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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Armed Teachers? South Dakota passes Sentinel Bill

This week The New York Times reports that South Dakota has become the first US state to enact legislation authorising the carrying of guns by school employees and volunteers (rather than, in the case of some other states, allowing staff to carry arms).  The law, which comes into force on July 1st devolves the decision of arming teachers to the local school boards.   This ‘sentinel’ legislation follows the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut last December, though the bill was being drafted prior to the killings.

While the South Dakota Legislature voted 40-19 in favour of the bill it is not similarly endorsed by South Dakota educators.  The Associated School Boards of South Dakota has consistently opposed the bill.

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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La Educación Prohibida

La Educación Prohibida or Forbidden Education is a documentary film released earlier this year.

Independently produced by a group of young students and graduates, collectively funded via crowdfunding, La Educación Prohibida interviews over ninety professionals and specialists in the areas of education and human development across Latin America and Spain, exploring a range of pedagogical models.  The film is freely distributed under a creative commons license and is in Spanish/Castellano with subtitles available in several languages, including English.   It is available to download from www.educacionprohibida.com, as well as itunes. The film is also available on youtube with or without subtitles.

La Educación Prohibida begins by highlighting the importance of education as recognised by the media, philosophers, experts and governments.  With such an importance placed on education, the film sets out to consider the extent to which schooling helps us to develop both individually and collectively.

The film is divided into ten key themes in which the history of schooling is discussed, and the functions and limitations of typical schools are examined before moving on to an exploration of alternative curriculum models. Interspersed between interviews is a drama focusing on a student campaign to declare education in their school ‘forbidden’.  There are also some impressive animations and graphics to illustrate key points.

While La Educación Prohibida is focused on Latin America, the discussions apply to ongoing debates on the purposes of schooling and education in the UK. Optimism about the future of education is maintained, the film aims to “reunite schooling with education” with this presented as not only desirable, but entirely possible.

It is refreshing to see a non-English language film tackling issues that are as pertinent to the UK.  It is also good to see a well produced documentary that is a collective, non-profit endeavour.  At almost two and half hours this documentary is long,especially if you need to read the English subtitles.  A second viewing, at least, is needed to engage further with the discussion.

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Don’t fence me in!

The fortification of the Allertonshire School

This photograph of my old secondary school shows a section of secure fencing and gates recently installed around the perimeter of the school grounds.  Until a few months ago the boundary of the school’s playing fields were marked by wooden fencing and open gateways. These enabled the playing fields to be used by anyone for access and, in keeping with their design, sporting activities.  The new fence, along with the factory-fresh lockable gates may signify a response to a real or perceived problem, and, as such this enceinte may come to be justified if the specific problem is seen to reduce or disappear.

However, problematising the arrival of this perimeter fencing reveals more fundamental concerns regarding the nature of schooling and the regulation of pupils.

One consideration is the way fencing demarcates the school as a site for education. Schools are locations where learning is territorialised; circumvallation of those locations re-territorialises learning.  The school, located within the community, is now segregated from that community, with a physical barrier which acts to include some while excluding others.

A related consideration is what the fencing says about the ways in which pupils are regulated within the school environment.  In her study of how the socio-spatial context of schools impacts on promoting citizenship among pupils, Brown states that “[s]chool architecture… embodies social attitudes towards children and their socialization”  (2012: 21).  With regards to playgrounds, while they appear to be spaces for young people, they are, as  Thomson points out  “a space conceived by adults to contain children at school” (2005: 76).

While concerns over the safety of either pupils and staff or buildings may have prompted the decision to cordon off the school grounds from the wider community, this enclosure may symbolise the existence of a much more significant threat to education and the development of responsible citizens

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Who is getting the Pupil Premium?

The office of David Lammy MP this week released analysis of the pupil premium – funding given to schools and targeted at supporting the most disadvantaged children. The analysis suggests that, rather than the additional funding going to the most deprived areas of the country, more affluent areas are seeing the greatest benefit.

Analysis has revealed that Buckinghamshire and Surrey, with 11% of under 16 year olds living in poverty will see a doubling of the pupil premium.  In contrast, in Tower Hamlets where over half of children under the age of 16 are living in poverty the premium will increase by  60%.  At the other end of the country, Middlesbrough is also among the ‘biggest losers’, seeing an increase in the pupil premium of 54% while 35% of it’s under 16 year olds live in poverty.

Data can be downloaded from the Guardian’s Datablog page:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/mar/16/pupil-premium-child-poverty-data

KES

This week, Film and Education students have been watching KES.

Fifteen year old Billy Casper is physically and verbally abused by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother and bullied by his peers.  Billy, determined not to follow his brother “down the pit”, seems hopelessly destined to do just that. When Billy takes a young kestrel chick from a nest he nurtures a significant, touching bond, and inhabits a world seemingly removed from his other, more brutal reality. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is not and while Billy is powerless to break free from his reality he is never broken.

Ken Loach’s retelling of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has become a cinematic classic.   Using pupils from local secondary modern schools (in other words those who had failed their 11+) including David Bradley as Billy, as well as other non professional actors drawn from around Barnsley, Loach attempts a gritty realism, an authentic portrayal of one working class boy’s life as he faces the transition from school to work.  The use of natural lighting emphasises the contrasting environments that Billy faces, or will face; the dark interiors of home, the pit and school versus the light, bright freedom of the outdoors.  The Barnsley dialect, which allegedly rendered Hungarian more understandable to Rank executives (Stephenson, 1973) along with a plot focusing on the mundane with its absence of dramatic events or happy endings is surely used to add a feeling of purity and sense of authenticity.

