Exam head says assessment system encouraged teachers to boost marks

Exam head says assessment system encouraged teachers to boost marks

The Guardian |by Robert Booth on March 12, 2013

Girl doing GCSEs

Andrew Hall said a system in which teachers were accountable for pupils’ results and also controlled 60% of marks was behind the furore. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA
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The controversial GCSE grade boundary changes of 2012 are back in the news with the appearance of AQA’s chief executive, Andrew Hall, before the education select committee. He appears to blame the system but it is really a veiled accusation that teachers are to blame for the fiasco that has damaged thousands of students’ futures when we all know the fault lies at the door of the DfE.
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The head of one of the leading exam boards has told MPs investigating last summer’s GCSE English furore he believes teachers have been encouraged to boost marks by government measures that hold them to account based on their pupils’ results.

Andrew Hall, the chief executive of the AQA exam board told the House of Commons education select committee he did not believe teachers were cheating in the way they marked controlled assessment modules, but he said they were in a position where “their judgments were influenced by the pressures of the accountability system”.

He said this, combined with a qualification design that gave teachers control over 60% of marks, had been at the root of the disappointment caused when thousands of pupils last summer received D grades in GCSE English after exam boards moved a grade boundary to toughen up the exam.

The parliamentary hearing followed a high court ruling last month against an alliance of pupils, unions, schools and councils who alleged that the government’s exam regulator, Ofqual, and the exam boards Edexcel and AQA had unfairly moved the boundary, in a last-minute “statistical fix” to counter exam grade inflation.

The bar was raised higher than for pupils who submitted papers in the earlier January marking round and some pupils claim they missed out on sixth-form places because of the change.

Hall told the MPs his exam board’s data revealed peaks and troughs of marking around grade boundaries and that indicated teachers involved in internal controlled assessment of GCSE candidates’ work were engaged in “fine judgments”.

Hall agreed with the hypothesis of the committee chairman, Graham Stuart, that once teachers knew “all they had to do was find two more marks and magically a D would become a C” there was a temptation to overmark.

Ziggy Liaquat, the managing director of the exam board Edexcel, also said his exam board, which accounted for 10% of English GCSEs assessed last year, had observed inaccurate marking by teachers.

“We adjusted downwards 8% and we adjusted upwards 5% so there was inaccurate marking both ways,” he said. He added the evidence did not yet show teachers had pushed marks deliberately to cross grade boundaries.

Mark Dawe, the chief executive of the exam board OCR, told the committee it had not found evidence of overmarking of controlled assessment modules.

Liaquat apologised for the “distress to children and parents” that had been caused by the move to the grade boundary between the January marking cycle and the summer marking.

“We should be relentless in communicating that grade boundaries can constantly move,” he said. “We really need to educate teachers, parents and pupils in how the process works.”

Hall admitted to MPs there had been “a loss of trust” over the marking of last summer’s GCSE English. He said he had continued worries about the changes to standards in GCSE science, which is “one of the most sensitive things we are doing”, and stressed the need for work to communicate that to students, teachers and parents. “It is in the worry mix, of course it is,” he said.

Education in brief: rewriting history; more bullying allegations; spotlight on academy governors

Education in brief: rewriting history; more bullying allegations; spotlight on academy governors

The Guardian|by Warwick Mansell and Geraldine Hackett on March 11, 2013

There have been rumours that Michael Gove has written the new history curriculum

There have been rumours that the education secretary, Michael Gove, has written the new national history curriculum. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Michael Gove finds himself mired in yet more controversy. This time over the history curriculum which he has been accused of writing himself whilst ignoring the advice of history education experts. In addition there have been further allegations of bullying made against his department. It really does beggar belief how such a controversial and seemingly incompetent minister has remained in post for so long.
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A case of rewriting the history curriculum?

Who wrote the much-discussed new national curriculum for history? It is an intriguing question, with the Historical Association having said its advice and evidence have been ignored, while one Conservative former adviser to Michael Gove said the current draft “bore no resemblance” to versions he had worked on as recently as January.

So what is the rumour going around the history community at the moment? It is that the seven-page draft curriculum, with its 134 bullet points, including the stipulation that key stage 1 pupils learn about Christina Rossetti and those in KS2 about the Heptarchy, was written by the education secretary himself.

