Tag Archives: academies

There’s Nothing Quite Like Grammar

Not so long ago, a former colleague was honoured by Her Madge for services to education, thereby joining the swelling ranks of similarly-lauded academy bosses. I remember my fellow faculty member from Back When as highly intelligent, thoughtful and measured. These days, she not only calls for the academisation of all state schools to be accelerated; she also would like her particular trust to be the “sole provider of education” in its part of the country. Perhaps these ambitions are the result of exercising the aforementioned thoughtfulness. Or, perhaps, they’re an indication that being a Head can do funny things to one’s, um, head.

Still, I’m relieved to see that my old workmate isn’t (yet) among the backers of Parents and Teachers for Excellence – a new campaign group dedicated, presumably, to stopping Parents and Teachers for Rubbish in its tracks. Founded by the absent-minded Rachel De Souza, whose unerring capacity to mislay important e-mails continues to demonstrate that there really is nothing like a Dame, PTE’s council consists largely of education’s Illuminati: those Blob-phobic advocates of academies and free schools whom I shall dub ‘The Plop’ (Perfectly legitimate over-payments) in a spirit of bantz-inspired reciprocity.

Thus does PTE enjoy close links with several Tory-endorsed MATs, one of which is probably coming to a school near you. Indeed, for a group that describes itself as “strictly non-partisan”, PTE is strikingly hand-in-G(l)ove with certain figures within the Gove-rning party. It is, therefore, unsurprising that, despite the organisation’s name, and with no discernible trace of irony, CEOs and erstwhile political aides significantly outnumber the parents and teachers on its advisory board. At several of the affiliated trusts, so I’m told, it takes thermal imaging and a ouija board to locate a parent or teacher at governors’ meetings.

PTE’s unique selling point is its Damascene focus on what happens in the classroom. Autonomy, knowledge, testing, culture and discipline are all name-checked, before being redefined as either dull-as-ditchwater metrics or Things That No-one In Education Ever Thought Of Before We Did. PTE also seeks our financial support. Indeed, pecuniary, rather than consultative, donation appears to be the main form of parent and teacher involvement envisaged. That and cheerleading – just like all those parent-governors who, having been relieved of their oversight roles by various trusts, have been invited to act as spin doctors local community liaison for the same.

Proclaiming its aversion to further structural change, PTE’s timing is telling, being launched so soon after the announcement that grammar schools are to be reintroduced. With the wisdom of this proposal already being critiqued across the political spectrum, the need for PTE to throw its weight behind the opposition is puzzling, until one considers that grammar schools – or the idea of them, anyway – could pose a serious threat to the unwritten tenets by which many academy trusts are run. Hence the strong whiff of fear emanating from the spaces between the lines of PTE’s manifesto.

It’s an open secret that many academy trusts select students covertly, accepting initially comprehensive intakes in the knowledge that problematic students can be managed out (with repeated encouragement to leave), or managed in (with a combination of industrial-strength cheating and blind eyes towards misdemeanours). Explicit selection by ability potentially narrows the intake of institutions that are not grammar schools, thereby leaving academies in this position with two options: to risk deleterious drops in results; or to step up the cheating and be vulnerable to exposure thereof. Academies do, admittedly, have considerable freedoms to rewrite contracts. Nonetheless, subjecting students, parents and staff to pre-emptive ‘confidentiality’ orders is an enormous, if not impossible, ask. A gag is a gag, even if available in the colours of the school uniform.

There is, of course, another possibility – one that converges with the fact that my first response to the grammar school proposal did not involve the usual concerns about late bloomers and the benefits of an academically-diverse student body. Nor did it focus on the issues May’s plans would need, but have yet, to address: the extent to which these schools would be under local authority control; how they would be funded; their place within an academisation programme, to whose continuation Justine Greening has already stated her commitment. Rather, it was a simple and practical question: who the Friar Tuck is going to work in these schools?

Supporters of grammars past cite their success as motors of social mobility, pointing to a generation of now-public figures whose educations enabled them to transcend modest origins. Why their schools were so apparently effective is a complex issue, but one factor may – must? – have been the calibre of teachers. If so, the extent to which new grammar schools will be served by current staffing policies is questionable. It has be when highly competent teachers, some of whom have worked their socks off to career-switch into education, decide that life is too short and precious to waste in environments hell-bent on breaking most of their occupants. And off they go, over the hills, with nary a backward glance.

