So, who to vote for?

Education matters. Even polar opposites on the political spectrum can agree on that, whether they see it as the foundation of future economic success, a means of promoting positive values or the process of ensuring all children fulfill their potential. But even in this ridiculously long election campaign, education hasn’t often been mentioned. We think education should be a high priority for any voter, so we’ve read the manifestos on education and summarised them to highlight the issues at stake.

You don’t have to agree with our conclusion, which is tentative in any case, but it’s offered for the benefit of anyone who would find it useful.


Key pledges:

  • Ensure a good primary school place for your child, with zero tolerance for failure
  • Turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an academy
    and deliver free schools for parents and communities that want them
  • Help teachers to make Britain the best country in the world for developing maths, engineering, science and computing skills
  • Create 3 million new apprenticeships and make sure there is no cap on university places, so we have aspiration for all

This doesn’t bode well. The first two points are nothing more than doubling down on the current failing system of high stakes inspection in place of supporting improvement. There appears to be no room for the explanation of what will happen when the “failing” school is already an academy, why academies are so superior, or why vast sums of public money should be spent on the people (mostly private businesses and ideologues) who feel like running a free school.

The third point, while aspirational, is notable for what it doesn’t say. There’s more to life than STEM subjects, and this seems to indicate that the modern fetishisation of the Far East isn’t going to go away any time soon. It’s not just the arts that would suffer – so would languages and social sciences, for example. (NB: David Cameron read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. Apparently, his kind is of no use to the country.)

Apprenticeships seem to be a popular promise. This one’s hard to take seriously, given this government’s record of rebadging forms of training to cook the unemployment figures. But the prize for brass neck has to go to the pledge not to cap university places “so we have aspiration for all”. This from a party that decided to charge £9,000 per year for university education, even though it saved the exchequer no money at all. Rewrite that as “Aspiration for all, as long as they can afford it.”

The rest of the manifesto offers more of the same, although there are some moments of unintentional humour. “We will back your child’s teachers” is a particularly fine example. This is all mood music for a continuation of Gove by other means, with much macho talk of “tough new standards”. We’ve seen over the last five years where that leads.


Key pledges:

  • Introduce a new gold-standard Technical Baccalaureate for 16 to-18-year olds
  • Protect the entire education budget from early years through to post-16 education
  • Guarantee all teachers in state schools will be qualified
  • Appoint Directors of School Standards to drive up standards in every area
  • Cap class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds
  • Ensure all young people study English and Maths to age 18

This is a much broader manifesto, with some familiar features and some interesting wildcards. Like the Tories, there’s a lot of love for apprenticeships and technical skills. Again, there’s a suspicion that this has only become a hot issue because it offers a way of reducing youth unemployment, but some of the details offer hope that there’s a deeper and more principled commitment. Your opinion on that will no doubt depend on your opinion of the party in general.

The high-profile promises to cap class sizes, reduce tuition fees and require teachers to be qualified are distinctly uninspiring, tinkering around the edge of the Tories’ excesses with policies that sound better than they are. The best aspect of the class size pledge is that the money will be raised by dropping free schools, while the increasing role of teaching assistants and the high number of graduates who will never pay off their debts at either 6 or 9K per year make the other promises slightly insubstantial.

Protecting the total education budget in real terms is all very well, but demand is set to rise substantially, meaning that this will result in a substantial real terms cut per pupil. It’s a sign of the times that this is the sort of thing that would make it as far as a manifesto, but it’s hard to see it as a positive reason to vote for them. The support for Sure Start is welcome, though, and may indicate that they have the right ideas, even if political strategy and expediency limit their stated ambitions.

The pledge that epitomises Labour’s position is the one that appears in their summarised manifesto as “turn around underperforming schools”. Put in those terms, it could come from any of the main parties. It’s the detail – referring to Directors of School Standards (DSS) – that marks it out as Labour. This post was first invented in the Blunkett Review as a way of filling in the accountability gaps left by Gove’s academy mania, but it creates another tier of unelected bureaucrats and is more of a sticking plaster than the major surgery required to deal with the many issues they raise. At best, this is a small step in the right direction, at worst it’s aimless tinkering.

For all the detailed pledges, the one point that raises the most hope is that DSSs will not just monitor schools’ performance, but also encourage them to “work together to improve the quality of education”, or in other places “support them to improve”. It’s depressing to be so excited at a hint of a process that works with schools, rather than against them, but Tristram Hunt’s recent appearances have started to make more noises in this direction, so we hope it really is a significant choice of words.

Liberal Democrats

Key pledges:

  • Protect early years, school, sixth form and college budgets – investment from nursery to 19 to raise standards for all
  • Parents’ Guarantee: core curriculum in every school and
    every child taught by qualified teachers
  • End illiteracy and innumeracy by 2025, with action in nurseries to get all 4 year olds ready for school by 2020
  • Extend free school meals to all primary pupils
  • Double the numbers of businesses hiring apprentices, and give young people aged 16–21 a discount bus pass to cut the cost of travel

A curious mix of Labour and Conservative policies, with the occasional distinctively Lib Dem one thrown in. The rhetoric about driving up standards and more “Good” schools than ever before could have been written by Conservative HQ, while the emphasis on teachers’ qualifications is an established Labour policy. But there are some baffling sections setting out rational proposals which are directly opposed to Tory policy that was propped up by the party without a peep of protest for the last five years. Requiring a clear need for additional places when setting up any new schools and removing the requirement for them to be free schools or academies is a sensible policy, but the party’s record calls their will or ability to enact such a policy into question.

The Free School Meals pledge follows through on the one big Lib Dem headline policy, but the small print states that this will be done “as resources allow and following a full evaluation of free meals for infants.” The original policy was a wasteful gimmick aimed towards the middle classes at a time of savage cuts and closures of Sure Start centres (of which there is no mention), but given that the party won’t be governing on its own, this leaves a lot of loopholes and excuses even if you consider that extending the programme would be a positive development.

