Monthly Archives: April 2011

Watch out – there’s an Academy about!

Next time you hear a Government Minister mention, in serious tones, the words ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’ remember that, as a result of Michael Gove’s education policies, taxpayers will soon be helping out ridiculously wealthy parents by funding private school places – including the Maharishi School in Lancashire, where fees reach £5,000-£7,000 a year in exchange for a curriculum grounded in the study of transcendental meditation.

This surprising development comes courtesy of the much-maligned and increasingly dotty free schools policy, as independent schools apply for the new status and, critically, the public funding which follows it. No wonder free schools, the coalition’s flag-bearer for educational reform, are opposed by so many who see them as a drain on finite resources, with money flowing away from existing community schools and, in this case, towards those who can hardly be described as most in need.

But it could be, as Mike Baker argues here, that free schools are little more than a sideshow, a distraction from the real shift in school status: the headlong charge to Academy status.

It is hard to believe that the number of free schools will break three figures any time between now and the next election. Aside from the handful of existing independent schools that will convert, the sheer complexity of setting up a school from scratch will deter all but the brave or the bonkers (or both).

Given the attrition rates involved in such an endeavour, you would need thousands of interested parties in order to end up with any more than the odd school here and there – and there is no sign of such enthusiasm (partly because the coalition have completely distorted the demand for free schools – most parents find the idea of setting up their own school laughable).

Yet the same cannot be said for Academy schools, which are popping up all over the place as Heads rush to make the change and grab the extra cash on offer. Certainly, the incentives and the arm-twisting from the top is pushing in one direction only; what started as a drip is now becoming a torrent and, with only one in five school leaders ruling out conversion, it looks like Academy status will become the norm.

This is perhaps the real education story of the coalition’s first year in power: not the free school ‘movement’ (if it can be described as such a thing), with the ubiquitous Toby Young, the Lancastrian meditators and – brace yourself – the Birbalsingh experiment in Lambeth, but the seemingly relentless shoving of schools towards Academy status.

What is most striking about this change is not necessarily the virtues (or otherwise) of the policy itself, but, like so many of the coalition’s boldest reforms – think NHS – they are being carried out without any real sense of consent or agreement, let alone demand. Indeed, the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made no mention of Academy schools, except to say that they will be expected to follow an ‘inclusive admissions policy’.

Alongside ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’, it’s best to add ‘free school’ to your list of words spoken by Ministers when they want to disguise some dastardly deed. Because, if Michael Gove has his way, while free schools take the flak and the fire, the local school near you will quietly, surreptitiously become an Academy school – whether you like it or not.

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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools

Ofsted: a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation

Our friends at Ofsted have recently published their revised plans for how they go about inspecting schools. And what an uninspiring read it is. Uninspiring, that is, if you hold the view that Ofsted has lost its way and is in need of a major shake-up, not just a tweak of focus here and there.

The tone of the document (which is out for consultation and can be found here) is less than radical. There is little – scratch that, no evidence of anything approaching a fundamental re-evaluation of what they do and why.

Instead, what we have is lots of self-congratulatory stuff about how Ofsted, through its inspections, has helped to ‘share good practice’ and ‘encourage improvement’ (not on my watch they haven’t!). And then a host of relatively minor changes which have been forced upon them by the Education Bill – such as an end to the duties to inspect community cohesion and well-being.

The proposal is cleverly written to recognise the political mood – presenting the case that inspections will be streamlined with any flabbiness removed from the process. But, it’s hard to see how this will be the case – next to nothing has been removed from the scope of inspections.

Achievement, behaviour, safety, leadership, management, teaching – it’s all there. As is a focus on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. And, although the out-of-fashion term ‘personalised learning’ is absent, the inspection will still look at whether education enables a child to ‘achieve her or his potential’.

It’s very hard to see how this cuts down the inspection process, particularly as Ofsted will apparently now give ‘greater priority’ to ‘detailed observation of teaching and learning’ – this suggestions more than a mere drop in and scan through the books. The conflict remains too between historical data and where a school is ‘at’ when the inspector calls: despite the glib references to the importance of teaching, the inspections still seem to be focussed on the importance of SATs results.