In an ideal world, teachers would bristle with skills: excellent subject knowledge; pedagogic nous; that ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, between hard bark and heart-wood; humour; resilience; self-reflexivity; organisation; the magnanimity to see the human being within, even when it’s convincingly disguised as a gobby little ****; tenacity/stubbornness… On and on it goes – all of it, necessary; none, on its own, sufficient. If new grammar schools – heck, any schools – are to succeed, these are the employees they will need. But off they go, over the hills, etc. Because, if truth be told, we inhabit a time and place in which many education leaders regard essentials as optional extras, if not unjustifiably expensive fripperies. Just ask the historians reinventing themselves as physicists at a fortnight’s notice, or the caretakers now preparing to teach exam classes.

Certain academy chains have become well-known for misplacing experienced staff as deftly as De Souza does incriminating evidence, while affording unqualified, supply and overseas-trained teachers a hearty welcome. Or, at least, they do for as long as is convenient (i.e. up to the point when recruits think it might be reasonable to have a kip at night or, in the case of OTTs, when the £35,000-minimum-income rule for immigrants becomes law – whichever happens sooner). If aspiring grammar schools have to demonstrate quality and stability of staffing, many academy trusts will be found severely wanting. True, they have the option of establishing selective schools within their chains . But even that could involve diverting some of the loot currently under trustees’ unfettered command in the direction for which it was intended: away from expense accounts and ‘consultancy’ fees, and into the service of students’ education. That’ll be fewer plops, then.

And so, back to PTE – a campaign that is as much, if not more, against curbing any privileges and impunities currently enjoyed by academy trusts, as it is for…well…anything. Parents and Teachers for Excellence is, par excellence, Orwellian blackwhite in action, when what parents and teachers define as excellence is what trust overlords –  in whose service this organisation, in truth, exists – dismiss as so much nonsense and damned tomfoolery. Because, after all, what would parents and teachers know about education?

Brave new world.


Fads Army

One of the things to which I’m looking forward this year is Dad’s Army. Toby Jones as Cpt Mainwaring – aka Mr Bump(tious) – will, I hope, help to fill the space left by The Detectorists although his, surprisingly, is not the character to whom I’m most frequently likened. That dubious honour goes to Pvt Frazer, Walmington-on-Sea’s own memento mori, because looking on the dim side’s a hard habit to break. If you hear someone intoning “You see? YOU SEE?”, as Cassandra’s unheeded predictions of carnage are realised, it’s probably me. The template for my default facial expression was set by Munch. I have a hitherto unadmitted soft spot for The Audience’s ‘A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed’ – a title that is now the motto on my fantasy coat of arms (gules a chevron sable between three Eeyores rampant). So, with 2016 having, just about, emerged from its drunken New Year fug, now is the time to look through the bottom of a one-tenth-empty glass at what else it threatens.

First up is the possibility that more erstwhile acquaintances will receive Honours from ministers hiding in Big Lizzie’s skirt pleats. This is neither idle boast, nor daydream: only last year, a former colleague, who has spent more syllables than sense propping up the academisation programme, was ennobled for her efforts. A quick glance down the latest list of recipients reveals a disproportionate number of similar pedigree being ushered through the door marked ‘For Services To Education’, which looks not at all like the one whose plaque reads ‘For Services To Ideology/Party Coffers/ My Bank Balance’. Yes, Mr Cameron, rewarding their complicity altruism asserts – again – academies’ inherent superiority; but, when you’re considering a private education for your son, are you sure that’s wise, sir?

Next, the new Year 6 Maths tests, which will focus specifically on multiplication tables. As we know, prescriptivism is often inversely proportional to potential rigour: mark schemes, for instance, tend to be carved into stone tablets when those with little subject or teaching knowledge – and, by the by, attractively low price tags – are contracted to adjudicate on others’ exam performance. The evident assumption underlying the tests is that primary school staff do not, or cannot be trusted to, check understanding of basic concepts. And so it may be, if they have been delivered by a redeployed passer-by (“Vacancy…Milkman? Never mind.. .Aaand…Action!”), paid on the ‘unqualified’ scale, trained to follow another’s script and summarily hurled in front of a class. All those minutely detailed lesson plans, uploaded at 23.59 every Sunday by teachers “for monitoring”, were petards by which staff retention was hoist.

