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Single exam board?

July 2, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was written prior to Michael Gove being knocked out of the leadership contest. It was first published here, on Labour Teacher on 8th July 2016.

Way way back in the days of the ConDem coalition, we had an education secretary named Michael Gove – a man who very soon could be our prime minister. Give polarised opinion within tele profession. Many chastised everything he did, and other rushed to defend his ideals. There were some, like me, who took each idea on its merits, chastised some and celebrated others. (You can read some of my thoughts on his tenure here.)

One of the ideas he had that I liked was the idea of a single exam board. We had a situation where it.was considerably easier to gain a C in maths on some boards than other and that, to me, seemed quite ridiculous. This idea was quashed before it started due to “EU monopoly laws”.

Last week after a long campaign I was left heartbroken by the decision taken by the (slim) majority of the country for the UK to leave the EU. I had looked at the pros and cons and am certain that remaining would have been the better option. I tried to find positives, but there were few. People celebrated the fact we would no longer have Cameron (a man who I generally detest) in number 10, but even this was a negative as the names I the frame to replace him make him look a much more reasonable option. Some of the folk in the running make him look positively Marxist.

So I continued to look for positives, and I remembered the idea of a single exam board. Surely this would now be back in the table? Especially if, as I suspect will happen, Gove wins his parties  leadership?
This would mean students from around the country were all sitting the same exams and we sold have a situation where you knew exactly what each grade means. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Examinations, Examinations, Examinations

May 3, 2016 4 comments

This post was first published on the 3rd May 2016 here, on Labour Teachers.

Sometimes it feels like the government’s main three priorities are examinations, examinations and examinations, and this fact has certainly led to many people involved in education to express their disagreement and disappointment with the system.

Most recently, a large number of people with children of a primary school age have chosen to keep their children off school in protest against the new SATs test their children will sit. This has caused me to spend some time thinking about this, and try to put together some views.

Exam factories

One of the leading criticism of these tests is that it drives schools to shrink their curriculum and focus heavily on the content which will be examined – meaning subjects like art, music, history etc get widely ignored and children miss out on an important part of their education. I can certainly find agreement with this, however I think this is already an issue with the SATs as they stood, so it doesn’t seem to warrant the furore of the new tests, which can only compound an already prevalent problem.

What are they for?

This is a key question,  and I think that a different answer to it would lead to a different outcome. The tests as a marker for informing future teachers of a students ability are very helpful. The tear that SATs were boycotted we saw real problems with the grades reported by primary schools as there were massive inconsistencies from school to school. However, this argument alone seems to be silly, as what we see often is that students primed and drilled from the test from September to May achieve well, but then do no more maths from May to September and often regress. If this was to be the sole reason then surely they could be abolished totally and secondary schools could complete diagnostic tests on entry?

The other answer to this question is to measure school performance, and this is a real can of worms. It is this exact fact that leads to the exam factory conditions and the gaming the system and as such causes a load of problems. The other side of it is, however, that there needs to be some way of ensuring that schools are doing what we expect them to do. I don’t know what the answer is, but I tend to think high stakes testing is not the answer.

Is it just a problem with SATS?

No, all the issues outlined above are transferable to GCSE and A level exams. Again, I don’t have an answer, but I think that there must be a better way to treat 16 and 18 year olds than to make them sit high pressure, high stakes, examinations at a time of increased hormones knowing that if they go wrong that could seriously affect their life chances.

I don’t have the answers, but I do feel that there are answers and our job in opposition is to find them and present them to the public, showing that if they vote differently in 2020 we can give them a better way.

Further thoughts on the white paper

April 13, 2016 2 comments

Recently I read the white paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, it’s an interesting document, and I wrote my initial thoughts when I heard the headlines on Academies here then my initial thoughts having read the first chapter here. Since then I have read the rest of the white paper and have digested it and I wanted to share some of my thoughts in it, discounting thoughts on whole scale academisation as I’ve written about that before.

