Ackley Bridge – Resolutions in need of tea

The final episode of Ackley Bridge served as a liminal zone, a place of resolution for a number of the issues explored so far as well as a threshold for further possibilities to be developed in the next series.  There is going to be one.

The extent to which school dramas represent school life, while not necessarily being representative of school life is discussed elsewhere  (See my posts about Waterloo Road).

The banner unveiled at the start of the episode displaying Collage might have been an indicator of what was to come.  The episode was, indeed a collage of loose ends from the series.  Indeed, when Mr Bell asks “how much damage can he [Jordan] do in the canteen with a couple of paintings?” we know we are being invited to begin to quantify the likely damage left at the end of the episode.

Firstly, there is Jordan. Reeling from the news that he is not the father of Candice’s baby he descends into his course of damage causing when he discovers that his brother Cory is the father.   Cory, is tall, handsome and articulate.  He is everything that Jordan is not, and all the girls like him.  However, Candice reveals he has some questionable sexual politics:

“We only did it the once…and he didn’t even talk to me after.  You were really nice.”

Jordan fails to hear the important point on the end of Candice’s protestation and instead chooses to cause ‘a scene’ in the canteen, as pupils in school dramas do.

Elsewhere, Missy is showing prospective parents and pupils around the school. Dropping into a science lesson she relays that “hands on experimentation with students is encouraged”.  A thinly veiled reference to the more than problematic behaviour of Miss Sharriff, the science teacher, towards one of her pupils, Nasreen. Missy accompanies this phrase along with some suggestive hand gestures.  There should have been a warning to viewers to cover eyes and ears.

The deserved embarrassment of Miss Shariff, whose behaviour warrants, at the very least, a teacher misconduct hearing, is interrupted only by a chemical reaction overflowing in phallic form.   From there, we move seamlessly on to the next humorous scene which is introduced by a cringe worthy performance from the school’s Brass ensemble (revealing the hitherto unknown absence of a Brass Band culture in West Yorkshire?).  Setting the stage for a car crash recruitment presentation to an audience that seemed, strangely, to consist largely of staff and students, Alya Nawaz, the daughter of the sponsor Sadiq Nawaz announces:

“My Dad’s screwing the headmistress, that’s the only bit of integration that’s going on here”

Gasp.  And, then we see the reaction of the assembled crowd, and we realise why there had to be staff there.  They need to pass round the gossip. This they do.

Shifting to a corridor scene we witness the utterly disgraceful attempt by Miss Sharriff to claim the status of victim as she admonishes Nasreen, the 17-year-old VIth former she has had a sexual relationship with:

“Yesterday,in class anyone could have found out the way you two were carrying on”

Before recognising, in an all too late moment of self-awareness that she “should never have gone near” Nasreen.  Bold and incredulously, she asserts that she is

“here to be trusted”

Seventeen year Nasreen stands her ground, failing to recognise the enormity of what has happened between them:

“I’m not gonna say anything and I’m not gonna tell anyone”

So, that’s alright then?

To be fair, maybe this storyline is in a transition zone and will be developed in series 2.  Who knows?

Meanwhile, back to Jordan.  Thinking he can only impress a girl as ‘sophisticated’ as Chloe by driving a stolen car at high-speed, rather than just being himself (i.e dozy, lovely and thus ultimately more decent than his brother) faces existential angst whilst looking out across the wilderness that is, presumably, Calderdale.

Throughout the episode we revisit the sexual tension between Miss Keane and Mr. Qureshi which has been brewing from the very beginning of the series.  It is a case of will they/won’t they before we are put out of our misery by Miss Keane deciding to be an adult and choosing to focus her attention on her daughter, Chloe, who we now know isn’t as sassy as she makes out.

Then, in an effort to save himself, Sadiq Nawez shafts Miss Carter, this time verbally, in front of the governors.  Drawing on familiar misogynistic tropes to make her behaviour seem worse than his he stakes his claim to remain as the school sponsor.  Miss Carter returns from a brief impromptu trip to the family court, where she has demonstrated to viewers that she really does have the best interests of the pupils at heart. Symbolically, her character too is resolved, reunited with her husband, Mr. Bell.  As she strides through the school doors the battle to keep her job begins.  But, we are in a zone of possibilities.  We will not know who has ‘won’ until the start of the next series.  This is a message to us to not to forget to come back for series 2.

