Gibb us a wave!

That nice Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, has told us that, at some point in the future, all children will have to take the EBACC.

This set of letters first entered our consciousness around January 2011, as I recall. The much lamented Michael Gove had suddenly announced that GCSE outcomes would be measured by EBACC, which was short for ‘English Baccalaureate’. At the time my school was about to hold our ‘options’ evening for Year 9 students. Gove had decreed that, henceforth, students and schools would in part be measured by whether students had achieved the EBACC, a kind of modern version of matriculation. You didn’t get a certificate, or anything but you were deemed to have achieved it if you had got Grade Cs or above in English, Maths, Science (not BTec, of course!) a Humanity and a Language (ancient ones such as Greek and Latin were included but not ‘community languages’). I was tasked with preparing a leaflet for parents: no easy job when, in fact, nobody seemed to know much detail. In typical Gove manner, the ‘policy’ had been announced with scant regard for the consternation and chaos it would cause (two and a half years later, he did the same sort of thing with the ‘no resits’ diktat).

Now, of course, we know that the EBACC is a combination of allegedly worthy, ‘academic’ and ‘rigorous’ subjects and Gibb has, in true Goveian manner, announced it will happen. Apparently it’s about ‘social justice’, because all those deprived backstreet kids are ‘entitled’ to be told what they should learn by Mr Gibb. He knows what’s good for you.

A teacher friend of mine met Gibb at a high level reception a few months back, where my friend was loudly rubbishing OFSTED, who had, to be fair, just rubbished my friend’s school. Gibb heard and had him taken aside where he listened carefully to what my friend had to say about the iniquities of the OFSTED inspection. Gibb undertook to follow up and feedback. Needless to say, a while later a minion contacted my friend to say Mr Gibb was unable to intervene, which he must have known at the time. A smooth operator, is Mr Gibb!

The EBACC announcement seems a bit cack-handed in comparison, but this is now post-election and the Tories can just about do what they like. No need to explain where all the language teachers will come from let alone organise recruitment, training and so on. Apparently, something called ‘the market’ will do that.

Democracy – or “passing the buck” – Coalition style

A fascinating press release from DfE just a week before the end of the school year (always a good time to avoid too much scrutiny). The newly appointed Regional Schools Commissioners (appointed by Gove, it must be said) will be supported by Head Teachers Boards (HTBs). Four members in each region have just been elected and the successful candidates announced. The DfE is trumpeting the 38% turnout as being an endorsement – it certainly beats most local government elections and easily trounces the pathetic turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections last year. But, wait a minute, these are the headteachers of our most successful (allegedly) schools and, presumably, just had to fill in a ballot paper and post it off : is 38% such a ringing endorsement?

Most people, I guess, do not know  how these HTBs are set up and what they will do. As I said earlier, the RSCs are appointed – so far so very Gove – but then four members of the board are elected. In addition, the RSCs can appoint two more board members of his/her own choice and the Board itself can appoint two more to fill skills or experience gaps. So these boards are beginning to feel less democratic and more like self-perpetuating oligarchies. From an electorate of just over 4000, of whom more than half chose not to vote, 32 have been chosen, and, in theory at least, another 32 could be appointed by the Commissioners or the elected heads themselves.

So what are the Regional  Schools Commissioners and their Boards going to do? At first glance, it looks like they are going to deal with the growing numbers of academies and academy chains which are failing to live up to the hype, that they would maintain or improve standards. The language is nice and wooly and there must be questions asked about how they will ‘monitor’ the performance of schools, except via OFSTED, and how they will support schools in difficulties (by ‘schools’ they actually mean academies and, presumably, ‘free schools’ which are, after all, particular kinds of academies). According to the release they can take “informed decisions about when and how to intervene” but how will they know pre-OFSTED and what mechanism is there for them to intervene? This sounds like a function previously carried out by a local authority whose own staff would have kept in touch with schools and regularly assessed what OFSTED grade they were on course to achieve, and had the expertise and resources to offer support and intervention. What resources do  RSCs and HTBs have? What powers do they have? Who will be held to account if an academy ‘fails’?

