Thursday, May 31, 2007

Heartsease 'Consultation'

The proposal by Graham Dacre (millionaire former second hand car dealer turned evangelical Pentecostalist preacher) to turn Heartsease High School in Norwich into an academy is going out for public consultation. Norwich council are sending out a questionnaire to the 30,000 people who live in the Heartsease area. Three public meetings will also be held to gauge opinion.

Of course much will depend how the council explain the issue in their leaflet. Up to now they have played the role of ‘dishonest broker’ almost inviting Graham Dacre to take the school off their hands.

On the face it the academy proposal might seem a no-brainer. Here’s this lovely Christian guy, supported by the Bishop of Norwich who wants to donate £2 million for a new school. Not only that the government will bung in an extra £20 million to build a brand new state-of-the-art facility. The proposed academy will specialise in engineering and environmental issues. Everyone has been reassured that ‘all faiths will be welcome’ and the RE syllabus be the Church of England’s own. Even the local M.P. and former Education Secretary Charles Clarke is backing the academy.

With apologies to Graham Dacre it’s a bit like buying a second hand car. There it is gleaming on the forecourt, the bodywork immaculate, you open the door and the interior is spotless. The salesman has the patter ready, ‘one careful owner and a year’s MoT’. However, you lift the bonnet and start to worry. Once you take it for a drive round the block there’s oil leaking everywhere, the engine backfires and the clutch is on its last legs.

Pardon me for asking but what knowledge, experience or understanding does Graham Dacre have about education? His Lind Trust will have a majority on the governing body of the new school and will control its ethos, curriculum and staffing. Just who is in control of the bid? Is it Graham Dacre with his £1.95 million or the Church of England with £50,000?

Could anyone answer the simple question, as Heartsease High School is officially ‘improving’ and isn’t ‘failing’, why not just it the money?

The record of the existing academies is patchy, true some have had ‘outstanding’ reports from Ofsted, but then others haven’t. In December 2006 former transport minister Karen Buck took her son out of Paddington Academy because the teaching facilities and accommodation were ‘appalling’. Then there are those wacky people in Peterborough who have designed an academy school – without a playground.

Lastly, there is the elephant in the cupboard. For some years Graham Dacre was a prominent member of Proclaimers International, a group linked to the American based Assemblies of God. They view abortion and homosexuality as ‘a sin’ and that, “The Bible record of creation rules out the evolutionary philosophy.”

In 2004 he left Proclaimers International and founded Drayton Hall Church, subsequently in 2006 he merged with Mount Zion Family Life Church to form Norwich Family Life Church. Mount Zion acknowledge on their web site that, ‘Over the years we have had the privilege of hosting a range of world-class speakers who have spoken into the life of our church. They have included Rick Godwin, Ed Cole, Henry Hinn, John Bevere and Phil Dooley.’ All of these gentlemen are Pentecostalists with particular ‘views’ on ‘modern lifestyles’.

Could Graham Dacre enlighten us all? What are his views on abortion and homosexuality? Also does he believe that the world was created 6,000 or even 10,000 years ago?

There are some interesting parallels between the great academy sell-off and the attempt to off-load council housing to ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. You live in a damp ridden house where the windows are ready to fall out and the rent is astronomical, a glossy leaflet falls through your door offering a bright future with no rent increases and the promise of a speedy repair service, not only that they will totally refurbish and modernise your house. The early ballots on council house transfers showed whopping majorities to leave council control.

Then the reality check set in, rents began to increase exponentially, there was no security of tenure and the ‘refurbishment’ turned out to be, literally, a glossy coat of paint. In most of the recent ballots there have been large majorities to stay with the council – better the devil you know… The excellent ‘Defend Council Housing’ organisation is asking for rents to be ring fenced for repairs. The government are now preparing to scrap ballots and transfer housing stock anyway, so much for democracy.

I hope people in Heartsease make it loud and clear they don’t want an academy. As for ‘consultations’, the government don’t have a great track record, even where the overwhelming majority of opinion is opposed they’ll just carry on regardless.

I’m not certain whether I would have bought a second hand car from Graham Dacre but I certainly wouldn't want him running any schools.

Anti-Academies Alliance


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hunter’s Hill Parbold

Yesterday a large yellow object appeared in the sky, yeah, it was the Sun. What a washout of a Bank Holiday, camping trip cancelled. You always spend a fortune when it’s wet.

With a break in the clouds I ventured out. Sometimes you discover places closer to home. I drove out to Parbold just off the M6. It hovers indeterminably between large village and small town, there are shops, pubs, a village hall and a library to break the rural isolation. You also see plenty of families, it isn’t just a retirement home for the well-to-do.

Parbold’s livelihood was based on mining, milling and quarrying. When the Leeds Liverpool Canal opened at the end of the eighteenth century these industries were given a temporary boost. With the coming of the railways it became a commuter stop for Liverpool and Manchester. The local landowners clung on to the Catholic faith and this has left its mark with the church and school.

I walked down Stony Lane towards Hunter’s Hill Quarry. Looking at a 2D map you don’t really appreciate the topography. From the quarry there’s a panoramic view of the plain and you can see across to the Wirral’s sandstone ridge, on a clear day you can see the Lake District.

I skirted round the quarry and came back down another narrow lane and into Hill Dale, then Parbold, just in time for the rain…

Other walks in the area


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tesco vouchers

It’s that time of year, that activity which has almost become a fixture in the school calendar – counting the Tesco ‘Vouchers for Schools’ (if you spend £310,500 you’ll earn enough vouchers to buy a £720 RM computer, so for every £100 spent you get 24p in vouchers). It’s known in the trade as ‘cause-related marketing’. Seemingly a win-win situation for both the company and the recipients of their largesse. In fact for only a small donation (Tesco donate less than 0.5% of profits) firms are able to advertise their products in schools and convince parents of their ‘social responsibility’. It’s estimated that £300 million is spent every year on advertising directly aimed at schools.

Why do companies want to advertise in schools? Catching them young is the best way to build brand-awareness and loyalty. Companies also count on pester-power when children pressure parents to buy particular brands. Of course if it’s ‘for school’ it makes even greater sense.

One of the most successful cause-related marketing scams was Walker’s Crisps ‘Free Books for Schools’, which ended after five years in 2003. Vouchers were printed on those healthy snacks – Quavers, Monster Munch, French Fries, Squares, Footballs, 3Ds and Wotsits. I fondly remember the hours that children and staff spent cutting out those vouchers from the greasy packets and the laborious counting. Some schools were almost evangelical in promoting this scheme sending out letters, with the Walker’s logo prominently displayed, extolling its virtues. It was also heavily promoted in the ‘Sun’ and ‘News of the World’ – naturally this was entirely unconnected with the fact that all books had to be ordered from Harper Collins (proprietor R Murdoch). As the head of Walker’s advertising agency admitted at the time, “The goal is to drive sales, but there is a degree of altruism involved.”

Fifty packets of Walkers crisps were required to obtain the cheapest seven books on the list – an outlay of £15 for a £4 book. But half of the 157 books required 200-250 purchases - a spend of over £60. A child would need to eat a packet of crisps every day for six months to obtain a book worth just over £5. After five years 6.6 million books had been given away - worth £35.4 million.

With more companies attempting to jump on the bandwagon a serious blow to cause related marketing came with Cadbury’s ‘Free Sports Equipment’ campaign. It was scrapped after it was revealed that pupils would have to eat 5,440 chocolate bars, containing 33kg of fat and nearly 1.25 million calories, to qualify for a set of volleyball posts.

It’s not just schools, in other parts of the public sector companies are queuing up to sponsor organisations. In the NHS Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital has been the recipient of considerable corporate donations. However, would this be the same for the local mental hospital or geriatric ward? Our local children’s hospital allowed one of its facilities to be named ‘Ronald McDonald House’ with a large picture of this gentleman on the front of it.

Advertising in American schools can be found on book covers, half of their students received free exercise books with covers advertising Frosted Flakes and Lays Potato Chips. There are also branded menus in school canteens; coupons from fast food companies as rewards for reading; sponsor’s logos on schools buses, websites, sports fields, gyms, libraries and playgrounds, also school events can be paid for by corporations. There was one infamous case where a school signed a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola where the donation depended on the amount consumed from the school’s vending machines. As the deadline arrived the principal was reduced to writing letters to parents encouraging their children to drink more Coca-Cola. To celebrate the sponsorship a ‘Coca-Cola’ day was held, when a boy was discovered with a ‘Pepsi’ T-shirt he was suspended for the day.

