Monthly Archives: May 2011

That Ian Gilbert catches the eye

I can be guilty of book-hopping – opening one while finishing another – but Ian Gilbert’s latest has so far managed to both grab and keep my attention. The rhetorical title – ‘Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google?’ – certainly helps catch the eye, but within it he presents, with great skill and humour, a simple argument: the primary purpose of the education system is to teach children to think and, in its current form, the system is failing in this purpose.

That’s a serious charge, but a pretty persuasive one. Mind you, having just emerged from a few weeks of cramming juvenile brains with certainties – facts to be reproduced on SATs day – it wouldn’t take much to win me over.

I won’t repeat his points at length – mainly because he writes better than I do and, besides, you’ve got Google so you can go and find out for yourself. But what he says about the absence of genuine thought within the average child’s school day rings true. Yes, we cover a lot and are busy, busy, busy. Is that enough though?

For me, in the classroom, some of the most revelatory moments have arisen when I’ve put the plan to one side – jam-packed as it is with differentiated activities, resources, assessment opportunities and the rest – and allowed for a discussion to emerge. A proper one – with opinions, and disagreement, and challenge. This is learning, just as much – if not more – than a neatly marked page full of times tables or a list of English Kings and Queens in a text book.

Sometimes the discussion can lasts minutes, sometimes it fizzes around the room until necessity brings it to a close. On these occasions, there is a shift that can be hard to describe and difficult to define, but it sure looks and feels a lot like thinking. My guess is that brains – in some small way – have been re-configured, re-shaped for the better.

It’s hard to disagree that with Gilbert’s view that we need to find a way to generate more of these moments, not less. And that’s why we still need teachers.

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Pupil premium: confusion is added to the mix

The pupil premium, the coalition’s flagship education policy – £430 for each child on free school meals, raises a tricky question for schools: what should the money be spent on?

Let us put aside, for the moment, the question about whether the size of the pupil premium is anywhere near sufficient to address educational inequalities. Let us assume that a school receiving their cash trickles it down to the child concerned, rather than chucking it in the pot along with everything else, used to cover spending cuts elsewhere. Let us pretend we have arrived at this point where schools are faced with the nub of the issue: what will make a difference?

The policy wonks – or, in this case it seem to be a wonk, singular – at the Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR) have drawn attention to this key question with an article here.

While they are of course right – in a state-the-bloomin’-obvious kind of way – to make the point that funding of any kind is wasted if it is not spent effectively, it is their proposals for what to do with the cash which catch the eye. And not, unfortunately, for the right reasons.

They have argued, for instance, in the article above and also here, that there is a lack of accountability with how the money is spent and, to address this, schools should have to agree with a child’s parents how the money should be spent.

While accountability may be a problem, the solution suggests more of a bureaucratic process – a letter sent home, I imagine – than anything like a genuine engagement with the child’s needs. Yet if ‘agreement’ involves a thorough process of discussion and consultation, this arrangement would become impractical – how many hours would this take, in a school with 10-15% of their roll on free school meals?

Not much food for thought from IPPR so far.

Added to this, though, the think-tank has selected three areas that schools should ‘prioritise’ when spending the premium: reading catch-up programmes; family support workers to link home and school; and an increase in formative assessment in schools.

At first glance, it does seem odd for a think-tank to be telling teachers what to do in such a precise way. I wonder if they also advise Doctors on how to treat patients?

Also, it begs the question how the list was generated. At one level it’s pointless: why, for example, should reading be ‘prioritised’ if the child is behind with Maths?

And why have they picked out ‘formative assessment’? As good a method as it is in terms of accelerating progress, formative assessment is about an approach to teaching and learning in the classroom – it’s not something you do ‘to’ a particular, individual child.

More to the point, it doesn’t cost anything (beyond going to Amazon and buying a book called ‘Inside the Black Box’) and has already been the subject of much attention in schools.

Given their enthusiasm for accountability, if you made the case for formative assessment, you would be hard pushed to explain to a parent (or anyone else) that the £430 has been spent on helping little Johnny or Joanna any more than it has helped anyone and everyone in the class. What, exactly, are they proposing the money is spent on? A muddled idea, this one.

