Farewell to Summer

Proposals to allow schools to set their own term times, announced earlier this month, have provoked numerous responses both in favour and against.

There may will be sound arguments for a six-week summer holiday, just as there may be for shorter breaks, and schools which have chosen either of these ways may well feel justified in their decision, especially if they perceive positive results as a consequence.  However, the argument for or against this proposal is much more than a debate over the educational benefits of the length of time spent in school.

Here are just two of the arguments for a change, which I find specious:

Shorter holidays and more terms will help prevent the most disadvantaged pupils from falling further behind their peers.

There are a number of limitations to this argument.  Firstly, the argument recognises that socio-economic context can impact on educational opportunities.  Yet, it then minimises the impact of socio-economics with the belief that schools can compensate for society.  While there is a body of evidence which has examined the difference a school can make in terms of outcomes, it remains an ambitious claim that poverty, which may involve for example, poor quality housing and high levels of morbidity can be mitigated by school attendance and high quality teaching.

Secondly,  this argument renders socio-economic inequalities as natural and inevitable.  If, as a society we really are concerned with socio-economic inequalities we would work to produce a much fairer society all round.  Instead, we deal with the symptoms of those inequalities and naively hope this will produce that fairer society.

Yet, despite these problems, realist policy responses to gaps in educational outcomes are the only responses available in the absence of more fundamental social reform.  But, as generations of educational reform have shown, those gaps will remain.

The current system of  school terms was designed to meet the needs of an Agricultural economy

This is Gove’s claim. However, Gove emphasises a partial view of history.

The development of state schooling intensified at the end of the nineteenth century and, one explanation is that this was to meet the needs of a changing, though not solely an agricultural economy. Even in rural areas, factories and mining existed side by side an agricultural, and domestic service economy. Six weeks holidays taking up the whole of August was not universal across England.  For example, in nineteenth century Teesdale schools, attendance during August was a common practice, with the midsummer vacation running through July.

But Gove’s partial view of history skims over the power relations inherent in any economic system.  The schooling system that was developed at the end of the nineteenth century reflected power inequalities and it would be naive to suggest that contemporary educational policies and proposals for future policy do not.

Therefore, it is important to note where this proposal is coming from.  The proposed change is to be found in the Draft Deregulation Bill presented to Parliament earlier this month.  In the forward to the draft Bill, Kenneth Clarke and Oliver Letwin state:

“Publication of the draft Bill is the latest step in the Government’s ongoing drive to remove unnecessary bureaucracy that costs British businesses millions, slows down public services like schools and hospitals, and hinders millions of individuals in their daily lives.”

This makes sense if you believe that bureaucracy is unnecessary, costly, slows down services and hinders the daily lives of “millions of individuals”.  If, on the other hand you believe that so-called ‘red tape’ is a necessary albeit imperfect means of working towards fairness, public safety and accountability then this statement is highly disturbing, revealing the ideology behind the Government’s intentions.

With regards to setting of school terms, the proposals are as follows:

(1) Section 32 of the Education Act 2002 (responsibility for fixing dates of terms and holidays and times of sessions) is amended as follows.

(2) Before subsection (1) insert –

“(A1) In the case of a community, voluntary controlled or community special school in England or a maintained nursery school in England, the governing body shall determine –

  1. (a)  the dates when the school terms and holidays are to begin and end, and
  2. (b)  the times of the school sessions.”

This means Local Authorities will no longer be responsible for setting school terms  (Academies and Free Schools already have the power to set their own dates).  This deregulation, and apparent freeing from bureaucracy does not do away with the need for decisions to be made about term dates and session times. In other words, it replaces one form of bureaucracy with another.  The key difference is the transfer of responsibility from local authorities to school governing bodies.  This is the real deregulation, and it further marketises schooling. The move will not bring increased freedoms other than the illusion of parental choice in the school market place.  Local authorities, however imperfect local democracy may be, are a means by which we can exercise power and can hold our representatives accountable.  Deregulation takes this away.

