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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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.

Primary National Offer Day

Last week saw the first ever national offer day for primary school places.  This is the day when parents of children due to start primary school in September are informed of the schools to which their children have been offered a place.

News values (Galthung and Ruge, 1965) are apparent in the responses of the news media.  Using emotive language to highlight an apparent ‘crisis’ over the availability of school places the news reports focus on the personal stories of families who are not offered a place at their nearby, invariably ‘good’, school. ITV runs with the story of four year old Lily, ‘denied’ a place at a school 400 yards from her home. To claim that Lily was ‘denied’ a place effectively simplifies the policy process, making it easier to digest.  The family may have chosen the nearest school, it being their preference, but places were offered to other children, on the basis of the admissions criteria.

The Guardian runs with the headline: Class war in English villages as lack of primary school places hits families.  The article features the Beevers, a family who were drawn to move to the village of  Stotfold partly because of the ‘good’ schools.  The class strategies (Ball, 2002) of such parents are normalised, and the discussion of the ‘good’ school  is depoliticised (see for example Exley, 2013). We are invited to assume that the existence of a ‘good’ school is coincidental to the socio-economic status of the people living in the locality.  Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.  While dated,

Lacey, in his classic study on Hightown Grammar neatly highlights the reproduction of social class advantage inherent in seeking out a ‘good’ school:

“Middle-class parents who are education-conscious try to register their children at the best junior school in the area….In doing so, they inadvertently ensure that the school remains the best junior school in the area…” (1970: p. 35)

There is an almost disregard of the ways in which policy of allocating school places may be implemented at local level aside from some cursory comparisons made between the rates of preferences offered by local authorities.   For example, The Guardian focuses on the different rates in different local authorities while the Daily Mail highlights how a few select (mainly southern eastern) local authorities have not been able to offer as many first preferences this year. In short, the coverage goes no further than description of differences in rates, and is therefore decontextualised.  There is very little coverage on the admissions criteria of the most preferred schools, this information might explain why Adam Beevers and four year old Lily have not been offered places at their nearest schools .  While the frustrations of, almost exclusively, middle class parents are highlighted in news reports there is an absence of discussion on how the policy of school choice works within each local authority. How are school choice advisers used, and how might these street level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010) help parents make informed decisions about choices?  How might these advisers translate policy to provide advice to parents on choosing a school where the contexts in which families live constrain the choices they can make? Researchers, as opposed to journalists have explored these issues. Burgess et al (2011) consider that first choice preferences from some parents from disadvantaged backgrounds may be “resigned” (p.542) meaning that parents choose the school they know they are likely to get) while Exley (2013) found that choice advisers themselves felt their role should be to encourage parents to make realistic choices.

News media are trying to sell a story, so emotive language,  focus on personalities, and an oversimplification of policy are to be expected.  However  as Wallace (1997) points out  “The output of the mass media is a key resource” (p. 148) in the policy process.   According to the  Daily Mail article the fault lies with immigration, along with a baby boom.  Funding by central government is highlighted, particularly its claim that more ‘good’ schools are being created through free schools and academies. On the other hand The Guardian appears to more supportive of local authorities, highlighting the “[s]trenuous efforts by London boroughs”. It is not too difficult to work out where those ‘unseen hands’ (Wallace, 1997) are trying to guide policy.

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Gove stands up to the ‘Blob’

There are so many problems with Michael Gove’s recent article in the Daily Mail that I am not sure where to start.  I am also not sure whether I have the inclination to engage with something that I consider to be diatribe.  But here goes:

After opening with an invocation of Cyril Connolly, Gove appeals to fear:

“Because there are millions of talented young people being denied the opportunity to succeed as they deserve. Far too many are having their potential thwarted by a new set of Enemies Of Promise.”

Gove is trying to claim that he is concerned about the educational prospects of our young people.  Perhaps he is only concerned about those who he deems as talented, and therefore deserving of success?  Nevertheless, he is concerned about them.  Yet, Daily Mail readers should be warned, there are people out there, these  ‘Enemies Of Promise’ who threaten to stand in the way of these opportunities to success.

