Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Gove versus Governors?

June 21, 2010

Our Government – which just lurves localism – hopes to fundamentally undermine the influence of democratically-elected local authorities in the education system by encouraging as many schools as possible to become academies.

Once a head decides they quite fancy getting academy status, governing bodies represent one of the few potential obstacles. Parents, councillors, the public do not need to be consulted – governors do. For those of us concerned that Michael Gove’s academy-enthusiasm will result in more organisations seeking profits from running schools, education becoming wholly unaccountable to local communities, and state schools competing with each other even more so than they do already, it’s very important that governors do their job properly.

The problem is, being a governor isn’t a job. Governors aren’t professionals. I should know – I’m one! Being an active governor could be a full-time occupation. Middle-class busybodies though we are, most governors can’t spend every waking hour establishing how each detail of Government policy will affect their school. Governors meetings are crammed full of items for discussion – so much so that I’m sure it can be tempting to try to get home in time for dinner by simply neglecting to challenge staff by asking awkward questions. Plus there’s the instinctive feeling that teachers are the professionals so just trust the head’s opinion.

I am therefore worried that some schools may become academies not because it’s especially appropriate for the school but because the governing body does not fully understand the implications of the academies policy and fails to thoroughly scrutinise the head teacher’s decision.

In the Commons recently Lib Dem Simon Hughes asked: “Could the follow-up to the Secretary of State’s letter to outstanding schools such as ours include a letter to the chair of governors setting out the advantages and disadvantages of academy status to schools, and the advantages and disadvantages, if any, to local authorities and to diocesan boards of education?”

Schools Minister Nick Gibb glibly replied: “I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Of course the advantages of academy status are very clear: this is about trusting professionals to run their schools without interference from politicians and bureaucrats, either locally or nationally. I am sure that all the people he refers to will be aware of that.”

Au contraire, variation in school structure seems quite complicated to me and the possible consequences of encouraging huge numbers of schools to become academies could be very significant. As a governor, I would actually appreciate being provided with as much information on the policy as possible. If the Government truly is so confident that academy mania is on balance a good thing for education, why not be brave enough to honestly set out the advantages and disadvantages?

The fact that Hughes’ suggestion was ignored makes me think that the Government hopes governors will not do too much reading up on academies. Indeed, Gove’s dream governor is someone who has never read the education section in the Guardian, has forgotten the head teacher’s name so is too embarrassed to ask questions,  and anyway hopes to avoid starting arguments because they need to get back in time for Coronation Street.

Academy sceptics will have to engage with governors of their local schools. Well-informed and well-motivated governors are vital to keeping a check on Gove’s Conservative revolution in the state education system.

Hollywood High.

February 15, 2010

So the Tories are in talks with actress Goldie Hawn because she enjoys setting up Buddhist schools and they enjoy handing over public money to people like that. 

I was already fairly sceptical about the Conservative education plans. Now I’m going to worry that a Tory Government would pay Mel Gibson to establish a chain of Catholic faith schools based on his own theological perspective (non-Catholics are going to hell, Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world, etc). Or perhaps let Tom Cruise start some state-funded Scientologist primaries. Yikes!

Will Hutton on class.

January 11, 2010

Will Hutton had an eminently sensible article in yesterday’s Observer entitled ‘Of course class still matters – it influences everything that we do’.

For the distribution of reward and positions in today’s Britain does not mainly correspond to proportional talent, effort and virtue. It has been largely predetermined by the good luck of to whom and where you were born. There are 10 million men and women in work earning less than £15,000 a year; nearly all their parents were in the same position, as will be their children. There are nearly 3 million people of working age who do not even make themselves available for work, again reproducing itself through the generations.

Meanwhile, the middle and upper classes are becoming increasingly effective at ensuring that their children have the capabilities and qualifications to populate the upper echelons of the economy and society, what the great sociologist Charles Tilly called opportunity hoarding.

The good luck of being born into the right family is profound. Two American researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, show how children from professional families hear on average 2,153 words per hour compared with 616 words per hour for kids in welfare families, so that by the age of three, there is a 30 million word gap between the vocabularies of children of families on welfare and those of professional families. On top, welfare children hear words of discouragement twice as often as they hear words of encouragement; children of professional families are encouraged more than 10 times more than they are discouraged. Don’t get born into a family on welfare in a council house.

The fact that our society remains so class-ridden after more than a decade of Labour being in power points to a fundamental failure of government policies. Even if discussions around class do form a central part of the general election campaign and Labour feel confident in the legitimacy of pointing out the connections between Cameron and Co’s wealthy backgrounds, their policy programme, and the Conservative Party’s historic role as the defenders of privilege, members of the government will have a hard time explaining why such little progress towards tackling inequality has been made over the years under their own watch.

