Little value for money at the CQC

 

If, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” then the Care Quality Commission is starting to look like the most cynical organisation around.

Late last year, the CQC announced a new contract for the supply of Experts by Experience – or lay inspectors – who assist on its inspections of hospitals, care homes and GPs.

Four months after it came into effect, the contract is in chaos.

Experts are leaving in despair at the unravelling of a role the CQC itself calls “critical to the success of our work” as the regulator of health and social care.

Even the Chief Executive, David Behan, admits his own staff are finding it difficult to do their jobs properly. “The contract isn’t performing at the level we would want it to,” he told the CQC’s most recent board meeting in a remarkable understatement of a debacle that could have been predicted.

Well, actually, it was predicted.

Problems started as soon as Remploy, a private company, took over the contract for recruiting and training Experts by Experience in three out of four English regions. (The charities that previously did this work hung on to one area in the centre of the country and by all accounts continue to do it well.)

Experts by Experience are members of the public who join CQC inspections specifically to talk to residents, patients and their families and friends. They assess care through the eyes of the service users and make sure the views of some of society’s most isolated and vulnerable are represented in judgements and reports.

The first inkling of the value Remploy placed on this crucial role came when it refused to honour existing terms and conditions. Instead, it told Experts they could re-apply for their jobs – at half the pay. Not surprisingly, many (myself included) declined.

Those that did sign up have since reported a catalogue of failures that further de-value their work.

The whole point of the Experts is that they have experience in a particular area of health or social care. It might be because of their own needs, or through looking after a family member.

But Remploy, and the proliferating army of sub-contractors drafted in to administer the programme have consistently asked Experts to take part in inspections for which they’re not suited.

“I was booked in March for a hospital inspection in June,” said one Expert, reporting a common problem. “When I finally got details it was for a psychiatric service, for which I have no experience so I declined.” The sub-contractor took no notice. The Expert went on getting emails about the same inspection.

Several Experts report having to work out for themselves which of a long list of upcoming inspections they’re suited to and, from the first three letters of a postcode, how far away they are. Then they “bid” for the work. So much for the CQC’s requirement that Experts be matched to inspections according to experience and skills. What, many of us wonder, does Remploy actually do then?

Communication certainly isn’t the company’s forte. Emails often go unanswered. An Expert’s agreement to join a team for a specific inspection is not passed on to the inspector. An inspection might be cancelled or rescheduled but the assigned Expert isn’t told. Double bookings are almost routine. Inspectors are told there’s nobody available when willing Experts are sitting at home unused.

“Did an inspection today,” an Expert reported last week. “Yet again the inspector had initially been told there was no Expert available, then they had another contact confirming that I was the Expert, and then yet another saying again no one was available.”

Some Experts have been asked to travel absurd distances (despite the CQC explicitly wanting to save money on travel expenses). One was asked to join an inspection 190 miles away. Another was sent a list of possible inspections and replied saying there were three he was suited for. “I told them one was just two miles away (from my home). But I was given one 65 miles away.”

Those are just a few examples from the eight separate dossiers of complaints a group of us current and former Experts have sent the CQC over the past two months. Others have been passing on their individual concerns from the start. So have the CQC’s own inspectors whose meticulous plans for these complex and highly sensitive inspections are frequently thrown into disarray.

“I am sorry there has been some confusion over this,” wrote one inspector to a befuddled Expert. “I received an email last week saying an Expert by Experience was not available, so rearranged my schedule and postponed this inspection. Then yesterday I received your message and another saying a different expert was available! I have now been advised to cancel the request and re-book it.”

Resigning provides no escape from this Kafkaesque scene. One Expert recently told Radio 4’s You and Yours about the frustration and anger that had led her to quit. Three days after the broadcast, Remploy rang to book her for an inspection. Another got no acknowledgement of his resignation.  Instead, Remploy sent updated time-sheets on which to record his working hours.

In mid-April, a CQC official told me they’d met senior Remploy staff to inform them that the company was “non-compliant” in almost a dozen areas. These included communication, travel and failing to match Experts to inspections. There were concerns too about recruitment, training, data protection and performance management. Remploy was told to come up with a response. Further, high-level meetings would be held.

But since then, very little has changed.

The CQC says formal contract monitoring meetings take place on a monthly basis “to monitor progress against agreed targets.” But my specific questions about the extent to which those targets are being met, and what happens when they aren’t, went unanswered.

Chief Executive David Behan recently wrote to Experts by Experience apologising for a “difficult” few months. “The experience of transferring to the new contracts for many of you was not a good one,” he said.

Another understatement and one that fails to acknowledge that it wasn’t just the transfer that was difficult. It’s the shambles that Experts and inspectors are still trying to deal with every day that needs sorting out.

As Mr Behan points out in his letter, more money’s been committed in the new contract in order to get even more Experts involved in inspections. He says, “the need to deliver the best value for the public money we spend has never been more important.” With the new contract he goes on, “securing best value” has been achieved.

Really? Best price perhaps. But as any Expert by Experience, inspector or care home resident could tell the CQC, that’s not the same thing as best value at all.

