Category Archives: Education

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.

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.

 

In Praise of School Governors

Wicked Wire after school clubA little-known secret: being a school governor can be fun.

Yes, it’s a commitment. Giving up your time to read and sometimes write policies. Analysing data on progress and attainment. Working out which children are not doing well and why.

Yes, it’s a responsibility. Setting the school’s budget and its curriculum priorities. Helping the head teacher resolve tricky staffing issues. Dealing with sometimes anxious, occasionally angry parents. Even eating school lunch with the children in order to prove to a mother that the food isn’t as bad as she believes.

I’ve done all the above – and much more in my nearly ten years as a primary school governor. It’s been one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had and also one of the most rewarding.

But it’s not difficult to see why there’s a constant shortage of people willing to volunteer for the posts.

According to the government-backed organisation, Governors for Schools, a quarter of governor places in some rural and deprived areas go unfilled.

Across England, one in 10 of these crucial posts is vacant.

That’s roughly the same number as five years ago, when a survey by the University of Bath found 40,000 positions on governing bodies empty.  It concluded that prospective applicants were put off by a role that seemed “overloaded and over-complicated”.

The answers to the problem back then have been repeated many times since (including by me). Better recruitment and training, more acknowledgement of the complexities and demands of the role, greater participation in school life by local businesses and their staff. To which I’d add, less soul-destroying criticism from the likes of Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

But nothing much has changed. Except for the increased level of responsibility governing bodies now have, and the growing pressures that go with the (unpaid) job.

Setting schools free from local authority control (as the current government likes to describe its sometimes chaotic and fragmented approach to education) has put more power in the hands of head teachers. But that only helps if there’s a strong governing body recruiting, supporting, guiding and ultimately checking-up on the head.

The school’s inspectorate, Ofsted comes down hard on any governing bodies that don’t take these tasks seriously – and so it should.

But neither Ofsted nor successive governments has ever acknowledged that being a school governor takes thought and commitment. Nor  that governing bodies are expected to carry out their duties with minimal support.

In many parts of the country, local authority education departments have shrunk almost to non-existence. With their demise has gone valuable training and advice. For many governing bodies, it can be very lonely out there.

And who would want to take responsibility for institutions that, thanks to the Govian revolution, are in a constant state of flux? Places where, we’re told by government, teachers lack ambition for children and don’t really care whether they succeed.

Where are the voices telling us about the positive parts of the job? The thrill of sitting at the back of a classroom of excited, happy children and watching them learn? Or attending an assembly where seven year olds describe carefully and seriously what they have been studying that week.

And yes, even school lunch, squeezed between a couple of five-year olds, their sticky hands tugging at your sleeve as they compete to tell you the synopsis of Sleeping Beauty can make the slog over the data and the Ofsted requirements all worth while.

Not enough people getting the message, or signing up to be school governors? We all need to talk more about the good bits. And a little more  support, encouragement and – dare I say it, praise from the government and Ofsted really wouldn’t go amiss.

Reporting child abuse is only the start

On one side a shabby council estate, on the other side a pitch-dark park. Not the kind of street I particularly enjoy walking along.

Not the kind of place either that small children should be unsupervised at 8.45 on a Saturday night.

But that’s where I came across them. Three boys involved in a vicious fight.

I heard them before I saw them, a string of F***s coming from the older one as he smashed the little one’s head against the park railings, adding the occasional furious punch to the guts.

At a rough guess I’d say they were aged about six and nine – at the most.

“It’s alright, they’re brothers” said the third one as I waded in.

“It’s not alright” I said, lowering my voice slightly from the initial “OI STOP THAT” yelled when I first saw them, and physically pulling them apart.

The older one stomped off. A little ball of fury chocking back tears. His younger brother sniffled along a few yards behind.

They seemed so vulnerable – and I don’t mean to each other. What were they doing out alone on a cold dark night?  It occurred to me to march them home, but to what? I didn’t fancy a confrontation with whoever was supposed to be in charge of these kids.

What about calling the police? I thought about that too but I was late for the event I was supposed to be at, the police probably had better things to do on a Saturday evening and besides, what could they actually do for these boys other than maybe, for that night at least, get them off the street?