However, with the idea of family support, IPPR may be on to something. The missing link in terms of narrowing the gap between rich and poor is often an effective relationship (in terms of learning) between parent, school and child is vital. To make the difference, schools may need to up their game – but some parents may have to as well. And, with this, a bit of support, guidance and encouragement may make all the difference.

What IPPR’s list does reveal is just how difficult it is to decide how to spend the cash, and the challenges for schools and individual teachers when trying to make informed decisions.

It seems, at this moment in time, the pupil premium may fail on three counts. First of all, it’s not enough. Second, it’s not, in fact, a premium. And, third, whatever cash does find its way to schools under the brand name ‘pupil premium’, may well be lost in a mix of confusion and cuts.

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Rosen puts another nail in the SATs coffin

Thank goodness for that; SATs are over for another year. As always, they have prompted much debate and discussion, in the staff room, at the school gate and in the papers.

There is a pretty well-established critique of SATs which suggests they put too much pressure on children while telling us little about their abilities that we don’t know already. The high-stakes nature of the SATs, with league tables constructed based on the results, narrows the curriculum and moves school life away from learning and creativity towards something best described as training (take a look at this blog-post written from the perspective of teacher and parent – it makes for painful reading).

Added to this criticism of the system and its effects on children, is a more forensic analysis by Michael Rosen, who brilliantly (and at some length) picks apart the detail of the reading assessment undertaken this year.

Reading Rosen’s argument was a huge relief – I was not alone. I had looked at the paper with amazement – and a sense of rising panic – wondering quite how some of the questions should be answered. Many of the references in the text were obscure and technical, pushing the capabilities of even the best readers.

And, as Rosen’s points out, some of the inferential question required a broader understanding or life experience which is simply beyond most ten or eleven year olds (except those, he argues, who have had a particular upbringing – middle-class and fortunate, with frequent day trips to national parks. I paraphrase a smidgeon here of course – the best way to do justice to Rosen’s words is to read them in full).

There’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but it should be within reach. Parts of this test seemed downright unfair. Along with the more familiar, systemic criticisms of SATs, Rosen’s line-by-line and word-by-word assault raises further questions about the point of such an assessment, particularly when it seems set up, by design, to create failure, rather than providing a meaningful picture of a child’s reading abilities.

A simple solution would be to scrap SATs and give children a ‘level’ at the end of Year 6 based on the assessment of the teacher. To ensure accuracy and accountability, schools should be expected to have internal systems to moderate and check these assessments. This could then be supplemented by an external check, perhaps with random sampling of schools or individual children.

That way, we would still have good, rigorous data on school performance, but without the hothousing and the strains brought about by the current system. And, who knows, instead of focussing a child’s final primary year on jumping through hoops, we could focus on what really matters and what really makes a difference to life chances: teaching and learning.

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Gove should look to Finland for a Master class

Michael Gove has hopped around the globe to find the ideas and the justification for his education policies; Singapore, Sweden, the U.S, Canada and Finland regularly pop up as the inspiration for everything from free schools to curriculum reform.

Of course, it would be wrong-headed to close our eyes to innovation, whether it’s in a school next door or a classroom in Kuala Lumpur.

Equally, there are difficulties with directly importing policies from overseas, not least because of the social, economic, cultural and historical differences from one country to the next.

As such, transplanting ideas is not simply a case of ‘cut and paste’, much like the wine that tastes sumptuous when gazing at the Adriatic breathing in lemon-scented air, which turns to vinegar when you’re back in blighty watching Eastender and tucking into a chicken chow mein.

With wine and with policy, you have to take great care with what goes in the suitcase for the homeward flight.

It is hard to know what to pick. The easiest option is to establish your point of view and merely scour the globe for ideas that closely match your own preconceptions. This, however, lacks objectivity. It rules out the genuinely innovative – you look but you don’t really see.

Looking at Gove’s plans, it’s not clear whether this really has been a genuine attempt to scrutinise our friends and competitors and to match – or exceed – the best of what they do (have a read of this excellent article on the school system in Finland, a country often cited by Gove as as an inspiration, not least because they regularly appear top of international league tables – make a tally of ‘similarities’ and ‘differences’ and see which comes on top).

