Am I a blob?

Am I a blob, or at least an ally? Yesterday, Michael Gove wrote in his newspaper column that ‘we have given a majority of secondary schools academy status so they are free from the influence of The Blob’s allies in local government.’  By blobs’ he was referring to the 100 academics that wrote a letter to the independent newspaper last week opposing his reforms for the curriculum. So where do I stand?

At the start of my career in education I taught for seven years in Tottenham, and I know how challenging inner city schools can be. After all, I suffered being stabbed and having my nose broken in front of a class of pupils. I also taught the first pupil in my comprehensive school to win a place at Cambridge, and stage managed the first school group ever to win the adult Southgate Drama Festival. I also joined the profession as an untrained graduate, and this hampered my ability to teach effectively during my early years in the classroom.

I do agree with Michael Gove that unless children acquire the basics of literacy and numeracy they cannot progress to be effective citizens in a modern democracy. However, he is as much hidebound by ideology as those he castigates in his column. He allowed a Minister to compel intending teachers to be taught phonics as the only option during their training for teaching children to read while espousing the doctrine that a school should be free to teach as it sees fit. Overall, he doesn’t seem to pay enough attention to the primary sector where most of the work in helping to create a world class education system in England probably needs to be undertaken, especially with the pressures rising pupil numbers will bring to many of these schools.  

I have long felt that the present arrangement for training primary school teachers are not always fit for purpose, and the government’s reforms won’t help that much given we have somewhere around 20,000 new entrants to training; more than one for every primary school. Where I depart from Mr Gove is over where to draw the line between rote learning and acquisition of the essential vocabulary of any subject. I think children do need to internalise a basic knowledge of their tables for the same reason they internalise the knowledge of a basic collection of letter groupings. How they achieve that goal I am happy to leave to the professionals, providing that it doesn’t take too long, and every child without special needs can acquire the skill.  

I do, however, still believe in local democratic control of education and will resist a super-NHS model for schooling driven from Westminster. I also believe that universities have an essential role to play in preparing teachers, but that they have understated their contribution. I don’t know whether it has been mere modesty or a lack of awareness of brand marketing, but now they are largely free of  government funding they might take a lesson from Teach First’s hard sell approach to quality.

So does this make me an ally of the blobs? Well, it will do if I am elected to Oxfordshire County Council this May, even if I wouldn’t have signed the letter to the Independent had I been asked.  


Babies and budgets

In the week that the Chancellor delivered his 2013 budget the DfE published new projections for the size of the school population. The DfE now has some idea of what the school population is likely to look like into the early years of the next decade, taking us past the 2020 point for the first time. On present predictions, the birth rate is likely to peak in 2014, meaning that the total headcount of pupils aged less than 5 in maintained nursery and state-funded primary and secondary schools is projected to reach a peak of 1,086,000 million in 2019; a 14% increase since 2012.

In 2010, the number of pupils in primary schools began to increase as the birth rate upturn started to have an impact on schools. By 2016, there are projected to be 4,462,000 million pupils in state-funded primary schools, an increase of 9% from 2012. By 2021, the number is projected to increase to 4,808,000 million, 18% higher than in 2012, and a figure not seen since the early 1970s.

Secondary school pupil numbers aged up to and including 15 are projected to rise again from 2016 onwards. By 2018, they are likely to have recovered to 2012 levels. The total size of the secondary school population will depend upon where those extra young people remaining in education until eighteen after the leaving age is raised decide to continue their studies; many will no doubt opt for the further education sector as it offers a wider range of learning opportunities to that of many school sixth forms.

The education of all these extra pupils must be funded. Recent debates have been about school places, but soon it will switch to the additional costs of extra teachers and the other resources that will be required for their education. Assuming that the increase in primary school numbers will be around 700,000 by the end of the decade, such an increase will require an extra £2.1 billion per year, even if only £3,000 is spent on each new pupil. In practice, the average spend across England is nearer £4,500 per pupil, so that would mean more than £3 billion extra may be needed each year even before factoring in the regional differences in the growth in pupil numbers since the average spend per pupil is £1,000 higher in London than for England as a whole.

In the budget Red Book, the Chancellor estimated spending on Education as a whole would increase from £51.4 billion in 2012-13 to £53.8 billion in 2014-15, possibly more than might be required during that period to fund the extra primary pupils. But, don’t forget that there is general cost inflation to take into account; schools pay more for their energy bills just like the rest of us, and there is the salary bill to take into account. The one per cent increase on an average salary bill of say of £166 billion adds £166 million to the annual teaching wage bill, plus the net effect of salary progression for those teachers not yet at the top of their pay scales. Add the cost of support staff of around another £80 million, and the annual age bill increases annually by close to £250 million a year before any more staff are employed. If non-pay inflation is only 2% that can add a further £140 million to expenditure even in a mild winter, meaning close to half of the increase over the two years is absorbed in rising prices and wages. Add in the net effect of academies whose expenditure isn’t contained in most DfE figures and the margin for new spending on the extra pupils entering schools becomes even tighter.