Retention? Ah yes…I knew the word many years ago though, if it were to walk into the DfE now, it would almost certainly find itself being eyeballed like a Hun in a seaside town. Thanks to an increasingly unsustainable work-capability balance, supported by impossible targets and predetermined judgements, educators are jumping off every rung of the ladder and running for the exit like fugitives from mustard gas. Until recently, this may not have been an especially pressing cause for concern: a reasonable supply of student teachers, treated more as the latter than the former from the off, seemed guaranteed by the proliferation of on-the-job training routes. However, with many ITT providers failing to recruit in sufficient numbers (including the highly publicised but little-bothered-with Troops to Teachers scheme) we may yet be subjected to more emetic advertising campaigns starring future Dames and Sirs.

Still, every cloud has a colourful lining, even if it does consist largely of carcinogens: just think of the savings to be made. And so, to a final enticing prospect, as Nicky Morgan urges the STRB to endorse salary scale demotion. Already a reality for job-changers, thanks to the abolition of pay portability, this development would enable head teachers to cut, unilaterally and unaccountably, the salaries of existing staff – something that will, I suspect, become not uncommon, what with one person’s misery-monger being another’s soothsayer. A number of schools have even tried to convince retired ex-staff that teaching for no remuneration at all, under the guise of volunteering, may be a viable way to spend their twilight years: “Unpaid? Goodness, no; we call it ‘funpaid’ here.” Thankfully, responses so far have tended towards the sort that they really wouldn’t like up ‘em.

As education policy is driven almost entirely by the kind of cutbacks the Grim Reaper might undertake if paid by results, I have an idea. Let’s do away with salaries altogether and remodel teaching as a form of compulsory National Service. No more expensive recruitment campaigns or worries about teacher shortages. Less of that pesky red tape and workforce arsiness. Yes, staff would be unqualified, but don’t panic about that: it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind these days. Best of all, imagine the hours that could be spent playing with martial imagery. Oh, you’ve done that already.

My only concern is that it might never happen, so let’s suggest it to Nick Gibb who, I’m sure, will love the idea. Stupid boy.



Just Enough For The City

Once were schools with reputations so parlous, they made national headlines. Some were intent on reviving the ancient sports of tossing the chalk/desk/teacher out of the window. Others were the sorts of places locals would pass at speed, bags and briefcases clutched a little closer. And then there were catchment areas in which GPs regularly issued scan referrals, lest a patient’s internal organs had been pick-pocketed during a moment of distraction near the school gates.

Once the stuff of undercover-documentary dreams, a number of these schools have managed to reverse their fortunes – some so comprehensively that they are now the institutions of choice for those whose parents would rather have lived in discarded crisp packets, than send their offspring there. One infamously riotous establishment is now a national beacon of behaviour management, and rightly so: unambiguous boundaries; systems of rewards and sanctions; and, crucially, their swift and consistent application. Nothing revolutionary here, but teeming kite-marks fly from its turrets.

In common with other schools of its ilk, this one is located in an inner-city area and serves a relatively deprived local population. For their ability to support their intake through behavioural challenges, I have no qualms about recommending several of these places. So too for their dedication to picking up those who have fallen behind, and helping them to make up some of the lost ground. In fact, my only real reservation is that phrases like ‘inner-city kids’, often bandied around schools with benign intentions, sometimes translate into a paucity of expectation.

About two years ago, an ex-colleague applied for a job at an institution that had remade itself impressively, its head extracting it from its own arson attack. She’d already visited the school, observed lessons and helped Year 9 students to engage with some literary techniques to a depth not addressed in their lessons. Lightbulbs were illuminated over young heads and the students she’d worked with were genuinely grateful. On the night before the interview, Emily was sent details of the lesson she was to deliver: an introduction to a new author for a Year 8 class. A Powerpoint display was obligatory, and technicians would be on hand to help with any other techno whizz-bangery she’d like to use.

Emily didn’t get the job, and is the first to admit the correctness of that decision. By mid-morning on interview day, she believed strongly that another candidate, already filling a very similar post in her current workplace, was the best fit for both the position and the school. Despite her earlier visit, Emily’s visceral sense, that the place was not for her, grew throughout the day. Regardless, she found herself in the last two, cacking herself at the prospect of being offered the job and envying the candidates who had already been sent home. She sucked in her cheeks and tried not to look relieved when told that she’d been unsuccessful.