Hence, we choose to import the concept of free schools from the U.S and Sweden, but ignore the fact that Finland has no equivalent. And, where a child aged seven in Helsinki will just be starting school after a play-based introduction to learning, in England we have decided to introduce a reading test at the age of six to see whether they can read not just simple words, but also non-words like ‘koob’ or ‘zort’. Madness!

Yet, staring us in the face, there is one area where we should replicate our Finnish friends precisely; it would make a huge, tangible difference to the quality of education in this country. And it’s quite simple: teachers should be qualified to Masters level.

Imagine this: every teacher undertaking further to study to improve their classroom practice; every teacher familiar with the latest research (and knowing themselves what the best schools in Alberta and Stockholm are up to); every teacher developing specialist knowledge and applying it in their classrooms; every teacher understanding research methods and continually investigating ways to improve what they do.

Imagine the potential for improving the quality of teaching – and try to imagine the difference this would make to children’s learning.

This would not need radical upheaval of school governance, nor (relatively speaking) bags of cash. There would certainly be no need for a shiny new Education Bill. But maybe that’s why it’s been ignored by Michael Gove – the best ideas don’t always catch the eye, particularly when you aren’t looking closely enough.

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With one empty seat, another day begins…

There’s a boy in my class who just about clings on to the description of being ‘in my class’. Not a week goes by without an absence; not a term goes by without a missing week.

All the other children notice when he’s not here. The silence at a certain point in the register – the momentary pause – fills the room. They roll their eyes, even giggle, and ask: ‘where is he?’, ‘don’t tell me he’s not here again’.

With one empty seat, another day begins…

Mondays are regularly missed. Fridays too. Sometimes – often – it’s both. The reason each time is endlessly different. Stomach upset, headache, bad knee. It’s hard to keep up. The common thread is that I don’t believe he’s been ill – I think he’s at home watching television.

He’s behind everyone else, but has the potential to do well, to progress and to meet – if not exceed – expectations. But his potential is withering, becoming lost as his days drift by.

What can we do? We make a big fuss about attendance and who has the best record. The competition keeps the children on their toes; they puff their chests out with pride when they are congratulated for attending every day of a term or, even better, every day in a year. Some children have even progressed through the whole school without missing a day.

And, as well as carrot, there is stick. Letters are sent to regular absentees; truancy patrols alerted; authorities informed. Parents are summoned for serious conversations. The simple, obvious correlation between being in school and progressing at school is explained, clearly and simply. The message, we hope, is compelling.

Yet, before the week ends: with one empty seat, another day begins.

Of course, illness happens, people get sick. Children, particularly younger ones, have an uncanny knack of spreading germs (anyone who has been on the soggy receiving end of a full-face sneeze knows as much!).

And, the starting point must be to trust and believe both child and parent; if they say they are ill, so be it. It’s difficult to challenge without evidence to the contrary (how do you prove someone doesn’t have a headache?). So, we err on the side of caution, offer sympathy rather than indignation.

Sometimes missing days can signify something darker, more serious. But not in this case, there’s nothing more mysterious than this: school doesn’t seem to matter to his parents, and therefore to him. Such a waste.

After all that’s been tried, what’s the solution? One thing – suggested in desperation – would be to keep him back a year. Make him repeat it all again. If he turns up and makes progress, then on he goes. It sends a message to his parents, and also to him; a painful and joyless lesson, perhaps, but necessary.

The alternative – to turn a blind eye, to send the message that success does not come from effort (and good fortune) – serves no-one, least of all a child who is missing out on one of life’s essentials.

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Where’s the Liberal Democrat voice in education?

Looks like this week’s election results have changed little for the coalition, at least for Nick Clegg who – aside from a little more public flexing of Lib-Dem muscles – plans to stay at Cameron’s side for the next five years.

A few days on from their bad night at the polls, the one gear change from Clegg seems to be the conclusion that the public wants to hear a louder Liberal Democrat voice in the Government.

That’s one way of looking at it. And a risky one too.

The Conservative right have been emboldened by their relative success this week; cages are being rattled.

They seem to be tiring of their junior partners, particularly their claims to be a ‘moderating’ force, keeping those nasty Tories in check. If I were of this ilk, I wouldn’t want to hear more from Clegg; I’d want him to pipe down.

There is a sense from the Liberal Democrats, a year too late perhaps, that the Tories govern ruthlessly and that the friendliness of the first twelve months perhaps now seems more like entrapment. They have manouvered Clegg and his team into the firing line, made concessions, but kept the good ship HMG steaming right-ward.

