News Archive

Monday July 3, 2017 - Making sense of chaos

Making sense of chaos

The other evening I watched an interview on Channel 4 news between Jon Snow, Poppy Noor, Faiza Shaheen, and the Adam Smith Institute's Matthew Kilcoyne on the subject of social mobility, in the context of Grenfell Tower.

I'd never seen or heard Matthew Kilcoyne before but I'd certainly become familiar with the inflexible right-wing views of the Adam Smith Institute over many years. He ended his interview by telling Jon Snow "Not everyone hates the Tories as much as you do".

He's demonstrably wrong there.

He's also wrong in his main arguments. He accused previous generations of politicians (Labour, mainly, of course) of assuming that comprehensive schools would cure social immobility but failed to do so. Instead, academies and free schools had succeeded where those pesky comprehensives had failed.

This ignores the important facts that:

  • academies were first set up under a Labour administration;
  • academies are, in fact, comprehensive schools by another name;
  • along with the foot on the accelerator given to academisation by the Coalition government in 2010 the Lib Dems managed to introduce the Pupil Premium, a policy designed specifically to address social disadvantage, which has probably made a lot more difference than simply changing the structures of roughly 25% of the nation's schools;
  • there is even now (after 15 years since the first academy was opened) no evidence that academies perform any better than any other kind of school and simply no evidence at all about the performance of free schools

It got me thinking, though...

Now I know I'm entering very dangerous territory here, so I will tread very gingerly...

Let me start by saying that the Grenfell Tower fire was horrific and devastating to hundreds of people. It was gut-wrenchingly awful. I fully accept that a full enquiry is needed to provide a comprehensive explanation of why it happened.

Many commentators have sought to see the fire in the broader context of social policy of the last two decades and beyond, concluding that, whatever the immediate cause of the fire and why it spread so fast, it was the result of a mania for deregulation, outsourcing and the market by successive governments.

The immediate finger of blame has been pointed at Kensington and Chelsea Council for its unforgivably inept lack of action and the emerging story of councillors favouring the rich at the expense of the poor. People have resigned. Central government, not in the greatest shape itself, has joined in the criticism.

This is a little confusing, at least superficially, if, like me, you believe that Local Government is a good thing and privatisation a disaster.

And I really want to talk about education rather than housing, though the two are connected.

So, here goes:

Education is a good thing and a basic human right. It is the key to building a prosperous and harmonious state. A good education should be freely available to all. As in health, housing, security and welfare, the state should play a major role in ensuring these things. Since these services are offered locally, there should also be some form of local democratic control over them. Those who hold office in local democratic bodies should be accountable to the public and especially to those who use those services - the vast majority of local people.

I still find it odd that writing things like that seems rather quaint and old-fashioned. I don't understand what's wrong with those basic concepts. But, as someone who worked in public service his whole life, in schools and local authorities, I witnessed a relentless destruction of those principles by, again, successive governments. Yet there was never any overt discussion about whether this vandalism was merited. No great debate, just salami-slicing, year after year, till the desired ends were achieved.

Local education authorities could be inefficient and overbearing. But they could also be inspiring and resourceful. Local councils were once staffed by mainly dedicated officers who were experts in their field. They could be perceived as petty-minded jobsworths but actually performed necessary and important functions.

All became tarred with the same brush, though - overbearing, overpaid, useless bureaucrats. What was needed was the fresh, bracing air of the much superior private sector, who would root out inefficiencies and dead wood. Money would be saved. Performance would improve.

The mantra was "do more with less". It IS possible to do a bit more with a bit less, it's true, but there comes a point when it simply can't be done. "Intervention in inverse proportion to success" was another favoured motto. Business re-engineering. Lean production principles. Re-purposing. It went on and on. What actually happened was that each year local government was given less and less money to do the same amount of work with fewer and fewer people.

The end result is Kensington and Chelsea Council, where the local politicians are still there (apart from those who have just resigned) but there are no Council experts and officials on the ground to make anything happen. Schools in the Borough have done a great job, apparently, as have some welfare services. Overall, though, it is a hollowed-out husk. Where, in an emergency, are all the private companies to which council services were outsourced? Where is their sense of social service? Nothing to do with me, guv - I'm on a contract.

Yet the community proved to be cohesive, brave, effective, caring and purposeful - showing all the values that should underpin our local services and their functioning. The fire service, in particular, modelled that behaviour but Tory MPs cheered a few days later when the Queen's Speech was voted through, denying public service workers an end to the 1% pay cap. But the Adam Smith Institute persists in the belief that "Not everyone hates the Tories as much as (John Snow does)". They really should get out more and take note of the outcomes of their sterile beliefs.

Maybe we should have had a proper debate about all this, years ago, before it ended in disaster.

Although, thankfully, there has been no Grenfell Tower equivalent in education to date, it seems to me that the conditions have been set for a series of potential disasters.

We now have an education system in which the majority of secondary schools are academies and increasingly in MATs. They became academies, in the government's interpretation of events, to escape from local government control and achieve an unprecedented degree of autonomy. (This autonomy includes the questionable freedom to appoint unqualified teachers, whose number has risen by 7% in one year.) Yet when they join a MAT, they surrender their illusory autonomy to an often-remote MAT board which removes any local accountability by destroying governance in each academy. And they have no democratic say in who is on the Board. It's what Classics scholar Boris Johnson might call a Pyrrhic victory.

Surprise, surprise - there has been a long series of scandals involving the misappropriation and wasting of very large sums of money, especially by MATs. If all these scandals had happened at the same time and received anything like the press and media attention they merited, there would be a proper outcry of disgust and anger. The previous Ofsted Chief Inspector described the worst MATs as being worse than the worst local authorities. The DfE, nominally responsible for ensuring financial responsibility in MATs and academies, has been told two years running that it is incapable of managing its own budgets. But it regularly asserts that their oversight is so much better than that of "Council schools" by LAs.

The majority of primary schools (80%, roughly) are not academies and it's fair to conclude that they don't want to be. Yet they depend on their rapidly disappearing local authority for services and support. They are left wondering how they'll survive if and when the Council's services are finally dead. The government has no plan for them. There was a plan to force them to become academies but backed off when it turned out that wasn't as popular as they misguidedly thought it would be. The House of Commons Education Committee concluded last year that: "Small, rural primary schools are vulnerable as trusts take on more schools and the MAT model is currently not attractive to them. There is a risk that the primary sector will be left behind as secondary schools academise and join or form MATs." Consider for a moment the implications for your local community of the key words "vulnerable" and "left behind".

In the name of innovation, the government has promoted the creation of more and more Free schools, once tellingly described by Robert Hill as "unguided missiles", often in buildings never intended to accommodate children. The DfE rapidly and quietly dropped its ambition to slacken fire regulations for schools in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell but it is questionable whether all Free schools or, indeed, schools in general would meet current requirements.

And the two biggest issues in education right now? A lack of money for all schools and a recruitment and retention crisis, likely to be made even more acute by Brexit. Schools may get more money, given the recent discovery of a money tree previously said to be mythical. But who will solve the teacher shortage? Justine Greening? Philip Hammond? I'd put more faith in Westminster and Chelsea Council.

