Sunday, April 29, 2007

Small is Better?

Cleveland is a city of contrasts – on the west side detached, clapper-board houses with neat manicured lawns and the Stars and Stripes fluttering from the porch, also opulent modern apartments, thirty stories high lining the banks of Lake Erie. Modern freeways snake through the city. Go to the east side and you’re in another world, as jobs went in the 1970s Cleveland became part of the ‘Rustbelt’, there’s abandoned brick built factories, houses showing signs of decay, abandoned cars and buses in the back yards, feral dogs and children, pot-holed roads. The two parts of the city are like binary stars that orbit around each other but never meet.

In the American education system every kind of ‘initiative’ has been tried – reconstitution, Magnet schools, open choice, Dream Schools, Fresh Start, Charter Schools, Vouchers and yet they still have chronic system failure. In a society that likes to think big and isn’t afraid of spending money, when it comes to education parsimony is the watch word, ‘throwing money at it won’t solve the problem’, on the other hand not spending money hasn’t worked either. I can’t help feeling that the patient is dying of malnutrition but all they want to do is try a make-over – new clothes, dental surgery, fancy haircut, anything but a square meal.

The latest thinking is ‘Small Schools’, try a High School with only 300 – 500 pupils. However, in many cases it has just replicated the problems only on a smaller scale. We visited an ‘Alternative School’, which attempts to engage with pupils who have been suspended or expelled. There were low class sizes, a limited school day and focused shorter tasks. Unfortunately the Youth Service who used to work with pupils were no longer there, due to budget cuts. The teachers worked under the conditions of the local contract.

There was a fairly bleak ‘punishment room’ with cubicles where miscreants were sent to ‘cool down’. Staff were finding it hard going and there seemed to be a lack of pastoral care. In the main school building every entrance was patrolled by morose, elderly, security guards, it didn’t make for a welcoming atmosphere. After Columbine there was federal money for security guards now the school had to fund them itself.

Later we visited a private Catholic School, in a tough area, they were attempting to get pupils used to a work environment, and they concentrated on businesses, hospitals and the service industry. A team of four pupils worked to cover a week in a workplace and the school received funding in return. The school concentrated on the core curriculum with a longer day for teachers – 7.30 am to 4.30 pm.

To be fair we were told that the expectation was not that the students would limit themselves to a menial job, some pupils had made it to college, but I couldn’t help thinking it was similar to the first half of the century and the ‘Training Schools for Coloreds’.

A high proportion of the teachers were interns – ‘training on the job’ i.e., a college degree but no formal education training. Some of them had worked 60 hours a week in their first year and had become excellent teachers. The problem is that devotion doesn’t pay bills and long hours and inspirational posters is no way to run an education system. Nationally a third of new teachers drop out after three years and a half after five years.

My host in Cleveland told me that in the 1960s teachers would habitually teach past retirement age, now all the teachers he knows are counting down the hours and minutes. I wonder why?


Scavenger Hunts

We visited a Youth Development organisation that works in a High School with disadvantaged young adults. It was in south Chicago, ringed by some grim housing projects. Driving through whole areas have been cleared, some buildings remain – abandoned, gutted or still lived in. Then there are a few up-market conversions where young professionals have moved in.

There were 1,000 students in the school grades 9 to 12. The youngest children were educated on a separate floor and the older children were split into five separate sections – Construction, Business, Graphic Design, Culinary Arts and Medical. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this because some children need vocational education, but there seems to be a philosophy in America that certain children are destined to become ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. What route is there for the academically minded children?

Under ‘No Child Left Behind’ the military are able to come into schools and recruit, three sergeants were based in this school and they had their own drill hall. A disturbing development, what does this have to do with education? It is also the sons and daughters of the poor that are targeted for recruitment, in Michael Moore’s film ‘Fahrenheit 911’ he reveals that only one member of Congress has a child serving in Iraq.

As other schools shut down in the area numbers are rising, 400 in the current 9th Grade. The school is 98% Afro-American and is sited in the North Lawndale area where Martin Luther King lived for a spell during the 1960s when he was highlighting poverty in urban areas. After he was assassinated there was wide scale rioting and troops were sent in.

The Youth Development project tries to help students with college applications, academic support and leadership skills. Most of the funding comes through grants from foundations or business. This is another common thread, fine for funding extra activities but no way to run basic public services. Sponsors choose projects that are ‘sexy’ and often it comes with strings attached. PTAs reinforce this inequality because some High Schools raise millions of dollars.

The project does some really innovative work, they found an abandoned house and involved the students in renovating it, then selling it to local first time buyers. During the summer school they organised a ‘Scavenger Hunt’ where students had to use public transport to navigate around the city, they also made community based films.

Jo was our guide and its interesting when you visit a place the vibes you pick up, he introduced all the staff and they looked happy to be there and wanted to talk. The staff had all written an article about themselves, children, hobbies, favourite TV programmes – we all had a laugh about ‘The Office’, some of them claimed to have worked with American versions of David Brent.

We eventually had to make our excuses and leave, Jo could have talked all day about the project, his enthusiasm was infectious. A really inspiring project, as Jo said, “You can’t just wait for the revolution, you’ve got to do something with the kids now.”

However, the inequity in funding and the racial divide is troubling. There’s a tremendous book called ‘The Shame of the Nation’ by Jonathon Kozol, he quotes an advocate of free enterprise who believes that capitalism works best as a meritocracy, if wealth and privileged become entrenched it is a recipe for stagnation and decline. Examples where advancement depended on nepotism rather than innate brilliance – the ‘hero’ of the Texas Air Reserve and Michael ‘Good Job’ Brown the ex-head of FEMA whose previous experience before Hurricane Katrina was supervising horse show judges in Colorado.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Is the Pope a Catholic?

I visited a small Charter School in the north of Chicago, it sprang from a community based initiative to bring young adults (16 to 20 years) back into the education system. They had 86 students, seven teachers and five counsellors. Their nearest High School had 2,000 pupils, classes of between 30 - 40 and only three full time counsellors.

Funding their school was a real problem with money coming from over 12 different streams, so staff spent a long time preparing bids and then reporting and monitoring. Some children came into the project with a very low reading age. The Principal felt that money spent on these children now was better than wasting $30 - $40,000 keeping them in prison - America has over 2 million in its penal institutions.

The unions are not keen on Charter Schools because most of them do not recognise them and pay and conditions are usually below the rates for the local School Board.

Touring through the school most of the pupils were focused on learning, they had a high drop out rate but had rescued many of from from years out of education, over 50% had children of their own. The Principal had developed his own methods to run the school and he shared the job with another teacher, he told me he didn't believe in the myth of the super teacher, the 'sage on stage'. Space was limited and they wanted to develop more art and music programmes.

The contrast with the second Charter School was stark, true the pupils had finished so we didn't see the school 'in action'. But this was a grim office block where the school occupied a floor, the classrooms were small and had very little natural light, the walls were breezeblocks painted white. The canteen was so small that lunch times were staggered and one group finished lunch at 11.10 am - no break until the finish at 3.30 pm.

They had a rather peculiar way of encouraging good behaviour, the boys were being taught "Leadership' and could win a natty blazer, the girls were learning about "Etiquette". Unsurprisingly the girls had voted with their feet and there was a preponderance of boys in the school.

If the alarm bells were ringing, the Klaxon was going off when we looked in at the staff meeting. They were watching a training video featuring 'Mr. Motivator' - Harry Wong. It was the kind of 'praise the Lord, you have been saved' talk where no questions are ever permitted and teachers are made to feel bad.

Part One in 'The Effective Teacher' featured a hand-out to beat all hand-outs. Two main points were, 'I believe that every teacher can be effective, and 'The Effective teacher Affects lives' (get it?).

Then we had three qualities of an Effective Teacher-

1. Is a Good Classroom Manager
2. Designs Lessons To Reach Mastery
3. Has Positive Expectations That Students Will Be Successful

Just to make sure each separate point was repeated in larger fonts on a separate piece of paper. Now I know that Ofsted proceed from the view that teachers are a clueless bunch of bozos, but even they could not get away with this. Most of the staff were first year teachers (NQTs), but this is the type of stuff you would learn in the first week of college.

Is this what teaching in the wealthiest country in the world has been reduced to? After three years of training are there really teachers that believe you should be a Bad classroom manger, prepare Boring lessons and Expect failure?

I'm just waiting for Harry's next videos, 'Is The Pope a Catholic, and 'Do Bears Defecate in the Woods'?


White Flight

Chicago has over 600 schools, with over 400,000 pupils. If it was a hospital patient it would have been in intensive care if not a coma for years. The drop out rate in High School hovers around 50%.

Charter Schools have been an attempt to break the cycle of failure. I visited a small High School with 350 girls chosen by lottery from all over Chicago. There was a ratio of 1 teacher to every 10 pupils. Sadly when they talk about "diversity" in America it means there are very few, if any, white students, this school was only 7% white, 88% of pupils were on free or reduced price dinners.

The school got about $8,000 per pupil from the state and raised $1.3 million in private funding so that figure averaged $12,000. We were shown around by two charming, intelligent girls that would have been a credit to any school in the world, they answered questions with ease, poise and confidence. The school was run by a dynamic young Director.

Next stop was the Chicago Teachers' Union, they have 35,000 members (including teaching assistants), dues for teachers are $800 a year and they have 65 full time workers.

In 2005 to try and break the cycle of failure they adopted ten schools that had low test scores under a programme called 'Fresh Start'. Staff had to vote by an 85% majority to come into the scheme. Two of the schools have subsequently closed and the rest will stay in until 2010. The Chicago School Board put in extra funding and businesses have donated money. The property tax system is very regressive, in Chicago pupils in the public system recieve around $5,500, in the wealthiest suburbs it can reach $17,000. Four schools have come off the 'notice to improve' list under 'No Child Left Behind'.

The 'Fresh Start' scheme is based on 'Success For All' which is a very prescriptive system of lessons with 90 minutes of literacy and an hour of maths. Children are tested every eight weeks.

The Chicago school syatem is chronically underfunded, there is gross inequity between the inner city and the suburbs, many children come from extremely poor backgrounds and teachers' pay is very low in a city where property is very expensive (I'm coming to the conclusion that to teach in America you must be mad, desperate or truly dedicated, on the empirical evidence most seem to be the latter).

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, schools are either 97% white or non-white. I raised the issue with the girls from the small High School, they were very gracious, it didn't seem to trouble them they were confident about their own indentities. But how do you build a tolerant, inclusive society under these conditions?


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Nickels and Dimes

Visiting the schools in San Francisco is like experiencing some kind of weird parallel universe, the similarities with England are frightening.

In San Francisco during the 1980s they pioneered 'Reconstitution', close a 'failing' school 'vacate' all the adults (teachers, cleaners, welfare staff) and re-open with new staff. Guess what? In the reconstituted schools there was a very high staff turnover, high percentages of supply and unqualified teachers, results didn't improve and discipline got worse. The teachers' union described it as the 'Clint Eastwood' approach to school reform, simple sloutions to complex problems. In England we had 'Fresh Start' which suffered that car-crash moment in 2000 when in one week four super-heads resigned.

For Academies read 'Charter Schools' in America - find a private sponsor to run your schools, there are now 3,500 of them educating one million students. Independent studies have not shown any appreciable improvements in results. In 2006 auditors in California reported on 'Options for Youth and Opportunities' run by Joan and John Hall. They were accused of over claiming $57 million in public funds. The Halls received annual salaries of $600,000 and the lease of sports utility vehicles.

George Bush has passed the 'No Child Left Behind Act' that prescribes high stakes testing with school closure as the penalty for failure. There are exactly the same practises we see in England - teaching to test, a narrow curriculum, constant tests, concentration on the borderline group, leading to pupil disaffection. Headteachers also display the 'bar-chart fetish' as they obsessively demonstrate the test score increases. Please remember the Ancient Greeks saying, 'Education is a festival of the mind'.

Some teachers I talked to said that the prescriptive curriculum and the testing culture was actually driving middle class parents towards the private education system because they wanted an enriched education for their children.

Ambitious Superintendents (Local Authority Chief Education Officers) are parachuted in to 'turn the schools around', they try to leave their mark with 'radical' solutions, after a couple of years they move on up the promotion ladder and teachers are left to pick up the pieces.

A massive difference in San Francisco is the huge numbers of children in the bi-lingual program, in some schools they educate up to the end of Infants in Spanish or Chinese. There is also the phenomenon of 'white flight', over 30% of children are educated in private schools.

Due to the high cost of housing it is very difficult for families on low incomes to live in the city, since 1960 the numbers of school age children has dropped by 30%. Young teachers cannot afford to get onto the housing ladder, average prices are $600,000 and teachers salaries start at around $40,000.

The extremes of wealth are startlingly apparent, San Francisco is the wealthiest city in the world - average income $37,000, but walk through the streets and the plight of the homeless is distressing.

Finally in all the years I've holidayed in America I've never worked out the value of 'Nickels' and 'Dimes', so a big thank you to the kindergarten teacher at Paul Revere Elementary School - you're never too old to learn!


Friday, April 20, 2007

Shoulder Pads

I visited another 'Dream School', this time a High School, the Americans also have Middle School, so this was Years 9 to 12.

The basis for the reform still remains a mystery, they weren't the worst performing schools and unlike Reconstitution, where there was a push from the Afro-American community in Bayview-Hunter's Point for reform, this wasn't the case with 'Dream Schools'. The school board didn't hold meetings with staff, they found out in December 2004 they would have to apply in March 2005 for their own jobs.

Over 50% of staff left, many of them were veteran teachers who just felt disrespected. Out of the fifty new staff that started over half were first year teachers (NQTs).

There wasn't any real change in contracts and unlike the elementary (primary) schools they weren't forced to work extra hours. The Principal quit in May and the School Board was forced to appoint someone who was a first time Principal.

Test results have fallen dramatically and walking through the school there were giant banners everywhere, 'Rock the Tests'.

The 'Dream Schools' bear all the hallmarks of Superintendents (Chief Education Officers) trying to make their mark, leaving and then the teachers picking up the pieces.

I briefly met the Principal, one of those high powered people with shoulder pads to match, within seconds of meeting her she'd managed to patronise and condescend. Can't win 'em all, I'll have to go back to the vegan restaurant - I'm sure of a welcome there.


Another Planet

San Francisco is famous for being full of odd balls and fruit cakes. I hadn't really experienced it before today... I was gagging for a cup of coffee, so I dived into the nearest cafe. Now let's just say in most corners of the planet the service can be tardy or even brusque, but they do let you drink your coffee in peace. I went up to the counter.

'Welcome!' (a broad smile)


'What is your name?'


'We have a question of the day.'

'Oh really?'

'What do you think the meaning of life is?'

By now I was ready to be recruited by a crazy bunch of wackos who believed in UFOs and the mystic cosmos.

(Nervously) 'I'll need time to think...'

'What would you like to order?'

'Just an ordinary coffee.'

'That's cool we're a vegan restaurant so we don't serve dairy milk but you can have hazlenut milk or walnut milk. We grow them and press the milk everyday and the coffee is fully organic.'

(Thinks - Oh My God, I just want a coffee)

'I'll have hazlenut.'

'Thank you for choosing our establishment. Your coffee will arrive shortly.'

I sit down but can't escape.

'We have some cards on the table which may help your karma. I love working here.' (Smiles broadly)

They're the type of inane comments which you get in 'Chicken Soup for the Soul'. I go through them reading intently trying to blend in.

After a ten minute wait the coffee arrives and surprisingly it tastes OK. I finish and try to slink out.

'Goodbye, may your life be joyous and fruitful.' (Broad smile)

When I visit the nearby school the staff fall about laughing.

'They're on another planet, we'll get you some tacos.'

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

I have another dream...

I visited another 'Dream School', they were created in 2004/5 as another way to address 'failure'. In this school only five teaching staff stayed and a team of first year (NQTs) teachers were appointed. There was a new Principal who came from the Board of Education and resigned after a year.

There was a change from 'Reconstitution' in that the existing teachers could reapply for their jobs but they had to write a letter, be observed three times by a panel of five people and go for a competitive interview. As one teaching assistant (they're called 'para-professionals') told me, "We lost good teachers who went to teach in easy schools".

The new teachers in the 'Dream School' had to teach an extra two hours a day, there was another high turnover of staff after the first year. The School Board did give them extra resources like a school nurse, social worker and other support staff. A new Principal listened to teachers and helped some of the new ones. It was an extremely challenging school, I saw a young teacher with the patience of a saint - I'd have been ranting and raving at them.

I got the impression though that it had been a close run thing, why 'experiment', just give the schools more money and lift children out of poverty.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I have a dream...

I talked to a teacher who had gone through 'reconstitution' in 1995, she taught in a school where most of the children lived in poverty. The test results weren't brilliant but the staff all worked hard and discipline was not a problem. The school was chosen for reconstitution and given one year to come up with a plan. As the teacher said it was a, "dog and pony show". They made presentations, showed children's work and tried to influence the District School Board. Her family life suffered, years later her son told her, "you weren't there for me." The officials refused to meet the parents at the school because they didn't want reconstitution.

All the adults were cleared out of the building and new staff were hired. As one union official called it, "the Clint Eastwood approach to school reform." Some of the new teachers were inadequate, one infant teacher had never taught young children and the nursery teacher showed TV soaps all day. The school was given more money but still results didn't improve.

A new intiative in 2004/5 was the so-called 'Dream Schools' (spin doctors obviously working overtime on a catchy touchy-feely name). This time the schools that were chosen weren't the lowest performing, the union suspicion was that the Board of Education picked schools where they could show progress. The Board met the teachers gave them pizzas and announced that they wanted to staff the seven new 'Dream Schools' with, "genial teachers with vision".

There was a change from reconstitution in that you could reapply for your job, but you had to write an essay about why you wanted the job, be observed teaching by a panel of 'experts' and they go for interview. Most teachers refused this generous offer. Only one Principal (Headteacher) stayed on. Teachers had to sign contracts agreeing to work an extra hour every day.

Two of the schools subsequently closed and in most of them there was a high turnover, problems with discipline and still results didn't improve.

The latest wheeze has been to hire over 30 'Reform Facilitators' that work in the schools. Tests in reading, writing and maths are held every six weeks and regular meetings are held with teachers to suggest how they could improve. I've heard stories of teachers in tears, this wasn't what they came into teaching for.

Observing the American education system is like a combination of a bad dream and living in a parallel universe. The bar chart fetish is also alive and well here, I met one Principal who insisted on showing me the upward trend in results. I didn't have the heart to tell him my, 'brain-dead chimp' theory of test improvement - teach to test, narrow the curriculum, constantly test, pressure teachers, concentrate on the borderline children. I really must get a highly paid job as a consultant.


Power in a union

1) The big difference compared to England is that each teachers' union branch negotiates locally for their 'contract'. This does lead to different pay scales and bargaining can be tough. In San Francisco the union was on the brink of calling a strike (the Board of Education had voted 4-3 to bring in strike breakers) but at the eleventh hour a settlement was reached.

2) Although there are two competing unions the AFT and the NEA, San Francisco is unique because all teachers are in the United Educators of San Francisco, but they send delegates to both conferences.

3) The union works hard to build support, they organise Union Building Committees in schools and they meet every month with the Principal (Headteacher). They hold days where teachers wear the union T-shirt, regular newsletters keep the membership informed and they use phone banks to communicate with them.

4) Over 30% of children in San Francisco attend private schools. It is the wealthiest city in the world, average income $37,000 per annum and house prices average $600,000, but the wealth divide is huge there are thousands of homeless people.

5) George Bush's 'No Child Left Behind Act' has introduced children and teachers to the joys of high stakes testing. All the same problems we are familiar with in England - teaching to test, narrowing the curriculum, de-skilling teachers, stressing pupils, league tables to 'name and shame', the media identifying 'failure'. When will they ever learn?

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Reconstitution - "improving" low performing schools by replacing ("vacating") all of the adults in the building was described as the "My Lai approach to school reform - you destroy the village in order to save it."

Reconstitution in San Francisco began with a 1978 lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) charging that the city's schools were segregated and unequal. A 1982 federal court judgement ruled in their favour and called for school restructuring.

The plans drawn up by the San Francisco Unified School District included the phrase, "If indivduals do not learn, then those assigned to be their teachers will accept responsibility for this failure and will take appropriate action to ensure success."

The primary focus of reconstitution was an impoversished area known as Bayview Hunter's Point. Six schools were chosen to be developed as 'magnets' to attract parents and children, two schools were new and four existing ones were selected for 'reconstitution'. This meant, "Removing faculty and staff [including cooks, teaching assistants and cleaners] and hiring new faculty and staff committed to the consent decree vision, philosophy tenents and program."

To help implement reforms the six Bayview Hunter's Point schools received a massive infusion of state funds and extensive technical assistance.

In 1987 two more schools in San Francisco, John Muir Elementary School and James Lick Middle School were chosen for 'reconstitution', staff were removed at both schools but this time no additional resources were provided.

However, by 1989 it was clear that achievement levels in the district were still uneven, the court appointed a panel of experts led by Harvard professor Gary Orfield to review progress.

In 1993 a further nine schools were declared 'reconstitution eligible' and given one year to improve. As a results three schools were selected during 1994-5 and five more the following year. Once again teachers were singled out for blame and long-standing, experienced teachers were advised that 'just good enough' was 'not good enough'.

Reconstitution made it difficult for schools to attract qualified and experienced teachers, in one school 24% were unlicenced and in another 70% were long-term supply teachers. The reconstituted schools still failed to show any signs of measurable improvement.

A new attempt at reconstitution has been so-called 'Dream Schools' (make the packing colourful even if there is dross inside it). A federal court ruling in December 2006 described reconstitution as, "an 800 lb guerilla to keep the union at bay" and that there was, "no reason to have reconstitution".

However, this local victory for the union may only be temporary, under Bush's 'No Child Left Behind Act', if children consistently underperform in high stakes national tests, schools may be closed, re-opened as charter schools or reconstituted.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Touching down

I'm not normally a nervous traveller, but it's different without the cocoon of your family around you. I'm on my own this trip. My nerves go once the airport minibus arrives. We tour round Liverpool picking other people up. There's a family going on holiday.

"Have you got everything son?"

"Yeah, stop nagging."

"Have you got your passport?"

"I'll go back and get it."

Driving down the M62 the mist hangs over the fields like a shroud, trees stand isolated, enveloped.

In the departure lounge I sit there people watching, families of Orthodox Jews, middle aged couples sitting opposite each lost in conversation -not, stressed out executive types clutching mobile phones to their ears.

Travelling doesn't bother me it's the change in New York, clearing immigration, baggage reclaim, customs, finding the shuttle train, checking in for the next flight, handing the suitcase in, clearing security, getting hand luggage checked, more security checks, I'm frazzled!

When I get to San Francisco, my host Rosa from the local union is waiting with a sign. We drive through the city and she's telling me about the American education system - high stakes testing (No Child Left Behind), closing and reopening 'failing' schools (reconstitution), giving schools over for dodgy groups to run (charter schools) and demonising teachers - we've got a lot in common.


Saturday, April 14, 2007


I'm away in America for the next two weeks, not on holiday but visiting schools. Hopefully I'll be able to keep the blog going.

Ramparts of Resistance

During the 1970s two miners strikes rocked the Conservative government, in 1972 when they tried to jail five dockers for secondary picketing they were released, as even the TUC was forced to threaten a general strike. In 1974 some sections of the military actually discussed organising a military coup to ‘deal with’ the unions. In 1979 during the ‘Winter of Discontent’, a record 29 million days were lost in strikes.

Sheila Cohen’s book ‘Ramparts of Resistance’ is a very thorough and thoughtful comparative study of how trade union power was eclipsed in Britain and America during the 1980s and 1990s. She documents the upsurge in trade union activity in America during 1968 to 1974, partly due to returning Vietnam veterans and the rank and file ‘reform’ organisations that sprouted up in the Teamsters and Union of Auto Workers (UAW).

The election of Reagan in 1981 marked a decisive turning point and there was the replacement of the air traffic controllers (PATCO) by management and ex-military. This tactic was used by bosses in a host of other strikes, all defeated usually with police and National Guard protecting strikebreakers and attacking pickets.

America has been defined by ‘business unionism’ where the union officials acted as the broker for labour with the employer. During the 1980s, despite the attempts by union officials to negotiate ‘give backs’ and concessions, many employers decided to dispense with unions altogether. Union density is now down to only 12.5% in America and a shocking 8% in the private sector.

Cohen describes the successful UPS strike by the Teamsters in 1997 against casual and part time working. In 2000 there was also the brief unity between environmentalists and trade unionists in the Seattle demonstration against the World Trade Organisation. Despite falling membership in 2005 the AFL-CIO suffered a debilitating split between rival factions of the bureaucracy. A far cry from the CIO split in 1935 that was in support of industrial unionism and led to the organising of rubber, steel and auto workers.

There are several weaknesses in the book, Cohen doesn’t examine other forms of union traditions, i.e., Social Democratic – a close tie between unions and a ‘party of labour’; Corporatist – tripartite agreements between unions, government and employers, Ireland and Holland and Syndicalist – low union membership different union centres, France and Italy. An interesting issue to discuss would have been the strength of the French unions and their ability to call workers out on general strikes, with popular support, to halt attacks by government.

There isn’t any real analysis of the changing patterns of employment, which have also lead to the fall in union members, in particular the decline of manufacturing industry. There is of course a note of caution about ‘the new knowledge economy’, there has been a growth in the service sector and in computing. But what stands out is the creation of an ‘hour glass economy’, the professions like teaching squeezed in the middle and new low paid unskilled jobs in health, education and services alongside long-established work like sales assistants, receptionists and security guards. Fifty per cent of people earn under £21,000 a year.

The weakest point of the book is that Cohen doesn’t mention the ideological repercussions from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of Stalinism, possibly it didn’t have the same effect in America, the Communist Party was strong in the CIO during the 1930s and 1940s but a negligible influence thereafter. The ‘alternative ideology’ for a large section of trade union officials and shop stewards was removed, this came as a triple whammy after the miners defeat and the legal attacks.

Losing their political bearings, whole sections of the former left moved effortlessly over to Blairism and beyond. Tom Sawyer - radical NUPE steward, union Deputy General Secretary, Labour Party General Secretary, House of Lords and now advisor to companies who want to privatise public services, personified this. The ‘moderate’ group that controls the NUT has a high proportion of ex-Communist Part members in its leadership. Rank and file activist to union bureaucrat or MP is a well-trod path, during the 1980s and 1990s the tracks became a little rutted.

Cohen notes how American rank and file movements haven’t just been electoral organisations. By contrast she cites the example of the Barnsley Miners’ Forum, which was very effective in the 1972 and 1974 strikes, but once Arthur Scargill and the left won the official positions it ceased to meet.

In Britain union mergers rather than recruitment has been the dominant concern of the leadership. No real attempt has been made to organise groups like call centre workers. When I was on a course one of the students worked in one and he horrified us with accounts of the way every second of their time was monitored. Why don’t they join? Because they believe that unions are ineffectual.

From an Anglo-centric standpoint it’s a pretty bleak scenario, but Cohen’s perspective is ‘optimistic but not unrealistic. It starts with the continuing, unassailable reality of working-class struggle…’

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Joke of the Week

Hard Luck Story 2

Ofsted Inspector reads a health and safety notice - 'Be Seen at Night, Wear White'.

He goes out, white hat, white scarf, white jacket, white shirt, white trousers, white shoes.

Gets run over by a snow plough...


Thursday, April 12, 2007

A complete no-brainer

The Government claim that Academies are ‘popular’ with parents. Let’s put it another way, you have a choice between a brand spanking new academy with state of the art facilities or the comp down the road with the leaking roof, windows that fall out of the rotting frames and toilets that stink so much the children refuse to use them. A complete no-brainer, even Charles Ingram wouldn’t need prompting on that one. A pupil in an academy will get £21,000 in funding as opposed to £14,000 for those in “bog standard” comprehensives.

Some of the ‘consultations’ on academies have involved asking parents if they wanted a new school in their borough. A bit like asking – do you want an operation on that tumour? Do you object to queuing in the Post Office for an hour? Do you want an NHS dentist in your town?

One of the more controversial bids is the proposal to turn St Mary Magdalene Church of England Primary School in Islington, into an academy for children aged five to 19. This is based on public school educated Lord Adonis’ assumption that what works for small posh public schools will also work for large inner-city schools. You might ask where is the research for this proposal, but no it’s another “initiative” drawn up on the back of a menu in a trendy restaurant.

The money for Building Schools for the Future in Islington was tied to the council agreeing to an academy, so much for ‘choice’. There’s also the fact that as church attendances decline the government is insisting that there should be more church schools. Do middle class people really want a church school or a selective one?

St Mary Magdalene Academy was created on the basis that as 40% of Islington children were educated outside the borough it would help to create more school places. A recent article in ‘The Guardian’ showed that all the new academy is doing is undermining the existing schools. St Mary Magdalene is four times over subscribed for its 180 places whereas nearby Highbury Grove only has 100 applicants for 210 places in September. Highbury Grove is fighting back by trying to poach students from Hampstead and William Ellis schools through newspaper adverts.

Maybe they should try the Republican Party tactic and use negative advertising to run down all the other schools.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

World Exclusive – Iran Hostage Speaks!

Teachers’ TV have secured an exclusive interview. Their intrepid reporter Trevor McDonut has talked to one of his former pupils, freed ship’s navigator Arthur Bumbly. His tale of psychological torture, starvation, dehydration and forced physical exertion will shock the nation.

McDonut is confronted by an over weight, pasty-faced youth with spots and a bad skin.

McDonut: How did you get captured?

Bumbly: The sat nav broke down and we didn’t have clue where we were.

McDonut: Didn’t you have a map?

Bumbly: What’s one of those?

(McDonut is thought to have taught Bumbly Geography for five years)

McDonut: Some people have criticised you for surrendering so easily.

Bumbly: Those Irinains had guns… we’re used to stopping defenceless people in sailing boats. We weren’t trained for that.

McDonut: After you were captured did you get any food?

Bumbly: It was horrific all they gave us was fruit and then… vegetables. I was gagging for a Big Mac and chips. After a day or two I couldn’t cope…

McDonut: Did you get…?

Bumbly: All we got was water, I couldn’t think straight without Coca-Cola or a thick milk shake. It was a living hell!

McDonut: Were you cold at night?

Bumbly: We had blankets but it was still cold I kept asking for…

McDonut: More blankets?

Bumbly: No, I wanted a hot water bottle and a nice hot cup of Ovaltine, but the guards just kept laughing.

McDonut: What else did the guards do?

Bumbly: They… called me… Mr… Blobby! (Wipes tear away)

McDonut: Were you bored?

Bumbly: We had nothing to do, I asked them for a Playstation 3 or Sky but the guards fell about laughing. Eventually they made us play… chess.

McDonut: Chess!

Bumbly: It was really difficult, after ten minutes my brain was dead.

McDonut: Did you get any exercise?

Bumbly: They let us out into this big yard and said we could WALK! After five minutes I was knackered and had to sit down for a smoke.

McDonut: Were you lonely?

Bumbly: At night I was on my own and really missed Mr. Biggles.

McDonut: Mr. Biggles?

Bumbly: He’s my teddy bear he goes everywhere.

(Draws arm across nose and wipes snot away)

McDonut: Some hostages wrote grovelling apology letters.

Bumbly: I couldn’t copy it down from the board in time. I did offer to text Tony Blair.

McDonut sighs and writes out cheque for £50,000 and pins gallantry medal onto Bumbly’s chest. The national anthem is playing in the background.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Any happy primary school teachers out there?

This discussion on the TES Staffroom just about sums up the situation concerning morale in primary schools. Some teachers are slogging their guts out and wanting out, others still love the job and are full of praise for their head teachers.

The post was started by –

Complaining about working 65 hours a week, with fortnightly work scrutinies in a school that is just out of special measures.

‘Deep Thought’
Also works 65 hours a week and has been off school for three weeks, two with ‘flu and one due to stress.

Teaches in a school with a high staff turnover, finds the paper work exhausting and wouldn’t go into teaching if she had her time again.

Had a new headteacher that the staff liked, but four terms in the school was put into special measures. There are continual observations from the Local Authority, they’ve lost a third of the children and still don’t have a permanent head or deputy.

By contrast…

Has been teaching for thirty years and has loved every minute of it.

Has taught for 17 years and loves the job, bins the unnecessary, knows when to say no and won’t back down.

Calls on teachers to have faith in themselves and that the best part of the job is the kids.

Is an NQT who has taught for two terms, has supportive colleagues and goes tap dancing twice a week.

Has a head that is HUMAN and believes that good leadership is the key.

On that last point the head teacher in primary can make or break a school. However, when I visited Germany there was a much more collegiate tradition. The head taught a class and was allowed some time for admin, but she was very much part of the teaching team. Decisions about the school were taken at the staff meetings and it wasn’t unknown for the head to be in a minority. In England many head teachers consider it to be “their” school.

It would certainly take a courageous or even foolish head to swim against the current tide. SATs and league tables are everything, that’s all that Ofsted are really interested in. Most head teachers are chained and bound hand and feet to the testing juggernaut. Why do so few teachers want to become heads?

Paper work has become the bane of teacher’s lives. My advice is – Keep it to the Minimum. What is planning for? It should be a working document that you can actually use in the lessons not some kind of ‘War and Peace’ document that is completely unintelligible and verbose. What matters most is preparing interesting lessons.

Special measures are a living hell (thankfully it only affects a small percentage of schools, there but for the grace…) but the Ofsted culture affects every school. In particular there is the culture of failure, my advice is - don’t internalise failure, no one should be expected to work 65 hours a week. Some NQTs have the youth and energy to cope, the problem is that when they start a family they can’t do it.

The other side of the coin is the ‘super-teacher’ syndrome, this is reinforced by the Teacher Training Institutions where the expectation is that you will be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, working an 80-hour week and filling every form out in triplicate. In most jobs it takes you 5 or 6 years before you really understand what and how to do it. We seem to expect that student teachers will fly as soon as they leave the nest.

How have I survived? By doing projects with the children that have interested them and me. ‘What’s in it for the children?’ Is always my first question.

The best advice comes from ‘shell43’ and this should be given to every NQT and posted up in every staffroom in the land – ‘FORGET ALL THE CRAP AND ENJOY THE CHILDREN YOU TEACH’.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Unity is Strength – 2

The Times Educational Supplement provide an invaluable service with their Internet Staffroom (the General Teaching Council tried and failed with their ‘Discussion Forums’ and the NUT web site contains loads of boring circulars and messages from the General Secretary, but nothing from the membership), it’s just that some of the posts don’t exactly add to the advancement of human understanding. There’s personal abuse, persistent posters on irrelevant issues (some of them really do need to get out more) and then there’s ‘I went to Lidl’ by ‘Mr Smallcock’.

However, ‘astaire’ (post 17) has written a cogent reply to my article and other pieces on the teacher unions. Here’s the post in full-

It would be a good idea to have ONE teacher union, and a good start would be for ALL the teacher unions to meet and set course for change by AGREEING on something that ALL can go along with.

However, just around the year 2000, ALL the teacher unions met to agree to something, but after prolonged (and joint) talks ONE union decided to pull out (for reasons other than the published ones).

This was the workload agreement. And it is a crucial agreement.

It is at that point I decided that there is merit in having separate and different philosophies within teaching, and NO teacher union to have overall say in how the future of the profession is decided.

Despite a knowledgeable blog by "Mr Read", many of his claims are false. As a example "there is only one teachers union in Ireland". Actually there are six or seven, including TUI, INTO, ASTI, UTU, as well as NAS and ATL!

ATL does not "organise mainly in the Independent sector". ATL has the largest number of Independent sector members, but it's bulk is mainly in the state sector, and FE (160,000 plus members).

Whilst it is true that all pay claims for teachers are submitted to the STRB, Mr Read forgets to state that ALL pay claims and conditions of service submissions from the "social partnership" (which is ALL teacher unions except the NUT), include those of the government and the employers. They therefore have a chance of succeeding, unlike the outlandish claims which have been a feature of the NUT submissions of the last few years.

Diversity within teacher unions have been a feature of the world wide teacher situation more longer than most think and schisms have also been a common feature. Without such occurances, how much do you think your fees would be for being in a union? I would estimate they would at least double. And if there is only one union who would you go to if the union decided on a course which you don't like?

In Scotland the largest "union" is not a "union" at all! EIS is an "Institution" and as such it's "general secretary" is not subject to re-election every five years as every "union" must do. And there is a sizeable number of the teaching population in one of several other unions, including SSTA, NAS, ATL, PAT, representing around 25% of all the teachers in that country. In Wales the largest teachers union is NAS, closely followed by ATL, and there are of course a smallish number (by comparison) in UCAC. America has two large teacher unions. Most of the European countries have two or more.

Nevertheless I agree that ALL unions should UNITE in common action. The trouble is that ONE of those unions does not want to go the way the rest of the unions want to go. Ergo, disunion right from the start.

And as for "snouts in the trough". Has the person who posted THAT one got knowledge of the way unions operate which is different than mine? What trough? A look at any set of teacher union accounts (published and audited every year), will show a fine operating margin, due to having to keep fees down or cut fees in order to attract members from other unions.

And as for the comment on total fees for a lifetime of £6,000. Is it as little as that? How much for your car insurance then, for thirty years? Or your house insurance? Why not do away with paying house insurance? Just think of what you could save!

Additionally the person who said that would have to remind me of how "cheap" an employment lawyer would be should you need one. At around £200-300 per hour, for advice, plus £3,000 per day for representation in tribunal. Soon eats up £6,000 does it not?

Working together teacher unions could achieve a great deal. The trouble is that not all of them have this idea at the forefront of their minds. Not by any means! And that goes for teachers as well!

Finally there is the "at least with the NUT we were not "sold down the river". How? Has their stance changed anything? Hove they given value for money by NOT taking part in ANY meaningful negotiations for nearly five years? Just WHO has "sold" WHO "down the river" here?’

Firstly, ‘only one teaching union in Ireland’? Yes, wrong. In fact all primary teachers belong to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), secondary teachers are members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). To my knowledge none of the British based unions have any significant membership in the Republic. It is more complicated in Northern Ireland because both British and Irish based unions organise there, as well as local unions like the Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU).

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers does have 160,000 members in both schools and further education colleges. However, I can’t find the percentage that is employed in the independent sector, maybe someone else could help here?

My point about the unions not directly negotiating on pay is valid, even more so as the government have ‘instructed’ the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) that pay rises for 2008 – 2011 should not go beyond 2%.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) may have described itself as an “Institution” in order to escape Tory anti-union laws but in all but name it is a union (the EIS is affiliated to the TUC and STUC). I don’t know how effective the EIS is as a union, it’s probably more due to the different political landscape but they don’t have Ofsted, the national curriculum, SATs tests or league tables. Some of the reasons why teachers are queuing to cross the border?

The workload agreement? What have we gained exactly? The NAS traded PPA time for primary teachers; in return schools were able to use teaching assistants to cover classes. An ATL survey, reported in this week’s TES, found more than a third were only paid higher rates when they covered a class (in some cases an extra 15p an hour) and nearly 60% did not have a clear system of supervision to support them or a defined job description. The workload agreement has also delivered the joys of ‘Payment by Results’.

The NAS really has become the government poodle, they refused to support the NUT campaign for increased London Weighting, didn’t want to join the NUT action against SATs and two years ago (until the leadership were overthrown by a rare conference revolt) were the only union not threatening action over cuts in pension entitlements. Union? A good case to answer for under the Trades Description Act?

‘Astaire’ is right that diversity within teacher unions is a common worldwide feature. In France and Italy there are several teacher unions, however, pressure from the membership forces them to act together and unite in common action.

Another correspondent accuses the NUT of being ‘strike, strike, strike’. Obviously they haven’t been to the NUT Conference because the leadership spend most of their time opposing action – ‘too early’ or ‘too late’ – and even if a resolution is passed they promise to ignore it any way.

The only valid point is that it isn’t just about passing Conference resolutions, you have to win the membership over as well. Strikes in the public sector also need public support, this is something that the NUT lost sight of in the 1980s with one-day guerrilla ‘no notice’ strikes that lost parental sympathy.

Faced with a neo-liberal Blair government the unions hopes of social partnership have been dashed, from academies to support for Ofsted, testing and league tables, you could put a cigarette paper between their policies and the Conservatives. The main problem is that unions are weak and ineffectual in this country. The government tries to rob the low paid public sector workers of their pensions – we have apologetic strikes. The French try some minor changes in employment laws and everyone walks out on strike. Unions are there for collective action not just as insurance associations, that’s why the Friendly Societies declined.

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Astley Green Mining Museum

Driving down the East Lancs Road looking at the redundant mills and spoil heaps you get an indication of how ‘King Cotton’ and mining were the twin pillars of Lancashire’s prosperity.

The last mining museum in the northwest is at Astley Green (opened 1908 – closed 1970) near Leigh. The Lancashire Mining Museum at Buile Hill, Salford was closed in 2000 due to cuts in council spending. Astley Green is run by volunteers from the Red Rose Steam Society so opening times are limited.

You can’t miss the museum because the winding tower stands gaunt, skeletal, black against the flat landscape – the last survivor. There’s an excellent exhibition on mining and the life of the pit. In 1840 due to an Act of Parliament the mine owners had to record accidents at work, some of the first recorded are the deaths of children aged 10 and 11 working as trappers, they opened doors in the mine to circulate air. The worst pit disaster in Lancashire was at the Pretoria Pit, West Houghton in 1910, 344 miners died in an explosion. There are also photographs of the ‘Pit Brow Lasses’, I found this excellent web site by Dave Lane (you will need broadband and be patient because it takes a minute or two to download).

The engine hall is carefully preserved, the giant machines lying idle now. Astley Green was a deep pit and they needed powerful machinery to lift the cages up.

Nearby the Bridgewater Canal winds it way up to Manchester. I wouldn’t recommend the walk the scenery is stark, bare, almost post-apocalyptical. There’s a huge open cast mining site with giant earth moving trucks, fenced off with frequent warning notices.

I can still remember when there was a quarter of a million miners, in one generation the industry has been wiped out. It was dirty, brutal work but most miners would still go back to it.

Astley Green has a collection of railway engines and trucks from all over the country but sadly most of it is under plastic covers. There seems to be millions for stately homes and the National Trust (good luck to them) but very little for our industrial heritage.

English National Mining Museum

Welsh National Mining Museum

Scottish National Mining Museum


Sunday, April 08, 2007

Are You Local?

We went to Hadfield yesterday, it’s on the edge of Greater Manchester and the Peak District and is a.k.a. Royston Vasey – “You’ll Never Leave!” – the setting of ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Unlike Avoca in Ireland, where ‘Ballykissangel’ was filmed, there aren’t coach loads of tourists everywhere and apart from a few posters in the shops there aren’t any obvious signs that the series was based there. Still if the fictional account showed your town populated by grotesques, weirdoes and freaks, maybe you wouldn’t want to publicise the fact.

First we wander down the main street looking out for ‘Burger Me’, the infamous charity shop with the harridans who had a fixation about plastic bags, the dole office where Pauline, with her fetish about biros, ruled the ‘dole scum’ with a rod of iron and finally there’s the war memorial where Chubby Brown’s foul mouthed mayor held his press conferences (trivia point Royston Vasey is his real name).

The four writers were all brought up during the 1980s in economically depressed northern towns and this combined with a love of gothic horror movies was the inspiration for ‘The League of Gentlemen’.

Hadfield is also the starting point for the Longdendale Trail – part of the Trans Pennine Trail that stretches from Liverpool to Hull. It runs along an old railway line opened in 1845, salt from Cheshire one way and coal from Yorkshire to power the Lancashire cotton mills the other.

It was a beautiful clear, crisp day, the buds of spring on the trees, lambs with spindly legs in the fields, peacock butterflies a splash of colour and robins in full voice staking out their territory. Planes from Manchester Airport soaring into the sky, motorbikes roaring away in the distance.

The reservoirs snake through the valley but somehow they can never replicate the natural beauty of lakes. When we get to Torside it’s been drained and is like an open, gaping wound, the boats from the sailing club stranded above it forlorn and useless.

The Woodhead Reservoir is full, shimmering in the sunshine; the chapel sits above it in lonely isolation. In the graveyard there are the unmarked graves of the navvies who died in the 1849 cholera plague, many more died building the Woodhead Tunnel. The line eventually closed in 1981.

We hurry back to catch the end of the Chelsea .v. Spurs game in the friendly Palatine Pub.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

We’re Happy And We Know It?

That’s it then. According to the latest Times Educational Supplement survey we’re all deliriously happy. Well not quite.

The online survey asked teachers to rate their well being and contentment on a scale of 1 to 10. 73% rated themselves as a six or above, with 26% placing themselves at level eight. There was a clear divided between secondary and primary – 57% thought they worked in a happy school, compared to 70%. A full 92% of head teachers thought they commanded a happy ship, no surprise there because even if the crew are on the verge of mutiny most head teachers sail on blissfully unaware of the impending crisis, “you mean there were weevils in the bread?” 67% were happier than they were ten years ago, but then when you’ve experienced absolute zero anything will feel warmer.

As with any survey there are some notes of caution, the poll results were based on only 500 replies and maybe there’s a suspicion that readers of the TES are more likely to view teaching in a positive light, others just want to escape from teaching at weekends.

The General Teaching Council carried out the largest survey on teacher morale in 2002 – over 70,000 responded. The key findings were-

· One in three teachers expected to leave within five years
· 56% said their morale was lower than when they started teaching
· One third would not go into teaching if they had their time again

It’s probably hard to define what you mean by “happiness”, if you asked Prince Charles you’d get a Delphic and elliptical reply. Just as work can make you unhappy so can chronic under-employment, symptoms – talking to plants, writing letters in green ink to ‘important people’ and trying to sell over-priced biscuits.