They have allowed the Liberal Democrats their totems and their pet projects, but there is no doubt the Tories are in charge of digging up the foundations.

Education is in many ways a perfect example of this.

All the key jobs (the ones that are actually doing the digging) belong to Conservatives – the Liberal Democrats have just one seat at the table, taken by the close-to-anonymous Sarah Teather.

They have, cunningly, allowed the Liberal Democrats their totem – the pupil premium (which, by almost any analysis isn’t anything close to being a ‘premium’. Notice how it is now being spoken as a ‘better’ deal for schools, rather than ‘extra’ – they have accepted the cuts are coming and this is, at best, a sticking plaster).

On the rest – Academies, free schools, EMA, curriculum reform – it’s all coming from the Conservatives. There seems to be no Liberal Democrat voice here at all (a crude measure, admittedly, but at Education HQ, Conservative Ministers have made 45 speeches in the last year, Sarah Teather has made just 6).

This is not to say this is the same as inaction – Sarah Teather is working away on pre-school initiatives – but this appear to be done in isolation and at a very different pace to the rest of the Department. There are Green Paper’s rather than White, warm words rather than clauses in a Bill. It seems separate from the big stuff, the things that are actually happening right here and right now.

You could say the same for health care and policing – what are the Liberal Democrats in these Departments actually doing? Their own thing, in a back-room somewhere, is my guess – or up-front, like Clegg or Danny Alexander, agreeing with every word.

This leaves the Liberal Democrats in a difficult position. To remain credible to their core vote, they have to assert themselves more widely, impacting on the flagship policies, not just sideshows.

Yet they aim to do so in the context of declining support at the ballot box, a Tory party who may think they need their partners less than they did a year ago, and signs that dissent is bubbling within the ranks. By any stretch, that’s quite a conundrum.

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Looking to the horizon is no good if your feet are on fire

Despite being roundly punished for their collaboration with the Tories, it looks like the Liberal Democrat response to a pasting in the polls – both local election and AV referendum – is to perform their very own version of Groundhog Day.

Somehow we’ve come full circle and returned to last May. Every sound-bite from the Liberal Democrat leadership is laced with a reminder that they did their coalition deed ‘in the national interest’. Reference to the ‘mess’ left by ‘Labour’ is obligatory (as if the banks are child-like innocents).

No interview with Clegg or Huhne is complete without the macho-man rhetoric – ‘we knew this would be difficult but we are in it for the long-term’. Thankfully, at this point, they stop short of roaring loudly, baring teeth and ripping off those nice yellow ties.

I suppose, for them, it makes sense to talk about the the long-term, particularly when the immediate future looks so apocalyptically bad. But it’s all very well looking to the horizon; if your feet are on fire, you need to lower your gaze a touch – and quick.

Yet there seems little sign of any genuine re-evaluation of plans, strategies or tactics (aside from Huhne throwing his weight around). What is genuinely odd, is that this seems to have come as something of a surprise. Wasn’t it obvious this was going to happen? Yet the boy Clegg seemed genuinely chastened by the events of the last few days; as if he thought people would still deep, deep down be agreeing with Nick.

Surely (surely!) he has known for a long time – about a year, say – that he and his Party are now seriously damaged goods? Has he really not noticed Cameron and Osborne looking calm amidst the fray, while the kicks and blows reign down in his direction?

For those of a yellow persuasion, the way out from this mess seems unclear. The current course seems untenable, yet that seems to be the plan – there’s talk of nothing more than ‘dusting down and moving on’. Is this really the strategy?

I see the Tory vision: to get to the next election with a deficit brutally cut to nil, a generous tax-cutting hand-out in the Budget before polling day and a clear message that the tough choices taken will now lead to glorious economic revival.

Tory voters will stick with this plan – they will look past the likely social devastation brought about by such an approach. But will Liberal Democrats? Will they really swallow bitter pill after bitter pill for four more years?

If Clegg is right on this – that this is a hiccup and, come 2015, people will thank him for all he has done ‘in the national interest’ – then he is truly a politician of extraordinary foresight. If Clegg is wrong, he may well have destroyed a political party – his own.

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