Tag Archives: Gove

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.