Category Archives: Nick Gibb

Gove’s induction plan fails to excite

With a distinct lack of fanfare, Michael Gove has announced plans to shake-up the induction arrangements for new teachers.

Admittedly, not a story to compete with Kate and Wills. Even the spin maestro’s at Education HQ managed to generate a press release which was startling only its literalness: ‘Induction regulations for newly qualified teachers’, the headline reads. A job at Ronseal awaits for said press officer.

But enough sitting on the fence; let’s take a peek at the latest to emerge from Michael of Whitehall.

First reaction? It seems entirely reasonable to take a fresh look at this. It’s sensible housekeeping, if nothing else, to check such things as induction processes are functioning properly or, to use the jargon, ‘fit for purpose’.

My experience is that the induction process does the job in a fairly dry, unexciting, predictable way. In completing the ‘standards’ there’s ample opportunity for the teacher to focus on the specific requirements of the job, to ask for help, to observe, to practise, to learn, and to demonstrate competence; they provide focus for what can be a frantic first year. It gives the learning curve some kind of shape and form.

Equally, there is enough scope for a school to identify those who have scraped through teacher-training and who would actually be best suited doing something completely unlike teaching. Not to put to fine a point on it, at this stage, the wheat can be sifted from the chaff.

In terms of the detail of the current arrangements, there is a bit too much repetition and a bit too much ticking of boxes – although it’s not so bad that this hinders retention of good teachers, as Gove claims (without any reference or citation, as is often the case). Nevertheless, a trimming of the unnecessary bureaucracy is no bad thing.

But, and this is the key point, a significant trick will be missed if this becomes solely an exercise in paper reduction.

It will leave untouched the real point and focus of the introduction to such an important profession. That is, to begin the process of turning wide-eyed novice into a pedagogue of some excellence. To do this requires much more than just doing less, and much more enthusiasm than is evident in this drab announcement.

Where is the sense of possibility? Where is there anything clear or concrete about raising the teaching profession to new heights? Where is the ambition?

All we have is a wearisome quote from Nick Gibb which starts off aimless and, from there, fails to improve. The deficit, it seems, has truly left us impoverished.

Once again, when it comes to teacher development – the silver bullet of educational reform – Gove and his team reveal their timidity. On funding and on legislative reform the main man is bold and radical. Too bold and too radical, perhaps, but – whether you like them or not – there is no denying his policies in these areas are imbued with considerable energy.

Instead, we see scraps: disallowing graduates with third-class degrees from teaching; a troops-to-teachers programme and (admittedly a bit more substantial) plans for Teaching Schools. This is not to mention the mixing of messages which results in a raising of the entry level for teaching in a maintained school, yet for Free Schools, the removal of any requirements for a teaching qualification at all.

So far, for Michael Gove, when it comes to the most important cog in the educational wheel – improving the quality of teachers – he fails to excite. His imagination fails.

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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.

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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.

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The ‘Improving Schools Challenge’: Nick Gibb v John Hattie – Round 1

Ladies and Gentleman – welcome to the first round of the ‘Improving Schools Challenge!’ This is no physical fight, but a battle of minds: who has the best ideas to improve schools? Lets meet our contestants:

In the Blue corner: put your hands together for former accountant, Conservative MP for Bognor and now Schools Minister, Mr Nick ‘The Disciplinator’ Gibb. He will be fighting tonight using arguments based on hunches, prejudice and a desire to precisely replicate the grammar school education he experienced way back when.

In the Impartial corner: a big welcome to the little-known Kiwi boffin, all the way from the University of Auckland, Professor John ‘The Synthesiser’ Hattie. He will be counter-punching with arguments based on sound research, an analysis of 50,000 studies involving millions of children and the objective application of reason and evidence.

Who will win?

Please settle down for Round 1.

Nick Gibb starts the battle of the brains with an interesting proposition. Drawing on a tactic from a previous fight (on the Politics Show), he dives in with:

“I visit schools every week and I’ve seen some very high quality comprehensives in very deprived parts of Britain…and what they do is they set their children by ability so that children are taught in similar ability group, whereas in a lot of comprehensives under this government, only about 40 % of lessons are set. So that’s a key priority…then you’ll see the grammar school type of education existing in the comprehensive [schools].”

Hattie looks stunned. He never thought he’d have the old “put ’em in sets” argument chucked his way. He reels, turns and reaches for…what’s this? Yes, it looks like Hattie is going to go straight for Gibb’s weak spot and use empirical evidence.

‘The Synthesiser’ goes technical. He says that you can measure something called the ‘effect size’: this tells you, in precise terms, the impact of almost anything on a child’s achievement. He fronts up to Gibb: ‘I’ve got it all in my locker: whether giving homework makes a difference, or the size of the school, or teaching phonics, or the degree of parental support. You name it!’

Now it’s Gibb that looks dazed. He digs deep, drawing on his experience of the handful of schools he has strolled round. He swipes wildly: ‘Some were really good’, he says, ‘and they had their children in sets – so let’s have children working in sets everywhere. Take that, logic-man!’

Hattie knows what to do. He goes for the kill. Calmly, he reels off the findings of over 300 studies (carried out by clever people who know what they are talking about) into whether grouping by ability works.

He unleashes a fierce flurry of blows: the overall effects of grouping by ability are ‘minimal’ and in some cases ‘profoundly negative’; across three ability groups (top, middle and bottom) ‘no-one profits’; those in low-ability groups can have their educational experience ‘deadened’ and, as a result, are ‘alienated’; this negatively affects ‘low-income’ groups more than those on higher-incomes.

What matters, says Hattie, is the quality of teaching, not how children are grouped: it’s the teachers, stupid.

Gibb stumbles back to his corner, clutching his old school tie, mumbling ‘Well, I was in top set and it worked for me.’

Looks like it’s Round 1 to ‘The Synthesiser’, Professor John Hattie!

Will ‘The Disciplinator’ recover?

Round 2 coming up soon…

(If you would like to read Professor John Hattie in the unfettered form, his extraordinarily comprehensive findings can be found in his book ‘Visible Learning’. Not as read-able as a Grisham I’ll admit, but it’s a gem all the same).

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Only business will profit from free schools

When it comes to ‘free schools’, there seems to be a pretty significant difference of opinion between the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and his boss, Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Between them they can’t seem to decide whether schools should be able to make a profit or not.

‘Free schools’ are Gove’s big, bold – and ever-so-slightly bonkers – idea for reforming education. The plan is to allow parents, teachers and businesses to set up their own schools, resulting (supposedly) in a more diverse education sector. If Gove has his way, free schools will emerge in their hundreds over the next few years.

There are some major flaws in all this.

I set out some of the arguments against free schools here, but to cut a long story short: free schools don’t raise standards; they increase social segregation; they lower the standard of school buildings (do you have a problem with your child being educated in an office block? Nick Gibb doesn’t); they cost a lot of money; and they divert resources away from existing schools.

So, I hear you ask, what’s the point?

I have a theory. Free schools are not really about education at all. They are part of a revolution the Con-Dems are planning. And the revolution is this: profit.

Many Conservatives have long looked at the state with a sense of antipathy bordering on rage. They are now ably supported by the Orange-Book Lib-Dem brigades, who are shaped by their hostility towards the state – particularly where it provides universal public services funded from the public pocket.

They look at schools and think: couldn’t we spend a bit less? Isn’t there money to be made in those classrooms?

Now, the Con-Dems are being cute. They know they weren’t elected in order to dismantle the state. So they are engaged in a concerted effort to do two things: first, denigrate what the state does, with endless talk of ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency’; and, second, dress up the alternative in the seductive language of ‘choice’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘fairness’.

That’s exactly what they’ve done with free schools, arguing this gives parents the ‘choice’ to set up a free school. I have yet to see any published research or survey which suggests there are anything more than a handful of parents who would want to do such a thing. Most, I expect, would consider the idea with incredulity, baffled at the idea their lives are so time-rich they have the scope to add ‘set up and run a school’ to their daily to-do list. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

I’m more persuaded by the idea that charitable foundations may run some schools, particularly faith-groups (which is a whole different blog), but the reality is that the only institutions interested in moving into education in a big way are businesses. They would find the economies of scale appealing (a thousand schools means you could negotiate some real cut-price catering contracts), but they would only be interested if they could make money.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Nick Gibb, has said quite clearly – unequivocally – that companies should not be able to make a profit from schools. In fact he has said profit-making schools take vital funds out of education and move it straight into a companies bulging balance sheet. You can read the full interview here, but these were his exact words:

“The trouble with allowing companies to make a profit from providing schools is that it take money out of the education system, significant sums of money out. We want to make sure that all that money is retained within [the education system] and if it [profit] were necessary, fine but it’s not necessary…”.

The difficulty is that Michael Gove has said the complete opposite. He doesn’t have a problem with schools being taken over by schools and run at a profit. As he says himself, he is after all ‘a Conservative.’

I find myself thinking: I agree with Nick.

But there’s only going to be one winner isn’t there? No doubt Michael Gove will have his way.

The slow death of state education has begun. It will be allowed to wither on the vine, while it’s made easier and easier for business to get their foot through the door.

So, profit-making schools here we come! And, remember this: if you don’t like it, you have a choice – set up your own. Then if it all goes wrong, it’ll be your fault. Nice, eh?

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Should an accountant be in charge of schools?

Ministerial appointments are a mysterious process. There’s no job advertisement; no person specification; no interview panel ticking boxes and rating each candidate’s suitability; no expectant wait for a letter in the post. As a result, they can turn up some surprises.

Try this for size: how about an accountant at KPMG ending up in charge of schools policy? Ladies and gentleman, meet Nick Gibb.

How does such a thing happen?

A Ministerial appointment is a deal. Those hopeful of an appointment have to cobble together a good-dose of political capital, earned over time by unstinting loyalty to party or leader (or both). Prior experience doesn’t do any harm – either as Shadow Minister or, even better, in the real world – but it’s anything but essential (Danny Alexander, the Lib-Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is an example of this. He has about as much economic or financial experience as you would expect a PR man to have: next to none).

But, does this matter?

Would we have better Government if there was a clearer correlation between real-life experience and Ministerial responsibility?

Or are we better served by Ministers who are able to weigh-up issues coolly and dispassionately, making decisions based on wider interests beyond a particular field?

The answer, surely, is that we need a bit of both. A true Ministerial talent can embody real-life experience combined with a good, analytical brain. But they are few and far between (come back Estelle Morris!).

This Government (like most in living memory) is skewed towards Ministers with no obvious, substantive experience which is directly connected to their Ministerial responsibilities. Of course, there are exceptions (please, please come back Estelle!), but not enough to disprove the rule.

This takes us back to the Conservative Schools Minister. I’d never heard of Nick Gibb until a month ago, when the Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was given the job. I don’t hold that against him: there’s a whole new batch of political faces to get to know (and love?). But I do wonder why he was picked for the job – what’s the match between 15 years number-crunching at KPMG and the complexity of the classroom?

I’ll give any man (or woman) a chance, but he seems to have contributed little so far.

I expect he is busying himself behind the scenes, but his public pronouncements have so far been limited to a convoluted statement on the primary curriculum , a message on tackling absenteeism which is completely devoid of ideas and that seems about it. Oh, beg pardon, he wrote to Polly Toynbee too, explaining she’d got her wires crossed (I don’t know if Polly replied – Mr Gibb addressed the letter ‘Dear Sir’ so I expect she didn’t bother).

While his reticence is just about understandable (it is early days I suppose), what is really worrying is when someone such as Nick Gibb – with no experience whatsoever of teaching or school management – starts to pronounce on the detail of how teachers should teach. On this front, he has some pretty unequivocal rules – children should be taught in sets, for example, schools should strictly enforce school uniform and reading should be taught using ‘synthetic phonics’. A wish-list would could have been chosen almost entirely at random, it seems.

I will come back to Gibb’s pedagogical ideas in a later blog, but my concern is this: a skilled teacher walks into a school and sees a million different things that are happening to make the school day tick over. Some are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, honed to perfection over countless hours in the classroom but hard to pick up. It explains the myth that some teachers are considered ‘naturals’, when the chances are they have worked tirelessly – through endless trial and error – to become good at what they do.

Someone who knows nothing of schools can walk in and think: ‘ah, this school does well, look at the children’s smart uniforms…I know…every school should have smart uniforms!’ (This, to be clear, is not an argument against uniforms – just a warning against the crude over-simplification of ‘what works’ in schools).

Imagine a parallel world where a Health Secretary – who had previously been, let’s say, a chartered surveyor – takes a glance into a surgical theatre, sees something they like the look of and then starts to wax-lyrical and shape policy based on their half-baked understanding of surgical procedures.

It wouldn’t happen, would it? So, why is education any different?

Perhaps it is time for a teacher to be Schools Minister – now, wouldn’t that be interesting…

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