In summary, the final episode suggested everything can be resolved by having a chat. It is Yorkshire, after all.  Nevertheless, this was unrealistic, there was not a pot or mug of tea in sight and everyone knows liminal spaces need tea, Yorkshire tea.

Ackley Bridge

‘Expect Challenging and Outrageous Behaviour’ warns the Channel 4 downloader about its new six-part drama, Ackley Bridge.  Challenging and outrageous behaviour, at least within the remits of the pre-watershed, is the staple of TV school dramas. The audience is presented with a familiar format.   Set in West Yorkshire, possibly, somewhere within the environs of Leeds/Bradford, because in drama land that is West Yorkshire. As with other dramas about the lives of young people (KES, Ratcatcher, The Selfish Giant), the presentation of the landscape as a backdrop to the lives of the characters is not insignificant.  When not within school, the young people’s lives take place within terraced houses, back yards, ginnels and waste land that serve to remind us that this is a bleak place that constrains the young people.  And if we don’t understand this message, the Head reminds that only one third of pupils from this area get GCSE English. The school will intervene in the lives of these young people, and they will turn out good.

While the deprived urban landscape provides the stage on which the young people’s lives are acted out the rural landscape, at least what we have seen so far, is the where free spirited English teacher, Emma Keane, lives. She provides us with an inter-textual reference to Wuthering Heights, so we’d expect her to be living where she does, a million miles away from her pupils?  Even here, the landscape is constraining for her daughter, who is used to London.  She thinks it is a backward place.  Nevertheless, it is not so far away from urban life, as Mr. Qureshi from the school can drop her home before returning to the school to retrieve his laptop, and possibly the girl’s mother.  Clearly, West Yorkshire is not so vast that it cannot be traversed in its entirety in a short car journey.

Ackley Bridge College is a newly created Academy, though, conveniently, we have been spared the story behind the creation of the Academy. If these details had been presented there is a danger that we might have questioned the disempowering of local communities, and the long-term consequences of the privatisation of education.  This is drama, and all we need to know is that the new school replaces two failing schools within a divided community and that, consequently attainment will rise as meritocracy triumphs.  The school aims to become outstanding.

Deprivation, particularly urban deprivation is another familiar theme of school dramas, and added to this, we have ethnic tensions.  A secondary school drama set in a market town would be inconceivable. Social problems do not exist there, at least not ones that can be explored on pre-watershed television for a prime-time audience.  Predictably, sexual tension, between the teachers as well as the pupils is an underlying theme to keep us returning over the next few weeks.  A social drama, politics lite, episode three is on 8pm,  Wednesday June 21st on Channel 4.

Bedale’s Bog Standards

Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochmerle is clearly not on the reading list at Bedale High School this term. If it were, the school’s management team may have been able to predict that a new toilet access policy might not have ended well.  Instead, a policy designed to limit ‘free’ access to the toilets to specific time slots prompted a pupil protest, starting in the girls toilets, then spilling out on to the school playing field.   The police were called; they determined, unsurprisingly that it wasn’t a matter for the police.  The school responded by fixed term exclusion of some 38 pupils.

Local news agencies broke the story on Friday 10th March.  The Harrogate Advertiser ran with Police called during student protest at Bedale High SchoolRichmondshire Today went with a  no less  descriptive headline:   Students protest about toilet breaks at Bedale School.  Predictably, the story made it to some of the Nationals, ensuring some unwanted, but warranted publicity for the school.

The protest was a response to recent changes in school rules which included altering the access arrangements to toilet facilities. The toilet access being one of a number of rule changes brought in by the school following a recent Ofsted inspection which concluded the school “requires improvement”.  A statement from the school, issued on the day of the protest, appears to be an attempt to clarify the toilet policy.  The statement also positions the school as reasonable,  reducing the protesting pupils’ actions disrespectful disobedience, thus justifying the school’s actions in excluding the miscreants.  Here is an extract:

“the school has reminded students that toilets are freely accessible during specific periods at lunchtime and break time but that students who need the toilet during lessons, or need access for medical reasons, will always be given access on request. Toilets are therefore accessible at all times.”

