Government is failing on education a€“ time for councils to take control

Government is failing on education a€“ time for councils to take control

guardian.co.uk

A child alone in a school playground

Is it time for local government to go it alone on school reform? Photograph: Alamy

In January this column highlighted the urgency of local governmentredefining its role in light of the government’s school reforms. Over the past two years perceptions of the academy movement have shifted.

When, under Labour, about 200 of the poorest performing schools were given academy status, it was seen as freeing them from local government control. Now the number is climbing past 1,600, it looks like a school system that is simultaneously fragmenting and being centralised under the increasingly interventionist education secretary Michael Gove.

Whichever one of these contradictory descriptions you think fits, it is clear that accountability to local communities is being rapidly eroded.

The debate has been complicated by the proposal from Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw of a network of local commissioners, separate from local government, to identify poorly performing academies that should be stripped of their status or have their headteacher replaced.

Councils still have important statutory education functions on issues such as performance and standards, safeguarding, planning and provision of places and Special Educational Needs, although the boundaries of their responsibilities or their power to act are often unclear. For example, councils have little power to intervene in a failing academy or free school, and while they have the responsibility to ensure there are sufficient places, the current bulge in the number of pupils is exposing severe limitations to their ability to do this.

The balancing act for councils is to define a role that respects and promotes schools’ autonomy while acting as the champion of children and parents – unlike the bad old days when a small minority of councils seemed to champion bad teachers and poor schools.

Both Solace and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have recently spoken out in this debate. In Filling the gap: the championing role of English councils in education, Solace calls for the government to work with councils, academy sponsors and others to agree a national protocol for monitoring and intervening in failing schools. These would be backed up by local agreements on cooperation, support and intervention.

The emphasis of the proposals is on fostering mutual support between schools, with agreed measures for benchmarking performance and ready access to improvement support. In all this the council’s role would be to give voice to parents and children, particularly the most vulnerable – so there would be a strong focus on safeguarding.

From the schools’ point of view, this would balance increased local co-operation with less control by the Department for Education. The mutual support and local monitoring would also act as a welcome antidote to the peculiar terror that seems to seize schools at the mention of Ofsted.

A particular appeal of Solace’s approach is that it would strengthen councils’ work on both health and economic growth. The relationship with schools would support the health and wellbeing board and the new public health teams in co-ordinating activity around the pressing priority of teenage sexual health.

On the economy, local government can exploit its unique ability to broker relationships with local partners to champion lifelong learning – promoting the opportunities and bringing together employers with education and training providers to meet the needs of the local jobs market and tackle unemployment.

In the context of stalled economic growth and the growing scandal around A4e and the government’s welfare-to-work scheme, local government should push hard on this– the Made in Whitehall interventions of the Department for Work and Pensions are failing.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has been developing similar ideas, describing local government (possibly unwisely) as the “missing link” in school improvement.

Education is one of the few policy areas where Labour has had the courage to commit some of its thoughts to paper, inDevolving Power in Education by shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg. He talks of “a strong role for local government” but then describes a “middle tier” without definitively linking the two.

Local government should point him in the direction of Solace’s paper, while spelling out to ministers how councils can play a bigger role in education, the economy and health without threatening schools’ autonomy.

Student Loans boss to stand down

Student Loans boss to stand down

BBC |May 25, 2012

The chief executive of the Student Loans Company, who attracted controversy over his tax arrangements, is to stand down.

The publicly-funded body says Ed Lester will leave his£182,000 post when his contract expires early next year.

Until February, Mr Lester received his pay package without deductions for tax or National Insurance.

An outcry over the arrangements led to a review of public sector pay.

The review identified more than 2,400 cases of public sector staff being employed indirectly rather than having tax deducted at source through PAYE.

Recruitment under waySince January, 350 such contracts have been ended and tighter rules have now been introduced.

Mr Lester’s salary arrangements had been agreed by the tax authorities and the government. He was paid gross through his private service company based at his home address.

A spokeswoman for the Student Loans Company (SLC) said: “Ed Lester has always made it clear that he would be leaving the Student Loans Company when his contract expired in January 2013.

