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Dear Lord Nash

The article in the TES about your speech to the Challenge Partnership national conference last week certainly made me think. (It seems I’m not alone, judging by the comments the article provoked.)  You covered much ground, but here are my initial concerns about what you said.

Why do you think that education always has something to learn from business? Is it really a one-way street? Does business have nothing to learn from education? I’ve worked in the public sector for 25 years. That doesn’t make me blind to bureaucracy, but it does help me to see the benefits of a shared sense of endeavour focused on something bigger than profit. And it doesn’t make me blind to all the news stories about businesses  whose eagerness to appease their shareholders gets in the way of customer service, or staff wellbeing. In short, I don’t think we’re yet at the point where social workers, doctors, and teachers, similarly beleaguered though they are, feel they have much to learn about work ethics and accountability from bankers.

The TES reports that you also said that good school leaders  “always put children’s interests before those of adults.” Well yes. Their whole job is think about children’s immediate, medium-term and long-term interests. But these same school leaders are being asked to act in their school’s interest, not the interest of their pupils, through the association of test scores with league tables, through Ofsted and academy-takeovers. It would be quite helpful if you could point that out to the Secretary of State.

I was glad to hear your concern at the amount of time teachers spend planning lessons (and your suggestion that teaching practice follow the evidence). As a parent witnessing the daily struggle that my children’s teachers, and my teacher friends, have in finding enough hours in the day to be a teacher (never mind anything else), I am all too aware that they are struggling to keep pushing the ball up the hill let alone to make it roll smoothly. But your solution is that teachers “embrace standardisation”? Where relevant, they already do: teachers share lesson plans, they share online resources, they discuss goals.  The idea that they aren’t already looking for ways to save time is quite laughable. The reason they prepare for lessons is to make sure they are completely familiar with what it is that they will be doing, why they are doing it, and what they are hoping to achieve by doing it. In much the same way that anyone would read up on a subject before giving a speech about it.  One lesson education might learn from business is that raising staff satisfaction pays dividends. Devaluing teaching by turning teachers into delivery systems for off-the-peg resources is the exact opposite.

One more thing. You are quoted as saying: “I think in the past too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism”. It would be helpful (never mind polite) if you could supply some evidence for this assertion.

In summary, it’s difficult not to conclude that you are mainly interested in the business opportunities that necessarily arise from a market-led model in schools, promoting a proliferation of  educational ‘products’ – be they teaching robots, or test papers.

 

Next on the timetable – the spinning lesson

“Welcome to the house of fun!” So sang my son when his school performed the fantastic musical “Our House’ a few years ago, in a school theatre that has since been pulled down. He’ll be singing again tonight, in the new school hall at the centre of an impressive, light, well-organised school building that has replaced not just the crumbling theatre but a series of buildings that were both too small and too old to service the school (whose numbers increased by half due to a local schools reorganisation).  In an ideal world, they’d have had a new theatre in the new building, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and no school can provide everything everyone wants. In fact many schools now live in a world which is so far from ideal that replacing old buildings, or putting on big school shows, are just pipe dreams. My children have been lucky. But this is a state education system educating the vast majority of children in the country.  Paid for by taxpayers. In the 21st century why on earth should UK children have to be lucky to get schooled in a building which is actually fit for purpose?

Looking at the educational news stories around today, “Welcome to the world of spin” might be  more apposite description of where we find ourselves.  (And yes, I do know that spin is officially out of fashion. Doesn’t make it out of use though.) This morning the National Audit Office published a report revealing that  £6.7 million is needed to bring old school buildings up to standard.  This follows hot on the heels of another of their reports, from last December, which revealed that schools need to make cuts of about 8% by 2020 because of rising costs and increased numbers of pupils. Meanwhile the Education Select Committee, which notices rather more about what’s going on that the government might like, reported yesterday that teacher shortages are now at crisis point. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help wondering if the government is hoping the teacher shortage will solve the budget deficit (without anyone noticing, of course).

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that on the same day the latest NAO report was published, the New Schools Network (which sorts out new free schools for the government) released an advertising jingle for  Michaela Free School. (It’s worth a watch, if only to wonder why it’s so necessary for the school’s head and founder to be so passive-aggressive towards all other schools and why she’s the only person who gets to speak about how happy the children are.) So the children are happy at school, and learning. Well yes, I would hope they would be, whether it’s a free school or not.

