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 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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Time to Act – an Education Bill for the new Parliament

Over the last year the SEA together with our partners in the Reclaiming Education Alliance has been promoting seven key principles that we think should be at the heart of a new government’s education policies. We believe that they all need to be implemented if we are to build a school system that promotes high standards, fairness and equality across the country. As we approach the election, we have developed our ideas about how the principles can be put into practice.

To this end we have prepared a draft Education Bill which we will be presenting for debate at an open meeting at the House of Commons on 25th February and publicising widely thereafter. The new bill will:

1. Broaden the National Curriculum to include promoting the emotional well-being of young people;
2. Establish a fully comprehensive system by ending selection by ability or aptitude;
3. Prevent schools from manipulating the admissions system so as to get themselves a more favourable intake;
4. Ensure that there is no discrimination against young people of any kind – those who have special educational needs or disabilities, those who have different ethnic or social backgrounds or because of their gender or sexual orientation.
5. Establish a common funding system that applies equally to all kinds of school and meets the needs of all young people;
6. Promote co-operation between schools rather than competition;
7. Require inspections to be supportive and to promote improvement rather than being essentially punitive as is the case currently;
8. Ensure that all teachers have qualified status and engage in regular continuing professional development.
9. Return all academies to maintained status so that these proposals apply to all schools. All schools should have the same rights and responsibilities and the same level of autonomy.

We intend to promote these ideas as widely as possible in the hope of influencing positively the policies that will be followed over the next few years.

So we are asking all our supporters to join in the debate on Wednesday 25th February at 7pm in Committee Room 12, House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA.

You can download the papers for the meeting from

If you have not already booked your place, please do so now with your name(s) and contact details.

If you don’t do triple science, you’re doomed – or whatever happened to broad and balanced?

“Pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to take exams that could be vital to their job prospects – such as sciences and languages – due to a subject “desert”, a study has found.”

That is how the BBC website introduces a new report from the Open Public Services Network which has researched the availability and take up of certain GCSEs in English schools. The focus is on triple science and modern languages and the message is the increasingly familiar one that lazy schools are letting poor pupils down by not letting (making?) them take supposedly hard courses.

Before we accept this simplistic view, a little background may be useful. The National Curriculum when first established expected all students to follow a broad and balanced curriculum up to 16. It set out positively to counter the narrow specialisation at 14 that was then common. 20% of curriculum time was normally to be spent on science – even then it was hard to fit all areas of experience into the week but it was possible to get a decent balance. Before 1988 there was massive gender stereotyping in science subject choices and integrated science courses were designed to challenge that.

Let’s be clear – triple science either means kids have a seriously unbalanced Key Stage 4 programme or they are forced to do it in the time normally given to two GCSEs. Neither of these is desirable but nevertheless this has become one of those supposed signs of rigour that some schools and parts of the media are in love with. It’s become a badge that a lot of schools feel they have to have if they’re going to be taken seriously academically – another of those ways in which they try and attract the right kind of parent.

According to the report pupils’ life chances are at stake and “One important reason why bright children from low and middle income pupils miss out on the best universities is that they don’t take the right subjects at school.” Notice the assumption here that what the “best universities” say they want is automatically what we need to be doing.

Nowhere does it ask the question, just how many students’ job prospects are at stake. As ever we’re talking about the tiny minority that might want to do some very particular courses at a very particular group of universities. But somehow, the impression is given that just about everyone is at risk.

And in fact nowhere is it written down that triple science is needed for anything. Not one single medical school demands it and most are quite specific in saying they accept double science on an equal basis. It may of course be that under the surface this kind of thing is noticed but if it is, it is one more example of how university entrance is a “secret garden” open only to those already on the inside.

It’s claimed that students doing triple science are more likely to do science A levels and do better at them. Of course if they’ve specialised to this extent at 14, they have far fewer choices at A level so, to slightly misquote, “they would wouldn’t they”. And if you enter the ablest students and those keenest on science for triple science, yes they probably will do well in the future – who’s surprised by that?

We should be standing on the principle that young people deserve a balanced curriculum that keeps options open at 14. And we need to resist the view that says only the subjects of the 1950’s grammar school curriculum are worth anything. We really should not allow a small group of universities to distort the experience of young people by driving narrowness and specialisation further and further down the school.

The other feature of this report is the assertion that there is a relationship between deprivation and the curriculum available and that schools in deprived areas are gaming the system by stopping kids doing “hard subjects”. It asserts that “There is a link to deprivation and affluence – with schools in wealthier areas more likely to offer triple science.”

