Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jacking up the results

This is a story about two education ‘leaders’. A few years ago my friend taught at a Catholic primary school in Knowsley, it was as they euphemistically call it ‘challenging’. The economic and social profile of the area was bleak, high unemployment, family breakdown, alcohol abuse and drug taking. There were very high numbers of children on the special needs register.

The school survived and thrived due to the dedication of the staff and the headteacher who was much loved by the teachers, pupils and parents. However there was one thing that his Christian conscience wouldn’t allow him to do and that was pressure vulnerable 11 year-olds to pass exams purely to please the suits from the Local Authority.

Predictably the SATs results were terrible. A Local Authority brown nose ran the Infant School, so 7 year-olds were drilled to pass tests. They arrived in Year 3 with totally unrealistic National Curriculum Levels, but it heaped the pressure on because the ‘value-added’ scores in the Juniors were dire.

There was unremitting pressure on the school, Improvement Officers grilled the head and consultants came in and rubbished the Literacy and Numeracy planning. Eventually a senior education bod came in and asked in incredulous tones why the head had been in the same job for twenty years. Well, he’d just devoted his life to the school. That was the final straw, he took early retirement.

A succession of ‘super-heads’ came in, jacked up the results, staff left in droves, the ‘super-heads’ moved on, onwards and upwards.

In Knowsley it wasn’t only the SATs scores that ‘improved’ GCSE results rocketed up. In 1999 only 23% of students gained 5 GCSE passes at A-C level. After a critical Ofsted report, Steve Munby was parachuted in as Chief Education Officer.

By 2005 the pass rate had shot up to 43%. The ‘Guardian’ wrote that it was all down to the ‘mild-mannered but dynamic’ Mr Munby. So how did he do it? Ruthless pressure on heads to get results and the use of GNVQs to boost test results, one pass counted as four GCSEs.

In 2005 Munby left to become the Chief Executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). A few months later the GCSE tables were reconfigured to include passes at English and Maths, Knowsley plummeted to the bottom of the table.

The latest figures for 2007 make interesting reading, the bottom five local authorities for passes at GCSE were-

Bristol 31.8%

Barnsley 31.2%

Sandwell 29.8%

Hull 29.7%

Knowsley 26.4%

Of course we can’t judge Steve Munby by results, because he has moved on. That’s the way it works in education, jack up the results by whatever means necessary, move on up the career ladder and leave someone else to pick up the pieces.

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A Waste of Space

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) has an ‘exclusive’, yes, the earth shattering news that the General Teaching Council’s (GTC) board could be slimmed down from 64 members to just 12.

The current board is composed of –

a) 13 people directly appointed by the Secretary of State.
b) 17 members from other quangoes, obviously working on that sound playground principle -'if we let you go on our quango, we can have a go on yours'
c) 25 teachers - elected in a turnout so low that the dullest parliamentary by-election would struggle to emulate it
d) 9 nominees from teacher unions

Teachers with banners outside parliament with the slogan ‘Save the GTC’? It isn’t going to happen. Let’s just say that the GTC isn’t exactly teachers’ favourite quango.

Their latest wheeze has to been to float the idea of ‘active registration’. Teachers would have to prove their ‘commitment to, and participation in, continuing work-based learning’. English performance management frameworks require schools to identify teachers’ development needs. So it’s claimed that this measure would just apply to supply teachers and those coming back to teaching after a break.

Everyone wants a well-trained teaching profession. However, privatised supply agencies aren’t exactly in a rush to supply free training for teachers. The GTC Wales have also proposed that all serving teachers would have to enter the training they have completed on an online database – more intrusion into teachers’ working life.

One of the main reasons why the GTC is so unloved are the ludicrous cases that come before their disciplinary panels. One teacher was arraigned for “making silly faces and derogatory remarks about other members of staff, mimicking silly walks and using foul language.” There but for the grace of God go most of the teaching profession.

The most notorious case involved Scunthorpe secondary teacher Keith Robertson, he had an unblemished record from thirty-three years of teaching. At his hearing in October 2007 he was charged with ‘failing to return library books’ and calling a pupil who had sworn at him and accused him, incorrectly, of losing course work, a ‘waste of space’. Robinson told the deputy head another pupil had ‘a great big back and backside’. This remark was made in confidence to the deputy head in his office; he then reported the matter to the head. Robinson was cleared of unacceptable professional conduct. Average cost of GTC hearings? £12,000.

Truly a ‘waste of space’.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Ridings

Sad to see that The Ridings School in Calderdale is to close, you don’t regenerate a community by closing its school down. The Ridings came to national prominence in 1996 when teachers threatened to walk out on strike over poor behaviour, an Ofsted hit squad was sent in and it was labelled, ‘the worst school in Britain’.

The Ridings was battling to succeed against almost impossible odds-

· The locality where it draws its pupils from is one of poorest in England
· It was competing against two grammar schools and a faith school
· The school was formed from an amalgamation of Ovenden Secondary School and Holmfield High School

The closure is further proof that the blunt club approach of Ofsted doesn’t work. 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. Of those schools placed in special measures between 1995 and 1997, 40% subsequently closed.