Whilst they outsource yarn-spinning to the New Schools Network, what else is  the government doing to resolve the multiple crises facing our schools? Why, proposing to build 500 additional free schools by 2020, of course, spending £240 million on new grammar schools, blathering on about a new funding formula that – whilst needed – is not actually addressing the budget problem, and giving back £368million to the Treasury that it was going to spend on forcing schools to be academies. (It’s still planning to make them all academies, just without making such a fuss about it).  Oh and surveying teachers who have left the profession rather than finding out what would encourage teachers still in the profession to stay there. All in all, a position otherwise known as sticking its head in the sand. Which, if it isn’t already, they should really add to the PE curriculum. That’s the kind of detail they like talking about. Big things, like making sure the schools are actually still standing, is clearly a bit beyond them.

 

Some schools are more equal than others…

Anyone who follows the pronouncements of the Department for Education will know that it finds bald numbers – the results of abstract tests – more meaningful than assessments of progress, when determining whether pupils are getting what they need out of our education system. Anyone who spends much time talking to teachers and headteachers will also be aware that, on the whole, they seem to be of the opposite opinion –  that written assessments of progress tell a fuller story about individuals than numerical scores do.

Quantitative assessment has its place. I’ve been looking at some numbers produced by the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which tell a very different story than that offered by Theresa May and Justine Greening. The government says it is protecting ‘core schools funding’. The trouble is, their definition of ‘core school funding’ is very narrow. It doesn’t include funding which schools receive indirectly via local authorities, and which is set to be dramatically cut.

Nor does it take account of additional costs that schools now have to find from their ‘protected’ budgets, such as increased National Insurance contributions. When taken altogether, the government’s claims about school funding shift from lacking in candor to being misleading. The NUT/ATL have calculated exactly what those rising costs and indirect cuts are per year by 2020, in real terms, for each school in England, and there’s no happy ending. They have calculated that nationally, more than 9 out of 10 secondary schools will experience a cut in funds, averaging £365 per pupil.

Here in Suffolk, the projected losses are less severe, because the calculations take account of the Fair Funding Formula, which the government is proposing to adopt. As Suffolk schools have for years received less funding per pupil than those in the country on average, that should be a good thing. And it would be a good thing were the government proposing to add resource to enable them to level up all the underfunded authorities, instead of sharing out the existing budget differently across all authorities. It doesn’t take a level 6 SATS pupil to work out that across the country, this method means many schools will lose out in order for some to benefit. Nor is it rocket science to realise that schools can’t recoup their losses simply by spending less on toilet roll or white boards.  Even with the benefit of the funding formula in Suffolk, the projected funding deficit for Suffolk’s secondary schools alone is equivalent to more than 155 teachers.

I hear heckling from the defenders of austerity: “Some schools have too much money, and anyway public services are wasteful”. Okay then: if that’s the case, how is it that some of our schools appear to be protected from the impact of these cuts and rising costs? As any reader of this blog may know by now, Suffolk has five secondary Free Schools additional to demand. These free schools are located in the leafier parts of our Tory shire; meanwhile, it is secondary schools in the most deprived parts of Suffolk (West Ipswich and Lowestoft) which are set to take the biggest hit. Here are some numbers, all derived from the data on the NUT/ATL calculator. Across Suffolk’s 45 secondary schools, by 2020:

  1. The average impact of rising costs, funding cuts and the new funding formula, for the 29 academies ranges from 0-13%, average of 4.75%
  2. The average impact of rising costs, funding cuts and the new funding formula  for the 9 Local Authority schools ranges from 0 – 8%, with an average of 2.6%.  (This figure is lower than the figure for academies because academies receive their share of the local authority grant directly, whereas for Local Authority schools the funds go to the local authority which is supposed to provide schools with services directly. That they don’t now, in these parts, is another story.)
  3. The average impact of rising costs, funding cuts and new funding formula for the 5 Free Schools ranges from 0-2% with an average of just 0.6%. Free Schools are academies. Why then do they appear to be given preferential treatment?
  4. Six of the seven schools with the highest projected cuts (each more than £300,000) are in the most deprived areas of Suffolk. That means that they already face significant challenges.

For example, Ormiston Denes Academy is the school calculated to take the biggest hit, with a projected cut of £620,230. Last year just 32% of pupils at Ormiston Denes achieved 5 x A*-C GCSEs including Maths and English. Yet a cut of this scale is equivalent to 16 teachers. This is not a recipe for improvement.

For the purposes of these numbers, I’ve accepted the assumptions of the NUT/ATL calculator. Detractors will doubtless query the formula, quibble over the assumptions, or suggest that other factors should be taken into account. Some may suggest a reason to account for the disparity in cuts between schools in the least deprived and the most deprived areas, and the apparent protection of Free Schools from cuts. But the outcome of these predicted cuts is pretty clear: these numbers cannot be made to tell a different story. Nor do they represent any kind of progress.