However, the wording of this statement, along with reports regarding the prosaic reality of this policy suggest something more problematic.   It appears there are gradations of accessible referred to here.  The school use the term ‘freely accessible’ when referring to the ‘time slots’ allocated for pupils to undertake acts of personal hygiene.   News sources have reported that the toilets are ‘open access’ between 11.05 and 11.25.  The school’s newsletter informs its pupils that the toilets will be open again from 13.10, five minutes before afternoon school starts.  While the assertion that “toilets are therefore accessible at all times” appears to suggest that human rights are being upheld, there is something more going on here involving the control of pupils, their bodies, and expectations of discipline and obedience.   Some reports suggest, that while the toilets may not be locked outside of these hours, pupils have to be escorted to the toilet.  Perhaps, there is a specific job role here?

There are a number of perspectives we can use to make sense of what has occurred .  From a Marxist perspective Bowles and Gintis (1976) suggest that the school functions to socialise children to thinking that hierarchies are normal and natural, and so learn to be obedient and subservient.   Unable to negotiate a resolution the pupils turn to protest, for which they punished and reminded who is in charge, as the school reminds us:

“Unfortunately, a small group of students have attempted to undermine our work to improve the ethos at Bedale High School.”

According to Bowles and Gintis, schooling thus corresponds with the world of work.  We could also look towards Foucault (1991) to consider the ways in which the school timetable operates as a disciplinary mechanism.  Time is used to regulate the body, and the body becomes the target of power.  In short, the school toilet is a site of spatial politics (Millei and Imre, 2016) where children are trained and civilised  (Elias, 1978).

Another problematic aspect of this incident was the report that some pupils could claim access to the toilets at any time, for medical reasons on production of a ‘medical card’.  If true this is a peculiar form of inclusive practice in the sense that it calls out the disabled, or ‘leaky’ body as requiring ‘special’ treatment, a theme that is explored in more detail by Slater et al (2016).  A dose of dis/ability studies and training in non-discriminatory practice might be in order.

Finally, this display of pupil protest is not unique, there are a wealth of examples from the history of pupil protests and strikes, many in response to punitive actions and material conditions in schools and classrooms.  These could have been studied to inform a more  dialogic process and productive resolution.  Teachers, study your own history.

Continue reading “Bedale’s Bog Standards”

PISA (Slice 1)

A lot can be said about PISA  (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2015, the triennial test and survey completed by a sample of 15 year olds in OECD and other nations.   Databases and interactive data visualisations are available on the PISA website.  Potentially, anyone with skills in data analysis can use these data sources to explore their own questions about the data, and research will no doubt be forthcoming. In the meantime, the first slice of PISA looks at news reports of the PISA results.

Results of the 2015 PISA test were published on 6th December 2016.  UK based news sources have been keen to report on the performance of the UK, and its constituent countries, in comparison with the other nations taking part in PISA 2015.  BBC News ran with the headline: PISA Tests: Singapore top in global education rankings reporting that, in comparison, the “UK remains a middle-ranking performer”.  The Telegraph asks: Where does the UK rank in the international school league tables?   While it reports that the UK has climbed up the ranks for science and reading, it cautions that the average point score had dropped in both subjects, though only by one point in reading.   As the Telegraph report goes on to say:  “only 11 per cent of students in the UK are top performers”  in comparison with Singapore where 35% of pupils are ‘top performers’.   Similarly, The Guardian focuses on the apparent lack of success of UK schools with the headline:  UK schools fail to climb international league table.   The Independent too warns that UK schools are falling behind leading countries.  These reports suggest that there is little to celebrate in the latest PISA results. The position of the UK in the PISA rankings signifies, according to news reports, that we are falling behind.

However, where average, or mean scores form the basis for comparison we should not be surprised to see some variation in the results between schools as highlighted by the case of Alexandra Park School in North London. As BBC News reported, the average score of the pupils in  this school surpasses the average score of pupils in Singapore, the top performing country taking part in PISA.    So, while the UK is ‘middle ranking’, some UK schools are not.  Some score higher, some score lower. Perhaps in an effort to highlight which country is to blame for bringing down the UK average,  the differential performance of constituent parts of the UK has also received attention. The PISA scores for Wales are lower than other UK countries, and falls below the OECD average.  The BBC reports that Wales is “still worst in UK in world education tests” as the performance of Wales’ pupils has failed to improve on previous PISA tests.   Wales Online reminds us that politicians may be judged by and held accountable for the educational performance of a country’s pupils, reporting that First Minister, Carwyn Jones has been described as a ‘failure’, partly as a result of the country’s performance in PISA 2015.

