As is usual, the run up to the Easter break brings a clutch of education stories, partly fuelled by the arrival of the conference season for the main teacher associations. Governments of all colours probably always worry about the bad publicity they will expect at this time of year, as much is made of the poor state of health of the school system in England.

This year is proving to be no different to usual, with school funding, teachers’ pay and workload and children’s mental health all taking the headlines, along with testing and its associated consequence of off-rolling, a term unknown to the general public before the last few months, but now probably bidding to be the new word of 2019. What I haven’t heard is anything about education’s contribution to the climate change emergency. Should it feature more in the curriculum and what practical steps ought schools to be taking? In my post headed ‘gas cooking’, I suggested school students might like to conduct an audit of their schools to see what changes should be introduced.

Opposition parties are always quick to say there isn’t enough funding for schools, and I am happy to support their claims. This blog has regularly charted the decline in the level of reserves across maintained schools and the growth in the number of schools with deficits rather than cash balances. However, there are still schools with balances, some quite large in cash terms. How can this be, in an under-funded system? Is the balance between funding based upon pupil numbers, and that designed to cover the cost of ensuring a schools remains open regardless of changes in pupil numbers, right in the new formula now being introduced?

I especially worry about small rural schools, and my concerns have been shared by officials in North Yorkshire as detailed in another recent post on this blog. There needs to be some national benchmarks over finance that governing bodies can measure their schools against on a regular basis. The DfE has already done some good work here, but it needs to do more. At the heart of the debate may be the decision, made way back in the early days of delegated budgets, to fund schools on average salary levels and not actual cash amounts. Thus, schools with young teachers paid less than average benefit, but schools with teachers at the top of the pay scales find funding inadequate to meet their salary bills. The real squeeze on 16-18 funding hasn’t helped either, as many schools deploy their most expensive staff to teach this age-group.

Should we abolish tests in the primary school? There certainly shouldn’t be tests that stress, pupils, teachers and families. However, the data already shows that many disadvantaged pupils fare less well in our system than their more fortunate classmates. I would not want that fact to be lost. We have emerged from a culture when expectations of some children were low, and as a result not much was achieved. Don’t, please let us go back there. Humane, reasonable, tests backed by effective resources and a better use of emerging technologies can create a future golden age as we approach the 150th anniversary of state funded school in in England. Such  a system might be better at attracting and retaining its teachers in what is now a global marketplace.


Possible improvements in Key Stage 2 outcomes?

The DfE has today published the provisional Key Stage 2 assessments. There are some in the Liberal Democrats that would do away with these measures. I think there is a need to make them less stressful for both pupils and teachers but equally there is a need to demonstrate an informed understanding of how our education system is performing. The data and DfE’s comments can be found at: The data are provisional at this stage. In December more finalised data will be published. However, I suspect the overall figures will remain broadly the same.

One interesting observation in the DfE’s comments on page 18 of their analysis is that local authorities with lower attainment levels tended to see the biggest changes in attainment since 2017. This is both good news and not unexpected. If 80% of children are reaching the expected standard, then the other 20% may require significant resources to help them achieve what is expected. Whereas, where it is less than 60% of pupils there are probably easier gains. It would be interesting when the final figures appear to see how pupils receiving the Pupil Premium have fared in term s of improvements.

Cartographers might question the selection of grade boundaries used in the DfE’s map as they provide a representational view that focuses on local authorities in the middle of the range. (Incidentally, the map is difficult to read as far as local authority names are concerned and could be improved). There isn’t anything wrong with this approach, but the range between the bottom of the light blue and the top of the darker blue is only six points, whereas the range in the outliers is much greater. Tough on a local authority with a score of 61 such as West Sussex that is the same colour as Peterborough with 52%. Incidentally, I am not clear why the scale starts at 42%? But, perhaps the DfE aren’t using the data from Table L1 for the map. They don’t provide a link to the data.

As in the past, girls generally outperform boys, except in mathematics, where in the scaled score, boys have a higher score than girls, as is also the case for those performing at the higher ability level. For detailed data about other characteristics we must wait until December. The data for middle schools can largely be regarded as being based upon so few schools as not to be really representative, unless you live in an area with these schools and might want to question their future.

The data won’t help the Humanists that want to see an end to faith schools as, the more specific the faith, the better the outcome in their schools with; Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools all performing better than other schools and especially better than schools with no religious character.  This may well tell us more about parental choice and support by parents that make a positive choice of school than about anything else.

Finally, as the DfE helpfully points out, attainment in all of reading, writing and maths is not directly comparable to previous years because of changes to writing TA frameworks. That doesn’t stop the DfE producing some comparisons.