Little Care, Little Quality and some Terrible Commissioning

(Part 2 of my story about the chaos that’s followed the awarding of a key public service contract to a private company and the impact that’s having on vulnerable people. You can read Part 1 here).

 

It’s about time Facebook designed a “jaw drop” button.

We Experts by Experience badly needed one when we watched the Care Quality Commission’s recent board meeting online.

We’d just been told that our jobs inspecting health and social care facilities were being transferred from a charity to Remploy, a private company majority-owned by a big US-based business. None of our previous terms and conditions would be honoured. We would be invited to re-apply for our roles – at around half the pay.

Bruised and confused, we tuned in to see what the CQC, which is responsible for the contracts, had to say.

“I think,” declared Chief Executive David Behan, “there’s been a very, very good piece of procurement activity undertaken.”

Thud. That’s when our collective jaws hit the ground.

This particular “piece of procurement activity,”  took two and a half years to complete.

As I predicted last week, it has resulted in a shortage of Experts capable of doing the job, and in a contractor that is clearly overwhelmed.

So much so that the charities which lost the contract for supplying Experts by Experience have now been called back in by the CQC to stop the scheme going off the rails.

Here’s why:

Remploy won the Experts by Experience contract in three out of four English regions. (In a curious fragmentation of the programme, Central England remains with the charities Choice Support and AgeUK who, incidentally, will continue paying a decent wage).

That was announced in early December 2015. Those of us affected (the majority of Experts) were told we would be transferred seamlessly to Remploy. It would likely be done under TUPE, a process designed to protect workers when the business that employs them changes hands.

But Remploy had other ideas. And on January 13th we were told there would be no TUPE transfer after all. Instead, we could all apply to the new contractor for the same Expert jobs – with a 51% pay cut.

Two days later, in response to my query, Remploy confirmed the new terms and conditions in a list of FAQs. Under the new contract, they would be paying us £8.25 per hour (£9.40 in London). Unpleasant, but perfectly clear.IMG_0133[1]

But then came that CQC board meeting.

“This contract is still in the process of being finalised,” said Chief Executive David Behan. “Detailed workings” would be discussed later that week he said. There were “issues that do need to be settled.” What’s more, there had been “inaccuracies” in what we had been told by AgeUK. He was clearly implying that we Experts had been misled.

We scooped our jaws off the floor and began scratching our heads.

The new contract was due to start in less than two weeks. Remploy had sent us their detailed terms and conditions – yet the CQC was still negotiating?

Two possibilities: Either they’d been unaware that Remploy intended to slash the wages of its Experts in half. Or the CQC had naively assumed we would simply accept the pay cut, ignore the implicit insult to the people we represent in care homes, and meekly hop aboard the private sector bandwagon charging through public services.

When we didn’t, a frantic backpedalling got underway.

Two days after the board meeting, the CQC announced that existing Experts who applied to Remploy would get £15.00 per hour for the first six months after they transferred.
An email from Remploy confirmed that temporary rate, helpfully adding that any decision to join them was entirely up to me.

I clearly wasn’t the only person un-wooed by the six month bribe.  At which point CQC backpedalling turned into blind panic.

Last Thursday, just four days before Remploy was due to take over the Experts by Experience programme, the CQC announced a further change.

If we signed up with Remploy we’d get £15.00 per hour for the first six months, and £12.50 per hour for the six months after that, with no decision yet on what the final level of pay would be. (I think we can guess. After all, new recruits are getting £8.25).

And still Remploy was struggling to get the programme fully up and running by the February 1st start date.

Some Experts by Experience who did express an interest in joining the private company have had no response. Others were immediately passed on to sub-contractors whose contact has been equally patchy.

A few were asked to do inspections . They were told to send in scanned copies of their criminal record checks. (Not the normal practice.) None were offered a contract, asked for their bank or National Insurance details, or given the reporting template needed to do the job properly. None have yet been issued with formal ID. I could go on…

Meanwhile a sub-contractor which ran an Experts by Experience recruitment day in January, has pulled out of the scheme. A spokesman wouldn’t say why, just that “the partnership [with Remploy] has ended.”

Not surprisingly then, the CQC desperately needs help. And who better to turn to than the charities that successfully ran the programme for years. The CQC has now asked Choice Support and AgeUK to supply Experts for inspections for the next two weeks – presumably at the Commission’s (that is, the taxpayers’) expense. The charities are by all accounts doing their best to oblige.

And after that? Who knows what’ll happen. The terms of the contract, and details of its execution and delivery have been changing almost by the day.

No, Mr Behan, this was not “a very very good piece of procurement activity,” at all.  

Calling time on my zero-hours job

I’m about to lose the zero-hours job I love.

Maybe “lose” isn’t the right word. But the contract under which I work has been taken from the charitable sector and awarded to a private company. The new bosses at the multi-million pound business taking over refuse to honour existing terms and conditions. They won’t even discuss them.

Instead, they’re offering exactly the same work with a 44 per cent cut in pay. (51 per cent for those living outside London).

