Bernard's pieces for the Tes

I hope Mr Hammond watched BBC2's School

11 November 2018

The show's a stark reminder of schools' financial struggles – ideal viewing for the chancellor, writes Bernard Trafford 

I’m sorry to go on about it, but I have to wonder what planet Philip Hammond thinks he’s on. Unable to see how his distinctly modest budget handout to schools for the “little extras” gave offence, his pique was evident when he remarked to the Education Select Committee that, if one school didn’t want the £50,000, he was sure one down the road would.

There’s something schoolmarmish about that reaction. I can picture the archetypal classroom dragon of yore, when a child refuses the Liquorice Allsorts she’s handing out at Christmas, commenting tartly, “Well, if Billy’s so fussy, I expect Jemima will like to have his sweet as well.”

The chancellor’s blindness stems from his belief – widely shared in Whitehall, in Ed Dorrell’s view – that school funding is adequate. Okay, that mindset concedes, perhaps they’re having to tighten their belts a little. But, hey, this is a time of austerity. We’re all having to do our bit.

Except that we’re not. Apparently it’s okay for Crossrail to run £1 billion over budget, not to mention several billions more on our two new aircraft carriers. Such overspends betray bungled commissioning and lousy brief-writing, yet government silence suggests it will simply fund the shortfalls without comment, while squeezing public services until the pips squeak. 

I imagine most people with a professional interest in education watched Tuesday’s first episode of BBC2’s new series, School. This excellently produced fly-on-the-wall documentary avoided labouring issues and didn’t seek to preach. Nonetheless, the harsh realities of underfunded education shone throughout.

Overstretched and undersupported

The charismatic Mr Street, science teacher and Year 11 tutor at Castle School, introduced a revision class with the happy news that “I’ve managed to get the revision textbooks today”. Politicians and ordinary citizens might assume that there are always enough textbooks in schools. But here was just another piece of evidence: teachers have to take turns with the books their classes need.

Dr Grant, running Year 7, overstretched and undersupported, commented: “All the children want is teachers’ time – and that’s gone.”

Surely it can’t be that bad, a viewer might protest. But it is. My heart ached for the Castle School staff when the interim head (note that: interim) protested that the only way to save some £400,000 on teachers’ salaries was to remove status and pay from middle management (heads of department, in old speak). 

Over the next three years, then, such teachers will see a salary cut of some £6,000. I don’t criticise the school – its governing trust has to square an impossible circle. Yet, middle managers, here downgraded and slapped in the face, are the very people held up to school leaders, a few years ago, as lying at the heart of school improvement, with National College courses aimed specifically at their development. 

Mark of so-called failure

As for the final twist in the guts of such teachers, the inspirational Mr Street, just avoiding tears, as he says goodbye to his tutor group (all teachers know that feeling), was reasonably pleased with his pupils’ GCSE results; then he observes drily that he’s missed his own target. After all that human interaction, anxiety, sorrow, hard work, in the data-driven world of teaching it will be a black mark for him.

In another time, such “failure” might have cost him a pay rise, through performance management. But I guess there won’t be any pay rises in his school, what with a £400,000 shortfall to plug.

The programme appeared measured, balanced, and showed the joys and the dedication of teachers, as well as the challenges and disappointments. I hope Mr Hammond observed the reality on the ground.

Or will he, cocooned in his personal wealth and with the trappings of power around him in Whitehall, continue to sulk at schools’ rejection of his £50,000 largesse in the face of their vastly bigger financial black holes? Will he applaud schools’ agonising decisions and convince himself that, surely, they could cut a bit more if only they’d really try?

 

Mouthy politicians who think offensive noise is all...

03 November 2018

…will suffer when it comes to the vote. Ministers who speak in insulting soundbites do so at their own peril, writes Bernard Trafford

Is there, I wonder, a course ministers go on, some kind of training programme that encourages them to broadcast gratuitously offensive statements at the drop of a hat? If so, I guess it’s titled something like "Self-aggrandisement at the expense of others" or, in the vernacular, "How to look tough by pissing off everyone below you in the food chain."

I cite, as my first piece of evidence, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond who, in his Budget speech this week, allocated something between £10,000 and £50,000 per school for “those little extras”.Was he seeking to offend? If so, he certainly succeeded: though Tes’ own Ed Dorrell reckons he betrayed a government view that, in terms of funding, schools are doing just fine.