Through all this the Lib Dems are haunted by twin spectres. First is their broken pledge on tuition fees – their headline promise last time, broken so that fees not only remained but were trebled, and apparently made in the first place despite believing it couldn’t be done. For all the excuses around the nature of coalitions, this is a bitter pill to swallow. The second, closely related, is the Lib Dems’ record in government, enabling the very Tory policies they now promise to reverse. This is a shame, because taken in isolation, the manifesto offers a coherent and balanced education policy. Removing certain decisions from political influence, avoiding policy changes that take effect in the middle of a key stage and promising fair Ofsted inspections (among others) all sound like steps in the right direction, but all bets are off once they start negotiating the price for ministerial places.

In this context, the party’s publicly stated “red lines” are worth a mention. They have added a non-negotiable demand for more education funding than is promised by either Labour or Tories, even while searching for further spending cuts elsewhere and income tax giveaways. Taken with the attention to detail of their education offering in general, understandable given their Whig heritage, it’s easy to see why the Lib Dems used to have such a strong following among teachers and students. But based on the last five years, it’s also hard to take what they say at face value.


Key principles:

  • Education must be responsive to individual needs
  • Good teachers are paramount
  • The importance of primary education

So, UKIP. They don’t really go in for key pledges, but this statement of principles is hard to argue with. In particular, and against our expectations, an urgency to reduce teacher workloads and a commitment to abolishing KS1 SATs are prominent and get a rousing cheer from us, more than could be said of the careful, triangulated offerings of the other parties. The “no sex education please, we’re British” vibe is disappointing, but the detail is less dramatic than the rhetoric of the party or its opponents would suggest, with a strong hint that primary children would receive appropriate guidance on online safety and private body parts, even if the S.E.X. word is avoided.

On Ofsted, there’s some common sense but also some alarms. They promise an independent body to investigate complaints about Ofsted inspections, removing the watchdog’s ability to investigate itself, and would prioritise the recruitment of experienced teachers as inspectors. Inspections would be more transparent (good), streamlined (yeees…) and shorter – what? Shorter than two days? That appeals body is likely to be very busy. The commitment to “combatting extremism and radicalisation, rather than criticising widely-held Judaeo-Christian beliefs” is also strange and alarming. This looks very much like a dog whistle for “we’ll let you say nasty things about gay people”, but it would be nice to be proved wrong.

Surely UKIP’s most widely publicised policy is the reintroduction of grammar schools, consistent with the party’s general incoherent nostalgia for a sepia-tinted golden age somewhere around the 1950s. This makes an appearance here, setting the party apart as champions of this particular form of education and promising “UKIP will give existing secondary schools the opportunity to become grammar schools” and “ultimately, UKIP wants to see a grammar school in every town.” How this would be achieved is anyone’s guess. Will other schools ask to become secondary moderns, for example, or will it happen regardless for any school at the back of the grammar queue? There’s a laudable recognition that the 11+ was “not perfect”, but their answer is additional entrance streams, rather than reconsideration of this dated and flawed model of education.

If there’s one theme that comes through strongly, it’s parent choice – choice of grammars, choice of free schools, choice to ask for more Ofsted inspections of a school. Parents must be given what they want, even when those needs are mutually exclusive. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a populist party, but it’s also disappointing. Read as a whole document, you can’t escape the sense that this manifesto only hits the target by accident, when popular sentiment and rational evidence-based policy happen to be in alignment. It’s a shame, because parts of it are surprisingly good, and the demolition of coalition policy on tuition fees is very effective. But the bad parts are awful, and the lack of clear underpinning principles, combined with the inconsistency of the few that are mentioned with the rhetoric of the party and its members, leaves you nervous about what the reality might look like.


Key pledges:

  • Compulsory education age raised to 7, with voluntary LA-run free childcare until that age
  • All teachers qualified, with specialist knowledge for early years, but parents encouraged to assist
  • A comprehensive education system, with free schools and academies integrated into LEAs, charitable status removed from private schools, and faith schools phased out
  • Abolition of SATs and league tables, with Ofsted replaced by evaluation by parents, teachers and the community
  • An end to marketisation and outsourcing
  • Class sizes reduced to a maximum of 20
  • Free school lunches for all, and no requirement for parents to pay extra for necessary equipment or school trips
  • End the anomaly that sixth form colleges and further education colleges are unable to reclaim VAT
  • End tuition fees, cancel student debt held by the government
  • Reinstate government duty to offer apprenticeships to all qualified people aged 16-19 who want one

This is a manifesto that’s different from the others, from a party that’s different from the others. More space is taken up with promises than with general commentary or explanations of how they would be paid for, and the above is a summary of the most notable of many. It’s tempting to go through the list and simply write it up in the form of an invoice, but Green policies are part of a general move to completely reimagine society from the bottom up, and this will tend to confound such an approach. For the purposes of this review, the only way of comparing the Greens with other parties is to assume that the money can be found (opinions will differ on the plausibility of this assumption), and focus on the themes and principles underlying them.

One of the few things that doesn’t seem to have been directly converted into a promise, but is underlined in additional text, is the party’s scorn for the current over-assessment and teaching to the test. It’s notable that this sees them standing alongside UKIP and in opposition to the other parties, and goes a long way towards explaining their appeal to both teachers and parents who have seen their children ground down by endless SATs revision. It’s certainly clear that they offer a much-needed corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy, with the iniquities of massively centralised authority and the academy agenda rightly rejected out of hand. But there are also problems here.

The abolition of Ofsted is a positive sign, although substantial reform might be a better approach. But the suggestion of parent, teacher and community evaluation instead is more than a little disturbing. We’ve probably all known people who have bees in their bonnets about some aspect of education or other. Parents who don’t like the head for reasons that are never fully explained, teachers who insist on peculiar pedagogical approaches, local worthies who just like to throw their weight around. We’d never mourn Ofsted’s demise, but replacing it with a system that relies on specialist knowledge and consistent good sense from the general public is hardly a solution.

Everyone loves apprenticeships, it seems, and the Greens are no exception. Although it’s pretty much a universal policy, this area is one where the Greens do well, because they have genuinely detailed policies and clearly believe in them. But in general, even allowing for their broad brush idealism and aspiration to reimagine everything from the ground up, there are a significant number of alarms about the prospect of this manifesto being implemented. It’s a bold manifesto, and parts of it are very badly needed, but it doesn’t instill confidence that it’s grounded in a coherent vision and awareness of potential pitfalls.


At the end of all this, it comes back to the question posed at the top of the page – who to vote for. This is always a sensitive subject, and not one we’re particularly keen to get involved in, but there are important issues at stake.

