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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?

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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.”

Academies and Lies

An enlightening film that exposes the issues behind the DfE’s desperate drive to academise the English schools network.

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400 primary schools to become academies, says prime minister

400 primary schools to become academies, says prime minister

The Guardian  |by Press Association on November 12, 2012

Pupil writing
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Academies are in the news once again this week with an announcement by David Cameron, of the Government’s intention to convert 400 weak primary schools into academies in time for the 2013 academic year. We have two concerns with this announcement. Firstly, as we have discussed previously, academic status isn’t a panacea for failing schools.  There are a wide variety of methods that can be and have been used successfully to turn around failing schools that don’t involve the very expensive restructuring involved in conversion to academic status. Hundreds of millions of pounds for academy conversion purposes have been removed from a depleted education budget leaving other schools short of funds. Conversion to academy status isn’t a successful policy for all schools and shouldn’t be regarded as such. Secondly, with the Government constantly shifting the goalposts in order to undermine schools and cause them to fail it appears that there is an ideological purpose behind the drive to convert all schools into academies even if it is against their will and not in the best interest of the students and that should be a cause for concern for all parents and right minded individuals who care about the future of the children of this country!

The government will improve the UK’s 400 weakest primary schools by turning them into academies, the prime minister will say.

David Cameron will announce on Monday that by the end of next year he wants the schools to be paired with sponsors to turn them into academies as part of coalition efforts to improve education in the poorest-performing schools.

The move comes as the cabinet prepares to attend a special meeting at an academy later. Cameron will say: “The driving mission for this government is to build an aspiration nation, where we unlock and unleash the promise in all our people. A first-class education system is absolutely central to that vision.

“We have seen some excellent progress with our reforms, including turning 200 of the worst performing primary schools into sponsored academies, and opening more academies in the last two years than the previous government opened in a decade.

“Time and time again we have seen how academies, with their freedom to innovate, inspire and raise standards are fuelling aspirations and helping to spread success. So now we want to go further, faster, with 400 more under-performing primary schools paired up with a sponsor and either open or well on their way to becoming an academy by the end of next year.

“It is simply not good enough that some children are left to struggle in failing schools, when they could be given the chance to shine.”

At the previous general election, there were 203 academies but they were all secondary schools. There are now 2,456 academies and a further 823 in the pipeline. Of the new academies, 333 were formerly failing primary or secondary schools. Ministers plan to spend up to £10m to develop new sponsor links.

Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry

Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry

guardian.co.uk

  • Press Association
  • guardian.co.uk, Sunday 10 June 2012 04.49 EDT
Michael Gove

Michael Gove, the education secretary, wants to make English teaching at primary schools more rigorous. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Children as young as five will be expected to learn and recitepoetry by heart in a major overhaul of the national curriculum for schools in England.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, will promise a new focus on the traditional virtues of spelling and grammar when he sets out his plans for the teaching of English in primary schoolslater this week.

At the same time, Gove will put forward proposals to make learning a foreign language compulsory for pupils from the age of seven.

Under his plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek, as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014.

Gove is said to be determined to make the teaching of English at primary school “far more rigorous” than it is at present.

He also hopes to reverse the decline in pupils taking foreign languages at GCSE by making them mandatory for the first time at primary school level.

Ministers believe that equipping children with foreign language skills is essential if they are to be able to compete in a global economy and support economic growth in future.

Officials acknowledge the proposals are likely to be controversial with some people arguing that they are too demanding while others will feel they are not demanding enough.

Gove is said to be keen to promote a public debate on the plans before redrafting them for a formal consultation later in the year.

They follow a report on the future framework of the national curriculum in England drawn up by an expert panel chaired by Tim Oates, the director of research at the Cambridge Assessment exam board.

On the teaching of English, the aim is to ensure that pupils leave primary school with a strong command of both written and spoken English, with high standards of literacy.

It will call for a systematic approach to the teaching of phonics as a basis for teaching children to become fluent readers and good spellers.

It will also emphasise the importance of grammar in mastering the language, setting out exactly what children should be expected to be taught in each year of their primary schooling as well as lists of words they should be able to spell.

At the same time the study of poetry will become an important part of the subject at primary school level.

From Year 1, at the age of five, children will be read poems by their teacher as well as starting to learn simple poems by heart and practise recitals.

The programme of study for Year 2 will state that pupils should continue “to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear”.

More generally the curriculum will place a much stronger emphasis on reading for pleasure with children from Year 1“becoming very familiar with key stories, fairy stories and traditional tales”.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We will be making an announcement on this shortly.”

Should Schools Become Academies?

Headteachers claim forced academy status is unjustified

 

A worrying article was published in the Guardian on 7th May 2012 that highlights an increasing trend in schools being forced into converting to academy status against their will and unnecessarily. Under the Academy Act 2010 schools can be forced down this route if their exam results or Ofsted inspections show that they are failing. But the cases examined in the Guardian report do not fall under any of the categories that would warrant compulsory conversion.  Worse still a growing number of head teachers and school governors are reporting that threatening tactics are being used by DfE officials to scare them into changing the status of their schools.

Anna Jones (whose name has been changed) is a headteacher with a proven track record in school improvement having brought a school out of special measures. She was appointed to run a Birmingham primary school and tasked with repeating her achievements. Through solid management, extensive monitoring of teacher performance and pupils’ achievements and attainments the hard work is paying off. The school is out of special measures having been assessed as satisfactory after the last Ofsted visit and is oversubscribed in some year groups. Furthermore, pupil achievement and attainment is increasing rapidly and according to internal tracking of progress more than 60% of their 11 year olds will pass English and Maths SATs this summer.  The 60% figure is the new floor target for schools recently set by Ofsted.  According to Jones:

“This is a large school in an area of multiple deprivation.”

Jones also pays tribute to her deputies, who, she says, have:

“worked really hard to pull it up”. Now “we have quality and improved teaching and learning. We have very robust self-evaluation and our improvement plan is led by that”.

However, despite all these improvements she has been informed that her school will be forced into academy status if she and her governors do not vote to apply to become an academy as it will be evidence of “weak leadership”. Existing governors would be removed and a section 60 notice to improve issued, a new governing body put in place and a sponsor imposed.

Should Schools Become Academies?

The short answer to this is NO because there are several major concerns over the academies programme.

  1. Michael Gove appears to be confused about his own policies. Academies were introduced by the last Labour administration as an educational improvement tool to turn around failing schools. When Gove took office he opened up the option of conversion to academy status to outstanding schools. Subsequently, voluntary conversion was widened to other schools. Each school converting to academy status receives initial upfront funding per pupil. This money is removed from Local Authority funding for state maintained schools and public services and is expected to have cost £413 million between 2011 and 2013. However, there appears to have been an underestimate of the costs for 2012-13 so the figures for this year could be as high as £997 million.  That means vital services are being cut back in order to fund academies which in itself would be a cause for concern even if the academy programme was a coherent one. But the academy system was designed to improve failing schools and now hundreds of millions of pounds is being given to schools that don’t need to be converted to academy status.  So if the academy programme is aimed at educational improvement why is so much money being wasted on converting good and outstanding schools?
  2. Secondly, this policy flies in the face of the Government’s overall localism aspirations and the DfE’s claims that academies are providing more choice and control for parents. Academies have smaller proportions of local governors on their boards than maintained schools, are less accountable through the Freedom of Information Act not least in relation to their accounts and any appeals over issues with academies must be made through the DfE and its related Westminster based bodies rather than local authorities. Additionally, overall control of academies rests with the Education Secretary.
  3. Thirdly, as we can see in the case of Jenny Jones’ school the academy programme is now spreading to primary schools.  Many of the nearly 50% of secondary schools that have already converted  were motivated by the financial incentive but the vast majority of primary schools have decided that the academy system is not suitable for them and virtually none have converted. Now it seems that primary schools are being increasingly falsely downgraded in order to justify forcible conversion to academy status to speed up the spread of academies through the primary school sector. One concern is that the DfE is rushing to convert schools such as Jenny Jones’ into academy status by August in an effort to artificially inflate the success rates of academies. This is because the vastly improved SATs results will be credited to the conversion of her school to an academy; something, which the DfE strongly denies.
  4. Fourthly, there is no empirical evidence that academies produce better results than state maintained secondary schools. According to an National Audit Office Report in  2010 academies were a long way from matching the national average for the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* – C grade GCSEs or equivalent particularly when English and Maths were included. They were however, assessed as making good progress against comparable maintained schools, both in absolute attainment and relative to prior attainment. Furthermore it was judged that the overall performance trend masked “wide variation between individual academies with some performing exceptionally well and others making little progress”. In addition, a report produced in February 2012 revealed that while 60% of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C grade GCSEs last year, only 47% did so in the 249 sponsored academies.  As a result nearly a billion pounds is being taken out of hard hit public services during the next year in order to fund an education programme with a questionable success rate.
  5. Finally, much praise has been heaped upon Mossbourne Academy in London and its transformation under the now head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw.  It is proclaimed as a flagship for the academy programme. However, less publicity is given to the fact that Sir Michael turned around a previous secondary school in a similarly spectacular fashion without it becoming an academy thus proving that a whole host of factors are necessary for raising standards in a school but conversion to an academy is not one of them.  