Maybe Fiscal Phil thought heads would splash his unexpected largesse on some cheeky nice-to-have like a new minibus or a trolley-full of tablets (the digital sort, not the tranquillisers this announcement might have called for). By contrast, given their pain throughout the period of austerity, we can be sure most schools will use their “little extra” to retain a teacher or assistant post that would otherwise have been cut.

If that casual aside, after thought even, was guaranteed to upset the whole of the maintained sector, the independent sector suffered two insensitive comments from junior ministers this week.

First, schools minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested that every independent school should admit five looked-after children, a reasonable suggestion that I’d foresee the sector welcoming.

Then he spoilt it by adding a two-edged threat. First, the current government might look (again) at the question of public benefit and the tax-breaks (always overstated) that educational charities receive. Second, he observed that a Corbyn-led government would find it a lot harder to attack a sector with significant numbers of looked-after children thriving in it.

I’ve always found persuasion and exploring mutual benefit a better way to build cooperation than either pointing or looking down the barrel of a gun: schools should do things because they’re right, not because they’re demanded.

Moreover, in the independent schools I ran for 27 years, I had several conversations with representatives of local authorities, pursuing precisely the initiative that Mr Zahawi proposes. Each time, the meeting happened at my instigation: on each occasion, the LA team wasn’t sure how it could work for children in their care, went away with a vague promise to look into it – and nothing happened. Partnerships have to work in both directions, a fact ministers frequently overlook.

Finally this week, Ben Wallace, minister for security and economic crime, accused private schools of being actively involved in money-laundering. Listing “the purveyors of luxury goods, the public school, the sporting institutions”, he claimed they “pretend their hands aren’t really dirty and profit from moving dirty money and knowingly conspire…” His sweeping condemnation, and his casual assertion that independent schools, like the other areas of activity he listed, are willfully engaged in money-laundering, was beyond rude – it was slanderous.

Actually, to characterise private schools as a bunch of wide-boys grabbing dirty cash is more laughable than anything else. I remember being (rightly) warned by government of the need to spot possible money-laundering, and what to do about it – years before the expression was even in regular use. Anyone who walks into the average independent school finance office will immediately spot the painstaking attention given to all regulatory matters, including fraud and money-laundering.

But hey, who cares about accuracy, if it’s a good soundbite? Mouthy politicians, from Trump and Boris downwards, know that noise is all.

Politicians (generally male ones) will continue to feed their fragile egos by talking big. Still, when they need the help of those routinely on the receiving end of their threats and innuendos, such sound biters shouldn’t be surprised if they receive less cooperation than they hoped for.

 

Stop revision sessions – they don't help anyone

27 October 2018

Extra revision sessions only ramp up pupils' anxiety – they don't help learning or memory, warns Bernard Trafford

It was good to read a powerful argument against the revision classes that impact on the lives of both pupils and teachers. Adam Riches, a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English, said in Tes that he won’t do them any more.

Hurrah! Early in a school year, when concerns about teachers’ workload are only growing, with no sign of government ever finding the will to reduce pressure on schools, and when evidence of the mental harm caused to children by exam pressure is mounting alarmingly, it’s right to reconsider revision classes.

In some primary schools, those euphemistic “booster classes” will already be underway in Year 6, seeking to crank up a few extra marks for next summer’s Sats. Meanwhile, some secondaries may be well into “extended days” for Year 11, shoehorning extra hours into the week to push those borderline grade 4/5 candidates in English and maths GCSE over the edge to what government regards as a “good pass”.

Many years ago, I became head of an academically successful school and found hard-working, over-conscientious teachers giving up (in my view) too many lunchtimes, after-school sessions and even chunks of holiday to help similarly over-conscientious students with that last bit of revision.

The trouble was, it was the conscientious, hard-working pupils who attended these voluntary sessions: they’d have been better off soaking up the sun, kicking a football around, chatting with their friends – anything to give them a break. Meanwhile, those who should have been taking advantage of them were – you’ve guessed it – soaking up the sun, kicking a football around, chatting with their friends.

Extra revision sessions so often hit the wrong target – or, if compulsory, simply ratchet up the pressure. That’s because they stem, above all, from anxiety.

'Anxiety is the enemy of good education'

Anxiety is the enemy of good education. Yet it’s so human, so understandable. It’s about much more than just wanting to do well. Schools are under immense pressure: some leadership teams see it as their role to pass that pressure directly on to teachers. I wish they didn’t: but some do. Others, I think the majority, do all they can to absorb pressure and avoid communicating it to teachers and to pupils. But it’s hard: with the best will in the world, they don’t always succeed.

Hawkish commentators claim teachers shouldn’t be such snowflakes. That’s unfair: they’re too often leant on and still, even in 2018, rated and scored on their pupils’ grades.

Then there are the kids, constantly told how vital their GCSEs will be to their future: meanwhile, university candidates hold stratospherically high offers (mostly) to win their university place. And they learn anxiety young: this week The Times’ Nicola Woolcock reported a survey finding that primary school children were “coming home stressed about the pressure put on them by exams and the amount of homework [often five hours a week] they had to complete”.  

Revision sessions improve neither learning nor memory. To be sure, some pupils will feel a virtuous glow after putting in those extra hours: for others, these sessions will serve merely to ramp up their anxiety levels.

There are alternative and better approaches. I’m not an expert, and I have no space to list them here. In short, though, school leaders need to encourage their staff, as ever, to think about best teaching methods: to ensure consistency, as they go along, that their pupils have understood, absorbed and learned. Better that than miserable periods of cramming at the end: invariably too much, too late.

As I suggested above, I don’t see government being about to loosen the ratchet on schools any day soon. Nonetheless, the Association of School and College Leaders' Geoff Barton constantly urges that teachers be strong, refuse to succumb to pressure and temptation to cram and act as professionals in the best interests of the children they teach.

Let’s applaud teachers like Adam Riches for leading the way.

 

 

Rayner is wrong - free schools CAN be empowering

20 October 2018

Angela Rayner's claims about free schools are unfair – I've seen the huge success of one school, says Bernard Trafford

Free schools receive a mixed press, and failures are readily greeted with glee. At its recent party conference, Labour displayed its dislike of free schools, with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner claiming that they “neither improve standards, nor empower staff or parents”.

Before proposing ideological systemic change, however, policymakers should remember that systems and governments don’t make a difference to education in individual communities: on the ground, it’s schools with fantastic, dedicated teachers, supported by visionary governors and appreciative parents. Given those elements, and a degree of individual freedom, schools can concentrate on their core purpose and principles.

Politicians should avoid generalising from single examples, so I must, too. But I want to write about a free school I know well, having had a hand in its creation. At the heart of a deprived community, it’s doing precisely what Angela Rayner claims it cannot – improving standards and empowering both staff and parents.

West Newcastle Academy opened its doors to its first cohort of early years pupils in September 2014, housed in a group of temporary buildings in a nature park. Four years on, it occupies a bespoke building high above the River Tyne in Benwell, one of Newcastle’s poorest areas. It affords views stretching 20 miles to the south: more importantly, it serves as a beacon of excellence and aspiration in a community that has too often lacked opportunity for either.

You feel something special as soon as you walk in. You don’t have to be a visitor (as I was this week) to be greeted by founder headteacher Susan Percy: every child enjoys the same warmth. The fact that pupils feel valued is demonstrated by their obvious confidence. Classrooms are calm, but not because silence is imposed. Indeed, children are anxious to answer questions and propose solutions to problems: but the level of their engagement in their learning is striking, with the air of concentration aided by teachers’ quiet recognition of pupils’ level of focus and effort.

Free schools for the community

This unflaggingly happy, relaxed atmosphere of a school at peace with itself stems from a steely focus on the needs of every individual child, underpinned by research and experience. The school draws heavily on the Reggio Emilia and Danish approaches to children-centred learning. In addition, it’s committed to outdoor learning: every year-group, rain or shine, spends one or two whole days every week out of doors. Exploring learning in small groups and in many different contexts – the city, forest, beach, the adjoining nature park, school or home – affords children multiple opportunities to learn in ways that best match their interests. Their confidence grows exponentially.

