Category Archives: Conservatives

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.



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

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.


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

It’s the teaching, stupid

Why – I ask myself at infuriatingly regular intervals – in our chastened economic times, is Michael Gove spending money (and so much time) on such a speculative, long-odds, hit and hope punt as free schools?

Let us assume the focus of our endeavours, whether you are a political lefty or a righty or a don’t-give-a-monkeys, is on the question: what is the best, quickest and most sustainable way to improve children’s educational experiences and outcomes (bearing in mind, of course, UK PLC is a bit skint)?

Even if you are an avid supporter of free schools, someone who thinks the answer to the question is ‘a: Toby Young’ – or, conversely, if you are a determined opponent and think the answer to the question is ‘b: anyone but Toby Young’ – it is hard to justify the monstrous amount of political energy and will being expended battling for (or against) a policy which will result in the odd school here and there.

More importantly, this is a policy which in essence misses the most obvious response to the question.

Strip the school experience down to the barest of bare bones, and it is not, I’m afraid, the governance structure of a school that defines whether little Jonny has an educational career of impeccable quality and unremitting excellence. It is not whether the school is ‘free’ or whether it is maintained by the local authority, that cuts the mustard for Year 7 on a damp Friday afternoon.

What does, then?

As boring and as straightforward and as simple as it sounds: it’s teaching. Or, more accurately: teachers teaching well. The oft-repeated line that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teaching is the fundamental truth that should guide all policy-making. To misuse Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase: it’s the teaching, stupid.

In tough times, businesses look to their ‘cash cow’; the steady seller that keeps the tills ringing and profits healthy. They keep risks low, invest cautiously and look for reliable, predictable returns rather than taking a gamble. Unexciting, maybe, but in these times, reliable results are rightly judged to be more important than flamboyant failures.

So, why not – when each public utterance from our leaders contains the obligatory reference to deficit reduction and cuts, usually closely followed by the ‘difficult decisions’ said things entail – go for the easy win and invest our scarce pennies on teachers?

At the risk of being accused of blatant self-interest and self-promotion, the science backs this up: John Hattie’s remarkable analysis of educational research (‘Visible Learning’ – unfortunately not in a good bookshop near you) picks out the interventions that make the most difference to learning. Handily (Mr. Hattie is very helpful), these interventions are listed at the back of the book; of the ‘top thirty’, nineteen are directly related to teachers or teaching methods (and many of the other eleven are directly related to teaching skills too – such as behaviour in the school).

And, critically, it takes a long look down the list to find evidence of the impact of structural reforms of the kind being supported here – religious schools and charter schools (the U.S equivalent of our free schools) are both outside the top hundred.

So, what to do? Attracting new and better recruits into the profession is vital; tomorrow’s teachers should ideally be better than the current bunch.

But what of today’s teachers? How can they improve what they do? On this, from Government at least, so little seems to be said (aside from the title of the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – an attempt at flattery which fails to disguise the paucity of ideas within). If only the effort and the energy currently absorbed in establishing new free schools could be diverted towards the development of teachers.

Whatever cash we have – and whatever political will there is – would be most wisely invested in this area, not the unproven risk of free schools. I don’t mean more pay – I mean investment in the best training and development there is. Here’s a start: every teacher should be trained to Masters degree level, based on research and development which takes place in their own classrooms.

There will be few headlines, favourable or otherwise, to such a move. In fact, it would be very likely to send the dispassionate observer into a deep sleep – and perhaps that reveals why it seems so low down the political agenda.

Indeed at the end of a Parliamentary term there would be no new buildings, no Acts of Parliament – nothing to show for it, except a few thousand teachers who were better at their jobs, and many, many thousands of children whose prospects had been elevated and whose eyes had been lifted to see previously unimaginable horizons.


Filed under Conservatives, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools, Uncategorized

Cameron’s privatisation plan is big society by coercion

For those of us who think this Government’s direction of travel on public services is the political equivalent of going for a midnight drive the wrong way down a dual carriageway with car lights turned off and eyes scrunched firmly shut, the prospect of David Cameron’s latest initiative presents an intellectual challenge, to say the least.

It seems the new plan emerging from the Conservatives is to privatise just about everything. Intriguingly, he does mean literally everything – except where, according to Cameron, it wouldn’t make sense (he cites just national security and the judiciary as the sacred turf to be kept out of private hands).