Where will this sponsorship end? Probably with the same situation that cash-strapped public services face in America, they depend on donations for basic funding. Bill Clinton’s former legal adviser Joel Klein is currently running New York’s schools and he managed to secure a $52 million donation from the world’s richest man Bill Gates. Klein boasts about his connections and ability to tap into ‘Big Philanthropy’ or as he put it, “the swells I hang out with”. Of course there is another way to fund schools it’s called taxation. The elected government decides how to allocate resources.

I’m not arguing against wealthy philanthropists donating money, before he died in 1919 Andrew Carnegie funded the building of 3,000 public libraries (380 in Britain) and donated $350 million to his charitable foundation. The problem is that Carnegie was and is the exception.

Some schools have asked parents to go into Tesco stores to collect ‘Vouchers for Schools’ - they’d be better employed sitting at home with their children reading to them. Cause-related marketing really is the thin end of the wedge parents and teachers have to think, ‘where will it end?’ Like America?


Monday, May 28, 2007


I’m all for experimenting and trying out new ideas, the problem is when you get a ‘magic bullet initiative’, that everyone is expected to implement. In many cases they haven’t been subject to peer review or tested in schools.

Howard Gardner’s theory of ‘Multiple Intelligence’ is based on the idea that everyone has different styles of learning – principally Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic (VAK).

This theory was embraced by the proponents of ‘Accelerated Learning’. All the teachers in our borough went to a lecture by the guru of the movement, Alistair Smith. It was an interesting day, he had a teacher-friendly approach with lots of school-based jokes and digs at Ofsted. Just… at the end of the day apart from knowing that we had to give children lots of water to drink, some teachers went away asking, ‘Where’s the Beef?’ Not that we were allowed to ask any questions during the day of lectures and films.

Some schools adopted ‘Accelerated Learning’ whole-heartedly, children had labels on their desks with ‘Visual’, ‘Auditory’ or ‘Kinaesthetic’, planning had to include provision for the different learning styles and posters were situated to stimulate a certain side of the brain.

A report this week, ‘Neuroscience and Education’ from the Teaching and Learning Research Programme says that dividing pupils according to learning styles could be detrimental to their education and that scientific evidence for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning is limited.

Andrew Pollard, director of the programme, spoke to an eight-year-old boy who told him, ‘I’m not good at writing. I’m a kinaesthetic learner.’

That’s the danger, take a theory, simplify it, change it into a rigid code or dogma and then enforce it onto other people. As they used to say the problem wasn’t Marx but the Marxists.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Joke of the Week

Why aren't there any aspirins in the jungle?

Because the parrots eat'em all (paracetamol).


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Desiccated Calculating Machines

The DfES have been holding ‘Standards Conferences’ to dole out the targets for SATs tests to stressed out primary head teachers, the message at our one was, ‘we know you’re working hard, but basically you’re crap’.

“Good progress” is now deemed to be two full levels per Key Stage, so one level from Year 2 to Year 4 and another from Year 4 to Year 6. 100% of children at Level 2C or above at Key Stage 1 are expected to reach Level 4 at the end of Key Stage 2 and 45% of those at W or Level 1 will also be expected to reach Level 4.

The latest wheeze is to use ‘tracking’ through regular testing to pressure teachers. That is one reason why there needs to be caution about just scrapping Key Stage 2 tests, the DfES are mooting putting in more tests, not less. Naturally all of these ‘expectations’ will be monitored by Ofsted and will be another stick to beat schools with.

All this just shows what a farce and stunt the ‘Excellence and Enjoyment’ documents were. As long as you have high stakes tests schools will go down the route of basic skills teaching in the core subjects.

We really do have the triumph of the desiccated calculating machines, the robots from the DfES who view children as so many figures on a spreadsheet or co-ordinates on a graph. Where do they find these people?


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Knowsley - The Curate’s Egg

When you read the material supporting the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ it really is the proverbial Curate’s Egg. There’s some progressive educational theories, spin, Blairite ‘newspeak’, consultants’ verbal diarrhoea, paying homage to Microsoft and the downright dangerous.

No teacher who has lived through the arid desert of testing could disagree with ideas about independent learning, problem solving, scrapping rigid timetables and changing the school day. However, at the heart of the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is an over-reliance on computers and ICT. There’s a great book by the American academic Larry Cuban – ‘Over Sold and Under Used’. He writes about how ‘Integrated Learning Systems’ were promoted as the solution to educational under achievement, all you needed to do was place a pupil in front of a computer with a diagnostic learning system, teachers would become redundant, all you would require is technicians to keep the machines running.

Cuban outlines the problems with ILS and computers in education-

1) Without excellent technical support computers will not function, he cites a lecturing response system that would ‘revolutionise’ higher education, ten years later it’s in disuse – too costly to maintain.

2) Teachers need to be trained in use of computers and software. After lesson observations and talking with teachers he found a high percentage didn’t use ICT because they weren’t confident and they hadn’t received any training.

3) Built in obsolescence means that Computer systems require expensive upgrades, i.e., your faithful old times table game won’t work on Windows XP.

4) ‘Well done, you have achieved Level 4, I will print a certificate’. Somehow that robotic voice never could replace the human voice. Children need to learn social skills and rather than being isolated in a computer booth they need to learn from and with other children.

5) Computers are very good for using with multiple-choice questions but not for higher learning – discussing opinions and interpretation.

Knowsley have been keen to jump into bed with Microsoft, the organisation that has made a fortune from education. The danger is that schools have become techno-junkies, reliant on the next fix from Microsoft. There are much cheaper alternatives like Open Source.

You also have to consider the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ as part of the national picture, will the government and Ofsted allow a council to conduct a genuine experiment? You certainly have to acknowledge the previous Chief Education Officer’s (Steve Munby) consistent monotheism, because his only God was exam results. Yet Knowsley is participating in a race that it will never win. Despite massive rises in Key Stage 2 SATs results Knowsley still lags behind other councils. At the recent Primary Standards Conference the message from the DfES to Knowsley Heads was, ‘we know you’re working hard, but basically you’re crap’. Will the new ‘Learning Centres’ be models of progressive learning or test based exam factories? No prizes for guessing the answer to that.

‘Poverty is not an excuse for failure’. Like all trite sayings or slogans it does contain a kernel of truth, teachers should have high expectations for all children regardless of background. The other side of the equation, that New Labour has always been in denial of, is that results follow the map of poverty. Some children have complex educational and social needs. You can’t always replicate a school with well-motivated children and supportive parents in another setting.

The best ideas from progressive education were child-centred learning, a broad curriculum, topic based learning, problem solving, higher order learning and autonomy for teachers over the curriculum. A tiny minority of educators took this to extremes, we had “open learning” where the idea was that children would learn through osmosis or “organic spontaneity”, teachers were “facilitators” and that correct spellings or punctuation was an imposition of “bourgeois orthodoxy” on working-class children. In the 1970s the press managed to seize on the problems in one London primary school, William Tyndale Junior School, to pillory progressive teaching methods. In a similar fashion the murder of Sharon Tate was used to attack the ‘counter culture’, just that 99.9% of hippies were peace loving vegetarians and not psychotic killers.

Of course teachers can become conservative, relying on ‘tried and tested methods’ and fearful of experimentation. So how exactly do you bring teachers on board? Once again the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is an example of how not to do it. First of all you start with the blame game. There’s that marvellous sentence, “Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed.” Great you dedicate your life to teaching, struggling away with difficult classes, but you are the problem. Secondly, you give all the teachers P45s and make them re-apply for their own jobs. One of the council officials actually said that ‘insecurity and risk’ was an essential part of change. Lastly, when you do try to sell your programme to teachers organise ‘lectures’ where time for questions is limited and any dissenters are belittled as a Luddites or heretics.

OK, so what’s the alternative?

· Work with teachers and the community instead of imposing change by outside consultants with minimal knowledge of the local context
· Integrate social services in schools, so nurses, youth workers and social services can work with children
· Improve children’s basic skills through early intervention programmes like Reading Recovery
· Invest in well-funded nursery education with qualified staff
· Train teachers with professional development courses that treat them as pedagogues rather than ignorant technicians
· Put in more funding streams like Excellence in Cities

Maybe we should be asking why Knowsley is involving an American company like Microsoft in its ‘experiment’? What can the American education system teach us? ‘White flight’ to the suburbs and to private schools has undermined the inner city schools and the public education system, there is a high drop out rate, there is inequality in funding between different areas based on wealth and social mobility is the worst of any advanced country, the child of a lawyer with similar intelligence scores to the child of a janitor is 27 times more likely to end up in the top 10% of American incomes.

