No mandatory metal detectors in school

Those who read my piece yesterday, offering condolences to those in Leeds affected by the fatal stabbing of Ann Maguire, will know that nearly 40 years ago I was lucky to survive a similar stabbing when teaching a Year 11 class. Some ten years ago, after the Philip Lawrence murder took place, I wrote in detail about my feelings and recollections of that day for a piece in the TES. I did not believe then that turning schools into fortresses was the right response, and I still don’t take that view.

In 2002, on a visit to schools in New York, I came across a high school where there had been a murder the previous day after one pupil had shot another. The school had a full suite of metal detectors, and searched every pupil’s bag on entry. The gun was passed in through a ground floor classroom window; where there is a will, there is a way.

Response must be proportional to risk. Just as the underground in London functions without searches of its millions of daily users despite the July bombings, so schools that didn’t need metal detectors yesterday, almost certainly don’t need them today. Detectors deal with the symptoms and not the causes of violence. As a civilised society we have rightly made it more difficult for young people to be sent to prison. Do we want to reverse that trend and admit defeat? Surely we have to find a way of including all our young people in society.

Although I oppose metal detectors in schools as a general rule, it doesn’t mean I oppose discipline in schools. The recent TV series on schools have shown the levels of indiscipline, and low level disruption, that can occur in schools, especially where too many inexperienced or untrained staff are employed. But, it is wrong to think back to some sort of golden age. Under the tripartite system children of many middle class parents were sheltered from the behaviour of pupils in some of the most challenging secondary modern schools. Novels, from Edward Blishen’s Roaring Boys, through Please Sir, and the US Blackboard Jungle, brought a knowledge of how tough schools could be to everyone, but non-selective secondary education really forced society to consider the issues of school life in reality, while Graham Green’s Brighton Rock and other novels showed violence in the wider society, just as TV brought the Teddy Boys and Mods and Rocker clashes to our screens during news and current affairs programmes from the 1950s onwards.

I am pleased at the proportionate response to the Leeds tragedy from many within education. No doubt we will learn far more when there is a trial at some point in the future.


The news of the stabbing to death of a teacher in Leeds is both truly shocking and saddening at the same time. Fortunately, such deaths in schools are rare in the United Kingdom, and it is no small irony that this fatality happened in a Roman Catholic school in a challenging area just as the death nearly 20 years ago of head teacher Philip Lawrence did in north Westminster. We may live in a post-Christian society, but the Churches still offer education in many of the more disadvantaged areas of our country.

My thoughts and condolences are with the family and friends of the teacher, as well as the pupils and those that work at the school, and the wider local community. Nearly 40 years ago, I was the victim of a classroom stabbing by an intruder that could in different circumstances have ended in a fatality. As a result, I can understand something of the grief such an unexpected event give rise to. Fortunately, unlike in my day, there will no doubt be extensive counselling offered to all concerned. I don’t know the circumstances of this stabbing, except that the news bulletin says that it was a female teacher in her 60s who presumably had been at the school for some time. More will no doubt come out over the next few days and then at the subsequent trial.

The Court of Appeal has recently taken a tough stand on the carrying of knives, and rightly so if we are to reduce the incidence of violence still further in society. But, despite all the draconian laws it is impossible to entirely prevent attacks where there is a will to do violence to another.

Finally, perhaps the Secretary of State might consider a memorial in the new offices for the DfE after they move to Whitehall in 2017 that recognises the sacrifice of the small band of teachers that have given their lives to their profession. There may not be many of them, but they deserve not to be forgotten.

Leaders to pick the qualities needed of their successors

The Prime Minister may consider England a Christian country, but one wonders whether his Education Secretary, of Scottish heritage, agrees with his leader on this point. His recent announcement of a review of leadership standards for head teachers, a term now generally concatenated in to a single word, is singularly light on expertise in leading faith run primary schools; Christian or otherwise, despite their importance to the school system. But then the review group also lacks any obvious member from higher education, despite the work of staff at the London Institute, Cambridge university, and Roehampton University, to mention but a few of the many universities that have worked in this area for many years. Presumably, the government places higher value on practitioners rather than on thinkers and researchers, especially in the education field. Even Roy Blatchford, a member of the group and possibly a key adviser to David Laws, even though he isn’t known to be a Liberal Democrat, was a former head teacher.