Chairing a history conference last week, the shadow schools minister, Kevin Brennan, voiced this publicly. “There’s no truth to the rumour that the secretary of state wrote up [the draft history curriculum] over a weekend?” he asked of senior civil servant Marc Cavey. “It’s a nice story, but indeed not,” replied Cavey, perhaps a tad nervously. A source had earlier told Education Guardian that the seemingly unsubstantiated gossip had featured at a recent Historical Association meeting.

Speakers at the Westminster Education Forum event disagreed over the merits of the document’s detailed content. But most were of the view that the volume of material included made it questionable whether the new curriculum would ever actually be taught in full to pupils.

More bullying allegations surface at the DfE

With Gove due to reappear before the education select committee this week to answer questions about what he knew about bullying allegations within the Department for Education, news reaches us of an official complaint that has been made about “intimidation” by one of that department’s academy “brokers”.

The complaint came in a letter sent by Tim Crumpton, a Labour councillor in Dudley, West Midlands, to the office of Gove’s schools commissioner, Elizabeth Sidwell, last November. Crumpton, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, asked the office to investigate “bullying” by the broker.

As reported in this column, these DfE brokers are seeking to push many schools towards academy status. Crumpton said he had accompanied the senior official on three visits to schools in Dudley. “On each occasion, [her] behaviour has been intimidating and bullying towards governors, headteachers and local authority staff,” he wrote.

The broker had provided no agenda or subsequent notes of the meetings at schools under pressure to become academies, while, said Crumpton’s letter, on each occasion she had said: “The minister will make you become an academy, and will intervene both in the school and in the local authority if they do not support this action.”

Crumpton told his local paper, the Stourbridge News, he had received an unhelpful response to the letter from the DfE.

The DfE said: “We carried out a thorough investigation and found no basis in the claims.”

Meanwhile, campaign groups associated with at least four schools that are under sustained DfE pressure to convert to sponsored academy status have joined together to set up an organisation called Parents Against Forced Academies. The group has aproposal on the 38degrees campaigning website which, with approaching 2,000 supporters, was top of a list of “hot” issues on the site as of last week.

Parents at Roke primary school in Kenley, Surrey, have now said they intend to launch a legal challenge against the DfE’s move to enforce academy sponsorship under the Harris chain.

Kingsdale results under the spotlight

Intriguing goings-on continue at Kingsdale school, the academy in Southwark, south London, which has been at the centre of an unresolved GCSE and BTec cheating inquiry by exam boards for more than 18 months now.

Sources say the school refused to give out its 2012 GCSE results to parents last autumn citing the controversy over GCSE English, meaning that grades were provisional at this stage. But in January, official league table results on Kingsdale – described as “brilliant” by David Cameron in 2011 – seemingly showed a dramatic fall in grades in summer 2012. The previous year, 60% of pupils gained five good GCSEsincluding English and maths. By 2012, it had fallen to 36%, which is below the government’s current 40% “floor target” minimum.

The government data does not include the effect of any GCSE English resits or appeals, and the school has now published unofficial statistics, taking them into account, which put the figure at 49%.

However, new data published by Ofsted makes it clear that Kingsdale’s results drop was not confined to English, with science A*-Cs also falling sharply, from 63 to 26%, and maths also down.

Ofsted visited the school in December and gave it a “good” rating. But some parental and whistleblower sources are puzzled as to why the latest GCSE results were not given more prominence in the inspection report, which says mysteriously that unspecified “circumstances”, leading to a reduction in revision support, helped to explain the 2012 drop.

Steve Morrison, Kingsdale’s headteacher, said the decision to hold back some of its 2012 exam data last term, because of the GCSE English review, was a practice “in line with hundreds of schools” across England. Kingsdale results were also generally good, with early-entry GCSE grades for pupils now in years 10 and 11 at a “record high”, he said.

The crème de la crème of academy governors?

The state of Swindon academy, one of seven academies that have had warning letters from Ofsted, suggests that having experts on the governing body is not always a guarantee of success. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, has been complaining that some governors are not up to scratch, but Swindon has a line-up other schools might envy.

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, the university admissions service, has been a governor there for five years. The chair is Sir Anthony Greener, a former chair of the now abolished Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Fellow governors include Colin Fraser, recently retired deputy head of Marlborough College (£31,000 a year for boarders) and Marlborough’s director of science, Nic Allott. From industry, there is Mike Godfrey, who until a couple of months ago was chief engineer at Swindon’s Honda plant. He had worked for Honda for 27 years.

