Category Archives: Education

Human Values

I’ve been a school governor for over three decades. Here are some ideas which help to explain why I do it.

1970s: The Germ of an Idea

In the early 1970s, I was flat sharing in London. One of my co-tenants was an Australian woman who normally worked as a teacher. At the time I knew her, she was on an extended working holiday in the UK. In a conversation with her, she made a number of assertions.

The first was about the relative benefit to national economies of education and military spending. The second was on their relative moral worth.

silo and classroom
Silo and classroom

Economic and Moral Benefits

The economic arguments are worth repeating, in particular the multiplier effects of spending in these two areas. Every pound (or Australian dollar) spent on education is repaid many times over by the enhancements in the skills – and value to the economy – of each generation. In turn, these skills could be passed on to succeeding generations in a form of virtuous circle of benefit. Military expenditure, by contrast, is used for killing and destroying people and things (buildings, etc.) or, like nuclear weapons, are kept in concrete bunkers, do nothing for the whole period they exist and cost money to guard. Nearly fifty years later, these arguments seem a bit simplistic but still hold a basic truth.

But it’s the moral comparison which I still find most compelling. The moral worth to society of spending one’s career as a teacher seems the greatest of any as it is one person’s contribution to the skills and moral values of future generations. By skills I mean basic life skills such as patience, sharing, taking your turn (for the youngest pupils) through to more obvious basic “academic” skills such as reading, writing and numeracy through to a life-long passion for education: learning to learn. Moral worth comes from teaching respect, openness to others’ ideas and views, courage, perseverance, self-respect, tolerance and by school staff modelling these behaviours as they work.

Keeping the Peace 1

One way of “keeping the peace”, at least in the short term, comes through policing people’s behaviour and, in extremis, by military means. Such methods tend to rely on fear as a motivator: a poor one in my view. Fear, like some addictive drugs, is usually required to be applied in increasing “doses” to continue to effect. The law of diminishing returns applies here. Fear can also, of course, lead to resentment by the fearful.

I’m not denying – and I salute – those individual acts of courage which are unique to military service: putting oneself in the “line of fire”, so to speak. But I have very strong doubts about the moral and ethical basis of choosing a military career. My discomfort flows from the unquestioning obedience to orders from a “higher” authority. This is tantamount to signing a blank cheque for any military-related government policy decision, no matter how morally dubious. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not a pacifist: some degree of “defence” expenditure is necessary. But I would struggle to find a morally defensible casus belli since World War Two.

Keeping the Peace 2

I digress, so let’s get back to education. The school where I am Chair of Governors is situated in the most multinational, multi-ethnic part of a town which is itself quite multicultural. Broadly speaking, it’s a relatively peaceful place and people of many nationalities and cultures generally get along fine with each other. We have around 45 different nationalities represented in our school, a fact which we celebrate. Mutual respect is hard-wired into our values. A neighbouring school on the same “campus” site shares our values.

As I said recently to the Chief Education Officer in our Local Authority, I firmly believe that the values we encourage in our pupils contribute strongly to the community coherence of our town.

British Values?

Which is why, unsurprisingly, I get annoyed when politicians (or Ofsted aping the words) bang on about “British” values. For the record, to the best of my recollection, it was Gordon Brown who, as Prime Minister, started it. The Tories have continued to emphasise this concept as part of the English nationalism and exceptionalism which has, tragically, taken over the Party. To the idea of “British” values, I simply say this: there is no such thing. The values we emphasise in our school are to be found in any liberal democracy in, let’s say, Northern Europe at least. Similar values can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout “Western” liberal democracies.

I would like to say that they are “human” values, but, sadly, I don’t see that they extend that far.

Measuring the Wrong Things

The reality is that we live in a country where Ofsted has been given the job to assess and judge schools and similar institutions. My recent post Abolish Ofsted? goes into more detail on this. The inspection framework doesn’t measure those valuable cultural and societal issues mentioned above. There are some practical reasons for this. “Community coherence” is hard to measure: it is quite subjective and the effects of “good” education in this dimension may take decades to show. Today’s Guardian opinion piece on the importance of creativity in our education system is another example.

A good Ofsted inspector will understand this and (a) make an effort to understand the context of the school and (b) take a holistic approach which makes due allowance for the softer, harder-to-measure aspects of a school’s performance. It is a pity that many Ofsted inspectors are not up to the job in this respect.

Respect

So, my deepest respect goes out to teachers: it’s a hard but rewarding job educating our future citizens. And I salute their “critical friends”, my fellow School Governors, volunteers all (as far as I am aware). In these troubling times, our very future as a civilised nation depends on their dedication.

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Abolish Ofsted?

Disclaimer: the views presented here are my personal ones only and in no way represent those of any schools with which I have been, or continue to be, associated.

