Embarrassing Uncle Nigel

If politics is some kind of dysfunctional family, then UKIP are definitely the slightly embarrassing uncle at the party, the one who slaps you on the back, drinks more than he should, rants about bin collections and mutters slightly dubious things about foreigners.

But, of late, rather than looking disdainfully at Uncle Nigel, it seems that more and more people are turning to UKIP as the party of truth and common sense.

With this popularity, however, comes greater scrutiny and a close look at their education policies reveal the extent to which UKIP are high on rhetoric and low on ideas. They are far from the political solution in what is a mightily complex world.

You can read a summary of UKIP education policy here here. Much of it is fairly straightforward, old-school, right-of-centre thinking (the term ‘thinking’ is used loosely) – scrapping paperwork, building more grammar schools, protecting rural schools. This is relatively progressive; no mention of the cane at least.

Best of all, they plan to ‘insist’ schools teach the 3Rs’ – as opposed to the current situation, presumably, where schools barely bother with all that reading and ‘riting nonsense.

Most intriguing though, is how they plan to pay for all this. New grammar schools don’t come cheap that’s for sure. Their answer, as dismal as it is predictable, is ‘to let schools sack bad teachers’. It’s a mystery how this will generate even a few quid, let alone the megabucks needed to build new schools.

What this does reveal is the extent to which UKIP unthinkingly buy into and promulgate the view that schools are full of ‘bad teachers’. As ever, evidence for this is non existent. But UKIP, like the embarrassing uncle, have no need to sully themselves with such things as evidence or facts.

All they need is an enemy to attack – immigrants, or bad teachers, it matters little.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics - general

Hysteria in the home counties

Yesterday was one of those days – a day full of excitement and tension. The day when thousands of parents found out whether or not their beloved offspring had secured a place in the chosen school. A day when hysteria hit the home counties.

For more than a few, there is heartbreak and gloom, particularly if said parents live in a procreating boom town or in an urban area where pressure on places is always high. It seems some local authorities have managed this process better than others (see link).

All that is left now is the long-shot of a successful appeal or, more likely, a painful adjustment to expectations. The new school may be neither close nor convenient. Or, equally, it may be close but unwanted.

It’s tough. Really tough for some who didn’t get a place at any of their six selected schools – 15% of applications in Kensington and Chelsea fall into this category.

Of course, this does call in to question all this cash being pumped into free schools, in areas where there is already a glut of places. Madness upon madness and hopefully some of the ire these parents feel will be directed towards Gove and his poisonous policies.

But running parallel to the genuine inconvenience and uncertainty this process has caused for some, is a bubbling panic that says a great deal about how schools are judged, labelled, categorised and branded as good or bad, desirable or not.

The school my youngest child is in has been denigrated for years. Ofsted gave it a shocker of a report. Another local school and its super Head were brought in to shake things up. The school was known locally, if you know what I mean – it had a bad rep.

Friends, who I now respect a little less, moved house to escape the catchment. Others would adopt a strange look, an odd mixture of pity and disgust, when we placed the school top of our list and said we’d be gutted if she missed out. Gutted because it’s our local school, it’s where we live, it’s our patch of the world – if there’s a problem, we’re part of the solution. More recently, the school is on the up, but reputations linger.

The challenge for the undesirable school is to change this reputation. Much more easily said than done – damaged goods are hard to fix.

But it can be done by doing the obvious (good teachers in the classroom) and by being open and transparent. Most parents are pleasantly surprised that the school with the bad reputation is actually full of smiling and successful children, energetic and determined teachers and leaders who are directing the ship towards sunnier shores.

Maybe, just maybe, some of the hysteria is misplaced and, actually, the school with the bad reputation – the one that was way down the list, or not on it at all – is actually a diamond which just needs a polish and to be held up to the light.

1 Comment

Filed under Schools

Absurdity and deceit: another day at Dfe

We all know that Michael Gove’s preferred model of school improvement is the Academy School. If in doubt, academise. And now we know his Department’s spin machine will stop at nothing to demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of Academies, even when this tips into the realms of absurdity and deceit.

Take this press release from the Department for Education: ‘Academy goes from failing to outstanding in just 2 years’.

It falls just short of being a spoof. Here is an Academy that, wait for it, has transformed educational opportunities by shutting up shop at 2.30pm and playing Warhammer.