The Ridings was temporarily rescued when Peter Clark was parachuted in as head teacher, he subsequently wrote ‘Back From The Brink – Transforming the Ridings School’. When he arrived he found that 75% of pupils had below average reading ages and 40% of the Year 7 to 9 pupils had reading ages more than three years behind their chronological age. He swiftly solved the discipline problem because Calderdale Council seconded almost every Education Welfare Officer (EWO) to patrol the corridors.

After further ‘super-heads’ were appointed results improved, the 2003 GCSE results showed that the proportion of students gaining at least five good GCSEs or the equivalent had risen from 7% to 25%. But despite the attempts to ‘turn the school around’, the last published results, from summer 2006, showed that only 4% of pupils achieved the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and maths. The local authority's figures for 2007 indicate that the number will have risen to 13%.

The problems remained, in particular the school found it difficult to attract teachers and after being branded ‘the worst school in Britain’ it is only half full. The closure of the school is a sad comment on our fractured society, who would have thought decades after selective education ended that through the remaining grammar schools, faith schools and academies we have an even more pernicious selection system?

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Monday, October 29, 2007

The Testing Lottery

New research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows just how much national school tests are a lottery. They found that children born in August did far worse than those born in September.

At present primary school children start in the term after their fifth birthday so those born later miss out on whole terms.

Of today’s eight, nine and ten year olds, 80% of girls born in September reached Level 2 or better at the age of seven. But only 47% of those born in August reached the magic Level 2.

The gap narrows with older children. At 11 64% of September born children reached Level 4 or better, compared with 48% of August babies.

At age 11, August born girls are 25% more likely to be assessed as special education needs (SEN) and for boys a 14% greater likelihood.

The effect was the same regardless of class, race or region.

More and more evidence and research piles up to show how worthless and unreliable testing is. Not only that it has completely distorted the school curriculum. The only people in denial? Step forward the Department for Children Schools and Families.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Flogging a dead horse

I’m still fresh from the joys of being the PPA cover teacher… apart from those afternoons with Year 6 – the collective attention span of a gnat. The special education needs children work in small groups during the mornings, but there is that afternoon slump when they don’t have individual attention. The academic term is ‘learned helplessness’. Some afternoons it’s more like ‘flogging a dead horse’. [This term alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during a celebration held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance that was often one month's pay. At the expiration of the first month of the voyage it was at one time customary to hoist in the rigging a canvas effigy of a horse.]

We’ve also got our fair share of children that have done the ‘Grand Tour’ this involves trying out all the local primary schools before the parents finally run out of options and realise the problem is their child and not the school. During PE Eric (who was expelled from his last school for hitting the teachers) runs off out of the playground. I have to take everyone back in to find him.

You always have to give children some leeway, make allowances. That horrible pupil can grow up into a sensitive, caring adult. On the other hand there are some children… well it wouldn’t surprise you if they turned out to be a complete wretch of human being. Katie has come into school reeking of nit lotion and Adam has made a few sly comments. This afternoon he excels himself by going up behind her pointing and shouting in a loud voice, ‘Urhh, they’re crawling everywhere’.

Some of the children laugh and I have to usher Katie out in floods of tears to find the learning mentor. I blast the class and later our learning mentor comes back and talks calmly to the class. She gives each child a note and asks them to write something positive about Katie and to admit if they did laugh. Children are refreshingly honest and apologise to Katie.

There are compensations, those interesting conversations at break time. Keith is always rushing to tell me about his birds of prey. He goes into great detail about feeding the birds day old chicks. But last night they must have forgotten because the sparrow hawk has eaten the owl.

Later I return to one of my favourite themes which is ranting and raving about full stops and capital letters (this is Year 6)! I catch Peter drawing but he informs me it’s his sketch of the new Titanic and he’s offered me a job as part of the crew, I decline his generous offer.

Near to the end they start throwing rubbers behind my back and I go into ballistic mode and threaten a class detention, the day grinds remorselessly to an end.

Karen asks for a ‘private word’ at the end of the lesson, I’m a bit worried. But she tells me that she’s heard about my pet mouse dying, am I ready for more pets? Her stick insect has laid 79 eggs would I like some? I decline this offer as well.

Next day I’m back with my favourite class Year 1, you can always ham it up there. I’m left with a bag containing lower case letters and I inform the children that they have to be very quiet because a family of earwigs is living inside the bag. I take out each letter very gingerly and carefully, the children are captivated. Naturally as I take out the last one I get ‘bitten’.

Minimal amounts of planning, no rotten testing, Year 6 only on occasions – cover teaching? I’m Lovin’ It!


Friday, October 19, 2007

Joke of the Week

Why don't polar bears eat penguins?

Because they can't get the wrappers off.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Alan’s Utopia

You can always rely on Ofsted to totally demoralise teachers, this ability is neatly encapsulated in the farce known as ‘the annual report’.

In order to ‘raise the bar’, satisfactory (OED ‘meeting expectation or need, good enough, adequate’) has become the new ‘inadequate’. The headline figures were 51% of secondaries outstanding or good and 49% satisfactory or failing.

