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.

Whose party is it, anyway?

Like several other local Labour Party members, I have spent a little time in the last couple of weeks putting leaflets through letter boxes in Hadleigh, as there is a County Council by-election on Thursday. Doesn’t sound all that exciting, I appreciate. But it matters. Not just because it matters anyway, but particularly because at the moment our county council (Suffolk) is one of those which is squirreling away reserves whilst cutting public services such as community transport, library funds and putting vulnerable elderly people into privatised but failing care homes. And there is always the possibility of a by-election getting the council to a tipping point where, with enough opposition, some of this damage can at least be paused, if not reversed.

Protecting public services is the kind of result local people – of all political hues – generally want.  Which is why many, more active, party members across the country get through a lot of shoe leather every week, pounding pavements and knocking on doors in attempts to persuade people of the case for voting Labour – or indeed for voting at all. (And despite the bad press given to most politicians, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a committed member of any party who hasn’t done the same, in their attempt to persuade people that their answers to the big and little questions of public policy are the best solutions.)

But yesterday I hesitated before putting the leaflet through one of those letterboxes with a ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker.  There are, sadly, many people who think that political communications are junk mail. Maybe they have bought into the discourse that all politically-active people are ‘in it for themselves’; maybe they just aren’t interested in much at all. Either way it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. But if it is because they are disillusioned with the state of the debate at national level, I’m with them. I was actually rather relieved that no-one was about to talk to, as it’s rather embarrassing being in the Labour party at the moment.

I’m a member of the party. That doesn’t make me a crazy Corbynista, a machiavellian plotter, an infiltrator or (what seems the worst insult of the moment) a ‘centrist’. It doesn’t make me a supporter of Momentum, nor does it make me proud of the MPs who decided that just when the country most needed strong opposition, they would create political havoc (all to no avail, it would appear) – even though, like them, I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is the best person to lead the party. Like, I think, many thousands of party members, it makes me someone who wants Labour values to influence public and community life, and good left-wing policies in place at local and national level: things that make a positive difference to our lives and our children’ futures.  But the present narrative in the mainstream media and the social media whirlwind is that Labour members are all new or old, democratic or anti-democratic, naive or selfish. There appears to be no middle ground. Well, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, and nor do most of the people I know. Nor do I want to abandon the party just to get stuff done.

A couple of weeks ago, I voted for Owen Smith. Not because he has all the answers, but because he at least represents an opportunity to start a new conversation. This time six years ago I was in the room at Labour party conference when Ed Miliband won his surprise victory. It’s no exaggeration to say the atmosphere was tense. I’d voted for him, for a number of reasons. And I know, it didn’t work out. Doesn’t look as if my candidate is likely to win this time round, but what is most frustrating is that whichever of them wins, neither of them is making things happen locally.

The everyday things that get discussed in councils – like whether 17-year-olds should have to pay to get to school, or which town can do without a fire engine – really do make a difference to people’s lives. The deeper that austerity bites, the harder it is for councillors (with the right values but the wrong budgets) to fight for the right answers. But the more we and the media focus only on the people at the top of the party, and on the splits in the party, the less room there is to actually discuss those issues and support the  councillors and their supporters trying to stand up and make the right choices every day. Last week, the Labour opposition on the County Council proposed a motion aimed at improving the way elderly care home residents are treated in Suffolk – including the requirement that the county stop placing people in poorly-rated care homes. The Conservatives voted it down.

That by-election? It’s to replace a Conservative councillor who swanned off to live in the USA and refused, for eighteen months, to resign from his seat. The kind of self-serving caper that makes it into Private Eye, embarrasses even the Tories, and gives politicians of all hues a bad name.  Whatever is going on in the national Labour Party on Thursday, and however it is played out through mainstream and social media, let’s hope the people of Hadleigh can see the wood for the trees and vote for the right candidate (which would be Sue Monks).

A sweet in every layer?