Compare that with Scandinavian countries – high social mobility, almost equal educational achievement between social classes, excellent nursery education, teaching a high status job with the equivalent of an MA needed, teacher autonomy over the curriculum and high spending on public services.

Over the last thirty years which country do we now resemble?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Come, friendly bombs

It was our wedding anniversary (OK, I forgot) so we went to the Ironbridge Gorge for the weekend. The area has been lovingly restored by the heritage industry. We bought a £14 ticket that gave entrance to ten museums.

The Museum of the Gorge explains why as a World Heritage site it ranks alongside the Pyramids and Taj Mahal – just a touch of hyperbole?

In 1709 Abraham Darby perfected a way to use coke to smelt iron – stocks of charcoal were running out. Darby was a Quaker and as they were excluded from the universities, the professions and parliament, they devoted their talents to industry. Like other wealthy non-conformists, by the mid-nineteenth century the Darby’s had converted to the Church of England.

At Coalbrookdale you can visit their houses, the furnace and factory that churned out iron castings and later the Aga cooking stoves. Retired volunteers are only too happy to give you chapter and verse about the history of the area. Enginuity is a fabulous hands-on museum for children.

The Tar Tunnel began as a project to link the coal workings to the River Severn, but they hit a seam of bitumen and another Quaker Joseph Reynolds spotted an opportunity.

The Tile Museum features exhibits from the Maws collection and is in real life settings like bars, a tube station, butchers and a church. The China museum shows the history of industry with its artists in residence and strict gender hierarchies – gilders were male, burnishers female.

The Ironbridge Gorge was the crucible of the Industrial Revolution but on a very small scale and was swiftly superseded by larger and better-connected cities. The bridge itself is tiny compared to the Firth of Forth Railway Bridge, production techniques were continually revolutionised.

Lastly, Blists Hill is a mock Victorian town with school, bank, butchers, shops, tollhouse and original blast furnaces. The volunteers bring the town to life. We finished by watching an excellent mime performance by the Kaleidoscope Theatre Company, some of whose actors have Down’s Syndrome.

We stayed the night in Telford, it’s composed of roundabouts, shopping malls, roundabouts, hotels, roundabouts, gigantic car parks, roundabouts, retail sheds, more roundabouts… We kept looking for the town centre, but the shopping centre is the town centre, obviously the architects worked on the philosophy of, ‘I shop, therefore I am’.

Telford was part of the second wave of 1960s New Towns along with Runcorn and Skelmersdale. It was due to have 250,000 inhabitants but at a certain stage they realised people didn’t want to live there and scaled back. Tribes of bored teenagers populate the underpasses, they really do have an excuse, there genuinely is ‘nothing to do’. Some of the peripheral estates are stuck in a spiral of decline with high crime rates, stagnant property prices, lack of public transport and amenities.

When it came to their cities the Victorians built imposing town halls, art galleries, museums, swimming baths, libraries, gothic railway stations and parks and squares for people to congregate. Telford is joyless and utilitarian, a failed experiment in social engineering, a town built to venerate and worship the car.

John Betjeman wrote his famous poem that began,

‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now’

I wouldn’t want to impose that fate on Telford, but it does need razing to the ground. At night there is an endless vista of empty car parks, a truly dispiriting place. It put me on edge, I couldn’t wait to leave.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Clarke backs Norwich Academy

I really believe that you should try to keep to the high ground and not use personal abuse as a substitute for reasoned argument, but I’m really struggling…

Norwich MP Ian Gibson has been leading the fight against the Academy proposals for Heartsease High School. Former Education Secretary and Norwich MP Charles Clarke has backed the Academy plans.

“The school will not in fact be a faith school, where faith is an aspect of selection for admission. But all the evidence shows that where a school has a strong ethos, for example relating to faith, educational motivation can be dramatically raised.”

Clarke claims to be a scientist and mathematician, does he have any views on creationism, teaching children abortion is a ‘sin’ and homosexuality? Maybe he should ask Graham Dacre for his views?


Knowsley - Building Schools for Finance

There's a series of posts on the TES Staffroom about Knowsley. There's a particularly interesting piece by 'astaire' which gives some background to the Knowsley "Experiment".

Actually I've known about this "experiment" in Knowsley for some time.

And whilst I don't like to boast (well only a little) the design looks remarkably similar to what I predicted would come to pass, when I started a debate around four or five years ago, on this forum.

It is a bold experiment, but falls in line with the thoughts of one Chris Yapp (ICL education and all that) as revealed by Sir Cyril Taylor (of CTC fame) in a seminar given to members of the ATL Executive around 1996.

I understand these ideas had the support of the then Tory government, in fact I know they did!

And they have been mooted by Estelle Morris, several years ago.

I believe the eventual aim should the whole country go down this route, is for there to be no more than 80,000 (highly paid) "Master" teachers (eg, the fast track/AST whizz kids) operating within all of these centres, each supported by around six "assistant teachers" (that's the rest of us plebs), on the equivelent of teachers pay. Or not as the case may be. A total of around 300,000 Assistant teachers in all.

Drop in centres, holograms of teachers teaching "virtually" from a studio many miles away, and each and every pupil plugged in to a "teaching machine" (now known as a computer) with ATs running around, answering queries, whilst the REAL teacher, is examining the results of the latest group of diagnostic tests, for each pupil, in order to make the decisions which program they will access next!

This was proposed 10 years ago, by Yapp. It was also mooted as the "future" by the Principal of Beauchamp College (East Midlands I think), in the TES, around 5 years ago. Classes of 100, in new style classrooms open 24 hours a day. Are we there yet?

Looks like it in Knowsley, does it not?

And before anybody says, "What are the unions doing about it"? The answer is that many of them, especially the NUT, simply did not believe that it would come to pass, so ignored it, or were "against it", and believe it or not the word "strike" was uttered! But I was pretty convinced then, and looks like I was a little bit right to be so convinced?

The trouble with teachers, all teachers is that they think everything is going to carry on the same way it always has, and that social unrest, disruption of classes, a longer tail of underachievment, and a growing underclass, with no academic values whatsoever, can be ignored.

On these forums too many teachers think the answer is to "Chuck out the malcontents. Chuck out OfStEd. Chuck out the national curriculum. Pay teachers more (because you're worth it), and get rid of all the paperwork". And it's not the way government is thinking. Not the way the Tories are thinking either.

I have always thought that sooner of later somebody would find a socially deprived area, with very very low achievement and high social deprivation factors, and actually experiment. I think this is it!

For the government of the day and in fact the government of the future know quite well, from think tanks and sociological prediction and studies, that the society is in a parlous state. Another Toxteth or Brixton could be just around the corner.

T Blair has always stated that Education was the answer. And he was damned right!

As Charles Dickens said (about the two children under the cloak of the Ghost of Chrismas present). "This boy is Ignorance. this girl is Want. Beware them both....but most of all beware this boy".

If you could only see the presentation I saw last year from the National remodelling team (on the community school of the future) with 24 hour drop in education, health/social/medical services on the same site. Upwards of 2000 students catered for in a 24 hour day, and staffed 7 days per week, 24 hours per day.

You gotta think big nowadays. And the trouble with teachers is...well they don' they?It would appear that many are more interested in squabbling with each other on here, or exploring the amazing phenomena of so called "entertainment" like "big brother" etc.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Cult of the Amateur

Parents, pupils, staff and teachers turned out in force at a public meeting to oppose plans to turn Heartsease High School in Norwich into an Academy. In exchange for a donation of £2 million the Bishop of Norwich and second hand car dealer turned evangelical preacher Graham Dacre would gain control of staffing, curriculum and ‘ethos’ at the new school.

Graham Dacre is a former member of Proclaimers International who have links with the American Pentecostalist group Assemblies of God (AOG). Their belief system?

Homosexuality – “Christians should do all they can to assist the person who has struggled with homosexual behaviors to find deliverance. Change is not always easy but it is possible. It may require the help of others in the body of Christ, such as counselors and pastors, as well as a supportive church fellowship. Christian organizations are also available to help those who seek to change their lifestyles.”

Abortion – “The Assemblies of God views the practice of abortion as an evil that has been inflicted upon millions of innocent babies and that will threaten millions more in the years to come.”