The main bar to her employment (or the one that could be admitted) was the lesson Emily delivered which, she was regretfully informed, had been “somewhat challenging”. No shit, Sherlock: that does tend to happen when teaching something unfamiliar. Or worth knowing. I’d looked at her lesson plan and resources before the interview: fifty minutes on inference, starting with visual texts, progressing to a grippingly elliptical opening chapter and finishing with the production of a piece of writing. The students gave her a round of applause at the end of her lesson. If they’d found it challenging, it hadn’t, apparently, been off-puttingly so – not least because of her careful monitoring and prompt intervention. The coda to the lesson feedback was that “These are inner-city kids”, with no further elaboration of the statement’s significance.

Syntax is important here: there are young people who live in inner-city areas; and there are inner-city children, spoken of as if who they are is determined by the place from which they come. I’d like to dismiss Emily’s experience as a one-off. Direct experience, including the euphemisms of colleagues and line-managers, tells me I can’t: “We don’t mention ___ – this is an urban school…”; ” We don’t teach ____ – these kids are from a council estate…”; “ We don’t think it’s appropriate, given our catchment area…”. Little wonder, then, that Jack, a fiercely bright young man, also had one of the most astonishingly high truancy rates I’ve ever encountered. I shan’t deny that a couple of issues at home had an impact on his absences. But not one of those was alleviated or addressed by boring an intelligent student out of his wits at school.

Jack’s situation is, perhaps, a predictable consequence of well-meaning but misguided assumptions about home cultures. In our desire to evince our understanding of their circumstances, we sometimes run the risk of impeding our students’ life chances in the fullest sense of that phrase. When allied with the hoop-jumping and hurdle-clearing that now shape almost everything about contemporary schools, the outcomes may be statistically desirable but epistemologically toxic. Removing students from courses they find interesting, that may be relevant to their career aspirations, and forcing them to spend extra time on core subjects in which they are already achieving well, is more about number-crunching than it is about their best interests. ‘Value added’ achieved by removing value, if you will.

The school where Emily was interviewed only allowed top-set students to take GCSE English Literature. It did, however, foster a culture of reading among all students, with staff-nominated texts ranging from War Horse to the backs of the crisp packets that local grandparents once inhabited. Lest the challenge send the students down the path known to Spinal Tap’s drummers, it was deemed safest to stick with what you knew they knew. In an act of genuine grace, Emily was told that she’d be welcome, if she wanted to, to spend some time in the school, observing its workings.

So that she could learn more about inner-city kids.

Paying The Piper

Caveat emptor. Many years ago, I bought a jacket edged with contrast piping. A tasteful cream-and-black number, like the Guinness I’d evidently over-imbibed before buying it, it still hangs untouched at the back of a closet.

Perhaps I should give it an airing after all as I was, clearly, ahead of the curve. You see, where I live, pretty much every school has gone for piping in a big way. My garb was an object lesson in the madness of neutrality. The schools favour combinations of a different kind: sober dominant colours (black or grey) and contrasting trims in primary hues. The polysemic potential here is clear. ‘We mean business,’ perhaps, ‘but we know how to have fun. Sometimes.’ How about ‘A Community of Individuality’. Or, maybe, ‘Ex Pluribus, Unus’. On which point, have you any idea how much self-control it took to leave some of those vowels untouched? And yes, I am a poet and I do know it.

The proliferation of piping is one index of the speed at which schools are being taken over by corporate-style organisations, advocating corporate-style apparel and, possibly, corporate-style curricula. My heart sinks a bit when I see the bairns crammed into the chicken shops at 5.30pm – allowed, finally, to clock out of the overdesigned buildings in which voluntary activities are compulsorily timetabled (eh?).

But my heart sinks further when I contemplate photos of staff in the same schools’ corporate-style brochures. Vitreous of gaze, they are often pictured in the thrall of some jazz-handing educational guru or other, who presides over the assembly with the charisma of a cult leader. I admit freely that I scatter dramatic licence over my posts like a guest chucking brown rice at a macrobiotic’s nuptials; and so, at first glance, the Maharishi-Moon-Koresh parallels seem wide of the mark. However, omit the sex, drugs, weddings and death – ain’t no teacher I know that has time for any of the above – and what you’re left with is, in so many senses, surprisingly close to home.

