Vote for … someone else

As speculation about the forthcoming election mounts, I just want to make it clear that I won’t be standing. Most of you will, I’m sure, be surprised to learn it was ever a possibility but, in fact, I did seriously consider it for several months. Why? Well, it seemed to me that no one was putting forward the kinds of policies which I, and I’m sure, many teachers, wanted to see. In the end, I came to realise that it would be an expensive vanity project. Without a party behind me, the cost would be several thousand pounds, to enable me to publicise the shortcomings of current political thinking about education, to a few thousand people, with the chance of garnering, at best, a couple of hundred votes and thus have zero impact.

I  did actually get as far as drafting a manifesto and, yesterday  morning I awoke to find that David Laws had, in the jargon, ‘run off with my clothes’. Coincidence, of course, since no one has ever seen my draft manifesto, an example perhaps  of ‘great minds thinking alike’, except that I am too modest to claim such an accolade for myself and I have always found Laws so obnoxious that calling him something so complimentary is a complete anathema. Still, ignoring the nerve of him attacking th very notion of politicians meddling in education (this from a meddling politician), I find myself in agreement.

I called the body I would set up a Standing Commission, and it would go further than Laws’ idea, to have a remit covering all aspects of education, not just curriculum. Laws has quite rightly seen that experts should be involved, who can look over a longer timeframe than the two or three years that a politician needs to operate within. I would go further. I’d have experts, certainly, but also representatives of employers, trades unions, parents, governors. It would be a massive undertaking and progress would, inevitably, be slow. As a commission they could ‘commission’ research and take evidence from anyone. This ought to eliminate the introduction of crackpot ideas that are flavour of the month, or systems that have been introduced elsewhere and seem to chime with the current political ideology (I’m thinking here of the Swedish ‘free school’ idea).

If any political party was far-sighted and statesmanlike enough to introduce this, in a decade or so I think we’d be the envy of the world as we would be running a system based on evidence not political whim or ideology.

Fat chance, I know, but we need to recognise that there is another way compared to the system that has left our schools in a bewilderingly chaotic state.

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?)

Barking up the wrong tree

Always good to see Gove in trouble but the spat(s) between him and Sally Morgan, David Laws and Michael Wilshaw is irritating. The obsession the press and media have with personalities and fallings out means that they focus on this sort of story rather than the disastrous policies being pursued by the Coalition Government. To me it looks like a non-story.

Morgan was a close aide of Tony Blair and therefore card-carrying New Labour. She was appointed to head OFSTED not because anybody was trying to be even-handed but because she was in favour of academies (Blair had introduced them, after all) and ‘free schools’. She has reached the end of her time of tenure and is not being reappointed. She has chosen to make an issue of it, suggesting that the Tories are trying to stuff quangos with their supporters (perhaps so that, post the election, their influence can linger on?), something that Labour would never have done, of course!

Laws, well, I have little time for him but the LibDems are currently trying to suggest as much blue water between them and the Tories as possible, again in advance of the election.

Move along, nothing to see here.

What on earth?

I’ve been quiet for a bit but the situation affecting education has been anything but. One could be forgiven for thinking that the skids are under Gove. Almost every day, information emerges that tarnishes the reputation of the academies and ‘free school’ project: Al-Madinah (dysfunctional according to OFSTED), Discovery (to be closed), Bradford’s Kings Science Academy (fraud investigations, head arrested and released on bail), an academisation halted in London following a high court injunction, are some of the headlines. But we have to remember that Gove is sponsoring a market revolution and the logic (?) takes account of failures along the way. Gove will plough on regardless.

The reform of exams hurries on chaotically with teachers at a loss, and Gove has redoubled his attacks on teacher unions, dubbing the NUT an “extreme left-wing” organisation, whilst urged on by those guardians of the public purse, The Tax-payers Alliance and Lib-Dem minister David Laws is encouraging schools to limit or cut out all together union ‘facility’ time. Quite why ‘expenses fiddler’ Laws is even an MP let alone a minister is a mystery,  as is why the Tax-payers Alliance has been silent about the massive overspend on free schools.

Meanwhile the recent excellent Guardian exposé on the apparently legal siphoning off of public money by firms running academies ought to have got more attention than it did (no Newsnight, nothing on the BBC at all: maybe a Panorama special is being made as I type!). There is actually a ‘snouts in trough’ story here to rival the MPs’ expenses scandal but I am not confident that anyone in the media has the will to pick it up and run with it.

The upcoming Education Select Committee investigation into academies and free schools ought to be interesting. The organisation for which I blog (Hands Off Our Schools) made a two and a half thousand word submission which has been published on the parliamentary website (click link and scroll down to name of organisation) along with many others from individuals and organisations. These committees have a reputation for fierce independence and, if they go for Gove as one hopes they will, the resultant publicity could bring the folly of his project to mass attention in a way that hasn’t happened up to now.

However, we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that Gove can be diverted from his purpose and so must start looking to alternatives. If the Conservatives retain power in May 2015, we can only look forward to a complete break-up of the state education system and more open profit-making from schools than we see at the moment. But what if there’s a Labour-led government from then? The signs are not good.

In the first place, it is probably expecting too much for them to reverse the massive academisation that will have taken place by May 2015. They have pledged not to allow any more free schools but these will be replaced with something that, on the face of it, looks the same. Tristram Hunt has attacked the employment of unqualified teachers in free schools but figures show very few of them have actually been taken on and in Nottinghamshire, putative free school providers are pledging to employ only qualified teachers, thus neutralising this point. On the other hand, Hunt obviously feels the need to ingratiate himself with the electorate (perceived to be at least suspicious of teachers) and edubusinesses by suggested that there are teachers who need to be sacked: his proposal for the licensing of teachers sounds reasonable but is probably angled at currying favour. It’s hardly a ‘big policy’ anyway. At the moment, the Labour Party could be going for the jugular on the massive and evident syphoning off of public funds by  educational pseudo-charities (read this excellent post by anotherangryvoice).  Why aren’t they?

The strategy now must be two-fold. Trying to argue with Gove is pointless – however much ‘evidence’ we come up with, he won’t budge. We have to go on informing the general public about what is going on as most people would be aghast at the criminal waste of money and the evident failure of policies supposedly designed to improve performance – if only they knew. Possibly, with a public outcry, Gove could be forced from office or Cameron brought to see him as an electoral liability. Unfortunately, the media are not interested in – or geared up to deal with – this sort of incremental scandal. They want a ‘shock horror’ for tomorrow’s headlines. This could happen (maybe there’s a juicy scandal at Bradford Kings Science Academy that could splatter across the tabloids)  but let’s not hold our breaths.

The second strand must therefore be to pressurise the Labour Party, who are the most likely to form a government in 15 months’ time, assuming the Tories don’t. Those, unlike me, inside the tent, need to be putting on pressure but I know the Labour hierarchy are adept at holding in check their left wing, terrified they might be labelled ‘socialist’. They’ll do anything that they think will receive support from the mass of the electorate, especially the so-called ‘squeezed middle’. That’s why they won’t nationalise or renationalise academies and free schools, where many of these people now have their children.

Probably the best we can hope for, then, is proper regulation and a role for the necessarily slimmed down local authorities in monitoring standards in all schools in their area. It’s far from ideal but realistic – and much, much better than the Thatcherite revolution Gove has wrought.

Time to bury some bad news

As the long school holiday approaches, time for Gove-watchers to fine-tune our antennae. The holidays themselves or the run-down to them, when teachers are manically trying to get this year wrapped up and the new one set up, has always seemed to governments of all hues like  a good time to issue policy statements that teachers might not like. Last year, if you recall, Gove announced academies could employ unqualified teachers (obviously, this was not dumbing down : that only happens when exam performance goes up!).

This year, liberal-democrat fellow-traveller, David Laws, tells us how OFSTED will ‘hold schools to account’ for the underachievement of their disadvantaged pupils, and the gap between them and the rest of the school population. Of course, you thought the Pupil Premium came to schools to help narrow that particular inequality but, as I hope I’ve shown in a previous post, that is just a fig leaf for the lib-dems so they’ll let Gove get on with privatising the state education system. Everyday, cuts to local authority spending mean more and more must be found from school budgets. Oh, and, by the way, the Pupil Premium didn’t get a ‘real terms’ upgrade in the Spending Review.

Whilst we’re talking about underachievement and disadvantage, you might have thought that there could, conceivably, be factors outside the control of schools which might be playing a part. Housing? Social care? Disability? Welfare? Mental health? Poverty? Anybody out there trying to do anything to level those particular playing fields? No, thought not.

Also in the announcement, we learn that John Dunford, formerly of one of the heads’ unions, has become ‘Pupil Premium Czar’ or some such. As long as we’ve got a Czar, what could go wrong? Anyway, check out the Laws statement, brought to you courtesy of my ‘mole’ in the consultancy service of a London borough (no, not Edward Snowden!).