Archive for April, 2010

Thursday, April 22nd

The on-line debate in which I took part yesterday, for Schoolgate, The Times’s education blog, can be viewed here:

An interesting exchange of views, I think…

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 22nd, 2010

Wednesday, April 21st

I will a panellist on a live website debate on the Sats boycott today, hosted by Schoolgate, The Times’s education blog

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 21st, 2010

Thursday, April 15th

Anyone reading Tuesday’s Tory manifesto would be entitled to think that the party had done a U-turn on an “announcement” last summer that key stage 2 Sats were to be scrapped in favour of tests taken at the start of secondary school. But have they really?

The picture on testing may not to be as black-and-white as the 120-page document suggests. But I’m still not sure.

Last June, Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, excited a flurry of interest from newspapers and broadcasters after suggesting, on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning TV show, that Sats as they are currently known would go. (A transcript of the interview is here).

Mr Gove said: “At the moment you have tests which are taken at the end of primary school… and one of the many concerns that people have is that that completely narrows teaching during the final year of primary school and all the focus is on drilling children just for those tests.

“Now we believe that what we should do is move those tests to secondary school. And the reason why is that when we’ve talked to the best comprehensive schools, the one thing they tell us is that they don’t completely trust the SATs tests and they run their own tests anyway to check the literacy level, the reading age of children when they arrive, and also to check their knowledge and overall competence.

“And we thought, why is it the case that you need two sets of tests? If the very best secondary schools are running their own tests and the primary school tests are becoming increasingly discredited, why don’t we move to one simple, unified system of testing at the beginning of secondary school?”.

Later in the interview, Mr Gove referred to this as an “announcement”, and implied that part of the reason he was keen on the idea was that it could cut unnecessary costs, by removing the “duplication” of many children being set one set of tests in year six, and another early in year seven.

This was written up on the BBC’s website as :”The Conservatives have announced proposals to scrap all Sats taken by 11-year-olds in England at the end of their primary schooling.” Other papers, including the Daily Mail and the Independent (I am sure there were others but I can’t find the references at the moment) followed up in a similar vein.

I was surprised, then, to read in this week’s manifesto the following: “We will keep Key Stage 2 tests and league tables. We will reform them to make them more rigorous.”

This then, looks like a clear case of an about-face. Having been tempted to consider reforming the system because of the wealth of evidence thrown its way about some of its negative effects, the party has simply changed its mind.

It appears, also, to be a hardening up of the Conservatives’ position even since this January, when David Cameron released a draft education manifesto which said simply: “We will overhaul the key stage 2 tests.” No contradiction that I can see there, then, with last year’s statement on the Andrew Marr show.

When I put the apparent change of position between last June and now to a Conservative spokesman, this was the response:

 “Michael [Gove] never said that we would abolish external assessed primary tests – he just floated the idea of moving the tests to year 7. We still intend to pilot this idea but needed to affirm clear support for the existing tests in our manifesto because of the upcoming union action.”

This has left me confused, then. First, although Mr Gove could argue that he was just “floating the idea” of year seven tests last year, he did refer to this policy during the interview as an “announcement”, and said that this was what the “party believed it should do”. Nor was there any attempt, as far as I am aware, directly to correct the headlines which followed. (Although party press officers have since seemed quite keen to play down how concrete the idea was).

One could argue that the quote as it stands could be read as saying that tests sat in year 7 could still be called “key stage 2 tests”, and thus that there is no contradiction with what is being said in the manifesto: ie the timing of the tests could change but they would still be “key stage 2 tests”.

But they would not be key stage 2 tests as currently understood.

The second part of the quote is even more intriguing, the spokesman telling me that there were still plans to trial last year’s idea. But of course it begs the question: if that is the case, why was it not spelt out in the manifesto? The final part suggests fear that the party might be seen as soft on the unions, who are soon to announce the results of a ballot on industrial action around the tests, helped to explain this.

If the Tories are still taking seriously the weight of evidence about the side-effects of the current testing regime to investigate other test/accountability methods, then, of course, this should be welcomed. But, whatever their reasons, I am surprised that they are not being more upfront, in the manifesto, about their thinking on an issue which affects every primary school in England.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 15th, 2010

Monday, April 12th

Where to start with Gordon Brown’s latest pronouncement on yet another round of schools reform? This was announced on the front page of today’s Guardian as the centrepiece of his party’s election manifesto.

“More than 1,000 mediocre or failing secondary schools will be taken over to drive up standards”, the paper’s coverage began. This is education policy-making-by-numbers: tired, recycled and somehow both depressing and damaging while at the same time being largely vacuous.

OK, I’ll say what I really think: I didn’t like it. Labour’s education manifesto may well have some good bits. It’s just a shame that this policy has grabbed the headlines.

