The Aurora Academies Trust runs four primary schools in East Sussex. It has the status of “lead sponsor” with the DfE which means that it is in a good position to expand its portfolio of schools. The Trust has hit the headlines with the discovery that it is paying £100,000 a year to its American parent company, Mosaica Education Inc. in order to make use of its patented curriculum known as Paragon.
This raises a lot of issues. First, there is a tradition on English education of collaboration and a free exchange of ideas between schools. Yet here we have something described as a “patented” curriculum which schools have to pay to have access to. This seems to fly in the face of all the rhetoric from government about schools supporting one another. This isn’t the first occasion that the notion of commercial confidentiality over learning resources and approaches to school improvement has raised its head. If allowed to continue, it will present a real challenge to the tradition of a free exchange of ideas and resources.
Next there is the fact that the schools are required to buy this material by their academies trust which is responsible to its US parent company. At first sight it’s far from clear that the material is particularly suitable – Ofsted has commented that it “lacks a distinctively local element”. But the principle is perhaps more important. The heads and staff have no control over this fundamental aspect of their schools. There is no sign of an open tendering process and no attempt by the schools concerned to compare this approach with any other. It’s a completely closed arrangement.
But much more important than this is the actual record of Mosaica Education in the USA. Like many charter school chains they can list a number of awards and commendations. But dig below the surface and the picture changes. Its schools have consistently underachieved and the chain has been embroiled in a range of scandals. A detailed description of the issues concerning Mosaica in the USA can be found at http://gradingatlanta.tumblr.com/post/37756846391/charter-founder-profits-students-struggle.
The record of Mosaica schools seems to be dismal. Of the first 36 charter schools they took on, 27 have either been closed or have left the organisation. The approach is described as being “willing to accept a certain level of school closures, focusing instead on a strategy of opening new schools. During the time Mosaica watched 27 of its first 36 schools close, it was able to open more than 75 new schools. As long as Mosaica opens more schools than it sees closed each year, its revenue can continue to grow.”
Another feature of Mosaica is that schools end up owing substantial sums to the parent company which charges very substantial management fees. In one case a Mosaica school in Atlanta spent over $900000 of public money on a site which has never been used. The school is now paying interest to Mosaica at 7.25% on a half million dollar loan.
Amongst other alleged little gems are:
- The school in Louisiana closed because its curriculum did not comply with state requirements;
- The school in North Carolina which, when faced with criticism of its poor test scores, hired a principal previously sacked for manipulating test scores;
- The school in Washington DC which gave students test papers to practice with the day before an exam.
As one Atlanta commentator says “perhaps the thing most consistent about Mosaica’s schools is their failure”. The fact that this organisation has been accepted as a sponsor of schools in England is a very clear warning of where the system will be heading if we open the door fully to profit making schools. There can be little doubt that Mosaica see their current academies as a foot in the door ready for the chance to make serious money which will come from a new Tory government.
Don Berry (Manchester SEA and former headteacher) writes:
Manchester is booming – and not just its football teams. Its population has bounced back from a low of 450,000 to 500,000 and is predicted to hit 600,000 by 2030. The immediate challenge for the City Council is to find 7,000 extra primary school places in the next four years. It has already expanded its existing provision in primary schools by the equivalent of 35 forms of entry at reception level in the last couple of years by reopening previously mothballed classrooms and providing temporary portable classrooms (‘prefabs’) but many schools are now full beyond capacity, often in ageing buildings.
Consequently the City Council has accepted a report from officers to use ‘any means necessary’ to solve the problem which includes ‘putting in place a proactive approach to encouraging free school applications to support the requirement for additional places in key areas of the city where the need is clearly proven.’ Already it has given well publicised backing to the New Islington Free School backed by developer Urban Splash and the (independent) Manchester Grammar School. It has also supported the Big Life Group’s ( the company behind The Big Issue) bid to open a free school in Longsight where it already runs an ex Sure Start Children’s Centre. The bid for a Chinese themed Dragonheart Primary School led by the Chinese Centre in Ardwick has also been assisted by Council officers.
So far there has been no political reaction to this policy, in a City Council where already 86 out of 96 seats are held by Labour (and where there is every likelihood that all seats will be Labour after the 2014 local elections). Equally Stephen Twigg, when I asked him about Labour’s attitude to ‘free’ schools at the SEA’s Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture in the House of Commons in November 2012, said he understood the need for councils like Manchester to act ‘tactically’ in this respect in the present circumstances. Interestingly, while the media coverage of the National Audit Office’s report of a shortfall of 256,000 new school places by next year fails to mention that local authorities are now barred by Secretary of State Gove from opening new schools themselves, Fiona Miller writing in the Education Guardian on 12.3.13 states “Meanwhile the DfE has quietly announced that many new free schools will be delivered via local authorities.”
The Leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, expressed the view that the Council was acting responsibly in pursuing this approach when I interviewed him, just as they were when they embraced the previous government’s academies programme by supporting the creation of six ‘Manchester Model Academies’ in partnerships with key business sponsors and Manchester (FE) College. Working with schools, Manchester has established a Strategic Education Partnership (SEP) and Manchester Schools Alliance (MSA) and ‘education organisations joining these arrangements will be asked to sign up to a common set of values and ambitions that will underpin partnership working. The partnership arrangements are designed to mitigate the potential negative impact of national policy change’ and ensure ‘that all schools, regardless of governance, belong to the Manchester family of schools’ (my emphases).
The Council expects that academies and ‘free’ school providers will work in collaboration with them through the SEP and MSA and has drawn up a set of ‘Academy and Free School Sponsor Selection Criteria’. These include a commitment to inclusive education; fair access for all pupils as governed by the Admissions Code of Practice; “appropriate staffing arrangements” and “good employment practices”; a Local Authority governor and engagement with collaborative partnerships with other schools and agencies. In respect of supporting the opening of ‘free’ schools Councillor Leese was clear that “establishing the proposed provision is supported by need and that there is a genuine commitment to providing school places for local children”.
So far this approach has been borne out by the bids that are progressing which are all in areas of the city with acute demand (and where the City Council has provided the necessary supporting population data much to the surprise of Gove’s New Schools Network who, possibly learning from previous debacles, seem now to be requiring evidence of local need for extra places). Equally “to date all academies in Manchester have appointed an LA governor”. And in respect of ‘forced’ sponsored academies the Council believes that “the Strategic Education Partnership through the Schools’ Alliance will have an important role in influencing the choice of sponsor” through their sponsor selection criteria and interestingly claims that “this approach has been discussed with the DfE and ‘in principle’ agreement established. The Manchester framework will include sponsors who can support schools in special measures, have the capacity to support a school in these circumstances and are likely to be approved by the DfE. It is important to note that where the Local Authority can evidence that a strong local solution can be put in place, the DfE is unlikely to impose an external academy solution.” (my emphasis). So far there have been very few ‘forced’ academies in Manchester although a cynic might suggest that reflects the difficulty of finding externally imposed sponsors.
Consequently what is the SEA to make of a policy that that some would call ingenious, others collaborationist, many simply pragmatic? Clearly there are dangers:
Steve Marciniak NUT local secretary has already seen some erosion of teachers conditions of service in Manchester’s existing academies. Councillor Leese refused to equate ‘appropriate staffing arrangements’ and ‘good employment practices’ in Manchester’s Sponsor Selection Criteria with endorsement of national pay and conditions.
For pupils and parents.
Apart from the initial ‘buzz’ around lavishly funded new academies in new buildings and in some case murmurings about overuse of exclusions and lack of inclusivness there seems to have been very little fuss about the introduction of academies (and now the advent of ‘free’ schools.) Their performance is as patchy as academies nationally with some at serious risk of falling foul of new thresholds. So far there seems little dissatisfaction with lack of accountability through the Local Authority. Councillors argue that parents and pupils are more concerned about the quality of schools ( and availability of places in them) than who runs them.
For socialists the issue might come down to the old one of whether it’s best for the state to own, control or commission services (from any willing provider?) The role of local government and the potential for ‘municipal socialism’ has shrunk considerably since its glory days (eg transport departments, council housing, further education) and Manchester City Council has virtually withdrawn from educational provision completely (with less than 12 staff in its education department compared to over 500 some years ago and it’s school improvement role effectively privatised into the arms length One Education business.)
References are to the report ‘Education Services Transformation 2′ to the Young People and Children’s Services Committee of Manchester City Council on 11th December 2012.
It can be found as Report 5 at http://www.manchester.gov.uk/meetings/meeting/1815/young_people_and_children_scrutiny_committee
With less than two years before the next General Election, there is an urgent need to develop a new schools framework for a new government. The one thing we need to learn from Michael Gove and the Tories is the need to be ready for government, ready to hit the ground running to make the changes that will be so badly needed in 2015.