It would have been interesting to find out what Hutton thinks should be done. He seems to be suggesting that private education plays a central role in perpetuating class divisions (I agree) but doesn’t come up with a strategy to actually address this problem. Likewise, whilst Hutton is speaking great sense when he points out how the opinion-shaping profession of journalism is dominated by the inequality-ignoring middle-class, he does not propose any sort of solution beyond “the media effort to close the conversation down as irrelevant should be resisted”.

Of course, Hutton had limited word space and he seems to think that simply starting a discussion is worthy in itself. But it’s not as if no one has ever written anything like this before. The columns of the Guardian and Observer have been graced with some eminently sensible articles about class for many years now. The mostly middle-class, left-leaning readers will nod their heads in agreement and will use the columnists’ arguments as another excuse to complain about New Labour (yes, something I’m guilty of as well!).

When will this awareness about class divisions and inequality actually get more people motivated to find out about what needs to be done, what sorts of policies could be implemented, and how they can try to force politicians to prioritise this as an issue? More attention needs to be given to concrete policy proposals to address inequalities and then people rallied behind them in support.

Hizb ut High School Musical and the continuing confusion caused by faith schools.

November 28, 2009

The ‘Hizb ut Tahrir running faith schools’ scandal got big this week.

The Tories made a mess of things by getting the details wrong and embarrassing themselves in Parliament. More fool them. It is not quite a simple case of anti-extremism funds being given to a bunch of extremists.

However, it is still apparent that the state is willing to hand over money to religious organisations and entrust them with educating children even if officials have little idea what these groups’ religious beliefs are exactly or what political organisations (such as Hizb ut Tahrir) they share members with.

For instance, Newsnight dug up an article written by the headmistress of one of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation schools (the ‘charity’ given funds to run faith schools) in which she churns out the usual Isla-mentalist nonsense about the importance of hating democracy and refusing to integrate with Western culture.

How exactly does the screening process work when the Department for Children, Schools and Families is deciding which religious organisations should be allowed to set-up faith schools? How much effort are they putting into examining that fine line – that oh-so-delicate balance – between people who are very very sincerely religious and those who are ideological nuts?

The goal of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation is to develop the “Islamic personality” of young British Muslims. Hizb ut Tahrir also likes to bang on about the “Islamic personality” and this shared outlook is being used as evidence that the schools are promoting dangerous Islamism.

But ultimately all faith schools seek to develop children with religious personalities – whether they are producing good little Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever.  If we’re not comfortable with public funds going towards an organisation that sees education as a tool for creating Islamic personalities then why are we cool with other religious groups doing the same?

In my opinion the government’s support for faith schools is well-intentioned but misguided. It is hard to make judgements about religious groups and how appropriate it is for them to be involved in running state-funded schools. Much simpler and much fairer to have a system where all schools are run along secular lines.

Sadly, getting to such a situation from where we are at the moment would not be easy and I don’t think anyone has the political imagination or courage to call for the leap.

On a more positive note, it’s nice to see the media starting to get quotes from the excellent new group British Muslims for Secular Democracy when covering a story about Islam in Britain. For too long lazy journalists have just asked the Muslim Council of Britain for their views. Considering how many Islamists there are in the MCB it has been a mistake to present them as  representing British Muslims. Recognising that British Muslims do not form a homogenous block of opinion is progress.

One of the worst possible ways to spend public money.

October 26, 2009

I am currently reading ‘The Islamist’ by Ed Husain. It is the story of one British Muslim’s journey through various Islamist organisations in the 1990s when he was a rebellious young man trying to find his political place in the world.

In the end he comes to his senses and realises that groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, in which he was active for a while, are dangerous nutters who need to be opposed just as vigorously as extremists such as the fascist BNP.

On my lunch break at work today I was going to continue reading ‘The Islamist’ but I instead picked up a copy of the Evening Standard and had a look at that.

Imagine my shock to learn that £113,411 in government school grants has apparently been given to the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation – an ‘educational charity’ where three of the four trustees are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Foundation is running three schools in Tottenham and Slough.

Unsurprisingly, this is also covered at Harry’s Place (which has a brilliant new blog banner – go check it out).

Hizb ut-Tahrir opposes the basic values that underpin British society. Their views are also considered extremist by most moderate Muslims in Britain. To have Hizb activists involved in running schools is deeply concerning.

How did this situation come about? Hopefully more details will soon emerge and policies will be changed.