After five years of Gove and Continuity Gove, it’s clear what the Tories think of education, and it’s equally clear that theirs is a destructive, aggressive agenda favouring private companies and special interests, with teachers, communities and even children seen as expendable. Five more years of this would be disastrous. Likewise, although the Lib Dems often seem to have the right ideas, their record in coalition is appalling. Having failed to do anything to curtail extreme and expensive Tory policies, they need to spend some time on the opposition benches, getting back to their roots. On past evidence, they would be more likely to have a positive impact on education policy from there than in government.

It would be far more comforting if Labour’s policy marked a clear, decisive break from the idea that success is always one more test away, and any flaws can be masked with yet more choice between unwanted options. But their own record in government offers little hope of that, and in opposition, they’ve been ineffectual in challenging the coalition’s abuses. Still, their manifesto is at least an improvement, and recent comments by Tristram Hunt offer a glimmer of hope that there may be more to come. It’s weak sauce, but better than the alternatives.

We can’t seriously entertain a vote for UKIP, however good some of their policies sound on paper, because there’s a lot of dross as well, and there’s too great a gulf between words and deeds. Even leaving aside their other policy priorities, which is a big ask, they’ve done nothing to demonstrate that this is more than a hastily assembled assortment of crowdpleasing ideas.

As for the Greens, it’s hard to hate much of what they stand for, but it’s also hard to imagine the impact of the many changes they propose. Where Labour offer too little to generate much enthusiasm, the Greens offer too much. A more stripped-down manifesto dealing with the high-priority quick wins would be considerably easier to get behind than this attempt to change everything overnight. It would be good to see more of them, and proper discussion of their policies, but for now, it’s hard to believe they offer any coherent answers.

With a certain amount of reluctance, and disappointment at their uninspiring policies, we believe a vote for Labour is currently the best one (or possibly the “least worst”) for the future of education. This is as much down to the need to keep the Tories from going any further with their policies as any enthusiasm for Labour themselves. However, Labour themselves need to be pulled towards bolder rejection of marketisation and management by endless testing, and the greatest priority is to prevent the Tories from being allowed to continue Gove’s work, so we recommend and endorse the use of tactical voting to those ends.


We reject the resits

The law of unintended consequences shows no mercy towards any innovation, so even though successive governments have done little to indicate that they should be given the benefit of the doubt, especially on education, we must assume that the current state of KS2 testing is not what was originally intended.

Although KS2 is ostensibly a way of checking up on schools and ensuring that they’re doing as expected (the implications of which can be discussed at another time), the reality is a long way from this. As primary schools are judged harshly on their results, it naturally becomes essential for them to get the best results possible in this particular benchmarking test, under threat of aggressive Ofsteds, sackings and even forced academisation, effectively punishing the entire school for the academic performance of a particular cohort of children. Sadly, this focus doesn’t mean a better education for the children (although politicians who only care about simplistic stats may disagree), but more teaching to this particular test, often with resources diverted away from other year groups.

It’s easy to get used to these things or accept them as the way things are, so pause for a moment and reflect on that: In the “relentless drive to improve standards”, we have a system which encourages – indeed, practically forces – schools to spend enormous amounts of time and effort preparing children for a specific test that will have no bearing on their future prospects at all. Talk to any parent whose child has passed through Y6 recently, and you’ll hear of a “lost year” of nothing but repetition and cramming in an effort to scrape as many children as possible up to the desired level, followed by collapse as the pressure is finally eased in the summer and the children have nothing left in the tank. As incentives go, they don’t get much more perverse.

In this context, it’s no surprise that KS2 boycotts have been discussed, although to date, we’ve been very wary of them. That’s caused a lot of debate, so here are our reasons for caution. While it would surely be of benefit for an individual child to have a year of proper teaching, rather than hothousing for a meaningless test, the practicalities are more complex. If the rest of the class are due to take KS2, and being prepared accordingly with jobs likely to be on the line, anyone who thinks this single child would be given something different to do in class is living in a fantasy world. The only difference would be that having wasted a year on preparing for a test, they would not ultimately take that test – a distinctly Pyrrhic victory.

The target of any boycott would also be in question. Although the problem stems from government, the most obvious impact (possibly the only impact) would be felt by the school. A single form intake is volatile enough as a means of measuring a school’s performance. Imagine if several children – possibly some of the brighter ones – were withdrawn from consideration. The school would be highly vulnerable to random fluctuations, and no one at the DfE or Ofsted would be interested in detailed analysis of the reasons if results were considered to be poor. This could also have the disastrous consequence of pitting teachers and parents against each other, with jobs and the school’s future weighed against each child’s interests. Good schools would be caught between top-down bureaucracy and children’s needs, while the true villains busy themselves with spreadsheets, never needing to engage with context or the human cost.

The system needs to be challenged, and that calls for bold action. But for any boycott to be successful, it would need to be a significant mass movement across the country, to protect individual schools from reprisals. That could be a catalyst for change, although it may also favour the kind of school that would think nothing of cajoling and threatening parents into decisions that would only benefit the school. If “difficult” children can disappear for exams and Ofsted visits, it would be child’s play to stack the deck for SATs under cover of a genuine campaign. There’s also a real concern about how many parents would choose to boycott, and how this could be organised in the absence of any existing body to coordinate it.

So rightly or wrongly, it appears that removing children from KS2 tests, though appealing, is fraught with problems. But today, we think the equation’s shifted dramatically in favour of a boycott, with the Tories’ latest announcement that children would be forced to resit KS2 in Y7 if they “failed” first time around. This sounds like the sort of policy idea that tends to be floated in friendly papers so that the real policy, marginally less absurd, is almost greeted with relief when it comes out. On the other hand, is that really a viable tactic in the middle of an election campaign? It’s hard to do justice to the madness of this idea, but here are a few reasons why it’s utterly ridiculous.

Bait and Switch – These SATs were always meant to be a means of benchmarking schools, not a pass/fail test and not a test of individual children. This proposal shows at best a lack of clarity and a lack of understanding about what is being tested and why.

Futility – KS2 performance, for better or worse, is a diagnostic matter of fact. The exam isn’t something you need to have passed, any more than you need to have perfect marks on every weekly spelling test. Teaching children to “pass” the test, rather than addressing the reasons why they struggled, is mistaking the picture for the person.

