Tag Archives: #Gove

We need a bit more smoke before we start a fire

The case for the prosecution looks flimsy, based on rumour and a juggernaut of twitter-driven opinion, but Micheal Gove is being castigated for ditching American classics from the GCSE English syllabus and narrowing the canon to include authors primarily described as ‘English’ or ‘British’ (terms, interestingly, which are often used interchangeably in this debate).

So out go Lee and Steinbeck and Miller, to be replaced by more Dickens, Shakespeare and a smattering of modern British books. At least, that’s what’s supposed to be happening. No-one has actually seen the exam board lists and nor will they until they are published during the course of this week.

If they do contain more British authors, at the expense of classic texts from other countries, then, as yet, there is little evidence that this was done under the direction of Micheal Gove. All we have is a somewhat pitiful assertion from a man at OCR that the Education Secretary ‘doesn’t like Of Mice and Men’. Should the exam boards have folded under such minimal pressure then much of the internet ire should be directed at the exam bodies, not just the man at the top.

More pointedly, of course, it’s clear that nothing will be banned. Schools are free to study whatever texts they choose, albeit over and above the books that will be included as part of the exam (admittedly, demands on curriculum time, and the realities of preparing children to pass their GCSEs, will of course limit the breadth of study).

All this said, a reduction of the vastness of English literature to fit within the confines of a nation state is so self-evidently ludicrous that it should be resisted with all the fire and energy the education and academic community can generate. How dim-witted would it be to dismiss the qualities of a book, written in English, on the grounds of where the author was born?

However, to start the fire we need to see a bit more smoke. Let’s wait, at least, until we have seen the lists.

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Filed under Curriculum, Michael Gove

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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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Schools

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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Filed under Conservatives, Funding, Lib Dems, Nick Gibb, Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Free schools – the case against

The Lib-Cons are putting ‘free schools’ slap-bang in the middle of their education plans for the first term (although this agenda is much more ‘Con’, than ‘Lib’ – Michael Gove’s in the driving seat). The plan – based on a Swedish idea – is to open up the management of schools to parents, charities and businesses, with new management structures shaking things up, bringing nothing short of a ‘schools revolution’.

Will it work?

The answer of course is: who knows? But if I was pushed (not too hard), I would say ‘no’. In fact, push (just a little harder) then I would say free could be disastrous.

I’ve had a look around some of the recent commentary on free schools. This, it seems, is the case against:

1. Where’s the money coming from for free schools?

Budgets are tight – and are only going to get tighter as the Lib-Con squeeze on spending continues in the months ahead. So, in this time of frugality, how are free schools going to be funded? They will incur capital costs, as well as revenue to pay for teachers, teaching assistants, cooks and all the other people it takes to run a school. The evidence from Sweden shows a ‘significant increase’ in costs in order to set the schools up. After a decade of free schools, areas with a high proportion of free schools had a higher than average cost-per-pupil.

This doesn’t look good for the long-term, but what about next year? The Institute for Fiscal Studies explains that free schools are to be funded from the Building Schools for the Future budget. Whether or not you think is a wise re-allocation of funds, this money-stream is due to run dry in 2011.

So, given that free schools are going to find it impossible to get going in time for the new school year in 2010, where’s the money coming to pay for them from 2011 onwards?

To hazard a guess, free schools will be paid for from a re-allocation of existing school budgets – this will mean front-line cuts coming to a school near you.

2. Will free schools raise standards?

This is a real sticking point, but it’s questionable whether free schools raise standards. The ‘Trends in International Maths and Science Study’ ranks England eight places higher than Sweden. Where free schools have raised standards, critics suggest it’s because they’ve creamed off the best students which in turn gives them better results.

Before the election, a certain Liberal Democrat leader described free schools as a ‘disaster for standards’. On this one, I agree with Nick.

3. Do parents really want to set up their own schools?

Apparently, the number of parent groups who have shown an interest in starting their own school has ‘surged’ to 550. Now, call me an old cynic, but that number seems ridiculously low. What’s the ratio between the number of people who phone to find out about a job and those who actually apply – maybe one in ten? More pertinently – how many actually get the job – one in fifty? I struggle to see this ‘surge’ translating into more than a handful of free schools, certainly not the ‘hundreds’ anticipated by Michael Gove.

Parents – in any great number – simply don’t want to run their own school. Most find the idea preposterous. Sure, there will be very active parents here and there but that will be it: actually running a school has very limited appeal to parents (where’s the time in any given day?).

Advocates will no doubt wheel out Toby Young who always seems to pop up at this point. He seems a nice chap and makes a good fist of arguing for free schools. But do you remember the Sinclair C5? To me, Toby Young is the Clive Sinclair of the free school movement: a likeable, enthusiastic advocate for a product that is ultimately doomed to failure. Like the C5, free-schools will prompt some head-scratching and the words: ‘but why would I want one of those?’

4. How will free schools help struggling schools?

Let me state the obvious: schools exist. They may be good, bad or indifferent but they are there, lurking on a street corner near you. If a school is struggling – let’s say a change of Head has meant some upheaval (or, indeed, a free school has poached all the good teachers): is it not wiser to help the school, rather than to turn on our collective heels and set up another new one two doors down? What happens to the existing school? More importantly: what happens to the children in the school if the free school can’t take them because it’s still being set up (or is full). Are they left to wither in a school that is having all it’s resources slowly stripped away? I can’t see how this will do anything but increase the gap between the educational-haves and the have-nots.

5. Who will get into free schools (and who won’t!)?

If free schools have more control over their admissions policies, there’s the risk that the difficult, challenging children (you know – the naughty ones) will be kept out. Isn’t there? What about children with special educational needs? Or children who speak English as a second language? Where is the incentive (or the requirement) to provide a decent education for these children? Where will they go? To the local school that’s been there all along; a school that is slowly being run into the ground because – guess what – the free school down the road gets better exam results.

6. Are the Swedes advocates for Swedish free schools?

Remarkably, even the Swedes aren’t that keen on the Swedish system. Their education minister, Bertil Ostberg, said the schools were a failure and has warned Britain not to introduce them. He said: ‘We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced.’

Oh dear – does anyone agree with Michael?

7. Do we want schools to make a profit?

There are those who are hugely in favour of free schools. Big business, both here in the UK and overseas, are currently salivating at the prospect of making money from our schools system. One provider has said they would be keen to get involved, if they could run ‘thousands’ of schools.

Do we really want our schools to make money? Are there mechanisms in place to prevent the curriculum being unduly influenced – nutrition lessons brought to you by Nestle, anyone? Businesses will want to cut costs – less qualified teachers would be much cheaper: is this what we want?

8. What happens if – when – a free school fails?

Big business – let’s call this one Muck-Ed – sets up a chain of free schools. All goes well until a subsidiary, completely unconnected to their education business, hits the rocks. Muck-Ed needs to take drastic action, so closes its schools.

Who picks up the pieces? Where do the children go? Yup, back to the local school we go – the one that’s been there all along.

So: that’s the case against, or some of the case at least. It doesn’t look good. It seems crackers to put so much energy into a system that doesn’t seem to have worked. I’m not sure there’s much of an appetite for free schools – certainly not compared to people who just want a decent state school nearby: so, shouldn’t we focus on this instead?

There is of course one, guaranteed, evidence-based, sure-fire, relatively cheap way of improving schools in this country. That’s for my next blog…

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Filed under Conservatives, Funding, Lib Dems, Policy, Politics - general, Schools