Great teachers everywhere they’re needed

My first thought when reading this chapter title was “surely that’s everywhere?” The section focuses on getting the best teachers into the most deprived areas using cash and promotions as incentives. I can certainly see a need for this, but I worry that there could be negative outcomes for some.

If all the good teachers go to the struggling areas, who’s left to teach those kids in the middle ground, not deprived enough to be in one of the key areas but not rich enough to be at a fee paying school?

I also worry that those gaining these promotions would be the game players, the ones who put their own results above everything else, including their students. The type of leaders who push students into courses they have no interest in and wont benefit from because they will gain a good grade that reflects well on them. These are not the sort of people we want to be putting in charge.

In fact,  it is the prevalence of leaders like that, who assign much more importance to some kids than others because of the effect they will have on the results,  that leads to the most able kids from disadvantaged being more likely to fall behind those with similar prior attainment but a more advantaged background. This is usually as schools forget abut these more able students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds have less help outside school.

Recruitment and retention

The white paper acknowledges the recruitment and retention crisis and suggests some ways in which it will try to improve the situation. The aims of reducing bureaucracy and workload are certainly well meaning and would benefit not only retention but the quality of teaching. Some of the ideas mentioned – ie the possibilities for replacing QTS – however seem like they will in fact be more paperwork heavy.

Leadership

The idea of improving leaders in our schools to improve teaching and also retention is a good thing. The incentives they will offer and the alterations to accountability framework to be more progress based should encourage more great leaders to take up roles in challenging schools.

I’m very much in favour of the move from threshold passes to progress, but I’m worried that attainment 8 and no of grade 5 and above will actually be the important measures in practice, so I’m waiting with interest to see how it plays out.

I like the idea of improvement periods, which give new heads a god length of time to turn around schools deemed to be requiring improvement. I did wonder how this would track to heads who took over just before the inspection, and I worry that there seems to be a suggestion that an RI grading would mean a new head.

Fair funding formula

There wasn’t enough technical details here for me, but in principle it sounds like they are considering all the right things – levels of disadvantage, needs of pupils, needs of a school (ie more money to rural and island schools who would go under otherwise as they serve communities with too few children to fill the schools).

Parental involvement

The aim to have all schools involve parents more is a noble one, and one that should be striven towards,  however I have recently come across some research that showed in disadvantaged areas of california that policies to discourage parental involvement actually had a positive effect while those that encouraged it didn’t. This suggests we need to look at how we are involving parents and make sure that it is I’m a manner that is beneficial to all.

The College of Teaching

I’ve been a little reticent to get behind the college of teaching, it seemed at first to be the answer to a question no one was asking and that it wouldn’t have any benefit. The white paper, however, suggests that a large part of its role will be ensuring teachers have access to educational research and are involved in creating it through their own journal. This is a positive thing in my view, as are the ideas they have regarding ensuring the profession is more savvy when it come to research and evidence to stop any more fads like brain gym gaining footholds in the shared consiousness.

What are your views on the white paper? I’d love to hear whether you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said. I’d also be interested to hear if you picked up on anything I’ve not mentioned or if you took a different inference to something in the white paper than I did. Feel free to comment here or contact me via email or social media.

A parents hope for the primary years

April 10, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published here on Labour Teachers 6th April 2016.

It’s parents week on Labour Teachers this week, and that has gotten me thinking about my daughter, as she embarks on her journey into education. She’s 3, she’ll be 4 in July, which means when she is 4 years and 6 weeks she will start school,  and that seems far too young!

She’s excited, she came on the visits to te prospective primary schools and we discussed together which ones we all liked before we put the preference form in. She was perhaps a bit too honest, announcing loudly on one tour that she much preferred the other two we’d seen at that point! We find out where she will be attending in a fee weeks.

I do worry though, I worry that as soon as she walks in she will be judged and assessed, and I worry about what the state of the British education system will be if the ideological asset stripping continues. Will there even be a public education system by the time she hits 13?