Allow me, if you will, to elaborate. A colleague, career-shifting from something more glamorous, has been applying for a place on the Schools Direct scheme. An in-school training programme that replaced the late GTP, it’s one that has been embraced keenly by some of the larger chains of schools. Aspiring teachers learn on the job, with their pay and conditions decided by the schools; the middle-layer of oversight and regulation that universities provide for PGCE students is, thus, absent. In many cases, a trainee’s workload and accountability are such that they are de facto teachers, rather than students, from the outset.

Thomas, as we shall call my friend, was invited to two Schools Direct assessment days run by academy federations, significant portions of which are devoted to psychometric testing. During one of these, Thomas was grouped with several other applicants and asked to discuss the merits of various teaching methods demonstrated in filmed lessons. The discussion was observed by federation assessors – much like the lessons themselves may have been, having evidently taken place in a school where classrooms are fitted with cameras.

One of the practices, in Thomas’ view, had much to recommend it. He explained why with reference to specific details, and defended it against more critical reactions with humour and gusto. When it came to another of the methods, Thomas was as voluble in his criticism as he had been previously in his praise, his defence of his position as rigorously exemplified. He clocked, from the corner of his eye, the copious note-taking of the observers, and saw it as proof of the thoroughness with which they were doing their jobs.

Only at the end of the day did Thomas realise that their records documented their concerns about him. He was not offered a training place with the academy chain, whose observers cited his criticisms of a favoured teaching style as the reason for terminating their interest. The same fate befell applicants who’d questioned the other methods. It thus became clear that the candidates had only been exposed to pedagogic practices of which the organisation approved. With about a decade of experience in academisation, the chain concerned had developed an ethos that had come to span the entire federation. In short, it knew what it liked and was looking for trainees who did the same, were willing to pretend that they did, or could be persuaded easily to do either of the above.

Perhaps it is better to forego the splinters that fly when a wrong-shaped peg is rammed into a pre-existing hole. However, if there’s one profession, besides the law, in which the ability to observe, critique and construct a cogent argument is essential, it’s education. Proving one’s fitness to belong by parroting party lines simply won’t do. Because, unless we, the practitioners, are critical thinkers – and are encouraged to remain so – how do we teach our students to be the same?

What happens to that collective ability to sift out what’s valuable and ask, possibly awkward, questions about the rest? Students leaving school with armfuls of qualifications, but no greater capacity for interrogative thought, have been failed by the institutions to which their intellectual development has been entrusted. We may as well stuff their chops with sugar lumps, if all we see fit to deliver is a swift and vertiginous hit – one followed by the slumping realisation that the satisfaction is neither genuine nor lasting.

So I return, with circular inevitability, to where I began: uniforms. In institutions that brook no dissent, it would be more honest to expect staff to wear them too; in some that is, indeed, the direction of travel. Where it will lead is both anyone’s guess and scarily predictable. Staff who are prized for compliance, rather than competence. Biddable consumers of rhetoric and more who, in turn, become valuable – but not necessarily valued – customers. And, if we dare to look closely at the portfolios of business interests involved, schools that exist primarily to be customers for services in which sponsors and leaders have substantial stakeholdings. How sobering a colour is that?

But fear not: none of this is driven by anything other than philanthropy and it’s all in the best interests of the students. Honest. As any tailor can confirm, trimmings can make a garment, but its best to stitch them on last. Sartor resartus.

The Profit Of Doom

I used to think the pentagram was the sign of the devil, but I’m prepared to consider the merits of the triangle – probably scalene, definitely un-Pythagorean.

The first point of this policy triangle (for it is she, again) is pay reform – the reason why several schools have had their applications to become academies returned, accompanied by letters of the ‘must do better’ variety. Helpfully, said letters have specified how to do better: unclasp the dead hand of existing pay structures that already give headteachers the power to award discretionary extra payments; that contain a performance-related element on the upper pay scale; that enshrine regional variation. In short, that already do what the government claims only their dismantling can achieve. Dammit, they can even buttress divide-and-rule management and the economic Darwinism (on which) it feeds, if required

The monstrous carbuncle on the face of this old friend is the absent concept of the pay cut, and only the zit cream of reform can smooth the bump – principally, by ‘freeing’ headteachers to pay employees significantly less than before, even if they perform well and take on extra responsibilities. This is, undoubtedly, the most telling innovation in a policy that has little to do with promoting educational standards and school autonomy, and a great deal more to do with the decimation of spending on public services. Gove-endorsed academy chains may appear to pay their staff a smidge above the national scales; but the increase in their directed time is such that, hour for hour, their salaries actually drop. And some of the areas for which extra incentive payments are available are best not looked at through anything other than a Vaseline-smeared lens.