I like the sound of my own opinions.  (A characteristic that I imagine to be common to most bloggers.) But I do find it depressing to find myself opining repeatedly on policies causing anxiety, frustration and concern to the majority, especially when the available evidence supports a different policy-course altogether. Such frustration has clearly been felt by academics, commentators, politicians and teachers long-opposed to a return to selection and grammar schools, as news of Theresa May’s desire for more grammar schools has filled the airwaves for the last week. (On the plus side, she has succeeded in creating some unity across political divides and amongst the educational establishment!)

Even the BBC, normally so anxious to produce two sides to a policy argument (even when that leads to completely lopsided arguments being presented as if opinion was equally divided), had to portray Theresa May’s stance as politically-motivated rather than arguable on the basis of evidence. That’s because the evidence clearly shows that selection at 11 does not improve educational attainment across the system, nor does it advance social mobility. Grammar schools are good at stretching the pupils who attend them, not at improving the life chances of those who don’t.

Theresa May has been very clever. She is portraying ‘meritocracy’ as somehow intrinsic to our sense of ‘British values’ (whatever they are). And she is banking on the assumption that we Brits, supposedly, care more about potential than reality. In her world of potential, every ‘deserving’ child could get a place in the grammar school; in the real world, of course, the majority will be rejected. Like the Free Schools debacle, where increasing the choice of schools is presented as more relevant than improving all schools, this is a policy for parents, not for pupils.  In another similarity, it’s very difficult to see how a return to selection is practically possible outside large towns and cities, unless all schools are suddenly to be provided with the additional resources required to bus children from one market town to another. I’ve got to hand it to Mrs May (and to Justine Greening, who as Education Secretary is the person actually charged with trying to make it happen): so far they’ve managed to talk about returning to a pass/fail system as if it’s an ‘everyone gets a prize’ system. As if their new selection system will be like the modern version of pass-the-parcel where there’s a sweet in every layer, rather than one single prize in the very middle of the parcel like there was when I was a child.

Education isn’t a prize. Or it shouldn’t be. It’s a right. Leaving aside the arguments in favour of a comprehensive system from an educational and social perspective, there’s a far more simple problem Mrs May could have chosen to address: there simply isn’t enough money in the system right now for all schools to provide that basic educational right for their pupils in a way which actually meets their needs.  Structural changes cost money (ask the NHS), as well as creating uncertainty for staff and children.  If she really believes all children really do deserve a good education, surely the target for her limited resources should be improving the educational and life chances of ALL the children in the poorest areas, not just the academically gifted ones?

I passed the eleven-plus, being in the last year group in Somerset to go through selection, and I got a good education in a school that was half grammar, half private (that being the kind of compromise that school systems had to make in rural areas).  My children are getting a good education now – but in a properly comprehensive school which doesn’t educate them at the expense of their peers, like mine did. For all the attempts at assuring us that the new policy will not result in the same two-tier system that operated when grammar schools were last commonplace, it is impossible to see how this could actually be done in practice given the limited resources available.

Rant nearly over for now, though doubtless set to be repeated over the coming weeks. One more point for now: the White Paper on education that was published earlier this year included, amongst the chaos of mass-academisation, the proposal that teachers do not need to be qualified. Quite where the White Paper sits in Justine Greening’s in-tray is currently unclear, but if the proposals in it carry on through parliament, we are left with the very real possibility that not only will many schools be losing funding under the new funding formula – in addition to the financial squeeze all schools are under anyway – some schools will be employing unqualified teachers. (And I’ll bet it won’t be the selective ones.) So much for improving our education system. If they carry on like this, there won’t be a parcel to pass around at all.



What is teaching for?

The new school year is fast approaching, and the next few days see teachers finalising their lesson plans whilst pupils enjoy their last few days of summer freedom and parents like me wonder what they have forgotten to buy. I’m approaching this new school year with a little trepidation though – as for  countless other parents this year,  I will no longer have a child at primary school. Like those other parents, I’m suddenly prone to making rather repetitive but somehow inevitable comments about how fast my children are growing up.