Schooling is a long process, and there are some things I would like her primary school to provider her with:

A) a good grounding in the basics – she can write her name and a fee other things, knows what all the letters look and sound like and can count, I would like her schooling to build on these basic skills.

B) a wide range of interests topics – I think that during primary schooling a wider curriculum is better, if an area piques her interest then we can explore that with her. I remember my parents building on things I’d learned at school with me and I hope to do the same with her.

C) some great friends. Some of my best friends are the ones I met at primary school, and I’m hoping daughter can build some equally enduring friendships in her time there.

These are my 3 hopes from her primary schooling, none of them have quantifiable targets attached, and I tend to think that the majority of the new tests and measures for the primary sector are about measuring teacher performance, rather than improving outcomes for children or appeasing parents, and that seems a little backwards to me.

Working Together

April 8, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published here, on Labour Teachers 11th April 2016.

The other day I was out with a friend of mine and he was regaling us with stories of when he spent some time in Finland as a teenager. He was there as part of an exchange programme and said his experience meant he was not even the slightest bit surprised when a few years later the world media were hailing the Finnish as the world leaders in all things education.

It was a different part of his story on the Finnish that really got me thinking though, one not explicitly linked to education, but one which may tells us some things about the culture and certainly one which has applications within the education sector.

“I nearly got fined for Jay-walking” he said. “There were no cars visible so we just crossed the road, to the horror of our Finnish hosts.”

“Bit keen on it over there are they?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they explained why and it makes perfect sense. They look at it this way, all it takes is one car to slow down and that can lead to a traffic jam. Most cars slow down because some has run across the road when they shouldn’t have, so if nobody does then the whole system works much better.”

He was right, it does make perfect sense, an d the fact that apparently the whole nation buy into it perhaps gives an insight into why they seem to get other things right, or certainty did in the past.

It made me think about the systems in place within schools – and how they are limited by their weakest link. If you have a strict policy on no headphones in the classroom,  but some teachers allow them, this leads to other teachers losing lesson time because students argue that “Mr Jones in IT let’s me.”

If you have a system that escalates from a warning to being send to a removal room for a lesson,  to spending the rest of the day in isolation if you either refuse or mess about in the removal room, but then the behaviour manager who you call out when someone refuses to go to the removal room don’t place them in isolation it undermines the system and gives those students a perceived free pass.

If you are lenient to a student because they have a tenancy to kick off when challenged the other students will pick up and this and it will cause issues when you aren’t as lenient on them.

If established teachers don’t get on board with a new stricter behaviour system because they feel the old system suits them it causes all sorts of problems for newly qualified teachers who are trying to implement a system. Students pick up on this and argue that “Miss Thornley doesn’t give me a warning for that.”

Systems can work very well, but if they aren’t used properly they won’t work at all. A badly designed system that is used well and consistently will have more impact than a perfect system that is used haphazardly and only by half of the staff.

Perhaps the Finnish faith in their transport system is indicative of a culture that is build on everyone following structures that are aimed to benefit the whole, even at the expense of a short term gain for the individual. And perhaps that shows us a glimpse as to one of the reasons why historically their education system has been successfully.

Even if this isn’t the case, and their is no link between their road awareness and their educational prowess, that doesn’t mean we can’t take these lessons and apply them in our schools. We should be working together to follow the policies and ensure that we implement them as a team.

If you don’t agree with the policy discuss that with those in charge of putting them in place and express your feelings, try to get them changed. Don’t undermine them as that will hurt your less experienced colleagues, and your students,  the most. If you are working somewhere with a policy you feel strongly about and can’t get it changed, then the sensible option is to look for alternative employment, as it’s likely to be an ideological difference between yourself and the senior management and you are never going to happy with the way they run the school.

Whole scale academisation

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published on Labour Teachers here, on 30th March 2016.

A week or so ago I came across this article in the Guardian. Apparently the government are finally ready to own up and set about forcing all remaining English schools into academisation.

