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 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?

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?

“Class war: how education must change”

Last month I visited the University of York to hear Lord Adonis give his thoughts on the future of education. It was also an opportunity for him to promote his recent book ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’.

Adonis declared his belief in the state as the supreme manifestation of society, that the state should seek to bring about change, for the better. To reform the English education system Adonis focuses on the following key areas.

  • Good governance

Comparing governance in the private sector with that of the state, Adonis expressed his belief that governance of state schools has been traditionally weak, particularly in deprived areas where the parent body is not strong.  The private sector, in contrast, Adonis believes has traditionally benefitted from good, strong governing bodies.  Can we look to the private sector for solutions while maintaining a strong state?

  • Good teachers

Unsurprisingly Adonis argued that teachers have to be the best. Increased competition is, apparently what is needed to ensure our teachers are the best. Adonis highlighted the ratios of applicant to teacher training places in Finland, South Korea and Singapore, and compared these with the much lower figures of England.  We need, he argued, greater selection for teacher training places, with far more applicants per place.  Presumably, he doesn’t mind an increase in disappointed  applicants.

Another, related idea is his call for fewer Universities offering teacher training programmes (another model borrowed from Singapore?), with only the ‘best’ Universities being allowed to provide such programmes.

  • Good curriculum

Looking at the practice in some of the more elite private schools, Adonis recommended more subject specific teaching from the age of seven.

Beyond aged sixteen Adonis argued the UK has the ‘narrowest curriculum in the Western world’, supporting the IB he looks, again to Singapore and calls for students to take a greater range of subjects over the course of their schooling. For those who are less academic, he proposed the idea of a Tech Bacc with requirements to study literacy, numeracy and work experience.

  • Good destinations

There needs to be good destinations for all, not just those that are academic. Highlighting a need for more apprenticeships, he argued that the Government should lead on providing apprenticeships.  See his blog post: Wanted – An apprentice scheme for Whitehall.

While claiming half our comprehensive schools failed, Adonis continued to refer to the need to ensure we have “all ability schools”, which,  surely means, comprehensive.

Although inequalities were mentioned on several occasions, I was not convinced that the ‘Class Wars’ in the title of his talk referred more to social class wars than it did to classroom wars. Education reform was presented as a means to social mobility and less inequality, yet previous education reforms have done little to make ours a more equal society.

There were some interesting suggestions that are hard to disagree with (raising the status of teaching for instance – though what this actually means is more complex) and some that I am not convinced of.  Whether any of his suggestions will come to fruition and, if they do, whether they will truly reform education as Adonis hope is another question.   Without tackling inequality I envisage a future generation of University of York students  listening to a speech about the failure of Adonis’ “all ability schools”.

“These people run a school!”

This was the exclamation of Vic Goddard, head teacher of PassmoresAcademy during the first episode of Channel 4’s fly on the wall documentary, Educating Essex.

This was his imagined response of some viewers to the antics of himself and his senior management team  (e.g. hiding behind doors, and comic secret santa). His imagination that some would seize upon such behaviour as evidence of unsuitable school leadership qualities was realised, at least by the Daily Mail.  It was nothing, if not predictable in its disapproval of Vic Goddard’s and his team’s conduct.

In its review, the Daily Mail  describes the teachers of Passmores Academy  as “foul-mouthed” (they occasionally swore in conversation with one another) who “liberally use four-letter words”  (though, significantly the article offers no explanation as to why words with four letters are objectionable) . It goes on to claims that the programme paints a “grim picture of life in a comprehensive”.

‘Grim’ is one interpretation, but ‘real’ is another. Mr. Drew, the deputy head teacher,  “evil overlord”, “legend”, and focus of the first episode is far from grim.  As he says to his students:

“You have no idea how much I like teaching you”

He is determined no student leaves a failure, even, as he says that means sleeping all through August to recover from the effort entailed in ensuring students successfully complete their exams. The first episode of Educating Essex reveals Passmores Academy to be a school which deals with the rough and the smooth, where teachers and pupils can have fun, and where Mr. Drew, even after a day dealing with the problematic behaviour of some students is able to put this aside and grumble at the theft of his smoothie from the staff fridge.

Caught in the Education Act

Caught in the Act is a one day conference organised by a network of campaign groups and organisations concerned about the future of education, including the Anti Academies Alliance, Campaign for State Education, Comprehensive Future, the journal FORUM, Information for School and College Governors (ISCG), and the Socialist Educational Association

The Conference in centred on the imminent Education Act, and has the tagline Tackling Michael Gove’s Education Revolution.  Though, at present, the revolution is not so much an Act as a Bill which is shortly to go to the committee stage in the House of Lords.

