Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy

BBC Radio 4 this week broadcast Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy.  Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust tells the story of developments in education policy over the seventy years since the Education Act of 1944. The half-hour broadcast can only be a brief overview of the key moments in education policy rather than an in-depth policy analysis.  However,  while useful as a documentary in that it provides an overview of key developments and asks key questions, this broadcast draws on and perpetuates some myths about the development of education after 1944.

Blatchford begins with the claim that the 1944 Act was a  “fundamental reform of the English education system”. Arguably, this was the case.  The legislation provided for universal, free, secondary education and this was distinct from what had existed previously when a secondary education was not an entitlement, but was largely rationed according to the ability to pay or obtain a scholarship through the passing of an 11+ style exam.

Blatchford goes on to describe how the new legislation “…meant pupils would  have a choice between a grammar, a secondary modern and a technical education”  which is only partially accurate.  The tripartite system to which he is referring reflects the ways in which the Act was implemented into existing contexts, rather than the Act itself, which did not prescribe specific secondary school types.

The broadcast also draws on the idea of a ‘post-war consensus’ claiming that “there was certainly a strong political consensus around the ambitions of the 44 Act” though, in relation to the aftermath of the 1944 Act at least, this has been contested (see for example, Jones, 1990).  Blatchford continues:

“What then disturbed the postwar consensus was a seemingly mild but radical request from the Labour Government in 1965 in the form of the infamous circular 10/65, a request to abolish selection at 11+ and end the divide between secondary moderns and grammar schools.”

However, this oversimplifies the process by which comprehensivation became a popular means for LEAs to organise secondary education.   Circular 10/65 did request that LEAs submit plans for comprehensivisation but there is evidence to support the claim that “[t]he drive for comprehensive education in England and Wales was a ‘bottom up’, rather than ‘top down’ initiative” (Crook, 2002: p. 257).

Nevertheless, featuring interviews with former Ministers and LEA  personnel the documentary offers some interesting insights to key policy developments.  It is broadcast again on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 27th April at 17.00 and is available to listen to here.

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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?

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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‘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?

Most Schools are not Academies

This is not the headline the Department for Education used earlier this month when it announced the latest figures for the number of open and converting academies. On that page you see a map with markers showing the number of academies. You can even zoom in on a location of interest.  The DfE kindly  supply a code to embed the map on your own website if you so wish.  Unfortunately, I am unable to, so you will have to make do with a link to the map:

It all looks very impressive.  I was more interested in the spreadsheet of academies, which you can also download from the open academies page.

While it shows both sponsored and converted academies, it doesn’t immediately show those schools which are not academies (either sponsored or converted).  From the data it is interesting that in some LEA areas, there are very few academies. Fortunately, someone at the Anti Academies Alliance has worked out the number of schools in each LEA that remain non academies.

Overall, 68% of secondaries are not academies, but this is not evenly distributed across England, with some LEAs with up to 100% of secondaries not converting into academies.  For primary schools, even fewer are converting.  Across England 98% remain LEA schools.

The Government is, understandably using the latest academy figures to demonstrate how the popularity of its academy conversion policy.  However, the figures, while telling us how many are converting, as well as how many are not, don’t tell us about the motivations of heads and governing bodies.  It would be interesting to know the reasons why some schools are converting.  One converted school I know made reference in its recent newsletter  to the ubiquitous, and rather non specific claim that academy status will provide more control, yet, it doesn’t appear that enthusiastic about its new status, keeping its old name. Many other recently converted schools have done the same.  It hardly indicates an enthusiastic embracing of the Government’s academy policy.

More rushing to claim Free School Meals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

A look back at Education 2010 – Part 2

This year will see the amount of public money spent on education, fall.  However, we are not supposed to worry about the impact of this.  A number of reassurances are used by the current Government in the process of framing public spending.  For example, the phrase “we’re all in this together” is supposed to make us feel that these cuts are fair, that everyone will experience cuts to the same extent, that no one group is being singled out. It is a case of all citizens sharing the burden, bankers and bin men alike.  This reassurance is however inconsistent with other reassurances from the Government over the protection of ‘front line services’.  Firstly, cuts cannot be fair and equally spread if some services are protected while others are not.  Secondly, the definition of ‘front line services’ is not clear.  The term ‘front line services’ may appear common sensical, referring to those essential services that no civilised society, or no individual can live without.  In reality, ‘front line services’ differ between individuals,  so some members of the population may see the services they rely on protected, while others will see them cut.