First off, the “tired/recycled” bit. Well, we’ve had at least a decade, now, of stories saying that “failing” schools will be closed, that their heads will be sacked and/or that they will be turned into academies or taken over by other organisations.

The debate instantly gets framed in a negative way, obscuring the fact that surveys consistently show most parents are supportive of their child’s school. This contributes, probably, to an undermining of confidence in the state system if readers take these statements seriously. I wrote about this in 2008. (See:

If this is truly damaging, and happens just so politicians have another “reform” to announce…well, it’s not a great advert for the political process, is it?

To run through some of the policy initiatives with a similar theme: academies, first announced in 2000, have been billed mainly as a project to deal with underperformance/failure in traditional state secondaries; since 2006 the Government has had powers to increase the pressure on local authorities to “intervene” in schools where results are deemed not good enough, on any one of a handful of measures; and since 2008 the National Challenge has promoted a get-tough approach in which schools under a certain level of GCSE performance were effectively named and shamed and told to improve or be closed.

The new aspect now seems to be that parents, local authorities or schools themselves who are unhappy with the way things are going can trigger involvement from the provider of a “chain” of similar schools, who might change the school’s management. Even this is not completely new, Mr Brown and Ed Balls having announced the ability of parents to bring in federations weeks ago.

One can pull this apart in a number of ways. First, although the policy is billed as providing more power to parents, it has to be asked: how many families actually want these powers? Even if they do want them, why is Mr Brown suggesting his own target of more than 1,000 schools being changed in this way? Surely, if the policy is truly to be parent-driven, ministers should not be setting any kind of target: the number will simply follow from how many parents feel a need for this change. The policy raises other questions, such as whether the atmosphere of confrontation between parents and school leaders that these reforms suggest will really lead to improvement: should not the Government – and excuse me if I’m being naive, here – be urging families to support the places where their children are educated?

This policy, the article says, will help persuade the electorate that Mr Brown has the “energy and ideas for a fourth term” and that “his goal is to bring reform right into the mainstream of public services”.

But “reform” to what end?

If we trace the truly fundamental changes in education over the past 25 years, most of them at least had a clear rationale, whether one agreed with it or not. The national curriculum was introduced because it was argued that a framework was needed for what pupils should be taught wherever they were in the country. Local management of schools gave more autonomy to individual institutions. The national literacy and numeracy strategies came in, controversially, because it was said that teaching standards were too variable.

If federations or chains of schools are the next big thing in order to “drive up standards”, I have to ask, why? What will this change achieve?

At least one major study has shown that linking more successful secondaries to the less successful has improved results.

But the study, led by academics at Manchester University, offers no reasons why, as if the improved scores are all the evidence that is needed. In the absence of any explanation, the raised stats simply beg questions about how this improvement is being created.  Do federations improve the content of what is taught? If so, one wonders why we have a national curriculum. If they improve the “how” of teaching, were the national strategies not good enough? If it’s about better management, why do we have a National College for School Leadership (or whatever it’s called these days)? And if it’s about promoting co-operation, should not local authorities be doing this with their local schools?

Or are federations simply seen as a slightly more palatable, for schools, alternative to more drastic changes such as closing an institution?

I think what Mr Brown and his advisers are scratching around for – at least with their rhetoric – is a system which is seen to have parallels with how we behave as consumers buying products in the market. If we don’t like something, we as consumers (parents), can simply choose a rival’s product (different school chain). And the possibility of that choice forces companies (chains: federations of schools or academies) to improve their products (schools). It may also be, to borrow again from the commercial world, that a school’s association with a successful federation’s brand may improve its standing with parents.

It sounds a nice concept, but so often the policies fall down on the details. Yet politicians often seem uninterested in the detail – ie how parents and schools really interact and how the service actually works -  preferring instead to concentrate on ideological/theoretical and largely clichéd notions such as the rhetoric around choice.

As Gordon Brown says in his interview: “The important thing now is we are giving people voice and choice. Voice and choice determines how that service will be more accountable to the public, with  more rights for the individual citizen, with more guarantees for that individual person so that people will see the benefit of voice and choice in the years to come.”

Make any sense to you? Well, I struggled with it.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 12th, 2010

Thursday, April 8th

Yes, you read that right. David Blunkett, education secretary from 1997 to 2001, used characteristically blunt language to describe the state of teaching at the start of his period at Sanctuary Buildings, as he saw it, in a recent interview with MPs.

His comments were made in an evidence session to the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families committee, under its inquiry into the “foundations of the education system”.

The session, in which three other former secretaries of state appeared alongside Mr Blunkett, also saw Charles Clarke, who led the schools department from 2002 to 2004, lament the Government’s rejection of the central recommendation of Sir Mike Tomlinson’s inquiry into 14-19 reform in 2005. Mr Clarke said it was the Labour government’s biggest failure in education at that time.