Although this is an unusual example, I still feel it is indicative of the dangers of both promoting faith schools and handing over public money to independent organisations who are eager to run their own educational institutions.

Any political party promising to make things easier for religious and other groups wanting to set-up state-funded schools needs to explain how it will ensure that the National Curriculum is adhered to and how ideological lunacy is to be kept out of the classrooms.

No thank you, I don’t want my own think-tank.

October 13, 2009

Charlie Brooker has written an amusing article on how distressed he was to discover that Gideon ‘George’ Osborne is younger than him.

“In my head, senior politicians are supposed to be older than I am – for ever. No matter how much I age, part of their job is to be older and drier than me. At 38, Osborne feels too young for the world of politics.”

I experienced similar feelings the other day when I read that the founder of a new Tory-supporting think-tank is only 24 years of age. Age 24! The same as me! And she has founded herself a think-tank!

The only thing I have found of note recently is an old copy of the Big Issue that contains a picture of one of my fellow Paintbrushers with John Bird. I found it hidden away in a drawer. It’s not going to look so impressive on my CV.

The Financial Times’ profiling of “the new generation of thinkers, pundits and money men vying for influence on a future Cameron government” includes this:

Name: Rachel Wolf

Position: founder of a think-tank

Age: 24

CV: studied natural sciences at Cambridge before becoming a political adviser to the Tories. She was special adviser to Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, before leaving to set up her own education think-tank, due to launch this autumn.

Between the lines: young but very connected to the Cameroon hierarchy (and the daughter of FT columnist Martin Wolf).

Influence on Tory high command: the role of her new think-tank in promoting Swedish-style independently run “free schools”, of the type advocated by the Tories, could make Wolf an important voice in the debate on public services.

To left or right of Cameroons? Attuned to modernising, centrist message.

Wolf’s think-tank is to be called the New Schools Network and its raison d’etre is to support the Tory proposals on school vouchers. It is supposed to be up and running this month (but does not yet seem to have a website).

I am impressed that Miss Wolf has managed to become such an expert on how to improve Britain’s schools after studying Natural Sciences at some provincial institution called ‘Cambridge’ and then working as a Tory political adviser for a couple of years.

Yes, I may well I be envious of her achievement, but in all honesty I do not think I could run my own policy think-tank. You surely need a high-level of policy wonk expertise or to be sufficiently adept at bullshitting.

In addition to this, British politics is already far too full of people from privileged backgrounds who are undoubtedly skillful players inside the Westminster Bubble but who lack any sort of genuine experience in the world they are seeking to influence.

There must be a better way of coming up with policy ideas.

Congratulations to all those brainy youngsters…

August 20, 2009

gaining a record-breaking number of A-levels!

I hope the teenagers at my local swimming pool, who provided considerable excitement and entertainment for their fellow swimmers this evening, also go on to excel academically.

If there’s an A-level in Ignoring-repeated-requests-to-stop-dive-bombing-into-the-pool-when-casual-swimming-has-stopped-and-lane-swimming-has-begun-thus-provoking-the-life-guards-into-pressing-the-emergency-alarm-and-ordering-an-evacuation-of-the-entire-pool-and-then-responding-to-their-firm-instructions-to-leave-the-pool-immediately-with-a-barrage-of-F*** YOUs-and-acting-in-a-generally-delinquent-manner then these young boys and girls are guaranteed grade A results, I can tell you!

Jennie Lee and the Open University

August 1, 2009

I’ve just enjoyed a very cheap and very productive evening. I have remainedin Jako Towers and have been sorting out lots of Labour leaflets into appropriate piles for delivery across my ward over the next few weeks. At the same time as doing this I watched BBC 4’s documentary ‘Happy Birthday OU: 40 Years of the Open University’

The story of the Open University was told by Premier Inn-loving comedian Lenny Henry, who also happens to be a graduate of the OU. Henry explained to the audience how influential the efforts Jennie Lee, Minister for the Arts in the first Wilson government, were to its establishment in 1969. She played a key role in supporting the OU and making sure that it went ahead despite the misgivings of some in the political and academic establishments.

Wilson went on to declare that the Open University was the greatest achievement of his government – an opinion that Tony Benn supported in the documentary. More than three million people have studied at the OU since its foundation and it has been consistently rated the top university for student satisfaction.

Jennie Lee was of course the wife of Nye Bevan, the Labour politician responsible for bringing about the creation of the National Health Service in 1948.

So between them this stridently socialist couple bequeathed to the nation two of the best-loved and most enduring institutions we have! 