If these trends continue, where will we be in 5 years' time? It doesn't bear thinking about. And the government isn't thinking about it. All it thinks about is its own pointless survival and who will replace Theresa once she's absorbed all the anti-Tory rage generated by a series of self-inflicted political disasters.

No cause for alarm, then.


Thursday June 22, 2017 - Challenging the status quo

Challenging the status quo

I've just finished my final draft of my new book on challenge - how governors can challenge school leaders effectively. I don't know when it will come out but probably in September.

It sets out how to define challenge and highlights the importance of the human dimension before offering some ideas on how to offer effective challenge. It explores opportunities for challenge during the school year and how to make use of data and information in order to ask relevant questions. It lists some key principles of effective challenge and looks at how to offer challenge in particular contexts, such as the small (village) school and the MAT. It finishes up with some thoughts on how to balance challenge with support.

To bring the issues to life, I've included a series of vignettes - scenes from governing body and committee meetings where governors do their best to challenge the head and other school leaders. They are based on situations I've experienced or heard about.

It made me conscious of some of the issues going on in political life at the moment. In my experience governors behave well. They don't always get everything right, but then neither do heads. They usually behave ethically, by, for example, abiding by a Code of Conduct and declaring their pecuniary interests.

I recently discovered that my local MP, for whom I did not vote, was one of 72 Tory MPs who are private landlords (though he has told me that he wasn't a landlord at the time, so I guess that's OK, then) and who voted last year against a Labour amendment which tried to ensure that privately rented properties are fit for human habitation. I think most governors would recognise that as a huge conflict of interest issue and not vote on it. But then, my MP is far too busy to be a school governor.

I find it astonishing that Michael Gove is not only still an MP but is back in the Cabinet. I've written extensively about Gove and his erstwhile buddy Dominic Cummings in earlier blogs but he really outdid himself only 12 months ago, betraying his supposed friend BoJo spectacularly in a failed attempt to take over the Tory party. I always enjoy Stewart Lee's skewering of him. This is from last week's Observer:

"Yes, even the Trump-rimming Murdoch fist-puppet Gove has been reinstated, despite the proved electoral toxicity of associations with the environment-loathing golf magnate and the failing public-opinion wrangler respectively. Was it only in January that Super Dick Gove, his pink bottom upon the old knee of an invisible Murdoch, flew to New York in a golden elevator to rub his horrid genital against Trump's chair leg? Gove then described as "warm" and "charismatic" a man whose British visit, it is tacitly accepted, would have caused civil disobedience on an unprecedented scale."

At the time, the media were full of condemnations of his outrageously appalling behaviour but now all seems to have been forgotten. I simply don't understand how this is possible. If a governor betrayed his fellow governors, I find it hard to believe that they would accept him back again in less than a year. If a governor behaves badly enough to be disqualified, the disqualification lasts for at least five years. Perhaps this suggests that MPs are more saintly than school governors. I'm not convinced that that's the correct way to read it. I think they just don't care. Their moral compasses have been ground beneath their (kitten) heels.

I can't believe that Theresa May is still in office. Any chair of governors demonstrating such a calamitous lack of judgement and absence of empathy coupled with a constipated public speaking style would surely be voted out at the earliest opportunity. If school children died in a horrific accident and the head and chair were nowhere to be seen for days, they wouldn't last five minutes. The parents would rip them to shreds if they got the chance.

And surely any governor making claims repeatedly proven to be false would be taken to task by at least the chair of governors: a quiet word to the wise in the hope that the idiot would learn from experience. Not so David Davis, the man who recently claimed that he would spend this summer arguing his EU opposite numbers into submission over Britain's "Brexit bill" only to accept everything the EU negotiators requested. On day 1 of the negotiations.

We can, perhaps, take comfort from some indicators that ordinary people have had enough. In her article in the Guardian today (20.6.17) headed "You messed with schools, Theresa May, so you messed with half the electorate", Laura McInerney argues convincingly that school budget cuts were key to the election result - the prime minister forgot teachers, parents and grandparents are all voters. So easy to overlook the fact that: "There are more than 8 million school-aged children. They have about 12 million parents and roughly the same number of grandparents. Half a million people work as state school teachers. Another half a million work in allied services. Messing with education isn't just messing with the youth, it's messing with half the electorate."

And a report later on today suggests that the axing of free school meals will be dropped from the Queen's Speech. Let's hope grammar schools go the same way. And then May and her egregious fellow travellers.


Monday June 12, 2017 - Reasons to be cheerful, Part 17

Reasons to be cheerful, Part 17

Who would have thought it? Just recently I'd sunk into a pit of dark despair about the state of the world and now - this!

I'm sad that Neil Carmichael will no longer be chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, having lost his Stroud seat, as he presided over some caustic judgements of government education policy. He will be missed.

But apart from that, well!

It looks as though the return to selective education is likely to disappear without trace now Theresa and her buddies, especially Nick Timothy, are tarnished beyond help.

Justine Greening had her majority reduced - but not as badly as Amber Rudd. So maybe that will give her pause for thought in supporting policies she obviously disagreed with. Though whether she stays as Education Secretary is a moot point.

It seems that a lot of the public really do care about never-ending cuts to the social fabric, especially schools and health services, despite years of silence. Maybe the Tories will finally realise that continuing down that hard road will wipe them out.

If it turns out to be true that the youth vote made a big impact, that has to be great news and will perhaps encourage even more of them to engage with politics and realise that they can make a real difference.

And the power of Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond has been shown to be much less influential than ever before. I don't expect their poisonous, lying headlines to disappear any time soon, but at least it's good to know that they don't achieve anything.

And, as for a hard Brexit, forget it. I think it's time for a second referendum (even the ghastly Farage was talking about it on the Today programme) and I'd lay odds on a very different outcome this time.

It's so good to smile again. It's like the end of a classic Western when the good guy defeats his evil enemies and the townsfolk rejoice. Long may it last. May May not last.


Monday May 15, 2017 - Back from wherever

Back from wherever

I've been silent too long.

I just found myself in tears listening to Joni Mitchell's peerless "Blue". Liz Lochead having chosen "All I want" to take to her desert island provoked me to dig out my copy and play it through, following the lyrics on the sleeve notes. Just a couple of bars of "Little Green" always starts me off and by the time I got to "The Last Time I saw Richard" and its reflections on the death of optimism I was nearly ready to give up the ghost.

Confronted by the endless awful news in the Observer again, my tears flowed for a world that until that godawful referendum seemed flawed but liveable in. Now I feel stateless. I don't recognise where I am any more. I don't mean in a physical sense. I think the word is deracinated - uprooted. It is unbelievable just how quickly everything I believed in and valued has turned to dust. Trump's ghastliness sucks the air from my lungs. The prospect of Tory rule without end fills me with black despair. I don't want any of this. It spells disaster for so many.

There must be thousands, if not millions, like me. What are we to do?

