Free Schools, the Norfolk Model

The current government is keen to adopt free schools, citing parental choice, and freedom from the LEA.  On this site has been a number of posts critically assessing this development. However, maybe the left, in their oppostion to free schools is missing some potential with these proposed schools. They could look to their own history.

There is an example of an English school, established with support of pupils, and parents,  which was sponsored by numerous organisations, and was free from the control of the local council.  It sounds every inch a free school, it was open to local children, it did not charge fees, and parental choice was a key feature.   However, it wasn’t funded by central government, so, in this sense it is distinct from proposed free schools.

The school was established in April 1914, and was located in the Norfolk village of Burston, near Diss.  In, perhaps an early example of pupil voice, pupils from the local council school marched on the village green to protest at the dismissal of their teachers, Tom and Kitty Higdon.  At first, the school was located on the village green until donations came in from trade unions and co-operative movements to build the ‘Burston Strike School’.  The building is still standing today, though the school closed in 1939.  Every year, during the first weekend in September there is a rally in Burston. If you do visit the school look out for one of the foundation stones, indicating sponsorship from Tolstoi.  This is a romantic idea, but, it might be wise to check up on the history of this supposed sponsor before accepting the this sponsorship stone as evidence of the great man’s support of the school.

It is fair to say that this is not the type of school envisaged under the free schools model.     Continue reading “Free Schools, the Norfolk Model”


Quangos are out..

Unsurprisingly, the new government has announced the abolition of a couple of ‘quangos’ .

Firstly, BECTA the British, Education Communications and Technology Agency is for the chop.  This agency has overseen developments in ICT in Schools.  Government developments in this area have seen an expansion in the amount of technology that we see in schools.  It is currently managing the Home Access scheme, which subsidises the purchase and costs of computers and internet connections for children from poorer homes.  What will happen to this is uncertain.

The QCDA is also to be scrapped. This is the agency responsible for designing the school curriculum.  Exam boards will now have the freedom to design the curriculum for their awards, without regulation from the Government, through the QCDA.  It is entirely consistent with government policy that the QCDA should go, as schools will be granted more freedom in terms of the curriculum.

All this sounds great, as it saves money and gets rid of regulation.  However, a lack of regulation can be a bad thing, and there will be little government say in what children and young people are taught.  Similarly, there will be little government input into qualifications, and, for example, no way of regulating standards.   

Freedom, maybe, but equally, not much accountability.

The Tory Boy and Chris Keates

The Tory Boy describes itself as a “new conservative blog”.  Yesterday, it published this post about Michael Gove and the plans to transform schools into academies. 

Apart from suggesting that no-one has noticed that academies, with their generous  funding might ‘suck’ teachers away from other schools, it devotes its 3rd paragraph  to comments made by Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT.

As you won’t be able to read the detail on the image, here is an extract of the relevant section:

Chris Keates who is the general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, expressed his disapproval towards this new policy saying the policy was disappointing. He also said that this policy fails to improve the existing education quality as the term ‘academy’ does not mean the school associated with the term offers excellent quality of education. He made his point on basis of statistics which clearly proved that existing academies were no better in their performances when compared to ordinary schools.”

Oh, dear.  I think The Tory Boy needs to learn a little more about the general secretary of one of Britain’s main teaching unions, perhaps clicking here might help.  Gender politics was never one of the conservative’s strong points.

Parent power, or not, in the ‘Big Society’

The Big Society is David Cameron’s Big Thing.  With regard to schools he has been keen to emphasis the power that his government will grant to parents, for example in being able to start up their own schools.  Aside from the deeply unpleasant, paternalistic notion of a government granting power (they can just as easily take it back again), there is a certain level of inconsistency in Cameron’s promises.

While we are being told that schools will be freed from LEA, control, that parents will have power with the establishment of free schools (unlikely, as private companies will run them) we have also been treated to the plans to fast track schools to the academy status.  This is somewhat inconsistent, as parents will, inevitably be left out of the process.  Here  is an interesting piece by Fiona Millar (she’s a journalist specialising in education, she frequently writes  in the Guardian and runs the site  The Truth About Our Schools) in which she rightly points out that it is headteachers who will make the decision to move towards academy status.  Parents will not be consulted.

A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?

This is how Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in the Guardian described the new coalition’s plans for school league tables.  In fact, it appears to be not so radical. 

League tables, providing statistical information on the ‘performance’ of pupils are published by the government’s education department (as in the illustration below), and reproduced in national newspapers. 

On the face of it, they provide robust, statistical information about the performance of a school.  Though deciphering the information will not be straightforward for everyone, the figures show what percentage of pupils attained a specified level.  It appears objective, scientific, unbiased.  However, the problem with these tables is that they only provide a partial picture; there is a lack of information on the social context  of the school, and, although there is now a contextual value added measure, there is little information on the attainment of pupils on entry to that key stage.  So, in short they do not compare like with like, and, are biased.