This is one of those classic dilemmas where politicians at Westminster can happily say one thing about protecting spending on education while their activists at the grassroots level are experiencing a very different reality. In this case, protecting may not mean improving. It probably won’t protect expenditure per pupil while numbers are on the increase and that will be hard to understand at the school gates.

Personally, it seems like a time for humility. Education has done well compared with many other government departments in this age of austerity, but the increased demands on its services means that the benefit probably won’t be felt in many schools. There’s also a message here for the teacher unions, and their leaders, during this conference season: be realistic not dogmatic. 

Is Mr Gove a chauvinist?

I suspect that Mr Gove doesn’t much like the Human Rights Act, but until his speech yesterday I wasn’t aware of his lack of feeling for equal opportunities. Addressing 700 school leaders on what the DfE seemed to think was a speech about training schools, the Secretary of State indulged in a spot of ‘hero’ worship.  After praising those he has appointed to lead both the Training Agency and Ofsted, both men, he dug deep into his own education to select a Scottish philosopher from the Victorian era; a Roman emperor; and the obligatory Greek for classical balance, as heroes for his audience to learn from. Throughout the whole of his 24 minute oration that was more peroration that speech about training schools he didn’t explicitly mention a heroine at any point. But, perhaps that’s not entirely surprising since, apart from Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, women don’t feature largely in much of classical literature. No doubt his comment would be that the praise he heaped on his talented audience of school leaders, included those women who were present.

In speaking to his audience of freedom and innovation Mr Gove best resembled the Roman God Janus, offering freedom to schools, including freedom to fail, but castigating higher education for straight jacketing how we train teachers. He curiously forgot to mention that it was one of his former colleagues who required all trainee primary teachers to be taught phonics as the mechanism for learning to read; with their compliance rigorously enforced by frequent Ofsted inspections.  Mr Gove also seemed to forget that the Graduate Teacher Scheme he abolished in favour of School Direct required no university involvement, so perhaps he was offering to make a rather veiled –U- turn despite the House of Commons Select Committee last year making it clear training schools could benefit from links to universities. Here’s what they said on the subject:

13. We welcome the creation of Teaching Schools, and note that they will be expected to work with universities, which we strongly support: we believe that a diminution of universities’ role in teacher training could bring considerable demerits, and would caution against it. We have seen substantial evidence in favour of universities’ continuing role in ITT, and recommend that school-centred and employment-based providers continue to work closely with universities, just as universities should make real efforts to involve schools in the design and content of their own courses. The evidence has left us in little doubt that partnership between schools and universities is likely to provide the highest-quality initial teacher education, the content of which will involve significant school experience but include theoretical and research elements as well, as in the best systems internationally and in much provision here. (Paragraph 78) 

On School Direct, and the comments he made during his speech, it wasn’t clear where he obtained his numbers from, and how robust the data about applications to the programme actually are. What was clear is that either the DfE isn’t keeping their web site up to date or schools aren’t yet filling the places in the scheme despite little more than 14 weeks of schooling left to the end of the summer term. If they really need to fill 94% of Physics places in that time, then that is likely to be a challenge for some of them, especially as Teach First and higher education are also still recruiting.

Had he been speaking to a predominantly primary sector audience his lack of heroines might not have passed unchallenged. However, after praising the Chief inspector, Mr Gove must have been pleased to find an Ofsted press notice released a day later suitably critical of higher education and teacher training. The fact that it covered only four institutions training school teachers, all post-1992 universities, one of whom was linked with a school-based programme identified as outstanding, did seem to undermine the credibility of the announcement. Whether it was up to the standard of evidence acceptable to one of Mr Gove’s modern day heroes isn’t certain, but as an academic I would hesitate to make any sort of claims on such a small sample, especially when he inspector’s overall comments on the university programmes included the following remarks:

Liverpool Hope – Report issued 25th December 2012 (sic)

The partnership produces high-quality secondary school teachers, particularly in English and modern foreign languages. The majority of primary trainees become good or better teachers but the teaching skills of a minority require improvement

Bedford – Report issued 14th March 2013

The key strengths of the primary partnership are:

  • The good progress leaders have made since the last inspection in:

– removing previous weaknesses

– improving outcomes for trainees so they are now good

– setting the right priorities to improve training further.