Inconsistency – For years, Tory rhetoric has been about how resits make everything too easy, and policy has shifted accordingly. Now, possibly because some DfE wonk wants a nice quotable stat about literacy and numeracy standards for political motives, resits are not just allowed, they’re mandatory!

Incoherence – It appears that any children who “fail” will be “given two additional chances” in Y7. And what happens if they still haven’t met the arbitrary target? How can it be essential to force a child to resit the test twice, but pointless to do it more than that? Once again, it looks suspiciously like political expediency is the only consideration.

Stigma – There are many practical objections, but really, this should be the beginning and the end of all discussion. The Tories claim to believe in opportunity for all (or at least they’re embarrassed about openly promoting selection), but this policy would send a significant proportion of children to secondary school with a label that says “failure”. Some would carry that for life, if their “additional chances” also fall short of the level expected. And all this as a stark black and white interpretation of a test that (so we’re told, even if the children don’t believe it) is only about a school’s performance.

Tories don’t like to hear it, because it doesn’t fit their dogma, but some children won’t reach a level that would be considered a “pass” at KS2 until well after Y7. They’d be condemned to a demoralising process of being dragged through repeated failures in meaningless tests. Conversely, there are children who are at risk of stalling completely in Y6, because they just aren’t stretched as schools focus on the marginal cases. The system’s clearly broken, but at least the bright ones only get bored, not cruelly labelled.

If this policy is ever enacted (and we fervently hope it isn’t), it might change everything. Who wouldn’t want to protect their child from the possibility, however small, of starting a new school with a metaphorical dunce’s cap and the requirement to waste time on the same test again? The brighter the child and the smaller the chance of them being deemed to have failed, the more ridiculously damaging to their development it would be if they were forced to revise and resit this test, which – let’s remember – has no value for the child at all. Why take the chance?

The day this policy is enacted will be the day we start a national campaign calling on all parents to withdraw children from these tests. We’ll see you on the barricades.

Ofsted Report on Lapland Academy

Have you ever wondered what Ofsted would make of Santa and his annual distribution of presents? Wonder no longer! Sir Michael Wilshaw stamped his feet so much over his desire to find more things to inspect that a special crossborder convention was put in place to allow Ofsted to inspect this body operating well outside his jurisdiction, on the grounds that it had a profound impact on British children. The first report on “Lapland Academy” has just been released, and here are the key findings:

Ofsted Report on Lapland Academy (Formerly North Pole Comprehensive)

Summary of key findings for parents and pupils

This is a school that requires special measures

  • Leadership and management are inadequate. Communication is poor, and the governance of the academy is very secretive.
  • Recruitment arrangements are inadequate. Appointments are made in a discriminatory manner, with no clear oversight.
  • Achievement of pupils is inadequate. More able pupils are not making the progress they are capable of, and are not challenged to do more.
  • The quality of teaching is inadequate. Feedback is poor, targets and expectations are not communicated adequately, and the academy is not proactive in checking pupils’ performance.
  • Behaviour and safety are inadequate. There is little staff contact, poor nutrition is promoted and pupils’ safety is put at risk by gifts of replica weapons.

The school has the following strengths

  • Pupils are very proud of the academy. They speak of the staff in glowing terms, and look forward to getting their exam results with considerable excitement.
  • The poorest children perform well, and demonstrate impressive behaviour at all times.
  • Parents who spoke to inspectors are happy with the presents their children receive.

Information about this school

  • Lapland Academy is open to all children. It is a very large school, catering for a substantial proportion of the global population.
  • It was founded by Saint Nicholas c.300AD as a local community project, and has since grown rapidly, with the 20th century seeing a particularly rapid rate of expansion.
  • The academy’s mission statement splits its priorities between a charitable foundation and the promotion and facilitation of behavioural change. Gifts are given to children who meet targets for good behaviour each year.
  • Because of the academy’s global reach, including many of the poorest areas of the world, the proportion of pupils supported through the pupil premium is much higher than the national average.

What does the school need to do to improve further?

  • Carry out a thorough audit of the Lapland factory and its production line.
  • Improve communication with parents so that they understand what is being done within the academy.
  • Open up recruitment processes to all ethnic groups.
  • Set challenging targets for all children, with grades to ensure greater differentiation between levels of behaviour, and ensure that children are aware of what they must do to achieve a higher grade.

Inspection judgements

The achievement of pupils is inadequate

  • Children enter the academy with skills and behaviour that are broadly typical for their age. Despite some expensive interventions and rewards, there is no evidence that they encourage any improvement in behaviour beyond what would be otherwise expected as they grow up.
  • More able pupils are not making the progress they are capable of in their behaviour. This is because work is not matched to the individual needs and skills of pupils, and targets are poorly communicated and insufficiently challenging. Most children feel able to coast through with minimal effort.
  • Some pupils eligible for the pupil premium, including the majority from the developing world, demonstrate excellent examples of good behaviour. However, children from more affluent backgrounds, particularly the affluent west, typically fail to achieve the same level. The school does not expect enough from these children.

The quality of teaching is inadequate

  • The quality of teaching on what constitutes good behaviour is poor. Staff mark behaviour, but do not provide pupils with detailed feedback, or a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Consequently, they do not learn as quickly as they could.
  • Feedback to pupils on their behaviour is only provided annually, with a pass/fail mark delivered to their stockings on Christmas Eve without further comment. This hinders development and neglects the possibility and significance of behavioural change.
  • Pupils are not given targets for their behaviour, or areas for improvement. Where expectations are explicitly stated, this responsibility is devolved to parents and other authority figures, with no input from the academy.
  • In some cases, evaluation of performance was limited to pupils’ oral self-assessments of their behaviour, gathered from temporary “grotto” roadshows in department stores. Members of staff attending these roadshows made no effort to verify children’s assessments, and appeared to be using them systematically in lieu of their own marking.