I know some ‘satisfactory’ comprehensives where teachers achieve minor miracles every day, battling against the odds; disaffected pupils with low self-esteem and uninterested parents. But no they’re not even ‘satisfactory’ now but ‘inadequate’.

It would be interesting to see a breakdown of where the ‘good or outstanding’ schools are. Research by the London School of Economics showed that 90% of schools in special measures were in poor areas.

Why have Ofsted? You need rigorous inspections to ensure that children have high quality teaching? Part of the aura, myth and downright lies surrounding Ofsted is that before their inglorious reign began schools weren’t inspected.

When I was researching for my MA (a case study on a school in special measures) I came across a little known book by Leonard Clark ‘The Inspector Remembers – Diary of One of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools 1936-1970’. There are some interesting passages –

‘I spent most of my time visiting and reporting on, the schools for which I had responsibility… I was able to meet and enjoy the company of the children and their teachers… Visiting schools was our bread and butter, and we did so regularly, we got to know them very well… a visit consisted of either half a day, a full day, or two or more days, according to the size of the school.’

The argument was that they became too close too schools. However, like other public services they were cut back, run down and then deemed to be failing. Ofsted replaced them with their punitive raids every four or five years.

Sadly there’s little debate about the condition of our schools, when it comes to literature it’s dominated by ‘the comfort read’ – prime example is Gervaise Phinn’s series ‘The Other Side of the Dale’, his whimsical tales about being a school inspector. Just to prove that the homespun, stereotypical Yorkshireman is not confined to education it has also invaded television – prime example Alan Titchmarsh’s ‘The Nature of Britain’. In a perverse way it reminded me of the ‘Teachers’ Awards’, everything is relentlessly, sickeningly, annoyingly upbeat. Now I know that the reintroduction of the red kite and the great bustard is fantastic but on the other hand we have the precipitous fall in the numbers of common birds like the sparrow and thrush, the decline of amphibians and thousands of miles of hedges uprooted and hundreds of ponds filled in by agri-business. Predictably none of this intrudes into Alan’s sunny little utopia.

The paucity of debate in education is stunning, just go to the TES Staffroom if you wanted this confirmed. Endless contributions about trivia – Is Kate McCann guilty, Bad Hair Day!! and Wogan’s Waddle. The Primary Review, testing or Ofsted? They just don’t attract comment. It’s a serious and sad indictment of the teaching profession. I had to smile because the TES web team invited posters to write blogs of 300 – 400 words, it isn’t so much putting forward a coherent argument more the inability to string more than 4 or 5 words together without resorting to the personal abuse that the Internet is infamous for.

So it’s been a fairly depressing two weeks – the Primary Review and stressed out children, the obesity epidemic, under 5s ‘failing’ at writing and half of our secondary schools are rubbish. There’s that old quote from Gramsci, ‘The pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’, there’s been more of the former than the latter.


Test the foetus?

Falling standards? First create your moral panic – by whatever means necessary. There was a great example of that this week with the news that our latest group of failures are the under fives (no honestly). Forty per cent are struggling to write their own name and only 58 per cent of five-year-olds were reaching a “good level of development” in writing. One in three children (35 per cent) did not reach a good level of development in linking sounds and letters, for example through recognising and saying words such as “red” and “dog” or “pen”.

Once again our results obsesesd system has opened itself for ridicule. In most European countries formal education doesn’t start until the age of seven. Many children don’t develop fine motor skills until that age, they aren’t ready to write. Couldn’t the authors of the report have written in large capital letters at the start ‘STARTING FORMAL EDUCATION TOO EARLY ARRESTS CHILDREN’S DEVELOPMENT’?

What next give the foetus a range of tests, interrogate the sperm? Let’s not go there. As Ted Wragg was fond of saying, ‘When it comes to education irony is dead’.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stressed Out?

The Primary Review has been the most comprehensive pieces of research about the impact of testing on primary school children and the opinions of teachers, parents and governors.

They held 87 sessions in 9 different locations and interviewed 757 witnesses - they included 197 pupils, 72 teachers, 64 non-teaching staff, 74 parents, 60 headteachers and 83 community representatives.

Some of the themes were; the wider world; what makes for a good school; good teachers and testing. As it was an academic study it was replete with caveats, qualifications and even evasion. But on one central issue that of testing it was fairly unequivocal – it’s not popular.

Children commented on testing –

SATs were ‘scary’, made them nervous and anxious, and put them under pressure. But equally:
• ‘tests tell teachers, and us, how we are doing’
• ‘parents want them’
• ‘children should be tested to show that they have done well and have been listening’
• ‘tests help children know what they have learned’
• ‘we need SATs to find our potential, and gaps in our understanding.’

Yet they understand that the stakes may be high:
• ‘it’s important to do well for secondary school’
• ‘tests get us into private schools’ (sounding 2, in an affluent area where many parents preferred private secondary schooling for their children)
• ‘high grades give you confidence.’

