Primary National Offer Day

Last week saw the first ever national offer day for primary school places.  This is the day when parents of children due to start primary school in September are informed of the schools to which their children have been offered a place.

News values (Galthung and Ruge, 1965) are apparent in the responses of the news media.  Using emotive language to highlight an apparent ‘crisis’ over the availability of school places the news reports focus on the personal stories of families who are not offered a place at their nearby, invariably ‘good’, school. ITV runs with the story of four year old Lily, ‘denied’ a place at a school 400 yards from her home. To claim that Lily was ‘denied’ a place effectively simplifies the policy process, making it easier to digest.  The family may have chosen the nearest school, it being their preference, but places were offered to other children, on the basis of the admissions criteria.

The Guardian runs with the headline: Class war in English villages as lack of primary school places hits families.  The article features the Beevers, a family who were drawn to move to the village of  Stotfold partly because of the ‘good’ schools.  The class strategies (Ball, 2002) of such parents are normalised, and the discussion of the ‘good’ school  is depoliticised (see for example Exley, 2013). We are invited to assume that the existence of a ‘good’ school is coincidental to the socio-economic status of the people living in the locality.  Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.  While dated,

Lacey, in his classic study on Hightown Grammar neatly highlights the reproduction of social class advantage inherent in seeking out a ‘good’ school:

“Middle-class parents who are education-conscious try to register their children at the best junior school in the area….In doing so, they inadvertently ensure that the school remains the best junior school in the area…” (1970: p. 35)

There is an almost disregard of the ways in which policy of allocating school places may be implemented at local level aside from some cursory comparisons made between the rates of preferences offered by local authorities.   For example, The Guardian focuses on the different rates in different local authorities while the Daily Mail highlights how a few select (mainly southern eastern) local authorities have not been able to offer as many first preferences this year. In short, the coverage goes no further than description of differences in rates, and is therefore decontextualised.  There is very little coverage on the admissions criteria of the most preferred schools, this information might explain why Adam Beevers and four year old Lily have not been offered places at their nearest schools .  While the frustrations of, almost exclusively, middle class parents are highlighted in news reports there is an absence of discussion on how the policy of school choice works within each local authority. How are school choice advisers used, and how might these street level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010) help parents make informed decisions about choices?  How might these advisers translate policy to provide advice to parents on choosing a school where the contexts in which families live constrain the choices they can make? Researchers, as opposed to journalists have explored these issues. Burgess et al (2011) consider that first choice preferences from some parents from disadvantaged backgrounds may be “resigned” (p.542) meaning that parents choose the school they know they are likely to get) while Exley (2013) found that choice advisers themselves felt their role should be to encourage parents to make realistic choices.

News media are trying to sell a story, so emotive language,  focus on personalities, and an oversimplification of policy are to be expected.  However  as Wallace (1997) points out  “The output of the mass media is a key resource” (p. 148) in the policy process.   According to the  Daily Mail article the fault lies with immigration, along with a baby boom.  Funding by central government is highlighted, particularly its claim that more ‘good’ schools are being created through free schools and academies. On the other hand The Guardian appears to more supportive of local authorities, highlighting the “[s]trenuous efforts by London boroughs”. It is not too difficult to work out where those ‘unseen hands’ (Wallace, 1997) are trying to guide policy.

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Nowt banned from Middlesbrough School

Last month, the headteacher of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough issued a letter to parents requesting they correct their childrens’ ‘incorrect’ phrases with the ‘correct’, ‘standard’ English versions.  The rationale is that pupils need to be able to use ‘standard’ English in appropriate situations. There is a distinction between spoken regional dialect and written ‘standard’ English needed for literacy, however the inclusion of some phrases in the ‘incorrect’ column I suggest is problematic.

Sitha, learn thissen reet

The words and phrases featured in the ‘Incorrect’ column, far from indicating laziness, reflect a linguistically rich and diverse heritage.  Some of these words and phrases are commonly found in north-east dialects, particularly those of Yorkshire, sometimes known as tyke, itself derived of older English and North European languages. 

“The word YOU is never plural” except that you is a plural pronoun, thou is singular.  Through usage you has become singular as well as plural, therefore the use of Yous appears to follow a certain degree of logic.  Indeed, as Snell (2013) points out, yous is not specific to Teesside, “it occurs in a number of urban dialects of British English … where speakers are making a grammatical distinction (singular vs. plural) that they are currently unable to make in standard English” (119).  Perhaps, the pupils at Sacred Heart should be encouraged to use thou for the singular pronoun and you for the plural to avoid any further confusion?