I read a spine-chilling story in Saturday’s newspaper which stated that Chinese journalists will soon be required to pass a test, grading their understanding of the teachings of their leader, Xi Jinping. Here’s an account by a US news outlet on the same story. Journalists in China need a licence to practice their profession. In effect, this new edict reduces their role purely to that of propagandists for the Chinese government. Presumably, those journalists with poor marks will be barred from their jobs.

Strangely, you may think, this story brought to mind an organisation which strikes terror in the hearts of the professionals it seeks to regulate: Ofsted. Strangely? There is a strong resemblance, which I explain below.

Amanda Spielman Ofsted
Amanda Spielman, CEO Ofsted

Coincidentally, on the following day, the Labour Party at its conference has announced that it will include in its manifesto a commitment to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new system mainly based around local authority inspection. The Times Educational Supplement gives a balanced account here and reports that teaching unions are strongly supportive. It’s worth noting that the comments posted below the TES report help to flesh out the main arguments.

Measuring Affluence

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “I believe Ofsted measures poverty. It measures deprivation. It doesn’t measure excellence. And I think Ofsted has to measure excellence.” From my 32 years’ experience as a school governor, I have long since come to broadly the same conclusion. But here I must first declare an interest: I am a Governor of a school in a deprived area with an exceptionally high level of students for whom English is not their first language. The head and the teachers work exceptionally hard to overcome these disadvantages and ensure that our kids progress well in their long and difficult journey of catch-up with children from more privileged backgrounds. But sadly, we concluded some years ago that it is virtually impossible, arithmetically, for our school to be recognised as “outstanding” because of the way Ofsted measures success.

The Number Fairies

The children’s author Michael Rosen writes an occasional series of articles for the Guardian under the title Letter from a Curious Parent. Rosen is clearly a man after my own heart and I always find him a good read. This article from April 2019 is a case in point.

Rosen’s main criticism of the current system is in its obsession with some highly suspect data and its systemic ignoring of other, more difficult to quantify, factors which influence the overall quality of the education given by a school. The present school “data” is a starting point for deeper probing and insights. It is not the end product from which facile conclusions can be drawn, for example in the notorious league tables so loved by government Ministers and ill-informed sections of the media.

A further major problem with the present Ofsted data system is this. It takes a single dataset (raw students’ results in tests) and cuts them every way conceivable, sub-dividing by gender, ethnicity, a somewhat arbitrary binary disadvantaged / non-disadvantaged categorisation and who knows what. Declaration of interest number two: I have a maths degree and several years’ experience working with statistical analysis in my early career. One of the effects of measuring differences between these various categories is that false positive results will occur by chance and by small sample sizes. Over-emphasis on the detail leads to a regime where false trails are pursued and invalid conclusions are drawn.

In short, the present approach to measuring school performance is statistically illiterate.

Project Fear

The really pernicious effect of this űber-accountability is on the consequences flowing from this rush to judgement. As a governor, I have spent much time discussing (anonymised) individual data, individual kids’ needs and circumstances and the pupil-orientated interventions used and known to bring about improvement. Much of this internal data is now, by Ofsted decree, ignored by their inspectors. Never mind the facts, just look at the huge amount of numbers we can produce for just one school. Reputations can be raised and destroyed by this flawed inspection process. The effects can last years and can destroy the careers of and create unnecessary stress for dedicated, hard-working teachers. The resultant increase in teacher “burn-out” and early retirement, together with the deterrent effect on would-be recruits to the teaching profession, does a huge disservice to teachers and pupils alike.

I am a strong believer in the need for accountability, especially for something as important to future citizens’ life chances as school education. I spent over 20 years as a fairly senior manager in a large corporation devising, redrafting, tweaking and adjusting various performance measures to try to ensure that the more senior managers had a clear and incisive insight into the performance of those we managed. Not an easy or straightforward task. Transferred to the world of education, the issues get ever more complex and important. But a world in which an Ofsted visit is viewed with fear and trepidation – and is seen, to a large extent, as a discredited lottery – is a world gone mad.

“Much Worse Than That”

A few months ago, I attended a Local Authority briefing session for governors. When the formal session had ended, I fell into conversation with a governor from another school, a woman I have never met before. I made some comment to the effect that I was unsure, on balance, whether Ofsted’s existence was a good or bad thing for the education of our children. I said I thought it was probably bad. “Oh no!” said my interlocutor. “They’re much worse than that!”

With Stupid Boy Pike as current Education Secretary, it looks like we will have to wait for a future Labour government before there’s any chance that things will improve.

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Boys Only

I was educated, from age 11 to 18, in a single-sex school. To make matters worse, my student days were at a single-sex college at a university where male students outnumbered female students by 7 to 1. So I spent my teens and the first part of my twenties in an environment where girls / women were hard to meet.

A 2015 post, First Doubts, touches on the fact that, in these formative years, I consider myself to have been a shy person. I leave it to those who know me to decide how well, or not, I have managed to overcome this problem in the following fifty years.