An impressive list of speakers will lead workshops on the implications of the new legislation.  These include:

Clyde Chitty and Melissa Benn on A Divided Education System

David Wolfe, specialist in education law from Matrix Chambers on Implications of the new Education Act.

Prof. Stephen Ball, an all round expert on the sociology of education on Privatisation.

Martin Johnson, the Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union,  Association for Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) on Edubusiness.

Sam Ellis, funding specialist from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on Paying the Price

Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) on The International Scene

Dr. Patrick Roach, the Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT who will discuss What Next?

The conference will be held between 10am and 3.30pm on  Saturday 19th November,  at the University of London Union, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HY.

More details, and information on booking can be found on the CASE website.

Educating Essex

A new series, Educating Essex begins on Channel 4 this week.  It is the latest in a recent trend of ‘fly on the wall’ school documentaries, such as Jamie’s Dream School, or Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys.    Some of these documentaries have been predicated on the belief that schools are failing at least some of their pupils, presenting dramatic, over simplified solutions.  In contrast, Passmores Academy, the subject of  Educating Essex has been judged outstanding by Ofsted.   According to Vic Goddard, the head teacher of Passmores, part of the reason he gives for allowing the cameras in, is to give people an insight into what really goes on in a “normal school”.

The series promises to capture some of the mundane reality of a comprehensive school, and Vic Goddard is no doubt correct in his prediction that some people will not like what he and his team are doing.  He appears to be genuinely committed to dealing with the everyday challenges his school faces, while aiming at positive outcomes for all Passmores’ pupils. This series should be a reminder we don’t need to look to celebrity endorsed quasi-experiments to find caring committed teachers who can make a difference.

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.

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.

Strictly Grammar Schools

Ann Widdecombe likes Grammar schools.  She is calling for the ban on Grammar schools to end, and wants new ones to be set up.    Her statement on this issue was reported in this week’s Guardian, and comes prior to her speech at the North of England Education Conference.

Her rationale?

Widdecombe believes, or wants to believe that Grammar schools offer the opportunity of social mobility to bright working class children.

This is an appealing claim.  Who would want to deny a child from a poor background from fulfilling their potential, by receiving the best possible education?  The notion that Grammar schools offer a rigorous academic education support this claim.

However, it is problematic, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the construction of the bright working class child as something special, or unusual.  Following on from this is the notion that working class children only deserve a good quality education if they are bright.  Politicians would never suggest creating a sub standard type of school in which dim middle class children could be educated, and separated from their fellow middle class, but cleverer peers.

Widdecombe expresses the belief that Grammar schools are a route out of poverty for working class children.  This is a belief that is often heard in defence of Grammar schools.   However, those getting places in Grammar schools are more likely to be middle class.  With parents employing class strategies, such as private tutoring in preparation for the 11+ in an attempt to secure a place for their child, working class children are likely to stand less of a chance at getting into Grammar school in the first place.

The notion that Grammar schools are unique in providing a good quality academic education is, I argue, a veiled attack on Comprehensive schools.  It is a case of Grammar = good, Comprehensive = bad, despite the evidence to the contrary  (I’m not going to list sources here right now, but it is there).

But Ann Widdecombe did say some Comprehensive schools were “pure gold”?

She did, but again she said others were “very large, incompetent and seriously disruptive” which suggests that she recognises that Comprehensive schools are not necessarily comprehensive.  A report from the  Sutton Trust, entitled: Worlds Apart: social variation among schools highlights the difference between Comprehensive schools, including their social variation.  For “pure gold” read a Comprehensive school colonised by the middle class, or , at least located in a middle class community.  A “very large” and “disruptive” Comprehensive school points to a school located in an urban area, tackling the social problems associated with poverty.

What about the ban?

The so-called ban is not so much a ban as a statement by the Conservative Party in 2007 to the effect that it would not support the reintroduction of Grammar Schools if it won the election.  This didn’t signal a commitment  to Comprehensive Schools.  Certainly, with the growth in Academies, and Free schools selection is likely to increase, so there will be more segregation, not less.

Finally, for this post at least, her request that the Government does not stand in the way of Town Halls (which, surely, are Local Authorities) wanting to reintroduce selection and create Grammar schools is interesting.  Is she not aware that the current Government is pledge to free schools from Local Authority control?