Friday, May 28, 2010



Simon Jenkins 'The Guardian' May 28 2000

As Simon Jenkins noted there is a long and somewhat inglorious tradition of central government attempting to micro manage and run all of the schools in England. The Conservatives tried to free Grant Maintained Schools (GMS) from local authority control, with only a stingy financial bait few schools opted for it.

Heads of GMS schools escaped from local authority oversight or auditing, so this allowed Bromley’s Imelda Marcos, Colleen McCabe, to embezzle, between 1994 and 1999, £500,000 from St John Rigby College . She spent the money on shoes, exotic holidays, cosmetics and a Crystal Palace season ticket. Eighteen months after she began to use the school funds as a personal bank account Ofsted reported that McCabe provided “strong, sensitive and skilful leadership”. Financial planning was “good” and the auditor’s report was “excellent”. Only when the staff finally gave evidence was she exposed as a fraud.

New Labour introduced its 'Fresh Start' scheme where failing schools were closed and reopened with new staff. This was based on the 'Reconstitution' experiment in San Francisco, or as one teacher union leader dubbed it 'The My Lai approach, in order to save the village you have to destroy it first'. 'Fresh Start' never recovered from that car crash moment in 2000 when four 'super-heads' resigned in one week.

It is true that some academies are 'popular' with parents, yes, throw £20 odd-million at a school - new classrooms, shiny reception areas, state of the art computer suites and down the road is Gasworks Comprehensive with its leaky roofs and windows, you don't need to be a genius to work out which school gets more applications.

The other effect of 'school reform' is to reinforce the cycle of failure. Last year the House of Commons Education Select Committee found that 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.

In 2007 Bradford Academy opened with a fanfare of publicity. It originally opened in 1963 as Fairfax community school; in 1992 it was ‘named and shamed’ in the first official league tables; 1994 placed in special measures with the threat of closure; 1996 re-launched as Bowling community college; 2000 reopened as a Church of England school - Bradford Cathedral community college; 2002 placed in special measures; 2004 out of special measures.

When a school under local authority control fails it is the local authority that takes the blame. So no prizes for guessing who will be under the spotlight when a centrally controlled Academy fails.


Monday, May 24, 2010


The Campaign for Real History

The campaign for ‘real’ history teaching in schools? The Education Minister Michael Gove believes that ‘most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England’.

Spotting a potential gap in the market, Stacey International have republished the 1937 editions of ‘A History of England’ by EH Carter, Chief Inspector of Schools and RAF Mears, who taught history at Warwick School between 1923 and 1933 (the Tudors and Stuarts are published in April 2010). The series has been edited and revised by David Evans, the former head of history at Eton College.

The publicity material promises a ‘straight-forward chronological narrative’ in ‘fast-paced muscular prose’. The series is aimed at, ‘everybody who seeks properly to understand our collective story and to look beyond the random selection and often contentious teaching that have long dominated the curricula’.

The blurb contains an approving quote from Eton Old Boy David Cameron, ‘It is a tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized disjointed approach to learning about historical events… [a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates.’

History is undeniably a narrative and you need an awareness of chronology in order to arrange the story into some kind of order. I know from teaching young adults that many of them have a shocking inability to place different eras into order – Victorian, Stuart, Tudor, Viking, Norman, Saxon, Celtic and Roman. Is there a danger that we could become as dim as some American youngsters – ‘The Second World War started when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour’?

Where might a lack of awareness about dates and chronology stem from? You could argue that history teaching; any history teaching would be an advantage.

Research conducted by Manchester University showed that only 4% of curriculum time in primary schools was devoted to teaching history. The dominant subjects were, unsurprisingly, Maths, English and Science – the subjects that are tested and therefore contribute to school league tables. According to research by Professor John MacBeath 98% of Ofsted gradings for schools directly correlate to their test scores.

In secondary schools the picture doesn’t improve. Last year only 30% of students took GCSE history, down from 40% in 1995. Is this because pupils don’t like history? A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) report in 2007 quoted a survey of 1,700 children, two thirds of whom gave up history at 14, although half liked the subject and rated their teachers. Even Ofsted found that 70% of history lessons are good or outstanding.

One of the main reasons for the marginalisation of history GCSE is pressure from ‘easier’ vocational subjects like media or business studies and PE. Some schools force students to choose a ‘pathway’ at 14 – either vocational or academic. Even if a student wants to study history there will not be space in the timetable to accommodate them. Again there is the pressure for schools to get results, a vocational Btec is worth 4 GCSEs and will count towards that all important benchmark of 5 A-C GCSEs.