Evolution – “[The] Bible record of creation rules out the evolutionary philosophy which states that all forms of life have come into being by gradual, progressive evolution carried on by resident forces. It also rules out any evolutionary origin for the human race, since no theory of evolution, including theistic evolution, can explain the origin of the male before the female, nor can it explain how a man could evolve into a woman.”

Of course it is possible that Dacre left the group because he found these views repugnant. Since then he’s set up his own Pentecostalist group the Norwich Family Life Church. Does he still think abortion is a ‘sin’, what are his views on homosexuality and did dinosaurs and humans co-exist 6,000 years ago? These and other questions need to be answered.

A dodgy Christian evangelist running a school might have attracted unwelcome media attention, how to solve the problem? Bring on board the Church of England Diocese of Norwich. But just who is leading the bid to turn Heartsease into an Academy? When you examine the breakdown of the £2 million donation it becomes clearer, Graham Dacre will donate £1.95 million and the Diocese of Norwich £50,000.

Dacre claims that the new Academy will be ‘inclusive’ and won’t discriminate against any faith and children will be able to make up their own minds about religion. Somehow I don’t think so. If you invite a double glazing salesman into your house he’s not coming round for a cosy chat, expect a high pressure sales talk, constant calls to his boss to get you a better deal and you’ll never be able to get rid of him. Christian evangelist = proselytising, conversion and moralistic preaching.

The other issue that amazes me is how in education we have the ‘cult of the amateur’. I don’t believe that ‘experts’ have a monopoly on wisdom. Every profession should be open to the widest possible public scrutiny. It’s just I wouldn’t want to see a faith healer running an A&E department, plane spotters in charge of air traffic control or Russell Grant having responsibility for the Hubble telescope. When it comes to education it seems that any old evangelical millionaire ex-second hand car dealer will do. Just what experience, knowledge or understanding of education does Graham Dacre have?

Anti-Academies Alliance


Friday, May 18, 2007

The Knowsley ‘Experiment’ – Bluffers Guide

Knowsley Council have become increasingly concerned that certain technophobes (a.k.a. ‘teachers’) may not be able to grasp the new terminology, so just to assist them here’s an essential guide…

Old - New

School - Learning Centre
Teachers - Facilitators
Support Staff - Networkers
Headteachers - Webmasters
Classrooms - Gamezones
Writing - MSN time
Lessons - Podcasts
PE - PS3
Music - iPod
Geography - Google Earth
Timetable - Computer slot
Books - You must be joking!
Local Education Authority - Microsoft
Chief Education Officer - Bill Gates

Blog up date – Joke of the Week has been suspended

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Knowsley "Experiment"

This article from 'The Independent' has lead to an outbreak of mirth amongst Knowsley teachers, either that or the resignation letter is in the post.

No more School as council opens 'Learning Centres'

By Richard Garner, Education Editor Published: 14 May 2007

In the words of rock legend Alice Cooper's most famous song, "school's out forever".

Knowsley Council in Merseyside, which - for years - has languished near or at the bottom of exam league tables, has abolished the use of the word to describe secondary education in the borough.

It is taking the dramatic step of closing all of its eleven existing secondary schools by 2009. As part of a £150m government-backed rebuilding programme, they will reopen as seven state-of-the-art, round-the-clock, learning centres with the aid of Microsoft - which has already developed links with one school in the borough, Bowring.

The style of learning will be completely different. The new centres will open from 7am until 10pm in both term-time and what used to be known as the school holidays. At weekends, they will open from 9am to 8pm.

Youngsters will not be taught in formal classes, nor will they stick to a rigid timetable; instead they will work online at their own speeds on programmes that are tailor-made to match their interests.

Children will be able to study haircare, beauty therapy, leisure and tourism, and engineering as well as the more traditional academic subjects.

They will be given their day's assignments in groups of 120 in the morning before dispersing to internet cafe-style zones in the learning centres to carry them out.
The 21,000 youngsters of secondary education age in Knowsley will also be able to access their learning programmes from home.

Madeleine Cotson, the headteacher of Bowring, said: "Provided they can show they have developed their learning, there is no reason why they couldn't do some of their learning from home."

The youngsters may find themselves working beside adults - possibly even their parents - who can enlist for courses to update their skills. That kind of arrangement has already worked well for Bowring, which has been running healthy-eating lessons.

"Let's stop right now building new old schools," said Nick Page, who is in charge of transforming children's services in Knowsley. "We're building for the next 25 to 50 years and 25 years is a hell of a long period if we get it wrong."

Figures show that only 19 per cent of youngsters in Knowsley obtained five A* to C grade passes at GCSE in 1995 compared with 43 per cent in the rest of the country. The figure went up to up to 48 per cent last year but that is still 10 per centage points behind the national average.

"The lack of progress, catastrophically high levels of pupil absenteeism, stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment and the rapidly changing nature of the labour market drew a political response both locally and nationally," says a council document outlining the reasons for the changes.

Ministers say the experiment - which forms part of the first tranche of the Government's ambitious £2.4bn programme to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country by 2020 - is the most radical of all the bids submitted by local authorities.

Although it has not embraced sponsorship, Knowsley has acknowledged the need for private sector involvement in the running of schools - with Microsoft, RM (a supplier of information and communications technology to schools) and Jaguar (the local car plant) all backing the scheme.

The teachers' unions are unlikely to oppose the plan as - unlike the academies programme - the shake-up does not hand control of the institutions to the private sector.

The philosophy behind the shake-up, as spelt out in the council document, is "to establish a culture in which it is understood that 'these children can' instead of 'these children can't'," it says. "Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed."

At Bowring, the "can do" approach is already emphasised through encouraging the teaching of skills - such as problem solving and creative thinking - which will be valued by employer.

After all, Madeleine Cotson argues, an employer might be impressed by the traditional academic qualifications such as GCSE's and A-levels but would need to know whether a potential applicant for a job can get on with people.
"We're looking at ways of measuring these skills and actively finding a way of assessing these qualities," she said. "We believe they're just as important - in fact more important - than the academic skills because we're preparing people for life outside school."

At present, the timetable for 11 and 12-year-olds at the school has been changed to allow youngsters to follow problem-solving projects through. They can spend as much as two hours on a topic - such as how to drop an egg without breaking it - rather than just stick to a rigid timetable of fifty minutes per lesson.

The Knowsley Experiment has attracted interest from other councils in the UK as well as from further afield, including Tasmania and the US.

OK - words fail me, if ever this was an example of 'spin' this is it. For 'rigid timetable' and 'experiment' please read children taught by teaching assistants and scrapping academic subjects for vocational education.

There's also that marvellous quote, "Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children and this had to be addressed." = blame the teachers, they're useless.

The National Union of Teachers is calling for no redundancies and a committment that qualified teachers will be employed in the new 'Learning Centres'.

Posting from the BBC

Previous blog on Knowsley

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

One School, One Head

Faced with an alarming shortage of headteachers the completely predictable has come to pass, the government are calling for ‘federations’ and a ‘chief executive’ to oversee four or five schools. Yes, you can just imagine the scenario, there is a lightning visit from Ofsted, the chief executive is ‘on a course’ and the deputy head has to deal with it. So no prizes for guessing where the next recruitment crisis will manifest itself.

At the National Association of Head Teachers Conference (NAHT) their chosen messenger of the glad tidings was the chief executive of the National College for School Leaders (NCSL), Steve Munby. Regular readers of the blog will know that Steve does have a bit of ‘previous’, despite never being a head he did work for a few years as a teacher – when the government think heads don’t need any teaching experience let’s be grateful for small mercies.

Munby made his name as Chief Education Officer of Knowsley, through judicious use of GNVQs, GCSE results went up from 23% in 1999 to 43% in 2005. A few months after Munby left Knowsley for the NCSL the Government, aware of the GNVQ scam, reconfigured the GCSE league tables to include passes at Maths and English. Knowsley plunged to the bottom of the national league table, below that regular whipping boy Kingston-upon-Hull. Still as Frank Sinatra used to say, ‘timing is everything’.

In his speech to the NAHT Munby blamed heads for ‘trying to do everything themselves’, ‘refusing to admit their weaknesses’ and that the ‘hero head was no longer viable’. This from the people who organise conferences on ‘The Courage of Leadership’ with inspirational speakers who have ‘lead from the front’. This must be the most blatant example of the criminal blaming the victim.

Why don’t teachers want to become heads? You could start with workload, targets, ‘initiatives’, paper work and Ofsted. Rather than deal with those issues the government have come up with the idea of ‘federations’ or secondary schools ‘taking charge’ of primary schools.

