Monthly Archives: March 2011

New improved EMA is not something for Lib-Dems to celebrate

It doesn’t take a master strategist to figure out what’s happening. The Lib Dems are taking a pasting for being too cosy with the Tories. So every now and again the boys in blue cut them a bit of slack and take one for the team; they allow the Lib Dems to say they have made a difference to Government policy. The Tories even allow them to imply that, without the odd splash of yellow, Cameron’s lot really would be getting away with murder. Cue a grateful populace.

Except, so transparent is this tactic – so obviously manufactured to appease the ego of Clegg and his team – that it manages to achieve the exact opposite: contempt rather than gratitude. Part of the problem is the preposterous enthusiasm with which the Lib Dems greet anything that they have had a say in.

Take the curtailment of Education Maintenance Allowance – funds to help keep cash-strapped 16-19 year olds in education. It started off as a £560m pot – and today, in it’s Lib-Dem moulded form, amounts to the considerably more modest amount of £180m. Given the money is already targeted on poorer teenagers, you’d be hard-pushed to celebrate this as a victory for fairness and justice.

Unless, of course, you are a Lib-Dem in which case you have ‘fought’ and ‘won’, ‘extra’ cash (even though the whole EMA was scaled back and today’s money is coming from an as yet unspecified cut from within the Education budget). The spin machine ramps this up, claiming the Lib Dems have achieved a ‘boost’ of £1200 for the poorest children, despite the fact that they would have got this under EMA anyway – well, all except a genuine ‘boost’ of, hold your breath, 77p.

The detail of the scheme also questions whether the Simon Hughes-driven back-patting is a tad premature. Namely, much of the new Fund will go to colleges to support their students – the risk here is that those most in need of this cash will be deterred at the prospects, and won’t enrol in the first place.

At best, this is a modest rearguard action to salvage something from the wreckage of endless Tory cuts. And, despite the oh-so-obvious political manouvering, this was achieved as much by the reality of student voters turning against the Lib Dems in their thousands (tipping many Ministerial marginal seats into the red), as it was by Clegg and the gang. So, sorry, don’t expect me to be grateful.

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Filed under Funding, Lib Dems, Policy, Politics - general

Animal Farm and Brave New World should be on Gove’s reading list

There is something particularly odd about Michael Gove’s remark that children should be reading 50 books a year.

It’s not that he says this in the midst of a spending round so austere that libraries are being closed (one presumes perhaps that this challenge is reserved for children who have parents able to purchase said books).

It’s not that this comes from the man who, just weeks earlier, wanted to kick the Bookstart scheme into touch – and only toned down the cuts after a mighty fuss from some mightily-miffed children’s authors.

It’s not even that the idea is a bit daft. Why 50? Why not 52? Would 50 short stories count? Would War and Peace count as double? Negative marks for Mills and Boon?

And where’s the evidence – cited by Gove – that 80-90% of children only read one or two novels a year? It sounds made up – but incredibly handy if you want to give the impression state schools aren’t up to scratch.

This also continues the increasingly tiresome trend of importing innovation from the U.S. – this idea comes from Harlem – as if nothing of value is done closer to home. Never mind that there is a Summer Reading Challenge here – a national scheme – which aims to keep bookish minds occupied over the holidays. Why did Gove not mention this? One thing he should learn from the States is that they are very, very good at selling their successes.

But what’s really strange is that Gove said this at all. What on earth has it got to do with him whether children read 10, 20, 50 or 100 books? Why is a politician – a Secretary of State – concerning himself with such things?

More to the point, why is Gove sticking his oar in when he professes to believe in a political philosophy which is about a small state: an end to top-down interference and decision-making at the local level. One week it’s teachers who know best and it’s they that should be given the power to get on with things; the next we have an exercise in minutiae-management from the man at the top.

The problem is that this is becoming a habit for the Government; the desire to interfere based on their own personal prejudices. Gove has done it before with his views on what should – and shouldn’t – be taught in history lessons. And, we have had Nick Gibb babbling on about the tragic absence of Miss Havisham from the school curriculum (in his world it seems – on Planet Gibb – a single fictional character can genuinely save the world. He shares this view with the very small number of people who read Superman comics and believe them to be true).

This meddling is everywhere, and can take a malevolent form. Just take a look at the changes to funding to the Arts and Humanities Research Council – who are now duty bound to spend a ‘significant’ amount of its funding paying for research into the Government’s objectives and priorities. In other words, academic brains will be forced to add the words ‘big society’ to their research proposals in order to get the cash. This is a gross act, using £100m of public money to contort research to focus on a political slogan, and a pretty limp one at that.

