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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Être et avoir

This week’s screening on Film and Education was Être et Avoir, the 2002 award winning ‘fly on the  wall’ documentary directed by French film maker Nicolas Philibert.

Filmed across the course of a school year Être et Avoir tells a story (whose story it tells is a matter for discussion) of a single class, all-age primary school in the village of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne region of France.   We witness the quiet dedication, concern and authority of Georges Lopez, the school’s teacher of twenty years as he approaches retirement.  We watch the children learning to write, sledging, flipping pancakes, supporting each other, pushing one another over, as well as falling out and making up.  At times the intrusion into this intimate space becomes uncomfortable when the camera focuses our attention on the emotional distress experienced by some of the children. The observation style briefly deviates when Lopez, tending the school’s garden (it is also his home), turns to the camera, and in an interview style tells the story of him becoming a teacher.

Être et Avoir is a distinctly French film, not only because it is French, but because, as Powrie (2005) discusses it reflects recent French cinema’s concern with the preadolescent child as potential victims of dysfunctional families and failing state institutions. Also, it would be difficult to take the nurturing, intimate, often tactile, yet clearly asexual relationship between the male Lopez and the children in his care and place it into an English primary school.  This taps into another idea discussed by Powrie; that of the theme of retrospection and heterospection as seen in the spaces we view the children inhabiting.  For example, the film presents a rural idyll, resonating with freedom, supporting a nostalgic and romantic vision of childhood (Aitken, 2007).   The outside shots show the cycle of seasons, suggesting, simultaneously, continuity and discontinuity.  The same seasonal cycle is reflected in the life of the school, the transition of the older children is a disruption, yet a new intake introduced towards the end of the film highlights continuity.  However, we are also shown contrasting spaces where children inhabit more of an adult world.  For example, we see Julien reversing a tractor on the family farm, and later cooking for his siblings. He is, as Lopez says ‘strong as an ox’, but this does not stop him assuming responsibility of caring for young members of his family.  The freedom associated with the open space is inverted, briefly, when we see the search for Alizée, seemingly lost in a field. We are reminded that open spaces are mysterious, disorientating, and that freedom is potentially risky.

Student responses to the screening included, amongst other comments, that it was ‘boring’,  and that ‘nothing happens’ but this is an effect which this example of cinematic ethnography has tried to achieve.  However, far from accurately representing the mundane reality of this small village school, être et avoir is a construction of reality, with ten weeks worth of filming condensed and packaged into a one-hundred minute DVD.  Lopez and the children may be ‘stars’ of the film, but the film may not represent their stories.

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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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School forgets location of time capsule

In 1989 a time capsule commemorating the silver jubilee of Mattersey Primary School near Doncaster was buried somewhere in the grounds of the school.  As the golden jubilee of the school is approaching in 2014 it is intended that the opening of the time capsule will form part of the school’s celebrations.  The plan is for the capsule to be reburied alongside a second capsule containing material indicative of more recent years in the school.  Both capsules will then be opened twenty-five years later.

However, these plans are threatened as the location of the burial site is unknown. According to a BBC News report while there is a photograph of the capsule being buried, the location has been forgotten.

While artefacts of school life may be buried in these time capsules, historians may, in the future be more interested in the everyday lives of pupils of Mattersey Primary School.  The time capsule buried in 1989 clearly has not featured prominently in the everyday life of the school.  Nevertheless this could prove a useful lesson in history. When it is found, the contents examined, and reburied alongside a new one, some thought could go into how the contents of the new capsule might capture the story of the school.  The school might also want to make a record of the burial site.

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.

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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.

When Satisfactory is not Satisfactory

Declining standards of pupil behaviour in UK schools makes good news copy, especially when that behaviour can be used to justify increasing the powers of teachers to discipline pupils.  This week, the apparent declining standards of pupil behaviour in schools was in the news following the publication of statistics on Behaviour in Schools, relating to school in England.

There is no doubt that the current Government sees behaviour and discipline in schools as important.  Elsewhere on this blog I have discussed the eagerness with which Michael Gove, the current Minister for Education embraces school uniforms as a means of raising standards, including behaviour.  Additionally, there are a number of consultation documents on behaviour and discipline available on the Department for Education’s website.

The Guardian reported that Nick Gibb (Schools Minister) was concerned by the statistics, as they revealed that behaviour was judged to be no better than Satisfactory in 20% (one fifth) of schools.

Which means what?

The recently released statistics are based on Ofsted inspections, which, using the familiar Ofsted nomenclature judge behaviour in schools to be either Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory, or Inadequate.

Without knowing the detailed criteria which Ofsted uses to determine their judgement it is not immediately apparent what types of behaviour might constitute Outstanding, as opposed to Good and how they both differ from Satisfactory.  It is however, the judgement of Satisfactory which is the most interesting term.  It can be stated with reasonable confidence that the term Satisfactory means, well, just that. The implication however from Nick Gibb’s apparent concern over these figures is that Satisfactory actually means something else.  Unsatisfactory perhaps?

Ofsted do have another judgement reserved for those schools in which it has judged behaviour to be less than Satisfactory.  That judgement is Inadequate.  Surely the Minister should be focusing his attention on thee schools, not on those schools where behaviour is considered Satisfactory?

So, how many schools are judged to be Inadequate?

Without wishing to diminish the problems that schools, pupils, teachers, parents, and communities face poor pupil behaviour,  the answer is, a relatively small number.  The statistics as at December 2010, reveal:

  • 25 Primary Schools were given a behaviour grade of Inadequate (0.1% of all English primary schools)
  • 32 Secondary Schools were given a behaviour grade of Inadequate (1% of all English secondary schools)

Putting the two figures together, 57 (or 0.28%) schools were judged to have Inadequate levels of behaviour.

What about good behaviour?

The news attention does appear to be on the rather strange concept of ‘no better than’ Satisfactory.   However the key points are clearly stated on the first page of the Statistical Release.  They reveal that:

  • 94% of primary schools were judged to have either Good or Outstanding standards of behaviour
  • 82% of secondary schools were judged to have either Good or Outstanding standards of behaviour

Those figures, apparently do not make such a good newspaper headline.

The Department for Education also details the figures by local authority, as well as providing figures for special schools, and pupil referral units.