Monthly Archives: June 2011

Gove adds fuel to the fire

Whatever your view of this Thursday’s strike action, you would think this would be a time for cool heads. A tense situation needs careful handling yet, in piles the Education Secretary, urging parents to break the strike and take the place of teachers in the classroom.

This is dotty on so many levels. These parents would need to be supervised – so who would be free to do that? What exactly would they teach? What would happen, say, if there was an accident? Or a badly misbehaving pupil? Head Teachers and Governors would have a lot of explaining to do (and be without a leg to stand on) if something went wrong.

Aside from the practicalities, Gove is also sending the message that teaching is an amateurish pursuit which anyone can have a go at, and do to satisfactory standard at the drop of a hat. Causing offence and being provocative at such a time is a very peculiar tactic. The effect of such disrespect, rather than diffusing the situation, will be to rally more and more teachers to the union cause

More perniciously, Gove’s words seek to drive a wedge between the two most important people in a child’s learning and development: teacher and parent. Where there is trust, understanding and dialogue between teacher and parent, the child benefits.

Parents may – or may not – support the strike action. If they don’t, there is no reason why this relationship should collapse as a result; it should be strong enough and mature enough to withstand a difference of opinion.

But why should the Education Secretary decide to strain this relationship, to push it past breaking point, by saying it would be ‘great’ if parents, this Thursday, became strike-breakers.

When a dangerous fire is beginning to burn, Mr Gove, wouldn’t it be wise to dampen it down; to calmly put it out rather than adding more fuel?

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Stuart Baggs, The Apprentice and a Headteacher coming to a school near you…

For many years, the path to Headship has followed a predictable route: from class teacher, to head of year, to Assistant or Deputy, and then, after a suitable time has passed in each role, and the appropriate experience has been amassed, the top job beckons.

But not for much longer. Via schemes such as Tomorrow’s Heads and due to the flexibility that inevitably flows from a Government that has pledged to allow schools much more say in their own affairs, we are about to see a new cohort of Head-teachers who have one thing in common: they will have never stood before thirty bright-eyed (or heavy-lidded) children and taught a lesson.

Some of these new leaders will have worked in schools, in administrative or pastoral roles of some kind; others may arrive from different sectors which have a link with education – a museum, say, or a voluntary organisation working with children. But other won’t. They may come from a business without any obvious connections to education, schools or children.

The idea, obviously enough, is to cast the recruitment net far and wide and to attract the best candidates from a wider pool. The theory is based in turn on the concept of ‘transferable skills’ – a visionary leader who can manage people, budget, pressure and all the rest is able to do so whether they are operating in a supermarket, a sales team or in a school. The tasks may be different but the skills are the same – or so the theory goes.

There is some sense to building greater flexibility into routes to Head-ship. As the baby-boomer generation retires there is a need – chronic in some places – for a new batch of school leaders to fill their shoes. Due to the perceived and actual difficulties of the job, as well as a desire to remain in the classroom, most teachers find the idea of moving to the top of the pile somewhat unappealing. Even those who get to Deputy often stay put, content with being second-in-command.

Of course, the emphasis on attracting the best people into Head-ship is self-evidently a good thing, but even more so given the considerable structural changes currently underway; it is going to take light-footed leaders to navigate their way through the new educational landscape, and to shape it so it is better than what went before.

As schools de-couple themselves from the links they have to local authorities, and as new kinds of schools are established, new partnerships will emerge. Who knows? Perhaps those who arrive unencumbered with the experience of how things were – or indeed how things are – will be better placed to make sense of Michael Gove’s brave new world.

But there are problems with this approach, not least with the question of qualifications. Can someone who has never taught manage – in the sense of assess the performance – a teacher? While much of this task may be about things that are in no way unique to the school experience (good communication between manager and managed, for example) – therefore opening up the role to any competent person – there’s the tricky issue of judging what happens in a class-room. How can you know what is good teaching unless you’ve been there and done it?

Unless we intend to devalue teaching and learning, reduce it to a tick-box list accessible to any lay person (some would say we are there already), this presents a challenge for any non-teacher putting themselves forward. A solution for larger schools, or perhaps for federations where a Head oversees more than one school, may be to delegate assessment of ‘teaching and learning’ to a qualified senior teacher. Whatever the solution, it needs to be credible, as teachers will quite rightly question these judgements.

More generally, the so-called ‘transferable skills’ can surely only stretch so far; it would take some of exceptional ability to seamlessly make the leap from the corporate world. Are there many who fit the bill?

A bit like the Apprentice, it’s not hard to picture strident young business-people, stepping confidently through the school doors, impressing a panel with their can-do attitude, their extraordinary achievements and their boundless energy; only to crumble as soon as they are presented with the realities of the task.

Let us see: we may get some corporate heroes who can inspire their teams and transform our schools, or talented people from other fields.

Or, heaven forbid, we may get Stuart Baggs.

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The devil is in the detail for Archbishop Williams

There’s nothing like a political bun-fight and they are made all the more interesting when the main combatant – in this case, Archbishop Rowan Williams – is able to call on a higher power to damn not only the Government, but the political class as a whole.

Leaping into the ring, the Archbishop has well and truly stuck the boot in, lashing out at the coalition for making radical reforms without a mandate, and slamming the opposition for failing to devise or articulate an alternative to the cuts and the foundation-shaking policies in health and in education.

