Whilst further details emerge of a ‘culture of extravagence’ at E-ACT : see the link

and we in Nottingham have one of the highest paid heads of a tiny academy trust: see my previous post,  we have a fight brewing to the north of the county of Derbyshire, in which I worked.

I don’t claim to know Chapel-en-le-Frith or the CofE Primary School there but, apparently, it got put into special measures in November. An all-too-familiar story has followed. They were told they had to meet the DfE academy broker even before they had had the result of the HMI monitoring visit. Judging by letters written by the Chair of Govs and the Headteacher, published on their website, they have been well-supported by the local authority and have received positive comments from the HMI. They obviously believe they are well on the way to getting out of special measures pretty soon, but that is not quick enough for Lord Nash. He’s accused them of not having a sustainable plan to make the improvements the school needs (which, if the head and chair of governors are to be believed, is laughable) and he has set a very tight timetable for ‘consultation’ before he effectively sacks the governors, appoints an Interim Executive Board and makes an ‘academy order’.

It is quite obvious that the senior management of the school and the governing body are united in opposition. They clearly believe they have the support of the vast majority of parents. Good luck to them in their fight – there are examples from elsewhere where academisation has been fought off.

Everything I know (well, almost) …

When a friend and colleague asked me for a ‘ briefing’ on Gove, I went a bit mad! It’s long but it is my attempt to put what I know in context. Can you spot anything I’ve missed?

1. The Macro
From the word go (May 2010), Michael Gove acted swiftly to begin the implementation of his policies, even using parliamentary procedures designed for terrorist legislation to push through the law to enable academies and free schools to start from September 2010. It is clear to everyone that he is motivated by ideology – an apparent belief that ‘the market’ will provide the best and most efficient service, even in education – and is only interested in evidence if it can be used to justify his actions (not unlike many a politician here!). He will cherry-pick or even invent ‘facts’. For example, he chose to implement the Swedish model for free schools despite it being far from clear that they were working even in that country and ignoring some obvious differences of culture (eg there is no private education sector in Sweden). He ignores evidence emerging from Sweden that after 20 years it is not working and is certainly increasing segregation. Gove has also been caught out quoting ‘facts’ culled from very dubious sources and surveys.

In his moves on the curriculum and examination system, Gove has also been guided by ideological prejudice eg his own specialist area of English Literature (prescribing books that children ought to be made to read, which will hardly increase their motivation to enjoy literature) and his imperialist view of History. He has become the darling of the Conservative right because he appears to champion a move backwards to ‘traditional’ styes of teaching (eg rote learning), a focus on a narrow form of literacy, a UK-centric/imperialist world view of History, a preference for a grammar-school/private school ethos, a return to ‘O’ level, the abolition of coursework, down-grading of vocational (ie ‘easy’, in his view) subjects and so on.

He has been helped by three factors. Firstly, the media have assisted in creating a narrative about English education, namely, that state education is failing, that it is poor when compared internationally and that private education is self-evidently better. Secondly, unlike the NHS, the public does not perceive education as a ‘national education service’ and are by and large uninterested in schooling if their children are doing ok, unless their school is threatened in which case, there is often a determined campaign of support for the school. However, few of these issues make the national media (Al Madinah and the recent problems of E-ACT being exceptions) so that a problem with your own local school may seem to be a blip and not part of a national trend, when, in fact, it is. Thirdly, the spectacular failure of the Labour Party to mount any kind of serious opposition to Gove’s wholesale dismantling of the state-funded education system.

The prevailing narrative has become accepted ‘fact’ but can easily be challenged. However you judge it, many schools have done well and are improving, however, most of those schools have been encouraged to move outside the state sector and become independent academies (albeit still funded by the tax-payer) so the illusion continues that state schools (ie LA-run schools) are failing. The international comparisons (OECD ‘PISA’) were seized on by the media, Gove and even, regrettably, Tristan Hunt, but those who have looked closely can see straight away that the tests, the methodologies and even the interpretation of the results, are deeply flawed. These ‘results’ are now being used to urge our schools to adopt teaching strategies and styles that are anathema to our culture eg the Singapore model for Maths. As for Gove’s recent praise for the private sector, dressed up as a desire for all our children to have ‘as good as’, this has been rightly condemned as nonsense. There are many inequalities of funding and a privileged intake that, once stripped away, mean that, in fact, if anything, the best state schools are doing slightly better.

The media have certainly done a lot to establish the ‘narrative’ of failure and poor comparative performance in the public mind, over time (think of the annual claims that improving exam results must be an indication of ‘dumbing down’, going back decades) and they have also done little to challenge Gove or expose the growing evidence of the failures of his policies. Those ‘in the know’ are aware of increasing stories of ‘financial irregularity’, and poor performance in the ‘free school’ and academy ‘world’ and are surprised that an investigative journalist or documentary maker has not delved and exposed. For some commentators, there is a belief that Gove, as an ex-journo himself, gets off lightly. It is also the case that many in the serious media are the products of private schooling so readily buy the negative state schools stereotype.

