Educating Greater Manchester (1)

The Educating series of fly on the wall accounts of everyday school life returned this week with Educating Greater Manchester filmed at Harrop Fold School in Salford. The series has become formulaic, with each weekly episode featuring a different aspect of school life. This week attention was focused on the ethnic diversity of the pupil population and the various responses to this diversity.  If the Educating series is a documentary, it is not investigative, and rarely involves a critical exploration the context in which events in the school occur.  Instead it appears to be more concerned with the emotive and providing entertainment.  Nevertheless, the school exists and the events do occur in such a context.

Focused on telling the story of Rani, a year 7 pupil from Syria, this week’s episode revealed the existence of racism in the school, though this word was rarely used, by the teachers.   Instead, various phrases to diffuse the potential harm the racist incidents might cause included:

You don’t mean it though, do you?

It was a joke

It was thoughtless more than malicious

Whilst there was a recognition that such incidents were unacceptable and needed tackling, the reluctance to label such incidents as ‘racist’ (see Pearce, 2014) might be seen as evidence of a tolerance for everyday racist discourses (Grigg, K. and Manderson, 2015; Miller, 2015).

Personal stories were also developed through direct to camera interviews.  At times these felt overly intrusive, such as when Marud, another pupil from Syria was asked about his father:

Do you think he’s alive?

As this episode progressed, so did Rani’s friendship with fellow Year 7 pupil, Jack.  Rani also transitioned from the SEND class where he was placed to help him develop his English language skills, to mainstream classes.  The transition was celebrated with a ‘graduation’, reflecting the effort of the individual involved. Whilst the move from this group might be positive for Rani, the existence of a celebration to mark a moving away from the SEND class is somewhat problematic.  What about those pupils for whom a move to mainstream classes may not be appropriate?

Finally, in a scene where we shouldn’t laugh, but probably did, we see Rani taking the lead in exercising their artistic tendencies on the dirt of a white van.  Rani writes ‘Fock’ and is followed by other boys drawing ever increasingly graphic phalluses.  How everyone laughed, including the head teacher.  He asks the assembled miscreants:

 What are they going to be thinking of the blue blazer?

Emphasising the importance of the group identity, he reminds us scholars of education that we need to re-read Durkheim (1973) from time to time.

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Ackley Bridge

‘Expect Challenging and Outrageous Behaviour’ warns the Channel 4 downloader about its new six-part drama, Ackley Bridge.  Challenging and outrageous behaviour, at least within the remits of the pre-watershed, is the staple of TV school dramas. The audience is presented with a familiar format.   Set in West Yorkshire, possibly, somewhere within the environs of Leeds/Bradford, because in drama land that is West Yorkshire. As with other dramas about the lives of young people (KES, Ratcatcher, The Selfish Giant), the presentation of the landscape as a backdrop to the lives of the characters is not insignificant.  When not within school, the young people’s lives take place within terraced houses, back yards, ginnels and waste land that serve to remind us that this is a bleak place that constrains the young people.  And if we don’t understand this message, the Head reminds that only one third of pupils from this area get GCSE English. The school will intervene in the lives of these young people, and they will turn out good.

While the deprived urban landscape provides the stage on which the young people’s lives are acted out the rural landscape, at least what we have seen so far, is the where free spirited English teacher, Emma Keane, lives. She provides us with an inter-textual reference to Wuthering Heights, so we’d expect her to be living where she does, a million miles away from her pupils?  Even here, the landscape is constraining for her daughter, who is used to London.  She thinks it is a backward place.  Nevertheless, it is not so far away from urban life, as Mr. Qureshi from the school can drop her home before returning to the school to retrieve his laptop, and possibly the girl’s mother.  Clearly, West Yorkshire is not so vast that it cannot be traversed in its entirety in a short car journey.

Ackley Bridge College is a newly created Academy, though, conveniently, we have been spared the story behind the creation of the Academy. If these details had been presented there is a danger that we might have questioned the disempowering of local communities, and the long-term consequences of the privatisation of education.  This is drama, and all we need to know is that the new school replaces two failing schools within a divided community and that, consequently attainment will rise as meritocracy triumphs.  The school aims to become outstanding.