That will need the development of a clear, principled agenda for action and the support of stakeholders of all kinds. We need to start to build this agenda now.
It is for this reason that a number of organisations have come together to set out the principles that will need to underpin “a better future for our schools”. The document identifies ten areas where the government is failing dismally. It then sets out the key directions that will need to be followed after 2015.
Underpinning our approach is the belief that that all aspects of the school system are connected and all contribute to the core aim of raising standards for all. So no part can be ignored. But under this government, everything is fragmenting as a crude marketization takes hold. That’s why we’ve given our campaign the title “Picking up the Pieces”
Amongst the key messages we’ve identified are the need to:
· listen to the stakeholders who tell us that skills, qualities and attitudes are as important as knowledge;
· stop the centralisation of power in Whitehall and restore it both to teachers and to local communities;
· stop wasting energy and resources in conflicts over how and by whom schools are governed;
· promote collaboration rather than competition;
· value every kind of achievement not just the narrowly academic;
· reassert the values of public service and prevent schooling being turned into a privatised business run for profit;
You can find the full document at http://www.pickingupthepieces.org.uk/betterfuture.html. We recognise that this is only the beginning of a process. There is much to do to develop these proposals into detailed action plans that can be implemented.
But the first stage is to develop a consensus about the direction of travel. Our hope is that this initiative will contribute to that process and that the debate around it will help to clarify what a new government should be aiming to achieve.
To this end, we are holding a launch meeting at the House of Commons on Wednesday 12th June from 6.30 to 8.30. It is open to anyone with an interest in debating and developing such a programme. Amongst the speakers will be Fiona Millar and Kevin Brennan MP (Shadow Schools Minister).
As well as coming to this meeting we want to encourage people to:
· send us your comments to email@example.com
· use the document as a starting point for debate in any organisation that you’re involved with whether it’s a political party, a parent group, a trade union branch or any other kind of group.
· post your ideas on the Labour Party policy review website http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/
· tell people about it through Twitter and Facebook
· circulate the document to your own contacts. If you run a blog you’re very welcome to re-use or adapt this post.
· write to the press – local or national – in support of the ideas.
But above all, make your voice heard.
This document has been developed and is endorsed by the Campaign for State Education, the Socialist Educational Association and Information for School and College Governors. It will be published in the summer edition of the journal Forum.
If you want to come to the House of Commons meeting on 12th June, please let us know by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
On his Spectator blog recently, Fraser Nelson asked the question “will Michael Gove’s reforms outlast him”.(at http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/04/is-goves-school-reform-genie-out-of-the-bottle/). The highly encouraging answer was quite possibly not. Tory pessimism about the 2015 election is very real.
As usual, there is a claim that Gove’s programme represents “perhaps this government’s single greatest accomplishment –compared with the state of the economy, the state of the health service and the looming disaster of universal credit he may of course have a point.
But there is real concern about how little real progress on the right’s real agenda Gove has yet made. So Nelson laments that:
“Sure, half of all secondaries have academy status right now – but it is by no means clear that this status change will make the slightest bit of difference to the schools”
“By the next election some 240,000 primary places will be needed, but free schools are expected to deliver just 8,000”
“for the vast majority of parents the idea of free schools will be theoretical. If Labour were to end their freedom, not many would mourn”
It’s an interesting exercise to try to work out what would constitute real success in the eyes of Tory ideologues. There is no mention of any evidence about the quality of education and the actual achievement of young people. There’s an assertion that Gove’s programme will “help the poor”. No attention is paid to any evidence such as Stephen Machin’s recent finding that “Irrespective of whether we rank pupils by the school or national ability distribution, the effects of academy conversion are insignificantly different from zero – and possibly negative for later conversions – in the bottom 10% and 20% of the ability distribution, suggesting no beneficial effects on tail students in academies.”
To judge by this article, evidence of success would be:
- Destroying the teacher unions - “The Labour Party does not work for parents, it works for the unions. The party is more a tool of the unions than any time since Michael Foot’s days. The agenda is to restore political control over the secondary education system”
- In 10 to 15 years, most secondaries will be run by one of a dozen chains (such as ARK, Harris etc). That’s the optimistic scenario.
The idea that Gove is not seeking to assert political control over the entire system is of course laughable. His ideas will determine how and what teachers teach, how exams are constructed and who is allowed to run schools. And in any case, is it really better that schools are run by a few self selected bankers and carpet salesmen rather that elected politicians?
