Category Archives: Education

Phailed School Policy?

Why is Education Secretary Michael Gove setting children up to fail?

His highly prescriptive, not to say idiosyncratic approach to what’s learned in schools (to be formally announced later this week) amounts to a random list of musts and shoulds that have little relevance to real children’s lives – nor to how they learn. Of course every effort should be made to get children reading fluently and, just as importantly, to enjoy reading and understand what they’ve read. How learning poetry by heart for classroom recitals (i.e. learning by rote) at the age of five helps is not at all clear. I’m curious too about the government-dictated list of spellings. Which minister or mandarin gets to choose the words?

Then there’s the new emphasis on phonics – learning the sounds of letters and letter combinations (brilliantly debunked by children’s author Michael Rosen in the Guardian). The first national tests for Year 1 children start next week.  Nonsense words will be included just to make sure the children have learned the strict phonics formula rather than any other way of reading and understanding real words. All this, says the Department for Education, is because Mr Gove is determined to make English teaching at primary schools “more rigorous”.  Which means, for many already struggling children, much harder to achieve.

I am not arguing against benchmarks, targets or even testing.  All of those have helped to improve standards in primary schools over the last 15 years (so has the substantial amount of money poured in by the Labour government  but that’s another story). But what about the children who, however hard the best teachers work, cannot make the grade?  They may be struggling for many reasons, poverty or a chaotic family life being amongst the most common. (Children formally classified as having Special Educational Needs (SEN) are much more likely to be eligible for free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation – than the average school population).  In primary schools, most of the kids with SEN take the same tests as the more able ones so what happens to them when they fail?

photo by George Rex

Well, given the wrong circumstances, the prospects aren’t good. One of the most shocking findings to emerge from research into last summer’s riots was that two thirds of the children who ended up in court had Special Educational Needs and on average missed almost one day of school a week.  As a report by the government’s Riots Communities and Victims Panel says, nobody believes that’s an excuse for criminal behaviour. But it does provide some explanation for it. Interestingly, the vast majority of rioters were under 24, the most tested and target-set generation we’ve ever seen (the first SATs tests were introduced in 1991). Also the generation that’s experienced the closure of hundreds of special schools and an emphasis on inclusion in the mainstream. “Most disturbing to us” says the Riot Panel report, “was a widespread feeling that some rioters had no hope and nothing to lose.” And it quotes one of its many interviewees as saying, “Some people get to 14 or 15 years old without ever being told they’re good at anything. They feel a sense of worthlessness.”

Good schools know how easy it is for less able children to be put off learning, and how failure affects self-esteem. Yes, they teach spelling and grammar (they’ve been using phonics as a tool for years), and get their students to read poetry and study art (I’ve heard six and seven year olds at an inner London primary school wax lyrical about Georgia O’Keefe). But they also structure lessons so that children can learn at varying paces. And most importantly, they’re changing the culture of learning to focus on achievement rather than ability and on the active participation of the child. It means re-thinking the language used in assessment, and encouraging children to work out what they find difficult and how they might tackle a tricky subject differently next time. Pupils have to talk more about their work (including to each other, thereby exercising those verbal and team work skills that employers say more children need) and teachers adjust lessons to allow children to come up with their own questions.

This type of approach is not an easy way out for teachers. It requires much more work with each individual child than supervising a test or handing out a list of required spellings. Not all schools are doing it well enough yet, but it is rooted in academic research and expert practice. Which is more than you can say for most of the instructions issued by Michael Gove. The Secretary of State for Education says he’s passionately committed to helping disadvantaged children maximise their potential. It would help if he didn’t make those kids who struggle with school feel like failures from the start.


The not-so-Big Society

Who’s in charge of Britain these days? I don’t mean who’s in power, or who has the most MPs. I mean who is looking at the country’s complex economic and social problems and saying, “Here’s how we’re going to fix this.”

A few years ago, under Labour, the answer would have been, “The State, that’s who”.  And had a Labour government – once flush with cash – concentrated on the things the state does well, like providing good schools, health care and affordable homes, “government” might not have become a dirty word. But they couldn’t stop themselves. From ID cards to the DNA data base and an obsession with centrally mandated targets and red-tape, New Labour blew it, creating first the nanny, then the bully state and earning central control a bad name along the way.     

What then to replace it with?  The Tories agonised throughout their wilderness years, trying on new mantras like Ascot hats. Then in came Compassionate Conservatism . As defined by leading Tory thinker, now MP Jesse Norman, it’s a conservatism which “acknowledges the power of the state but insists on its limitations”. The Big Society was David Cameron’s riff on the same theme, a concept so vague it’s been relaunched at least 3 times.

