Monthly Archives: April 2014

What lessons can be learnt from Greenwich Free School?

As any decent teacher knows, failure is not something to celebrate. Failure, in whatever form it comes – error, misconception, or simply falling short of a goal or target – is a key part of the process we call learning. If we only succeed, then achievements and progress are woefully constrained. Failure provides the opportunity for reflection, for consideration and for a change of tack.

What, then, are the lessons from the Greenwich Free School, which this week emerged from an Ofsted inspection with the dreaded ‘requires improvement’?

There are few schools that so epitomise the current government’s educational reforms. Lauded by Michael Gove, the secondary school was co-founded by Jonathan Simmons, an adviser to Gove and head of education at Policy Exchange, a think-tank who have long been advocates of free schools. The vice chair of governors is Tom Shinner, now director of strategy at the Department for Education. This school is as Goveian as it comes.

But, just a couple of years in, Ofsted have pulled them up for the quality of teaching at the school; not enough challenge for more able children, shoddy work in books and too little progress for children with special educational needs.

Of course, anyone who has lived through the delights of an Ofsted visit will know that ‘requires improvement’ can be a pernicious judgement, based on a dodgy lesson, an inspector with blinkers on or a blip in exam results. Come another day and ‘requires improvement’ can so easily be good.

Nevertheless, this is an embarrassment for the free school fanatics. It doesn’t fit easily with the rhetoric of unbridled success that such schools were supposed to bring.

And that’s the rub. Such was the expectation, the unrealistic, politically motivated desire to present free schools as the solution to all our educational ills, that they have been set up to fail. Put on so high and so unsteady a plinth, it’s not surprise that some free schools will noisily crash to the ground.

In reality, Greenwich Free School faces the exact same challenges that every other school faces: how to get the quality of teaching right, ensuring every child makes progress, using assessment astutely and wisely, managing staff and all the rest.

Uniquely for free schools, however, these familiar challenges are compounded by the double whammy of the pressures of setting up everything from scratch and the weight of expectation, under a Gove-generated spotlight, to be the best of the best in no time at all.

But this judgement won’t shake the government’s free school policy in any significant way. Gove and the gang are dug in for the long haul. The school may well turn things round and, of course, other free schools have been viewed more generously by Ofsted. That will be enough to keep things ticking over.

In these divisive times, where different types of schools are pitched against each other like football teams and where the team called ‘council-run’ is denigrated at every turn, all we can hope for is for a change of tack; a reigning-in of the rhetoric that seeks to argue that excellence and innovation can only be found in academies and free schools.

There are great schools, good schools, and not so good schools. We should be hunting down and shining a spotlight on the good and the great, wherever that may be – academy, free school or, dare I say it, ‘council-run’.


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School data: tool or tyrant?

One of the many things that would amaze anyone unfamiliar with the modern primary school, is the mind-boggling amount of data that is either produced by schools themselves or generated by others.

Not only does this result in torrents of paperwork in the form of charts, tables, spreadsheets and action plans but it also generates a language of it’s own. A teacher is not a teacher unless they can wax lyrical about points progress, two level gains and age related expectations. These then become truncated to PP, 2LG and ARE, which has the dual purpose of saving time and baffling the outsider.

Much of this data is invaluable. It enables schools to target and support children who are slipping behind their peer group, as well as zooming in on groups of children who are missing out. At a click of a button, schools can check whether summer born girls are doing as well in maths or whether Somali boys are catching up with their reading. Data, at least in part, can be a useful tool to drive fairness and equality – no child should be left behind.

Equally, data is useless if the methodology is flawed (read this excellent deconstruction of RAISE online here), if the assessments underpinning the data are weak or unreliable, or if too much weight is put on what are often subjective judgements (for example, an assessment of a child’s writing ability). If this is the case, data can be more of a tyrant, used to exploit weakness and make unreasonable demands on exhausted teachers.

