Reflections on 2017

This has been an interesting year in education. 2017 started with great anxiety over the proposed new common funding formula for schools. The government’s original version left many rural and small schools out of pocket and losing actual cash. The revised version just left them out of pocket. Indeed, from government data released in December, it seems secondary schools have been dipping into their reserves for the past three years; many primary schools are now having to do so as well.

The other key topic of interest a year ago, the creation of new selective schools, has fallen victim to the unexpected outcome of the general election. Apart from Brexit, it seems any contentious reform is not now being contemplated.

Selection as a topic has been replaced by social mobility as the key goal of government. Unfortunately for many areas, the funds are largely being targeted at key ‘opportunity areas’ that look suspiciously like the Education Action Zones once championed by the Blair government in the 1990s. Smaller pockets of deprivation, as can be found in many parts of the country, seem less likely to attract much if any additional funding above the Pupil Premium and free school meals.

There are worrying signs, including in the Report of the Chief Inspector, that some schools may be actually frustrating social mobility by offering challenging pupils the opportunity to be home educated or on a reduced timetable. Many of the parents do not have the background to challenge these decisions that can blight a child’s possible future almost as much as the alternative of a permanent exclusion.

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.

Teacher workload, pay and recruitment have once again dominated the teacher associations concerns during the year that has also seen the creation of a new association, with the coming together of the NUT and ATL.

The dead hand of the revolution initiated by Mr Gove, when he was Secretary of State, still affects schools, especially in the design of the curriculum and examinations where reforms take several years to reach full implementation.

The most worrying outcome of 2017 for schools was that following the general election spat between Labour and the Tories over university tuition fees, some £800 million appeared in the budget Red Book for student fee initiatives. That’s money that could have been spent in schools, FE or early years now diverted to the already most highly funded part of our education system.

So, what of 2018? Might we see a resolution of the academy and maintained school divide? Will the DfE really launch a free vacancy service in time for September 2018 and what will be the response of existing players if they do? How will the DfE save money to pay for social mobility programmes?

Above all, will the teacher supply crisis reach its zenith in 2018 and will the depressing numbers entering teacher preparation courses in September 2017, coupled with increases in school rolls, create a real sense of urgency to do something about the problem?  Perhaps the pressure on school budgets will finally mean secondary schools are really forced to cut teaching posts and the shortage of trainees won’t matter. Time will tell.


Thank you

My thank you to everyone that has followed this blog in 2016. By the end of this month or in early February, the 500th post is likely to appear. Not bad for a blog started in January 2013 with no such goal in mind. Rather, it was originally designed to replace my various columns that had appeared in the TES between 1999 and early 2011 and then in Education Journal in a more spasmodic form during the remainder of 2011 and 2012. This blog has allowed me both editorial freedom to write what I have wanted and also to avoid the requirement of a fixed schedule of a column a week that had dominated my life for more than a decade.

Anyway, my thanks to the 11,738 visitors from 88 countries that read at least one post during 2016; creating a total of 22,364 views. The viewing figures have been around the 22,000 mark for the past three years, although the visitor numbers in 2016 were the highest since 2014.

My thanks also go to the many journalists that have picked up on stories that have been run on the blog during 2016. Many of these have been associated with TeachVac, the free to use recruitment site I co-founded in 2014. The recognition of the brand has grown, especially over the past year, so much so that its disruptive technology poses a real threat to more traditional recruitment methods. With funding for Teachvac throughout 2017 secured, plus a growing appetite for the data the site can produce, it will be interesting to see how the market reacts in 2017.

TeachVac can easily meet the needs of a government portal for vacancies suggested in the White Paper last March, with the resultant data helping provide useful management information for policymakers. TeachVac already provides individual schools with data about the state of the trainee pool in the main secondary subjects every time they input a vacancy. With regional data from the census, it is possible to create local figures for individual schools and profile the current recruitment round against data from the past two years taking into account both the total pool and the size of the free pool not already committed to a particular school or MAT.

