NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools

This week NASUWT published the results of a survey, commissioned last year, seeking parents’ views of schools and colleges.   Alongside views of education the results reveal the most and least important factors that parents consider when choosing a school or college for their child, as well as the strategies they have used to inform their decision making. The following table reveals the responses to the question:

Which, if any, are the most important factors when choosing your child’s school/college?

(Comres, 2015: 7)
(Comres, 2015: 7)

In reporting these results NASUWT has highlighted location (referring to the school’s proximity to the family home, or parent’s workplace) as the most popular factor to be identified as important by parents.  In contrast, league table position is highlighted as being considered as important by only 21% of parents surveyed.   Clearly, in publishing these survey responses NASUWT are trying to challenge the importance that UK Government discourses place on quantitative measures of school ‘performance’.  The message  given is that parents believe other things are more important when considering the future education of their children and the Government should, therefore, focus on providing more ‘good’ local schools and focusing less on league tables:

“It remains the case that for the majority of parents the locality of a school is a key factor, supporting the NASUWT’s long-argued view that what every parent wants is access to a good local school.”

Aside from what is mean by a “good school”, while it may not appear a surprising result, the identification of locality may be more complex.  As Burgess et al (2014) discuss, while location may be an important factor in school choice decision making, this factor is itself influenced by the context in which the parents are identifying that location as an important factor.

“household location is a choice and may be endogenously affected by demand for high-quality schools. Suppose a family had moved to an area with good academic schools for this reason. This would give undue weight to proximity to the school in estimation, so the true preference for academic quality would appear as a preference for proximity.” (Burgess, et al, 2014: 7-8)

Location is clearly important, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that parents view academic performance as any less important, even though they may appear to do so when asked this question in a survey.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) observe, the school choice process may be a long term project, particularly for middle-class parents, which takes several years.  So, in the example from Burgess et al (2014) parents who may have moved house in order to be in proximity to what they view as a ‘good’ school would have done this because of the importance they place on academic standards.  However, they may well identify proximity as the most important factor if asked about choosing a school for their child.

When asked about strategies employed in school-choice decision making, 29% of parents reported they had checked school performance data tables, which is slightly higher, but not inconsistent with the percentage identifying this as an important factor in decision making.  School Performance Tables are provided by the  Department of Education and this facility allows anyone who is interested to view a range of selected data on schools and to compare this ‘performance’ with other schools. Presumably, if the statistics from the NASUWT survey are representative, around a third of parents are using this tool in their school choice decision making, meaning most parents, around two thirds, are not. Again, the results from this survey are far from nuanced.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) revealed in their study, school-choice decision making is a complex process and the importance placed on ‘cold’ knowledge, such as performance data is shaped by a range of factors, such as social class and gender.  The NASUWT survey  makes a valid point in highlighting that relatively few parents consult this kind of data when choosing a school or college for their child, but more information is needed.  An interesting question remains: what type of parent believes performance tables are an important factor in school-choice decision making and how do they interpret this data?  Or: Are some groups of parents being super-served via school performance tables

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Farewell to Summer

Proposals to allow schools to set their own term times, announced earlier this month, have provoked numerous responses both in favour and against.

There may will be sound arguments for a six-week summer holiday, just as there may be for shorter breaks, and schools which have chosen either of these ways may well feel justified in their decision, especially if they perceive positive results as a consequence.  However, the argument for or against this proposal is much more than a debate over the educational benefits of the length of time spent in school.

Here are just two of the arguments for a change, which I find specious:

Shorter holidays and more terms will help prevent the most disadvantaged pupils from falling further behind their peers.

There are a number of limitations to this argument.  Firstly, the argument recognises that socio-economic context can impact on educational opportunities.  Yet, it then minimises the impact of socio-economics with the belief that schools can compensate for society.  While there is a body of evidence which has examined the difference a school can make in terms of outcomes, it remains an ambitious claim that poverty, which may involve for example, poor quality housing and high levels of morbidity can be mitigated by school attendance and high quality teaching.

Secondly,  this argument renders socio-economic inequalities as natural and inevitable.  If, as a society we really are concerned with socio-economic inequalities we would work to produce a much fairer society all round.  Instead, we deal with the symptoms of those inequalities and naively hope this will produce that fairer society.

Yet, despite these problems, realist policy responses to gaps in educational outcomes are the only responses available in the absence of more fundamental social reform.  But, as generations of educational reform have shown, those gaps will remain.