“He accepted the position as permanent Chief Executive and Accounting Officer on a two year contract on 1 February 2011.”

Mr Lester would not be commenting, the SLC said, and his replacement would be paid through PAYE, as Mr Lester had been since February.

The arrangement for Mr Lester’s pay was disclosed in an HM Revenue and Customs letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Exaro News and BBC Newsnight.

Following the revelations, Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander said the way in which Mr Lester received his salary would be changed and launched a review of similar arrangements across Whitehall.

Each government department has now published a list of “off payroll” appointees earning more than £58,200.

Mr Alexander also announced a consultation on a new law to require any person in control of an organisation, in the public or private sector, to be on its payroll.

Michael Gove criticises ‘bizarre’ Jewish exam question

Michael Gove criticises ‘bizarre’ Jewish exam question

guardian.co.uk |by Peter Walker

  • Peter Walker
  • guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 May 2012 13.38 EDT
Michael Gove GCSE

Michael Gove said the exam question asking examinees to explain possible reasons for prejudice against Jews was ‘bizarre’. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

The education secretary, Michael Gove, has described as “bizarre” a GCSE exam question that asked students to explain the possible reasons behind prejudice against Jewish people.

The religious studies paper, which was sat by more than 1,000 students last week, including some at JFS, a leading Jewish secondary school in north London, read: “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.”

Gove said he did not understand why the exam board concerned,the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), England’s biggest, had set such a question. He said: “To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.”

It was, Gove added, “the duty of politicians to fight prejudice, and with antisemitism on the rise, we need to be especially vigilant”.

Jon Benjamin, who heads the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Jewish Chronicle, which carried the initial story about the exam question: “Clearly this is unacceptable and has nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Judaism. We will be taking it up with the examination board and it seems to me that it is also something to raise with the Department of Education, with which we are meeting anyway to discuss antisemitism in schools.”

A spokeswoman for AQA, which awards almost half of England’sGCSEs, said there was never any intention to justify prejudice. She said: “In many exam questions ‘explain’ is used to mean ‘give an account of’. For example, in the past we have asked students to explain why some people commit crimes, but we have not intended to suggest that we condone criminal activity.

“The question concerned acknowledges that some people are prejudiced, but we did not intend to imply in any way that prejudice is justified.” She added: “The board is obviously concerned that this question may have caused offence, as this was absolutely not our intention.”

According to AQA the question related to part of the religious studies syllabus covering “prejudice and discrimination with reference to race, religion and the Jewish experience of persecution”. Students would be expected to refer to the Holocaust “to illustrate prejudice based on irrational fear, ignorance and scapegoating,” the spokeswoman said.

The lead examiner for the religious studies exam paper had looked over the answers “and has found that students have understood the question in the sense that was intended”, she added.

The board was backed by Clive Lawton, formerly chief examiner for A-level religious studies papers set by another board. He told the Jewish Chronicle: “I do understand why people might react negatively to the question, but it is a legitimate one. Part of the syllabus is that children must study the causes and origins of prejudice against Jews.”

Phew! We don’t need to worry about egalitarianism any more, apparently

Phew! We don’t need to worry about egalitarianism any more, apparently

guardian.co.uk

  • Ian Jack
  • guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 May 2012 17.30 EDT
neil from 56 up ages 14 in 1971

Social mobility can be down as well as up, as it was for middle-class Neil, pictured here aged 14, whose ups and downs have been chronicled in ITV’s 56 Up

According to a speech made this week by the deputy prime minister, there are “few more powerful illustrations of just how divided our society can be” than the continuing Up series of television documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven Up! and has revisited its participants once every seven years since. “What hits you hardest”, Nick Clegg went on, “is that in the half-century since the series began, little has changed. Our society is still too closed, too static. A society that still says where you are born, and who you are born to, matters for the rest of your life.”