I guess I'm meant to be writing something snarky about education, my stock in trade. It wouldn't be hard. I just need the Tories to publish their inevitably pathetically thin and evasive manifesto to confirm their intention to impose an education policy on the nation that is discredited even before it's enacted. I can't stand this abject stupidity.

This is not a good day to summon up humour, so as a way of deflecting melancholy I'll share something I wrote for a conference of lovely, intelligent governors in Lewisham recently.

It was on the theme of governance and where it is going. Here's what I suggested as a possible future for education:

Eventually all but a few untouchable schools become academies as part of very large MATs because LAs have virtually disappeared. MATs are traded on the stock market as commodities. Most are owned by EU governments and PLCs (now we've taken back control). Some have even been bought and sold on Ebay.

Governance is gradually removed from all schools by MAT CEOs who argue with one voice "If your uncle is going in for brain surgery do you need someone going in from the community to oversee it?" * The community demands to know what brain surgery is, since the NHS closed down years ago. (*Comment actually made by Andrew Fielder, CEO, Aspire Academy Trust, Cornwall in defence of removing local governing bodies from the Trust's schools)

MAT Boards (now renamed Compensation Committees) increasingly collude with Principals and CEOs to award themselves bigger and bigger pay rises for doing less and less, more and more ineffectively. But there are fewer and fewer teachers to teach the children. And more and more children. Who are getting fatter and fatter. Schools are literally bursting at the seams.

Standards decline dramatically. The government changes the metrics every year to disguise the decline, celebrating year on year statistical improvements.

A series of scandals hits the news, all featuring fraud and embezzlement by a few freeloaders at the top of the biggest MATs. Earl Gove's coalition government has to be seen to do something.

A new White Paper proposes the renationalisation of academies, henceforth to be known as "schools", the introduction of local accountability via new area councils and the appointment of boards of local governors in all schools in order to bring education back under public control. This will, of course, represent excellent value for money for the taxpayer and be partly paid for by selling off the nation's remaining pigeons, motorways and skies.

In a light-hearted advert with a serious message, Education Ministers Mel and Sue appeal for 300,000 members of the public to come forward as school governors. Unpaid, of course, but with a chance to appear as contestants on a new series of "Britain's Hidden Heroes".

Lord Toby Young (Barking) praises this return to sanity and local decision-making, castigating all those who advocated academies and free schools. The Daily Mail's headline next day refers to Lord Harris and other academy sponsors as "Yet more Enemies of the People".

In the US, President (Michele) Obama changes the law so that she can serve a third term, by popular demand.


Monday Feb 13, 2017 - Grammars are go! (Not)

Grammars are go! (not)

"The schools that work for everyone consultation closed on December 12...As the Secretary of State told the House of Commons on Monday, we have received several thousand submissions, which we are now going through. We will respond in the spring."

So said a DfE spokeswoman, according to The Independent (9.2.17), in a news story about what had emerged from the minutes of meetings between ministers, education advisers and the Grammar School Heads' Association.

According to the same report, "Education Secretary Justine Greening said the response to the consultation on increasing selection, which closed in December, was not "an overwhelming flood of negativity"." Interesting phrase, that. It suggests that she was expecting such a flood. Why would that be, I wonder? Is she, perhaps, considering "alternative facts"?

In his Autumn Statement last year, Philip Hammond announced £50 million capital spending for new grammar schools (£200 million by 2021), despite the fact that the consultation had not been completed - and the responses still haven't all been read, even. This announcement came in a financial context which sees the following:

  • £140 million strategic school improvement funding announced in December including £50 million for support to LAs - but Education Support Grant cut by £600 million
  • National Audit Office criticises DfE accounts for the second year running - "lacking truth and fairness"
  • NAO says that schools face 8% real terms cuts by 2019/20
  • More schools and academies with surpluses but also more with deficits - and size of deficits growing
  • Apprenticeship levy for schools from April 2017

Leaving that to one side just for a minute, clearly the most important issue for the DfE and government is the reintroduction of grammar schools, showing clearly how they have their finger on the pulse of the nation - well, the section that votes UKIP, at least.

Yet their ambition barely deserves the name. The Guardian reported that "The government appears to be dampening down expectations over building a new wave of grammar schools, telling the policy's supporters that any new selective schools would not open until 2020 and would only cater for about one in 10 secondary school pupils in England. It also appears to be backing away from its claim that grammar schools improve social mobility, after supporters were told there was a "move away from focusing on social mobility to social reform" and that focusing too much on disadvantaged pupils would be replaced by "a determination to address the needs of Jams" (just about managing families) instead."

And they've backed off from the idea of pupil transfer to grammar schools after the age of 11, realising that it might not work. Does this mean "back to the 11 plus"? Apparently not. "Education chiefs are also considering a "national selection test", it has been revealed, in order to help prevent "test tourism", where parents enter their children for exams in different areas where they are considered easier."

I wonder what they'll call it? How about the STSFTG (Separating The Sheep From The Goats) test or WNP ("Waitrose Not Poundland") assessment? Maybe FJTG ("From JAMmer to Grammar"). OK - you do better, then...

2020 is an interesting year to choose for the opening of the first new grammar free school...or should that be free grammar school. Oh, there we go again - the problem of inventing new names for things. "Grammar free school" suggests a lack of attention to clause analysis whereas "free grammar school" signals a return to the hippy-dippy idealism of the 1960s with its misremembered willingness to abandon all agreed linguistic rules.

Anyway - 2020. The year of the next election. Three years away. An awful lot can go wrong in three years. Or, if you're President Chump, in three days.

Here's the lovely Dominic Cummings on a similar subject, writing in The Spectator recently about his single-handed triumph in persuading the nation to take leave of its senses and Vote Leave by telling massive lies:

"Would we have won without £350m/NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests No...Some people now claim this was cynical and we never intended to spend more on the NHS. Wrong. Boris and Gove were agreed and determined to do exactly this. On the morning of 24 June, they both came into HQ. In the tiny 'operations room' amid beer cans, champagne bottles, and general bedlam I said to Boris - on day one of being PM you should immediately announce the extra £100 million per week for the NHS [the specific pledge we'd made] is starting today and more will be coming - you should start off by being unusual, a political who actually delivers what they promise. 'Absolutely. ABSOLUTELY. We MUST do this, no question, we'll park our tanks EVERYWHERE' he said. Gove strongly agreed. If they had not blown up this would have happened."

If they had not blown up this would have happened.


I recently re-watched every series of The Thick of It, mainly for nostalgic reasons, going back to a time when politics had more integrity and relationship to reality than it does now.

Maybe I should have watched Dads Army instead, since we shouldn't panic, but we're all doomed.


Thursday Jan 19, 2017 - The DfE has finally done something good...

The DfE  has finally done something good...

The Department for Education has been described as the most ineffective of all government departments and is regularly castigated by the National Audit Office for its lamentable financial management. It has missed its targets for recruiting teachers for the fifth year running.

But...the new and significantly revised Governance Handbook, published by the DfE just last week, is really good!