Remember that this comes from someone who, just days ago, said the Government had been gung-ho when planning to privatise large chunks of woodland, yet with this new plan he now seems to have said it’s all up for grabs. The grounds for deciding what constitutes ‘sense’ seem to be entirely his.

This doesn’t feel like steady ground on which to hurl our public services violently into the air. Beyond what Dave tells us, it seems there’s no clear basis for establishing what should best remain in public hands, let alone asking the public whether they are up for a revolution of this kind. Certainly there’s nothing so vulgar as whacking the idea in your manifesto and asking people to vote for it. Heaven forbid!

It’s hard to view Cameron’s intention as anything other than a dismantling of the welfare state as we know it, wrapped up in the cosy, ‘fear not’ language of localism (he skips over how having my local school run by a multi-national with a HQ in a different time-zone serves to increase accountability, but there you go).

Rising from the gut, the instinctive reaction from many who describe themselves as being a bit to the left of things is to condemn and oppose. And quite right too.

Never before has there been such an assault on our public institutions. They are correct to ask what this gross social experiment will actually mean, particularly for those that actually rely on the services that will be thrown into the free-market melting pot. Hurrah for those that swim, but what about those that don’t?

Beyond this, as the bile settles, there is a greater challenge for those who disagree with the Conservatives. It involves the acceptance of a grim reality, imagining a scenario in the not too distant future where Cameron gets his way; the presumption that public services are public is completely inverted so that private ownership of schools (and hospitals etc) is the norm.

What then? Opponents could stick to the barricades and man them to the end. The big worry for me is that, while flags are being waved and tubs being thumped, the corporates (and the creationists) move in and sweep up all the schools it likes the look of and those that don’t fit the bill are left to wither and die.

Perhaps a wiser course of action is to not only oppose, but also to conspire: what if, when these schools are placed on the open market, they were taken over by parent and teachers and run not as free schools, but still as part of a maintained sector. That, at least, is the suggestion made here.

Contentious stuff, no doubt, as it effectively means engaging with a much-despised Conservative plan for schools. However, if Cameron does get his way, those who believe in the values and principles of state education may have to face this unpalatable truth.

The result of Cameron’s plan, in effect, is big society by coercion, making a mockery of voluntary local action being the catalyst for change. Yet, when the state is forcibly removed from education, parents and teachers may have to fill the vacuum; unless, of course, we are happy to see the letters ‘PLC’ on our local school signs.

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Filed under Cameron, Conservatives, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Cameron should embrace his inner socialist

Wandering around The People’s Supermarket the other day, in (yet another) attempt to make it clear what he means by the Big Society, the Prime Minister, with cameras whirring and microphones in range, let something slip.

It happened when he turned to the founder of the supermarket. With what appeared to be genuine curiosity – a real attempt to unearth the secret of this particular endeavour – Cameron asked him: “where did you get the idea from?”

At this stage it is necessary to reveal, in case you’ve missed the Channel 4 programme of the same name, The People’s Supermarket is a co-operative.

The founder, of course, was very polite and chatted about wanting to make a difference, helping out in the community, and the like. All very pleasing to the Prime Ministerial ear, I’m sure.

But, with a little time to prepare, and a deep breath, the answer to Cameron’s query may well have run something along the lines of:

‘Well, Prime Minister, it’s based on the principles of 19th century co-operation, shaped by one of the founding fathers of socialism, Robert Owen; it draws heavily on the principles set down by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 who gave birth to the modern co-operative movement in this country and world-wide, thereby establishing many thousands of voluntary, democratic organisations which are set up to meet the needs and secure the welfare of their members and the community in which they operate.’

A missed opportunity, perhaps. It would have been worth good money to see the look on the old Etonian face had that been the response, particularly if there had been time for a few words on the long-standing affiliation between the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Party.

The fact that Cameron asked the question reveals a certain ignorance of (one of the) origins of his supposed ‘big idea’. It also shows that his interpretation of it – of what constitutes the Big Society in action – is highly selective, based on political principles, rather than anything like objectivity.

This allows him to endorse an enterprising ‘one-off’ like the People’s Supermarket, but prevents him from seeing the obvious connections between the model being used by the supermarket and the co-operative (labour) movement as a whole.

It allows him to argue for more voluntary association – people banding together to provide services or to improve their environs – but prevents him from recognising anything of worth in a rather popular association that goes by the name of a ‘trade union’.

