Sheila Dore, Chair of SEA writes:
This article was first published on http://www.leftfutures.org
In his speech to Labour Party conference, Tristram Hunt outlined a minimal education policy. None of the great questions raised by Michael Gove’s reign over education were addressed. He had an excellent opportunity to fill the post-Gove void and persuade academics, teachers, teaching assistants, trade unionists, parents and everyone concerned for education not only to vote Labour but also to persuade others to do the same. The 10 minute speech received lukewarm applause in contrast to the warm reception given to other Shadow Cabinet speakers. As John Crace wrote in the Guardian:
“The shadow education secretary’s most obvious ambition was to get out of the hall as fast as possible and no one was minded to thwart it.”
Tristram Hunt said ‘only a Labour government will ensure our schools are not privatised for profit’. This does not mean they will not be privatised i.e. removed from any degree of Local authority oversight and given to unelected Directors of School Standards and private academy chains. Besides, as Martin Johnson and Warwick Mansell have shown, a great deal of covert privatisation of education has gone on already and continues apace.
In her address to conference, Angela Eagle, Chair of the National Policy Forum, warmly commended the thoroughly democratic process of policy making, represented by the Policy Commissions, culminating in the three days of discussion and debate in Milton Keynes. She was confident that the final results of the Forum reflected the views of Party members and affiliated organisations. I attended the NPF and I share that confidence.
Ed Miliband told Conference that a Labour government would “devolve power to local government, bringing power closer to people right across England”. In the fringe meetings Tristram Hunt delivered a few comments about ‘world class teachers’ and ‘the forgotten 50%’ only to go on to reject any suggestion that Local authorities should have an enhanced role in managing, commissioning and overseeing schools, despite the NPF’s agreement that “Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their areas ….. Labour believes in strong local oversight of schools’ and ‘Local Authorities have a key part to play in delivering high quality education …’. No mention of any of this from Tristram Hunt.
When asked about how Labour would resolve the problems caused by top-slicing of the education services grant to support academies leaving Local authorities with insufficient funds to provide services to vulnerable children in great need Tristram Hunt did not seem to understand the question and protested loudly that he would hear no criticism of sponsored academies.
Tristram Hunt seemed most at home at a small fringe meeting run by the Policy Exchange think tank, the title of which was “Parent-led academies, Directors of School Standards and collaboration for all. What should Labour promise on schools in 2015?” The speakers were Tristram, John Blake of ‘Labour Teachers’ (not affiliated to the Labour Party), Chris Keates, General Secretary NASUWT, Laura McInerney from ‘Academies Week’ and Jonathan Simons, Head of Education, Policy Exchange (David Cameron’s favourite think tank).
Jonathan Simons argued for the academisation of all primary schools and John Blake concurred claiming that two schools in his area had benefited from such a change. Tristram Hunt rehearsed his familiar lines about ‘world class teachers’. He spoke of the success of the ‘London Challenge’ and how Labour will roll out similar schemes across the country. He went on to declare Labour’s support for ‘Parent-led Academies’: ‘free schools’ in all but name. When asked what the difference was between the two he didn’t seem to know. He also showed no concern when he was asked if this would enable middle class parents with sharp elbows to use public money for their own children.
The Parent-led academies proposal did not appear in the NPF document. It is opposed by all the major teaching unions, as well as respected educational academics. The meeting was predicated on the assumption that the audience were ignorant of the facts. The success of the London Challenge did not depend on academies but on Local Authority maintained schools working together, as the Ofsted report on the London Challenge states, ‘30% of London’s 377 Local Authority-controlled secondary schools were judged to be outstanding, reflecting the positive impact of the London Challenge. Of the 34 academies in London that have been inspected 8 (or 24%) were outstanding’.
Furthermore, Henry Stewart’s research on ‘The Academies Illusion’ for the Local Schools Network states:
“For those schools whose GCSE benchmark was in the 20-40% range in 2011, academies increased by 7.8% and maintained schools by 7.7%. Both are great improvements and the schools deserve to be congratulated. However it makes little difference whether the school was an academy or not.”