The current system of  school terms was designed to meet the needs of an Agricultural economy

This is Gove’s claim. However, Gove emphasises a partial view of history.

The development of state schooling intensified at the end of the nineteenth century and, one explanation is that this was to meet the needs of a changing, though not solely an agricultural economy. Even in rural areas, factories and mining existed side by side an agricultural, and domestic service economy. Six weeks holidays taking up the whole of August was not universal across England.  For example, in nineteenth century Teesdale schools, attendance during August was a common practice, with the midsummer vacation running through July.

But Gove’s partial view of history skims over the power relations inherent in any economic system.  The schooling system that was developed at the end of the nineteenth century reflected power inequalities and it would be naive to suggest that contemporary educational policies and proposals for future policy do not.

Therefore, it is important to note where this proposal is coming from.  The proposed change is to be found in the Draft Deregulation Bill presented to Parliament earlier this month.  In the forward to the draft Bill, Kenneth Clarke and Oliver Letwin state:

“Publication of the draft Bill is the latest step in the Government’s ongoing drive to remove unnecessary bureaucracy that costs British businesses millions, slows down public services like schools and hospitals, and hinders millions of individuals in their daily lives.”

This makes sense if you believe that bureaucracy is unnecessary, costly, slows down services and hinders the daily lives of “millions of individuals”.  If, on the other hand you believe that so-called ‘red tape’ is a necessary albeit imperfect means of working towards fairness, public safety and accountability then this statement is highly disturbing, revealing the ideology behind the Government’s intentions.

With regards to setting of school terms, the proposals are as follows:

(1) Section 32 of the Education Act 2002 (responsibility for fixing dates of terms and holidays and times of sessions) is amended as follows.

(2) Before subsection (1) insert –

“(A1) In the case of a community, voluntary controlled or community special school in England or a maintained nursery school in England, the governing body shall determine –

  1. (a)  the dates when the school terms and holidays are to begin and end, and
  2. (b)  the times of the school sessions.”

This means Local Authorities will no longer be responsible for setting school terms  (Academies and Free Schools already have the power to set their own dates).  This deregulation, and apparent freeing from bureaucracy does not do away with the need for decisions to be made about term dates and session times. In other words, it replaces one form of bureaucracy with another.  The key difference is the transfer of responsibility from local authorities to school governing bodies.  This is the real deregulation, and it further marketises schooling. The move will not bring increased freedoms other than the illusion of parental choice in the school market place.  Local authorities, however imperfect local democracy may be, are a means by which we can exercise power and can hold our representatives accountable.  Deregulation takes this away.

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National Curriculum Assessments – Key Stage 2

Today, the Department for Education published data on National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2.  The data from these has  shown a drop in the number of schools falling below government targets.  As such, the DfE was was able to claim its “new tougher floor targets” had proved successful with the following statement:

“Higher floor standards driving up performance”

The logic being that higher targets will lead to higher standards.  At the same time as celebrating the success of England’s primary schools the Department for Education highlights those Local Authorities where relatively high proportions of schools have fewer than 60% of pupils achieving the expected level 4 at Key Stage 2. These schools face being converted into academies as part of the current government’s plan to transform ‘weak’ schools.   The optimistic rationale is that the “expertise and strong leadership” of an academy sponsor  gives pupils “the best chance of a first-class education”.   At this point it is worth reading Henry Stewart’s post for the Local Schools Network which provides some interesting counter analysis for such a claim, based on the data released today.

We also need to consider which pupils are doing better, and which pupils are not achieving expected levels:

  • Chinese pupils are most likely to achieve level 4 at Key Stage 2 in English and Maths
  • Children who are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) are less likely than their peers to achieve level 4 or above at Key Stage 2
  • The size of this gap differs according to gender and ethnicity, with the gap between white and black boys on FSM and the national average of particular concern

Therefore, improvement is not uniform. The persistent differences in attainment between socio-economic groups suggests the ability of individual schools to transcend these inequalities is limited.  Can primary academies really do any better?

National offer day

National offer day was March 1st.  This was the day when Local Authorities in England communicated offers of secondary school places to parents of children due to transfer to secondary school in the coming September.  However, it was only recently that detailed statistics relating to national offer day were published. Each year, parents whose children are due to transfer to state secondary school the following September apply to their Local Authority for a place for their child. Parents express a minimum of three preferred schools, listing the schools in order of preference.  Some Local Authorities enable parents to list up to six prefered schools while others allow only the minimum three. Overall, according to the statistics released by the Department for Education, 85.3% of families received an offer for their first preference school.  When an offer is made to one of three prefered schools this figure rises to 95.9%,  and increases to 97.6% where families are made an offer for a place at any of their preferred schools.  In other words, across England as a whole the vast majority of offers are made for schools identified as the families’ first choice.