The sense of community is palpable. Lunchtime is a delight: half a dozen children and a member of staff sit around a table: the food (a delicious-looking curry, the day I was there) arrives in dishes and is served out. Extra helpings are shared out till it’s all gone: all plates are empty. Surely, though, some children are fussy and don’t want that one choice on offer? Not so, it appears: they love the food.

The school is full, with 164 on roll. Some 15 pupils are flexi-schooling, learning at home on one or more days in the week. The head is happy to facilitate these arrangements, noting that these children are making particularly strong progress. Progress is a major focus for all staff. In a seriously deprived area, many children start in school a long way back: WNA finds time and again that, in a year or two, they have caught up compared with their cohort.

WNA was set up by a local charity which, working with alienated families, decided to establish a long-term legacy by using the then recently-enacted legislation to create a free school. It sought allies: I was targeted, as head of a local independent school with a strong academic reputation. Above all, the founding group won the support of parents, who needed school places in that area and valued the exceptionally nurturing ethos offered. Their current anxiety centres on where their children might find secondary schooling to equal what they’re receiving now.

Could this unique school have created or maintained its distinctive character if it were not a free school? Perhaps. But Angela Rayner should pause and consider: the country needs more schools like West Newcastle Academy, not fewer.

It's shameful to mock the headteachers' march

08 October 2018

The heads' march on Downing Street was criticised as 'too polite' – but ministers need to listen, says Bernard Trafford

Those two tweets encapsulate the reaction of the media to last Friday’s (28 September) protest march on Downing Street by more than 1,000 headteachers.

The hint of scorn from the ITV News political editor was patronising and lazy. Worse, an unnecessarily vicious little dig came from a talk radio host, whose Tweet sneered at heads taking time out of school and wondered if they’d fine themselves as they do parents who take their children on holiday in term-time.

If some in the media chose to downplay that necessary, heartfelt protest, the two most recent party conferences simply ignored it. Labour’s Angela Rayner expressed solidarity with the march: but her grand vision focused not on funding but on still more systemic and structural change (heads have faced too much of that over the years).

Secretary of state Damian Hinds played to the gallery, or at least to his audience, and carefully avoided mentioning five major issues currently confronting schools, top of those being the funding issue as Martin George outlined in Tes this week.

How often do teachers hear, when they come in on Monday morning, “I saw you in Sainsbury’s on Saturday, Miss,” or, when they are on the beach in August, the dreaded “Hello, Sir!”? When heads take on that enormously responsible role, they accept society’s even higher expectation: always available, always on show, rarely, if ever, able to hide away.

Headteachers deserve respect

Just as you won’t readily see heads photocopying their bottoms at the staff Christmas party, you’ll rarely spot them in the street waving placards or shouting. They don’t do demonstrating. Making a fuss, drawing attention to themselves goes against their unwritten professional code. And when they are obliged to make a point, as they were last Friday, they’ll do it politely – as they did.

It goes against the same code to take time out of school, even to make a point to the seat of government. The constant tsunami of demands for urgent attention makes them reluctant to leave their desk – even for a morning, even when there’s a national crisis.

So this demonstration was bound to be unmilitant, courteous. It wasn’t even union-organised. The two heads’ unions (NAHT and ASCL) supported, but the event wasn’t their brainchild; rather (and tellingly), it was arranged by heads for heads. It was carried out quietly and professionally, reflecting the way heads do their jobs. To underestimate the seriousness of the gesture is wilfully to ignore the financial plight of the nation’s schools.

Contrast that dignity with the shameless obfuscation in the government’s response. Minister for school standards Nick Gibb’s parroted claim that school funding is at record levels was cynically misleading. The BBC has confirmation from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that his oft-cited “record figure” – globally the third highest in 2015 (not 2018) – includes such non-school costs as university spending, students’ personal outlay (billions of pounds) on tuition fees and even the fees parents pay for private schools.

Politicians may peddle fibs and half-truths. Headteachers don’t. When they raise their collective voice, quietly, moderately, firmly, they should be heeded and granted the respect they earn day in, day out.

These are dedicated professionals committed to making a difference and forced, on this occasion, to speak unwelcome truth to indifferent power. For politicians to ignore them, or media figures to mock, is shameful. 

