Return of Grammar Schools?

Grammar Schools never really went away, despite comprehensivisation in the 1960’s and 70’s.  One part of England that retained the Grammar system was Kent, whose Grammar Schools continue to use the ‘Kent Test’, the county’s own version of the 11+ as a means of selecting pupils.

Sevenoaks is one town in Kent without a Grammar School.  Children who pass the Kent test take up places in other Grammar Schools in Kent (involving what might be a lengthy commute).  Alternatively , they may enter the ‘Grammar Stream’ of Knole Academy in the town.  However, this is about to change.

In September 2017 an annex of the Weald of Kent Grammar School for girls will open in Sevenoaks.   Due to section 99 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act of 1998, restricting the creation of new Grammar Schools, this is not, technically, a new Grammar School.  It is, however, an expansion, on a different site, of an existing Grammar school.

For those residents of Sevenoaks who have been campaigning for a Grammar School in their town this is, clearly good news.

Speaking on the day the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan announced approval for the expansion of the Weald of Kent Grammar School, Andrew Shilling from the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign said:

“Today’s news addresses the deep unfairness of Sevenoaks being the only district in Kent without a grammar school, which forces 1,100 Sevenoaks children to travel daily to grammar schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, a round trip of up to 25 miles and two hours. This negatively impacts on their ability to learn, on their opportunities for hobbies and sport, on their opportunities to develop friendships, and on the time they spend with their families.”

Here we have the Grammar system normalised.  The reference to the ‘deep unfairness’ refers not to the selective system as a whole, but the lack of Grammar School places in Sevenoaks.  The unfairness isn’t felt by those who ‘fail’ the 11+ and who miss out on the opportunity for an academic education, but those children who are, apparently, ‘forced’ to travel outside of the town for such an education.

But is this ‘unfairness’ now resolved?  The annex will be an extension of the Weald of Kent, a girls school. Boys will continue to travel out to Grammar Schools.  Overall, the opening of the annex may not mean more pupils from Sevenoaks attending Grammar Schools.  Rebecca Allen from Education Datalab thinks that there will only be a marginal increase in the number of Sevenoaks pupils attending Grammar Schools.

However, elsewhere we may be seeing a turn towards selection as other Grammar Schools make use of the ability to side-step the School Standards and Framework Act and establish annexes or satellites.  The Telegraph reports that floodgates have opened, allowing a ‘wave’ of new Grammar School applications. The Guardian predicts that other Grammar Schools will be spurred on to apply to establish satellite schools. Schools Week has identified ten potential new areas of England which could see Grammar annexes established.

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.

Continue reading “The Grammar School: A Secret History”

A school nurse in every school?

Waterloo Road, the fictional Rochdale Comprehensive school appears to have a resident school nurse.  This is just as well, as Waterloo Road has its fair share of medical emergencies, to which the nurse is often summoned.  The nurse has not merely been referred to, but has, occasionally made a cameo appearance.

In last week’s episode, new boy Freddie Jackson collapsed whilst playing football. Superhead Michael Byrne intervened at the crucial moment by instructing Phoenix Taylor  to “go and get the nurse”, as opposed to calling the emergency services.  Thankfully, Freddie survived and went on to protest to his mother that he was fine, supported by Michael Byrne who assured that “the nurse has checked him over thoroughly”.  Perhaps the Waterloo Road nurse is a cardiac specialist, and the medical equipment of the Waterloo Road sick-bay are the envy of schools across the land.

Waterloo Road is, however, a representation of reality, rather than reality.  The latest NHS workforce figures indicate that there were 1158 full-time equivalent school nurses in England as of July this year[1].  There are also around 23, 400 state primary, secondary, nursery schools, and pupil referral units [2].  In short, schools are unlikely to have a resident nurse.  Waterloo Road is exceptional in this regard.

The importance of school nursing was highlighted in the 2004 Department of Health’s Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier[3].  About the school nursing service it stated:

“…we will modernise and promote school nursing services, expanding the number of qualified staff working with primary and secondary schools so that, by 2010, every cluster of schools will have access to a team led by a qualified school nurse.” (p.8)

This is far from one nurse for every school, rather, it is access to one, who may not  be full-time.

The roles of school nurses are varied too.  Nitty Nora is an outdated stereotype as school nurses administer HPV vaccines, deliver advice on sexual health, monitor height and weight, provide advice on health related issues for young people, as well as contribute to child protection conferences. This is quite different from the image portrayed in Waterloo Road.  While a trained first aider will be on hand in the case of accidents on the playing field, this is not a routine part of the school nurse.

Continue reading “A school nurse in every school?”

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.

