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.

Continue reading “Primary National Offer Day”

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?

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.

Troops In?

On Friday, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) published Something Can be Done in which it outlines a proposal for the Phoenix Free School, to be established in Manchester.

This school embraces the notion of ‘troops to teachers’, whereby ex-service personnel are fast tracked into the teaching profession.  The proposals for the Phoenix Free School appear to go one step further, as it “will be staffed entirely by ex-servicemen and women”.  Apart from the issue of whether such exclusions would be permissible under employment law, I very much doubt that it will be the case that all the school staff will be ex-service.  Schools are staffed by more than teachers.  To be fair, the document does go on to clarify that all “full-time staff will be ex-service personnel”, but this is not the same as “staffed entirely”.

Something Can be Done highlights some of the key features of the proposed Phoenix Free School.  The exposition of these features barely conceals a discourse of diatribe aimed at what it sees as liberal and progressive elements in education.   Common-sense, no nonsense is on the agenda.

Consider this example:

“Every liberal shibboleth taught in teacher-training courses will be discarded in favour of proven methods”

This suggests that “liberal shibboleths” are just that, but if you read on, you could arrive at the conclusion that the “proven methods” are themselves shibboleths.

The “proven methods” are proven to the extent that, in the summary of Something Can be Done the possibility of rolling out similar schools is posited, “if” the Phoenix Free School proves “successful”.  Given it proposes to use “proven” methods, why wouldn’t it be successful?

The school will have “no moral relativism”.  Ex-service personnel will help pupils to reject moral relativism, as they live by values of respect, discipline and loyalty. But, is it really the case that moral relativism is absent from the armed forces?  ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sounds unequivocal, and killing is considered an immoral act, unless you accept moral relativism.

There is a brief section on discipline, where it is claimed there will be discipline by consent.  However, some absence of consent is anticipated, and thus there will be a zero-tolerance approach to “indiscipline”.

Pupils will be grouped according to ability, yet all pupils will “be given the opportunity to excel”, overlooking the sociological evidence which suggests otherwise.  Similarly, the notion that “competition demotivates the losers” is dismissed as “nonsense”.

Something Can be Done concludes with the expectation that “the next time that riots break out in Britain”  (notice the prediction that there will be riots) few rioters would come from the many number of Phoenix Free Schools that the CPS hopes will be established.

Continue reading “Troops In?”

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?

Glaswegian Waterloo Road

Waterloo Road, the fictional Rochdale comprehensive school is relocating north of the border and setting up a new school in Glasgow.

According to the Independent, the BBC is reported as saying that the second half of series 7, to be aired later this year will end with “a dramatic and explosive storyline which will see a number of teachers and pupils setting up a new independent school in Scotland”.

It may be redundant for this blog to point out the fantasy of this proposed storyline. Waterloo Road represents reality, though it is clearly not reality, and thus there has always been a need to suspend belief while consuming this drama.  The BBC went on to explain how the impending move provides an opportunity for “new stories”. This then, is an auspicious moment to speculate on the storylines that will be narrated in a Scottish Waterloo Road.

  • Will it be a Glaswegian free school?  (granted, this would be complete fantasy)
  • Will there be a position in the English department for Grantly Budgen?
  • What will become of Janeece, and will there be a school crèche in which she can enroll Cheryl?
  • What will the name of the new school be?

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?

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

The pupil premium

The pupil premium is additional money given to schools for each child from a poor background.  It was a feature of the Lib Dem’s election pledge, and represents a symbol that the parties care about tackling educational inequality.

A recent entry on Conservative Home claims the pupil premium was, in fact a conservative idea, dating from “as early as 2005”.  This must come as a surprise to the Institute for Fiscal Studies who observed that the education system (before the election) “already weights funding towards deprived pupils”.

The pupil premium sounds good.  The Liberal Democrat 2010 election manifesto pledged £2.5 billion to increase funding to the most disadvantged children, in the form of a pupil premium.  Its manifesto estimated there to be around 1 million disadvantaged children.   Other sources estimate the figure to be four times higher, however, the Liberal Democrats based their estimate on the number of children receving free school meals, in itself problematic means of measuring the number of children in poverty.  So, according to the Liberal Democrats’ figures, this works out at around £2500 for each pupil.  Furthermore, the money would go straight into schools’ budgets  (the Labour Government’s additional funding went to LEAs) and, the manifesto claimed, could be used for any number of things, including a reducation in class sizes, attracting the best teachers, or improving discipline.  All of these ideas are popularist, but are actually quite vague in terms of how they might  help break the link between deprivation and poor educational outcomes.

Now in coalition with the Conservatives, the Liberal  Democrats may have to be satisfied with an even more vague pledge of a pupil premium, in that we don’t know how much it is going to be, or where the money is coming from.

While there is talk of tackling inequality, with the supposed evidence in front of us in the form  of a pupil premium, educational inequality is still being promoted in the form of, in private education,  selection by wealth, and, in the state sector selection on ability.  Further, the money to pay for any premium might not be additional funding.  As Conor Ryan’s article in the Independent points out, for the premium to make any difference, it needs to be additional money.  If school budgets are going to be cut, then a pupil premium isn’t really a premium at all.

The claim that the pupil premium is designed to help the most disadvantaged, helping to break to link between deprivation (however it is chosen to be measured) and poor educational outcomes is pretty thin.  The link between social background and educational attainment is a strong and persistent one.  Therefore, improving the lives of the most disadvantaged families and children would be a more effective way of tackling educational inequalities.  Unfortunately there is little evidence of policies in these areas.  In fact, if anything, things are going to get worse.  This week, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) issued a press release  in which it condemns the recent austerity budget for freezing child benefit, and effectively halting progress towards ending child poverty. It also points out that the increase in VAT will hit the poorest hardest.  Incidentally CPAG claims that there are nearly 4 million children in the UK living in poverty. The Liberal Democrats £2.5 billion would have been stretched even further.