The blame-hunters might direct their attention at United Learning, the academy’s sponsor, which runs its schools from the centre. United Learning is now run by Jon Coles, a former senior civil servant at the DfE.

Primary school parents in row over takeover by academy chain

Primary school parents in row over takeover by academy chain

The Guardian  |by Peter Walker on March 10, 2013

Education secretary Michael Gove

Education secretary Michael Gove, who favours academies taking control of schools from local authorities, faces a row over a ‘farcical’ consultation over Roke primary school in Croydon. Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features
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More concerns are being raised about the academising of primary schools against their will. It appears that not only are schools being forced into becoming academies there is also a complete lack of transparency over the selection of the provider. 

Parents at a popular primary school threatened with takeover by an academy chain have labelled a promised consultation a farce after the main questionnaire failed to even ask them if they wanted the school to change status.

A group of parents battling plans to remove Roke primary in Croydon, south London from local authority control have also released a transcript of a meeting in which a Department for Education “broker” told them she believed the school was failing based largely on a half-hour tour during which she thought the children looked “bored”.

The row over the DfE’s apparent desire to push the primary into the control of the Harris Federation, against the wishes of governors, staff and seemingly the majority of parents, appears to run counter to Michael Gove’s belief that academies are more responsive to local needs.

The DfE has faced parental anger elsewhere, notably over Downhills primary schoolsin Haringey, north London, which Gove made part of Harris last year despite 94% of parents telling a consultation they opposed it.

The significance with Roke is that it has no long history of under-performance, supposedly the only reason for forced conversion. Roke was targeted after Ofsted assessed it as “inadequate” in May. Governors and parents, however, said this was a one-off blip caused largely by computer problems which meant inspectors could not view data. Subsequent inspections found the problems had been largely rectified.

The DfE promised a consultation, albeit one run directly by Harris, set up by the Carpetright millionaire Lord Harris. This turned out to involve a questionnaire which only asked whether, when it became an academy, Roke should be sponsored by Harris, not if parents wanted an academy at all.

At a public meeting last week attended by Harris and some of his senior staff, parents were told the DfE had instructed the chain to redraft the questionnaire. But parents remain suspicious.

“To not even ask us initially if we wanted the school to be an academy, it’s just indicative of a whole attitude,” said Nigel Geary-Andrews, a parent and 39-year-old civil servant. “It really doesn’t seem that they want our views at all. It’s as if the decision has already been made – which we think it has. It’s a bit of a farce.”

At the same meeting some parents were angered when the “broker”, a freelance contractor hired by the DfE to work with converter academies, described how she decided Roke needed help. Val McGregor said she had spent “about 20 minutes, half an hour” touring the school before meeting senior staff and governors, concluding pupils were bored and “not doing as well as we had hoped”.

Asked by a parent how she could reach such a verdict so quickly, McGregor replied: “We could spend longer but I don’t think that is appropriate.”

The meeting was also addressed by Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, who was knighted last year. At another consultation meeting last week, parents said, Moynihan spent half the hour-long event making a phone call. One parent challenged Moynihan afterwards for this perceived rudeness.

Geary-Andrews said: “Again, this seems to show an attitude that Harris aren’t really interested in listening to parents and our views.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said Harris was seen as the best sponsor due to a record of improving under-performing schools. She said: “The children at Roke deserve the best possible education, but any suggestion that there is a ‘done deal’ on a sponsor is wrong. Ministers will carefully consider all responses to the ongoing consultation and any other relevant factors before taking a final decision.”

A Harris Federation spokeswoman said the final decision on Roke would be made by Michael Gove, not them.

She said: “Our report will not be making a recommendation, but will simply report what parents have said. We only had two responses before the meetings and we will extend the period for getting replies back to make sure everyone has plenty of time to consider the extra question. We have enjoyed hearing from parents and others, answering their questions and providing reassurance.”

Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

Dear Mr Gove: Michael Rosen’s letter from a curious parent

The Guardian  |by Michael Rosen on March 4, 2013

Four-year-old children working with numbers

Should four-year-olds have numeracy targets? Photograph: Alamy
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Michael Rosen’s latest letter to Michael Gove: Once again he asks the questions we all want to raise and says what many in the education system are already thinking. Well worth a read. 

I see that the education select committee has asked you and your permanent secretary to reappear before them. I was surprised by your response: you seem to think that this is a waste of time. You wrote to the committee saying you were free to answer their questions: “Then, perhaps, the Department for Education team can get on with improving children’s lives and you can consider where your own energies might be directed.”

