No 64, Spring 2008
DESTRUCTIVE POLICIES BEGIN TO BITE
Instead of ensuring every school offers an acceptable education, ministers and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) are undermining good schools by manipulating their admissions, 'federating' them with less popular institutions and even closing them down.
In February, the DCSF co-published yet another report that favours social engineering over parental choice. Secondary School Admissions by John Coldron et al (Sheffield Hallam University and NCSR) recommends 'positive action' by admission forums and local authorities where school intakes are 'socially distinct to an unacceptable degree'. However, the report also notes that when seeking school places, '25% of parents did not apply to their nearest maintained school', because of 'poor reputation, poor exam results and problems with behaviour/discipline.'
At present, there are 638 state secondary schools (1 in 5 of the total) where fewer than 30% of pupils achieve at least 5 grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. But is this a result of incompetent management and ineffective teaching, or the schools' 'unacceptable' intake?
The consequences of undermining popular schools and parental choice were highlighted in Spring, when the media focussed on the results of this year's secondary school admissions. Out of around 550,000 11-year-olds applying for places, 1 in 5 was unable to get into the school of their choice. More than 30,000 children could not get into any of their parents' preferred schools. On 9 March, The Sunday Times reported that more than 5,000 children in London were denied a place in any of their preferred schools. In Birmingham, it was 980, in Kent 840 and in Leeds 640.
On 7 January, The Sunday Telegraph had reported that: "Headteachers fear that the £45 billion Building Schools for the Future scheme is being used as a 'Trojan horse' by officials who are hostile to grammar schools and faith schools." (And, it should be noted, single-sex schools.)
Such hostility is not confined to state schools. Criticising the government for using charity law to undermine and control independent schools, The Daily Telegraph leader (12 March) noted that: 'The government seems to have decided that the way to achieve equality in education is to undermine good schools, rather than to improve bad ones...It is not only private schools that are being targeted in what looks very much like a political war of attrition against academic excellence.'
Ministers avoid accountability by pretending that decisions to merge or close good schools are taken locally. A Suffolk County Council document (see local update, page 3) suggests otherwise: ministers will not hand over £600m of Building Schools for the Future funding until the local authority agrees 'detailed plans' on how to 'improve' its schools.
But he who pays the piper calls the tune. Ministers want to improve schools by creating fewer, larger institutions that are all exactly the same. They also want to reduce access to good schools and force children into 'federated', multi-agency institutions with compliant 'superheads' and single governing bodies. Even the influence of independent-minded governors may soon be ended by replacing them with paid 'professionals'.
Once good schools change their ethos, or lose their premises or staff, they are probably gone forever. Is that really the best way forward?
ACADEMIES: A MODEL EDUCATION?
A new pamphlet, Academies: a model education? by Richard Tice was published in February by the Reform think tank. The author is a successful businessman and chairman of governors at Northampton Academy in Peterborough. He is also a board member of the United Learning Trust, which sponsored the Academy.
The (limited) freedoms enjoyed by academies, Mr Tice explains, are more important in producing improvements than the provision of expensive new buildings. He differentiates between the academy 'model' and the academy 'programme', which will take too long to complete. Changing the ethos and management of all schools could be done quickly, easily and at much less cost to taxpayers.
Whilst the academy model is right, school leaders are hampered in their efforts to improve the teaching and discipline in their schools by the teaching unions' refusal to allow pay and conditions to be set according to individual requirements. They are also hampered by not having full authority to exclude disruptive pupils, because their decisions may be over-ruled by independent appeals panels. Even so, the academies' ability to ignore many local authority rules encourages a 'refreshing' objectivity and a common sense approach.
Academies: a model education? includes many sensible recommendations. It costs £15 from Reform, 45 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3LT.
PRIMARIES THREATENED TOO
Primary schools are threatened as well as secondaries. Last year, the government's Primary Strategy for Change said spare places must be cut below 10%. This was a perfect excuse for local authorities, especially those with small village schools, to plan closures.
On 2 February, The Daily Telegraph reported that around 12 counties were cutting the number of rural schools. At least half the primary schools in the Isle of Wight were threatened. Herefordshire had plans to close or merge 37 schools. In Shropshire, 22 schools faced closure, though 1,000 protesters at a council meeting persuaded elected members to modify their plans.