The behaviour and safety of pupils is inadequate

  • The academy’s work to keep pupils safe is inadequate. Due to minimal staff contact with pupils, there is no adequate assessment of risks to children from bullying, abuse or neglect.
  • Gifts to children for good behaviour, especially to boys, are often associated with violent or warlike themes. Toy guns in particular pose a significant and immediate child protection risk, given that children are likely to find these gifts while parents are still asleep and unable to provide appropriate supervision.
  • The specific allergy requirements of different children are taken very seriously when sourcing presents. However, in recent years the nutritional content of stockings has declined significantly, with traditional gifts of oranges and nuts phased out in favour of increasingly big bags of chocolate and other confectionery. No assessment has been undertaken into how delivery of a sackful of presents and sugary sweets is likely to impact on behaviour in the days immediately following Christmas.
  • Although behaviour improves to an extent in December, provided that reminders and warnings are issued by parents, in general it is frequently poor. Rude, surly and rowdy behaviour by children is commonplace, and the management team were unable to demonstrate any impact resulting from their opaque correctional processes.

The leadership and management is inadequate

  • The management of the academy is highly secretive, and communication at all levels is very poor. Parents are not involved in governance, and have no means of raising questions or concerns. Children are left unsupervised and without guidance throughout the year. Wish lists are the only engagement expected from children, but receipt is rarely acknowledged, and wishes are often completely ignored without explanation.
  • Employment practices are discriminatory. Jobs are restricted on ethnic grounds, resulting in a workforce made up entirely of elves. Aside from the legal implications, this fails to reflect the diversity of the global population, and suggests a narrow cultural perspective.
  • Children from rich backgrounds are systematically favoured by the academy. The value of gifts to pupils shows a strong correlation with their family’s income, reinforcing inequality.
  • The source of the toys given as gifts is unclear, and explanations are contradictory. Although the academy advertises them as being made on-site by staff, many clearly bear corporate logos, or stamps such as “Made in China”, indicating that they do not originate in the Lapland factory. The management team were unable to explain this discrepancy.

On having one’s intelligence insulted by phonics advocates

Synthetic phonics are a notoriously divisive battleground in education – one that often leaves parents shaking our heads and wondering where the child comes in all the increasingly entrenched ideological bickering. So it was very exciting to see a bold headline in the Guardian this morning, proclaiming “Phonics education technique shown to have positive impact on literacy“, adding “New study is a vindication of the technique which teaches children to read using phonetic sounds rather than letters”.

Wonderful, that’s what we love – evidence! Maybe this will settle the matter once and for all. But on reading the full article, the reality was much less impressive than the headline suggested.

The article raised several causes for concern, most obviously the fact that the study only covered a single group of 30 children, and there was no mention of their level of improvement, only their performance at the end of the study period. There were hints that there was more meat in the actual study, but on taking a look, it somehow seemed to be even worse than the article suggested.

Let’s deal with the obvious problems first. This study tracked a single class of 30, with no control group at all – case studies are fine in their place, but they’re not sufficient to show a “positive impact on literacy” when compared with the alternatives, and as a result, they’re not sufficient to “vindicate” anything. Then there’s the problem of setting a baseline. The study paper goes to extraordinary lengths to break the 30 children down into ever smaller groups (3 receiving free school means, 1 with behavioural difficulties, 1 traveller) but does nothing to establish a baseline performance. The best we have (reception results) strongly suggests that these are high-achieving children in national terms, with or without synthetic phonics, with class performance in the top quintile at that point.

This failure to establish a robust baseline, coupled with the lack of a control group, makes the whole exercise completely meaningless. We have no way of knowing whether this single class have done well because of synthetic phonics, in spite of them, or whether they had any effect at all. Despite this, the author draws dramatic conclusions that often go well beyond either phonics or the KS1 years covered in the study. Have a look at some of these recommendations (just a small selection from two full pages of text), and see how many you think are properly founded based on the observed evidence:

  • Children should have dedicated time each day for handwriting practice, using a developmental handwriting programme which is linked to their phonics and is multisensory
  • Explicit phonics input should continue every day, into KS2
  • Care should be taken that children are not learning words by sight as whole words
  • In catch-up groups, children should be having a mini Snappy Lesson®

Whatever your opinion on phonics, that ® must have got your attention. In fact, many of the recommendations are directly linked to specific products, with the names Pearson and cropping up very often. By a remarkable coincidence, these are names which are also closely associated with Marlynne Grant, the author of this study. This dodgy study with obvious flaws, drawing conclusions that go way beyond even the most generous interpretation of the data, ends by recommending many of the author’s own products to help children learn to read. What a fortunate outcome!

There’s little more to say. This is junk science, telling us nothing about the effectiveness of phonics, and reaching conclusions which are – shall we say – open to suspicions of self-interest. It’s a poor contribution to the debate, and the Guardian should never have published their article in this form. These aren’t the only reasons for concern – you could also consider the aim of demonstrating a particular outcome, clearly stated at the start of the study, or the absence of clearly specified measures for determining reading age. From every conceivable angle, it falls completely flat.

It would be great to see some genuine academic research into phonics, examining various different approaches, evaluating general trends in their outcomes and identifying possible drawbacks or further areas for research. But this woeful study isn’t it. Whether you love phonics or hate them, you should be horrified that this is the level of the debate at the moment.

A Cavell parent writes: Betrayed by authority

You may be familiar with the story of our school. In short, the governors were sacked by Norfolk County Council last year, just days from taking the school into a Co-operative Trust, and replaced with an Interim Executive Board whose job was to turn the school into a sponsored academy. Every step of the process has been dodgy, starting with the initial irregular appointment of the IEB, but despite that, we were told last week that we have been refused a judicial review.

That’s deeply disappointing, but strangely, it doesn’t mean the treatment of our school has been legal, let alone fair or moral. All it means is that we’ve been denied the opportunity to demonstrate the illegality. Sadly and revealingly, it seems that the people who have been persecuting the school over the last few months are content to merely clear the ridiculously low bar of their actions not being shown to be illegal.

Parents, staff and the community as a whole were overwhelmingly supportive of the Co-operative Trust proposal, giving unprecedented levels of support in a full and thorough consultation. By contrast, the IEB didn’t take the effort to consider our views at all, requesting an academy order despite parents’ opposition and after the school had come out of special measures, a status which was the original excuse for how we were treated.

Incredibly, we heard at this point that the IEB thought they had already adequately consulted us. We were told that a couple of informal meetings in January, when they answered most questions by saying that no details could be given and assured parents that there would be a full consultation later, were the “consultation”. The IEB never admitted this when we queried it, but took a suspiciously long time (a full month) to confirm that there would be any additional opportunity to share our views. We’ve just received that consultation, which is the main topic of this post.

