It would probably be fair to say that Lancashire is not Michael Gove’s favourite local authority. There has been a running war of words for some time over the place of academies in the county – there are only 26 out of 640 schools. The former Schools’ Commissioner was forthright in seeking to get more primary academies and academy brokers have been active in the county, though with limited success.
For its part the County Council has complained that pressure to become an academy is distracting schools and in particular heads from their real job of raising standards. Then today it is reported in the Independent that “officials from Michael Gove’s department are offering £65,000 “bribes” to convince reluctant headteachers to convert their schools to academies…. The Independent understands £40,000 in payments have been offered to 32 schools in Lancashire alone, with similar sums offered to schools in other parts of the country.” This complaint came initially from Lancashire NAHT.
The DfE is of course unapologetic asserting that “ministers are clear that the best way to turn round under-performing schools is with the strong external challenge and support from academy sponsors. Academies have already turned around hundreds of struggling schools across the country.” They might want to consider that of the sponsored academies with a current inspection grade on the Ofsted database, 44% either need improvement or inadequate …. and the remaining 56% will include the likes of Mossbourne which were new schools with no predecessor to be “turned round”. So not the most convincing hit rate.
But now two Lancashire secondary academies have gone into special measures in just a couple of weeks. One of these was a converter academy that was outstanding before it converted. Lancashire has now written to the DfE demanding to know “what they are doing to monitor standards in academies in Lancashire because that is their job”. They go on to say “if one of our schools was in special measures, they would be challenging us. Now the boot is on the other foot.”
It’s hugely refreshing to see a Labour led authority taking a robust line with the bullies from the DfE. Even better is the fact that the previous Tory administration was equally robust before the county elections this year. It’s long overdue that Gove and his cronies were required to take responsibility for their actions.
Whether the DfE has replied to Lancashire is not known. But there has been a public comment from the department. They said that “there is no link between these schools becoming academies and the judgements made by Ofsted inspectors”.
It’s worth a moment reflecting on this breath-taking piece of double-speak. When academies do well ministers are clear that it’s entirely due to them becoming academies. But when they do badly, it would seem ministers are equally clear that academy status has absolutely nothing to do with it.
The more important questions however are what is the DfE actually doing to stop this kind of thing happening. Lostock Hall was outstanding in 2007 and this was confirmed in 2011. It converted in 2012 and in that year was only satisfactory. Now it’s in special measures and Ofsted found that “School leaders and governors have been complacent and have let this decline in achievement go on for too long”. So the real question for the DfE is did they know how quickly this school was going downhill and if they did what did they do about it? And if they didn’t know, why not? These are things I think we should be demanding to know.
Over the past 30 or more years, successive central governments have done everything they can to demolish English local government. Powers and functions have been seized by ministers for themselves or handed over to unaccountable quangos or outsourcing companies like Capita and Serco. Tax raising powers have been taken away so that councils are now almost wholly dependent on central grants. And local funding has always been an easy cut because ministers can wash their hands of the consequences.
No one would claim that councils have got everything right. But compared to the disasters perpetrated by central government and the outsourcers, mistakes by council’s pale into insignificance. No local authority has comprehensively failed to secure the Olympics, thrown away billions on grandiose IT failures or seen defence procurement run completely out of control, ending by building aircraft carriers with no aircraft! Nor have they deliberately falsified records so as to maximise profit as has happened in probation, tagging of criminals and out of hours NHS services in just the last year.
Education has of course suffered consistently from this approach. Extraordinary ingenuity has been shown in finding ways of doing things that kept local authorities out of the picture. The academy and free school industry is the latest manifestation of this but this is only the culmination of years spent denigrating and undermining local authorities. The deep belief that private is always better than public has run through the system for years. So has the unwillingness of central government to recognise that councils have their own democratic mandate and are entitled to disagree and to want to do things differently. We really should have no room for the arrogance of a Michael Gove who can’t accept that any view other than his own has any legitimacy.
The consequence of 30 years of tinkering is a complete muddle at local level. There is no consistent pattern of local government with a random mix of unitary and two tier systems varying massively in size and capacity. Then there are the quangos like local enterprise partnerships, clinical commissioning groups, fire authorities and so on. And to top it all, we now have directly elected police commissioners.
But it could just be that the worm is turning. The Stevens report on policing, commissioned by Labour, recommends giving significant powers to lower tier councils to set policing priorities and effectively replaces police commissioners by the leaders of county and borough councils who would appoint chief constables, set budgets and agree overall police strategy. Crucially, there is a recognition that consistent boundaries matter if services are to be properly co-ordinated – so it says that internal police boundaries should be consistent with lower tier local government boundaries.