At least the special school sector is represented on the group, but it is questionable why, if this complex sector needs but one representative, the more straightforward tasks of running primary and secondary schools need so many more leaders to discuss the standards required of their successors. Fortunately, the token governor comes from a community school to balance the three representative from academies, whether convertor of as part of chains. The apparent omission of anyone from a free school or the new breed of 14-18 technical schools may mean that the debate is not as wide ranging as it perhaps ought to be, but we shall see.

How radical the group will be at this end of a parliament when, unless their suggestions can be introduced by ministerial fiat, there won’t be time for legislation to alter existing rules will be interesting. Will they stray into territory more appropriately the ground of the School Teachers’ Review Body, currently in search of a new Chair following the current incumbents move to another Quango after just two years in office.

One area that really does need review is the nature and purpose of Executive Heads, and where headship ceases and a different sort of leadership takes over. The Americans have this line delineated between Principals and Superintendants, and historically here it was between heads and Education Officers. But, with many heads now earning more than Directors of Children’s Services despite many fewer responsibilities the present system is clearly in need of an overhaul.

At least the gender balance of the review group has been weighted in the right direction, although one might have welcomed the presence of a middle leader juggling a young family and a career to be able to talk about current pressures on career development, especially for late entrants to the profession.

After the abolition of the mandatory NPQH the group might start by asking the Secretary of State whether he actually believes in national standards of performance assessment and recruitment, and if so whether that is for all qualified staff or just leaders of schools, however defined. Headship is not a task for the faint hearted, and the group might ponder what might make recruitment, especially in primary schools, easier than it traditionally has been. However, without an obvious Roman Catholic on the group, it is doubtful whether they will reach a helpful answer.

Why all schools must be good

For some parents this Easter will be a time for celebration as the results of ‘destiny day’ – the day when children starting formal schooling were told which school they will be attending in September – is celebrated. For other parents, whose children have been assigned their second or third choice of school; or in some cases none of those they asked for, the mood will be no doubt be more downbeat. I can sympathise. As I have mentioned before, in 1952 my brother and I failed to secure places at the first choice school identified by our parents, a small one form entry Church of England primary school, and instead went to a four form entry infant school that was admittedly nearer to where we lived.

So, parents of children born in years when the population is growing in an area are always going to struggle to secure a place at the school of their choice, especially as it doesn’t make good sense to have too many places standing empty when they are not needed, even though a reservoir of places to cope with peaks in demand is sensible.

What may worry parents more these days is if the expansion of places to meet growing demand isn’t always in the best performing schools. Now I am aware that Ofsted judgements are moveable feasts; and school can and do improve, as well as in some cases perform less well over time. Also, some new schools haven’t even been inspected by Ofsted. However, the DfE has recently published a Basic Need Scorecard with interesting data about the distribution and cost of new places in each local authority.

Some 25 local authorities were coded red in the DfE dashboard as the percentage of new places in school deemed ‘good’ or better by Ofsted up to 2103 was seen as concerning. Many of the authorities in the code red group were small unitary of other urban authorities. Interestingly, only three were London boroughs where the most noise about this issue seems to be generated in the press. Only one authority, Westminster, was an inner London borough. By contrast, there were eight shire counties in the group, ranging from Shropshire to Essex, and from North Yorkshire to Wiltshire. I suspect that if we were able to find the individual schools in these counties where places been increased, even though Ofsted was less then complimentary about aspects of the school, we would find them concentrated in the market towns and larger settlements within the counties rather than in the more rural areas. Answering that question might make an interesting research study for someone to conduct.

When the report on the admissions process is compiled by the Adjudicator, it will be interesting to see whether any other authorities than Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, raise concerns about academies not being willing to cooperate over placing pupils even where they have spare capacity. It would be a real irony if choice, meant choice by school as to how many pupils to take, but also an outcome resulting in more cost to rural authorities in additional school transport expenditure because some schools weren’t willing to help accommodate the growing number of pupils.