Up to a point. What hit me hardest about Monday’s episode of 56 Up, the second of three, was its disappointing compression: too much was squeezed into too little time, with too much left unsaid. Britain may have some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world, as measured by OECD figures that show an individual’s earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect his or her father’s than in than any other country, but on the evidence of the Up series so far, it would be hard to conclude that Britain’s class divisions are set in concrete. That was the point makers of the original programme hoped to make when they dispatched two researchers across England to find seven-year-olds who might vividly represent class difference. But as the series went on, that sociological and political intention got lost in the interestingness of 14 unfolding lives.

“Why do we bring these children together?” says a long-ago voice on the original commentary. “Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” But nobody in the series has become an executive or a union leader, and the notion that these two categories represent opposing ends of the social spectrum looks hopelessly antique: Peter Sellers versus Dennis Price in I’m All Right Jack; the overall versus the suit; the canteen versus the staff restaurant. And all this imagery dependent on manufacturing processes that a Granada producer in Manchester could sniff if he opened a window.

The world turned out to have less predictable patterns. Of the three working-class girls from London, Sue is a university administrator and Lynn a librarian, while their friend Jackie, who has rheumatoid arthritis, can find no paid work in her adopted town of Motherwell. Tony, another Londoner, became first a jockey and then a taxi driver and now has homes in Essex and Spain. Paul, one of two boys first seen in a children’s home, helps his wife run an old people’s home in Australia. The other boy, Symon, drives a forklift truck.

As for the middle-class contingent, we find that Nick, the Yorkshire farmer’s son, is a professor of electrical engineering in Wisconsin, while two boys from the Liverpool suburbs, Neil and Peter, are respectively a civil servant and a Lib Dem councillor in Cumbria, living frugally on his councillor’s allowance. That leaves a group of five, whose voices and private schooling marked them out as upper middle class, or perhaps (bring on Henry Higgins) the lower reaches of the upper class. Suzy married a prosperous lawyer, Rupert, and so far as we can tell, lives happily with her family in a house with a tennis court. One boy dropped out of the series after 1977. The remaining three, to be seen in Monday’s third episode, went to Oxbridge. Two became lawyers. The third, Bruce, taught in Bangladesh and east London before he joined the staff of a public school in Hertfordshire.

Perhaps because these films began in a more courteous time and quickly became studies of personal history rather than an inquiry into social class, they contain few statistics. We don’t know what people earn or the worth of their houses, if they own one. It’s reasonable to suppose that all those who got divorced would be richer if they’d stayed married, and that Jackie, anxious about her disability benefit, is the least well off. But what about the social mobility that in Clegg’s words is “the central social preoccupation of the coalition government”? It isn’t entirely absent. From the outside, it looks as if taxi driver Tony and university administrator Sue have climbed furthest, while middle-class Neil, who had a breakdown and spent time on the road, fell lowest. At least in financial terms, the traffic between middle and working class has been reasonably down as well as up.

Those who look most impregnable – most immune to downward movement – come from the highest layer. What puts them there? A certain kind of education – Clegg’s kind – is at least part of the answer. Is there room for more on top? Clegg believes so, and not only more but better and brighter. Through targeted educational spending and monitoring instruments, such as the amazingly named Social Mobility Sector Transparency Board, Clegg hopes to send more children from poor families up the ladder to the top universities (at Oxbridge, only one in 100 students have taken free school meals, compared to the one in five pupils who take them at school). Achieving greater social mobility, we need to understand, has little to do with increasing social equality. A conference held by the Sutton Trust, which Clegg was addressing, unveiled research that showed how poor children in Australia and Canada stand a better chance of moving up than those in the UK and US, though the gaps between rich and poor are broadly similar in all four countries.

Phew! No inconvenient need to worry about egalitarianism! Or, as Clegg put it: “Of course, reducing inequality is a good and laudable aim. But unfortunately, it’s not the straightforward route to social mobility that its proponents suggest. In many ways, I wish it was. Life would be much simpler. Our goal would be clear: redistribution of income would do the job.” (The “I wish it was” is delicious.)