League tables were introduced to give parents information about schools in their areas.  They could use this information to make informed decisions about selecting the most appropriate school for their child.  Parents, thus became consumers in the education market place.  Further, it should be noted that this development was not introduced by the previous Labour administration, but by the previous Conservative government.  In particular, it was the 1988 Education Act which ushered in many changes which have resulted in the intensification of the education marketplace.

Now, we have the ConDem government intent on changing the league table system.  Plans, however, are at the ‘suggestion’ stage.   One suggestion, not a definite, is to group schools according to their socio-economic context.  So, schools in poor areas will be grouped with other poor schools. 

Is this radical?


  • There is nothing new in benchmarking schools, (or other public services for that matter), alongside other schools with a similar social context.
  • Benchmarking alongside schools with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals has been used to compare the ‘performance’ of schools.  There are, however problems with FSM data as it is only a ‘proxy’ for deprivation)
  • The last government also introduced a value added measure to take account of the intake of pupils

Is this suggestion a good idea?

It depends on the motivation of the government

  • The claims that the current government makes for achieving social justice through education reforms ring hollow.  Proposals for more academies, and for free schools are not about achieving social justice, but are about withdrawal of the state from the provision of education. Academies and Free Schools will be outside of LEA control, and so, in control of their own admissions.  League tables comparing ‘like with like’  are, more likely to mean one set of tables for ‘good’ schools, and another for ‘poorer’, underfunded, LEA schools.
  • Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg claims that this move will provide a more “honest picture” of schools’ performance. Again, it is possible to debate the level of honesty that statistical information can provide about any school.  However, any picture, honest or not, it is the impact that this change will have on the consumers of league tables, and the consequences that is important. So…

What are the consequences?

In short, inequality

  •  For parents, it depends on their social class, whether and how they use this information.  As Bowe et al[1] observe, it is too simplistic to assume that parents make school choice decisions on the basis of school performance data alone.
  •  Just as important in school choice decision-making are social networks.  See the research carried out by Ball and Vincent[2].
  • Crucially, Ball and Vincent found that, for working class parents, school choice was not an anxious process, largely because choices are limited, often attend the local school.  It is these parents who are unlikely to be pouring over any form of league table.
  • For those (mainly middle class) parents who do use league tables as part of their decision-making process, this change will simply remove from analysis, those schools which they would not wish to consider for their child (the ‘poor’ performing schools, the ones at the bottom of the league tables).  There will be a middle class league table, and one for the rest.
  • The educational market place will intensify, a greater disparity between schools ‘freed’ from LEA control; academies, and free schools and the remaining state schools will be evident. Greater social inequality is likely to result. 

Continue reading “A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?”

‘Outstanding schools’ to become Academies

Following today’s Queen’s Speech, hundreds more secondary schools, as well as primary schools are set to be granted academy status. 

'Outstanding' schools are set to become academies

By becoming academies, schools which have been deemed as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted will be taken out of LEA control and will receive funding direct from central government.  The political discourse which the Conservatives use to justify this move refers to  freedom.  Schools becoming academies will be  free of the constraining  LEA.  Being free from LEA control (which has obviously not be so constraining, given that they are deemed ‘outstanding’ ) academies will have greater freedom over the curriculum, admissions policies (which pupils they do and don’t want) and what they will pay teachers. 

There are several claims made for these new academies, however these claims are not robust.  Consider the following: 

  • Michael Gove, the new education secretary believes these new academies will raise standards, he bases this on the ‘evidence’ from the performance of existing academies (so, one can assume he gives the Labour Government credited for raising standards through academies).
    • Evidence that existing academies have raised standards is not clear, in some cases standards, in terms of GCSE performance fell, while the use of GCSE equivalents may have accounted for the rise in other academies.  See my previous post about Francis Beckett’s book.
    • These new schools are already among the top performing schools, there is a limit to how far they can improve standards, yet high standards are likely to be maintained, not improved.
  • New academies will promote choice
    • For the academies, yes they do.  Freeing schools from the constraints of the LEA means that schools can decide on their own admissions policies, the academies are free to choose which pupils they want, and crucially which pupils they don’t want.  Meanwhile, LEAs still have the responsibility to provide schooling for children in the area, but have fewer schools to choose from.
  • These new academies will promote social justice
    • How?  They are free to choose which pupils they want, and they need to maintain standards in order to maintain their freedom, even with a pupil premium (an incentive for schools to take pupils from deprived backgrounds) academies are unlikely to characterised by a comprehensive intake.
    • They are allowed to choose their own pay rates, this will hardly lead to social justice among teachers.
    • Social justice cannot be achieved where academies are treated more favourably, for example, by receiving more money from Government, while others struggle for funding. 

It is tempting for the current ‘oustanding’ schools to apply for academy status, this includes nearly 2000 primary schools, as well as secondary schools.  At a time when public services are being, which school wouldn’t want to take advantage of more money?

The main teaching unions,  NUT, NASUWT, and ATL oppose these changes.  The NUT and NASUWT have hinted at strike action should these changes go through, understandably they are concerned about their members’ pay and conditions, but more widely because of the implications these proposals have for education. 