 

Working together, state and private schools can save education

30 September 2018

Let's break down the barriers between state and private schools to ensure all pupils receive the best education

Melissa Benn’s piece in last week’s Tes magazine on why we need a national education service opened with: “In [my] research…I was genuinely surprised to discover the degree of consensus that exists regarding the key problems facing English education.”

Towards the end of this well-reasoned piece, she commented: “And perhaps most important of all: how, over the next few decades, can we resolve the historic barriers between private and state education, in order to build a common school system used by all families?”

In that potent question lies perhaps the lowest degree of consensus: yet, with the caveat that, for 28 years, I was an independent school head, I’m convinced we must address it.

Ms Benn calls for something far more creative than the predictable tax-based attacks on the independent sector currently proposed by both Labour and the Lib Dems: Look at those countries that have successfully reworked their education system, often in dramatic fashion: such reform was usually preceded by years of honest reflection and debate. What’s stopping us from imagining, and discussing, a common system – a genuinely 'national’ education service?”

What’s stopping us? I’d suggest governments obsessed with control and systems, hampered by politicians’ short-termism and desire for quick fixes and hamstrung by dogma and lack of courage.

Seeing the independent sector as a “problem” is a prevalent but willfully jaundiced political and media angle. Far from being pleased that international studies such as PISA identify it as a group of the best schools in the world, our nation’s skewed political lens sees something dirty in it.

By contrast, the recent joint understanding between the Independent Schools Council and the DfE (endorsed, if quietly, by education secretary Damian Hinds) demonstrates a willingness to work together. Schools up and down the country are rightly proud of the excellent cross-sector partnership work that, through teacher-training, CPD, sporting, cultural and a host of other shared activities, are achieving significant local, regional and national impacts for children. 

 

Ms Benn, by implication, urges more: she’s right to do so but, on their own, schools cannot do more. Yet government can. Australia’s education system funds and blurs both state and independent sectors: the system appears to work well.

 

A year or two back, the UK’s independent sector offered 10,000 places in its schools, if the government would fund them at its national per capita rate. At a stroke this would have started to bridge the perceived divide, open up the private sector and help address the impending national shortage of school places.

 

That offer was unfairly caricatured in much of the media as the sector trying to fill its empty places. The urban independent schools I have run represent a powerful segment within the sector. The former city and/or direct grant grammars are frequently oversubscribed: nonetheless, always mindful of their historical mission, they grieve that their strenuous efforts at fundraising rarely stretch to financing even 10 per cent of their places for children from deprived backgrounds.

Politicians should recognise that three-quarters of independent schools are charities, like multi-academy trusts (MATs), making no profit and ploughing all earnings, any surpluses, back into the education provided.

They generally boast excellent facilities: but then, so do many academies. Melissa Benn praises the spectacular building designed by Norman Foster for Capital City Academy in Brent: “It is a stunning structure, testament to one of the foundational stones of the National Education Service: our disadvantaged children deserve the best.”

Melissa Benn laudably avoids grinding any political axe, rather calling for open-minded, visionary discussion and planning. Like her, policymakers should stop seeing independent schools as a barrier to social mobility and equity, overcome their myopia, prejudice and short-termism, get around the table with their representatives and explore ways of turning what’s branded a problem into a solution.

My experience (and my past efforts) suggest they would be pushing at an open door: thus disadvantaged children might indeed gain access to that “deserved best”. 

Forcing pupils to "volunteer" is self-defeating'

23 September 2018

Young people should choose to volunteer or join sports teams – making it compulsory won’t work, says Bernard Trafford

Really, you might begin to despair of kids. This snowflake generation folds up when things get tough; spends its life swapping inanities on social media; gets upset when anyone says something nasty; won’t wear school uniform properly (the customary annual headlines about uniform-related school exclusions are already proliferating); and then bleats about mental illness when it should man up.

No wonder, then, that opinion-formers seek to tackle this problem (forgive my ironic identification of it). The summer holidays gave rise to a plethora of advice for keeping children busy. Rather than slobbing around for six weeks, they were urged to be up and doing, and getting holiday jobs. 

Hopefully, back in school now, they are being kept busy. Not busy enough though, according to Tory peer Baroness Brady of Knightsbridge. Karren Brady, a judge on BBC One’s The Apprentice, and by definition a successful entrepreneur, sets out a three-point plan, according to The Sunday Times, dedicated to getting youngsters off their backsides and doing something useful.