A selection of news headlines serves to illustrate that the media gaze is on those not offered a place at their first choice of school.  The Guardian ran with One in seven pupils miss out on first choice secondary school, while The Independent interpreted the figures slightly differently in its headline of One in six miss first choice school.  Meanwhile, The Telegraph proclaimed its displeasure with its statement of  Children ‘forced to accept unpopular secondary schools’ .

These news reports also highlighted regional disparities which show that a higher percentage of places at first preference schools are offered in the North East while the lowest percentages are in London. The Telegraph however, chose to ignore the North East completely in its article.

Figures, by Local Authority are available from the Department for Education’s research and statistics pages.  The regional breakdown is shown in the following table.

Region

% 1st preferences offered

North East

95.1

North West

90.8

Yorkshire and the Humber

91.2

East Midlands

93.1

West Midlands

81.3

East of England

86.5

Inner London

65.8

Outer London

68.4

South East

84.9

South West

91.7

While it seems that if you live in the North East of England you will have the greatest chance of being offered a place at your first preferred school, this is not the case in Middlesbrough where the figure is  79.9%.  However,  you can be almost certain of an offer at your first choice of secondary school if you live up the coast in Hartlepool.  While London is identified as the worst place for getting into the school of first preference, there is, in contrast to the overall inner London figure, a relatively high chance of securing your first place if you live in Newham where 82.4% of places were offered to schools of first preference.  Making these comparisons between regions and between authorities is limited without further context knowledge about the socio-economic context in which preferences regarding school choice are made.

The discourses surrounding the publication of these figures equates preferred schools with ‘good schools’.  It is assumed that the higher the number of pupils who are offered a place at their 1st choice of school means the high the number of ‘good’ schools available in that area.  It is the rhetoric of the education market place.  This was expressed by the Minister of State for Schools,  Nick Gibb, when releasing the figures:

“Parents are faced with an extremely competitive and stressful process for securing a place for their children. We want to ease this pressure by creating more good school places, which is the driver behind all our reforms to the education system” (DFE, 2012)

However, this simplifies the process of school choice, in particular avoiding any recognition of social class differences in choosing secondary schools  (as discussed in the selected sources below). There is more analysis that can be done with these figures beyond the simplistic, but appealing comparative analysis provided in the mainstream press.

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Who is getting the Pupil Premium?

The office of David Lammy MP this week released analysis of the pupil premium – funding given to schools and targeted at supporting the most disadvantaged children. The analysis suggests that, rather than the additional funding going to the most deprived areas of the country, more affluent areas are seeing the greatest benefit.

Analysis has revealed that Buckinghamshire and Surrey, with 11% of under 16 year olds living in poverty will see a doubling of the pupil premium.  In contrast, in Tower Hamlets where over half of children under the age of 16 are living in poverty the premium will increase by  60%.  At the other end of the country, Middlesbrough is also among the ‘biggest losers’, seeing an increase in the pupil premium of 54% while 35% of it’s under 16 year olds live in poverty.

Data can be downloaded from the Guardian’s Datablog page:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/mar/16/pupil-premium-child-poverty-data

The logic of school refusal

Truancy is a problem.  Children should go to school, parents should ensure their attendance and schools should do more. Its common sense. The present Government are keen to tackle the issue, giving schools more powers and issuing more punitive sanctions to parents. In a speech last year, Michael Gove said:

“we have got to tackle the truancy tragedy in England”

Notwithstanding the educational related disadvantage that children who truant may face, truancy might be an understandable response to school life.  Jenn Ashworth writes an interesting article in the Guardian.  She describes refusing to go to school (though technically this is school refusal not truanting).  Her rationale appears quite logical.  Why would anyone volunteer to spend five days a week in a crowded building where everyone is dressed the same, and where your every move is controlled by a bell?

Read Jenn Ashworth’s article in the Guardian.

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Sarah Teather: Pupil Premium to Double

The pupil premium is money targeted at children from poor backgrounds, and is symbolic of the Government’s apparent commitment to social mobility.

