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?

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‘Outstanding schools’ to become Academies

Following today’s Queen’s Speech, hundreds more secondary schools, as well as primary schools are set to be granted academy status. 

'Outstanding' schools are set to become academies

By becoming academies, schools which have been deemed as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted will be taken out of LEA control and will receive funding direct from central government.  The political discourse which the Conservatives use to justify this move refers to  freedom.  Schools becoming academies will be  free of the constraining  LEA.  Being free from LEA control (which has obviously not be so constraining, given that they are deemed ‘outstanding’ ) academies will have greater freedom over the curriculum, admissions policies (which pupils they do and don’t want) and what they will pay teachers. 

There are several claims made for these new academies, however these claims are not robust.  Consider the following: 

  • Michael Gove, the new education secretary believes these new academies will raise standards, he bases this on the ‘evidence’ from the performance of existing academies (so, one can assume he gives the Labour Government credited for raising standards through academies).
    • Evidence that existing academies have raised standards is not clear, in some cases standards, in terms of GCSE performance fell, while the use of GCSE equivalents may have accounted for the rise in other academies.  See my previous post about Francis Beckett’s book.
    • These new schools are already among the top performing schools, there is a limit to how far they can improve standards, yet high standards are likely to be maintained, not improved.
  • New academies will promote choice
    • For the academies, yes they do.  Freeing schools from the constraints of the LEA means that schools can decide on their own admissions policies, the academies are free to choose which pupils they want, and crucially which pupils they don’t want.  Meanwhile, LEAs still have the responsibility to provide schooling for children in the area, but have fewer schools to choose from.
  • These new academies will promote social justice
    • How?  They are free to choose which pupils they want, and they need to maintain standards in order to maintain their freedom, even with a pupil premium (an incentive for schools to take pupils from deprived backgrounds) academies are unlikely to characterised by a comprehensive intake.
    • They are allowed to choose their own pay rates, this will hardly lead to social justice among teachers.
    • Social justice cannot be achieved where academies are treated more favourably, for example, by receiving more money from Government, while others struggle for funding. 

It is tempting for the current ‘oustanding’ schools to apply for academy status, this includes nearly 2000 primary schools, as well as secondary schools.  At a time when public services are being, which school wouldn’t want to take advantage of more money?

The main teaching unions,  NUT, NASUWT, and ATL oppose these changes.  The NUT and NASUWT have hinted at strike action should these changes go through, understandably they are concerned about their members’ pay and conditions, but more widely because of the implications these proposals have for education. 

Continue reading “‘Outstanding schools’ to become Academies”

Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools

Nick Gibb is the new Minister for Schools.  This is not surprising, given that previously he has shadowed this position.

He thinks traditional forms of teaching and discipline are good, so, along with his colleague Michael Gove we might expect to see not only more uniforms, but rote learning, and on the spot detentions. However, Gibb is also anti bureaucracy and wants to leave headteachers to get on with the job.  Which, presumably means they are free not to implement traditional forms of teaching and discipline.  We shall see.

Since taking up his new position, he is reported, according to the Guardian to have said:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

So, apparently he believes that some Universities are ‘rubbish’ , though which ones is not clear, though it seems Oxbridge does not come under the rubbish category.  Neither does Durham, one might assume, given that Gibb studied Law there.   Presumably he also believes that a graduate with excellent knowledge of physics will make a better teacher than  someone with, say, a third class degree and a PGCE.  However, there has been no announcement yet from the Government that teaching qualifications are to be dispensed with. We’ll wait and see.

Back in 2006, Steve Richards interviewed him, about his school days, for Teachers TV.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It is clear from this what kind of school he prefers: Maidstone Grammar good, Thornes House Wakefield bad.  However, he might disagree with the Minister for Education, Michael Gove on the issue of uniforms if his experience of Canadian schools is anything to go by.  No uniform there, but they did start the day by singing ‘O Canada’

If you watch the video, then listen for this quote from Gibb when Richards asks him about the different intakes of the schools he attended:

“I never knew what the intake was, as a kid I never, you never sort of assess that, but I did notice very much the differing quality of teaching and the ethos of the school”

So,while he was oblivious to the backgrounds of his fellow pupils in the numerous schools he attended, he was able to discern what good teaching is, and he stands by the validity of this selective, partial judgement. 