So thanks, but no thanks. There’s austerity, and then there’s just plain insulting.

Let me explain. For the past two years I have worked as an “Expert by Experience” for the Care Quality Commission. I accompany CQC inspectors on unannounced visits to care homes for the elderly where I talk to residents and their relatives about their care. I visit people in their rooms, observe activities and meal times, assess the environment – from the state of the carpets to any bad smells – and then write a detailed report.

We’re called Experts by Experience because we’ve all had direct and extensive contact with health or social care services, usually as a result of caring for a family member. So we’re there to make sure the people using these services – and their families – are listened to.*

That requires patience, attention to detail, skilled interviewing and accurate note taking – sometimes in very difficult circumstances.

People in homes for the elderly typically have high levels of need. It could be serious physical ill health; it could be dementia – often both.

Conversations can be repetitive, fragmentary or non-existent. While the CQC inspectors wade through the minutiae of care plans and staff training files, check regulations and interview managers and carers, we sit and chat and observe how the residents actually live.

We wait patiently while they struggle to find their words. We watch interactions between staff and residents, listening for signs of disrespect and noting the many examples of genuinely warm and affectionate care.

Sometimes we pause, put the investigative work on one side and simply listen to life stories. A widow still grieving for a young husband lost in the war. A relative wracked with guilt because they can’t look after their loved ones in their own homes anymore.

Conversations can be unbearably intimate. Elderly women will tell you about the children they wished they’d had. Recovering alcoholics describe the families that fell apart in their drinking years.

Afterwards, we sift through it all, pulling out the important details. Our reports are woven into the inspectors’ final judgements of the standards of care, and include many direct quotes.

It’s interesting and rewarding work and, CQC colleagues tell us repeatedly, we are “unique and valuable” members of the inspection teams.

But evidently not valuable enough.

The CQC contracts out the Experts by Experience programme. It’s run by a number of “support organisations,” including AgeUK for whom I have worked on a zero-hours basis.

Now, after a protracted procurement process, AgeUK and a number of other charities have lost their contracts in three out of four English regions.

From February 1st, the programme will be run instead by Remploy – once a government agency, now a private company majority-owned by US health and human services business Maximus.

Remploy/Maximus have promised to deliver hundreds more Experts by Experience for the CQC. But the budget is tight and presumably they also have to deliver profits for their shareholders. Hence the big cut in our pay.

From £17.00 per hour, to £9.40 in London and £8.25 elsewhere.

In other words, people with considerable expertise and years of experience, selected through a rigorous interview process and then given specialist training, are being offered the Living Wage.

Less than my student nephew gets for a match-day shift at the pub.

True, few of us became Experts for the money. And we’ve always put in extra hours for free.

But some Experts are retired and living on modest pensions. Others have caring responsibilities or disabilities that make this kind of flexible work a lifeline. For them, the pay cut (announced just three weeks before the new contract was due to start) is a real blow.

But more than that, regardless of personal circumstances, the terms of the new contract are insulting. Not just to us but to the elderly and vulnerable people we’re there to represent. From next week, it seems, their opinions and feelings will be worth roughly half as much as they are now.

So not surprisingly, we’re protesting. Or at least trying to.

It’s not easy communicating with other Experts. Though we have Contracts of Employment, we’re not apparently employees. We’re merely “workers” and as few of us are members of the recognised work-place union, it has declined to get involved. Welcome to the zero-hours world.

But bit by bit we’re connecting with each other and discovering that very few of us are prepared to work for a private contractor for such low pay. (Oh, did I mention they’re shaving an hour off the already short time paid for report writing and a few pennies off the mileage allowance too? The shareholders will be pleased.)

The CQC says it’s aware of our concerns but that the new contract is a good one because there’ll be many more Experts by Experience over-all. But who will they get for such low pay? And when are they going to be recruited and trained?

Calls to Remploy go unanswered. (The receptionist has no extension for the Experts by Experience programme). It has therefore been difficult to discover more about the contract discussions that the CQC says are continuing. So far, our protests have produced what the CQC clearly thinks is a sweetener: existing Experts who join Remploy will get “up to” £15.00 per hour for the first six months of the new regime.

A small pay cut to help a big company get its new business up and running so that it can then take an even bigger slice of our pay?

No thanks.

Unlike the vast majority of people on zero-hours contracts (cleaners, carers, food industry workers… admittedly a growing list), I’m a well educated stroppy middle class professional and I can afford to just walk away.

But I’m sad that an inspection this week was my last. Sad also that there are unlikely to be many (if any) experienced and qualified Experts available for inspections come February 1st.    

And mostly I’m sad – and angry – that the same free market, get-the-rock-bottom-price-whatever ideology that encourages faceless corporations to squeeze money out of public services has now swallowed up a socially valuable job I loved.

Once again, it’s the powerless and vulnerable who’ll suffer as a result.

