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 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.

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.