How do you teach politics today?

One of the more interesting side effects of what is happening in Westminster, Paris and Washington at the present time, is how those staff teaching politics syllabuses prepare candidates for examinations this summer? Do they a] ignore everything happening at present and assume the status quo ante in terms of what they expect in answers to questions and essays, regardless of what they teach in lessons, or b] do they try and provide students with an understanding that they can convey in their essays when by the time the examinations arrive the situation might yet be different again.

Take the following section from a syllabus published on the internet:

 Parliament and government relationships
  • Accountability 
  • Executive dominance 
  • Elective dictatorship 
  • Bicamera

 The roles of the House of Commons and House of Lords in scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account. The influence of backbenchers, frontbenchers, whips and the Opposition.

Answering that section after the events of the past ten days is going to be interesting, let alone what might happen over the next four months leading up to the examination day. The same is true of the section about ‘The role of parliament in the political system’.

I guess the safe way forwards will be to start any answer with something such as ‘Received wisdom and understanding up to the start of 2019 was …. This is expressed by writers such as …’ and then delve into what has changed if the candidate feels comfortable with being able to explain the new reality.

Earlier today I posed this dilemma to a well-known educationalist and former teacher of politics and was reminded by her that there have been occasions in the past, such as a change of Prime Minister between the setting of the exam paper and the date the examination is taken that can make the expected predicable answer no longer accurate, unless it is place in a historical context.

I guess this is the risk with a subject that deals with contemporary life. Fortunately for economics and business studies examiners, stock market crashes has a greater tendency to occur in the autumn, after the harvest has been gathered in, than at other times of year. Although the same cannot be said for inflation or interest rate changes.

Nevertheless, it is politics lessons that must be the most interesting lesson on the curriculum this week. In higher education, students can often attend courses just out of interest and one wonders whether some sixth formers might want to do so for politics lessons at present. Alternatively, for most it might be a big bore, even though it is up there with Peel and reform of The Corn Laws and the decline of the Liberal Party in the 1920s and the effects of the Great Crash of 1929 in terms of its magnitude as a parliamentary event.

Finally, I understood the term bicameral for a parliamentary system of two chambers, but the syllabus quoted above was the first time I had come across the use of ‘bicamera’ to describe such a system.

 

 

 

 

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750 not out

After celebrating its 5th birthday in January this year, this blog has now reached another landmark: the 750th post. The administrators tell me that means somewhere close to 450,000 words have appeared so far, with a word count averaging somewhere between 550-600 words per post: slightly shorter in recent years than in 2013 and 214.

Key themes in recent times have included, the place of local democracy in the school system and the recruitment scene for teachers, whether into teacher training or for the labour market for teachers and school leaders. This blog has published an analysis of the monthly figures from UCAS for applicants and applications to teacher preparation courses for graduates almost since the day it started. Those post followed on from a monthly review I wrote during the first decade of the century. It that case, circulation was only to a band of paid subscribers.

My involvement with TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk and its global affiliate www.teachvacglobal.com has allowed me to make comments on the state of the labour market for teachers and school leaders in England. However, since much of the data TeachVac holds is unique to the company and TeachVac is a free to use recruitment site for both schools and teachers it isn’t a good idea to give away everything for free, so the data has been used sparingly on the blog.

How did this blog come about? Between 1998 and 2011 I wrote a series of columns for the Times Education Supplement, the venerable and much respected publication for the teachers and their schools. When I retired from their service, I wrote for Education Journal for a year or so, but was never really satisfied by being tied down again to a publication schedule: hence, eventually in 2013, the blog.

The nature of blogging provides freedom to the creator of the pieces to say what they want when they want. Originally, it was a blog about the numbers in education. To some extent it still is, but it has widened its approach, especially after I became a Liberal Democrat County Councillor in Oxfordshire in May 2013. My experiences with schools in Oxfordshire has resulted in a number of interesting posts since then, some of which have subsequently appeared in print in the Oxford Mail.

Where next for the blog? I suppose the next goal must be to reach 1,000 posts, probably by sometime in 2020. There is certainly enough to write about.

I would like to thank the many people that have added comments to the various posts over the years. There are some regular commentators, such as Janet Downs, and there are those that have just posted a comment about one specific post. Then there are the many people that have liked various posts. Thank you for your votes of support and appreciation.

The blog is mainly read by United Kingdom readers, although recently there have been more readers from the USA than in the early days and there has always been a small number of visitors from locations in different countries around the world.

If you have read this far, thank you for letting me indulge myself and I hope to keep you entertained, informed and possibly sometimes even educated.

 

 

How to run a National School

Recently Lord Agnew, the PUS for the School System wrote to firms that audit academies and their Trusts/Committees. Now a letter from a Minister carries with it both political and administrative weight when compared to one from a civil servant writing on behalf of their political masters. Lord Agnew’s letter can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letter-from-lord-theodore-agnew-to-academy-trust-auditors

In the letter, , in the words of the DfE website, Lord Agnew ‘shares across the audit sector several key points that will help boards govern more effectively and make best use of the freedoms they have.’

So what are the key points in the letter? General Annual Grant (GAG) pooling is the first point specified.

