Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Tories: Exclusive or inclusive?

Next in the series examining Tory education policies....

We believe that Head Teachers are best placed to raise standards of behaviour, which is why we will stop heads being overruled by bureaucrats over exclusions.

Decisions about whether or not to exclude a child from school should not be taken lightly. As well as the fact that a pupil who is excluded is very likely to end up with no qualifications and to become ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training), Fairbridge, a charity that supports pupils in danger of exclusion, says that educating an excluded child in a Pupil Referral Unit (where a majority of excluded children end up) costs around £15,000 a year – three times as much as a place at secondary school. The aggregate cost of all exclusions is around £650 million every year and the average lifetime cost of crime is over £15,500 per excluded child.

The Conservatives pledge that they will give the power to exclude a child to Head Teachers, who will no longer be ‘overruled by bureaucrats.’ The Tories have a broad understanding of the term ‘bureaucrat’ - in this case they mean the independent appeals panels administered by local authorities. In their schools policy paper from 2007, they make it clear that, under a Tory government, “The only appeal would be to the governing body of the school.” This is wrong.

It is wrong because it emphasises exclusion when the most successful inner-city schools are placing a very strong emphasis on inclusion. A report published by OFSTED last year, ‘12 Outstanding Secondary Schools, Excelling against the odds’, noted that one of the characteristics of all the schools featured is that, “They are highly inclusive, having complete regard for educational progress, personal development and well being of every child.” Some of the schools now employ ‘social inclusion managers’ who “spend their time around the corridors or dropping into lessons” and work closely with heads of year to follow through on any issues arising. The outcome of these innovations (and others like it) is that, “The outstanding schools manage behaviour issues very well without instilling an oppressive atmosphere.”

The Tory argument is that schools are very often using fixed term exclusions (suspensions) when permanent exclusion would be a “compelling alternative” that would ensure pupils are placed in a setting “more appropriate to his her specific and often challenging needs.” The problem is that those settings (pupil referral units) are, very often, as OFSTED says (and the Tories themselves quote) “the least successful of all in ensuring the good progress of the pupils who attended.” Expecting them to improve very quickly and deal simultaneously with larger numbers of pupils is a very tall – and expensive – order.

If a Head Teacher is not required to justify her decision to an external body, they may take the decision more lightly. No Head Teacher wants to exclude a child – it goes completely against what all teachers are working to achieve – but without a check on their decisions, they may on occasions get a call wrong or exclude a child too rashly. The Conservatives have pointed out on several occasions that we know an ever increasing amount about how schools succeed against the odds. They argue that they will work to ensure that all schools have this knowledge; on exclusions, their message is counter to what the inclusive emphasis of the best schools.

How will this policy actually change the educational landscape?

This policy would make it easier for pupils to be permanently excluded from school and would put a lot of extra burden on pupil referral units that are already struggling to cope with very challenging pupils.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Reasonable force and false accusations

The next Conservative manifesto pledge....

We will make it easier for teachers to use reasonable force to deal with violent incidents and remove disruptive pupils from the classroom without fear of legal action, and give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations.

The 2008/09 OFSTED annual report states that: “Pupils’ behaviour is better overall in primary and special schools than in secondary schools but it is nevertheless good or outstanding in 80% of secondary schools. These figures indicate that the very large majority of schools manage behaviour well and engage pupils effectively.” Despite this, a key part of the Conservative Party education manifesto is “TOUGHER DISCIPLINE”. David Cameron, speaking in January 2010, said that we must give teachers, “the powers and protections they need to keep order. Over the last decade these have been slowly stripped away.”

Ed Balls disagrees. Speaking last week to the NASUWT conference, he launched guidelines that aim to clarify teachers’ existing rights to use force in the classroom. He said, "Myths that schools should have 'no-contact policies', that teachers shouldn't be able to protect and defend themselves and others, will be dispelled by this new guidance which makes clear that in some situations, teachers have the powers and protection to use force."