  • The good quality mentoring in schools that:

– identifies well the progress trainees are making

– sets targets for trainees that is securing better outcomes for both trainees and the pupils they teach.

  • The good training in phonics and early reading and mathematics that is:

– identifying well where gaps or strengths in subject knowledge exist

– enabling trainees to teach these areas increasingly well.

  • The commitment of trainees to their chosen profession as demonstrated by their:

– high employment rates

– attention to meeting the different needs of pupils in their classes

– promotion of good behaviour and positive attitudes with the pupils they teach

– ability to reflect on their own teaching to being about improvement both to their own teaching and the learning of their pupils.

University of East London – Report issued January 2013

Key findings

The partnership is successful in supplying good teachers, from a diverse range of backgrounds, who demonstrate an unwavering commitment to raising standards and aspirations in the communities in which they work.

Trainees have good skills in facilitating a positive climate for learning and good behaviour and in ensuring that pupils and students make good progress in their lessons.

The teacher training team is skilled and experienced and provides very effective support for trainees, ensuring that they develop good practice as a result.

The recruitment and selection procedures are rigorous and effective in attracting trainees who become good teachers.

University of Cumbria – Report issued March 2013

Key findings January 2013

  • Schools and settings display strong commitment to the partnership and play a leading role in the training. This means trainees gain an effective range of experience which helps prepare them for teaching in schools.
  • Both primary and secondary trainees promote literacy very effectively. Primary trainees’ confidence and competence in teaching phonics (the linking of letters and the sounds they make) has improved. Secondary trainees promote accurate use of written and spoken language and focus on subject-specific vocabulary.
  • Trainees in both phases benefit from training that helps them promote good behaviour in pupils. Trainees understand the links between good behaviour and good learning.
  • Leaders in both phases have been successful in bringing about improvements that are reaping rewards in ensuring trainees are successfully prepared to teach.

Mr Gove may not like higher education’s involvement in training teachers, and here he follows in the path trodden by many of his predecessors, but this is hardly damming evidence from Ofsted. Now is the time for those who support the Select Committee in believing in the effectiveness of a partnership between schools and universities in training teachers to stand up and be counted.

Is School Direct working?

How much of a mess is teacher supply in at the moment? And are we heading for another teacher shortage? Might such a shortage pit Michael Gove against the Home Secretary in demanding more immigration to allow those teachers from America and the Commonwealth that he granted QTS last year and the ability to take up vacancies not filled by UK trained teachers?

There are certainly straws in the wind pointing to challenges that might be looming. A head contacting Canada to source teachers; concern from the media in Kent that the county is having difficulty recruiting enough teachers; a rise of around 16% in vacancies for secondary school teachers advertised during the first two months of 2013 when compared to 2012. These all point to, at the very least, a tightening of the labour market. Add to this the fact that I haven’t heard as many stories about last year’s crop of NQTs being reduced to stacking shelves in supermarkets because they couldn’t find work as teachers, and we have the situation were the pointer is certainly swinging away from ‘over supply’ and towards ‘in balance’, even if it has yet to cross into the ‘shortage’ zone.

For all these reasons it is vital that the 2013 training round works both efficiently and effectively. Data from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry that manages applications to graduate teacher preparation courses in universities shows that apart from Modern Languages many subjects are experiencing a lower level of applications in the current round compared with the same time last year. Some of this may be because would-be applicants have diverted to apply for the new School Direct scheme that not only replaced the former employment based schemes, such as the Graduate Teacher Programme, but also took some of the training numbers formerly allocated to universities in previous rounds. With more than half of the application period before courses start now passed, it is interesting to review how School Direct is faring?

For the purposes of this blog I reviewed the data provided on the DfE web site regarding the total number of places, and how many remained available at the middle of March in two subjects. Physics was chosen because it has traditionally been a ‘shortage’ subject, and even those not offered a salary can claim relatively generous bursaries. By contrast, history has not been regarded as a shortage subject, and those not on the salaried scheme may find little by way of financial support to help them through their training.

The results when I looked on the 15th March were that only 4% of the ‘salaried’ School Direct places for Physics were shown as ‘unavailable’, as were just 6% of the ‘non-salaried’ Physics ‘Training’ places. That’s a total of 29 places out of 572 on offer for Physics shown as ‘unavailable’, and presumably, therefore, filled. In history, the position was better, with a quarter of the 336 places shown as ‘unavailable’, and presumably filled.

Now it is too early to be sounding alarm bells but, with the Easter holiday fast approaching, schools probably won’t be holding many more interviews until sometime in April. By the end of that month there will be just four months before the new school year when the School Direct candidates will be expected to start their training. By now Teach First has usually closed its book to new applicants, but this year even that programme is still accepting applications in the sciences, mathematics, computer science/ICT and English.

Taken together, the fact that the three leading routes used for preparing teachers are finding this a challenging recruitment round means that the government must take notice, and, if necessary, action.

Now it may be that School Direct partners are just slow in notifying the DfE that they have accepted candidates. It may also be that they are used to recruiting teachers for September largely between March and May and don’t appreciate the fact that training places have generally been organised earlier in the year than that. Schools may also be expecting a higher standard from potential applicants than higher education has sometimes been able to demand. Whatever the reasons, we will not produce a world-class education system unless we have enough teachers.

Perhaps Mr Gove ought to send David Laws, his Minister of State, to open preliminary negotiations with Mrs May about visas for teachers in the future. He also needs to ensure that the Teaching Agency is managing the situation effectively. And with fees around the £9,000 level it may be time to review how we fund those who want to train as teachers before we reach crisis levels.

Planning School Places: More than just about the numbers

On Friday 15th March the National Audit Office issued what can be seen as a critical report about capital funding for primary school places in England

The media, as might be expected, latched on to the fact that 250,000 extra places will be needed by September 2014, with a further 400,000 required by 2018, rather than the more technical discussion about the manner in which places are funded, and the value for money associated with the process. The figures for pupil places required are not new, although the shortfall still remains too large, and until recently hasn’t been treated with any degree of urgency at Westminster.

More important than the numbers is what can be read into the Report about the two competing ideologies in British politics – on the one hand, the market as a mechanism for solving all problems; and on the other some form of state planning. The post-war period has been marked in many parts of the public sector by a shift from a planning-based approach to public policy to a more market-based approach. The current generation of think-tank and policy research probably don’t realise that in September 1939 when DORA was introduced overnight (Defence of the Realm Act), using the experiences gained during the first World War, Britain became one of the most controlled and planned societies in the world: today planning is a concept that often seems to have a bad name in public sector policy, especially in education. However, the NAO Report ought to mark a reappraisal if not a turning point in the debate.

In the private sector, future planning is an integral part of every successful business. Just consider the fate of either those retailers that didn’t plan for the effect of the internet on their customers or the train operators who have failed to cope with a record growth in passenger numbers. Without planning comes not just chaos, but also inefficiency and public disappointment that eventually can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction with politicians. Now of course, planning isn’t an exact science, and bad planning can result is poor outcomes for society. But, planning for school places ought to be a basic part of the management of our education service.

Part of the reason for the failure in dealing with provision for the current upswing in the birth rate is undoubtedly the breakdown of the arrangements for controlling schools that stared a quarter of a century ago with the Education Reform Act, and site-level  management of schools. When the Labour Government invented sponsored academies to take over failing schools they destroyed many of the remaining education planning frameworks without making clear what would replace them. With Westminster and Town Hall both either unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility, there has been a sense of drift and ‘passing the buck’ rather than of co-ordinated planning: hence the NAO’s concerns about both numbers and value for money.

One outcome will be that parents in many areas are now faced with Hobson’s choice over what school they can send their child to, and the notion of parental choice will become, like the red squirrel population, restricted to ever smaller areas of the country, at least for the next decade.

Those parents whose children are starting school in locations where selective education still divides children at eleven might also want to consider how their secondary school system will cope with the increased numbers, and whether a system designed in the Nineteenth century for the few fits the educational needs of the many in the Twenty First century, one where all students will be expected to remain in learning until they are eighteen, irrespective of parental income or status.

From my perspective, however we procure the school places, and that might be through a market based approach, the State has a duty to ensure all pupils have a school place available to them that is not an unreasonable distance away from their home and doesn’t demand they attend a school that has an ideology or teaching methodology objectionable to their parents. To fail in planning for this basic task, while still requiring parents to send children to school, if not educated elsewhere, under pain of the criminal law, is a basic failure of government that is unlikely to go unpunished at the ballot box; although whether the right tier of government will shoulder the blame only time will tell.

If the provision of school places isn’t at the top of Minister’s agendas at present then it ought to be. There may be more fun tasks, but concentrating on the basics must now be top of both Ministers and officials ‘to do’ lists. History will judge a Secretary of State harshly if he or she as steward of our state education system fails to provide enough school places during the next decade.

Good quality preparation equals good teachers equals good schools

The Lib Dems are discussing a motion at their spring conference on Saturday that recognises the need for trained teachers and for continuing professional development once in the profession. Although not called to speak in the debate here is a draft of what I would have said to the conference:

There was a report in The Times this week that trainee teachers were to be required to spend time in top independent schools. In doing so they may help the UK export industry, and would no doubt come into contact with the children of Tory voters, but let me tell you that they won’t learn anything about teaching they could not find out just as easily by working in state schools.