Continue reading “Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools”

Francis Beckett – The Great City Academy Fraud

You expect Beckett to provide a critical analysis of education policy, and this is what he does in The Great City Academy Fraud.  It is a critique of Labour’s Academy programme, examining the reality behind the spin.  While some of the arguments against Acadmies and their performance might be found elsewhere, this is a useful source which tells the stories of some Acadmies, and, it gives us a glimpse of how schools might look in the future with more involvement from businesses.

This book is not new, having being published in 2007.  Since then, of course, there has been a General Election. Labour, who were responsible for City Academies are no longer in power.  However, Beckett’s analysis of City Academies remains an important contribution to debates on school provision, especially so in the context of the Conservatives’ proposed Free Schools.

Academies were introduced by the last Labour Government as a part of their committment to improve educational standards.  Designed to replace ‘failing’ schools, particularly in deprived inner city areas, Academies would be sponsored, by businesses, faith groups, individuals, or charities.  These sponsors were expected to contribute £2 million to the cost of setting up an Academy, estimated at £10 million.  Academies would be outside of the control of LEAs, with running costs payed by the Government.

The book begins by comparing Academies with City Technology Colleges (CTCs).   These were created  by the last Conservative Government in the 1980’s.  They were to be sponsored by and owned by businesses or churches and were to be independent from LEAs.  As they were targeted in deprived urban areas, they were, in particular to be independent from Labour controlled councils.   CTCs were not a success, there was limited interest from any big sponsors, and money was often not forthcoming from those sponsors who did get involved.  In order to prop up the policy, the state then had to fund the CTCs, which had not been the attention.  Additionally, CTCs were more generously funded than other state schools.  The policy was quietly dropped.

At the time, Labour did not support CTCs, promising to take them back into LEA control if they got into power. They did, of course, get into power, in 1997.   However,  in 2000 the Labour Government announced the City Academy programme. 

Beckett sees little distinction between CTCs and Academies.  The mistakes of the CTCs, he claims, were destined to be repeated, the lessons of the failed CTCs not learned.

While Academies were designed to replace ‘failing’ schools, Beckett argues that many schools which were closed, were not, in fact, failing schools, at least by the assessment of Ofsted.  Beckett takes apart the political claims for Academies.  In terms of private sponsorship, only small proportions of the escalating costs of Academies has come from sponsors, and some sponsorship is ‘in kind’, yet the so-called sponsors still own and control the schools while the state continues to fund them.  Then there has been allegations of honours in exchange for so-called sponsorship.  He discusses concerns over the involvement of and motivation of religious organisations.  Unions have been sidelined and timetables changed, with the effect that pupils and teachers don’t get to interact outside the classroom. The buildings too come under scrutiny as not being fit for purpose.  All of this could be overlooked, perhaps, if Academies were shown to work.  Beckett however shows that this has not always been the case, some of the schools they replaced were not failing anyway, and in some Academies attainment has fallen, while others have received damning Ofsted reports.  Where attainment has risen, it is alleged that this is because Acadmies are using GCSE equivalents to ensure they rise in the league tables.  Yet, they have continued to receive generous state funding; if these had been ordinary state comprehensive schools, they would have been closed, and replaced by Academies, according to Beckett.

Beckett’s analysis does have implications for the Conservative’s Free Schools.  These can be started by parents, but in reality are likely to be run by businesses or other organisations.  If they are to be a flagship education policy of the current Government then the pattern from the Academies is likely to be repeated.  They will require generous funding from the Government at the expense of other local state schools.  The businesses, religious organisations or charities which are contracted to run them will have great control over what goes on inside them (not the parents, despite the Conservative promises) yet there will be very little accountability.  The result will be, as Beckett has claimed to have been the case with Acadmies, will be increased educational inequality.

The Great City Academy Fraud is published by Continuum.