For Nelson, key reasons for the vulnerability of Gove’s programme are the failure to embrace profit making schools and to give schools the right to borrow money. As a result it has not been possible, he claims, for the programmes to grow quickly enough to meet the needs of a rapidly growing pupil population. What he doesn’t admit openly is that the DfE has had to allow local authorities a role in planning capital spending and new schools otherwise demand would never be met.
He then points out how easy it would really be for a new government to change direction. This is often talked about in the context of closing down academies and free schools. But there would of course be no need for that. The first step would, as he recognises, simply be to “put them under the supervision of the local authority”. As specific proof of his predictions, he refers readers to an interview with Stephen Twigg in The House magazine (at http://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/76565/examination_time.html.)
And on this he exaggerates the horror, but is not wrong about the overall thrust. The direct quote from Twigg is “I do think there’s a role for the local authority as an overseer of the schools in their area and I would say that includes all of the state funded schools in their area.”
In the same interview, he also says “What’s been lost in the system is the sense of a voice for the local community, including parents. When you have a system that is… market led, very fragmented, there are real risks that you lose that local community dimension of giving that voice to parents in the area. Gove alone decides who gets a free school”.
That will not be the end of the story. There will be a need to re-establish a level playing field between schools and to ensure that all schools work within a common framework whether it be in relation to school meals, admissions, funding, SEN or exclusions. But importantly, it is all to play for and the right knows it.
One of the few positives about having Michael Gove to speak is that you never quite know which Michael Gove you’re going to get. This week at the National College we got Gove the anarchist. Away with central direction, let a hundred flowers bloom, teachers know best.
The speech has been compared to an old fashioned school prize giving – if you didn’t get a mention, you really are no one in the educational world. Much of it commits the old logical error of trying to prove a case by example.
Actually for every story of academy success, you can name an equal number of failures. After all this was in the same week that the head of EAct (who was of course a teacher) has been removed for financial mismanagement. And of course the maintained sector can match all the achievements of academies and free schools. But people who’ve chosen to remain in the maintained sector have been comprehensively air brushed out with a determination that matches Stalin’s writing Trotsky out of hisory .
He also gave positive references to a number of initiatives that we know he actually has no time for – in the case of the Heads’ Roundtable at least he was honest enough to recognise that. But overall the picture was of a Secretary of State delighting in variety and in initiatives coming from every direction. You would think that his aim really is to work himself out of a job by leaving it all to teachers.
So with a straight face he tells us that “I think this national curriculum may well be the last national curriculum” and that “teachers are taking increasing control of what and how children learn.”
Can this really be the same man as the one who:
- Employs special advisers who specialise in abusing journalists who disagree with their master;
- Has created a draft national curriculum that has been almost universally condemned by professional opinion including by the experts he originally appointed to produce it;
- Is using the national curriculum to impose his particular beliefs ranging from the exclusive use of phonics to the right way to do long division
- Is imposing a testing framework from year 1 to year 12 which will drive schools into an ever narrower focus on teaching to the test and will deny pupils the opportunity to really demonstrate what they can do;
- Constantly misuses data to make assertions about academies and free schools that have no basis in evidence;
- Has wasted £1 billion of public money by mismanaging the academies programme;
- Employs a hit squad to bully schools into academy conversion (on contracts that enable them to avoid huge amounts of tax);
- Promotes academy chains where there is much less autonomy for schools than in the local authority sector.
It may be that Gove’s willingness to present different faces to different audiences is part of the reason for his success. The ideologically driven bully appears only occasionally but there is no doubt that that is the reality. If teachers really did take control of the education system and if evidence really was the driver of policy, it would look very different.
The DfE has now produced perhaps the definitive summary of Michael Gove’s educational philosphy. Commenting on his speech to a Spectator conference, a Whitehall source (can we guess who?) said: “We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese.”
The specific context was the proposal that schools should work longer hours and for more weeks in the year. Apparently, if we don’t do this “we are running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap”.
This would seem to be part of a broad onslaught against the agreements that have governed teachers’ conditions of service, in some cases since the end of industrial action in the 1980’s. The rhetoric from the DfE says one thing: “I believe there is a need to review the framework for non-pay conditions to ensure that it is suited to a high-status profession and gives primacy to teaching and learning” says the remit letter to the Teachers Pay Review body.
The hints and briefings however point in a different direction. They suggest Gove has in his sights the agreement on the 21 administrative and clerical tasks that teachers are not required to undertake. To this, add the longstanding agreement setting the directed working time at 1265 hours. And before anyone thinks this is a bit low, remember that “it does not include any additional time which teachers spend on planning, marking, assessment or other tasks related to the professional responsibilities of the role.”