Going down

There was a certain amount of coverage of the UCAS end of cycle report on the 2015/16 application process for graduate teacher preparation courses when it appeared last month.  The UCAS Scheme covers almost all such provision in England except for Teach First.

I find it illustrative to compare the data in the 2015/16 report with 2012/13, the last year of the previous GTTR Scheme that provided for a cascade model of applications rather than the present model where all three applications are considered together.  The current system of applications is much more expensive for both trainees and providers, whereas both models are probably cost neutral to UCAS that charges both providers and applicants a fee.

Anyway, enough comment on the system – you may deduce I am not a great fan of the change – and back to how applications compared with past cycles? In 2015/16 there were 46,000 applicants, of whom 41,400 were domiciled in England. Sadly, we don’t know how many applicants applied to providers in England, a useful but missing statistic if there has been a trend to apply for places in Wales and Scotland. The 46,000, let alone the 41,400 figure for those with a domicile in England, is well below the record 67,000 applicants of the 2010 entry round, but, that number was a consequence of the recession and associated slowdown in the graduate labour market.  However, the 46,000 was also significantly below the 52,254 of 2013 that was itself below the pre-recession figure of 53,931 applicants reached in the 2007 round.

How much further can applicant numbers be allowed to fall before alarm bells start ringing loudly in Sanctuary Buildings? The fact that so far in 2017/18 there has been a further decline must be cause for concern.

Male applicants totalled some 38% of the total, probably in line with recent years and indicating an overall lack of interest in teaching since the fall cannot be attributed to just disinterest from this group. We no longer have data in relation to ethnicity, a sad loss since there was evidence in the past that applicants from some ethnic groups found it harder to secure a place on a course.

Interestingly, after falling as a percentage of all applicants, the percentage of career switchers over the age of 30, when applying, reached 29% of applicants in 2015/16. That suggest a falloff in applications from new graduates, perhaps finally being deterred by the level of fees and lack of support in some subject areas.

I have long campaigned for all entrants to be treated the same and not for the Treasury to hide behind the fiction that because so much teacher preparation takes place in and around universities those on teacher preparation courses should be treated as students, not entrants to teaching undergoing training in a university-led course. A subtle, but not unimportant distinction.

I am sure that the DfE have much more detailed data than that which has been released to the general public, but UCAS should consider reviewing what is available and whether it might be helpful to return to the level of data provided previously by the GTTR Scheme.

We all do phonics now

An understanding of the place of phonics in early teaching seems to have become accepted practice among teachers.

The latest DfE publication of outcomes of phonic testing reveals that;

More than 4 in 5 (81%) pupils met the expected phonics standard in year 1 (6 year olds) in 2016, a 4 percentage point increase from 2015 when 77% of pupils achieved the expected standard. By the end of year 2 (age 7), more than 9 in 10 pupils (91%) met the standard in 2016, a 1 percentage point increase from 2015.

At the same time, under the new teacher assessment rules, there has been a fall in reported outcomes for the skill of writing. I suspect over the next few years there will be a real debate about the place of writing in early education. There is a role in helping to form and understand letters and also to develop the skill of communication. Will that last for the first ‘tablet’ generation? I suspect that children don’t see writing as an essential tool any more. It isn’t a skill they often see demonstrated in the home. Apart from writing your signature, when, reader, did you last pen a piece of script: possibly on your Christmas cards? This leads me to wonder about the future for written examinations? Not only will the memory test part be of less value, but if the handwriting skill isn’t seen as useful, what Twenty First century skills are we trying to test?

According to the DfE figures for England as a whole, being in small class at KS1 may help with reading, doesn’t seem to help with writing and makes no difference in mathematics skills achieved. Of course, none of this allows for parental help and the support of siblings. However, all the other features we know from past experience are repeated in the 2016 outcomes. Girls achieve higher scores overall than boys; pupils on free school meals achieve lower scores than other pupils, as do pupils with identified special needs at KS1. At this stage, those with English as a second language don’t do as well as native speakers, although we know that they can outperform as a group by later key stages.

The small sliver of good news for boys is that among pupils outperforming the expected standard in mathematics, boys outperform girls, but by a smaller margin than girls outperform boys in reading and writing. The other good news is that the gap between pupils on free school meals and other pupils continues to close, but at a slow rate of around a percentage point a year. With the living wage and assuming unemployment remains low, the number of children assessed at KS1 on free meals may well fall, making further reductions in the gap more of a challenge.

But, back to phonics. The gap between the best and worst local authorities, by end of year 2, is just eight percentage, points compared at a gap of 25% between the best and worst in writing. Sadly, Oxford, where I live, continues to perform badly, this despite five years of various interventions. The fact that these less well performing schools in Oxford will for the most part receive more funding under the new formula can only be good news, but not is the funds come from robbing cash from rural primary schools.