I had no idea that it was your job to tell the select committee what they should be doing. Isn’t the idea of you telling others about how their “own energies might be directed” laughable?

I’ve been in several parts of the country that are reeling from the chaos of your top-down transformation of the structure of education. As was predicted, an academy can fail an Ofsted inspection. The problem is that you seem to think that turning a school into an academy is a cure and, following from that, you don’t seem to have imagined a scenario in which the cure could fail or that the cure itself might ever need curing.

So what happens when an academy fails? Presumably, as your “energies” are “directed” towards this by the red light flashing on the map in your office, you as sole commander of Academy England issue instructions: “Switch sponsors! Chuck out AET, bring in Harris! Hang on, I sent Harris to that other place. How about a superhead? Any superheads around? No? Why not? No one wants to apply for the job? Tell the head in the next-door school, she’s got to do the job or she’s out on her ear. Federate!

“Now you’re telling me that if she becomes superhead the deputy head doesn’t want to be a stand-in head? OK, this is the plan: who’s the local authority? Right, this might be tricky, but I want you to sidle up to them, tell them that I’ve never been against local authorities and see if they can … er … provide some assistance to this academy …”

Meanwhile, out there beyond the walls of your office, I can tell you that people are seriously confused about the fact that there isn’t just one kind of academy – there appear to be several different kinds. I only have nine years of tertiary education to my name, so I’m not able to understand the structures that you’ve put in place with your well-directed “energies”. I haven’t got any further than thinking that there are: old academies, opted-in academies and Govean you-must-be-academies-because-I-say-so academies. To which must be added the still-academies-even-though-they-failed-Ofsted academies. Perhaps at some point you’ll stand before us and let us know how this “improves children’s lives”.

Looking even closer, we can now see what happens when one of your favoured academy sponsors, on your instruction, takes over a local authority school. Let’s home in on a school whose parents, staff, local council and local MP all wanted it to remain under local authority control; a school where the Ofsted inspection showed it performed better than average for its least-able pupils. In came the Govean sponsors who have sent out letters to the parents saying: “Unfortunately, your child has still not met their initial target of being able to recognise their numerals 1-10.”

Fair enough, people might say. Children must be able to recognise numbers, eh? One problem: this letter went to parents of four-year-olds. Does telling these parents a) that their children have failed b) that four-year-olds should have numeracy targets c) that this is their target as opposed to the academy sponsor’s target, “improve children’s lives”?

This is a point of arrival. You alone decide that a school will become an academy. This joins it to a system that cannot cater for all children.

Through the league tables it enforces competition between schools, which results in teaching to the test. Teachers, parents and children are controlled by targets, with the ultimate result that large numbers of children are marked as failures.

But where do these targets come from? Where is the theory and evidence to show that every four-year-old should have targets; should recognise numerals; or that demanding this “improves children’s lives”?

No, I’ll rephrase that: where is the discussion about how four-year-olds learn that you and your department could start, as opposed to this kind of Gove-enforced, sponsor-directed instruction?

Tougher targets mean hundreds more primary schools risk failure

Tougher targets mean hundreds more primary schools risk failure

The Guardian  |by Jessica Shepherd

primary school tests
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The government is about to announce another raising of the floor standards for Year 6 SATs results in England’s Primary Schools. This will result in yet more schools being potentially unfairly labelled as failing and becoming ripe for takeover by an academy sponsor.  No-one could reasonably disagree with a desire to see schools improve and children’s prospects do likewise but policies like this one simply push already improving schools below a seemingly arbitrarily decided standard whilst doing nothing to change the education system for the better. Once again it appears to be motivated by a misplaced reliance on the Academy system and will be used to force more schools down this route against their will. 

Hundreds more primary schools in England risk being labelled failures after the coalition set stricter targets.

David Laws, the schools minister, will tell an education conference on Tuesday that primaries will be deemed to be under-performing from 2014 if under 65% of their pupils reach a satisfactory standard in reading, writing and maths and their school fails to achieve above-average progress in these subjects.

Until now, primaries have been said to be “below the floor target” – or under-performing – if under 60% of pupils reach a satisfactory standard in reading, writing and maths and pupils do not make above-average progress in these subjects. Under-performing schools risk being taken over by an academy sponsor.

Government officials said schools improved when targets were made tougher. Last year, 476 primaries were under-performing against 1,310 in 2011. Fewer than 900 primaries could be deemed to be under-performing under the new stricter target.

However, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the government was “always shifting the goal posts” and that this would “do little” for standards.

“England’s primary schools have been improving steadily for many years, nearly doubling the rate of children leaving with the expected standards,” he said. “There is no lack of ambition. The expected reward for that performance is always a shifting of the goal posts, so it will be no surprise to heads that the floor standard is shifting again next year. Raising the bar while reducing resources will, however, do little for standards.

Laws will also tell the Association of School and College Leaders that experts will help schools work out how best to spend pupil premium money if a school is judged to be anything less than “good” by Ofsted inspectors andis not narrowing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Schools receive the £600 premium for each pupil from homes where the joint income is less than £16,000 a year.

Primary pupils are expected to reach level four in reading, writing and maths by the time they leave secondary school.

From December, the government will publish the proportion of primary pupils who achieve a “good” level four. This is so that parents know whether pupils are just making level four or exceeding it by some margin.

Laws will say many children who only just achieve level four are not “secondary ready”. “We must ensure that a far higher proportion of pupils are ‘secondary ready’ by the end of their primary school,” he will say. “This will allow them not simply to cope, but thrive, when presented with the challenges and opportunities of secondary school … The figures do not lie – a pupil who manages a low level four by the end of primary school is unlikely to go on to achieve five good GCSEs.”

Tweeting headteachers plan to reform education

Tweeting headteachers plan to reform education

The Guardian  |by Fiona Millar on October 22, 2012

John Tomsett (second left) said Labour should do something profoundly different

John Tomsett (second left) said Labour should do something different ‘rather than hang on the coat-tails of the Tories’. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
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An interesting piece displaying the power of social media.  A number of headmasters from a wide variety of schools divided by geography and socio-economic backgrounds united through Twitter and a growing concern over the current Government education reforms met at the Guardian’s offices recently  in order to put together some alternative policies guided by their experience as educationalists and a desire to achieve the best outcome for their students. 
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Teachers and headteachers could be forgiven for thinking that they get the worst of all worlds: obliged to implement the latest ministerial whims, without having any real influence themselves on policies that directly affect a job they feel passionately about. But could the explosion of social media be about to change all that?

The saga of this summer’s GCSE results provoked a torrent of online comment and communication among teachers and heads. Now one group – mostly secondary headteachers – has come together via the social networking site Twitter to form an embryonic pressure group.

In their sights they have the shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg. Their schools may be poles apart in terms of geography and social context, but they are united in their view that an alternative to current education policy is needed fast, and that Labour is the best hope of achieving it.

Education writer and blogger Ian Gilbert came up with the idea of translating online activity into something more concrete after reflecting on Twitter’s potential for “social outrage” – but also its limits. “You can give vent in an informed way and find information,” he explains. “But you can also sit back in the evening with a glass of wine tweeting and think you have done your bit for society.

“I realised we needed to go further and get together people who have something to say. A strong theme coming through the social media was a frustration with current policy, but also frustration with no alternatives from Labour. We want to put forward the voices of people who know what they are doing. People who are in it for the kids, for the right reasons, to discuss what has and hasn’t been good and come up with some concrete alternatives.”

The group – which has no name yet – met at the Guardian’s offices to discuss their ideas. So what is good in the current landscape? The heads, from a mixture of maintained and academy schools, who were joined by Dr Phil Wood from Leicester University’s school of education, cite the focus on disadvantaged pupils and the release of data as being the most positive developments.

But the positives risk being undermined by too much political interference in curriculum and qualifications, an accountability system focused on an ever narrower range of exams, a continuing divide between vocational and academic qualifications – Labour’s Tech Bacc attracted as much derision from these school leaders as the education secretary’s English Baccalaureate Certificates – and moves towards a norm-referenced qualifications system in which only fixed numbers of students can achieve certain grades.

“We are moving back to a ‘sheep and goats system’ that will stratify society in terms of attainment and potential,” said Ros McMullen, principal of the David Young community academy in Leeds.

“We need to be able to measure improvement and this requires an objective measure where students’ attainment is judged against an unmoving standard, not one where only a certain percentage of students are allowed to hit certain grades. People should be talking about this.”

Several clear themes emerged about how an alternative policy might be shaped if Labour was “brave enough” to set out something profoundly different “rather than hang on the coat-tails of the Tories”, said John Tomsett, a prolific blogger and head of Huntington school in York.