The apparently incorrect word “nowt”  also has a rich history, not only in terms of etymology, but also in its usage in literature. Nowt means, approximately, nothing and is similar to the Anglo-Saxon ne wiht or naught.   This knowledge might come in handy in a reading of Bewoulf.   Perhaps, as nowt  is to be discouraged amongst Middlesbrough’s school children, Wuthering Heights will not be considered a worthwhile source of reading.  Interestingly, the antonym owt (a wiht, aught) appears not be included on the ‘Incorrect’ list.

Rather than viewing tyke as a potential disadvantage, it may be beneficial to view its rich heritage as offering some insight into and understanding of the peculiarities of ‘standard’ English.

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Widespread Coaching for Kent’s 11+

Kent is an unusual place, at least in terms of schooling.  It is one of the few Local Authority areas to retain an 11+ exam, the ‘Kent Test’ .  Recently Kent Online reported the following headline:

Bid to make 11-plus test ‘tutor-proof’ amid review by Kent headteachers

The accompanying article highlights concerns raised by Headteachers in a review of Kent’s 11+ system, that due to a “widespread coaching culture” the test is biased in favour of pupils from more wealthy families.  In response, consideration is being to ‘tutor-proofing’ the test.

This concern appears to suggest that, until the emergence of a “widespread coaching culture” there was no social class bias in 11+ results.  This would be to ignore over fifty years of sociological research on the patterns of educational opportunity and attainment (For example Halsey and Gardner, 1953; Little and Westergaard, 1964).

Similarly, the suggestion that ‘tutor-proofing’ the 11+ by including teacher assessments, or through the use of non commercial tests as a means of  rectifying this is, at best, naïve.  This view ignores the evidence gained from sociological studies which has explored the strategies that middle-class parents employ in seeking a preferred school for their child  (E.g. Ball et al, 1996, Ball, 2003).  Tinkering with the way the 11+ test is conducted is unlikely remove social class bias.  The 11+ test, in itself is not the problem, the problem is that the test is a symptom of a selective system.

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National offer day

National offer day was March 1st.  This was the day when Local Authorities in England communicated offers of secondary school places to parents of children due to transfer to secondary school in the coming September.  However, it was only recently that detailed statistics relating to national offer day were published. Each year, parents whose children are due to transfer to state secondary school the following September apply to their Local Authority for a place for their child. Parents express a minimum of three preferred schools, listing the schools in order of preference.  Some Local Authorities enable parents to list up to six prefered schools while others allow only the minimum three. Overall, according to the statistics released by the Department for Education, 85.3% of families received an offer for their first preference school.  When an offer is made to one of three prefered schools this figure rises to 95.9%,  and increases to 97.6% where families are made an offer for a place at any of their preferred schools.  In other words, across England as a whole the vast majority of offers are made for schools identified as the families’ first choice.

A selection of news headlines serves to illustrate that the media gaze is on those not offered a place at their first choice of school.  The Guardian ran with One in seven pupils miss out on first choice secondary school, while The Independent interpreted the figures slightly differently in its headline of One in six miss first choice school.  Meanwhile, The Telegraph proclaimed its displeasure with its statement of  Children ‘forced to accept unpopular secondary schools’ .

These news reports also highlighted regional disparities which show that a higher percentage of places at first preference schools are offered in the North East while the lowest percentages are in London. The Telegraph however, chose to ignore the North East completely in its article.

Figures, by Local Authority are available from the Department for Education’s research and statistics pages.  The regional breakdown is shown in the following table.

Region

% 1st preferences offered

North East

95.1

North West

90.8

Yorkshire and the Humber

91.2

East Midlands

93.1

West Midlands

81.3

East of England

86.5

Inner London

65.8

Outer London

68.4

South East

84.9

South West

91.7

While it seems that if you live in the North East of England you will have the greatest chance of being offered a place at your first preferred school, this is not the case in Middlesbrough where the figure is  79.9%.  However,  you can be almost certain of an offer at your first choice of secondary school if you live up the coast in Hartlepool.  While London is identified as the worst place for getting into the school of first preference, there is, in contrast to the overall inner London figure, a relatively high chance of securing your first place if you live in Newham where 82.4% of places were offered to schools of first preference.  Making these comparisons between regions and between authorities is limited without further context knowledge about the socio-economic context in which preferences regarding school choice are made.