In summary, we are forced to question why such heavy handed tactics are being employed by a Government minister and his representatives in order to forcibly convert unwilling schools into a system of schooling that is both educationally unnecessary and extremely costly to the taxpayer at a time of massive budget cutbacks and austerity measures.

Fund Primary Places Not Free Schools, Labour Urges

Fund primary places not free schools, Labour urges

BBC |March 20, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter
PlaygroundThe government should tackle the growing crisis in primary school places rather than building more free schools, says shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.

The equivalent of 2,000 primary schools’ worth of children – some 450,000 – need to be found places in England’s schools by 2015, he says.

Cash should be allocated where it is needed the most, he add.

The government says it will spend £4bn on easing the pressure.

This sum includes £1.9bn already announced for 2011-12 and an extra £600m announced in the autumn.

‘Real need’

It also includes a further £800m for the coming two years, which the Department for Education is expecting to be allocated.

But Mr Twigg accuses the government of “ignoring” what he says is a growing crisis.

He highlights the fact that much of the money promised for new places has been ear-marked for free schools – the majority of which are secondaries where pupil numbers are falling.

As free schools are parent-promoted they do not necessarily emerge where the population pressure points are.

Mr Twigg says it would make more sense to spend the money on tackling the shortfall in primary school places, but that this could include some free schools.

He says: “Across England we need nearly half a million more primary places – the equivalent of building an extra 2,000 primary schools between now and the general election.

“At the moment, the government has only promised an extra 100 new free schools, many of which will be secondaries.

“The government seems oblivious to the problem, preferring to focus on pet projects rather than real need.

“If we are to improve the number and quality of our primary schools, the government needs to start rolling up its sleeves.”

‘Salami slicing’

Mr Twigg is not saying that 2,000 primary schools need to be built, and readily acknowledges that many of the children could be accommodated in expanded primaries.

But he urged ministers to address the issue head-on in the Budget, “allocating all its education capital to meeting real need, not salami slicing some off for pet projects”.

He added that if the government did not address the real need the effect on pupils’ education would be dramatic, with many“squeezed into temporary bulge classrooms in Portakabins”.

The problem is particularly acute in London with 100,000 places required by 2015. Extreme measures are being taken to tackle the problem.

In Barking and Dagenham, where an extra 8,000 places are needed, the council are proposing to rent out an empty Woolworths and an empty MFI store. And in Sutton, the council leader has asked for permission to end the infant class size limit of 30.

In Brighton, where 2,000 more places are required, there are plans to teach children in a football stadium, a bingo hall and redundant churches.

And in Lancashire alone a whopping extra 14,000 places are needed and predictions show 11,000 places are needed in Birmingham, Leeds, Hertfordshire and Hampshire.

‘Hypocrisy’

Education Secretary Michael Gove accused Labour of hypocrisy, saying: “For years they ignored warnings about the baby boom and splurged billions on extravagant and expensive secondary school projects instead.

“When we said there was a problem, they dismissed our calls as‘nonsense’.

“By contrast, we have more than doubled funding for extra places to give local authorities the resources they need.

“Instead of shirking responsibility, Stephen Twigg should admit his party’s mistakes and back this government’s actions to sort the problem out.”

He also accused Labour of cutting funding for extra school places by 26%, saying he had doubled funding to £800m a year.

But this came after he scrapped the primary school building programme which aimed to rebuild half of all primary schools by 2023.

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