Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Bill Gates Fan Club

It’s amazing how council’s ‘media relations department’ never seem starved of cash. They may be cutting back on courses for teachers, repairs for computers or support for schools, but there is always money there for spin. Knowsley is no different, it spends thousands on a full colour monthly tabloid, ‘Knowsley Challenge’, that tells everyone what a fantastic job the council and councillors are doing. Strange though, the turnout in local elections struggles to reach 20%.

Knowsley teachers have got inured to the roller coaster ride that is education. In 1998 Knowsley GCSE results were amongst the worst in the country, only 23% of students got 5 A – C passes. Steve Munby was parachuted in as Chief Education Officer and by 2005 the pass rate (through judicious use of GNVQs) had shot up to 43%, the Knowsley ‘miracle’ was hailed and some grudging praise filtered down to teachers.

That same year Munby departed to become the chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). A few months after he left the government reconfigured the GCSE tables to include passes at English and Maths, Knowsley plummeted to the bottom of the local authority table, behind even the DfES’s favourite whipping-boy Kingston upon Hull.

In their bid for Building Schools for the Future (BSF) finance the council complained about teachers’ ‘low expectations’ of their pupils. Knowsley have now become the poster boys for the BSF experiment. At the recent Labour Conference Education Minister Jim Knight said,

“It is an example of best practice which is a shining example to others. It is about transforming education and Knowsley is leading the way.”

New schools and brand new equipment who could complain about that? The problem is that the building programme has gone ahead without involving teachers, true ‘consultation’ meetings have been held, but they are more in the form of a propaganda rally where any questioners are shot down in flames. Microsoft are also involved and may be supplying new equipment, although interestingly even ‘The Bill Gates Fan Club’ a.k.a. Becta, have belatedly acknowledged that schools could save thousands of pounds by using cheaper alternatives like Open Source.

So the brand new schools are ready stuffed with their state of the art equipment, the pupils are there in their new school uniforms raring to go, what is missing? Mmm, ah yes, the teachers. Knowsley have used those old clichés ‘zero tolerance of failure’ and ‘poverty is no excuse’ to encourage teachers, they believe ‘the kids might be difficult, but basically, the teachers are crap’. Two Knowsley head teachers who applied for jobs as ‘Learning Centre Leaders’ have been rejected. So what hope have teachers when they apply to become ‘facilitators’ or ‘coaches’?

When the Liverpool North Academy was created by merging two schools, that was the excuse to cull all the old lags who were over 40. So most of the teachers who knew the children were cleared out, NQTs came in and discipline has been a problem ever since.

Similar experiment have been tried in San Francisco, in the 1980s they ‘Reconstituted’ some schools, this involved sacking all staff – teachers, janitors, cooks, cleaners and replacing them with new staff. In the long run results didn’t improve, there was a large turnover of staff and some schools either closed or were ‘Reconstituted’ a second time. It became known as the ‘My Lai Approach’ – you destroy the village in order to ‘save it’.

Recently the ‘Blue Skies’ consultants came up with another wheeze – ‘Dream Schools’. Ten schools were chosen, but they weren’t the worst based on test results. To this day no one knows why they were chosen. Nine of the principals left and teachers had to be re-interviewd for their jobs with the prospect of increased hours. Again results haven’t improved and there has been a large turnover of staff.

So the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is ready for take-off, the schools will be built under the auspices of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), that has been such a success elsewhere, that venerable charity Microsoft is on board and a platoon of NQTs are waiting for the call, it can’t fail. Can it?

Resistance is Futile


Oh great, just what we need - a generation of kids being brought up to think that Powerpoint is a good idea, and that C# is a real programming language.
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