Tag Archives: Education

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.

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.

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.