P1060055Tuesday, our first day back, was great! Children settled well, worked hard, and were highly responsive to the new teaching arrangements. The disbanding of Key Stages seems to have passed off without a fuss. Learning in Year 1 was more child centred than I have seen hitherto; teachers were getting to grips with new classes and new year groups and the child-led curricula that are part of this year’s curricular learning – and there was lots of art being done.

Changing the break and lunch time arrangements were successful – far fewer children on the playground at any one time, and much less conflict. New arrangements for setting and the improvement of maths learning in Years 5 and 6 are also taking shape and will start today.

First days back are always super, and memories fade, but it was probably the best first day I have ever experienced as a head. A meeting after school of all those recently trained as coaches had a real buzz of excitement about it as we begin to offer all teachers the chance to improve their practice through a direct coaching relationship.

And at a “family level” we had an engagement, a marriage and a new pregnancy to celebrate over the summer holidays. These have helped start the term with a strong sense of our own identity, commitment to and love for one another, and the expectation of good things – that life is good, that we are loved by God and one another, and that there is much to give and many ways to grow.

However, what was also noticeable is that we are shorter of furniture than we had intended, a sure sign that numbers are on the rise. This is all of a piece both locally in Milton Keynes and nationally. The crisis in school places is a very real threat to the quality of children’s education in England, and in some localities it is extreme, especially in some London boroughs. The ideologically-driven answer to this problem is “free schools and academies” but this is no help to hardworking local authorities who have had their wiggle room for future planning severely restricted and their attention distracted by the ideological debate.

Over three years after being elected, and with better population statistics than anyone in his position has ever had, my all-time favourite secretary of state is blaming the last government for the problem and saying that they have fixed it.

Labour cut 200,000 primary places, slashed the amount spent on areas of population growth and let immigration soar – and all this in the middle of a baby boom. The coalition government has, however, taken swift action to repair the damage. We have more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high-quality school places in areas Labour neglected.

Now you know. However, once again, the razor sharp mind of Mr G is brought to bear on a problem that should have been devolved to re-empowered local authorities able to plan for the communities and circumstances that they find before them. Fiona Millar from the Local Schools Network has a much more accurate perception of this problem and its causes and solutions in her Guardian piece today. This could be a lot more strongly worded, but the very tone will ensure that it is an importat voice in the debate, as it should be:

The first step should be an immediate stop to any new schools, unless there is a demonstrable need. The Local Government Association’s education leader, David Simmonds, a Tory councillor, sensibly set aside the party political line yesterday to point out that parents in hard-pressed areas would understandably ask why money was being spent on extra free school places in areas where there were already vacancies. The DfE should just pull out of the process and provide the money for local authorities to get on with planning and providing what is, after all, a basic right for children in their communities. This wouldn’t necessarily mean an end to diversity, parent promoters or choice. The Labour government set in train a process of local competitions for providers (from the maintained and academy sector,) where there was a need for a new school. That could be revived with immediate effect. But it would mean a big and awkward shift in rhetoric and policy, in favour of local rather than central government control. The drift has been determinedly in the opposite direction, regardless of who has been in power, for the last 20 years. We are seeing the effect of that in education now.

This has yet to hit us as fully as it might – we have local housing to thank for that, which at the moment has not been as subject to multiple occupancy problems as other parts of Milton Keynes – but it will come, unless the Local Authority is given sufficient funds to build new schools within its own aegis and control, locally coordinated and maintained. The erosion of the local, however, and the perpetuation of the global across education, continues.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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