KES’ representation of secondary education in the late 1960‘s reveals its ideological opposition to a school’s role in preparing working class pupils for a life of routine manual labour through inculcating a culture of subordination, obedience and powerlessness.  In this way KES is a dramatisation of Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) correspondence theory. Yet, through its  fictional ethnography of schooling KES also illustrates the agency of pupils in response to this culture, akin to some of the observations found in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.

Powerless as Billy Casper and his peers are to escape this structure the film reveals the pupils awareness of it, as well as their resilience to it. The hilarious football scene in which a deluded Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover, then a Barnsley school teacher and part-time wrestler) plays out his Bobby Charlton fantasies, shows the pupils arguing with him about unfairness and cheating. MacDowell vociferously protests his innocence regarding the ‘offence’ of coughing in assembly while the ‘culprit’ keeps quiet.  Assembled boys, waiting for the head teacher collectively discharge their contraband to an innocent messenger, and together they laugh as the head speechifies about the “generation that never listens” before he, in turn fails to listen to the protests of the unwitting mule.

The caning scene is brutal, but it is routinised, as is all the violence in KES, making it, perhaps more acceptable to those receiving and perpetrating it.  Certainly, as one boy says  “I’d rather have the cane than do lessons”. Similarly, Gryce, the head teacher describes having no option but to use the cane, even though he is clearly aware it does not work:

“I still have to use this to you boys everyday….until someone produces a better solution I’ll continue to use this cane, knowing fully well that you’ll be back for it, time and time, and time again….”

Interestingly, the DVD describes the violence contained in the film as “infrequent/mild” suggesting to viewers that, perhaps, routinised violence is acceptable.

Then there is Billy’s awareness of his own employment prospects and his philosophy surrounding this. Following a fight on the coke heap with MacDowell, Billy’s conversation with Mr. Farthing (played by Colin Welland, at the time the only professional actor in the film) about his impending transition from school to work reveals Billy’s acceptance of his position in life, but crucially his awareness of it:

Farthing: What sort of job do you want?

Casper:  Not bothered Sir, anything’ll do me

Farthing: Yea, but you want something that you’re looking forward to, that your interested in, don’t you?

Casper: I’ve not much choice Sir, I’ll take what I’ve got

Farthing: I thought you wanted to leave school?

Casper: I’m not bothered

Farthing: I thought you didn’t like school?

Casper: I don’t, but it don’t mean I’ll like work, does it. Still, I’ll get paid for not liking it, that’s one thing

Farthing: Yea, I suppose it is

And so, Loach problematises middle-class sympathy in his attempt to privilege the voice of the working-class pupils in describing the reality of their lived experience.  Limited agency, yes, but Billy and his peers are no somnolent sufferers of false class consciousness.

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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?

Good Schools Show

I was interested to receive a communication advertising the forthcoming Archant Good Schools Show to be held at Olympia next month The interest arose, not from a wish to attend, but from an examination of the discourse used in an attempt to encourage me to secure a place.

Firstly, the subject line of the communication:

Private Schools open their doors to the Public

This is an interesting use of an antonym as a synonym.  It suggests that, private schools, despite their nomenclature, are, in fact public, and thus open to all.  While, historically, there is some accuracy to this description, private schools are in no sense public.  For example, those who own and run private schools are not accountable to most members of the public, but to shareholders or customers.   State schools, on the other hand, do remain accountable to the public.  Granted, that accountability may not always be apparent, exercised as it is through local and national democracy, but ultimately, state schools are accountable in a way that private schools are not.

This subject line also serves to suggest that this event is an opportunity.  Normally private, and thus exclusive, private schools are opening their doors and welcoming in the public.  They are not, of course, opening their doors to the public, those doors are firmly closed to those members of the public who cannot afford such schooling.

The communication goes on to describe how the event will feature:

50 of the countries finest Independent Schools 

Notice here the change from private to independent suggesting, unsurprisingly, independence. However, this is a misnomer.  In one sense, independent is accurate, in that private schools are apart from the state system, and thus not bound by state rules and regulations.  In other words they are free from the constraints that state schools experience. This sense of independence appears attractive, and, no doubt these private schools will use this meaning to appeal to customers.  The flip side of this is, of course, that independent schools are not accountable. The other, related sense of independence is that of freedom and a lack of conformity.  However, while private schools may emphasise their supposed freedom, libertarian schools are unlikely to be advertising their wares at Olympia.

Once at the show, visitors may choose to listen to guest speakers, which include:

Eton’s straight talking headmaster (Tony Little) explaining why he believes no parent should think independent school education is out of their reach

The straight talking from the head teacher of one of the country’s leading public (sic) schools is designed to add weight to the notion that private education is accessible to all.  So long as they can afford to pay for it, that is.

The show will also feature a:

Good Schools Award Ceremony hosted by Tom Parker-Bowles who will bestow his very own Royal Seal of approval to the lucky winners.

This suggests a competition, that good schools will be identified and justly rewarded at this event.  Information on the criteria for entry and for the winning of an award would clarify  the value of these awards, however given the nature of the event, it is likely to be a competition amongst the schools featuring themselves in the show.  To add to the prestige of the occasion there is Eton educated Tom Parker-Bowles, who, incidentally, is not Royalty.

Towards the end of the communication I am urged to pre-register as:

Availability is limited

This is the crux, the very point of elite, private schools.