So, who are these ‘Enemies Of Promise’? They are:

“a set of politically motivated individuals”

These individuals do not agree with Gove, therefore they are enemies, and, moreover they are politically motivated, and worst of all, they are ‘Marxist’.  Helpfully, the Daily Mail has included a picture of the bearded man himself.  Presumably, in describing his enemies as “politically motivated,  Gove is suggesting that he is not similarly motivated.  This is clearly nonsense.

Gove goes on to outline what he believes is evidence of the poor standards of education in our schools with this rhetological fallacy:

“Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance”

His appeal to authority conveniently fails to identify which surveys uncovered this ignorance.

These poor educational standards, according to Gove are concentrated in our most disadvantaged communities, such as East Durham. (you may remember that this is a place where Gove claims to be able smell defeat).  Given this observation of differences in educational achievement, Marxists may point out that in capitalism there are winners and losers, and that within this system lies the explanation for differential education attainment.  However, Marxists are the subject of this attack, so anything they have to say is subject to further opprobrium in the remainder of the article.

Of course capitalism is not to blame! Gove much prefers to point the finger at the ‘Enemies Of Promise’. One hundred of these apparent enemies are signatories to a letter in The Independent in which they warn of the potential dangers of Gove’s new National Curriculum  (which explains why Gove doesn’t like them).  Some of these enemies, according to Gove, inhabit a “Red Planet” (they are Marxists after all!).  This, according to Gove is proven by their research interests:

“One of the letter’s principal signatories claims to write ‘from a classical Marxist perspective’, another studies ‘how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice’, a third makes their life work an ‘intergenerational ethnography of the intersection of class, place, education and school resistance’.”

This is nothing more than an ignorant attack on the social sciences, and one which, presumably Gove hopes the readers of his derision will agree with.

Gove then goes on to describe ‘enemies’ as a ‘Blob’ consisting of “ultra-militants in the unions who are threatening strikes”. This choice of language purposefully ignores the reality that unions are made up of their members, in this case teachers who have collectively chosen to withdraw their labour in summer of strike action.

In short, a fine example of Govian ad hominem reasoning.  No wonder the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) has recorded no confidence in him.

Armed Teachers? South Dakota passes Sentinel Bill

This week The New York Times reports that South Dakota has become the first US state to enact legislation authorising the carrying of guns by school employees and volunteers (rather than, in the case of some other states, allowing staff to carry arms).  The law, which comes into force on July 1st devolves the decision of arming teachers to the local school boards.   This ‘sentinel’ legislation follows the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut last December, though the bill was being drafted prior to the killings.

While the South Dakota Legislature voted 40-19 in favour of the bill it is not similarly endorsed by South Dakota educators.  The Associated School Boards of South Dakota has consistently opposed the bill.

Nowt banned from Middlesbrough School

Last month, the headteacher of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough issued a letter to parents requesting they correct their childrens’ ‘incorrect’ phrases with the ‘correct’, ‘standard’ English versions.  The rationale is that pupils need to be able to use ‘standard’ English in appropriate situations. There is a distinction between spoken regional dialect and written ‘standard’ English needed for literacy, however the inclusion of some phrases in the ‘incorrect’ column I suggest is problematic.

Sitha, learn thissen reet

The words and phrases featured in the ‘Incorrect’ column, far from indicating laziness, reflect a linguistically rich and diverse heritage.  Some of these words and phrases are commonly found in north-east dialects, particularly those of Yorkshire, sometimes known as tyke, itself derived of older English and North European languages. 