Even in a coalition Ministers are Party politicians

The good news from David Laws at the ATL Conference this week was that the Lib Dems back the need for qualified teachers in all state funded schools, unlike their Tory coalition partners. How far they are prepared to support the principle as a Party, as opposed to a Conference where delegates voted for a wide-ranging motion on the subject in the spring of 2103, only the Manifesto will reveal, but it would be helpful to see a return to at least the 2005 position of the need for appropriate preparation to teach that included subject knowledge plus pedagogy for all teachers, with a more restricted permanent licence to teach than the present un-restricted QTS that in practice is little different to sanctioning the use of under-qualified if not un-qualified teachers without letting on to parents what is allowed.

Now it is becoming more of a challenge to recruit new entrants into the teaching profession, it does seem sensible to keep track of what is actually happening post-training. We won’t achieve a world-class schooling system by letting some schools return to a position where they have insufficient trained staff. Personally, I hope that someone somewhere at either the DfE or the National College is asking the unthinkable questions about supply, and how the newly diversified system would respond to a severe shortage. One scenario that has already arisen in Oxfordshire is that of academies with spare capacity refusing to take local children, and putting the local authority in the position of having to find other places for them, even if that means paying for unnecessary transport. If schools felt they might not recruit staff, as academies they might trim their admission numbers even though it caused extra expenditure for others.

David Laws also told the ATL Conference he wanted stability in the system after the next general election. Personally, I want predictability ahead of stability. Michael Gove is increasingly looking like his Labour predecessors of the 1960s who wanted a universal comprehensive system for all, but failed to impose their will on local authorities, leaving a legacy of secondary education that was little more than a geographical lottery when it came to the type of school system. There was some explanation then for the reticence of the Labour government in that schooling was seen more as a local responsibility. There is no such excuse in the new nationalised world of schooling in the Labour/coalition era of the last decade. At least make all secondary schools academies, so that parents know the rules they will play by, even if the rules are set in Westminster. A failure to take this action will leave a legacy of school organisation that is different across the country, and also with local government still struggling to know its role in education. The position of the primary sector is more complicated, and there is a need for the faith communities to engage more in the debate since they manage a significant proportion of primary schools, especially in the rural areas. Are they happy to see power transfer to Whitehall from the local town or county hall?

Sufficient teachers, of the right type and quality in a school system that is sound in organisation seems like a good recipe for moving the education system forward, especially if some of the more idiotic curriculum changes are also addressed.

And now for some good news

Not everything in the education world is going in the wrong direction. There are some nuggets within the 2013 School Workforce survey that tell of improvements over time. One of these is the percentage of qualified teachers with a relevant post ‘A’ level qualification teaching various subjects. The School Workforce Census contains a Table (Table 13 this year) that identifies the percentage of hours taught in a subject by the highest qualification of those teaching the subject. In many subjects, the percentage of hours taught by those with no relevant post ‘A’ level qualification declined between 2012 and 2013. For instance, in Mathematics, the 2012 census recorded 17.9% of 478,200 hours taught hours taken by teachers with no relevant post ‘A’ level qualification. In the 2013 census the total was down to 17.3% of 487,600 hours. This represented a very small gain of 150 hours taught by qualified staff. In fact, the number of hours taught by those with the highest qualification of a degree and normally QTS increased by a far greater amount. The challenge will be to continue this increase once school rolls start increasing again, and if policy dictates more mathematics is taught to the 16-18 age-group.

It is really it was only in some of the languages where the trend in the use of fully qualified teachers has been going in the wrong direction. This may be partly due to the mix of linguists a school employs at any one time, as even a change of head of department can affect the balance of language teaching hours available within a department.

