Monthly Archives: August 2015

It’s Not A Messiah Complex; It’s That Naughty Russell Brand

Despicable old me. Being stupid, I love earwigging the conversations of the clever, so I enjoyed a recent exchange between several people whom, I’m pretty sure, most would consider significantly above average in intelligence. With each of them holding at least two degrees, the discussion spiralled around the universities they’d attended – all reputable and established and, strikingly, only one a member of the original Russell Group. The remainder belonged to the, now dissolved, 1994 Group.

‘Russell Group’ has become the phrase du jour on the lips of ambitious sixth-formers, many of whom believe that the world affords a warmer welcome to the chronically flatulent than it does to non-RG graduates. And why wouldn’t they? Mindful that league tables record numbers of RG-bound leavers, plenty of schools have taken to scaring the bejaysus out of their students with tales of the manifold woes that will be heaped upon those who apply elsewhere. And thus are mythologies, engendered as much by the imaginative deficiencies of politicians as they are by reality, sustained – stories that, in part, explain why four of the ex-1994 Group universities attended by my acquaintances have, within the last couple of years, paid very sizeable membership fees to join t’other club.

As educators, we vaunt the importance of fact over prejudice, in the classroom and in policy-making. So, a couple of facts on the founding of the Russell Group. Named after the Hotel Russell, and not Great Uncle Bertrand, this self-selecting group only admitted members that were: a) research-led; b) affiliated with a medical school; and c) above a certain size.

And that, pretty much, was it.

A number of very credible, research-intensive universities that one might assume to have been pillars of the Russell Group were, in fact, not so: not because they lacked the academic chops but because of their student numbers and/or range of faculties. And, lo, the 1994 Group was born. Most British universities, incidentally, have belonged to neither association.

However, the belief persists that the Russell Group comprises top-flight universities only: the most leading institutions as opposed to just, well, leading ones. That’s certainly the public perception, the belief of all those students summarily dismissing (some superb) non-RG institutions as domains of the no-hoper, and the view of a political class that self-effacingly assumes the almae matres that spawned their own good selves to be bywords for excellence.

Two or three RG universities do, indeed, score consistently highly in national and global rankings, achieving top-ten places within both. The other member institutions, however, are largely within the top 200 globally – the top 350 in a couple of cases. As those experienced in the decorative crafts can attest, glitter migrates easily; rubbing shoulders with the scintillating is a pretty reliable way of embellishing one’s own lapels. Although I’m sure their mothers love them dearly, would it be entirely wide of the mark to suggest that some of the Russell Group’s universities have benefited from the branding-by-association that membership confers?

So, if it’s not necessarily a collection of the toppermost, what is the Russell Group? In short, it’s a protectionist body, whose other attraction is the clout it wields in lobbying for research funds. And, it has to be said, it is very successful at this, as most of the UK’s research grants end up in its hands. In a distribution of resources reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa, the 15% of UK universities that comprise the group are awarded roughly 75% of available funding. No surprise, then, that “68% of the UK’s very best (‘world leading’) research takes place in the Russell Group’s 24 universities”. That’s not just a pre-requisite for membership; it’s a consequence thereof.

Given these statistics, one could, perhaps, see the fervour with which some schools shepherd their students toward RG destinations as in the latter’s best interests. (Throw some industrial-strength cheating into the mix, amass the choicest teachers to write the applicants’ personal statements for them, and watch the offers roll in.) But the case remains that, in doing so, they also pander to, and perpetuate some, ill-informed prejudices: for, as unlikely as it may seem at times, parents and students often follow where schools lead.

At one end of the spectrum, this results in sixth-formers being actively discouraged from applying to excellent universities outside the group, even though these may be better attuned to their choices of degree subject and career aspirations. At the other end, we have situations such as that experienced by a former colleague at an ‘outstanding’ school. In charge of the careers curriculum, he was asked to ensure that the sixth-form destinations documented in the forthcoming school prospectus contained minimum proportions of Russell Group universities and entrants reading medicine or law. Or, to put it another way, he was asked to lie. He refused, the list appeared anyway and my colleague decided to become an ex-colleague.

Having taught in some highly-regarded schools, both state and private, I would have been delighted to hear of the very brightest students applying to fantastic universities outside the Russell Group. And, I was, often, because back then many of them did – having made their decisions with reference to subjects and relevant faculties, rather than to more nebulous notions of reputation or group affiliation. Just imagine the pattern trickling down: parents actively seeking out schools in the PiXL Club (‘Partners in eXceLlence’, apparently), assuming all of its members to be, well, eXceLlent. What else would they be?

So, blessed are those who get to be geeks. I’m glad they’re getting something: they have a hell of a time…


Master Or Servant?

Calm yourselves, fellowship. What follows is not a paean to Depeche Mode, those purveyors of Basildon bondage channelling their inner Blixa Bargelds through handfuls of tin tacks and an adjustable spanner. (The Man In Black’s version of ‘Personal Jesus’ is, however, a thing of dark beauty.) No, today we will be looking at industrial relations: the sort our begrimed ancestors enjoyed with The Man Who Sent Them Up The Chimneys.