In 2006 1,479 out of 3,500 state secondary schools didn’t enter a single candidate for GCSE history. A survey by the Historical Association points to a wide disparity in history teaching – 97% of independent and 94% of grammar schools teach history as a discrete subject compared to 72% of comprehensives and only 59% of academies. Increasingly history is taught as part of humanities or in cross-curricular programmes.

This process is reflected in other subjects, in 2004 schools were allowed to drop the teaching of modern foreign languages (MFL) for pupils after the age of 14, this has subsequently lead to a precipitous fall in the numbers of GCSE candidates. Last year 60% of undergraduates on MFL courses were privately educated.

The campaign for ‘real’ history teaching chimes with the pressure for ‘tried and tested’ teaching methods, yes, those halcyon days of the 11 plus, expensive uniforms, children sitting in rows, rote learning, setting, streaming and ‘back to basics’. The exponents of this comfort blanket neglect to mention that half of children left school without any qualifications and that university education was restricted to a narrow elite. As for private schools there was the legacy of corporal punishment by prefects, compulsory games, rote learning of classics (to the exclusion of other subjects), bullying, cold showers and fagging.

Dates? You do need some knowledge to access the sweep of history – my key dates include the Peasants Revolt (‘serfs ye are and serfs ye will remain’) 1381; the Battle of Bosworth (‘my horse, my horse my kingdom for a horse) 1485; the Spanish Armada (‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble women, but I have the heart and stomach of a king’) 1588 and the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688 that consolidated the Protestant succession. I can use those key events to navigate through the historical record. Many primary classrooms and all secondary school history classrooms will display timelines with key dates to support pupils’ knowledge.

However, what the traditionalists want is a return to those days of yore when didactic instructional teaching ruled in the classroom. In primary schools that took the form of rote learning, the memorising and testing of dates and kings and queens – a handy chart was on the wall next to that map of the Empire (British colonies in pink) on which the sun never set.

Predictably the main cheerleader for ‘real’ history teaching is Prince Charles, in pursuit of this aim he has organised summers schools for history teachers. I’ve never attended but his other projects have included lectures on reducing one’s carbon footprint (despite personal use of private jets and gas guzzling limousines). I have to confess that I’m at one with Tom Paine who protested against hereditary heads of state as archaic and irrelevant as hereditary artists, mathematicians, musicians or indeed historians.

Stacey International is obviously trying to ride the wave by republishing Carter and Mears’ ‘A History of Britain’. It might be of passing interest to dedicated historians, there is an in-depth analysis of the Treaty of Utrecht. However, in essence it is the Old Fogies view of history, the sort of little England ‘our island story’ that was taught in the 1920s, the viewpoint that inspired the newspaper headline, ‘Fog in the Channel – Continent Isolated’.

The book is an example of the ‘kings and queens’ method of teaching history, written in an ‘impartial’ style, so to shamelessly dumb down when it comes to the Civil War, Charles I was ineffectual but then the Puritans were strait-laced killjoys.

In modern history teaching children read accounts, diaries and letters from the time, which help them to understand and empathise with the protagonists. This might include studying events like the Putney Debates where issues like extending the voting franchise were discussed, or reading about different viewpoints and interpretations.

How did ordinary people live? What about the contrast between rich and poor? You won’t really find it in Carter and Mears. As for the role of women in society, the ‘muscular prose’ doesn’t really extend beyond the six wives of Henry VIII, ‘Bloody’ Mary and Good Queen Bess.

The books are outmoded, outdated and antediluvian. Sadly if Michael Gove has his way this type of dry, stodgy, elitist history teaching will become the norm.

Where teachers are allowed the time history is taught through skills and enquiry, processes, concepts and interpretations. Students will be challenged to compare and contrast, sift conflicting evidence and question it for reliability and bias. They will be expected to analyses causes and consequences and try to empathise with people, form all sections of society, who lived in the past.

Another strength of history in primary schools is teaching about ancient civilisations – Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Incas, Benin and in secondary schools English-centric teaching has been replaced by a wider awareness of international events, although there has been an over emphasis on Hitler and the Nazis.

In a multi-racial, multi-cultural society a move back to ‘real’ history teaching would be reactionary and regressive. The Carter Mears series belong on the shelves of second hand bookshops to be viewed as historical curiosities. ‘Real’ history teaching? It was usually delivered by those older male teachers wearing chalk-dusted corduroy jackets with patches sewn on the elbow, droning on in stuffy classrooms as children laboured away for hours, taking notes at hurricane speed, in dread of the inevitable test at the end of the week.