Why do I mention this now? Well, two recent news items (of which more below) prompted me to have some reflective thoughts on the psychological effects of single-sex education. The two stories both concern men who attended single-sex schools: Mark Field and Boris Johnson. Both Tory MPs: Field a minister (until he was suspended) and Johnson a backbencher (since he left the Cabinet). One a candidate for our future Prime Minister; both behaving in a misogynistic way.

The Mansion House Incident

The video of the incident involving Greenpeace activist Janet Barker and (suspended) minister Mark Field has been widely shared on social media. Here’s one link:

Predictably – and sadly – the incident has already divided opinion. There are those (almost exclusively in the Tory Party and its media supporters) who take the view that Barker got what she deserved. The rest of us, me included, see this is a wholly disproportionate reaction by a privileged white man to a peaceful (but disruptive) interruption to proceedings. It’s clear from the video that Field stays angry all the time he’s gripping Barker’s neck and pushing her out of the building. This is despite Barker’s repeated  statement: “This is a peaceful protest”. Field’s final words when had pushed Barker out of the building are telling: “This is what happens when people like you disturb our dinner.” (My emphasis.)

People like you. We can all speculate as to what exactly Field meant by this. I’m sure that, in part, he meant “people who do not share my views”: the whole anger shtick at the audacity of people who challenge his rich, white, male privileged position. But there’s more than a suspicion that “people like you” also refers to women; women who do not know their place.

One thing’s for sure: a thug wearing a black tie is still a thug.

The Screaming, Shouting and Banging in Carrie Symonds’ Flat

Which leads us naturally to incident number two and Boris Johnson. (Carrie Symonds is Johnson’s current girlfriend, apparently.) Shortly after midnight last Friday, police were called to the flat where Johnson is living with Symonds. The police left after satisfying themselves that no-one in the flat was in danger.

The neighbour’s concern followed loud noises of screaming, shouting and the smashing of glass or crockery. Symonds was heard to shout “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. It came as absolutely no surprise to hear that Symonds had also yelled “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.” The British public have a legitimate interest in the moral character of anyone standing to be our next Prime Minister.

True to form, three tabloid newspapers went into full attempts at character assassination of the neighbour who had recorded the altercation. Here’s an example from the Daily Mail in one of their full-throated “make the lives hell for ordinary people exposing inconvenient truths” mode. “Guardianista” seems to be a term of abuse for Mail journalists: it feels like a particularly puerile and infantile turn of phrase to me.

The neighbours were concerned for the safety of those involved after three tries to speak to the occupants and getting no reply at their front door. It subsequently emerged that three neighbours were concerned about the safety of the occupants.

Johnson’s private life is of no particular interest to me nor is it, per se, for judging his suitability for high office. But his character, and anything which throws light on this, is of serious public concern. Oh, and a “private” life that is so loud that it can be heard by three sets of neighbours in the small hours of the morning doesn’t seem to be so very private. What it reveals about Johnson’s attitude to women is also relevant – and disturbing.

False Victimhood

Today’s tabloids, in search of a lurid headline, are pursuing the Johnson “complicated sex life” angle. Speculation is rife. The Daily Mirror asserts “Boris ‘wants to get back with his wife’”.  The Mail says the opposite: “Despite bust-up, couple insist: We are stronger than ever”. Meanwhile, the Sun reveals “Boris and Carrie had 4 rows in 6 weeks”. Other papers concentrate on the “pressure to come clean” aspect. Taken together, it presents Johnson with an opportunity to play the victim: he’s being criticised for matters in his private life, poor dear.

Some of us are old enough to remember the scandal of John Profumo and Mandy Rice-Davies, where an out-of-control sex life threatened national security. But those were different times. Perhaps, on this occasion only, the last word should go to his former boss Max Hastings, who states that Johnson is “totally unfit” for office.

So What?

What do I conclude from these two very different incidents? Well, both illustrate the anger which is aroused in people like them who carry round with them an unswerving sense of their own entitlement. In that respect, they come from a very different upbringing from me. In retrospect, I feel that my “boys only” education meant that my teens and early twenties were, perhaps, a bit less exciting than they might have been. But I hold a strong suspicion that, for Field and Johnson, their single-sex education is a factor in their misogynistic attitude towards women.

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English Lesson

Who is more to blame, Humpty Dumpty or Theresa May? I will leave you to decide, after reading through the words which follow. Students of English as an Additional Language are welcome to join in the game – in other words, “foreigners are welcome”. To my website, I mean: to many of my compatriots, perhaps as many as 52% of them, this phrase is an alien concept when applied “to my country”.

Words

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  Humpty Dumpty, of course, is a fictional, fairy tale character who, by the time Lewis Carrol wrote those words in the 19th century, was drawn to look like an egg.