The “consultation” that required so much deliberation is a quite extraordinary example of its type. It opens with two pages of propaganda about academies and the proposed sponsor, and not a single mention of any other possible options. Already, this is hardly fair or balanced. Then there’s a single sheet for “comments or questions”, with no objective yes/no questions at all.


This is a sneaky way of avoiding embarrassing results like the 85% opposition to academies at Warren School or Dorothy Barley, or the 94% opposition at Downhills, and clearly open to abuse, especially as the results will be assessed by the IEB who have already expressed their view. Equally sinister, there’s a space for your name at the bottom, possibly an attempt to intimidate staff into silence. As Mark Steel said of Hove Park, this is reminiscent of North Korea – here is the result, now would you like to comment on it?

We asked David Lennard Jones, chair of the IEB and a schools adjudicator in his spare time when he isn’t busy disenfranchising parents, to give us some basic guarantees about his consultation. These were hardly onerous, just three basic points. We asked for:

  • An assurance that our views could do anything to affect the school’s future
  • Objective criteria for that to happen
  • Independent oversight of the consultation, to ensure that he wasn’t simply rubberstamping his own decision

It’s hard to see how anyone could object to these. They’re just a guarantee that the consultation isn’t a complete sham, which is surely the bare minimum you’d expect. He failed to give us any of these assurances, and we recently discovered that he thinks there’s nothing wrong with his consultation because he believes it’s within the law. Once again, we’re back to that very low bar – a schools adjudicator who thinks that this behaviour is fine as long as it probably isn’t illegal.

We all know that academy consultation is a farcical pantomime to give the impression of genuine engagement rather than simple theft, but this is a particularly stark example. A man in a position of significant responsibility in education is openly setting himself up as his own judge and jury, an outrageous conflict of interest which says much about the autocratic dogma around academies.

He says that his actions aren’t illegal. He may or may not be correct, but ask yourself what that says about the system he’s working in, and the intention behind the legislation – it should be crystal clear that our voice needs to be heard and respected. Norfolk County Council have always insisted that the IEB are independent and objective, but also told us repeatedly that the school had to become an academy, told the IEB to act accordingly, and despite some fine words about the importance of consultation, have done nothing as yet to ensure our views are listened to.

And what of the DfE? They haven’t been mentioned until now, but they (and especially Gove and Nash) are the éminences grises, making everyone dance to their tune while they hide in the shadows. This has all ultimately been driven from Westminster, stemming from a memo sent to Norfolk County Council instructing them that all schools in special measures must become sponsored academies and threatening dire consequences if they don’t.

Everyone involved in this travesty has much to be ashamed of, but it’s the national issues that are the greatest concern. Schools are being betrayed by the very authorities that should be supporting them, with an agenda to turn all schools into academies, and those who are behind it are not just unaccountable but invisible. This, even more than the deliberate disenfranchisement of the whole communities, is the real threat to democracy.

We’re fighting to save our school, but this is just part of a wider battle. When things like this can be done, with no one accountable for their actions, the concept of representative democracy is completely broken. We should all be deeply concerned.

Solidarity with Warren School – A letter to Lord Nash

You may be aware that the Warren School in East London, having had to go to court just to be allowed to express a view, is to be forced to become an academy despite 85% of responses opposing such a move. You can read the full text of Lord Nash’s letter here, although you can probably save yourself some time with our handy tweet-sized summary:

As Lord Nash delivered this bombshell by letter, it seems appropriate for our response to him to take the same form. So here it is:

Dear Lord Nash

Thank you for your letter regarding your decision to force the Warren School to become an academy, against the wishes of the vast majority of parents. We recognise that you really, desperately want to force your dangerous, unproven academy dogma on schools regardless of public opinion or practicality.

In particular, we recognise the enormous workload you have taken on in order to present this decision in such a way as to justify your dictatorial arrogance. It cannot be easy to spin your actions as being in the best interests of anyone but you and your ideologically blinkered cronies, and your investment of time and effort towards bullying a school into your preferred school model deserves to be recognised.

We note that you continue to lean on the desperate use of irrelevant and cherry-picked statistics. As you surely know, sponsored academies are typically starting from a low base which allows them far more room for improvement than an average of all schools, simply by regression to the mean. As you surely also know, a direct like-for-like comparison banded by exam results shows a very different picture, and in some cases clearly favours governance models other than academies. Your use of these statistics to support your argument is either ignorant or dishonest, we could not say which.

We must also admire your brass neck in questioning the robustness of the evidence in favour of federation, when your entire argument rests on torturing academy statistics until they tell you what you want to hear. Of particular note is the criticism that “the federation proposal does not identify who the new governors will be or set out the knowledge and experience they will bring.” You are no doubt aware that academy chains are free to appoint or remove governors at will, yet this criticism is only made in respect of the federation proposal, and the proposed sponsor are praised in contrast for stating who their directors are, a completely different function.

You say that there is “strong evidence” that conversion to academy status results in “prompt and sustained improvement”, and also that Loxford Academy Trust will be “a highly effective sponsor”. Was there such strong evidence of effectiveness when E-ACT took on each of their schools? Or when Richard Rose Central or Hope Academy became academies? Please think very carefully before you answer.

But all of this is so much froth and hot air next to the main issue – that parents overwhelmingly want to federate with Robert Clack, and by taking this course of action you are overruling them and arrogantly insisting that you know better. Maybe you believe that your arguments are strong and persuasive – then why were they not submitted prior to the consultation? Why not allow parents to make their choice, having heard your views? If your arguments are relevant, make them known and let parents choose having heard both sides of the argument. This is how consultation and democracy works.

No doubt you are a busy man, always signing away public property to private interests against the wishes of the general population, but you may find it valuable to peruse Hansard from time to time. On 11th May 2011, your erstwhile colleague Nick Gibb, then Schools Minister, spoke to the Commons about the true nature of consultation. He spoke at length about the potential hazards, such as people coming in from outside and distorting the consultation process, and told the house:

When a meeting is held and the overwhelming opinion expressed by those people gives the impression of one view, the Secretary of State will look through that to see what the genuine view is of local people in the community. He wants to ensure that the consultation has been extensive and has included local people, so, when local people have in effect been excluded by such activity, he will take that into account before reaching a decision. There is a need for appropriate safeguards, however, and we have been persuaded by the weight of opinion across both Houses to ensure that there is proper consultation.