Lord Agnew reminds the auditors that ‘The opportunity to pool GAG is particularly valuable, in particular to simplify the provision of support to weaker schools in a MAT until they can grow their pupil numbers. It is worth remembering that a MAT is a single financial entity.

This isn’t a power generally available to local authorities in relation to maintained schools and typifies the different power arrangements between schools in MAT/MACs and those schools still in the maintained sector. Interestingly, he doesn’t ask the auditors for a time limit on taking money away from some schools to support others. Auditors might like to consider whether this cross-subsidy between schools should really be open-ended or in need for regular justification, since Regional School Commissioners seem to differ in their approach to such weak schools. Auditors can provide helpful national guidance by acting in concert on this point.

By the time Lord Agnew has reached Auditors’ management letters, he is telling audit firms that, ‘We would like to see the recommendations made by auditors being implemented in a timely manner with scrutiny at board level to ensure that this is the case.’ Now whether or not he sees it as a duty on the auditors to see that the contents of these letters are addressed is an interesting question. Of course, if the issue is really serious, then the auditors should quality the accounts. However, this is something auditors are generally reluctant to do, even though the DfE itself isn’t unfamiliar with the process in terms of its own accounts and their relationship with the academy sector.

Lord Agnew also hope his letter will open up debate between the auditors and their clients. His list of Operational Challenges is interesting. These include,

  1. Are your clients using a standard employment contract for all teaching staff so that they can be cross deployed to different schools?
  2. Are they using the same exam boards in all their schools to enable cross school marking and also to optimise the point above?
  3. Do they have a central electronic purchase order system to ensure strong controls on expenditure?
  4. Do they have a central bank account that simplifies bank reconciliations and ensures that there is constant, easy visibility of the cash position?
  5. Are they benchmarking their supply costs and if over a number of years the level is constant have they considered employing permanent staff to fill some of this requirement thereby improving the quality and removing agency charges?
  6. Are they accessing the Department’s procurement arrangements if they are providing better value than they can achieve on their own?

The first of these is highly interesting in the sense of moving back to controlling the lives of teachers. When I joined Haringey, in 1971, my contract specified a school but added that the council had the right to move me to another school. With all schools in the Authority in a tight geographical area this wouldn’t have had much to concern me, even if was in use, which by then it wasn’t. With MATs/MACs spread across large areas, it might be helpful to understand whether this policy, advocated by the DfE, is having any effects on recruitment and retention of teachers both at classroom level and, more specifically, in terms of promotion to middle leadership if it means a house move to a different area?

If these powers are to be enforced on academies, then presumably they are both important and useful for our school system. In that case, why aren’t local authorities allowed to create them for maintained schools and what is the future for stand-alone academies?

Perhaps Lord Agnew will write to Directors of Children’s Services explaining why these operational challenges don’t matter in the remaining maintained schools?

 

 

Thank you

A big thank you to all readers. Whether you are one of the regulars or just coming across this blog for the first time, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading these posts. Today is the fifth birthday of this blog. It started on the 25th January 2013 with a post about the level of reserves then being held by schools. In the five years I have been writing the blog it has had 50,000 visitors – this landmark was passed earlier this month – and the 100,000 views landmark will be reached early next month as the total currently stands at 98,668 or just fewer than two views per visitor. The day with the most views was the 8th March 2014, when there was a reference to the blog in a national newspaper.

I think it is reasonable to claim that this blog helped lead the way in terms of highlighting the deteriorating situation in relation to the flow of new entrants into the teaching profession. Because much of my working life was spent in and around the area of teacher supply, it is perhaps not surprising that issues about teacher numbers should have remained a prominent theme across the years.

In August 2013 the DfE was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying what I had written in this blog was scaremongering and based upon incomplete evidence (blog post 14th August 2013, if you want to look it up). It wasn’t then and what I say isn’t now. But, I do sympathise with DfE press officers having to try and come up with an answer when the negative stories appear. The media is less interested in the good news, for instance, when applications increase. The easing of the concerns over maths teacher numbers during 2017 also wasn’t really reported, but that may be an issue of quantity not matching the quality needed?

Along with teacher supply, I have tried to keep an eye on the stories behind the numbers in education; or at least some of them. From rural schools in London to the profit companies make from education there is always something to write about and the blog has now reached more than 650 different posts in its five year lifespan. 130 of the posts have drawn comments and again, my thanks to those that comment regularly on what I have written; my especial thanks to Janet Downes for her insightful comments on many different posts.

Regular readers know that I am a Liberal Democrat politician and have fought two general elections (unsuccessfully) and two county elections (both successful) as well as one election for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner, all during the life of this blog. It is good to have some time off this year; assuming that nothing goes wrong and there isn’t another general election.

This blog is now on its fourth Secretary of State and I predicted the change this January in a post at the end of 2017, before the reshuffle was announced.

My one regret is that schools are still not doing enough to share in the challenge to cut Carbon emissions. My one hope is that someone will come up with an energy scheme that can utilise the vast acreage of school playgrounds that lie unused for more than 99% of the year.

Thank you for reading: my best wishes for the future.

 

Teacher Recruitment; nationalised service or private enterprise?