Which brings me to Keir Starmer’s call for mandatory reporting of child abuse allegations.

It’s a perfectly laudable aim in many ways. But my question for him is: then what happens?

The failure of health, education and social care professionals to report suspicions of abuse is appalling – when it happens. But it’s not the only obstacle to protecting children. Far from it.

Manipulative parents are good at running rings around hard-pressed professionals. We’ve seen it time and again. Worse, as I’ve written here before, vulnerable young people are too often simply not believed.

It’s true that many of Jimmy Savile’s victims were dismissed or told to keep quiet when they reported abuse to hospital or school staff. But when allegations did get as far as the police, “Jimmy” (as the interviewing officer called the star throughout his interview) ran rings around them.  Just take a look at the transcript to see how it was Savile, not the police running the show, dismissing his victims as hangers-on hoping for some cash.

Similarly in the appalling case of four year old Daniel Pelka, starved and tortured to death by his mother and her partner. Of course teachers and doctors should have done more, but it’s not as if the police didn’t know there was a serious problem in the family.

They had visited the boy’s home 26 times in the years before his death. As the official case review said, Daniel was “invisible,” while his mother had a remarkable ability to “hoodwink” anyone who questioned his health.

And remember the young women raped repeatedly by the gang of Rochdale men who then trafficked them to countless others? Social services let them down badly for sure.

But one girl did go to the police. She told her horrific story, she even provided samples of her attackers DNA. The police believed her and arrested two men. But the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute. The teenager was too damaged to be a credible witness in court, they said. The men were released without charge and the abuse continued.

So, Keir Starmer, by all means change the law to compel professionals to report allegations. But only if we go further and rethink the way in which those allegations are investigated. To start with, police, social workers, schools and health services have to work more closely together. In the words of the Pelka case review, there must be a more “holistic” approach.

And yes, maybe neighbours and even strangers in the street have to get involved too.

But joining up the dots is only the start. Once the allegations are reported, investigators must listen to the victims. And everyone – police, CPS, judges and juries – needs to remember that authority figures, whether parents or TV stars, sometimes lie. Just because a young person is vulnerable or damaged doesn’t mean they can’t be believed.

Mind Your Language(s)

To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” At least when it comes to reports of the demise of foreign language teaching.

UK universities are “abandoning” European language courses, according to the Guardian. Over the past 15 years, more than a third have “given up offering specialist modern language degrees.”

The same figure was quoted in a remarkably similar article just two months ago when the Guardian warned that 40% of existing university language departments could soon be closed.

Both pieces quote academics worried about the state of language teaching in schools.

First they blamed Labour’s (admittedly foolish) decision in 2002 to scrap compulsory foreign language GCSEs, which made a steep decline in numbers taking language exams inevitable. But that decline has now been reversed.  According to the universities minister David Willets, foreign language learning at GCSE is at its highest level in five years.

So now the blame’s being pinned on over-rigorous A level marking. “Unfair” grading is putting off gifted linguists. Apparently the best and the brightest are dropping German like hot kartoffeln and saying non merci to French as soon as they’ve done those GCSEs.

But what about the departments offering those “specialist” European language degrees? They must take some responsibility for their own predicament.

University College London enthusiastically offers an “emphasis on film and literature studies” in its list of “degree benefits” if you study there for a French BA.

At Oxford you have the pleasure of “prose and drama from 1890 to 1933” as a compulsory first year subject for a German degree.

These are wonderful, fascinating subjects in their own ways and I’m all for university being a great place to expand cultural horizons.

But in an era of £9,000-a-year fees and diminishing graduate employment prospects, these institutions might want to re-think the content of their “specialist” degrees.

Because buried deep in that Guardian article about the “abandoned” European language degrees is some rather more positive news.

There’s evidence that students are still signing up for languages when they’re linked with another subject. Numbers studying “law and French or business studies and Spanish are stable” the article says.

Similarly, students are still interested in taking language modules as additions to their main subjects.

Chinese (Mandarin) while studied by relatively small numbers is growing rapidly in popularity. And the government’s backing a British Council campaign to send 15,000 British students to study or gain work experience in China by 2016.

