We won’t have more social mobility without more equality

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.

The Choice in Education – Reflections on Tristram Hunt’s speech #TheChoice #VoteLabour

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…

5 more years 2

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 spin and reality – or why can’t journalists do basic statistics?

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.

Our Meeting with Tristram Hunt July 2014

Originally posted on Headteachers' Roundtable:

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Members of Heads’ Roundtable with the full Labour Education team and Chris Husbands from the IoE.

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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Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas (IoE research)

Just on cue, the institute of Education has released the first findings from research into the intakes of free schools. The full details haven’t yet been published but the outcomes of the research seem unambiguous. It finds that “Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas. Schools in this flagship Government programme are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children (those receiving free meals) than the other local schools.”

In more detail, the research says that:

The government’s anticipation that free schools would emerge in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is, on average, vindicated. On average they are in areas where the proportion of pupils on free meals is above average.

However, critics’ concerns that the schools might become socially selective are also supported. Fewer pupils actually attending the free schools were eligible for FSM than was the average for their neighbourhoods.

In terms of prior achievement, there is a marked difference at primary level: the free schools children have a distinctly higher Foundation Stage Profile mean score (0.33) than elsewhere in their neighbourhoods and in the rest of England where it is close to zero.

It also found that the proportion of ethnic minority pupils in primary free schools was well above their proportion in either the neighbourhoods of the school or in the country as a whole.

Why this should be so is of course the key question. The “I” paper led on the story and put on it the spin that free schools were “cherry picking” better off pupils. An fact checking organisation called “Full Fact”, has disputed this saying that “schools don’t have to actively “pick” children from certain backgrounds in order to end up with more of them in their classrooms. It might be that parents of children eligible for free school meals are less likely to put in applications.”

This has been seized on by the usual suspects like the New Schools Network and Policy Exchange as a way of downplaying the actual findings of the research.

It is true that at present the researchers aren’t saying why free school intakes are as they are. In some cases I’ve little doubt that schools are manipulating their admission criteria to cherry pick the students that they want … like the Bristol school that wasn’t actually located in its own catchment area.

But most have more subtle ways. There is always religion of course which always serves as a good proxy for middle class or at least for the keen and aspirant. Then there’s the expensive uniform. Or the “aptitude for music” scam. But just as common is the marketing pitch adopted by too many schools:

“The school aims to offer an academically rigorous education. We strongly believe that central London, and Marylebone in particular, is crying out for a high quality state secondary school that offers a traditional education for boys. We see parents despairing of finding such a school, and many of them leaving the area to live near the grammar schools.” (Marylebone Boys School)

“MCS will bring the values and advantages of a private school education to young people by providing a highly academic curriculum.” (Michaela School)

“Objectives: 100 per cent of pupils pass at least 8 GCSEs at grade C or above, including Maths, English, English Literature, at least two Sciences and a Foreign Language and persuade every pupil to stay on in the Sixth Form and do a sufficiently demanding course of Sixth Form study to progress to a good university”. (West London Free School)

“Like the West London Free School Secondary, the primary provides children with a classical liberal education, focusing on a core of academic subjects complemented by art, music, drama and competitive sport. It offers children the kind of experience they would get at an old-fashioned prep school.”

How surprising is it that schools like these don’t attract intakes that are typical of their area? Cherry picking comes in many forms.

What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell us about Free Schools (part 3)

And here is Part 3:


Claim: Free Schools are using their freedoms to innovate and raise standards.

This is justified by quoting an NSN survey of free schools which asked schools whether they were planning a longer school day, a longer school year or variations to teachers’ pay and conditions. It showed that a significant proportion of those responding (arguably a self selecting group) were planning to do one or more of these. However there is no evidence offered to justify a claim that any of these changes have any effect on standards.

There is then a vague and unreferenced set of assertions about curriculum innovation. It is true that there are positive examples of real innovation amongst free schools. Peter Hyman’s School 21 is an example. Greenwich Free School was also regarded as a beacon until Ofsted found it needed improvement. Other kinds of innovation that may be less palatable are Steiner schools and schools built around transcendental meditation.

NAO concluded that “the Department has not made full use of a growing evidence base to enhance its programme management…. The Department does not routinely capture data on schools’ use of freedoms or the pattern of local demand. It has yet to fully consider which factors have most impact on school performance, for example, occupancy trends or the departure of head teachers. It has also yet to determine a full set of indicators to assess the impact of open Free Schools on other education provision in an area, or value for money

In other words, no one really knows what is going on and what works and what doesn’t.

Unqualified teachers

Claim: it is misleading to say that free schools employ unqualified teachers.

The number of unqualified teachers in schools was relatively high before 2005. This was largely teachers with overseas qualifications working in English schools at a time of significant teacher shortage. They were technically unqualified because they lacked UK qualifications but many were qualified in their own country. The teacher shortage was successfully addressed by the Labour government and the number of unqualified teachers decreased steadily between 2005 and 2010. Since 2011 it has increased. In all state funded schools, according to the 2013 workforce survey, 3.8% of teachers were unqualified. In academies nearly 6% of teachers were unqualified. In free schools 13% of teachers were unqualified.

It is not easy therefore to see how it is “misleading” to say that free schools employ unqualified teachers. They clearly do so in greater numbers than other schools.

