Unionised, but not necessarily militant

Unionised, but not necessarily militant

A recent report for the DfE from the NfER about trade union activity among teachers in state funded schools in England found a high degree of membership of professional associations among the 1,600 teachers surveyed during November 2012, but a less active participation rate in the current round of work to rule by some of the associations. Teachers were members, but not at the current time necessarily militant ones.

Of the 1,305 classroom teachers in the survey, all but 3% were members of professional associations, as were the same percentage of the 300 school leaders surveyed. Two thirds of classroom teachers belonged to either the NUT or the NASUWT, with the former more dominant in the primary sector and the positions reversed in the secondary sector. That’s good news for the NUT who can probably expect their membership to grow as more primary teachers are recruited over the next few years in order to meet the growth in the school population.  At least the NASUWT can reflect that once the secondary school population increases later in the decade they may be well benefit more.

The most popular reason for joining a union was to have support if there was a problem at work. Seven out of ten teachers (72%) cited this as their main reason. The second and third most popular reasons were a belief in trade unions (11%) and the campaigning that unions do on issues that mattered to teachers (6%). These top three reasons were ranked the same across school phases and levels of seniority. That barely more than one in ten of respondents cited a belief in trade unions as their main reason for joining a trade union probably reflects the age we now live in. Despite the economic downturn, the position of unions in society isn’t what it was during the first half of the last century.

Two teaching unions (NUT and NASUWT) were instructing their members to ‘work to rule’ at the time of the survey in November 2012. Two-thirds of respondents belonged to the NUT and NASUWT, the two unions taking action. When asked whether they thought the current ‘work to rule’ was having an impact in their school, the majority of all respondents (60%) said that staff were not working to rule, and therefore there was no impact. Eight per cent said that teachers at their school were working to rule, but that it was not having an impact, and ten per cent were not sure if the working to rule at their school was having an impact. Thirteen per cent of respondents said they did not know if staff members were working to rule or not. Only nine per cent of all respondents overall said they thought that working to rule was having an impact at their school.

After several years of a pay freeze, and with union general secretaries telling their members at every opportunity that the government is cutting funding for education, classroom teachers don’t seem to have as much enthusiasm for militancy as their leaders would expect if this survey is accurate; and there is no reason to doubt the survey methods used by the NfER.

The curriculum for the primary (elementary) school

The primary school curriculum

Earlier this week I was asked what I thought should be the essence of the curriculum for the primary school? In one way, defining the early stages of the primary curriculum is an easy process. Moving from gross to ever finer motor skills, developing competence in reading, writing, speaking and listening; learning the basics of numeracy; acquiring the ability to socialise and work with others; an understanding of the need for physical effort related to health; a sense of time, space and identity within a democratic society; an understanding that there is more than one language, and how others communicate using different languages; the basics or art, music and other cultural activities;  science and its approach to the problems of the world; faith and reasoning; the developing technological environment and how it works. And above all, perhaps as sense of wonder, awe and a desire to achieve.

I am sure there is even more. The task for governments is, how much to define and how much to leave to professionals, but to still monitor the outcomes through the political process. As a society we are impoverished in the modern world if children are not literate, numerate, technologically aware and able to appreciate the consequences of living together in society that is complex and based upon many different ideas, ideologies and faiths.

Politicians, on behalf of the learners they fund through schooling and their parents, have a right to expect educators to teach children, using whatever methods are appropriate, providing they meet ethical and moral standards, and achieve expected outcomes, without undue interference. Educators have a right to expect politicians to provide adequate resources for them to achieve these goals.

Universities, government, and the private sector must all play a part in helping develop new approaches to the curriculum, and its delivery, and also in appropriate assessment and recording mechanisms that are not overburdening but do allow the effective measurement of progress to be recorded and effectively disseminated to both the learner and their parents.

Of course, the school is no longer the only source of learning, and never was, but the school must be capable of ensuring that the curriculum for the gifted and talented can stretch beyond the school gates to ensure interests and abilities are not restricted by the need to teach large groups of children. Schools must also ensure that those who have special needs are recognised and treated accordingly and in a manner that doesn’t hinder their learning.

