Brighton council are about to make history and become the first council in the UK to prioritise children on free school meals for school admissions.
This is largely down to the work of the local group Class Divide, who have challenged the lack of choice for parents as to which schools their children attend. The real choices for parents are either a private (fee-paying) school if they can afford it, moving to the catchment area of a good state school if they can afford that, or providing a certificate of baptism to secure a place in the local CoE primary, if that’s their culture. The Department for Education’s own research in 2017 shows that house prices are 8% higher in areas around the best-performing primary schools, contributing to inequality and unfairness in the UK education system. This problem has long been the target of many governments.
The Equality Trust reports that income inequality in the UK is among the highest in the developed world. Its associated impacts on quality and longevity of life, mental health and educational opportunity have all contributed to this. Brighton’s Class Divide campaign reports that ‘children from our communities are twice as likely to be excluded from school and three times more likely to be placed in non-mainstream schools, including pupil referral units.’ Is this the diversity of opportunity that policymakers intended? And what level of similarity or uniformity do we want going forward? And where is that uniformity relevant? Is it access, is it opportunity, is it outcome?
Uniforms may not seem to be one of the hot topics in mainstream schools – they are often far down the list of parents’ priorities, even with the costs associated with them and the September scramble to fix hems. In 2021 the MP for Weaver Vale in Cheshire, Mike Amesbury, campaigned for clearer guidance for schools to prevent too many branded (and expensive) pieces of uniform from being expected for each child. But uniformity is not just about uniforms, it’s about whether all schools are offering the same type of education and whether any real choice is available to parents beyond league tables. These have been around in the UK since 1992 and focus on children’s progress and exam results to show how good any school is. But many other parents are just as concerned with how happy a child will be in school, or how good the support is for children with special educational needs. In this regard, conversations on Mumsnet have become as much a go-to for parents in their decision-making process.
Parent interest in inclusion, creativity or well-being is sometimes met by so-called alternative schools such as Montessori or Waldorf. But with fewer than a thousand of these in the UK and with them largely being independent, they are out of both financial reach and regional availability for most parents. The creative focus of such alternatives is, however, becoming more widespread and the divide between mainstream and alternative education is starting to be challenged. As such, expertise in creativity, well-being and inclusion alongside academic achievement is becoming a specialism for teachers rather than an alternative.
Free Schools and academies have only gone so far in achieving any level of parent choice. These were set up in 2010 ‘in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.’ They didn’t have to follow the National Curriculum, but the National Foundation for Educational Research has suggested that instead of increasing parental choice, free schools have tended to become reflections of each other, as most have been established by multi-academy trusts (MATs).
So, what is the solution? Whether or not the structure of state and private education in the UK will be addressed by any government in the near future, any change could be changed back by future governments. Long-term change is more likely to last if all major political parties are involved, both state and private schools participate, and teachers’ and parents’ voices are heard. The reputation of Finland for being a world leader in Education is built on a 20-year process where everyone involved worked towards restructuring the entire system, doing away with the state/private split and investing in teacher training at a level seldom seen elsewhere in the world. This was not a quick fix and took the kind of determination now being shown in Brighton. The Brighton initiative may be the tipping point for a deeper discussion in the UK about educational equality and meaningful choice, and parents’ voices are at the heart of that.
Are you or is someone you know eager to find out more about how to champion creativity in schools across the UK?
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