And, from ex-primary pupils in the selective secondary school:
• ‘Tests concentrate on the high flyers. The rest are written off before they get to the SATs. The teachers are not available to help the rest of us.’

Teachers were-

Unanimous that SATs:

• put children and teachers under intolerable pressure;
• are highly stressful;
• constrain the curriculum, especially in respect of the arts and humanities;
• subvert the goal of learning for its own sake;
• undermine children’s self esteem;
• run counter to schools’ stated commitments to a full and rounded education;
• turn the final year of primary schooling into to the wrong kind of educational culmination – a year of cramming and testing;
• disadvantage those children whose parents cannot afford to pay for private SAT coaching.

Parents were –

at least as hostile towards SATs as other groups. They deplored the ‘pressure’ of SATs, especially in Key Stage 2. Some claimed that too much emphasis on tested achievement in a narrow range of competences leads to a ‘mental shutdown’ and can put children off education altogether. Others, referring specifically to younger children or those with special needs, believed that they may be neither ready nor emotionally prepared for such demands. Some even noted a relationship between SATs, league tables, house prices and hence the social character of whole communities. In such circumstances, as one parent commented, ‘SATs only benefit estate agents.’ What parents really needed to know was (i) whether their children were progressing satisfactorily, (ii) what problems they were encountering, (iii) whether they were happy.

Yet there was a certain ambivalence here, because parents also recognised that SATs were a passport to success. Nowhere was this more marked than in Sounding 2, in an affluent south London suburb, where the session palpably changed gear when parents ceased deploring the pressure to which their children were subject and acknowledged that they were partly responsible, not least in paying for regular private coaching to maximise their children’s chances of achieving Level 5 in the KS2 SATs, which in turn would lead to success in the entry examination for independent secondary schools.

Primary Review director Professor Robin Alexander said that young children faced a range of pressures.

"What people wanted to talk about was the stress of government tests, then life outside school, road safety, physical dangers, the sense young children are having to grow up too soon."

The most predictable quote came from the mis-named Department for Children, Schools and Families,

“The government does not share the view that children are over-tested. Tests help parents and teachers monitor the progress of children and ensure they get the help they need."

I don’t hold out any hope that the Primary Review will change the mind of the government, the House of Commons Select Committee on Education asked for evidence on testing and 51 organisations wanted change, the only one that didn’t was the DCSF.

It’s teachers have the power to stop testing – if they did but realise it.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Going Dutch

It’s a beautiful, crowded part of the planet. A prosperous country, in the Unicef survey on ‘child happiness’ it came top, partly due to parents close relationships with their children and the lack of exam pressure in schools.

Children stay in primary schools until they are twelve and then take a test that will determine whether they follow a vocational or academic path at secondary level.

Schools have a large degree of independence and the provinces have been stripped of any control, but as in England central government sends out reams of circulars. The pressure falls on headteachers and there is a national shortage of heads.

The integration of the Muslim minority has been controversial and new language tests are being introduced for immigrants.

I was staying in a prosperous small town, but with rising house prices young people are forced to move out. You can get a false picture, while I was there a 14 year old was stabbed to death at a school in Amsterdam.

What is clear is that there aren’t the same stress levels amongst children and as the most cycle friendly country in the world they should keep obesity at bay.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007


No posts for a few days, I'm away in Holland. Not a holiday but an education visit. Should be interesting to compare their school system.

Faith Schools

In the name of “diversity” the government are giving huge amounts of money to religious groups to establish schools – part of their agenda to marginalize democratically elected Local Education Authorities. Since 1997 112 applications have been submitted by faith organisations to take over local community schools, 103 of them were supported and many more are being considered as part of the academy programme.

You might well ask – what is the relevance of religion in western societies? Are they actually a good role model for schools? The Church of England is tearing itself apart over the issue of gay bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams twists in the wind between the African churches who believe homosexuality is an “abomination” and the more liberal North American Anglicans who provide most of the funding. The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by child abuse scandals involving its priests and bishops (this has nearly bankrupted some dioceses in America) and affairs between priests and women parishioners. I’d also like to know how democratic is an organisation that does not tolerate elections (except for the papacy), believes in the infallibility of the Pope and refuses to allow women any meaningful participation. Alternatively I wouldn’t be happy with mosques controlling schools; even the more mainstream have questionable attitudes on homosexuality, evolution and women’s dress codes.

So these organisations that give out the aura of crisis are being allowed an increasing influence in schools. This is despite the fact that in our increasingly secular society organised religion is disappearing at an exponential rate. According to the Church of England’s own research, based on declining attendances, it will cease to exist in 2050, at the moment over half of the congregations don’t have anyone in the 18-34 age group. For non-conformism the picture is just as bleak, by their own projections the last Methodist will attend a chapel in 2037. The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to staff its churches with priests; in 2005 just 31 men were in training, a slight rise on 2004 when only 27 started. According to some researchers the mosques have an equal attendance compared to the Church of England. Do we want hundreds of schools controlled by the immams? I’m not raising this from the point of view of Islamophobia – I don’t believe any religious organisation has a place in education.