Continue reading “Farewell to Summer”

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Gove stands up to the ‘Blob’

There are so many problems with Michael Gove’s recent article in the Daily Mail that I am not sure where to start.  I am also not sure whether I have the inclination to engage with something that I consider to be diatribe.  But here goes:

After opening with an invocation of Cyril Connolly, Gove appeals to fear:

“Because there are millions of talented young people being denied the opportunity to succeed as they deserve. Far too many are having their potential thwarted by a new set of Enemies Of Promise.”

Gove is trying to claim that he is concerned about the educational prospects of our young people.  Perhaps he is only concerned about those who he deems as talented, and therefore deserving of success?  Nevertheless, he is concerned about them.  Yet, Daily Mail readers should be warned, there are people out there, these  ‘Enemies Of Promise’ who threaten to stand in the way of these opportunities to success.

So, who are these ‘Enemies Of Promise’? They are:

“a set of politically motivated individuals”

These individuals do not agree with Gove, therefore they are enemies, and, moreover they are politically motivated, and worst of all, they are ‘Marxist’.  Helpfully, the Daily Mail has included a picture of the bearded man himself.  Presumably, in describing his enemies as “politically motivated,  Gove is suggesting that he is not similarly motivated.  This is clearly nonsense.

Gove goes on to outline what he believes is evidence of the poor standards of education in our schools with this rhetological fallacy:

“Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance”

His appeal to authority conveniently fails to identify which surveys uncovered this ignorance.

These poor educational standards, according to Gove are concentrated in our most disadvantaged communities, such as East Durham. (you may remember that this is a place where Gove claims to be able smell defeat).  Given this observation of differences in educational achievement, Marxists may point out that in capitalism there are winners and losers, and that within this system lies the explanation for differential education attainment.  However, Marxists are the subject of this attack, so anything they have to say is subject to further opprobrium in the remainder of the article.

Of course capitalism is not to blame! Gove much prefers to point the finger at the ‘Enemies Of Promise’. One hundred of these apparent enemies are signatories to a letter in The Independent in which they warn of the potential dangers of Gove’s new National Curriculum  (which explains why Gove doesn’t like them).  Some of these enemies, according to Gove, inhabit a “Red Planet” (they are Marxists after all!).  This, according to Gove is proven by their research interests:

“One of the letter’s principal signatories claims to write ‘from a classical Marxist perspective’, another studies ‘how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice’, a third makes their life work an ‘intergenerational ethnography of the intersection of class, place, education and school resistance’.”

This is nothing more than an ignorant attack on the social sciences, and one which, presumably Gove hopes the readers of his derision will agree with.

Gove then goes on to describe ‘enemies’ as a ‘Blob’ consisting of “ultra-militants in the unions who are threatening strikes”. This choice of language purposefully ignores the reality that unions are made up of their members, in this case teachers who have collectively chosen to withdraw their labour in summer of strike action.

In short, a fine example of Govian ad hominem reasoning.  No wonder the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) has recorded no confidence in him.

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 logic of school refusal

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

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

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

Read Jenn Ashworth’s article in the Guardian.

Continue reading “The logic of school refusal”

Caught in the Education Act

Caught in the Act is a one day conference organised by a network of campaign groups and organisations concerned about the future of education, including the Anti Academies Alliance, Campaign for State Education, Comprehensive Future, the journal FORUM, Information for School and College Governors (ISCG), and the Socialist Educational Association

The Conference in centred on the imminent Education Act, and has the tagline Tackling Michael Gove’s Education Revolution.  Though, at present, the revolution is not so much an Act as a Bill which is shortly to go to the committee stage in the House of Lords.

An impressive list of speakers will lead workshops on the implications of the new legislation.  These include:

Clyde Chitty and Melissa Benn on A Divided Education System

David Wolfe, specialist in education law from Matrix Chambers on Implications of the new Education Act.

Prof. Stephen Ball, an all round expert on the sociology of education on Privatisation.

Martin Johnson, the Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union,  Association for Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) on Edubusiness.

Sam Ellis, funding specialist from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on Paying the Price

Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) on The International Scene

Dr. Patrick Roach, the Deputy General Secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT who will discuss What Next?

The conference will be held between 10am and 3.30pm on  Saturday 19th November,  at the University of London Union, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HY.

More details, and information on booking can be found on the CASE website.

The Cost of Improving Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “The Cost of Improving Discipline”

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?

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”

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.