Continue reading “‘Outstanding schools’ to become Academies”

ConDem Plans for Early Years

Today, the coalition Government announced its plans for a number of policy areas.  Among these, were plans for Early Years.

The Government promises a "diverse range of providers"

Cuts in Sure Start provision were to expected, from the Conservatives, the LibDems were committed to maintaining a universal service.  They are now backing cuts.   Now, the coalition states:

“We will take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, increase its focus on the neediest families, and better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families”

On the surface, this sounds appealing, as is the pledge to introduce payment by results for Sure Start.  However, it is a worrying development. It is worth remembering that one of the original purposes of Sure Start was the empowering of parents, particularly in deprived areas.  Sure Starts were also diverse, precisely because they responded to local circumstances and need.  The payment by results may well turn out to be an excuse not to fund those projects which do not appear to have a measurable outcome.  Not only is it likely to take several years for the results of early years interventions to be seen, many outcomes are likely to be ‘soft’ outcomes, such as parental empowerment.  It is also worth remembering that in a survey of its members, last year, the Conservative Party found that over half of its members wanted the abolition of Sure Start. 

There is a pledge to continue to provide free nursery care for pre-school children in England.  However, it is the Government’s intention that this is “provided by a diverse range of providers”, which again sounds nice, suggesting choice.  It is likely to mean less regulation, (getting rid of ‘red tape’ is also a more general pledge, so, less need for an Early Years trained specialist perhaps?) with providers of all description competing to offer services in child care.  Inequality in the quality and accessibility of childcare is likely to increase, with those who are able, subsidising places where poorer families cannot afford to send their child.  What incentive there will be for providers to be located in poorer areas is not known. 

In addition, the vetting of those who have contact with children is to be scaled back to “common sense levels”, again,maybe popular, but what does ‘common sense’ mean.  The CRB system is not perfect, but scaling it back is unlikely to improve the safeguarding of children.

The new Government also intends that society becomes more “family friendly”.  Thats nice, though we shouldn’t forget that David Cameron voted against the extending of maternity leave and against paternity leave when the last Labour Government introduced these for the first time.

Physics degrees from ‘rubbish’ Universities

In a previous post I referred to Nick Gibb’s alleged quote, reported in the Guardian.  He is reported as saying:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

Here is a list from UCAS of Higher Education Institutions which are running physics undergraduate programmes starting later this year.

The Universities listed on this page are:

  • Aberystwyth University
  • University of Bath
  • The University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • Cardiff University
  • University of Central Lancashire
  • Coventry University
  • University of Dundee
  • Durham University
  • University of East Anglia
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
  • University of Hertfordshire
  • The University of Hull
  • Imperial College London
  • Keele University
  • The University of Kent
  • King’s College London (University of London)
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Leicester
  • The University of Liverpool
  • Loughborough University
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Nottingham
  • Nottingham Trent University
  • Oxford University
  • University of Portsmouth
  • Queen Mary, University of London
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • The University of Salford
  • The University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • The University of Strathclyde
  • University of Surrey
  • University of Sussex
  • Swansea University
  • University of the West of Scotland
  • University College London (University of London)
  • The University of Warwick
  • The University of York

Which of them are ‘rubbish’?

Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools

Nick Gibb is the new Minister for Schools.  This is not surprising, given that previously he has shadowed this position.

He thinks traditional forms of teaching and discipline are good, so, along with his colleague Michael Gove we might expect to see not only more uniforms, but rote learning, and on the spot detentions. However, Gibb is also anti bureaucracy and wants to leave headteachers to get on with the job.  Which, presumably means they are free not to implement traditional forms of teaching and discipline.  We shall see.

Since taking up his new position, he is reported, according to the Guardian to have said:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

So, apparently he believes that some Universities are ‘rubbish’ , though which ones is not clear, though it seems Oxbridge does not come under the rubbish category.  Neither does Durham, one might assume, given that Gibb studied Law there.   Presumably he also believes that a graduate with excellent knowledge of physics will make a better teacher than  someone with, say, a third class degree and a PGCE.  However, there has been no announcement yet from the Government that teaching qualifications are to be dispensed with. We’ll wait and see.

Back in 2006, Steve Richards interviewed him, about his school days, for Teachers TV.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It is clear from this what kind of school he prefers: Maidstone Grammar good, Thornes House Wakefield bad.  However, he might disagree with the Minister for Education, Michael Gove on the issue of uniforms if his experience of Canadian schools is anything to go by.  No uniform there, but they did start the day by singing ‘O Canada’

If you watch the video, then listen for this quote from Gibb when Richards asks him about the different intakes of the schools he attended:

“I never knew what the intake was, as a kid I never, you never sort of assess that, but I did notice very much the differing quality of teaching and the ethos of the school”

So,while he was oblivious to the backgrounds of his fellow pupils in the numerous schools he attended, he was able to discern what good teaching is, and he stands by the validity of this selective, partial judgement. 

Continue reading “Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools”