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”

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

Continue reading “NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools”

The Bricks of Burston

The Bricks of Burston is currently touring East Anglia, marking one hundred years since the beginning of the Burston School Strike.

Written by Anthony Cule and Emma MacLusky and directed by Cordelia Spence it is a three hander, with Georgia Robson playing Annie (Kitty) Higdon, Tom Grace as Tom Higdon and Alex Helm as Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  The play is presented by the Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company, a relatively new East Anglian based theatre company which draws on the stories and heritage from that region.

 

Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company – The Bricks of Burston

This is no stage reproduction of The Burston Rebellion, instead it chooses to focus on teachers Annie and Tom Higdon, their relationship with each other, as well their fraught relationship with the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It is an emotional exploration of the events leading up to the strike, and beyond, as recollected by the three characters.  It is, at times, challenging, examining the frailties of the heroes as well as the humanity within the anti-hero, the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It would have been easy to present a hagiography of the Higdons to please a sympathetic audience.   However, Georgia Robson and Tom Grace’s performance tackles Tom Higdon’s temper as well as the tensions between the couple as one expresses exhaustion with challenging authority while the other urges that strength be found to continue. There are some comic moments, such as the Higdon’s  joint bewilderment at the support the strike school received from people they had never met (…a real life communist, I wonder if he knew Marx).   Alex Helm as the Rev Charles Tucker Eland was convincingly aged beyond his youthful looks with a ghostly appearance and a commanding presence throughout.  It is a story about who controls education, the purpose and relevance of education for working class communities and is as relevant today as it was in 1914.

Prior knowledge of the story of the Burston Strike School may well be helpful to appreciating the play, though it may be the case that this prior knowledge of the story is what attracts a potential audience.    The play continues to run until May 15th at various venues across East Anglia (information from The Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company).

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.

Burston Inspires

Over the years I have encountered a number of teachers, ex-teachers, and educationalists (some of whom would describe themselves as ‘radical’) who have never heard of the Burston Strke School, let alone the annual rally, where, their colleagues, representatives of their union march their banners along the route where children marched in defense of their profession.

A typical conversation about my visit to Burston, might go something like this:

“I went to the Burston Strike School Rally”

“Oh really, whats that?”

“Well, its where the longest strike in history took place, the pupils of Burston, near Diss went on strike in protest over the unjust sacking of their teachers by the village squirearchy, a strike school was built on the village green, the school continued for 25 years”

“Thats interesting, I’ve never heard of it”

Marching the Candlestick at Burston

I wonder what sense of the history, (and thus, what sense of the present) of their own professional identity these individuals have.

How much do they know about who controls teaching and education, continues to do so, and the consequences of this?

Knowledge about the history of the struggles of the teaching profession may help today’s educators understand that contemporary debates and struggles over who controls education, what ideologies those in control invoke, the purposes for which children are schooled, and professional autonomy are not radically different from the battles fought in Burston by Tom and Kitty Higdon a century ago.

What awareness do they have of teachers’ collective power?

Tom and Kitty Higdon appeared powerless in the face of spurious allegations which led to them being sacked. However, when supported by children, parents and the labour movement, the fragile powers of those who had the Higdons sacked was exposed and thus diminished. They were able to continue teaching the children whom the Burston squirearchy had sought to control.

Apart from the events of Burston, perhaps if today’s teachers were aware of the Lowestoft school strikes in 1923 they might believe in the strength and possibilities of collective unionised power. They may also be more able to make sense of contemporary threats to their profession, particularly Free Schools and Academies schools which have no requirement to follow the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document.

What must they think about the curriculum, and pedagogy?

Without a sense of history, teachers are at risk of believing that being a radical teacher involves adopting more progressive practices than their predecessors or colleagues. If they desire to adopt more child centred, libertarian approaches, teachers can turn to, for example, Montessori, Steiner, or Froebel. However, they could turn to their own history of teacher radicalism in order to find alternative approaches (Teddy O’Neill for example).  What is taught, how it is taught, and the extent to which pupils are encouraged to exercise their agency is shaped by the social, political, and economic context of the time.  In other words, there is an alternative, but we don’t have to wait for, or rely upon an expert to develop a new education system.  We could look to our own history to find that an alternative is already there.

If you are visiting the Diss area, you will find no heritage signs pointing visitors to the Burston Strike School, which is strange, given that it is a part of our heritage.

Teachers’ Strike

The discourse of government responses to planned industrial action by public sector workers highlights the inconvenience of that action to the rest of the public.  The Department for Education‘s response to the planned industrial action by the NUT and ATL on the 30th June is a case in point.  A spokesperson said:

“The Government is committed to working openly and constructively with unions to ensure that teachers continue to receive high quality pensions, and that the interests of all professionals are represented fully as pension reform is taken forward.

Lord Hutton has made it clear that there needs to be a balance between a common framework for all schemes and the need for flexibility to take account of specific workforce circumstances, such as those of the teaching workforce.

But we are clear that a strike by teachers will only damage pupils’ learning and inconvenience their busy working parents. The wellbeing and safety of pupils must remain paramount.”

Firstly, teachers are being told that, whatever the outcome of the pension reforms, teachers will be getting a good deal, furthermore they will continue to get a good deal. In other words, teachers are receiving good pensions and will continue to do so.   The message is – teachers should stop complaining. Of course, the unions’ story is different. In short, the reasons why they are proposing to walk out on the 30th is because they have calculated that teachers will have to pay £100 or more extra a month in pension contributions, will have to work longer before being able to retire, and, after this, will receive less in their pensions.

Secondly, the DfE statement highlights the balance that needs to be struck, and thus, they are calling on teachers to compromise, given our economically straightened times, thus calling on teachers, and the rest of the public sector, to share the collective burden. Further, by invoking Lord Hutton the Department is highlighting that it is not so much themselves that are proposing these changes, but it is the recommendations of an independent expert.  This way, the Department is able to counter accusations that changes to public sector pensions might be politically motivated.

It is the third part of the DfE statement which gets to the point.  The damage that striking will do to children, and the inconvenience to hard working parents.  This is a divide and rule tactic, although some of  those busy parents will also be public sector workers facing the same concerns over their futures as teachers.  This final part of the DfE’s response is an emotional plea to teachers in that it implies that teachers will be at fault if children’s education suffers as a result of the strike.  However, this plea also highlights the vital importance of teachers  (if the absence of teachers for one day damages education, then teachers must, by default, be crucial), and therefore, you have to question the priorities of a society which cannot, or will not ensure a decent pension for its most vital employees.

Francis Maude, Minister of the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has also criticised the proposed industrial action. The Guardian reports him as saying:

“…We very strongly hope that anyone who works in public service will put their own interest and the interest of those they are there to serve ahead of their union leaders.”

which is interesting, suggesting as it does, that the interests of unions are somehow disconnected from their members, and that members of those unions did not vote for industrial action, suggesting that they see their interests as being best expressed by collective action.  Again, Maude is appealing to workers’ sense of moral obligation to those they are there to serve.  In other words, put aside your own concerns and deliver to the public.  But, unless workers have the right to withdraw their labour, they are nothing but serfs, and we live in a feudal age.

Michael Gove introduces the Schools White Paper

The Department for Education has appropriated a range of technologies to get its message across, following on from the previous Labour administration, the Department for Education has a YouTube site.  Its visual appearance is somewhat more sombre than that of it’s predecessor, the DCSF. Perhaps this indicates a greater emphasis on substance, rather than style. Or, perhaps, that is what we are supposed to think.

With the launch of the Schools White Paper, comes Michael Gove appearing on video introducing it. You can watch the video here.  It leaves you in no doubt as to what the key themes of the Schools White Paper are.

The White Paper is, as Gove tells us, called The Importance of Teaching

Firstly, this refers to the quality of teachers.   The Government is committed to raising the prestige of teachers.  That sounds unproblematic, on the face of it.   Note, however, the emphasis on the quality of teachers, not teaching. The White Paper invites us to believe that improvements in schools will be as a result of good quality teachers.   Presumably that implies that good quality teachers practice good quality teaching.  But this is not merely a semantic point. Good quality teachers will be identified through their degree classification.  Graduates will require at least a 2:2  in order to receive government funding for initial teacher training.  This might not appear to be a bad thing, after all, we want teachers who know their subject and can demonstrate this at degree level.  However, it does suggest that the qualities that are required to become a good teacher, exist, and are fixed before initial teacher training takes place.  In reality, given the popularity of many PGCE programmes, this level of selection is likely to have being taking place for some time. However, as a result of these proposals, providers of post-graduate teacher training programmes will now no longer be able to provide a place to a potentially excellent teacher who has less than a 2:2.

Secondly, there is the power that is to be given to teachers.    Again, this sounds unproblematic.  Teachers will be able “to take control of the learning that goes on” and will be given “new powers to take control of order and discipline in the classroom”.  If teachers are important, this sounds reasonable, let them get on with teaching, and, while they are at it they can get on with disciplining children.  How very generous of the Government to give teachers power.   So, let us problematise this. Can power be ‘given’ to teachers in this sense?  I doubt it.  Unless the Government genuinely sees that it has nothing to do with education, and will disband the DfE, and never again propose education policies,  it still has power, and it can just as easily take back this so called power that it is giving teachers. 

Alongside this new power, is freedom.  As the webpage for the Schools White Paper states, schools are to be  “freed from the constraints of central Government direction“.  The Schools White Paper, presumably, should not be seen as an example of  that “central Government direction”.   

So, there it is, teachers have power, and schools have freedoms, and, there is no “central Government direction”.  Except that “central Government” is pressing for the teaching of synthetic phonics, and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.  Testing remains, with a new “age six reading check”  to be introduced, inspections remain, and minimum “floor standards” will be imposed on schools. The curriculum is to be reformed, with a focus on “essential knowledge”.  We can accept that teachers have new powers, and schools have freedoms, however, they have these as long as they implement this Government’s policy

Schools White Paper ‘word cloud’

Late last month saw the publication of the Schools White Paper.  This is the Government document which sets out plans for “a radical reform programme for the schools system”.  This sounds very grand, and exciting.  Who would not want to make our schools better?  You can expect more from me on this later.

In the meantime, by way of a gentle easing back into Education and Society, and by way of an introduction to the Schools White Paper let me share with you the Schools White Paper ‘word cloud’.

I doubt that this visual representation is a substantial alternative to reading the White Paper itself, yet, it is significant.  As it says on the Department’s web page:  “The larger the word, the more heavily it features”.

Therefore we could conclude a number of things from this image.  Clearly schools is the largest word.  For some, this is likely to be reassuring as it highlights the policy focus on the importance of schools.  We all want our children to go to good schools, and, in many ways popular discourse equates schools with education.  Note however, that education, is not as large as schools, and therefore, presumably does not feature as heavily in the White Paper.

Note the other ‘large’ words that stand out: teachers, pupils, and, importantly, improvement.

There you have it, a Schools White Paper which puts schools at its core, in which  teachers and pupils are seen as central, with the underlying aim of improvement.  It is there in black and white, or, more precisely shades of blue.  Who could argue with those sentiments?



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”