Teachers don’t age though. Or so we think – unless we carry on meeting them in adulthood, they become fixed in our memory at the point when they taught us. Which is why it always seems slightly discombobulating to meet them years later. I did just that earlier this summer, when attending a joyous university reunion of fellow music students from the 1980s. As we prepared to do some formal singing together we all contributed to one of those “in 50 words tell us what you do now” exercises. Former music students are (to the uninitiated)  a surprisingly versatile breed, and our number included opera singers, barristers, sound engineers, accountants and of course a fair spread of teachers, amongst other endeavours). One of our former professors was singing with us. His 50 words were telling: he was visibly moved and spoke of his pride at the people we had become – not for specific achievements (though some of these were noteworthy), but for having been able to play a part in helping us to become the people we are today. It struck me that it isn’t just pupils who are stuck in a time-warp, few teachers get to see their students 30 years on. But I think his sentiment is shared by teachers everywhere.

A bit later this summer I had the privilege of observing some teaching on a summer music course.  Such courses are of course free from the usual strictures and structures of term-time lessons; they should be (and in this case are) fun, and give the student the opportunity to be ‘a person playing the cello’ rather ‘the cello pupil’.  As if to demonstrate this one of the teachers began a masterclass by asking all the students to tell her their name and something (other than music) they like doing. Not a new trick, but one that makes it clear to the student that the subject of study wasn’t the only thing of relevance or of interest. Music is, of course, a deeply personal business. Once there’s enough technique to play whatever piece is to be played, it’s the way in which the player communicates their connection to the music which matters. So in finding the way to help this emerge it may be more obvious to the onlooker that a music teacher is thinking about the whole person than it is with, say, a maths teacher. But we shouldn’t take that to mean that the maths teacher cares less about the person you are, or that you could become. Why, after all, do teachers become teachers if not to influence our future, as much as to inform our present? (And no, I don’t think teachers are saints: just not automatons. But seeing pupils as fully-fledged people  is somewhat at odds with the governmental way of looking at teachers as individual subject-programmers.)

As parents, we expect our primary school teachers to be interested in the whole person rather than just their subject. But then our children are to some extent cocooned at primary school. There is necessarily more connection between home and school, there is the school gate and the familiarity (at least in general if not in specifics) of the class and classmates. And until relatively recently, our primary school children weren’t treated so much like parts to be processed on a governmental conveyor belt. It’s different in secondary school. The secondary school my children go to has benefitted from an impressive and attractive new building, so when my daughter goes next week it won’t be the same warren that my son navigated in his first few days. But fears about the geography of the school, the bus trip to get there, and the presence of 1000 more children than at primary school, daunting as they may seem to both parents and new pupils, seem to me to be fairly quickly overcome, at least for most. Rather harder for pupil and parents is maintaining the sense that school is still about learning, experiencing and growing in the self, as well as in the subjects studied.  Thanks to government’s relentless pursuit of higher PISA ranking (and the desire for economic growth at all costs), we have now been inculcated into a culture in which children, their teachers and their schools appear defined more by test results  than by personal characteristics. But it doesn’t have to be this way. At their best, schools set the groundwork for pupils to flourish as people (which some do quickly and others more leisurely), and it is our schools’ teachers who make that happen, with whatever subject (music, maths, or any other) that provides them with the medium for doing so.

As school or university pupils, our relationships with teachers are fairly one-dimensional; we rarely appreciate that our teachers have our wider interests (or even any of our interests) at heart. But my experiences this summer illustrate that that is not the case. So as we parents prepare to start the new year defending, endorsing (or occasionally challenging) a teacher’s perspective on some issue, it’s worth bearing in mind that those teachers do actually have our children’ whole self in mind, even if the demands of the governmental conveyor belt make it hard for us to see that. I sincerely hope that my daughters’ new teachers aren’t so defeated by the increasing requirement to view whole pupils only in terms of scores (subject, year group or school) that they are still able to see her as a past, present and future person, when she leaves her secondary school a few years hence.

