Saturday, July 14, 2007

Knowsley Building Schools for Finance – Update

An article in ‘The Independent’ on May 18th used that quote from rock legend Alice Cooper ‘School’s Out Forever’ as the title. It claimed that,

“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 [school] 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.”

The article attracted some interest on the blogosphere. Graham Atwell wrote,

“I see this as the first big crack in the present model of schooling which dates from the first industrial revolution.”

Some posts on his blog described it as, “a bold step forward”, “what a great model for higher education,” and “thanks for such a heartening story, it sounds like science fiction!”

I’ve got to admit that I only agreed with the second part of the last post.

Some posts were from teachers who believed that after years of centralised control and proscriptive learning that the Knowsley plan was innovative. All I would say is don’t believe the spin and the hype. After teachers reacted furiously to the phrases about “Too many in secondary schooling expected little or nothing of local children,” and questions about what hours teachers would be expected to work, Knowsley distanced themselves from the ‘Independent’ article claiming that the quotes were ‘highly edited and selective’.

The other issue is how do you make change? Do you try to persuade and bring teachers with you when you implement a new exciting curriculum or do you issue them all with P45s and make them reapply for their jobs to ‘get them out of the comfort zone’.

Over the past few years Knowsley teachers have had a roller coaster ride. In 1999 Knowsley schools were languishing at the bottom of the national league table, only 23% gained 5 A-C GCES passes. Steve Munby was parachuted in as Chief Education Officer to ‘turn the authority round’. Through judicious use of GNVQs (one counts as four GCSE passes) by 2005 the pass rate had shot up to 43%. Munby hailed the ‘Knowsley miracle’ there were banner headlines in the local press, ‘Record Results for Knowsley Schools!’ and teachers received extravagant praise.

The government became aware of the GNVQ scam, some schools didn’t put children in for History, Geography or Modern Language GCSEs and the double science GNVQ was not an adequate grounding for science ‘A’ levels. In 2005 they changed the league tables so that passes in English and Maths had to be included in the five GCSE passes. A few months before they were released Steve Munby left Knowsley to become the chief executive of the National College for School Leadership, when the new league tables came out Knowsley was at the bottom. In the initial ‘consultation’ meetings with teachers over BSF the clear message was ‘poor results = poor teaching’.

In order to promote BSF Knowsley have produced ‘Update’ a Panglossian leaflet that claims to give ‘Information about transforming education and learning in Knowsley’. I was thinking of putting out a spoof copy but as the late Ted Wragg used to point out in education ‘irony and satire is dead’, the government and councils are doing the job themselves.

As one teacher said when you ask questions about BSF, ‘it’s like grappling with a jelly’ you can never get a straight answer from officials. How long will the school day be? What days will teachers work? Will everyone get a job? Most of these questions are deflected to the schools ‘Temporary Governing Bodies’, they will decide on curriculum, hours and staffing.

Questions are also being raised as to whether children will all be able to fit into the new ‘Learning Centres’. Some schools have gone from ten science laboratories down to two, plus an open plan ‘science warehouse’. Some design and technology rooms have no natural light and have to be accessed through other classrooms. One school is moving to a new site in April, right in the middle of the exam period, but it was not possible to wait until September because the council would incur ‘penalty points’ from the contractors.

The most controversial move has been to change teachers into ‘coaches’ or ‘facilitators’. The suspicion is that the preferred model is to have teams of Advanced Skills Teachers taking classes of 120 and then splitting them into groups with teaching assistants so they can undertake ‘independent research’.

Teachers have been promised that they will be ‘guaranteed’ an interview when jobs become available. They were also reassured that ‘good’ teachers would have nothing to fear. However, in the last few days interviews have been held for learning centre leaders (or head teachers as we used to call them), in two schools Knowsley heads seeking to transfer to the new learning centres have not been appointed and the jobs will go out for national advertising. If headteachers, who have all danced to the tune of the council officials, can’t get jobs what hope do classroom teachers have?

Where academies have replaced existing schools it has been used as on opportunity to cull teachers over 40. Some headteachers prefer younger staff who won’t ask that inconvenient question – ‘why?’ In San Francisco a new initiative was ‘Dream Schools’ an existing school was shut down and re-opened with new staff, in most cases there was a high turnover of staff, no continuity for children and problems with discipline.

Will the new learning centres be state of the art facilities with cutting edge technology that provide a stimulating curriculum? Or will they be shoddily built PFI classrooms ‘not fit for purpose’, chock full of gauche NQTs and disgruntled survivors who have witnessed scores of older teachers being made redundant? Time will tell.


I read with interest your comment regarding the appointment of headteachers to the new learning centres in Knowsley, but was dismayed by your assumption that headteachers have complied with the BSF programme. From the beginning of the project headteachers have challenged many of the proposals in the BSF programme but have encountered the same vague responses to questions that you allude to. Heads have found themselves in an untenable situation, dealing with half truths and unclear responses when trying to get information about working conditions, curriculum plans, hours of opening and career prospects for staff in secondary schools. Add to that the issues around loyalty to the communities of parents and young people that we serve and you should appreciate the lack of power and influence that has caused so much frustation. Heads who applied for jobs in the new schools did so in the belief that they might be able to salvage something from this disaster - by retaining quality staff in schools they could at least provide some stability and continuity for the young people who are the subject of this ill conceived experiment The appointments process for the leadership posts has ensured that critics of the BSF programme have been weeded out and the letter to all staff from the Chair of the Staffing Commssion is also ending out a clear message. There is an LA mantra that the headteachers and teachers in Knowsley are not up to the job, despite the massive improvements in achievement and attainment over the last 5 years.Sadly the new "palaces of learning" will open with exactly the scenario you describe - I wonder how many of the BSF architects from the LA will be around to see this revolution happen?
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