A glance at figures from Mr Cameron’s own Oxfordshire constituency show it is the less advantaged that our education system is failing in large numbers –  in one school in West Oxfordshire, according to Ofsted, only 13% of disadvantaged pupils made the expected progress in 2012.

By all means show new teachers how to stretch the children of the richest in society; but that’s not the problem we need to solve in most of our schools.

Trainees tell us they need better behaviour management skills; again, not an issue in most private schools – so that can’t be the reason for sending trainees there. Ministers, you should read the evidence from Ofsted before trying to reorganise teacher preparation programmes yet again.

This motion supports our teachers, and recognises that one silly scheme after another emanating from Sanctuary Buildings won’t improve teaching one iota. Last year, Mr Gove said teachers didn’t need training at all. That would put them on a par with MPs – who some might say are just a bunch of mostly amateurs fumbling around at law making. Ofsted wants training for governors, is that a more demanding role than teaching? I doubt it.

This motion recognises the value of our teachers and what needs to be done to make them even more effective in the future.

And I warn ministers that unless they sort out the funding for trainees there won’t be any new teachers to send into Eton, Rugby or Roedean. Those who attend such schools may be able to repay more than £70,000 in student loans, but those who teach them, and especially those who dedicate their lives to teaching our most challenging children, certainly cannot. We should push for equal funding for all who are prepared to train as teachers.

Finally, let me end by saying to the Secretary of State, ‘Saranoya’, although no doubt he would prefer it if I had said ‘Ave atque vale’.

Who is in charge of our schools?

A slightly amended version of this article appeared in the Oxford Times on 31st January 2013

Who is responsible for schools in Oxfordshire? This innocuous question reaches to the heart of the current debate about publicly funded schooling in England. Historically, there were three levels of responsibility: individual schools; local authorities, in our case Oxfordshire County Council; and the government at Westminster. Interestingly, this year, sees the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Education Reform Act. That legislation, by introducing local management of schools, started the process of delivering autonomy to individual schools while at the same time reserving power over the curriculum to the government at Westminster. During the following 25 years local authorities have steadily lost control of their local education service. New types of schools have been developed, ranging from Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges through the grant maintained schools of the 1990s to the more recent sponsored academies of the Labour government, and finally the new converter academies, free schools and university technology colleges all managed from Westminster.

Of course, a range of different bodies running schools is not a new concept. The major churches have been a part of the education landscape since compulsory elementary education was introduced in 1870, and more recently these schools have been joined by those from other faiths. What needs to be resolved now is the chain of responsibility and accountability for publicly funded schools, and whether, as I believe they should, elected local authorities still have a central place in the organisation of schooling?

Since the funding for schools is now largely determined at Westminster, with little room for local political discretion, as is when and where new schools may open, councils have been left with responsibilities, but often no funds or powers to implement them.

The rhetoric from Whitehall has been that chains of academies are the way forward. Local authorities are nowadays pale shadows of such chains, without many of the powers conferred on these private sector chains by the Labour government that invented them. One solution is that councils become just a watch dog, with questions about school performance solved by Whitehall mandarins. This might work for the secondary sector, but with more than 18,000 primary schools across England the chain of command between each school and Whitehall is just too long. Last summer the RSA suggested unelected School Commissioners, along the lines of the Police & Crime Commissioners. That is a possible solution, but it takes away democratic control from a key publicly funded institution, and would create a system for schooling more akin to the NHS.

While the debate about who is responsible for our schools remains unresolved, the present system, especially for the primary sector, risks heading towards a complete collapse. Already, professional development services for schools, effective planning of school places, admission arrangements, and provision of services to children with special educational needs are either under threat or have been severely curtailed.

There is a ray of hope locally in the way that both the County and Oxford City responded when I revealed in November 2011 that KS1 results in the City were the worst for any district council in England. But, it shouldn’t have been up to me to start that debate.

I support local democratic responsibility for schools, directly so for the publically funded primary sector, regardless of who actually operates the schools, and as a watchdog for both the secondary and further education sectors where performance can be the key to the success of local communities. However, what really matters is that the government takes swift action to deal with the present lack of a viable control structure for our school system.

Professor John Howson is the director of and holds a visiting professorship at Oxford Brookes University and a visiting senior research fellowship at Oxford University’s Department of Education and has lived in Oxford for more than 30 years. He is a lifelong Liberal Democrat, and Vice President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association. These are his personal views