Faith schools cement divisions in society and exclude the poor. The Institute of Research in Integrated Strategies carried out research in Inner London, they found that 41% of children in the immediate proximity of Church of England primary schools received Free School Meals, yet only 32% of them attended the schools, for Catholic primaries 42% received FSM but only 28.3% found their way into the playground. The ‘Guardian’ revealed a starker and disturbing example close to former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s constituency in Bolton. Canon Slade Church of England took in 258 children from 87 different primary schools; one quarter of them lived outside Bolton. However, the eight closest schools geographically sent only 39 children, Castle Hill the closest primary (only 10 minutes walk away) didn’t send any children and the next closest Tonge Moor sent only three. In an ethnically diverse area the school is almost 100% white, it has only 6% of children with Special Education Needs against a Bolton average of 27%. There was a telling quote from one of the parents on the “economically disadvantaged” estate where the school is sited, “We can’t go to that school… it’s not for the likes of us.”

Children are usually chosen to attend faith schools based on their parents involvement and attendance at church. Every year there are miracle conversions as parents who want their offspring to attend a socially selective school begin to worship at an appropriate church, as soon as their children are accepted they drop the church like one of the hot cakes they used to bake for them. Some clergy resent the time and effort they are forced to expend in writing references for parents they know will abandon their church at the first opportunity.

I don’t have a problem with churches involving themselves in education, as long as it is on a voluntary basis, again they need to get their own house in order first; in 1905 56% of children attended Sunday Schools in 2000 it was estimated that only 4% chose to attend. According to another survey by the Christian Research group, there are now 700,000 children under the age of 15 attending Sunday schools, compared to 1.4 million in 1979.

Every time I see ‘Church of England’ or ‘Roman Catholic’ on a school board I have to smile because that’s probably one of their only financial contributions, over 95% of the funding for faith schools comes from the state in other words from our taxes. There’s also the blatant discrimination where governors can stipulate that the candidate must be as “active communicant” yet these same teachers will have the pick of jobs in community schools as well.

Britain is a fairly tolerant secular society without any anti-clerical tradition, more the Vicar of Dibley than the Da Vinci Code. Yet this tolerance is being stretched by the increasingly bizarre organisations emerging to gain state funding. The local diocese controlled most Catholic and Anglican schools and the governors came from the local church. The new breed of faith schools are being fronted by unelected unaccountable trusts or foundations. Sir Peter Vardy, the wealthy entrepreneur behind the Reg Vardy chain of car dealerships, sponsors the Emmanuel Foundation. It became the subject of controversy when it was disclosed that pupils in its schools were being taught the Old Testament belief that God created the world from nothing in six days.

The history of faith schools reveals some interesting examples; in the early nineteenth century the Anglican, Catholic and Non Conformist churches competed against each other to educate the children of the poor. In the latter part of the century the state played a more prominent role. The Conservatives attempted to regularise and involve the churches through the 1902 Education Act, this created voluntary aided religious schools where the government would pay 95% of the costs. Only the wealthier Anglican and Catholic churches were able to bear this cost, the non-conformist churches complained that their children would be forced to attend a school and be indoctrinated by a faith they did not support. The Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists organised the Passive Resistance Movement, by 1905 over 50,000 summonses had been issued for non payment of rates, 150 people were imprisoned including 61 ministers of religion. The failure of the 1906 Liberal Government to repeal the Act helped the emerging Labour Party to win non-conformist voters with their espousal of secular education.

Most research shows that faith schools make little (if any) difference to test results or children’s life chances. If you’d have said twenty years ago that a Labour Government would fund fringe religious organisations to teach creationism to school children you would have been regarded as a fantasist. Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of education.

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Ketchup in their veins

And Lo! The National Council for Educational Excellence that contains some private sector top bosses have spoken. What were they advising schools on? The ruthless pursuit of profit, their ‘concern’ for the environment or how to transform a state basket case like Railtrack into a model for safe practise?

No, they are worried about ‘variability’ between schools and how to ensure ‘consistency of performance’. So McDonald’s have offered training for school leaders. Managers with ‘ketchup in their veins’ will run courses on leadership, team building and stress-management.

Now I know they have done a great job turning shopping centres into ‘clone towns’. But somehow the prospect of McSchools, every pupil in the same uniform, studying the same curriculum in identical schools just doesn't appeal.

Maybe they could start by explaining why McDonald’s annual staff turnover is over 60%?


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Outrageous Blackmail

The government have been struggling to reach their target of 400 academy schools. Businesses haven’t exactly been rushing to invest £2 million. Private schools have been lured with the offer that they’ll need to contribute… nothing! Lord Adonis told them, ‘we need your DNA’. Some religious groups have sponsored academies but even then the financial results are not spectacular. In May 2006 ‘The Guardian’ revealed that four academies had not received a single penny from their sponsors and of the 27 up and running only £26 million had been paid. The latest government advice is that “endowments” will be offered over the years.