These reports, in highlighting the apparent mediocre position of the UK in global league tables suggests that the comparative performance of the UK should be a concern for both educators and policy makers. Grek (2009) discusses a politics of comparison where the PISA ranks provoke policy responses in an attempt to increase a nation’s position in future tests.  Future slices on this blog will pick up on these and other issues related to PISA.

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Big Data and Social Science

This was a training course organised by the NCRM (National Centre for Research Methods).   Held at the LSE in Holborn, and facilitated by Frauke Kreuter, two days were dedicated to considering the ways in which social scientists could engage with Big Data.  The content of the two days is supported by a book Big Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.  It was a shame I could only find a hard copy at the time of purchase as it really is a weighty tome, and not something one wants to carry around.

What is Big Data?

This is a good question.  One response to this, that Big Data is “anything that is too big to fit onto your computer” (Foster et al, 2017: p3) reveals the temporality of this as a defining characteristic.  As the computing capacity of personal computing increases, so does the ability to handle vast amounts of data using a personal computer or laptop. So, this may not be a good yardstick for defining Big Data.  Still, this gives us an indication of the ‘Bigness’ of Big Data.  There are three key characteristics of Big Data, including volume (large datasets), velocity (data that may be in real time, or streamed), and variety (data in various formats and from multiple sources).  This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 5 of Big Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.

Accessing Big Data

References to the proliferation of Big Data and the datafication of everyday life can be found in social scientific literature (boyd and Crawford, 2012; van Dijck, 2014; McFarland, et al, 2016).  While data may be ‘everywhere’, it is important to know where to look as well as develop the skills needed to access the data. Techniques such as web scraping were discussed.  This involves searching for data on the web and extracting it.

There are tools such as Beautiful Soup to facilitate web scraping, and we discussed Selector Gadget which the user can use to identify the code needed to select different parts of web pages.  However, one of the challenges with this is that web sites change, meaning that this might not be a reliable way of extracting data.  Further, web scraping may be illegal in some circumstances as the providers have not given permission for their data to be accessed in this way.

Another approach is to use Application Programming Interface or API. In non technical terms, this means ‘reading the data and putting it into something else’. It is distinct from web scraping, apparently.  Chapter 2 in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools provides more details on the methods and tools used in collecting data from web sources.

Record Linkage

Big Data may be generated from more than one, indeed several, datasets.   Tokle and Bender (2017) highlight the ways in which Big Data differs from the more usual survey data used by social scientists.  Survey data, usually, contains all the data relevant to the area of research interest.  Social scientists using Big Data may have to use data from several sources.  This relates to the ‘organic’ characteristic of Big Data.  That is, it is typically data that is found, rather than designed (as in survey data) and may come from the myriad everyday transactions of human activity.  These include credit card transactions and social media use.

Researchers using Big Data may want to ‘match’ cases that appear in both datasets.  In other words, data on individuals may be linked across datasets.  This might be very useful to a researcher trying to gain a complete picture of the activity of interest.

Of course, in linking records, there is the possibility that individuals will be identified. We discussed how this meant that informed consent, usually essential for social scientists, is not enforceable. In fact, Big Data threatens informed consent as a value of social research. The consequences of using an individual’s data cannot, yet, be known.  Such ethical concerns urgently need addressing by social scientists  (boyd and Crawford, 2012). Chapter 3 in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools covers more on record linkage and matching.

Visualisation

This was the most animated part of the session and is testimony to the ability of visualisations to tell a story with data.  Of course, this is nothing new. Historically, visualisations of data including Nightingale’s Coxcombs, du Bois’ hand coloured charts of Black Life in the USA, Jon Snow’s cholera map and Mineard’s visualisation of Napoleon’s march on and retreat from Moscow have been used to tell powerful stories, that data presented as raw statistics or in tabular form could not.

We discusses how there is now an expectation that visualisations will be interactive.  One example we explored was Baby Name Voyager which provided some fun as we entered various names. However, a shocking dramatic visualisation was explored in Out of Sight, Out of Mind,  displaying animations of   drone strikes in Pakistan, and the resulting fatalities .