There are many details unclear and questions begged but, in the end, this only affects academies and ‘free schools’ (albeit that, on the DfE’s  figures, nearly 60% of secondaries are academies and 12% of primaries are), right? Well, wrong, actually.

One of the RSC’s remits is to agree or reject new academies (nothing specifically about ‘free schools’ so, phew, John Nash still has a job!). So, whereas the Secretary of State, an elected politician and minister of the Crown, used to make these decisions, those same decisions will now be made by appointed heads and a group of heads chosen by other heads. Whatever one says about Michael Gove (and I for one have said a lot!) in principle, he was elected and was part of a government that should have been sensitive to public opinion. Indeed, it could be argued that Gove’s removal as Secretary of  State was, in part, due to pressure from many groups, including parents who objected to their views being ignored in respect of their children’s schooling. The new situation gives an unrepresentative group power over the future of state education in an area. These people will not be well-known and harder to campaign against: “Gove out!” had a snappy ring to it, “Regional School Commissioner, whatever his or her name is, and Head Teacher Board, out!” is going to be harder to chant.

To sum up, groups of faceless headteachers have quietly been set up to deflect blame from the Secretary of State when academies and chains get into trouble and have the power to make far-reaching decisions about local education without, as far as one can see, any influence from public opinion.

Certainly, there needs to be a ‘middle tier’ below Whitehall and above individual school level, monitoring and supporting schools, which should represent not the narrow interests of one grade of teacher in one type of school, but should take into account the views and needs of parents and the local community. I’ve even got a slightly snappier name for such a body.

We could call it a local education authority.

Same old, same old

Tempting though it has been to enjoy the political demise of Michael Gove, there is really only time for a little rejoicing. In my opposition over the last four years I have tried very hard not to focus on an individual but on policies. That was hard to do, of course, because Gove was so deliberately insulting to me and my former colleagues, unable, or at least unwilling, to engage in civilised and reasoned debate.

But, ask yourself, would you have found his policies any more palatable if he had been saying nice things about teachers (he did, actually, occasionally)? Gove was (is) an unpleasant, ideological bone-head but his policies – which remain intact – were (are) the policies of the Coalition government. Apart from an occasional spat with Wilshaw and Laws (and, no doubt, in the run-up to the General Election, we will hear about all sorts of extreme polices which, behind the scenes, the Lib Dems prevented or modified) I do not recall any member of the Government, or the Conservative Party, criticising or opposing what Gove was doing.

So, let’s not linger too long over our glasses of bubbly. Some of us are long enough in the tooth to be able to remember the delight that greeted the resignation of Thatcher but her policies continued long after she had left the stage. We have to ensure that the electorate aren’t fooled into thinking that by appointing Ms Morgan in Gove’s stead, Cameron has somehow reversed or halted the coup effected in our state education system. The policies are in place and they and their consequences will continue to unfold.

I for one will go on exposing  them, here and on other social media, as I know many others will. Let’s not attack Nicky Morgan – ill-equipped as she is, to run our state school system (privately-educated lawyer) – let’s continue to remind friends, colleagues, the public at large, of the wasteful and deliberately divisive policies of this Government. They (not one man) have undermined public faith in teachers and our public education system, in order stealthily to give away our state assets to faith and business groups interested in their own agendas. At a time of supposed austerity, they have wasted millions on tin-pot inefficient ‘free’ schools and grand vanity projects (university technical college, anyone?). It will be a long hard road back to a decent, democratically accountable state school system. Let’s not waste too much time revelling in the discomfort of one person (though it has been enjoyable, hasn’t it?)

‘UnBritish’

There are many things to be said about the recent ‘Trojan horse’ furore in Birmingham. Was the original letter a hoax? Had there been a concerted effort to takeover schools? Was this a witch hunt? How well should OFSTED come out of this? And what of the spat between May and Gove?