(UPDATE: Thirty-six hours after this blog was published, the CQC acknowledged the concerns of Experts by Experience and announced an update on its contract negotiations with Remploy. Now, in addition to the offer of six months work at £15.00 per hour, there’ll be an additional six months at £12.50. After that, pay will be set at an as yet undecided rate. (That’s despite Remploy having sent us all details of the very much decided £9.40/£8.25 pay). A sliding scale of insult and uncertainty then. They can still count me out.)

(*While I do mostly elderly care, other Experts focus on homes for people with mental health problems or learning disabilities. We also join inspections of hospitals, GP surgeries and domiciliary care. All are affected by the change in contract)

 

Housing policy or moral crusade?

Photo by Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

David Cameron wants to replace “the country’s most run down housing estates,” with “attractive and safe homes.” It’s part of a package aimed at ending poverty, as the government puts it,  and “improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged.”

Well, that’s one way of addressing the housing crisis – with Victorian-style social reform. We’ll make old estates nicer and bingo! your life will be transformed.

Except – as anyone on a council house waiting list, or struggling to get together a huge deposit for a privately rented flat, or a monumental one for a mortgage will tell you – the housing crisis isn’t solved just by knocking houses down and starting again.

And regeneration isn’t as easy as Mr Cameron describes with characteristic trust-me breeziness in an article in the Sunday Times.

Many post-war council estates were badly planned. Others have fallen into disrepair because of wilful neglect or lack of funds. The Prime Minister’s right about that.

But one man’s sink estate is another man, or woman or family’s home. And experience tells us many residents, including owners, will be kicked out of those homes when the builders move in.

So before we rush headlong into Mr Cameron’s self-declared “mission” for a “social turnaround,” on our big housing estates, here are three essential questions that need to be asked.

1. What happens to leaseholders? Social tenants have a right to become owners under right to buy. But councils can force those owners to sell when they want to demolish an estate.

Photo Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

They use Compulsory Purchase Orders to do it and offer shared equity or shared ownership in a new home in exchange.

Which sort of works as long as the owner is offered a reasonable price under the CPO or is willing to take on a new mortgage to finance their share of a much more expensive home.

Schemes vary but all too often, the CPO is way below market price. The leaseholder can’t afford an equivalent property on the regenerated estate and ends up having to move, sometimes many miles away.

2. Guarantees for tenants. Mr Cameron says guarantees will be binding. But for which tenants? Will the promise of like-for-like homes cover everyone? Experience says not.

2015-06-29 19.33.50Take the notorious re-development of Barnet’s West Hendon Estate where only those with secure (life-long) council tenancies are being re-housed. Council tenants on fixed term (temporary) contracts have been booted out – even if they lived on the estate for years.

3. Say you do get a new home, will you be paying Social or Affordable rent? Under this government, the terms have become synonymous. But they are very different things.

Social rents set by councils and housing associations are based on local property values and average manual job wages. “Affordable” means paying 80 per cent of whatever the average market rent is. The difference between the two, in weekly rent, can amount to hundreds of pounds.
We know all this because in London alone, 50 estates have undergone regeneration since 2005. Eight thousand homes for social rent have vanished in the process and some bitter lessons have been learned. They’re catalogued in a detailed London Assembly report.

I urge Lord Heseltine, Chair of the Prime Minister’s new Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel to read the report carefully and learn from it.

Unless of course providing genuinely affordable housing is not what this big announcement is really all about.

If it were, the government wouldn’t be steamrolling ahead with a Housing Bill that extends right to buy to Housing Associations, forces councils to sell their most valuable assets and ends life-time tenancies for new social housing renters.

Nor would it have starved councils of funds needed to improve their ageing housing stock.

None of this government’s housing plans to date have done anything to help the “hard working families” Mr Cameron is so fond of invoking. They are the people most affected by the chronic shortage of housing and astronomical rents. They don’t get a mention in Mr Cameron’s description of gang-ridden “ghettos” and “cut-off, self-governing,” estates.

That’s because what the Prime Minister’s proposing isn’t a coherent social policy aimed at fixing a deep-seated and complex housing crisis.

No. It’s a moral crusade against social housing.

 

There goes the neighbourhood

photo 2[1]Mr Patel closed his newsagents a few months ago. Shortly after that, the 75 year old  hardware business further up the road shut its doors. Its neighbour, once a bathroom and kitchen design shop is now a giant pound store.

Yesterday Impulse Flowers, a local fixture for the past 28 years, lowered the shutters for the last time. The electric lighting show room across the road from the florist had already gone – due to “redevelopment” says the notice stuck on its window.

Next door, the manager of its sister store, selling light bulbs of every shape and size, stands in the doorway and surveys the changes on Holloway Road. “Look at it,” she says, pointing to a building once occupied by a fabric and wool shop. “It’s all restaurants and cafes now.”

And small supermarkets, some of them mini-versions of the big chains. Rumour has it, that’s what’s moving in where the light-bulb lady now stands. Or maybe it’ll be another branch of Costa, the ubiquitous coffee chain that already has at least three outlets on Holloway Road.

