23 November 2007

Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap


Earlier this month, David Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement to help people establish co-operatives that could set up or run local public services such as schools, providing a "flexibility and dynamism that a central state agency lacks." With the publication this week of the party's Green Paper on education, The Difference invited the headteacher of a newly created independent school to comment on the proposals to provide capital funding and loosen planning rules to allow charities and concerned parents to set up schools more easily.

I am privileged to be the Headteacher of Cambridge's newest independent school — Heritage School — which opened its doors to 16 lower-primary aged students on 5 September. Our intention is to grow year on year through the secondary level.

Although I've yet to read them in detail, the Tory proposals to back parent initiated schools are heartening. Why? After several months of evenings spent in research into our educational vision and the business case, we were very thankful in the end to secure sufficient start-up funding from a number of generous donors. But we are not out of the woods yet - as far as financial viability goes. The challenge of finding families able to pay a second time for their child's education, despite our intentionally modest fees, is considerable. Just last night a parent who is dissatisfied with the state school her child is in said she was 'envious' of what we are offering - but unable, at present, to afford it.

If government funding could follow successful recruitment in an open market I am confident that we could readily fill our available places. Our educational values and methods resonate with parents concerned by large class sizes, a one-size-fits-all system, a vacuum of Christian-based values, a test-driven school culture, the failure of so many children to be not only adequately 'up-skilled' but also, simply, to have the vitality of mind to be actively engaged with our very interesting world - to name a few concerns. Unsurprisingly, I would love to see parents given real choices. It strikes me as very wise for a government to unleash the most powerful social force for good we possess: the fierce, selfless nurturing instinct of the parent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the general well-being of children in Britain would be significantly advanced by a mature, diverse educational market.

A final thought or two: we held our first parents' evening two weeks ago. Sitting across the table from real parents who could choose to take their child elsewhere is a powerful motivator to excellence in educational provision - a far healthier motivator than excessive centralised target setting. A related point is this: independence in education ought to mean just that. Clearly some regulation is essential (a 'broad and balanced curriculum', health and safety, etc.), but there is an inevitable danger that there will be too many strings attached.

Our dream is to see other Child Light schools (Heritage is run by Child Light Limited, a registered charity) founded in the coming years. Dare I hope that we might be poised to ride a great wave of educational reform?