Over the last couple of days, the media have been concentrating on the government’s attempts – unsuccessful on the whole – to make some sense of their coasting schools policy. But as a result Nicky Morgan’s speech to the National Governors Association has rather passed under the radar.
It’s important though that it isn’t allowed to. It starts with the usual warm words about how wonderful volunteer governors are and goes on to say that:
“Because a school-led system doesn’t mean schools as islands, making their own way. It means schools fully integrated with the local community, responsive to local parents and, crucially, connected with, learning from and supporting other schools. And you as governors will play a crucial role in this; ensuring your school is fully linked with the world outside.”
Nothing you would think to get excited about there. But she went straight on to say:
“What that doesn’t necessarily mean is a stakeholder model of school governance, and I should be clear now that I intend to look further into how we can move away from that model over this Parliament – because what makes your contribution so important isn’t the particular group you represent, it’s the skills, expertise and wisdom you bring to the running of a school.”
It soon became clear that this is likely to mean the end of elected parent and staff governors and to local authority appointed governors. There is much soft soap about consultation and listening, but we know how this government really operates. The behind the scenes whispers are already emerging. The shift will be towards a business model of non- executives appointed because they have particular skills. The message is clearly that there should be more business governors and they should be focussed on things like financial management.
Put this alongside the Education and Adoption Bill with its insistence on academy status as the only way forward, then we begin to get a clear picture of how this government sees the place of schools in our society.
To them schools are clearly not meant, in any real sense, to be part of their local community. They’re put there and run by people appointed by the government. They don’t represent the community coming together to improve itself. Rather missionaries from on high will descend and give people what they think is good for them.
Locally elected councillors are on their way out of the picture. Now parents and teachers are on the way out too. The message is “take what you’re given and be grateful”. The unelected cosy club of Tory politicians and their friends and relatives, party donors and “experts” from business will run schools. New governors will be co-opted by the existing governors so the cosy club will continue to renew itself without reference to the outside world. For parents, the choice will be between Sainsburys and Tesco. It’s not their place to try and have any say in how schools work and what they should be doing.
This is not to say that the stakeholder model is perfect. Sometimes it’s very far from it. In recent years we have loaded far too much responsibility onto governors and given them far too little support. Too often all they have to go on is Ofsted which is a very flawed and limited source of evidence against which to judge a school’s performance.
But a stakeholder governing body working alongside and with support from a local authority which itself has strong roots in the community – that can work well.
If you insist that schools are an island disconnected from any local structures and with no meaningful professional scrutiny and support – then yes, you probably do need more professional governors able to provide (for free) that scrutiny and support.
But you’ve lost something very fundamental – the links that really do make a school part of its community and keep the focus on what that community wants for its children.
In 2012, Michael Gove spoke to the Schools Network. He told them that:
“the highest-performing education systems are those where government knows when to take a step back. Rigorous research from the OECD and others has shown that more autonomy for individual schools helps raise standards. In its most recent international survey of education, the OECD found that ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better.’”
There was always a considerable gap between Gove’s rhetoric and the reality of his policies and actions. His successor though is taking government control to a whole new level. The decision to require all 15 and 16 year olds to follow GCSE courses in the full EBacc drives a coach and horses through any notion of giving schools autonomy over “what is taught and how students are assessed.”
So much then for the curriculum freedom promised to academies. It’s interesting though that Morgan is not taking the power to directly require schools to do what she wants. It will be enforced through Ofsted. So we should perhaps ask, what is left of the independence of HMI. They have become simply an enforcement arm for government policy. Many Chief Inspectors in the past would have made it clear that one of their jobs is to tell government what the effect of their policies is rather than acting simply as an echo. Sadly that no longer seems to be in the job description.
This decision is justified as promoting social justice and social mobility. They are, according to Morgan, “the subjects that keep your options open, and allow you to enter the widest ranges of careers and university courses.” The EBacc subjects are supposed to be the hardest and they tend to figure in the entry requirements of the Russell Group. And of course they’re the subjects that ministers themselves took – never under-estimate their determination to recreate the education system of their childhood.
