21st Century Free School: a way ahead?
15 Mar 2012
Caption: Peter Hyman delivers NET Lecture. Photo: Gary Eason
Free Schools remain controversial and, while some excellent new schools have been proposed, the big questions remain:
- how sustainable are they?
- will they ever reach more than a tiny minority of children?
- what is their effect on neighbouring schools?
- can they maintain curriculum innovation despite league table targets and Ofsted inspections?
These dilemmas were raised by the audience at last night's annual National Education Trust lecture. They had heard an inspirational talk from former Tony Blair strategist, Peter Hyman, who is opening a new Free School - School 21 - in east London this coming September.
The school will be a far cry from the Toby Young school, which has so far dominated the coverage of Free Schools. It was given its name to denote Hyman's determination to look ahead to 21st century teaching and learning styles. This is not a 1950's, nostalgia-led project designed to give a new boost to school uniforms and Latin.
School 21 will put a much greater emphasis than usual on speaking and listening skills, or oracy, which - as Hyman argues - is greatly under-emphasised in this country compared with other succesful education systems. he also said he felot many state school pupils were at a disadvantage in ubniversity admissions because of a lack of oracy skills.
Variety of learning styles
School 21 will also offer a wide variety of learning styles, mixing round-table seminars, specialist lectures, traditional classroom teaching, one-to-one tuition and mentoring, and project-based working. Hyman cited his own sources of inspiration: Rich Tasks from Queensland, Australia; the Harkness Method of discussion-based learning from New Hampshire, USA; and Project-Based Learning from San Diego, USA.
One of the tasks that Hyman acknowledges he faces is a need for a 'new type of teacher', someone who is comfortable as a subject-specialist but is also able to be a one-to-one coach, lecturer and facilitator.
Hyman acknowledged the irony that he is rooted in Labour Party politics but - after his career change from Dowing Street to classroom - is now implementing a Conservative Party policy. He defended opening a new Free School in Stratford, east London, on the basis that there was a basic need for more school places there, so he would not be undermining existing schools. 'I would not have done this in an area where I was just taking pupils from other schools', he said. He also believes there is 'a strong case for teacher-led schools'.
Better assessment needed
He accepted there was an issue about how - if it is successful - a Free School could scale-up its activities to reach a wider group of children. Responding to questions, he also said that current assessment regimes could threaten innovation if it does not conform with national expectations, as could Ofsted inspections. He said we need to 'find a richer way of assessing children' and argued for Ofsted to set up a branch that was not just about monitoring schools but would spread good, innovative practice.
More about school 21 here: www.school21.org/
A full transcript of Peter Hyman's Lecture will be available shortly at the NET website.