Monday, 18 January 2010

Elitism in British education and society

It's a clever move by Cameron, you have to give him that. In the days of tight budgets, the declaration that he is going to raise the entry profile for teachers above third-degree entrants in act of "Brazen Elitism" is smart because it's simple. It will cost nothing (a few quid on PGCE subsidy is a drop in the salary ocean); it will be divisive amongst teachers on subject and age lines; it appeals to the idea that you can raise the bar by setting high aspirations (without reference to actual teaching change); it delights the traditionalist right-wing press because it is tacitly blaming teachers for educational failure; it steals Ed Balls' every-teacher-should-do-an-MA-thunder without either (a) the cost or (b) the risk of educating a profession more fully. Most worryingly, it's a brilliant steal of stupid teachers' votes, because idiots in the profession will think it designed to enhance the prestige of their role. Witness the patronising flag-waving of the opening paragraphs of the Telegraph article on the news, guaranteed to fool some.

It's also nonsense as recruitment strategy. Raising the bar of a profession does nothing to fundamentally affect the status of a profession. Changing the conditions / rights / most of all, salaries of a profession does; Fiona Millar in the Guardian is much more on the ball here. What she doesn't notice, and what is surely in the sly calculations of Osborne et al is that, since Labour have returned teacher pay to a roughly decent level (despite the NUT's claims, to which I am not unsympathetic) and solved a recruitment crisis; and since the credit crunch has set in motion a managerial-dream decade of teacher oversupply from career-switchers, the next government of any colour has some degree of carte blanche about facing down teachers on pay and conditions. Cameron could have two terms treating the profession without absolute disinterest or hypocrisy and still not have to pay the price: it took a decade after Baker's introduction of National Curriculum 1 in 1988 for the vast numbers of the offended professionals to swell to crisis, and so it could be again.

This brings us to Labour's recruitment drive early in their government. Why did they work so hard on either side of the millenium to reinvigorate recruitment into teaching? I am not disposed to believe then-and-now Labour claims that they wanted to raise standards by paying teachers an attractive salary, nor the unspoken (they wouldn't dare say anything so old-Left) thought that maybe it was catch-up payback for all the years of sub-inflation Tory pay rises. Rather, their prompt was desperation - there was a staggering recruitment crisis about to happen and they (effectively, it must be conceded) averted it by high-volume recruiting, with increased salaries and a new route in. It worked. The profession is better off. Schools are better for it. Has it made a difference?

Well... we find ourselves through the looking glass here. The great sleight-of-hand tradition in which Cameron's latest policy stands is one in which the mainstream fail to break through because of the fault of some part of the mainstream. It is divide and conquer stuff. Average parents are told - by implication - that their children would do better if state school teachers were as good as private school ones (they are usually far better); average teachers, that they would be able to achieve more if average parents did a better job of instilling obedience in their offspring; we don't approve of Grammars but we understand some average aspirant parents want to open them; and so forth. Famously, 7% of children attend private schools but form 75% of the judiciary, have access to the same proportion nationally of cadet training opportunities (leading to forces officership) and half of the top civil service. Naturally, the Milburn report from which these figures are drawn drifted into quiet obscurity, mostly ignored by the government once it had the anti-Cameron headlines they afforded. Labour's gutlessness on meaningful social mobility is depressing. And can any credence really be lent to the woe-is-us-it's-all-so-unfair claims of the independent school brigade given these figures? Additionally, industries dependent on unpaid internship work - positive-potential, expanding and / or high-paid "new economy" sectors like finance, journalism, arts, management consultancy - become, apparently without any prejudice, the province yet again of those whose parents can fund this extended education, and / or have appropriate personal links to open doors.

The difference ultimately between Labour's teacher recruitment drive a decade ago and Cameron's glitz today is that, in a similarity to Fiona Millar's Guardian narrative (in which she herself back-references Francis Gilbert's same point): this would be a bar to many good teachers - and populate the profession with idiots, in some cases. I entered teaching in that early New Labour wave of recruitment through one of those new routes - and my students' results speak for themselves. Whatever the motivation, the access opportunities, rising salary, and desire to recruit well were important, rather than a narrowing of the field like Cameron proposes. And by contrast, one of the best teachers I have ever worked with, and the best manager I have ever worked for in education, got a third - and would not now be allowed to enter teaching. Blunt tools don't work. But will more people know, and think about, these comparisons from great teachers of our own experience, than are seduced by the glib Dave headline about raising standards? Haven't we learnt yet that those words almost always presage intrusive idiocy in educational policy?

Friday, 15 January 2010

Teachers desert Labour? Because?

It's difficult to see from where a Labour election victory could come this year. Teachers, perhaps more than any other group, should be the core of the Labour vote. But, as the Guardian reports, rates of teacher support from Labour have fallen from almost a half to one quarter of the profession; Tory support amongst the profession has doubled, and now stands equivalent to Labour's own.

Partly this is the disenchantment in general of the populace in a bleak economic time with talk of cuts; and the preponderance of younger teachers the Guardian reports supporting the Tories simply can't remember the 90s, let alone the 80s; but there must also be a reflection as to why teachers old enough to know better might be prepared to countenance more of those traditional deep and targeted Tory cuts in education we know will come with a Cameron victory.

The usual reason given is initiative fatigue. Starting with Blunkett early in Labour's period in power, an endless spew of well-meaning but demanding and under-resourced pressures were loaded onto teachers, with a matching reduction in autonomy and trust. But this argument is often over-inflated, and my feeling is that there has been something of a rowback on this in recent years: more emphasis on teacher CPD, more sense of collaborative learning, a slow movement towards evidence-based policy (albeit with far to go yet.) But certainly teachers' workload remains too high; the pressure on them incommensurate with the time or support available to achieve it; and the collective national schizophrenia / have-our-cake-and-eat-it which we have about discipline-versus-inclusion means that much student behaviour remains intolerable and insufficiently challenged.

Yet, as the Guardian elsewhere reports, the years of education funding under Labour have not, as the Murdoch press would have you believe, unsuccessful: inner-city students, the most disadvantaged, have done well; particularly the core literacy and numeracy skills, the source of such constant complaint from employers, have massively improved, with a leap from 10% to 40% of inner-city students passing five or more GCSEs including English and Maths. Poor Labour; even this gets reported along the lines of the Lib Dem complaint that this simply means rural schools (and, implicitly even if no-one would dare say it, schools with low ethnic minority populations) are being under-supported. Of course the Lib Dems would say this: they're fighting rural-non-Tory territory, not for Labour urban votes. This claim isn't true; I work in one exact such school, and one in a relatively difficult rural cachement; and though we clearly do not get the resources lavished on urban schools, the wolf is certainly not at the door - not compared to mid-90s levels of funding.

It's really not that bad, teachers - quit whingeing. You may perceive Labour as favouritist, as mission fanatics, and as slave drivers - but study your history to be sure you prefer the Tory alternative. It will mean faint (if veiled) disdain, huge cuts, and only perhaps being left blissfully alone while the minister attends his children's independent school's Speech Day. Your choice.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Academies stutter as the bog standard picks up

Well, whaddaya know... it turns out that Academies are not all they were cracked up to be. For those long anticipating / salivating for their eventual and inevitable tarnishing, the apparent ever-upward trajectory (setting aside the question of just how massaged their "successes" had always been in the hands of the media-dominating politically-invested) has finally stalled in a quite spectacular way: as the National Challenge number of secondaries (simplistically read: "failing schools") has shrunk from 440 to 301 (or 247, if you wrongly ignore those that have been closed), the number of Academies in this number has risen from 32 to 41; more tellingly, this represents 20% of all Academies versus 7% of "bog standard" other schools.

Consider in this analysis (a) the vastly superior funds (b) the considerable flexibility with curriculum and staffing given to Academy Principals - effectively freeing them from reasonable constraints about fair treatment of staff which other Heads nationally must continue to meet and (c) the constant PR support of DCSF, up to its metaphorical neck in having to prove this particular Emperor of a policy is fully and sumptuously clothed, and the crash of the whole grandiose scheme to earth is extremely audible.

Those who have campaigned against Academies - from whatever stakeholder base: parents, teachers, social democrats, those fearing the nasty backdoor by which they have profilerated religious schooling at taxpayer expense - this will inevitably feel like a victory - so notice it and think about all the consequences. Of course we were right all along: schools can work to combat social deprivation factors, but cannot have a major impact, and no amount of throwing money at a new school building, "rebranding" the same institution or blazering-up the same students - nor tedious stock visits from the local bishop / minor industrialist will transform anything that the infinitely less glamorous chalkface efforts of thousand hard-working teachers will do. And just maybe - shutting down a school and changing half the staff on a fantastical whim about "fresh blood" will not improve, but will damage schools because students need consistency, and because relaunches - as any sane teacher could have told you - only last about 3 weeks in education anyway, period.

Of course we should look at this the other way: a national reduction in failing schools (however stupid and dangerous the whole National Challenge badge is) by a clear one-third is a huge gain. No amount of Daily Mail nonsense about Labour relaxing education standards can justify that: clearly, from any viewpoint, a fundamental improvement in standards has occurred in the weakest-performing schools; a disproportionate benefit of this will go to the most needy young people, and that is a cause for true celebration.

For those who championed Academies, this is a wake-up call. For those who have mocked, reviled and loathed them - whilst a brief moment of gratification is deserved and permitted (could you ever have been wrong?) - now comes the task of trying to use this evidence to win the wider public debate about good comprehensive schools, the danger of stealth religious education, and the pointlessness of dated business models in difficult schools where experienced educationalists and not former "business leaders" are needed to lead.

And for those who have been angered by the name-and-shame of National Challenge - including my own school, one of those 139 who rose this year above the threshold and out of National Challenge - we might perhaps reflect that, complain as we will, perhaps such public criticism, and such demanding initiatives, aren't always without positive effect; perhaps Ed Balls isn't always wrong; perhaps he's just wrong about Academies. Food for thought.