The discourses surrounding the publication of these figures equates preferred schools with ‘good schools’.  It is assumed that the higher the number of pupils who are offered a place at their 1st choice of school means the high the number of ‘good’ schools available in that area.  It is the rhetoric of the education market place.  This was expressed by the Minister of State for Schools,  Nick Gibb, when releasing the figures:

“Parents are faced with an extremely competitive and stressful process for securing a place for their children. We want to ease this pressure by creating more good school places, which is the driver behind all our reforms to the education system” (DFE, 2012)

However, this simplifies the process of school choice, in particular avoiding any recognition of social class differences in choosing secondary schools  (as discussed in the selected sources below). There is more analysis that can be done with these figures beyond the simplistic, but appealing comparative analysis provided in the mainstream press.

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Summer Skirts for Boys

“And sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn, just what it would take a child a night to learn”  Billy Bragg – The Passion

Today the BBC ran this story.  Chris Whitehead, a pupil at Impington Village College attended school wearing a skirt.  His rationale?  The weather was hot, school rules ban the wearing of shorts in hot weather, but, crucially, not skirts.

Chris Whitehead’s decision therefore, was logical and consistent with the school’s uniform policy.   Of course, in protesting in this way the uniform policy of the school has been exposed as inconsistent.

The loophole in the school rules uncovered, he, appropriately came to school in a skirt.  He apparently got some teasing, but he appears not to mind.  The school, to its credit, praised the way Chris protested, and have decided to review their uniform policy.  Maybe the school will, after all, rectify its inconsistency.

Uniforms are used by schools to signify gender (amongst other functions).  Skirts are normally associated with femininity, as opposed to masculinity. Impington Village College probably felt it didn’t need to specify that only girls are expected to wear skirts.  This article of clothing, hitherto unquestionably female, has been questioned, by a 12-year-old boy. Well done Chris.

Impington Village College may choose to react by specifying a skirt length (for girls) reaching to just above their ankles, thereby scuppering any pupil’s desire to stay cooler in the summer.  However, lets hope they do the sensible thing and allow boys to wear shorts in the hot weather.

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.

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State Educated Royalty?

News coverage of a big event held in London last Friday has not yet abated.  With discussions surrounding the significance of the event for the future of the monarchy, it was interesting to read Francis Gilbert’s suggestion on the Local Schools Network for the education of any future Royal offspring.  He gives four reasons why William and Kate should send any children they might have to a state school.  Should they follow his advice, it could well signal a new phase for the monarchy, though, I doubt they will seriously consider Gilbert’s suggestion.

The “half-baked” English Baccalaureate

This week, the Government published its secondary school performance tables and school spend data.  These performance tables include a new English Baccalaureate indicator.  This measures the percentage of pupils who have attained an A*-C at GCSE (or IGCSE) in English, Mathematics, Sciences, an Ancient or Modern Language, and History or Geography.  The statistics show that overall, in England 15.6% of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate.

The data revealed this week also shows that 216 schools failed to meet a target of 35% of pupils achieving 5  GCSEs A*-C, including English and Mathematics.  These schools face the possibility of being taken over by a more ‘successful’ headteacher.

Newspapers have covered the release of the data. The Guardian ran with a story about the 200 plus schools failing to meet the GCSE targets, but also ran a story about the low levels of pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate. The Independent also ran a piece about pupils and schools missing targets.

My favourite headline and story came from the The Telegraph.  It read:

“GCSE league tables: private schools attack ‘half-baked’ rankings”

The article went on to describe how several leading English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow have ranked lower “than some of England’s worst-performing comprehensives”.  Representatives of private schools are, predictably, not happy.

My immediate, emotional response was:

“They should learn to take the rough with the smooth”

My nuanced, sociologically refined response is not a lot different.  Here is why:

The basis of the private schools’ objection is a technicality.  The Mathematics IGCSE which some private schools opted for, was not accredited in time to be included in this years’ rankings.  Had the figure for the pass rate of this exam been included, the rankings may have looked different.

However, their complaint about the unjust nature of this implies an expectation that school performance tables are a true and accurate representation of school performance, that they enable direct comparisons to be made between schools, and, that, until now, league tables have been accurate, fair, and representative.

This belief comes from a faith in statistics as an objective measure of an objective reality.    The problem is, the statistics from which performance tables are derived do not accurately represent reality.

The objections to league tables are well rehearsed.  Schools have different pupil populations with diverse social backgrounds.  As Bethan Marshall (2003: 35) says about the ‘failing’ Hammersmith County School which replace by the Phoenix School, with a new ‘super head’:

“To compare the results of this school with those of the London Oratory where over 90% of the boys achieved 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, as the very form of the league tables suggest we must, was and is a nonsense”

I doubt very much that Eton and Harrow will suffer now that they have decided league tables aren’t what they claim to be.

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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.

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”?”