Data visualisations are not just a way of presenting results, they are also used for presenting findings of work in progress, which has value for Learning Analytics. Chapter 9 in  Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools covers visualisations in more detail.

What has this to do with Education?

Another way of phrasing this might be, why would Big Data not have anything to do with education?  Education and educational practices have long been the subject of quantification (Smith, 2016).   Today:

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy”  (Smith, 2016: 2).

Big Data has become part of the way in which education is governed (Sellar, 2015; Selwyn, 2015; Williamson, 2015).   In particular, student performance data is increasingly used for accountability purposes.  Leaders and managers of educational institutions will rapidly need to become familiar with Big Data analytics.  Within Higher Education, data is routinely collected from every student transaction (lecture attendance, library visits, assignment submissions) and is collected by institutions, constituting a wealth of digital data on students. They may not be aware we collect, and use this data, and again this raises more ethical issues that researchers are engaged with.   Along with Learning Analytics this data may be be used used to identify those students at risk from failing or dropping out. As Learning Analytics develops, JISC has published a review of Learning Analytics practice in UK and internationally.

A two day course couldn’t cover everything, or produce Big Data experts. Other sessions included text analysis and machine learning, which both have relevance to education, and are  covered in more detail in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.

 

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Djeca tranzicije

Djeca tranzicije  (Children of Transition) is a 2014 Croatian film telling the stories of Marta, David, Lana and Natalija, four children navigating their way through life.

In the first scenes we see who we learn is the mother of 15 year old Marta, ascending a set of stairs, sobbing as she empties a bag of belongings on the table in her living room. Throughout the rest of the film, the online life of Marta is shown, including extracts of the cruel messages she received through the networking site ask.fm.  Scenes with her grieving parents and sister gradually reveal the events leading up to Marta taking her own life.

For the other children in the film, there is a sense of change, new beginnings.

For David, who we first meet demonstrating his ball skills in front of the crest of the Slavonski Brod’s Budainka football team, transition is eagerly awaited in the form of a ‘piece of paper’ inviting him to La Maisa (home to the Barcelona youth squad).  The usual transition from elementary to secondary school don’t interest him, he does’t want to go.  He sees his future in football, as well as the things this will bring him:

“I think I’ll be a good soccer player.  I’d enjoy having a good car and girls and stuff”

Named after David Beckham, his future in professional football is certain, according to a local shopkeeper, and pigeon fancier.  The head of the Ivana Brlic Mazuranic Elementary School however, reduces his talents to a more objective assessment:

“He’s shown exceptional psychomotor skills”

Meanwhile, David continues to attend school where he learns from his teacher that there is a correct way to draw stars.  His artistic efforts quashed, he sets on erasing his efforts and starting again.   Similarly, the piece of paper from Barcelona never arrives.   His family, desperate for him to succeed, for their benefit as much as his, are disappointed.  But, he returns to play for Budainka.  There are, perhaps other roots to success, just as there are other ways to draw stars.

Natalija, 11, whose face we never see, plays outside in what appears to be an idyllic country scene. She rides on a tractor as it rumbles across the farmland and tends to young chicks.  She gazes out across open countryside, though, bizarrely, the shot includes a functioning electric fan.  However, we learn that in material ways Natalija is poorer than her classmates, and that this has led to bullying so severe that she has to change school.  As we follow, at ankle level, Natalija chasing an excited piglet through the farm the camera moves effortlessly to follow another child’s feet.  Inhabiting more sophisticated, red high heels, 6 year old Lana leads us into her house.  Posing by the light of the front door, Lana twirls before showing the contents of her wardrobe.    In the first words she speaks to camera she lists the contents of her wardrobe.  The subtitles follow the list with “this is my wardrobe, skirt, sweater, sweater, sweater” but they do little justice to the Croatian which is much more powerful.   Dressed in a burberry skirt and high heels Lana plays with her iPhone before clambering into an electric toy car to drive around the grounds of her house.

Lana is sophisticated and precocious, yet vulnerable.  In one scene we see her singing:

“No one’s bought me a drink for ages or undressed me with their eyes”

Scenes swap between Natalija and Lana as if to pose the question –  which girl is the richer?