Have teachers’ power to deal with “violent incidents” been, as Mr. Cameron claims, “stripped away”? Judging by the number of changes to the law that extend teachers’ rights to use reasonable force (and to search pupils and their property without consent) it does not seem so: additional statutory powers have been granted to teachers in the Education and Inspections Act of 2006, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 and the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.

The guidelines launched by Ed Balls (and published on the Teachernet website) explain that,

“Section 93 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 enables school staff to use reasonable force to prevent a pupil from:
a. committing a criminal offence (or, for a pupil under the age of criminal responsibility, what would be an offence for an older pupil);
b. causing personal injury or damage to property; or
c. prejudicing the maintenance of good order and discipline at the school, whether during a teaching session or otherwise.”

They go on to make it clear that all staff at the school have this power, whether temporary or full time, and that the power applies “where the pupil (including a pupil from another school) is on the school premises or elsewhere in the lawful control or charge of the staff member (for example on a school trip).”

I wonder then, exactly how do the Conservatives plan to make it ‘easier’ for teachers to use ‘reasonable force’ without ‘fear of legal action’? What is the Tory approach? I cannot think of any circumstances that might arise in which teachers would need to use force that are not already captured in the above, especially point ‘c’ which is quite wide-ranging, so a further change to the law seems unnecessary; a campaign to raise teacher awareness of their rights is welcome but, in releasing the new guidelines on the use of force, Labour has already begun this work; and if the Tories dictate to schools what they must include in their behaviour policies, they will be vulnerable to the very charge they make against how we are currently governed, “where power is held by a distant and technocratic elite.”

The only aspect of the pledge that could, if implemented, be a genuine move from the status quo is the plan to “give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations.” Michael Gove elaborated on this in a speech in March 2009, “Teachers will enjoy anonymity if faced with complaints from pupils and there will be a time limit by which any allegation against a teacher must be investigated or dropped.” This idea has significant support - according to the TES, “The [House of] Commons children, schools and families select committee argued that teachers should be named only in the event of a conviction” and, as you would expect, teachers’ unions are also in favour. It is unclear, however, in both the manifesto pledge and Gove’s speech, whether the Tories support statutory anonymity or simply anonymity until a charge is formally brought against a teacher. The meaning of “the strongest possible protection” will need to be spelled out very clearly if the Tories are to gain teachers’ support on this basis.

David Cameron says “We [the Tories] are going to say to our teachers, if you want to search for and confiscate any item you think is dangerous and disruptive – you can. If you want to remove violent children from the classroom – you can.” If he had just added the word “already” before the word “can”, he would be accurately describing the current situation. He goes on, “And if you want protection from false allegations of abuse that wreck lives and wreck careers – we’ll make sure you have it.” But, he forgot to add, we haven’t yet specified whether the protection will be statutory.

How will this policy actually change the educational landscape?

An additional emphasis, under the Conservatives, on the rights of teachers may make teachers feel more supported. However, further legal rights seem unnecessary and without a clear expression of exactly how they plan to make it ‘easier’ for teachers to use ‘reasonable force’ without fear of legal action, we are left feeling like the Tories might be serious about supporting teachers.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Desmonds for teachers

With the election campaign now underway I will be posting every day or two to examine the specific pledges in the Conservative education manifesto and how they will (or not) change the educational landscape. First up teacher qualifications.....

"... graduates will need at least a 2:2 in their degree in order to qualify for state-funded training."

When David Cameron and Michael Gove announced that all teachers must have a 2:2 degree to become teachers, they said they want to make the teaching profession “brazenly elitist”. Inspired by countries with very high-performing education systems, such as Finland and South Korea, where teachers are taken from amongst the top graduates in the country, the Conservatives hope their policy will make teaching a high status, “noble profession”. Will it work?

