With two weeks to go Labour education policy gets a sharper edge.

When I woke up this morning, something rather unexpected was happening. Alongside “milifandom”, Tristram Hunt was trending on Twitter. Not it would seem because he’s a sex god to rank alongside his leader, but as a result of a Guardian interview which moved Labour’s education policy forward in ways that met with almost universal approval.

The headline was that we may see the back of GCSE in ten years. What lies behind this is the first solid commitment from the leadership to a unified 14 to 19 baccalaureate framework incorporating both academic and vocational qualifications. This involves recognising that 19 not 16 is the age that matters and that the curriculum and the assessment framework needs to build up to that point in a consistent and coherent way. As Hunt says about GCSE in the interview:

“you would not have a suite of exams based on you leaving school when you would not actually be leaving school”.

Hunt is clear that this won’t happen overnight. He recognises that schools can’t cope with more huge upheaval and that any new system needs to be based on a consensus. It would be pointless to get so far in five years and then see everything overturned by a new government. What is needed is to build a head of steam behind changes to the point that change becomes irreversible. This has to be a more mature approach than Gove’s “bull in a china shop” style.

Elsewhere in the interview, Hunt returns to his familiar theme of broadening education beyond the acquisition of knowledge to include the development of skills, qualities and broader cultural capital. he is absolutely right to identify that supporting disadvantaged pupils is about much more than bashing them through a few tests – giving them access to a wide range of experiences and engagement with more adults is essential.

Finally, tucked away at the end of the article, is the first attempt to link schools with the emerging pattern of devolution in England. It envisages “groups of local authorities such as greater Manchester, Sheffield or Nottinghamshire assuming responsibility for school education”. They would appoint Directors of School Standards with responsibility for commissioning schools and maintaining standards. This represents a significantly more definite commitment to local democracy than anything we’ve heard before.

All in all a distinctly more specific and radical set of proposals then. It’s a shame that we’ve had to wait until so close to the election before hearing them but it’s important that the message gets out that there may a greater appetite for change after May 7th than some thought.

The Guardian interview is at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/apr/22/labour-ditch-gcse-10-years-tristram-hunt


The Conservative Manifesto – a bleak and dispiriting vision for the future of education.

There has been a lot of debate in left education circles about the adequacy or otherwise of Labour’s education policies as we approach the election. With the publication of the Tory manifesto however, we can see clearly that there would be a bleak future for education were it ever to be implemented.

The document is at one and the same time full of untruths and quite extraordinarily simplistic in its approach. Its intellectual shoddiness is really quite remarkable. The Tories retain their belief that all it needs is harder exams and a touch of private sector DNA and all will be transformed. Here are just a few of their more egregious statements:

1. They continue to assert that 1 in 3 primary pupils leave unable to read, write or add up properly. This is despite being told by the Office for National Statistics that this is not true and should not be repeated.

2. Their answer to this supposed problem is to retest pupils who don’t achieve their target in Year 7. The only result of this will be to turn Year 7 into a desert of practice tests with the curriculum narrowed down to those things that will be tested. Is there a better way of turning struggling pupils off secondary school?

3. They commit to turning every failing or coasting secondary school into an academy. It is not explained what happens to academies that are failing or coasting – and there are plenty:

“An “overwhelming proportion” of pupils attending one of the country’s biggest academy chains (E-Act) fail to receive a good education, according to a damning inspection report.”

“An “overwhelming proportion” of pupils attending schools under the control of the Kemnal Academies Trust are not receiving a good enough education, according to Ofsted.”

“Ofsted has written to the School Partnership Trust Academies (SPTA), warning that it has too many under-performing schools that have been in this position for too long.”

and many many more.

4. There is to be a University Technical College in every city …. despite the news of the closure of a second UTC, a pattern of poor student recruitment and a distinctly patchy inspection record.

5. All secondary school pupils will have to take GCSE in English, maths, science, a language and history or geography. This has rather crept in under the radar – but it continues the deeply simplistic approach to the curriculum that downgrades the arts, all forms of technology and all vocational provision. It’s all reminiscent of the 19th century view that Latin and Greek were the perfect preparation for governing India.

6. We’re told that “this generation of teachers is the best qualified ever”. But no mention of the fact that in many schools teachers need no qualifications at all and the number of unqualified teachers is growing rapidly as schools struggle to find ways of saving money.

7. There is a specific pledge to train 17500 more maths and science teachers. There’s no suggestion as to how this will be done and of course no recognition at all that the number of people entering teacher training is going down every year so that we’re are undoubtedly heading for a serious teacher shortage as pupil numbers continue to go up.

8. They will continue to improve further education … with of course no recognition that they are driving significant parts of the sector into bankruptcy and are on a trajectory that, it has been said, will lead to the complete ending of adult education within five years.

What is really dispiriting about this manifesto is the lack of any empathy with young people and any understanding of what they really need to prepare for life in today’s world. There’s nothing on the development of skills, relationships, citizenship or personal qualities and nothing on how education can prepare people for living in our increasingly diverse society (not even British values!).

Nor is there any understanding of how you actually bring about improvement – nothing on professional development or on promoting collaboration between schools and teachers. And of course nothing on how schools relate to and should be part of their community – because in their view schools aren’t part of the community, their job is to come in from outside and do things to young people.

All we have is a narrow focus on targets and testing and a fixation on a particular kind of school organisation. If this ever comes true, schools will be even more dedicated to the factory approach to education as everyone’s future depends on hitting an ever narrower range of targets. Anything less suited to the complex, diverse and unpredictable world our young people will live in would be hard to imagine.


“The days of education by diktat must come to an end” – is Labour really going to take on the Germ?

Ever since the 1980’s, the direction of travel in education has been in one direction. Pasi Sahlberg famously identified the characteristics of an international trend that he called the Germ – the Global Educational Reform Movement. In his view there are five key features that have come to dominate, disastrously, policy making in the last 30 years. They are:

• centrally prescribed curricula, with detailed and often ambitious performance targets and frequent testing of students and teachers;
• the focus on core subjects at the expense of social studies, arts, music and physical education;
• minimizing experimentation, reducing the use of alternative pedagogical approaches, and limiting risk-taking in schools and classrooms;
• the use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement;
• standardized tests and external teacher evaluations that devote attention to limited aspects of schooling and determine the success or failure of schools and teachers.

All of this will be very familiar to anyone who has followed English education since the 1980’s. What may not be yet realised is that Labour seems to be developing a serious critique at least some aspects of the Germ.

In recent speeches from both Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, we’ve seen a serious assault on central control, on the crushing of innovation in schools and on the narrowing of the curriculum.

To ATL, Hunt said “it seems to me that the managerial, target-driven performance culture that has permeated our education system in recent years is beginning to threaten the very purpose of schooling itself”. And “we want young people who are confident, determined and resilient; young people who display courage, compassion, honesty, integrity, fairness, perseverance, emotional intelligence, grit and self-discipline”.

To ASCL he talked about how “the joy, wonder and beauty of schooling risks being buried in the avalanche of bureaucracy that emerges out of the increasingly byzantine demands of inspection”. He went on to say that “the days of education by diktat must come to an end. Change in education must come from the bottom-up. That is first and foremost a challenge for me to let go. But it is also a challenge for you to step up.”

In his speech at Haverstock, Ed Miliband pledged to “redress this government’s attempts to downgrade the creative subjects, like drama, art, design and technology”. Both of them have focussed strongly on the need to foster innovation in schools and to “call time on the ‘exam factory’ approach to schooling.”

Speeches, especially at election time, of course are easy to make and often very hard to deliver on once in government. It is possible however to identify some specific policy commitments that support this direction of travel. As well, of course, as some tricky issues that as yet we don’t know too much about.

There is a clear commitment to give all schools much more freedom to determine their own curriculum. And there does seem to be a growing determination to do something about Ofsted. Despite a huge nervousness about seeming to be soft on quality, Labour is starting to talk about a new system built on peer review. And there is a welcome focus on teacher professionalism, on initial qualifications and on continuing professional development.

But there are still a lot of questions that need to be asked. They include:

– Looking again at the testing regime – both because it narrows the curriculum and because it’s used as a simplistic and inappropriate accountability tool.
– Asking how targets and performance tables fit into a much more decentralised system.
– Ensuring that exams test a wide range of skills and are not just the crude test of memory that Gove has imposed.
– Asking if schools have greater freedom, how we make sure that pupils get what they’re entitled to and that no school goes off in an irresponsible direction at the expense of its pupils?

Labour has vowed not to fall into the trap of centrally driven “initiative-itis”. But just letting go won’t be enough. Many of the key systems that drive behaviour in schools will need to be redesigned if we really want schools to really look and feel different.

Ministers will still want to be able to influence the behaviour of schools. For example how will you get them to give greater priority to the arts if schools have curriculum freedom? How do you make sure that schools do indeed focus on all the personal qualities that have been identified as desirable? This kind of thing has already been a huge issue with academies when ministers want them to do something – British values for example – that isn’t in their funding agreement.

Is this all election rhetoric? Warm words, the implications of which haven’t been thought through? Or are we looking at a reversal of a 30 year trend and a once in a generation change of direction in education policy? Before we can be sure there will need to be a lot of flesh put on the quite limited number of bones that are now in view. But, perhaps unexpectedly, there may just be the beginnings of something serious and transformative on offer on May 7th.


SEA’s Election Briefing 2015

It is widely agreed that the coalition government has done huge damage to this country’s educational provision. But too often we see the lazy view presented that “they’re all the same” and that nothing new is being offered. SEA believes that there is a real and important difference between the parties and this briefing is designed to provide some key data that illustrates that.

It concentrates on the mainstream school system – there is of course much more that could be said about early years, inclusion and further and higher education. It contains examples of statements illustrating where the government is going wrong, what informed educational experts think should be our priorities and some key examples of Labour’s important and positive commitments.

It’s deliberately presented in the form of short statements, quotations and statistics so that it can be used in local campaigning – for example questions to candidates, letters to newspapers and local leaflets.

SEA agrees that the fundamental aim of all education policy is to raise standards and in particular to reduce the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged young people. We agree about the critical importance of recruiting and developing teachers of the highest quality. We want to see teachers allowed to use their professionalism and not be micro-managed by ministers.

But we argue that standards and structures can’t be separated. Things like admissions, funding systems, place planning, how schools are monitored and how local communities are engaged with schools all make a difference to how well young people achieve.

With partner organisations we have also prepared a leaflet setting out our key priorities and showing how all these issues impact on standards. That leaflet is attached to this briefing and we hope it will help to provide readers with arguments to support calls for change under a new government.

Just click on the links to get to the two documents. Then please do circulate as widely as you can.

Improving Schools

Election briefing 2015


Is Devo-Manc radical enough? And why are schools left out?

Last weekend, SEA had the opportunity to hear Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, talk about the implications of what is becoming known as “Devo-Manc”. Devolution is currently flavour of the month in England. Pressure to move on this is coming broadly from two directions. Firstly there is the need to find an answer to “the English Question” which is essentially about the implications for England of further devolution to Scotland and possibly Wales and Northern Ireland. Secondly there is the recognition that we need to build economic strength in the regions and that city regions are recognised internationally as foci for economic growth.

There is much to welcome in this approach. Many people have long felt that we have a country which is centralised to an almost unique degree and that this is not a recipe for good governance. In the school sector we know this only too well as Whitehall plonks free schools down wherever it sees fit regardless of local views or circumstances.

But this initiative is still a classic piece of British ad hoccery. Devolution at present takes the form of an agreement between combined authorities (ie groups of councils) and the Treasury. Combined authorities are springing up where councils choose to establish them but there is no plan or map to show what the final picture will look like. And where individual councils object they can scupper the whole process. The result is very likely to be yet another patchwork job with some areas exercising devolved powers and some not.

This is because it’s being seen as a technocratic initiative rather than as a constitutional one. Combined authorities have to agree what they will do with the Treasury. They are likely to have different powers and different governance models. They have to prove they are in some way fit – in London’s eyes – to be allowed to operate. We have yet to cross the Rubicon to reach the point where we identify a national framework for devolving powers from London that applies in a consistent way throughout the country and which is based on a coherent set of boundaries – if necessary requiring awkward local councils to join in.

It’s been interesting to listen to the anxiety of some who find the idea that different parts of the country might do things differently a profoundly scary one. People with power (or those hoping to soon have power) always find it difficult to give it away. We’ve even had scare stories about the end of a national health service – no longer will Bevan’s famous dropped bed pan echo round the corridors of the Department of Health 200 miles away.

To see why this does not need to be an issue, we can look at education and how devolution might work. It is in fact entirely missing from all the discussions so far – it seems that the DfE’s model of a central department dealing directly with thousands of schools is still what we’re stuck with. But it need not be so and working out what central government should do and what should be local is not too hard:

– Central government should set the overall policy and regulatory framework – on the curriculum, exams, admissions policy, SEN entitlement, teacher supply and qualifications etc. It should also determine the overall financial settlement and should have an ultimate responsibility for quality.

– Other issues should be determined locally – providing the right number and kind of school places, allocating money to individual schools, monitoring quality and compliance, brokering collaboration and intervening when necessary. Issues relating too individual young people such as the admissions process, SEN assessment, exclusions etc should also be managed locally along with making sure that schools work collaboratively with one another and with all the other agencies with responsibility for children’s well-being.