In reality what we’re getting is an increasingly fragmented state. Not a Big Society so much as an atomised one. It’s not that power and responsibility have been de-centralised so much as they’ve been allowed to drift quietly away. Overall public spending cuts are decided in Whitehall but the dirty work, where to cut and how deep, is passed on to others. Take local authorities: bribed by the government to freeze council taxes, most have run out of cash. Now they’re abandoning some services completely, while scaling others back and handing them over to the charitable sector to do on the cheap.  

Camden for example has the full range of social and economic problems you’d expect in an inner London borough. But due to the budget crisis, it’s scrapping universal access to breakfast and after-school clubs, and to holiday play schemes. Some will close completely. Others will be run by “community providers” (charities) who’ll offer “a service for those children who most need help” (those already being helped by social services) and a few subsidised places for children of the working poor. It won’t be many,  for it can’t be – the charities are doing this for a measly one third of what the council used to spend on kids. What’s the result likely to be? According to a study Camden commissioned last year from the Daycare Trust, 95% of parents who use the play service are working or studying.  Paying more for childcare or not being able to access it, “is likely to push some lower income families out of the labour market and into poverty.” 

Of course, everyone has their axe-swinging budget tale of woe. But how does cutting any service for children sit with this government’s avowed aims of improving social mobility and educational achievement? Children from poor backgrounds do significantly worse in school than their peers from better off homes.   Children who do badly at school don’t get jobs – and so on. Surely it would be impossible to even contemplate cuts that reduce a child’s chances of future success if somebody were actually in charge?

And what about the charities the Tories want to hand responsibility to?  Which ones, and coordinated by who? There are literally thousands of them (a quick Google of those for disabled children alone brings up 235). To whom should they offer their services? To local authorities certainly, but their powers are diminishing – especially when it comes to schools. First academies, now free schools have spun off into isolated little worlds.  Michael Gove doesn’t really want local authorities to have any substantial role. All schools now have more control over their own budgets, but at the same time they have to buy in many more of the services once provided by the councils – and they have to do it on their own.  

And so it goes on. Take health, where thanks to recent reforms, different private companies will provide services in different counties. First up, NHS children’s services in Devon. Virgin and Serco are bidding for that contract. Look out for a hospital near you being handed over to companies that transport prisoners and run trains. As for who’s in charge –the architect of the reforms, Andrew Lansley, tried his best to make sure it wouldn’t be him. The original health reform bill removed the duty of the Secretary of State to provide health services at all, allowing the government to sidestep blame for any failings in the NHS. After an outcry (and pressure from the Lib Dems) that was scrapped, but the thinking behind it illustrates this new Tory laissez-faire gone wild. 

Thus the Big Society takes shape. Fragmented, chaotic, everyone scrabbling for their place while the state sits back, shunning responsibility and dodging the blame. This is not an argument in favour of Labour’s control freakery or against private and 3rd sector involvement in public services.  But someone needs to join the dots and come up with a plan that isn’t just about tackling the debt and which builds rather than destroys. That’s what government is for.

Come to think of it, that suggests an anti-Tory slogan for Labour at the next election: “Why vote for a government that doesn’t believe in government at all?”

Posh Lunch: Social graces for social mobility

The excited Year 3 children began by introducing themselves to each other. They’d already changed out of their school uniforms and into their very best clothes. Maisie had a brand new dress, there was discussion about Joe’s shirt and speculation about his shoes. Everyone agreed they looked good enough for Posh Lunch.

Posh Lunch is a Friday ritual at South Malling primary school in Lewes. Every week the meals supervisors choose four children who’ve behaved particularly well at lunchtime. Each child then invites a friend and the eight of them join head teacher Joanna O’Donoghue at a specially laid table in the dining hall. There’s a white table cloth and a big jar of freshly cut  flowers. The children either fetch a school dinner or place their packed lunches on their plates. Then Mrs O’Donoghue helps them with the unfamiliar paper napkins and the meal begins.

“It started as a reward for good manners, to encourage the children to be respectful to the adults serving them” says the head teacher. Her school in East Sussex, a couple of hours south of London has levels of deprivation – as measured by the numbers on Free School Meals – that are pretty much in line with the national average. Over the two years it’s been running, Posh Lunch has evolved. Now Mrs O’Donoghue says, “It’s a model for sitting and sharing a meal with other people”.

For many children that’s an entirely new experience. They love it and, not to make a meal of it, Posh Lunch has a lot of  value beyond encouraging good behaviour in the school.

The world of work is changing as the UK moves from manufacturing to service sector jobs. As the report on youth unemployment published this week by the Work Foundation says, that transition means “soft skills” such as communication or being able to work in a team are increasingly important when it comes to getting a job – and today’s school leavers just don’t have those skills.

 A similar conclusion was reached by some of Britain’s major employers in a survey earlier this year. Yes, businesses felt young people entering the work force could do with better English and Maths. But when asked what newcomers lacked most, 41% said “interpersonal skills”.  An absence of “respect for authority” was another big area of concern.

I’ll admit, you’re not going to sort that out over one Posh Lunch – but it’s a start. The children responded politely when Mrs O’Donoghue engaged them in small talk about weekend plans.  They also had important questions of their own. Why does the Queen cut her sandwiches into little triangles prompted a lively debate – and a resolution to Google the answer after the meal. I couldn’t quite follow all the twists in the tale of Poppy’s dog nor of why Maisie’s mum wanted to call her brother Claire though I did get that Elijah doesn’t like apricots. But that’s not the point. These 7 and 8 year-olds were talking confidently and comfortably with adults (including a complete stranger) in a relatively formal gathering.   

That I should praise good conversation around the dinner table is not just a reflection of my own middle class upbringing where such meals were routine – and it may not be to everyone’s taste. But Posh Lunch does provide children with a useful tool. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said in a speech on Social Mobility this week that we “need to ensure that our school system as a whole promotes fairness and mobility”.  He was talking mostly about upping academic achievement which is of course any school’s main aim.  But social graces also promote mobility. And a sense of fairness, not snobbery means we should share those skills too.  

Posh Lunch ended with each child finishing in their own time and asking Mrs O’Donoghue if they could leave. She reminded them to come back and say goodbye to anyone still eating once they’d cleared their plates, and then they were off, out into the sunshine with one final treat: They got to stay in their posh clothes for the rest of the school day.

 (By the way, where are my manners? I should have introduced Mrs O’Donoghue. She’s my sister)

Ofsted and the teaching unions: The kids deserve a truce

Why can’t teachers and school inspectors play nicely together?

In theory they share the same goal: The best possible education for all children in England and Wales. In practice, they’ve been descending into the kind of name calling that should get them sent to the head teacher’s office for a stern telling off.  

The Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw frequently implies that our schools are full of bad teachers and malign heads intent on thwarting children’s progress.

The teaching unions accuse him of bullyboy tactics and say his rhetoric is creating a climate of fear in schools. And the press happily reports the ruckus. “Schools face talent drain as teachers’ morale dives” says the latest Observer front page headline.   

You can see why. Shortly after his appointment as head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw called for improvements saying “we have tolerated mediocrity for far too long – it has settled into the system”. Some schools judged Outstanding would have their status reviewed and all inspections would be unannounced.  Sir Michael also said about a quarter of head teachers were underperforming. That’s one way of interpreting Ofsted’s gradings but if he had wanted to make friends he could have said that more than 75% are judged Good or Outstanding.

But Sir Michael isn’t out to make friends. He’s kept up the onslaught telling a conference just last week that head teachers “too often make excuses for poor performance”. He added that they didn’t know the meaning of the word stress.  

It’s not surprising teachers and their representatives haven’t exactly warmed to Sir Michael, a former head himself. But more importantly, he’s fuelling an already destructive relationship between government and the teaching profession which does nothing at all to help improve schools.

That is after all the point: To improve the quality of teaching and learning for all children. It’s laudable – it’s vital – and if he dropped the insults for a moment and talked to head teachers as professionals, Sir Michael might be surprised to find the majority of them are just as keen on rigorous standards and good teaching as he is.

The question then is how to get there. Well, we could do worse than consider suggestions published late last month by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education. It concludes that good teaching is the key to good education and considers ways to attract and retain the very best. The bit that made the headlines was, unsurprisingly, the suggestion that good teachers should be rewarded with better pay than weak ones.

Reported (wrongly for the most part) as a proposal to pay teachers according to results (which would be unfair) the response was a cry of horror from the main teaching unions and much of the press. “Payment by results is total nonsense,” said Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, “Children are not tins of beans and schools are not factory production lines”.

Nobody said they were.

What the committee actually recommends is that the Department for Education “develop proposals (based on consultation and a close study of systems abroad) for a pay system which rewards those teachers who add the greatest value to pupil performance.”

The notion of added value is tricky because it’s hard to agree on how to measure it. But the idea is to look at school results in context. That way, pupils from deprived backgrounds or those with Special Educational Needs can be assessed as having achieved if they make good progress, even if they don’t attain the required SATS level or other formal test results.

And what’s wrong with rewarding the teachers who through skill and hard work bring about that achievement? As long as the assessment criteria are fair and the judgments transparent then why shouldn’t teachers get the kind of financial rewards and incentives that most of us expect when we perform well at work?

Surely that would enhance the professional status that most teachers rightly crave.  It’s what many heads want but are too frightened to say out loud. They’re the ones who know how well their staff perform, and they’d love a more effective system for offering incentives to hang on to the good ones while easing the really bad ones out.

 So maybe it’s time for a deal. Sir Michael, stop referring to teachers, particularly heads, with contempt. Talk to them, you’ll find many have the passion and ideas that drive success.  Teaching unions, get real and recognise that along with the respected professional status you want (and deserve) must come rigorous evaluation and acceptance that bad practice must be dealt with quickly.   

Now, no more fighting. Go and play nicely or some children could get hurt.