Other changes are worth noting too – including the focus on reading and numeracy in primary schools and literacy in secondary schools. It’s not clear why these have been picked other than, y’know, reading is, like, important innit. What we do know is that these unexplained shifts by Ofsted affect what schools do in a fairly crude and unsophisticated way. You can hear the screech of brakes and jangled gear-change as the inspectors narrow their sights ever-further.

There is more for those who doubt Ofsted are under-taking little more than a superficial exercise in pretending to ‘focus’ their inspections, while leaving plenty in their armoury if they don’t like the cut of a schools jib. Get this: they will be coming to inspect ‘how gaps are narrowing between different groups of pupils’. Which groups are, of course, for them to know and us to find out. It could be FSM v non-FSM, or girls v boys, or white v BME, or EAL v non-EAL. Who knows? But sure as eggs is eggs, Ofsted will have something to string you up by.

Aside from the ‘spot the difference’ approach to the detail of inspections, what is missing is any consideration of the culture of inspections and the recognition that the inspection experience of some schools has been something along the lines of: drop-in, damn and depart. This, in my view, damages rather than enhances school improvement.

To counter this, Ofsted does need fundamental change. Some are proposing splitting the whole organisation in two – more cruel critics might recommend breaking it up further (a million very tiny pieces springs to mind).

What they have produced here is a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation; it provides little to suggest Ofsted is changing from within. It is curious that Michael Gove has been so cautious in this area (contrast for a moment with what Eric Pickles has done, smashing the local authority watchdog – the Audit Commission – to smithereens) when, for many in the education sector, it is the place where radical upheaval is urgently required.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Ofsted, Policy, Schools

Lies, damn lies and the Pupil Premium

When does a misrepresentation – a gentle tweak at an accepted truth – tip into something more serious: a deception, or a lie?

It’s hard to say precisely where the line should be drawn, particularly in the cut and thrust of political argument, where partial cases are routinely presented as fact, but Lynne Featherstone – MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and Government Minister – is pushing hard at the boundaries of honesty.

The problem is her repeated claim that the Pupil Premium represents ‘extra’ money for schools when, unfortunately for Featherstone, it doesn’t.

The stakes are high on this one. It will be critical for the Lib Dems, come election time, to identify their wins and their impact. Having nailed their colours to the mast of ‘social mobility’, the Pupil Premium will be their flagship. It will be plastered on election leaflets and churned out by keen canvassers – ‘extra, extra extra….read all about it.’

What goes unsaid is that the inappropriately named ‘Premium’ comes from within the existing spending pot. Leaving aside whether or not it is a welcome re-distribution of the schools budget, the fact (accepted by Michael Gove) is that it’s just that – a re-distribution; cutting up the cake differently, not baking a bigger cake.

And what makes things worse is that that she’s a repeat offender. Twice this week she has posted on her blog that the Premium gives £625 million ‘extra’ to schools, including £4.5 million ‘extra’ to schools in her constituency. Previously she has described this as ‘additional funding on top of the national funding settlement’. Similar claims pop up throughout her posts.

So, this is no slip of the tongue – it’s calculated and deliberate. The aim is to confuse and misrepresent the reality of what is happening to schools over the next few years (see Sunder Katwala’s comment for a comprehensive run-through).

Featherstone, of course, is following the party line – Clegg made similar erroneous claims about the Pupil Premium in interviews this week – but the tactic is an odd one. It would be credible and convincing for Lib-Dems to argue that they have secured a better settlement, within the existing pot, for children on free school meals. Why not leave it at that?

No doubt, the truth on this will out when schools are faced with the reality of shrinking budgets over the next few years. The Lib Dems, if they stick to their current line of ‘extra money for schools’, will find this impossible to explain. Come election time, they may well realise a simple truth: honesty is the best policy.

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

King Canute, social mobility and the Education Endowment Fund

As today is designated ‘social mobility day’, where Nick Clegg darkens our screens to explain that what he is saying now, he actually truly believes in – as opposed to everything he said before, which he said to get elected – it’s worth looking again at one of Michael Gove’s bright ideas: the Education Endowment Fund (to be run by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust – see here for details)

The Fund has been set up with grand aims. It is designed to address the monumentally complex problem which is routinely explained by Gove as follows: only 40 pupils out of 80,000 on free school meals end up going to Oxford or Cambridge. This often-aired statistic is a crude measure, but makes the obvious point well enough – poor kids don’t do as well as rich kids.

