Uniform Infringements

The start of a new school year has been, predictably, accompanied by stories of pupils falling foul of new school uniform regulations.

As if to highlight the absurdity of rules, reports have featured cases where trousers have been deemed verboten due to being the ‘wrong shade’ of ‘charcoal.  Several news items from across the nation tell stories of pupils turned away at the school gates or placed in isolation and the parental anger at the apparent unfair treatment of their child for what they perceive to be a minor infringement.  Here is a small selection of news reports from the past week:

Pupils banned from Cheltenham Bournside School for wearing wrong trousers

Mum slams school’s ‘strict’ uniform policy which says boys must wear £16 trousers

School put 150 pupils in isolation because they were wearing the wrong uniform

400 Ysgol Penglais pupils in detention over uniform

School sends pupils home for wearing wrong shade of grey trousers

One common sense response is that these are the rules, the uniform requirements are provided in advance and so failing to adhere to them will result in some form of sanction.  If we accept that school uniforms are natural and that a failure to comply is evidence of anti-social behaviour that needs to be addressed, then we can leave the argument, unexamined, there.

But, any social scientific understanding of any aspect of life starts with a requirement to make the familiar strange and ask some critical questions about what is going on here.

One of the issues raised surrounds the requirement to purchase branded uniform items from a designated supplier.  School logos are embroidered on trousers and skirts and blazers have school badges pre-sewn on them. This means that parents cannot simply buy an item from a supermarket, they must buy a regulation issue item, often at a higher cost.   In other words, the business of school uniform suppling takes on the appearance of a cartel.    So, we could ask why is there a need for trousers and skirts to be branded?  Schools do have a response to this and seek to justify their uniform policies.  For example,  Heaton Manor School in Newcastle states:

Heaton Manor School believes that uniform increases a sense of pride and belonging to our school. Uniform also helps to address social differences between children.

So, uniform is for the collective good, as well as contributing towards social justice, therefore the school is justified in sanctioning you if you do not adequately demonstrate a commitment, via clothing, to these ideals.

This is deeply problematic and one would hope any scholar of education would critically examine such a statement in an attempt to understand what schools do to our children.

Uniform is a way that schools might seek to create a group identity.  We could revisit the founding perspectives in the sociology of education to understand why a group collective conscience might be a good idea, particularly as a means of maintaining discipline (Durkheim, 1973).  We can see this reflected in schools’ claims that consistency is needed to achieve a sense of pride and to maintain standards.  As Maguire et al (2010) observe, a tightly enforced uniform policy signifies to parents and the community that the school is maintaining order and that it takes discipline seriously. It is a means of managing risk.  Having a uniform is a form of social control, but this might not necessarily be positive.  Creating an ethos and a group identify can also deny individuality and, where society is based on inequality and conflict may be a means of maintaining and reproducing these inequalities. For example, we can go back to Thorstein Veblen:

The wearing of uniforms or liveries implies a considerable degree of dependence, and may even be said to be a mark of servitude, real or ostensible (1899, p. 78).

Or, we can look to Foucault, (see the section Docile Bodies in Discipline and Punish) and consider how uniforms may be a way of controlling and surveilling the body (see also Meadmore and Symes, 1996).

What of the claim that uniforms help to “address social differences”?  This is meant to appeal to our sense of social justice.  Of course, we need a uniform so as not to expose those children from deprived backgrounds whose parents can’t afford the latest fashions.  This is spurious.  If, as a society, we were that bothered about social differences we would address those social differences rather than use uniforms to pretend they didn’t exist. But, to suggest that uniforms have the power to disguise social inequalities is to ignore how social class is embodied.  Using a uniform in an attempt to ‘address social differences’, i.e. pretend they don’t exist might help us to deny the existence of the pernicious impact of social class inequality, but nevertheless social class remains a ‘zombie’ stalking schools (Reay, 2006).
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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?

“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”.

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.

Continue reading “The “half-baked” English Baccalaureate”

A look back at Education 2010 – Part 1

The title of this post is not exciting, but hopefully it explains what follows.

It is almost the end of the year, and a time to review all things educational, while ‘looking forward’ to changes in educational policy and provision that will start to unravel over the next few months. I’ll start with Waterloo Road. Like it or not, it is a popular representation of contemporary schooling, granted it is not accurate, but it does represent a reality, and as such, we can predict that Waterloo Road, will have to start responding to the Schools White Paper very soon.

In Waterloo Road, the televisual representation of Britain’s comprehensive schools, Karen Fisher took over as the new Head.

Her deputy, Christopher Mead wakes up at the start of the first episode, the morning after having sexual intercourse with one of his pupils, Jess Fisher.  A criminal record and ruined career awaited, and, while the narrative invited us to be sympathetic towards him, maybe we should question his judgement.  He obviously had not learned his lesson from the previous series about inappropriate relationships with pupils (remember Vicki MacDonald).  Granted, when he embarked on this particular relationship (relationship as in a one night encounter) he didn’t know she was a pupil, but she was clearly of an age that she could be one of his pupils.  He might have avoided the stress if he had got to know his new girlfriend a little better before sleeping with her.  With a big question mark over his sexual politics, Christopher Mead’s career was on the line when the truth was finally revealed to the Head, and mother of  Jess Fisher,  the sixth former in question, but, as a good teacher he remains in post, his contribution as a positive male role model assured for the next series.

The troubled family life of the new Head began to unravel from the very first episode.  In the second episode we witnessed her son Harry experiencing eating distress.  Eventually this was revealed to his family, via the taunts of a fellow pupil, Finn Sharkey.  His mother could have directed him to BEAT’s  Rough Guide for Young Men though, as there was no reference to the eating disorder charity, it was unlikely she did so, and, predictably, by the end of the series he appeared to free from bulimia.

Waterloo Road returns in the Spring, just in time for it to be feeling the pinch of efficiency savings and educational reform.  It will have a much reduced curriculum, concentrating on the essential academic subjects with pupils recalling the essential dates in history, well from a British perspective at least.   The teachers will have greater powers to discipline pupils.  In any case discipline will improve at Waterloo Road, following a crackdown on the flexible interpretation of its uniform.  By the next series, pupils will be dressed in regulation blazers and ties,  and the school will be freed from Local Education Authority control.  Standards will rise, pupils on free school meals will be accepted for Oxbridge, and the future of Waterloo Road, as the preferred school of choice amongst Rochdale’s most aspirational parents will be assured.   It will be a triumph of a neo-liberal education ideology.

Schools White Paper ‘word cloud’

Late last month saw the publication of the Schools White Paper.  This is the Government document which sets out plans for “a radical reform programme for the schools system”.  This sounds very grand, and exciting.  Who would not want to make our schools better?  You can expect more from me on this later.

In the meantime, by way of a gentle easing back into Education and Society, and by way of an introduction to the Schools White Paper let me share with you the Schools White Paper ‘word cloud’.

I doubt that this visual representation is a substantial alternative to reading the White Paper itself, yet, it is significant.  As it says on the Department’s web page:  “The larger the word, the more heavily it features”.

Therefore we could conclude a number of things from this image.  Clearly schools is the largest word.  For some, this is likely to be reassuring as it highlights the policy focus on the importance of schools.  We all want our children to go to good schools, and, in many ways popular discourse equates schools with education.  Note however, that education, is not as large as schools, and therefore, presumably does not feature as heavily in the White Paper.

Note the other ‘large’ words that stand out: teachers, pupils, and, importantly, improvement.

There you have it, a Schools White Paper which puts schools at its core, in which  teachers and pupils are seen as central, with the underlying aim of improvement.  It is there in black and white, or, more precisely shades of blue.  Who could argue with those sentiments?



‘Outstanding schools’ to become Academies

Following today’s Queen’s Speech, hundreds more secondary schools, as well as primary schools are set to be granted academy status. 

'Outstanding' schools are set to become academies

By becoming academies, schools which have been deemed as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted will be taken out of LEA control and will receive funding direct from central government.  The political discourse which the Conservatives use to justify this move refers to  freedom.  Schools becoming academies will be  free of the constraining  LEA.  Being free from LEA control (which has obviously not be so constraining, given that they are deemed ‘outstanding’ ) academies will have greater freedom over the curriculum, admissions policies (which pupils they do and don’t want) and what they will pay teachers. 

There are several claims made for these new academies, however these claims are not robust.  Consider the following: 

  • Michael Gove, the new education secretary believes these new academies will raise standards, he bases this on the ‘evidence’ from the performance of existing academies (so, one can assume he gives the Labour Government credited for raising standards through academies).
    • Evidence that existing academies have raised standards is not clear, in some cases standards, in terms of GCSE performance fell, while the use of GCSE equivalents may have accounted for the rise in other academies.  See my previous post about Francis Beckett’s book.
    • These new schools are already among the top performing schools, there is a limit to how far they can improve standards, yet high standards are likely to be maintained, not improved.
  • New academies will promote choice
    • For the academies, yes they do.  Freeing schools from the constraints of the LEA means that schools can decide on their own admissions policies, the academies are free to choose which pupils they want, and crucially which pupils they don’t want.  Meanwhile, LEAs still have the responsibility to provide schooling for children in the area, but have fewer schools to choose from.
  • These new academies will promote social justice
    • How?  They are free to choose which pupils they want, and they need to maintain standards in order to maintain their freedom, even with a pupil premium (an incentive for schools to take pupils from deprived backgrounds) academies are unlikely to characterised by a comprehensive intake.
    • They are allowed to choose their own pay rates, this will hardly lead to social justice among teachers.
    • Social justice cannot be achieved where academies are treated more favourably, for example, by receiving more money from Government, while others struggle for funding. 

It is tempting for the current ‘oustanding’ schools to apply for academy status, this includes nearly 2000 primary schools, as well as secondary schools.  At a time when public services are being, which school wouldn’t want to take advantage of more money?

The main teaching unions,  NUT, NASUWT, and ATL oppose these changes.  The NUT and NASUWT have hinted at strike action should these changes go through, understandably they are concerned about their members’ pay and conditions, but more widely because of the implications these proposals have for education. 

Continue reading “‘Outstanding schools’ to become Academies”

Michael Gove, Schools, discipline, standards, and ties

Michael Gove is the new Minister for Schools.

What can we expect?  Well, he is keen on returning to traditional values in education.  This is a popularist term, but is rather vague, suggesting that anything in the past, specifically the Victorian age is good. Unfortunately many social ills were popular in the past, such as high infant mortality, child prostitution, the absence of a welfare state, no minimum wage, and so on.

Gove does get more specific.   School ties help raise standards (oh, and blazers).

Wearing a tie has brought Catherine Tate's Lauren educational success

Yes, he really does believe this.  In this article in the Daily Mail he is reported as saying:

“It is no coincidence that many of the best-performing state schools have proper school uniforms”

The conservatives carried out this ‘research’, looking at GCSE results and school uniform, and so claim this as evidence.  Their research findings did not, however isolate the key item of school uniform as some of the most successful schools did not have blazers. 

Most sociological research on educational attainment has left out school uniforms as a predictor of attainment, instead they have highlighted social class, ethnicity, and gender.  Inequalities in educational attainment are persistent,  even existing in traditional times,  however, maybe ties are indeed the solution.  I doubt it, however.

Gove also wants to restore discipline by using ex-soldiers in schools. However it is not sure whether these soldiers will need to have a minimum degree classification of a 2:2 before they are allowed to become teachers. The Conservatives have promised to raise the standard of teacher training by limiting entry to only those who achieve a minimum 2:2 degree.

League tables

School League tables based on the GCSE results of pupils were published this week.

The Department for Children Schools and Families hailed the results as a sign of continuing success.  The Schools’ Minister Vernon Coaker pointed to the increased proportion of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C at GCSE, with a higher percentage of pupils gaining good grades at GCSE in English and Mathematics.  London was identified as the region of top performing schools, a dramatic improvement on GCSE results since 1997.

The Government also pointed to the reduction of the number of  schools designated as ‘National Challenge’ – this is where GCSE passes have been typically low, with schools challenged to improve their results. 

The Government also claimed that Academies have demonstrated that they are successfully reversing low levels of attainment in neighbourhoods they serve.

So, the Government have used the latest statistics to demonstrate that their education policies have been successful. 

However there is another side to this apparent success story. The Guardian reported that a 10th of schools had failed to meet GCSE targets and claimed that Academies, while being hailed as key to raising stands make up a significant proportion of ‘National Challenge’ schools.

A form of ‘value added’ which measures the progress a child has made between the ages of 11 and 16 has been introduced this year, this indicates that over half of state schools are failing to meet expected levels of progress.

Interestingly however, it is the schools in the most deprived areas that have improved the most.  As sociologists of education will observe it is such schools that are most likely to struggle, with the social class of their intake impacting of educational attainment.  While these results do not prove that social class no longer influences educational attainment it indicates that policy interventions may lead to improvements in some areas.  Funding has been targeted in these areas, and rightly so, given the consistent evidence for low levels of attainment in these areas.

Now the Lib Dems have criticised the Government for failing to provide the same amount of targeted intervention in ordinary towns, with schools in this area demonstrating less improvement, with some schools struggling to meet targets.

It is almost as if the Labour Government has become a victim of its own success.

At the bottom of the scale, the number of schools where a large number of pupils are leaving without 5 good GCSE’s is increasing.  This indicates a polarisation of attainment – with more pupils gaining more good GCSEs while at the same time more pupils with few qualifications.  An added problem is that these pupils are likely to be concentrated in these so called ‘failing schools’ which then struggle to improve, because their levels of attainment are largely shaped by their intake. 

Perhaps to put the criticism into context we should take note of what Vernon Coaker has to say:

“A decade ago, just 35% of children left school with five good GCSEs including English and maths, now with our best results ever it’s 49.8% for all schools. In fact, the average school performance in 1997 is now roughly where we put the absolute bottom benchmark expected. This hasn’t happened by chance.”