Monthly Archives: February 2011

It’s the teaching, stupid

Why – I ask myself at infuriatingly regular intervals – in our chastened economic times, is Michael Gove spending money (and so much time) on such a speculative, long-odds, hit and hope punt as free schools?

Let us assume the focus of our endeavours, whether you are a political lefty or a righty or a don’t-give-a-monkeys, is on the question: what is the best, quickest and most sustainable way to improve children’s educational experiences and outcomes (bearing in mind, of course, UK PLC is a bit skint)?

Even if you are an avid supporter of free schools, someone who thinks the answer to the question is ‘a: Toby Young’ – or, conversely, if you are a determined opponent and think the answer to the question is ‘b: anyone but Toby Young’ – it is hard to justify the monstrous amount of political energy and will being expended battling for (or against) a policy which will result in the odd school here and there.

More importantly, this is a policy which in essence misses the most obvious response to the question.

Strip the school experience down to the barest of bare bones, and it is not, I’m afraid, the governance structure of a school that defines whether little Jonny has an educational career of impeccable quality and unremitting excellence. It is not whether the school is ‘free’ or whether it is maintained by the local authority, that cuts the mustard for Year 7 on a damp Friday afternoon.

What does, then?

As boring and as straightforward and as simple as it sounds: it’s teaching. Or, more accurately: teachers teaching well. The oft-repeated line that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teaching is the fundamental truth that should guide all policy-making. To misuse Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase: it’s the teaching, stupid.

In tough times, businesses look to their ‘cash cow’; the steady seller that keeps the tills ringing and profits healthy. They keep risks low, invest cautiously and look for reliable, predictable returns rather than taking a gamble. Unexciting, maybe, but in these times, reliable results are rightly judged to be more important than flamboyant failures.

So, why not – when each public utterance from our leaders contains the obligatory reference to deficit reduction and cuts, usually closely followed by the ‘difficult decisions’ said things entail – go for the easy win and invest our scarce pennies on teachers?

At the risk of being accused of blatant self-interest and self-promotion, the science backs this up: John Hattie’s remarkable analysis of educational research (‘Visible Learning’ – unfortunately not in a good bookshop near you) picks out the interventions that make the most difference to learning. Handily (Mr. Hattie is very helpful), these interventions are listed at the back of the book; of the ‘top thirty’, nineteen are directly related to teachers or teaching methods (and many of the other eleven are directly related to teaching skills too – such as behaviour in the school).

And, critically, it takes a long look down the list to find evidence of the impact of structural reforms of the kind being supported here – religious schools and charter schools (the U.S equivalent of our free schools) are both outside the top hundred.

So, what to do? Attracting new and better recruits into the profession is vital; tomorrow’s teachers should ideally be better than the current bunch.

But what of today’s teachers? How can they improve what they do? On this, from Government at least, so little seems to be said (aside from the title of the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – an attempt at flattery which fails to disguise the paucity of ideas within). If only the effort and the energy currently absorbed in establishing new free schools could be diverted towards the development of teachers.

Whatever cash we have – and whatever political will there is – would be most wisely invested in this area, not the unproven risk of free schools. I don’t mean more pay – I mean investment in the best training and development there is. Here’s a start: every teacher should be trained to Masters degree level, based on research and development which takes place in their own classrooms.

There will be few headlines, favourable or otherwise, to such a move. In fact, it would be very likely to send the dispassionate observer into a deep sleep – and perhaps that reveals why it seems so low down the political agenda.

Indeed at the end of a Parliamentary term there would be no new buildings, no Acts of Parliament – nothing to show for it, except a few thousand teachers who were better at their jobs, and many, many thousands of children whose prospects had been elevated and whose eyes had been lifted to see previously unimaginable horizons.

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Cameron’s privatisation plan is big society by coercion

For those of us who think this Government’s direction of travel on public services is the political equivalent of going for a midnight drive the wrong way down a dual carriageway with car lights turned off and eyes scrunched firmly shut, the prospect of David Cameron’s latest initiative presents an intellectual challenge, to say the least.

It seems the new plan emerging from the Conservatives is to privatise just about everything. Intriguingly, he does mean literally everything – except where, according to Cameron, it wouldn’t make sense (he cites just national security and the judiciary as the sacred turf to be kept out of private hands).

Remember that this comes from someone who, just days ago, said the Government had been gung-ho when planning to privatise large chunks of woodland, yet with this new plan he now seems to have said it’s all up for grabs. The grounds for deciding what constitutes ‘sense’ seem to be entirely his.

This doesn’t feel like steady ground on which to hurl our public services violently into the air. Beyond what Dave tells us, it seems there’s no clear basis for establishing what should best remain in public hands, let alone asking the public whether they are up for a revolution of this kind. Certainly there’s nothing so vulgar as whacking the idea in your manifesto and asking people to vote for it. Heaven forbid!

