What now for education?

The election result was, for many if not all, in the field of education,  both a shock and a disappointment. Education did not figure greatly in the election campaign and it would be interesting to know how many people who voted Conservative knew very much about their policies on education, or for whom these policies were the deciding factor in casting their vote. Not that Labour’s policies in opposition had sounded that great, not a lot more than watered down versions of the Conservative ones, but I think we would have felt happier with a Labour-led government. With the Conservatives now in power in their own right, we know, from their manifesto,  something of what we have coming.

Interestingly, in defeat comes renewed support – look at the SNP post loss of the referendum – and I gather there has been a surge in membership of the Labour Party! I recall I joined the Labour Party when it was at a very low ebb, in the early eighties, following an incident where the local Conservative MP made a public, ill-informed and totally inaccurate complaint about what was being taught at my school. It seemed to me that, whilst I wasn’t entirely clear that I supported what Labour was proposing, I could be certain that I was against the Conservatives. Perversely, perhaps, I left the Labour Party in 1997!

Anyway, I am currently in email conversation with two people who are, as it were, ‘insiders’ in education, both ‘lay people’, who are unhappy with what is happening at their respective schools and where perhaps I and the ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ group can help and support them. Can’t say much at the moment – it may, or may not, come to something in the next few weeks. The reality is that, whilst the Conservatives can claim a mandate for whatever they do in education, there will always be those who ideologically, like myself, oppose them. There will also be others who are, so to speak, ordinary members of the public who have no especial axe to grind, but who dislike what they see in terms of process and practice. Those people can be better informed by those of us who have spent many long hours researching and digging and who know that what is being presented and said is not the whole truth nor, in many cases, true at all.

Sadly, it looks as though, with the current crop of contenders for leadership of the Labour Party, Tory education policy on such things as ‘free schools’ will be either accepted or allowed through unopposed. We will need to look to other groups to speak up for properly-funded schools that are rooted in and ultimately accountable to, their local communities. It is also clear that, we need to be realistic and accept that Local Authorities are withering away and there needs to be a different ‘model’ for community schools – academies and ‘free’ schools, even – for campaigners like me to promote and argue for (I may propose such a model in a future post).

So, although I have wider concerns about policies like housing, welfare and the economy, these are not my fields of expertise or experience. I will, however, continue to ferret away in the ‘education corner’, exposing, promoting and informing where I can.

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.

Younger but no wiser

Watching Skills Minister Matthew Hancock on breakfast tv talking about the raising of the participation age from today, my first thought was that he barely looks old enough to have finished sixth form himself, yet (maybe he’s on an intern programme), a function, of course, of my advancing years. My second thought was how little he had benefitted from the Speaking and Listening aspect of his GCSE English, no wonder it’s being downgraded. Anyway, the real purpose of his appearance on TV was to announce that any student who hadn’t achieved a grade C in Maths or English would have to keep studying it, and probably will have to retake it (even though I thought we were against people repeatedly taking exams: I love a bit of consistency!)

Lots of people seem to be in favour of this but one or two killjoys have wondered aloud if the funding is in place and whether there are sufficient teachers around. Having taught the sixth form ‘resit’ group I can attest to what a difficult bunch they are. They’ve spent two years failing to reach the grade, how much difference is another eight months going to make? A different kind of course is needed if we are genuine about wanting these young people to acquire the basic skills they need. Instead, it looks like we are subscribing to the ‘long service’ model: if you keep studying long enough, you’ll eventually get there. Erm, not in my experience.

Stand back, goalposts moving again…

My English teacher colleagues return to the fray next week with the GCSE rules changed without consultation or forewarning. OFQUAL has decided that Speaking and Listening should now play no part in the final GCSE English grade. The excuse once again hints that this is because teachers have been cheating (though they can never quite bring themselves to use that word). Teachers are used to a having to implement new schemes with insufficient warning,  that have not been properly trialled and for which scant resources are available, but changing the scheme partway through is a new one on me. It shows contempt for the teachers (nothing new there, then) and for students moving through from Year 10 to 11 and who are, therefore, halfway through the course.

Speaking and Listening are vital skills for anyone, in work and in everyday life. In the day to day life of many, I suspect, it is the prime means of communication. But apparently, it’s too difficult to assure consistency of assessment.  In reality, it comes down to money. Years back, the exam boards sent a moderator to schools to assure that the marking of Speaking and Listening conformed to agreed standards across schools. In Languages and in some other subject modules, such as Music Performance, recordings are made and sent off for external moderation or marking. That’s obviously too expensive or too much trouble for a core subject with a mass entry. Much easier to say, “We can’t be bothered!”