And many primary schools are hugely over-subscribed. On 26 February, The Sunday Telegraph reported that popular primary schools around the country have up to 10 children competing for each available place. Caroline Chisholm Primary in Northampton had almost 300 applicants for 30 places. Newton Farm First School in Harrow had 9 applicants for each place. St Mary's C of E Primary in Richmond had 233 children chasing 60 places.
Fortunately, the media coverage made schools minister Jim Knight backtrack on the earlier guidance: popular and successful primary schools should now be kept open as a 'top priority'.
PROBLEMS SHARED, ASSETS STRIPPED
Ed Balls, the education secretary, has announced that, in future, schools must follow a 'one-out, one- in' rule. Heads who expel a pupil will be forced to replace him or her with a trouble-maker excluded from another school.
It has also been reported that Ed Balls and his predecessor personally agreed to the sale of 19 school playing fields last year. Since 1997, around 187 school playing fields have disappeared, despite Labour's manifesto promise that such sales would cease. Gone, too, are 1,331 pieces of land smaller than an acre, which may be sold without ministerial approval. A further 53 playing fields owned by schools and local communities are thought to be under threat.
PARENTS CONFUSED ABOUT DIPLOMAS
An ICM poll has found that only 19% of parents understand the government's new diplomas, compared with 77% who understand GCSEs and 57% who understand A-levels. Ministers hope to improve the diplomas' popularity by increasing the academic subjects on offer. But their efforts are negated by news that a diploma in hair and beauty will be worth more UCAS points than 3 top grade A-levels, though the latter require more study time.
Meanwhile, grammar and independent schools are shunning the diplomas. They are right, especially when Professor Adrian Smith, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, says the maths included in diplomas will not be adequate for higher education. 'It will leave UK school and college leavers lagging still further behind their European counterparts', he told The Times. So instead of introducing complicated, inadequate diplomas, why don't ministers improve GCSEs and A-levels, and offer fully accredited International GCSEs and O-levels (which are still produced) as choices for those who prefer them?
MORE ESTABLISHMENT LUNACY
Schools minister Jim Knight and children's minister Beverley Hughes have announced a review of sex and relationship education (SRE). The steering group, whose members are all chosen for their 'expert knowledge of SRE', will be co-chaired by Joshua McTaggart of the UK Youth Parliament, which has been pushing for 3 years to get 'better quality' SRE in schools.
What is meant by 'better quality'? As SRE has expanded, sexually transmitted diseases have spread like wildfire. A programme produced by the Sex Education Forum for the DCSF asks youngsters if SRE 'should teach you to make choices, not tell you what to do'. The government approved response is to 'agree'. Norman Wells, the director of Family and Youth Concern, has described the programme as 'verging on brainwashing', which it obviously is.
And Helena Romanes School in Essex is taking 20 pupils aged between 14 and 16 on a trip to Amsterdam's red light district at a cost of £3,000. The teenagers will also visit the 'cannabis college' information centre, which promotes the drug and boasts about its 'beautiful' marijuana plants (Daily Express, 29 March).
Some good news though. A group of Muslim parents has persuaded Easton Primary School and Bannerman Road Community School in Bristol to withdraw two story books for children, which promote same-sex relationships (Daily Mail, 2 April).
AND STAFFING CHAOS
Fewer than half the teachers who passed the government's National Professional Qualification for Headship have actually become heads, the Financial Times reports (2 April). Although millions of taxpayers' pounds are available to train heads and there are many vacancies, it appears that being a head is 'not seen as an attractive job'.
Earlier it had been reported that the government's £89m Fast Track programme for identifying school leaders had produced only 6 heads with another 170 taking senior posts. So the cost to taxpayers averages more than £500,000 per graduate.
Also, the Policy Exchange think tank estimates that 18,000 more primary teachers will be needed by 2015, if class sizes are to be maintained. And the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research has found that incompetent teachers do not leave the profession when they are called to account. They simply move to other schools.