There are conflicting claims and counter claims so I’ll stick with those where I feel competent to comment. Firstly, there certainly seems to have been something to worry about in terms of the governance of these schools and the influence of parents. Gove cannot escape the fact that the majority of the schools where there appears to have been a problem were academies where, by design, the local authority has no monitoring role and, evidently, Gove and the DfE are too far removed to have any impact. These sorts of problems, along with the money-making ‘conflicts of interest’ reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (see link below) seem to me to be inherent in the set up of academies and ‘free’ schools. It seems barmy that one way being suggested for dealing with the problems is to transfer those schools to another academy chain, this time, presumably, one approved of by the Secretary of State.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10886821/Academy-chiefs-have-benefited-personally-from-schools.html

Therein lies one of the contradictions at the heart of the coalition reforms. Gove has claimed all along that he wants to give greater freedom to schools, their managers and parents, yet, as we have already seen, this freedom is only to be exercised in a way of which Gove approves. There are now many well-documented instances of schools faced with enforced academisation where consultation has been bogus and clearly-demonstrated parental wishes have been overridden. To badly paraphrase Henry Ford, ‘you can have any kind of school you like as long as Mr Gove agrees’. So, it appears from the Birmingham cases, that we can just swap ‘ownership’ around til we get a Gove-friendly lot to manage our schools.

Mr Gove said in his recent ‘Policy Exchange’ speech that children have only one chance at school education, yet in his actions, he shows that he appears to have forgotten that: how else to explain the cavalier approach to the way schools are run? Gove’s is quite clearly a neo-con,  ‘market forces’ approach, a touching faith that competition, choice and ‘the market’ will raise standards. Even if, in the long run, that proves to be the case (which I very much doubt), the logic of this approach is that some schools will suffer turbulence on the way and heaven help the children who happen to be in those schools at that time, getting their ‘one chance’.

Finally, in his response to ‘the Trojan horse’ revelations, Gove has announced that all schools will in future be required to promote ‘British values’. I could spend  several posts unpicking this one. In the first place, it sounds like one of those policitians’ phrases that appeals instantly to a certain type of voter, who believes he knows what it means: remember John Major’s ill-fated ‘back to basics’? This one will obviously tap into a resurgent patriotism, at a time of near-racist comments from UKIP which seem to have touched a nerve, and, of course, the early stages of the World Cup (ie before England leaves the competition!).

Leaving aside what we might interpret ‘promote’ to mean, several high profile people have explained what they understand to be ‘British values’ – I’ve already heard David Cameron’s and Baroness Warsi’s subtley different takes; but, if he’s going to issue an edict, Mr Gove will have to give a clear definition and what will emerge, I daresay, will be a ‘motherhood and apple-pie’ (to use a non-British phrase!) definition with which no-one can disagree – something along the lines of ‘democracy, justice, fairness, tolerance, equality’ which all schools will, with some justification, claim they are promoting  and have for many years.

Anyway, I’ll uncharacteristically give Mr Gove the last word. Here he is, talking to Prospect magazine in 2007: “There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness.”

 

 

‘I done a bad thing, George!’

No, not Michael Gove fessing up to the Chancellor, but a quote from an American classic, “Of Mice and Men”. Yep, the latest lunacy from Gove is to lean heavily on the examination boards to delete from their reading lists this and similar examples of American literature and substitute work by British authors.

I personally never tired of teaching ‘Mice and Men’, I think it is a superb piece of writing (so pleased to hear Gove dislikes it intensely) and I also believe ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘The Crucible’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’, staples of GCSE syllabuses, are equally fine. That’s not to say, of course, that there are not other equally good examples of literature that might be accessible to the vast majority of teenagers. Perhaps it’s a good idea to give these old warhorses a rest, freshen up and reinvigorate the teachers.

But that’s not the point. It is no business of the Secretary of State to influence the minutiae of any part of the curriculum because of his own predilections : we’ve seen it before with Gove over history. Exam boards have access to plenty of specialist expert knowledge and should propose for study texts that challenge, offer variety and are likely to catch the imagination of young people.

It is tempting to examine the themes of the books Gove wants effectively to ban and, if you know them,  it’s easy to see why they might not appeal to a neo-con. Other texts may follow, with different excuses for deleting them from the syllabus (what price ‘An Inspector Calls’ with its clear message that we are all responsible for each other?). As for the  ‘let them read Brit’ argument, how many of our favourite authors might fail to qualify? Quite a few Irish : Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Shaw, Beckett; others of dubious heritage: Conrad and Stoppard, for example, both of whom I’ve taught at A level. TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath were American – Churchill was half American, for goodness sake! It is narrow-minded and typical of the Secretary of State.