I've worked in governance for over 20 years now and can remember the old Guide to the Law, the precursor to the Governance Handbook, which was an A5 sized booklet, colour coded for different kinds of schools. It went through various incarnations over the years and morphed into the Governors Handbook more recently and its previous revision saw it renamed the Governance Handbook for the first time. So it's been through the mill.

It's never been a document that most governors read from cover to cover and was mainly of use to governance professionals in LAs and national organisations, as well as clerks. Even in its current form, I doubt whether many governors will ever read it fully, if at all. I do lots of induction training for new governors in several different local authorities and always tell them about the Handbook. Often at least half the group has never heard of it or seen it and very few have actually read it. This might be because it is no longer given to them as a hard copy, so they have to find it online and it's a very long document to print out - 130 pages.

Sadly, if that pattern continues, governors will be missing a trick. If I were a chair of governors I would print out pages 9-13 and hand them out to my colleagues, asking them to read it before scheduling a discussion.

Why? Because the Handbook has been completely restructured against six key features of effective governance, bringing real clarity and coherence to the document. We're used to the idea of the three core functions of governance, which underpin these key features. The key features help to break down the essence of good governance into interlinked and understandable chunks, paying as much attention to the people involved as to the compliance tasks to be managed. They are:

  • Strategic leadership that sets and champions vision, ethos and strategy.
  • Accountability that drives up educational standards and financial performance.
  • People with the right skills, experience, qualities and capacity.
  • Structures that reinforce clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
  • Compliance with statutory and contractual requirements.
  • Evaluation to monitor and improve the quality and impact of governance.

Whilst much of the text is unaltered, it has been redistributed under more relevant headings. Useful advice from other previously separate documents, such as guidance on reconstitution (much more interesting than its title suggests) has been incorporated, again adding depth to the Handbook.

A supporting document provides a competency framework for governance. This framework is based on the same six features of effective governance that characterise the Handbook. Wow! Joined-up thinking at last!

It is clear that quite a few organisations have contributed to the revisions, notably the National Governors Association but at least the DfE had the good sense to consult and take advice. It is also significant that much of the new text seeks to address some of the embarrassing weaknesses and abuses of governance in the worst multi-academy trusts, such as a stronger emphasis on ensuring financial propriety, a new explanation of the risks associated with close family relationships between those involved in governance or between them and senior employees and clarification that all boards are required to publish a scheme of delegation to explain their governance arrangements, together with new guidance on what makes an effective scheme of delegation.

Whereas the previous edition was very unbalanced in favour of prioritising academies and multi-academy trusts - let's not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of schools are still not academies and therefore most governors are not academy governors - this one is less so and all the better for it.

This doesn't stop Lord Nash from continuing to claim that "When boards govern a group of schools we also then see further improvement in the quality of governance - as boards gain a more strategic perspective". Where, pray, is the evidence for that? It certainly wasn't in Ofsted's criticism of the worst MATs, published last year.

Academy governance is undoubtedly more complex than that in maintained schools, which is ironic given Michael Gove's lofty ambition to set academies free from local bureaucracy. I defy anyone to read through the Handbook's attempt to explain the different functions of Members and Trustees and emerge enlightened. It's a worthy effort but my direct experience of talking with governors and clerks in academies tells me that this is a continuing issue - especially when we add the terms "Directors" and "governors" to the mix. Oddly, it's made much clearer in the introduction to the competency framework: "Members are not directly involved in governance, which is the responsibility of the board of trustees."

At the same time, the Handbook is refreshingly clear and robust about a couple of the recently-departed Michael Wilshaw's favourite canards - paid governance and compulsory training. Read through the sections on Pay (p37-38) and Training and development (p34) to see what I mean. This clarity contrasts dramatically with Ofsted's pathetic whimper of a commentary "Improving governance" published just before Christmas.

The Handbook is not perfect. Most importantly, it is simply too long for most governors to read and use on a regular basis.

The competency framework is a comprehensive and very ambitious counsel of perfection, risking making effective governance seem well-nigh unattainable by ordinary mortals giving freely of their time once the day job is done. We still need hundreds of thousands of people to volunteer as governors. Even though the competency framework is non-statutory, it might be seen by some as a step too far even for full-time paid professionals. I would defend its ambition but it would need a lot of explanation before most governors came to accept it for what it is, an attempt to show how seriously we should take governance nowadays and what it takes to get it right.

Overall, though, this is the best iteration of the document in twenty years and for me, at least, it provides to basis for a clearer approach to governor training and advice. Well done, DfE.

Now maybe you should get to work sorting out how you manage your budget and recruit enough good teachers to keep the system running so that governors will have schools to govern in the future.


Monday Dec 19, 2016 - Improving Ofsted reports on improving governance

Improving Ofsted reports on improving governance

After a long wait Ofsted has finally shared with us the results of their latest thinking about school governance (Improving governance: governance in complex and challenging circumstances).

Was it worth the wait? Not really.

Will it surprise anyone involved in education to learn that "many governors lack the expertise to hold school leaders to account, recruitment and retention of governors is a serious challenge and that clarity about lines of accountability, roles and responsibilities is an essential part of effective governance"?

Will the DfE pay the slightest attention to the report's meek pleading that they "consider" expanding the number of effective national leaders of governance and the provision of professional clerks so that schools can access the right level of professional support for their needs? Or ensuring greater coordination by the National College for Teaching and Leadership of national leaders of governance, or improving the effectiveness and the consistency in the quality of external reviews of governance?

At the heart of the report lies a fundamental question which has been asked many, many times before: who holds governing bodies to account?

It appears that no-one really knows for sure:

"Just under 1,000 responses named 'Ofsted' as the body holding them to account. In the maintained schools surveyed, the local authority or the diocese were the main sources of external support.... respondents felt that these two bodies superseded the need for external reviews of governance because they already provided an external review function...In some of the 24 survey schools, inspectors specifically noted that the governing body was not held to account by anyone outside the inspection system."

So, do Ofsted provide us with a definitive answer? No.

Is that because they don't know either?

And the paragraph above should be sounding deafening alarm bells, but Ofsted is deaf to them. Why? Because if LAs are still the main organisations holding governors to account (given that the majority of maintained schools are not faith schools, therefore the Dioceses are an important but less significant player), the system will collapse under a government committed to their destruction. Does that sound like paranoia? If so, let's remind ourselves what George Osborne said when launching his final Autumn Statement:

"The Spending Review and Autumn Statement represents the next step towards the government's goal of ending local authorities' role in running schools and all schools becoming an academy." Osborne may have gone but his cuts (£600 million this year) to the Education Support Grant, which funds LA school improvement services, amongst other things, are being implemented.

Let's put this another way. If the way to ensure strong and effective governance universally is to ensure a systematic direct monitoring of governance, what would need to be put in place?

Presumably, each school, academy or maintained, would need regular access to an independent education expert who understood what a good school looked like - and what effective governance looked like. Those independent experts would provide unbiased reports on the quality of each school and its governing body to the school and governing body and possibly to some over-arching review body. The school and governing body would be expected to respond to any criticisms by writing and implementing improvement plans which would then be assessed by the same independent expert.

