Education has gone to the dogs

'Dogs' Lyrics
Lyrics from ‘Dogs’ by Pink Floyd

When a friend who is a headteacher uttered these words a few months ago, I was in the midst of my angst about whether I should resign or not. Mired in my own personal work trauma, I hadn’t realised at the time how true her words are.

UK Education has gone to the ‘dogs’.  And by ‘dogs’ I’m using a technical term as defined by Pink Floyd’s 1977 album ‘Animals’, in which a section of the lyrics from the 17-minute long song ‘Dogs’ goes:

You have to be trusted by the people you lie to,

So that when they turn their backs on you,

You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.

The song is about business people. That’s who state education has gone to.

Somehow, somewhere we’ve got the idea that education can be run like a marketplace. So we’ve got businesses involved in it. Companies that run academy chains and companies that market resources for a curriculum that’s only a skeleton and so is ripe for fleshing out with expensive products.

But the marketplace is all wrong. In a normal market, companies compete for the business available. Some succeed and some fail, but in competing the idea is that the consumer gets a better deal. Companies make profit and the whole thing is based on money.

But the education market is a kind of half-way house between socialism and capitalism. Every school gets roughly the same amount of money per child (pupil premium excepted) regardless of how well they are doing. Schools are then judged on student performance, evaluated by Ofsted and put into league tables based on test results. There’s very little financial reward or penalty for performance in the education market.

The very best schools can become teaching schools which can then effectively take over other schools. The very worst schools are said to be failing and then struggle to recruit teachers and take on families who want the very best academically for their children. These schools can be closed, or turned into an academy or taken over by a teaching school. However while these schools are failing, their students are suffering. Those students will never get their wasted education back. What can happen during this time is that the school becomes another province in the burgeoning empire of an executive headteacher, therefore justifying a higher salary. Or the school could become part of an expanding academy chain, creaming off more money from state education into private business.

A virtuous cycle is set up for those who are part of it. The teaching school headteachers and academy chains all know the HMI inspectors. They form a powerful network that other schools can’t easily join. They set about making their own bit of state education the very best it can be, ignoring the effect that a poor-education-for-some has on our overall society.

And sometimes they stoop to anything to make sure this happens. Before I resigned from my previous post I was lied to by those in charge. And just as it says in the song, when I tried to get on with my work having been told one thing to my face, other things where being said behind my back which had the metaphorical effect of putting the knife in.

Headteachers of teaching schools are the very people who should be standing up to the DfE and fighting for the rights of all children to have a great education. But instead they have stood by while the DfE have handed over much of the system to business, because the system has suited their growing empires.

Since moving to the independent sector, I’ve been impressed by the honesty of those who teach and work within it. It’s quite simple – you’ve got to do your job well or parents will stop paying the money to keep the place going. Everyone is clear – the school is a business. It provides education but the bottom line is money.

By contrast the half-way house that exists in the state sector blurs the lines between finance and standards. And when lines get blurry, those without moral purpose can prosper.

So what’s the fix?

First of all, ignore the distractions that the DfE come up with, such as that one about Grammar schools.

Secondly, either education should be a great socialist venture into making education great for all or it should completely go over to the market (based entirely on money: actual hard cash). The current half-way house is disastrous for everyone, except for those dogs creaming money off the state sector.

Performance Related Pay

Like many teachers in the UK, I’m starting back this week under new legislation. One of the more significant ones is performance-related pay.

This year, UK state schools have to adopt a new policy that will set out how performance related pay will work. Up until September 2013 we have been working under a regime where teachers move up a national pay spine if they are successful in their performance management, but now schools have more flexibility – the pay spine has been replaced with a ‘pay range’, with the points on it being more for guidance than a yearly progression. In addition, a greater responsibility has been placed upon Governing bodies to make sure teachers are paid according to the policy that their school has adopted.

There are a wide range of implications with this new legislation, such as teachers not being able to guarantee their current pay when they move schools, or schools being able to offer more money to highly competent teachers irrespective of their years of service. I’m sure these implications will play out in big ways and little ways, in minor successes and personal tragedies over the next few years.

My main concern, however, is not the pay that us teachers get, but it is the impact on the education of our country. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education has put government money into the Education Endowment Fund. But it is the same Education Endowment Fund, hosting the results from the Sutton Trust report, that tells us that performance related pay has zero impact on education for a moderate cost. My question: why put money into something that has zero impact?