While we’re about it, let’s not forget the vexatious topic of scale-point portability, which guarantees teachers parity of payment when moving between similar jobs. Typically, the perception of the issue is being shaped by erroneous contrasts with the private sector, which is presented as a realm in which employees habitually experience – and happily accept – salary levels that undulate like a paper boat on a turbulent sea. Is it really the case that, when switching between posts with the same weight of responsibility, private employees don’t seek comparable, if not better, pay? What about the possibility of schools operating like local salary-fixing cartels, thereby effectively forcing teachers seeking new jobs to shoulder a pay cut? But, just when it seems all doom and gloom, let’s at least remember that those currently not shortlisted for jobs, by dint of being on the upper pay scale, may suddenly become employable again, as their successful threshold applications count for squat. Provided they’re prepared to put in the same, or more, hours (i.e. very, very many) for significantly less, the world is their oyster. Or the oyster is their world: they might be eaten alive.

Michael Gove has stated, on the record, that he is happy to meet with the unions regarding concerns over pay and pension reform, but the “direction of travel”, he warns, will remain unaltered. A handy analogy, as the Education Secretary’s compass tends to point to the second point on the triangle: academisation – if necessary, by force. With DfE brokers now scouring the land like witchfinders, seeking out warty primary schools to toss into the Harris maw, increasing numbers of institutions are finding themselves poised for removal from local authority control. In its place, they are to be frog-marched into a meaningful relationship with the Education Secretary, with no chaperone or anything to check that all are behaving within the limits of decency. Schools that refuse to do as they are bid face a sharpened axe and a chopping block. By such means shall the taxpayer, that hapless object of perpetual teacherly hostility, be spared the burden of an education budget, and cataracts of wealth shall gush down upon him. But soft, what light through yonder brain cell breaks? ‘Tis the fact that every teacher IS a taxpayer.

Which blinding revelation brings us screeching to a halt at the third point of the triangle: the economical truths of the Education Secretary’s relationship to News Corp. The first-draft hagiography that Gove offered as evidence to the Leveson Enquiry, was a robust reminder to anyone who had forgotten that the Education Secretary was – and his wife still is – an employee of Rupert Murdoch. The bit that fell carelessly into the shredder was the proprietor’s interest in Wireless Generation, a News Corps acquisition that will allow HMS Murdoch, and some who sail in him, access to the profit-generating environment that the classroom must surely become. The company, under the leadership of Joel Klein, has identified billions of dollars-worth of potential business in American schools through selling digitised curricula (history via the medium of Fox News, anyone?), and is uberkeen to be involved in establishing charter schools there and academies here. A beast with two backs, indeed.

Of course, as Klein and co. have reminded those present at their sleepovers, computer-based lessons and resources mean that we have less need of flesh-and-blood teachers. Lest the Opposition gets too complacent at this point, please recall that something similar was championed by a New Labour Education Minister. Jim Knight nursed a day-glo vision of seventy children in a single class, tapping away at their individual keyboards and following their personalised curricula under the benign gaze of a remote teacher beaming out to thousands. The only other adults needed would be a couple of teaching assistants, who’d patrol the classroom and provide inspirational bon mots such as “You have switched it on, haven’t you?”.

Computers don’t need to be paid, don’t get pregnant and don’t go on strike. Even better, they can’t come up with vivid, alternative explanations to help the student who doesn’t get it the first time round. They can’t follow the interesting tangent raised by a really clever question, and take the class on a journey that, ultimately, delivers them to their destination so much the richer. Because that is just irrelevant frippery. Best of all, as they don’t have opinions other than the ones you give them, they can’t contradict what you have decided will be the prevailing ideology.

A triangle, like I said. And not a right angle in sight.

