This way for rigour…

It’s one of those words we didn’t use very much ’til four years ago but the Education Secretary is all for it. Whether you agree with his methods or not, you can’t fault him for his aim: more rigour. So why, I have to ask, is there less rigour in one fairly obscure but important corner?

The ‘rigorous’ judgement of secondary schools is now based largely on the extent to which they manage to move their children on ‘three levels of progress’. For the uninitiated, this means from the end of Key Stage 2 (that is, at the end of the primary phase) to the end of Key Stage 4 (that is, 16+, end of Year 11 and what used to be the end of compulsory schooling), schools are expected so to teach, motivate and encourage (or, if you’re Gove and Wilshaw, bully and threaten) students that they add three National Curriculum ‘levels’ in that time.

A few moments’ thought will reveal several problems with this. Forget for a moment that the end of KS 2 is measured as a ‘level’ but the end of KS 4 is measured largely in GCSE Grades (so we need some equivalence and conversion) and that a ‘level’ is quite a broad band so that there is a significant difference between a ‘top’ Level 4 (i.e.  nearly Level 5) and a bottom Level 4 (i.e. only just better than Level 3), so much so, in fact, that after the inception of the National Curriculum back in the eighties,  ‘sub-levels’ were devised so that children and teachers could see some indication of progress during a school year, although the reporting of gradings at the end of KS 2 is in whole levels. Forget all that. Clearly, it is absolutely vital that we can have confidence in the reliability of the Key Stage 2 result. I have talked about this before and discussed the pressures on Junior schools to do whatever they can (sometimes ‘gaming’, as Mr Gove might say) to maximise the KS 2 result because, after all, they are judged on how far they have moved children on from Key Stage 1, at the Infant school. I have to remind you that KS 1 levels are based solely on teacher assessments with a very light touch moderation regime and that the pressure on Infant schools and KS 1 teachers is also great.

Given all that, can we rely on the KS 2 results? After all, they are based on externally marked SAT examinations, aren’t they?. Again, I’ve suggested previously that a looser examination regime will have allowed some ‘manipulation’ but at least they are externally marked papers, right? Well, no, actually. The KS 2 Writing Task is, since 2013, internally marked. I have it on good authority (i.e. a current serving primary head teacher, who also reported what fellow heads admit to doing) that schools are now quite deliberately and consciously pushing through some students at a higher level than they know the child should receive, in order to achieve an overall ‘pass percentage’ that will keep them out of ‘Special Measures’. Teachers in the secondary school will look at the reported level, look at the first few bits of work from that child and be horrified, recognising that their task is now much greater.

It is, of course, unprofessional and I cannot condone it, but I can understand. If you set up a system that threatens livelihoods, reputations and communities unless certain benchmarks are reached; if the school would be ‘academised’ and given to a chain owned by a Tory-supporting carpet magnate (Lord Harris, do you recognise yourself?) and the head sacked if a second poor OFSTED grading is given,  and if you leave open a ‘loophole’,  then it is human nature for people to, well, frankly, cheat. Yet no one seems to have noticed. Secondary heads are castigated for legitimately giving students a second chance at achieving a decent grade: this is called ‘gaming’,  but primary heads can get away with it because of a loosening-up of the system.

But, maybe, just maybe, there’s something more sinister going on here. Gove is keen to have as many schools as possible in his little (well, not so little) band of state funded independent schools (academies or ‘free’ schools) for ideological reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. Most of the good or outstanding schools will, for their own reasons (either connected to money, ego-mania or a combination of both), have voluntarily converted, leaving a few ‘community’ or ‘LA schools’. Some of those are struggling around the ‘Requires improvement’ mark. They need a good set of results next time round to avoid the ‘drop’. Why not make it just that little bit harder for them? True, the over-graded Year 7s currently in secondary will take a few years to feed through, but it’s all making the job just a bit harder and a trifle more demoralising.

So, Mr Gove, where’s your rigour at Key Stage 2? If we have to have this farce, at least make the playing field, if not exactly even, at least not riddled with potholes.

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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!

There’s a surprise!

Apparently, if you are 27 and have no teaching experience, you can’t be the Headteacher of a primary school.

