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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Pupils not claiming free school meals

If you scoured the articles from some of Britain’s popular newspapers for their views on welfare , you could be forgiven for believing that welfare reform was justified, for no other reason than to curb the excesses of dependency, and to end an unfair benefits culture.

Without digressing into how such a discourse is employed as a hegemonic device, it is worth considering that the reality of the benefits culture is more complex.

Late last month, the Department for Education published a Research Report: Pupils not claiming free school meals.  The key findings from the research reveal that while 21% of children aged between 4-15 are entitled to free school meals (FSM), 18% of this age group are claiming this entitlement.  In other words, 14% of children who are entitled to FSM are not claiming FSM.  This is approximately 200,000 pupils.

Entitlement to FSM is based on receipt of specific benefits, however, families in receipt of these benefits have to register their entitlement through their child’s school or Local Authority.  The procedure for this registration varies between authorities and between schools.

Around a quarter of children entitled but not receiving FSM live in the South East.  In the North East there is a much lower non claimant rate, with Darlington, Hartlepool,  Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton in the Tees Valley appearing to have 100% of claimants registering.  This may be due to authority wide efforts to ensure maximum registration. For example, my post  from last year looked at Middlesbrough Council’s efforts to urge parents to claim their entitlement. However, the reasons for not claiming FSM are complex, with analysis in this DFE report suggesting that children living in a less deprived area or attending a school with a low rate of FSM are less likely to claim their entitlement to FSM. In neighbouring, relatively affluent North Yorkshire  for example, there is a  high level of under claiming for FSM.  More research is needed to further understand the reasons behind these patterns.

This issue of under-claiming is not just significant for the individual children, but impacts on the funding a school can receive in the form of the pupil premium. The pupil premium is additional funding given to schools as a way of addressing educational inequalities between children from families who are socio-economically deprived and those from more affluent families.    Social scientists continue to discuss the usefulness of FSM as a proxy for deprivation given that receipt is not automatic.   McMahon and Marsh (1999) writing for CPAG discussed lack of take-up, more recently Hobbs and Vignoles (2010), Thrupp and Lupton (2011) have all explored the issue of under-claiming.  Gorard (2012) does suggest that the distinction between “eligibility and take-up may have been eroded” (p. 1015).

The report, published by the DFE  indicates that in many places eligibility of FSM still does not mean claiming of FSM.  As a result, some schools won’t get the extra funding they are entitled too, the socio-economic barriers that some children face will be obscured by the relative affluence of those around them.  And, the tabloid press won’t launch a moral panic about the level of benefit under-claiming in this country.

Pupils not claiming free school meals is written Samaira Iniesta-Martinez and Helen Evans and published as a Department for Education Research Report.

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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

Wake Up!

This short advert comes via Sociological Images on the The Society Pages where it is highlighted for its problematic reduction of high school dropouts to individual laziness. Declaring that “every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of high school”  it implores an African-American teenager to “wake up” and continue in school in order to avoid an uncertain future.

The advert is part of a campaign run by StateFarm, a US insurance company, and the National Basketball Association NBA which aims to reduce the dropout rate in US high schools.

The advert is problematic for reducing the factors that contribute to the high dropout rate in some US high schools to individual motivation.   It may be tempting to conclude that individual young people are responsible for their own educational fate.  They should simply wake up and get themselves to school. It is presented as a personal choice.  Consequently, educational failure can be seen as an individual responsibility.

However, if we have a sociological imagination to draw on, we can explore other explanations and come to an understanding that the lived experiences of individuals are inextricably linked to wider, social factors.  So, in this case, we know that individual responsibility for high school dropout rates in parts of the USA is not supported by the evidence.

A recent study by Leventhal-Weiner and Wallace (2011) highlighted the differences in dropout rates between different ethnic groups in the USA.  Overall, Hispanic students drop out at a rate twice that of Blacks, who, in turn drop out at a rate approaching twice that of Whites.  As they point out in their research, the schools with the highest rate of dropouts are to be found in the poorest communities in US urban areas, with poor employment prospects, poverty, residential instability and low level of education in the community, all to varying extents contributing to high dropout rates.

This is not to say that individuals are determined by these structural factors. Individuals have agency, though that agency might be constrained by their social context.  Indeed, across the USA there are attempts to mitigate the impact of the social context of pupils considered at risk of dropping out by motivating students and building resilience.   However, as Hopson and Lee (2011:2227) argue:

“Policies that place the responsibility for academic success of students living in poverty solely in the hands of schools and teachers prevent meaningful progress.”

In other words, interventions at school or individual level, while they might mitigate some effects of poverty are no panacea.  Nothing short of structural reform will solve this problem.

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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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Middle Class ‘Free Schools’

The Guardian reported the following headline this week:

Free schools built in mainly middle-class and wealthy areas

There’s a surprise.

It might be reasonable to assume that such surprise is genuine.  After all, only last year Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education announced that:

“Free Schools will enable excellent teachers to create new schools and improve standards for all children”

In itself, the title of this news release from the Department for Education (DfE) reveals confused logic.  Firstly, why do teachers need to set up new schools in order to continue their excellence? Secondly, if excellent teachers are leaving one school to set up a new school, what happens to the excellence in the school they have left?  Thirdly, how does this then improve standards for all pupils, rather than those fortunate enough to find themselves in new schools with excellent teachers?

However, we are invited not to critically engage with the discourse employed in DfE news releases, but to accept it.  Goves’ plan focused on addressing the gap in education attainment between children from deprived backgrounds, and those more wealthy. The Free Schools plan was designed to bridge this gap.  The news release from the DfE went on to say:

“The new Free Schools will also be incentivised to concentrate on the poorest children”

By choosing not to impugn the recondite ideological shift to concern with social inequality, it would be reasonable to expect that the 24 Free Schools scheduled to open this month would be located in some of England’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

As the Guardian reports, they are not, are we really surprised?