It’s hard to view Cameron’s intention as anything other than a dismantling of the welfare state as we know it, wrapped up in the cosy, ‘fear not’ language of localism (he skips over how having my local school run by a multi-national with a HQ in a different time-zone serves to increase accountability, but there you go).

Rising from the gut, the instinctive reaction from many who describe themselves as being a bit to the left of things is to condemn and oppose. And quite right too.

Never before has there been such an assault on our public institutions. They are correct to ask what this gross social experiment will actually mean, particularly for those that actually rely on the services that will be thrown into the free-market melting pot. Hurrah for those that swim, but what about those that don’t?

Beyond this, as the bile settles, there is a greater challenge for those who disagree with the Conservatives. It involves the acceptance of a grim reality, imagining a scenario in the not too distant future where Cameron gets his way; the presumption that public services are public is completely inverted so that private ownership of schools (and hospitals etc) is the norm.

What then? Opponents could stick to the barricades and man them to the end. The big worry for me is that, while flags are being waved and tubs being thumped, the corporates (and the creationists) move in and sweep up all the schools it likes the look of and those that don’t fit the bill are left to wither and die.

Perhaps a wiser course of action is to not only oppose, but also to conspire: what if, when these schools are placed on the open market, they were taken over by parent and teachers and run not as free schools, but still as part of a maintained sector. That, at least, is the suggestion made here.

Contentious stuff, no doubt, as it effectively means engaging with a much-despised Conservative plan for schools. However, if Cameron does get his way, those who believe in the values and principles of state education may have to face this unpalatable truth.

The result of Cameron’s plan, in effect, is big society by coercion, making a mockery of voluntary local action being the catalyst for change. Yet, when the state is forcibly removed from education, parents and teachers may have to fill the vacuum; unless, of course, we are happy to see the letters ‘PLC’ on our local school signs.

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Cameron should embrace his inner socialist

Wandering around The People’s Supermarket the other day, in (yet another) attempt to make it clear what he means by the Big Society, the Prime Minister, with cameras whirring and microphones in range, let something slip.

It happened when he turned to the founder of the supermarket. With what appeared to be genuine curiosity – a real attempt to unearth the secret of this particular endeavour – Cameron asked him: “where did you get the idea from?”

At this stage it is necessary to reveal, in case you’ve missed the Channel 4 programme of the same name, The People’s Supermarket is a co-operative.

The founder, of course, was very polite and chatted about wanting to make a difference, helping out in the community, and the like. All very pleasing to the Prime Ministerial ear, I’m sure.

But, with a little time to prepare, and a deep breath, the answer to Cameron’s query may well have run something along the lines of:

‘Well, Prime Minister, it’s based on the principles of 19th century co-operation, shaped by one of the founding fathers of socialism, Robert Owen; it draws heavily on the principles set down by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 who gave birth to the modern co-operative movement in this country and world-wide, thereby establishing many thousands of voluntary, democratic organisations which are set up to meet the needs and secure the welfare of their members and the community in which they operate.’

A missed opportunity, perhaps. It would have been worth good money to see the look on the old Etonian face had that been the response, particularly if there had been time for a few words on the long-standing affiliation between the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Party.

The fact that Cameron asked the question reveals a certain ignorance of (one of the) origins of his supposed ‘big idea’. It also shows that his interpretation of it – of what constitutes the Big Society in action – is highly selective, based on political principles, rather than anything like objectivity.

This allows him to endorse an enterprising ‘one-off’ like the People’s Supermarket, but prevents him from seeing the obvious connections between the model being used by the supermarket and the co-operative (labour) movement as a whole.

It allows him to argue for more voluntary association – people banding together to provide services or to improve their environs – but prevents him from recognising anything of worth in a rather popular association that goes by the name of a ‘trade union’.

It allows him to argue for free schools – to be set up, he says, by parents determined to make a difference to their community – but prevents him from ever recognising the remarkable, selfless contribution parents already make to their community schools; raising funds, organising fairs, reading with children, helping out at clubs.

That said, much of the Big Society rhetoric is hard to contest, a statement of the obvious (who would ever say that people should take less responsibility for their own lives?).

But the real problem comes when he picks and chooses what passes the Big Society test; his political prism distorts what is right before his eyes. Such a shame: if Cameron should shake off his prejudices and embrace his inner socialist, he may win more people over to his Big Society plan.

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This Government’s not for turning

Another day, another sharply performed about turn by the Government. This time it was funding for debt advisers, re-instated after charities highlighted the catastrophic effects on those who need a hand out of a financial mire, particularly those who were sick or elderly, if this service was to simply disappear.

