They were the future once
The press are eager to inform us about free schools perceived to be failing. This is understandable: free schools are the flagship reform of a current government minister and their troubles make good news stories.
However there are schools across the country that are failing, many of which were once flagship examples of an altogether different vintage of government policy. Building Schools for the Future (BSF) began in 2005, and coincided with an enthusiastic revival in progressive education during the New Labour years. These were the heady days of personalisation, independent learning, multiple intelligences, SEAL, learning styles, 21st century skills and thinking hats. Many new BSF schools were built at extravagant costs to fulfil such a vision.
Here are just four examples where immensely well financed visions of progressive education have resulted in embarrassing failure.
Litherland High School
Then: In 2011, Litherland High School reopened in a new £27 million building. The curriculum was based on ‘21st century learning’ in a ‘global learning community’, and at Key Stage 3 it taught a cross-curricular programme called L3 (Language, Life and Learning). IT resources alone cost £2.2 million, allowing for 700 computer devices including iPods, iPads and laptops. The school presented at the DFES-organised conference Classroom of the Future, and gained an International School Award. In 2011, Litherland High School was graded ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, who praised the teaching for its promotion of ‘independent learning’, though the school’s attainment and attendance were ‘broadly average’.
Now: GCSE results at Litherland High School have declined from 48% of pupils gaining 5 good GCSEs in 2011, to 42% in 2012 to 38% in 2013, placing it in the lowest quintile for similar schools in English, mathematics and overall results. In February 2014, Litherland High School was inspected, graded ‘Inadequate’ and placed in special measures. The report states classwork is often unfished, marking is variable, pupil litter is a problem, students talk and play on their phones in class, and that the school inappropriately identifies pupils with having behavioural special needs.
The Voyager Academy
Then: Formed in 2007 by a merger of two schools, the Voyager Academy’s ‘innovative’ building was based around a central open social zone and cost £26 million, with a capacity for 1,700 pupils. The previous year, it launched its uniform (based around the concept of ‘identity’) in a pupil catwalk show, gained £1 million through media arts specialist status, and was Peterborough’s first school to appoint pupils to the board of governors. The head was Hugh Howe OBE, credited with turning around numerous failing schools.
Now: The school was inspected in February 2014, graded ‘Inadequate’, and placed in special measures. The report observed: ‘Too many teachers have low expectations of students. This means they tolerate work and behaviour that is well below what is acceptable.’ The ‘disrespectful’ behaviour of the pupils was said to have a ‘significant impact on learning’, with swearing, smoking, poor punctuality and internal truancy highlighted. In summer 2013, only 42% of pupils gained five good grades at GCSEs.
Then: In 2009, the local council spent £157 million rebranding its seven schools as ‘centres of learning’. These ‘centres’ promised to ‘rip up the rulebook’: teachers were renamed ‘progress leaders’; classrooms became ‘homebases’ and ‘warehouses’; and a ‘world class’ education was promised for the pupils. The head of one school, Huyton Arts and Sports Centre for Learning, declared that they would not be teaching knowledge, as children can now ‘sit on Google and find out anything at the push of a button’.
Now: Three years after the ‘centres of learning’ rebrand, Knowsley was the worst performing local authority in the country at GCSE. In July 2013, only 381 of the 900 places at Christ the King Catholic and Church of England Centre for Learning (cost £24 million) were filled, and the school has since closed. In summer 2013, only 35% of the pupils at Huyton Arts and Sports Centre for Learning gained five good GCSEs, and it was in the lowest quintile for similar schools in maths, English and overall results. The school is due to close, and reopen as the Lord Derby Academy.
New Line Learning Academy (motto: Tomorrow’s Future Today)
Then: This Kent academy was opened by executive head Dr Chris Gerry in 2007, guided by his philosophy of New Line Learning (NLL). Gerry, who once co-authored a pamphlet with progressive guru David Hargreaves, described NLL as a departure from ‘traditional approaches’, with a focus on ‘project based learning’, ‘meta questions’ and working ‘independently’. The school introduced ‘learning plazas’ where 90 pupils could be taught by teams of teachers, and teachers were encouraged to work ‘less as subject specialists and more as mentors and guides for students’. In 2008, the TES reported that Dr Gerry was designing a curriculum around ‘emotional intelligence’, and had sent 16 teachers to Yale University to train as ‘emotional intelligence coaches’.
Now: In 2010, it was reported that New Line Learning Academy had the worst truancy record in the entire country, with 27 per cent of pupils regularly absent from school. In 2013, only 40% of the school’s pupils gained five good GCSEs, and the school had more than 40% of its year 7 places vacant for the start of term in September.
These are just four examples, but I am sure there are many more BSF schools which have suffered a similar fate.
In each case, no expense was spared in allowing progressive educators to fulfil their vision of a technologically advanced, collaborative, child-centred, 21st century learning environment. In each case, the schools have been a disaster. The national papers have broadly ignored their failure, but for those interested in pedagogy, this is the real school scandal from the last ten years of reform.