Archive for November, 2009

Sunday, November 15th

What to make of England’s politically-driven education debate? Well, often it seems to verge on the surreal.

The latest example came my way today, courtesy of two articles in the Sunday Telegraph. One was a piece by Ed Balls, the schools secretary, setting out his plans to “intervene” in schools where results are said not be good enough. The other was the news story in which further flesh was put on this announcement. Both talk about a new bill, to be announced in the Queen’s Speech this week, which will include these capabilities.

The first sense I got, on reading the pieces, was one of bewilderment. For the latest piece of education legislation, the Apprenticheships, Skills, Children and Learning Act, only became law days ago. This already gives Mr Balls and his successors sweeping powers to intervene in schools where performance is said not to be good enough.

That Act gives the Secretary of State the right to intervene – to direct local authorities to take action – in schools which are not just deemed to be underperforming as measured, presumably, by national test and exam results. He will also have these powers in respect to schools which “may in future be low-performing”, suggesting Nostradamus-like capabilities reside within Whitehall. Even this was not the first time similar intervention capabilities have been enshrined in law: legislation passed in 2007 allowed councils to step in to put pressure on the managements of schools which were said by exam stats to be “coasting”.(See story here) Thus, the 2009 Act was itself a ramping up of powers which are now, a few days later, deemed insufficient.

So what is the point of the new bill? How could it possibly go further than the powers already, now, on the statute book? Well, the news story puts forward some other elements to be included, such as forcing schools to conduct annual surveys of parents, and to draw up an “action plan” to tackle problems. The story adds: “The bill will make it easier for offending (my italics) institutions to be taken into partnership with successful schools, be run by outside education providers or even, in extreme cases, be closed by ministers.”

Again, leaving aside the potentially offensive - to those working in these schools - language,  I am struggling to see much that is new in all of this. And if these powers were needed, why were they not included in the previous bill? The obvious, cynical perhaps but then watching what goes on closely encourages that kind of viewpoint, explanation is party politics: it make sense to have a new bill, and a new set of headlines, which purport to show a government which is tough on ”underperformance”. A governing party in need of votes needs to present afresh its policies to voters. Another law helps it to do that. So we get another law.*

Being charitable to the Government, it could simply be that local authorities, who have had these intervention powers for a while now, have not been keen enough to use them, and that pupils and their parents are the losers. Mr Balls accused some local authorities in his article of “dragging their feet” on intervention, and refusing to react to poor results by forming plans to turn the school in question into an academy, or to form a partnership with another high-performing school.

This, for me, is the key to the whole debate. When a local authority, or a school, decides to take action which might be seen from afar as not doing enough to tackle underperformance, who is best positioned to make the judgement as to whether this is right or not? For the Government, looking at the statistics of a school’s results from Whitehall, this position may look like complacency. But local people can have all kinds of reasons for deciding to take this course of action: they may not like the form of an academy proposal; they may have reservations about the fact that academies often replace clear local accountability and control by a community with handing power to a sponsor and to the Department for Children, Schools and Families; or they may believe that the school’s management is best placed to lead it under the current arrangements. Although institutional changes will give the impression that something is being done, many will argue that the key to good schooling is the quality of teacher-pupil interaction in the classroom, and simply changing institutional structures, which can be traumatic for pupils, may not be answer.

They may, then, have legitimate reasons for hesitancy. But our democratic system operates, now, from the political centre with statistics – rather than the day-to-day local engagement with an institution which one might get from, say, visiting it – the prime means by which one “sees” the quality of any school, hospital or whatever. Under this structure, local views can effectively be written off as “complacency”, and Mr Balls’s view is the one that must prevail. The true wisdom of what to do in any given situation, then, comes from Whitehall and Westminster, backed by results spreadsheets. But crucially, of course, as argued in my book, the accountability that occurs here is at the at-times superficial level of the official stats; it cannot see the prices that are sometimes paid by pupils in the drive to raise the numbers, such as the focus on particular courses, particular pupils or through teaching to the test.

As should be clear, these arrangements now vest a lot of trust in the Secretary of State, the one person through which democratic accountability effectively now travels. Under this line of argument, he is the guard against complacency within the public sector: by teachers, heads and local authorities. And, in taking action to intervene, he will always act in the public interest because…the public interest is for our schools to improve, as measured by the Secretary of State’s performance measures. Anyone questioning this is, by extension, simply another of those looking to excuse decades of underperformance.