It’s not that the owners of the older shops want to go. “I think it’s more to do with landlords, their price increases,” says Frank, owner of Impulse Flowers, who’s finally off after losing a battle against yet another big rent hike. “They feel they need to modernise and they want to get trendy coffee shops and supermarkets in the high street.”

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank says the rot set in when a supermarket chain opened a small, local store in the neighbourhood. The chain was happy to pay what he calls, “an enormous amount” in rent. Now, the landlords are telling the little guys they should pay the same, “and we’re just not in a position to do so,” Frank says. “We can’t compete.”

(It turns out, the supermarket chains might not be able to either. According to a recent report, it’s charity shops followed by coffee chains that are filling in the holes in the high street. When the holes are filled that is.)

Of course, one could argue (as former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy did)  that all this represents progress.  Consumers are buying cheaper goods at places that are more convenient to them.

But the changes have a much wider impact – and not just on the individuals now shutting up shop. An entire community of businesses within five minutes walk from my home is being wiped out.

“It’s a bit quiet,” says Tim at the barbershop he’s run for the past 16 years. Tim’s a refugee from Kosovo who says he was made to feel welcome in the area as soon he arrived. Business was good at the beginning he says. Now though, it’s much harder “because circumstances change on Holloway Road.”

Tim’s referring to closings all around him. “The small businesses here, we used to go to them and buy things,” he says, “and they’d come for a haircut here.”

But don’t workers at supermarkets and coffee shops need haircuts too? Tim shakes his head. It’s different he says. “We don’t know them. They’re very rare customers.”

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

“It’s bad for the local community,” says Mr Patel, who’s stopped by Tim’s – not for a haircut but just for a chat, proving the barber’s point about the relationships between the small businesses in the area.

Mr Patel’s newsagents did well when he opened it in 1976. In recent years though, “the time and effort we put in, the returns just weren’t there,” he says.

“It was like a community shop,” Mr Patel goes on, explaining why, at any time of day one could find locals leaning on the counter chatting to the newsagent or his wife. “People were coming in for help and the whole family was there to provide it,” says the former shopkeeper. But with rapidly rising rents and high business rates, it couldn’t last. The newsagents closed – though Mr Patel hung on to the café next door.

That small high street businesses are suffering is well known. In the first half of last year, shops in the UK closed at a staggering 16 per day. Bad for them of course. But what isn’t talked about enough is the impact this has on a sense of community that affects all of us.

I want to live near a road where the Ugandan Asian former newsagent drops in to chat to the Kosovan barber who’s cutting the hair of a young man who works in the DIY store across the road. I like the fact the Dutch-born flower seller with whom I discuss politics and Arsenal, knows exactly what’s going on with the light-bulb lady and the other shops in her parade.photo 4

This is our community but it’s falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop it. Islington Council has a Core Strategy which sets out its “strategic vision for the borough up to 2025”.

Published in 2011, it says the aim is to “promote a mix of retail opportunities” on the main roads of the area and “to provide a better range of shops.” Nice idea but it’s not happening. (Some of the dying businesses say the council’s own parking enforcements share part of the blame). In fact, it’s the opposite and as with so many other high streets in the UK, our wonderfully diverse, friendly, connected neighbourhood is disappearing before our eyes.

 

Government Gradgrinds On

IMG_2133[1]Michael Gove may have left the Department for Education but his Gradgrindian spirit lives on.

It’ll be “Fact fact fact” all day every day if the Conservatives win the election in May. Times tables will be recited to perfection. Spelling, punctuation and grammar will be spot on. Headteachers could be removed from their jobs if a single number, comma or full stop goes astray.

So in keeping with the demands of Dickens’ censorious headmaster, here are a few “facts” the government might like to keep in mind.

If Headteachers are removed, they will have to be replaced. There is already a national shortage of candidates for Head’s posts.

Where exactly will we find these Wunderheads whose students get perfect marks when tested for facts? Yes, some can be stolen from other more successful schools to act as Super or Executive Heads. But if the government sticks to its threat to boot out leaders of schools that have failed to get every single candidate to pass the tests for two years running, even the Wunderheads will fast disappear.

And what of that other government panacea, Academisation, raised by the Prime Minister again today? As the Education Select Committee reported last week, there’s no evidence that academies “raise standards overall.” There’s also concern over the capacity of academy chains to expand. Last year, the Department for Education banned 14 of them from taking on new schools because of poor performance.

If the government sticks to its punitive plans, there simply won’t be enough good chains available to take on the task.

And what about the children? Of course everyone wants them to have a good grounding in literacy and numeracy. That’s what all teachers strive for. But as Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers rightly says

“with the best will in the world, and the best teaching in the world, there will still be times that young children do not perform as well in a short, high stakes test as they should. There will also be children that otherwise competent schools have failed to reach”.

There will for example be children sitting the test who’ve been recently bereaved. Or maybe they’ve had to move home suddenly – even repeatedly – because of family crisis. There are those who shine at maths and science and love a good story but struggle with punctuation because English isn’t their first language. And then there are others with more clearly defined difficulties such as dyslexia or its numerical equivalent.