When it comes to education, a 0.1% increase in schools’ budgets were suggested in the October spending review.  By December, pantomime season had descended; it was a case of ‘oh no it isn’t’.  The 0.1% rise is not a real rise, given inflation. It also means that the pupil premium isn’t actually extra money.  According to the  DfE Some LEAs and schools will see their budgets fall.

Other cuts were announced.  £162 million of funding to the School Sports Partnership was to be cut.  By the 20th December Gove could be heard crying ‘Oh no its not’ as the DfE issued a news release to the effect that funding will now continue until the end of summer term 2011.

On 17th December Booktrust, an independent charity which runs a book gifting scheme giving books to children and families to encourage reading were told that their  £13 million Government funding would cease from 1 April 2011.   No sooner had the charity released the contents of the letter, but Government, in gesture of seasonal goodwill decided to review the decision.  Clearly the ghost of Christmas future has not visited, as it is only a partial ‘u turn’ as the Government has declared it is committed to  bookgifting and will continue to work with Booktrust.

Could it be argued that school sports, books and reading are not ‘front line services’?

A look back at Education 2010 – Part 1

The title of this post is not exciting, but hopefully it explains what follows.

It is almost the end of the year, and a time to review all things educational, while ‘looking forward’ to changes in educational policy and provision that will start to unravel over the next few months. I’ll start with Waterloo Road. Like it or not, it is a popular representation of contemporary schooling, granted it is not accurate, but it does represent a reality, and as such, we can predict that Waterloo Road, will have to start responding to the Schools White Paper very soon.

In Waterloo Road, the televisual representation of Britain’s comprehensive schools, Karen Fisher took over as the new Head.

Her deputy, Christopher Mead wakes up at the start of the first episode, the morning after having sexual intercourse with one of his pupils, Jess Fisher.  A criminal record and ruined career awaited, and, while the narrative invited us to be sympathetic towards him, maybe we should question his judgement.  He obviously had not learned his lesson from the previous series about inappropriate relationships with pupils (remember Vicki MacDonald).  Granted, when he embarked on this particular relationship (relationship as in a one night encounter) he didn’t know she was a pupil, but she was clearly of an age that she could be one of his pupils.  He might have avoided the stress if he had got to know his new girlfriend a little better before sleeping with her.  With a big question mark over his sexual politics, Christopher Mead’s career was on the line when the truth was finally revealed to the Head, and mother of  Jess Fisher,  the sixth former in question, but, as a good teacher he remains in post, his contribution as a positive male role model assured for the next series.

The troubled family life of the new Head began to unravel from the very first episode.  In the second episode we witnessed her son Harry experiencing eating distress.  Eventually this was revealed to his family, via the taunts of a fellow pupil, Finn Sharkey.  His mother could have directed him to BEAT’s  Rough Guide for Young Men though, as there was no reference to the eating disorder charity, it was unlikely she did so, and, predictably, by the end of the series he appeared to free from bulimia.

Waterloo Road returns in the Spring, just in time for it to be feeling the pinch of efficiency savings and educational reform.  It will have a much reduced curriculum, concentrating on the essential academic subjects with pupils recalling the essential dates in history, well from a British perspective at least.   The teachers will have greater powers to discipline pupils.  In any case discipline will improve at Waterloo Road, following a crackdown on the flexible interpretation of its uniform.  By the next series, pupils will be dressed in regulation blazers and ties,  and the school will be freed from Local Education Authority control.  Standards will rise, pupils on free school meals will be accepted for Oxbridge, and the future of Waterloo Road, as the preferred school of choice amongst Rochdale’s most aspirational parents will be assured.   It will be a triumph of a neo-liberal education ideology.

Parent power, or not, in the ‘Big Society’

The Big Society is David Cameron’s Big Thing.  With regard to schools he has been keen to emphasis the power that his government will grant to parents, for example in being able to start up their own schools.  Aside from the deeply unpleasant, paternalistic notion of a government granting power (they can just as easily take it back again), there is a certain level of inconsistency in Cameron’s promises.

While we are being told that schools will be freed from LEA, control, that parents will have power with the establishment of free schools (unlikely, as private companies will run them) we have also been treated to the plans to fast track schools to the academy status.  This is somewhat inconsistent, as parents will, inevitably be left out of the process.  Here  is an interesting piece by Fiona Millar (she’s a journalist specialising in education, she frequently writes  in the Guardian and runs the site  The Truth About Our Schools) in which she rightly points out that it is headteachers who will make the decision to move towards academy status.  Parents will not be consulted.