Sir Alec Douglas-Home was prime minister when Seven Up! was first broadcast. An old Etonian, he had disclaimed his earldom the previous year to fight the by-election that got him into the Commons. Harold Wilson mocked him as an “elegant anachronism”.Still, the income ratios between rich and poor were closer then, and if social mobility was what you wanted, grammar schools were there to provide it. You went nervously into a classroom one day– so much depended on the outcome – and sat the 11-plus (in Scotland “the quali” or qualifying exam) and if you had enough right answers, you joined the academic elect. It was divisive and hideously unfair, but almost certainly less so than any future selection for advancement towards the holy grail of the Russell Group aided by the likes of the Social Mobility Sector Transparency Board. Social mobility being in such demand, the puzzle is the coalition’s refusal to reintroduce grammar schools to every corner of the country. Their blazers could have badges with the motto“Liberty, Mobility, No Equality”.

Two Basildon academies placed into special measures

Two Basildon academies placed into special measures

BBC |May 24, 2012

Two academy schools in Essex are to be placed into special measures, as they are failing to give “an acceptable standard of education”.

An Ofsted report said The Basildon Upper and Lower Academies, which opened in 2009, were both inadequate in all five areas of inspection.

It said whilst some radical steps had been taken, they were not showing “sufficient capacity to improve”.

The academy trust has yet to comment on the report.

The two schools are part of the Basildon Academies Trust, which replaced the old Chalvedon and Barstable schools.

They share the same principal, who has been in place since last September.

‘Well below average’In its report of an inspection in March, Ofsted graded both as“inadequate” for pupils’ achievement, behaviour and safety, the quality of teaching and leadership and management.

It said attainment at the Basildon Lower Academy, for pupils between 11 and 14, was “consistently well below average” and students’ behaviour was “not managed consistently”.

The report added whilst steps had been taken since September 2011 to improve teaching standards, its “vision to improve practice” was “not fully shared and understood by all staff”.

The Ofsted report on the Basildon Upper Academy, for 14 to 19 year-olds, said improvements made since a previous report in March 2011 – which had raised “serious concerns” – were fragile.

Despite some progress over the past two years, it found there was a “considerable variation in the quality of teaching”,attainment remained low and students’ progress was inadequate.

As academies the schools are not under Essex County Council control.

The authority said it was “aware of the issues” but had limited powers to intervene.

Sats test scoring angers school head teachers

Sats test scoring angers school head teachers

BBC |May 23, 2012

By Angela Harrison Education correspondent, BBC News
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Head teachers in England have criticised arrangements for scoring this year’s Sats tests taken by 11-year-olds.

The National Association of Head Teachers says this year’s primary school league tables will be based on “a flawed statistical model”.

The government says this year’s results will be robust but are only an interim arrangement ahead of wider changes.

It is changing the Sats system after a review by Lord Bew.

Last week, 10- and 11-year-olds in England took Sats papers in English and maths, the results of which are used to compile the primary school league tables.

For the first time, the writing element of the English paper is being assessed by teachers throughout the year – and not just on the basis of a standard test.

This was a change recommended by Lord Bew and supported by teachers and heads.

The government has just announced the details of how the English Sats will be scored for this year and published guidanceon this.

In the past, parents have been given an overall grade – or level – for their children’s English Sats. The national target is for children to reach Level Four.

But this year, because of the changes coming in, parents will be given separate ratings for their child’s written work and their ability in reading, but not an overall grade combing the two scores.

They will be given these ratings by schools in July.

‘Disappointing’

What head teachers are unhappy about is that for this year’s league tables, due later in the year, the government will add together the two scores to give an overall grade for a child.

In essence, they say it is not statistically sound to do this because one score will be based on something that has been measured precisely (the reading test) and something that has been assessed“qualitatively” – the written work done throughout the year.

Kathryn James, director of policy for the NAHT, said: “To say that the NAHT is concerned and disappointed with the education department’s guidance on how the overall English score will be calculated this year is something of an understatement.

“We believe this guidance is built on a flawed statistical model which we have flagged up to the government. It is also disappointing that it has taken the department almost a year to produce its guidance, despite reminders from the NAHT.”