Both girls are facing a transition in their schooling. The Prvi dan Škole for both children could not be further contrasted.  Lana, due to start school for the first time, plays to the camera in her pink fairy like outfit as she sits astride a matching bike.  Schooling is an unwelcome distraction to applying make-up, dressing up and singing adult songs. Natalija, meanwhile, climbs into the back of her father’s car as he reassures her that things will be different in her new school.  Her journey is interspersed with scenes with the film’s other characters, reinforcing to us the message that she has a long journey to school.

The issues considered, bullying, aspirations and inequality are not uniquely Croatian, and neither is the documentary style of the film.  However, transition of Croatia, politically, and socially and in terms of film making does provide a unique context. See for example Pavičić (2010) and Vojković (2008).

Towards the end of the film we are returned to where we began with Marta’s mother, emptying the the bag of her daughter’s belongs, having just collected  it from the police.  We cut to David, who has still to receive a piece of paper from Barcelona, watching the pigeons fly from their loft.  Where are they going, we don’t know.  Perhaps there is a clue in the clip from Marta’s social media account shown in the final scene: Bogu iza nogu (the back of beyond).

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Cutting the Pupil Premium for ‘bright’ pupils

Last week, the TES reported that it was aware of ministerial discussions on making changes to Pupil Premium spending.  Pupil Premium is additional government funding given to state funded schools to help raise the achievement of ‘disadvantaged’ (which is determined according to ‘eligibility’ for free school meals and having been a looked after child for more than 6 months).

The article reports on a proposal that would see Pupil Premium allocations cut from ‘bright’, but disadvantaged pupils, and reallocated to those disadvantaged pupils with low attainment.  The rationale is that the ‘bright’ children are less in need of additional support, presumably because they are ‘bright’.

Firstly, the use of the adjective ‘bright’ is problematic.  Antonyms of bright include ‘dim’, dull’, or ‘lacklustre’, or, perhaps in the context of educational attainment, ‘thick’.  None of these are explicitly expressed, of course, but certainly some opposite of bright is implied.

In defence, the Fair Education Alliance Report Card of 2014 in which this idea is recommended does not use the term ‘bright’. So, maybe we could blame the journalists in this case?  Possibly, but there is hint in this document that attainment is somehow inherent, and as such those pupils who are achieving in line with their non Pupil Premium peers are in less need of additional support.

The Fair Education Alliance proposes the following recommendation for policy:

Target pupil premium by attainment as well as disadvantage measures. This could be achieved through halving current funding per pupil for FSM Ever 6. Half of this funding could then be re-allocated to pupils eligible for FSM Ever 6 who have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend. The change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils.

As Pupil Premium is paid to schools for the purpose of raising the attainment levels of the most deprived pupils and the rest (ignoring for the moment the assumptions around homogeneity of the rest) and thus narrowing the attainment gap, this may appear to make sense.  However, one of the problems is that this assumes that where a pupil, who attracts the Pupil Premium, has a previous level of high attainment will maintain a high level of attainment throughout their school career.  As if being bright is an innate state that will be maintained with or without intervention and support.

The evidence does not support this. New transition matrices, discussed here by Tim Dracup paint a more complex picture, suggesting that prior high attainment isn’t always maintained between KS2 and GCSE, with widening gaps between the most and least deprived. This questions the rationale of re-allocating Pupil Premium Funding from pupils with previous levels of high attainment.  Elsewhere, the knowledge that attainment gaps widen throughout a young person’s school career is supported.  For example, the recent publication of Too many children left behind which examines the education trajectories of children from the USA, UK, Australia and Canada adds further evidence about the widening gaps in attainment, even where pupils of different social backgrounds have started school with similar levels of attainment.

Perhaps further attention could be given to the last line of the above extract from the Fair Education Alliance Report Card of 2014:

The change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils

The implication is that, because Pupil Premium is not currently weighted by prior attainment, schools are taking credit for the attainment of those previously high-attaining pupils, when they have no right to, because they are ‘bright’.  A new formula would mean they would have to focus on those pupils with lower levels of prior attainment.  Of course, if we know attainment gaps get wider as children travel through school, this makes little sense, other than as a means of further holding schools to account for failing to mitigate against social inequality.