Mr Blunkett’s statement came under questioning from the Liberal Democrat MP, Annette Brooke, who wanted to know if he had been guilty of “initiative overload”, bombarding schools with too many reforms.

He replied: “I plead guilty to initiative overload, because there seemed to be so much that needed tackling all at once.  Most of the criticisms afterwards are, as ever, that you did not do enough on this or that area, particularly in relation to secondary.

“I suppose that we could have eased off a little bit in relation to what we were doing in demanding changes in teaching, but if we had done that, we would have reduced the change on quality.

“We were demanding the most enormous amount of change from teachers, but frankly it was needed.

“I am a trained teacher. It was just desperately needed. We had a crap teaching profession. We haven’t any more.”

Whether or not one believes that teaching has improved in the last 13 years, this does seem, shall we say, an extraordinarily sweeping statement. Maybe my experiences of education are not representative, but I would struggle to think of a single one of my teachers from the 1970s and 1980s whom I’d describe, genuinely, as “crap”. Many were excellent. And was the profession as a whole “crap”? Well, to put it mildly, I don’t think that’s a very insightful word.

Nevertheless, his fellow interviewees did not demure, Mr Clarke, indeed, appearing to back him up. He said: “Unfortunately, I share David’s view.  The issues that needed to be addressed in 1997 were very deep. I had a school in my constituency that was in the worst five – not per cent, but five – primary schools in the country, where all the teachers, when you went in, said, ‘It’s nothing to do with us – it’s the parents’….it made me weep.”

The session was remarkable for a number of other comments. If some of Mr Clarke’s offerings might not win him many plaudits from teachers  – he suggested the profession was “extremely conservative and inflexible”- his regrets over Tomlinson are widely shared.

He said: “The biggest failure over this period of the Labour government is that we didn’t finally implement the Tomlinson proposals on 14-19. We should have done that just before the 2005 general election, shortly after I left office, for a variety of reasons. Actually, that was largely associated with…people’s attachment to A-levels.”

“People” might include, of course, Tony Blair. Mr Clarke was moved from the Department for Education and Skills to replace Mr Blunkett as Home Secretary in 2004, and there was speculation at the time and afterwards that Tony Blair had been keen to move Mr Clarke and his deputy, David Miliband, in part because of their support for the Tomlinson reforms, which would have seen A-levels and GCSEs subsumed into an overarching diploma system. Instead, A-levels and GCSEs were retained to run alongside the new diploma in a decision overseen by Mr Clarke’s successor, Ruth Kelly.

Mr Clarke was also scathing about work experience, describing it as a “fly-by-night operation: it is not done properly and it is not carried through effectively”. Baroness(Estelle) Morris, another of the interviewees, argued that GCSEs should be abolished, with tests only at 14 and 18.

Mr Clarke also talked about his belief, which I reported  on back in 2003, that supporting the teaching of individual subjects, in secondary schools, was a priority for him. He said: “When I was Secretary of State, I gave responsibilities for subjects to ministers and developed the principle of subject advisers…

“My answer for secondary education, in particular, was to try and enthuse teachers by reference to their subjects…I thought that enthusiasm was far and away the most powerful mechanism [to improve secondary education].”

For what it’s worth, I thought that was a strong argument at the time, and I still think it now. Teachers’ subject associations, in particular, I think, are very much a good thing.

Finally, of course the politicians were quizzed on the effects of high-stakes testing, which has rightly served as one of the central points of the committee’s inter-related investigations on assessment, accountability and the curriculum.

All four were intransigent, arguing that testing was vital. Lord (Kenneth) Baker began this defence by arguing there was nothing wrong with testing, saying that in many parts of the United States, they tested every term and that in his own primary school he had been tested that regularly. The others agreed that “testing” was vital.

This, of course, is a complete red herring. It is not the act of testing itself which is the problem, but what gets done with the results, as all with experience of this system surely realise. Once you put high stakes on the outcomes of these assessments, for schools and other adults, inevitably the danger is that side-effects follow as schools feel under pressure to put their own short-term need to boost test scores ahead of their pupils’ long-term learning requirements. Essentially, the danger is that the relationship between teacher and pupil can be corrupted by the teacher’s need to look good to the outside world. Not to recognise this as a risk is naive. And to try to compare the current system with one in which teachers were not being judged by their pupils’ results is ridiculous.

The committee was told that good teachers did not need to teach to the test. But the fact is that some test-orientated teaching would seem, to me, at least to appear to have a likely pay-off in terms of better short-term results. If not, I struggle to see why the National Strategies has advised schools to go in for teaching test-preparation techniques such as encouraging pupils to tailor the length of their answers to the number of marks available.

The committee itself was unconvinced by the answers it heard, however. Its report, published on Tuesday, said: “We were surprised by the wholehearted support from former secretaries of state for the level of testing that we have now.

“We re-iterate that we are not opposed to the principle of national testing. Where we do have concerns is the use of the same test for a range of purposes that cannot all be met at the same time.

“If pupils’ attainment is used to judge teachers and schools, teachers cannot be expected to be dispassionate assessors of that attainment, and teaching to the test is a likely consequence.

“We therefore have reservations – as does Ofsted – about the effects of national testing in concentrating teachers’ efforts upon certain areas of the national curriculum.

“We disagree with the former secretaries of state, and we believe that there is clear evidence that current approaches to testing reduce teachers’ scope to use their skills in innovation and creativity.”

You can read the whole report here and the full transcript of the secretary of states’ evidence session here:

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 8th, 2010

Thursday, April 8th

Apologies: having re-checked this from the DCSF statement on this subject, it looks like the “intervention” powers I wrote about in last night’s post are no longer in the bill, so the last two pars of that blog are wrong.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 8th, 2010


Wednesday, April 7th

It’s bizarre what’s happened to the last education bill of this Parliament today, with the scrapping of changes including the Rose primary curriculum reforms, compulsory sex education classes and the proposed school report card.

The trigger was the failure of the Government and the Conservatives to reach agreement on the bill, with the Tories opposed to much of it. With time running out in the run-up to the election, in the so-called “wash-up” period, it appears the Conservatives had the whip hand and therefore their opposition to reforms including the Rose review seems to have won the day. It’s almost as if the government has changed already.

I’m not going to comment too much on individual policies in this bill, although I have reservations about the school report card in particular: rating institutions on single grades or numbers always seemed dangerously simplistic to me.

But it does strike me as very strange that vast amounts of time, energy and resources can be expended on the development of policies which seem never, now, likely to see the light of day. (The Rose Primary Review began way back in January 2008). If the Conservatives had come in next month and decided to do their own thing, well fair enough in a sense. I just find it strange this has happened in this way before we’ve even had an election.

The Conservatives say the Government should have known that these policies were unlikely to be enacted because of the tightness of the Parliamentary calendar and the reluctance of the opposition parties to embrace them. But it is puzzling to me that we can move from a system whereby an elected government – rightly or wrongly – can by and large push its policies through Parliament (so long as the governing party’s MPs remain behind it) to one in which the opposition can dictate their terms in this way, solely because of the timing of an election. If schools have spent time gearing up for these reforms, only for the politicians to tell them they will have to start again, it seems to be to be another bad day for our already hugely over-politicised system for running education. The Parliamentary process deserves some more scrutiny over this.

It is ironic, too, that a centralising measure – new powers of the secretary of state to “intervene” when school results in a particular local authority are deemed too low – appears to be being retained in what survives of the bill as it heads towards Royal Assent. This is so even though the Conservatives sometimes talk enthusiastically about decentralisation.

The new intervention power would see Ed Balls or his successors able to direct a local authority to issue a warning notice to a school which is not doing well enough. (Previously, he had the power to advise an LA to do so but it did not have to take his advice). I have written about these intervention powers before, and suffice to say I’m not a fan of this authoritarian approach. If the secretary of state is seen as the only guardian of high standards – and teachers, school leaders and even local authorities are seen as potentially not up to the job of deciding what are reasonable expectations to have of children – then effectively, trust resides in him to do the right thing by schools, rather than in all these other actors in the business of helping pupils do well. That is, then,  a very centralised structure. If the Tories support it, it shows up again the tension between the authoritarian and liberal strands of their thinking.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 7th, 2010

Tuesday, April 6th

At a conference in London last Wednesday held by the New Vision group, the organisation set up by the former National Union of Teachers general secretary Fred Jarvis to lobby ministers on changes to education policy, I heard an interesting anecdote.

Among the speakers was the head of a very successful inner-city comprehensive. He gave a balanced view on the successes and failures of education policy under New Labour. But I was particularly interested in the following section of his speech, when he talked about the priorities he would set for ministers after the election.

He said: “I would like to see a reduction in the obsession with numbers. We interviewed deputy head teachers last week and some of their application forms were almost unreadable. Every second sentence had statistics in it, which made them very hard to read. I could get no sense of what [the applicants'] values were.”

I have, of course, no way of verifying this. But it does seem to fit with a system in which the worth of so many people is now seen almost exclusively in statistical terms. Of course, “values” are important and the mechanisation implied by this structure – and its reduction to the outcomes of results formulae – is ultimately dehumanising. 

Education by numbers indeed.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on April 6th, 2010