Many of the association’s heads joined teachers in a boycott of the Sats tests two years ago, complaining that they were an unreliable indicator of children’s performance and that the league tables damaged learning by encouraging teachers to follow a narrow curriculum by “teaching to the test”.

On coming to power, the coalition government commissioned a review of the tests by Lord Bew, and last year agreed to bring in his recommendations.

These included greater use of teacher assessment and the introduction of a new distinct test of spelling and grammar which is being piloted this year.

The changes should be in place for next year.

‘Useful information’

The government says the method being used to compile this year’s league tables is the best that can be achieved and is an interim measure.

It says the methodology will go through “a further quality assurance process” once the test results have been published in July and before the publication of national results and school performance tables.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said schools were being given guidance and factsheets to help them explain the changes to parents.

He said: “We asked Lord Bew to review the Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability system and make recommendations on how it could be improved, particularly in light of the concerns of head teachers and teachers. We remain absolutely committed to taking those recommendations forward.

“An overall English result has been part of the school level accountability system for many years and Lord Bew underlined its importance.

“For this year’s interim assessment arrangements, we are using the most appropriate methodology available to calculate an overall English result. Parents will receive separate reading and writing results for their child so they have the most useful information.”

Google funds computer teachers and Raspberry Pis in England

Google funds computer teachers and Raspberry Pis in England

BBC |May 23, 2012

Eric Schmidt
Mr Schmidt made headlines when he criticised UK computing classes

Dozens of teachers specialising in computer science are to work in English schools thanks to a partnership between Google and the charity Teach First.

Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt said money would also be provided to buy “teaching aids, such as Raspberry Pi’s or Arduino starter kits”.

He said that without investment in the subject, the UK risked“losing a generation” of scientists.

Mr Schmidt had previously criticised the country’s ICT curriculum.

He had said the UK was “throwing away [its] great computing heritage” by focusing on using software rather than how it was made.

The comments, delivered last August at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, prompted education secretary Michael Gove to revamp the curriculum to incorporate programming and other tech skills.

Teach FirstSpeaking on Wednesday at London’s Science Museum, Mr Schmidt outlined further plans: “Put simply, technology breakthroughs can’t happen without the scientists and engineers to make them. The challenge that society faces is to equip enough people, with the right skills and mindset, and to get them to work on the most important problems.”

Despite acknowledging progress, he described computer science education in the UK as still being in a “sorry state”.

He announced that Google would provide the funds to support Teach First – a charity which puts “exceptional” graduates on a six-week training programme before deploying them to schools where they teach classes over a two-year period.

Many stay on beyond that term while others pursue places at leading businesses associated with the programme.

At present the scheme is limited to seven regions of England: East Midlands; Kent and Medway; London; North East; North West; West Midlands; and Yorkshire and Humber.

Mr Schmidt said the donation would be used to train “more than 100 first rate science teachers over the next three years, with the majority focused on computer science”.

Rebooting computingHe said that he hoped up to 20,000 students would benefit in“disadvantaged communities”.

“It’s vital to expose kids to this early if they’re to have the chance of a career in computing,” Mr Schmidt added.

“Only 2% of Google engineers say they weren’t exposed to computer science at high school.

“While not every child is going to become a programmer, those with aptitude shouldn’t be denied the chance.”

Each of the 100 teachers will have a small bursary to buy equipment relating to their teaching. The Raspberry Pi, a low-cost computer designed in the UK, will be used in the scheme.

“The success of the BBC Micro in the 1980s shows what’s possible. There’s no reason why Raspberry Pi shouldn’t have the same impact, with the right support,” Mr Schmidt said.

Turing anniversaryGoogle has also sponsored a new exhibition at London’s Science Museum showcasing the life and career of Alan Turing.

It is due to open next month to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the computer pioneer’s birth.

In 2014, the museum will open a new gallery, also funded by Google, showcasing modern communications.

Mr Schmidt said he hopes such exhibits can equate to an image change for engineering.

“Rebooting computer science education is not straightforward.

“Scrapping the existing curriculum was a good first step – the equivalent of pulling the plug out of the wall. The question is now how to power up.”

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