Elain Harwood – England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation

“Our children deserve the very best learning environment that the education system can offer.” (p. vii)

This might seem an uncontroversial statement for Baroness Andrews to include in the foreword to Elain Harwood’s book on the changing forms of school buildings.  However, the following sentence indicates that such a belief is not a given, but a political commitment, as Andrews goes on to say:

“This view is reflected in the Government’s major programme to rebuild or refurbish England’s school buildings over a ten to fifteen year period” (p. vii)

This is reference to the previous Labour administration’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Thus, given the halting of BSF Elain Harwood’s book was almost out of date the moment it was published in 2010.  This fact too, highlights that the design, structure and form of school buildings is not random, but is shaped by a socio-political and economic context.

Harwood refers to the shaping influence of context on school building design throughout history.  It is understandable that she does not go far in this regard, (it is a brief guide to school architecture and listing after all) however, there is enough to whet the appetite and appreciate why a particular school building takes the form it does.

The section on comprehensive schools is rather confusing, referring as it does to the building of secondary modern schools, and, although many became comprehensive schools, the discussion in this section is not sufficiently developed. The contemporary significance of the section on prefabricated school buildings was probably not realised at the time of writing the book, but, the publication of the  Review of Education Capital gives immediate relevance to this topic. The design, structure and form of schools will continue to be shaped by the context in which they exist.  Whether school architecture will be motivated by a desire to give children the “very best learning environment that the education system can offer” is another matter.

England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation is published by English Heritage.

Flatpack Schools for the Future

Last month, Sebastian James’ Review of Education Capital  was published. James, and his team reviewed the previous Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF), which had the  “quixotic aim of rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England by 2020” (2011: 12).  That judgement about BSF indicates the new policy discourse on school buildings.

BSF was felt to be too ambitious, quixotically so, thus, it comes as no surprise that, especially in an age of austerity, it is recommended that school building programmes need to be less ambitious.  One of the key recommendations arising from the review is that of standardisation:

“New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs.” (2011: 6)

Thus, the notion of Flat Pack Schools has been raised by the Guardian. The Review itself comes close to using the phrase ‘flatpack’ when it envisages that  “…off-site construction will be possible for some standard elements from plant rooms up to specialist classrooms”  before later going on to describe the  “modular build and the manufacture of standardised components off-site”  (ibid: 54)

The discourse of the Review justifies the flatpack option; BSF wasted time and money during the planning, and procurement stages. Times are hard, standardisation is cheaper. This sounds somewhat plausible.  More schools can be rebuilt or refurbished this way than under BSF (Or, alternatively the Conservatives build more schools than Labour).  It is reminiscent of the 1951 Conservative Government’s council housing policy, which saw changes in both the quantity and quality of new council houses [1].

Another rationale for standardising the school estate, according to the Review is the problematic involvement of head teachers and pupils in the design process.  The design of some schools might have reflected the pedagogical approach of a particular head, who would move on, presumably lumbering his or her successor with a building which was at odds with their pedagogical approach.  Similarly, pupils who were involved in the design process of their new school might never get the opportunity to experience the completed project, as they would leave school before the new building was ready. In one sense it sounds a reasonable reason for denying such users a voice.  Why should teachers and pupils design a school that, at best they will get to use, at best, only briefly?  At the same time,  it is a curious rationale.   Do teachers and pupils not have valuable experiences which can benefit future generations of users of those same buildings?  Should user consultation be stopped for every other project, building or otherwise?

Standardisation, the preferred solution to messy teacher and pupil involvement, thus denies these people a voice, but also gives control to the Government.  It is their pedagogical model that is to be imposed on new school buildings. Politicians will spend little time using these school buildings, which, apparently is a rationale for denying other users of school buildings a say in their design.

This discourse is at odds with the wider educational discourse of the current Government.  Last year Michael Gove proudly boasted:

“Teachers, not politicians, know best how to run schools”

Does the “greater freedom” promised, not apply to the design of buildings that these teachers will teach in?

This policy dismissal of pupils’ views on the design of their school buildings coincidentally comes at the same time as  The School I’d Like run by the Guardian.  School design, as well as other aspects of the curriculum featured among the young people’s recommendations.  There are some suggestions, which many teachers, parents and politicians would not want to see in schools,  like chocolate fountains, but, fundamentally children know what makes a good, comfortable school in which they are happy to learn.

The Private sector (or Public Schools) take a different approach, viewing their architectural resources as important assets which appeal to prospective parents.   Read Fiona Millar’s post on the Truth About Our Schools website.  She asks why, if school buildings have no transformational effect, Eton College is so keen to celebrate its resources in this regard.

Continue reading “Flatpack Schools for the Future”

A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?

This is how Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in the Guardian described the new coalition’s plans for school league tables.  In fact, it appears to be not so radical. 

League tables, providing statistical information on the ‘performance’ of pupils are published by the government’s education department (as in the illustration below), and reproduced in national newspapers. 

On the face of it, they provide robust, statistical information about the performance of a school.  Though deciphering the information will not be straightforward for everyone, the figures show what percentage of pupils attained a specified level.  It appears objective, scientific, unbiased.  However, the problem with these tables is that they only provide a partial picture; there is a lack of information on the social context  of the school, and, although there is now a contextual value added measure, there is little information on the attainment of pupils on entry to that key stage.  So, in short they do not compare like with like, and, are biased.