Plans to sell of forestry land have also been dropped, after an almighty rumpus from pretty much anyone who thinks a tree is broadly a good thing.

In education, a month or so ago, a somewhat hasty decision to scrap a mostly successful and incredibly popular school sports programme was rapidly revised. All because it turns out that the usually apolitical Olympic athletes can not only run quickly and throw things a long way (and the rest – vault, hurdle etc) but they are also pretty adept at generating torrents of hostile media coverage, should the need arise.

Similarly, a ‘books for children’ scheme was binned and then – pardon the pun – put back on the shelf when it turned out that children’s authors can both write fun adventures in mysterious lands and draft painfully scathing letters to national newspapers.

What does all this add up to?

The Government would have us believe that this demonstrates that they are prepared to listen. It shows they are human, caring, cuddly.

The Opposition would have us believe that this reveals an incompetent administration. It shows they are dogmatic, directionless, weak in the face of pressure.

The pressure groups would have us believe that this means battles can be won. It shows the Government is persuadable, responds to a keen and sharp campaign.

Another interpretation is that these U-turns are nothing of the sort. They are mere delays; the water has been tested but the path has been set. At some point down the line the debt advisers will go, the forests will be sold, the sports scheme will be ditched and the books will be binned. The Government has just bought itself some time.

More importantly though, these very public (but ultimately misleading) U-turns serve a more important purpose. They act as a smokescreen; crumbs thrown from the table to appease and placate. This allows the Government to get on with the big, landscape-changing stuff without anything approaching a detour.

So, the violent revolution in the NHS continues unabashed; the library-closing settlement for local authorities is in place; the relentless drive for more Academy and Free schools has not paused for air since last May.

Next time you hear a Government Minister say they have listened, or the Opposition celebrates another U-turn, or campaigners say they have got what they wanted: listen with a certain scepticism.

This is not a call for surrender; campaigns must still be fought and won. But, truth be told, the only way to change the Government’s minds is to hit them where it hurts: in the ballot box. And, for that, you’ll need a little patience.

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A Gove poem

If I were the man that had to decide,
from the list right at my side,
the lucky schools that shall be built,
I would make the call with a certain guilt.

If I were the man that had to pick,
who would gain that cherished brick,
my hopes would be for those who won,
my thoughts with those whose dreams undone.

If I were the man who was told,
my decision had been way too bold,
my eyes would droop and my head would drop,
for a moment or two my heart would stop.

If I were the man who had heard,
an abuse of power had occurred,
I would not say I was delighted,
get wobbly kneed and over-excited.

If I were the man who had read,
that ‘Unlawful’ was what the judge had said,
I would not jump around with glee,
but check the mirror – not like what I see.

If I were Gove – the man at the top,
my decision would be to make it stop,
knowing that this mess was mine,
I’d write ‘Dear David’ and then resign.

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How abusing power can raise the spirits

Today, the High Court said Michael Gove’s decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future programme was unlawful and an ‘abuse of power’.

A bad day, you would think: one which must have knocked the Education Secretary’s confidence?

It seems not. In fact, this ruling seems to have perked him up no end.

The response from Gove and his publicists at the Department of Education is strident to say the least, bristling with energy and indignation.

More than this, his choice of words reveals an air of celebration, which doesn’t entirely chime with the message from the High Court (not least the subject matter; whatever your position, this is about schools not being built).

Sounding like a football manager who looks for the positives after a defeat to nil a long way from home, he says: “I am delighted that the Judge has ruled in my favour”. To go with his peculiar interpretation of making a decision that was deemed to be both unlawful and an abuse of power, Gove chooses to add an unpleasant whiff of eau-de-gloat, picking out the following for our delectation: “…no-one should gain false hope from this decision.”

And here I was thinking that charm was supposed to be Gove’s defining characteristic.

Yet his words today are absent of anything approaching good grace. Did he really want to create the impression that this was some kind of ringing endorsement for the way he has gone about his business?

Take his statement on face value: imagine, if you can, the boy Gove high-fiving his inner circle, bumping fists with his legal team. Maybe, as we speak, he’s lining up the Sambuca’s for his press officers (or, depending on when you read this, staring regretfully at a fry-up). Feel the bile, the nausea, rise in your stomach.

Is this really a time for celebration: can a ruling on such a subject warrant a reaction of this kind?

His words, released soon after the judgement, contain no attempt to acknowledge that this legal action was sincerely taken, by people who had worked long and hard to secure new funding for a school on their patch and by people who were profoundly disappointed, upset even, when the funding rug was pulled from under their feet.