She reckons that by the age of 16 all children should have completed at least 25 hours of volunteering, had a part-time job and been a member of a sports team.

In itself, that’s not a bad outline. Youngsters should, indeed, have an opportunity to give freely of their own energies and talents to help others – and arguably to learn that, whatever their problems, there are others less well off. As for part-time jobs, earning is good experience and rewarding, too.

Give teenagers the choice

Sport is important: not for the acquisition of ball skills (which have notably eluded me for 60-plus years), but because of what’s learned from being in a team: reliance, trust, interdependence, cooperation and, at crunch-time, stepping up to take responsibility. Sport in childhood provides great practice for adult life.

Baroness Brady noted that only one in six young people are involved with the good work of the National Citizenship Service (NCS). Her comments rattled the cage of that organisation’s National Youth Board, which responded: “Alongside nearly half a million of our peers, we have used our school holidays to build vital skills for work and life, take on new challenges and make friendships across social divides. Through NCS, we have given nearly 12m hours in social action and experienced first-hand how we can create positive change.”

They’re right: as is Karren Brady – up to a point. But I confess I detest any insistence on prescribed solutions to social ills. Good schools and active communities between them offer all those opportunities described above: service/volunteering, sport and (an unfortunate and perhaps revealing omission by the Baroness) the creative and performing arts, including participation in choirs, orchestras, bands, plays and dance.

The trouble with Grand Plans is that they always recommend quotas. Twenty-five hours of service is mooted: but a serious sportsman/woman, with all the training that is required (in school or outside), may struggle. The Baroness (rightly) praises her children, who did part-time jobs and also volunteered: by contrast, my teenage daughters were so involved as both musicians and hockey players that we agreed part-time jobs were ruled out.

Besides, what about GCSEs and A levels? Let’s not forget exams: not to mention the pressure on young people (whether self-imposed, or driven by school or parental expectations) to achieve highly. The homework load threatens both volunteering and other commitment over the weekend.

My family example is as irrelevantly anecdotal as Baroness Brady’s: which is why we avoid dictating “what kids should do”.

We must indeed offer all those opportunities to young people: but, although teachers or parents may give them a nudge, we should stop trying to squeeze them into niches or moulds of our adult design. Let’s instead make it attractive, and offer experience in performing arts, sport and volunteering that is high-quality, worthwhile and challenging, not merely tokenistic. 

But then, please, leave it to kids to choose what they do, and how much. It’s their life, not ours.

It’s time to put Ofsted out of its misery

16 September 2018 

Schools need to be accountable, but the current system doesn’t sharpen accountability – it muddles and confuses it 

Few teachers will have resisted a feeling of schadenfreude on reading how Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman “disappointed” MPs, according to a report published by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Little appears to please the honourable members. Short of cash and inspectors, Ofsted is struggling to maintain its inspection programme. The committee report says the inspectorate’s lost 52 per cent of its funding in real terms since 2000. Currently, it has a mere £44 million (from its overall budget of £151 million) to spend on schools.

Far be it from me to suggest that those millions might be more usefully employed in providing three additional classroom assistants in every school (even shared among some 20,000 English schools, £151 million is a tidy sum), or that inspectors might cover the shortfall by behaving like teachers in underfunded schools, working ever longer hours for no additional pay.

MPs disapprove of the fact that schools previously rated outstanding are not re-inspected, and are unhappy that one-day short inspections provide insufficient information. Above all, they complain that Ofsted is “not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need".

There’s more grief for Ms Spielman. MPs want her to use her position more to “speak freely, without fear or favour”. By contrast, her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was seldom short of an opinion, frequently to MPs’ chagrin.

She says it’s not her role to generalise. Sticking rigidly to the HMCI brief – to make judgements based solely on evidence rigorously (we’re assured) gathered by her teams of inspectors – she declined to offer broader views about the effectiveness of the school system or the effects on schools of the funding squeeze.

This week saw the publication of NAHT’s Accountability Commission report. This important and welcome document urges a complete rethink of inspection. But for me, it doesn’t go far enough.