Deprivation, particularly urban deprivation is another familiar theme of school dramas, and added to this, we have ethnic tensions.  A secondary school drama set in a market town would be inconceivable. Social problems do not exist there, at least not ones that can be explored on pre-watershed television for a prime-time audience.  Predictably, sexual tension, between the teachers as well as the pupils is an underlying theme to keep us returning over the next few weeks.  A social drama, politics lite, episode three is on 8pm,  Wednesday June 21st on Channel 4.

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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The Bricks of Burston

The Bricks of Burston is currently touring East Anglia, marking one hundred years since the beginning of the Burston School Strike.

Written by Anthony Cule and Emma MacLusky and directed by Cordelia Spence it is a three hander, with Georgia Robson playing Annie (Kitty) Higdon, Tom Grace as Tom Higdon and Alex Helm as Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  The play is presented by the Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company, a relatively new East Anglian based theatre company which draws on the stories and heritage from that region.

 

Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company – The Bricks of Burston

This is no stage reproduction of The Burston Rebellion, instead it chooses to focus on teachers Annie and Tom Higdon, their relationship with each other, as well their fraught relationship with the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It is an emotional exploration of the events leading up to the strike, and beyond, as recollected by the three characters.  It is, at times, challenging, examining the frailties of the heroes as well as the humanity within the anti-hero, the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It would have been easy to present a hagiography of the Higdons to please a sympathetic audience.   However, Georgia Robson and Tom Grace’s performance tackles Tom Higdon’s temper as well as the tensions between the couple as one expresses exhaustion with challenging authority while the other urges that strength be found to continue. There are some comic moments, such as the Higdon’s  joint bewilderment at the support the strike school received from people they had never met (…a real life communist, I wonder if he knew Marx).   Alex Helm as the Rev Charles Tucker Eland was convincingly aged beyond his youthful looks with a ghostly appearance and a commanding presence throughout.  It is a story about who controls education, the purpose and relevance of education for working class communities and is as relevant today as it was in 1914.

Prior knowledge of the story of the Burston Strike School may well be helpful to appreciating the play, though it may be the case that this prior knowledge of the story is what attracts a potential audience.    The play continues to run until May 15th at various venues across East Anglia (information from The Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company).

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.

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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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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?

National Curriculum Assessments – Key Stage 2

Today, the Department for Education published data on National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2.  The data from these has  shown a drop in the number of schools falling below government targets.  As such, the DfE was was able to claim its “new tougher floor targets” had proved successful with the following statement:

“Higher floor standards driving up performance”

The logic being that higher targets will lead to higher standards.  At the same time as celebrating the success of England’s primary schools the Department for Education highlights those Local Authorities where relatively high proportions of schools have fewer than 60% of pupils achieving the expected level 4 at Key Stage 2. These schools face being converted into academies as part of the current government’s plan to transform ‘weak’ schools.   The optimistic rationale is that the “expertise and strong leadership” of an academy sponsor  gives pupils “the best chance of a first-class education”.   At this point it is worth reading Henry Stewart’s post for the Local Schools Network which provides some interesting counter analysis for such a claim, based on the data released today.

We also need to consider which pupils are doing better, and which pupils are not achieving expected levels:

  • Chinese pupils are most likely to achieve level 4 at Key Stage 2 in English and Maths
  • Children who are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) are less likely than their peers to achieve level 4 or above at Key Stage 2
  • The size of this gap differs according to gender and ethnicity, with the gap between white and black boys on FSM and the national average of particular concern

Therefore, improvement is not uniform. The persistent differences in attainment between socio-economic groups suggests the ability of individual schools to transcend these inequalities is limited.  Can primary academies really do any better?

Pupils not claiming free school meals

If you scoured the articles from some of Britain’s popular newspapers for their views on welfare , you could be forgiven for believing that welfare reform was justified, for no other reason than to curb the excesses of dependency, and to end an unfair benefits culture.

Without digressing into how such a discourse is employed as a hegemonic device, it is worth considering that the reality of the benefits culture is more complex.

Late last month, the Department for Education published a Research Report: Pupils not claiming free school meals.  The key findings from the research reveal that while 21% of children aged between 4-15 are entitled to free school meals (FSM), 18% of this age group are claiming this entitlement.  In other words, 14% of children who are entitled to FSM are not claiming FSM.  This is approximately 200,000 pupils.

Entitlement to FSM is based on receipt of specific benefits, however, families in receipt of these benefits have to register their entitlement through their child’s school or Local Authority.  The procedure for this registration varies between authorities and between schools.