The list of obstacles to that perfect score is long because all children are different. That’s a fact.

It’s also a fact that threatening to remove often popular leaders of otherwise good schools isn’t going to improve a single child’s performance.

Oh and one final fact even Mr Gradgrind would go along with: there’ll be lots more ill thought out “policy” of this sort – from all parties – in the run up to the election in May.

What’s the Private Sector ever done for us?

IMG_2709I’m all for breaking down the barriers between private and state education.IMG_2709

But I can’t help feeling we in the state sector may have more to teach exclusive fee-paying schools than they have to teach us.

An example? Well, put your science hats on for a moment – as we were asked to do last night, in a hall packed with excited kids and proud parents celebrating science and technology at Gillespie Primary School.

The north London school (full disclosure, I’m vice-chair of governors) is the first in the capital to set up a fully equipped science and “making stuff” space under an innovative programme called Lab_13.

Class teachers use the purpose-built lab for routine science lessons. There’s a kitchen in the corner for cookery club and a space for creating art works on the other side.

But more importantly, there’s a “Scientist in Residence,” employed two-and-a-half days a week to help children explore scientific questions.

Anything goes.Slug

The questions are posted on the lab’s notice board, or a child might come up with something interesting on the fly. Like, how long would it take for a snail to travel a mile?

“How are shadows made?” one group of children wanted to know. “Why is the sky blue?” asked others. Year 3 was interested in making crystals. So Year 4 showed them how, while some children in Year 6  have been looking at how virus’s replicate in the human body.

Which questions are answered is determined in part by the lab’s Management Committee, made up of children elected each year from throughout the school. The children wrote the job ad for the Scientist in Residence and took part in the interviews. The entire project is theirs.

Those shadows for example. The kids didn’t just want a scientific explanation. They wanted to create something artistic at the same time. So they did, projecting light through shapes to create beautiful shadow-pictures on stretched canvasses.

IMG_2706That was just one of the projects shown to the crowd of more than 100 last night. Another linked an interest in astronomy with a love of music. Press a star in a galaxy painted on a cardboard night sky and an electronic piano plays a note. Press two or three, you get a chord.

Then there was the question about the impact a meteor strike would have on the surface of the earth. It’s amazing what you can demonstrate with a home-made catapult, a box of Maltesers and a pile of sand. Or it would be if the catapult hadn’t failed. No matter, as our Scientist in Residence calmly explained, sometimes experiments don’t work. That’s how scientists learn.

All the demonstrations were introduced and explained by the children who, keen to show us that science is also fun, filled the gaps in-between with science jokes. (Question, what’s an astronaut’s favourite key on the computer keyboard? Answer, the space bar!)

The entire evening was entertaining, informative and above all inspiring – for children and adults alike.

So why doesn’t every primary school have a Lab_13?

Well, because it costs quite a bit of to set one up and there’s no money in tight school budgets for even a part time Scientist in Residence. The whole project requires a big fund-raising effort, from kitting out the space to buying in an experts’ time.

Which is where, you might imagine, the private sector comes in.

For some years now, businesses have been bemoaning the state of education. They’ve called for schools to turn out more inquiring minds. Britain’s economy will only thrive if high-tech manufacturing takes off, they say, so where are the children who’ll make that work?

Yet shown those very children and a project aimed at addressing some of the problems they’ve identified, businesses are largely nowhere to be seen.

The CBI was invited to get involved in the early stages. They came to the school, told us we were fantastic and made a film used at the launch of their big flashy report on the future of education.

We never heard from them again. A simple request to connect us with one single company that might want to contribute to the lab went nowhere.

We tried a couple of the giants of the corporate world but got a standard response: we don’t work with individual schools. Even though that school is doing something pioneering and is set to become a hub for science teaching borough-wide.

In the end (with the notable exception of Dixon Glass) the money came in bits and pieces mostly from private foundations and grant making bodies. The Royal Society did their bit, the British Pharmacological Society chipped in.

But the biggest support by far came from the local council. Without their financial contribution, Lab_13 would not have got off the ground.

Now we need funds to keep it going. We’re lucky in having a handful of dedicated parents prepared to fill in forms, send begging letters and bash the phones. We’re hugely grateful to the philanthropic foundations and societies that respond. (An organisation representing local businesses was invited to last night’s event, they didn’t even reply).

Having Lab_13 means children of varied abilities and backgrounds are collaborating brilliantly on science projects. Those from disadvantaged families have access to areas of learning they wouldn’t experience otherwise.

Next up, they’ll be working on a three month investigation into the health benefits of Manuka Honey. Their research will even be peer reviewed.

In the meantime, if you want to know how long it takes a snail to travel a mile, ask a Gillespie child. They’ve already published those results.

Outraged by the Outrage

White Van ManHere’s how politics now works in the UK.

A politician sends out an ill-considered tweet. It is insensitive but not criminal. Politicians, political journalists, bloggers and academics comment on it. Twitter comes alive. The politician realises she’s been a bit of a fool. Her hapless boss has a meltdown and forces her out. The established media and punditocracy go bonkers.

