Ruairi is too bright for Loxley Barratt

Borsetshire must have more than its fair share of private schools and privately educated pupils if The Archers are anything to go by.  We know this because school choice, once again, features in the storyline.

Ruairi Donovan has been through a lot in his short life.  He is the son of Brian Aldridge from his extra-marital affair with the lately departed Siobhan Hathaway/Donovan.  She died from cancer, in 2007.  Upon her death, Brian’s long-suffering, but immensely strong wife, Jennifer agreed to take him on. Bewildered, little Ruairi  arrived at Home Farm. The decision about his schooling then, was that, if possible he should attend, the local primary,  Loxley Barratt.  It would be too traumatic to be packed off to boarding school so soon after loosing his mother and being transported to Ambridge.  They had missed the application for school places, and, as the fictional school at Loxley Barratt was fully subscribed, they had an anxious wait over that summer to see if a place became available.  They were in luck. Ruairi has settled.

Fast forward nearly four years, such fears have evaporated, and now boarding is being seriously considered for this eight year old.  So, in other words, Brian and Jennifer are perusing the education market place.

They appear to have an abstract notion that private is better than state.  They are not so much dissatisfied with Loxley Barratt as convinced that it is not good enough for Ruairi, referring to some unsubstantiated claim that his teacher wouldn’t expect him to complete all his homework.  Brian and Jennifer are articulate, why don’t they exercise their cultural capital by speaking to Ruairi’s teacher to find out what this story is really about?

Educational expertise is not wholly trusted by Brian and Jennifer.  Instead they are engaging in a class based process of school choice.   Brian did remark that it is an increasingly competitive world out there; he wants Ruairi to have the edge.  In other words, he wants to ensure, understandably, the reproduction of his social class advantage.

It could be argued that they are engaged in a process of matching Ruairi to the most appropriate school (Ball, 2011). Firstly, this can be seen in their  decision to go private on the basis that Ruairi is bright, and therefore, presumably too clever for the state sector.  Secondly, we heard their rejection of private day schools on the grounds of the amount of traveling involved, which, Jennifer in particular felt would be too much for young Ruairi.  Lastly, boarding school was felt to be appropriate for Ruairi because of the activities on offer, he would surely enjoy these, and to deny him these opportunities as a day pupil wouldn’t be fair.  So, it is in Ruairi’s best interests to board, he has been matched to this type of school.

Jennifer has also been consulting the grapevine (Ball and Vincent, 1998), to help with the decision making. Thus far, this has involved phoning Elizabeth Pargetter as to her opinions about local boarding schools.   Ball and Vincent describe the kind of information that Elizabeth might be able to offer as hot knowledge.  Elizabeth might be able to describe her feel for a school, with this helpful to the Brian and Jennifer, supplementing the cold of official knowledge they have already obtained from the schools’ websites and Ofsted reports.

The rationales presented by Brian and Jennifer suggest that there is no alternative for Ruairi.  He must be educated privately, and, no doubt he will be. Of course, there is an alternative, but this is ignored in Jennifer and Brian’s thought processes. Their decision making is presented as normal, natural, what all parents go through, not the class based process that it is.

When the time  comes for secondary school choice to be made, they could utilise the grapevine to seek out the hot knowledge of Jill Archer.  She would advise them, as she did her own daughter, that: There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green.

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Most Schools are not Academies

This is not the headline the Department for Education used earlier this month when it announced the latest figures for the number of open and converting academies. On that page you see a map with markers showing the number of academies. You can even zoom in on a location of interest.  The DfE kindly  supply a code to embed the map on your own website if you so wish.  Unfortunately, I am unable to, so you will have to make do with a link to the map:

It all looks very impressive.  I was more interested in the spreadsheet of academies, which you can also download from the open academies page.

While it shows both sponsored and converted academies, it doesn’t immediately show those schools which are not academies (either sponsored or converted).  From the data it is interesting that in some LEA areas, there are very few academies. Fortunately, someone at the Anti Academies Alliance has worked out the number of schools in each LEA that remain non academies.

Overall, 68% of secondaries are not academies, but this is not evenly distributed across England, with some LEAs with up to 100% of secondaries not converting into academies.  For primary schools, even fewer are converting.  Across England 98% remain LEA schools.

The Government is, understandably using the latest academy figures to demonstrate how the popularity of its academy conversion policy.  However, the figures, while telling us how many are converting, as well as how many are not, don’t tell us about the motivations of heads and governing bodies.  It would be interesting to know the reasons why some schools are converting.  One converted school I know made reference in its recent newsletter  to the ubiquitous, and rather non specific claim that academy status will provide more control, yet, it doesn’t appear that enthusiastic about its new status, keeping its old name. Many other recently converted schools have done the same.  It hardly indicates an enthusiastic embracing of the Government’s academy policy.

Summer Skirts for Boys

“And sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn, just what it would take a child a night to learn”  Billy Bragg – The Passion

Today the BBC ran this story.  Chris Whitehead, a pupil at Impington Village College attended school wearing a skirt.  His rationale?  The weather was hot, school rules ban the wearing of shorts in hot weather, but, crucially, not skirts.