League tables were introduced to give parents information about schools in their areas.  They could use this information to make informed decisions about selecting the most appropriate school for their child.  Parents, thus became consumers in the education market place.  Further, it should be noted that this development was not introduced by the previous Labour administration, but by the previous Conservative government.  In particular, it was the 1988 Education Act which ushered in many changes which have resulted in the intensification of the education marketplace.

Now, we have the ConDem government intent on changing the league table system.  Plans, however, are at the ‘suggestion’ stage.   One suggestion, not a definite, is to group schools according to their socio-economic context.  So, schools in poor areas will be grouped with other poor schools. 

Is this radical?

No

  • There is nothing new in benchmarking schools, (or other public services for that matter), alongside other schools with a similar social context.
  • Benchmarking alongside schools with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals has been used to compare the ‘performance’ of schools.  There are, however problems with FSM data as it is only a ‘proxy’ for deprivation)
  • The last government also introduced a value added measure to take account of the intake of pupils

Is this suggestion a good idea?

It depends on the motivation of the government

  • The claims that the current government makes for achieving social justice through education reforms ring hollow.  Proposals for more academies, and for free schools are not about achieving social justice, but are about withdrawal of the state from the provision of education. Academies and Free Schools will be outside of LEA control, and so, in control of their own admissions.  League tables comparing ‘like with like’  are, more likely to mean one set of tables for ‘good’ schools, and another for ‘poorer’, underfunded, LEA schools.
  • Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg claims that this move will provide a more “honest picture” of schools’ performance. Again, it is possible to debate the level of honesty that statistical information can provide about any school.  However, any picture, honest or not, it is the impact that this change will have on the consumers of league tables, and the consequences that is important. So…

What are the consequences?

In short, inequality

  •  For parents, it depends on their social class, whether and how they use this information.  As Bowe et al[1] observe, it is too simplistic to assume that parents make school choice decisions on the basis of school performance data alone.
  •  Just as important in school choice decision-making are social networks.  See the research carried out by Ball and Vincent[2].
  • Crucially, Ball and Vincent found that, for working class parents, school choice was not an anxious process, largely because choices are limited, often attend the local school.  It is these parents who are unlikely to be pouring over any form of league table.
  • For those (mainly middle class) parents who do use league tables as part of their decision-making process, this change will simply remove from analysis, those schools which they would not wish to consider for their child (the ‘poor’ performing schools, the ones at the bottom of the league tables).  There will be a middle class league table, and one for the rest.
  • The educational market place will intensify, a greater disparity between schools ‘freed’ from LEA control; academies, and free schools and the remaining state schools will be evident. Greater social inequality is likely to result. 

Continue reading “A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?”

‘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”

ConDem Plans for Early Years

Today, the coalition Government announced its plans for a number of policy areas.  Among these, were plans for Early Years.

The Government promises a "diverse range of providers"

Cuts in Sure Start provision were to expected, from the Conservatives, the LibDems were committed to maintaining a universal service.  They are now backing cuts.   Now, the coalition states:

“We will take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, increase its focus on the neediest families, and better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families”

On the surface, this sounds appealing, as is the pledge to introduce payment by results for Sure Start.  However, it is a worrying development. It is worth remembering that one of the original purposes of Sure Start was the empowering of parents, particularly in deprived areas.  Sure Starts were also diverse, precisely because they responded to local circumstances and need.  The payment by results may well turn out to be an excuse not to fund those projects which do not appear to have a measurable outcome.  Not only is it likely to take several years for the results of early years interventions to be seen, many outcomes are likely to be ‘soft’ outcomes, such as parental empowerment.  It is also worth remembering that in a survey of its members, last year, the Conservative Party found that over half of its members wanted the abolition of Sure Start. 

There is a pledge to continue to provide free nursery care for pre-school children in England.  However, it is the Government’s intention that this is “provided by a diverse range of providers”, which again sounds nice, suggesting choice.  It is likely to mean less regulation, (getting rid of ‘red tape’ is also a more general pledge, so, less need for an Early Years trained specialist perhaps?) with providers of all description competing to offer services in child care.  Inequality in the quality and accessibility of childcare is likely to increase, with those who are able, subsidising places where poorer families cannot afford to send their child.  What incentive there will be for providers to be located in poorer areas is not known. 

In addition, the vetting of those who have contact with children is to be scaled back to “common sense levels”, again,maybe popular, but what does ‘common sense’ mean.  The CRB system is not perfect, but scaling it back is unlikely to improve the safeguarding of children.

The new Government also intends that society becomes more “family friendly”.  Thats nice, though we shouldn’t forget that David Cameron voted against the extending of maternity leave and against paternity leave when the last Labour Government introduced these for the first time.