Even if we accept Gove’s argument that the programme was bureaucratic and long-winded, it is distasteful to so keenly rub the noses of those who actually managed to navigate the process and have merely had the audacity to challenge his judgement using fair, democratic and lawful means.

It is remarkable, too, how easily Gove dismisses the Judge’s view that he took little notice of his ‘equalities responsibilities’ when making his decision, as if a criticism like this is mere dust on the anointed one’s shoulder, to be flicked to the floor. I thought he cared deeply about equalities? He has said so often how miffed he is that poor kids do less well than rich kids. Yet, when taken to task on how distant his policies are from his rhetoric, the shoulders shrug; he appears not to give a hoot.

There is no doubt in my mind he will reach the same decision when these projects are next put before his eyes. Like a latter-day Roman Emperor, keen amidst the blood-letting to demonstrate his humanity, he may allow one or two to survive and run free. But how damning of the man that, it seems – if we are to judge his words today – he looks forward to the moment without any regret or modesty. He awaits the final kill with a glint in his eye. His thumb, already outstretched, is pointing to the ground.

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Jabbed on the nose by Katharine Birbalsingh

Every now and then, you happen upon an argument so ridiculous that it resembles a jab on the nose – head spins, mind jars, words fail.

This week, an article this week by Katharine Birbalsingh had just this effect. In it, she eulogises the good old days of ‘old-fashioned teaching’, where children sit in rows, listen in silence and absorb known facts. Despite adopting the tone of retired-colonel-in-pub (“that Socrates fellow – all that talk and chit-chat nonsense, what rot!”), Birbalsingh is no bystander; she has taught for more than ten years.

Birbalsingh builds her case by contrasting the differing approaches taken by private schools and state schools. In doing so, she caricatures both. There is no nuance or subtlety here.

The modern state school teacher, she complains, is broadly clueless: they have been ‘brainwashed’ into teaching ‘skill-based nonsense’ and simply repeat this as if they are a ‘parrot-like machine’.

More specifically they waste too much time using technology and pointlessly allow children to work in groups (she seems obsessed with how long it takes to give out envelopes to these groups, with bits of paper in them containing instructions or an activity. I expect she saw this done badly, once – and has used this to generalise horrendously).

On the other side of the fence, the silent, sponge-like private school pupil ‘learns more in one lesson’ than state school pupils do in an entire term.

How depressing – and how utterly wrong – that someone who has clearly dedicated her life to education can be so simplistic and present the learning experience in such dismal and stupefying terms. How can anyone with even the vaguest of interest in the development of young minds reduce learning – reduce the complexity of the human brain – to such a simple act: sitting, listening?

Of course, every decent education does contain this ingredient; listening and absorbing wisdom from a more learned other. But what a tragically limited experience school would be if that was it – the beginning and the end. This would be a grossly insufficient preparation for an unknown future; this isn’t education for a mightily-complex 21st century, it’s education as regression, a return to a rejected past.

Aside from dumb-headed (state school) teachers who are apparently incapable of applying anything approaching professional judgement, Ofsted are also in Birbalsingh’s firing line. It is they who have prescribed, in some detail, the essence of excellent teaching and, in doing so, have reduced the pedagogical act to a process designed to do little more than fulfil Ofsted’s criteria.

There is truth here (and I am no apologist for Ofsted). But where you can easily build a case for Ofsted being heavy-handed box-tickers, the reality is hugely over-stated by Birbalsingh. Teachers, apparently, ‘have to’ teach a certain sequence each lesson for a set amount of time. No they don’t.

There is more on her ‘have to’ list, none of which I recognise as requirements. They may be contained somewhere in some obscure piece of guidance, or have been adopted by particular schools – but as much as she protests, this stuff isn’t compulsory. State school teachers do have minds of their own; we sussed out Ofsted long ago. We aren’t robots – the way I teach is different to the teacher next door to me, let alone the teacher in the school down the road.

But the real rub is the blatant inconsistency in her argument. If there is such freedom in private schools – if truly innovative teaching occurs only where the state sector is absent – why does she advocate a single method: sitting and listening. Isn’t this an example of the ‘sameness’ she uses to damn each and every state school and state school teacher?

In writing her piece, she not only dismisses state schools but – inadvertently I’m sure – private schools too. Are they not renowned for music, for debating, for sport, for discussion and argument? As if all they do is pay their money and sit and listen.

Sometimes solace can be found in the fact that these kinds of crude generalisations come from the far reaches of public debate. This allows a simpler response: ignore and move on.

But every now and then, an intellectual Luddite such as this gets listened to. They are no longer speakers of blindingly obvious pap, but are bringers of insight, providing the raw ingredients for public policy. This is what is worrying here: Birbalsingh, it seems, has the ear of Michael Gove. Be afraid; be very afraid.

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