Grade Expectations

Back in September, I chalked up the days ‘til I could sleep on the wall behind my desk, and began crossing them off one by one. Now that we’ve arrived at half term, I may be a little ‘stream-of-consciousness’. Or just exceptionally in touch with my inner exhausted old git. Apologies for whichever way it goes.

Uncrossing my eyeballs this morning, I read that an alliance of students, teachers and councils is seeking compensation from an exam board that altered GCSE English grade boundaries part-way through the academic year: thousands of students, who would have scored ‘C’ grades in January, were, consequently, deprived of the same in June. As acts of stupidity go, running off with the goalposts during the match is as good as any. Expect the crowd to get angry, and with reason.

I do, however, find myself itching, Vagisil-style, with embarrassingly intimate guilt at this story and all the righteous (in every sense, not just the perjorative) indignation that has preceded it. When students achieve results that fall short of expectations, we justifiably seek redress by asking for their papers to be re-marked. But how often do we do the same, when marks are unrepresentative in the opposite direction? I know I’m not the only teacher to have been stunned, on occasion, by how far above expectations students I know really well have scored. And, tempting as it might be to attribute this success to my unparalleled and magical teacherly powers, reality directs me to more mundane explanations. Given the sheer number of scripts to be graded in a short time, the inflexibly prescriptive character of some mark schemes, and the qualifications demanded of would-be examiners by some boards (“Are they your own teeth, or on loan from a friend? No matter. Come on in.”), it’s hardly surprising that, sometimes, the marking of exams has been, um, wide of the mark.

I was once stupid enough to suggest, out loud, that overmarked papers should be returned for a second opinion with the same alacrity as the opposite would be. It was unfair, or so my reasoning went, to knowingly send students out into the world with inaccurate ideas of their capabilities – especially given the likelihood of contradiction later on. Furthermore, didn’t we have a responsibility towards the next link in the chain, be it employer, college or university? Unsurprisingly, the response this elicited – some elaborate sentence structures, even harder to follow than mine, punctuated by outraged puffing, even puffier than mine – put paid to that proposal. I’ve since heard it said, by a headteacher of an outstanding school, that we have a moral imperative to allow inaccurately high grades to stand uncorrected in times of austerity. Slapped wrists for me, then.

The counter-argument, wheeled out in one form or another for its annual whizz around the block, is the ‘hard work’ thesis: “I don’t think that exams have got easier because I worked really hard for mine”; “Results are rising because students and teachers are working harder than ever” (yessir: see opening paragraph). And, this summer, “It’s so unfair that students who have worked hard have been deprived of high grades”. Nes and yo. It’s unfair that some students were marked more punitively than others because a change in standards was implemented halfway through a school year. Hard work, in and of itself, is not a reason to award someone a high grade in an exam that’s supposed to be an indicator of subject-specific capability. By that logic, I should be given an award for cartwheeling, even though my effortful attempts to execute said manoeuvre involve me keeping three limbs on the ground and waving the fourth like a distress signal. If hard work deserves to be rewarded, let’s introduce a GCSE – or whatever GCSEs are mutating into – in Hard Work.

Still riffing on the ‘surprising results’ theme (I warned you at the start about the likely effects of sleep deprivation), it has crossed my scrambled egg of a mind that students achieving bafflingly good results may, simply, have cheated in the exams. Or been the beneficiaries of cheating by others. I’ve not seen the inside of an exam hall during the summer for a long time – not because of a court order, but because teachers are barred from invigilating. I usually know when the exam season has begun because the loyal regiment of supervisors, who turn up year after year at those times of year, has arrived again. All of the invigilators I’ve known have been former subject teachers, some of them former employees. Dot, dot, dot. Lucky red envelopes. Exclamation mark.

Which brings me – rocking back and forth by now, with dribble (my own) on my chin – to a certain outstanding academy in South East London that trumpets its own brilliance on its brilliant website, reminding its readers that our brilliant Prime Minister declared it to be brilliant. So it must be true. What it doesn’t have on its website are any details of teachers and pupils blowing the whistle on systematic cheating in exams and coursework. Nor is there anything on the ‘News’ or ‘Articles’ pages about Channel 4 News’ special report on the school, detailing practices such as teachers entering the exam rooms, telling students which questions to correct and moderating coursework in such a way that it seemed as if “numbers were being plucked out of the sky”. An oversight, I assume. Nor is there anything about how the results of the exam boards’ investigation into the school will not be published. I guess the allegations must be untrue.

