Tag Archives: Ofsted

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.

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.

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.