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Ontario Shows Us We Should Support Our Teachers, Not Shame Them

Ontario shows us we should support our teachers, not shame them

The Canadian province improved its education system by being supportive rather than dismissive of state schools, says Fiona Millar

The Guardian World News

Children in class in the UK

Schools in the UK can learn a lot from the education reforms carried out in the Canadian province of Ontario. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Whatever you may feel about his current reforms, the new head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is certainly an interesting character. In the later stages of the Blair government we used to meet in the occasional television studio, although usually on opposing sides because we didn’t agree on the role of local authorities.

However, I have always admired his commitment to high standards and unwavering belief in all-ability, comprehensive schools. So it was disappointing to hear reports recently that he had equated low staff morale with success, and a relief to see him partially retract this statement in his evidence to the education select committee earlier this month.

At the moment, the lion’s share of the public debate about education – whether from Ofsted, ministers, their tweeting acolytes or media cronies – is focused on failure. Wherever you look, schools, teachers, heads and pupils are lumped together in a great big heaving mass of underachievement. I don’t make this point to excuse inadequate performance but to pose a serious question: can you really build a better system by denigrating and demotivating the very people you need to make it work well?

The answer to that question is almost certainly no. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should read How to Change 5,000 Schools by Canadian academic and ex-education minister Ben Levin. In this book Levin, who is delivering a lecture at the Institute of Education in London later this month, charts the reform programme that has transformed schooling and outcomes for young people in the large, diverse province of Ontario over the last 10 years.

When the provincial government in which Levin served was elected, the Ontario school system was in trouble. In Canada each province has sole responsibility for education, and previous administrations had made structural changes, slashed funding, over promoted testing and gone to war with the unions. Perhaps most important, Levin writes: “The government was vigorously critical of schools and teachers in public.” The result was industrial unrest, plummeting teacher morale, low parental confidence and stagnating pupil achievement. Maybe not surprisingly, in 2003 a new government was elected on a platform of renewing and improving public education. Today Ontario is widely acclaimed, not least by both the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the OECD for its rare combination of excellence and equity for all.

There are many important messages in Levin’s fascinating, passionate and humane book.

The state matters, not as a monolithic controller of schools but as a driver for change and high expectations. Ontario learned from some of the 1997 English Labour government’s successes (when standards mattered more than structures), while being less prescriptive and recognising that support rather than punishment was a better way to tackle schools that were not improving fast enough.

The Ontario government chose a few targeted and ambitious, but not unusual, objectives: raising standards for all, narrowing gaps, increasing participation rates, and growing public confidence in state schools. But rather than experimenting with US-style marketisation policies and tinkering with structures, it developed a rigorous programme based on evidence, and began a relentless focus on implementation and building capacity at every level.

“Skill” and “will” became the watchwords, not just for teachers but for everybody involved in the education system, which progressed rapidly thanks to massive investment in leadership and professional development at school, district and ministerial level.

Public statements from government and ministers were switched to be deliberately supportive rather than dismissive of state schools. Finally, and most crucially, the government set out to build a respectful, collaborative relationship with teachers, unions, pupils and parents. “You cannot threaten, shame or punish people into top performance,” writes Levin.

It all seems a long way from home, where division and animosity prevail, parents and teachers are obliged to organise against forced, unpopular takeovers of their schools, anyone who dares to criticise the government is a closet Trot, and even the headteachers’ union is polling members on how morale is affecting their work.

It is too late for the Tories – they are too far gone in the opposite direction. But this book should be essential reading for the shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, Ofsted’s Wilshaw, and any members of the Liberal Democrats who still hope to salvage some of their party from its current hara-kiri mission. Someone will have to pick up the pieces when the current debacle is over, and this book shows how it can be done.


New Subsidy To Help Poorest Students Is Postcode Lottery, Guardian Survey Finds

New subsidy to help poorest students is postcode lottery, Guardian survey finds

Survey reveals patchy effect of system that replaced EMA on eve of national student boycott and rallies

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Students EMA protest

Students protesting in vain against the abolition of EMA last year. The replacement subsidy to aid the poorest students is not working, says the National Union of Students. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

A state subsidy to help the poorest teenagers afford textbooks and transport to their lessons varies significantly across the country, with deprived young people in some towns receiving hundreds of pounds while others get nothing.

