Tag Archives: Schools

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.

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.

 

 

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 Playing Fields Myth

Find me the 2012 Olympic medallist who owes their sporting success to wet afternoons on an English school playing field and I’ll get worked up about selling off school playing fields.

The fact is, like so many stories from inside the Westminster village, the row over school sports fields is a red herring; great for political point scoring,  nothing to do with kids and sport. 

And even less to do with future Olympic triumph. 

Most of our Olympians came up through local clubs not schools. In track-side interviews, still breathless from their efforts, almost all pointed to the National Lottery and other public funds as key to their success.  Even hurdler Lawrence Clarke, heir to a baronetcy no less, only got serious about sport at university. School (Eton) he said, was of little help. The public money directed towards individuals like him, was.   

Double gold winning distance runner Mo Farah may have been spotted and encouraged by a school PE teacher but he ran on a public track. It is now apparently derelict.

And that is what we should be discussing: the need for investment in community sports facilities.

School fields are often many miles and long bus journeys away from the institutions they serve.  Much better to have a good gym and a hall that can be used whatever the weather.

The vast majority of school fields are closed outside school hours. Public facilities available to communities year round are of more use. The coaches and specialist staff that many of them host are more valuable than any PE teacher, however committed and skilled.

But even before the coalition took office in 2010 and began its massive spending cuts, the Daily Telegraph had started a campaign to halt the decline in community sports facilities. Since the budget-slashing spending review that followed the election, leisure centres – along with libraries and other “recreational” services – have felt the squeeze.  

Sport England, the body responsible for community sport saw its government grant slashed by 33% and its capital budget reduced by 40%.  All over the country, sports-related charities funded by local government have been axed.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary talk of wanting to change the culture in schools. There must be more competition they say, and an end to the leftie notion that everyone must have prizes.  That’ll make Olympians of us all.

It’s another red herring. Nobody in government has ever offered a shred of evidence to back their claims about prolific loser egalitarianism. A quick look at some of my local school websites confirms that competitive sports days with cups and trophies are very much in vogue, even in staunchly Labour Islington.  

The battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton. The battle for healthy, active children won’t be won on the soggy, expensive-to-maintain fields of our cash-strapped schools. Yes, they should have sports facilities. Yes, teachers must encourage sporting activity and identify those who excel.  But let’s fund grassroots community facilities and clubs with first-class trainers and talent spotters of the sort that led Mo and Jessica and all the others to Olympic gold.