Leading by example

I’ve never re-blogged a post before. But this one, and this campaign, is so exactly in tune with my thoughts about what is happening to our primary school pupils and schools, that I thought it time to start. Our children are currently subject to a testing regime designed to populate league tables, not a curriculum aimed at nurturing creativity and a love of learning. More than a Score aims to change that. I’m actively involved in Rescue our Schools, one of the partners in the #morethanascoreUK campaign. Please go to morethanascore.co.uk to find out more, and sign the campaign pledge.

More Than a Score UK

I should start by saying that I love teaching and I love my school. I am the head teacher of a large primary school in a very disadvantaged community, which means that many of our children and their families face huge challenges on a daily basis such as mental health issues, sub-standard housing conditions and daily difficulties in making ends meet. Despite these challenges, most skip happily into school keen to learn, are polite and enthusiastic about their school community.

I am a teacher first and foremost. My job is hugely fulfilling and I never know what my day will bring from one day to the next. Last year we launched a little toy dog to the edge of space on a helium balloon with a Go-Pro camera and tracking device. When he fell off on his return journey, the amazing footage thrilled and amazed the children in school before…

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Call waiting…

Having had her thunder  – and her policy agenda – neatly stolen by Teresa May’s pronouncements on extending grammar schools before she had even time to get her feet under her new desk, Justine Greening has finally produced some policy of her own.  On Tuesday she announced some changes to primary school assessment tests (the dreaded SATs). My daughter did SATs earlier this year, and I was one of many who were unhappy enough with SATs and their impact on children and schools that I considered withdrawing her from school during SATS week, so I was interested to hear what she had to say.

Justine Greening’s  announcement included the welcome withdrawal of the threat that children who had been deemed to ‘fail’ their SATs would have to resit them in year 7, and the equally welcome statement that the KS1 spelling and grammar test remains voluntary (though quite who would volunteer to do such a test is beyond me!). She announced that a review of primary assessment is needed and forward-promoted a consultation into primary school assessment which will start in the spring, and that meanwhile  there will be no new tests introduced before the 2018-19 academic year.

Such stability might sound like a good thing, but that still leaves thousands of pupils and primary schools facing an every-narrowing curriculum and unnecessary, stressful tests for the next two years at least, in order to carry on jumping through a series of hoops of the DfE’s choosing. (After all, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity for a 10 year old.)  That is more than a shame, when she could have taken the opportunity to suspend SATS altogether  given that they are not actually about pupils at all, they’re a means of manufacturing school league tables.

Unlike her  predecessors, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, who given to zealously issuing edicts, Justine Greening clearly has a more conciliatory, listening tone. And in acknowledging that a review of primary school assessment is needed, she appears to question, at the very least, the merit of some of the policy that she has inherited. But in announcing that the DfE will launch a consultation, she’s missed a opportunity. That the DfE will be involved in such a consultation suggests that she shares her predecessors’ enthusiasm for micro-management and policy leadership in an area where there is  no shortage of actual independent experts who are willing and able to provide appropriate guidance for politicians to act on. The Headteachers Roundtable, for instance, have already gone to the bother of producing an alternative education Green Paper which neatly explains why using pupil assessment to measure school performance is a bad idea, and proposes alternative solutions for both pupil assessment and school accountability, I hope she already has a well-worn copy of that on her desk. (As yet the Green Paper doesn’t come with a summary, let alone one aimed at parents rather than headteachers, so I recommend a large coffee before starting to read it!)

I don’t know whether Justine Greening is already talking to the Headteachers Roundtable. But she does say that she is interested in talking to parents, as well as teachers and unions (though no mention of  experts, interestingly). I just hope she doesn’t cherry-pick her parents.

Last month saw the launch of a new educational ‘campaign’ called Parents and Teachers for Excellence. Now I think you’d struggle to find parents or teachers who were against excellence, so even to the vaguely cynical the group already sounds like an exercise in spin. But if you take a closer look, you’ll find that this apparently ‘non-partisan’ group which claims to be separate to the Westminster elite appears to be nothing but a soft mouthpiece for Conservative education ‘reformers’.  (Of the 29 people on its advisory group, only 4 are listed as parents, CEOs or other leaders in Academy chains figure prominently, and the group includes the governments’ ‘Behaviour Tsar’ as well as a former education advisor to the prime minister). It doesn’t look very independent to me.

The group describes itself as a campaign seeking an evidence-based approach to education. I’m with them on that, but only if they start off from a neutral position, not from a perspective that uses ideological assumptions as if they were some kind of truth.  In my dictionary, non-partisan means not taking sides. Yet the stated starting position for this group is that they already know free schools and academies “work”. (Oh and behaviour policies, knowledge-based curriculum, and increased testing. Apparently.) We parents just need convincing, it would seem.

PTE are also keen to promote  ‘enrichment activities’. Absolutely nothing to disagree with there, enrichment is exactly what the word suggests (though it should happen within the curriculum, as well as outside it).  I try not to be too cynical, but it’s hard to avoid wondering if they have added in the enrichment line to distract us from all the other market reform stuff. PTE has financial backers, so unlike other education campaign groups involving or aimed at parents, it’s got money. Quite whose, we have no idea – though the ‘donate’ button features prominently on their webpage and they are keen for people to contribute to their cause as they will, apparently, “never have the resources enjoyed by those opponents of change in the education system”. (Their words, not mine.) And quite a lot of people stand to benefit from those DfE reforms. Just not most pupils, teachers or parents.

Those pupils, teachers and parents could all benefit from Justine Greening’s forthcoming consultation on primary assessment. Especially if it’s properly done, and independently led by experts.  If Justine Greening wants to really engage with parents and make sure we are on side in her efforts to improve both our children’s education and their experience at school, there are other parent groups already out there – not be as well-connected to the Westminster elite, or with secret financial backers, but which don’t  have an agenda apart from wanting their children’s schools to deliver a positive experience with good outcomes.  Groups such as Let our Kids be Kids, or Rescue our Schools. Ms Greening, we’re waiting for your call.

Dear Parliamentary Labour party

Please, STOP IT NOW. This is not the time for blame – unless of course that blame is directed in a focused way at the Tory party for putting us all in this mess (which, after all, only arose because David Cameron was unable to keep his own team in order), and the Brexit campaigners for wilfully leading the electorate as a whole up the garden path with no clear strategy for opening (let alone closing) the gate. And I can’t think of a worse time to appear to be demonstrating to the party membership as a whole that only the views of the Westminster elite matter.

I didn’t vote for Corbyn. Nor am I very likely to vote for him an another leadership election (not that I disagree with many of his principles or policies). But the news today really should not be leading on Labour party stories, it should be on exposing the gaps in the Brexit response and the potential through those gaps for making the best of things right now. I would really like to know, for example, what the Labour party’s position is on the potential for the SNP to block Article 50 and whether they would support this.

To state the obvious, support for EU membership is not a straightforward party-political question. The more you appear to be taking responsibility for the resulting vote by allowing the frenzy to be directed simply at Corbyn, the more you fail to recognise that, and the more ammunition you are giving the Tory Remainers for future use.

The media like nothing better than an internal party squabble, so why on earth are you handing it to them on a plate? Yes, there may be an election before very long. And yes, leadership is an issue that won’t go away in a hurry. But come up with some positive principles and responses  first that the disenfanchised Labour voters of our cities and the north can own, and get out there and talk to them. That will, in the longer term, need to be a strong narrative on how or even if neo-liberal policies have anything to offer any longer in pursuit of reducing inequalities. A change of leader alone will provide you – and us – with no certainty or policy position on any of this. Arguing amongst yourselves about leadership might be getting some of you somewhere, but it’s doing nothing whatsoever for the rest of us in the party.  Please, STOP IT NOW.

 

Pupils go to market

Last week I went with my daughter to the Suffolk Show. Big rural fairs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I appreciate, and seeing sheep, cows and working horses parade around the ring and wait for their prizes (the “Grand Parade”) may seem a bizarre anachronism in the modern age when most people probably don’t see a live pig from one year to the next, let alone a pig farmer. But – as well as providing lots of entertainment, a wealth of good food and numerous opportunities to buy horsey clothing – these country shows do provide those of us in more rural areas with a link between where we live and the farming industry which for centuries has been the mainstay of the rural economy.

One thing rural economies don’t breed much of these days is school-pupils. Even accounting for migration the birth rate in Suffolk is declining, and looks set to continue doing so. Sustaining our schools is key to keeping our villages and market towns alive and to curtailing their transition into retirement complexes for the middle classes who can afford to buy houses in them. Markets – whether for butchers buying pork or parents seeking school places – need enough buyers (or pupils, in the case of schools) for any of the competitors to survive.  Suffolk grows quite a lot of pigs but not pupils. So why, then, has the DfE appeared to choose Suffolk as the test-bed for a new market in education provision, by approving so many new free schools in the county over the last few years ?

