Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Who is defending local authority schools?

I have been thinking about where I would like my imaginary child to go to secondary school. Here is the exact question I have been trying to answer: Which school will be better for my daughter, the newly opened Academy or the local authority school? Here is the question the Tories (and, to a lesser extent, Labour) have been trying and partly succeeding to convince me to ask myself: Which school will be better for my daughter, the newly opened ‘free’ school with high standards of behaviour and tried and tested teaching methods or, the school with the restrictive curriculum that has been enslaved by a wicked local bureaucracy?

Why am I finding it so hard to answer my own question? The reason is, I believe, that in all of the debate surrounding Academies there is very little discussion about the actual benefit that schools receive as a result of being under local authority control. No information easily available to me, as a (pretend) parent, tells me how the local authority will actually help my child get a better education. With the Conservative plans to allow parents, businesses and social sector groups to open new schools, local authorities need to become much more adept at marketing themselves to parents if they are to continue attracting pupils to their schools.

Arguments in favour of local authority schools usually only support local authorities by default; they are criticisms of Academies, not positive affirmations of the part that local authorities play in providing the best possible education for local children. Prominent anti-Academies campaigner and Guardian journalist, Fiona Millar, argued earlier this month that, currently, “parents who have made a perfectly rational decision to stick with their local school are made to feel they are sacrificing their children on an altar of political correctness” and that for many parents, “a public validation, indeed celebration, of the local schools would bring with it a huge sigh of relief. No more worries about choice, tutors, long journeys, selection tests, the trauma of separating their children from their childhood friends.” But what is it that we would be “celebrating”? What is it that the local authorities provide that should encourage us to “validate” their schools?

A couple of years ago, the London borough of Tower Hamlets fought off a bid for a new Academy to be opened in the borough, sponsored by Goldman Sachs. The Council spokesman said (speaking to the BBC), "Our priority is always to secure the best possible standards for our young people. This is not a place where the excuse of deprivation is allowed to stand in the way of high aspirations. Since 1997 the percentage of young people achieving five or more good GCSEs has increased from 26% to 56%.” What he did not say is how the local authority helped pupils to achieve these results or make a clear argument about why the authority is best placed to continue the improvement.

An article in last Sunday’s Observer, on whether or not parents should be allowed to open schools, concluded that, “Those defending the status quo are backing a system that is deeply flawed.” My argument is that no-one is “defending the status quo”, just attacking the new schools being set up. This is a shame because many local authorities, like Tower Hamlets (which has very high levels of deprivation), have enjoyed real success in improving the schools under their watch.

According to a report by CfBT Education Trust, local authorities spend between 5 and 20 per cent of schools’ budgets on ‘central services’. As a parent I would be happy to hear this if a compelling case was made to me that the money is spent to improve my child’s education by, for instance, coordinating teacher training across the borough; or making facilities available that can be enjoyed by children from several schools; or even just getting best value for money. At the moment, however, the case is simply not being made.

If they are to continue to attract parents to their schools under a Conservative government when pupil intakes will not be guaranteed by a need to fill places, local authorities must (when they have a case) make their role in school success clear to parents. If they do not, then Gove’s casting of them as “complacent local bureaucracies” will be all too prevalent in parents’ minds as they ask themselves where they want their children to go to school.

Monday, 18 January 2010

High 'grit' not just high grades

Michael Gove was temporarily distracted from creating New Sweden this morning and spoke instead (on the Today programme) about education systems in Finland, South Korea and Singpore. Why? Because in those countries teaching is a "high prestige profession". Teachers in Finland, he explained, are chosen from the top 10 per cent of university graduates; in South Korea primary school teachers are chosen from the top 5 per cent of the population. The Conservatives now hope to make the teaching profession, in David Cameron's words, "brazenly elitist".

If elected the Tories will only allow those with a 2/2 degree or higher to become a teacher - a decision that was, it seems, based in part on the success of Teach First (for which applicants need at least a 2/1 degree to be accepted). As an alumnus of Teach First I was pleased to see Cameron describing it as "a fantastic programme" and pledging his support for its extension. However, what neither Gove nor Cameron mentioned in their respective media appearances was that although academic achievement is one element of the Teach First teacher selection criteria it is not the only (and, I would argue, definitely not the most important) reason for the success of Teach First's recruitment and selection process.

Teach First teachers are also required to demonstrate certain competencies, including resilience, leadership and planning and organising. A recent study from the US suggests that if the Tories are serious about improving teacher quality, politicians should be taking and interest in these character traits as well as academic achievement. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley describes the results of a study to find out what separates the very top Teach For America (the US version of Teach First) teachers from their TFA colleagues. It shows that, beyond academic success, the very best teachers tend to demonstrate high levels of 'grit' and perseverance, are "constantly re-evaluating what they are doing", set big goals and can demonstrate "leadership achievement." They are people who are able to put their mind to something and achieve what they set out to do.

Malcolm Gladwell came to similar conclusions in a 2008 New Yorker article. He wrote, "Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve....seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar."

I am glad that Michel Gove thinks it should be “difficult to become a teacher” as I support the aspiration to make teaching a high status profession but the test of suitability should not simply be academic. If the Tories are to make sure that their policy is not “peculiar” but effective they need to attract gritty, not just brainy, people into teaching.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Am I a (supply side) revolutionary?

Michael Gove has declared that it is time to ‘bring down the curtain on the tragedy of educational failure.’ For the modern Conservative party education reform is, he says, a ‘moral crusade’. I applaud Gove’s zeal and believe that his commitment to fighting educational inequality is very real. What I cannot decide is whether or not I support his plans for a ‘supply side revolution’ in education. Am I willing to put on my chain mail and join his crusade against what he calls ‘complacent local bureaucracies’? Will allowing schools to be ‘free’ really help to break the link between educational success and parental income? And, if the revolution is successful, how will it feel to be a parent, a teacher, a pupil in New Sweden?

Decision making time.....