This is despite the billions that have been spent on academies, much of it misspent as shown by the recent report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee Report. Stewart shows clearly that academies are not transformative:
The data does not back up this view. Students in sponsored academies are less likely to take the humanities and language GCSEs that Michael Gove was so keen to promote. Many are doing well and have seen significant growth in GCSE results. However, this increase is just as large in similar non-academies where it is less likely to be based on ‘GCSE equivalents’.
The suggestion that the wholesale academisation of the Primary Sector is also necessary is therefore also groundless. Overall there are more ‘good’ or better primary schools (78%) than secondary schools (71%).
Does the appearance on the same platform as Jonathan Simons and John Blake signal a new policy initiative? Tristram Hunt’s utterances were certainly not based on the facts or on Labour Party policy. Is this a new ‘go it alone, with a little help from my friends’ approach from Tristram Hunt? The Labour movement expects and deserves more from a shadow Secretary of State. It is entitled to ask – “Who has the ear of Tristram Hunt?”
As we approach the General Election, the policy debate in the education world is getting more lively. Many organisations are seeking to have an impact on the decisions that a new government will take including unions, think tanks and a wide range of pressure groups. SEA and its partner organisations are actively joining in the debate.
After playing a significant part in the formation of Labour policy at July’s Policy Forum, SEA is now promoting two key SEA events during November. We hope that as many people as possible will come and make a contribution to the debate.
The Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture
On Tuesday 11th November, Dr Selina Todd will give the Caroline Benn memorial lecture which will be followed by an open debate. This is held annually in memory of a past president of SEA and a formidable campaigner for progressive and comprehensive education. Selina Todd’s recent book “The People: The rise and fall of the working class 1910 to 2010” has been compared in significance to E P Thompson’s seminal work on the 19th century working class.
Her theme will be “The Golden Age of the Grammar School – exploding the myth”. For some this may seem more history than a current issue. But as Fiona Millar reminded us in yesterday’s Guardian, 11+ selection takes place still in at least part of a quarter of local authorities. The fallacy that selection supports social mobility is widely promoted and needs to be challenged at every opportunity.
So this event is hugely relevant to our debates today. It is a free event and will be in the House of Commons at 6 pm. Please book your place by e mailing
Reclaiming Education – Priorities for the Next Government
On Saturday 15th November, the Reclaiming Education alliance of which SEA is a part, is putting on its autumn conference on the theme of “Reclaiming Education – priorities for the next government”. The speakers will be Sir Tim Brighouse, Mary Bousted (General Secretary ATL), Laura McInerny (journalist and writer) , Professor Richard Hatcher Birmingham City University and , Dr Nicola Rollock (Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education at Birmingham University) with of course ample opportunity for debate and questioning.
The conference will be in the Birmingham Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB. You can book on line at http://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/124868 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The focus will be on the seven priorities for 2015 and beyond that have been developed through the series of conferences and that we’ve held since 2010. They are:
1. The National Curriculum should be what it says- a curriculum for all children in all English schools. As originally promised, it should be a curriculum to which all children are entitled, broadly based, balanced and designed to promote children’s emotional, as well as intellectual, development.
2. No school should be allowed to choose its pupils. Admission to schools should be fairly administered according to well understood rules drawn up by a locally elected education service. Selection tests must end. No child should be branded a failure at 11.
3. Inclusion and equal opportunities need to be at the heart of education provision and discrimination and segregation tackled in all their forms. The needs of every child, including those with SEN and disabilities, should be fully met.
4. All schools should be treated equally and funded according to a common formula which responds to pupils’ needs.
5. All schools within the same area should work together, rather than compete against each other. A locally elected education service should guide, support and monitor schools as well as take decisions on school places.
6. The inspection system, perceived by schools as hostile and threatening, should be replaced by one
which is supportive, as well as rigorous. Standards should be agreed through a national consultation process and inspectors should help schools by developing and sharing successful practice.
7. All those whom we employ to educate our children should have qualified professional status.Continuing professional development should be an entitlement and requirement for all staff. Unqualified staff should be given appropriate training to become qualified.