In your letter, you accept that the consultation process was “fair and reasonable”. You do not doubt that the response represents the true will of the people. But this is the only reason offered by Mr Gibb as a possible justification for disregarding the wishes of a clear majority of parents. You are betrayed by your own party, in the official records of parliamentary business.

We have no expectation that you have any interest in this response, but like you, we appreciate that previous decisions are subject to ongoing legal proceedings. We trust that these will continue and that the rule of law and the will of the people will prevail.

Parents 4 Education

The strange experience of overnight militancy

I am a parent, one who’s distinctly centrist, moderate and small “l” liberal. I can usually see both sides of any argument, so much so that I often switch sides in the middle of a debate if I think it’s becoming imbalanced. My most extreme political act to date has been voting Lib Dem in the last election [insert joke here]. But over the last few days, I’ve come to realise that I must be some sort of dangerous militant extremist!

The_Times_24_4_2014Since the NUT conference, I’ve seen a lengthy Newsnight report, the front page of The Times, and even a throwaway comment in an apparently unrelated article, all claiming that the NUT are militant and overrun with left-wing extremists, but not bothering to offer any proper evidence for this. The nearest anyone’s come is pointing to a vote for strike action (if no progress is made in talks) and a heavily defeated one for a planned series of strikes, with echoes of Michael Gove’s criticism of “militant teaching unions” for daring to stand up for themselves.

This is quite a strange experience for me, because this appears to mean that I must also be dangerously militant – not to mention an “enemy of promise”, or even “Trotsyist” [sic] in the words of Newsnight editor Ian Katz. Me, the boring middle class suburban dad – if only PTAs were as exciting as this! You see, I support the teaching unions in their actions. Teachers are our future, but they’re being abused and overworked to the point where their job is becoming impossible. And it’s our children who suffer as a result.

I support teachers’ right to strike, and their decision to take that course of action when this government is waging open war on their entire profession and the Secretary of State refuses to even meet them to discuss it. And I oppose Gove’s ideological destruction of our education system to put schools in the hands of private companies run by Tory donors. I know, how dare I be so militant? I’ll come quietly, officer.

It’s a very strange approach to criticise a bully’s victims when they start to fight back after enduring years of beatings and abuse. In fact, any school with such a policy would be hauled over the coals by Ofsted, and with good reason. Yet this is what’s happening here. Gove is the militant bully here, destroying others’ lives for his own ends. If he wants teaching unions to be less shouty, he should stop his assault on education.

But this isn’t just a strange coincidence of several people drawing the same erroneous conclusion independently – it’s consistent with a deliberate campaign to discredit the unions. If people aren’t stupid enough to believe a word Gove says, at least they can be made to doubt his opponents. This is negative divide-and-rule politics at its worst, and it makes me very angry.

Ironically, I’m now starting to feel a little bit militant about this crude propaganda. That’s the trouble when people start playing these games – you give a dog a bad name…

Don’t forget the parents

It’s conference season, and the papers are full of talk about more teachers’ strikes. Nothing’s decided on that front – although the chances of Michael Gove suddenly starting to listen must be vanishingly small – but while we’re fully supportive of the unions in opposing his dangerous ideology, and most parents are just as suspicious of his agenda, the unions must still tread carefully.

Being in opposition to Gove is a very good start in generating public support, but it’s important to remember that this is not a positive endorsement of either the teaching unions or their tactics. Being the enemy of my enemy doesn’t necessarily guarantee my support, as demonstrated by teachers’ reactions to some of Tristram Hunt’s recent statements. If unions want the sort of backing that puts more scrutiny and pressure on Gove, they need to build positive alliances, starting with parents.

The success of industrial action is determined by public relations as much as inconvenience to Westminster, and this puts teachers in a difficult position, because parents, their most natural allies in defending education, are also the people who are hardest hit by strikes. Every strike is an inconvenience for us – we may need to take a day off work ourselves to look after our children, or else pay an eye-watering sum of money to a childminder. A strike can cost parents just as much as teachers, but without any say in whether it happens, which is why we must be persuaded of the necessity of strikes if the PR battle is to be won.

The #standup4edu campaign is an excellent and potentially gamechanging  initiative, but it isn’t a magic bullet – it needs constant work to engage and inform parents about why teachers are so angry and why Gove’s so dangerous, and goodwill can be lost in an instant with an ill-advised comment.

There was an example of how not to do it on The Today Programme this morning. Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary, was asked why the union are talking about further strike action, an open question inviting her to put the union’s case in her own words. Her response began like this:

Well, the threat of strike action is part of a much wider campaign that we’re engaging in at the moment, Stand Up For Education, which is about engaging parents to make sure that they understand what education policy is about and putting pressure on politicians, but the specific issues are the issues that we’ve been dealing with, with the government for some time on pay, particularly on workload and conditions, and of course on pensions.

Frankly, this is a PR disaster. For all the talk of engaging parents, the main points which are mentioned all amount to teachers wanting more pay for less work – don’t we all? There are plenty of reasons for strike action, and some more of those were mentioned later on, but this was a golden opportunity to build a broad support base, and it was wasted.

There’s an widely-accepted aphorism that everything before the word “but” is a lie. In this case, it could be said that everything after the first sentence is a lie – it certainly won’t be given the same weight. Rightly or wrongly, anything that isn’t mentioned immediately in this context is assumed to be a secondary issue at best, or it would have been mentioned earlier. By the time those issues are raised, most listeners will already have made up their minds, many of them forming negative opinions of the union argument.

When people are feeling the pinch, it’s hard to make the case for a pay increase, especially when that increase would come out of their taxes. The Coalition have been very effective in divide and rule tactics, and while some will support a pay rise on principle, the more common reaction is likely to be a scoffing “we’d all like more money, but I haven’t had a raise either, so why should I pay for it?”

Unions may feel that people shouldn’t think this way, but that’s a long and troublesome argument to win, and a diversion from the immediate problem. The pragmatic PR-savvy response is to exploit this inclination towards self-interest, showing that children are suffering as a result of Gove’s reforms, and teachers are standing up against this.