The London Lead Company School

This is a photograph of a school, established by the London Lead Company in 1861. It is located on the Alston Road in Middleton in Teesdale. Now, Middleton in Teessdale is a small market town in Upper Teesdale. Rural is an apt description. However, it is, or was a company town, meaning that, from small beginnings, the arrival of the London Lead Company transformed it into a significant  town, at the centre of the Teesdale lead mining industry.  The company funded the building of houses, brass bands, reading rooms, and the school.

It provided an elementary education for boys between the ages of 6 and 12, and for girls between the ages of 6 and 14 at a cost of 1d per week, per child.  This was almost 10 years before the 1870 Elementary Education Act, and nearly 20 years before education was made compulsory for children up to the age of 10.  The London Lead Company did not have to provide a school, but they did. It could be seen as an act of benevolence.  They certainly invested heavily in the communities in which they had mines, and from where they recruited their miners.  The London Lead Company had Quaker origins.  Certainly, Quakers have been associated with social reform, and the schools, the reading rooms and the other ‘good works’ may well be evidence of this.
There is another story, that poverty was rife, and living, and working conditions of miners were appalling.

The school itself, is rather grand, it looks like a church – the established church that is, and it could be argued that a school like that reflects wealth and prosperity,  not what you would immediately expect from Quakers.

The school building now serves as an outdoor activity centre.

More rushing to claim Free School Meals

Today, the Guardian runs a story about Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith. Its headteacher, Dr Christine Carpenter has warned parents that the school’s budget will be cut from next year, and, consequently is urging parents to apply for Free School Meals in order that the school may receive the Pupil Premium.  This is estimated to make up some, but not all the cuts in the school’s budget

I can only assume the Guardian does not read my blog, and therefore did not see my previous post.  In that case it was Middlesbrough LEA which was urging parents to apply for this entitlement, not individual schools, indicating, perhaps the continued importance of LEAs, from whose control the current Government is keen to set schools free.   Further, it suggests that the Infant Hercules was taking the lead on the push to drive up claiming of Free School Meals, its press release on the matter coming a whole week before Guardian story on the significance of Free School Meals.

Nevertheless, what both stories indicate is that ensuring the maximum take-up for Free School Meals has never been so important for schools’ budgets.  Maximising the take-up of this entitlement ensures the school receives its share of the Pupil Premium.

What these stories also indicate is the level  of under claiming of benefits.  According to today’s Guardian article the Sacred Heart High School has 6% of pupils claiming Free School Meals with an estimate that as many as 35% could be entitled. In my previous post I commented on the estimates that perhaps only two-thirds of pupils in Middlesbrough entitled to receive Free School Meals actually do.

Schools may be desperately doing whatever they can to maximise the number of children claiming Free School Meals in time for the deadline later this month.  If a child becomes entitled after this date, or if a child moves into a school after this date (a major issue in some schools) then the school misses out on the funding for that child. But, under-claiming of Free School Meals, as of other benefits is nothing new, as the Guardian article reports, Tim Nichols from the Child Poverty Action Group says:

“…it does make you ask why…they weren’t so interested in the past”

Of course, now the schools have a budget incentive to ensure that all who are entitled, claim.

A problem may be that, while the Pupil Premium is available, schools’ budgets are being cut, so how effective is this ‘additional’ money going to be in improving the educational opportunities of children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds?

Additionally, there is a limited amount set aside (£2.5 billion) for the Pupil Premium. The efforts of LEAs and schools in maximising take-up of entitlement might not be appreciated by a government keen to reduce public spending.

Missing out on Free School Meals?

Children are eligible for Free School Meals if their parents receive certain benefits.  Eligibility for Free School Meals has long been used as a proxy indicator of socio-economic status; if a child receives Free School Meals, they are likely to be socio-economically deprived in comparison to children who do not.  As  sociologists of education will tell you, socio-economic status (some of us even dare use the word ‘class’) shapes educational attainment.  A lifetime ago, employed by an LEA, I would benchmark schools Key Stage results according to ‘FSM eligibility’, so that we could claim to be comparing the results of schools with a similar pupil intake.

The FSM statistics are not without controversy. To what extent can this statistic reliably measure socio-economic status?[1]

One of the problems with the ‘FSM eligibility’ statistics is that, despite the title, the figure measures claimants of Free School Meals.  There is a big difference between eligibility and the claiming of benefits entitled because of that eligibility.  Benefits go left unclaimed.

The significance of all this?   The Pupil Premium, which is additional money which the Government has pledged to benefit the education of “deprived children”. It will be allocated to schools’ budgets according to the number of children in receipt of FSM. Middlesbrough, in the North East of England has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and as such you would expect their to be a significant number of children eligible for Free School Meals.  Middlesbrough Council is concerned that as many as 3000 children who are eligible are not receiving this benefit. It amounts to additional £1.1 million in Pupil Premium funding for Middlesbrough schools.   They have urged eligible parents to complete a form in order to claim their entitlement.  That is the way Free School Meals works, a parent has to apply for it, it is not automatic. In Middlesbrough, there are, at present approximately  6000 children already in receipt of Free School Meals.  So, in other words, around one-third of parents have not claimed this benefit.   Who knows what the real eligibility figure is if this level of non claiming is repeated in other socio-economically deprived areas.  The Government has set aside £2.5 billion a year for the Pupil Premium.  Will it be enough?

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