Does this sound at all familiar to anyone?

I think it's what used to be called local authority school improvement services, including services to governors. I'd be the first to agree that those services were not consistently excellent across the country but they were a darn sight better than what's left after years and years of attrition in favour of the autonomous academy system.

Early in the report is a section called "The current environment for governance" which describes all the main systemic changes in recent years, including raised expectations of governance, changes to the national curriculum and assessment and the expansion of the academy sector. But not a whisper about the devastating cuts to local authority support to schools and governing bodies and how this undermines Ofsted's desire for better governance. Ofsted appears to be not only deaf but blind, too, and wilfully so.

Sir Michael Wilshaw often floated the idea that paying governors would make them more effective, without ever exploring any of the obvious questions that immediately arise, such as "Where would the money come from?" and "Where's the evidence that paid governance is more effective than unpaid governance?"

The report isn't a lot of help in this regard. It cites examples of local authorities providing paid, experienced governors to support weak governing bodies or replacing failing governing bodies with paid Interim Executive Boards and these actions leading to improvements. The report mentions several times that the source of funding to support these interventions is the local authority's school improvement budget. It then fails to mention the fact that these are precisely the budgets slashed by the latest round of cuts, especially to the Education Support Grant.

Should we then foresee a system of well-governed large multi-academy trusts, as Sir David Carter would love us to believe? One might expect Ofsted, as an executive agency of the Department, to promote the DfE's solution to every problem in education - academisation. But the report provides very little reassurance:

"At the time of the inspection that judged them to be less than good, some of the 24 (recently improved) schools were part of multi-academy trusts and were unclear about lines of accountability."

"Four of the six inadequate schools inspected as part of the sample were academies. There was little clarity about which level of governance provided the challenge to the headteacher and senior leaders in two of the four academy schools. The trustees, the trust's regional directors or the local governing board all played some role in holding the school's leadership to account, but there was a lack of clarity about how the different elements of the system interacted. Challenge was also weak, which is a likely consequence where there is a lack of clarity."

There is just one balancing case study in the report to show how this could be made to work better:

"One multi-academy trust sponsors four primary schools, one 16 to 19 free school and six secondary schools. For one of its academies, the trust played a significant role in supporting the governing board. The trust's chief executive officer became chair of the governing board for a short period. This meant that the trust board knew exactly what the weaknesses in governance were and what needed to be done. The trust ensured that new governors were appointed with the requisite skills, for example in finance, to address gaps. Governors accessed training provided by the trust. The current chair is a national leader of governance. A sizeable deficit was transformed into a surplus within a four-year period. The headteacher's time was freed up to concentrate on school improvement because the trust's central services team took on all of the non-educational administration processes. An education improvement plan was put in place that detailed who was accountable and how success would be measured."

I suspect many readers, whilst welcoming this positive example, would say to themselves, "That's just what the best LAs used to do, when they had the resources and capacity."

As someone who's spent the last 20 years immersed in school governance, I have to admit I'm very frustrated by this report which should have been much stronger and more challenging, offering really imaginative solutions instead of largely describing the world of governance as it is now and ignoring the massive problems caused by the emasculation of local authorities.


You can find the Improving Governance document in the Ofsted section on the downloads page.


Monday Dec 5, 2016 - Bye bye, Sir Michael

Bye bye, Sir Michael

Ofsted's leader Sir Michael Wilshaw leaves his post at the end of the year and has just published his fifth annual report. It doesn't make for comfortable reading if you work for the DfE or a Regional School Commissioner.

But there is some great news, which, as ever, didn't make any headlines:

"Education for children below the age of 11 is stronger than ever. The fact that there are more good and outstanding primary schools, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders is creating a more level playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The proportion of good and outstanding primary schools has risen from 69% to 90% in five years."

Now, interestingly, "The overwhelming majority of schools serving primary aged children that we inspect are maintained schools".

Let's pause for a moment to think about what this means. 80% of primary schools are NOT academies but their educational standards are high and rising. So there is no reason for them to become academies, if raising educational standards is the main objective of academisation. Government, however, still expect all schools to become academies in the fullness of time. Lord John Nash at the DfE anticipates a tipping point in 5 years' time.

Wilshaw isn't brave enough to challenge this policy outright but he gets close:

"My advice to government now is to worry less about structures and to worry more about capacity. No structure will be effective if the leadership is poor or there are not enough good people in the classroom."

"Inspection evidence, research and analysis continues to find that, while becoming an academy can be beneficial for some schools, there is not a clear or substantial difference between the performance of academies and schools maintained by local authorities."

"Although the best-known MATs may be large in size and have schools right across the country, the average size of a MAT is only five schools...We estimate that if all schools were to become academies in the longer term and most new academies are to be in MATs, then there may need to be over 900 new MATs of an average size of 10 schools per MAT. Such a substantial change would present a significant challenge for the sector."

I expect Justine Greening is breathing a huge sigh of relief that Wilshaw will be out of her hair by January. Can we expect the new Ofsted head to be as forthright as Sir Michael? I doubt it. Wilshaw was pretty supine for most of his reign, not least because he came from an academy background. It was only after Gove set his attack dogs on Ofsted that Wilshaw grew a pair and started biting back.

At last - Ofsted on governance

Governors can be forgiven for missing an important announcement buried in the footnotes of the report, which has little new to say about the state of governance. It's taken ages to surface but finally we learn that Ofsted's report 'Improving governance: governance arrangements in complex and challenging circumstances', will be available on from mid December 2016.

Can't wait. Well, I can, actually.

He drops a few hints about what the new report will conclude, such as that "governors told us that it is difficult to access high quality professional support and training". Funny, that. Could it possibly be connected to the swingeing cuts to LA school improvement services, including governor training and support, carried out by successive governments in order to fund their obsession with academies? I think it could. In the days when LAs were "Ofsteded", the quality of governor services was nearly universally excellent. Since then, as the expectations of governors have risen dramatically, the funding of services to support them has been slashed to the bone. Will Ofsted's new guidance mention that, I wonder?

Happy Christmas, everyone.


Tuesday Nov 15, 2016 - Time to admit defeat?

Time to admit defeat?

No, not what you were expecting...despite one's growing despair about the state of the world. My focus is on Swindon's schools, following Bradley Simmons' (Ofsted Regional Director, South West) damning letter of 11th November castigating their performance.

It's addressed to just about everyone - Council leaders, all heads, all chairs of governors, the RSC, MAT CEOs and both local MPs. As a resident of the Borough of Swindon, I have been scouring the skies for small light aircraft trailing banners saying: "Swindon Schools - you're shit!", but like the elusive supermoon, they have yet to appear. It's probably only a matter of time, though.

The Council, though, really get both barrels: "I have raised such issues in writing with the council on at least three occasions in the past. At times, the council has been, frankly, defensive in its response."

