Posts Tagged ‘Schools’

Gove’s incompetent demolition of Building Schools for the Future

July 7, 2010

As exciting as the hunt for Raoul the steroid-fuelled gunman is, in a more sensible world this story would be getting more attention.

Hundreds of struggling schools in deprived areas were going to be physically transformed by Labour’s school building programme but this will not happen now. The expenditure-hating Conservative-Liberal Government is trying to stop BSF but can’t even do this competently.

Funny how massive savings need to be found from BSF but the Government still thinks it will be able to pay for ‘free schools’ to be set up all over the country. The coalition’s education policy is a mess.

Two good posts on this: Hopi and Luke.

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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!

Islington’s Lib Dems want to take away free school meals because they do not understand the importance of universal public service provision.

December 7, 2009

It was recently revealed that Islington’s Liberal Democrats (who unfortunately are in charge of things around here) are planning to take away free school meals from the borough’s primary school children after the upcoming local elections.

They’ve never liked the idea of providing free school meals to Islington’s kids. The Labour group only just managed to get the policy passed at a council meeting. The Lib Dems have been complaining about it ever since and have been reluctant to implement the change.

In the latest edition of the Islington Tribune the Lib Dem executive member for finance explains his party’s position on the issue. Some of the critical points made by Councillor John Gilbert have some validity. For example, the issue of pupils coming to Islington’s schools from neighbouring boroughs is admittedly problematic. But then no scheme is absolutely perfect, and I’m sure that some sort of solution to this could be sought.

However, the principal Lib Dem argument is that free school meals should be opposed because some wealthy families will benefit from it. Some well-meaning folk may be persuaded by this point of view, but I’m not.

The previous situation was that only the poorest of the poor were given free school meals. There is substantial evidence that this targeted service provision was not wholly effective because of the social stigma associated with free school meals. The quality of the meals themselves also left much to be desired.

It’s been said before but it’s worth saying again: a service for the poor will usually end up as a poor service.

If the Lib Dem’s logic is taken too seriously, then perhaps we would end comprehensive schooling altogether. We would have free schools for the very poor and make everyone else pay school fees. Likewise the NHS, from which we all currently benefit and therefore take an interest in protecting and improving, would become a skeleton service for those at the bottom of society whilst everyone else would be expected to have private medical insurance (a bit like the situation in the US).

Our relationship with food is very important and is something Britain’s education system should be taking more seriously. Providing free school meals for all pupils is a step in the right direction. Lib Dem opposition to universal service provision of free school meals in Islington’s primary schools demonstrates the party’s lack of awareness, lack of imagination, and lack of political courage when it comes to this important issue.

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.

Pick’n’mix

July 23, 2009

Unity writes a characteristically detailed post at Liberal Conspiracy on how pseudoscience is not a valid educational choice. I agree entirely! Just because a bunch of people with eccentric views (to put it kindly) are well organised and fairly minted it does not mean that we should let them run schools.

Hopi Sen has been  interviewing Jon Cruddas. Hopi says he placed Cruddas sixth in the 2007 deputy leadership election. I put Cruddas at number one – I’ve always been a bit of a Cruddas enthusiast. JC refers to “the most interesting meeting” he has been to since becoming an MP taking place in a sports hall in his constituency. I think I was there whilst working for a political consultancy; we distributed some high-tech gadgets amongst the attendees allowing them to vote on different suggestions for Barking and Dagenham’s future. It was indeed a fun day. 

I’m not sure what exactly Cruddas is up to hanging out with James Purnell and his thoughts on the necessity of a progressive narrative sound a tad wishy-washy to me. Narrative is one thing but policies should come first! I still think the Cruddmeister is one to watch, even though he has declared that he does not want to be party leader.

And finally, Gene at Harry’s Place writes on a subject that I’ve also been thinking about recently. At Tolpuddle there was a lot of ‘Cuba Solidarity’, wholly uncritical of the Castro regime, on display. It’s disappointing, to say the least, when senior British trade unionists go over to Cuba (who’s paying for these trips?) and apparently neglect to question the lack of trade union freedom there, as well as all kinds of other human rights violations.

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.

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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.

Labour victory in budget vote

February 27, 2009

A quick update on the issue of free school meals in Islington. Last night saw a dramatic council meeting in the Town Hall. Apparently there were a lot of tears, tantrums and talks with lawyers!

I am very pleased to hear that the Labour group of councillors was able to pass its budget proposals – namely the provision of free school meals for primary school children in the borough – in the face of fierce opposition from the Lib Dem council.

Since the Labour plan also included cutting councillors’ salaries (amongst the highest in the country) it’s perhaps not surprising that the Lib Dems were very unhappy about this.

Lib Dem leader James Kempton has said he wants to see the vote overturned (because a Lib Dem councillor was ill and couldn’t attend the meeting, thus depriving them of a crucial vote). Pah!

If there’s any more news it will get posted here.

Captain Jako