Some things you know, some things require research and impirical evidence to determine. I would have put this fact in the former category, but the governors of Pimlico Primary, a ‘free’ school, due to open at the start of September, apparently thought  it a sufficiently open question as to be worth testing out by actually appointing such a person. Just a few weeks after the school opened, it turns out they were wrong and she’s resigned. Oh well, worth a try, eh? Of course, they can’t admit that Annaliese Briggs (for ’tis she) can’t hack it so some mealy-mouthed excuse appears on the school’s website and, lucky for them, she’s going to continue as a governor. Phew! Thought her expertise might be forever lost to the world of education. That was a close one!

In case you don’t recall, Ms Briggs, having taken a degree in Eng Lit, joined a right-wing think tank and somehow (!) ended up advising Mr Gove on the new primary curriculum, for which she was, um, totally unqualified. When she was appointed Headteacher in Pimlico, she announced she wouldn’t be applying the new National Curriculum, on which she had advised (a true case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’) but would be learning how to be a teacher (the words ‘cart’ and ‘horse’ spring to mind).

The Pimlico Primary School is an adjunct to Pimlico Academy, overseen by ‘Future’, an edubusiness founded by a venture capitalist, one John Nash, who is now Lord Nash, education minister in charge of ‘free’ schools and academies, a job for which he is as well qualified as, er, Ms Briggs was to be a head. Don’t you just love the way these things all join up?

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.

And the winner is…..

Commiserations to any of my serving teacher friends who, enjoying their last leisurely start to the day, tuned in to BBC Breakfast TV only to catch our beloved Education Secretary giving another Oscar nomination-worthy portrayal of someone who actually gives a damn about children’s education.

The occasion that dragged him to the studios was today’s trenchant criticism by the Local Government Association of the government’s response to the looming crisis in primary school places. According to Gove, that’s all the fault of the last government, who were apparently warned by Gove when in opposition. That may be true but, if that was the case, why has he wasted billions on his academy project when he should clearly have been focused  on this issue? And what of the very obvious disparity between the creation of surplus places in secondary via the ‘free school’  project and this shortfall? Well, predictably, we were treated to the usual nonsense about ‘choice’, ‘parental demand’ and ‘creation of high quality’ places.

At the risk of boring you I’ll repeat the common sense refutations of these. ‘Choice’ in the system is not ‘choice’ for individuals in a specific location and, in any case, what everyone says and knows is that parents don’t want more choice, just to be sure that their local school is a good one. Very few if any ‘free schools’ have been set up because parents clearly wanted them.  They’re mostly kites flown by charitable trusts or edubusinesses. As for ‘high quality’, how can anybody know until they’ve been running a couple of years what the quality of these schools is?

As if unconvinced by his own performance on education, Michael attempted a bit of emotion at the end of the interview when answering a question about his much publicised reaction to the Syria vote. Not sure, after all, he’s in the running for an Oscar.

End of term…(2)

A trip down memory lane, of sorts, with a ‘last day’ visit to a primary school in East London.

It’s just round the corner from where I grew up, though it wasn’t there when I started school; my mum helped out there for years and ever since,  my dad has been giving a little money every year for book prizes. With his passing last Autumn, the family decided they wanted to continue this tradition and so, on a very warm July morning, I’m sitting in a school hall whilst little children and their mums and dads and teachers file in. The head is a friendly, decent chap, with a delightful, quiet manner and a twinkle in his eye. The event is relaxed, low-key and, for everyone concerned, mercifully short. I say a few words, hand out some books, the leavers sing something sentimental, a retiring deputy head is thanked,  and we’re done.

Looking around, it’s hard not be impressed. The school is in an anonymous back street, its entrance guarded by fencing and an entry phone. Inside, the staff are friendly, the school clearly well-cared-for, the atmosphere calm and orderly. I checked in advance: apparently they got a ‘Good’ in OFSTED last year – no doubt under the new regime someone will find an excuse for them to ‘require improvement’ next time. For me, it’s exactly the sort of school I want to support and celebrate. It serves its diverse community well, with staff dedicated to doing the job they trained for to the best of their ability. Long may they stay under the radar and continue to get on with it.