If you look then at the map provided you find that the 16 areas where the fewest schools offer triple science include Torbay, Kent, Milton Keynes, York and Camden and Kensington and Chelsea. Whereas 100% of schools offer triple science in Wigan, Barnsley, Sheffield, Newham and Barking and Dagenham. Hardly a simple pattern!

To the extent that there is truth in this analysis, in reality it comes back to inequality. We know how strong the relationship between economic circumstances and educational attainment is. But we keep on pretending that if only schools did something different, the relationship will go away. And as ever, our definition of social mobility is whether we can rescue a few bright kids from challenging areas and never mind what happens to the rest. So that, we’re told, must have absolute priority in deciding what we teach and how we use our resources.

I wonder how long it will be before we have a report condemning schools too few young people get an apprenticeship or go on to a vocational course in FE . That might be one small sign that we are taking challenging inequality more seriously

No more Mr Nice Guy – Cameron and Morgan not making up with teachers after all.

The Conservative’s love-in with the teaching profession seems to have come to a shuddering halt after only a few short months. The pressures of the campaign seem to have driven both Cameron and Morgan back to the familiar school and teacher bashing approach that has been their default position throughout this government. Clearly someone has decided that Mail and Telegraph readers are more important electorally than the teacher vote.

First Nicky Morgan announces that every single primary pupil will pass her tests or dire consequences will follow. What the tests will consist of is not entirely clear but they will, it seems, “expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar.” Then, Cameron followed this up with “an assault on mediocrity”. His target is schools in the Ofsted category of “requires improvement”. Some might think this amounts to “weaponising” education!

The really alarming feature of all of this is the extraordinarily simplistic approach to school improvement. The argument runs, it seems, underperforming schools have bad leaders, so if you change the leaders all will rapidly be well. And of course they cling to the conviction that making a school an academy is a magic bullet.

We’ve argued before on this blog that real school improvement is a complex business that requires a long term commitment from the whole staff, external support and indeed the whole community in which the school is located. The ability of politicians to believe that the simple things that they can control with the stroke of a pen will make the difference is extraordinary and deeply depressing.

So is the belief that just setting a target will of itself bring about change. This rests on the assumption that without that pressure teachers are just idle and won’t bother to do the best by their pupils. What actually happens of course is that all the attention goes on what is to be measured. We can imagine the regime in year 6 if knowing tables by heart is what everything depends on. It takes me right back to 11+ preparation in the ‘50’s and the grindingly boring repetition of practice papers every single day for a year and a half.

New Labour was of course big on targets. But in all fairness it also understood that there needed to be an infrastructure of support and very substantial funding was put into national and local school improvement services, CPD and classroom resources.

The belief now is that superheads plus academisation is all it takes. The finding of the Select Committee that there is no evidence that academy status makes any difference either way are just swept aside. So are the basic numbers from the performance tables just published. 36.5% od sponsored academies were below the 40% target for GCSE results. Even more shocking so were 5% of converter academies all of whom were supposed to be good or outstanding before they were allowed to convert. Also below target were 22% of the tiny number of free schools and 2 out of 5 UTC’s. Overall 13.6% of academies were below target compared to 11.7% of maintained schools.

So the answer now is that maintained schools become academies and academies change their sponsor. Though it will be interesting to see, if a converter academy or a sponsor got stroppy, just what powers the Secretary of State has when a school is not in special measures.

Above all though, we need to think about the effect of the culture of pressure and punishment. Who will want to risk their career taking on the headship of a school needing improvement? Who will want to lead a primary school if it takes just one 11 year old having a bad day to end your career? Who indeed wants to join a profession where the prevailing ethos is one of mistrust and blame promoted by politicians for whom a quick headline is more important than the real future of the service.

We know that places in initial training are not being filled. Meanwhile just this week the TES reported that

“More teachers are quitting the profession than at any point in the past 10 years, fuelling fears that a recruitment shortfall is being compounded by retention problems. About one in 12 full-time teachers are leaving the profession every year, according to the latest figures. Teachers have cited excessive workload, the pressures of inspection and the relentless pace of change as reasons for quitting.”

And this at a time when pupil numbers are going through the roof!

Nicky Morgan was appointed, we were told, to make peace with teachers. An important symbol of that was the workload challenge. Unfortunately it seems the answer teachers gave when asked what the biggest issue was replied “government policy and interference”.

But clearly the message hasn’t been heard.


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