Was there ever a golden era? Maybe in the 1970s when the Plowden reforms were working their way through, most LEAs had abolished the 11 plus there weren’t any league tables and LEAs employed former heads as advisors. Becoming a head teacher was viewed as the pinnacle of your career, albeit that in a profession 70% female, 70% of heads were men.

Let’s be honest people don’t exactly shout from the rooftops that they want to be a head teacher, they might mumble or half suggest it, but they know the reaction, the looks of incredulity, does this person harbour a death wish, is this the first sign of impending insanity? Step forward all workaholics, insomniacs, people with personality disorders, Billy No Mates and megalomaniacs. It really shouldn’t be that way…

See also - Why no one wants to be a head teacher


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Power To The People

Losing the shop, pub and school is normally a sentence of death for a village as it spins into inexorable decline. BBC reporter Tim Samuels was embedded in the picture-postcard pretty Cornish village of Lanreath. The twist to the programme was that he was both reporter and agent provocateur, he had a plan…

Samuels had the innocence of an ingénue and the sort of self-deprecating charm that could win over the local Women’s Institute. With them on board anything was possible.

It wasn’t all cream teas and buttered scones, he got up at four in the morning to witness the last milking of the cows at a local farm, the farmer standing disconsolate as they were loaded onto a transporter. He was making a loss of 2p on every litre of milk, prices falling due to relentless pressure from the super markets.

In a nearby sea side village he was introduced to the ‘Revolutionary Action Committee’ who were monitoring the insidious spread of second homes and holiday lets.

There was some inspired door stepping of politicians, Post Office minister Jim Fitzpatrick forced to justify closure of rural post offices, Tory spokesman Alan Duncan, ‘I’ve got a wonderful chap who delivers our mail’, ‘What’s his name?’, ‘Er… postie?’ Then on a reconnaissance mission to Islington he tricks the Mayor into inviting him to bring some sheep onto the green.

Samuels took the whole village – WI, Morris Dancers, school children, sheep and all - to occupy a stretch of Islington. The media coverage does get a bit incestuous as BBC News report on the BBC organising a protest.

The battle to keep the school open is lost, but on his return a few months later the community has rallied, the pub and post office have reopened.

The programme concentrated on one village, as it was the BBC they weren’t going to involve all the other schools faced with closure and it would have been interesting if they’d mentioned which political party voted to close Lanreath School.

Maybe this programme will spark some French style direct action as farmers invade the cities blocking off roads and dumping manure outside the politicians’ offices. Is Tim Samuels the new Jose Bove? Not quite it is the BBC you know.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Heart of Darkness

This week is a journey into the Heart of Darkness. Testing, that rancid, malignant, cancerous tumour that spews forth its toxins into the bloodstream; that evil Tower of Babel that casts its dark shadow over us all; that insidious pollutant that seeps into every pore. Testing, SATs and their evil spawn the league tables have been the enemy of creativity, distorted learning, choked initiative, and drained our energy. We all feel their presence lurking behind us like malevolent phantoms.

Whither Year 6? What used to be the best year in primary schools has become a drudge. Children on the cusp of adolescence just before Kevinitus sets in and they become as communicative as Beagle 2; it used to be a pleasure to teach them. Now Year 6 is the poisoned chalice, all volunteers take a step backwards.

Year 6 is a year of revision, tests, tests and more tests. Children live that year in the shadow of the exams in May. Parents worry about the levels of stress - manifested by their children’s behaviour. For teachers it’s the Labour of Sisyphus, dragging the boulder up to the top of the hill only to watch it slide down the slope when the school year begins again in September. The league tables are a public auto-da-fe as schools are pressured from all quarters. Crude comparisons are made between different schools - like organising a race between a Formula One racing car and a battered Ford Escort, then berating the losing driver for their failure to compete.

In school Year 6 seem to go into some kind of purdah, reduced to invisibility, it’s as though they’ve been stolen by the Gobblers and temporarily inhabit a parallel universe. In many schools extra curricula activities are suspended and a cultural Dark Age descends on pupils. Most pupils hate and detest the exam week, a time of stress, fear and loathing - welcome to the new millennium.

At the end of the tests teachers, ‘hit the wall’. It’s that long haul until July, that feeling of running on empty. And then they say, be creative, innovate – like telling someone to be a celebrity cook in a famine zone.

We really need a renaissance for Year 6. In the true meaning of the Chinese proverb, ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’. I’m not saying it’s going to be a spontaneous uprising like that moment when the pupils tear up the turgid text books in that schmaltzy Robin Williams film ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, but the fact is we need an end to the testing and league tables regime.

We need to give parents an alternative vision of what Year 6 could be like. Children should get the chance to-

· Learn a foreign language
· Improve the link with secondary schools for Year 7
· Write a short story
· Learn to play a musical instrument
· Go on an adventure holiday
· Put on a play
· Undertake a community project

Teachers, heads, advisors and ministerial careers are made or broken by fulfilling the targets. But if ever there was a time to shout, “The Emperor has no clothes,” this is it. In primary schools it is well documented how testing has led to teachers teaching to test; Year 6 becoming an unremitting grind of endless revision; the narrowing of the curriculum and the orchestration and manipulation of exams where every ruse and strategy is used to make the target.

There’s the hierarchy of pressure – bigger fleas on smaller fleas. It starts with Government who put pressure on the LEAs, in turn they squeeze the headteachers, then the thumbscrews come out for the teachers who in turn cajole, chivvy and browbeat the children.

Testing has entered the school’s lexicon, as SATs time approaches children become a secure Level 4, or he’s a borderline 3 / 4, or she’ll only make a 3. Schools place impossible burdens on children as revision begins earlier and earlier, art, music, history is jettisoned and that final misnomer “booster classes” after school and at weekends.

To reach the target you teach to test months before, force-feeding them gruel and more gruel. Remembering that the key group to work on is the borderline group, special needs – forget them they’ll never get there, the brighter ones, they’re already there, let them get on with it. No spend the teaching time coaching that fraction of the class that will be the difference between success and abject failure. If you fall short there’s always that guaranteed sure-fire alternative – CHEATING. A few figures changed, those stray decimal points, that empty answer box. There are many cases where teachers or headteachers have succumbed to the temptation and altered the odd answer or even systematically cheated.

The government constantly claim that standards have improved and quote the “remarkable” rise in the national teat scores for 11-year olds during the late 1990s (between 1995 and 2000 the percentage of pupils awarded Level 4 or above rose from 48% to 75% in English and from 44% to 72% in maths). A study by the independent Statistics Commission cited other factors including the incentive for teachers to “teach to test”, which could be expected to lead to an initial rise in test results “even if it does nothing to raise standards”.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority backed the findings of the largest study into national test standards, carried out by Alf Massey of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations syndicate. It found that the pass mark for English was set five marks too low both in 1999 and 2000 because the standard of the reading test fell. The QCA concluded, “The Massey report confirmed that standards have risen, but not necessarily to the extent suggested by the test scores”.

We’re no longer pedagogues, the curriculum is out of our control, teachers’ autonomy has been destroyed, we’re now mere instructors, slaves to the machine. Worse than that tests, targets and league tables have made us into the equivalent of the cynical doping cheats in sport, our only justification that, “Everyone else does it”. In sport a victory is accompanied by a knowing smile, it’s become the same in education. Cheating is so prevalent that even the honest are tarnished.

We encourage children to be open and honest, not to fear failure, we praise success and where necessary make constructive criticism. Worst of all is false praise. That’s why I can’t celebrate or cheer falsity, results that have no semblance to reality or to children’s real ability. But still, rejoice! Get out the banners, summon the press the target has been achieved! The parents are delighted, the heads relieved and the LEA advisors are ecstatic – their career ladder intact.

Last year one of our teachers attended a training course, during the dinner break the test results were coming out in the schools. Heads furtively reached for mobile phones and then calculators, fevered groups developed working out percentages, and it was a scene resembling Wall Street at its worst. Is this what education has been reduced to?

There is another way… In 2003 the Times Educational Supplement carried a report on Caol Primary in Fort William, it had been the local ‘dump school’ that took the children no one else wanted. How did they turn it round? Did they grind the children down with endless tests in order to boost phoney league table placings? Did they overload teachers with tons of useless planning? No, they used art.

In 1992 Rob Fairley, a local artist started working at the school, he created Room 13. The concept behind Room 13 was to give pupils a level of freedom - artistic, practical and intellectual. Pupils have taken responsibility for their own learning and for the running of their arts studio, to the extent of writing out cheques, making funding applications and attending meetings with potential sponsors.

