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.

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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.

“You pay, we say”

How galling is it that a government which came in with tales of woe and plans to cut everything in sight because of the apparently dire state of the nation’s finances, has wasted so much on Michael Gove’s pet academies and ‘free’ schools projects? It is one thing to argue about whether they are effective or not (they’re not) but even if they achieved what is claimed for them, they would still be incredibly poor value for money.

Take the Nottingham Free School. This school, as regular readers will know, has been in the pipeline for well over a year and finally, about a month ago, announced that it will open this coming September  in part of an old factory building known as the Courtaulds building and which, for most of us locally, is familiar as the home of a factory shop. So far, so inexpensive, you would think. After all, they’ve shelled out for nothing so far, more than the cost of advertising and setting up a website: a few leaflets, the cost of hiring premises for open meetings in the autumn etc.

Yet, as always, someone (not me) has been burrowing away in documents and websites, statements of accounts and so forth and has found that the parent organisation, the Torch Academy Gateway Trust, and Toot Hill Comprehensive, the academy at the heart of this group, has received £180000 up to the end of January this year, that is, before any work has been done on the Courtaulds building since it hadn’t been announced then. (Maybe there had been a ‘feasibility’ study and an architect’s report to pay for, who knows.)

For greater clarification: Torch received £90000 on 17 September last year from the DfE in the expense area ‘free school group’; Toot Hill school received another £90000 on 28 January this year, again in the expense area ‘free school group’. Toot Hill is the  main school in the Torch Trust and on the NFS website, Toot Hill and its ‘outstanding’ OFSTED rating is heavily used as a way of suggesting the NFS will be excellent. The CEO of Torch has been quoted in the local press as confirming that the NFS and Trent Bridge Free School bid to the DfE, as it was at that stage (October 2012), was financially supported by the New Schools Network, although he didn’t say by how much at that stage. The New Schools Network, quaintly described as a ‘charity’ in the Nottingham Post article, is, of course, a government quango, supported by grants from government (that is, your money and mine) explicitly to support any group wishing to set up a ‘free’ school.

We don’t know whether, in the light of the announcement of the school’s location and the obvious need for refurb and equipment, further money will be forthcoming. We don’t know how many pupils they will start with – estimates vary between 70 and 90, which was the NFS stated aim (originally 120). Normally a school would not receive its per capita funding until the following year but for any new school, ‘pump priming’ is obviously needed. How much, no one at this stage knows but, you can be sure, someone will be doing their best to find out. What is clear is that, so far, without teaching one single lesson. NFS has cost us at least £18000, or, on the NFS’s own figures, £2000 per pupil.

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

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!