Education Secretary Michael Gove enjoyed a sing along with young pupils at a new free school in Chester where he hit back at critics who have dubbed such establishments “elitist”.
Mr Gove was in Cheshire last weekend (Saturday, February 1) to deliver a speech to the regional Conservative Party conference at The Holiday Inn in Ellesmere Port.
But the day before (Friday, January 31) he visited various schools including St Martin’s Academy in Hoole which opened to an initial 25 primary school children last September with construction underway to extend the building and create a playground for up to 175 pupils.
Mr Gove said: “I had an absolutely fantastic time. The children here are amazing, wonderful. From the moment I arrived they were bright and articulate and I had the opportunity to hear them singing and I said afterwards that if Kylie Minogue were here she would definitely have turned her chair round.
“They were such sophisticated and beautiful voices from four and five year-old children.”
He added: “I also had an opportunity to see how the children are developing their reading and understanding of phonics with the children recording each other on their iPads and then playing it back to check they have got the proper fluency and expression.”
Supporters argue free schools, which are state-funded but independent of local authority control, deliver excellent educational standards but critics claim they are elitist establishments which serve the middle classes.
“The good thing about the school here is that places are allocated on a ballot so anyone can apply,” explained the education secretary, who added: “You have got parents who believe in the highest level of ambition for their children but who wouldn’t be able to afford a private education who are getting an education here every bit as good as a private education and I think, far from being elitist, what we are doing is giving more children from a wider range of backgrounds the chance to get a superb education.”
St Martin’s operates an extended school day until 4pm, an example which Mr Gove would like to see replicated across all state schools although critics believe youngsters cannot concentrate for that long.
He said: “Children after 3pm are going to be doing something. They might be at home with their parents, – reading, watching TV – or they might be in school with teachers and other volunteers, having fun while they learn and in my view it’s a win-win situation.
“If you have schools like this one giving children an opportunity to learn more, be with their friends, to have fun while they learn and give hard pressed mums and dads an extra hour when they can either work or look after children who are younger. It’s flexibility for families but also an extra challenge for children.”
The tight time-scale to get St Martin’s up-and-running means most of the grounds are a building site at the moment with limited playground facilities.
But Chester MP Stephen Mosley said: “There are a number of places they go. When the building work is complete there will be the playground at the back, they’ve still got the park behind, they’ve got the playing fields just the other side of Canadian Avenue, they are also using the facilities at the hotel over the road from time to time so there’s quite a wide range of places that they use but of course it’s not ideal until the building work is complete.”
He added: “The ultimate judges will be the parents and kids themselves because they are the most important ones in this process and if you talk to the parents, the parents upstairs are overjoyed. They are saying what a fantastic school it is.”