The announcement at the Liberal Democrat Conference must have given delegates something to smile about, but is it likely to make a significant difference?

In their election manifesto, the Liberal Democrats promised a pupil premium of £2.5 billion, but, once in coalition had to settle for £625 million.  Over a year later and the pupil premium is set to rise to £1.25 billion in 2012/13 and then to £2.5 billion in 2014/15.  On the face of it, it sounds like they have finally got their way.  Crucially, the Liberal Democrat manifesto stated that they would do the following:

“Increase the funding of the most disadvantaged pupils, around one million children. We will invest £2.5 billion in this ‘Pupil Premium’ to boost education opportunities for every child. This is additional money going into the schools budget, and headteachers will be free to spend it in the best interests of children.” (2010: 34) [1]

Notice that they pledged to increase funding, and that the pupil premium would be additional money.

With some schools facing cuts to their budgets, the pupil premium may not turn out to be additional funding.

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The Cost of Improving Discipline

In a survey of parents carried out for the Times Educational Supplement (TES), almost half  backed a return to the use of corporal punishment in schools.  What is understood as corporal punishment however, is not immediately obvious.  While 49% of parents supported a return to corporal punishment, this figure dropped to 40% when asked specifically about smacking or caning.  Presumably, some methods of assaulting children are considered more acceptable than others.

Alternative forms of discipline, which don’t involve physical assault were more popular still (such as detentions, and  exclusions), with 77% of parents supporting ‘writing lines’ as a punishment.

These findings are likely to be used by the current Government as justification for strengthening the discipline powers available to teachers in schools.  It is fair to say that the current Department for Education are keen on discipline.  In the last few months the DFE has issued new advice on the Screening, searching and confiscation of pupils, advice on the Use of reasonable force, as well as a Guide for heads and school staff on behaviour and discipline.

Such advice is likely to appeal to popular concerns over behaviour and discipline in schools where there is a perception that schools throughout the land are populated by badly behaved children, and, where it is perceived staff and governors are powerless to act.

The Education Bill, currently proceeding through Parliament is intended to be a part of the solution.  It gives head teachers and schools new powers, or freedoms, regarding discipline.

Schools will no longer be required to give written notice to parents, of a detention outside of school hours.  In other words, schools have the power to control the whereabouts of a pupil who has misbehaved, after school has finished. This will appear as common sense to those who believe in tougher discipline, but the consequences of such action are potentially serious.  For some pupils, remaining at school for a detention may amount to little more than an inconvenience.  For some, the impact is likely to be significant, for example, those who rely on public transport, or those who are carers.  It short, it will hit the poor and vulnerable most.

There is a clear ideology behind this policy shift.   As Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove said at the Durand Academy:

“The right every child deserves to be taught properly is currently undermined by the twisting of rights by a minority who need to be taught an unambiguous lesson in who’s boss.”

Improved discipline is just as much about learning your place, as it is about tackling inappropriate behaviour.

Exclusion appeal panels will be replaced with review panels.  Unlike appeal panels, review panels will not have the power to force a school to reinstate an excluded pupil, though they can recommend that a school reconsider its decision.  This gives autonomy to the school, but, a review panel cannot hold a school to account.  Mistakes are made, and, in these cases children may not be readmitted.  This goes against notions of natural justice and in inequitable.  Children may not appeal against a decision to exclude them, but no doubt a teacher retains the right to appeal against dismissal. Again, it is about showing unruly children who is boss.

For schools, this apparent new freedom to impose discipline may not be that free after all.  The DfE is running a pilot on a new approach to tackling permanent exclusions.  In this pilot schools will be responsible for funding alternative provision for those pupils they permanently exclude.  Further, the performance of those excluded pupils will be recorded in the performance tables of the excluding school.  So, there will be consequences for the school, even after the school has exercised its freedom in excluding a pupil.

Pupils who are permanently excluded are often educated in a Pupil Referral Unit, where the cost of education is approximately four times that of mainstream provision[1]. Greater freedoms to exclude, maybe, but this also seems like a  greater disincentive to exclude.

While a decision to exclude should be a last resort, there may be serious consequences for other pupils and teachers of retaining a disruptive pupil who would be best served with alternative provision.

By shifting responsibility on to schools, in the name of autonomy and freedom, you shift the cost, and the responsibility.  While the promises of improved behaviour in schools appeals to populist concerns, what is of greater concern is the ideology revealed by these promises.

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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.

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.

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