Teacher training (and kids go free)

Simon Baker asks if a unified department would mean more institutions open free schools

March 1, 2012

Credit: Report Digital
Joined up: Birmingham straddles higher and secondary education

Attempts to haul universities back into the belly of a super education department may have practical advantages that appeal to Michael Gove, the education secretary.

He has repeatedly called for higher education to be a key player in his bid to create "free schools" around the country. In a speech at the University of Cambridge last November, Mr Gove said that he wanted "universities like Cambridge, and more of our great public schools, to help run state schools".

So far the evidence is that universities have been reluctant to take part, but taking charge of government policy for higher education would give Mr Gove more influence.

One of the sector's only participants to date is the University of Birmingham, which has applied to the Department for Education to open a free school - a secondary school with a sixth form - next to its main campus in 2014.

But Edward Peck, pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Social Sciences at Birmingham, said the institution decided to get involved in the programme as a route to setting up a teacher training school.

"The prompt is the government's intention to move teacher training more to being school-based than being university-based," he explained, adding that the free school framework was the best way to get the proposal moving.

Professor Peck said the initial vision was to create a school that could develop best professional practice among teachers in the same way as university hospitals did for medical staff, but other potential benefits and links were emerging.

These included helping the fair access agenda, both via the contribution of Birmingham academics to the school's curriculum and in giving pupils who may be from poorer backgrounds an early introduction to university life.

"All sorts of really interesting opportunities open up once you decide to do it. I've rarely come across an idea on campus that has been so universally acclaimed, and people have got very interested in how they might contribute," Professor Peck said.

However, it is unclear whether bringing higher education policy back into the same government department as schools would foster more such initiatives.

Professor Peck said universities seemed reluctant to set up free schools because they were not a priority when there were other challenges to their core business.

"On balance there are a lot of benefits of being in the Department for Education for looking at education as an integrated activity across the whole of secondary, further and higher education. But I can also see the argument of how the skills agenda links with business," he said.


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