Then there are Labour’s emerging proposals for the merger of health and social care. Andy Burnham’s proposals seem likely to include a central role for local authorities as the commissioners of both health and social care. Services would be delivered through NHS trusts with a presumption in favour of delivery by public not private providers.
So what might this mean for education? Is there an emerging pattern here? When Andy Burnham says, “National government has got to learn to trust local government. We’ve got give [it] a proper role back” hopefully he is not just speaking about health and care. There is a model here that many are arguing can work just as well for schools.
The message at its most basic is that key services do not stand alone. Health, social care, housing, education, planning, economic development, transport …. all need to be joined up at a local level. They need to be joined up on the basis of a democratic mandate by people in touch with their local communities. And there needs to be some basic consistency in how public services are organised – for too long we’ve had different arrangements for different services. This complexity is not just a recipe for muddle in service delivery but is a very good way of stopping people participating effectively in shaping their own communities because no one knows really where the buck stops.
So as the Blunkett Review continues to explore the role of local authorities in education, let’s hope it isn’t doing so in a vacuum but against a background of a new approach by Labour to restoring real powers and resources to local communities
In 1655 Oliver Cromwell divided the country into 10 regions and appointed a Major General to run each of them. He had finally got tired of the traditional rulers of the countryside, finding them unwilling to impose the ideology of the puritan revolution. Michael Gove, equally disenchanted with local government, is doing much the same thing … in his case 8 people with the grand title of Chancellor will rule the regions on his behalf.
This new regime will have the task of supervising the 3400 free schools and academies now that Gove has finally recognised that this can’t be done from Whitehall. So we will have 8 regions and 8 Chancellors appointed by Gove supported by a group of heads elected by other heads in each region.
It’s hard to know where to start in commenting on this proposal. To begin with sheer practicality. Each will have over 400 schools, a number that will presumably be expected to grow over time. So it’s hard to see how they will be any more effective than the DfE is now. They won’t in any real sense be local. They won’t have any local intelligence derived from regular contact with schools, parents and other stakeholders like employers and colleges. So they will be reduced to carrying out a desk job on the data and shouting at schools from a distance – do better or else. Hardly a sophisticated approach to school improvement.
Secondly, it seems their only job is to sort out failing schools. Nothing is being done about all the other aspects of the school system that need local planning and co-ordination. No role, for example in planning how to meet the crisis in school places. No role in making sure there is an infra-structure to support school improvement in every area – something the Select Committee just identified as being sadly lacking. No role in making sure that successful schools are meeting their obligations to support other schools – something that is not happening now.
Then most fundamentally of course, this represents another stage in Gove’s seizure of power over the whole school system. Any notion of a balance of responsibilities has completely vanished. So has any real decentralisation of power to local communities. They will answer to Gove’s Major General s and local people must take what they’re given. The ultimate irony seems to be that the name “Chancellor” apparently comes from US usage – where the Chancellor is the appointee of local government and is the head of the local school system! Quite the opposite of what is being proposed here.
The DfE comment on the Guardian article says that “we’ve been working on this for about a year”. One response to this would be to say that most of us could have scribbled it on the back of a fag packet in ten minutes. The other is to ask why the DfE thinks it right to work away on this in total secrecy and to make no attempt whatever to consult anyone at all – except perhaps for a few trusties who can be relied upon to give the right answer. You would have thought they might have learned from other fiascos that things don’t always go well when you try and do them without asking anyone what they think. It makes Tristram Hunt’s characterisation of Gove particularly apposite ….
“He’s a very ideological figure. The problem with ideologists is that ther’s no doubt. And most educators know that doubt is important. We’ve had a zealot’s approach to school reform, revolutionary structural reform. And we’re seeing it reaching the end of its natural or unnatural life”
The issue of how successful are academies has come to the fore yet again in a number of ways. Potentially most significant could be the Select Committee’s decision to carry out an investigation into the academies programme as a whole. Given that the committee has not been slow to criticise the DfE in the past, this is an intriguing prospect. The call for evidence is out with a deadline of 19th December. Details are at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news/academies-and-free-schools/
Meanwhile a whole batch of academies have received warning notices telling them that their performance is not good enough. Evidence at least that academy status is not the infallible magic bullet that some would have us believe. But really it’s more interesting for what it tells us about the DfE’s approach to school improvement. This seems to amount to just writing to schools telling them that they need to do better or else. The “else” seems to be ultimately changing their sponsor!
What is missing is any attempt to analyse the issues faced by the school, any suggestion that DfE might analyse action plans, contribute any practical support or even offer any continuing monitoring – all things that might help the school find its way forward. As a former head of school improvement, I know that you help a school to improve by getting involved, reviewing plans, making suggestions and monitoring progress very regularly. What you don’t do is yell through a megaphone from a distance and then leave the school alone to sink or swim.