Also, there comes a point, depending on the characteristics and context of your school cohort, when large pinches of salt need to be applied to the crude figures. My school, for example, has such a high proportion of children eligible for pupil premium, with deeply rooted deprivation even for those children who fall outside of the pupil premium net, that this measure becomes almost meaningless. If we look at raising attainment of deprived children, then we find ourselves coming full circle – it’s everyone. Needless to say, Ofsted don’t have much sympathy for these subtle realities.

Data works when it is used as part of the jigsaw, alongside the professional judgements of a skilled and observant teacher and with the knowledge that children develop in different ways at different times. Whatever the demands of Ofsted, children are not programmed to march like robots along a predictable trajectory.


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Embarrassing Uncle Nigel

If politics is some kind of dysfunctional family, then UKIP are definitely the slightly embarrassing uncle at the party, the one who slaps you on the back, drinks more than he should, rants about bin collections and mutters slightly dubious things about foreigners.

But, of late, rather than looking disdainfully at Uncle Nigel, it seems that more and more people are turning to UKIP as the party of truth and common sense.

With this popularity, however, comes greater scrutiny and a close look at their education policies reveal the extent to which UKIP are high on rhetoric and low on ideas. They are far from the political solution in what is a mightily complex world.

You can read a summary of UKIP education policy here here. Much of it is fairly straightforward, old-school, right-of-centre thinking (the term ‘thinking’ is used loosely) – scrapping paperwork, building more grammar schools, protecting rural schools. This is relatively progressive; no mention of the cane at least.

Best of all, they plan to ‘insist’ schools teach the 3Rs’ – as opposed to the current situation, presumably, where schools barely bother with all that reading and ‘riting nonsense.

Most intriguing though, is how they plan to pay for all this. New grammar schools don’t come cheap that’s for sure. Their answer, as dismal as it is predictable, is ‘to let schools sack bad teachers’. It’s a mystery how this will generate even a few quid, let alone the megabucks needed to build new schools.

What this does reveal is the extent to which UKIP unthinkingly buy into and promulgate the view that schools are full of ‘bad teachers’. As ever, evidence for this is non existent. But UKIP, like the embarrassing uncle, have no need to sully themselves with such things as evidence or facts.

All they need is an enemy to attack – immigrants, or bad teachers, it matters little.

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Hysteria in the home counties

Yesterday was one of those days – a day full of excitement and tension. The day when thousands of parents found out whether or not their beloved offspring had secured a place in the chosen school. A day when hysteria hit the home counties.

For more than a few, there is heartbreak and gloom, particularly if said parents live in a procreating boom town or in an urban area where pressure on places is always high. It seems some local authorities have managed this process better than others (see link).

All that is left now is the long-shot of a successful appeal or, more likely, a painful adjustment to expectations. The new school may be neither close nor convenient. Or, equally, it may be close but unwanted.

It’s tough. Really tough for some who didn’t get a place at any of their six selected schools – 15% of applications in Kensington and Chelsea fall into this category.

Of course, this does call in to question all this cash being pumped into free schools, in areas where there is already a glut of places. Madness upon madness and hopefully some of the ire these parents feel will be directed towards Gove and his poisonous policies.

But running parallel to the genuine inconvenience and uncertainty this process has caused for some, is a bubbling panic that says a great deal about how schools are judged, labelled, categorised and branded as good or bad, desirable or not.

The school my youngest child is in has been denigrated for years. Ofsted gave it a shocker of a report. Another local school and its super Head were brought in to shake things up. The school was known locally, if you know what I mean – it had a bad rep.

Friends, who I now respect a little less, moved house to escape the catchment. Others would adopt a strange look, an odd mixture of pity and disgust, when we placed the school top of our list and said we’d be gutted if she missed out. Gutted because it’s our local school, it’s where we live, it’s our patch of the world – if there’s a problem, we’re part of the solution. More recently, the school is on the up, but reputations linger.

The challenge for the undesirable school is to change this reputation. Much more easily said than done – damaged goods are hard to fix.

But it can be done by doing the obvious (good teachers in the classroom) and by being open and transparent. Most parents are pleasantly surprised that the school with the bad reputation is actually full of smiling and successful children, energetic and determined teachers and leaders who are directing the ship towards sunnier shores.

Maybe, just maybe, some of the hysteria is misplaced and, actually, the school with the bad reputation – the one that was way down the list, or not on it at all – is actually a diamond which just needs a polish and to be held up to the light.

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Absurdity and deceit: another day at Dfe

We all know that Michael Gove’s preferred model of school improvement is the Academy School. If in doubt, academise. And now we know his Department’s spin machine will stop at nothing to demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of Academies, even when this tips into the realms of absurdity and deceit.

Take this press release from the Department for Education: ‘Academy goes from failing to outstanding in just 2 years’.

It falls just short of being a spoof. Here is an Academy that, wait for it, has transformed educational opportunities by shutting up shop at 2.30pm and playing Warhammer.

For the uninitiated (and I count myself among them), Warhammer is a fantasy game which apparently is set in a hybrid of early modern Germany and Tolkein’s Middle Earth, populated by lizards, orcs and ogres. Not at all like the Education Select Committee then.

The point being made is that extra curricular clubs have a part to play in school improvement. Who would disagree? But imagine for a second that a state school had chosen to do the same – to stop formal learning a good hour before most other schools in order to play games. The ridicule and the scorn would have been overwhelming. But this is different simply because the school is an Academy.

More pernicious though is the headline itself. It implies an extraordinarily rapid turnaround – two years from ‘among the worst in the country’ to outstanding. But look at the small print. The school went into special measures in March 2010 – that’s four years from special measures to outstanding, not two. Misleading, to say the least, if not deceitful.

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New curriculum is all about results

It’s not long until September when the new primary curriculum is launched. Some schools, like mine, are getting ahead of the game and giving their curriculum a spring clean, ready for a trial run straight after Easter.

Unlike changes to the curriculum under the previous Government, which were introduced with a hefty to pile of detailed guidance, this curriculum stands pretty much alone – it is what it is and it’s up to schools to make sense of it and to make the best of it.

No-one who has worked in schools would say this is an entirely bad thing. Wading through all the materials accompanying the Primary National Strategies, introduced in 2003 and quickly jettisoned by the current government, was rarely pleasurable and not altogether useful. Similarly, the QCA Schemes of Work, became increasingly preposterous as schools slavishly and unthinkingly followed the guidance (I worked in one school where the DT scheme of work was replicated precisely, resulting in each year 4 child making a single slipper. Children love to hop, but really – one slipper!).

Now this has all gone and we start with a clean slate – or at least a clean slate of sorts. Most schools are finding plenty in the new curriculum that can be worked in to current planning and topics. Where there is new material, the challenge is either to find time to squeeze it all in (a perennial problem), developing teacher subject knowledge (programming in the computing curriculum, anyone?) and looking again at well-loved but possibly irrelevant resources (all that slipper felt needs to go!).

This is not to say implementing the new curriculum is easy or straightforward. The absence of guidance from the centre tips the weight of responsibility back towards schools, or groups of schools, to consider how to plan and organise their curriculum. This is particularly hard for schools, also like mine, who are under a monstrous amount of pressure to raise results for literacy and maths at the end of Year 6.

The reality for us is simple. We’re planning for the future, looking to teach a broad, balanced and exciting curriculum – numeracy and literacy at the core, enriched with the experience and knowledge from other subject and based on the belief that there is, ultimately, more to life and more to living than colons, compound sentences and calculations.

But, if our 11 year-olds don’t come good in a few weeks time, we’re doomed. If they don’t get those one or two marks in their SATs that will tip them from Level 3 to the golden ticket of ‘secondary ready’ then all the DT, the computing, the science, the art won’t matter a jot. The pressure is on. The clock is ticking.

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