2. The Micro
At the school level, Gove’s policies and attitudes are doing great damage to our teachers and pupils. There has probably never been a Secretary of State so universally loathed by the teaching body. The Coalition has successfully waged a propaganda campaign against public services and, in education, Gove has used what he perceives to be public antagonism or, at best, indifference, to suppress wages, alter pension rights and attack working conditions. A recent survey suggested that, under Gove, teachers’ actual working hours have increased. Moreover, Gove has attacked and denigrated teachers – the very people whose support he needs to implement changes – at every turn. He has dismissed opposition amongst the teaching profession and the education world more generally as “vested interests’ and “the enemies of promise”. The NUT was branded “an extreme left-wing organisation” and headteachers who chose exam entry strategies which maximised the chances of student success were accused of “gaming” (in other words, cheating). Most Secretaries of State are unloved by teachers but it would be hard to overestimate how reviled this one is amongst ordinary classroom teachers, not simply because they disagree with his policies but because his words and his actions indicate to them that he does not value their hard work and expertise. Unheralded changes of policy, issued as diktats, show how little they are thought of.

In this regard, Gove is given a close run by Michael Wilshaw. No teachers are likely to be fond of OFSTED but, under this chief (appointed by Gove) they have seen regular and bewildering changes that have left them unclear what they have to do. The ‘toughening up’ and renaming of ‘Satisfactory’ as ‘Requires improvement’, means that there is no longer any meaningful comparison to be had between schools and has left schools that have clearly been improving over five or six years, apparently standing still or even going backwards. There is now a great lack of clarity about what inspectors are looking for with recent announcements that no particular teaching style in valued more than others, and the revelation that, apparently, individual teachers are not ‘graded’. Other announcements seem to widen the attributes being inspected even including teachers’ dress and the school’s outcomes regarding careers and student destinations.

Wilshaw has the same people skills as Gove, at least where teachers are concerned and, notwithstanding an apparent falling out between ‘The Michaels’ recently, OFSTED is part of the problem. The number of children alleged to be ‘being failed’ (that is, being taught in schools graded 3 or 4) is a new statistic, devised by Wilshaw (reminiscent of Woodhead’s famous ‘fifteen thousand failing teachers’), and used as part of the ‘failing state sector’ narrative. More significantly, OFSTED outcomes are used by the sinister DfE ‘brokers’ to badger and bully heads into turning their schools into academies. There is plenty of evidence that OFSTED is in cahoots and that the policy has little to do with improving education and a lot to do with enabling essentially sound schools, perhaps undergoing a transition or ‘blip’, to be gobbled up by academy chains who can claim responsibility for improvements that were about to happen anyway. Some of the chains and their ‘heads’ have close connections to the Conservative Party eg Lord Harris, of ‘Carpetworld’, a Tory donor, who is a fairly ‘hands on’ head of the Harris Academy Trust.

3. A note about funding
Even a politician like Gove feels the need to create an impression with the electorate. The impression has therefore been created that education funding has been protected under the Coalition, whereas heads and bursars know that, at the sharp end, that’s not how it feels. ‘Early adopters’ of ‘converter academy’ status often bluntly explained it was for the money. Gove has diverted large amounts – billions – to his pet ‘free school’ and academy projects, to the undoubted detriment of ‘bog standard’ local schools. ‘Free schools’ in particular can often to be shown to be very poor value for money. However, those billions will still show up as part of the overall education budget so no apparent cuts have taken place.

The serious cuts that have gone on in local authorities which are, quite clearly, a deliberate policy of the Coalition, have a knock-on effect on LA-run schools. Services that used to be free are now charged for (examples are work experience checking and careers advice via Connexions, which Wilshaw has recently said will now be part of inspections from September!) The biggest con of all, however, is the ‘pupil premium’. This is a much-trumpeted Liberal Democrat policy which appears to provide support for children from poorer homes but, on closer inspection, is largely an illusion. This is because the money provided less than compensates for the money needed to make up the shortfall from other sources, particularly local authority services and grants. To add insult to injury, OFSTED insists on seeing evidence that the PP is being used for the purpose for which it was intended!

The arguments against academies and ‘free schools’ are well-rehearsed. Despite what Gove and ‘DfE spokesmen’ say, there is no evidence that they are more successful than equivalent LA-supported schools. The inexorable movement is towards chains in place of Local Authorities, which have no democratic accountability and which, if Gove gets his way, will be allowed to make a profit. It is not clear who monitors and supports quality in these schools, other than OFSTED, hence the recent spat over inspecting chains. These chains are technically ‘charities’ but operate like the businesses they really are. Financial irregularities, cheating, fraud even, are emerging – there are certainly instances of links between directors of ‘trusts’ and their own companies who profit from contracts awarded them by the schools – which may be lawful but sounds at the very least ‘inappropriate’.