Some teachers can sit in a staff meeting with a serene smile and say nothing as a proposal to test children every six weeks sails through. That left me raging for weeks (see previous posts ‘The Line in the Sand’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’) and I’ve boycotted the staff room ever since.

The timing of any survey would be another key factor, the most depressing day in the year is the fourth Monday in January, it’s perpetually dark, wet playtimes children cooped up all day, paying off those Christmas bills. Come July the sun is shining, there’s the prospect of the long summer break and a new class to look forward to in September.

Teaching does have its fair share of moaners, usually men of a certain age with an elbows patch mentality, favourite phrases – ‘We’ve always done it like that’, ‘I’ve been here xxxx years’ and ‘Nobody told me about that’. My iron law of moaners is that whenever it comes to speaking out at staff meetings they suddenly become mute and if there is ever a ballot for action over something they don’t bother, ‘It won’t change anything anyway’.

We’re not helped by books on teaching they tend to fall into the ‘misery lit’ category – The Ranting Teacher’s ‘Everything You Need to Know to Survive Teaching’, Francis Gilbert’s ‘I’m a Teacher Get Me Out of Here!’ and Frank Chalk’s ‘It’s Your Time You’re Wasting’. The premise of all these books is that teachers’ enemies are pupils, parents and senior management – in that order. The problem with ‘view from the trenches’ books is that they never ask the question why war started in the first place. The prognosis is always unremittingly bleak, with desertion the only option.

I tried to write something different with ‘How Not To Teach’ there’s plenty of gallows humour but I also included some of the best things I’ve accomplished with the children, the film we made, the trips to Ireland and London. The other side of the equation however, is the Panglossian world projected in magazines like the DfES’s ‘Teacher’, where there are glowing articles featuring the kind of teachers who really believe that everyone should be working a sixteen hour day.

Longitudinal surveys on morale amongst public sector workers (Andrew Oswald’s) have shown a significant decline over the last twenty years. There’s also the continual haemorrhage of newly qualified teachers – up to half leave within the first five years.

Am I happy? Ask me at the end of July.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Joke of the Week

Hard luck story.

Ofsted inspector draws out all his life savings and opens a wine bar on the moon.

Had to close it down after a month.

There was no atmosphere...


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Knowsley – Building Schools for Finance

Who could oppose Building Schools for the Future (BSF)? Brand new shiny schools with state of the art facilities, classes of eager pupils engaging with learning through cutting edge information technology. As ever, the devil is in the detail. Let’s put it another way, badly designed schools built by penny-pinching private contractors who will be paid back at extortionate rates of interest over 25 years, education services sold to rapacious low-cost private firms and teachers marginalized with an over reliance on ICT.

Knowsley Council on Merseyside is part of the ‘first wave’ of twelve councils implementing BSF. They plan to close all secondary schools between 2008 and 2009 and re-open them as ‘Learning Centres’, all teachers will have to re-apply for their jobs. Given Knowsley’s poor results the Blairite ‘newspeak’ is, ‘doing nothing is not an option’.

Knowsley is one of the poorest boroughs in the country, it is in the top ten for child poverty and 17% of adults claim either Job Seekers’ Allowance or Incapacity Benefit. When local government was reorganised in 1974, Knowsley was cobbled together from the district councils (Huyton, Kirkby, Prescot, Halewood, Cronton) that nobody quite knew where to place.

Labour has always had a thumping majority on Knowsley Council (current composition 49 Labour and 12 Liberal), some wards return Labour councillors without a contest. It regularly features in Private Eye’s ‘Rotten Boroughs’. Most of its councillors are close to, or over retirement age and critics accuse them of being more interested in claiming expenses and locating the nearest free buffet rather than representing the interests of the electorate. The turnout at elections is 20% and falling.

When league tables for primary and secondary schools were introduced Knowsley was firmly anchored at the bottom. In 1999 Ofsted inspected the LEA and they produced a highly critical report. In response Steve Munby was parachuted in from Blackburn to ‘turn the LEA round’.

Munby made an immediate impact, the school advisers were replaced by School Improvement Officers with a remit to ratchet up results – “poverty is not an excuse”, “zero tolerance of failure”. Primary advisers in foundation subjects were also shown the door and Literacy and Numeracy Consultants targeted schools with low SATs results for “intensive support” – blanket surveillance of teachers, centralised planning of lessons imposed.

In 1999 only 23% of Knowsley students gained five GCSE passes at A-C level, one of the lowest in the country. By 2005 the pass rate had shot up to 43%. Steve Munby was fond of saying that, ‘Knowsley is the future’, starry-eyed academics like Michael Fullan lauded him for creating ‘positive power bases’ and he was getting rave reviews in ‘The Guardian’.

How did he do it? Ruthless pressure on primary head teachers and intensive coaching saw Year 6 SATs results rise. In secondary schools with an eye on the main chance Munby was an early convert to vocational GNVQs, which counted as 4 GCSE passes. The cost? Subjects like history, geography and foreign languages were sidelined. Teachers became fixated with exam results and students were ‘assisted’ with course work. Interestingly, Knowsley still has one of the lowest rates for pupils staying in higher education after 16.

With results increasing exponentially Munby left in 2005 to become the chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). A few months after he left the government reconfigured the GCSE tables to include passes at English and Maths, Knowsley plummeted to the bottom, behind the DfES’s favourite whipping-boy Kingston upon Hull.

At ‘consultation’ meetings on BSF the line from the council is, “it’s either us or a private contractor”. A bit like suffering 100 lashes as opposed to 110 lashes. The rumour is that Lord Adonis felt Knowsley was a small enough morsel to offer to a private company as an “experiment”. Either that or the component parts of Knowsley would be farmed out to other authorities – Prescot to St Helens; Cronton to Halton; Kirkby to West Lancs and Halewood and Huyton to Liverpool.

After wasting thousands of pounds on consultants who drew up unpopular re-organisation plans for schools (they were swiftly amended by the council - loss of seats concentrates the mind) they employed more consultants to produce their BSF plans.

Recently secondary school teachers were treated to a slick presentation about the new ‘Learning Centres’. With soft focus camera shots and soothing music in the background they watched as a child awoke, opened her lap top and began to communicate with e-pals from around the world, she tripped merrily into her bright new shiny school and went to lessons in the computer pod. The Knowsley model is based on one in Kent where over 100 pupils are given a lecture and then work with teaching assistants.

Questioned about absenteeism or discipline trouble the consultants (none of whom are thought to have ever taught in Knowsley) reassured them that with bright new shiny schools this would no longer be a problem… cue laughter.

The preferred supplier for ICT is RM, not exactly a by-word for reliability. This dream of an ICT-enabled future? Some consultants have even enthused about bookless schools. However, the Knowsley Internet system crashes with alarming regularity. Thousands was spent on a one-stop-shop ‘Content Stream’ for education web sites, depending on teachers level of ICT use, the reaction to the words ‘Content Stream’ will range from a cynical smile to hysterical laughter.

All secondary schools will close either in 2008 or 2009, with six schools merging into three, two relocating and one closing outright. Despite pressure for one common date, Knowsley are ploughing ahead with two dates a year apart. For teachers, who all have to re-apply for jobs in the new ‘Learning Centres’ there’s the question do I jump now or wait?

Already there is an exodus of experienced staff and there is a fear that in the run up to 2009 schools will be left with temporary supply teachers. Knowsley’s unspoken logic is that poor results = poor teachers. In many schools moral is low, if you tell people they are rubbish eventually they will believe it. However, will teachers be flocking to Knowsley schools? “Welcome! We got rid of the last lot!”

