Teach First head criticises 'depressing' grammars and says free schools don't work outside London

Rachael Pells
£320m was set aside for the expansion of free schools – including grammars – during the Spring Budget: Getty

Government plans to open more free schools are too London-centric and risk neglecting children from the poorest regions of the country, the CEO and founder of Teach First has said.

Speaking to an audience at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, Brett Wigdortz took a swipe at grammar schools, claiming that schools he had visited in Kent, which has a largely selective education system, were “some of the most depressing things” he’d ever seen.

Former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was also on the panel, argued new schools should have autonomy – unlike traditional state comprehensives – but called grammar schools a “worry”, emphasising the Government must ensure a good education for all children, not just the selective few.

“That’s what worries me at the moment,” he said, “that we’ll take our eyes off the ball, that the great majority of children need to have a good education. We need to worry about that.”

The industry leaders’ comments follow an announcement in the Spring Budget for a further £320m to be set aside for the expansion of free schools – which are outside of local authority – including some grammars.

While Mr Wigdortz said allowing greater autonomy for schools in England had been an “exciting change” that “appeals to people with great leadership skills”, one cause for concern was the talent drain caused by the free schools, which had left coastal regions and other areas outside of London falling behind.

He said: “One of the downsides of autonomy is we see a lot of talent going to schools that already have a lot of talent. We get many less of these outstanding teachers going to low income schools across different regions.

“In many ways it’s better to be a low income child living in London than a child from a higher income background living outside of it,” he said. “You hear of very few outstanding free schools being opened up outside of London.”

Hailing the values of state comprehensives, Mr Wigdortz said: “In my notes I was told ‘don’t mention grammar schools’ but what I would say is one of their big successes over the last 15 years I’ve been involved has been about making outstanding comprehensive schools across the country.

“The myth from 15 years ago that you can’t have low income kids in a school and make it outstanding has been blown out the water.”

Mr Wigdortz, who is originally from the US, said: “Some of the most depressing things I’ve seen in England were going to East London and seeing outstanding schools where kids from low income backgrounds were getting a world class education – I would put it next to some of the best schools in the world.

“And then you travel 20 miles to the south-east into Kent, which has a grammar school system and visit schools there, and they’re very depressing places I would say.”

The teacher training programme, which aims to address educational disadvantage in the UK, spoke out against grammar schools when Theresa May’s expansion plans were announced last year, highlighting evidence that “grammar schools harm social mobility”.

In a panel discussion with the former schools watchdog leader to discuss the failings and successes of education policy in recent years, Mr Wigdortz warned the UK Government must not become complacent in terms of school performance levels.

“While we’ve seen a lot of improvements and England is now doing better than Scotland and Wales, it’s also falling way behind our national competitors,” he said.

“We are still a middling country in PISA results, we’re not doing as well as we need to do. And at a time when Brexit is happening, we need to be competing with countries like Canada which offer a world class education.”

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