It allows him to argue for free schools – to be set up, he says, by parents determined to make a difference to their community – but prevents him from ever recognising the remarkable, selfless contribution parents already make to their community schools; raising funds, organising fairs, reading with children, helping out at clubs.

That said, much of the Big Society rhetoric is hard to contest, a statement of the obvious (who would ever say that people should take less responsibility for their own lives?).

But the real problem comes when he picks and chooses what passes the Big Society test; his political prism distorts what is right before his eyes. Such a shame: if Cameron should shake off his prejudices and embrace his inner socialist, he may win more people over to his Big Society plan.

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Filed under Cameron, Conservatives, Policy, Politics - general

Jabbed on the nose by Katharine Birbalsingh

Every now and then, you happen upon an argument so ridiculous that it resembles a jab on the nose – head spins, mind jars, words fail.

This week, an article this week by Katharine Birbalsingh had just this effect. In it, she eulogises the good old days of ‘old-fashioned teaching’, where children sit in rows, listen in silence and absorb known facts. Despite adopting the tone of retired-colonel-in-pub (“that Socrates fellow – all that talk and chit-chat nonsense, what rot!”), Birbalsingh is no bystander; she has taught for more than ten years.

Birbalsingh builds her case by contrasting the differing approaches taken by private schools and state schools. In doing so, she caricatures both. There is no nuance or subtlety here.

The modern state school teacher, she complains, is broadly clueless: they have been ‘brainwashed’ into teaching ‘skill-based nonsense’ and simply repeat this as if they are a ‘parrot-like machine’.

More specifically they waste too much time using technology and pointlessly allow children to work in groups (she seems obsessed with how long it takes to give out envelopes to these groups, with bits of paper in them containing instructions or an activity. I expect she saw this done badly, once – and has used this to generalise horrendously).

On the other side of the fence, the silent, sponge-like private school pupil ‘learns more in one lesson’ than state school pupils do in an entire term.

How depressing – and how utterly wrong – that someone who has clearly dedicated her life to education can be so simplistic and present the learning experience in such dismal and stupefying terms. How can anyone with even the vaguest of interest in the development of young minds reduce learning – reduce the complexity of the human brain – to such a simple act: sitting, listening?

Of course, every decent education does contain this ingredient; listening and absorbing wisdom from a more learned other. But what a tragically limited experience school would be if that was it – the beginning and the end. This would be a grossly insufficient preparation for an unknown future; this isn’t education for a mightily-complex 21st century, it’s education as regression, a return to a rejected past.

Aside from dumb-headed (state school) teachers who are apparently incapable of applying anything approaching professional judgement, Ofsted are also in Birbalsingh’s firing line. It is they who have prescribed, in some detail, the essence of excellent teaching and, in doing so, have reduced the pedagogical act to a process designed to do little more than fulfil Ofsted’s criteria.

There is truth here (and I am no apologist for Ofsted). But where you can easily build a case for Ofsted being heavy-handed box-tickers, the reality is hugely over-stated by Birbalsingh. Teachers, apparently, ‘have to’ teach a certain sequence each lesson for a set amount of time. No they don’t.

There is more on her ‘have to’ list, none of which I recognise as requirements. They may be contained somewhere in some obscure piece of guidance, or have been adopted by particular schools – but as much as she protests, this stuff isn’t compulsory. State school teachers do have minds of their own; we sussed out Ofsted long ago. We aren’t robots – the way I teach is different to the teacher next door to me, let alone the teacher in the school down the road.

But the real rub is the blatant inconsistency in her argument. If there is such freedom in private schools – if truly innovative teaching occurs only where the state sector is absent – why does she advocate a single method: sitting and listening. Isn’t this an example of the ‘sameness’ she uses to damn each and every state school and state school teacher?

In writing her piece, she not only dismisses state schools but – inadvertently I’m sure – private schools too. Are they not renowned for music, for debating, for sport, for discussion and argument? As if all they do is pay their money and sit and listen.

Sometimes solace can be found in the fact that these kinds of crude generalisations come from the far reaches of public debate. This allows a simpler response: ignore and move on.

But every now and then, an intellectual Luddite such as this gets listened to. They are no longer speakers of blindingly obvious pap, but are bringers of insight, providing the raw ingredients for public policy. This is what is worrying here: Birbalsingh, it seems, has the ear of Michael Gove. Be afraid; be very afraid.


Filed under Conservatives, Michael Gove, Schools

Gibb v Hattie: The Verdict

After Nick Gibb’s pounding at the hands of Professor John Hattie in Round 1 of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge’, its time for a more sober analysis of the other strands of the School Minister’s ‘vision’ for schools.

In an interview with Mike Baker, Gibb identifies certain ‘imperatives’ which he expects schools to follow (it’s not too difficult to spot the tension here between a stated aim of freeing up schools to teach how they want and, at the same time, prescribing what teachers must do).

Alongside ‘setting by ability’ (which has been addressed in ‘Round 1’), Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ are: first, for schools to adhere to a policy of ‘strict school uniform’ and, second, for teachers to teach reading using the ‘synthetic phonics’ method.

One wonders at the process by which these seemingly unconnected ideas have become central to Gibb’s world-view. Even taken together they fail to constitute anything approaching a vision for primary education. But, let’s put that to one side, and deal with them on face value and scrutinise their worth using the ‘Hattie test’.

(For those who can’t face reading my last blog, you have my sympathies. Put simply, this is a ‘Hattie test’ : the Professor from Auckland analysed – meta-analysed to be precise – over 50,000 different studies into almost every imaginable area of school life. This analysis was then computed to give something called ‘effect size’ which tells you whether a given variable – e.g. teachers adopting a particular questioning style – is worth doing or not. It’s very clever, meticulous work, giving some clarity to the confusion and complexity of classroom life and the still-intriguing process of learning).

Let’s start with school uniform: does a crisp shirt and a throat-throttling school tie help children to learn?

The evidence here mainly comes from the United States which has traditionally had a more relaxed approach to school attire. President Clinton introduced a rule allowing public schools to require students to wear uniform. Interestingly, not many did (about one in four), but enough to carry out a large-scale analysis of achievement and attitudinal data. And the conclusion?

Bad news for Gibb: school uniform had no effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a ‘significant negative effect’ in high school; no effect on attendance, or self-esteem or behaviour incidents. Overall, the impact was ‘close to zero’ (keep in mind that, the way ‘effect size’ is calculated, almost anything has an effect – even, say, a teacher standing still, smiling. So, a score ‘close to zero’ is really, really bad). Hattie describes highly-visible ideas, which are shown to achieve nothing, as ‘coats of paint’; look pretty, but pointless (assuming your measure is improving academic achievement).

So: round 2 to Hattie.

Round 3? Synthetic phonics (a process of teaching reading by breaking down words into the smallest sounds and ‘blending’ them to assist reading; children are then taught these sounds as part of a planned programme, building their knowledge of phonics day-by-day and/or week-by-week. Typically, synthetic phonics is used in this country very early in a child’s school life – infant school – and as an intervention for struggling readers later in school).

This has been an area of some contention, after it was introduced with much enthusiasm by the last Government. It was presented as a panacea; critics suggested the research base was weak, arguing the most effective method for teaching reading involved the development of different strategies (e.g. reading a whole book, using visual clues to predict words, learning words by sight – as well as a phonetics etc), rather than the adoption of a single strategy as the way to read.

But does synthetic phonics work?

Gibb is in unusual territory here: he’s backed up by the science! Hattie is enthusiastic about phonics instruction and concludes it is ‘powerful in the process of learning to read’.

The only reason this is not a clear win for Gibb is that nowhere does Hattie argue that ‘synthetic phonics’ should be used in isolation. So, teachers still must use different strategies to encourage reading (not least enthusing about books and encouraging children to love reading). But, let’s give the man some credit: Gibb ties Round 3 with Hattie.

It looks like the message from Hattie to Gibb is this: put less emphasis on ‘setting’ children, it doesn’t make a difference; loosen the old school tie, it’s purely cosmetic; and keep going with the synthetic phonics, but it’s not a panacea.

To finish, one other of Gibb’s ‘imperatives’ is worth a menion. Gibb, believe it or not, thinks children should stand when a teacher enters the room. In his meticulous study of the effectiveness of interventions which have an impact on educational achievement, Professor John Hattie makes no mention of ‘standing up’ or, indeed, ‘sitting down’.

This could be because he thinks it is of no educational significance. Or he could be saving his really big, knock-out ideas for a later volume. You decide.


Filed under Conservatives, Curriculum, Nick Gibb, Policy, Schools