The original fairy tale has its origins in the First to Third English Civil Wars (with the Fourth now coming soon!) The real Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used by the Royalists to defend Colchester Castle during a siege by Parliamentarians. (You may remember the Parliamentarians, aka Roundheads: they were the first to die in their thousands in the cause to establish the concept that Parliament, rather than the King, is sovereign.) Parliamentarian forces successfully knocked the Cannon from the castle battlements and it fell into swampy ground outside the castle walls. As the story goes, “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”.

Maybot- Speak

One of the most vacuous (unless you have mental age of eight) neologisms is May’s phrase “Brex*t means Brex*t”. To this, Leave extremists have given us “Leave Means Leave”. These tautologies, together with a commonsense knowledge of how language works, might lead you to the conclusion “X means X”, where X is any word. You would be wrong. There is at least one exception to the general rule. The assertion “Indefinite means indefinite” is false, when followed by the phrase “to remain” and stamped into a passport.

In her New Year message to the nation, May has added yet another empty, meaningless phrase to the lexicon: the country can, apparently, unite so long as we “turn the corner” together. Where exactly this corner is, and why it has such magical properties to unite us, are both unclear. But fear not, good people, the corner that will do the trick is out there somewhere. I assume that we all have to meet somewhere round the corner from the corner in question and turn the corner together to make it work. I await further information! See you there!

English for Foreigners

The ever-hostile Home Office last week launched an online registration scheme for EU nationals resident in the UK. This is to enable them to continue to receive their existing rights to move freely into and out of the UK. The fee is £76 (with exemptions for some). Without such registration, under the “hostile environment” policy created by Theresa May, such EU nationals would be liable to harassment by UK Border Force, denied benefits, free NHS treatment and fearful of unlawful deportation, just like the Windrush generation has suffered.

Reaction has been hostile. In a Guardian report, one long-term resident who is a Danish national wrote: “You absolute s****! I’ve lived here 35 years, got a stamp in my passport for ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in 1985 and now you want me to apply to stay in my own home.” Max Fras, a visiting fellow at the LSE, sarcastically expressed his “deep gratitude” at the opportunity to pay £65 “for the possibility of letting an app as reliable as Southern Rail on a snowy day to decide the future of my existence”. Even the Sun criticized government policy in a leading article headed “EU are welcome”. It’s a pretty pass when the government’s main tabloid cheerleader has turned against the May Government’s inhumanity.

One elderly holocaust survivor even compared this government to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews:

The accompanying text says “The last time my family qualified for registration and ‘settled status’”. There’s nothing more I can add.

English Coast

According to our Home Secretary, we’re facing a “crisis” because, since mid-November, an average of nearly 4 people a day have been landing illegally on our shores. (At the peak 3 years ago, an average of 2000 people a day were crossing the Mediterranean to enter Greece. From which I conclude the Government’s panic  is propaganda, not proportionate.)  I, for one, will be sleeping more easily now that I know Sajid Javid cancelled his holiday to return home to save us all. Better still, he’s getting 2 UK Border Patrol boats to sail back to UK waters to deter Johnny foreigner. According to Wikipedia, the length of the UK coastline is 12,429 km or, if you include the larger islands, 31,368km.

I’ve got a better idea, adapted from Trump’s Wall: why don’t we just build a higher sea around our island? That’ll keep ‘em out! Their flimsy little boats will never be able to climb over that: a quick capsize, problem solved! And all we have to do is just keep on pumping out the CO2. Sorry, East Anglia, it’s been nice knowing you. Seaside holidays in Norwich, anyone?

Fake News

The far right, particularly in the USA and increasingly here in the UK, clearly welcome any development which obscures the truth and confuses people. Russia under Putin would agree. So come along, all you people. Learn the New English where all words are stripped of any meaning and we call all march forward into 2019 united and happy.

A thought: why didn’t May take her Cabinet to The Corner instead of Chequers to teach them the New English? Then they could have all turned the corner together, united and happy!

Happy New Year everyone!

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Excluded by Policy

This post is dedicated to the memory of Tessa Jowell, who died on Friday. She has been lauded as the Minister who drove forward the UK’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. But arguably, her greatest legacy was the introduction of the Sure Start programme. This was a valued and evidence-based programme to help disadvantaged children in their early years development. Sadly, this programme had been decimated by Osborne’s ill-conceived austerity policy.

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell

I was speaking to a head teacher I know well recently. He told me that, sadly, he has had to make the first exclusions from his school this year, after previously succeeding for many years to avoid this. He made a direct link between curriculum changes and exclusions – a link I had not previously made myself.

I understand that exclusions are up considerably in other local schools, too.

School Budgets

As a Chair of Governors myself, I am only too aware of the effects of cuts to school budgets: difficult decisions have to be made. With the lion’s share of the budget going in salaries, this inevitably means fewer staff. With statutory requirements around class sizes, it is the support staff who tend to get reduced in number. This makes it more difficult to keep “hard to handle” pupils in mainstream school provision.

The vicious 40% cuts to Local Government budgets from central government have also severely reduced the capacity of second-line support to these vulnerable pupils. A double whammy.

Sure Start

The head reminded me – it’s a secondary school – that they are now seeing children who were unable to take up Sure Start schemes owing to the squeeze on LA budgets, when much of the Sure Start programme was cut back. Much of what Sure Start was about was to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up in their development with their middle-class peers, so they didn’t have to play catch-up during their school years. Prevention is always better – and cheaper – than cure.

Youth Services

One obvious effect of swingeing LA budget cuts is the decimation of Youth Services. It does not take a genius to work out that, if there is less for kids to do out of school, the temptation to get into trouble is correspondingly greater. Obvious, really.

Curriculum Changes

The one bit I hadn’t twigged was the connection between Gove’s curriculum changes and the rise in exclusions. It all stems from the higher status afforded to academic subjects by the English. The pressure on all 16 year olds to take subjects from the EBacc list narrows the curriculum choices – in particular, away from vocational subjects. These academic subjects are often less suited to children with learning and behaviour issues and further reduces their self-esteem. This, in turn, encourages poor behaviour and the risk of exclusion.

So, in summary, higher exclusion rates follow directly from a toxic cocktail of Tory policy changes (i.e. curriculum changes and budget cuts).

Grammar Schools

Meanwhile, the Government announces it will waste £50m on “expanding” grammar schools – an evidence-free Theresa May vanity project which solves nothing, a subject I first raised back in 2015.

Ho hum.

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Madness, Madness, I Call It Madness

I was in conversation with a fellow experienced Chair of Governors the other day. She spoke of “one of those heart-sinking moments” when she heard that Theresa May was planning to revive grammar schools, now confirmed. Between us, we have over 40 years’ experience volunteering as school governors. We agreed it almost feels like we’ve wasted our time all these years trying to help the schools we serve to raise standards and life chances for our pupils.

I call the proposal madness, sheer madness, for several reasons set out later in this post.

Enjoy Yourself

I have a broad picture of education policy and practice over my lifetime. I believe it is true that, back in the 1960s and 70s, education policy was, to some extent, driven by fashion. The latest ideas, the sexier-sounding the better, were implemented with little more basis than he (or she) who shouts loudest. Some of these ideas worked and have been retained in some form. Some didn’t and have fallen by the wayside. The most radical change in this period was the near-universal abolition of the 11-plus and the growth of comprehensive education. (More comprehensives opened under Margaret Thatcher’s period as Education Secretary than any other’s.)

Sure Start centre
Sure Start centre

The period from the late 70s through to 2000 saw a developing professionalism in the practice of pedagogy. University education departments and institutions such as the National College for Teaching and Leadership carried out research into what works. There was a steady upward trend in evidence-led changes to education policy. Key initiatives in the New Labour years included two important reforms above all:

  • Every Child Matters, an antidote to narrow exam results as the only indicator of success. It stressed that every child, whatever their background or circumstances, should have the support they need to stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.
  • Sure Start centres, in recognition of the research which showed the importance of early years learning. Neuroscientific research has found that a child’s brain is 25% developed at birth, 80% developed by the aged of three. A US study found that the vocabulary used by three year olds in professional households was wider than that of the parents from the most deprived households. Those early years are crucial. Disadvantaged kids are way behind those more fortunate, long before they even start school.

Propaganda Ministers

The steady progress in implementing what works came to an abrupt halt in 2010 with the arrival of Michael Gove as Education Secretary. Policy making by evidence was replaced by ministerial whim. The logic behind the creation of academy schools was turned on its head. Free schools were introduced, spending public funds where groups lobbied for one, rather than where new places were needed. Local authorities were stripped of their powers to open new schools. This has led to the situation where local government has the legal duty to find a school place for everyone on their patch but without the powers to make it happen. The free schools programme was based on a Swedish initiative that was already being disowned by the politician who had introduced the scheme to Sweden. Funding for early years was slashed and 800 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010.

Compare this situation to Germany, where education is a non-political issue and structures and exam standards have barely changed in decades. In England, constant tinkering with curriculum and exam structures have left teacher confused and overworked. In the last school year alone, 14 changes to the Key Stage 2 curriculum were announced and, on the date pupils sat their SATs exams, the government hadn’t decided what the standards would be for the results.

No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in their droves or applying to emigrate to saner pastures abroad. When coupled to the shortfall in places filled on teacher training courses, I predict a major crisis of teacher shortages in 3-5 years’ time.