Moreover the implications on Governing bodies are serious. Most governing bodies are made up of well meaning private individuals who want to make a contribution to society. I can imagine many of these governors may have some serious concerns about taking over the responsibility for the pay of teachers – a responsibility that had previously been held nationally in the Teachers Pay and Conditions Document. My fear is that many of these well meaning governors will step aside over the next few years, leaving a governance vacuum. And who could fill this vacuum? Academy Sponsors are an obvious choice. So could it be that with this policy we end up with an education system that costs more, is less good but has more academies?

It’s not about the curriculum

I read Michael Gove’s recent speech with a great deal of interest, partly because of the Mr Men thing but mainly because he mentioned one of my favourite bloggers, @oldandrewuk.  To me it shows the importance Gove places on argument and debate.

I’ve already poked a bit of fun at the Mr Men debate, because I think some people are missing the point. While it might be unfair of Michael Gove to single out one particular lesson, I think he’s making a general point about the need to raise expectations, or at least about the need for a debate about how expectations can be raised. My chosen Mr Man for Gove is not as others have suggested Mr Wrong or Mr Grumpy, but it’s Mr Tickle, because I think he’s trying to prod us and provoke us into debate.

When we debate education, it makes us more sure of our purpose and so we become better educators. I might fervently disagree with Gove or I might completely support his views. Either way, when I debate them, I become more dedicated to my chosen pedagogies and the children benefit – standards are raised. I know from this from my own personal journey – since starting blogging and tweeting about education I have become a far better teacher – I am more sure of what I am doing and more competent at doing it.

It’s tempting to hear Gove’s speech and think that he’s talking about his new curriculum. The history curriculum is one example that has been in particularly fierce debate (in what seems to me a bizarre reprise of a Mary Whitehouse’s experience’s 2 professors sketch).  Concerning history, Gove says:

And while some good individual points have been made by constructive critics of our draft, I have to record that, amidst all the debate which the draft history curriculum has stimulated, no coherent single alternative model has emerged as a superior rival.

From this one might suppose that it is Gove’s purpose to create one superior and coherent single curriculum for all students to benefit from. But this is not the case. Gove’s purpose is to raise standards. His strategy for doing this it increase autonomy for schools and the process he has chosen to do this is ‘academisation’. If Gove really believed that his new curriculum would raise standards for all, then he would make all schools do it. But no. The intention of the DfE is that all schools become academies, and academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

You might think it is slightly disingenuous, insincere even, for Michael Gove to spend so much time talking about curriculum stuff, when actually his key policy is academies. It could be that he thinks the academies debate is already won – academies will happen – it is just how we get there that matters now, and perhaps the new curriculum is just another tool for moving more schools to academies.

Gove says lots of things in his speeches that we can get terribly pedantic about. That is our job after all – some dictionaries say that ‘pedantic’ is defined as ‘school masterly’. For example his claim that infantilisation happens at primary schools is somewhat laughable, given that the bulk of primary school children are infants. However to focus on Gove’s mistakes can distract from the real debate.

This debate is not about Gove’s mistakes, nor is it about the new curriculum. It was, and it still is about academies. Should we have an education system of ever-increasing autonomy, or should we have a more one-size fits all approach? Academies offer the former; maintained schools offer the latter. Which is best for our society, our economy, our children and their futures? Don’t be distracted by the curriculum.

It’s all about the curriculum, isn’t it?

If you’ve spent much time reading the educational news over the last few days you would have seen and heard lots of debate and discussion around the curriculum. The DfE’s consultation on the new programmes of study is out. It is important yes. But it is not the main thing.

What we teach has a significant impact on our young people, but I would argue that it is not as important as who teaches it. Evidence presented to parliament back in 2012 shows the importance of having the best teachers in front of children, and conversely the negative impact of the weakest teachers. We all remember the best teachers, not the idiosyncracies of the curriculum they were teaching.

Yet the people who make money from education – publishers, advisors, subject experts – they all have a vested interest in the curriculum. And so we hear more debate about the nature of the curriculum, not the quality of teachers who teach it.