Russian and Arabic departments are still going strong and there’s a continuing niche market in Japanese.

It would be great if, as with my generation, the state would fund young people to stay on in education for the sheer pleasure of learning and broadening the mind.

But those days are gone. Students go through University racking up debt. If they can see employment benefits of studying a language then they’ll do so.

“Specialist” language departments should take note and stop blaming our schools.

 

 

Lessons from the Library

There are few things we British love more than to see one of our elite institutions with egg on its face.

So of course news that an Oxford college is at the centre of a “Harlem Shake Scandal” has made national headlines. (Full disclosure: it’s of more than passing interest to me as it concerns my old college).

But I made some inquiries, and the story’s not quite as it at first seems.

To recap: A group of students took over the library at St Hilda’s and recorded their version of the now rather passé meme doing the rounds on YouTube.

So far, so vaguely humourous. But then it emerged that not only had participating students been disciplined, the young library assistant on duty that night had lost her job.

“Dismissed”, “fired” – however it was reported, the punishment sounded harsh. Especially as the students insisted that the woman, Calypso Nash, had nothing to do with the stunt.

Cue furious demands for her immediate reinstatement. An online petition was followed by a motion passed by the undergraduate body, the JCR. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament.

I found it hard to believe. And sure enough, there were some key details missing from the coverage – which the College did nothing to clarify while the story was gathering steam. “Declined to comment” was the line most newspapers used.

Ms Nash was not a “librarian” and she was not on the staff. She’s a post-graduate student who was employed on a casual basis as a library invigilator.

After the Harlem Shake incident she was told she wouldn’t be offered any more shifts. A bit harsh perhaps but not quite the same as being “fired” from a job, and, though nothing’s been heard from her, I’m told she has not appealed.

If the college had said that at the beginning it might have defused the protest. I gather they’re about to make a statement to that effect.  Horses and stable doors come to mind…

It still leaves questions about the overall handling of the incident. No students were harmed in the making of that 30 second video and I doubt any degrees will be failed as a result.

It was recorded late in the evening, and in a spirit of fun.  It even had an admirable political message: a banner demanding freedom for the jailed Russian women from the band Pussy Riot.

The students could have been told to do a morning’s filing, or picking up litter or carrying books back to shelves. Something for their community as a way of the college authorities saying gently, “don’t do that again.”  As for Ms Nash, if the rest of her work in the library is okay then of course she should be offered more shifts.

The college should learn to be a little less po-faced and a little more communicative with the media, not to mention with its own student body.

And MPs lodging Early Day Motions should perhaps check their facts.

 

Who’d be a School Governor?

Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw doesn’t so much tread on toes as stomp on feet and then slap their owner’s faces around a bit.

England’s Chief Inspector of Schools has in the past told teachers they make too many excuses for poor performance. They should work longer hours if they expect to get a pay rise. Head teachers should “stop moaning” and get on with the job.

Now he’s targeting school governors, the largest volunteer force in the country. There are 300,000 of us, a disparate group of (mostly) well meaning souls, some of whom according to Sir Michael are nowhere near up to the job.

The thing is, for all his crashing about like a bull in an educational china shop, the Ofsted chief is sometimes right.

The role of the school governor has changed beyond recognition in the past decade or so. But many of the people volunteering haven’t grasped how much is now expected of them. Nor are the systems in place to find the ones who do understand and to give them the right kind of support.

A decade or so ago, it was enough to show up once a term to offer a bit of friendly advice or vote on a school policy. Now (rightly) governors are expected to know their schools inside-out. They are also supposed to “challenge and support” teaching staff, a balancing act that requires considerable diplomatic skills.

What it means is that governors must understand not only how well the children in their school are achieving (including by ethnic and socio-economic group) but also, how well they’re being taught. By each of the teachers, in all the core subjects.

And where they’re not doing well enough or teaching isn’t up to scratch, governors must find out exactly what’s being done to put that right.

Then there’s the nitty-gritty of finances –increasingly devolved from local authority to individual school head. How to budget for a part time music teacher, new windows or translators for non-English speaking parents? All these things are ultimately the responsibility of the governing body.

