Tag Archives: Education Policy

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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Filed under Education, Politics, UK, UK Politics

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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Filed under Center right, Education, UK