The teacher standards that became law in 2012 are an incredibly ambition document. Personally, if I had been under those standards when I started teaching I wouldn’t have made it through my NQT year – it was a few years before I became better than ‘satisfactory’. However, now, the old ‘satisfactory’ means ‘requires improvement’. Newly Qualified Teachers aiming to pass this year can’t do it unless they’re ‘good’. The standards are a real statement of intent – “we want the best teachers in this country.”

This means that the processes within schools have to be really good at developing teachers. Performance management, CPD, monitoring all have to contribute to developing our competence. And with Ofsted now looking at performance management when they inspect schools, headteachers now have two reasons to make sure their performance management processes are working.

So here’s what I suggest if you’re in school leadership: put the new programmes of study in your staff room and collect a school response to the DfE consultation. Don’t rush out and spend a load of money on the latest materials to teach the curriculum. Remember, the effectiveness of your teachers is governed by their own confidence, their motivation, their pedagogy and their subject knowledge. Will Ofsted be most concerned by us rigorously sticking to every clause of the new curriculum, or will they be more impressed by amazing teaching.

Yes, understanding and getting to know the new curriculum will help, but it’s not the main thing.

But we’re all cheating, remember.

So it’s great to see that more primary schools are meeting their targets. I love the way the BBC headline is phrased: “Fewer primary schools fail to meet their target.” Hooray: we have less failure. It shows what a glass-half-empty culture we’re in at the moment in education. We could so easily have said – Hooray: more success!

So I could go on about this over-negativity I suppose. Or I could make the ironic link between this and what Michael Gove said yesterday. Today the DoE tells us that: “Heads, teachers and pupils deserve credit for meeting the challenge head on”. Yesterday Michael Gove wrote to schools criticising an admittedly small minority of teachers for having a detrimental effect on their schools through working to rule.

However what I want to draw attention to is that today’s headlines come at a time when I believe we have an over-supportive assessment system in this country. Some people have pointed the finger at how the system has been geared to judge the school and not the pupil. Others have expressed their fears that our system is being ‘gamed’ – teachers and school leaders are ‘playing the game’ to make their schools look good, without actually doing the job of raising standards through good teaching. A helpful way of looking at this may be David Weston’s hastily but well-drawn graph of the continuum between teaching and cheating. Or you just might say that actually we’re all cheating.

You see, the BBC say: “The results are based on the national tests children in all state schools take in their final year of primary school.” But they don’t say that these tests are entirely self-invigilated. Unfortunately the phrase ‘national test’ distracts us from the fact that schools can sit their students with as many support staff as they want, in whatever group size they want, and nobody but the staff in the school watch them do it.

Yes there are one or two ‘invigilators’ that Local Authorities send out to schools on random monitoring visits, but they are so few and far between that school can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be there on the crucial day.

And who benefits from these tests being, shall we say, over-supportive? Schools do. When we read from the DfE:

“Schools with a long history of underperformance, and who are not stepping up to the mark, face being taken over by an Academy sponsor…” 

we begin to get get a hint of the intense pressure that schools are under. Headteachers and Governors are replaced in this process. Poor SATs results can trigger an Ofsted inspection bringing more pressure onto teachers. Surely if we just give one or two suggestions to those border-line children just to tip them over onto the right side of the grade boundary it won’t matter? Will it?

The problem with this approach is that it sucks the independence out of children. No matter what their ability these children expect the same level of support as they go into secondary school. Then to achieve their own progress measures, the secondary schools are under the same pressure as primary schools to ‘tweak’ their GCSE results just that little bit. And all along our students are losing their independence. We are creating a generation of exam zombies – education consumers who expect education to be done to them, not to be active participants.

Ever wondered why they need so many plagiarism checkers at universities these days? It’s not just the ease of access to online material – it is also the fact that our students expect to be supported. They do not expect to think for themselves. It is not a ‘thinking skills curriculum’ that fixes this. It is a rigorous, well-invigilated exam system that demands students think for themselves.

So unfortunately, even though I’d like to be glass-half-full about today’s announcement, celebrating with the many primary schools that, like mine, are now above the floor targets, all I can think of is the increasing amount of learners who will need support to hit their inflated targets throughout the rest of their education. It weakens us as an education system and it weakens us as a society, even though it might look good in the short term.

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