Michael Gove’s daughter will be going to Greycoats School in Westminster in the autumn. On one level, this is something to be pleased about – apparently this makes him the first Conservative Education Secretary to send a child to a state secondary school.
It would be wrong to make any kind of issue of any individual’s choice of school. Everyone works within the system that exists – even if we’re talking about the person responsible for the system being what it is.. But this news provoked me into looking a little closely more at Greycoats. It turns out to be a classic example of a school that achieves good results on the back of an intake that is significantly more favourable than its location would suggest.
The Fair Admissions Campaign recently identified Greycoats as being in the 1% of least socially inclusive schools in the country when compared to their local community. It’s in the 2% of least inclusive schools with regard to English as an additional language.
What this means in practice can be seen from the information published in the school league tables. So at Greycoats:
• 52% of pupils have high Key Stage 2 results compared with 28% in Westminster and 32% in the country.
• 39% of pupils have average Key Stage 2 results compared with 54% in Westminster and 52% in the country.
• Just 9% of pupils have low Key Stage 2 results compared with 17% in Westminster and 16% in the country.
• 9% of pupils have SEN at school action plus or with a statement compared to 22% in Westminster.
Not surprisingly the school gets good results.it is of course a girls’ school so they start with an advantage over mixed and boys’ schools. It should be stressed though that the results are pretty much what you would expect given the prior attainment of the pupils – just 23% with low prior attainment get 5 A to C passes including English and maths which is dead on the borough average – though as is common in London this is better than the national picture.
So the question arises – how do they do it? Scrutiny of their admission policy throws up three interesting factors:
1. 15 places – that is 10% – are allocated on the basis of “aptitude for modern languages”. The test for this is taken in the summer of year 5 – so in itself rewarding the forward planner. It apparently requires no knowledge of a modern language. How you design an assessment which tests for this aptitude but doesn’t test for academic performance remains a mystery.
2. Applicants are banded – top 25%, middle 50% and bottom 25%. It doesn’t say how this is done but given the outcome, you have to assume that banding is done in relation to the ability of applicants to the school and not in relation to the national or local range of ability. This is a favourite trick of schools that attract a disproportionate number of high ability applicants and leads inevitably to a skewed intaks.
3 Church places are allocated according to family church commitment. This includes 5 years church attendance (forward planning again!) and parental contributions such as:
• Parent holding elected office in the church
• Parent being a communicant member
• Parent on the church’s electoral or other membership roll
• Regular practical involvement by a parent in the church
• Parent having a role in public worship/ministry
• Regular involvement in other aspect of church life.
This would seem to constitute a flagrant breach of the Admissions Code which says that schools may not give priority to children “on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation, including any religious authority.”
The code also says that “Admission authorities for schools designated as having a religious character must have regard to any guidance from the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when constructing faith-based oversubscription criteria”
The Church of England national guidance says that Points systems used to differentiate between families with equal commitment should be as simple as possible, and only used if absolutely necessary, and ideally should be phased out over the next few years Points systems can discriminate against families unable for a variety of reasons to participate in Church activities.
All of this adds up to yet another example of the depressingly common tendency of English schools to use every trick available to manipulate their intake and to thereby increase the socio-economic segregation that is the curse of our school system.
Eddie Playfair, SEA Vice Chair and Sixth Form College principal writes
Nick Clegg’s announcement that the government wants to introduce a “UCAS-style one-stop on-line shop for 16 year olds who do not want to go to university” (BBC 27/02/14) is an interesting idea, even with all those hyphens. However, as presented in the media so far, it is also seriously flawed.
The proposed service was described as a purely “vocational website” offering searches for “college courses”, apprenticeships and traineeships in contrast to all the A-level and university guidance which is already available online.
16 year olds would certainly benefit from a sixth form UCAS (or “FECAS”) but only if it is a universal system covering all qualifications. The approach as described so far seems to be based on several misconceptions about what colleges do and what “college courses” lead to:
1. “College courses” actually include the full spectrum of education and training opportunities including A-levels, GCSEs, vocational courses, traineeships and apprenticeships. These are available in a range of different types of institution including general FE colleges, sixth form colleges, specialist colleges and training providers.
2. Vocational pathways often lead to university and choosing a vocational route at college is not synonymous with “not wanting to go to university” – quite the opposite. Post-16 vocational courses are an excellent preparation for vocational degrees and the students who choose them are making a commitment to a particular sector, often with a view to pursuing their studies at degree level.