It’s Gonna Be Tougher

And now, to cap it all, we have Theresa May, without any electoral mandate, announcing the potential expansion of grammar schools. This is based on the entirely false argument that such schools aid social mobility. My earlier blog post, Stuck Inside of Mobile, explains why this is plain wrong. Briefly, it was the expansion in middle-class jobs in the economy of the 1950s and 60s, together with much more egalitarian tax and fiscal policies, which created opportunities for schoolchildren to find better jobs than their parents. It is merely coincidence that we had a more selective system at the time.

Even if the argument were true, times have changed significantly. Selective education at 11 was at a time when only 7% of students went to university (it’s now nearly 50%) and we had a major manufacturing base to absorb the 80-90% of 11-plus failures into work. But the social stigma and psychological damage of being branded a failure at eleven would be as true today as it was then.

Schools work best when there is a reasonable number of brighter children and pushy parents to support teachers in raising expectations and when the proportion of children from low-achieving, dysfunctional families is small. Too many of the latter can absorb a disproportionate amount of energy for school staff, That’s energy which could be applied for the benefit of all. With inspiring leadership and excellent teaching, good schools can close the prior attainment gap over the whole duration of a child’s schooling. Putting the majority of children into the slow lane at the arbitrary age of eleven makes no sense and offends every idea of helping the disadvantaged.

grammar school photo
Grammar School Days

Remaining grammar schools have 3% of the intake entitled to free school meals, compared to 15% for all schools. Better-off parents can pay for private tuition to help their children pass the 11-plus. Good evidence exists of the effect of selection on pupil achievement. In selective areas, pupils in selective schools perform, on average, very slightly better than they would have done in a non-selective system. But the vast majority of children at, in effect, secondary moderns, perform far worse than their comprehensive-taught counterparts elsewhere. In short, selection makes it tougher overall to succeed.

Who’s Goin’ to Suffer?

The analysis is very clear: the disadvantaged children suffer worst under a selective system.

I’m often intrigued to see what hatred, distortions, delusions and lies are spewed out in the Daily Mail, or at least by peeking at its front-page headlines. Today’s was an absolute classic of its kind. The sub-heading read “All schools could become grammar schools”. How, exactly? For every grammar schools created, you need at least three secondary moderns. Or wait… I look forward to the apoplectic Daily Mail headlines of the future when 80% of schoolchildren have failed the entrance test for all the schools in their area and are roaming the streets in feral gangs!

My earlier blog post, Confused and Bewildered, took a sceptical view of Theresa May’s inaugural speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street. You know, the one where she promised to work for the disadvantaged. I said then that new Tory Prime Ministers have form on doing the opposite of what they say in the first flush of their appointment. Well, May has just taken the first step in that dishonourable tradition.

In memory of Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell) 1938-2016

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Free Market Thinking Is Not the Answer

It should be obvious by now that free markets are not the solution to every problem. Sadly, too many people in power still haven’t learnt this simple truth. Here are two examples, one recent, one ongoing.

Schools Need Planning

School signAbout two years ago, the Chief Executive of a Local Education Authority was expressing the frustrations of her job. The essential problem was that she was responsible in law to ensure that sufficient places were available for all children who needed them in her area, but did not have the powers to bring this about. This ludicrous state of affairs first came about in 2010 when Michael Gove became Education Secretary. Gove’s ideological obsession for free schools (inspired by a Swedish example already disowned in Sweden) had removed the power for local government to create or expand their own schools. The famous “free market” would somehow step in and do the job. It didn’t: free schools were built, at great expense, in the wrong places.

Hardly anyone agrees with govenment policy. Unions and professional associations are opposed. The Local Government Association is against forced academisation. In mid April, Conservative MPs in the Commons  opposed the policy too. A week earlier, councils warned that there will be a shortage of school places, with 40% of councils affected. Local authorities are not allowed to open new schools. The so-called “free market”, of free schools and academy chains, is somehow supposed to fill the gap. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen. The proportion of parents getting their first choice school for their children is falling. Markets are no substitute for local knowledge and planning. The problems were largely avoidable, but for dogma and ideology.

Carbon Credits Don’t Work

School places are a problem for this country and the problem is contained. A much more serious, longer-term and globally important issue is that of man-made global warming. The evidence for this was first flagged up by scientists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first serious international conference on climate change was held in Toronto in 1988. 1992 saw the first UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, by then, the ideology of free market fundamentalism had really begun to take hold of the thinking of governments throughout the world.

If we had still being operating the kind of interventionist policies which were mainstream throughout the western world until the late 1970s, things may well have turned out differently. The 1960s and 1970s saw a series of strong government interventions in many countries. DDT was banned, various Clear Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, along with legislation protecting wildlife on land and in the oceans. Regulate, control and ban: these were the weapons governments were willing and able to use.