The answer, in the short term at least, is no. According to the Training and Development Agency for Schools, only 2% of primary and 3% of secondary school teachers have 3rd class degrees, so the policy will not have a meaningful impact on the actual make-up of the profession. Even if people with 3rd class degrees are barred we will still be a very long way from drawing teachers from the top 10% (Finland) to 25% (South Korea) of graduates. In 2008/09, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, approximately 13% of (full time) students at UK universities were awarded a third class and ‘unclassified’ undergraduate degrees. I doubt that any new Tory government will be announcing proudly that, due to their education policy, teachers in the UK now come from the top 87% of graduates.

However, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove recognised that by taking this step the Conservatives are just “embarking on a journey” to raise the prestige of the teaching profession; this is just the first stage of a long and very difficult process that will take “a generation”. The idea of the policy, it seems, is almost to launch a campaign, to let people know that the Tories mean business.

So what is the rest of the process by which teaching will become a high prestige profession? This is less clear than the first step. It does not, says Gove, involve raising teacher salaries (which is fortunate given the state of the economy) as the most important thing is not more money for teachers but more “respect”. He is right, respect is most important, but increasing salaries is one means of achieving respect. Although teachers’ salaries have improved since Labour came to power they remain significantly lower than those of, for example, GPs, who earned an average of around £110,000 a year, compared to around £34,000 for teachers. Pay is by no means everything but it does say a certain amount about the value society places on a profession.

The three suggestions outlined by Gove in his Radio 4 interview about how to increase respect for the teaching profession were of mixed quality. The first, that with the Conservatives “you’ve got the next Prime Minister of this country saying that he regards teaching as the most important profession”, was ridiculed on the spot by the presenter. The second, that under the Conservative Party discipline will be better and therefore teachers will feel “safer” in the classroom may, over time, lead some people to enter the profession but it is unclear what comes first, better teachers or better discipline.

The final (and, in my view, best) suggestion is that improving continuing professional development and providing opportunities for teachers to pursue Masters level qualifications will help teachers feel part of a broader academic community and “intellectual and professional elite.” As Tim Brighouse wrote, in his ‘Jigsaw of a successful school’, “Unless the interests and skills of all staff are constantly supported, we produce, as mentioned earlier, more ‘energy consumers’ than ‘energy creators’. It’s a battle between the “Why we can’ts” and the “How we coulds”.” If teachers are seen to be ‘energy creators’, not just for their individual schools but for society, their status will surely rise.

So how would this policy actually change the educational landscape?

In the short term not very much at all as so few teachers currently have third class degrees. However, it does at least point in the direction of a (distant) landscape in which teachers are held in high regard by society – whether or not we ever get there depends on teachers being given real opportunities to develop as professionals. And, because long journeys are expensive, higher salaries might just help get the journey underway.


*It will become ‘noble’ and ‘elitist’ (but probably not in the way Cameron means) if people who can afford to pay for the training themselves are still allowed to become teachers with third class degrees – they will just have to convince the Admissions Tutors that they have a 'Gentleman’s Third'.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Fit and Proper Persons

As Conor Ryan pointed out last week, there is a major contradiction in the Conservative education policy:

“One day Michael Gove is extolling the virtues of free schools, liberated from the shackles of Whitehall, with the touchy-feely charms of Goldie Hawn jostling alongside Swedish companies to deliver. Days later he is laying down the level of detailed knowledge that every youngster should have of their kings and queens, their classical poetry by heart and their algebra under the tutelage of the Tories’ Maths mistress Carol Vorderman.”

The same observation was made by Matthew Taylor earlier this year in response to Gove’s answers to a series of questions posted by the Royal Society of Arts. Taylor wrote:

“My concern – one I have shared with Michael – is that if he is the Secretary of State the position ‘this is what I think is right but, hey, it’s up to schools and parents to decide’ will be hard to sustain. The powerful traditionalist lobby will expect a sympathetic Secretary of State to stamp down on those progressive practices which they are convinced are damaging children and society. There will be orchestrated pressure and Michael will need to be strong and subtle if he is to espouse his beliefs without becoming prescriptive.”