Trevor Fisher writes:
The announcement in August that four leading school organisations were setting up an alternative series of school performance tables largely flew under the radar. The annual controversy over GCSE and A Level results took attention away from an initiative which broke with a twenty year consensus on school accountability. The challenge to the Westminster system by schools running their own league tables was perhaps misunderstood. The organisations involved – ASCL and NAHT, representing the heads, the United Learning Trust plus, PIXL, the school improvement organisation – were clear that this is not an attempt to supplement official government performance tables. It is an attempt to undermine them.
This was stated in the brief for the first set of performance tables, which said “It is intended that, over the next three years, these will become the established, independent means of publishing data that bypasses politicians and government” https://schoolperformancetables.org.uk/).
Given that performance tables were established by John Major’s Citizen’s Charter to supply accurate information on school performance via the Department for Education (DfE), it is clear that important school leaders believe the government has failed to supply accurate information. Although there is a General Election coming, they also see no chance of problems with the performance tables being remedied by a change of government.
These are not marginal organisations. The National Association of Head Teachers represents most primary head teachers. The Association of School and College Leaders represents most secondary heads. PIXL now claims 800 schools are signed up to its exam improvement programme, while the United Learning Trust claims many schools in both independent and state sectors. Why are they going out on a limb, and why now? Performance tables have been controversial in the past, but less so in 2014 when journalists regularly recycle the tables for the information of local readers. However this is one reason why school leaders think the current tables are misleading.
In setting out their stall, the leaders were explicitly dismissive of the DfE tables Jon Coles, of the United Learning Trust, alleged “Over time, the tables have become less a way of giving parents the information they want and more an arms length policy lever by which successive governments have sought to influence the decisions Heads take”. Russell Hobby, of the NAHT, said “the government’s performance tables have become a sledgehammer to crack the system”, while Sir John Rowling, Chair of PIXL, said “Schools feel pushed and pulled by the complex, no-notice changes to school league tables. This new way of presenting information (shows) the results that students actually achieve without the artificial filters that are based on the politics of the day or hour”.
The deep anger underlying these complaints focus on a perceived attempt to politicise performance tables. Many Heads feel they are controlled by the selective supply of information, though in theory they are autonomous – and can decide what qualifications are best for their students. In practice only a limited range of qualifications are allowed in Performance Tables, by an arbitrary process imposed with little consultation. The crucial floor target of 5 A*-C grades in GCSE or equivalent has long been felt to push schools to prioritise borderline C/D candidates above other students above or below the borderline. The Wolf report which removed many vocational equivalents from performance tables heightened the pressures on heads – the qualifications can be taken by schools, but are not recognised by the new tables, putting heads in a Catch 22 situation.
Feelings came to a head last autumn when Michael Gove announced that resits would be removed from the Performance Tables, only the first sitting of an exam counting. While this addressed a perceived Gaming culture in schools, this effectively stopped many schools entering students early for exams when they were felt to be ready to take them. This summer there was a 40% drop in entries for 15 year old students. Neither the decision, nor its outcome, had serious debate.
There is legitimate concern over ‘Gaming’ of qualifications, particularly the use of vocational equivalents. Alison Wolf’s report that vocational equivalents to GCSE were rarely equivalent and short changed students was widely accepted. She acknowledged, however, the role of floor targets and other government initiatives in turning schools into virtual examination factories and this continues.
But early entry and repeats are not Gaming, though they can be abused. Since the start of the current exam system in 1951, students have been allowed to take exams early. Resits have also been part of the culture. For some students early entry is highly desirable if they are ready to achieve. In mathematics and music in particular, some students are well able to cope and it is wrong to hold them back. However the practice of entering students on mass for early exams is dubious.
Resitting exams is less dubious, and for me resitting was a career saver. When I took my O Levels in 1963, the only exam I failed was German. This was serious as a language pass was vital for university entrance, so my school allowed me to study and resit in the Lower Sixth. I then failed a second time. By this time I was entering the second year of A level study and the Head took my failure as a personal challenge. He laid on one to one tuition, I achieved a pass at the third time of asking, and off I went to university. I owe my career to that decision.
The role of schools and colleges is to achieve results. This should not be at the expense of a broad education. But if it takes extra effort to get the students the grades they need, why should this be penalised? Whatever the prospects of a system of alternative performance tables, there is no doubt Russell Hobby is right – the current system is a sledgehammer to crack the system. Gaming is illegitimate, but the measures in this place are indefensible. It is time to ask what interests the current performance tables serve.
The revival of “Skylight”, a play by David Hare originally performed in the mid 1990’s was one of the theatrical hits of the summer. It’s almost entirely an extended debate between two former lovers, Bill Night as an entrepreneur owner of a chain of restaurants and Carey Mulligan as a teacher in a run down school in the East End of London.
It’s presentation of London schooling is very much of its time – more a battle for survival than a place of learning. But as David Hare has pointed out, the worship of private sector money and the down grading of public service is increasingly of our time too.
But there’s one exchange that shows very clearly how easy it is to miss the whole point of democratic and comprehensive schooling. Carey Mulligan’s character tells us that, for her, finding just one talented child in the sea of dross that is an urban comprehensive makes it all worthwhile. Raising up that one pupil to join the privileged classes is what apparently it’s all about.
This encapsulates in one short exchange the fundamental problem with much of the discussion of social mobility today. It starts from the basic premise that you can only get to live a good life if you pass your exams and get into a middle or upper class profession. So there will never be enough opportunities for everyone and life is a competition to win the big prizes.
This in essence is the case for selection. If you’re clever (ie you pass exams) you deserve to be rescued. If you’re not , you don’t. The trouble is that this argument starts from the assumption that we can’t provide a decent secure existence for everyone. The poor, it seems, will always be with us. The only question, then, is who gets the prizes – and not surprisingly those who have them already have found plenty of ways of making sure they keep them. And so social mobility, defined like this, predictably dries up.
What we really want from schools – and what impressively we actually get from most – is the fundamental belief that every child does indeed matter. We need to be ambitious for them all. There’s an article in this week’s TES by the Director of Inclusion at Katherine Birbalsingh’s free school. It takes a great many words to make the pretty obvious point that we need to be ambitious for all our children.
But this too badly misses the real issue. To begin with there is a long and lingering description supposedly of the life of a child from the wrong side of the tracks. No cliché is too obvious or familiar to be left out – down to the brother who won’t let the five year old sleep by playing games all night. The imaginary mother “wants nothing more than for her children to be lifted out of the circumstances they were born into”.
The answer, according to this article is school. Teachers must make the difference. On one level this is trite and obvious. Any one child might succeed beyond what would be expected. Indeed in London schools for some years very many have. But they won’t all go to Russell Group because there aren’t enough places for everyone. Some will end up unemployed, sick or in zero hour sub minimum wage employment. Not because they deserve it but because we have organised our society so that this has to be the outcome for a great many people.
It’s essentially all part of the argument that says poor people don’t want more money – they want education, support and of course sanctions if they don’t conform. This has to be seen for the vicious con that it is. The reality for the imaginary mother in the article is that she would want to be able to give her child what others get now not just dream of some future fantasy world. And that does come down to money and to security in income, work and housing.
Schools might be able to change the pecking order of society somewhat – though given how the odds are stacked in favour of the existing elite, not that much. But schools won’t enable everyone to earn a living wage, to live somewhere they can afford without fear of eviction and to give their kids the kind of start they would wish. That will take a commitment to a more equal society not just to a rescue act for the lucky few.
Originally posted on emmaannhardy:
Tristram Hunt, like a high quality appertizer, gave us just enough without fully satisfying and left us with the nagging empty feeling of wanting more. Although the question of me ‘dining’ anywhere other than with Labour is indisputable I sometimes find myself enviously looking over at the Green’s and wishing I had what they’d ordered…
But never forget…
The argument presented by Tristram was that the aims of the Butler education act were never fully realised:
The government’s three purposes were ‘to secure for children a happier childhood and a better start in life; to ensure a fuller measure of education and opportunity for young people and to provide a means for all of developing the various talents with which they are endowed and so enriching the inheritance of the country whose citizens they are.’ Tristram Hunt 18.8.14
Reformers have not learnt the lessons from this failure – these being…
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A level results day always throws up a wide range of stories. There’s plenty of human interest stuff but also plenty of opportunities for organisations to spin their results to their advantage and for journalists to demonstrate their lamentable failure to deal with basic statistics.
One of the features this year was the very determined attempt, spearheaded by Policy Exchange, to try and claim the results as a triumph for free schools. On August 14th, Jonathan Simons tweeted “40% of all free school students get AAB. Much better than maintained schools. Free schools for the win. End of debate”. Sadly just a few hours later the figure had fallen to 35% as apparently not all schools were included the first time. The commitment to high quality analysis is as ever impressive!
There aren’t of course that many free schools taking A level – new secondaries have yet to grow through to that stage because they’ve not been open long enough. So mostly this is the handful of 16 to 19 free schools – there are actually 6 open but 5 have only been open for one year so won’t have any A level results yet! And the odd failing private school that chose to join the state sector.
So we’re left with the self-styled London Academy of Excellence. This is the super-selective school in Newham promoted by a group of public schools headed by Eton and Brighton College. Their spin really went into overdrive, trumpeting the fact that 40% of students got AAB in traditional subjects. Journalists fell over themselves in amazement and pronounced that the key to social mobility has been discovered.
In his comments the head of the school displayed all the patronising ignorance that so often characterises products of the private sector. He told the Guardian:
“In Newham there were hundreds and thousands of young people who wanted to do traditional A levels. In the past they couldn’t do them because there was no one to provide them. Either they were having to go to schools outside the borough or they were having to take places at colleges here that didn’t provide biology, maths and history. They were having to take BTECs, GNVQs and that type of thing.”
Thousands … really, in one London borough? And need we wonder any further about why we can’t get vocational education right when we see this kind of contempt oozing out of people like this headteacher.
The real lie though is the assertion that no one else is making provision for Newham students. In fact there is an established sixth form college in Newham. It’s a comprehensive institution not a selective one. It offers just about every A level you can name, including of course biology, maths and history. Last year it sent 60 students to Russell Group universities and this year 162 students have Russell Group offers.
To understand what the London School of Excellence is really achieving needs just a bit of simple research. The basic entry qualification for this school is 5 GCSEs at A or A* – far higher than any normal sixth form or college. And of course they achieved these grades at the comprehensive schools in Newham and surrounding boroughs , so maybe we should look for the secret of social mobility there – after all turning the highest achieving GCSE students into high achieving A level ones is not really the hard part.
Analysing what students with 5 A grades at GCSE usually achieve at A level isn’t simple. But for example:
In maths A level, half of all candidates with an average grade A at GCSE got A or A* at A level and 87% of those with average GCSE at A* got A or A* at A level. In English A level the comparable figures are 40% and 88%.
So there is really nothing very surprising in 40% of this highly selective cohort getting top A level grades. It’s what happens pretty much everywhere.
The magic bullet then isn’t stardust from public schools. It’s nothing more complicated that cherry picking the best from comprehensive schools for miles around. For the real answers to social mobility we need to look somewhere else. And we need also to ask ourselves what this kind of super-selection is doing to our supposed commitment to social cohesion.
Originally posted on Headteachers' Roundtable:
On July 15th, five members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable met Tristram Hunt at the House of Commons to discuss our Education Manifesto. Our original meeting had had to be re-scheduled when it clashed with maximum media fall-out from the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ situation. Hearing the news that Michael Gove had been replaced at the DFE on the day of our meeting, we fully anticipated another push-back but we were in luck. In between division bells sounding for TH to rush out to vote and a Radio5 Live interview to comment on the end of the Gove era, we had a good hour of discussion.
Having read our manifesto, the Shadow Secretary said that he agreed with most of it and certainly the general thrust. We acknowledged that we’re delighted to see that…
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