Knowsley’s BSF not only hands council services over to private contractors it is a ‘Fresh Start’ scheme writ large, close the school, sack the teachers and re-open it under a new name. Watch Channel 4’s documentary about Firfield School in the northeast for details on how it doesn’t work. School mergers? Research shows that this can be highly problematical (The Ridings one example).

The constant mantra from Knowsley Council’s officials is that, “no change is not an option.” No one could disagree with that on the other hand “chaos” is not a good option either. In the name of “change” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution all the schools and universities were closed down and the teachers and professors were sent to work in the fields, it took years for the education system to recover.

So what’s the alternative? Spending money through targeted programmes like ‘Excellence in Cities’ has raised achievement, alongside behavioural support and mentoring schemes. Excellent nursery provision and early intervention at Key Stage 1 with Reading Recovery has a proven effect. Lastly, investing money to train and motivate a confident, innovative group of teachers can be a real ‘agent for change’, not top-down bureaucratic centralised programmes driven by consultants and ambitious here-today-gone-tomorrow council officials.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sell ‘em cheap

‘The Guardian’ carried an extract from Francis Beckett’s new book ‘The Great City Academy Fraud’. Labour’s city academies are basically a warmed up version of the Tories failed City Technology Colleges. What do they have in common? Both schemes failed to attract ‘blue-chip’ companies so they were forced to rely on second-hand car dealers, evangelical Christians and egotistical millionaires.

However, their interests are reflected in the fact that of the first 46 academies seven had business as a specialism and another nineteen included it as one of their second or third specialisms. Three secondary schools in Barrow (one deemed by Ofsted to be ‘outstanding’) are being replaced by an academy sponsored by the armaments firm BAE – notorious for bribing the Saudi royal family in order to win fighter plane contracts. Prosecuting BAE was deemed to be ‘not in the national interest’ so the Crown Prosecution Service was ordered to desist from any legal action. Wonder how the new ‘BAE Academy’ will teach ethics?

Labour have used every ruse to try and attract business, the initial investment of £2 million was changed to “up to £2 million”, then to “in cash or in kind”, even with tax relief taking the bill down to £1.2 million there wasn’t a queue knocking on Tony Blair’s door. In desperation in April 2005 they made the notorious “buy two get one free” offer.

In May 2006 ‘The Guardian’ revealed that four academies had not received a single penny from their sponsors and of the 27 up and running only £26 million had been paid. The latest government advice is that “endowments” will be offered over the years.

Academies are just another example of how New Labour are totally in thrall to big business, asked to justify the programme Ruth Kelly said, “business doesn’t tolerate failure”.

The murky side to it all is the connections between Lord Levy as Labour Party fundraiser, his position as president of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (handily housed together in Millbank Tower) and the cash for honours scandal. There’s also the “grubby circle” where former Labour ministers like Lord Filkin and Charles Clarke find work with firms involved in privatising education – Serco and LJ Group.

The academies really are fraud on a grand scale.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What they haven’t said…

Millionaire second-hand car dealer turned preacher, Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich have been defending their plans for an academy to replace Heartsease School. They have reassured the public that it will be open to all faiths and would not be a faith school.

Graham Dacre said,

“We regard it as a privilege to invest time and energy, extending the best possible start to each and every young person - of all faiths and none - raised or living in Heartsease. The potential academy will not be a faith school. Religious education would be taught from the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education, which was adopted for use in all Norfolk schools in September 2005. Our goal is to provide a wide learning platform on which young people are able to make choices. My experience is that, provided with facts, young people are not hesitant in making up their own minds and that includes decisions in respect of religion and faith.”

What he didn’t say…

· Graham Dacre’s Lind Trust will have a majority on the governors of the new school

· Graham Dacre is investing £1.95m and the Diocese of Norwich just £50,000

· The government will give them £20 million to build the new school

· The new academy will have 1,400 pupils against the 400 who currently attend Heartsease School, this will lead to the closure of other schools in the vicinity

Interesting that he wants young people to be “provided with facts” but there is still no word on Graham Dacre’s beliefs on creationism, homosexuality and abortion. As you can see I’ve posted on the Network Norwich web site, still no reply, I wonder why?

Anti Academies Alliance


Monday, April 02, 2007

Child Cruelty?

There’s an interesting debate in the TES Primary Staffroom about SATs revision at Easter. “Pilko” has posted to say that her daughter was given a three-inch high pile of worksheets. The letter from the school explained that this was “voluntary”, should “allay anxiety about SATs” and would only take 60 minutes a day. To compound it all they asked for a £2 “donation”. Our intrepid correspondent fired off a letter of complaint, much to their annoyance. I think I might have been tempted to suggest which orifice they could place their three inches of worksheets – rolled up of course.

Other contributors reported that sad, no-life-outside-of-teaching, automatons were volunteering to take Saturday morning or Easter holiday revision classes.

My immediate reaction is, “what the hell are we doing to our children?” Or see the Unicef report for more details – the unhappiest children in the western world.

‘The Independent’ quoted Mary Bousted the leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (normally the most somnambulant of unions) on SATs,

“The consequences are catastrophic. They lead to a period of exhaustion, not only for the teacher, but also for the pupils who are route-marched through to level 4. We know that real learning does not take place in boot camp year six classes.”

Dr Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has also argued that the national end-of-year tests should be replaced by testing of a sample of pupils. Professor David Hargreaves, a member of a Government appointed inquiry team, has criticised ministers for neglecting one of its recommendations - that there should be a top-level investigation reporting by September into what forms of assessment and testing are needed. He accused them of “wilful blindness” in desperately supporting “a discredited system”.

Some of the posts in the TES Staffroom were more concerned about children having fun and learning outside the classroom. They also felt that grinding their children down with test papers was not the way to forge a lasting relationship i.e., “do you remember when you slaved over those test papers?” versus “remember the fun we had on holiday?”

Why should teachers oppose SATs testing?

· High stakes testing are stressful for children and adults
· Constant testing can reinforce failure
· The curriculum becomes narrowed down to English, Maths and Science
· Children don’t actually learn anything new
· Only a narrow range of abilities are tested
· Teachers teach to test
· Teacher assessment is more accurate, tests lead to grade inflation

For children with special education needs the testing week is horrendous and for more able children they are usually bored out of their skulls. Is it any wonder we have one of the worst rates in Europe for children staying in education after 16?

How do you “raise standards”? Even a brain-dead chimp could do it. All you do is focus on the borderline group. In the average class of 30 children you might have – five SEN, five borderline Level 3 to 4, fifteen Level 4 and five at Level 5. If your borderline group don’t perform your pass rate is 66% - result P45 and misery, if they all do well your pass rate goes up to 83% - result the LEA, Ofsted and the DfES are happy, your career path is intact. No prizes for guessing which group get all the attention in Year 6.

I’m sorry but three-inch thick “voluntary” SATs revision worksheets belong in the lower echelons of child cruelty. Oh ye latter-day Gradgrinds hang your heads in shame. Year 6 teachers should print out this quote and display it in a prominent position, “The only way for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent.”

Here’s my alternative Easter holiday plan for Year 6 – with curriculum links

1) Switch off the television and read them a good story – English
2) Visit a museum – Geography/ History/ Science
3) Go for a walk in the countryside and look at the birds, trees and plants. Paint a picture afterwards – Geography/ Science/ Art
4) Visit relatives, talk about times gone by – History
5) Play board games – Maths
6) Cook something with them – Technology
7) Sing some songs – Music
8) Talk with them – Speaking and Listening
9) Invite their friends round – PSHE
10) Help them to dream dreams

Naturally you will be required to fill in assessment forms on all of these activities, provide a Level Descriptor and set clear targets for improvement which must be displayed in their bedroom. Ofsted may also arrive to undertake a ‘light touch’ inspection. Gotcha! Just a belated April Fool… on the other hand.

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