Playing nicely: How best to get the parallel worlds of education to overlap in the UK

So often these days conversation around education focuses on what’s wrong with it, how the UK education system’must try harder’ if it is to make the grade. However guest blogger Peter Kraftl, qualifies the recent comments from the Shadow Secretary of State, suggesting that politicians and the public should look much more closely at some of the A* collaborations happening between State and the ‘alternative’ education movement in the UK.  

Peter Kraftl

Peter Kraftl

In a recent Guardian article, Shadow Secretary of State Tristram Hunt argued that private schools should cooperate more extensively with State schools.

Threatening a withdrawal of tax breaks for independent schools, he indicated that fee-paying schools should be prepared to share facilities and engage in competitive sport with State schools. His position was that independent schools had been asked – ‘politely’ – to cooperate, but with little effect.

Mr Hunt’s article revives a number of long-standing debates about the class divides in the UK education system. Not least, it reminds us of the enduring significance in this country of what the sociologist Stephen Ball termed ‘circuits of schooling’ – parallel worlds of education, differentiated by class, which rarely overlap.

Considerable complexity

Notwithstanding deeper questions about the relationship between the existence of private education and educational inequalities, Mr Hunt’s position glosses considerable complexity in and between the different sectors of the UK educational landscape. Indeed, with some regularity, the State and private sectors are viewed as monolithic, even oppositional entities.

However, if one looks to the UK’s diverse but growing alternative education sector, the picture is far more complex. Alternative education spaces call in to question the assumption that different education sectors in the UK rarely work together.

By alternative education, I mean those educational practices that are neither funded directly by the State, but neither do they follow one of the UK’s National Curricula. Some such practices may be privatised – fee-paying, or, like elective home education, taking place in the domestic sphere.

One of many care farms across the UK

One of many care farms across the UK

Yet, underpinned by alternative pedagogue – like Steiner, Montessori, or Democratic schooling – they differ from the majority of independent schools. In addition, if one defines alternative education as a practice that replaces all or part of a child’s compulsory schooling, then a range of other spaces can also be included – from Care Farms to Forest Schools. Many of these latter spaces are run by volunteers, rely on grants or donations, or are based on social enterprise models.

“gradually, the lines between ‘alternative’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘private’ are becoming increasingly blurred”

Crucially, alternative educators have worked to forge connections with ‘the mainstream’ in all kinds of ways, which both exceed and could inform consideration of the kinds of collaboration cited by Mr Hunt. Examples include:

• The influence of alternative pedagogies upon the National Curriculum – most notably, of Montessori and Steiner approaches upon the contemporary early years curriculum;
• The regular flow of teachers between mainstream and alternative schools, with an associated two-way transfer of teaching expertise;
• Attempts by alternative educators to forge ‘communities of inquiry’ around outdoor/natural education – including leaders from the State schools sector, the National Trust and NHS;
• The enduring social mission of urban-based Care Farms to provide an educational and social space for young people from disadvantaged local communities, who attend State schools, and who are becoming disproportionately disadvantaged by the withdrawal of public services such as Children’s Centres (NSPCC, 2011);
• The role of Care Farms in providing expertise and advice for the increasing number of State schools seeking to grow food or raise animals on school grounds.

These examples represent just four of the many and diverse ways in which alternative educators work with diverse facets of the ‘mainstream’. Evidently, that mainstream includes but extends beyond State schools, encompassing curriculum development, sharing knowledge/staff and work with urban communities.


photo credit: PhotKing

If Labour – or any of our political parties – are serious about breaking down the boundaries between our different education sectors, then a priority must be to engage with and learn from the diverse forms of cross-sector collaboration already underway in the UK, in the work of alternative educators.

Alternative educators are the first to recognise that their approaches are far from perfect. But, gradually, the lines between ‘alternative’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘private’ are becoming increasingly blurred in the UK. Recently, for instance, Free Schools policy has led to the first State-funded Steiner schools in the UK, and effectively allows for diverse educational models, funded by the State, to flourish.

It goes without saying that there are highly divergent views on Free Schools, independent schools and, indeed, alternative pedagogies. Yet, as the relative merits of possible collaboration between independent and State schools are afforded renewed consideration, we could pay greater attention to how Britain’s relatively small but growing base of alternative educators are attempting to engage with State schools and beyond.


Geographies of alternative education [FC]

Peter Kraftl’s book Geographies of alternative education offers a comparative analysis of alternative education in the UK, focusing on learning spaces that cater for children and young people was published in paperback last month and is available at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

Peter Kraftl is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leicester, UK. He is the author of four books and over 50 journal articles and book chapters about children’s geographies, education, and geographies of architecture. He is an editor of Children’s Geographies journal.

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Guest blog by author and academic Peter Mortimore – ‘Politicians see the British education system as a job factory’

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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