While the effectiveness of additional funding such as the Pupil Premium in narrowing the gap may be  questioned overall, cutting this from ‘high attaining’ pupils isn’t going to help.

View the lecture on Too Many Children Left Behind held at the LSE:

Return of Grammar Schools?

Grammar Schools never really went away, despite comprehensivisation in the 1960’s and 70’s.  One part of England that retained the Grammar system was Kent, whose Grammar Schools continue to use the ‘Kent Test’, the county’s own version of the 11+ as a means of selecting pupils.

Sevenoaks is one town in Kent without a Grammar School.  Children who pass the Kent test take up places in other Grammar Schools in Kent (involving what might be a lengthy commute).  Alternatively , they may enter the ‘Grammar Stream’ of Knole Academy in the town.  However, this is about to change.

In September 2017 an annex of the Weald of Kent Grammar School for girls will open in Sevenoaks.   Due to section 99 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act of 1998, restricting the creation of new Grammar Schools, this is not, technically, a new Grammar School.  It is, however, an expansion, on a different site, of an existing Grammar school.

For those residents of Sevenoaks who have been campaigning for a Grammar School in their town this is, clearly good news.

Speaking on the day the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan announced approval for the expansion of the Weald of Kent Grammar School, Andrew Shilling from the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign said:

“Today’s news addresses the deep unfairness of Sevenoaks being the only district in Kent without a grammar school, which forces 1,100 Sevenoaks children to travel daily to grammar schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, a round trip of up to 25 miles and two hours. This negatively impacts on their ability to learn, on their opportunities for hobbies and sport, on their opportunities to develop friendships, and on the time they spend with their families.”

Here we have the Grammar system normalised.  The reference to the ‘deep unfairness’ refers not to the selective system as a whole, but the lack of Grammar School places in Sevenoaks.  The unfairness isn’t felt by those who ‘fail’ the 11+ and who miss out on the opportunity for an academic education, but those children who are, apparently, ‘forced’ to travel outside of the town for such an education.

But is this ‘unfairness’ now resolved?  The annex will be an extension of the Weald of Kent, a girls school. Boys will continue to travel out to Grammar Schools.  Overall, the opening of the annex may not mean more pupils from Sevenoaks attending Grammar Schools.  Rebecca Allen from Education Datalab thinks that there will only be a marginal increase in the number of Sevenoaks pupils attending Grammar Schools.

However, elsewhere we may be seeing a turn towards selection as other Grammar Schools make use of the ability to side-step the School Standards and Framework Act and establish annexes or satellites.  The Telegraph reports that floodgates have opened, allowing a ‘wave’ of new Grammar School applications. The Guardian predicts that other Grammar Schools will be spurred on to apply to establish satellite schools. Schools Week has identified ten potential new areas of England which could see Grammar annexes established.

School Swap – The Class Divide

School Swap, ITV’s quasi-documentary series concluded last night. Described as an ‘unique experiment’ (it was neither) the series saw pupils from a private and a state school swap places.  In the first episode three pupils from the private Warminster School in Wiltshire travel to Derby to spend a week attending lessons at The Bemrose School.  In the second episode three pupils from Bemrose spent a week boarding at Warminster.  The swap is designed to highlight the contrasts between the two types of schools and despite ITV claiming it to be ‘unique’ is actually a well rehearsed TV format (for example in the 1980’s the BBC’s Forty Minutes broadcast the feature Changing Places which saw pupils from Rugby School exchanging places with Ruffwood, a comprehensive in Kirkby near Liverpool) and one that endures, along with social class and educational inequalities.

By highlighting the apparent success of the private sector there was an implication that the state sector is deficient in comparison.  This framing of the problem of the ‘educational divide’ serves to set up the private sector as offering solutions to the challenges faced by  state schools, and in so doing diverts attention from the pervasive problems of an unequal society.  Analysis of the assumptions and ideas presented were thin on the ground.  For example, the identification of ‘white working class boys’ as underachieving is a gross oversimplification which is supported in some discourses by the conflation of ‘Free School Meals’ with ‘working class’. It also diverts attention from the underachievement of pupils from Black backgrounds.  In the interviews with the Bemrose pupils at Warminster a positive attitude to the school dress code was considered to be a worthy moral position, but this position can be problematised as being an example of how pupils are socialised into conformity or belonging to the group (a good start would be to read some Durkheim or Bowles and Gintis).