At its heart should be a de-politicisation of curriculum and qualifications, an independent body made up of teaching professionals to drive policy in this area, and a radically different approach to assessment and accountability, the heads agreed.

Proposed changes to GCSEs were described as “an inadequate preparation for 21st-century life” that will only fuel what Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores academy in Essex, described as a growing tension between “doing what is right for our school and for our children”.

“What we have to do isn’t always the same as what we need to do. We want an acceptance that education is about more than five exams. It is about the full journey and everything else that comes with it.”

A new form of assessment would have to guarantee rigour and high standards, place no caps on aspiration, but also incorporate other non-exam-based measurements that offer the chance for “success at every level” – a particular concern to those in special needs education, who fear that their children will be “consigned to the scrap heap before they start”, according to Dave Whittaker, head of Springwell special school in Barnsley.

“We must be able to celebrate success at every level so that pupils with SEN aren’t left without motivation or aspiration. This would mean a holistic view of achievement that can genuinely show progress over time and in context. It is not fair that our pupils’ equivalent to the EBacc is a report that says “never mind, you failed, but please try again sometime”.

One suggestion is to move away from exams at 16 towards the International Baccalaureate learner profile. “The IB is an internationally highly rated qualification that includes skills and competencies,” argued Tomsett. “Our assessment system must move away from pure examinations and towards a blended range of assessments like personal projects, extended essays, oral skills, as well as formal exams. The fact that Labour can only come up with a Tech Bacc in response to the EBacc simply highlights the paucity of their thinking.”

Another theme was Ofsted and its focus on one-off judgments rather than supporting improvement. This, said the school leaders, should be addressed by transferring resources to local school improvement partnerships, and investment in professional development for teachers, allied to a national annual release of all performance data to schools and parents.

“I want to be held accountable locally,” said Goddard. “We are publicly funded with the most precious resource in the world – our children – but don’t just tell me where I am going wrong. I want the people who are holding me to account to be part of the journey of making me better.”

These individuals could be described as being part of what is now called the “magic middle” in social media. Not celebrities or the political commentariat, but trusted, persuasive experts with years of experience who blog and tweet and have the power to mobilise opinion. In other fields, businesses are trying to woo such people. When it comes to schools policy, are politicians behind the curve?

A spokesperson for Stephen Twigg said he would be willing to meet the group’s members and described their ideas as “interesting”. Some, including regional versions of Ofsted, reform of assessment and the 14-19 curriculum, were already being considered by Labour’s policy review, he said, adding “we agree there shouldn’t be an artificial cap on aspiration”.

Education Guardian will be following the group’s progress.

Five-point plan

• Schools should be assessed in a range of ways, not just judged by the numbers achieving five specific grades at 16;

• Ofsted should be replaced by local partnerships that would hold schools to account and help them to improve;

• The curriculum and assessment should be taken out of political control and given to an independent agency (under licence for 20 years);

• The government should encourage small families of local schools in preference to large national chains;

• “Norm referencing” in exam grading is not fair, ie capping the number of students who can achieve a certain grade. There shouldn’t be a cap on what individual pupils can achieve.

• Join the movement by tweeting @thatiangilbert or @johntomsett

Michael Gove attacks schools’ ‘low standards’ in Labour-led inner cities

Michael Gove attacks schools’ ‘low standards’ in Labour-led inner cities

The Guardian |by Patrick Wintour on October 23, 2012

Michael Gove

Michael Gove said MPs could either back academies and free schools or ‘stand with adults who are blocking school improvement’. Photograph: Gideon Mendel/Corbis
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Worrying news in the Guardian today that Michael Gove, the Coalition’s Education Secretary is writing to Members of Parliament (mainly Labour) in constituencies where schools are. in his opinion failing, asserting that the only way to see improvements in the schools they represent is to support his policies.  This is worrying for a number of reasons. Firstly, many educationalists would agree with our view that much of his thinking is based on political ideology rather than evidence based policy.  Indeed, some of his policies are  already shown to be failing in countries such as Sweden, once listed as one of his sources of inspiration and quietly dropped from his list in a speech at this year’s annual Conservative Party conference. Secondly, he appears to be trying to shift any blame for his policies’ failures onto opposition MPs who quite rightfully stand up for their constituents and reasonably speak out about issues with his department’s direction of travel. Finally, in a recent speech to a right-wing think-tank he basically admits that he is prepared to arbitrarily press ahead with his ideas regardless of anyone else’s opinions and any adverse consequences to rolling out untested education reforms. 