By the time a consensus on climate change had emerged, government attitudes had changed. Markets were the solution; governments must not interfere or enact “anti-business” policies. Instead of direct intervention, free market thinking created the concept of carbon caps, credits and emissions trading. This was a ridiculously roundabout way to achieve the intended aims of reducing carbon emissions. Variations in global economic growth added wild fluctuations to the price of carbon credits. The scope for fraudulent use of credits and of corruption quickly turned into reality.

planet earth
Planet Earth

Once again, the barrier to clearly thought-through policy development resulting from free market dogma prevented the implementation of effective solutions to an increasingly urgent problem: man-made global warming. Only this time, the problem is not confined to one small country. It affects everyone on the planet.

Markets Aren’t the Answer, Stupid

Markets are fine in their place. Choosing which can of baked beans to buy, for example. There are no significant externalities which escape the market mechanism. Such as the quality of education for a generation of schoolchildren. Or the future of life on earth. It’s high time governments woke up to this stark but simple fact.

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I Am Not a Number!

Those of you who are old enough will remember the cult 1960s series The Prisoner. Number Six’s famous outburst, shown below, came to mind when I heard about the government’s latest announcement of their education “policy”.

i am not a numberLet me explain…

Parents: You’re Needed! Er, No You’re Not!

On Budget day, we heard from Nicky Morgan’s apparent new boss, George Osborne, that all schools will be forced to become academies. Next day, Education Secretary Morgan abolished the rule which requires schools to have parent governors on their governing bodies. What really matters now, said Morgan, are the skills which individual governors bring. She clearly means skills like finance, marketing, law and so on. Business skills. Hardly surprising: academies are much more like businesses than local authority run schools.

Just five short years ago, Morgan’s predecessor Michael Gove launched his pet project: the free schools programme. One of the selling points was all about parent power. Parents will be free to set up schools and be in the driving seat. Now, suddenly, for no apparent reason, parents are out of fashion. The very people who have a significant stake in a school – the pupils’ parents – no longer have views and inputs that matter. Why the U-turn?

It’s the Ideology, Stupid!

Amid all the current rows about last week’s budget fiasco, IDS versus Cameron and so on, one thing remains constant. Underneath all the differences is a belief shared by all the protagonists in the Tory cabinet. It’s the continuing unshaking faith in free market fundamentalism. (See many of my earlier posts for more on this.) A key token of belief in this faith is that there’s only one motive that matters which drives human behaviour. That’s the pursuit of material self-interest.

Worker / Consumer Factories

Viewed in this light, we can glean the government’s view of the purpose of schools. That’s to turn out obedient, law-abiding consumers:  consumers with the work skills to support “UK plc” in its competition with its competitor countries. (Hence the obsession with international league tables.) And consumers whose aspirations are to purchase the goods and services that FMF capitalism produces, thereby increasing the profits of the large corporations who fund the Tory party. In this analysis, a human life can be reduced to a number: the “profit” he or she makes for UK plc. (In other words, the value of their labour minus the value of their goods and services consumed.)

What an empty, amoral, vacuous existence this entails for humanity! Where’s the quality of relationships, the sense of common purpose, the love, the joy of a beautiful sunset or the smell of roses? With schools’ purpose reduced to purely instrumental terms, where’s the value of learning for its own sake – the joy of discovering new things? Where are the rounded human beings of the future, the respect for human dignity? All irrelevant, it seems.

No wonder half the teachers want to leave the profession within five years and that there are key shortages of teachers right now. No wonder mental health problems in children are increasing and we have some of the unhappiest, most stressed, over-tested children in the world.

Morgan: Do Some Learning Yourself!

Nicky Morgan worked in corporate law on mergers and acquisitions before becoming an MP. She’s worked at the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills before her education brief. It’s time she tried to understand that brief, to reflect on what it means to be human and what education is for.

 

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Tangled Up in the Web

This is a cautionary tale about the perils of internet browsing. You can’t believe all you read – perhaps not even this post!

Just a few years ago, Michael Gove was in full flow trying to single-handedly destroy education in Britain by his reforms. On more than one occasion, in discussion, I found myself in agreement with head teachers and other professionals on this subject. In particular, we agreed that Gove was intent on improving the skills of our school pupils: the skills needed for life in 1950s Britain. Changes to the curriculum and testing would measure pupils’ ability to remember and regurgitate facts.

I also found agreement about a key skill that I think is vital to equip our children for life in the 21st century. In this internet age, with instant access to unlimited amounts of information, being able to assess the validity and reliability of something read on the web is essential. Taking a sceptical approach, to think for oneself and to carry out proper research are essential tools to equip anyone for modern life.

I learnt this lesson for myself again recently – the hard way.

web of lies
Web of lies?

The Act That Wasn’t

I use the internet frequently to try to establish the “facts” before writing many of my blog posts. I was considering a piece on how, in Britain, there is a lack of informed debate on just how good, or bad, the former British Empire was – for us Brits and for those in our former colonies. I was already pretty convinced from prior knowledge about one stark fact. Historians now generally agree that somewhere between 20 and 40 million Indians died in the late 19th century as a direct result of British Imperial policies and legislation. A whole series of avoidable famines and deaths ensued.