3. At the end of year 11, students are free to apply wherever they want. The problem is that they are not guaranteed high quality information, advice and guidance about the full range of post-16 options; whether about the courses available or the type of institutions available. This is particularly true in schools with sixth forms which are keen to retain high achieving students. We have a highly marketised post-16 system where “consumers” often don’t have the information to make decisions which are in their interest. Too many young people are making important life choices based on flimsy, partial or downright biased information.
4. We should not be expecting any 16 year old to have decided they “don’t want to go to university” It’s far too early to have made such a decision and even for those who don’t go at 18 or 19, Higher Education offers many part-time and mature study routes. If we want lifelong learning and an open system of higher training and professional development, it does nothing but harm to make a rigid distinction between those who do or don’t want to go to university.
There is therefore a strong case for a national UCAS-style information and application process. To be effective such a service would need to include all post-16 options and all post-16 providers and every year 11 student should be able to use it to apply, receive offers and manage their choices, as with UCAS. I think it should be a single national service. Handing this function to local authorities, as suggested in the media report, makes little sense when students take no account of local authority boundaries when applying. Having hundreds of overlapping mini-UCAS systems would simply lead to duplication, inconsistency and waste. There are some excellent examples of locally developed systems built on years of trust and painstaking partnership work (in Leicester and Cambridge for example) but most areas of the country haven’t been able to develop this on their own.
A single national service has the added advantage of being able to produce comprehensive data about what is happening; analysing trends and providing the market intelligence which is so essential to students, policy-makers, and educational providers.
Luckily, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. UCAS is an excellent model for such a service; independent, national and virtually universal. It is highly responsive to the needs of all its stakeholders and has turned what used to be a rather cumbersome process into a transparent and streamlined one.
Such a national “FECAS” system, if combined with good, independent advice and guidance for all secondary school students, could really transform the way young people make the decisions which will will change their lives.
So, two cheers for this proposal and we look forward to being consulted on the detail very soon. A truly universal “FECAS” for 16 year olds is long overdue and any government which makes this happen would be doing something really positive to improve young people’s educational opportunities.
The 2013 Teacher Workload Survey has just been published. Apart from the actual data, it’s worth noting that the DfE has found some technical reasons for not including any comparisons with past years. When you look at the figures, this is perhaps not surprising.
The headline numbers are quite shocking. Since 2010 average weekly hours worked by primary teachers have increased from 50.2 hours a week to 59.3 hours. For secondary teachers the increase is from 49.9 to 55.7 and for secondary heads from 57.3 to 63.3. In both cases these are the highest figures ever recorded by miles.
In both primary and secondary, actual teaching hours have increased by 1 hour a week. The rest of the increase is in preparation, marking and administration.
About 55% of teachers felt that at least some of their workload was unnecessary and unnecessarily bureaucratic.
Teachers were also asked whether they thought the amount of time they spent on unnecessary and unnecessarily bureaucratic tasks had changed over the last 12 months. Thirty-six per cent of headteachers and 45% of deputy heads and classroom teachers felt that it had increased while 36% and 42% respectively thought it had stayed the same. Small proportions (9% – 5% respectively) thought it had decreased.
More detailed analysis of what teachers are doing that they think is unnecessary shine an interesting light on what is happening in many schools. The central issue for many is preparation for Ofsted and (especially for many heads) dealing with changes to the Ofsted process. Beyond that teachers identified changes imposed by government and having to report, analyse or input data too often or too much. This went along with demands for marking that is considered over detailed and for too much assessment.
This all points to a regime that increasingly is spending its time measuring things, preparing to be measured itself and generally watching its back. Any school that considers itself at all at risk will be demanding monthly or half termly assessments of pupils – not just a quick classroom check on progress but the full industry of data input, spreadsheet production and analysis.
The reason given is that schools need to know “who to target”. Who are the key children that will get the school over the dreaded floor targets? Woe betide the head who doesn’t have an action plan for those children on his wall (sorry – i-pad these days I suppose so he or she can fret about it in bed as well!).
Of course if we think this survey is bad, we should just reflect on what’s coming down the road. A continuing squeeze on budgets – because in reality school budgets haven’t been fully protected whatever ministers say. A longer school day says Gove – but without any more money. The entire national Curriculum and every examination course changed virtually simultaneously. While there is some relief that the STRB has rejected Gove’s wilder ideas for deregulating term lengths and working hours and getting rid of teachers’ freedom from most cover, it did accept getting rid of the right not to be required to undertake purely administrative tasks.