For the uninitiated (and I count myself among them), Warhammer is a fantasy game which apparently is set in a hybrid of early modern Germany and Tolkein’s Middle Earth, populated by lizards, orcs and ogres. Not at all like the Education Select Committee then.

The point being made is that extra curricular clubs have a part to play in school improvement. Who would disagree? But imagine for a second that a state school had chosen to do the same – to stop formal learning a good hour before most other schools in order to play games. The ridicule and the scorn would have been overwhelming. But this is different simply because the school is an Academy.

More pernicious though is the headline itself. It implies an extraordinarily rapid turnaround – two years from ‘among the worst in the country’ to outstanding. But look at the small print. The school went into special measures in March 2010 – that’s four years from special measures to outstanding, not two. Misleading, to say the least, if not deceitful.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New curriculum is all about results

It’s not long until September when the new primary curriculum is launched. Some schools, like mine, are getting ahead of the game and giving their curriculum a spring clean, ready for a trial run straight after Easter.

Unlike changes to the curriculum under the previous Government, which were introduced with a hefty to pile of detailed guidance, this curriculum stands pretty much alone – it is what it is and it’s up to schools to make sense of it and to make the best of it.

No-one who has worked in schools would say this is an entirely bad thing. Wading through all the materials accompanying the Primary National Strategies, introduced in 2003 and quickly jettisoned by the current government, was rarely pleasurable and not altogether useful. Similarly, the QCA Schemes of Work, became increasingly preposterous as schools slavishly and unthinkingly followed the guidance (I worked in one school where the DT scheme of work was replicated precisely, resulting in each year 4 child making a single slipper. Children love to hop, but really – one slipper!).

Now this has all gone and we start with a clean slate – or at least a clean slate of sorts. Most schools are finding plenty in the new curriculum that can be worked in to current planning and topics. Where there is new material, the challenge is either to find time to squeeze it all in (a perennial problem), developing teacher subject knowledge (programming in the computing curriculum, anyone?) and looking again at well-loved but possibly irrelevant resources (all that slipper felt needs to go!).

This is not to say implementing the new curriculum is easy or straightforward. The absence of guidance from the centre tips the weight of responsibility back towards schools, or groups of schools, to consider how to plan and organise their curriculum. This is particularly hard for schools, also like mine, who are under a monstrous amount of pressure to raise results for literacy and maths at the end of Year 6.

The reality for us is simple. We’re planning for the future, looking to teach a broad, balanced and exciting curriculum – numeracy and literacy at the core, enriched with the experience and knowledge from other subject and based on the belief that there is, ultimately, more to life and more to living than colons, compound sentences and calculations.

But, if our 11 year-olds don’t come good in a few weeks time, we’re doomed. If they don’t get those one or two marks in their SATs that will tip them from Level 3 to the golden ticket of ‘secondary ready’ then all the DT, the computing, the science, the art won’t matter a jot. The pressure is on. The clock is ticking.

1 Comment

Filed under Curriculum

The monster stops breathing fire

I’m writing this with my eyes half closed. I can barely look. Deep breath. Come on. Just type.

No. It’s too hard. I’ve got butterflies. The uncomfortable-sicky-sitting-in-front-of-an-interview-panel ones. Not the flitty-exciting-first-date ones.

Try again. Do a Winslet. Gather. Gather.

Here goes:

I. Love. Ofsted.

Phew, that was a rush. I guess that’s what confessional is like. Big build up then the release. Like the cork out of a bottle or the staff room on a Friday.

I should clarify.

Something pretty exceptional happened at the tail end of last week. After a visit to Ofsted towers by some wonderful bloggers – each one a Daniel entering the den – Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s National Director for Schools, published a report called ‘Why do Ofsted Inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?’.

Snappy, no. Groundbreaking, yes. You can read it here. Please do (and please also take a look at the bloggers and their blogs they deserve a link, a click and a read – twitter details below).

The document speaks for itself. It’s well written and engaging. Honest, open, human. It’s refreshingly free of the bureaucratic language that can alienate and keep people at arms length. In parts, it’s written in the first person. The author is clearly someone that knows schools, understands teachers and, most important of all, wants to get it right. A poacher turned gamekeeper. A gamekeeper who hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

The key bit, the game changer, is the clear and unequivocal message that Ofsted inspectors should not be grading lessons after popping their heads into a classroom for a few minutes. If you are a teacher that has survived an Ofsted you’ll get the significance of this. Something’s shifted. The monster has stopped breathing fire.