Kent: News that four more single-sex schools in Kent may go co-educational, almost certainly to comply with BSF funding requirements, has not been universally acclaimed. Plans are afoot to 'federate' Ramsgate's Chatham House Grammar School for boys and Clarendon House Grammar School for girls into a single institution with fewer admissions. There are also plans to merge the Bradbourne (girls) and Wildernesse (boys) schools in Sevenoaks to create an academy. Officials argue that a £50m academy will encourage bright youngsters to remain in Sevenoaks for their secondary education instead of travelling to grammar schools in other towns. That seems unlikely – unless, in due course, the authorities intend to limit the choice of schools on offer.
On 25 January, the Kent Messenger featured Dr Chris Gerry, one of the educational establishment's celebrity 'superheads'. Dr Gerry was in the news last year, when he co-authored a report with Professor David Hargreaves calling for the present system of national testing to be scrapped. At present, he is head of the Cornwallis and New Line Learning Academies in Maidstone, which were created by federating/merging three schools. As someone responsible for the education of 2,600 youngsters, he seems remarkably complacent. He claims that his educational philosophy is based on extensive research, which includes why children enjoy going to school. He seems happy with the idea that measuring the success or failure of his academies 'could...be generations away'. But is it ethical to turn generations of youngsters into human guinea pigs, especially when exam results from his academies are not being published on the grounds that the schools have not been operating long enough? In the first 3 months of this year, Dr Gerry's travelled to Shanghai, Athens and Seattle. And on 29 February, the Times Educational Supplement reported that he had sent 16 teachers to Yale University to learn how to become 'emotional intelligence coaches' at a cost of 'a few thousand pounds' out of the academies' £15m annual budget.
Lincolnshire: The management of Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) schools continues to baffle governors and parents. LCC pays around £2m a year to the CfBT Education Trust to run its 'School Improvement Service'. But whilst trying to assess the need to form a 'hard' co-educational federation between Boston (boys) Grammar School and Boston (girls) High School, parents led by Phillip Bosworth and Debbie Evans have learnt that admissions to LCC's grammar schools are decided by the Lincolnshire Grammar School Heads' Consortium. As their schools produce such excellent results, you might expect these heads to ensure as many children as possible get the opportunity to attend their schools. Not so. The Heads' Consortium has agreed to reduce the proportion of children allowed into grammar schools from 28% to 25%. Even the 25% proportion is not always adhered to. Figures obtained by parents under the Freedom of Information Act show that in 2006, 118 girls and 89 boys were given places in the two Boston grammar schools. In 2007, admissions were reduced to 73 girls and 81 boys. This loss of 53 pupils in a single year means the federated schools face a cut of perhaps £185,000 in their budgets. Isn't it strange that this has been meekly accepted by almost all the governors?
Stoke-on Trent: Good news from Stoke. It was announced in February that St Joseph's College, a popular and successful grammar school and the only one in the area, would not be closed. A re-organisation plan put forward by Serco, the private company sub-contracted to improve local schools, had recommended the closure of St Joseph's. But a hard-fought campaign and overwhelming support from all quarters, including some Labour MPs, has won a reprieve. The key question here, of course, is why should a successful and popular school need to fight for its existence in the first place? And what pressures were put on Serco to consider such a plan as part of the £200m it hopes to receive from central government's BSF programme?
Suffolk: Suffolk County Council's plan to close the excellent Clare Middle School and Technology College is still being fought by an active parents' group hoping to keep it open and expand it into an 11 to 16 secondary school. But the Council's School Organisation Review is restrictive and anti-choice: 'The preferred size for secondary schools should be in the range of 6 to 10 forms of entry, with an optimum size of 1200, excluding sixth form. The size of the sixth forms should be no less than 200 in number in 11 to 18 schools.' Councillors suggest that: 'An investment of around £600 million could be available for Suffolk schools through the Building Schools for the Future programme'. However: 'The Government will not give us this money unless we have a clear vision for the future and detailed plans about how we will improve our schools.' So who is controlling the system here? Are larger schools and fewer of them automatically better? How will longer journeys to school for 12-year-olds improve their education? And who decides that Clare Middle School should be closed, while Castle Manor Business and Enterprise College in Haverhill, where only 23% of pupils achieve 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, should be expanded? Rosalind Turner, the council official in charge, proposes 'a world class education system for Suffolk'. What exactly does 'world class' mean?
Trafford: Trafford is always among the top local authorities in the country when GCSE results are published. Its successful mixture of grammar and modern schools (known locally as high schools) turns out, on average, 61% of 16-year-olds with 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths – 14% better than the national average. Two modern/high schools in Trafford show what can be done with firm discipline and good teaching. By definition, the local grammar schools will take many, if not all, of the most academically gifted pupils. Yet the 5-plus A*-C GCSE percentage including English and maths at Ashton-on-Mersey (high) School is 55% and at Wellington (high) School, it is 62%.
Waking Up to the Morning After Pill: How parents are being undermined by the promotion of emergency hormonal birth control to under 16s by Norman Wells and Helena Hayward tells how the state is increasing the availability of the 'morning-after' pill to under 16s though Primary Care Trusts and multi-agency schools. £7.00 inc p & p from the Family Education Trust, Jubilee House, 19-21 High Street, Whitton, Twickenham TW2 7LB.
Quest, No 99, Spring 2008, includes a useful update on the teaching of reading by Jennifer Chew, who helped to write the new phonics-based government guidance which followed the Rose Report. Those who are not members of Queen's English Society (to whom Quest is free) can obtain a copy for £4.00 from the editor, Ciaran Guilfoyle, 23 Dale Road, Spondon, Derby DE21 7DG.
The Society of Women Writers and Journalists has organised a Joyce Morris Symposium entitled 'Good English Matters' at 6.45pm on 5 June 2008 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. Speakers include Baroness (Shirley) Williams, Barbara Large and Dr Bernard Lamb. Tickets cost £12 and must be pre-booked from the SWWJ secretary, Pamela Birley, Flat D, 49 Christchurch Street, Chelsea, London SW3 4AS.
Extending what schools do risks diluting their core purpose – Appointing Mr Balls to education and splitting the brief to give it two seats in cabinet suggests that education is central to Mr Brown's plans for Britain. It also indicates the likely direction of his schools policy. In recent years schools have expanded from being seats of learning into providing a wide range of services for young people and their families. Although there are more teachers than there were, the number of other staff has gone up much more, while the number of students has hardly changed. By omitting the word 'education' from the name of the department that runs schools, Mr Brown signals that this transforming trend will continue. The Economist, 7 July 2007.
As soon as a school has become a desirable destination, it becomes the target of resentful micro-managing and clumsy social engineering. Consider the report [Secondary School Admissions, page 1] published by eight academics yesterday at the behest of the Department for Children, School and Families. It found that letting schools select their pupils was contributing to inequality ...There is, of course, a logical flaw here: the idea that good schools will remain good schools when bright children with well-motivated parents are excluded. Daily Telegraph leader, 1 February 2008.
Philip Harte, the headteacher of St George's [Roman Catholic High School in Salford], said: 'We are oversubscribed and got a brilliant Ofsted report. A struggling school next door got 108 applications last year, 132 short of its admissions number. Yet the council spent £25m on it and is threatening to close us down.' The Sunday Telegraph, 7 January 2008.
If a [private] school is determined not to show any public benefit, it cannot be a charity. And the law does not allow a school to walk away from being a charity and take assets with it. We can take those charitable assets and redistribute them. This is not about class war; it's about maintaining the integrity of charitable status. Dame Suzi Leather, head of the Charity Commission and Labour Party member, whose own daughter attends a private school. The Sunday Times, 30 March 2008.
The current GCSE system already greatly overstates students' ability: the shift towards modular GCSEs will make the situation far worse. I teach students at a sixth form college and we know that having 5 grade Cs proves absolutely nothing...We receive students who know next to nothing and expect to do almost nothing for themselves; they tell us that at their previous schools their teachers did all the difficult bits for them (teachers, you note, not their parents), or told them what to write, and they frequently become angry when we refuse to do the same. Jill on The Times website, 8 April 2008.
I would be gutted after years of putting time and professional effort into the students I teach, helping their education and preparing them for adult life, to find out that some have said 'I decided to join the Army.' NUT delegate Stefan Simms quoted in the Daily Mail, 26 March 2008.