So not much hope of any improvement in the near future. Given that no one expects to see big budget increases for a very long time, this points to an urgent need to look again at the culture of fear which requires these extravagant levels of data collection, assessment and inspection preparation.
David Pavett writes
There was an interesting piece in the Guardian by Simon Jenkins a few days ago (For Britain’s pupils, maths is even more pointless than Latin). I don’t agree with all his conclusions but the issues he raised deserve discussion. What should be taught in mathematics classes? It is rare for this subject to be raised. In fact in general too little of the time we spend debating education is devoted to the question of its content.
It is not that I want to avoid discussion of the organisation of our school system with that most evasive of slogans “standards not structures” (as if the two could be separated) even in its distilled form according to which it is teacher quality that makes or breaks the quality of education independently of the framework within which teachers ply their trade. All that is specious nonsense which we must continue to challenge.
But that still leaves the vast question of content to be debated.
I taught maths or maths related subjects (e.g. physics) for more than 30 years. During all that time I had the feeling that there was something wrong with what I was doing but I could never quite work out what it was. Over the last few years of retirement I have helped several adults and teenagers trying to come to terms with basic maths. In each case there was clearly an enormous psychological barrier to the subject. When faced with a simple mathematical task tears would sometimes well up. For millions the result of ten years of school mathematics is maths phobia. There has to be something wrong with a system with such an outcome.
Everyone agrees that we need basic arithmetic (although we might disagree about what that entails). That many leave school without even attaining this is clearly a problem. This failure provides a clue to broader issues of maths education. Why do so many people forget nearly everything they encountered in school maths? Learning without understanding, cramming for tests, leads to short-term memory. Things are forgotten as quickly as they are learned. For many (most?) this the story of maths education. The fact is though that taking an interest in the social and political events around is strongly aided by knowledge of maths. For example, we are bombarded with data by politicians which we need to know how to evaluate.
We encounter numbers and mathematical relationships everyday of our lives but most people have learned to switch off when that happens. After a while they don’t even realise that they are doing it. We deal with risk assessments, rates of change, compound interest, ratios, fractions, percentages and much else besides. Simon Jenkins says that all we need is basic arithmetic. Those who agree might reflect how many things they decide not to read/follow just because it involves a little algebra or more than a one-line calculation. How many pathways of knowledge are thereby closed down?
Maths in general education should:
1. be about developing a sufficient feel for the subject to be able to tackle the mathematical issues that can arise in the course of life and in the course of taking an intelligent general interest in the social affairs and the technology that one is likely to interact with (why is a kilobyte = 1024 bytes?). That’s a big ask but in my view a reasonable one. The emphasis here is on “being able to tackle” i.e. being able to work things out on some basic principles rather than simply applying given formulas received as a piece of magic. (Why does the breaking distance of a car double when its speed is increased from 25 mph to 35 mph?)
2. produce an understanding of mathematics as a creative field of human endeavour and not just a vast block of knowledge of which one learns the easy bits without having any awareness of the challenges faced by the subject in the past and the challenges faced today. For example, should pupils not be aware that calculators and computers do not merely do calculations faster than we can but that they are the only sensible way to tackle some problems. Even some very simple equations cannot be solved analytically but are easy to solve with an iterative solution using a calculator (e.g. x = cos x with x in radians). The behaviour of some equations is truly weird. This links with problems of weather prediction. Maths has mystery. This is excluded from syllabuses which seek only to inculcate simple calculating ability.
A perennial problem in education is that the desire to make things as simple as possible can result in educational material that is, frankly, unchallenging (i.e. boring). This natural problem is exacerbated a 100-fold by an education system in thrall to testing mania and competition by league tables. These encourage teaching to the test and syllabuses that can be reduced to mechanical check lists.
Simon Jenkins suggests that politicians are obsessed with maths and science and our national standing in these areas as reflected by PISA tests. He says that part of the reason is that maths is easily testable (things are right or wrong) unlike the rather more “slippery” humanities. I think that he is right about the obsessions but wrong about the nature of mathematics. If maths were taught as a creative, open-ended subject it would become less dogmatic and would, as it should, be an exercise in understanding and imagination. The flip side is that assessing it would become more “slippery” but that is a price to be paid for making its content reflect the true nature of the subject. We all need maths but it should be real maths and not a desiccated selection from it taught as dogma. The time for a fundamental rethink about mathematics education is long overdue.
Putting power in the hands of users of public services is top of everyone’s list at the moment. It was central to Ed Miliband’s recent speech on the reform of public services. No one would argue with the theory but putting it into real practice is something else. Just compare these two recent news items.