And the rest of the country says – Eh?

Of course Labour’s Emily Thornberry shouldn’t have tweeted a picture of a white van outside a house draped with English flags. It was way too open to interpretations of condescension or snobbery – which is exactly what happened.

But who did those interpretations come from?

Well, amongst the first 15 to tweet responses were: A blogger for The Spectator, a UKIP local party secretary, two self-described “libertarians,” a Daily Star journalist, a “media planner,” a Tory government relations consultant and two more who call themselves Conservatives (one of whom adds for good measure “anti-EU”) though it’s not entirely clear what they do.

Not, as far as I can tell, the supposedly offended flag-flying working class.

Westminster’s mischief-maker-in-chief was quick off the ball too. Guido Fawkes put the offending tweet on his blog and rapidly followed it with an update, “The internet reacts.”

A bit of the internet anyway.

The reactions selected (from twitter) were those of a leading politics academic, a Telegraph columnist, a Telegraph leader writer and someone who’s twitter profile is a little opaque but includes the phrase, “not a fan of the EU.”

And then the Internet really did start to react – most noticeably with anxious Labour MPs already aware of their party’s failure to offer anything constructive to its core vote. And then with political correspondents telling us “what it all means.”

A twitter storm in a tea-cup was brewed. Ms Thornberry fell on her sword.

Elsewhere in the country meanwhile, nobody seems to be taking much notice. This morning’s (internet) editions of the major regional newspapers barely cover the story – if at all.

Nothing in the Liverpool Echo or the Northern Echo. I can’t find anything in the Norwich Evening News. There are a couple of lines buried deep in the Yorkshire Post’s story about UKIP’s win in Rochester and Stroud. Sometime after 9am, the Manchester Evening news added two sentences on Thornberry in its Breaking News section.

The Sentinel in Stoke ran the story. It garnered one comment from a reader who couldn’t understand why the MP had had to resign her shadow cabinet post. The only other public comment was on a Bristol Post account of the fracas – though in that case, the reader was critical of Labour and its “Champagne socialists”.

I couldn’t find much anti-Labour white male wrath on quick flick through local radio either.

BBC Radio Norfolk’s morning phone-in was discussing a local row about skateboarding. In Leeds the host wanted to hear listeners’ “claims to fame.” I tuned to Radio Newcastle just as caller and host reached a peak of indignation over the film board’s classification of the Paddington Bear film. In Cambridge meanwhile, they were talking politics. A female caller felt UKIP was dividing the country with its anti immigrant stance.

None of which is to justify or defend Emily Thornberry and her ill advised tweet. We all do stupid things sometimes, on Thursday it was the turn of the Islington MP.

She demonstrated all too visibly the disconnect between politicians and voters for sure. But the general public aren’t up in arms about a daft tweet – it’s the navel gazers in Westminster who decided on our behalf we should all be outraged.

Meanwhile, most people are trying to get on with making ends meet. It would be good to see a similar level of outrage from our politicians and pundits about just how hard that is.

Scotland, Please Don’t Go

ParliamentFrontI20050217Never mind the squabbling over sterling and North Sea oil, Scotland. There’s a very simple reason to vote No in the Independence referendum next month.

We don’t want you to leave.

A few days in Edinburgh have reminded me of all that we have to lose if Scotland drifts away.

A more collectivist spirit for a start. It’s not just the free university education, free personal care for the elderly, or free prescription charges the Scottish enjoy. One could (and should) argue about the financial wisdom of offering such largesse especially during tough economic times.

But what those policies (plus vows to keep the private sector out of the NHS) demonstrate is Scotland’s admirable sense of social solidarity, something that is being steadily chipped away here in England.

One can attribute that in part to the dominance of left-of-centre parties in Scottish politics. But even the Conservatives north of the border have a more progressive tone than their southern counterparts.

Their  manifesto for the elections to the Scottish Parliament for example, was far less judgemental than anything published by their Westminster friends. Families did not have to be “hard working” to warrant support. Immigration wasn’t mentioned at all. And some of the policies offered (merging health and social care budgets for example) are currently being considered by the Labour party down here.

It’s not that Scotland gets everything right. Of course it doesn’t. That’s why life expectancy’s lower north of the border. The Scots drink and smoke more than we do, eat less healthily and suffer more heart disease, lung cancer and strokes.

And like any western society, Scotland has become less equal in terms of wealth distribution in recent decades.

But not as unequal as England. Nor is there anything like the same show-offy individualism that we seem to worship down south.

I may have been overly influenced by my visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. From the unreserved seating to the cheerful queues, there’s a strong egalitarian spirit.

The performers have to start bang on time and, however grand, must leave the stage immediately at the end – strictly no encores – to make way for the next act.  You can always tell them how much you enjoyed the show when you see them in the bar afterwards. No publicists, no paparazzi, no playing the celeb.