Unsurprisingly, the local blob and the "enemies of promise" (copyright Gove, M) have ventured to disagree with this blanket condemnation. No doubt they will be hammered back into the ground where they belong by the soon-departing Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Now I don't know much at all about all these schools. But I have noticed that all except one of the secondary schools are academies.

Maybe we should just stop here for a second.

Let's see: why were schools encouraged or forced into academy status? Why was the government up until recently intending to force all schools to become academies? Wasn't it something to do with improving standards by throwing off the shackles of servitude to the local authority?

I'm sure that the Council should bear some of the responsibility for the poor performance of some of the schools - but not the secondary schools, since the Council has no say over academies, which educate the majority of young people in the Borough. Simmons' letter does not condemn the academy trust leaders with the same degree of venom that he spits at the Council. But then Sir Michael was all in favour of academies, wasn't he? Mustn't rock the boat, Bradley.

So how can this possibly have happened? Does. Not. Compute.

Clearly Swindon's secondaries are the wrong kind of academies.

What they need is to be taken over by better sponsors and chains (interesting word, that). But not the ones that have collapsed or where the director and other staff have been jailed for fraud or where the EFA has finally pulled the financial plug after years of skulduggery. No, the good ones. The ones that are good because they don't take on or get rid of the ones that aren't so good. Oh, hang on, that might not work, then.

I know! Turn them all into grammar schools!

Wait,, that won't work, will it, because for every one grammar school you have to have three secondary moderns.

Yeah, but on the other hand, we are talking about Swindon, aren't we? The butt of many standup comedian's lazy equivalence of "awful place to live". I mean, who cares? As long as 10% of the kids get a good education and maybe 3% get to university, that'll do, won't it? It's all about social mobility, see? The "just about managing".

Ofsted shouldn't pull its punches and clearly hasn't, in this instance, in the main. But the Coalition and current Tory government should take their fair share of the blame.

Last year the House of Commons Education Committee published its report on Academies and free schools, noting that "Reiterated statements by Ministers, most markedly the previous Secretary of State, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, attest to the strength of the belief within the DfE that academisation can and will lead to school improvement and to the narrowing of the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children. It is therefore appropriate that the effectiveness of academy status should be measured by means of Ofsted ratings..."

So my question is: now Ofsted has given its ratings on Swindon's academies, isn't it game over for the DfE's bone-headed pursuit of educational improvement through academisation?


Thursday Oct 13, 2016 - Academies - some good news for once?

Academies - some good news for once?

Sir Michael Wilshaw has published his latest monthly commentary which highlights what's good about the best academy chains, following his devastating critique of the worst ones.

He celebrates the successes of the seven chains and draws some broad conclusions about why they are successful:

  • an ability to recruit and retain powerful and authoritative executive leaders, with a clear vision for bringing about higher standards
  • a well-planned, broad and balanced curriculum that equips pupils with a strong command of the basics of English and mathematics, as well as the confidence, ambition and team-work skills to succeed in later life
  • a commitment to provide a high-quality education for all pupils, in a calm and scholarly atmosphere
  • investment in professional development of teachers and the sharing of knowledge and expertise across a strong network of constituent schools
  • a high priority given to initial teacher training and leadership development to secure a pipeline of future talent
  • clear frameworks of governance, accountability and delegation
  • effective use of assessment information to identify, escalate and tackle problems quickly
  • a cautious and considered approach to expansion

"In all but 1 of the 7 trusts, the chief executive's role is performed by a former headteacher..." says former headteacher Sir Michael Wilshaw, to readers' surprise.

His not-so-veiled criticism of government policy on academy expansion is saved till the end:

"these strong performing trusts have resisted the temptation to expand too quickly and spread themselves too thinly across a wide geographical area."

So, if he's right that successful chains grow slowly (and bad ones grow too fast) then the academy system is heading for very serious problems. Not so very long ago Head RSC Sir David Carter made it clear that about 1,000 new multi-academy trusts will be created by 2020 with smaller chains having to grow to accommodate more schools: "My challenge is we are probably going to need some of our trusts to grow again. The three to six-academy trusts will struggle to be sustainable. We need them to grow, to 10, to 15, to 20."


But maybe disaster will be avoided, since there is little evidence that the academy bandwagon can continue to roll on at the same speed as before.

Government policy on academisation remains cloudy given that the Nicky Morgan's White Paper has been overtaken by the Maggie May/Nick Timothy consultation on selective education and Justine Greening isn't saying much (probably wisely).

Then there is the seldom mentioned problem of the absence any new academy sponsors and the growing logjam of schools waiting for forced academisation to be enacted.

And continuing embarrassing headlines about free school proprietors being jailed and the funding of a flagship MAT being stopped because of non-compliance.

All of which is just a sideshow against the great Brexit extravaganza. Whichever way that goes, it will have much bigger implications for schools than any report by HMCI or Green Paper.

On another matter...

I've been pondering the Shami Chakrabati question and trying to work out what I think about it and why. Until now I have held her in great esteem...well, my faith in her was a bit shaken when she accepted that peerage via Jeremy Corbyn and then she admitted to Robert Peston that she sends her son to Dulwich College (where Farage was once a pupil) but isn't in favour of selective education.

I think the problem is that she has chosen to go into politics.

She is a well-educated, intelligent woman with vast experience of the law and a fine record of protecting our liberties against the unrelenting bile of most of the media. But she must therefore be aware of the growth of inequality in the UK and its deleterious effects on society. I assume she has read "The Spirit Level".

As a private individual, she can choose to send her son to whichever school she likes and as a wealthy person can choose to pay for it. But in doing that, she must be aware that she is perpetuating the pernicious class and social divides and inequality that blights our country.

Ah, but doesn't everyone want the best for their children? Isn't it right to give them the advantages you never had, if you can? Parents shouldn't sacrifice their children on the altar of their political beliefs, should they?

It's a dilemma, for sure, if you have a choice. It's not a dilemma for those who have no choice, though. And those are by and large the people Labour claim to represent.

Is the personal also the political? Wasn't it Gandhi who said be the change you want to see - or something like that?

The ordinary Josephine with money doesn't have to face the prospect of their personal choices being held up for comparison against their professed political and ethical beliefs. But if you choose to go into politics, you must expect to make sacrifices and be challenged over any apparent hypocrisy, which is what happened to Shami.

The thing I'm most upset about is that she must have seen this coming, had time to marshal her arguments, like the great lawyer she is, and should have presented a cogent, ethical argument supporting her choices. But in this she failed spectacularly. And showed that she is, indeed, a massive hypocrite.


Friday Sep 23, 2016 - Hunt The SPADS - fun for all the family

Hunt The SPADS - fun for all the family

The late and unlamented Michael Gove had the repulsive Brexiteer Dominic Cummings as his SPAD. Nicky Morgan's SPAD was the sweaty Jonathan Simons. I don't think Justine Greening has one yet but Theresa May certainly does - bearded, balding Nick Timothy.

So what?

We tend to assume that Secretaries of State for Education actually care about the subject and occasionally know something about it or at least make a minimal effort to inform themselves about it. I really don't think they do. When you read the White and Green Papers published under their reigns and compare them to the ideas of their SPADS, you often notice a very strong correlation.