Robert Fulghum probably summed the curriculum up best in 1986 when he wrote ‘All I really need to know I learnt in kindergarten‘. Some things we can learn at any time of life; others we need to know from an early age. 

Mr Gove and the Triple A rating

Mr Gove and the Triple A rating

Accident or design? That’s the question the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be asking the Secretary of State for Education about the £3 billion or so currently sitting in school’s bank accounts. A figure that has been steadily rising since the coalition came to power in 2010 with the promise that schools would largely protected from the current round of economic hardship facing the rest of the public sector.

Data published by the DfE earlier this year showed that by the end of the last financial year schools had reserves in excess of seven per cent of their annual revenue incomes. With a government fighting recession, and keen to find ways of spending more without raising taxes, urging schools to spend some the taxpayers cash held in their accounts might help unlock some local economic paralysis if the cash went to local projects employing local workers.

Not only might the effect of schools spending £500 million a year on job creation schemes across the country, targeted at the either the low paid and long-term unemployed or alternatively new graduates yet to find a job make good political sense, but it might also actually help the economy. However, Mr Gove has been strangely silent on this key issue of the moment, preferring to fiddle around with school structures and the curriculum which, whatever their value, are longer-term issues in the current economic crisis.

Ministers who are apparently not alert to the bigger picture in cabinet, and the contributions their department can make to solve it, either aren’t up to the job or want a quiet life. There is a third alternative; they recognise that economic failure might help their own career prospects. Now nobody would accuse Mr Gove of such a cynical approach to politics and he can claim to have limited authority over the primary sector, although with some many secondary schools now academies he has much more room for intervention with that group of schools.

Before the Labour Party starts calling for Mr Gove’s head over this issue, they will need to see what steps the local authorities controlled by them, and the many Labour Party members serving as school governors, have taken to challenge the strategy of local schools building up reserves for a rainy day. The recent Ofsted report on the pupil premium, and their earlier interim findings, should have alerted the DfE to this issue even if Mr Gove ignored the Statistical Bulletin when it appeared in his ministerial box.

Perhaps it is time for that the guardian of public expenditure, the Public Accounts Committee, to intervene. After all, its chairman isn’t exactly unfamiliar with education. It may also be time for David Laws to stamp his foot about school spending. After all, it won’t help the Lib Dems if all that pupil premium and catch-up cash they have secured for schools has just made its way straight into the school’s saving account. As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, albeit briefly, he cannot be blind to the financial figures that cross his desk and that of his even more economically literate adviser.

The inclination by schools to save is laudable, but surely if there was ever a time to for schools to spend, it is now.

An Education Quiz

A Quiz about education policy in England created for the Liberal Democrat Education Association’s Annual Conference in Nottingham – February 2012                              (answers can be supplied by email)

1. Name the Ministers solely in the DfE who left during the re-shuffle and those who replaced them?

(Bonus – which departing minister initially didn’t feature in the list of those leaving?)

2. Who led the recent RSA/Pearson Commission on Academies?

3. By how much do the DfE expect the primary school population to grow between 2011 and 2017?  500,000, 700,000 or 900,000?

4. Admissions to more than half the training places for new teachers of English will be outside the HE sector in 2013 – True or False?

5. How many non-academy schools have balances in excess of £1 million in March 2012

6. Excluding the City of London and the Isles of Scilly, name the smallest local authority with responsibility for schooling?

7. What celebrates its 25th anniversary this year?

8. Can a US teacher from Dakota obtain Qualified Teacher Status in England without any re-training?

9. In a 2011 survey, what percentage of primary school children walked to school? Was it 40%, 50% or 60%?

10. What percentage of teachers of ICT as it then was at the time of the 2011 Workforce Census didn’t have a post ‘A’ level qualification in the subject, and may not even have had an ‘A’ level.