What Morgan and others mean of course is this kind of GCSE programme is needed for some very particular institutions and careers. And this then drives the curriculum for everyone else no matter what their ambitions and their abilities. So if you want to be an app writer, a mechanic, a farmer or a policeman, you still have to do the curriculum laid down by the Russell Group.
We get warm words from ministers telling us that you can still do some other subjects. But the bottom line is clear – they’re not valued. Selecting some subjects and not others is sending that very clear message.
What is totally missing from this debate is any attempt to consider what young people need to know and be able to do by 16. It would be wrong to claim that they don’t need academic knowledge. But all kinds of knowledge, not just some. Everyone needs a grounding in science and scientific method, an understanding of how human society is organised, has evolved and interacts with the physical environment and the creative and artistic achievements of people now and in the past. And they obviously need the key tools of language and maths.
But that’s far from all. Young people need to develop practical and technical capability. They need to do things and make things as well as reading about them. They need to know about the society they’re growing in to and the values that should be fundamental to it. And they need a wide range of skills and personal qualities – something employers are constantly telling us.
The problem has been how do you fit it all in? We’ve swung backwards and forwards between trying to deliver a truly broad and balanced curriculum up to 16 and allowing substantial specialisation at 14. The 1988 Act saw an attempt to establish a broad and balanced curriculum to 16 – including the arts and design technology – but this soon collapsed with more and more subjects made optional. The growth of supposed vocational pathways led to even more fragmentation.
The basic problem is the single subject GCSE. It’s hugely encouraging to begin to hear voices demanding the end of this millstone round the necks of all our 16 year olds. We need to start again from the beginning – from a proper analysis of what young people need and what different interest groups in society are seeking from post 14 education.
If we planned a four year curriculum from 14 to 18, it would be possible to combine real breadth with appropriate – and increasing – specialisation. Qualifications should follow from curriculum decisions rather than the other way round. Not all programmes need to be stuck in the straightjacket of two and a half hours a week for two years – some may be smaller and shorter, others may take 3 years not two – all kinds of flexibilities open up, including a genuinely challenging curriculum for apprentices.
In his recent speech (http://news.cbi.org.uk/news/john-cridland-festival-of-education-speech/) John Cridland of the CBI demanded that a process for getting rid of GCSE should be in place by 2020. His language reminds us just how detached the political debate is from the real issues we should be addressing:
“On high-stakes exams at 16, we have to face the uncomfortable truth that – internationally – we’re the oddballs.”
“in the UK we have no debate at all about the 14-18 curriculum – only a debate about exams.”
“GCSE exams only serve to deliver school accountability measurement – which can be achieved in other ways.”
It’s encouraging that Tristram Hunt has made some of the same points. Cridland set the government a challenge: “it must make a start on a full review of 14 to 18 education by the end of the summer”.
We know full well that it won’t. But why should we wait? What is to stop Labour from encouraging the CBI, the unions and the rest of civil society from doing for themselves what the government won’t do.
To get a hearing at the next election, Labour needs to be seen to be in tune with thinking in society as a whole. And the government needs to be seen as it is – out of date and increasingly irrelevant. Opposition isn’t just about parliamentary criticism and speech making. It needs to be about building alliances and changing the terms of the national debate. There’s an opportunity here in 14 to 18 education to start that process.
The SEA Annual Conference will be held at the University of London Union, Malet Street London, WC1E 7HY on Saturday 27th June 2015. The Conference will run from 11.00 am to 5 pm.
After the disappointment of May 7th, this will be an important opportunity to renew our commitment to a socialist education programme and to take stock of the issues that are likely to face us over the coming years.
We will have a range of speakers specifically addressing the current political scene and its implications for education. They will include:
• Professor Richard Pring (President of SEA)
• Kevin Courtney (Deputy General Secretary of the NUT)
• Catherine West MP (Hornsey and Wood Green)
• Melissa Benn (author, campaigner and Vice President of SEA).
• Eddie Playfair (Principal of NewVic Sixth Form College and Vice Chair of SEA)
The main focus though will be to promote as wide a debate as possible. We want to identify the policy and campaigning agenda that will be needed over the next few years. One aim will undoubtedly be to try and raise the profile of education after its almost complete absence from the election campaign. We need to ensure that the damage being done by the current government is better understood and that Labour develops a more comprehensive alternative offer.
There will also be the opportunity for SEA to make a supporting nomination in the contest for Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. There will be time in the conference for what I’m sure will be a lively debate about the merits of the different candidates
The cost to attend the conference is £25 waged and £15 unwaged. This includes lunch.
You can book a place by e mail to firstname.lastname@example.org . Payment can be made on the day.
We will be very pleased to see supporters who are not SEA members at this very important conference.
The Education and Adoption Bill is a naive and simplistic measure. Morgan is the real ideologue not her opponents.Posted: June 3, 2015
The DfE has this morning announced details of the Education and Adoption Bill. Its purpose, according to the DfE press release is ‘ to sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes’ that prevent schools from being improved. The plan is that all schools found inadequate by Ofsted will become sponsored academies. There will be a duty on governors and local authorities to co-operate with the process and sponsors will no longer be required to consult parents and local communities.
There is also to be provision for “coasting schools” to be given a notice to improve and a rather vague promise of support from “expert headteachers” and if necessary “new leadership”. It stops short of promising academy status for them though.
The rhetoric surrounding this initiative is extra-ordinary. The equating of sponsored academy status with improvement is absolute. You would think that no sponsored academy had ever gone wrong and no local authority school had ever improved.This of course should mean that Morgan has incontrovertible evidence that her approach works just about every time. In fact this is an extraordinarily flawed bill on just about every level.
First should come some matters of principle. The Secretary of State is setting herself up as the only decision maker who matters. No one else’s view is to count for anything. Not for Nicky Morgan the Cromwellian warning “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”. Good governance is about listening to a range of views and considering evidence from all directions. But not in Nicky Morgan’s world. Anyone who disagrees “puts ideological objections above the best interests of children.” It’s a fundamental rule of organisations that this kind of arrogance leads to trouble sooner or later. Every management textbook will tell you this is a bad way to run anything. But it’s what we’re going to get.
Second, it is absolutely clear that the evidence does not back up the assertions. The Select Committee said so. The RSA Academies Commission said so. The record of failing academies and failing multi-academy trusts says so. Morgan is setting a high standard – academy status is the only path to success, so we are entitled to assume that their record should be pretty spotless – otherwise we might have expected a little more caution.
So to set the balance straight, here are 3 letters written by Ofsted to three significant academy chains:
Then you could add the 99 warning letters sent to poorly performing academies (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance). Or the 14 academy chains prevented in 2014 from taking on new schools because of concerns about their performance. Or the 21 financial warnings issued to academies in the last year (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/academies-financial-notices-to-improve)
Then, if you look at the overall statistics, 2.7% of all schools are inadequate according to Ofsted. But 13% of sponsored academies are in that category. No less than 35% of sponsored academies require improvement. Now it’s reasonable to say that many sponsored academies are in challenging circumstances. We know too that there is a huge bias in Ofsted against schools in such areas. And we know that some sponsored academies have done well and some chains are effective. But so are many maintained schools and – despite all the obstacles put in their way – many local authorities.
So does this amount to evidence of a magic bullet? Does it justify riding roughshod over local and professional opinion all over the country? Is it evidence that people who disagree are putting ideology above children’s futures. The DfE prefers to argue by producing the odd anecdote and some quotes from academy leaders who’ve done well out of the system. But they consistently steer clear of trying to present any argument based on hard evidence. When you look at the evidence, it’s the DfE that would seem to be the ideologues, promoting one particular way forward in defiance of evidence that suggests that the world is a little more complicated than that.