For example, "Primary Focus: The next stage of improvement for primary schools in England", written by Annaliese Briggs and Jonathan Simons (September 2014) advocated mass academisation as the only solution for the nation's schools. Once Nicky Morgan was Education Secretary she published her ill-fated White Paper "Educational Excellence Everywhere" which - guess what? - advocated forced mass academisation as the only solution for the nation's schools. Which, unsurprisingly, met mass resistance and was quickly dropped.

Until very recently Nick Timothy was a director of New Schools Network pressure group which was a fervent proponent of free schools. He is a passionate believer in selective education. 77 new free schools were recently announced and then the laughingly-titled "Schools that work for everyone" Green Paper came out and guess what? It advocated the expansion of selective education as the only solution for the nation's schools. It has already met with fierce opposition from a very broad spectrum of critics, including Gove and Morgan. I can't see it surviving, somehow.

Going back to Cummings, who we can all thank for leading the Vote Leave campaign and creating the appalling mess we're all now in, he too worked at the New Schools Network for a while and set up his own free school. Working as Mr Nasty behind the reportedly charming Michael Gove, he developed a reputation as being "either mad, bad or brilliant - and probably a bit of all three" (Patrick Wintour) and a "career psychopath" (David Cameron). It is harder to detect his influence on Gove's 2010 White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" because it came out remarkably quickly after the Coalition election victory and has Gove's fingerprints all over it. To be fair to Gove, which hurts me physically and mentally, his White Paper is a model of clearly argued, coherent policy, especially compared to Morgan's and the new Green Paper. That does, I think, qualify as faint praise and is a measure of how far we've fallen as a nation.

Are we seeing a pattern here? I make a point of reading the education papers published by various Think Tanks, most of which, frustratingly, tend to be right wing. What seems to me to characterise them is that they are often written by people who have no serious or deep experience of a wide range of schools and therefore never spot the flaws in their glistening new ideas which would be obvious to anyone who has worked in the real education system for a few years.

In their enthusiasm to come up with something radical and new, they are also very cavalier with their research findings (including "self-reporting", for example, as a supposedly valid approach to data collection) and sample sizes. The very recent "Academy Chains Unlocked" (published by Reform) bases its radical arguments on a survey of the Chief Executives of Academy Chains - a somewhat self-interested group, I would suggest. At no point does it say clearly that the number of usable responses they received (66) represents a mere 2% of all academy chain CEOs (3064) but they are happy to develop their arguments on the basis of a pathetically tiny "evidence base".

"Academy Chains Unlocked" has already been overtaken by events - the reintroduction of selective schools, so will probably sink without trace. But at the same time a new army of academy zealots has emerged, fighting for the Gove-Morgan-Cameron-Osborne vision of mass academisation (see this schools week article). Never mind "Game of Thrones" - this is starting to look like the real battle of the bastards.

Of course, people working in real schools are too busy or too knackered to plough through the nonsense produced by too many Think Tanks, so they don't receive the robust challenge they deserve and their sparkly authors tend to get promoted to SPAD status, as if publishing a fantasy were evidence of clear political thinking and some kind of valuable wisdom. Education Secretaries unsullied by real experience or understanding of education welcome them with open arms, encourage them to force their untested ideas on education policy and then, too late, realise that they know nothing and now have egg all over their Ministerial face.

It's a repeating pattern. I hope that Justine Greening, the supposed Education Secretary, has noticed this and does something to avoid repeating the same mistakes, for her sake, but more importantly for the sake of our poor schoolkids. Then again, Theresa's in charge of education policy, isn't she? Or is it Nick Timothy?

I think we should be told.


Monday Sep 12, 2016 - The return of the dead cat

The return of the dead cat

I've been pondering the real meaning of the furore over the reintroduction of grammar schools and I think I've reached a conclusion. I think (and hope) it's another dead cat bounce strategy, as advocated by the Tories election guru Lynton Crosby and employed by, notoriously, the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In the middle of a meeting slap a dead cat on the table and it's all anyone will talk about, whatever you were discussing before the cat made its appearance. Please avoid the temptation to do this at your next governing body meeting.

Hints of the grammar school "policy" first emerged when a snapper captured a paragraph on a document helpfully exposed to the camera's gaze, carried by someone going into a meeting. Then bits of the new policy started to leak out and Justine Greening eventually spoke about it to the media. Still no sign of an actual, you know, written-down-in-English fully-fledged proposal that could be interrogated by voters.

Now it turns out that there's to be a Green Paper which will float the idea of the reintroduction of selective education sometime soon.


Not a White Paper, because the scribbles on the back of the fag packet have to be fleshed-out and worked-up into something resembling a halfway-decent argument and, by the way, it's only a few weeks since the last education White Paper was published. So what will happen to that? Will it be dropped quietly in the bin marked "Gove/Morgan" or will some or all of it survive and become part of a new Queen's Speech at some point?

A Green Paper is a way of launching a discussion, consultation, debate - call it what you will. Which implies that it's not really a firm proposal on which there can be a vote. So it's not going to happen soon - or at all. Not quite what seemed to be the case when the deceased feline hit the oak veneer.

So what was the ex-pussycat impact designed to distract us from? It couldn't be the lack of any coherent strategy for implementing Brexit, could it? If so, furry felines everywhere should run for cover because kitten-heeled Theresa will be needing a lot more of them to keep us all looking the wrong way for the next few years.

Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps Maggie May is serious (Justine nods furiously in the background).

Seriously suggesting that the way to improve the social mobility of all young people is obviously through enhancing the privileges of a small proportion of them.

Seriously ignoring all the well-established evidence that grammar schools do not and cannot achieve the ends she says she wants.

Seriously avoiding any thinking through of the practicalities and unintended consequences of the policy.

Let's do that for a couple of minutes.

As I understand it, existing grammar schools will be allowed to set up satellite schools in other towns and cities. New free schools can be set up which can select their intake by ability. I may not have got that right but in the absence of any detail, I have to work on what I've heard and read.

So, let's remind ourselves that Gove's original intention was for parents and teachers to set up free schools where they weren't happy with what choices were available locally. In the last batch of approvals for new free schools only one was being proposed by a parents/teachers group. All the others were being set up by existing academies and MATs.

Let's imagine we are part of a MAT. We live in a competitive world. Why would we want to set up a grammar school which would cream off the best pupils from our existing schools when we all have to meet government performance targets? Maybe we could be cunning and set one up further away, so it wouldn't poach our high-fliers. But there would probably be another MAT in that area which could launch a counter-strike and set up a grammar school in our area, and steal our elite. It's Battleships, education-style!

Or maybe all academies will automatically become grammar schools, fighting each other for the 10-15% of youngsters who might survive the selection process. Those which fail to attract sufficient numbers will be taken over by a new sponsor (the DfE) who will quietly close them down. Those schools still stubbornly clinging to their non-academy status will become the new secondary moderns as a punishment for their failure to adopt the government's free-market philosophy.