Chris Whitehead’s decision therefore, was logical and consistent with the school’s uniform policy.   Of course, in protesting in this way the uniform policy of the school has been exposed as inconsistent.

The loophole in the school rules uncovered, he, appropriately came to school in a skirt.  He apparently got some teasing, but he appears not to mind.  The school, to its credit, praised the way Chris protested, and have decided to review their uniform policy.  Maybe the school will, after all, rectify its inconsistency.

Uniforms are used by schools to signify gender (amongst other functions).  Skirts are normally associated with femininity, as opposed to masculinity. Impington Village College probably felt it didn’t need to specify that only girls are expected to wear skirts.  This article of clothing, hitherto unquestionably female, has been questioned, by a 12-year-old boy. Well done Chris.

Impington Village College may choose to react by specifying a skirt length (for girls) reaching to just above their ankles, thereby scuppering any pupil’s desire to stay cooler in the summer.  However, lets hope they do the sensible thing and allow boys to wear shorts in the hot weather.

New term at Waterloo Road

The 7th series of Waterloo Road enables renewed opportunity to examine a popular construction of comprehensive schools. Waterloo Road is a stereotypical comprehensive; it is urban, it is working class, it is struggling to improve standards, pupil behaviour is unlikely to be graded outstanding, and a number of the teachers are portrayed as incompetent. Thus, it should be seen as undesirable, a place unsuited for educating the future generation. Yet, it is estimated that 4.91 million people tuned in to watch the first episode in the new series last Wednesday night [1]. There is clearly something attractive in the undesirable comprehensive school.

A pupil we had never seen before, Ali Redback,  left her newborn baby in the changing room.  Her decision to leave him in this location meant that someone was likely to find him, sooner, rather than later.  The baby’s chances of survival were also much greater having been left in a findable location[2].   As it turned out, the finder was the new site manager, Rob Scotcher.

In a departure with convention, the staff at Waterloo Road did appear to contact the emergency services, but it was the police, not a team of paramedics that arrived to take charge of the baby. When a pupil asked why the police were at the school, Eleanor Chaudry, the new English teacher offered the rationale that “a serious crime had been committed”.  She is, technically, correct (child abandonment is a criminal offence, however, in appeals at least, police tend to focus on the welfare of the mother rather than a potential prosecution[2]).

Thus, Eleanor Chaudry is constructed as a  character unsympathetic to the lives of the pupils she teaches.   We also know this because Tom Clarkson described his new colleague as “Maggie Bloody Thatcher” in reference to her right-wing political activities.  It is possible that this character was created with more than a passing reference to Katharine Birbalsingh, the author of To Miss with Love. Birbalsingh was enthusiastically received by the Conservative Party conference in 2010 because she ‘exposed’ the apparently failing comprehensive system. Katharine Birbalsingh is an experienced teacher, a former deputy head, and, whether you agree or disagree with her understanding and analyses of her teaching experiences she does appear to have genuine empathy with her (now former) pupils. Eleanor Choudry, judging by the comments she made in this first episode, does not.

Meanwhile, Head teacher, Karen Fisher, identified AIi as the mother of the newborn, and Kyle Stack came forward, believing himself to be the father.  Christopher Mead, who has not always demonstrated the highest standards in sexual politics, gave advice to Kyle on his sexual responsibilities. It is safe to assume that Mead is unlikely to be a fan of Nadine Dorries’ proposals identified in Sex Education (Required Content) Bill 2010-11.

Such curriculum content as recommended by Dorries would  have been inappropriately out of touch with the pupil’s reality in this case. It transpired that Kyle was not the father.  The biological parent, was, after all,  Ali’s stepfather, Callum.  Upon this revelation, Chris, committed an act which might have earned him respect among some.  He punched the paedophile stepfather square in the face, sending him to the ground.  Mead’s justification for this act was that people like Callum are monsters.  If only they were Chris, it would make them much easier to spot.

As ever, not much teaching went on.

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Flatpack Schools for the Future

Last month, Sebastian James’ Review of Education Capital  was published. James, and his team reviewed the previous Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF), which had the  “quixotic aim of rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England by 2020” (2011: 12).  That judgement about BSF indicates the new policy discourse on school buildings.

BSF was felt to be too ambitious, quixotically so, thus, it comes as no surprise that, especially in an age of austerity, it is recommended that school building programmes need to be less ambitious.  One of the key recommendations arising from the review is that of standardisation:

“New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs.” (2011: 6)

Thus, the notion of Flat Pack Schools has been raised by the Guardian. The Review itself comes close to using the phrase ‘flatpack’ when it envisages that  “…off-site construction will be possible for some standard elements from plant rooms up to specialist classrooms”  before later going on to describe the  “modular build and the manufacture of standardised components off-site”  (ibid: 54)

The discourse of the Review justifies the flatpack option; BSF wasted time and money during the planning, and procurement stages. Times are hard, standardisation is cheaper. This sounds somewhat plausible.  More schools can be rebuilt or refurbished this way than under BSF (Or, alternatively the Conservatives build more schools than Labour).  It is reminiscent of the 1951 Conservative Government’s council housing policy, which saw changes in both the quantity and quality of new council houses [1].

