NFS update

Well, sort of. One of my ‘followers’ points out that, if Torch are to appoint ‘experienced’ teachers for their Nottingham Fantasy School, they’d better get their skates on. The resignation date for teachers currently in post is 31 May so time enough. However, I can’t find any jobs advertised on the TES website so they’ve got to get their act together pretty swiftly after Easter as I think this would give them about six weeks to get applications in, short-list, interview and offer jobs. I’ll keep you posted.

Incidentally, whilst searching the TES site I discovered that Meden School (the OTHER Torch school) is looking for eight new staff including an Assistant Head, a Director of English and ‘Head of School’, that is, a Headteacher, basic salary of £80000. Wonder what’s the story?

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.


If you are a teacher who has just returned to school after a welcome break, beware, Michael Gove has rumbled you: admit it, you’re a member of an extreme left-wing organisation, aren’t you? Gove has, in parliament, referred to the National Union of Teachers and ‘other extreme left-wing’ organisations (by which, presumably, he means all the other teacher unions). He was seeking to justify his refusal to comply with a Freedom of Information request for the publication of free school applications that were unsuccessful, along with the letters of rejection. He was, he said, protecting those brave teachers who wanted to set up a free school from intimidation by the NUT and those other extremists. (Feel free to insert here any anecdote of Gove or his minions bullying or intimidating teachers, parents, schools or headteachers into becoming academies or accepting poorer negotiating rights, conditions of service etc.)

Gove never seems to be happy unless he’s name-calling – remember the ‘enemies of promise’ jibe? – or tilting at left-wing windmills (witness his recent ignorant and inappropriate diatribe against supposedly left-wing ‘myths’ about the First World War).


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!

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.”

Not rocket science

science beakersA report out today (13 August) highlights a potential shortage of Science and Maths teachers in the not-too-distant future. The highly predictable cause is that, during times of economic downturn, teaching is a safe option for those with degrees in the so-called ‘STEM’ subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). When the economy picks up, those people can find jobs in the private sector suited to their qualifications. They are much better paid than teaching. The obvious solution would be to make teaching better paid but the more likely prescribed solution will be for schools with the ‘freedom’ of being academies or ‘free’ schools to pay their Science and Maths staff differently. This will be hailed as the triumph of market forces. Quite apart from the morale-sapping knowledge that your Science or Maths colleague is getting more money for doing the same job as you, teachers of other subjects may even see their wages suppressed as schools realise the only way to find the better money demanded by teachers of shortage subjects is to pay everyone else a bit less. This is bound to improve the quality of teaching across the board! Of course, a shortage of teachers of key STEM subjects will result in fewer students pursuing these subjects long-term, something Michael Gove says he wants.

Click on the image for the full story in The Independent.

It’s official: anyone can be a teacher!

Good to see that something sensible has come out of the Department of Couldn’t-Make-It-Up with Nick Clegg (what a hero!) putting the boot into Elizabeth Truss’s mad scheme for improving nurseries by increasing the child-adult ratio. However, in case you thought sensible was the new mad, this was immediately followed by the even dippier ‘Tommies for Teachers’ initiative (or whatever snappy title they’ve decided to give it). I think this was the winner of last month’s D of CMIU competition to find the most imaginative way to insult teachers a bit more. For those who haven’t been paying attention this means that anyone exiting the military can be fast-tracked into the classroom including, if they inconveniently don’t have one of those degree thingies, only having to do a couple of years of school-based training (I make that a degree in  one day a week for a year. Now that’s what I CALL dumbing down!)

Fortunately for me, a young man over at The Independent has done a very good hatchet job so go read at the link above.

Mr Gove

Just in case you haven’t seen this amusing little satire on Michael Gove’s attack on history teaching, follow the link below. As usual, instead of engaging with the substance of the many criticisms of his proposed History curriculum, Gove tries to rubbish the practitioners by suggesting they have ‘dumbed down’ the subject by teaching about Hitler via the Mr Men. If this were true, of course, he’d have a point but — you guessed it — it’s not true. The truth, often inconvenient to this as to so many politicians, is that those teaching the relevant module on the iGCSE course will have taught for twelve weeks and had the students write a 1000 word essay. As a means of revising, the students are then asked to use the ‘Mr Men’ to re-teach the ideas and concepts to a much younger group of students.

This technique is very popular and thought by many educationalists to be an excellent way of embedding and testing understanding. A year or two back I heard the education guru Alistair Smith speak and amongst the many good practical suggestions he gave was the idea of the ‘Lazy Teacher’ Day when students take over the teaching. Of course, despite its name, it’s actually more work for the teacher but the kids love it and colleagues report it is a very good way of encouraging understanding as well as promoting self-confidence,  literacy and oracy. Just don’t let Mr Gove know: he’s sure to pick up the title only and use it as one more stick with which to beat a beleaguered teaching profession.

