Congratulations and commiserations

Congratulations to everyone awarded an honour in the Queen’s Birthday honours list announced earlier today. Governments always seem more likely to honour those working in the policy areas that they favour and the latest list doesn’t appear to have bucked that particular trend. Sure, there are governors, crossing patrollers and those working in school meals awarded honours, but many of the top honours have gone to those working in the academies or free schools areas.

The honours’ list comes at the end of a week where UCAS have published some detailed data on offers made by individual universities that show some have different offer rates for different groups when analysed by race, class and gender.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the soon to retire Chief Inspector, also added his voice to the debate on how well pupils from poor backgrounds do at school and, according to the BBC report of what he said, he highlighted how gifted children from poor homes entitled to pupil premium money were still lagging well behind. He said, “The most recent statistics paint a bleak picture of underachievement and unfulfilled potential.”

Social mobility appears to have stalled in many schools. Even among the ‘best in class’ schools, whose heads are honoured today, there may still be some under-achievement of disadvantaged and among the poorest performing pupils.  Of course, parents may be partly culpable by not helping instil the value of education in their offspring, and it can be a real challenge to educate children in care whose lives, by the very fact they have been taken into care, are often among the most damaged and who present some of the greatest challenges to educators. It would surely be encouraging to see the head of the school that does best for these pupils rewarded with an honour and also some recognition of the virtual school services across the country that help coordinate the education of these often seriously challenged young people. How they would operate in a fully academised education service is another interesting question for the future.

So, commiserations to those pupils still not receiving the best possible education they could. They may also be affected by the other news story of the week, the debate in two parliamentary committees – the Education Select Committee and the PAC – about teacher supply and the role of government. If there are insufficient teachers in some subjects the ‘low attainers’, to use the DfE terminology, may study at Key Stage 4, such as design and technology, business studies and IT then perhaps it isn’t surprising that they don’t fulfil their potential.

I am sure that the in-coming Chief inspector, assuming her appointment is confirmed, with a background in leading a charity whose academies are aimed at developing the potential of all their pupils, will want to make the part schools play in helping achieve social mobility a key priority for the period in office.  Our aim must be to be able in a position where it is possible to congratulate every school on achieving the best possible outcome for every child.





Austerity Tory style

In 2011 I discovered that the Key stage 1 results in Oxford City were the worst in the country. I drew this fact to the attention of the press and they alerted the County Council that had oversight for schools across Oxfordshire. In turn the district council, Oxford City, became involved because the schools were all located in their area. There were also two diocese, one Church of England and one Roman Catholic with oversight of some of the schools. That was a total of four bodies concerned with putting together a plan to improve the success of education in the City of Oxford: I am pleased to report that there has been an improvement.

Now fast forward to the present time. If the same circumstances arose, how many bodies would need to be contacted? There are 9 primary academies and one free school in the city at presenti addition to the remaining community and voluntary schools. The academies and the free school are managed by 6 different trusts, including one where a notice to deal with a budget deficit was issued earlier this year. The headquarters of that trust isn’t located in Oxfordshire.

So, were there to be the same need for a concerted effort across the City of Oxford there would now be the original bodies plus six more to deal with. If the diocese manage their MAT schools with the same teams as their voluntary schools that would reduce the number to four new MATs, but one would also need to add in the Regional School Commissioner that didn’t exist in 2011 and probably the Education Funding agency as well, as the funding body, so that takes us back to six more organisations for the 10 primary schools not managed through Oxfordshire County Council.

How many more MATs would there be if all primary schools became academies. The new schools being built in the county are now manged by other MATs, mostly with no geographical links to the county, but just selected from bodies that were on the DfE list of sponsors.

I am not convinced that a MAT managing a random geographical spread of primary schools is the best answer to secure high standards. In the 1980s all Oxfordshire primary schools were grouped into partnerships for some of the very reasons Ministers cite for their conversion into academies.  Before schools gained financial independence, the local authority regularly held meetings with groups of primary heads. After budgets were devolved it was up to the head to decide whether to attend or not. I wonder how many MATs hold meetings of their head teachers, and whether they are regarded as compulsory with regard to attendance.

I saw a comment from a Minister to the effect that creating all primary schools as academies would drive up standards. If so, one wonders why the government has wasted parliamentary time on the recent Act of Parliament requiring coasting schools to convert to academy status.

A free recruitment web site may help schools save money, although as readers know one already exists in TeachVac, but I doubt it will offset the extra costs associated with operating a system where all schools are academies: not my idea of tackling austerity and raising school standards.



