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.

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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?

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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School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education

Melissa Benn talks a lot of sense on education.  Starting with an attempt to understandThe New Schools Revolution the education policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government are examined.  This revolution depends upon the derision of state (particularly comprehensive) education, and fear, amongst the middle classes of ‘bad’ schools.   Cutting through the popular myths of the move towards comprehensivisation, the prosaic reasons for this piecemeal revolution are presented, challenging a popular assumption of a naive egalitarian zeal at the heart of our comprehensive schools.  The dangers of increasing privatisation of education, and the accompanying unaccountability of  schools are exposed, in particular how they naturalise inequalities on social class and ethnic lines.  Benn concludes with an optimistic vision of what schools could be like.  This alternative is a realistic possibility, but only if we decide we want a good quality, fair, accessible education system

The Grammar School: A Secret History

BBC Four have just finished broadcasting a two-part series The Grammar School: A Secret History.  Both episodes can be accessed via the BBC programmes page.  I found the series less than illuminating, and not as analytical as it could, or should have been.

The narrative of episode two focused on “the golden age of grammar schools” indicating a particular, positive view of this type of secondary school.  Far from being a secret history this episode repeated several common sense assumptions about the opportunities grammar schools gave to working class children, as well as the turn towards comprehensivisation.

A number of problematic phrases stood out:

“Grammar schools offered talented children from the poorest backgrounds the chance to go to some of the best schools in the country”

Talent in this content clearly refers to academic talent. It assumes that the 11+ was effective at identifying talent in children,  and implies that only talented children from the poorest backgrounds deserve a chance to go to the best schools.  It says nothing about middle class children, do they automatically go to “some of the best schools”?

“The grammar schools created a generation of upwardly mobile high-flyers who helped transform Britain”

This suggests that the grammar school system created social mobility.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Middle class children were more likely to enter grammar schools, and once there, a middle class pupil was more likely to succeed than a working class pupil (Halsey and Gardner 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964; Lacey, 1971).  True, the post-war years saw some upward mobility, but it also saw a change in the occupational structure, with an expansion of professional (middle class jobs) and a contraction of manual (working class jobs).

The mobility claims are less firm when considering the overall numbers of pupils educated in grammar schools.  As the narrator went on to state, they:

“educated a quarter of all secondary school pupils”

Can a “golden age” really be claimed for a system which excluded 75% of all pupils?  Even this “quarter” figure is misleading as grammar school places were not evenly distributed across the nation.  You had more chance of getting to grammar school in Wales than in parts of England.  The rationale for selection to a grammar school is that a pupil is suited for a grammar school education, in other words the 11+ identifies the possession of academic talent. How then can the uneven distribution of grammar schools places be explained?  Were Welsh children more academically gifted than English children?

The episode went on to describe how grammar schools would compensate working class children for the

“cultural impoverishment of home”

which, not only is this offensive, suggesting that working class culture is impoverished compared to the middle class culture of the grammar schools, it was immediately contradicted by the vignettes of working class ex-grammar school pupils whose families clearly valued education and aspired to greater educational opportunities. The programme makers have apparently, not read Nell Keddie’s Tinker Tailor.

Then, the programme moved on to the demise of the grammar schools, which, we were invited to believe is lamentable.  It was all the fault of

“The Labour Government [who] persuaded and pressured them to go comprehensive”

How much persuading, and pressuring did LEAs need?  True, there was the famous circular 10/65 which hardly compelled LEAs to go comprehensive.  This programme did briefly refer to middle-class dissatisfaction with the 11+ plus system, but said nothing of the economic rationale for comprehensivisation.  When Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education, Circular 10/70 attempted to stop plans for comprehensivisation, however LEAs continued submitting such plans, and more comprehensive schools were created. It was hardly a case of a Labour Government forcing comprehensive schooling on unwilling LEAs. None of this was mentioned.

The narration went on to describe

“enforced comprehensivisation”

which probably refers to the 1976 Education Act, which was repealed in 1979, meaning comprehensivisation wasn’t enforced.

The Grammar School: A Secret History was an interesting attempt at illuminating the history of secondary education, but it could do better.

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The logic of school refusal

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

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

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

Read Jenn Ashworth’s article in the Guardian.

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‘Unfair’ Medway 11-Plus

For a brief moment today I thought the parents of Medway, in Kent were revolting over the existence of the inequitable 11-plus and were demanding comprehensivisation.  I was mistaken, but my error was understandable given I had read the following headline:

“Medway MP is ‘inundated’ with complaints about 11-plus”

Alas, this BBC headline was not reporting on mass parental rejection of a biased method of educational selection which is weighted towards the reproduction of working class disadvantage.  Rather, it refers to delays at last Saturday’s 11-plus tests held at Rainham School for Girls and Chatham Grammar School for Boys.  According to BBC News, the local MP, Rehman Christi responded to his constituents’ concerns:

“I have asked Medway Council to fully investigate the matter and to ensure that no pupil was disadvantaged as a result.”

His concern that the 11-plus tests may have disadvantaged some pupils is intriguing.  On days when test centres run according to schedule, are we to assume the absence of disadvantage?  Or, are we merely to accept the disadvantage inherent in the 11-plus as inevitable and necessary?

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.

The Cost of Improving Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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