It’s easy to play the armchair quarterback, but we would have preferred the response to begin more like this:

We are considering strike action because Michael Gove’s education reforms are making our job impossible and directly harming children’s education. Rather than teaching children, we’re being expected to spend more and more time on bureaucratic paperwork, and having to intensively prepare children for tests which are purely for administrative and monitoring purposes. We don’t want to strike, but Gove refuses to even meet us to discuss our complaints, so we don’t have many options.

There’s plenty of room for raising the issues of pay and pensions later on, along with any other grievances, but this sets the scene with teachers standing up for our children, as opposed to standing up for themselves. That’s the way to build support outside the profession.

Unions – when you’re making statements about industrial action, please consider how they will come across to unengaged parents. Try thinking of us as honorary associate union members if it helps. We want to Stand Up For Education, and we want to rescue our children from Gove’s demented ideology, but this is an ongoing project, and it won’t be helped by the appearance of self-interest.

Revising for Kf2 tests?

There was a story in the news today about chess. Hank Roberts, former president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, thinks chess is good for improving minds – quite possibly true, although there’s an obvious risk of confusing correlation and causation. And he also thinks it should therefore be compulsory in primary schools, which is rather more unsettling.

We’re used to this sort of thing, because everyone has their own personal hobbyhorse that must be ridden into every school and parked right in the middle of an already congested timetable, without any consideration for how it’s meant to fit. What lessons can we drop to find time to teach children board games, something which would be the subject of ranty Daily Mail editorials except for the miraculous inoculating properties of the game’s age? Nothing, the week’s already full. We could slash a PE lesson at a push – kids don’t need to have fun or exercise. Lunchtimes? After school? Teachers are all busy planning lessons – who’s meant to run it? And where are the boards and sets going to come from? You think we’ve got the budget for that?

In the end, suggestions like this usually become good for a few lame jokes on topical panel shows before disappearing without trace. There’s a good reason for that. Certainly, we wouldn’t normally expect Gove to take any notice of a former union leader’s views. So rather than flogging a dead horse by listing all the reasons why this should never happen, this is why it should!

The very first thing to realise about chess is that most people instantly think it’s boring. It conjures up images of old men in the corner of the room, or people being dead for hours without anyone realising, because they looked like they were still thinking of a move. It also takes a lot of initial legwork to get to the stage where there’s any point in playing a full game. Children – actually, that goes for adults as well – are not generally going to respond well to being told they have to do it.

Even once you know the moves and are able to play a game, chess can be hard to get excited about. Some people will find it interesting, some won’t, but the fastest learners and the most successful players will be those who enjoy it. These people who really enjoy chess create their own intrinsic rewards – they play, and improve, because they enjoy it. They study books of theory because they find them interesting – a pleasure, where less engaged players would see it as a chore – and they do better as a result. They even do extra study in their free time, because they don’t see it as work, but play.

So why are we writing this? Because this is a close analogy to education in general, and demonstrates something important. Education policy in this country too often seems to miss the point of motivation. By forcing children through ever more tests, making them jump through hoops for the benefit of schools and administrators, creating ever more homework and reducing them to machines for turning pressure into learning. The government’s answer to any perceived problem in education is never more inspiration and motivation, but always more work, or more tests, as if our children were slaves needing another crack of the whip. But we prefer another way.

Learning isn’t always fun. And when it isn’t, we struggle to take things in, no matter how important it is or how much pressure we’re under. All of us have experienced this at some point in our lives. Endless tests and extra remedial lessons are no match for simple engagement. People can learn despite being bored, but will be more enthusiastic and more effective when they’re interested – just ask any parent of a small child who likes dinosaurs.

We don’t really want compulsory chess in schools, but at the same time, it does feel like it could help to illustrate the importance of inspiration. And right now, maybe that would be worth it.

The truth about academies

Academies. We didn’t really want to get stuck into such an obvious target so soon, especially when it’s been done so much better by people with far more experience and knowledge than us, but there were two things today that made it worth covering in detail.

First, there was a Telegraph story which could virtually have been written by Michael Gove himself, so fawning and uncritical was it. In it, Gove boasts of the number of primary academies that have been created, and in particular the 570 “failing” schools which he has “hauled out of local council control” and turned into sponsored academies.

We were so outraged at the thought of over 500,000 children having their education dictated by Gove’s tunnel vision ideology that we didn’t immediately notice a very significant point: In quoting this figure, Gove’s undermining his own department’s propaganda.

Last month, the DfE published a “mythbuster” document about academies, which contained some highly disingenuous material that was considerably more misleading than the “myths” it was opposing. In particular, on the subject of schools being forced to become academies, the document said this (the “myth” in bold):

Thousands of schools have been forced to become academies against their will.

Actually, in only 13 cases out of 1,025 sponsored academies has the Secretary of State used his formal intervention powers to enable an under-performing council-run school to become an academy.

Clearly, this is a delicate and pedantic tapdance around the use of formal statutory intervention powers, feigning ignorance of the use of Interim Executive Boards (IEBs) and aggressive bullying by DfE academy brokers to get schools to jump before they need to be pushed. But by claiming responsibility for these cases – for good or ill – Gove undermines this argument completely. He can’t have it both ways.

That’s a pretty clear example of the facts being spun very differently for different audiences, and on its own, it’s not really such a big deal. But then a post was published this afternoon telling the horrifying story of what it’s like to have your school forced to become an academy. “Read it and weep” was never a more appropriate phrase.

This is the reality behind Gove’s proud boasts – an aggressive, dictatorial “my way or the highway” insistence on crushing all opposition and treating people as obstacles on the road to the ideological promised land of academies for all, whether they want them or not.

The pros and cons of academies have been discussed ad nauseam in terms ranging from academic performance (on which subject, this just came out) to financial probity. But there’s a human cost too, as that story and this poignant one from a different school amply demonstrate.

Maybe Gove believes all these parents, teachers and above all children deserve to have their schools completely changed against their will. Maybe in his world wanting a say in your school’s future is Blob behaviour, and must be punished. But that’s not a world we want to live in.

People matter. Yes, Michael, even the Blobby ones. When you treat your policy as more important than the people affected by it, you lose any right to the benefit of the doubt about your motives.

This has to stop. Now.