And despite the annual grumbles about commercialisation of the Fringe, there really isn’t very much. With the exception of a certain coveted comedy award, sponsorship is in the background, an afterthought to the main event. It all feels refreshingly unbranded. Still simply The Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Then there’s the Scottish Parliament. For all its weird design and odd angles, it’s a delight to visit. Open, transparent and above all, welcoming.

You can wander almost anywhere. Past the MSPs meeting constituents by the big glass windows. Upstairs to the rather beautiful chamber or, with a free ticket willingly given out by the front desk, into a committee hearing. That’s how a Parliament should be, a place for the people as much as for the politicians.

So, Scotland, the independence referendum is not all about you.

We may not have a vote, but we care what happens on September 18th. More than 300 years together make that inevitable. It hasn’t always been a happy union and you may not like what we’ve turned into.

But the answer isn’t to cast us adrift now. Please stay and help us become a bit more like you.

 

 

The Curriculum’s mightier than the Sword

When it comes to preventing extremist or radical influences in schools, the government doesn’t have a lesson plan.

Despite Michael Gove’s centralising tendencies, neither he nor the cabinet colleagues he’s been fighting with have ever laid out what exactly schools are supposed to do to stop the – real or imagined – Islamic extremist threat.

Nor have they ever identified where this threat is supposed to come from, or how serious it really is.

No wonder those beleaguered Birmingham schools have ended up in such a mess.

(There’s a separate and serious issue of governance in the Birmingham schools. But I’m focusing here on the Ofsted Chief’s conclusion that “in several schools inspected, children are being badly prepared for life in modern Britain.”)

So where should schools turn for help?

Well, there’s the often referred to Prevent Strategy of course, with its 43 jumbled paragraphs on education that skip from maintained, to free, to faith schools. Whatever the institution, it points out, a satisfactory education must be provided, and a “broad and balanced curriculum” must be taught.

But then, after a swerve into discussing the role of the Charity Commission in monitoring independent schools, it switches to extremism as a safeguarding issue. “Protecting children from harm and promoting their welfare depends on a shared responsibility and effective joint working between different agencies,” it says.

Well, yes. But how exactly? Should teachers and governors report a child with extremist views to social services as they would if they thought that child was being abused? Which views exactly would trigger the intervention? And what if those views were shared by some of the staff?

Maybe the Association of Chief Police Officers can help. Their guidance, Prevent, Police and Schools, at least has the advantage of a bobby’s blunt clarity. “Prevent is about stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism,” it says.

But then it adds, “The purpose of Prevent in schools must be to protect children from harm,” (hold on, we’re stopping terrorists by protecting potential terrorists from themselves?) “and ensure that they are taught in a way that is consistent with the law and British values.” Ah. British values. Good luck with defining those (ACPO doesn’t try).

Good luck also with the paragraph on “resilience building teaching activities,” involving such impenetrable tasks as “making a connection through good design and a young person centred approach.” No, I’m none the wiser.

Let’s take a look then at the DfE’s “toolkit” which, like ACPO’s document is cited in the Prevent Strategy. Here, at last with curriculum advice and promoting human rights, we get a bit of practical help for schools and a hint of what the real issue is.

Because none of what has happened in Birmingham is really about terrorism. Nobody is suggesting that these children are being prepared to carry out attacks.

As the Chief Constable of the West Midlands, Chris Sims said when the government appointed a former counter terrorism police officer to investigate, “It’s an issue about cohesion and the way social cohesion plays out into schools, but it certainly isn’t … an issue about counter-terrorism,”

He’s absolutely right and if we want to address social cohesion, we don’t need Prevent.  

As Ofsted itself makes clear, what we need is a healthy dose of RE.

Last October, the schools inspectorate published a highly critical report on the quality of Religious Education teaching. If taught properly, the report stated, Religious Education “plays a key role in promoting social cohesion and the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society”.

But Ofsted concluded that RE wasn’t up to scratch in more than half of schools. It went further, charging that “teaching often fails to challenge and extend pupils’ ability to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief”.

That’s hardly surprising. There’s no National Curriculum for RE. Content is supposed to be determined by local authority Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education. But cuts in council funding mean they rarely meet. There are far too few specialist RE teachers and – again thanks to the cuts – training has been scaled back. No wonder Ofsted found, “Teachers were unwilling to open up enquiry in case pupils asked challenging or controversial questions with which they felt ill-equipped to deal.”

And that’s when it’s taught at all. In theory, RE is compulsory but about a third of non-faith schools don’t offer the subject for GCSE. It won’t be one of the core subjects in the new English Baccalaureate.

As a cross-party committee of MPs said last year, RE is being “marginalized” in schools “just as it is needed most.”

Because it is needed. A strong national curriculum that explores and explains a mix of religions to children who have little or no exposure to other faiths elsewhere would be a start. Then we should equip specialist teachers to challenge offensive or radical interpretations – of any religion.

We shouldn’t be safeguarding or protecting children from extremism. We should be exposing them to it, talking to them about it, explaining it and using specialist knowledge to help children to work out for themselves why it’s wrong.

A well planned, compulsory, well taught Religious Education curriculum is one place to start.