Don’t panic

The publication of the TIMMS data on mathematics and science outcomes at Years 5 & 9 across a wide range of countries heralds the start of a period of data announcements that will include OECD comparative data and the Chief inspectors annual report; in thelatter case, the last by the present Inspector. As I am away next week – thoroughly bad timing, but needs must – my comments on these reports will have to wait for a while. However, the TIMMS national report for England can be found at

Slow progress, with better results from the primary sector than the secondary sector might be one interpretation. Another, summed up in the findings is that:

  • Forty-six per cent of year 9 pupils in England pupils strongly valued maths: more than their peers in the five highest-performing countries.
  • Half (50%) of year 5 pupils in England very much liked learning maths compared to only 14 per cent of year 9s. In both years 5 and 9, three of the highest-performing countries – Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – had smaller proportions of pupils who liked learning maths than in England.
  • In both years 5 and 9 in England, and across all countries, on average, there is an association between all attitudinal factors and average achievement. For example, the more pupils feel confident in their maths ability; the higher their average achievement.

The message about the value of mathematics seems to now being heard and accepted in society, at least by young people. The next question is whether squeezing the last ounce of learning out of teenagers makes the process less fun? If so, does that have long-term implications for attitudes to learning, especially where the results are the outcome of longer time at school learning the subject and more tutoring hours outside of school? Is a balanced curriculum better than a narrow one even if results in some subjects are less than might have been achieved? That is not to recommend easing up on learning maths, but to place include it is a broader curriculum.

Whether the current level of success will continue in the next survey is open to question especially as:

Head teachers in England were more likely to report teacher recruitment difficulties and/or finding it hard to fill vacancies than in most other comparator group countries. About half of year 9 pupils were taught in schools with shortages in both subjects, while two-thirds (67%) of head teachers found their year 9 science vacancies somewhat or very hard to fill.

However, schools in England, despite media reports to the contrary are no longer the blackboard jungles they once were. The report states that the findings are:

The vast majority of pupils in England were taught in schools where head teachers reported hardly any problems with school discipline and which teachers reported to be safe and orderly. This compared relatively favourably against most other TIMSS countries. However, six per cent of year 9 pupils attended schools which teachers reported to be less than safe and orderly.

There is a lot more fascinating data in the Report, so it’s good to know that data skills are one we seem to do well. Not  a soft skill, but a valuable hard one.




Why are school under-performing?

There are times when I wonder whether the Tory announcements on grammar schools are merely a smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that they haven’t been able to recruit enough teachers? Even if they genuinely believe that more selection will help some pupils do better, their responsibility as a government is to offer hope to the parents of all pupils and also to all pupils. The purpose of government is not to encourage any pupil to feel a failure. While Society accepts all cannot win prizes in competitions, education isn’t a competition, but rather an opportunity to draw out the best in everyone.

Rather than concentrating on what happens at eleven, when much of the damage is done, Mrs May might reflect on whether allowing local councils to axe Children’s and Sure Start centres was a good idea? My view is that the more we do to close the gap in the early years, the more that investment pays off later. The trouble is that the return isn’t a quick one, although narrowing the gap at the age when formal schooling starts might be helpful. The report last week of more children starting school not properly toilet trained, along with other reports of language and social skills gaps, shows the gulf we have allowed to develop in society between those with and those without. Hopelessness can breed extremism and all the risks history has shown us throughout the twentieth century that were associated with the consequences of allowing it to develop in a society. One wonder how far better education has helped create a situation where there are currently no wars in the Western hemisphere.

So, rather than concentrating on grammar schools and a way of finding an alternative to Free School Meals to measure deprivation, the Tories might want to look at the characteristics of children that fall behind expected rates of progress. Some have special needs, and these should be catered for. But, for others it may be attendance, where they sit in the class, the degree of encouragement from home or one of several other reasons that early years teachers can identify.

At present, the Pupil Premium helps one group of materially deprived children, but there may be others that are emotionally deprived, change school frequently and in mid-year, suffer from poor attendance or are caught by the digital divide, whether absolute or just governed by broadband speeds. These may not always be the same children. In this day and age we should know what works and help classroom teachers to identify and use the appropriate techniques, drawing on extra funding as appropriate. If, for instance the extra funding London schools receive over most of the rest of the country is shown to produce better results in a matched sample of pupils then we need to ask whether dealing with that issue should come ahead of creating more grammar schools.

What we need is a focus on quality assurance as a model and not quality control where those that pass the quality threshold go one way at eleven and those that don’t are sent down another path. Wherever that happens it is the wrong model.