Ofsted is failing in its mission. Its schedule is slipping. MPs reckon one-day inspections aren’t delivering the goods: and schools know that such snapshot judgements are dangerous when the stakes are so high. The Inspectorate and the Department for Education are at loggerheads about both the narrowing of the curriculum and the very nature of inspection.

It gets worse. MPs’ insistence that inspections must give “valuable information to parents” is founded on the deeply flawed assumption that it’s possible to do that in the required shorthand, that one-word overall judgments have any useful meaning. The NAHT commission rightly deplores the use of “outstanding”.

The early 1990s saw huge teams of inspectors diving into every aspect of schools’ operation. Laudable thoroughness, perhaps, but it was clear such massive operations would quickly collapse under their own weight. The cumbersome system was saved by the exponential growth of computerised data-collection, though that technological breakthrough brought a damaging consequence in its wake. Over-reliance on data created intolerable pressure on schools and teachers: in Tes this week ASCL’s Geoff Barton rightly complains that Ofsted has become synonymous with teaching, rather than learning.

Ms Spielman wants to turn the clock back and revert to a broader, more qualitative judgement of schools. We’ve been there before: the proposal would merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic once more. How many times must we go round the same loop before someone has the courage to admit that inspection itself will never be made to work satisfactorily?

Make no mistake: schools must be accountable – accountable above all to the pupils and parents they serve. But our centralised and expensive top-down mechanism doesn’t sharpen accountability, it muddles and confuses it, promotes the measurable over the important – and pushes schools in directions they shouldn’t take.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee appears to have glimpsed this truth momentarily but remains stubbornly blind to the fact that it is scrutinising what Boris Johnson might term a turd – one which, moreover, will not be improved by any amount of French-polishing.

Schools know the truth: it’s time to put Ofsted out of its – and their – misery.

The teacher pay 'rise' is a slap in the face

08 September 2018

As if the inadequate pay rise wasn't insulting enough, the DfE now want struggling schools to cut costs further – it's outrageous 

In all the 59 years I knew my Mum, I rarely saw her angry, but one occasion sticks in my mind. She was entertaining some visiting Americans, a nice enough family, who displayed their somewhat complacent, if understandable, ignorance of what ordinary people here lived through during the Second World War (Mum was 17 in 1939).

She went rather pink, drew herself up to her full 5’ 3” and declared: “We were hungry. For six years we went without, made do and mended. We didn’t waste anything: and what we couldn’t eat went in the pig bin at the end of the street.”

I don’t recall what precisely touched that nerve: but it connects in my memory with that oft-repeated Dad’s Army rhetorical question: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

In his recent Tes interview, secretary of state Damian Hinds adopted a similar tone, albeit in a 21st-century austerity-era context: “Within the financial constraints that we had, and we did have financial constraints, and you saw that not just in the Department for Education but across the government departments in terms of having to have some continued restraint on pay…”

Crikey! There I was thinking that the DfE’s monotonously robotic spokesperson was some lowly functionary (or machine), not the boss!

Having justified the government’s meanness, Mr Hinds slapped school leaders in the face by defending what is, in effect, a pay-cut.Sanctimoniously he observed, “it was most important to focus more of the money on those in the lower half of the pay distribution”.

Now, on one level that might be fair. If, in a tight spot, we have only one cake to share, presumably an equitable division would give more to those most in need. But there’s a willful disingenuousness in the education secretary’s utterances.

To be sure, ministers have to fight their corner with Treasury, and the push for austerity continues. But that doesn’t render the decision just –there should be more money!

“Don’t you know there’s austerity on?” Mr Hinds didn’t quite cry, Corporal Jones-like, but his own government determined the size of the cake.

To claim some kind of virtue in giving that inadequate sum to lower-paid teachers is dishonest. All teachers should have received 3.5 per cent: that’s the collegial approach. Anything else is insulting to those excluded.

It’s smoke and mirrors. The government says it will find the extra money in October, but schools must find the first 1 per cent of the cost of living increase when they are already cutting staffing and subjects.Adding insult to injury, the department has recently issued guidance on money-saving and fundraising, as if schools hadn’t already tried everything! Some 4 per cent of school turnover is currently achieved through extra income raised by such activities as renting out facilities.