This process also highlighted some fascinating sponsors. Two of the three Grace academies get warning letters. Their sponsor is Lord Edmiston, motor trade millionaire, Tory donor and evangelical Christian. His schools – he chairs all 3 governing bodies – were also amongst those revealed as having new-style section 28 provisions.
Then there’s the Barnfield College Trust which is under investigation by the DfE and the Skills Funding Agency on a range of issues. And the Alec Reed Academy described as “a plaything of Tory donor and employment agency millionaire Alec Reed, whose governing body is stuffed with his family and employees” and where unions had to take industrial action to get recognition.
And above all there’s AET getting 7 warning letters. This the largest academy chain and has been hit this year both by financial scandal and evidence of poor educational standards across the board, not just in these seven schools. It’s interesting to imagine what Michael Gove would say about a Labour local authority with that sort of record!
Then just today, there’s an NFER report claiming to compare standards in academies and non-academies. The Guardian initially presented this as evidence of academies doing better than non-academies but what it really shows is that academies make more use of vocational equivalents – something the DfE describes as “artificially inflating” results. Henry Stewart does his usual efficient job in analysing this report at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/11/again-academies-do-no-better-than-non-academies/
What is interesting in the NFER document though is how far groupthink about academies has penetrated. So, they say that “This (academy) status takes much of the decision making of how a school operates away from the local authority and gives it to the schools themselves. Schools have the ability to make more of the decisions about how their financial resources are spent, who to hire and what to study within the curriculum.” The reality of course is that school have made decisions on spending and hiring ever since 1988 and its only central government that has ever tried to control the curriculum.
When an organisation like NFER can’t stop itself from subliminally following a crude and inaccurate political line like this, then the quality of debate and research has truly been comprehensively debased.
Last night, Newsnight had an item on whether qualified teacher status should be a requirement in state funded schools. Nothing surprising about that. It’s been part of the debate about the problems in some free schools. And there was a debate in the House of Commons on the issue also yesterday.
You might think that the news out of that debate was that the Lib Dems to a person refused to support government policy and abstained. It included a speech by David Laws winding up against the Labour motion but reiterating Lib Dem policy which is exactly the same as the Labour policy. He got round this intriguing dilemma by resorting to anti-Labour abuse on unrelated subjects.
You might have thought that this deserved some coverage. But no – Newsnight confined itself to a sneering rubbishing of the concept of qualified teacher status. In as far as it had any content it was to argue that there are some good teachers without QTS – especially in public schools – so why should we be bothered.
Paxman interviewing Tristram Hunt was then at his sneering and aggressive worst. There was no attempt to ask any questions that might help viewers understand the issue. Instead we had “were you taught by any unqualified teachers?” and “would you send your children to a school where there were unqualified teachers?” – a trivialisation of the debate that really should have no place in a serious news programme. Serious points such as the fact that the most successful systems insist on high levels of qualifications for teachers were dismissed with a world-weary “yeah, you said that before”.
What was surprising was the genuine venom displayed. It seemed to be something that Paxman cared about. One clue could perhaps be in the amount of time the programme spent on the private sector where unqualified teachers apparently are common. Maybe there was a need for one of its products to defend the public school view of the world? Or maybe the threats of Grant Shapps are having their effect? Or, perhaps more likely, we were seeing the journalistic consensus that teaching is not a serious profession and all you really need is a bit of subject knowledge.
Some commentary has taken the view that this was another Paxman triumph. This requires us to believe that shouting over the interviewee and displaying blatant prejudice is a positive feature of interviewing. It also asks us to believe that asking a stupid question five times somehow turns it into a sensible question.
Other commentators have also tried to turn it into a union issue. To them, apparently QTS is a form of closed shop practiced by the teacher unions. Ignoring the fact that teachers without QTS also are members of unions. Ignoring the fact that QTS is something developed by successive governments not unions because they knew that there is a great deal more than subject knowledge to teaching. What of course unions do know is that deregulation of teaching will mean not the recruitment of great minds who are too clever to be bothered to get trained but a race to the bottom. Unqualified teachers will be cheaper and more disposable.
The point is that there is a need to establish a base line to protect the profession – and children – against attempts to cut corners and teachers who haven’t understood the basics of the job. In Tristram’s words in the debate “A great mind might produce a great teacher, but a common standard of training is far more likely to ensure that that is the case most of the time” and “people need more qualifications to get a job in a burger bar than to teach in some English schools.”
Over the next 18 months, all the parties will be setting out their policies for the next Parliament. As far as education is concerned the stakes could hardly be higher. We know that another Tory led government will mean more privatisation leading to a school system that will be increasingly incoherent and unable to meet the needs of either young people or society.
There is an urgent need to map out an alternative vision – something that even Nick Clegg seems to have realised. With a new Labour Shadow Secretary of State just in post, now is exactly the time to try to make an impact on the policy making process.
The Reclaiming Education Conference will be about restoring education as a public service that is accountable to local communities. The conference will be on Saturday 16th November at the University of London Union and it will build on last year’s event which we called “Picking up the Pieces”. That conference led to the production of the manifesto “A Better Future for our Schools” (http://www.pickingupthepieces.org.uk/betterfuture.html) which was launched in the House of Commons last June.
“A Better Future for Our Schools” has been developed and is endorsed by the Campaign for State Education, the Socialist Educational Association, Information for School and College Governors and Comprehensive Future.
In this conference we’ll be looking in more detail at three areas:
- The broad aims of education – getting beyond narrow targets to explore the knowledge, skills and qualities that young people will need in their adult lives
- How local communities can get back a say in the education of their children rather than have everything decided by ministers in Whitehall.
- How we can provide fair access to good schools for everyone – in particular for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who often lose out now.
The three keynote speakers will be:
Mick Waters – former CEO of Manchester and Director of Curriculum at QCA – described in the Guardian as someone who “has probably changed secondary schools more profoundly than anyone in the past 20 years.”
Mary Bousted – General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers
Catherine West – former Leader of Islington and now prospective candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green.
Just as importantly though there will be the opportunity in discussion for all delegates to work through just how a new government could go about putting into practice the principles in “A Better Future”.
Full details of the conference including booking information can be found at http://www.pickingupthepieces.org.uk/index.html. The cost is £25 including lunch if booked in advance.
The government has now published its decisions on secondary accountability. Unusually, it would seem that they have paid some attention to comments received during the consultation. As a result they’ve dropped the Grade C threshold measure in English and maths from the core measures. Instead they have taken up the idea of counting English and maths double in the main attainment and progress measures.
The two key measures, then, are both based on the concept of the best 8 grades. It’s not quite that simple as the 8 have to include English and maths and three other EBacc subjects. There may be a temptation to over-react to the mere mention of EBacc in this context. That should, I think, be resisted. Most students do two science GCSEs so, in the interests of a broad and balanced curriculum asking them to take one out of history, geography, modern languages and computer science is not unreasonable and will stop some of the abuse of “equivalences”. Vocational courses can count in the remaining three slots but we still await any real detail of what these will look like in future.
It is proposed that the key measure will be the progress measure. It will be calculated by comparing a student’s GCSE grade with the average performance of students with similar prior attainment (in KS2 tests). There are two genuine positives in this. First it should reduce the hysterical C/D borderline fixation and encourage schools to pay attention to all their students. Second, by giving priority to progress over raw attainment, it gives schools with more disadvantaged intakes a better chance and will challenge the comfortable coasters who ignore less able kids.
But relief at getting something half-way sensible should not lead us to assume that there are no problems left. It is proposed that the progress measure will be presented as a single grade for a school. In an effort to make things simple for parents, we will actually be ignoring all the complexities that lie behind the figures. They are not exact measures and shouldn’t be given such a level of spurious precision. KS2 results are notoriously unreliable and often don’t really measure what children really know and can do. Rather they measure how good the primary school is at test preparation. Nor of course are GCSE grades all that reliable these days. So any progress measure based on them is likely to have a substantial level of statistical unreliability.
More importantly still, we have to question the use to which these measures will be put. We are still in the world of using them to judge and compare schools. There will still be a very simplistic floor target – defined as half a grade below the average performance for pupils of the same ability. This won’t take out of the system the fear that no one’s job is secure beyond the next set of results. Rough measures like these are in the true sense indicators – and no more. They may give us a clue as to what is happening but they are never conclusive evidence – especially if we are looking at one year’s results that may be affected by any number of extraneous factors. You can only really judge a school by studying in depth what goes on from day to day. There will be random variation from year to year and real improvement takes time, commitment and continuity.
The key thing is to get away from knee jerk judgements. A low progress measure is a reason for keeping a school under review and for considering support and intervention. So are many other things – low attendance rates, high exclusions, high staff turnover and so on. These are all things that a good local authority would continually be scrutinising and that a good inspectorate would be picking up. But they won’t be picked up by civil servants trying to monitor schools from Whitehall. Hitting a school over the head in response to one piece of data is not a particularly well-crafted form of intervention.
So two requests. One is to recognise the real complexity of school performance data and find ways of better reflecting that in what is published rather than simplifying it down to a single sound bite. And two, get rid of the simplistic floor target notion. The data is not good enough to justify it. Treat it as one piece of evidence amongst many that enable us to judge how a school is doing and how it needs to be supported.