We should also think about what is not in this bill. There is nothing that will actually make sure there are enough good teachers in classrooms – especially in areas where recruitment is difficult – at a time when new teacher numbers are in free fall. Nothing to show how we will find more good headteachers at a time when the job is so insecure that fewer and fewer people want to take it on. Nothing to create the structures of support and challenge that over time we know is how you bring about long term change. Nothing to make sure that there are enough school places in the right areas to meet escalating pupil numbers. Nothing to put right the deeply damaging changes to the curriculum and assessment regimes that may well turn out to be Gove’s most toxic legacy.
And at the end of the day there is nothing to tell us how the DfE is going to successfully manage more and more schools. The Public Accounts Committee has consistently savaged the accountability systems run by the DfE and the EFA (http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/news/report-sshool-oversight-and-intervention/). There are no proper systems for identifying problems at an early stage. Anyone who has dealt with the EFA knows that it is a deeply dysfunctional organisation that often can’t even get the basics of funding and administration right.
The system will remain shrouded in secrecy. Issues like the choice of sponsor will be even less transparent than they have been so far. 1000 more sponsored academies over five years will demand either even bigger chains or many new sponsors. But we know big chains expanding rapidly are the most likely to fail. And there is no evidence that there is a massive queue of new sponsors queuing up. Like much of this government’s programme, this is a leap in the dark based on a touching faith that it’ll be all right on the night.
But on the evidence of the last five years, it will make very little difference to pupils’ education. Some schools will improve. Some will get worse. Just as they would if none of this happened. The top down structural model of school improvement is irrelevant to the real needs of children. But ministers do it because it creates the illusion of action and gets them headlines. The daily grind of incremental improvement doesn’t interest them but it is what will really make a difference for children.
This is a bad bill not just because it seeks to centralise decision making to an unacceptable degree. It’s also bad because it puts public assets into private hands with no proper accountability. But above all it’s bad because it’s based on an approach to managing complex systems that is naïve and simplistic in the extreme. What a massive waste of everyone’s time!
Rachel Jones, @rlj1981, is a teacher and e-learning coordinator. She writes:
When Labour won the election in 1997 I was studying for my A-levels, one of which was Politics. I was opinionated and passionate about what I believed in, and I remember feeling truly elated at the election result. I imagined us at the edge of a new era, with the world taking a more positive shape. Fast forward to the eve of the most recent election as I felt that same sense of optimism. After what felt like banging my head against a brick wall of misguided, and sometimes even absurd political reform, we would again have a chance to get things right.
Well, that goes to show me that I must live in a social media bubble where those I interact with are of a similar political persuasion. I could barely bring myself to talk about the election result for a few days. I was totally shocked, such was the level of naivety. This is my mantra now:
Don’t Mourn – Organise.
Those on the left of politics in the teaching profession have a lot to reflect on. How do we voice our opinions? How do we have them actually heard? What is it we even believe in anyway? Most importantly for me, how can we work towards a fairer society where children have the access to the types of education that will value them as individuals and help them to grow into the types of people that will do good in the world?
No one is as idealistic as to suggest that the social inequality that is endemic to our society is going to disappear. However, what I think many people will agree with, is that all children deserve a decent run at the one thing that can be transformational in the lives of those who are culturally and materially deprived. This one thing is education. Nothing is so powerful. Done right, it can bring hope to children whose daily existence is a grind of low expectations, poverty and lack of opportunities. Done wrong, education can damn an entire generation, demonise and disillusion teachers and create the kind of riffs in society that fuel the politics of fear.
I know what kind of education system I would like to see. One that trusts and listens to the professionals that are on the front line in classrooms. One that places value in curriculum change not solely based on a rose tinted view of the past. One that values children as having value, not just to the economy, but as members of a just society. One that, ultimately doesn’t just see education as a machine to train an elite to pass exams, but provides meaningful and life fulfilling life opportunities to all. I don’t want this education system to be on the never-never. I don’t want us just to spend the next five years angsting over Conservative reforms, I want us to be in a place to do something useful. Ask yourself, where can I do the most good, then do it.
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
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.