Older pupils can go at any time during the day to work or to discuss things with Rob Fairley. The only condition is that they are up to date with their classwork. Part of the Room 13 approach is giving pupils the intellectual skills they need to fulfil their potential in years to come. So as well as creating their own artwork, they carry out research projects based on a list of eminent scientists, artists and writers.

The TES report noted, “Discussions on everything from philosophy to share prices take the place of still lifes and life drawing. Within the space of five minutes, conversation might veer from contraception to Renaissance gilding, to the trigonometry of a goal in Rangers' last game.” In Room 13 the ideas come first, the means of expressing them follow. To illustrate a lesson on how our eyes work and the way our brain can sometimes tell lies, Rob Fairley once blacked out the windows, transformed Room 13 into a giant pinhole camera and turned the familiar landscape into a huge inverted image on the wall opposite.

Some teachers have become institutionalised, they can no longer think of schools without testing. They have become the prison warders of the system. How the hell did we get here? Over ten years of SATs testing, the torture of the phoney league tables. After years of inactivity the NUT did conduct a ballot for a SATs boycott but the turnout was only 20%, so under ‘union rules’ action was deemed to be ‘unconstitutional’.

Here’s my idea – the first Monday of SATs primary teachers (everyone not just Year 6 teachers) refuse to come into work. Remember every revolt in history begins with people saying that simple word, ‘No’. Let’s do it for the sake of our children. Any one care to join me?


Cycle of failure

Ofsted have always claimed when a school fails its inspection and is placed in special measures or closed and reopened under ‘Fresh Start’ that this shock is essential to ‘turn it around’. A bit like the argument for corporal punishment or the cat – they’ll never do it again. Then there’s the victims who claim that, ‘it didn’t do me any harm’.

There was an interesting article in the ‘Times Educational Supplement’ about Bradford Academy a school that serves two ‘economically challenged’ council estates. A brief history-

· 1963 opens as Fairfax community school
· 1992 ‘named and shamed’ in the first official league tables
· 1994 places in special measures with the threat of closure
· 1996 re-launched as Bowling community college
· 1997 out of special measures
· 2000 reopened as a Church of England school - Bradford Cathedral community college
· 2002 placed in special measures
· 2004 out of special measures
· 2007 Bradford Academy opens in September

The House of Commons Education Select Committee noted that failure could send schools into a spiral of decline. Some 43 schools judged to be in serious weakness in 2001/2 had declined further and were placed in special measures the following year. They noted that some schools were, “unable to attract high-achieving pupils or well-qualified staff, making improvement more difficult.” Of those schools placed in special measures between 1995 and 1997, 40% subsequently closed. Research undertaken by Ruth Lupton for the London School of Economics showed that 90% of schools that failed inspections were in poor areas.

In Martin Johnson’s book ‘Failing City, Failing School’ (1999) he cites the example of Battersea Technology College which was closed and re-opened twice during the 1990s. In 1999 Hatcham Wood in Lewisham was closed and reopened under Fresh Start as Telegraph Hill, after just three terms it failed an inspection and was closed. In 2000 four ‘super-heads’ at Fresh Start schools resigned in one week. Fresh Start had been based on ‘Reconstitution’ in San Francisco – close the school and reopen with new staff. Same solution, same problems – massive staff turnover, problems in recruiting experienced staff, test scores didn’t improve, there was pupil indiscipline and the consequences of being branded as a ‘failure’ in public.

Secondary schools in many cities are very selective with faith schools winnowing out the most able children, Canon Slade Church of England School in Bolton is the most glaring example. In 2005 it admitted 268 children from 87 different primary schools, the eight primary schools within easy travelling distance sent just 39 children. Canon Slade is almost completely white in an area with a large black and Asian population. Only 6% of its children were SEN against a Bolton average of 27%. Parents at the nearest primary school admitted that they didn’t even bother to apply, “It’s not for the likes of us.”

Those areas that retain grammar schools have seven out of the 10 worst performing schools on a new index - which records GCSE maths and English passes. Less than 10 per cent of their pupils achieved five top-grade A*-C passes including maths and English. The figures are all the more stark when set against the fact that only 15 councils in England still have fully selective education systems. The authorities with the largest number of schools in the bottom 100 in the country are Kent and Lincolnshire - both of which have a fully selective education system. Kent and the Medway Towns - which were part of the Kent authority until the 1990s - have 10 schools in the worst 100.

Of course the argument was always advance that ‘bright working class children’ could make it to grammar schools. 14% of children in secondary schools claim Free School Meals, the percentage in the 160 remaining grammar schools is just 2%.

Was there ever a ‘Golden Age’ where schools in poor areas weren’t beaten around the head? In the 1970s the comprehensive schools didn’t tell children from the age of 11 that they were failures. In some LEAs schools received ongoing and continuous support, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate visited schools regularly and not just for punitive inspection raids.

Ofsted inspections are a blunt club that in many cases don’t assist schools to improve but merely precipitate closure or a cycle of failure. One school was in special measures for ten years. There must be a better way…

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Lives of Others

The film could have been shot in monochrome black and white, so bleak is the portrayal of Stalinist East Germany. It is a gut-wrenching expose of the secret police, the all powerful, all seeing Stasi. Set in 1984 it is pre-Gorbachov and the grip of the regime appears unrelenting.

The Stasi assembled a grisly state within a state – 97,000 employees and 173,000 informers in a country of 17 million. If part time informants are included some estimates make the ratio 1 per 6.5 of the population.

Playwright Georg Dreyman is tolerated and indulged by the Ministry of Culture, actress and girl friend Christa-Maria Sieland is also involved in a self-loathing affair with a powerful party official. To satisfy an internal power struggle they are put under surveillance. Georg’s attitude changes when an old friend, a former theatre director, commits suicide.

Party loyalist Gerd Weisler is chosen to lead the surveillance operation and a team of Stasi bug the flat and install hidden cameras. Weisler and a colleague are ensconced in the attic to monitor everything. Weisler is drawn towards Georg and Christa, contrasting his joyless existence with their rich cultural life and wide network of friends. There’s a poignant moment as a young child gets in the lift with him at his grim tower block, ‘You’re the Stasi, and we hate you because you lock people up.’ It takes an effort of will to suppress the force of habit and acquire the name of the child’s father.

At times the film overplays the harshness of life in East Germany, there is a danger of parody – the Carling lager advert with smoky factories and workers chained to the production line. Nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall there is high unemployment in the eastern states, and young people emigrate in their thousands. The former communist party the PDS attracts about 20% of the vote.

The opposite danger is Ostalgie – nostalgia for the GDR, which was evident in the film ‘Goodbye Lenin!’ The Stasi allowed no dissent the regime was run on the principle of, ‘you’re either with us or against us’. Fax machines, typewriters and duplicators were all licensed and restricted. Reprisals were extended to the children of dissidents who were denied university places and jobs. Many people didn’t want to leave the country but went into ‘internal emigration’, they knew the penalties for resistance but they with held any support for the regime.

During the dramatic fall of the GDR protestors occupied the Stasi offices and the full extent of the surveillance was revealed. People also discovered the painful truth about their betrayers – informants included, husbands, wives, lovers, sisters, brothers and friends.

The regime of surveillance and observation combined with the ridiculous targets inhibited initiative and innovation. It was recipe for stagnation, no one down the command structure wanted to make a decision, they waited for commands from the centre (shades of Ofsted?).

The justification for the Stasi was they were the ‘shield of the party’ in their 1930s mindset they were ‘protecting’ the people from fascism. Part of the propaganda effort was the endless films and documentaries about the Second World War. An excellent book about the period is Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’, it really shows the arbitrary manner in which people were caught in the net of the Stasi and there are some revealing interviews with former agents.

‘The Lives of Others’ is a reminder of what a monstrous police state the GDR was.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Joke of the Week







Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Misery Week

Next week is the most miserable one in the English school calendar. Welcome to SATs week (somehow National Curriculum Tests doesn’t have the same ring to it).

You can tell what’s impending from the taught, nervous faces of the Heads, Year 6 teachers and the SEN children who know they won’t get the magic ‘Level 4’ – ‘I’m thick sir, I’m a Level 3’.

Professor Alan Smithers has spoken out recently and labelled some schools, ‘exam factories’. He also said, “scores are not the product of education in the way that cars, barrels of oil and tins of baked beans are for their industries; schools are there to benefit the children in them. It is an approach that has led the government to value only what can be measured.”