On October 8 the Norfolk County Council Cabinet voted to back the Heartsease Academy – this is the takeover bid backed by millionaire former second hand car dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre. At the meeting there was plenty of disinformation about Heartsease ‘causing concern’. This despite the fact that the recent Ofsted in February 2007 said it was ‘improving’ and the Key Stage 3 results were among the 100 most improved. So teachers bust a gut to improve the school and you’re still useless.

The basis for the academy vote was a public ‘consultation’, 258 responded and 62% were in favour. The governors and staff were opposed.

Other academies have selected pupils, which has meant some local pupils were unable to gain admission (ask any head the easiest way to improve results is to change the intake). Or they are based in run down communities with a high percentage of ‘challenging’ children and merely replicate previous failures.

The academy programme is hardly a triumph for local democracy, housing, social services and now education is removed from local control and handed over to charities, businesses or ‘independent’ trusts.

At the council meeting the member for children’s services Rosa Monbiot made an ‘impassioned’ speech she said,

“This opportunity to put £20m into the community will regenerate the community. Why shouldn't we give teachers improved facilities and better IT? Let's give the children the wow factor. A superb new building will inspire them and encourage them to stay on to get qualifications. We want these children and this community to do well.”

Nothing could sum up the outrageous blackmail of the academies better, the government will only invest in communities if you cede control of your school to any old dodgey creationist millionaire.

What about local democracy? Well the average age of councillors is now 58, 40% are retired. I’m not raising this as ageism, just that any council should fully reflect and represent the local community. It’s no surprise that the turnout in local elections hovers around the 30% mark.

Most Pentecostalists believe that dinosaurs only became extinct a few thousand years ago. They didn’t, they’re still here, sitting on the benches of the Norfolk County Council.


Monday, October 08, 2007

The Knowsley ‘Stampede’

The Knowsley ‘Experiment’ rolls on, this is the plan (under Building Schools for the Future) to close eleven secondary schools and re-open them with seven ‘Learning Centres’. The old curriculum is being jettisoned, classrooms are being replaced by ‘Learning Zones’ and teachers will become ‘facilitators’. Instead of boring old local authorities supplying services private sector companies will do the job.

National adverts have appeared for headteachers (One hundred lines ‘I must not be a Luddite’)… sorry ‘Learning Centre Leaders’. Two internal candidates have been appointed but two other headteachers who applied weren’t up to scratch, so five positions were externally advertised.

Naturally you would assume that there would be a stampede of ‘blue sky thinkers’, ‘innovative leaders’ and ‘visionaries at the cutting edge of new technology’ desperate to become ‘Learning Centre Leaders’.

I’m sure the applicants were high quality… it’s just… well… OK since you ask only eight people applied for the five posts. What put people off? Possibly the prospect of ‘jack the results up or here’s your P45’.

Still with all the shiny new computers in place the brand new buildings who needs teachers or headteachers? (200 lines ‘I must not be a Luddite’) Sorry ‘Learning Centre Leaders’.

It can’t fail. Can it?

Resistance is Futile

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

New Philanthropy?

Some charities do an excellent job – I always donate to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Guide Dogs for the Blind. However, there’s always that residual image of Lord and Lady Bountiful graciously distributing alms to ‘the deserving poor’.

Right up until the creation of the welfare state in 1945, charities played a dominant role in health, social services and housing. What they couldn’t do was create a national framework with minimum statutory provision – they didn’t have the resources. Instead there was a patchwork of competing charities with services varying widely between different cities.

When I was in America most schools depended on handouts from foundations, trusts or charities. It was almost a way of life, every school hired staff working full time on various bids. One charter school had a well connected board member who raised $1 million in donations. But most money was time limited so it was a hand to mouth, feast or famine existence.

On a national scale ‘New Philanthropy’ has become an institution with its main cheer leader Bill Clinton and his ‘Global Initiative’.

At a recent bash in the Sheraton Hotel, New York, Clinton lured a thousand of the world’s richest, each paying $15,000 for the privilege. Just to add some glitz and glamour Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) attended.

Last year Americans donated $295 billion to charities, equal to the Gross Domestic Product of Poland. 65 million US households gave an average of $2,000 each.

New Philanthropy has risen alongside an increase in inequality – according to official figures 12.3% of Americans live in poverty.

However, most of the charitable donations don’t reach the poor. About a third of gifts are made to religious organisations and much of the remainder is handouts by rich people to already rich institutions – museums (in 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art was given $26.52 million in private donations – in 2000 one donor gave $73.7 million), Ivy League colleges (Harvard received $196 million in 2005 and got $50 million from the Ford Foundation in 1998) and being America, pets scooped up 2% of the total.

By one estimate, only 10% of charitable donations go to projects working with people in poverty.

Whilst we can’t match the scale of ‘New Philanthropy’ we have our own version with Red Nose Day, Children in Need and high profile donations by business men and pop stars. What’s missing in all this? The role of government.

When it comes to education you can use taxes to fund an equitable well resourced comprehensive system (Scandinavia) or you can rely on charitable handouts in a patchwork of unequal selective schools (America).

Which model is England moving towards?

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Clutching at Straws?