11. What is the amount set for the Pupil Premium in 2013/14, and for the Service Children Premium?

12. Who said: Local Government has a massive and crucial role to play in delivering education.  It does now. It will in the future. I want us to stay closely in touch, for two reasons. Firstly, because I want to hear from you about any problems or issues at “ground level”, so that we can deal with these together. Secondly, because we need to work together if we are to secure the best outcomes for young people in this country. The Department isn’t able to deliver our ambitions without your support and participation.

13. And who said ‘How can it be that, despite all the promise on a four or five year old’s first day at school, despite the passion and dedication of their teachers, too often you can plot a child’s path just be asking how much their parents earn.’ and when?

14. How much will a teacher who borrowed £27,000 in fees for a degree and £9,000 in fees for a PGCE repay according to the DirectGov calculator?

15. Women classroom teachers in the primary sector earn more than their male colleagues? True or False?

16. Who is the current Chief Schools Adjudicator ?

17. What went from London to Manchester and then back to London, losing a letter return journey?

18. The current benchmark for KS2 English & Maths is 79%? True or false?

19. Last year was an anniversary year for Dickens – the bi-centenary of his birth – name his teacher in Our Mutual Friend?

20. Who is the Liberal Democrat on the Education Select Committee? And who did they replace?

Onward Christian Soldiers

Onward Christian Soldiers
John Howson

July 2012 was a significant month in the battle over who should run state-funded
schools. During the month that the Secretary of State announced another tranche
of new so-called ‘free’ schools under his 2010 Education Act arrangements and
there were three other potentially significant developments relating to schools.
In an apparent policy about turn the Methodist Church in England announced
during its annual Conference that it wanted to open new state-funded schools.
plans-to-build-schools-in-deprived-areas The new schools would be in
addition to the 65 across England and Wales it has run for many years,
sometimes alone, and sometimes jointly with the Church of England. With an
existing infrastructure, and rising primary school rolls, the Methodist Church
seems ideally placed to help the Government achieve its aim of dismantling the
local authority community school sector, especially as the Church has pledged to
focus on deprived inner-city areas rather than the mainly rural areas where many
of their existing primary schools are located.

At the same time that the Methodists meeting in Conference in Plymouth were
seeking to re-enter the schooling arena, and also strengthen their presence in
other sectors of education, the Labour Party were reported by the BBC as
endorsing the idea of a new chain of schools with a military ethos to be operated
by former members of the armed services, and presumably to be established
under the same 2010 legislation that the Methodist Church is seeking to exploit.

Seemingly, these schools would also serve deprived communities by embedding
military standards and ethos into these communities through these so-called
‘service schools’. What Methodist members of the Labour Party think of the idea
isn’t known. Bizarrely, at the same time, the proposed Phoenix Free School in
Oldham that was to be run entirely by ex-troops did not make it into the list of
102 new schools approved by the DfE in the July 2012 list.
school-rejected-by-department-of-education/ The apparent reason, that not
enough qualified teachers were to be recruited seems, on the face of it frankly
bizarre after Mr Gove allowed academies to employ individuals without QTS in
any teaching role, making his announcement just after parliament broke for its
summer recess.

Some of the proposals launched during July seemingly have the benefit of
recognising the need for schools to be backed by a strong organisation that can
manage oversight of the day to day operations, rather as democratically elected
local authorities once saw their responsibility. If the rejection of the Phoenix
proposal signals that stand-alone schools are less favoured than applications from
chains of schools then a new structure similar to that of the health service may be
set to emerge within the school system.

That the leaders of all three political parties with current or recent government
experience at Westminster seem determined to remove democratically elected
local authorities from any day to day involvement in schooling poses a dilemma
for many hard working councillors and other activists across the country
whichever of these three parties they support. Personally, I still favour the need
for a strong role for local authorities in schooling, and especially primary
schooling, an essentially locally delivered activity set within a national framework.

John Howson is Vice President of the LDEA. An earlier version of this piece appeared in his opinion column in Children’s Services Weekly. A collection of those pieces has been published as an ebook on Amazon under the title. Please miss. “Can pigs fly”?

At a price of less than £2 it can be bought at http://www.amazon.com/Please-Miss-can-pigsebook/dp/B008QBJZ4W/ref=sr_1_2_title_0_mains=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1343725980&sr=1-2


A review of education policy

A review of education policy

This article appeared in 2011 on the Lib Dem Voice web site and was based upon a speech I prepared as outgoing President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association to be delivered at their AGM in Sheffield
As we approach the end of the first year of coalition government it is worth assessing the balance sheet in respect of education. Can we as Liberal Democrats be pleased or dismayed at what has happened in education?

The two obvious big events provide contrasting pictures. On the one hand there has been the tuition fees shambles, and on the other, the Pupil Premium success. But, there has been much more to consider; new forms of academies; additional schools; changes to the ways schools are funded; abolition of EMAs; and of Quangos such as the GTCE and TDA; provision for deprived two year olds in education centres; expansion of Teach First and a new troops to teachers programme, all alongside a WhitePaper on schools and teachers, and an expected Green paper on SEN, and of course two Education Bills as well as the Wolf Review. Oh, and the name of the Department has been changed to bring back Education, dumping families and children from the title.

But above all there has been the ambivalence towards local democracy. To paraphrase George Orwell: private chain good; public chain bad. For, although local authorities may retain a monitoring role, but without necessarily the money to conduct it properly, a National School Service is quietly emerging, with Whitehall connecting directly to schools. Localism it may be, but not democratically elected localism. A national funding formula, administered by schools where the Secretary of State determines who will be able to be a governor, and whether or not new schools are needed, and who will operate them, seems more like a NHS model than a local school system.

A few years ago schooling was largely a local government function, and councils were free to decide the level of funding they would allocate. Some saw it as a priority service, and allocated more funds, whereas others allocated merely what was recommended. Now even local decisions about distribution of funds between age – groups are likely to disappear under any national formula. Schooling as a function will be little different to refuse collection; except that councils get to choose the contractor who collects their rubbish. They won’t even get to select who runs any new schools in their area, for the Secretary of State reserves this right to himself.

In Liverpool, at our conference, the Party expressed unease, or perhaps even downright opposition, to a centrally run model of schools. Has there been any attempt by the Party at Westminster to allay those fears or are our government ministers and LGA representatives happy to recognise we can do no more in coalition than in opposition to stop the move away from education as a local government function?

I am not sure how the Pupil Premium is playing out on the doorsteps. Telling middle class electors that their school won’t get any extra money because it’s going to the school serving the social housing estate down the road must be a difficult sell. But, so long as the final outcome is a notion of equality that sends funds where they are needed to achieve outcomes through raised standards we can no doubt live with doubts of a few voters.

The tuition fees debacle was another matter. It remains to see how deep our PR failure runs in the psyche of electors, and whether they want to punish us for what the media has described as a monumental -u- turn. And it may be that the Barnsley by-election gives us some idea, but not much given the non-campaign that the Party ran there.

I know there are many within the Party who cleave to the view that our policy is still ‘no tuition fees’ and we will go to the electorate on such a policy at the next election. But, can we really expect those electors between the ages of 18 and 35 who have paid fees to be sympathetic to such a policy? And how will we answer the 200,000 or so youngsters denied a place under the present system since, if we abolish tuition fees, we may not be able to fund as many places in higher education.

What we can point to is the fairer deal for part-time students, and the fact that fees no longer have to be paid up front. What we haven’t done is enough to secure scholarships for those less well off students who may end up in less well paid jobs.

Personally, I would have sought to persuade the bankers to spend a small fraction of their profits to fund a scholarship scheme for those first generation higher education students who would otherwise be deterred from going to university. This is a form not so much of Teach First, but rather of Educate First.

And to the NUS I would say, if your members in Liverpool Riverside, Oxford West and many other constituencies had voted Liberal Democrat in greater numbers, we would have been in a much stronger bargaining position in the debate over tuition fees.

Nevertheless, I am disappointed that £9,000 rather than £6,000 appears to be becoming the norm for fees. With demand outstripping supply, how will the price be forced down? I am even more concerned that by privatising all non STEM subject teaching the government has lost control over the type of courses on offer. How are we going to protect philosophy, Latin, and even perhaps music, without dumbing them down to attract more interest from students keen only on the financial rewards
of their degrees?