Election manifestos are starting to appear

Right of centre think tank Policy Exchange this week published its education manifesto. Not quite in the league of Kenneth Baker’s call for a coalition with Labour in terms of headline grabbing policies it did however have some surprises. I am delighted that they recognise that charging fees for trainee teachers is wrong. Their solution is slightly more nuanced than mine which regular readers will know is to make training free at delivery. Policy Exchange only want fees paid off for those working in state schools. This presumably means that the private sector will have to pay extra to attract teachers as such teachers would still be required to repay their fees. That’s an interesting idea, but it leaves a third group, including possibly many PE teachers where government training numbers are too high, in limbo. What of the trainee that wants to work as a teacher but cannot find a job: should they be penalised for training if they have to take a job outside of teaching because the government mis-calculated training numbers? For those reasons I am still personally in favour of remitting fees for all trainees.
Policy Exchange also wants to allow city regions to create incentives for teachers to work across the country. This seems like a thinly disguised version of regional pay and I wonder whether it is based on serious research since most of the teacher shortages that don’t affect the sector as a whole are likely to be in and around London where teacher turnover is at its highest. A more radical move would have been to hand the training to regions or even local authorities to administer.
The think tank’s idea that all 16-18 year olds should study maths, but not seemingly English, is a sensible proposal that most would now agree is worth implementing once an acceptable curriculum can be devised.
Earlier this week I attended the launch of the DataLab project funded by the Fischer Family Trust. This initiative should be a useful source of independent research into education using the large databases on pupils and teachers that are now available. Their first projects showing that learning isn’t a linear process but has its ups and downs and their work on pupils that just gain a place at a selective schools and those that just miss out is well worth reading. The fact that those that just miss out on a grammar school place often outperform those who just gain a place must give pause for thought to the lobby wanting to expand selective schools on academic grounds.
Next week is national apprentice week and it is really good to see the focus on those young people not going to university. One of the great failings of the Blair Labour government was to cast aside the Tomlinson Report without really understanding what it was trying to do. Perhaps if there were a Labour/Tory coalition we might see some more progress. But, we might also see a Liberal Democrat as leader of the opposition facing the PM every Wednesday: now there’s a thought to cheer me up.

Side show attracts more attention than main event

Labour’s thoughts on the subject of private education received more coverage this week than their announcement on teacher supply issues put out the day before. Public fee-paying schools are a part of the political agenda and Labour’s call to remove business rate relief from such schools not prepared to go further in cooperating with schools in the state-funded sector avoided the thorny question of charitable status, but no doubt played well to voters that would prefer to see all children educated by the State.

My view has always been that the State in England lays the obligation on parents to educate their offspring. It has never mandated where or how that should be achieved. In an unequal society some parents can buy schooling. If they were forced to send their child to a local state school they would still buy tutoring, as many parents do at present, to improve the educational outcomes of their children. Preventing parents from spending money on education while allowing them to spend money on cigarettes, gambling and other potentially bad habits would seem illogical. However, we know that private schools produce better results than many state funded schools, just as selective state schools do. Interestingly, Tristram Hunt didn’t appear to say that such schools should share teachers with other state schools.

Labour’s carrot and stick approach to the private schools, ‘either help or pay more tax’ probably does recognise that with a teacher supply crisis looming in some subjects, and some parts of the country, private schools may be in a better position to recruit not just better teachers but actually enough teachers. The fundamental question is, therefore, as ever, how will schools that cannot recruit enough teachers effectively teach their pupils? Sharing a scare resource sounds fine in principle as a solution but is fraught with practical difficulties. I assume that private schools don’t have spare teaching capacity just waiting to be redeployed, so to use their teachers to help state schools they either have to employ more of them, potentially making the situation worse or create larger teaching groups – the very thing some parents are paying to avoid – or perhaps offer spare places in ‘A’ level groups where an additional one or two students might make no difference. But, that is no solution for the small private primary school.

The Conservative Party’s solution to the education problems around improving quality seems to be a discussion of more grammar schools. This suffers from the Oxbridge dilemma. How do you stop parents with money paying to secure entrance by improving the learning opportunities of their children before the test? This takes us back to where this piece started. Do parents have a right to pay for education if by doing so they advantage their children over others?

Finally, as Tristram Hunt failed to acknowledge, private schools are now a large export earning industry.  Id that something we wish to encourage or does it risk educating the children of our competitors in the global market place as the expense of children brought up in England?  Of course, one solution to the teacher shortage is to recruit more teachers from overseas, but how does that play in the present debate over immigration?

Motivation not space for prep?

The Report on achievement by white working class boys published today by the Education Select Committee makes clear what educationalists have known for some time: this group underperform in school compared with almost all other groups except perhaps traveller children, and have been falling behind as other groups have improved at a faster rate. Why this is, and the solutions proposed by the Committee, reveals the complexity of the problem.