First from Ed Miliband’s speech: “Parents should not have to wait for some other body to intervene if they have serious concerns about how their school is doing, whether it is a free school, academy or local authority school. But at the moment they do. In all schools, there should be a “parent call-in”, where a significant number of parents can come together and call for immediate action on standards.”
Then at almost the same time the Derby Telegraph reported that “anxious parents of pupils at Derby’s failing Al-Madinah School have written to the Government demanding to know why the decision was taken to close its secondary section. They say that not enough time has been given to the new trust board and accuses the Department for Education of … playing out our children’s futures in the media yet again without considering their emotional and social well-being”.
So we’re left with the question, will giving power to parents be a way of forcing up standards or a way of protecting inadequacy? Will parents know how really to judge a school? Or will they be resentful about outsiders coming in and interfering in their community?
Sometimes it does need to be recognised that there is a place for expertise. This is something we should be learning from the current floods – simplistic demands for more dredging aren’t necessarily the answer and it could just be that specialists in the Environment Agency know what they’re doing. Similarly some schools do need radical intervention and some NHS services need reconfiguring because it’ll be better for patients.
But the problem in all these areas is that too often experts and the community at large don’t communicate. If we’re going to ask parents to form an accurate view about how their school is doing, they need access to the information held by the experts. But telling people to read the Ofsted report or look at the data dashboard isn’t necessarily the answer.
The kind of proposals in Ed Miliband’s speech will only work if underpinning them is a continuing dialogue and engagement between parents and school and if that dialogue is supported by an independent perspective on how the school is doing. That means:
- A regular Parents’ Council which hears and talks about the real issues facing the school – not just the summer fete!
- A willingness on the school’s part to share information even when it’s not all positive.
- An understanding on parents’ part that there will inevitably be problems sometimes and they need to help deal with them.
- A middle tier authority that keeps an eye on how schools are doing and offers parents and governors an honest and independent view about its strengths and weaknesses – Ofsted every 3 or 4 years can’t do this job.
The temptation amongst all professions is to close ranks against what they usually see as uninformed criticism. But a much better answer is to help to raise the level of understanding of the issues – good and bad – in the community at large. It’s only in that way that you’ll get beyond tokenism in involving people in decisions that affect them.
Another example from Ed’s speech is to involve patients in decisions about changes to NHS services. But a few patient representatives on a commissioning group will never on their own make necessary changes acceptable more widely. We desperately need structures within our communities that can make better connections between them and the professionals whose actions can be so important.
If we don’t do this, we’ll carry on developing a massive disconnect between most people and a few specialists who make the decisions. And good decisions will often be just as unpopular and mistrusted as bad ones. And politicians seeking cheap popularity will as often as not take the easy road and avoid what can be tough decisions …. like where and how you can really stop flooding and where you can’t.
So in today’s Guardian we have the first definitive hints about what the Blunkett review might contain. An article of this kind inevitably lacks detail – and in this world the devil is certainly in the detail. But some shape is beginning to emerge with some encouraging features but with two big issues not yet addressed. Significant parts of what is proposed are in line with the SEA’s submission to the review (which can be found at http://www.socialisteducation.org.uk/news/do-we-still-need-local-authorities).
The rhetoric is in many ways predictable. Focussing on confusion and incoherence and so talking about “putting the glue back into the system” is politically astute. “Not putting the clock back” is a bit more tiresome as is the reference to not going back to “local authority control of schools” – not something we’ve seen since the 1980’s. But politicians need always to be going forwards and anyway New Labour is hopelessly compromised by its own contribution to the undermining of local democracy in education. So talk of a new way forward probably makes sense.
The core of the article is about the establishment of a new middle tier. The areas of responsibility for it sound about right – “spotting failure, monitoring admissions, commissioning services, and ensuring financial accountability. They would also encourage collaboration between schools so that they learn from one another’s success.” Place planning could be higher profile but it’s probably fair to assume that it would be there. Crucially, the new middle tier would deal with all kinds of school rather than perpetuate the current divide as Gove proposes.
The planning unit is proposed to be the sub region. This is a view that has gathered quite a bit of support as the review process has gone along. It starts from the view that we have a lot of very small local authorities – starting from the abolition of met counties and continuing through the creation of small new unitaries. Size matters in two ways – one is cost and efficiency. We know there will be no new money – larger authorities will be able to afford expertise and will avoid duplication.
But more importantly, larger units provide more scope for schools in similar situations to co-operate. One reason why London Challenge worked was because it was run on a much broader canvas than a single borough. You’re more likely to able to find the expertise you need and a partner that’s compatible if looking across a larger area.