Sunday, May 16, 2010


SATS Boycott

Peter Preston in 'The Guardian'

Peter Preston attacks the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) boycott of the SATs tests for 11 year-olds (School heads put to the test 4/5/10). He castigates those ‘who anger easily, blow their tops’. As for being ‘fist waving and rowdy’ I can’t think of a more inappropriate description, natural rebels they aren’t, they don’t go around spraying graffiti, listening to garage music, wearing studs in their noses, spiking their hair with gel and spitting in the street. Yet within local communities who do people value and trust? Politicians, businessmen/women, or journalists? The headteacher of the local primary school would come close to the top of any list.

So what has stirred them into action? Is this not a cause for concern when people who have worked for decades educating children are threatening industrial action for the first time in decades? They have a strongly held belief that testing children and publishing results in league tables is wrong.

Just how useful are the dreaded league tables? Well let’s put it this way at the top you will find schools in neat villages and the leafy suburbs. Yet, despite the Herculean efforts of their teachers, languishing at the bottom will be the schools in ‘challenging’ areas, with high numbers of special education needs (SEN) children and Free School Meals. The connection between educational achievement and poverty is well established, however, they will be branded as ‘failing’. Ofsted will merely confirm the results of the tests.

Where has that tunnel vision of targets, targets, targets led us? Stafford Hospital ticked every box, exceeded every target and won the exalted status of foundation hospital. The reality was that patients were left to die, unattended, in draughty corridors. So fixated were the staff on fulfilling targets.

The reality of testing in schools is that teachers use every ruse to reach their target. The standard one is to concentrate on the borderline group in the class. Let me give a concrete example. The teacher arrived in September looked at the Year 6 class – 15 children of middle or higher ability (no problem there they’d easily achieve the magic Level 4) 5 SEN children, with no real hope of a Level 4 and 5 children on the Level 3 and 4 borderlines. Potential SATs score 60%, result special measures and misery. Do not pass ‘Go’, please pick up your P45.

The solution? The teacher spent every morning during the maths and literacy hours working with the borderline group, then there were the ‘Booster Classes’ in the afternoon, the parents were summoned in to school, and there was after school one-to-one tuition. The SEN children were consigned to work with the unqualified teaching assistant, the rest of the class were left to their own devices. All of the borderline children achieved Level 4, SATs score rises to 80%, the teacher is hailed as a genius and the headteacher breathes a huge sigh of relief, career still intact. Testing corrupts everything and everyone and it spreads like a cancer around the blood stream.

Over the past decade a consensus for changes in the testing regime has emerged supported by teachers, headteachers, Royal Societies, academics and authors. Wales and Northern Ireland have abandoned SATs and only the government remains to defend the indefensible.

There is a noble tradition of civil disobedience in the face of tyranny or oppression, we teach about it in schools. The NAHT members are taking action on a matter of principle, they have been threatened with legal action, loss of pay, a threat to their careers and that Ofsted inspectors will demand to see test results. Are they not walking the same path as Gandhi or Martin Luther King? Instead they are branded as moaning minnies who shouldn’t complain and just get on with testing 11 year-olds to destruction,

The government’s reply is always ‘standards’ and Peter Preston sites falling standards in Scotland and Wales. Why the fall in standards? Because teachers aren’t teaching to test, spending all their time between January and May on revision, and mock tests. It is true that the more tests children do the more proficient they become, at the same time schools jettison art, music and PE. A diet of gruel eventually leads to malnutrition.

As for the children who won’t be tested being ‘victims’? The fact is that testing reinforces failure, I’ve heard children leaving primary school waving their test results in the air, ‘I’m thick, I’m a Level 3’. More able children become bored and disaffected with the stodgy, unchallenging curriculum. Others succumb to stress faced with these high stakes tests – don’t worry children it’s only the headteacher’s job that’s at stake, no pressure.

Finally Peter Preston gives the impression that the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT) General Secretary, Christine Blower is in favour of hearty, bone-crunching games of rugby as an alternative to SATs tests. The truth is that Ms Blower did suggest a whole list of academic, cultural and sporting activities, a sort of festival of the mind and body, as an alternative to that grim week of testing. As a sop to middle England she might have included rugby. The less salubrious papers indulge in outright falsification, disinformation and misrepresentation in an attempt to belittle their opponents. I had hoped that as an ex-editor of ‘The Guardian’ Peter Preston would have exhibited higher journalistic standards.


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