No doubt the one solution highlighted by many commentators will be the lengthening of the school day to provide both wraparound care and somewhere for older pupils to do their homework and participate in after-school activities. The homework facility is a good idea where pupils lack space and facilities at home. But, it will only work if pupils are motivated to learn, and there is a risk that this is too often not the case.

Absence rates for schools serving white working class communities are often above the national average, and it is well known that pupils falling behind early on in their education struggle to catch up. As a result, it might be worth exploring how we ensure the best quality teachers are working in the early years of schools serving these communities, and also how we create learning opportunities that cope with a less than perfect attendance pattern. This would be the opposite of the big stick, fine for non-attendance route that anyway doesn’t take into account the ability of a family to pay any fine.

With a looming teacher shortage in some parts of the country, addressing the problem of who teaches where is vital if the gap between white working class pupils and the rest of society isn’t to widen still further. Such school cannot be allowed to struggle to find teachers.

However, there is much to be done to motivate the parents, many of whom underachieved at school, and don’t see the reason for forcing a regular pattern of attendance on their offspring. But, society must engage with them, and offer help so their children can benefit from our future economic success as a nation.

With the structural changes to the labour market that have taken place over the past few decades many of the jobs that didn’t need much education have disappeared, and those that remain are often not well paid. Some years ago I noted an educationalist that had said that ‘the porter of yesterday had become the fork lift truck driver of today and the operator of a computer managed warehouse of tomorrow’. Well tomorrow has arrived. White working class boys with no qualifications sometimes have a choice between perhaps either window cleaning or driving white vans; and even window cleaning is becoming more skilled, and there are no jobs for van boys any longer.

Whatever society does to attack this problem of underachievement is likely to cost money, and reassessing how schools are funded, especially those offering the early years of schooling, remains an important consideration.

Now that schools are no longer the total responsibility of local authorities, the government must come forward with a programme to help address the underachievement: keeping schools open longer is only a small part of the solution; fining parents is no real solution, but ensuring the right teachers work in the schools where they will make the most difference is something worth trying. Achieving it will either cost money or mean a total rethink of how teachers are employed, and a challenge to school autonomy.

Dunkirk was a defeat, but it didn’t stop the ultimate victory

Two new reports appeared today, and both were essentially negative about aspects of the school system in England. The Report by the charity Save the Children looked at the 2012 KS1 results, and concluded that the poorest pupils are less likely to have made good progress than their better-off peers. Almost a quarter (24%) of children eligible for free meals did not reach the expected level in Reading in 2012, compared with only 10% of children from better-off families.

Another Report from the OECD stated that young adults in England scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in international literacy and numeracy tests. Now these 18-24 year olds started their education during the 1990s in the early days of the National Curriculum. From one perspective they were the group of pupils that started school during the transition from the ancient regime of post-war consensus to the new regime that followed the Education Reform Act, but their early schooling was before the focus on numeracy and literacy really took hold.

The outcomes for pupils on Free School Meals in the Save the Children Report uses much more up to date data, and shows how far we may still have to go in delivering our understanding of the notion of equality. There are many purposes of education, but one is to prove all pupils with the basic skills to thrive as adults. Reading and numeracy are two of these skills. Some pupils require more help to achieve these goals, and that is the recognised purpose of programmes such as the Pupil Premium. However, it is for individual schools to identify how each pupils’ needs can be met in order to allow them to attain the required standards to become functional readers and competent in their use of numbers.

The child with English as a second language is now widely recognised as requiring help. What of the child with irregular attendance habits whose parents or parent doesn’t bother to attend school events and avoids discussing their progress, perhaps because they themselves failed at school, and don’t want to admit that they cannot read. The extra resources must break this cycle to prevent the creation of another generation of adults who are functionally illiterate. As the Save the Children Report reminds us, if a child drops off the normal learning curve by age seven they are unlikely ever to recover to become effective learners despite the £50,000 or so the State will spend on their remaining education.

The recognition recently by the government that children in care need even more help with their education than other children is another sign that the Coalition is not just concerned with the well-off in society. A decade ago, when the TES ran their campaign about the need to improve schooling for this group, they were the castoffs of the education system with few to champion their needs. It is good to see that the turnaround that started under the last government has continued. Now every child should receive extra help with their education from the day that they enter care. However, this will only really work if the schools recognise the needs of these and other children the system has failed in the past. For that to bear fruit the research evidence of what works needs to be widely shared. This is not an area where schools should work in isolation. And in some schools and Ofsted inspectors it may require a fundamental change in attitude.