Analysis by the Guardian reveals the subsidy – introduced by the coalition last year – has led to a postcode lottery in what financial help the poorest students can obtain while at college.

Our finding comes as thousands of university students plan to boycott lectures and take part in rallies on Wednesday in protest at the growing cost of studying for a degree. The National Union of Students has co-ordinated a week-long campaign, culminating on Wednesday, to highlight what it says is a rise in the number of young people priced out of higher education because of the near-trebling of tuition fees, hidden course costs and a lack of bursaries.

Most campuses across England are involved. A separate group, made up of students and workers – the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts – is joining the action and calling on David Willetts, the universities minister, to resign.

Our findings show tens of thousands of college students from the poorest homes are also getting a raw deal. One of the first moves of the coalition was to scrap the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – a weekly payment of up to £30 for 16- to 18-year-olds at college whose household income was under £30,800. Labour had introduced the allowance to encourage the poorest teenagers to stay in education. Coalition ministers prompted an outcry when they abolished EMA, saying it had failed to serve its purpose.

Last June, in what critics described as a U-turn, ministers announced a replacement, the 16-19 bursary fund. This scheme, for 16- to 19-year-olds, costs the public purse a third as much as EMA and allows colleges far more say over how much their deprived pupils should receive.

Under the Bursary Fund, teenagers who are – or who have been – in care, those who are disabled and those who receive income support are automatically awarded £1,200 a year. In all other cases, colleges can decide how much a teenager’s family income should be to qualify for financial assistance.

The Guardian asked 12 colleges in different parts of England what the family income of a student needed to be to qualify for assistance under the scheme. The National Union of Students said the findings showed the Bursary Fund was “clearly not working”.

At King Edward VI sixth form College in Stourbridge, West Midlands, a student whose family income is £30,800 a year can receive up to £300 a year for equipment to aid their studies and up to £100 a year for their transport. In addition, the college has a hardship fund which awards up to £100 a year to students in exceptional circumstances. In contrast, at Vision West Notts – a college in Nottinghamshire – a student whose family income is more than £15,276 is not eligible for any funds. However, they are entitled to apply for the college’s hardship fund which could mean half the cost of their course books, equipment and study trips are paid for.

At Wiltshire College, a student whose family income is less than £21,000 would qualify for up to £300 a year in course books and equipment, £60 a month during the autumn term and £50 a month from the January after their course starts onwards. In contrast, at Leeds College of Building, a student whose family income is less than £20,000 would receive a maximum of £215 a year. The college does not have a hardship fund, but adds extra funds to its bursaries throughout the year.

At Derby College, a student whose family income is £16,190 or less and is claiming certain benefits will receive an average of just £200. In some circumstances, the student may receive up to £1,000, the college said. It has no additional hardship fund. The same student would be entitled to up to £900 at King Edward VI sixth form college in Stourbridge.

Toni Pearce, the National Union of Students vice-president (further education) said the new scheme was “clearly” not working. “What we are seeing now is money being shifted from other priorities in order to top-up inadequate support funds and a situation in which eligibility is increasingly determined by postcode rather than need.”

A Department for Education spokesman said colleges should have the discretion to target funding at “those pupils who need it most”because they knew their pupils and areas better than central government.

Derby College’s principal, David Croll, said the amount his students received through the bursary fund had been calculated on how many students had applied for assistance in previous years.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges had had “barely two months” to implement the fund and communicate it to students and their families. College principals had received “limited” guidance from the government and the data used to allocate the bursary budget was “not very precise”.

“We’re naturally keen to make sure the money is spent in the best possible way, which is why we will be re-issuing our bursary advice later this month, running a conference on how to administer bursaries and working with the researchers commissioned by the Department for Education to evaluate the scheme,” Gravatt said.

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