(My meetings this term have ranged from detailed discussion of the kids’ progress in writing between Years 2 and 6, to how much we’ve paid for a new oven).

Then there are the tricky topics that leap out and ambush you. The parent unhappy with special needs provision for their child. The vulnerable youngster showing signs of possible abuse or neglect. The valuable teacher who has to take long-term sick leave. And yes, the parents complaining about the quality of school meals.

These are all things head teachers deal with in the course of a normal day. Governors are expected to know about them, to ask searching questions of staff and help them make the right decisions.

It’s a tall order for a bunch of volunteers made up of staff, parents and random members of the broader community. Church schools also have governors appointed by the diocese; academies have representatives of their sponsor.

Many are committed and hard working. Others, as Sir Michael Wilshaw suggests, are not. Some have never been told the truth about the effort they need to put in. A few possibly don’t really care, or in the worst cases, only care about the interests of their particular child.

And then there are the local authority appointees. A strange breed – I am one but I have no idea how or why. I was recruited through a general governors website and assigned to a school.

There was a Lib-Dem council at the time. When Labour took over a couple of years later, they tried to block my re-appointment on the grounds that I must be a Lib Dem member (wrong). They proposed replacing me with someone with no connection to the school. Struggling to get himself a parliamentary seat, this chap needed a local community boost to his CV, and his party bosses thought my governing body place would do just fine.

After my Chair of governors objected, Labour relented and then decided I must after all be one of them (wrong again). I was invited to their “Labour governors” meetings. Despite my repeated protestations – I work on behalf of the children at the school, not a political party – the invitations kept coming. Eventually I went and was surprised to find the meeting very useful. So why on earth were only “Labour” governors, a fraction of the total in the borough, invited? Where was the same information for everybody else?

That’s just one of the many aspects of school governance that make little sense and must stop. Recruitment is ad hoc and sometimes political, training can be appalling, support is patchy. I get the most useful information about how to do the job from my own searches online.

Paying some governors at struggling schools, as Sir Michael Wilshaw is suggesting, would make little if any difference to all that. It might even encourage involvement for the wrong reasons.

Would the paid ones have more authority – and thus more power – than the volunteers? And would everyone be eligible for payment – local councillors? Vicars? Parents? Or just the volunteers like me who believe we all have a stake in the education of this nation’s children and gain huge satisfaction from helping to improve their chances in life.

No. Let’s streamline governing bodies, make clear it’s a demanding role, recruit only those willing to put in the time and then train them and support them well.

That way there really will be “no excuses” for those few who don’t understand and challenge their schools as Sir Michael, with characteristic bluntness, suggests.

The world according to Gove

5448222857_143f7a8544It’s hard being a visionary. Just ask George W Bush.

You come up with a brilliant idea that you know will fix the world and what happens? Someone somewhere moans that it doesn’t fit the facts. Where’s the evidence, they demand, to support your plan?

That’s pretty much the position Michael Gove’s in these days. Barely a week goes by without a new reform springing from the Education Secretary’s planet-sized brain. The trouble is, outside his immediate circle, few can see the wisdom of his ingenious ways.

The latest wheeze is to turn A-levels into exams taken at the end of a two year course. There’ll be none of those wimpy modules along the way. And out go AS-levels as stepping-stones to the full qualification.

Mr Gove says the shake-up will drive up standards and better prepare kids for further study But few outside Goveworld agree. Nor was anyone calling for the change.

A knee-jerk “no” from the state school unions was perhaps to be expected. More of a surprise was the stinging criticism of the shake up from the independent (private) sector. A “classic case of fixing something that isn’t broken,” was how the head of one of their representative bodies put it. “Rushed and incoherent,” said another.

The UK’s top universities were equally unimpressed. A spokesman for Cambridge said AS-levels, taken after one year, had been a good indication of a student’s potential. So getting rid of them would “jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access” to the university.

It was a similar story when the education secretary decided to scrap GCSEs, the exams taken at 16. In their place there’s going to be an “English Baccalaureate” or EBacc. It’ll be built around core subjects which, to the horror of many of Britain’s leading cultural figures, don’t include music and the arts at all.