 

But it’s the classic Catch-22. Try telling politicians you can’t manage, and you get a pretty dusty response. Add to that 4 per cent with some creative income-creation or cost-cutting, and you’re congratulated – but you’ll be required to do still more with even less in future years.

Besides, it’s not raising the last 4 per cent that’s the problem: it’s making do with 96 per cent of an inadequate 100 per cent.

I burn with resentment on behalf of my former colleagues in schools, academies and, still more, FE colleges who do the impossible and, when it comes to their own salaries, get a slap in the face, with mealy-mouthed justification from the minister in charge.

Perhaps Westminster doesn’t know the story of the farmer who, fearing his horse was costing him too much to keep, gave it a little less food each day. When, after a couple of months, the horse died, its owner commented: “That’s a shame, it had almost got used to living on nothing at all.”

No. They wouldn’t get it.

Differential pay won't make teaching great again

1 September 2018

Increasing salaries for maths and science teachers in a bid to attract more graduates into teaching is unlikely to work

 “There are no great schools without great teachers.” So proclaims education secretary Damian Hinds. But there’s a teacher shortage.

We’ve been saying it for years, decades even: now the Education Policy Institute reports that maths and physics are being taught up and down the country (mostly outside London) by people who haven’t got a degree in them.

Of course, responding to a Times report on Thursday, the Department for Education issued its usual bland, robotic half-acknowledgement (and, inevitably, half-denial), quoting Mr Hinds’ dictum and reminding us that his “top priority is to make sure teaching remains an attractive and fulfilling profession”. No mention of how.

The EPI (Education Policy Institute) proposes paying more to teachers in shortage subjects. I’m unconvinced. The past few years have seen golden hellos offered, tuition fees waived and other wheezes tried: yet the crisis persists.

Perhaps the commercial world can indeed attract talent by accepting the reality of the market and paying more where shortages occur. But teachers don’t expect to get rich, and research demonstrates time after time that the decision to teach – or not – is not about money. Teachers are certainly driven by a sense of vocation: so why do too many who might go into teaching decide not to? Or leave soon after?

There are many answers, all of them partial. One lies in recent debates about exam malpractice, schools off-rolling pupils and other dirty tricks employed to improve exam results. An ex-headteacher myself (ex for just a few days), and appreciating the pressures they feel, I can understand why some school leaders succumb to such temptations, though I can’t excuse them.

Understandably, other viewpoints condemn such heads, believing that they should find the moral strength to withstand both pressure and temptation.

Arguments on both sides serve to illustrate the pressure in the system, in itself another answer. Great headteachers absorb pressure, trust their staff as professionals and thus grow great teachers and get great results. But where the pressure is transmitted downward, teachers feel it and suffer the resulting workload.

Media messages may deter would-be teachers.  How often do you read anything that would encourage them? The same (Thursday) edition of The Times that reported “half of maths and physics teachers quit in five years” included other education-related headlines: a proposed government ban on children buying energy drinks (hyperactivity and behaviour issues); girls put off careers in science by books telling them that space will ruin their hair (arguably a silly-season story); pupils aged five sent to a Pupil Referral Unit where a boy was stabbed; and, on the same page, repulsively, “one child in every classroom has received a naked image online”.

I know. Many other professions would similarly complain that only bad news makes headlines about them. But when the DfE and the Inspectorate fall out about the very nature of accountability through inspection; when even the education secretary fears Ofsted’s proposals for more qualitative judgement of schools risks increasing workload (which it does, on past form); when that same minister glibly claims that technology will reduce workload (we’ve heard it so many times…); and when his department’s two-page priorities document fails to mention producing altruistic, generous, creative adults prepared to play their part in society…

Add all these things up, and it’s small wonder that working in education appears, in the end, a less-than-attractive career choice for many.

Fortunately, many people of all ages still feel that vocation and, notwithstanding government pressure, insensitivity, interference and parsimony, they view teaching as a job they must do.

But there aren’t enough of them: and no quick fix, not even a backhander for mathematicians, will put that right.

Great teachers, like great schools, need vision, strategic planning and generous resources from government, not utilitarianism, micromanagement, tinkering and headline-grabbing.

To misquote a Trumpian mantra: “Let’s make teaching great again.” Trouble is, I can’t see anyone in Westminster about to do it.