“I blame the teachers!”

When my sister and I first went into teaching, back in the Seventies, my dad was a little disparaging about the long holidays and short working day but he soon admitted his mistake when he saw how hard we worked and how stressful the job was.

This government is clearly out to ‘get’ public service workers. Their pensions, a joke back in the Eighties when private pension funds were earning a bomb, are now comparatively generous and their pay, which again lagged behind what we could have earned in equivalent jobs in the private sector, seems reasonable in a world where everything is ‘squeezed’ elsewhere. Of course, back then, if you thought about pensions at all, you saw them as compensation in the future for your less-than-generous salaries. Now that’s all over. The public sector has been portrayed in the media as ‘bloated’, inefficient, not ‘wealth-creating’ and failing to do well enough what it is supposed to be doing. In the wake of the mid-Staffordshire scandal, lots of stories of uncaring nurses and they’ve all got to serve a year as a drudge before starting out on their chosen career. It has occurred to me that it might be the tranches of managers who might be the uncaring ones, who ought to spend a bit more time at the sharp end but it is part of the government’s bigger purpose to blame the nurses.

And so to the latest  attacks on education. Over the years I had fooled myself into believing that most sensible people had got over the ‘long holidays/cushy job’ teacher stereotype but Michael Gove is, of course, shameless in appealing to the basest,  crudest ignoramuses. Over Easter he obviously spent his time musing on where to stick his boot next and decided to just say it out loud: school holidays are too long and school days are too short. This appears to be trying to move us to an Asian-style education where students are crammed full of facts hour after hour. I’m not sure if it’s his beloved ‘back to the future’ curriculum or hatred of teachers that’s motivating him. Or maybe he sees himself as Thatcher’s heir and he is looking to provoke one of the public service unions into a year-long strike a la the miners so he can smash them and become the saviour of the nation (Mark 2).

The latest, of course, is the attack on nursery schools where, in another stereotype, the children just run around chaotically rather than sitting and quietly being taught like they are in France apparently (or just not going to school at all  ’til they’re seven, like in Finland? No, didn’t think that’d appeal to you Govesters!) This time it’s our old friend Elizabeth Truss doing the lecturing, she who thinks it’s ok for an adult to supervise more little children as long as they’ve got GCSE English. I won’t pretend to know a great deal about nursery education, but this coordinated onslaught (Wilshaw has stuck his oar in, threatening to change ‘Satisfactory’ to ‘Requiring improvement’ for nursery school inspections) is part of the wider policy. And, just in case Gove or Truss are reading this (as if!) I’ll just confirm their stereotype of me as a dyed-in-the-wool trendy and ask: why is it that every stage of education has to focus on getting the child ready for the next stage until the last, which is supposed to have made them ready for a lifetime of work? What’s wrong with enjoying childhood, being creative and just learning for its own sake? Dear me, what a dangerous dewy-eyed liberal I am!

Alec Reed : following on

I’ve been prompted to look a bit further at the Alec Reed Academy (see previous post). Its achievements are really quite modest. It last had a full OFSTED inspection in January 2010 when it was judged ‘Good’. As we know, schools that are currently labelled such can expect not to be reinspected for five years so the management will have their eyes fixed on early 2015 (two lots of exam results away). A Geography subject inspection barely a year ago gained only a ‘Satisfactory’ which, as we all now know, means ‘Requiring improvement’ (check your DfE issue dictionary).

For those of you who don’t know, you can get some interesting data about any school by visiting ‘OFSTED dashboard’ (just google it and type in the school name or postcode). This gives you exam outcomes and attendance compared to similar schools and the national picture. As such it is a highly simplified version of the data available to OFSTED inspectors. It enables you to play at being an OFSTED inspector yourself: in the case of Alec Reed I would be worried about the Key Stage 2 SAT results which are below similar schools and national norms — reading is particularly poor. Given that Key Stage 1 results are above national averages, I would be looking for either those results having been inflated or some poor teaching during the later primary phase.

As for Key Stage 4, achievement in English and Maths is pretty poor and ought to earn a Grade 3 in any upcoming inspection. So, are the SLT panicking about this and putting undue pressure on staff to bring about some swift improvements? Remember they’ve got two exam results ’rounds’ to go but if, for example, this summer’s results were particularly bad that could trigger an earlier inspection. If they do feel like that it would be understandable and they may well be under the mistaken apprehension that bullying people gets better work from them. Such a situation could arise in any school BUT in an academy, as I pointed out in the last post, there is no one outside management to whom staff can appeal — not chair of governors, teacher or parent governors, not the Local Authority. In those circumstances — as in the case of Alec Reed — the teachers’ unions are vital.