In English, Mathematics, and most of the Sciences, the total number of hours the subject was taught across years 7-13 increased between 2012 and 2013. Among the Languages group of subjects, German lost ground, although other languages increased their total hours. There was some decline in the hours of design & technology. However, the main losers were subjects such as Religious Education, music, drama, art and design and media studies. If these declines continue no doubt they will eventually be reflected in the number of training posts seen as required by the Teacher Supply Model. However, hours taught is but one element of that model and since many of these subjects are aggregated into a single conglomerate ‘subject’ for the purpose of the modelling these days it isn’t clear what the overall effect would be as the decline in hours in some subjects might be counter-balanced by the increase in other creating an unhelpful average outcome.

Still, with so much gloom around it is helpful to see some improvement in the percentage of qualified teachers even if there is a risk that it will be short-lived as school rolls start to increase again and under-recruitment to training will mean fewer highly qualified trainees available for employment in 2014. Sadly, the overall tables tell us nothing about the distribution of teachers between different types of schools and across the country.

Physics still a major concern

Just how bad is the situation in Physics this year when it comes to applications for teacher training?Before answering that question it is worth recalling the situation in the spring of last year.  During March last year I reported on this blog that on the 15th March 2013 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 was a total of 29 places out of 572 on offer for Physics shown as ‘unavailable’, and presumably, therefore, filled in March 2013.

I thought that I would have a go at repeating the exercise this year. The unified UCAS application system makes tracking less of a challenge than the DfE system in use last year, and with a bit of cross-checking against the NCTL allocations list that appeared recently, I think I have been able to make a fair stab at the position as of 11th April, some three weeks later than last year, and without the interference of Easter.

The NCTL identified some 263 salaried and 587 tuition places available for Physics 2014 through School Direct according to the allocations spreadsheet I have used. There were also no doubt some places for Physics and Mathematics, but I have ignored those for this exercise. Allowing for some anomalies between UCAS and NCTL regarding tuition fee and salaried routes, my estimates suggest no more than 10 of the 263 Salaried places are current ‘unavailable’ – some 3.8% compared with 4% last year at a date three weeks previously. Similarly, the tuition fee route appears to have some 31 places ‘unavailable’ out of 587 – some 5.28% – compared with 6% in last year’s analysis for March. However, 13 of the 31 places ‘unavailable’ are located in just two schools, one of which has been showing ‘no vacancies’ for some time. It would be helpful if both Whitmore High School in London and Sandringham School in St Albans could share with others how they have been so successful in attracting trainee Physics teachers. But, at least the overall numbers recruited to date are slightly higher than last year, even if the percentages are similar because of the extra places available through School Direct, albeit the total is just 38 this year compared with 29 at a point three weeks earlier in 2013. However, thanks to a Rumsfeldian ‘known unknown’ there are a 100 or so Salaried places, and slightly more than 300 tuition fee places that might have been filed in schools awarded more than one place. Any of these places filled cannot be distinguished from the figures this year.

In view of the fact that overall the UCAS data showed that 26% of the Teacher Supply Model figure of 853 trainees (the level of suggested need) were shown as ‘under offer’ of one sort or another on 17th March it would seem likely that higher education and SCITT providers have achieved higher rates of filled places in Physics  in the current recruitment round when compared with School Direct unless the there are lots of filled places in the ‘known unknown’ schools with more than one place on offer. If it is the case that higher education and SCITT have filled a greater proportion of their places so far, and the situation does not change by the end of the recruitment round, then it must reopen the debate about the usefulness of a training model that fails to fill places available.

Now the issue, as it was last year, may well be around what is the acceptable quality of a trainee? Pitch the standard  too high, and there won’t be enough trainees, and next year some schools won’t be able to recruit a Physics teacher – assuming the TSM calculations are anywhere near correct. Pitch the standard too low, and the quality of new teachers won’t be good enough.

To my mind this is an issue where government needs to provide a clear steer to the sector so that when Ofsted calls everyone can be judged by the same standards. Otherwise, the advice to higher education must be: play safe and don’t take a candidate you think a school wouldn’t offer a School Direct place to. If that further reduces supply, so be it.

What is very clear now is that, at least in Physics, we are heading for the same outcome as last year when the required number (note not a target) wasn’t reached unless there is a swift and dramatic change in acceptances, and probably applications. This is especially as at the 17th March there were only 200 applications not covered by offers in the UCAS system, including those declined places.