Bevan and Lee never had children – apparently Lee did not want to become a mother. However, if they had would the offspring have inherited super socialist powers? Or would it have felt obliged to rebel against its parents and turned into an arch-reactionary?

This is what I wondered to myself as the documentary came to an end and I completed my 24th pile of leaflet delivery rounds.

Examining one’s conscience

April 11, 2009

The news that teachers are considering boycotting next year’s Sats exams raises a number of issues for me. A protracted discussion of the merits of the exams is beyond the scope of this post, however, some points deserve making.


If, as I passionately believe, choice has a role to play in education, it is necessary for parents to have some guide as to which primary school is most appropriate for their child. League tables provide only a tiny fraction of the required information. Clearly primary schools have much smaller access areas than secondary schools and are consequently much more bound by the demographics of their locale. I do not deny that schools in the poorest areas will be unfairly prejudiced by league tables. However, Sats-type assessments are necessary in order to produce the excellent new ‘value-added’ tables. These are a much better guide to the performance of a school and much harder for critics to attack. I therefore cannot help but feel that the abolition of Sats would leave parents with inadequate means to assess the suitability of various schools.

So what is the problem with Sats? I am sympathetic to the idea that young people have too many exams and I am concerned that the curriculum is being swayed towards preparing for these exams rather than educating children. This problem can be rectified by strong confident leadership by headteachers. Heads should have the courage to give children a well-rounded education and maintain a relaxed atmosphere to the exams in the classroom. In my opinion, good schools will achieve good results in this environment and would have nothing to fear. National external assessments remain the only viable way to identify failure in schools, and failure cannot be tolerated, however much offence its identification may cause to those on the ground. 

There is another aspect to this dispute. I imagine many teachers will vehemently oppose my theories here. The more interesting question for me is when is it right for a public official to rebel against government policy. There is something of a paradox here. An employee is more likely to be praised for standing up for his own rights (ie striking for increased pay), than for standing up for the rights of those he works for. Clearly in the case of striking for pay the issue is one of human rights, whereas in the present case it looks more like employees disputing a valid, if controversial, political decision by their superiors. It is nonetheless curious that a person acting out of pure self-interest might be considered more virtuous than one who acts out of an honest, if misguided, desire to protect the interest of others.  

 So now we wait to see the result of the ballot. My instinct is that opposition to Sats is strong amongst the teaching profession, however, it is also a loyal profession which cares deeply about the welfare of their pupils. Consequently I cannot see teachers boycotting the exams. I think there is presently public support for reform (but not abolition) of the Sats tests. I feel teachers would be better using this support to achieve the desired reforms than risk losing it through this rash proposal.

Pick’n’mix no.2

February 25, 2009

Some lefties get nostalgic for the days when it was cool for young radicals to go abroad to fight against oppression and perhaps even to sacrifice their lives for a cause they believed in.

Here’s a report that suggests some are trying to follow in the foot steps of those heroic International Brigade volunteers…

…except instead of defending a democratic regime these young Brits want to see religious fundamentalism imposed upon a country. Instead of being inspired by principles of equality and common humanity these fellow citizens of ours are angry about Afghan girls being given the right to go to school.  

David T of Harry’s Place has posted on this here.

Trevor Phillips of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission recently proposed that MPs should be limited to serving a maximum of four terms. Phillips hopes that by increasing turnover of MPs we would see more minorities getting elected to Parliament.

It’s a worthy aim, but comrade bloggers such as Tom Harris MP, Sunder Katwala, and Luke Akehurst are sceptical.

In our political system where the executive is drawn mostly from the House of Commons, it doesn’t seem very sensible to me to place a strict limit on the amount of parliamentary experience that MPs can accumulate. Maybe if we the people are one day allowed to elect our representatives in the House of Lords we could place term limits on them.

And via Newer Labour, here’s a link to an article at Conservative Home! Now there’s something that doesn’t happen very often. Good on Tory Councillor Daniel Moylan for speaking some sense about the so-called Tax Payers’ Alliance and its fanatical hatred of public spending.

In Tavistock Square this afternoon I was confronted with a few hundred noisy students demanding the abolition of tuition fees, a free lunch, and an end to bad things happening in the world.

Free university education being enjoyed by a majority of young people is something we as a society should strive for. But in a recession I think there are more important things for the state to spending our taxes on – especially when universities are dominated by the middle-class.

The National Union of Students actually opposed this demo. No doubt the Trots who literally live for maching up and down blowing their whistles and waving their SWP flags have denounced NUS President Wes Streeting as a sell-out careerist. Well, here are some commies denouncing him.

Captain Jako