I wouldn’t go to the stake to defend any of these books or authors in particular but I will join with those who wish to oppose the little dictator at the DfE over his right to meddle in which examples of literature my colleagues choose to present to their children.

That’ll be three million quid, please!

The Discovery Free School, the first ‘free’ school to close, shut it doors last Friday, having been forced to close by the government who had to concede that the school had failed in its fewer than three years in existence. Accounts revealed that this little experiment cost taxpayers over £3 million. Don’t expect Gove or any of his minions to apologise for so recklessly wasting our money. Three million quid: appalling! (Source: Brighton Argus)

Sign this!

The news that Michael Gove, apparently against the advice of some at the DfE, approved the spending of £45 million (some say £40 million) on a selective ‘free school’ Sixth Form College in London, has outraged many, including Margaret Hodge and me. The school will be sponsored by The Harris academy chain which, in case you need reminding, was founded by, and is overseen by, Lord Harris (he of ‘Carpetright’ and ex-Tory Party treasurer and donor) and Westminster School, a private (as in ‘public’) school. Just to rub it in, Gove has overseen cuts to Sixth Form colleges around the country which, according to those who know, is resulting in teacher redundancies and cutting back on 16+ options.

Outraged enough, yet? I started to set up an on-line petition but then heard that the slightly more high profile National Union of Teachers had beaten me to it. So I went to their website and signed. You don’t have to be a member to do the same (although I am, personally). I’m just glad a national organisation is prepared to galvanise opposition to this travesty.

Here’s the link:

http://campaigns.teachers.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1721&ea.campaign.id=27110

Too many old Etonians, eh? I blame the state schools!

He’s a right old ‘rent-a-quote’ isn’t he, Gove? Never happier than when courting the headlines and, as a former journalist, he knows what’s going to grab them. Opinion on the origins of the First World War? He’s got one. How about the makeup of the Cabinet and the academic origins of government advisers? Yep, he’s got something to say on that too.

There are too many Old Etonians, apparently (tell us something we didn’t know). But it’s not their fault, nice chaps as they are, to a man (and they ARE all men, of course). Cameron’s fault for appointing too many people like him? The fault of a Conservative Party that privileges money and contacts? No. According to Gove, it’s the fault of state schools who just don’t produce people of the right calibre meaning that, reluctantly, no doubt, the PM has to fall back on the high quality people who just happen to be the product of his old alma mater.

He knows what they’re thinking!

We had the dubious pleasure of The Gove in Nottingham on Friday, so we were able to benefit from his wisdom via our local press and media. You’ll recall that OFSTED  blitzed the City just before Christmas and pronounced six of the secondary schools to be inadequate, placing them in Special Measures. Notwithstanding that the majority of those were academies, it still apparently gave Gove a green light to have a go, saying that Nottingham schools had been not good enough for too long (one of them was Good just over a year before but no matter). Fair enough if the evidence is there (many locally would claim it isn’t) but this is Gove and he has to sound tough, ‘demanding’ according to the Nottingham Post, that under-performing schools improve, suggesting they be taken “by the scruff of the neck” (ok, I know it’s only a metaphor but it does indicate a belief that people can be made to be better by physical force).

He also warned, in a phrase that will send chills through the ranks of headteachers, that a change of leadership might be needed in some schools. They mustn’t use levels of deprivation to excuse poor levels of performance either because, as he put it in a dazzling display of false logic, “There are children who come from a tough background who go on to succeed.”

But for me, the most telling part of his little tirade came when he combined insult and mind reading to attack the City’s teachers. They need, according to Gove, to raise their level of ambition rather than have “this toxic attitude that children in deprived areas will not do well.” If schools are not doing well enough (and that’s a big ‘if’ according to many in the City’s schools) then it is reasonable that someone examines and criticises the methods being used. However, in my experience, those teachers who choose to work in deprived areas are the most dedicated, determined to do their best to help those children overcome the barriers to learning that society has placed in their way. They may be ineffective, misguided even in their methods but who is Gove to purport to know what is in their hearts? To suggest that not only do they lack ambition, but that this attitude is poisoning the life-chances of those children, is a deeply insulting charge.

