Education 2015 – a progressive agenda for the General Election

On 8th April over a hundred people packed Committee Room 14 at the House of Commons to talk about the kind of education policies they want to see on offer at next year’s election. The meeting was hosted by Kevin Brennan MP (Shadow Schools Minister) who introduced the session.

The keynote speaker was Peter Mortimore, former Director of the Institute of Education and author of “Education under Siege”. He began by saying “we want a new government to challenge the cosy consensus that politicians have more or less got it right and that their ideas, right-wing, ideological, neo-liberal ideas are the only show in town”. He went on to present a challenging analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of English education and some radical proposals for change (see the reference to his presentation below). His challenge to the politicians was “that political parties seem to lack the courage to really challenge many of these big ideas. They’re doing their best but they seem to lack the courage to go the full hog and really challenge and say “This is not the way that we want our society to develop. This is not the way that we want our education system to serve it.””

Everyone present was then invited to identify their personal priorities for education policy after 2015. A lot of people made verbal contributions and everyone left a written summary of what they wanted to see happen. The result was a remarkably consistent set of messages which were brought together at the end of the conference by Kenny Frederick, former Headteacher of George Green’s School in East London.

What people were saying can be summarised like this:

1. The National Curriculum should be what it says – a curriculum for all children in all English schools. It should be an entitlement, as originally promised, broadly based, balanced and with clear room for creative and imaginative subjects and personal, social, health and relationship education.
2. Inclusion and equal opportunities need to be at the heart of education provision. This is about SEN and disability but it’s also about meeting the needs of all kinds of children.
3. A fair admissions code should operate for all schools in a geographical area and should be implemented by a locally elected education service. No school should be its own admissions authority.
4. All schools should have the same responsibilities and powers and receive funding according to a common formula that enables them all to fulfil their responsibilities on an equal basis.
5. All schools within a clearly defined geographical area should co-operate and share best practice with the support and guidance of a suitably resourced democratically elected local education service. Educational planning and service delivery that meets the needs of all children resident in an area requires a properly resourced service locally based and with good local knowledge. Best practice should also be shared between education services.
6. The inspection and monitoring of English education must become supportive and be capable of focusing on school improvement when necessary. Standards should be agreed through a national consultation process and inspectors should be trained to help schools attain them.
7. All front line staff in children’s education should have qualified professional status. Continuing professional development should be an entitlement for all staff and those currently without qualified status should be given appropriate training to obtain it.

These then are the issues we want to see at the heart of the 2015 election campaign. All the evidence is that current government policies have little public (see the ICM poll in the Guardian this week) or professional support. We hope there will indeed be politicians brave enough to challenge the “cosy consensus” and to develop an agenda for a truly democratic, inclusive and high quality education service.

There is a sound recording of the meeting together with Peter Mortimore’s presentation at

The meeting was organised by the Reclaiming Education Alliance which is made up of the Socialist Educational Association, the Campaign for State Education, Comprehensive Future and Information for School and College Governors

Teaching about climate change: how the sceptics see Gove as an ally

Last week, the Daily Mail gave substantial space to a report from Nigel Lawson’s “Global Warming Policy Foundation” that claimed to reveal how children are being indoctrinated by green propaganda in schools (

The report asserts that “We find instances of eco-activism being given a free rein within schools…. In every case of concern, the slant is on scares, on raising fears, followed by the promotion of detailed guidance on how pupils should live, as well as on what they should think. In some instances, we find encouragement to create ‘little political activists’ in schools by creating a burden of responsibility for action on their part to ‘save the planet’, not least by putting pressure on their parents.”

The starting point of course is that the dangers of man-made climate change are matters about which there can be a legitimate scientific debate and that scepticism is a defensible position. The authors of the report accuse schools and teachers of teaching politics rather than science. As far as the science goes, there is of course no more legitimacy in the sceptics position than there is in the views of deniers of evolution. The reality is that recognition that climate change is significantly man-made and is a huge threat to our future represents an almost universal scientific consensus.

The report laboriously tracks how climate change is addressed in schools through the curriculum, exams, textbooks and wider activities. In their view it amounts to illegitimate and possibly illegal political indoctrination.

There are two fundamental responses to be made. One is that there can be no legitimate reason to give climate change deniers equal space. This is a trap that the BBC not uncommonly falls into. We are not dealing here with a matter of opinion or political judgement. The scientific consensus needs to be recognised and taught for what it is.

The second point is that teaching about values is an entirely proper aspect of education. We teach about democracy and about equality in all its aspects. No one now suggests that racism is an equally legitimate position that needs to be put forward as a viable alternative. We may not have got all the way to universal acceptance of all aspects of equalities but we’re well on the way. Maintaining a planet for our grandchildren to inherit is also a matter of morality. It can’t be something our society is neutral about.

We might just think that this is the Mail sounding off again and we don’t need to take much notice. However there is a more chilling bit. It tells us that “A spokesman for Mr Gove said: ‘The Secretary of State read this report with concern. Schools should not teach that a particular political or ideological point of view is right – indeed it is against the law for them to do so.”

Moreover the report itself spells out in some detail how Michael Gove’s new curriculum has watered down the coverage of climate science. It documents with approval the fact that the 2013 curriculum appeared to “try to restrict the teaching of climate change dogma”. Gove was forced retreat to some degree in the face of public pressure but this report still considers that “the new curriculum is a major improvement over the previous one. There is no mention of ‘sustainability’ anywhere in the document, and of the five mentions of climate, only two provide clear opportunities for the inclusion of illustrative materials and examples promoting alarm over anthropogenic climate change.”

Which leaves you wondering just what Gove is up to. Is he cosying up to the right wing press as one step in his personal leadership campaign? Or is it that he has a problem with anything that encourages young people to be politically aware and active. This would be a piece with the emasculation of the Citizenship curriculum which has lost everything about active participation by young people at school and in their community. All we’re left with is a dreary recital of the workings of the constitution detached from any personal engagement.

This is of course the Tory way – what they want is to see is young people who are compliant and unchallenging of the status quo. Whatever the reason, this is yet another clear example of how the personal prejudices and interests of ministers are being forced on schools and therefore why in future politicians should be kept away from the curriculum.


Trevor Fisher writes:

The OFQUAL proposals released on April 3rd (Guardian report 2nd April) intensify fundamental and unresolved problems with GCSE (and A Level) reform. The headline reports picked up on international benchmarking, though the proposal to reinstate APU style sampling on the old pattern is a more useful feature and not controversial. Other issues are highly controversial and it is a sign of the times that OFQUAL is staging a ‘conversation’ – not a consultation – to end June 31st. It would be cynical to argue this will have no impact. Much is tied into decisions already made, but it is clear OFQUAL is uncertain about much it is doing so the activity is worth taking seriously.

However having read the document, scutinising key aspects, it is not possible to be sure how well grounded their proposals are. This note is thus partly about how to interpret the OFQUAL document. A “Conversation on how standards should be set for new GCSEs” does not display total confidence about what they are proposing, though on the key issues they accept the government line. Indeed, the fact that OFQUAL accepted DFE money to do the international benchmarking is itself problematical. OFQUAL is designed to be independent, not a paid consultancy of the DFE.

However this is not the immediate question. The problems arise from two issues – what system to use in setting grade boundaries, and how they can be internationally benchmarked. Though linked, they are best seen separately

Setting Grade Boundaries.

Either a norm referenced system or a criterion referenced system is possible, fixed percentages or basing grade on grade criteria or descriptors. Neither pose real problems for teachers, though the difference is not clear to employers and HE. Norm referencing avoids the question of standards. Criterion referencing while more focussed on standards relies on people knowing what the descriptors mean. The document is at its strongest when arguing grade descriptors are unreliable. (e.g. paras 2.15- 2.19). However the document then seems to argue for a mixture, which is really problematical. Note that the system will run from grade 1 to grade 9, which is immensely confusing (and designed only to distinguish ‘old’ GCSE from ‘new’ GCSE).

For the crucial equivalent to C grade, which teachers are familiar with and can teach to, the system is to be norm referenced. Thus in notes to editors (executive summary), the document states “We are proposing that the same proportion of candidates will achieve the bottom of the grade 4 as currently achieve the bottom of the C grade”. The standard for a grade 5 will be set in line with the performance of students from the higher performing countries in international tests” (only the PISA study is actually considered, a problem for later consideration)

OFQUAL are trying to keep teachers on board with the old ‘pass’ grade (theoretically tied to the old O Level Pass) while keeping with government/Gove edicts to make the exams more demanding. Much to discuss here, but the immediate issue is the mix of norm and criterion referencing. Thus “the same proportion of candidates should get 7 or above as get A or above”, thus two grades – 5 and 6 float -, with 5 tied to international benchmarks, very problematically, and “a smaller proportion of candidates should be awarded the 9 than currently get the A*. Thus A* is now 8, but how it is fixed is not determined proportionally so it has to be criterion referenced to be logically awarded. 9 becomes A** in the old GCSE format.

International Benchmarking

The real elephant in the room comes with grade 5 which is to be internationally benchmarked. OFQUAL states that this will be done thus:

“3.16 We propose that the standard… required for a grade 5 should be at about that implied by the international statistics,…. half to two thirds of a grade higher than that required for a current grade C.

“3.17 We have collected and reviewed performance descriptors (ie grade descriptors, or criterion referencing: the terms refer to the same approach) in those countries (see (b) below) whose students tend to perform well in international tests (though only PISA is referred to in the document). We will use these descriptors to help us check whether or not our expectations about the standard required for a grade 5 is correct and inform users accordingly”.

Apart from the issue of whether this makes any sense without piloting and actual student performance, even if outside actual summer exam conditions, this is illogical. If performance descriptors are regarded as unreliable and impossible to operationalise, as stated in paras 2.15 to 2.19, then I cannot see how they become reliable just because used abroad. PISA is not relevant for benchmarking, grade descriptors alone cannot be. Actual papers, questions, examiners reports and actual work done by students under exam conditions would be needed.

If OFQUAL is to rely only on grade descriptors, then their own argument suggests this is unreliable. I cannot see how they can do international benchmarking, on this basis, and thus the new harder pass grade 5 must be dubious in the extreme.

These are some of the key issues to be discussed in the Conversation which is about to begin.

Wider issues.

It remains the case that no overwhelming case for the reforms has been made. The failure to address the Oxford Report on GCSEs, which undermined the case for reform, is deeply worrying. For the OFQUAL proposals, the following are major concerns.

(a) How is the conversation to be monitored and results taken on board. More pertinently, how have the conversation questions been devised? The only references immediately available are firstly Stacey stating in the introduction “to implement this policy we have met with groups of teachers and school leaders, spoken with exam boards and other assessment experts, considered how things work in some other (high performing) countries* and surveyed employers as well to inform our thinking”. This is all.

The actual discussions must be made available and analysed. The use of the incorrect term is worrying. It is one of the major arguments over the OECD tests whether they are comparing like with like.

(b) *The jurisdictions normally referred to are small cities with affluent populations, notably Shanghai, Singapore and Massacheussetts- making comparing like with like a crucial issue. A medium sized country like England cannot easily be compared to cities particularly the ones noted, which are untypical across the world.

Russell Group Offers – Hype and Reality

Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College writes

Comprehensive sixth form college: 162

Selective 16-19 free school: 100

I wrote elsewhere about the misleading use of Russell group offer data to demonstrate the impact of a new 16-19 free school in our area. The fact that 100 students from the highly selective London Academy of Excellence had at least one Russell group offer was seen by some as a triumph worthy of national press coverage.

While not wishing in any way to minimise this achievement, I pointed out that in the previous year, 137 students from Newham sixth form college (NewVIc) had Russell group offers and that 60 of these had subsequently progressed to Russell group institutions, a big improvement on the previous year.

We now have the data for this year and can compare like with like. With only 4 applicants still to hear about potential Russell group offers, 162 NewVIc applicants have one or more Russell group offers, a further increase on last year. Overall, 226 Russell group offers have been made to NewVIc students.

It has not been our choice to engage in a competition about offer numbers and we have never done this before, but if new post-16 providers are going to use offer numbers to claim success, it seems only fair for existing providers to do the same. Our mission is broad and comprehensive and we don’t regard Russell group numbers as the key measure of our students’ success but we do recognise that historic progression rates to the more selective universities have been lower than average in our borough despite very high progression rates to university overall. We want our students to benefit from the full range of university opportunities available and our Honours programme has been very successful in increasing the number of students progressing to more selective universities in an increasingly competitive HE market.

We try not to refer to Russell group universities as “best”, “top” or “elite”. They are brilliant places to study, but so are many other universities. These are simply among the more selective on average and we are increasingly successful in getting students to progress to them.

So perhaps we can tone down the hype and try to avoid making outlandish claims. Instead, let’s celebrate the achievements of all students as well as the fact that different kinds of sixth form providers are making their contribution to an increase in progression to the most selective universities. But please…don’t ignore the contribution of established and comprehensive sixth form colleges like ours.

How religiously selective schools have been found to break the Admissions Code

The following was published by the Fair Admissions Campaign. It confirms how widespread abuse of the Admissions Code is amongst church schools. SEA would urge all its supporters to scrutinise local church school admission policies and take cases to the Adjudicator if there appear to be breaches of the Admissions Code We would also like to hear of practices that seem unfair but technically comply with the code so that the case can be made for changes by a future Labour government.

The current Admissions Code can be found at

Details of the Adjudicator’s findings can be found at

How religiously selective schools have been found to break the Admissions Code
April 4, 2014

The Fair Admissions Campaign is today publishing a comprehensive summary of the all the complaints made to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator about ‘faith’ schools since the introduction of the 2012 Schools Admissions Code. The new piece of research highlights numerous religious schools that adopted unlawful admissions arrangements in breach of legislation and the Code.

Some of the 75 cases identified saw schools resorting to drastic measures to reinforce their religious exclusiveness. For example, one Catholic school that could not find enough Catholic students to fill all its places attempted to lower their Published Admissions Number in order to exclude non-Catholic students who were entitled to a place. Several schools used religious selection criteria that prioritised those children whose parents contributed to the church through voluntary activities such as bell ringing, flower arranging, coffee rotas and church maintenance. Such, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) found, amounted to requiring parents to give practical support to the Church, which is not allowed. Many other schools were guilty of providing parents with misleading, confusing or unclear admissions policies, or asking for unnecessary information that could lead to socio-economic selection.

Recently the Fair Admissions Campaign examined the admissions policy of every religious secondary school in England and found widespread code breaches will form the basis of a forthcoming series of complaints to the OSA.

Professor Ted Cantle CBE of the iCoCo Foundation commented, ‘This piece of research presents very disturbing evidence of widespread manipulation of admissions with the consequence of unfairly excluding children on the basis of faith and non-faith. I am continually shocked by the way that religiously selective schools – which we might have expected to trust – are found to be cheating the system.’

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, Chair of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education, commented, ‘It is hard to know what is worse: that those entrusted with educating the next generation have been found guilty of breaches of trust, or that many of them have been faith schools who have broken their own self-proclaimed moral standards.’

Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, commented, ‘This research highlights numerous cases where faith schools that are already able legally to discriminate against applicants on the basis of parental religion have pushed the boundaries further and found themselves in breach of the Admissions Code. Every complaint that is upheld represents families and children suffering religious discrimination in school admissions, with some schools employing ever more creative strategies that skirt the law. We do not think that any school should be allowed to religiously select in admissions: it is unfair and the evidence shows that it often causes socio-economic and ethnic as well as religious segregation.’


For further information or comment please contact Paul Pettinger on 020 7324 3071 or email

Read the overview:

The Fair Admissions Campaign wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped

PISA says problem solving is important – and we’re good at it. Singapore thinks so too!

Toby Young is today off on one of his periodic rants against the Blob and all its works – it may be April 1st but it seems he really does mean it. His target is PISA’s decision to launch tests in collaborative problem solving. Apparently the unrelenting focus of English schools on stuff like this is the entire reason why no one can read or write and the rest of the world is passing us by.

It would seem, sadly, that he didn’t realise when writing the article that PISA has already undertaken testing in problem solving and has just published the results. The fact that England comes out well – 11th out of 44 and not statistically different from 8th place – will no doubt be dismissed by Young as proof of how wrong we’ve got everything.

It would be tiresome to catalogue again all the ways that Young’s argument is muddled and unconvincing. Just one example though – according to him, the reason class and wealth is such a strong determinant of educational outcomes is the persistent refusal of English schools to teach facts the way Young wants. The fact that we’re one of the most unequal of western societies is irrelevant. The fact that our schools are more selective than most others is also, to him, beside the point. If they could recite their kings and queens, all would be well.

This insistence in polarising skills and knowledge is of course nonsense. Everyone needs both. But it needs apparently to be repeated that knowing stuff is of limited use if you can’t do anything with it. To give one example from PISA:

“The rules of algebra are important but applying algebraic rules is just the second step of a two step problem solving process. The first step – that computers can’t do – involves examining the messy set of facts in a real-world problem in order to decide which set of algebraic rules to apply”

There is a lot of background material in the PISA report, more than can be usefully summarised here. And it is important not to allow oneself to be carried away into a world of cross curricular fluffiness. PISA is clear that problem solving is best developed in contexts and this will often be subjects. And there is a significant correlation between performance in problem solving and that in maths and reading. But it is weaker than the correlation between the subjects themselves.

All this will no doubt confirm those who want to believe it, that PISA has been captured by the Blob. Most scary of all though is the revelation that Singapore itself has been in the hands of the Blob – and has been since it launched a programme called “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” way back in 1997.

“In 2009, Singapore undertook another review that identified the 21st centurycompetencies considered important: critical and inventive thinking; communication, collaboration and information skills; and civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills.”

Crucially these are not things to be pursued in the abstract. They are embedded in subject teaching. So, for example, “maths has an explicit focus on problem solving .. students are guided to apply mathematical models and thinking to real world contexts.” In science, “students engage with a scientific problem, collect and interpret the evidence, reason, conduct investigations and make inferences or decisions”.

The outcome is a clear first place in these problem solving assessments but of course continuing strength in all the other areas that PISA measures. Shanghai, interestingly, shows up some weaknesses. There, students are less good when having to deal with problems where not all the data needed is provided.

Young, like Gove, harks back to a reliance on Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said.” But as the PISA report says “in a rapidly changing world, individuals are constantly faced with novel situations and unexpected problems that they had never encountered at school … the ability to handle such situations and solve these problems is associated with greater opportunities for employment and with the ability to participate fully in society.”

There is, of course, a need for some caution. There is a natural tendency to cherry-pick research which fits one’s own established point of view. The flaws in other PISA programmes that many have pointed out are no doubt here too. And this programme confirms the message of all the others – social and economic factors do determine how well students in England do more than in many countries and we need to confront that directly.

But it remains a fact that most of the countries we are told to look up to are moving in this direction. Can we really believe that we’re the only people in step when we ignore such clear international developments?

You can find the PISA outcomes at and at

Councils need to rise to Ofsted’s challenge and show they make a difference

There’s a lot of debate and a lot of uncertainty about what a future Labour government would mean for the education role of local authorities. Think tanks have spent the last couple of years trying to work out how some kind of local role can be restored. Now we await the Blunkett review to give us some kind of steer as to where policy might be going.

But there is much less live debate about what councils should be doing now in the face of Gove’s onslaught. The result is a huge lack of clarity and a wide variety of practice across the country. There remain a mass of legal duties on local authorities but also massive confusion about how they are supposed to exercise them.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of monitoring school standards and intervening to address underachievement. According to their funding agreements, academies and free schools are responsible only to the DfE and only the Secretary of State has any power to intervene. But Ofsted is now marching round the country judging local authority school improvement work almost as if the academy movement had never happened.

Take for example one of the most recent unsatisfactory reports, on Middlesborough. According to Ofsted, Middlesborough has

“not established effective partnerships with schools, particularly secondaries. The authority does not know the schools in the area well enough to bring about the rapid improvement that is urgently needed. The lack of clear systems and protocols for sharing data between the authority and schools, particularly secondary schools, means that declining performance is not identified early enough for intervention to be timely and effective.”

Now it would be possible to shrug and point out that five of the seven secondary schools are academies so that makes it someone else’s problem. It would certainly be reasonable to point out a good many examples of inconsistency and confusion in Ofsted’s reports on Middlesborough’s schools.

For example in May 2013, one school was praised because its GCSE performance “had improved steadily over a sustained period”. The actual 5 A* to C with English and maths results over the previous four years were 38%, 51%, 49% and 48%.

In another case Ofsted confidently predicted that “results are set to rise even further this year” (2013). Actually they fell from 48% to 34%.

And in another Ofsted concluded that ”the school’s trustees provide effective support by having the Chair of Governors as a representative” – hardly setting high expectations!

Picking holes in Ofsted reports isn’t hard. The really tough question for local authorities is whether they accept the Ofsted assertion that they still have a responsibility for standards in all state-funded schools and if so how they are going to put that into practice.

It seems to me, that if councils want to claim a role in any different kind of future, the answer to that first question has to be yes. It will obviously be best if there is a local consensus amongst all kinds of schools to work together and to acknowledge a significant role for the council. This would include both monitoring and brokering roles. There are a good many examples of excellent practice up and down the country where councils have been successful in keeping the confidence of schools and consequently have successfully exercised a leadership role but in a new way. These have been documented in a number of publications such as:

There will be times though when collaboration doesn’t work. One good example is the number of schools that are adopting admission criteria designed to favour themselves at the expense of other. Some schools too will try and wriggle round the duty to accept their share of SEN and vulnerable pupils. There will be cases too where academies and free schools refuse to engage on a school improvement agenda either with councils or with other schools.

My answer here would be that there is a duty based on democratic legitimacy for councils not just to accept this kind of situation. Moreover for Labour councils there are also political gains – if Michael Gove wants to take personal responsibility for thousands of schools, he needs to be faced with the consequences of that policy. So for example Councils should:

- Use their powers of Scrutiny – which are not restricted to investigating the Council’s own services – to investigate and report publicly on schools that are under-performing or are acting to the detriment of other schools or groups of local people.

- Take schools in breach of the admissions code to the Adjudicator.

- Take complaints to the Education Funding Agency or to the DfE where schools refuse to co-operate or are under-performing.

- Get MP’s to raise issues through questions or debates.

- Get issues out in the open, for example in local press and radio.

These will not be the first port of call. Co-operation is much to be preferred. But it does no one any good if local authorities roll over and let themselves be marginalised. If they want a future role, they need to stand up and fight for it – and that means all not just some.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 592 other followers