2017 is going to be an interesting year for recruitment as school budgets come under pressure and it is likely that teachers and trainees in some subjects in some parts of England may find jobs harder to secure than at any time since 2013. However, London and the Home Counties will still account for a significant proportion of the vacancies.

What is unknown is how teachers will react if the government presses ahead with its plans for more selective schools. Will new entrants to teaching be willing to work in schools where a proportion of the possible intake has been diverted to a selective school; will the current workforce continue to work in such schools or seek vacancies in the remaining non-selective parts of the country? No doubt someone has some polling data on this issue.



More on made not born: how teachers are created

Last night I caught up with the second episode of BBC3’s new series, ‘Tough Young Teachers’ that is all about the progress of a group of Teach First recruits. (Past episodes are available on the BBC i-player). The teachers featured were working in Harefield Academy, Crown Woods School and the Archbishop Lanfranc School. Although Teach First started as a programme for inner city schools, these three schools that are located in Uxbridge, Croydon, and Bexley, might better be characterised as suburban, and not inner city. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenging. Their Free School Meals measure for the Pupil Premium – anytime in the past six years on free school meals – ranges from 29.2% at The Harefield Academy, to 41.7% at Archbishop Lanfranc, and 46.2% at Crown Woods College according to DfE figures; all well above the national average. Both the latter two schools have a significant number of pupils whose native language isn’t English; although as a measure of the need for support it is probably worth re-visiting this indicator to see how it is calibrated. It might be better to classify whether pupils have a level of English that allows them to function effectively in a learning situation rather than know what their native tongue might have been.

All three schools have above average levels of persistent absence, and perform less well with least able pupils than their most able. According to the DfE, Archbishop Lanfranc is an 11-16 school, and the other two have sixth forms. This point worries me, since it is not clear how Teach First ensures any exposure to post-16 teaching for those placed in 11-16 schools? If they want to stay in teaching after two years, this lack of sixth form experience might restrict the range of schools willing to employ them. This is always a risk with a single-training location over courses that allow training in several schools during the programme.

Another risk of such single-school programmes also became apparent in last night’s episode. One of the group was seen facing considerable discipline challenges in their classroom. In a traditional programme of teacher preparation they would receive a second chance to start again in a new school on their next placement. This would allow for a fresh start and see whether they could improve with a new set of pupils. On Teach First, it was suggested last night that the choice is to be battle through or be sacked. In an earlier post last year, I commented how much Teach First appeared to spend on recruitment and selection, so it is worrying that someone can pass through selection, and the six weeks of training, and still face such challenges in a school where many pupils are there because of their sporting achievements: judging by their appearance, and that of the school, they are also generally working in a supportive learning establishment. But, television has to tell as story that entertains, informs and hopefully educates the viewer, so we may not know the real situation. However, that student was filmed sitting down in the classroom too much for my liking, although the arrangement of the furniture probably also didn’t help a new teacher.

For entertainment value, watching endless lessons can become a bit like watching paint dry for the average viewer, and even I looked at my watch a couple of times, so the storyline of the pupil recently returned from a spell in a Pupil Referral Unit offered an interesting counterpoint. Caleb was articulate, truculent, and as viewers know from Educating Yorkshire before Christmas, exactly the sort of pupil to challenge a school, and its experienced teachers, let along one just arrived from six weeks of basic training outside the classroom. No doubt viewers will see more of Caleb in later episodes.

By now the viewer also knows something of the personalities of the new recruits. They also know, if they didn’t already, that teaching is not easy, and there is no such thing as deference to authority in modern society. Respect has to be earned in the classroom as on the beat or by anyone in a position of authority.

As ever, one asks of oneself, how would I have fared?  I don’t know, but if it is any consolation to those training at present, my first year, admittedly with no training, and as a supply teacher in Tottenham, was far worse than some of the scenes from last night’s programme. I will watch future episodes with interest.