These are clearly big issues for teachers. And it follows the assault on pensions and the introduction of performance related pay. But it’s also important to look at things from the perspective of the child. Gove clearly thinks that children don’t work hard enough either. In his universe, the road to success is for children to spend more time grinding away at their desks.
The most obvious comment to make is that we seem to be losing sight of childhood. It shouldn’t be an extension downwards of adult working life. Children need space and time to play, to explore the world for themselves and to do things in an unstructured and undirected way. It’s how they learn about relationships, working with others and how they develop their imagination and their creativity.
This is something that Asian societies are in fact beginning to recognise. One American teacher in China wrote of Chinese children that “they are followers, not leaders, with little to no motivation to work as a team and accomplish goals in the most effective and timely manner.”
More comprehensive research has identified serious levels of stress as a big problem amongst Chinese children. Research led by Therese Hesketh, a professor at University College London found that Chinese children as young as six are suffering from serious stress at school. More than 80% of 9 to 12 year olds worried “a lot” about exams, two-thirds feared punishment by their teachers and almost three-quarters reported fearing physical punishment from their parents. One in three children questioned exhibited the “physical symptoms” typical of stress, including headaches and stomach pains.
Much the same is true of other Asian systems. Not only is it bad for children but increasingly this kind of regime doesn’t deliver what society needs. One writer has summarised the Singapore system as being about “identifying the top 1% for future leadership roles and training the remaining 99% to be hamsters to run the economic wheel.” But that isn’t how advanced economies work – we need leaders and imaginative thinkers everywhere. Just putting the hours in will not deliver what we need. The learning that takes place in unplanned and unstructured time is at least as important.
Above all, if we want our children to grow up into balanced and healthy adults, we need to allow them a childhood.
Yet another rose-tinted attempt to argue a case for grammar schools has appeared on the Independent’s blog site (http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/04/10/grammar-schools-are-the-key-to-social-mobility/). Rohan Banerjee, a former pupil of a Ramsgate grammar school seeks to peddle the old myth that “grammar schools are the key to social mobility”. His argument derives it would seem from his romanticised memories (“as I strolled over the green grass of the playing fields”) together with the usual attempt to argue by anecdote and example.
The school is not named in the article but there is only one grammar school offering places for boys in Ramsgate. That school in 2012 had 4% of pupils in receipt of free school meals. The girls’ grammar school had a whole 9%. The secondary modern school had 42% of pupils on free meals and the so called comprehensive 55%. Not a lot of evidence of social mobility there. The comprehensive has failed Ofsted inspections twice in recent years. So a few selected pupils may be having a good time but Ramsgate’s school system as a whole is clearly far from healthy.
The nearest the article comes to using evidence is to cherry pick a few examples of grammar schools that send a lot of pupils to Russell Group universities. Interestingly no Kent grammar schools are among the examples. When you look at some evidence, that probably isn’t surprising.
In 2012, Kent schools sent 8% of their students to a Russell Group university (including Oxbridge). Below the national average which is 9%. The same as comprehensive Surrey, Brighton and Oxfordshire and less than comprehensive Hampshire. And, ok, slightly more than East and West Sussex. But absolutely no evidence that grammar schools are doing something that comprehensives can’t and don’t do.
It ought to be pretty obvious that an individual comprehensive is unlikely to match an individual grammar school – schools with the whole range of ability won’t have as many high flyers. But looking at the system as a whole it’s entirely clear that comprehensives can and do deliver in all kinds of circumstances – Russell group entries in Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Hartlepool and Stockton are all pretty similar to Kent.
Perhaps the most extraordinary admission in the article is that the author actually failed his 11+. What his grounds for appeal were is unknown. This fact seems to persuade him that the 11+ system is both inefficient and unfair but he still hankers after selection. Quite how this would be achieved without an 11+ is never explained.
That’s really the biggest problem with the article. It’s based on romantic nostalgia – “I stood in the impressive oak-beamed dining hall once more, admiring the honours boards and Oxbridge scholarships that hung proudly on the walls”. But trying to turn that into a policy requires believing a whole series of unproven assertions (“an academic rapture saves 20 per cent of pupils”).
We are told that “I cannot ignore the obvious benefits of realising a student’s potential”. No one would argue with that. But it is very obvious once you look at the evidence that this is exactly what a selective system doesn’t do.