This kind of distinction between national strategic framework and entitlement and local planning and delivery can work equally well in other service areas. There should be no need to fear any dilution of national standards but there would be the space to join up services and to respond to local circumstances.

Which leaves us with the question – why is there no place for schools in Devo-Manc? You can see why this would be so for the Tories – they want schools to be rootless and individualistic without any local accountability. For Labour though there could be an easy answer. Put the Director of School Standards within the combined authority framework answerable to a board made up of elected members and other stakeholders and ultimately to the elected Mayor or Leader. It’s what has been done with the Police Commissioner. It’s how Greater Manchester Health and Care will be run. Why not schools?


Facts go missing when Tories talk about primary schools

Trevor Fisher writes

The Conservative’s are running an attack strategy on primary school results blaming Labour for alleged failures. On February 1st Nicola Morgan launched a media offensive on the 3Rs. It was reported on the BBC News website that day under the heading ”Nicky Morgan announces ‘war on illiteracy and innumeracy’, which claims were not questioned. The key claim is that primary schools failed to teach the 3 Rs to up to a third of pupils – and this is the fault of Labour in the 1997- 2010 governments. The attack has an Orwellian flavour.

The assault started at the Tory conference with speeches from Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and Schools Minister Sam Gimayah. Gimayah claimed that that “more than a third of young people were leaving school ‘unable to read, write or do maths’, ie at age 16. But the main attack is on primary not school leavers. Nicky Morgan in her speech (available on the Conservative web site) attacked Labour’s record saying “13 years of Labour…. and 1 in every third child finished primary school unable to read, write or add up”. This was unqualified in any way.

Janet Downs of the (Local Schools Network) investigated, asking the UK Statistics Authority to comment. On December 4th Sir Andrew Dilnot replied giving the facts for school leavers and concluding the facts did not add up for Gimayah’s claim. He also critiqued Nicky Morgan and commented that while some children did not reach level 4, the vast majority did – the Key Stage 2 results showing that in May 2010 83% reached the level in reading, 79% in maths and 71% in writing. Dilnot copied the letter to Morgan, Gyimah, and to various civil servants.

This had no effect. On December 10th Morgan attacked Tristram Hunt in the Commons (Hansard col 894) saying “He ought to be thinking about the fact that under the previous Labour Government, one in three of our young people were leaving primary school unable to read and write”.

Andrew Dilnot then wrote directly to Morgan, giving a detailed and factual account of why this statement was wrong, finishing “”I think it would be appropriate for you to reconsider these comments. You may also wish to take advice on whether the official parliamentary record should be corrected”. Morgan replied dismissively, but subsequently has qualified statements by using the word “properly” in claims on pupil attainment in primary skills. The word is meaningless. (The letter of December 4th is on the UK Stats Authority site, as is the letter of December 18th)

Full Fact on December 18th 2014 commented on the letter from Dilnot, noting that 90% of pupils had “achieved level 3 or above in all the three core subjects…. this is not the picture of illiteracy Ms Morgan’s words conjure up, and she should correct the record”. Ms Morgan did not correct the record.

The Tories continued with the “War on Illiterary and Innumeracy campaign”, undeterred by the lack of evidence that the problems existed. This was launched on February 1st via the Sunday Times. More importantly it was picked up by the BBC, uncritically. The BBC news site that day reported Morgan threatening schools if they failed to get pupils through arbitrary tests. This suggested the pupils would not be affected but schools would be. Briefings suggested that heads would be sacked, but this is not on the record – and Labour has not demanded clarification.

The following day Cameron made his big speech on education, highlighting the 3Rs issue. The PM backed both Gyimah and Morgan, stating explicitly the Gyhimah position that “We inherited a system where far too many children left school without the qualifications and skills to get on. Some of them were barely able to read and write properly”,

He offered no evidence for this, nor for the statement aligned with Morgan’s position that

“We inherited a situation where one in three children left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly”. The use of the word ‘properly’ is meaningless, but was later defined by the DfE in a completely arbitrary way.

Heseltine chips in.

The claim that primary schools failed to produce the results, reached the press after the BBC Question Time on 19th February. Michael Heseltine opened the debate by arguing that 20 per cent of children leave primary school illiterate and innumerate, making the claim

“20% of the kids coming out of primary school this year will be by normal modern standards illiterate and innumerate”.