Gove will need to be particularly ‘strong and subtle’ when deciding which groups will be given funding to start new parent-promoted schools. How, with the above contradictions in mind, will the Tories guarantee that all potential new school providers will be given a fair hearing, regardless of their approach to education?

I have a plan.

The Tories try to reassure us that they will be balanced in their Schools Policy Paper: Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap by saying that:

"With a Conservative Government we anticipate a legal presumption that any application from fit and proper persons who can demonstrate good intent should be accepted unless exceptional circumstances prevail."

So, the only judgment needing to be made is, ‘which people are ‘fit and proper’’? To help them make a balanced judgment I recommend a ‘Fit and Proper Persons Committee’ (to be chaired by Lord Ashcroft). Here are some of the questions the Committee could ask the applicants:

1. Were they a member of the Bullingdon Club?
2. Do they believe in rote learning?
3. Is their favourite actress Goldie Hawn?
4. Can they name all the Kings and Queens of England?
5. Do they pay their taxes in full?*
6. Is their favourite school system the Swedish one (regardless of what the evidence might say about standards slipping)?
7. Is their favourite school Mossbourne Academy?
8. Do they believe the British Empire was a ‘good thing’?
9. Do they like sitting in rows?
10. Do they know any poetry by heart?

In order to be judged a Fit and Proper Person, the applicants must gain at least a 2/2 on the test.**

Suggestions for questions welcomed.....

*Some exceptions may be made
**Some exceptions may be made

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

All schools should be 'too big to fail'

The President of the Girls’ School Association, Gillian Low, writing in the TES this week issued a warning to the Conservatives about their plan to introduce up to 2,000 new schools. As well as the new schools, Ms. Low wrote, “The other schools must be able to continue to improve and not to fall off the bottom of the ladder.” In other words, with all the attention on new ‘parent-run’ schools, the Conservatives must not just ignore existing schools.

How do the Conservatives plan to do this when their whole policy is based on creating competition between schools (and a political need for the new schools to be ‘beacons of excellence’)? Their argument is that by introducing new schools to a certain area, existing schools will have to raise their game if they are to avoid an exodus of pupils (and therefore funding) to the new schools. Even the threat of new schools being opened should, according to the theory, put existing schools on high alert and encourage them to improve.

But what if, in reality, the opposite happens? If a school does lose pupils to a new school its ability to improve will be hampered as they will, according to the Tory policy of funding following the pupil, receive less funding whilst still needing to maintain buildings and pay teachers. With fewer resources and falling numbers of pupils at the school, more and more parents will withdraw their children until only those with the least aware or least supportive parents are left and, eventually, the school will “fall off the bottom of the ladder”, close and (most likely) be replaced by an Academy.

On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning Michael Gove argued that the financial costs of creating new schools could be met through efficiency savings. Marr was sceptical about this and pressed Gove on it to an extent. But what about the educational ‘cost’ to the pupils left in failing schools as their classmates are withdrawn around them? If, as is likely, engaged parents withdraw their children most quickly from a failing school, the students left behind will not only suffer from fewer financial resources but also lose the important benefit of peer-learning from those children who (given that they enjoy lots of parental support) are most likely to be well behaved and well motivated.

The Tories do pledge, in their draft education manifesto, that “any school that is in special measures for more than a year will be taken over immediately by a successful Academy provider.” Even if, however, an Academy that replaces a failing school is able to bring success quickly (and so far their ability to do so has been mixed) the education of pupils who remained in the failing school will have suffered greatly. If a school does need a ‘stimulus package’ of support, it is crucial that it receives it before parents begin to withdraw their children; if it comes too late the task of improving the school will, because the most engaged pupils will have left, be much, much more difficult. In the schools' market the Tories plan to create all schools should be ‘too big to fail.’