The DfES produced their usual Dalek-like response, “They are a non-negotiable part of school reform. They provide valuable objective evidence in the core subjects, helping inform further improvements to teaching and learning. This is an important part of our drive to raise standards in the basics even further in primary schools.”

Is there any point in voting for a party that consistently tail-ends the Daily Mail on practically every policy?

I’m writing a longer piece on SATs next week. How to stop SATs? I’ve got an idea…


Monday, May 07, 2007

Blockading the Streets

You can detect a certain nervousness in America, there was that long retreat into old moral certainties during the Reagan era, favourite TV program ‘The Waltons’, nostalgia for those old westerns like ‘Bonanza’ where the good guys beat the bad guys, or ‘Happy Days’ where young people didn’t give lip and the most delinquent kid on the block was ‘The Fonz’. In the aftermath of 9/11 Bush was able to wrap himself up in the flag of patriotism and win re-election.

In America there is a mind set about public spending that is fed and manipulated by the media – every dollar spent is a dollar that could be better used by a more efficient private enterprise supplier and people who work in the public sector are feather-bedded and cosseted. Every cent must be ruthlessly accounted for, yet this doesn’t seem to apply in business, witness Enron and when Bob Nardelli left Home Depot after five lacklustre years this was helped by a payoff of $210 million.

Whilst public services have felt the chill wind of recession this hasn’t been the case for the super-rich, although incomes rose gradually between 1979 and 1998 the top 5% experienced a 64% increase. In 1980 a company Chief Executive earned 42 times more than the average worker, by 2004 it was 431 times more.

As federal government cut back on funding to the states during the 1970s a greater burden was placed on taxpayers to fund local services. In 1978 California passed ‘Proposition 13’ which limited rises in property taxes, from being the best-funded state for education by the 1990s it was one of the worst. In cities like Los Angeles schools were forced to use a shift system to educate children.

Grants and business ‘sponsorship’ are a way of life for American schools. However, they take up a huge amount of staff time and are usually time limited so a scramble for new funding can ensue. Getting out the begging bowl to big business is no way to fund schools. There’s also the fact that ‘sponsorship’ is never neutral and often involves highly dubious practices. Cable firm Channel One provided schools with free videos and televisions all the school had to do was agree to watch ‘informational’ programmes that contained adverts. Channel One sells the adverts for $200,000 for a thirty second slot.

The most shocking fact is the gross inequity in funding between different school areas. Because it is based on a regressive property tax wealthy areas have a low tax but a high take. So in Chicago 2002-3 (87% Black and Hispanic, 13% White and 85% low income) they spent $8,482 per pupil and in nearby New Trier (2% Black and Hispanic, 98% White and 1% low income) it is $14,909. Detroit (Black and Hispanic 95%, White 5% and 59% low income) spent $9,576 per pupil versus Bloomfield Hills (Black and Hispanic 8%, White 92% and 2% low income) $12,825. In New York (Black and Hispanic 72%, White 28% and 83% low income) they lavished $11,627 against Manhasset (Black and Hispanic 9%, White 91% and low income 5%) $22,311.

What does it say to children when they are educated in crumbling school buildings with outdated equipment? That isn’t universal many schools in poor areas are adequately funded but a large percentage aren’t. Of course the cry goes up that, ‘throwing money at the problem won’t solve it’. If you have a dysfunctional school with a disorganised Principal, demoralised teachers and disaffected pupils that may be partially true. However, not spending money isn’t a solution either and in expensive private schools (George Bush’s old school spends $30,000 per pupil) do they start from the logic, ‘we’re not going to lavish money on our children’s education’?

Some American High Schools have gone down the vocational route and concentrate on educating their pupils to be electricians, plumbers, office workers and nurses. In some cases they work as interns at companies and earn money for the school. Marlowe Academy in Kent has gone further down the route by abandoning subjects like History, Geography and Modern Languages. I don’t have a particular problem with this if it helps children to acquire a skill but in certain schools there was a ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ attitude – that’s all our children can achieve. What about the academically orientated or the late developers? Can you really imagine the scenario the staff at Eton call in Mr. Fortesque-Smyth, ‘Your son is irredeemably stupid, we’ve signed him up for work experience at Tesco to stack shelves’? Maybe not. On the other hand someone has to empty the bins, clean the streets and wash the latrines but why not educate them to love literature, paint and dream dreams?

The seminal court case that ended ‘separate but equal’ education was Brown .v. Board of Education in 1954. The reality of ‘separate but equal’ was that white children attended well-funded High Schools but most black children went to ‘Training Schools for Coloreds’ with no expectation of a college education. Today classrooms are either 97% white or non-white, integration doesn’t happen. There is also the sad irony that the ‘Martin Luther King Schools’ are invariably in the poorest areas, suffer from inadequate funding and hardly ever contain any white children. In many cases they are in ‘Academic Emergency’ or ‘Academic Watch’ due to low test scores. Currently there are more black boys in the prison system than in college.

When it comes to the teaching profession once again the media sets the tone. Films like ‘Freedom Writers’ portray the ‘hero’ young teacher who goes to a school with the unteachables and manages to inspire them to reach an Ivy League University. The reality is that one in three teachers leave after three years and half after five years. Teaching lags behind other professions both in pay and status. The curriculum has become very prescriptive with teachers using ‘set texts’ and test driven basic-skills programmes like ‘Success For All’. In many literacy lessons there were fragments of text for comprehension and little engagement with real books.

America is famous for initiative and enterprise, you’ve got to hand it to them they’ve tried reconstitution (sacking all the staff and reopening), ‘Dream Schools’ (sacking some of the staff and reopening), Open Choice, Magnet Schools, Charter Schools, Vouchers and yet the failure of the system is still apparent.

Another main feature is the use of Superintendents who come into school districts promising to be ‘tough’ offering ‘no excuses’ and ‘zero tolerance of failure’. The turnover rate is high, after a few years they move on or get fired and so the cycle begins again. The inspiration for this approach came with the rise to prominence in the 1980s of Joe Clark the principal at Paterson High School, New York. He wasn’t afraid to discipline the black pupils and he patrolled the corridors of the school with a bullhorn and a bat. Education Secretary William Bennett described the school as “a mecca for education”. After Clark threw out 300 students whom he described as ‘leeches’ and ‘parasites’ test scores rose. A recent trend has been for city mayors to throw out the elected school boards and appoint their own people, this was recently declared unlawful in an important test case in Los Angeles.

There’s no denying that schools and individual teachers make a difference the problem is that managerial fixes cannot solve fundamental problems that are rooted in society. In Britain ‘school improvement’ almost became reduced to a tick list of ready made solutions that didn’t take into account the needs of the particular school. Also if you make a system more selective through vouchers, charter schools, academies or selection you leave other schools with a high proportion of the disaffected, under achieving and poorly motivated, it sets them up for failure.

‘No Child Left Behind’ is to education what flogging with a cat o’ nine tails was to penal reform – cruel, arbitrary and ineffective. The impact on schools is devastating, just imagine National Curriculum tests for Year 6 writ large across Years 3 through to 12. The high stakes tests in reading, writing and maths are combined with targets for attendance. You can see at first hand in many schools the narrowing of the curriculum as Art, PE and music are jettisoned. Formal education is moving down the year groups I saw some disaffected seven year olds reading pretty dull texts. Testing reinforces failure for certain children and is incredibly stressful for teachers and pupils.

The supporters of ‘No Child Left Behind’ will point to the exponential rise in test scores, but given the price of failure – close the school and reopen with new teachers – that isn’t surprising. The model for NCLB was the so-called ‘Texas miracle’ where high stakes testing led to a huge rise in test scores. Local newspapers have begun to investigate some schools with massive improvements and found glaring irregularities, like standing behind a child until they wrote down the correct answer. What does rote learning produce? Durham University undertook a longitudinal survey on the conceptual understanding of English 11 year olds and found it had fallen considerably between 1976 and 2003.

Charter schools educate over one million pupils in over 40 states and have been heralded as ‘innovative’. They can be ‘for-profit’ or ‘non-profit’, in some cases businesses like Edison run them or parent groups administer others. Despite the extravagant claims there has never been any statistical evidence to prove that charter schools achieve better results. I saw some excellent charter schools that were attempting new ideas to reach disaffected pupils that had dropped out of the system, I found others that offered a fairly dire ‘basic skills’ education and another that was attempting to create a selective girls school by applying for grants from business foundations.