Odd, you may think, that ‘social mobility day’ comes from a Government that has trebled tuition fees and all-but knocked education maintenance allowance on the head, but let’s stick with them for a moment.

After all, Gove has raided the piggy bank to put £125 million into the Fund, to pay for innovative ideas which will help disadvantaged children.

But, slow down, don’t think for a moment that this is £125 million coming to a school near you. Far from it – this is an Endowment Fund, so the hard cash is limited to the interest earned on the investment. Assuming a safe and steady return of about 5% – this amounts to a pot of £6 million or so a year.

Without wishing to appear cynical, it would take a blinkered enthusiast – like those who believed Canute could turn back the tide – to think that 6 million quid will somehow reverse the very deep-seated educational inequalities Gove identifies.

To illustrate the merest drop in the deepest ocean this Fund represents, here’s a comparison (crude, I’ll admit, but if it’s good enough for Gove…):

Her Majesty’s Government rustle up £125 million to spend on the nation’s needy – Eton School holds an investment portfolio of about the same amount.

So, the Government’s collective will to address educational inequality equates roughly to the financial strength of one private school (remarkably, a few years back, a loss of £4 million on the private school’s investment was described by the bursar as ‘a pity’. And aside from being extraordinarily wealthy, Eton benefits from tax exemptions, courtesy of their charitable status. Puts the Endowment Fund in some kind of context, doesn’t it?).

No doubt something good will come of the Fund. My guess, two years down the line, there will be somewhere for Clegg to visit and grin for the camera – just to show he cares.

But will it address the fissures that run deep through our society? Will it turn the relentless tide that piles opportunity on top of wealth? King Canute proved his point, he showed that words are not enough. Nor, unfortunately is £6 million – if the Education Endowment Fund is as good as it gets, Gove and Clegg will end up in deep and choppy seas.

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Filed under Clegg, Funding, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Gove’s discipline plan fails to excite

There are few things more appealing to the right of the Tory Party than a bit of good old-fashioned discipline. Nothing whets the appetite like a bit of comprehensive school chaos, children running riot and feckless public servants losing control.

Into this fertile territory, steps Michael Gove – not quite whip in hand, but keen and stiff-backed – with his ‘new guidance‘ for tackling naughtiness in schools.

And what a hotch-potch it is. It’s more a series of random, disparate and occasionally dotty ideas – or a repetition of powers that already exist – than anything that could accurately be described as a ‘plan’.

So here we have, to much fanfare, the announcement that teachers can use reasonable force in the classroom. Splendid stuff, except this power exists already – nothing new. Same with powers to exclude pupils who make malicious allegations – nothing new.

Then there is the slightly bizarre proposal that, in cases of malicious allegation, the ‘default position’ is that the teacher has behaved reasonably ‘unless a complainant can show that a teacher has behaved unreasonably’. Read that a couple of times. Is that not a statement of the blindingly obvious – a re-iteration of ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Good to know – thanks Michael – but it’s very hard to see, beyond the headline, what concrete difference this makes to the school day.

Where the guidance is worthy of a press release, the ideas seem designed for the Daily Mail rather than for the classroom. How often, for example, will a power to prosecute children who make malicious allegations be applied? Never, would be my guess. Such a proposal fits the bill for a Secretary of State that wants to talk tough, but is destined to achieve next to nothing in the real world.

On exclusions, Gove is broadly incoherent – citing the number of kicked-out kids as evidence that schools are out of control, yet also urging Heads to take action (which suggests more exclusions, not less). Added to this morass is a new proposal to make schools accountable for the educational outcome of excluded pupils. How a Head should navigate all that is anyone’s guess.

The reality is that the new guidance is a muddled and modest affair, unremarkable and uninspiring. And it’s all stick and no carrot, but my guess is the spin machine at Education HQ will be quite pleased with this – what amounts to nothing more than a bureaucratic tidying up of fairly dry guidance has provided fodder for much talking tough. On closer inspection it seems this was all cooked up for the Telegraph, not for teachers.

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Filed under Conservatives, Michael Gove, Politics - general, Schools