Category Archives: Education

This Gove Grand Conspiracy

Michael Gove is not universally popular.  Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon.  This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings.  Oh yes he is.

Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan.   The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets.  They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies.  This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose.    The evidence is out there.  Join-the-dots.  The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate.  The man must be stopped.  Right?

Oh come on.  Get a grip.   Gove is no puppet-master.  Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders.  But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight.  Take the playing-fields storm.  Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’?     Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20.  Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie.  It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.

I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring  and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play.  This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense.  Don’t forget  Academies enter exactly the same exams.   Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables.  If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny.  Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver.  That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.

Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves.  It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track.  Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January.  I took mine over 20 years ago.   Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.

That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine  issue in the way students  had their expectations managed.  And the students themselves are blameless in that.  Had the change not  come ‘in year’ and  been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided.   Conspiracy? No.  Cock-up?  A little bit.  British policy development  was ever thus.

I’m no blind Gove fan-boy.  I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong.  It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now.  The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow.   Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them!  As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.

A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of  praising success.  Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time.   There are  schools out  there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge.  You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%.   They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves.  This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it.  And that is no bad thing.

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Tuition Fees D-Day: Final Thoughts

There will not be a  single Coalition MP went into politics to triple tuition fees.   Yet here we are.  A depressing truth of wielding power is often-times the only responsible choices boil down to picking ‘the least worst thing’.  I wont repeat in any depth my own sad feelings on today’s vote – you can see them here.

In all the noise we’ve had on the subject you can break down the core theme into two parts:

  • The fact of a raise in the cap on fees three-fold  (Boo)
  • The funding arrangements for their payment (Yay)

The removal of the cap stinks for everyone who will be impacted.   I have two kids to think about and the figures terrify me.  That said, given the nation is skint the realistic choices were always to either:

  1. have fewer people go to university (when it was free for all we only sent 10% of the population)
  2. keep aspiring to allow 50% of the population to benefit from higher education but revisit funding to ensure we can afford it.
  3. no change, keep the current funding arrangements regardless and keep adding to the structural deficit

Only 1 & 2 above were realistic (unless we wish to end up like Ireland).  We chose 2 (as would Labour).    And here we are.  Even the right choices can have unpopular consequences.

Which then brings us to the arrangements for payments.  One of the things that has got lost in the debate due to the understandable focus on the headline price increase is the new repayment regime.  This is a great leap forward from what we currently have in place.  There is an excellent website here which covers this in depth and debunks an number of the myths floating about.

Away from the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation the other thing that fascinates me about today’s vote is the Lib Dem position.  They really are between a rock and a hard place.  As I noted last week they need this Coalition to work.  One of their fundamental beliefs is Proportional Representation.  PR would make coalition government the norm not the exception.  Coalition requires compromise.  They either stick to their coalition agreement, vote with the Government and take an electoral beating else they pander to the public noise and surrender any future argument on the viability of governing under PR.   It must be a nightmare choice for them.   I’m hopeful that Clegg will carry them over the line in choosing to do the right thing over the popular thing but have no doubt that if an election was called tomorrow they would be wiped out as a result of this issue.  This means if the vote does pass then they will need distance between today and the next election so that they have positive achievements to point to as counterbalance to today’s resentment.  For this reason, IF the fees vote passes today I am more confident than ever that this Coalition will go the full distance – any Lib Dem recovery will depend upon it.


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Student Tuition Fees: The Weird Thing

When tuition fees were introduced in Labour’s first year in office I actually marched on Parliament in protest.  At the time I had just completed my Masters and was clinging on for one last year as my University’s Student Union President (still the most fun ‘job’ I have ever had).

Every press release I sent out, every letter of protest that was written, every person who gave me the opportunity to bend-their-ear got the same message.  It seemed to me to be self-evident that the introduction of student fees could only:

  • Lead to lower take-up of Higher Ed across the board
  • More worryingly – lead to even greater social exclusion for those from poorer backgrounds
  • Lead to University closures and a diminishing of Britain’s academic standing

The only crumbs of comfort I could think of was that if students were paying they would become far more fussy and demanding which would drive up the standard of tuition.

Here’s the weird thing:  I’ve never been more wrong with a set of predictions in my life.  The take up of higher education went up and up.  This includes an increase in take-up from people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Far from closures the number of higher education institutions and overall capacity increased.  I was wrong on every count.  The anecdotal evidence I have is that even my certainty that tuition standards and one-on-one teaching time would improve was  off.  I still find just how wrong I was quite sobering.

I obviously mention this now, because with today’s announcement that fees will increase to between £6,ooo and £9,000 per year the current crop of Student Union Presidents up and down the land are making the very same points as the once fresher-faced me.

Despite being proved spectacularly wrong on this issue in the ‘90s, to be honest I am still as nervous this time around.  I can’t sit here all smug that I got through the system with fees paid for and a maintenance grant because  I now have to worry about how my own two kids will afford the opportunities I had.  At some point we surely must hit the tipping point?  There has to be a cost that will put people off?  The headline £27k for a degree before living costs does sound overwhelming.

This prompted me to dig a little deeper into the detail of what is proposed.  As is so often the case the reality of the detail isn’t quite as alarming as the screaming headline – but it is still scary.  The proposals have students only repaying their loans at 9% of their income at a real rate of interest when they earn £21,000, up to inflation plus 3% for those earning £41,000 or more.   Any outstanding loans are written off after 30 years.  If you don’t end up in employment, you don’t pay anything back.  In terms of the technicalities of repayment and pressure to repay these proposals are actually a step forward from the current arrangements – though of course the overall amount to be repaid is much higher – but a step forward nonetheless.  A kind of ‘no-win, no fee’ arrangement.

It is still a whopping burden though.  I really do pity the kids who start life with that kind of debt, on top of already silly marginal tax rates to pay for the excesses of their parents’ generation.

Of course, Labour will oppose these moves.  That’s the nature and job of opposition.  There is no need to put forward an alternative, you can just yell ‘nay’.  The media will ignore that it was the Labour Government (actually Mandelson) who commissioned the Browne Report in 2009 that led to these changes.  In many ways this is history repeating itself.   In 1996 the then Conservative Government appointed Ron Dearing to do an ‘independent’ report knowing full well the recommendations that Blair and Blunkett would inherit and which led to the first tuition fees.  This time Mandelson and G. Brown knew full well what would be recommended by Lord Browne and that whoever won would have to go with it.  One silver lining for the loser of this last election was always going to be not having to catch and deal with being lobbed this particular ticking grenade.

The Coalition have actually watered down Browne’s recommendations a bit.  There is a cap on fees (albeit a quite high one), and there is more money for bursaries for the poor and early repayment levies so that the richer folk can’t get out of paying their share by paying off their loan early.

It is what it is.  The choice was always either to revisit student funding or cut back on HE provision.  Access to Higher Ed benefits the whole of society and so it was the right choice to revisit funding.

The changes are necessary but still depressing.  All I can do is hope that the weird thing happens again and that effects of student financing policy continue to be subject to counter-intuitive economic freakery that prove me, and all those earnest fresh-faced student union presidents, totally wrong.

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Gove’s Nightmare Week – A Lesson For The Coming Months

Michael Gove had, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable week.  I can understand the frustration and rage that schools in Sandwell must have felt thinking  their new build project had a green light to find out the next day they did not.  Over the past three years I have grown used to such emotions as either the Government or the LEA decide they are going to do one thing for the future of the School where I am Chair of Governors, announce it to the press, and then change their minds.  It’s not fair on staff, teachers, parents or pupils.   I had hoped that such cock-ups would end with the new Government, but the week’s events show they have not.  This was an open goal for Gove’s many naysayers and so in school report terms he ‘must do better’.

Gove did at least give an object lesson in Ministerial accountability. He will not personally have drawn up the detailed list that was released – that will have been delegated to junior officials.  Nevertheless, they report to him and the list was being released in his name.  After thirteen years of a ‘never apologise, never explain’ attitude from Labour Ministers it was refreshing to see someone stand up in the Chamber and say that ‘the buck stops with me – my mistake – I take accountability – I am sorry’.   Good though it is to see genuine contrition when something goes wrong I would still rather be able to say that this Government are better administrators not just better apologisers than the last one.  This is Gove’s first strike.  But he must not allow it to deter him from pressing on.

The worst thing Gove can do now is to retreat with a bloody nose.  He has to learn from the experience and stick with his reform agenda.  One of the first things he has got to do to quieten the ‘noise’ is make it clear what mechanisms for capital spending in schools are going to replace the BSF Program.  Nothing quite encapsulates the mismatch between’s Labour’s laudable ambition and its lack of capacity, capability and means to deliver than the bloated way ‘Building Schools for the Future’ was muddling along.  The program needed killing and doing so was always going to cause upset to those whose hopes had been cynically played with.  That said there will still be demands for capital expenditure on Schools in the coming years – and in certain cases this will mean rebuilds – not because they would be ‘nice-to-have’ but because they are ‘must-have’.  Gove needs to be clear the level of funding – however low – available for this and a streamlined process to fairly prioritise the release of funds.

With a wider perspective my fear now is that Ministers will have watched what happened to Gove and fear what will happen when they make what knowing fans of ‘Yes Minister’ call ‘Bold’ moves.  To get the country out of the mess ‘Bold’ moves are exactly what is needed.  There are so many unhelpful dynamics at play:

  • Quangos and Civil Servants that the administration has inherited, like it or not, are crucial to Ministers ability to deliver.   Their reason for being, their way of life and their empires are under threat as we try to draw back-in the State machine.  There are unlikely to be many supportive stakeholders in these organisations.  As Gove has seen a Minister can find himself at their mercy; either they chose not to play with a straight bat and wittingly causing mischief or they unwittingly display incompetence.  Either way the minister is harmed and their ability to implement their agenda is diminished.
  • Every tough decision the Coalition has yet made has revealed real twitchiness from the left of the Lib Dems.   This will get much worse when the implications of the spending review begin to hit home.  Clegg has a monumental battle ahead to keep his own team onside long enough for us to see the job through.
  • The advantage of opposition – you only have to talk rather than ‘do’ – necessary difficult choices sadly make open goals in the sound bite news cycle. Labour will understandably exploit this – and it will put more pressure on the Government.

The lesson for Gove and every other new Minister is that they need good supporters around them at the moment to help them hold their nerve.  They know what needs doing.   They must act for the good of the country rather than the good of their careers.  The right thing to do is not always the popular thing to do and the essence of leadership is driving on with that in mind.  They need to look around them and figure out quickly who within their extended teams are really working against them or not up to the job?  Then they need to be brutal and replace them.  This is no time to go wobbly.

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New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference

Yesterday I attended the New Schools Network/Centre Forum Conference at the Commonwealth Club in central London.  There was cross-party representation looking at the big issues on school reform whoever wins the next election.  There was also a sample of guests from other countries to share their experiences of similar journeys.  I’ll not bore you with the reason why I was there – I suspect that will be a whole blog post in its own right soon.  Nor will I summarise what the New Schools Network is all about – you can find out all about them here.

What was interesting for me was listening to the three keynote speakers.  We had (Baroness) Sally Morgan from Labour, David Laws from the Lib Dems and Michael Gove from the Conservatives.  There was a surprising amount of consensus between the three.  I don’t think I am misrepresenting any of the speakers if I pick out the following common themes:

  • The Academy Programme has broadly been a force for good.  As with any programme there are known exceptions but they should not distract from the overall picture.
  • Whoever wins we will see a development/evolution of the thinking that went into Academy approach in the way we consider new schools
  • Whoever wins we can expect to see more disparate groups – including possibly ‘for-profit’ organisations and more parent-led collectives – joining the roster of providers
  • School Autonomy is a good thing.  Nobody on the panel said it directly but the implicit flip-side to this is that Local Authority meddling can be a hinderance to good school governance.

The disagreements between the parties were more around the implementation details than the ‘big idea’ of letting more schools run themselves.

The thing that really struck me though was Sally Morgan’s seeming reluctance to press ahead with new schools unless the capital was identified to support them with best-in-class building provision.  She hated the idea of schools opening in ‘converted office buildings where children cannot enjoy the richness of the broad curriculum that only a properly equipped school can offer’.   This bugged me at the time, and having reflected on it for 24 hours it bugs me even more now.  It is as if Labour believe that you cannot possibly be solving a problem unless you hurl money at it.  Her argument boils down to that she would rather have kids in adequate buildings so they can have a wide curriculum albeit with the crumby teaching, poor leadership and sapped morale that is present in failing schools; rather than have a narrower curriculum in less ideal temporary buildings that do at least have quality teaching, strong school leadership and a sense of mission and purpose in the institution.   Actually Sally, I would rather my children went to the second and how dare you and your lot deny me that choice.  Quality of teaching is far more important than the shiny new facilities.  Don’t get me wrong – ideally we aim for having both, but if the capital isn’t there now then let’s just get the quality of teaching and leadership up and get moving – the shiny new toys can follow as institutions start to prove their success.  Gove gets this.  You could see him bursting to just get on and get started.  So whilst there may be consensus on the overall direction of educational reform, there is difference about the appetite for the pace and depth of it.  This whole area is too important to pussyfoot about with for fear of hurting teaching union sensibilities.  My vote is going to the chap with the hunger and sense of urgency to tackle this head on: Michael  Gove.

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The Aptitude Myth: Why Reform are wrong with their 14-16 GCSE & Schools Thinking

I’m a guarded fan of the think tank ‘Reform’.   They’re of a centre right-ish bent and their mission is to apply their philosophy to radical constructive reform of public services.  In the main I consider myself ‘on their side’.   Therefore, it was disappointing when I came across this report containing their latest thinking on education.  To save you reading the gist is that every pupil in the UK should have to sit ‘5 rigorous academic GCSEs’.  Anything else apparently sells students short.  They charge opponents who say not everyone is academically minded as party to what they call ‘the capability myth’.  They’re convinced if taught properly everyone has it within themselves to pass 5 ‘academic’ GCSEs and that is what the nation should aspire too.

The sound-bite from the piece is that “capability myth” bit.  It is quite a cutting phrase to throw back at anyone who disagrees with them – as if the opponent is party to a grand conspiracy to hold kids back.  I’m sure they were chuffed to bits when they coined it because it sounds so withering. But I don’t buy it.

Let me throw a phrase back at them – they are peddling the ‘aptitude myth’.  Their approach denies that some people flourish outside an academic environment and are crushed within one.  They condemn these people to a childhood of being convinced they’re ‘thick’ and doomed to fail in society.  They will drive these kids to truancy and the one chance to get these kids a good outcome (the school years) is wasted.

The interesting thing is that the research and observations they make in the report are bang on the money.  It is just the conclusions they then draw that are wide of the mark.  It is certainly true that the old benchmark target of 5 GCSE’s in any subject encouraged schools to put kids into lessons that were less academic.  Vocational qualifications with an equivalence of 5 GCSEs for the purpose of targets proliferated.   As Chair of Governors of a School condemned with the National Challenge label this is something I witnessed firsthand and arguably condoned.  In just two years we lifted the students getting 5 GCSE’s (or equivalent) from 18% to 64%.  Some of this improvement was down to better discipline in the school and some to better teaching.  Some of this improvement was also down to putting kids into classes aligned with their aptitude and ambition.  It is predictable and cheap to represent this as ‘dumbing down’.  These kids are not kids who wanted to go to University.  Now, we could have a whole separate debate on if the fact they don’t aspire to go to uni in itself is a failure –  however, they at least now have qualifications that will get them into further education where their vocational experience serves them well.  They are less likely to end up as the NEET type that Labour obsesses about (youngsters not in education, employment or training) than they would have been.

The year we made this progress the school league table benchmark was changed.  It became 5 GCSEs including both English and Maths.  To my mind, even though the change meant that ‘my’ school didn’t shoot up the tables as we would have, the new benchmark is spot on.  Maths and English are core building block skills regardless of what you wish to do, and the level set for a C grade at GCSE is the level you would like to think every adult could or should attain.  The same ‘core building block’ argument cannot be said of history, geography or even the sciences that presumably Reform are lumping in the ‘academically rigorous GCSE category.  These subjects are undoubtedly ‘nice-to-have’, possibly even ‘great-to-have’ but they are not ‘must-have’.

If we can get kids out of secondary school with 5 GCSEs including English and maths we WILL have genuinely improved life chances and outcomes.  We are better serving a youngster who leaves school with English and Maths GCSE and a pass in NVQ Information Technology, than we are a student with a pass in English and Maths and fails in History, Geography and Science.  In fact if the former pupil is enthused and motivated by the IT then we are probably still better off with that as an outcome than if we managed to scrape the same student a pass in 5 ‘academic’ GCSE’s but had them hating school and desperate to leave the education system at the first opportunity.  The 5 GCSE’s including English and Maths is, in my view, the right measure – and one I have no problem in being held to account to – or in striving to improve.

The one thing we do need to be wary of though is in allowing the acceptance of different ‘aptitudes’ to lazily drift into allocation of educational paths by social background.  i.e. the assumption that all working class kids will only have an aptitude for vocational studies, and all those nice middle class kids will all be academic.  You only have to look at Prince Harry’s exam results to realise that even with the best education that money can buy, some kids do not have an academic bent.   We absolutely do need to make sure that however we structure the education system those kids from the poorer areas who DO have an academic aptitude are identified and get the chance to follow that path.

I am not trying to make the case here for a system of secondary modern, and grammar schools.  That had its time and served very many, very well.   However, it made the call on an individual’s direction too early at 11. Under the right model you need not make the call until 14 and even then you can put in the flexibility to help course-correct (figuratively and literally!) if a mistake in choosing options been made.

The nut can be cracked with sensible setting within schools – and the confidence to share facilities between institutions so that as broad a curriculum as possible is on offer to all children regardless of the school they ended up in due to  accidents of geography and their parents background.  It does require a new, more adaptable way of thinking, but it will banish the damage that would be caused by either the ‘capability myth’ or the ‘aptitude myth’ that educational policy wonks on both side of the debate seem happy to inflict to prove their point.  So for this one Reform: stand at the back of class – must do better.

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