I was involved in a ‘consultation’ process once, even though 97% of the responses were against the scheme, the sponsoring organisation said that they were ‘unrepresentative’ and went ahead any way. I take a fairly jaundiced view of ‘consultations’ they are usually just a thinly veiled sham so it’s possible to say ‘we did ask people’.

The consultation of people living on the Heartsease estate in Norwich has come out in favour of the proposed academy sponsored by millionaire second hand car dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre. It wasn’t exactly an even sided debate, the local churches were in favour, former Education Secretary and local MP Charles Clarke backed it, also there were all those glossy leaflets showing a state of the art, environmentally friendly new school. Who could oppose it?

Apart from opposing the general principle of a local authority handing control of a school over to an outside organisation, there were other compelling reasons. The Pentecostalists unlike the Quakers don’t exactly do ‘quietism’, their mission is to aggressively proselytise and convert. There are also those other little details like their belief in creationism (the earth was created 6,000 years ago), abortion is ‘evil’ and homosexuality can be ‘cured’. Just to prove how inclusive they are, all gay people are banned from being ministers.

The Governors of Heartsease voted against the academy as did the Norwich Council Scrutiny Committee. So what’s changed? Well of course there is the consultation, a whopping 62% were in favour. As local councillor George Nobbs said, ‘the public have spoken’. Or did they? Only 258 responded to the consultation.

Given this ‘mass’ public support Network Norwich are now claiming that the academy is ‘certain’ to go through the council meeting on October 8. Education officials have also claimed that Heartsease School is sill giving ‘significant concerns’, this despite being an ‘improving’ school.

Will an academy make any difference? The results from the current academies are not exactly spectacular.

Anti-Academies Alliance


Friday, October 05, 2007

Joke of the Week

So I said to the school cook, ‘There’s a fly in my soup.’

‘Don’t worry’ she mused, ‘the spider on the bread will get it.’


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Training at Pet Primary

I wasn’t in the best of moods, the start of a stinking cold, a day with Year 6 (afternoons the collective concentration span of a gnat) and a training session (in lieu of a staff meeting) at the local authority’s pet primary – 3% Free School Meals and excellent SATs results.

Let’s just say that Pet Primary isn’t universally popular with other teachers. Those in ‘intensive support’ schools are routinely sent there for ‘re-training’. You’re guaranteed to get that supercilious smile, ‘Welcome crap teachers from the slummy council estate school, we will show you how to teach’.

Needless to say they never take up that reciprocal invitation to come and teach some of those ‘challenging’ classes at Crap Primary.

Pet Primary has a Media Room, Parents’ Room and myriad other facilities. When we’d fought off the council’s closure plan, despite not having a library, or parents’ room, or any storage space, they insisted that we give up two spare classrooms.

Pet Primary seems to have plenty of smiley teachers who could audition for the ‘Stepford Wives’. But away from the manufactured utopia of Pet Primary the reality is that there is a high turnover of teachers who really don’t want to work 14 hours a day and triple back every display. The school constantly recruit NQTs who move on once they discover there is more to life than wall to wall planning and laminated resource sheets.

Normally I hate graffiti, it really looks ugly and disfigures buildings. However, I’d have to make an exception of ‘Adbusters’ who make changes to advertising hoardings. On this occasion I was really tempted to get out my indelible marker pen. All round Pet Primary were wooden plaques with ‘This school is a magical place to learn – Ofsted’.

According to research by the London School of Economics 90% of schools in special measures are in poor areas, schools in the leafy suburbs rarely, if ever, fail an inspection. What could failing schools put on their plaques?

‘An underachieving school that fails its pupils’

‘Children should be achieving more, the teaching is poor’

‘This school does not give value for money’

I know it is on a different historical scale but on the same theme, how about these plaques?

‘A lively church that serves the community well – The Inquisition’

‘A well-run concentration camp that gives value for money – the Waffen SS’

‘This court is a credit to the justice system – the Khmer Rouge’

Why give these monsters credibility?

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Liverpool Unites?

The ‘Liverpool Echo’ has initiated a purple ribbon campaign for Rhys Jones called ‘Liverpool Unites’. The four aims are – more police: tougher sentencing for possession of firearms; a better witness protection programme and gun controls.

At first glance you couldn’t disagree with any of the demands, but will it end gun crime? There was a police crackdown last year in Norris Green with many people sent to jail as a result. However, as one local youth worker noted, “a younger group has come up to take their place.”

What does the Liverpool Council ward profile tell us about Norris Green? 40% of people of working age are unemployed, 44% don’t have any qualifications, household income in 2004 was £17,115, against a Liverpool average of £22,511 with a national figure of £23,244. When it comes to the government’s Neighbourhood Statistics, out of 32,428 Super Output Areas (SOAs) half of Norris Green is in the most deprived 1%, the rest is in the bottom 5% and one small area (the ‘posh end’) is in the bottom 10%.

Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime?

You can’t say that it’s simply all about poverty, the counter argument is that despite the mass unemployment of the 1930s crime was lower. However, on the other side there wasn’t the blanket advertising of an aspirational society, in the 1930s most homes didn’t have anything worth nicking and the unemployed didn’t have mobile phones or i-Pods to steal. Gang culture has actually bought into the aspirational society they want a share of designer fashions, fast cars and bling.