So the unacceptable face of capitalism has raised its head again, with a Conservative Prime Minister once again facing questions about excesses in the private sector, much as Edward Heath, who coined the phrase,  did in 1973. The other parallels with 1972 are also interesting a rocketing stock market and a decision to be made about Britain’s relationship with Europe. Happily, the other scourge of the 1970s, high inflation, isn’t currently the same worry, although it has been replaced by the high price of housing, where the market has failed to produce enough homes of the right types in the right places to satisfy demand.

In an interesting side line on the debate about the role of the State in the provision of services, last week the DfE talked to an invited audience about the plans for their new vacancy service for schools. Although I wasn’t at the meeting, the idea of such a service has been discussed in a number of the previous posts on this blog ever since it first emerged as a suggestion in the White Paper of 2016. Following the meeting, the whole situation has left me more than a little confused. What the teacher associations make of the DfE’s actions must also be an interesting question.

Held at the same time as PMQ was taking place in the House of Commons chamber, where the demise of Carillion was fresh in the minds of MPs, the DfE meeting saw a Labour peer representing a commercial company at the same time that his leader was expressing views more sympathetic to the State running industries rather than the private sector. And if that weren’t curious enough, the education lead at the right leaning thinktank Policy Exchange must surely be wondering why the DfE is further empire building by moving into devising a recruitment service on top of the growing staff numbers supporting both the EFSC and the offices of the Regional School Commissioners. Better procurement, rather than a replacement state run service, would be what I would expect from John Blake’s analysis of the cost of recruitment to schools and the need to find ways of reducing it.

To some extent, I am not a dis-interested player, as TeachVac, the free national recruitment service for schools and teachers already does what the DfE is seemingly trying to provide for schools and at no cost to the public purse.

TeachVac also collects data about the labour market. TeachVac will publish its first report of 2018 on Wednesday of this week. This report will discuss the labour market for primary leadership posts during 2017. That report won’t be free, but if you want a copy email enquiries@oxteachserv.com For details of the vacancy service visit: www.teachvac.co.uk

Not a surprise?

In my Review of 2017, I wrote that:

‘Although there have been changes in the junior ministerial ranks, the Secretary of State has served throughout the year and is now approaching the point in her tenure when she is in the zone where many politicians find themselves either changing jobs or being removed from office in a reshuffle.’

Lucky guess or just reading the political runes? I note that the TES expressed similar views, so perhaps the departure of Justine Greening wasn’t unexpected. Nevertheless, we must thank the now former Secretary of State for her calming period in office. If it survives, still no means a certainty, the National Funding Formula may be Justine Greening’s legacy from her time in office at Sanctuary Buildings. We now await the possibility of changes in the more junior ministerial ranks.

The new Secretary of State served on the Education Select Committee for a period after 2010 and we had this exchange when I gave oral evidence to the inquiry into attracting, training and retaining the best teachers, when I appeared as one of a panel of witnesses.

 Professor Howson: I can’t imagine that the CBI would be terribly happy if we took the whole of Oxford and Cambridge’s output to fill our 35,000 places. That is part of our dilemma. Yes, we want people who are as well qualified and able as possible, but we are not competing in a vacuum, and society as a whole has to decide where it wants to put teaching in terms of the competition for graduates.

Q149 Damian Hinds: Gosh-most people would say that teaching should be very near the top. McKinsey, BCG and Goldman Sachs can fight their own battles, but in society, we want teaching to be very high up on that list of priorities, don’t we?

Professor Howson: Then this Committee must recommend that the Government take actions to achieve that. As someone has already said, pay may well be one of those actions.

Q148 & Q149 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/uc1515-ii/uc151501.htm

It will be interesting to see how quickly Mr Hinds acts to deal with the problems over teacher training numbers discussed in this blog and elsewhere during the past week. Perhaps he might like to create a specialist group to advise him on possible ways forward. I am sure that with his track record on social mobility including his role in the APPG on social mobility, he will find many willing to offer help.

Apart from teacher supply issues, Mr Hinds will need to look at the governance of the academy sector and how it relates to the remaining maintained schools. Having been educated in a faith school, he will not be unaware of the role such schools play in our system despite the increasingly secular nature of much of modern society. They may offer a model for cooperation that could plot a path to a unified system working towards the goal of greater social mobility that works not only for potential university graduates but for apprentices and everyone else in society.

Does education planning still matter?

Recently, I attended a meeting where the discussion turned at one point to the notion of education planning and identifying the needs of the service for the future. Planning hasn’t had a good press in recent times, with the market principle sometimes being seen as the dominant approach to outcomes: think, the debate about parental choice.

In the early days of this blog I discussed the issue of planning after the publication of a National Audit Office report into pupil place planning. In the light of the discussion in the meeting this week and the fact that a visitor to this site unearthed the original earlier today and thus reminded me of its existence I thought it was worth a second appearance four and a half years later to see how well it had lasted as a piece. You, reader, must decide.

Planning School Places: More than just about the numbers

Posted on March 18, 2013

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 http://media.nao.org.uk/uploads/2013/03/10089-001_Capital-funding-for-new-school-places.pdf

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.