Michael Gove, the education secretary, is writing to all MPs in areas where schools are under-performing – mainly Labour-led inner-city schools – demanding they side with him to open up the education system “to the new providers who can raise standards”.

Gove has started his campaign against “the forces of conservatism” by writing to MPs in Leicester and Derby on Tuesday asking them whether they want to “keep the door closed to new solutions and stick rigidly to the status quo which is failing the children in their areas”.

He asserts in “both of these areas, standards are far too low, with too many primaries which are judged by Ofsted to be unsatisfactory, or which have performed below national expectations for many years … 2012 results for 11-year-old pupils in each region are lower than the national average, lower than the average for the east Midlands region, far lower than pupils and parents have a right to expect”.

The initiative follows the decision of David Cameron to position himself as the champion of an “aspiration nation” in which excellence in education is central to economic recovery.

The Conservatives are clearly also trying to expose divisions in Labour ranks on its approach to academies and free schools, as well as to pin responsibility on mainly Labour-run areas for delivering inadequate school standards.

In a speech to the rightwing thinktank Politeia, Gove said: “There are hundreds more underperforming primary schools, many concentrated in other disadvantaged communities, where we need to act.”

He said he was writing to MPs in areas of educational underperformance “outlining why we need to act and drawing attention to the failure, so far, of those in positions of power in local councils to move fast enough in improving our schools”.

He added: “In a number of communities the local forces of conservatism have worked against reform and have thrown every possible obstacle in the path of potential academy sponsors and free school founders trying to make a difference.”

He urged MPs to recognise “they have a simple choice: stand with those in the academies and free schools movement who want to put children first, or stand with the adults who are blocking school improvement”.

Gove tried to increase Labour discomfiture by lavishing praise on the role of Lord Adonis and Tony Blair in starting and championing the academies movement.

Adonis holds a frontbench role in the Lords and is overseeing the party’s industrial policy review.

Gove also vented his frustration at the forces blocking progress inside the civil service and parliament, saying: “Far too often the Whitehall machine is risk-averse. Media commentary rarely allows early errors to be seen in context as experiments which will generate improvements. And the National Audit Office and public accounts committee, the most influential watchdogs in the country, are some of our fiercest forces of conservatism.

“Time after time the NAO and PAC report in a way which treats any mistake in the implementation of any innovation as a scandalous waste of public money which prudent decision-making should have avoided. And yet at the same time it treats the faults of current provision as unalterable facts of nature – like the location of oceans and mountains – which should be accepted as the design of a benign providence.

“What we need, across the Westminster village, is a decisive shift in the culture in favour of risk and openness and away from small-c conservatism.”

He complains of the blockages put in the way of his education reforms, saying: “Whenever we press for faster action to help those children, there are always adults urging delay – time for consultations, audits, reviews, impact assessments, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, assuring ourselves of compliance with EU procurement rules, getting counsel’s opinion, assessing sector feedback, monitoring noise in the system, and so on.”

Gove also used the speech to mount an assault on Ed Miliband, saying it would be a category error to describe the Labour leader’s “one nation” speech as a shift to the centre.

He said: “Blue Labour thinking – Ed Miliband’s thinking – is not then a continuation or refashioning of Blairism, it is a critique and rejection of Blairism. It was an explicit disavowal of the centrism practised under Tony Blair and a celebration of an older, more solidaristic socialism of the kind which would have found favour with Tony Crosland or even Tony Benn.

“Where Tony Blair used his speeches to identify the forces of conservatism and declare war on them, Ed Miliband has used his speech to celebrate the forces of conservatism and declare he wants to become their leader.

“And the speech confirmed rather than changing Ed’s ideological trajectory. It was another step in his emphatic embrace of those who want keep society closed rather than open.”

The education secretary also ridiculed Miliband’s portrayal of his secondary school, saying he presented “Haverstock secondary – Hampstead’s principal educational establishment – as though it were some sort of school of hard knocks, a nursery of social solidarity and home of class-consciousness to rank with Durham’s mines or Clydeside’s shipyards.

“For some reason, as Ed talked of Haverstock, I was reminded of William Woodruff’s memoir of growing up in 30s Lancashire, the Road to Nab End – quoted, incidentally, in Jack Straw’s recent autobiography – where Woodruff talks of the ‘intellectual socialists’ he met at university: people who ‘collected working-class experiences as others might collect stamps or butterflies’.”

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