I wrote here, last June, about this and how I wished they’d just get on with it and own up to it rather than trying to push little bits of legislation out at a time to achieve their overall “not so” secret aim.

The academisation of all English schools is something that fits well with the Conservative ideology of small state. They are removing local authorities from the picture and placing the money that would have been spent on LEAs into the hands of private companies – some for profit some not so.

The original idea was to get more of the money into schools, by cutting out the middle man, but as MATs have grown we see in many places that actually we’ve just replaced the middle man, only instead of one with public accountability with got ones with hidden agendas.

I’ve worked in various academies, in single school trusts, small MATs and a big MAT. My experiences have been fairly positive. The large MAT were up to something that were unacceptable, but our head was fighting for the school and successfully got us out of the trust and into a much smaller one. In the smaller ones I’ve seen people who care in the driving seat, and so they’ve been working from the right frame of reference to make the right difference.

I do worry, though, about the possibility of abuse that comes from moving the focus from LEAs who are in the public sector and accountable to private companies who can run schools more like businesses, losing the focus on education and people and moving it to the “bottom line”.

Academies, Local Authorities and a Research Based Profession

March 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Today I finally had time to sit and look through the government white paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere”. A catchy title I thought, and I was interested to read what it actually said. I didn’t get chance to read all 150 pages – I will – but I did get to read the first chapter, and I thought I’d frame some initial thoughts.

A fantastic aim

In the foreword Nicky Morgan states that ‘Access to a great education is not a luxury, but a right for everyone.” – Definitely a sentiment I agree with, and certainly ine James Kier Hardie would be proud to hear espoused by a conservative politician, but not one that has always been an obvious policy driver over the last six years.

Academisation and Local Authorities

The white paper continued in this way, setting out an idealistic vision, but in the early stages not much was said about how this would be achieved. There was a lot of talk on the forced academisation of all remaining local authority schools.

There were some qualifying statements about Local Authorities (LAs). The government are hoping to keep the current experience and envision those who run LAs to go and work for academy chains. This fits the Conservative ideology of small state, bigger private sector, and seems to hint that this ideology is the driving force.

They also claim that moving school control from LA control will give greater accountability, as those elected can’t are there to further the interests.pf their constituents and they apparently can’t do this when LAs control schools. This is a nonsensical argument and the reality is in fact the complete opposite. When schools are under local authority control they are run by officers of the local authority who are answerable to elected members. Thus they HAVE to respond swiftly and allay concerns. Academy chains have no such in built accountability to the elected members and hence the electorate.

LAs will focus their role on core functions. These will be – ensuring all have school places, acting as champions for children and families and ensuring the needs of the vulnerable are met. It’s the third one that worries me. Currently local authorities provide a great deal of support to vulnerable children through Ed Psychology, CAMHS, and a whole host of other services and agencies. In the new world of tiny LA budgets, how will they afford to keep up this level and meet this core function?

Teachers, Training and Research

The next section turned it’s attention to teachers. I was a little worried that this white paper seems to ignore the recruitment and retention crisis we are experiencing, and the idea of placing responsibility for accrediting teachers into heads hands worries me. I’m certain that for the vast majority this would be fine, but I have heard some terrible horror stories about bullying from heads, particularly in the primary sector, and to give more power to do this worries me.

There was an extremely positive line on ITT content though:

“We’ll ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers.

So no more VAK pushed on unsuspecting ITT students! This is part of a wider drive to get more teachers to engage with research and development a research based profession. This is an idea I am fully behind, but with the caveat that we need to include training on how to engage with research. Every class in every school is a different context. Just because research shows something works some places doesn’t mean it will work everywhere, there are no magic bullets, no snake oils. We can take ideas from research and try them, but we have to adapt them to our own contexts and be able to see when things are just not working.

There are my initial thoughts on the first chapter. Some positives, some worries, and some signs that we are in the process of full privatising our education system. What are your thoughts on the ideas mentioned here?

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