Department for Education

The Department for Education was formed on the 12th May.  It replaces the Department for Children’s’ Schools and Families (DCSF). 

The new website has been launched here.  At present it looks like the kind of website you find yourself on when you have typed in an incorrect address or an unregistered domain. The familiar rainbow logo has gone, along with the links to the DCSF YouTube site. 

This will all change.  For the time being, there is a photo of a multi-ethnic, mixed gender group of happy, smiling, primary school children (educated under a Labour Government), which is probably designed to reassure us that this new Government has all our children’s educational interests at heart.  The links to school performance tables remain, indicating that league tables are definitely here to stay.

The name change is likely to be significant too.  The keyword is education, which was  missing from the name of the previous department:  the Department for Children Schools and Families. 

By only including education in the government department’s title the new administration is signalling that this is what this new department is about, and, it may appeal to traditionalists.  However, the DCSF recognised that education is a part of a wider social context which impacts on the development of children, and so the name of this department reflected a political will to co-ordinate policies which impacted on the lives of young people, and their families. It was a recognition that policies aimed at improving educational standards, particularly of those who traditionally did not achieve their best cannot be isolated in schools.  The DCSF was designed to help achieve the aims of Every Child Matters  (the link and the information on here is likely to disappear, soon)Additionally, by placing children and families alongside schools, the last Labour Government was also responding to criticism that services for children, young people, and their families were not sufficiently co-ordinated.  For example, Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbié. 

Still, according to an article in Children & Young People Now, Michael Gove promises “an exciting journey ahead”. 

Michael Gove, Schools, discipline, standards, and ties

Michael Gove is the new Minister for Schools.

What can we expect?  Well, he is keen on returning to traditional values in education.  This is a popularist term, but is rather vague, suggesting that anything in the past, specifically the Victorian age is good. Unfortunately many social ills were popular in the past, such as high infant mortality, child prostitution, the absence of a welfare state, no minimum wage, and so on.

Gove does get more specific.   School ties help raise standards (oh, and blazers).

Wearing a tie has brought Catherine Tate's Lauren educational success

Yes, he really does believe this.  In this article in the Daily Mail he is reported as saying:

“It is no coincidence that many of the best-performing state schools have proper school uniforms”

The conservatives carried out this ‘research’, looking at GCSE results and school uniform, and so claim this as evidence.  Their research findings did not, however isolate the key item of school uniform as some of the most successful schools did not have blazers. 

Most sociological research on educational attainment has left out school uniforms as a predictor of attainment, instead they have highlighted social class, ethnicity, and gender.  Inequalities in educational attainment are persistent,  even existing in traditional times,  however, maybe ties are indeed the solution.  I doubt it, however.

Gove also wants to restore discipline by using ex-soldiers in schools. However it is not sure whether these soldiers will need to have a minimum degree classification of a 2:2 before they are allowed to become teachers. The Conservatives have promised to raise the standard of teacher training by limiting entry to only those who achieve a minimum 2:2 degree.

Peppa Pig isn’t shouting out for a Sure Start

Peppa Pig, the animated porcine was at the centre of one General Election story this week. 

The company which licenses Peppa Pig had been due, along with the Pig to attend the launch of the Labour Party’s manifesto for families.  But, Peppa, did not attend, withdrawing her attendance, and support at the last minute.  In a statement, the company said:

Peppa Pig is a well-known fan of Sure Start children’s centres but, in the interests of avoiding any controversy or misunderstanding, we have agreed she should not attend.”

It is the equivalent of saying that Peppa Pig is above politics, and wishes to remain impartial. 

Except, she isn’t.

Only a few weeks ago, Peppa Pig promoted Sure Start Centres at a ‘Shout Out for a Sure Start’ event.

This campaign asks you to ‘Shout Out for a Sure Start’ if you believe that Sure Start sets up a child for life, that every child deserves a sure start, and, if you believe that an investment in children is an investment in all our futures.  You cannot support these aims and objectives and then claim to remain impartial.

These ‘Shout out for a Sure Start’ statements are political, reflecting political beliefs, ideologies, hopes and aspirations.  Peppa  Pig has been happy to subscribe to these in the recent past, but all of sudden thinks that believing that giving children the best start in life, and  investing in children’s future for the benefit of wider society, might be controversial. 

Sure Start does not exist external to the Labour Party.  Sure Start Centres did not descend magically, overnight, as if from heaven.  They were created by a Labour Government which decided to do something about child poverty.  And their very existence, and that of thousands of the most vulnerable of our children and their families are under threat.

Peppa, you are political, be controversial, and Shout Out for a Sure Start.

The Conservatives and not so free ‘Free Schools’

‘Free Schools’ are being promoted by the Conservative Party as a solution to apparent falling educational standards, and parental dissatisfaction with local schools.  The Conservatives are basing their proposals on a Swedish model. There, groups of parents, charities, or companies can set up schools, and, with state funding, run them.  This model is attractive to the Conservatives because it appears to give power to (some) parents, and, simultaneously frees up the school from Local Education Authority Control.  Government has limited power and control over such schools, freeing up those who set up the school to run it in the way they feel fit.  It sounds an appealing prospect. 

However, ‘free schools’ are a contentious issue.

In theory, a group of parents could set up a school and run it. This is how the Daily Mail presented David Cameron pledge to a parents’ group in West Yorkshire. However, it is unlikely that a parents’ group would actually run a school.  More likely is that a private profit making company would run a school.  They may be contracted by a parents’ or community group, but this doesn’t mean that power is devolved to the community.  Who really holds the power?  Would parents actually be handing power to these private, unaccountable companies?  A further issue to consider is the role of private companies in the provision of education.  Michael Gove, the shadow schools’ secretary certainly sees a role for the private sector.  These companies would be encouraged to run schools for profit.  In other words, public money would go into the pockets of these profit making companies.  This seems odd, given the  Conservatives statements about needing to cut public spending, and target it where it is most needed.  Maybe, what they mean is that public spending will be diverted to the private sector.

The impact on other schools, and on pupils also needs considering.  The theory is, with ‘free schools’ there is greater choice, and that this improves standards.  So, schools have to be ‘good’ schools in order to attract consumers (parents and their children), and the money follows pupils.  ‘Bad’ schools are identified by their unpopularity and will be gradually forced out of the market, they need to be ‘good’ to stay in the market.  But, of course the reality is somewhat different, with ‘free schools’ attracting middle class pupils (as evidence suggests they have done in Sweden) poorer children are left at the ‘state’ schools, which will see their funding cut.  Yes, there is a premium for children from deprived areas, but it is doubtful that this would be attractive enough to a profit making company.  Why would they want to risk their profits by spending money education kids from poor homes. 

The conservatives claim that their education proposals will provide the kind of good quality education system that is currently only available to the ‘well off’.  Yet, their proposals threaten to further social inequalities in education, allowing ‘sink’ schools to sink further, denying the most vulnerable a good education.

And the promise of raised standards.  The evidence from Sweden, and the evidence from Charter Schools in the USA suggest otherwise.  The standards are often no better than in ‘public’ (state) schools, and, are sometimes worse.

Washing-up the Education Bill

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a General Election for May 6th.  This means Parliament needs to be dissolved, and therefore the business that Parliament was going to consider between now and May 6th either gets abandoned, or ‘washed-up’, in other words rushed through Parliament.

The Children, School and Families Bill, sometimes referred to as the Education Bill was washed-up yesterday.  However, in order for the bill to get passed a number of amendments have had to be made.  This was because the bill could not get passed without approval, opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives would only give their approval to the bill if a number of elements were removed.  The following provisions will no longer be included:

  • The Pupil and Parent Guarantees – which guarantee core rights and entitlements for pupils and parents, including catch-up lessons, 1-2-1 tuition and small group support for pupils needing extra support.
  • Home School Agreements – the Bill strengthens Home School Agreements, making them more personalised for each pupil, and new and stronger powers to enforce parents’ responsibilities in supporting the school in maintaining good behaviour including the possibility of a court-imposed parenting order.
  • Reform of the primary curriculum – the reforms to the primary curriculum, following Sir Jim Rose’s extensive expert review, provide greater flexibility for schools to tailor teaching to the needs and interests of their children while also focusing on the basics of literacy, numeracy and ICT.
  • Introduction of compulsory Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education – the PSHE provisions ensure that all children receive at least one year of compulsory sex and relationship education (SRE) by making PSHE compulsory, and lowering the age at which parents can withdraw their children from PSHE from 19 to 15 years old. Legal advice to the Secretary of State was that increasing the age of the PSHE opt-out to 16 would have made the bill non-compliant with the ECHR.
  • The new Licence to Practise for teachers – this licence, accompanied by a contractual entitlement to continuing professional development, will establish the professional standing of the workforce and provide teachers with the status they deserve.
  • Registration and monitoring of home education – following Graham Badman’s independent report into home education, these provisions put in place a valuable tool for local authorities in their work to safeguard all children.
  • School Improvement Partners (SIPs) – the powers of SIPs will be updated so headteachers receive peer support, and challenge.
  • Data for the school report card – the new school report card gives fairer and more accurate accountability for schools and gives parents even more information about the schools their children attend.
  • Schools eligible for intervention and schools causing concern – the Bill strengthens local authority powers to intervene in schools causing concern, and more powers for the Secretary of State to intervene where improvement is not good enough.
  • Youth Offending Teams – the Bill gives powers for the Secretary of State to intervene where an inspection or other evidence reveals a significant failing in a Youth Offending Team (YOT) which may be putting young people or the wider community at risk.
  • Parental satisfaction surveys – this duty on local authorities would require them proactively to seek parents’ views on the range and quality of secondary school places in their area and then act on their responses.

There are, therefore a number of key, and high-profile measures which will not now become law.  The recommendations arising from the Rose Review of the primary school curriculum, for one.  This was high-profile, and certainly controversial, but it did suggest that the primary school curriculum was going to change significantly.

Members of the current Government have attacked members of the opposition for their opposition to the intensive catch-up provision, and their refusal to back compulsory sex education for pupils aged 15 and over. 

Under the intensive catch-up, £169 million had been allocated, over the next three years to provide one-to-one tuition in maths and writing  for pupils who had not met expected targets at key stage 2.  Given that these basic skills are not only identified as essential, but are also a hot political issue, it might seem odd that the Conservatives have opposed this measure.  They are, after all keen to criticise Labour when children fail to meet expected standards in English and Maths. 

The Conservatives have argued that catch-up should be left to the discretion of head teachers, in other words ensuring that pupils meet minimum standards in English and Maths is not something that the Government should concern itself with, especially if it is going to cost £169 million.

Compulsory PSHE (Personal, social and health education) for pupils aged 15 and above has been dropped, this has disappointed several young people’s charities.  This element would also have seen PSHE on the curriculum from the age of 5 (though with parents having the right to withdraw their child). 

The plans to register home educators has been dropped, and although this may please home educators who feared interference it also, potentially puts some children and families at risk in cases where they not being educated appropriately.

A planned licence to practice for teachers has also gone.  This would have required teachers to engage in professional development and maintain their skills.  While the existence of schools full of  ‘bad’ teachers may be a media fuelled myth, this may have been one way of attempting to ensure that teachers remained skilled and competent.

The Conservatives opposed these measures, they claimed, because of the increased bureaucracy that is would bring, preferring de-regulation.  But, whether it is called bureaucracy or red tape, legislation serves to regulate, often for very good reasons.  Ideologies of individualism, which the Conservatives subscribe to are opposed to ‘red tape’ because it limits an individual’s freedom, and because it costs.  Other, collectivist ideologies argue that regulation is needed, precisely to limit an individual’s freedom, but for the collective good of society. 

However, one form of regulation, if not centralisation may remain, these are proposals which will allow Local Authorities and the Schools’ secretary to intervene where a school is failing to meet standards.  The Conservatives in the House of Lords may support this measure.  Strange, considering that when in Government they were keen to free up schools from Local Authority control.