And if  we are looking for toxicity, I think we know where we can find it!

This way for rigour…

It’s one of those words we didn’t use very much ’til four years ago but the Education Secretary is all for it. Whether you agree with his methods or not, you can’t fault him for his aim: more rigour. So why, I have to ask, is there less rigour in one fairly obscure but important corner?

The ‘rigorous’ judgement of secondary schools is now based largely on the extent to which they manage to move their children on ‘three levels of progress’. For the uninitiated, this means from the end of Key Stage 2 (that is, at the end of the primary phase) to the end of Key Stage 4 (that is, 16+, end of Year 11 and what used to be the end of compulsory schooling), schools are expected so to teach, motivate and encourage (or, if you’re Gove and Wilshaw, bully and threaten) students that they add three National Curriculum ‘levels’ in that time.

A few moments’ thought will reveal several problems with this. Forget for a moment that the end of KS 2 is measured as a ‘level’ but the end of KS 4 is measured largely in GCSE Grades (so we need some equivalence and conversion) and that a ‘level’ is quite a broad band so that there is a significant difference between a ‘top’ Level 4 (i.e.  nearly Level 5) and a bottom Level 4 (i.e. only just better than Level 3), so much so, in fact, that after the inception of the National Curriculum back in the eighties,  ‘sub-levels’ were devised so that children and teachers could see some indication of progress during a school year, although the reporting of gradings at the end of KS 2 is in whole levels. Forget all that. Clearly, it is absolutely vital that we can have confidence in the reliability of the Key Stage 2 result. I have talked about this before and discussed the pressures on Junior schools to do whatever they can (sometimes ‘gaming’, as Mr Gove might say) to maximise the KS 2 result because, after all, they are judged on how far they have moved children on from Key Stage 1, at the Infant school. I have to remind you that KS 1 levels are based solely on teacher assessments with a very light touch moderation regime and that the pressure on Infant schools and KS 1 teachers is also great.

Given all that, can we rely on the KS 2 results? After all, they are based on externally marked SAT examinations, aren’t they?. Again, I’ve suggested previously that a looser examination regime will have allowed some ‘manipulation’ but at least they are externally marked papers, right? Well, no, actually. The KS 2 Writing Task is, since 2013, internally marked. I have it on good authority (i.e. a current serving primary head teacher, who also reported what fellow heads admit to doing) that schools are now quite deliberately and consciously pushing through some students at a higher level than they know the child should receive, in order to achieve an overall ‘pass percentage’ that will keep them out of ‘Special Measures’. Teachers in the secondary school will look at the reported level, look at the first few bits of work from that child and be horrified, recognising that their task is now much greater.

It is, of course, unprofessional and I cannot condone it, but I can understand. If you set up a system that threatens livelihoods, reputations and communities unless certain benchmarks are reached; if the school would be ‘academised’ and given to a chain owned by a Tory-supporting carpet magnate (Lord Harris, do you recognise yourself?) and the head sacked if a second poor OFSTED grading is given,  and if you leave open a ‘loophole’,  then it is human nature for people to, well, frankly, cheat. Yet no one seems to have noticed. Secondary heads are castigated for legitimately giving students a second chance at achieving a decent grade: this is called ‘gaming’,  but primary heads can get away with it because of a loosening-up of the system.

But, maybe, just maybe, there’s something more sinister going on here. Gove is keen to have as many schools as possible in his little (well, not so little) band of state funded independent schools (academies or ‘free’ schools) for ideological reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. Most of the good or outstanding schools will, for their own reasons (either connected to money, ego-mania or a combination of both), have voluntarily converted, leaving a few ‘community’ or ‘LA schools’. Some of those are struggling around the ‘Requires improvement’ mark. They need a good set of results next time round to avoid the ‘drop’. Why not make it just that little bit harder for them? True, the over-graded Year 7s currently in secondary will take a few years to feed through, but it’s all making the job just a bit harder and a trifle more demoralising.

So, Mr Gove, where’s your rigour at Key Stage 2? If we have to have this farce, at least make the playing field, if not exactly even, at least not riddled with potholes.