As with his “linear” A-levels intended to get rid of “bite-size learning,” Mr Gove’s EBacc vision is for a “rigorous” (almost certainly tedious) exam system of the type in which he once thrived. Nothing would make him happier than to see silent rows of furrowed-browed youngsters cheerlessly grinding out the facts.

But why? Universities don’t want it and it’s certainly not something businesses are demanding. They’ve been crying out for more vocational qualifications and a greater emphasis on “soft” skills like teamwork and good communications. Test-loving Mr Gove has no time for such touchy-feely nonsense.

Last month, the exams watchdog Ofqual wrote to the Education Secretary expressing its worries over the EBacc.  The new exam’s ambitions, its chief said, “may exceed what is realistically achievable.”

Mr Gove took no notice at all. He never does. On this occasion he told the Commons Education Select Committee that he would overrule Ofqual if necessary. “If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.”

Which brings me back to the comparison with President Bush.

In his outstanding 2004 analysis of the Bush administration, Ron Suskind of the New York Times describes a conversation with a Bush aide who had taken exception to Suskind’s journalism:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

And that is exactly what Michael Gove is doing. From dishing out free schools to the imposition of academies (about which the jury is still most definitely out) to inventing new exams and extolling the virtues of an educational era in which only the fittest survived, the Education Secretary is indeed creating his own reality.

Unfortunately, as with the Bush administration, it rarely bares any resemblance to the demands and constraints of real life.

 

 

 

But what about the kids?

England’s teachers are unhappy? Miss, Sir, join the crowd.

From the young unemployed, half of whom say they regularly feel depressed, to nurses suffering low morale in the NHS upheaval, not to mention the growing numbers of working families struggling to make ends meet, these are not happy times.

At least the teachers questioned in a National Union of Teachers survey of the profession have jobs – better than minimum wage ones at that.  So why should we care if,  like millions of others in these economically gloomy times, they’re finding their working lives tough?

Well, quite simply, because of the kids. They’ve barely had a mention in the press coverage – for which the NUT shares the blame. The word “children” appears only once in the first three and a half pages of their report. The message is mostly about that plunging morale, down by more than two thirds since this government came to power. (And there are the predictable complaints about pay and conditions).

But read on and you’ll see that teachers are not as selfish a bunch as the government and media sometimes make out.  Acutely aware of the link between income and attainment, they are desperately worried about the impact of public sector cuts on the families they have contact with every day. More than three quarters said austerity measures were having a negative impact on some or most of the children they teach.

Then there is the question of the great “freedom” the Government says it has given teachers, heads in particular, by cutting them loose from local government red tape.

It’s one of the main justifications for the rapid expansion of the Academy programme and for the introduction of Free Schools. Both were trumpeted again today in response to the NUT’s survey. The BBC quoted a Department for Education spokesman saying the government’s policies would raise standards by giving more power to head teachers.

“Our academy and free schools programme gives schools greater freedom so that more schools are run by great heads and teachers,” he said.

Teachers don’t agree. When asked if they thought the government was taking education in the right direction, 75% of those who work in Academies said no. And only a measly nine per cent of them thought they had more autonomy than before.

That’s not surprising really when one tries to work out who actually runs the multiplying Academies. It’s a complex business whose details are probably best saved for a separate post.

But here’s one explanation for why the professionals are unhappy. Most Academies have sponsors – individuals and companies, that in exchange for a bit of cash up front, get to run a school. The company, or its board or most powerful individual, calls the shots.

Take the American business Mosaica, now running primary schools in East Sussex. It says “each Academy will be distinctive in its own right”. But at the same time, all will use the company’s trade-marked humanities and social studies curriculum. It doesn’t look as if the head teacher, freed from local government control by Education Secretary Michael Gove, will have any power over that.

Then there’s the Academies Enterprise Trust which has also trade-marked its “Improve Framework.” It’s designed by the AET “to prepare all young people to become successful and world class learners.” Laudable aims indeed but where is the head teacher’s freedom in that?

I could go on. Every Academy sponsor has a “vision” even if they haven’t yet invented an educational “programme” and registered it as their own.  No wonder the teachers are a lot more suspicious about the freedom and independence they’ve allegedly been granted than the gung-ho Mr Gove.