The response so far to his article in the New Statesman has generated a passionate response from the Prime Minister and some stinging comments from his backbenchers, suggesting Williams is an unwelcome visitor on the sacred turf marked ‘party politics’.

His words were undoubtedly designed to provoke – this was a carefully constructed piece written by his own hand, not an interview (where even the most disciplined guard can be accidentally dropped).

Of course, if you are anything close to left-of-centre, it’s easy to be drawn to Williams’ critique of the coalition, but his scatter-gun approach makes it difficult to unreservedly rally to his cause.

It seems a bit too simplistic and unthinking, for example, to jump on the bandwagon which slates the opposition for keeping their policy powder dry – if opposition is not the time for reflection and prolonged analysis, then when is? And you would be a pretty foolish opposition to set out policies with any certainty when the next election is four years away – who knows what the landscape will look like in 2015?

What is most odd – and what seriously weakens his position – is that Williams himself seems to be lacking in ideas, or at least ideas which could be described as concrete, tangible or even – to be honest – understandable.

He talks of re-inventing co-operation and syndicalism, but doesn’t bother to explain how; he asks for ‘better communication’ of ‘strategic imperatives’ – whatever that means; he dismisses ‘managerial politics’ and ‘associational socialism’ – phrases familiar perhaps to him and the small number of people who actually read the New Statesman, but pretty meaningless to your average man in the pew.

This is a missed opportunity. Unencumbered by the demands of political reality, Williams and the Church he represents, are ideally positioned to set out a clear and precise vision of public policy.

The criticism he makes of the left for not developing an alternative is precisely the vacuum that he – and the considerable resources his Church commands – should occupy.

But it should not be filled with bluster and brickbats – they serve only the needs of radio phone-ins and political chat shows. Nor should the gap be plugged with abstractions and theories alone. What we need are ideas that can be applied in the real world.

While Archbishop Williams may well have painted an accurate picture of the devil, but what we now need from him is the detail.

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How to spend the Pupil Premium. Maybe.

In a time where schools policy seems to swing wildly from one extreme (think wholesale structural reforms like free schools and Academies) to political interference in the minutiae of how children should be taught to read (think synthetic phonics) praise the Lord for some calm, reasonable, sanity-restoring words from the good people at the Sutton Trust.

Their latest dollop of common sense comes in the form of a guide for schools on how to spend the Pupil Premium. They keep clear of the politics, not seeking to make a judgement on whether the Premium is ever going to meet its grandiose aims: to increase social mobility, to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils and to smooth the barely-worn path from a place called ‘deprivation’ to somewhere called ‘Oxbridge’. Instead they present, in simple terms, options for schools about how to spend their cash.

It’s clear, quite early on in the report, that the authors not only engaged their brains, but – in deciding what to include in their list – also managed to plant tongues firmly in cheeks. They surely had the bone-headed traditionalists in mind – those who believe that the absence of a well-knotted, throat-gripping school tie explains just about everything that is wrong with our schools – when they explained that there is no evidence that school uniform improves ‘academic performance, behaviour or attendance’. So there!

They also slay, in a gentle academic way, some other sacred cows. Grouping by ability, for example, is described as ‘what not to do if you want low income pupils to benefit’. And the benefits of homework are summarised as ‘modest’ at secondary school, and even less so at primary school.

But in true boffin-style, they are concerned not with the grinding of axes but with the evidence. This leads them to similarly dismiss the more cuddly teaching approaches, such as developing activities for children based on their ‘learning styles’, which in some cases has been shown to have a detrimental effect. They also have little time, purely in the context of the aims of the Pupil Premium, for reducing class sizes, after school programmes or summer schools.

More controversially, however, the Sutton Trust questions the role of Teaching Assistants who, according to studies, have ‘very small or no effects on attainment’ particularly when their main role is either to tidy up after the teacher or to provide ill-defined support to a particular child or group of children.

This finding should make schools – if they are anything like mine – think long and hard about Teaching Assistants on their pay roll and how they are matched with children who may be the beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium. What a waste if the Premium ends up aimlessly dumped in the generic pot for ‘special needs support’ – perhaps to top up the hours of a Teaching Assistant, who ends up spending her time at the photocopier or sharpening pencils.

So, to the key question: what does work?

The Sutton Trust points to three things:

First, the teacher providing effective feedback to the learner about their progress.

Second, ‘meta-cognition strategies’ – teaching approaches which ‘make learners’ thinking about learning more explicit in the classroom’.

Third, ‘peer tutoring’ where ‘learners work in pairs or small groups to provide each other with explicit teaching support’.

It’s as simple as that, apparently.

What is striking about the Sutton Trust’s top three is that, put simply, they cost peanuts. Money does not need to be thrown at the problem. To make this work, there’s no need for top-of-the-range technology. Nor do you need to convert to an Academy. Or teach Latin while playing rugby (competitively of course).

The only real expenditure is on a bit of CPD which, presumably, the school would be spending anyway.

What is more interesting, though, is that these interventions bring us back to a simple truth: it is good, innovative teaching that makes the difference, done by teachers who are constantly on the look out for what will make them better at their work.

One thing nags at me, however; if we take the Sutton Trust’s advice and warmly embrace the benefits of feedback, draw close to us the joys of meta-cognition and cherish the benefits of peer tutoring – wouldn’t we then do this routinely in our classrooms? Wouldn’t all our charges benefit – rich and poor, Premium and – erm – Standard? Who could argue against such an improvement, but how will this narrow the attainment gap? Perhaps it’s not so simple, after all.

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