The relationship between business and education flips and flops. When corporate types declare school-leavers unfit for purpose, however that is defined, hands are thrown aloft in Parliament and its second-home outposts in the media. Shortly thereafter come chorused demands, like the howls of the children of the night, that Something Be Done. So far, so masterful: education exists to service the needs of the economy as determined by business interests. If it doesn’t do so, the coalition of the trilling deems it a dud.

Business has often been characterised as the saviour of education. Like Henry Higgins bemoaning the womanliness of women, politicos from assorted points on the ideological spectrum have wondered aloud why head teachers can’t be more like business managers. Which is why successive governments have advocated fast-tracking the latter into school leadership, believing it will ensure that irksome institutions do as they are bid, and more ‘efficiently’. Although the line is a little blurred in this case, the idea that education’s Ygor needs to follow business’ master is still being encouraged.

Performance targets, audits, competitive bids, profits: all now the joists of modern education, installed by principals wielding MBAs in School Management like industrial sledgehammers. MBAs? I know one of this exalted breed, and his ability to map-read a spreadsheet like an educational satnav is astonishing. And about as reliable an indicator of the wisest direction in which to travel: there are holes where once stood walls. Ho hum. Einsturzende Neubaten.

Consider, however, the establishment of new schools. By sponsoring institutions, forging links with industry, embedding enterprising attitudes and skill-sets hitherto lacking in such lily-livered environments, the business world helps to turn around schools where every other intervention has failed. As we’ve been told. Repeatedly. In this respect, it is undoubtedly the servant of education.

Isn’t it?

Which is, presumably, the reason why, in some of the education systems our policy-makers seek to emulate, corporate sponsors ensure that their logos are scattered like garnish over the exercise books they subsidise. Or that their brand names feature prominently in textbook tasks. (“Eloise buys sixteen ROTTLES. Because they are so delicious, she eats three eighths of the ROTTLES on her way home. With how many ROTTLES is Eloise left?”) Not to harness the terrifying forces of pester power, you understand; simply to root otherwise abstract maths problems in the real world. Oh, and – perchance – to develop the next generation’s awareness of its consumer choices. One stone; many birds. And fewer teeth.

Unfortunately, as my unimpeachable example illustrates, these practices sometimes involve products not known for their inclusion on the lists of Good Things. It’s a recurrent theme, this one, if you care to look: schools, already well in the black, serving sub-standard fodder to reduce costs further; packed lunches being banned to force families – including those a mere pfennig above the qualifying threshold for free meals – to buy reconstituted mush from the school canteen. (In one such establishment, staff on lunchtime duty were instructed to relieve students of any food brought from home and fling it in the bin. To their credit, most took, instead, to slipping canteen trays under packed lunches so that they appeared to be school-bought.)

Meanwhile, in some of the same schools, principals take delivery of the finest single malts available. That’s also a bit of theme, if you care to look. Or are allowed to see. A young chap of my acquaintance has just elected to leave an academy where the annual salary bill for the senior team is close to a – self-determined – million pounds, courtesy of a head teacher on £320,000 and six deputy or assistant heads whose average earnings exceed £100,000. Throw in the principal’s wife, promoted to a head of department role on a salary of £80,000, and I think that’s what they call being ‘bang on the money’.

Should you (aspire to) be the type of leader feted by the DfE, feel free to acquaint yourself with other ways of boosting the zeros in your account. Why not set up a nice little earner on school premises, say, making use of its equipment and land? Register yourself as a director and you’ll be chortlng all the way to Coutts. Alternatively, treat the schools in your chain as captive customers for the services provided by your other businesses. Encourage staff and parents to avail themselves of your wares by including discounts in their contracts or home-school agreements. Consultancy, widgets, soft furnishings – the possibilities are endless!

That, of course, presupposes that staff have both the time and the disposable income to shop at your emporia, even with its promised reductions. In many academies, the right to alter terms of employment has resulted in significantly longer school days. Elsewhere, last year’s favours have become this year’s job descriptions, with after-school and holiday teaching now expected/demanded alongside ever-increasing paperwork. Tapping into the zeitgeist, Andre 320,000 has displayed his well-developed sense of humour by instructing teachers to deliver weekend lessons as well. Unpaid. As are all such increases in actual hours. And why replace departing staff, when their workloads can be added to those of the poor sods who have little choice but to stay? With the ultimate sanction of trumped-up dismissal at one’s disposal, the possibilities are doubly endless!!

Some final tips: stuff your school to its groaning seams with statemented children and those receiving free school meals; gratefully receive the extra cash that comes with them; then spend a smidge of it on something vaguely educational, while trousering the rest and fabricating some accounts that show the bairns receiving the benefit. You know it makes business sense because, after all, Everything Counts.

So, whether you see yourself as a master or servant of education, take heed, beloved magnate. We are all seeking Some Great Reward from our philanthropy. But, if you find that you Just Can’t Get Enough, it may be time to rethink your strategies, in order to Get The Balance Right. After all, People Are People, not profits; forget that and you may find that they won’t conveniently Leave In Silence.

Trust me. It’s just A Question of Time.