“The word YOU is never plural” except that you is a plural pronoun, thou is singular.  Through usage you has become singular as well as plural, therefore the use of Yous appears to follow a certain degree of logic.  Indeed, as Snell (2013) points out, yous is not specific to Teesside, “it occurs in a number of urban dialects of British English … where speakers are making a grammatical distinction (singular vs. plural) that they are currently unable to make in standard English” (119).  Perhaps, the pupils at Sacred Heart should be encouraged to use thou for the singular pronoun and you for the plural to avoid any further confusion?

The apparently incorrect word “nowt”  also has a rich history, not only in terms of etymology, but also in its usage in literature. Nowt means, approximately, nothing and is similar to the Anglo-Saxon ne wiht or naught.   This knowledge might come in handy in a reading of Bewoulf.   Perhaps, as nowt  is to be discouraged amongst Middlesbrough’s school children, Wuthering Heights will not be considered a worthwhile source of reading.  Interestingly, the antonym owt (a wiht, aught) appears not be included on the ‘Incorrect’ list.

Rather than viewing tyke as a potential disadvantage, it may be beneficial to view its rich heritage as offering some insight into and understanding of the peculiarities of ‘standard’ English.

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Gove smells defeat

Last week, during a book launch speech, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove referred to under achievement in some North East schools, particularly those in East Durham.  This comment in particular has provoked an angry response from local MPs Phil Wilson and Grahame Morris:

“When you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism.”

If Gove’s statement is a boast about his olfactory perception, it takes little effort to unpick.

The Northern Echo reports Gove’s belief that, in East Durham there is a “problem of ambition in certain traditional communities”.  For traditional, read working class, and you can see how this statement taps into an idea that the causes of educational underachievement amongst working class children lies with the culture within working class communities, rather than with structural inequalities where working class communities are disadvantaged.  However, on this occasion Gove is careful not to directly accuse East Durham parents of a poverty of ambition.  His specific target, in this current attack is not the parents, but the organisation of schooling in Durham. Thus, his target reveals his motivation.  He is taking an aim at the Labour run Durham County Council and the schools themselves:

“It is the case that there’s no choice, the local council has been one party for many years”

In this way Gove is drawing on the rhetoric of choice promoted in the academies and free school initiatives.  In other words he stands in opposition to the collective approach of local authority schooling, the simplistic rationale being that collectivity limits choice, and therefore restricts individuality.   It is an attack designed to weaken the teaching profession, by laying the blame for apparent failures in education at their hands, in an effort to justify the case for the privatisation of schools.

The Northern Echo is currently awaiting responses to the following questions which they recently posed to the Department for Education:

  • On what evidence the Education Secretary based his views about East Durham schools?
  • How many schools he has visited in the area?
  • Whether has been told of “defeatism” by any heads, teachers or parents in East Durham?

Widespread Coaching for Kent’s 11+

Kent is an unusual place, at least in terms of schooling.  It is one of the few Local Authority areas to retain an 11+ exam, the ‘Kent Test’ .  Recently Kent Online reported the following headline:

Bid to make 11-plus test ‘tutor-proof’ amid review by Kent headteachers

The accompanying article highlights concerns raised by Headteachers in a review of Kent’s 11+ system, that due to a “widespread coaching culture” the test is biased in favour of pupils from more wealthy families.  In response, consideration is being to ‘tutor-proofing’ the test.

This concern appears to suggest that, until the emergence of a “widespread coaching culture” there was no social class bias in 11+ results.  This would be to ignore over fifty years of sociological research on the patterns of educational opportunity and attainment (For example Halsey and Gardner, 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964).

Similarly, the suggestion that ‘tutor-proofing’ the 11+ by including teacher assessments, or through the use of non commercial tests as a means of  rectifying this is, at best, naïve.  This view ignores the evidence gained from sociological studies which has explored the strategies that middle-class parents employ in seeking a preferred school for their child  (E.g. Ball et al, 1996, Ball, 2003).  Tinkering with the way the 11+ test is conducted is unlikely remove social class bias.  The 11+ test, in itself is not the problem, the problem is that the test is a symptom of a selective system.

Continue reading “Widespread Coaching for Kent’s 11+”