Finally, on the big picture, I think the FE sector has got a raw deal. Splitting education post 16 between two departments of state is a thoroughly bad idea and I see little or no sense in it. Either return all non-adult education to the DfE or put all post-14 education in BiS, but please do something sensible. Abolishing EMAs may have been inevitable, but we do need to ensure that pupils outside London, where youngsters receive free transport, are not disadvantaged. Free transport
plus free school meals is a powerful incentive to study the wrong course.

Our voice in the coalition may not be strong enough to reverse some of the Tory schemes for education, but we do now need to start planning for the next general election. The work of the LDEA governance group, led by Andrew Bridgewater, provides a good model for ordinary Party members’ involvement in policy debate outside the Federal Policy committee structure. We need more room for such debate unless our Party is to become no more than a mere replica of the other two behemoths whose leaderships have too often become detached from the views of their ordinary party members.

So, my assessment overall: the Pupil Premium and tuition fees probably cancel each other out in political terms, but the re-ordering of our school system taking place largely without debate or dissent has the real likelihood of changing the political landscape in a more fundamental manner than any event since local authorities lost control of their health services when the NHS was created.

A National School Service is now a real probability. Is this something we wish the coalition to be remembered for?

This article was originally the speech given by departing president of the Lib Dem Education Association, John Howson.

New curriculum not a threat but rather an opportunity

New curriculum not a threat but rather an opportunity

When I first saw that the humanities curriculum would feature a return to a hero and heroine approach to history, and a ‘capes and bays’ knowledge of geography my heart sank. Here was a return to Victorian values espoused by a Secretary of State anxious to enhance his credibility with the Tory right wing. However, his espousal of modern technology allows me to consider how the two might be put together to good effect. Take a lesson on the movers and shakers of British history. Half a century ago a teacher would have stood at the front of their classroom and lectured the class about whoever they thought was important, probably at the primary stage Alfred the Great, Nelson, Florence Nightingale and a few others where the tale to tell was inspiring enough to capture the attention of the class. As the school wouldn’t have a library, and the children’s section of pupil libraries were few and far apart, there was little alternative. Perhaps, some children would read comics or come from homes where books like Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia could be found that would have widened their knowledge, as would the daily newspaper that many households still read.

The first decade of this century provides a very different picture. If anything, it is one of information overload. As Mr Gove also wants debating and public speaking to be a part of schooling to improve self-confidence I can see a Key Stage 2 humanities programme following a programme something like this. Teacher: our topics this week is heroes and heroines. Firstly, how do we define what is meant by such a person. Then pick both a period on the timeline and a card from the pack containing terms like military, arts, invention, politics, religion, business, education, law and so on and go away and find someone who meets the criteria you have selected. Come back prepared to get the class to vote for your candidate, and to cross-examine everyone else on why you should vote for their candidate.

If some key candidates aren’t covered, the next lesson can be about testing those well known individuals against the ones selected in order to see who has stood the test of time, and more importantly why?

The same approach can work with geography. You can play a game of ‘fill in the blanks’ for rivers, mountains, volcanoes, countries, towns or whatever. I am sure that most schools used the Olympics to increase their pupils’ knowledge of the world, and how to find out about the other lands they see every day on their televisions. And that is the other great change from Mr Gove’s view of the world. School is not longer the only, and probably not the main, supplier of knowledge about history and geography to the modern generation.

However, we can all agree that access to knowledge remains the key to power, so the vital necessity of success in the early years is still paramount. Rather than worrying just about how England fares in PISA tables, and it should do better next time because of the better staffing of all schools with qualified teachers than when the tests were last collated, the aim should be to focus on under-performance against expectations, and to be ruthless in eradicating its causes.

All political parties pay lip service to the link between deprivation and under-achievement or even failure at schools. The real test is whether the coalition government can do something to break this cycle. The Pupil Premium is a good start, but success cannot be bought by money alone. Perhaps the text for this year’s Education Sunday might be the Parable of the Talents. Those heads and governing bodies who are just banking the money certainly need to be called to account.