Another rationale for standardising the school estate, according to the Review is the problematic involvement of head teachers and pupils in the design process.  The design of some schools might have reflected the pedagogical approach of a particular head, who would move on, presumably lumbering his or her successor with a building which was at odds with their pedagogical approach.  Similarly, pupils who were involved in the design process of their new school might never get the opportunity to experience the completed project, as they would leave school before the new building was ready. In one sense it sounds a reasonable reason for denying such users a voice.  Why should teachers and pupils design a school that, at best they will get to use, at best, only briefly?  At the same time,  it is a curious rationale.   Do teachers and pupils not have valuable experiences which can benefit future generations of users of those same buildings?  Should user consultation be stopped for every other project, building or otherwise?

Standardisation, the preferred solution to messy teacher and pupil involvement, thus denies these people a voice, but also gives control to the Government.  It is their pedagogical model that is to be imposed on new school buildings. Politicians will spend little time using these school buildings, which, apparently is a rationale for denying other users of school buildings a say in their design.

This discourse is at odds with the wider educational discourse of the current Government.  Last year Michael Gove proudly boasted:

“Teachers, not politicians, know best how to run schools”

Does the “greater freedom” promised, not apply to the design of buildings that these teachers will teach in?

This policy dismissal of pupils’ views on the design of their school buildings coincidentally comes at the same time as  The School I’d Like run by the Guardian.  School design, as well as other aspects of the curriculum featured among the young people’s recommendations.  There are some suggestions, which many teachers, parents and politicians would not want to see in schools,  like chocolate fountains, but, fundamentally children know what makes a good, comfortable school in which they are happy to learn.

The Private sector (or Public Schools) take a different approach, viewing their architectural resources as important assets which appeal to prospective parents.   Read Fiona Millar’s post on the Truth About Our Schools website.  She asks why, if school buildings have no transformational effect, Eton College is so keen to celebrate its resources in this regard.

Continue reading “Flatpack Schools for the Future”

State Educated Royalty?

News coverage of a big event held in London last Friday has not yet abated.  With discussions surrounding the significance of the event for the future of the monarchy, it was interesting to read Francis Gilbert’s suggestion on the Local Schools Network for the education of any future Royal offspring.  He gives four reasons why William and Kate should send any children they might have to a state school.  Should they follow his advice, it could well signal a new phase for the monarchy, though, I doubt they will seriously consider Gilbert’s suggestion.

When Satisfactory is not Satisfactory

Declining standards of pupil behaviour in UK schools makes good news copy, especially when that behaviour can be used to justify increasing the powers of teachers to discipline pupils.  This week, the apparent declining standards of pupil behaviour in schools was in the news following the publication of statistics on Behaviour in Schools, relating to school in England.

There is no doubt that the current Government sees behaviour and discipline in schools as important.  Elsewhere on this blog I have discussed the eagerness with which Michael Gove, the current Minister for Education embraces school uniforms as a means of raising standards, including behaviour.  Additionally, there are a number of consultation documents on behaviour and discipline available on the Department for Education’s website.

The Guardian reported that Nick Gibb (Schools Minister) was concerned by the statistics, as they revealed that behaviour was judged to be no better than Satisfactory in 20% (one fifth) of schools.

Which means what?

The recently released statistics are based on Ofsted inspections, which, using the familiar Ofsted nomenclature judge behaviour in schools to be either Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory, or Inadequate.

Without knowing the detailed criteria which Ofsted uses to determine their judgement it is not immediately apparent what types of behaviour might constitute Outstanding, as opposed to Good and how they both differ from Satisfactory.  It is however, the judgement of Satisfactory which is the most interesting term.  It can be stated with reasonable confidence that the term Satisfactory means, well, just that. The implication however from Nick Gibb’s apparent concern over these figures is that Satisfactory actually means something else.  Unsatisfactory perhaps?

Ofsted do have another judgement reserved for those schools in which it has judged behaviour to be less than Satisfactory.  That judgement is Inadequate.  Surely the Minister should be focusing his attention on thee schools, not on those schools where behaviour is considered Satisfactory?

So, how many schools are judged to be Inadequate?

Without wishing to diminish the problems that schools, pupils, teachers, parents, and communities face poor pupil behaviour,  the answer is, a relatively small number.  The statistics as at December 2010, reveal:

  • 25 Primary Schools were given a behaviour grade of Inadequate (0.1% of all English primary schools)
  • 32 Secondary Schools were given a behaviour grade of Inadequate (1% of all English secondary schools)

Putting the two figures together, 57 (or 0.28%) schools were judged to have Inadequate levels of behaviour.

What about good behaviour?

The news attention does appear to be on the rather strange concept of ‘no better than’ Satisfactory.   However the key points are clearly stated on the first page of the Statistical Release.  They reveal that:

  • 94% of primary schools were judged to have either Good or Outstanding standards of behaviour
  • 82% of secondary schools were judged to have either Good or Outstanding standards of behaviour

Those figures, apparently do not make such a good newspaper headline.

The Department for Education also details the figures by local authority, as well as providing figures for special schools, and pupil referral units.