In pursuit of joy

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. No I don’t mean trying to keep up with the headlines or the fallout from the headlines, though I can’t say that isn’t also a challenge. I mean domestically. It’s the end of term, so there has been a procession of concerts and (intentionally) dramatic events to attend, a street fair, a fete, end of term assemblies and so on. This year is different because it’s my daughter’s last at primary school. Which means, of course, that she leaves not only with a set of wonderful memories and burgeoning opportunities, but with a set of SATS results.

A week or so ago we had our school summer concert (which I help with, as I’m involved with music at school). This was the 8th of these annual events, and quite possibly the best yet. They always follow the same format: choirs, ukulele group and recorder group have a standing slot, and most of the rest of the programme is given over to pupil performances – anything from solo songs to dance routines. Pupils audition for a slot in the programme, for which they devise and rehearse their own pieces. Variety is more important than perfection – over the years we’ve had all sorts from Mozart on the horn to solo renditions of Take That songs. This year, one of the highlights for me was the ‘Kingfisher boys’ –  a group of year 3 boys (complete with baseball caps), one singer in the middle of five dancers – including some rather skilful breakdancing. It wasn’t note-perfect or movement-perfect. But it was exuberant, entertaining, and above all joyful. Like a lot else in the summer concert, it was impossible to watch without smiling.

The other thing that happened that day was that their school reports came out. These, for those lucky children in year 6, included their SATS results.  In an attempt to explain the reporting of SATS results, the headteacher usefully included a flyer  written for parents by the government Standards and Testing Agency. It goes on about the government’s desire to raise standards, and includes statements which of course presage an intentionally higher number of ‘failures’ than previously:  “As the new standard is higher than the old one, fewer children have met the new expected standard than the previous standard”, and then goes on to suggest that parents go online to find out how their child’s results compare with the national average (which smacks rather of trying to generate fear of failure in parents as well as pupils, rather than drawing on the more positive effects of competition). The leaflet also suggests that tests and teacher assessments help teachers in secondary school to target extra help. Well my daughter’s test results didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about her or anything she didn’t already know about herself. Nor, more importantly, did they tell her teacher anything she didn’t already know and couldn’t already communicate to the secondary school in a teacher assessment.  So what, you might wonder, was the point of all that anguish back in May?

The leaflet appears to suggest that more children failing the tests will result in them having a better “mastery of the basics” (I’m really not sure that ‘fronted adverbials’ are basic, but that’s another matter).  But whilst it’s made clear that the SATS system has been specifically engineered to create more  ‘failures’ than ‘successes’, for this year at least, the leaflet doesn’t explain how ‘failing’ might actually help a child learn.  (I can of course see how such engineering will help the government claim to have  improved standards in a couple of years time, but that’s another matter also.)  It doesn’t explain it because it can’t explain it. Back in May, my daughter feared the tests, though in the event she did fine. That fear wasn’t productive, it was just a waste of emotional energy.  And generating fear of failure in parents by frequent use of words like ‘mastery’ and ‘expected standard’ is simply unacceptable, as well as being unlikely to result in pupils actually doing better.

In our summer concerts, on the other hand, there are no failures. In eight years of summer concerts, I have never seen a child crumble on stage. True, some enjoy performing more than others, some are more engaging than others, some have practised more or display more talent than others –  but they all get up on the stage and take pleasure in having done so. Those Kingfisher Boys applied themselves to the task, thought creatively and worked collaboratively, listened to advice and put it into practice (and rose to the challenge of performing in front of at least 200 people). All rather useful skills for life, let alone for learning.  But SATS tests don’t value any of those attributes at all. Instead they have tested whether my daughter and her peers can produce a piece of writing in time and remember various facts and processes. I’m not seeking to denigrate the value of learning these things in themselves (except much of the content of the SPaG test, of course). But I question their value for our children’s overall emotional and cognitive development. Children find joy in things that they value and that they get satisfaction from learning – whether that’s on stage, on the cricket pitch or indeed, with a skilled teacher, in a classroom. And that joy spurs them on. Testing for the sake of testing, on the other hand, eviscerates joy.  I am heartily relieved, as my daughter prepares for secondary school, that she has been at a school which values the creative antics of boys in year 3 as highly as a few test results.



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?