The website does, however, have lots of stuff about the school’s record-breaking results and lovely buildings. There’s even a pod-like assembly hall that resembles an internal organ. Enough bile, Joe. It’s half term. Get thee to a funnery.

It’s All Academic

The main political parties agree: academies and free schools represent the future of education. So it’s particularly welcome, amid this cockle-warming unanimity, to hear a voice daring to suggest that it ain’t necessarily so. Melissa Benn’s School Wars:The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso, 2011) is a timely intervention into an extraordinarily dissentless debate, and a much-needed reminder that the expansion of the academy programme may create as many problems as its advocates claim it will solve.

It needs to be said that Benn does not approach her subject from an unbiased position. As a leading member of the Local Schools Network, she has already nailed her colours firmly to the anti-academies mast. Nor, perhaps, do her views stray far from the path expected when one is of such recognisable political provenance (her parents are Tony Benn and the late Caroline De Camp – the latter, especially, an ardent champion of comprehensive education).

However, objectivity is hardly a defining feature of the offerings from the pro-academies contingent. Take, for example, ‘Academies and the Future of State Education’ (Astle and Ryan, 2008) from Centre Forum, the think tank that directs much Lib-Dem policy and has been spoken of warmly by Michael Gove. Contributors include Andrew Adonis (architect of New Labour’s academy programme), Dan Moynihan (Executive Director of the Harris Academies Federation)  and Sir Michael Wilshaw (recently-appointed Ofsted head, whose previous positions included Principal of  Mossbourne Academy and Director of Education for the Ark Academies federation). Care for a vested interest, anyone?

What marks out Benn’s tome is the breadth of its research. Nick Clegg’s damascene conversion to the academies cause appears to be the result of a wet afternoon spent perusing a flagship school’s edited highlights, and an expertly-administered Chinese burn from Tory High Command. Benn, however, bolsters her case with evidence gleaned from a range of sources, including schools that are applying for, or have converted to, academy status, and a number in Sweden (from whose model Gove claims to derive much inspiration for his expansion of free schools).

School Wars traces the evolution of comprehensive education in Britain and its systematic denigration. It also presents the likely consequences of the ConDems’ fervent pursuit of policies driven less by pragmatism than ideology (despite the alacrity with which Michael Gove labels opponents of academies “ideologues”): a competitive ethos that will entrench, rather than relieve, the unenviable status of sink schools, and the reductive application of the profit motive through the intervention of private stakeholders.

The government claims that its education policies are driven by a commitment to closing the achievement gap between the most and least advantaged. This, apparently, justifies the combination of tooth-rotting lollies and thumps behind the bikesheds employed to effectively force schools down the route to academy conversion. When the argument is entangled with button-pushers such as discipline, results and parent power, it is, it has to be said, one that finds a sympathetic ear in large sections of an electorate that is being encouraged to see academies and free schools as the only possible breeding grounds for educational success.

However, as Benn points out, the schools inspectorate in Sweden has found that social segregation is more marked in areas where free schools dominate. Furthermore, the principal beneficiaries of these quasi-private institutions are the children of the educated middle classes – not the socially disadvantaged youngsters that two successive governments have now cited as the raisons d’etre for their policies. Aye, there’s the rub. Tellingly, a 2011 survey of civil servants in the Department of Education elicited palpable – and growing – unease, that current government policy has little evidence to justify its implementation.

With over half of the country’s secondary schools now academies, and primary schools starting to be identified as ripe for conversion,  there is scant let-up in the momentum with which the Department of Education is encouraging and approving plans for the establishment of free schools. Careful manipulation of, for example, published data (academies, until recently, did not have to reveal whether pupils take the ‘equivalent’ qualifications that an outraged Gove claims LEA schools use to bolster their GCSE headline figures) ensures the self-fulfilling nature of government prophecy. As does the requirement that any newly-created schools must conform to the academy model.

Benn is, perhaps, too apt to cite uncritically the statistics with which New Labour argued the success of its education policies; one is reminded at such points that, impassioned as she is, she writes as one who does not know the system from the inside, and the manipulation to which it has been exposed. Still, it is vital in the interests of thorough, critical debate that we heed her plea to not go gently into what we are told is a good night from which there need be no return.