While the series was sub-titled The Class Divide, there was little analysis of the ways in which social class might shape educational experiences and outcomes, and this was revealed in some of the problematic statements from both headteachers, which one would have expected to have been challenged in a documentary. From the Head teacher of Warminster there was a denial that contacts helped to improve the life chances of its students, which is to ignore the powerful influences of different forms of social capital for educational outcomes and life chances.  From the headteacher of the Bemrose School there was an expression of the belief that “education is the key to unlocking the inequalities in society”, yet education systems have a social purpose, are shaped by the society in which they exist and thus may serve to reproduce social inequality, rather than challenge it.  At the end of the series we learn that Brett from Bemrose has been offered a funded place at Warminster, but there was no explanation of why Brett was singled out for the offer. Twitter users responded by offering congratulations.  If he chooses to accept, Brett may well benefit, but benevolent scholarships are not the answer to inequalities in education.

This was documentary lite.  It is more interesting to see how the debate is framed than for anything it reveals about social class and educational inequalities and solutions to this injustice.  Please, read some Bourdieu, some Durkheim, Ball…

La cour de Babel

In La cour de Babel, or School of Babel, twenty-four immigrant school-children spend a year in the ‘reception’ class of a Parisian secondary school learning French to a sufficient standard in order to move into mainstream classes. This is a ninety minute fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Julie Bertuccelli, and is the latest in a classroom genre of French films following the successes of Philibert’s Être et Avoir, and Cantet’s drama, Entre les Murs.

The pupils of Collège de la Grange aux Belles come from across the globe and their journeys to Paris are equally diverse.  Mihajlo and his family have fled anti-Semitism in Serbia, Miguel has come from Venezuela to study the cello, Luca has relocated from Northern Ireland due to his mother’s new job, and Kessa, from England, has been sent to develop her French language skills as her family believe it will improve her job prospects.  In the process of observing parent-teacher interviews we learn more about the lives of these children, and the motivations behind their parents and guardians’ desires for them to do well in school.  On hearing about Rama’s misbehaviour in class her disappointed guardian recalls the mistreatment she was subjected to by her family in Senegal and asks “Did you come here to study, or to fool around” reminding Rama that she is fortunate to be given this opportunity to do well. At these interviews we hear that for Djenabou going to school in France means freedom from excision (female genital mutilation) that she would likely encounter on return home to Guinea. Interview after interview with parents and guardians reveals hard working families who are committed to helping their children do well.

Some of the children have come to France with their families seeking asylum. There is  Mihajlo, already mentioned, who offers help to the refugee service, and in so doing leaves little time to complete his homework.  There is Maryam, from Libya, who has to leave the school at short notice as she and her family are being relocated to Verdun.  When her classmates express shock that this is a decision made by social workers, not her mother, Maryam explains, pragmatically, that they must take the opportunity to move into more suitable living accommodation when offered, they are not in a position to turn the move down.  However, it is clear that this disruption is not going to get in the way of Maryam’s ambition to become a doctor.

For all the children in this class, whether asylum seekers or not, this experience is a transient one.  At the end of the year many will progress into mainstream classes while others are required to stay on in the reception class.  When Rama hears that she is being asked to repeat the year she erupts into a vocal denunciation of the school’s “crap” teachers and condemns a racist school system which sees that black pupils, like herself, are left in poverty (her observation is not without substance).  Does the film ignore wider social issues?  Perhaps.  There is no examination of wider political and social contexts.  Yet, far from being neglected, the film reveals them to be ever present.  The context is provided by both parents and pupils as reasons and explanations for seeking an education in France.  It is left to the viewer to consider these issues further. The transience of the reception class is further highlighted in the additional material included in the UK DVD release which revisits the pupils two years after the filming.  Some are still in France, others have moved again, and there is a variety in their education trajectories.  All are doing well, and all have goals for their future.

La cour de Babel has a narrative which celebrates the contribution of immigrants, but, perhaps more significantly, celebrates the ability of reception classes to facilitate a young person’s integration into French society and offering them the chance to succeed in education. It is, therefore, a film about French values. This is not lost on the pupils. In one scene we see one girl articulating the meaning of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.   It is clear that this pupil knows exactly what this means to her and her classmates.