However, the greatest damage Gove is doing is to the ethos in schools. Gove’s and Wilshaw’s behaviour towards schools, headteachers, teachers and local communities is nothing short of bullying. There is now a lot of evidence that academies and ‘free schools’ operated by chains are run along similar lines where employees are bullied, rather than encouraged, into behaving the way the management wants. To be fair, such an attitude has always existed amongst a few heads who seemed to think the only way to manage people was to threaten them. This could be put down in the past to good teachers being promoted, without additional training, beyond their level of competence. However, this is now on the increase as ‘business’ tries to run schools as businesses, using the very worst ‘business practice’. In such schools it will hardly be surprising that teachers start treating children the way they are being treated themselves.

4. A Word about Labour
The official opposition seemed, at one point, to be sitting it out. Gove moved swiftly in May-June 2010 and maybe the party was shell-shocked by its defeat. Maybe they found it hard to oppose a policy (academies) which they had initiated. The truth is that it was a ridiculous notion when New Labour brought it in: who on earth thought that the problems of an under-performing school could be solved by ceding major influence to a car dealer with a ‘creationist’ bee in his bonnet? (Reg Vardy, in case you’re wondering). It actually makes no sense and leads many to think that Labour and the Tories are really on the same page. In other words, they are, to differing degrees only, both interested in undermining local authorities, which can be irritating to whichever government is in power, and giving our state schools system to business.

The previous Labour education ‘shadow’, Stephen Twigg, seemed to take the ‘shadow’ title literally and was conspicuous by his absence from serious debate. Under Hunt, things have been little better. Apart from asserting that schools ought to employ qualified teachers (which, according to a recent survey, most ‘free’ schools do anyway) his main policy suggestion has been a Royal College of Teaching, which looks suspiciously like the GTC Mark II and whose main point seems to be to allay public fears that poor teachers might not be able to be sacked! More nonsense, of course. The politicians are so very keen on giving the right impression to the public, assuming they have accurately ‘read’ the public mood in the first place. Actually, some surveys suggest the public is further to the left than this and would welcome a full-throated attack on what some believe is an increasingly chaotic and unsustainable mess.

SUMMARY – the main points to be made against Gove are :
– his refusal to look at evidence or to pilot new schemes, but he ploughs ahead regardless, interested only in his ‘market’ ideology;
– an unsystematic development and launch of policy, often coming apparently from nowhere with no notice, leading to an increasingly chaotic and piece-meal education system;
– his curriculum changes also play to the neo-con right, dressed up as ‘rigour’ and ‘improving standards’;
– the encouragement of a negative view of state as opposed to private education;
– his attacks both verbal and in actions, against the teaching profession;
– the appointment of Wilshaw and his support for a campaign by OFSTED that treats schools, heads and teachers very badly with increasing concerns about consistency and fairness;
– the waste of vast sums of money on pet projects that could have been spent on schools;
– with Wilshaw, he is responsible for underhand and bullying treatment of schools, heads, communities and teachers, thereby encouraging others such as unelected heads of ‘chains’, headteachers and governors to behave likewise;
– the undermining of democratic accountability of schools to their local communities;
– the encouragement of business to enter the education ‘market’ for profit (technically, the ‘trusts’ are charities but there are plenty of apparently legal ways being used at the moment to make a profit eg IES from Sweden); and, of course, illegal ways as well!;
– his oversight of an increasingly fragmented and chaotic education world where ultimately the interests of the individual child are forgotten.

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.

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.

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.

More revealing evidence of Gove’s attitude to schools

“Schools building programme delayed by lack of finance” is the BBC headline and, on News 24 we see pictures of schools so desperate for repairs that they look for all the world like derelict buildings. Still, I suppose in the current economic climate…but wait, didn’t I read somewhere that Gove had gone £1billion over budget on the academies programme (that’s £8 billion in all)? Yes, you did. Continue reading

Roke parents to take on Gove

It is encouraging to see that the parents’ group opposing the enforced academisation of Roke Primary school are considering mounting a legal challenge. Far, far too many schools’ governing bodies have either been bounced into academy status by ambitious and pushy heads and chairs of governors or, when threatened, have rolled over. Roke’s situation sounds like a dreadfully unfair one and they obviously have a feisty lot who are NOT prepared to roll over. Read the full story at the Anti Academies Alliance website and follow links to get the full background. Warning: it’ll get your blood boiling!

‘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

Time for unions to join the real world? GUEST POST

As a secondary teacher of History and Archaeology who, at present, is perpetually angered by the apathy and ignorance of what is a vital issue that will affect the futures of our children, I feel it is time for change. No, not another rant arguing for the immediate resignation of the Secretary of State for Education (although it would be acceptable), nor for a rethink of the proposed pay structure or pensions of teachers. Not even a radical shake-up of the Education Ministry and ill-advised, shambolic inspectors at Ofsted. No, the people who need to change are the Unions. Continue reading