There have been some fairly high profile failures, schools in Baltimore were given over to a charter and then taken back into public administration. 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. Ohio suspended all charter school applications after problems with White Hat management.

Charter schools have run into union hostility because they have refused to sign up to local teacher contracts. In New Orleans all the reopening schools have been Charters, fuelling suspicions that they are a stalking horse to weaken union organisation and remove schools from public accountability.

Hurricane Katrina should have been America’s wake up call – global warming, race (Kanye West ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people!’), poverty, lack of public funding for infrastructure, the diversion of funds to the war in Iraq and the leadership of George Bush.

People still cling to the ‘American Dream’ fuelled by the notion that anyone can aspire to become a company CEO or President of the nation. There are the feel-good stories about Bill Clinton - from a trailer park to President and Arnold Schwarzenegger - from penniless immigrant to movie star and then Governor of California. The reality is different, social mobility in America has stalled, if you are born poor you are likely to stay poor and the inequitable, under-funded public education system is unlikely to change that.

In his book ‘The Shame of the Nation’ Jonathan Kozol advances the argument that the battle for Civil Rights and the catharsis of the Vietnam War meant there was an inevitable hiatus, the combatants paused for breath. We were driving north through a black ghetto in Mark’s brand new Merc, with public housing being cleared out from Chicago for yuppie apartments, he was plainly riding the crest of this particular wave. Suddenly, as though crossing a border, we moved into the wealthy suburb of Evanston and he pointed out his old university, recently he’d been persuaded to join the library committee. At their first meeting they were given a target of $30 million to raise for new books, no panic, one of the members stated the ball rolling with a donation of $15 million. We drove on he pointed out where his ‘frat house’ and then ‘they’ve replaced the fences now, we tore them down and blockaded the streets.’ What!? After the Kent State shootings in 1970 most of the universities were occupied and shut down, he was still on some CIA files somewhere because when he came back from a holiday in Mexico he was interrogated at the border.

The very last school I visited was a ‘Blue Ribbon’ national award winner, 60% of the children were from poor families but the rest had parents in professional jobs, it was unusual because there was a 50 – 50 racial divide, white and non-white. In most schools I visited it was either spot the white child or spot the black child. There was some fantastic topic work on display and they had brilliant art, PE and music programmes. However, the neighbourhood was changing and exam results had fallen. I hope they manage to survive, it was a vision of how good American schools could be.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Yarrow Valley

This is another country park reclaimed from industry. Birkacre on the outskirts of Coppull was home to a bleach works and mine until the 1930s.

In 1777 Richard Arkwright the ‘father of the industrial revolution’ leased a cotton mill and installed his latest spinning machinery. The activities of ‘machine breakers’ forced him to relinquish the lease in 1779.

You can follow the River Yarrow beyond the country park, the bluebells were carpeting the woods today.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Apathy Party

The media have an uncanny and unerring ability to overlook the main story. The local election results were analysed at length by pundits, commentators and anorak psephologists. What was the story they all missed? The victory of the Apathy Party. Just over 30% bothered to vote in the English local elections and in Scotland only a shade over 50% turned out to elect MSPs.

Councils still have influence over local education policy, although Academies are answerable to self-appointed sponsors. Maybe that is part of the clue. After decades of centralisation and rate capping local councils have been shorn of any real power. The housing stock has been sold off, care of the elderly is in private hands and most other services (parks, refuse collection, street cleaning) are auctioned out to the lowest bidder. One Conservative politician said his ideal council would have one meeting a year with two items on the agenda – 1. Which companies would run the services. 2. The date of next year’s meeting.

Local democracy is not so much withering on the vine as lying on the ground like a shrivelled, desiccated stump. The average age of councillors is over 55 and has become a hobby for the retired.

In over 500 seats there wasn’t even a contest councillors were returned unopposed. Labour is not represented at all on over 80 councils and the Conservatives still failed to win seats on Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool councils. Only about 5% of 18 – 24 year olds vote in local elections.

In Robert Puttnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone’ he charts the lack of participation in America not only in voting but other forms of civic democracy – PTAs, trade unions, writing to newspapers. Once people fall into the habit of non-involvement it is difficult to re-engage them.

The Apathy Party may be an unfair jibe, on occasions I’ve consciously refused to vote because there was so little ideological difference between the candidates of the three main parties.

During the 1950s over 80% of people voted in General Elections, now we struggle to crawl over the 50% mark. Still as the anarchists used to say, ‘if voting ever changed anything they’d ban it!’


Friday, May 04, 2007

Joke of the Week

I had a knock on the door.

'I'm from Littlewoods.'

'Great, I've won the pools?'

'No you owe money on your catalogue.'


Thursday, May 03, 2007

That Overwhelming Aroma of Aftershave

Some jobs or occupations you really have to question their worth to society – traffic wardens, estate agents and second-hand car salesmen would be high on my list. If a strange kind of neutron bomb or weird selective plague finished them all off somehow the wheels of industry would still turn, their loss would not be mourned. As a teacher I’d also have to add to the list those Stasi of the Literacy Strategy – the “consultants”, ‘our informants are everywhere’.

For years our school was deemed to be in need of “intensive support” our poor results were obviously the result of inadequate planning and crap teaching, therefore teams of “consultants” went through our planning with a fine toothcomb and observed our lessons.

Enthusing children? Inspiring teachers? This was some kind of incomprehensible foreign language to them. Naturally they never taught any lessons themselves. They did produce a literacy magazine that was posted out to every school. There weren’t any book reviews, in fact books weren’t mentioned at all, nor were there any examples of children’s work. Just those scary, ‘how I got my children to Level 4 by using connectives, punctuation and adverbs’, articles. As a result of popular indifference the magazine only had a short life span.

There was an award winning children’s author in a nearby school, who could have inspired other teachers, but as he was a loud and prominent critic of the Literacy Strategy he was kept strictly under quarantine in his own school, lest he infect other teachers with his dangerous ideas.

One day I was working away in the ICT suite on our community newspaper when I was introduced to the new writing consultant. I shook hands with Billy and immediately noticed something different. Most consultants keep their distance as though ‘fraternising with the enemy’ is a punishable offence. Billy maintained eye contact, asked questions about me, my family and interests, he listened intently to the replies. There was also that million-dollar smile when we parted company.

Next week we had a quick chat and he’d remembered my name, what my children were called, where I’d been on holiday and what football team I supported. These days I keep a low profile in school, one of the governors mistook me for the caretaker recently, so it’s nice to get recognised.

Billy didn’t exude charisma it positively flowed out of him. Now when it comes to male primary teachers, you’d have to say that some of us look a little care-worn – the shiny trousers, frayed cuffs and stained tie. Not Billy, he was as crisp as a newly printed £5 note, he looked as though he’d just concluded a business deal at the local golf club – the gold cuff links, that overwhelming aroma of aftershave, the keys to his sports car dangled around his fingers. The Year 6 girls instantly fell in love with him, there were chocolates for the staff and a frisson of excitement not seen since the secondary PE teacher taught a lesson in shorts. Young maaaaaan!

However… not all members of staff were won over, there was the way he gave all the children nicknames and that habit of calling the girls, ‘darlin’ or ‘sweetheart’. Maybe there was a tinge of jealousy that someone relatively new to the teaching profession had landed this high-powered well-paid job.

For me Billy was a blast of fresh air, too often the school-to-teacher training college-to-school circuit produces dullards without experience of real life. People from other careers, disc jockey, the SAS, all in wrestling, lion tamer, all bring with them transferable skills.

A few weeks after Billy had been teaching I saw our Year 6 teacher who is normally a good judge of character. There had been rumours about the class being out of control, inappropriate remarks and questionable language. I enquired how Billy was getting on, no reply, her eyes just averted towards the heavens. She showed me the children’s work that was meant for the community newspaper, even the more able students hadn’t produced anything of worth.

I showed it to Jean the teaching assistant who takes the Year 6 SEN group. She rifled around in a folder and produced some of their work on ‘Our Town’. They weren’t literary master pieces, Jean had helped them with spelling and punctuation, they’d slaved away on the computer, editing and checking spellings, but it was infinitely better than anything Billy had fashioned (there was also the knowledge that Jean’s salary was an eighth or a tenth of Billy’s).

Later on in the term I was on a course and got talking with other teachers, they’d had the same experience with Billy – he’d charmed them all to death but the children’s work had been terrible. One of them had discovered Billy’s previous occupation – second-hand car salesman.

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