The news reported by Schoolsweek this weekend that the DfE has overturned – at least in the short-term – another new free school in Bury St Edmunds, is of course very welcome. (Sorry to labour the point but there are already enough – very good – schools in the area for the number of pupils available.) Also good news is the fact that the reversal happened because the County Council presented the DfE with a legal challenge. I presume that they did so primarily because the proposed free school, a middle school, threatened to undermine the final stages of the county’s transition into a two-tier system (primary and secondary schools instead of primary, middle and upper schools), rather than because of any new-found opposition to market models in public services.

Over many years the Conservative administration in Suffolk has demonstrated an enthusiasm for market-led models in areas of public service (in areas such as care homes), and they have previously kept quiet as new free schools have popped up in market towns over the last few years. But they have argued long and fiercely for a transition to the two-tier school structure, on the grounds that it will raise GCSE attainment. (That said, given how much else has been going on in education it will of course be impossible to prove this either way). And perhaps they have finally got fed up with Suffolk’s children being used to test out government policy. There are, after all, no shortage of other areas where people want free schools and where there are pupils in need of school places.

Suffolk now boasts five more secondary schools than it needs in areas all served by schools with ample spaces, all so the DfE could boast a new market in education. And they aren’t just any secondary schools, either: they include one – IES Breckland with a ‘for-profit’ provider which has already had to install a new headteacher due to being put in special measures, and three run by a trust – The Seckford Foundation – which might have been better off sticking to running private schools, which it seems better suited to. Is that a fair criticism? Well the Seckford Foundation’s Free Schools Trust (effectively a new academy chain, which runs Beccles, Saxmundham and Ixworth Free Schools), has already been subject to a DfE Warning Notice in relation to  Beccles and Saxmundham (that must have hurt the DfE) as well as a rap over the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority. Stour Valley Community School, on the other hand, appears to be faring better, and things are improving in regard to Ofsted and staff turnover at IES Breckland. (Incidentally neither of these belong to academy chains – or at least not yet. Their independence makes them a bit vulnerable given the government’s stated aim that all schools – and it is still all schools – will be in academy chains by 2022, but that’s a whole other blog post).

Free School rhetoric has it that competition raises standards, though how this would actually work in practice has never been satisfactorily explained. The results from Suffolk’s five free secondary  schools (from DfE performance tables) so far suggest they have some way to go to get level with existing schools, let alone surpass them or drive up the county average. Stour Valley, at 52%, came closest to the Suffolk average of 54.5% for 5 A-Cs at GCSE including English and Maths in 2015.  Beccles, Saxmundham and IES Breckland (Ixworth did not have a year 11 cohort last year) were all more than 10% behind the Suffolk average. It is important to state that the cohort in each of these schools was small, so a few pupils with very poor results could be pulling down the averages. But even so, they are poor results.

So where does that leave Suffolk’s pupils? Still off to market, but without much guarantee of success. Moreover, the financial impact of that market is felt across our existing schools as well as the new ones. Schools with fewer pupils than planned for have less money to spend, whether they are the new free schools or the existing schools which pupils would otherwise have gone to. And despite protestations that markets raise standards, there just isn’t the evidence out there to support the idea that any sort of schools can raise standards with a reduction in funds.   Interestingly it’s Suffolk’s free schools which are taking the worst hit, by and large. Freedom of Information requests have revealed that whilst first choice applications to IES Breckland, Saxmundham and Stour Valley Community School have increased in the last year, applications to Beccles more than halved. And when it comes to actually offering places, more pupils have been offered places at the three Seckford Foundation schools (210 in total) than put them as first choice (177 in total), suggesting that a fair number of pupils are being sent to Free Schools rather than actually choosing to go to them. The really startling figure is that between them, the three Seckford schools anticipate filling less than 60% of their total year 7 places this September. That’s a very expensive experiment.

So far, then, you might wonder if market models work better for Suffolk’s pigs than for Suffolk’s pupils. The DfE has so far spent millions opening 5 new schools in Suffolk which are entirely surplus to requirements and which don’t produce better results. It approved then overturned (at least for the time being) another free school in Bury St Edmunds after local (good and outstanding) schools and the (Conservative) county council complained both forcefully and legally – even though the free school approval process is supposed to include consulting with local authorities and stakeholders.  Given their aggressive – and rather chaotic – pursuit of ‘school growth’ it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the DfE care more about growing a market in schools than they do about the quality of the education it delivers. Pigs get welfare standards, but schools don’t. As any financial advisor will tell you, one of the essential characteristics of market-based approaches – in any commodity – is that individual elements of it can fail. As it stands, some of the schools in this pupil market are surely heading for a crash, for both financial and educational reasons. This isn’t like buying bacon, it has a lasting impact on pupils’ life chances. Where, you might wonder, will we go from here?