Now they’ll reportthe Speaking and Listening grade separately, which I’m sure will be of little interest to employers and will not, of course, register on those blasted ‘accountability tables’ for schools. In the end, it’s just another subtle (or not so subtle) way of further depressing the exam outcomes and, by the way, of saying, “We don’t give a fig for the teachers and pupils.”

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!).

Sir Ken attacks Gove


The leading education academic, Sir Ken Robinson, has said Michael Gove is planning to break up the state education system in the UK. Always good to have one’s own prejudices confirmed by an eminent source.

By the way, if you haven’t yet seen it, take a few minutes to watch this excellent RSA ‘animate’ of Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms” (more accessible than it sounds, promise!) That’s what the link at the head of the post is.

Most important meal of the day

Well done to Blackpool Council for its decision to provide free breakfasts for all which, according to some interim research they’ve had carried out, is having a positive effect. However, it’s a concerning situation.

On the one hand, it seems to be a sign of the times — increasing poverty in our affluent society — but, there again, I have occasionally seen it and it was rarely to do with lack of money. After all, how expensive is it to give a child a bowl of cereal or a bit of toast and some juice? It seems to me to be more the product of ignorance and lack of organisation. I have certainly come across parents whose households were so disorganised that they didn’t get up early enough or, for example,  hadn’t planned to have milk in the fridge the night before. And, despite all the publicity, I suspect there are adults who don’t get the need for proper nutrition to aid health, growth and concentration.

I taught in an area that wasn’t wealthy but wasn’t poor. Some parents would just give children some cash for breakfast and/or lunch and I would see these kids as I drove past on the way to school, staggering out of the local mini market with a giant bottle of cola and a large packet of chocolate biscuits. Cashless catering can help but only if the parents pay the school directly so the child is forced to have the healthier food available in the school cafeteria. So, I support moves like Blackpool’s but I do think there’s a limit to this kind of intervention.

“Only connect…”

At it again: OFSTED chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw

Barely a week goes by that we don’t hear about how our (state) schools are failing us, their pupils, the economy, the nation: take your pick. The latest has OFSTED turning up ‘evidence’ that state schools are letting down bright children. Apparently, they fail to make the progress they should in the secondary phase and the clinching proof is that not enough of them get to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This government, which seems so laissez-faire in many respects, is being told by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of OFSTED,  that they should be “encouraging secondary schools to identify bright children in the final year of primary education and track them between the age of 11 and 16 to make sure they fulfil their potential” and, in addition (according to The Telegraph of 26 May) “schools may be told to ensure able pupils sit the toughest A-level subjects that are currently seen as a route into top universities.” Further, a lot of this namby-pamby ‘mixed ability teaching’ is apparently also to blame: more streaming is required, so it seems.

So, time to unpick. Firstly, why do we assume that the grades children achieved in their Key Stage 2 SATs are a perfect indicator of their potential to go on to get As and A*s at GCSE? We know the system is open to abuse and that ‘hot-housing’ at the end of the primary phase is often found by secondary teachers to have over-estimated this potential. Secondly, in my experience, the core subjects of Maths, English and Science are streamed virtually throughout the two secondary key stages. The fact that others aren’t is down to funding: where students have opted at 14+, there will probably be too few students to allow a cost-effective division into enough groups for ‘streaming’ to be viable. Of course, in the private sector, maybe they can afford penny numbers in teaching groups…

Finally, Wilshaw also assumes that, per se, the attainment of a top university place is the be-all and end-all. The fact that such a small proportion of state school students — compared to private school children — go on in this way is proof positive that their state secondary schools have failed them. Well, is it?

Turn now to the Guardian last Thursday, 30 May,  and a report by the Sutton Trust. A survey conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Trust, an educational charity aimed at increasing educational inclusion, shows that more and more young people are put off university by the cost. Over two-thirds of those polled said they had significant concerns about the costs of higher education and, in the current climate, they must be weighing up the dubious benefits of a university education against long-term debt. Of course, that’s not the full story but before Wilshaw and his media mates sound off yet again about ‘failing teachers’ or ‘failing state schools’ he needs to join the dots between the information he has bidden his cohorts to gather — with, no doubt, ulterior intent — and other data that is out there.