For the first time, I can lift text straight from an Ofsted document without any desire to scoff or to ridicule. I can do so because I agree with every word. Here it is:

‘On average, inspectors may spend only 25 minutes or so in each lesson. It would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time. We are not in the business of handing out badges that say ‘You are an outstanding teacher’ or the opposite. We leave that to others, who will use their own and other evidence to come to a conclusion. We would not expect any other professional, for example a surgeon, to be judged by peers on a single 25 minute observation of their work.’

I could stand and applaud.

Let this be the start of a new relationship between inspector and inspected.

Mike Cladingbowl – thank you.

Here are the people who helped make this happen:

And the man himself:



Filed under Ofsted, Schools

The world has gone mad this week. Twice.

The realisation that the world has gone mad has twice crossed my mind this week.

The first was watching Snowboard Cross at the Winter Olympics – so crazy is this event that a medal should be awarded to anyone who survives the descent with limbs intact (the sanity of the competitors is clearly long gone).

The second was this report in the Evening Standard warning parents against employing tutors for their under fives.

The idea of tutoring for under-fives is so reprehensible it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. There’s something that sticks in the throat about tutoring whatever the age of the recipient. For me, it’s the nauseating combination of privilege and panic which sums up what much tutoring is about. It’s the hysterical clamour of middle class parents who are on a misery-inducing treadmill, desperate to keep up with the Joneses, desperate to ensure that their little one won’t, heaven forbid, end up at the local comprehensive where the poor kids go. It’s the privatisation of parenthood, sub-contracting responsibility to the lowest bidder with the funkiest website.

But tutoring for under fives boggles the mind. Tutoring them in what exactly! You can only imagine the syllabus: ‘Win at the sandpit, every time!’, ‘Get yourself heard in circle time singalongs’, ‘Potato prints GUARANTEED to get on display’, ‘Role play corner – what to wear and how to wear it’.

What’s really appalling about this, is the sense of creep into a very sacred place: childhood. It’s as if the early years are now solely about preparation for something yet to come without any intrinsic value. Childhood isn’t childhood any more. It isn’t about play and about today, it’s about worrying about what’s round the corner and getting ahead of everyone else.

Tutoring for under fives! Snowboard Cross! The world’s gone mad.

1 Comment

Filed under Schools

No news from nowhere

On the day that the unpleasant closeness between Tony Blair and News International is making headlines again, it’s interesting to look at how different life is for Cameron’s Conservatives. In part, the electoral success of Labour under Blair was because they knew they had to influence the news agenda and had to do this doggedly and by any means necessary, never taking their eye off the bulletins and the headlines, reaching out to the media in a way that was meticulously planned and, ultimately, beyond the boundaries of what could be considered reasonable or decent.

Fast forward to 2014 and we are in very different times. The scurrilous elements in the media are still present, albeit with wings ever-so-slightly clipped by the Leveson Inquiry. But the demand for New Labour style news management has dwindled. Of course, even at the best of times the business of Government is never easy – it’s either raining or pouring – but what makes life more straightforward for the Conservatives, in stark contrast to their predecessors, is the almost entirely benign media environment in which they operate.

Where Labour had to battle for every story, the Conservatives simply don’t feel the need to chase headlines or generate stories with quite the same urgency. Nor do they need to hot-foot it from studio to studio manically re-butting inaccuracies or desperately flogging the latest policy wheeze.

Look no further than this month’s Government press releases (I know, I know, but it’s half term, and I have a little time on my hands). You’d be hard pushed to deliberately generate a list of such exceptionally dull announcements. Foreign Office Minister visits Tunisia. Transport Secretary meets bus industry. Much of it is the political equivalent of holding the front page for ‘Man gets stung by bee’. Aside from the daily flood updates, none of this suggests a Government much bothered by the news churn.

Few people will look back with fondness on the days of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan and the other New Labour spin doctors. And there’s something oddly refreshing about the factual drabness of this Government’s pronouncements. Today’s news that Tony Blair was close enough to Rebekah Brooks to be giving advice on how to handle phone-hacking allegations will do little to lead people to yearn for the good old days.

Like Kinnock in 1987 and 1992, this leaves Ed Miliband in a right old pickle: how do you get your message across when no-one’s listening?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized