Tag Archives: #Michael Gove

Hattie the Hero

Real heroes are hard to come by in the world of education.

Estelle Morris remains on a pedestal. Few days go by without imagining a better, more decent world where Morris is in charge and not Gove. The late journalist Mike Baker falls into the same category, not least for his ability to write well and to strip complex issues and fluffy arguments down to the bare essentials of what mattered and what did not.

But top of my admittedly short list of educations heroes is Professor John Hattie.

The Director of the Education Research Institute at Melbourne University is above all a pedagogical myth buster. He uses the simple test of looking for evidence as to whether any given factor makes a difference to learning, be it a teaching intervention or a socio-economic circumstance. In doing so, he debunks the preposterous or the fashionable and reveals something approaching the truth about learning and teaching.

What sets him apart is his determination – albeit a dry and diligent determination – to bridge the chasm between what researchers have discovered about teaching and learning and what happens in the classroom. His aim is to synthesise all that we know about the former so that it knocks on the door of the latter, invites itself in and becomes the loudest, most persistent, most persuasive voice in class.

Luckily, we live in treasured times: Hattie is currently on a roll with his ‘Visible Learning’ series of books. Managing to be dense, academic yet also accessible they set out a clear rationale for what teachers should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Although it is not his intention, his work inevitably crosses the boundary from the pedagogical to the political. It is hard to read to much of what he says without thinking of Gove.

Take his latest book ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn’. By page fifteen, Hattie has shredded Gove’s assertion that employing untrained, unqualified experts as teachers is in any vague sense a wise thing to do. Shredded. Utterly shredded.

Knowledge, it turns out, is not quite what Gove thinks it is. It’s not something which can simply be relayed from all-knowing expert to sponge-like child.

In fact, as Hattie quotes, knowledge can be a curse. Research shows that those who are specialists in a subject and who have no understanding of how to transmit the complexities of their wisdom – in other words those who know a lot but know nothing of teaching – are less effective at doing their job than those who may have less subject knowledge but who are expert, skilled teachers.

Pure knowledge does not correlate with an ability to teach. What matters is simple; it’s teachers who know their stuff and who are trained, skilled and passionate about what they do. Professor John Hattie is a giant – if only we had an Education Secretary who would stand on his shoulders.

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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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Return to Planet Gove

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had time to blog. Years and years in fact. How time flies. I’m afraid to say life has interrupted the flow. Children, work, work, children, lack of sleep, children, work, lack of sleep.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of subject matter and more than enough piffle from Gove and the gang to justify a bit of cathartic spleen-venting. The real problem is that much of what passes for policy at the moment is so utterly disconnected from the real world it has become dangerously easy to step away from the debate.

At times, the discussion has seemed other-wordly, preposterous even. All that gumph about behaviour, saying teachers should get children to pick up litter and tidy classrooms as a consequence for unruliness. What on earth does he think we do all day?

Then the ridiculous comparisons between private and state schools. Great for headline grabbing but, come on, really. It was a classic public school debating tactic to box in opponents – who could possibly say they wouldn’t want children in their local school to have even a fraction of the experiences of your average Harrovian?

The challenges the children in my school face, growing up with the childhood-sapping complexities of mental health, domestic violence and deprivation, warrant a bit more than clever-clever point scoring.

So, time to return to the fray. Children, work, work, children, blog, lack of sleep, children, work, blog.

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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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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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Watch out – there’s an Academy about!

Next time you hear a Government Minister mention, in serious tones, the words ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’ remember that, as a result of Michael Gove’s education policies, taxpayers will soon be helping out ridiculously wealthy parents by funding private school places – including the Maharishi School in Lancashire, where fees reach £5,000-£7,000 a year in exchange for a curriculum grounded in the study of transcendental meditation.

This surprising development comes courtesy of the much-maligned and increasingly dotty free schools policy, as independent schools apply for the new status and, critically, the public funding which follows it. No wonder free schools, the coalition’s flag-bearer for educational reform, are opposed by so many who see them as a drain on finite resources, with money flowing away from existing community schools and, in this case, towards those who can hardly be described as most in need.

But it could be, as Mike Baker argues here, that free schools are little more than a sideshow, a distraction from the real shift in school status: the headlong charge to Academy status.

It is hard to believe that the number of free schools will break three figures any time between now and the next election. Aside from the handful of existing independent schools that will convert, the sheer complexity of setting up a school from scratch will deter all but the brave or the bonkers (or both).

Given the attrition rates involved in such an endeavour, you would need thousands of interested parties in order to end up with any more than the odd school here and there – and there is no sign of such enthusiasm (partly because the coalition have completely distorted the demand for free schools – most parents find the idea of setting up their own school laughable).

Yet the same cannot be said for Academy schools, which are popping up all over the place as Heads rush to make the change and grab the extra cash on offer. Certainly, the incentives and the arm-twisting from the top is pushing in one direction only; what started as a drip is now becoming a torrent and, with only one in five school leaders ruling out conversion, it looks like Academy status will become the norm.

This is perhaps the real education story of the coalition’s first year in power: not the free school ‘movement’ (if it can be described as such a thing), with the ubiquitous Toby Young, the Lancastrian meditators and – brace yourself – the Birbalsingh experiment in Lambeth, but the seemingly relentless shoving of schools towards Academy status.

What is most striking about this change is not necessarily the virtues (or otherwise) of the policy itself, but, like so many of the coalition’s boldest reforms – think NHS – they are being carried out without any real sense of consent or agreement, let alone demand. Indeed, the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made no mention of Academy schools, except to say that they will be expected to follow an ‘inclusive admissions policy’.

Alongside ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’, it’s best to add ‘free school’ to your list of words spoken by Ministers when they want to disguise some dastardly deed. Because, if Michael Gove has his way, while free schools take the flak and the fire, the local school near you will quietly, surreptitiously become an Academy school – whether you like it or not.

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Ofsted: a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation

Our friends at Ofsted have recently published their revised plans for how they go about inspecting schools. And what an uninspiring read it is. Uninspiring, that is, if you hold the view that Ofsted has lost its way and is in need of a major shake-up, not just a tweak of focus here and there.

The tone of the document (which is out for consultation and can be found here) is less than radical. There is little – scratch that, no evidence of anything approaching a fundamental re-evaluation of what they do and why.

Instead, what we have is lots of self-congratulatory stuff about how Ofsted, through its inspections, has helped to ‘share good practice’ and ‘encourage improvement’ (not on my watch they haven’t!). And then a host of relatively minor changes which have been forced upon them by the Education Bill – such as an end to the duties to inspect community cohesion and well-being.

The proposal is cleverly written to recognise the political mood – presenting the case that inspections will be streamlined with any flabbiness removed from the process. But, it’s hard to see how this will be the case – next to nothing has been removed from the scope of inspections.

Achievement, behaviour, safety, leadership, management, teaching – it’s all there. As is a focus on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. And, although the out-of-fashion term ‘personalised learning’ is absent, the inspection will still look at whether education enables a child to ‘achieve her or his potential’.

It’s very hard to see how this cuts down the inspection process, particularly as Ofsted will apparently now give ‘greater priority’ to ‘detailed observation of teaching and learning’ – this suggestions more than a mere drop in and scan through the books. The conflict remains too between historical data and where a school is ‘at’ when the inspector calls: despite the glib references to the importance of teaching, the inspections still seem to be focussed on the importance of SATs results.

Other changes are worth noting too – including the focus on reading and numeracy in primary schools and literacy in secondary schools. It’s not clear why these have been picked other than, y’know, reading is, like, important innit. What we do know is that these unexplained shifts by Ofsted affect what schools do in a fairly crude and unsophisticated way. You can hear the screech of brakes and jangled gear-change as the inspectors narrow their sights ever-further.

There is more for those who doubt Ofsted are under-taking little more than a superficial exercise in pretending to ‘focus’ their inspections, while leaving plenty in their armoury if they don’t like the cut of a schools jib. Get this: they will be coming to inspect ‘how gaps are narrowing between different groups of pupils’. Which groups are, of course, for them to know and us to find out. It could be FSM v non-FSM, or girls v boys, or white v BME, or EAL v non-EAL. Who knows? But sure as eggs is eggs, Ofsted will have something to string you up by.

Aside from the ‘spot the difference’ approach to the detail of inspections, what is missing is any consideration of the culture of inspections and the recognition that the inspection experience of some schools has been something along the lines of: drop-in, damn and depart. This, in my view, damages rather than enhances school improvement.

To counter this, Ofsted does need fundamental change. Some are proposing splitting the whole organisation in two – more cruel critics might recommend breaking it up further (a million very tiny pieces springs to mind).

What they have produced here is a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation; it provides little to suggest Ofsted is changing from within. It is curious that Michael Gove has been so cautious in this area (contrast for a moment with what Eric Pickles has done, smashing the local authority watchdog – the Audit Commission – to smithereens) when, for many in the education sector, it is the place where radical upheaval is urgently required.

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