This is justified by the assertion that schools are employing people who are experts “with a real passion for their subject”. There is no evidence that this is so. Nor is it a reasonable assumption that people with subject expertise do not need a teaching qualification. Teachers need to understand how children learn and develop, how to organise classrooms, how to manage challenging behaviour and how to assess and respond to pupils’ work. This is what being qualified provides.


Claim: The independence that free schools have over their budgets comes hand in hand with a very high standard of accountability. Their financial reporting responsibilities are significantly more rigorous than maintained schools.

The point made by NSN that free schools publish externally audited accounts while maintained schools do not, is  basically an irrelevant technicality. All schools are audited – for maintained schools some parts of the process happen at local authority level but that doesn’t mean there is no checking and monitoring

The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee made it clear how poor the financial oversight of both academies and free schools is. See:


Issues raised by the PAC include:

- A large number of breaches of financial regulations, especially around failure to submit financial reports.
– The Education Funding Agency lacks the capacity to be proactive in monitoring academy and free school finances. It relies heavily on whistle blowers.
– The EFA is not doing enough to address conflicts of interest : “We were concerned that individuals with connections to both academy trusts and private companies may have benefitted from their position when providing trusts with goods and services.”

It is also the case that academy and free school financial data is not shown in the DfE Performance Tables. Maintained school data is provided in a very accessible format but there is nothing for academies or free schools. The issues around this have been spelt out by Henry Stewart at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/01/academy-finances-neither-transparent-nor-accountable-2/. While this article is mainly about academies, it applies equally to free schools. Henry points out that this situation directly contravenes a commitment given by the Prime Minister to the Liaison Committee in March 2012.

Nor has the DfE responded to the PAC’s requirement in 2013 that “the Department must insist that every Academy Trust provides it with data showing school level expenditure, including per-pupil costs, and with a level of detail comparable to that available for maintained schools. The Department must then publish this data so that proper judgements and comparisons can be made by Parliament and the public.”

As a consequence of all these failings, the National Audit Office has refused to approve the DfE’s accounts.

What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell you about Free Schools (part 2)

Serving Deprived Areas/ Pupils

Claim: 50% of free schools have the same or more FSM students than their LA average.

The first wave of free schools came out very badly in terms of their provision for deprived pupils and areas. This has improved. Nevertheless the assertion that 50% of free schools have the same or more FSM students than their LA average means that 50% have less. That is not a normal distribution.

It is true that mainstream free schools have to follow the admissions code. However it is not uncommon for free schools to market themselves in various ways as appropriate mainly for abler and more middle class families … eg compulsory Latin, lack of vocational provision, focus exclusively on Russell Group as a destination, expensive uniform, religious tests and so on. We do not yet know what kinds of intake have been attracted by free schools, but one snippet (now fairly old) may or may not be typical:

A Freedom of Information enquiry to Hammersmith and Fulham Council by Ian McCauley has revealed the proportion of the Year 7 entry to the West London Free School that have attained level 4 or better in English and Maths for the 108 of the 120 students who live in that borough:
95.4% have level 4 in English, compared to 62.5% for the borough as a whole
89.9% have level 4 in Maths, compared to 59.7% for the borough as a whole.

And, entirely at random so not necessarily in any way typical, here is a contribution to Mumsnet:

“We have a Free School in our area. It’s generally felt to be successful, has a waiting list, and plans to expand at some point. BUT while it was founded “to create extra spaces”, its intake seems to mostly to consist of children poached from the surrounding schools (the remainder are bussed in by parents from miles away). The uniform is entirely bespoke from a private school supplier, so no Tesco items, it’s about £300 plus for a full set.”

Addressing shortage of places/ good places

Claim: Free schools are tackling the shortage of places in England

The distribution of free schools is essentially random – they appear where there is some group promoting a free school. The Department has received no applications to open primary Free Schools in half of all districts with high or severe forecast need for school places.

38% of approved free schools are primary and 42% are secondary. Given that secondary schools are at least twice the size of primaries, that means that many more secondary places are being created than primary. This is at a time of acute crisis in primary provision.

In 2013 NAO found that:

• around 70 per cent of the estimated 114,000 primary and secondary places from open or approved Schools are in districts forecasting some need;

• 87 per cent (27,000) of projected primary places in Free Schools opened by September 2013 are in districts forecasting high or severe need, 8 per cent (2,000) are in districts forecasting moderate need;

• 19 per cent (7,000) of projected secondary places in Free Schools opened by September 2013 are in districts forecasting high or severe need, 22 per cent (8,000) are in districts forecasting moderate need; and

• 42 schools have opened in districts with no forecast need, with estimated total capital costs of at least £241 million out of a projected total of £950 million for mainstream Schools

Claim: Just as importantly free schools are also tackling the shortage of good places in areas where existing standards are low

NSN justifies this claim by saying that 83% of primary free schools are in the two thirds of the country where results are lowest as are 70% of secondary free schools.

These immediately have the air of being statistics very carefully chosen to justify a particular conclusion. The “two thirds of the country where results are lowest” clearly contains significant areas where results are above average and is in no sense a meaningful grouping.

This data actually tells us almost nothing. Free schools could be in the lowest performing areas. Equally they could be in average areas or even in above average areas. And, for secondaries, even these figures show that a free school is just as likely to be in a high attaining area as in a low attaining one.


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