Be in no doubt there will be some political grief here. Local authorities that have continued to be effective won’t take well to being subsumed into a larger unit. Authorities run by different parties will have to find a common way forward if they are going to co-operate in larger units.
But there is a strong case for saying that the benefits outweigh the risks. What would also make sense is to see how this would fit into a broader sub-regional structure covering economic development, police, further education and skills and passenger transport with substantial devolved budgets from the centre.
So then the gaps – no one should assume that these won’t be addressed in the full report but as yet there are no hints. First is the nature of the new sub-regional bodies. It’s crucial that they are based in local democratic structures and aren’t – like Gove’s chancellors – an appointed group of the great and the good. There must be ways for local communities to have their say. These new authorities must not be just the creatures of Whitehall – and that means giving them the space to do things their own way and not just conforming to a national blueprint.
Secondly, there is nothing on how to put all kinds of school onto a level playing field. It’s crucial that the opportunity is taken to address the differences in legal status, funding, powers and duties between different kinds of schools. We should also be sorting out the complex and wasteful administrative systems that have been created to try and run some schools from Whitehall. And of course there is the issue of unaccountable academy chains which are both an offence against democracy and an obstacle to genuine school autonomy.
So overall, an encouraging start but still work in progress and still the need to focus on making this a really comprehensive process that will restore fairness and coherence to the system.
England’s private schools have been back in the headlines of late. Anthony Seldon of Wellington College, offered us more of his thoughts on how the private sector can become more involved with the state sector and how this will help solve our lack of social mobility. Michael Gove then told us that he wants state schools to be so good that you won’t be able to tell them apart from the private sector.
Then in the New Statesman, David and George Kynaston rehearsed the miserable story of opportunities missed since the 1940’s to do something about this running sore in English education. They end though with the idea that there is an emerging consensus for some kind of change. The issue in their view is “not whether these schools should exist. We are where we are. The question is, are they educating the wrong children? And how do we end the divide to make them part of the common weal?
Much of Seldon’s and Gove’s nonsense has been comprehensively demolished already, notably by Peter Wilby in the Guardian. There is however a need to think about the underlying assumption that informs this debate.
The key proposal, which is gaining support in some surprising places, is that ways should be found to offer free or subsidised places at private schools to young people who couldn’t afford to go there otherwise.
Crucially this is about selection. It’s another variant on the belief that we need a system that will rescue a few of the deserving poor and allow them access to “the best universities” and all that follows from that. So we have the Sutton Trust proposals for a bigger version of the old assisted places scheme. Seldon too wants places at private schools to be made available to pupil from poorer families but on the basis of competitive entry so that the schools “will be guaranteed bright young people”. Here the really self- serving side of these proposals becomes apparent.
Seldon’s proposals for the most popular state schools to charge fees to those who can afford it would have the same effect. Those schools would be identified for all to see as the place to go and would rapidly (helped by additional fee income) become grammar schools in all but name.
Another example of the same approach can be seen in the so-called London College of Excellence which Gove chose as the venue for his recent speech. This college, promoted by Brighton College and Eton, is super-selective – entry criteria are higher than for any normal sixth form or college. The media, including those who really should know better, drool over this institution, amazed that half a dozen students from such a hot house got Oxbridge offers.
All proposals like these simply serve to reinforce the inequalities in our education system and indeed in our society as a whole. They will do nothing to challenge the dominance of the 1% who are seizing an ever greater proportion of wealth and power.
It has to be repeated over and over again that this kind of selection will not deliver higher standards nor will it provide real social mobility. International and national evidence is overwhelmingly clear that a more hierarchical and segregated school system delivers less not more.
It isn’t just that the schools and colleges that most young people go to will lose some of their brightest students. Nor that these other schools and colleges will be seen as low status institutions – and that the young people who go to them will have their aspirations capped through simply a more sophisticated and dishonest selection process whether it be at 11+, 13+ or 16+.
What is not properly recognised is that our private schools don’t actually do that well considering their massive advantages in resources and their ability to select only the young people they want. OECD research has concluded that UK state schools outperform UK private schools when socio-economic background is factored in. And it is now clear from a number of pieces of research that all other factors being held constant, students from independent schools do less well than students from comprehensive schools at university.
Social mobility is an aspiration that we can all sign on to in the abstract. But selection will always reinforce hierarchy even if it lets a few of the unwashed in to join the elite. Real social mobility requires a more equal society and one step towards that would be a more equal education system.