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

You gotta have faith

Imagine it is Sunday morning. Although you do not describe yourself as religious you decide to go to Church. As you walk to the Church (which is just five minutes from your house) you reflect on the fact that you are lucky that the Vicar (based on your sporadic visits) seems to share your values and his sermons include messages that make sense to you – except for the God part. Just as you are about to take a seat in one of the pews near the back, a Church warden taps you on the shoulder and says, “Sorry, you can’t sit there.” You apologise, thinking he must be saving the seat for someone and move towards one of the few remaining free spaces. You are about to take a seat when the Church warden appears again and says, “I’m really sorry about this but you can’t sit there either. In fact, you won’t be able to join us for the service today; we are full and we give priority to regular church-goers.” You walk out of the Church feeling slightly bewildered and let down and head for the Church down the road. You attend the service but don’t think much of the sermon and the building is cold and depressing.

It is hard to imagine a church treating people in this way isn’t it? Well, that is exactly how faith groups treat non-religious children applying to attend the schools they run when they give preference to members of their faith. If the Tories come into power, it is likely faith groups will be given the opportunity to run an increasing number of schools. David Cameron last week stated that “faith schools are an important part of our system, I support them and I would like if anything to see them grow.” His backing of faith schools is not surprising; it is consistent with the Conservative Party 2007 schools policy paper and their recent draft education manifesto in which they pledge to ensure barriers are “cleared away so there can be a significant increase in the number of new schools” and say these would be “set up and run by existing educational providers [including faith groups], charities, trusts, voluntary groups, philanthropists and co-operatives”.

The problem for Cameron is that, if he allows an increase in the number of faith schools without making an important amendment to the admissions code, he will seriously undermine the Tories’ stated wish for “every child to benefit from our reforms” because faith schools do not give “every child” a fair chance of being admitted. According to the code faith schools can, if oversubscribed (and very many of them are), “use faith-based oversubscription criteria in order to give higher priority in admissions to children who are members of, or who practise, their faith or denomination”. They can, for instance, ask for a letter from the local Church/ Mosque/ Synagogue, providing evidence that the child in question worships there regularly, or give priority to children who have been baptised. Non-religious families are, therefore, at a significant disadvantage in trying to secure a place at faith schools. Even if a particular school decides to set oversubscription criteria that allocates only a few places based on faith criteria, the non-religious are still discriminated against.

The single faith group that runs the largest number of faith schools in England is the Church of England which runs 25.3% of all state primary schools - that's 4,470 schools – and 5.8% of all state secondary schools - 220 schools. These numbers are rising and, as the C of E Board of Education schools strategy for 2007-11 makes clear, they are looking “for opportunities to increase the number of [C of E] secondary schools and academies”. David Cameron will be pleased, especially as a real concern for the “children from disadvantaged backgrounds” mentioned in his manifesto, comes across in the strategy:

“[The] Board of Education see Church of England schools as both distinctively Christian and inclusive communities.’ The distinctive and inclusive Christian character of a school leads directly to access for all: welcoming children and young people of all denominations and faiths and none, from all ethnic and social groups, with a bias to the disadvantaged and the poor, with a wide range of learning ability and with many types of physical ability, and regardless of family situation.”

The sort of school ethos that this passage suggests develop in Church schools is exactly why they are popular with parents. As Cameron argued last week, “faith organisations bring often a sort of culture and ethos to a school that can help it improve.” This is all well and good but when Church schools state on their websites and in brochures (as they very often do) some variation of: ‘We are a diverse school with a strong Christian ethos. We welcome pupils of all faiths and none’, they really need, in order to be accurate, to add in brackets, ‘(but we welcome Christians a bit more than others even if they are disadvantaged).’

The Conservatives say they want to offer all children, regardless of background, the same educational choices that are currently only available to the wealthy. A good way to show they are serious would be to pledge to amend the Admissions Code so that if and when more faith schools are started all children, regardless of whether they are religious or not, will have an equal opportunity to get into their first choice school.

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.