There are a huge number of questions behind all of this. Perhaps the most pressing, though, is whether the exam numbers themselves, which have improved over recent decades, represent true progress, or something else. If it’s the latter – and, as my book argues, “gaming” of the system to generate the results it demands is likely to be a factor in some of the gains – big prices may be being paid.

 *The Conservatives will also be in on the act if elected: Michael Gove, Mr Balls’s shadow, promised in his speech to the party’s annual conference to take tough action in struggling schools as soon as/if they are elected. I am told that this will use Ofsted inspections as a key judging mechanism, rather than only relying on stats.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on November 15th, 2009

Tuesday, November 10th

I was at the Guardian’s Innovation in Education conference in London yesterday, and noticed several comments arguing that the current accountability regime stifles fresh thinking in schools.

One of the keynote speakers, Larry Rosenstock, the chief executive of a group of American semi-independent charter schools in San Diego, certainly appeared to be making this argument, although I think he was probably the fastest speaker I’ve ever heard at a conference, so it was hard to keep up.

But he appeared to be arguing that centralised standards-setting and regulation by, for example, high-stakes testing and regulation, could drain the life out of a school system.

He said:  “If setting standards translates as expectations and challenge for students, then I am totally for that. But what tends to get practised in schools is standardisation of what is provided, which tends to suck the oxygen of innovation out.”

The director of the Finnish National Board of Education also argued that his country’s high-trust system, which lacks an English-style inspection system, league tables and national tests, helped promote fresh thinking.

But for me perhaps most powerful were the comments I received from those on the floor of the conference. A local authority adviser told me that innovation in education was all very well, but it wouldn’t happen while schools are under such huge pressure to demonstrate immediate, short-term results. The epitome of this was the Government’s National Challenge programme, under which schools are threatened with closure or take-over if their results remain below 30 per cent achieving five A*-Cs at GCSE, including English and maths. In this environment, it must be difficult for any other thinking than desperate back-covering in the drive for better scores take precedence.

This adviser said that those well above this threshold were reluctant to change what they were doing, with an “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” view of what they did. Those just above the line thought they better not risk doing anything differently, for fear of falling below it. Ironically, it was only those who were well below the cut-off who thought they might as well try something alternative, as they had nothing to lose.

He added that the targets culture undermined true education. He said: “The way that schools hit their targets is by narrowing the curriculum and manipulating things. That’s not education.”

An employee of a national advisory body said: “There are many significant barriers to innovation at the moment [in the form of ]accountability for short-term improvement and targets. It’s really frightening for teachers: who is prepared to put their career on the line to do something different?”

A teacher from the floor said: “The prevailing conditions are probably against innovation right now. We have got a potential change of government, so people do not know what the situation will be next year. And Ofsted is increasingly focusing on data such as contextual value added scores, and performance especially in maths and English, so I do not think the conditions are particularly favourable for innovation.”

To be fair, the view of the conference overall was more optimistic: two thirds of the 200 or so there agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the current conditions present great opportunities for radical innovation in education”. But the influence of the accountability regime was a common theme throughout the day, and “fear” was top of the reasons why conference guests worried that innovation might be stifled.

To be clear, and this may be slightly heretic to those attending the conference, I don’t personally see innovation as a good in itself. it could be argued that experiments with learning that do not work – which are surely a likely risk for truly radical innovation – are too high a price to pay when each student only gets one chance at full-time compulsory study. Therefore, it could be argued that a truly radical free-for-all in terms of new approaches to learning is a step too far. But, as ever with this subject, it is a question of balance. The ability of a system to promote sufficient engagement from teachers to want to change practice for the better – their intrinsic motivation to do a better job – does seem to me to be something that we undermine at our peril.

As another aside,  it is interesting that it is the accountability system, not other apparently significant changes which appear to suggest more freedom to teachers such as the recently reformed and stripped down secondary curriculum, which are perceived as having more influnce on whether true innovation flourishes.

All in all, the effect on innovation of the current standards straitjacket could be another disadvantage to put on the seemingly ever-growing list.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on November 10th, 2009