Around a quarter of children entitled but not receiving FSM live in the South East.  In the North East there is a much lower non claimant rate, with Darlington, Hartlepool,  Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton in the Tees Valley appearing to have 100% of claimants registering.  This may be due to authority wide efforts to ensure maximum registration. For example, my post  from last year looked at Middlesbrough Council’s efforts to urge parents to claim their entitlement. However, the reasons for not claiming FSM are complex, with analysis in this DFE report suggesting that children living in a less deprived area or attending a school with a low rate of FSM are less likely to claim their entitlement to FSM. In neighbouring, relatively affluent North Yorkshire  for example, there is a  high level of under claiming for FSM.  More research is needed to further understand the reasons behind these patterns.

This issue of under-claiming is not just significant for the individual children, but impacts on the funding a school can receive in the form of the pupil premium. The pupil premium is additional funding given to schools as a way of addressing educational inequalities between children from families who are socio-economically deprived and those from more affluent families.    Social scientists continue to discuss the usefulness of FSM as a proxy for deprivation given that receipt is not automatic.   McMahon and Marsh (1999) writing for CPAG discussed lack of take-up, more recently Hobbs and Vignoles (2010), Thrupp and Lupton (2011) have all explored the issue of under-claiming.  Gorard (2012) does suggest that the distinction between “eligibility and take-up may have been eroded” (p. 1015).

The report, published by the DFE  indicates that in many places eligibility of FSM still does not mean claiming of FSM.  As a result, some schools won’t get the extra funding they are entitled too, the socio-economic barriers that some children face will be obscured by the relative affluence of those around them.  And, the tabloid press won’t launch a moral panic about the level of benefit under-claiming in this country.

Pupils not claiming free school meals is written Samaira Iniesta-Martinez and Helen Evans and published as a Department for Education Research Report.

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“Class war: how education must change”

Last month I visited the University of York to hear Lord Adonis give his thoughts on the future of education. It was also an opportunity for him to promote his recent book ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’.

Adonis declared his belief in the state as the supreme manifestation of society, that the state should seek to bring about change, for the better. To reform the English education system Adonis focuses on the following key areas.

  • Good governance

Comparing governance in the private sector with that of the state, Adonis expressed his belief that governance of state schools has been traditionally weak, particularly in deprived areas where the parent body is not strong.  The private sector, in contrast, Adonis believes has traditionally benefitted from good, strong governing bodies.  Can we look to the private sector for solutions while maintaining a strong state?

  • Good teachers

Unsurprisingly Adonis argued that teachers have to be the best. Increased competition is, apparently what is needed to ensure our teachers are the best. Adonis highlighted the ratios of applicant to teacher training places in Finland, South Korea and Singapore, and compared these with the much lower figures of England.  We need, he argued, greater selection for teacher training places, with far more applicants per place.  Presumably, he doesn’t mind an increase in disappointed  applicants.

Another, related idea is his call for fewer Universities offering teacher training programmes (another model borrowed from Singapore?), with only the ‘best’ Universities being allowed to provide such programmes.

  • Good curriculum

Looking at the practice in some of the more elite private schools, Adonis recommended more subject specific teaching from the age of seven.

Beyond aged sixteen Adonis argued the UK has the ‘narrowest curriculum in the Western world’, supporting the IB he looks, again to Singapore and calls for students to take a greater range of subjects over the course of their schooling. For those who are less academic, he proposed the idea of a Tech Bacc with requirements to study literacy, numeracy and work experience.

  • Good destinations

There needs to be good destinations for all, not just those that are academic. Highlighting a need for more apprenticeships, he argued that the Government should lead on providing apprenticeships.  See his blog post: Wanted – An apprentice scheme for Whitehall.

While claiming half our comprehensive schools failed, Adonis continued to refer to the need to ensure we have “all ability schools”, which,  surely means, comprehensive.

Although inequalities were mentioned on several occasions, I was not convinced that the ‘Class Wars’ in the title of his talk referred more to social class wars than it did to classroom wars. Education reform was presented as a means to social mobility and less inequality, yet previous education reforms have done little to make ours a more equal society.

There were some interesting suggestions that are hard to disagree with (raising the status of teaching for instance – though what this actually means is more complex) and some that I am not convinced of.  Whether any of his suggestions will come to fruition and, if they do, whether they will truly reform education as Adonis hope is another question.   Without tackling inequality I envisage a future generation of University of York students  listening to a speech about the failure of Adonis’ “all ability schools”.