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'Troops to Teachers' Phoenix Free School rejected by Department of Education

    The Phoenix Free School application – an Oldham-based free school that would have been staffed entirely by teachers drawn from the armed forces – has today been rejected by the Department of Education. The School found its genesis last year in a Centre for Policy Studies report ‘Something Can Be Done: Troops in our schools will do more than troops on our streets’ by Tom Burkard and Captain AK Burki.

    After the CPS publication last September, 27 television producers contacted the authors with offers to film documentaries about the process of establishing the school. Despite being identified as one of the 16 strongest out of around 250 Free School applicants by the New Schools Network, the Department for Education rejected the application—albeit with the provision that Burki and Burkard can re-apply next year.

    The decision is a surprising one considering the recent backing of ‘troops to teachers’ schools by Labour Shadow Secretary of Education Stephen Twigg and Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, something that Michael Gove himself has been extremely supportive of over the years.

    The Phoenix proposals were widely regarded as addressing all of the most pressing problems confronting schools in England—matters recently highlighted by Education Secretary Michael Gove and Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw. Discipline was the key to the approach - in a recent survey by the National Union of Teachers, 90% of their members admitted that they struggle to keep control.

    Illiteracy is another major problem the proposals sought to address - virtually all children who leave school at 16 without a job have very poor literacy skills.  Tom Burkard’s track record in this area speaks for itself—in a speech delivered at St Stephen’s Club on 5 November 2009, Michael Gove acknowledged that Tom Burkard “has done more than anyone living in the fight against illiteracy in this country.”

    In the areas of Oldham where Phoenix has been recruiting, barely 1% of pupils achieve EBacc standards—the minimum necessary to have any chance of getting into a good university. The teachers on the steering committee have worked in inner-city schools, and know that the Phoenix target of 75% is completely realistic. Rather than making excuses for failure by labelling them as 'Special Needs' pupils, the Phoenix proposal was based on the concept that good teaching, competition and good discipline can work miracles. 

    One of the reasons why Capt. Burki and Burkard chose Oldham was the legacy of racial tensions from the 2001 riots. Passionate about the need to forge a common British identity between the Asian and white communities, Capt. Burki and Burkard were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic response everywhere they went.  Despite this, Oldham Council officials were less than enthusiastic. It would appear that without their support, the Department of Education believes that Phoenix hasn't demonstrated sufficient community support, despite having exceeded its pupil recruitment targets by 85%.

    But perhaps the strangest reason given for rejection was that Cap. Burki and Burkard are reluctant to recruit experienced teachers to run the show. The designated Head of Studies is a former Tornado pilot with who has been Head of Science at three independent schools. It also does not seem matter that the senior ranks it has been recruiting have proved that they can produce excellent results with young men and women who have been failed by conventional schooling. The Free Schools programme only demands one qualified teacher in each school, and there is no need for heads to have any previous experience in education. These were the ground rules that were set by ministers, and officials appear to have disregard them.

    The successful round of Free School applications announced today are to be celebrated. As Toby Young - whose own application in Hammersmith was approved - has Tweeted “By September 2013 there should be at least 175 free schools open. Not bad for 3 years. Labour only managed to open 203 academies in 13 years”. The Phoenix Free School would have stood alongside these schools as a beacon of discipline and high standards in a community that had shown great desire to welcome it. Today’s rejection is a loss to the pupils of Oldham that would have attended, and we will keep up with future developments in Burkard and Burki’s fight for approval. 

    Lewis joined the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2011 with responsibility for social media and digital engagement.

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