacher from East London, two more teachers, an education expert, a lawyer, a financier, a recent pupil and a parent - all of very diverse ethnic and educational roots.

Perhaps most relevant of all to the gathering was the parent, Mark Dodds, owner of the Sun & Doves pub and Camberwell activist. He told the story of his own son Louis, who didn't get into any of his six choices, and of a friend of Louis' who didn't get any offer at all. The conclusion was pretty plain - the area needs more school places.

The others then laid down the ethos of the school they wanted to fill this gap - basically a private-school ethos based on competition, discipline and fact-based learning. They didn't shy away from mentioning Oxbridge. This is where some might fault the Michaela Community School - some will find its style distastefully elitist. The answer of the steering group to those critics is two-fold. First, they believe "the education that is best for the best is the education that is best for all". Second, if parents don't agree, they don't have to send their kids there. Ms Birbalsingh isn't trying to create a whole education system, just one school among many others.

She spoke last. She has a naturally polemical style, with a politician's gift for rhetoric. It wasn't very intimate or down to earth, but then that's probably what you need from a head teacher. She also dealt with some rude interruptions from the anti-free-school militia as expertly as you'd expect from someone used to standing up in front of classrooms in Lambeth.

These interruptions were formalised as 'questions', of which I think there were four. One was a genuine fact-finding query from a local mum. One was an embarrassing rant against free-schools by a local teacher-activist on the basis that the existing schools are just fine, and if they fall down it's for want of resources, which free schools will deprive them of. Another was a more subtle and politely-framed criticism from another teacher. And there was one 'thank you for all your work' speech by a local too, who I think was James Delingpole from the Telegraph.

It's hard not to be grateful that these people are putting their time and expertise into the creation of a new school. Clearly some are not grateful, however. There is an issue of their diverting funds away from other schools in a climate of austerity, but that's an issue of finances, not education policy - and education got a good deal in the October spending review anyway. The other criticism of free schools, from what I could gather on Thursday, centres on the idea that they'd "cherry-pick" the middle-class pupils - effectively a rehash of the old comprehensive versus grammar school debate.

Let me give up my attempt at balanced reporting and lay my cards on the table: I would send my hypothetical child to the Michaela Community School. I have faith both in the team and in their ideals. Admittedly, I was privately educated and went to Oxbridge, so their ideals were always going to chime with my experience of a top-notch education. But I also can't see how this experiment in education can be a bad thing, even if the schools don't appeal to everyone. After all, free schools can exist without interfering in the wider system. It's not like the health reforms, which overturn the status quo completely.

I've no doubt there will be extra costs involved in setting up this extra layer of schools, and I've also no doubt plenty of free schools will fail. But this is our education system, of all things. Surely it's worth splashing a little money on the odd experiment to get it, if not right, a bit righter? And if there's one team I'd expect to make a success of it, it's the steering group behind the Michaela Community School. Good luck to them.

8 comments:

  1. From your account (and what else I've read about this) it sounds as though I'd agree with you, Stephen.

    The only thing that might sway me in the other direction would be the cringe-inducing column that Birbalsingh writes in the Telegraph.

    Anyhow, it's good to hear that 'balanced', 'rational' contributions from the floor aren't confined to Question Time…

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  2. I agree with the concept of free schools. What gets me is that the entire Camberwell Guardianista mob are the most anti-Tory tribe about when it comes to every other issue. But on this, suddenly they "see life is more grey and the reality is we must focus on what is best for our children" and thus compromise. The same applies for most everything this Coalition Government (which is mostly centre in its policies, hardly right). So the left is arguing with the left on who is more truly left (the right do this on Europe). Life is always somewhere in the middle.

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  3. Does anybody in camberwell or D Hill reall think their child will get in when the admissions code will be distance based and the school will be based at the old Lilian Baylis in Kennington.

    They may want to call it the MCS, tahts fine, but it will be Oval Comp in terms of catchment

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  4. I'm interested to hear that you would send your hypothetical child to a hypothetical school. I have an actual child who will be year 7 in 2013. I have found everything I have read about the Michaela School abhorrent (particularly the "benchmarking" concept). I live in Lewisham and have a great selection of good and outstanding state secondary schools I could choose to send my daughter to. If more parents like us sent their children to local schools, these schools would be more successful because they would have more committed support. I live in London because I enjoy and value its diversity. It would be hypocritical, and a wasted opportunity, not to embrace this diversity in all aspects of our lives, including our choice of school. By "diversity" I do not mean people of different religious and racial backgrounds who share the same or similar aspirational values. I mean a diversity of abilities, value systems and lifestyles. I want my daughter to be educated with people who are not the same as her. She will do well which ever school she attends, because I will support her and I have total faith in her and the state school system (even if she isn't fluent in Mandarin at the end of her education). Free schools are not being set up for the children who are most educationally disadvantaged- they are being set up to segregate children with aspirational parents from other children. The Michaela school will enable liberal left wing parents to get an elitist private school-style education without a guilty conscience. You won't be surprised to hear that I received a "top notch" education- and it was free (that used to mean state...)

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  5. To the second anonymous poster,

    Your first line is top-notch. Very witty. But I think your tone and point are a little unreasonable.

    It seems odd that you are so keen to embrace diversity but you will not embrace another person's opinion.

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  6. Stephen Rex is very wrong when he says that free schools will not intefere in the wider education system. They will

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