I have a memory of something I’d read a few years earlier about a law passed by the Indian Imperial Government making it illegal for concerned individuals to raise charitable donations for famine relief – lest the corn traders’ profits were affected. And yes – after a bit of web browsing – I found it again. It’s called the 1877 Anti-Humanitarian Act. There’s just one problem: there was no such Act.

This article summarises what happened. A Californian academic, historian Mike Davis, wrote about it in a 2000 book called Late Victorian Holocausts. Guardian journalist George Monbiot picked up the story in a 2005 article, which is presumably where I first heard about it. Davis got it from a book called The Famine Campaign in Southern India by William Digby, Hon. Sec. Indian Relief Fund, published in 1878. What Davis had missed was that Digby makes it clear (on page 55) that this was a spoof, a satire made up by one of the campaigners frustrated by the British Government’s indifference to the unnecessary suffering and death of so many of its imperial subjects.

Where does this leave us? I’m convinced the famines were real, the deaths were real, the UK government’s indifference was real, but the Act isn’t. So, all you seekers after truth, beware! Tread carefully around the web and hang on to that key critical life skill I was banging on about to the teachers!

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Us and Them

When did you last hear the Defence Secretary criticize members of the armed forces as “lazy, useless and cowardly”? Or the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refer to farmers as “idle, corrupt and inefficient”? Well, of course, to the best of my memory, neither of these things has ever happened. It seems to be an accepted convention that the relevant government ministers for the military and for farming are broadly supportive of the people working in these jobs. They even tend to actively promote and support their interests.

Yet the same clearly does not apply with all types of employees and their relevant ministers. I’m thinking in particular here of social workers and teachers.

Social Workers

It’s been well known for some time that people working in social services get a bad press. A notorious example was the tragic case of “Baby P”. This led to the hounding by the press of the head of Hackney Social Services. The tabloids effectively bullied Ed Balls, minister at the time, into leaning on the local authority to sack her. She, rightly, went on to win her employment tribunal case for unfair dismissal. It’s obvious that social services departments have been understaffed for years: I remember attending a talk given by the chief executive of a former local authority lamenting his 48% vacancy rate in permanent posts.

Overworked social workers daily have to make heart-rending decisions such as whether to keep a dysfunctional family together. Often they are “damned if they do” and “damned if they don’t”. It makes you wonder why anyone would choose social work as a career. Unremitting criticism, including from the responsible government minister, is bound to be counter-productive in the longer term.

Teachers

A similar trend is apparent in our schools. A government report issued in August forecast a shortage of teachers as a result of too few people taking up training. A record number of teachers are leaving the profession. It’s not hard to see why.

Over the past couple of decades, the teaching profession increasingly used evidence-based research to improve teaching practice. They gradually learnt what worked and, as a result, standards improved. The great British public – or at least the media – would have none of this. When exam results fell year on year, as they did occasionally, the press screamed at teachers’ failures to do their jobs. More often, results rose year on year. And the result? The press complained that exam standards were falling – the tests were getting easier. Another example of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t”.

At least during the New Labour years, Education Secretaries gave praise where it was due, whilst continually demanding ways to improve teaching and learning. And yes, teachers complained at the excessive pace of top-down reforms and the amount of testing.

gove cartoon
Michael Gove

Things changed dramatically after the 2010 election. Murdoch journalist and new-kid-on-the education-block, Michael Gove, declared war on teachers. “The blob” was his favoured term of abuse. Reforming zeal took on a whole new dervish-like form. Policy changes became based not on the evidence of what works, but on ministerial whim. Websites, blogs and social media were dedicated to the teaching profession swapping tales of Gove’s latest stupid pronouncement. Most of the profession was laughing at him behind his back as means of coping. The Department for Education and Ofsted vied with each other to heap the most criticism on the reviled teachers. Staff working as school inspectors for outsourced private companies would often swoop like an invading army on schools who failed to adopt the new ideas. The aim was to force reform against the wishes of parents, governors and teachers.

In my role as a school governor, I attended a meeting last month with a number of head teachers which was basically to make contingency planning for a feared possible Whitehall swoop. Our aim was damage limitation. At the end of a nearly two-hour discussion, we turned and looked at each other. We sadly lamented that none of the time we had spent in that meeting was in any way focussed on the children’s needs or on improving their education. Such a waste of time and energy! This pattern gets repeated all over the country. And mightily disheartening it is too!

Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, has toned down the rhetoric, but much of the madness and dogma continues.

So what is it about the military (including arms manufacturers) and the farmers which leads Government ministers to act as their cheerleaders – but for teachers and social workers it’s a constant barrage of criticism?

Write your answers on one side of the paper only, please.

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