Violent crime affects people in different ways and it’s easy for middle class people in nice houses in their tree lined avenues pontificating about crime, they don’t have to suffer from nuisance neighbours or feral children patrolling the streets. A few years ago a friend of mine who was an active trade unionist lost his son, there was a fight outside their house and he’d gone out as a peacemaker, he ended up getting stabbed. His father was understandably devastated and was mixed up in some fairly dubious ‘law ‘n’ order’ campaigns.

There was a seminal moment during the 1988 American presidential elections when a journalist asked the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis whether he would want the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis went into liberal academic mode and warbled on about the statistical ineffectiveness of capital punishment. He just came over as a cold fish. If it happened to my wife? Yes, I’d personally want to gouge the eyes out of the perpetrator, however we’re not talking about the vengeance of the individual but how a civilised society should deal with horrific crimes. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

Chastened by Dukakis’s experience, when Bill Clinton was campaigning in the 1992 elections he went back to Arkansas to watch the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who had an IQ of 70. Though courts decided Rector was mentally competent to be put to death by lethal injection, evidence suggests otherwise. Rector's prison guards called him “the Chickman” because he thought the guards were throwing alligators and chickens into his cell. On the night of his execution, Rector saved the slice of pecan pie to be eaten before bedtime, not realizing his death would come first. Rector was executed by lethal injection. It took medical staff, with Rector’s help, more than fifty minutes to find a suitable vein.

The tabloid press have done their best to completely hijack the ‘law ‘n’ order’ debate by the fundamental dishonesty of latching onto personalities. There was the campaign to ‘Free Tony Martin’ and more recently the News of the World crusade for ‘Sarah’s Law’ - the public would be informed of the location of convicted paedophiles. Almost all professional associations from the police to social workers were opposed. Why? Because paedophiles would go ‘underground’. A more successful experiment has come from church groups in America based on the notion of ‘keep your enemy close’. A small group ‘adopt’ an offender and meet with them every week. It has been controversial with some denominations, because there is an insistence that church attendance is compulsory.

The ‘law ‘n’ order’ campaign starts with a pretty bleak view of humanity – blanket coverage by CCTV, more police, ID cards, compulsory finger printing. The slogans? ‘Keep off the streets!’ ‘Lock yourself up!’ ‘Distrust your neighbour!’

Born out of the most horrendous circumstances, there are more inspiring alternatives. In 1993 an IRA bomb went off in Warrington, twelve year old Tim Parry and three year old Jonathan Ball were killed. Colin and Wendy Parry set up a Peace Foundation, they wanted to know why another human being could undertake such a despicable act, they met politicians and para-military leaders in Northern Ireland and encouraged children from both religious communities to visit Warrington.

The Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball Youth Centre is an absolutely inspiring place. I was a youth worker in inner city Liverpool and we had a converted air raid shelter with the strip lighting, it gave it a more than passing resemblance to the film location of Prisoner in Cell Block H.

Their permanent legacy is one of hope and reconciliation.

I’ll sign off with an international crime statistic – the more equal the income distribution in a society and the greater the chance of social mobility - the lower the crime rate.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Oops Done It Again…

My posting about the head of Norwich ‘independent’ school (he spoke out in support of the Heartsease academy) obviously upset someone from the Worshipful Company of Dyers. ‘Anonymous’ wrote-

Some facts about Norwich School and the Dyers: Norwich School's association with the Worshipful Company of Dyers began in the mid 20th Century and is nothing to do with the School's foundation. The Dyers assist one independent school (Norwich) and several state schools in London. The Dyers provide generous funds to supplement Norwich School's bursary provision for low income families. There are no known occurrences of Dyers' offspring ever receiving financial help.

The School allocates approx. £500,000 to assist pupils who would not otherwise be able to attend. Many of those pupils live in difficult circumstances with minimal family income.Independent schools are more effective agents of social mobility than most state schools - even the grammars. Were you aware, for example, that approaching 50% of 'working class' Oxbridge undergraduates came from independents via bursary schemes?

Mr Read,Your comments are based on prejudice and conjecture it appears. You have concocted a story about the Dyers' Co. and Norwich School that is totally untrue and presented it as fact.

You seem determined to knock independent schools - no matter what good they do. But at the very least - please get your facts right and stop promoting these misleading untruths.

Sorry about getting the foundation of Norwich School wrong, but quite how the Dyers got involved with the school in the mid 20th century is puzzling, surely there were more deserving cases? Couldn’t they have found some impoverished dyers?

As for the ‘low income families’ they have assisted, why don’t ‘independent’ schools publish how many children are eligible for Free School Meals, state schools have to, it isn’t the only measure of poverty but is fairly reliable.

‘Independent’ schools as ‘agents of social mobility’? That really is a new one on me. I’ll make this challenge to ‘Anonymous’ why don’t Norwich School publish the details of parental income? Should make interesting reading.


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