‘Normal modern standards’ is another meaningless concept, but the Daily Mirror on 20th February seemed to support it, commenting that 21% of pupils in England did not meet the target last year for reading, writing and mathematics combined” the target being Level 4. However there is no way that Level 3 is illiterate and innumerate, nor does a late developer have to hit targets at 11. Albert Einstein notably failed to do so.

The DFE told the Daily Mirror that the word ‘properly’ means ‘they do not achieve Level 4 by the end of primary school’. This is shifting the goalposts, but more importantly the numbers not reaching level 4 do not make one third, which is the political claim.

If Morgan goes ahead, the targets are not ones pupils will have to meet, but they will have consequences for schools. Rumours of heads being sacked followed the Morgan launch on February 1st, but have not been confirmed. What is clear is that the DfE told the Mirror on February 20th that failure had taken place, but now “thousands more children leave primary school having mastered the basics”. So why is there a need for a “War on illiteracy and innumeracy” except that there is an election coming up. With the exception of back dating the date of the Labour failure on the 3Rs to 2009, the official line from the DfE is that Blunkett’s literacy and numeracy hours and other efforts failed, Labour did nothing on literacy and numeracy, but the Tories did.

Labour’s failure to challenge this will backfire in the election if they do not act to correct this. More fundamentally, if politicians can made statements and are then rebuked by the official statistician and then refuse to make any public correction, how near are we to Orwellian politics?


The 11+ is back on the agenda – but this is why it shouldn’t be

cross post from http://eddieplayfair.com/. Eddie Playfair is Vice Chair of the SEA

Thanks to the prime minister, it seems that educational selection is back on the agenda again. The grammar school issue in Kent and elsewhere is one aspect of the debate but it’s worth remembering that the segregation of learners by ‘aptitude’, ‘potential’, test or exam score is widespread with the 11+ being only one of a broad spectrum of selective practices.

Education in England is riddled with selective assumptions and practices from top to bottom. Learners are routinely selected and segregated into different provision, particularly at secondary and tertiary level. We have never had a national education system, let alone a fully comprehensive one. What we have is the result of a tension between comprehensive and selective tendencies operating in a context of market competition between unequal schools in an unequal society.

The case for selection is generally based on notions of fixed, measurable potential. Despite its regular revival, most recently in genetic or neuro-psychological forms, the idea that ‘intelligence’ is a single heritable attribute which is fixed and measurable has no scientific basis. Even when advocates of academic selection don’t rely on IQ tests or similar measures, they replace the idea of measurable and fixed ‘ability’ with something called ‘potential’ which is just as fixed. Both these concepts start from a deterministic approach to learning which implies that an individual’s ability to learn and to achieve academically is substantially pre-determined and unchanging. This view often leads to practices which progressively close the doors to certain opportunities for human flourishing to certain people rather than keeping all doors open.

Selection can operate at a whole-system level, providing different types of school for different ‘types’ of student as determined by some kind of assessment of their ability, aptitude or potential. It can also operate at the intra-institutional level with such practices as rigid streaming or limiting curriculum options to particular ‘types’ of student.

The prime minister has expressed his support for grammar school expansion in Kent. He says this is because ‘good’ schools should be able to expand. However, this fails to recognise that grammar schools are not isolated ‘good’ schools, but part of a system which has selection at its core. If you think a system of selection at 11 is wrong, then you cannot really argue that it is OK to keep, let alone expand, grammar schools. If you think it is right…well, then you would be arguing for it everywhere else too, like UKIP.

If academic selection and the 11+ are back on the political agenda then many of us will want to defend the comprehensive principle because we believe that the common school, college and university, like the NHS, are part of the foundations of the good society.

The comprehensive school is a successful and popular expression of equality of opportunity which transcends all social differences. The idea that children and young people should be educated with their neighbours and their peers in a learning community which reflects the composition of the geographical community they live in is still valid, even if some have abandoned it. A comprehensive system discourages competition for positional advantage by school, and seeks to ensure that every school and every student can flourish.

If we agree that the state should shape the kind of education system we have, then we can probably agree that such a system should broadly value the things we value, reflect the type of society we want and offer the best available to everyone. Do our current arrangements reflect this? Do they serve all young people well? If we want a cohesive and open society where everyone can develop and flourish as citizens, workers and community members and an education system that works well for everyone, perhaps we should consign academic selection to the dustbin of history.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Jane Addams.

“One of the great tragedies of the last 100 years has been our failure as a nation to take on the essential concept of human educability and thereby challenge the idea that children are born with a given quota of ‘intelligence’ which remains constant both during childhood and adult life.” Clyde Chitty.

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