This is unsettling coming from a Government that claims to believe in freedom of the individual: it looks very much like state control to me. Orwell and Huxley wrote of such things.

So, as an act of rebellion – symbolic if nothing else – let us take our copies of Great Expectations and hurl them in the fires, with the cry: “don’t tell us what to read posh-boy!” Then, get down from the barricades, and start off your very own 50 book challenge with some light reading: Animal Farm and Brave New World.

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Filed under Conservatives, Michael Gove, Nick Gibb, Policy, Politics - general, Uncategorized

(My) final word on Birbalsingh

I haven’t had much time to blog, but did write a review of ‘To Miss with Love’ by Katharine Birbalsingh for the Local Schools Network. You can read it here:

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/03/to-miss-with-love-misses-the-mark/

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Filed under Politics - general, Schools

Will Teaching Schools improve teacher quality?

One of the more interesting features of Michael Gove’s recent White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, was the audaciousness of the title; you would think it contains a hat full of well-considered plans to make teachers considerably better at their job.

But, not so.

Looking again at the section on improving teacher quality – a good few weeks after it was first published – it is hard to feel anything but underwhelmed by its contents.

Peculiar in many ways – the evidence suggests that improving teacher quality is the most effective way of transforming educational outcomes, and it’s reasonably cheap. If there is such as thing as a silver bullet in the complex world of children’s learning, then this would be it.

But what we have in Gove’s plan are crumbs.

There’s a bit on making it harder for some people to train as teachers, such as a Maths graduate with a third class degree, while making it easier for free schools to recruit who they like, teaching qualification or not. (The first idea may sound sensible, but a third-class degree more than accounts for the Maths a primary school covers; we may lose out on some excellent teachers by applying the guillotine so brutally – it also seems perverse that Michel Gove should decide this, rather than a teacher training institution).

There’s a bit too on changing the tests teachers take before they can practice – fine by me, but it’s hardly life-changing – and the idea about fast-tracking soldiers from parade ground to the classroom (a proposal if ever there was one, generated last-minute, late at night – scrabbling around for something to please those who believe our decline can be directly attributed to such things as breathable fabrics, central heating and the end of national service).

And on it goes – a series of policies which are best described as unremarkable, ineffective, daft or (the odd one or two, I admit) mildly agreeable.

The one idea which does emerge as vague justification for the White Paper’s title is the idea of teacher training being carried out in a network of Teaching Schools. This, if carried through, is a significant move, focussing training more clearly on school-based observation and experience.

There is some credit to this idea. During training, the white heat of being in a classroom, thirty pairs of eyes looking your way (or out the window) provides the steepest of learning curves – and there is much to learn, whether student or old-hand, from watching someone else teach.

But teacher-training, as you would expect, already requires many hours spent in schools and in classrooms, so it’s not immediately clear what is that different about Teaching Schools.

This, however, is revealed in the detail: only outstanding schools would be able to secure designation as a ‘Teaching School’ and would then be expected to lead and co-ordinate teacher training and professional development in their area.

This would seem to increase the likelihood of outstanding schools using this as an opportunity to cream off the best new talent. If this were the case, would other schools get a look-in? The best schools may well get better, but the odds seem to be stacked against struggling schools (of course, this also assumes that good teaching and leadership is exclusive to outstanding schools when it could be argued that the real innovation is happening in improving schools).

A further peculiarity of the proposal is that it requries co-operation and collaboration between schools with the lead school ‘driving improvement’ on their patch. While this appeals to a collaborator such as myself, it does run completely counter to every other education policy of note.

When all the incentives and expectations are tipped towards competition, a proposal based on mutuality does seem to jar with the mood of wider public service reform.

More fundamentally, this could weaken the concept of teaching as a profession founded on academic rigour and discipline, when what is required to improve schools is precisely the reverse.

The Government is quick to point towards the success of teaching hospitals but, in doing so, downplays the countless hours of study before a medical student is let near a stethoscope and a pulsing body.

Given the emphasis on ‘learning by doing’, you would imagine a surgeon masters their trade solely by peering over the shoulder of a steady old hand, waiting pensively for the moment where the scalpel is tossed their way and they’re told: ‘your turn’. My hope, if I were the patient, would be that the knife-wielder had read a little about his subject too.

A truly successful professional needs to do more than just watch, observe and repeat. They undoubtedly need the experience of doing, but also the opportunity to engage with education as an academic subject; with the time to explore the theories, ideas and research that underpin what goes on in schools (or what should go on in schools).

For this to happen, the link between the training of teachers and universities should be maintained – and strengthened. At first glance, Teaching Schools seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

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Filed under Policy, Schools, Uncategorized