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.

Opposition?

Finally, it’s good to see opposition to Gove’s madness being promulgated by, well, the Opposition. It is, of course, difficult for the Labour Party to talk meaningfully about things like academies and they seem to have given up counter-arguing when their record in office is trashed, so I understand why new opposition spokesman, Tristram Hunt, has focused rather narrowly on the unqualified teacher issue, albeit this has been around for well over a year (it was announced at the end of the school year 2012, always a good time for governments to reveal unpopular policies, doubly so that year as the Olympics festivities were just kicking off). Still, better late than never and this is likely to be a policy that will resonate with people who will think it mad that their children should be taught by unqualified staff.

This has made me acutely aware how vigilant we have to be about almost everything. Who would have thought a few years back that we’d be having a public debate about this? It was back in the late seventies that teaching was made a graduate profession and not long ago that there seemed to be cross-party agreement that teachers should acquire a second degree. This is the case in some Nordic countries, you know, those ones that do better than us in OECD tables!

I was never convinced, actually. My experience has been that some of the best teachers I’ve come across haven’t necessarily been top class academically and those with doctorates and the like haven’t always been brilliant teachers. It’s the sort of equivalence politicians like to make when they are trying to convince the public they’re serious about ‘standards’. But it’s definitely the case that everyone should go through a proper training course. It’s probably true that the full four-year BEd. route taken by primary teachers is better than the PGCE one followed by secondary teachers and I’m not entirely convinced about the ‘on the job’ schemes like Teach First and the old GTP (though I can think of at least one excellent example of the latter). However, as I said, who would have guessed this would have to be defended?

Hunt has also been trying to ‘mix it’ with Gove over the narrowness of the proposed new English Language GCSE and it is very amusing to see a role reversal, with Gove trying to micky take over Hunt’s public school education, posing as the champion of the oppressed masses!

Will this ‘chaotic’, ‘dysfunctional’ school be allowed to continue?

Thanks to a leak, we now know how damning the OFSTED report on Al-Madinah free school in Derby actually is. We have seen how Mr Gove has rushed in to ‘rescue’ children from ‘failing’ schools in the past. One example was Sinfin nearby in Derby which was still a fully functioning school before Gove sent his storm troopers in to quickly convert it to City of Derby Academy, now corporately badged as part of the Greenwood Dale empire. So what of the four hundred or so children at Al-Madinah? How is their education to be continued without further disruption? It is not their fault that their parents foolishly signed up for a school that has turned out to be useless, parents who, no doubt, thought their children would be royally indoctrinated into a Muslim faith and culture. I regret all so-called faith schools but this one has turned out to be a school only in name. However, it cannot just be closed and the children and their parents left to flounder.

Be that as it may,  Al-Madinah could be something of a watershed for both Gove and his new ‘shadow’, Tristram Hunt. Obviously, Al-Madinah is an extreme example but it does show the folly of the whole ‘free school’ phenomenon: they’ve started up in unsuitable buildings which nonetheless have been well furnished at public expense but with, apparently, nobody with much experience of teaching or running a school. Self-evidently, these children would have been much better off in a local-authority run school or, even, an academy which had been based on an existing school. Hunt has an ‘open goal’ to expose the utter foolhardiness of Gove’s reckless policies if he can summon the courage to believe that public opinion will be behind him and not Gove’s ideology. Gove, already under pressure for his constant meddling with the exam system, should come under greater scrutiny for his ‘free’ school policy.

When Gove’s political epitaph is finally written (oh, make it soon!), we might find ‘Al-Madinah’ written on his heart.

How many more?

An excellent piece in today’s Guardian by John Harris, exposing and then critiquing the case of King’s Stanley Primary School, Gloucester. Staff, governors and parents are up in arms about an OFSTED report, published in July, grading them Inadequate, placing them in Special Measures and opening the door to academisation. This case is well documented – it’s worth reading the comments following the article on line where someone has bothered to read and pull apart the actual report, and following the links to the ‘Save King’s Stanley’ website for lots of ‘on the ground’ details. It is very hard not to come away with the conviction that OFSTED are acting as Gove’s storm troopers with the cynical aim of taking over what is essentially a good school, in a leafy village setting, with brand new buildings to boot. I’m worried that, although I keep my ear to the ground, I’m only picking this up more than two months later and that, as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been a squeak from the Opposition’s Stephen Twigg, who seems to be giving new meaning to the title  ‘Shadow’ Secretary of State.

Roke Primary, Downhills : how many more of these cynical and transparent manoeuvrings must there be before the mainstream media pick up what’s happening and force it into the public consciousness? Let’s have a ‘Dispatches’ or ‘Panorama’ with discussions on Newsnight or Andrew Marr.

All according to plan?

Great to see that Michael Gove’s plans to improve the educational outcomes of our young people by transforming the way schools are run, are going swimmingly!

In the last few weeks I have seen a number of worrying reports. Near me, the first ‘free’ school in Derby is, according to the BBC, being investigated for alleged financial irregularities by the government’s Education Funding Agency (the trust running the school refutes the charges). The report prompted me to go and have a look at the school’s website and I was surprised to see that, a year on from its opening, the ‘school’ is still housed temporarily in parts of an office building. Can’t help wondering if our children don’t deserve better.

Meanwhile, a selective grammar school in Kent, just the sort of thing Mr Gove likes, has been judged inadequate by OFSTED. This was Chatham Grammar School. Not far away, in Bromley, there’s trouble at Ravens Wood School, an academy, according to today’s Observer. EdExel are investigating allegations that coursework marks for a BTec in ICT were falsified, whilst, at the same time, the school has made a formal complaint about its OFSTED inspection in June, which explains why the report still  hasn’t been published. Ravens Wood is overseen by its “visionary” (M. Gove) executive principal, Professor Sir George Berwick CBE, knighted earlier this year for ‘services to education’. But not for much longer. Apparently he’s reached retirement age and parents have just been informed he’s retiring officially on 10 October (YOU think what you like – I couldn’t possibly comment!)

I genuinely take no pleasure in seeing schools judged below par or teachers and schools being put under pressure for alleged malpractice of any sort. The thing uppermost in my mind is: why is no-one from Labour, the official opposition, (or the Lib-Dems, for that matter) speaking up against the demented and headlong rush to break up and, effectively, privatise our school system? Where is the evidence that this is serving the interests of our children or the intellectual and economic well-being of our society?

Time to rediscover local democracy and ‘thick’ democracy?

I thought my ‘followers’ might be interested in this thoughtful and vaguely hopeful piece from Howard Stevenson, a researcher at Nottingham University whom I have met through involvement in the Nottingham ‘Anti-Academies Alliance’, ‘Hands Off Our Schools’.

http://howardstevenson.org/2013/05/06/local-elections-2013-time-to-rediscover-local-government-and-thick-democracy/

Striking the right posture?

As the majority of teachers take a well-earned break,  a minority of activists head to their annual conferences. They have already started grabbing headlines in greater numbers than in many previous years. The ATL has passed a motion of ‘no confidence’ in Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw and the NUT and NAS/UWT are certain to do the same. Secretaries of State for Education are rarely top of teachers’ Christmas card lists but such universal opprobrium must be unprecedented. What is also exercising journalists is the very real prospect of the two larger unions initiating a series of rolling strikes, and a clear confrontation with a Secretary of State who, tauntingly, has offered to meet them despite making it clear he has no intention of negotiating over his plans for teachers’ pensions and pay arrangements. How is all this going to pan out?

Strikes are never popular with parents, a fact Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, has acknowledged and the government will no doubt exploit in the inevitable ‘war of words’ when it comes. Ed Miliband will be challenged to condemn the strikes and he’ll dance around, neither condemning nor supporting. The fact that the strikes are specifically about pensions and pay will also be turned to the government’s advantage as ‘generous’ pensions and automatic pay rises will be contrasted with the experience of those in the private sector. The poll conducted on behalf of the NUT showing poor support amongst parents for the government’s education reform opens up the prospect of a wider campaign, spearheaded by teacher strikes. But I fear the NAS/UWT, which has always viewed itself more as a traditional ‘trade union’, there to defend members’ interests, will not go along with this and the ATL will not, of course, be striking at all.

I have to say, I am not entirely convinced of the value of strikes as a weapon. In the middle of the last century, when workers were trying to force a recalcitrant employer to do the decent thing, it made sense. That employer, weighing up the pros and cons and looking at the bottom line may simply have concluded it was in his interests to concede. In the public sector, issues are clouded by the identification of ‘the government’ with ‘the public interest’ and whereas the inability of an employer to make and sell his goods may be one thing, the withdrawal of a public service inconveniences masses of people in a short time. And can a government be seen to ‘give in’ to what amounts to a threat? In those rare cases where strikes in the public sector can be represented as having ‘worked’ the outcome will have been hedged around with lots of ‘fudges’ to enable the government of the day to claim its own ‘victory’.

Defeat of Gove over teachers’ pensions and pay, and on the wider educational front, with regard to his proposed changes to the curriculum and the academies/free schools/privatisation agenda, can only occur if it is linked to the discontent felt across the country over health service and welfare reforms, the evident failure of austerity measures and the ideology behind it all. Not only do we need the NUT and NAS/UWT to stay united, we need them to join with the as yet disparate elements of opposition to the Coalition. Time will tell whether they will be able to swallow their pride — and differences — to unite in the common good.

He ain’t going nowhere (apologies to Bob Dylan)

Much as I dislike the tendency in modern politics to ‘personalise’ I have to face up to the fact that opposing current changes in education means opposing the works and ideas of one man. My fellow opponents have got excited in recent weeks by the pressure being put on Michael Gove. He has backed down over EBACC, he has faced criticism from fellow MPs and in the media over his failure to control his special advisers, there have been revelations of a ‘bullying culture’ within the DfE and there have been strongly critical pieces in influential newspapers. Might he be on the way out, some have wondered? Continue reading

‘The Goveshaw Conspiracy’

The back half of the 'Goveshaw Conspiracy'

The back half of the ‘Goveshaw Conspiracy’

There can be little doubt now that the Education Secretary and the Head of OFSTED are jointly waging a war against teachers and schools that won’t play ball with them.

Michael Gove has employed a many-faceted attack, including either enticing heads and governors down the academy route, or forcing them there if OFSTED have judged them in any sense ‘failing’ (OFSTED chief Michael Wilshaw has obligingly redefined ‘satisfactory’ as ‘needs improvement’, neatly ensuring there is no neutral ground: a school is either up for becoming an academy because of a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ judgement or a candidate for enforced academisation). The campaign being waged also includes the abolition of national pay awards for teachers and the most recently announced measure, the introduction of performance-related pay for all teachers. He wants to put teachers and their unions on the back foot, forcing them to defend pay and pensions which he and his friends in the media, he judges, can easily present as ‘special pleading,’ ‘vested interests’ and ‘restrictive practices’. On another flank he pushes through a wholesale reform of the exam system, taking it back a couple of generations to a non-existent golden age that, nonetheless, readers of the Daily Mail seem to recall as part of a sort of ‘false memory’ syndrome. With the Labour Party somehow unable to mount a full frontal opposition to Gove’s policies or even his patently autocratic style, the best and best-informed opposition would be likely to come from teachers. Pinning them into a corner where they are forced to concentrate purely on pay and conditions is a blatant attempt to neutralise that potential, which my ‘Guest blogger’ and other contributors have been arguing about for the last week.

Continue reading