And who's going to pay for all these new schools?

They won't necessarily be set up in areas of need, so will make the whole system less economically efficient.

And who will devise the new tests to sort out the young sheep from the goats? What will that cost?

And when UKIPpers, Brexiteers and other grammar-school loving parents work out that the majority of children getting into grammar schools are from ethnic and religious minorities who value education rather more highly than many natives, how will they react?

I could go on but I won't. It's probably not worth the effort, since the whole thing is probably just a diversionary tactic.

Isn't it?


Wednesday Aug 31, 2016 - A new school year begins...and Winter Is Coming

A new school year begins...and Winter Is Coming

It has been a strange summer, hasn't it, as far as education is concerned? It's very hard to predict what might be in store for schools and governors as we head towards September, with the ominously quiet aftermath of the post-Brexit-vote political catharsis. I am still waking up smiling at the demise of Michael Gove, though...

Not much change at the DfE after all, with Lord Nash keeping and even expanding his role under Justine Greening as Secretary of State. She has been deafeningly quiet, while Maggie May has been tickling the back-to-the-grammar-school lobby and, as usual, Nick Gibb has been fielding most education questions, such as why GCSE results were down this year. Historically, a rise in GCSE results was interpreted by the press as a sign of declining standards, in our topsy-turvy world. So maybe when results fall, it might be a sign that things are improving, but I didn't spot any such headlines in my corner shop newsstand.

One to watch is Nick Timothy, ex-director of the New Schools Network and now chief of staff to prime minister Theresa May. Very pro-Free schools and grammar schools, he already seems to be exerting his influence over his employer.

Problems continue to bubble away in the background of August news-nonsense like Traingate. The lack of new sponsors to take over failed and failing schools is fast becoming a very serious challenge to the government's academisation plans and may well attract more attention once the children are back at school. The dramatic verdict that the principal, financial director and teacher at King's Academy free school (praised by Cameron and Gove when it first set up, of course) were guilty of defrauding the DfE out of around £150,000 highlighted once again the dangers of the government's laissez-faire attitude to the kind of shysters and double-dealers now running and governing too many academies and free schools. More will be found out, in the fullness of time, I have no doubt.

No doubt, too, that all the political parties are working on their autumn conference programmes and the Tories are presumably fleshing out a new or revised Education Bill but nothing much has leaked yet.

There is absolutely no chance that teacher recruitment is going to improve and, therefore, the quality of teaching and pupil outcomes will stall or decline, unless some data manipulation takes place. Last academic year's turmoil over assessment and testing and changes to data sets like RAISEonline will make it harder for governors to challenge their school's performance, since secure year-on-year comparisons will become a thing of the past for a while, at least. In my more sceptical moments, I suspect that that was the government plan overall – if the data cannot prove that academies are better than maintained schools, let's mess up the data so no-one can tell what's happening. If I'm right, for once the government has come up with a successful strategy.

We might be looking at a relatively quiet time in education with the government now so enmeshed in the complexities of creating a post-EU Britain that there will be little time for minister's pet projects and fanciful schemes. If so, we might all breathe a sigh of relief.

But the recent history of modern politics doesn't offer any comfort.

Justine Greening is almost certainly, at this very moment, hatching a plan to launch a new kind of school that will be (of course) world class and innovative, inspiring the huddled masses to rise up and break the chains of the LA and the MATs, striking out for increased social mobility while achieving better than ever results and not frightening Tory voters. But what to call them? Hmmmm....need to capture what the forgotten voters are obsessed by...I know! Game of Thrones! Instead of "schools", let's call them "Houses", like House Stark or House Lannister. So Coal Street Academy becomes House, no, that doesn't quite work, does it? What about St Martin's primary becoming House Martin? OK, OK, I know it needs more work but I really think we're on to something...we could call it the House System...

Actually...wait a minute...this Education Bill I'm working on...what if we name the different chapters after episodes of GoT? Chapter One: Winter is coming; Chapter Two: You win or you die; Chapter Three: The old gods and the new...I'm on a roll, here...

(Watched by a three-eyed raven, a cackling Justine Greening or Justynne Gryninge of House Mayo as she now likes to be called, retreats to the third chamber of the Tower of Westmynster to pursue her new obsession, accompanied by Lord Nasher of House Gover and balding Nickleass Gibber of House Bolt-on. Nickos Timothee of House Freeskoole smirks in the shadows.

Cut to close up of the ghost of Ygritte the Wildling whispering "You know nothing, Justynne Gryninge"
Scene ends.)


Monday Jul 18, 2016 - Could we have some order, please?

Could we have some order, please?

Having "rejoiced, rejoiced" at the downfall of two of the worst ever Secretaries of State for Education, Gove and Morgan, and taken on board the madness of putting Boris Johnson in charge of MI6 (I'm sure John Le Carre must be working hard already on his next spy thriller, The Clown that Killed the Circus), I'm looking forward to a period of relative calm before Justine Greening starts establishing her new priorities.

She has been presented with a fantastic opportunity to get the government off the mass academisation hook, not least in light of the two recent evaluations of the performance of MATs which confirm yet again that at best academisation can affect schools at the top and bottom end of the performance scale but make no difference to the vast majority of all other schools. Will she take it? If she doesn't, the chance will be lost for many years.

She's been asked about grammar schools and has given a pretty equivocal response. Once again, she could take the opportunity to kick this pointless debate into touch. It's irrelevant to the needs of the nation's children but is a favourite issue for Tory headbangers and UKIP ignoramuses who may need to be assuaged, politically. It doesn't take much thinking about, though: for every grammar school there have to be three non-grammar schools - what we used to call secondary moderns. How would that work in the context of the current odd mix of academies and maintained schools? How long would it take for the penny to drop for the majority of voters with school-aged children?

I see that Nick Gibb has hung on to his job, despite everything, but no news yet on Lord John Nash, the free school and academy-loving friend of the Notting Hill set. If he goes, it might suggest Greening's moving away from the obsession with academies.

The biggest issue she faces, of course, is teacher recruitment. Any Secretary of State for Education worth their salt would immediately see this as their top priority but her predecessors ignored it - and where are they now?

It is very refreshing to have an Education Secretary who went to state schools. It's not the only thing that matters, by a long chalk, but is important symbolically and suggests that she will not see education as something to be bought before it's valued.

And on the subject of private education, what does the recent behaviour by those old Etonians and alumnus of Robert Gordon's College (Gove) tell us about the character-building that went on there? Self-obsession, selfishness, treachery, lying for personal advantage...if I were the Principal of Eton I'd be hanging my head in shame and despair. Would any sane parent pay through the nose for an education that turned their child into such an ethically-challenged monster? Or perhaps that's exactly what want for their offspring.

Anyway, I'll keep an open mind about Justine Greening for the time being. We've heard so much talk from politicians in recent months, much of it blatant lies and hypocrisy. By their deeds shall ye know them.


Monday Jul 4, 2016 - Reprise: who's a naughty boy, then?

Reprise: who's a naughty boy, then?

In June 2014 I wrote this:

"If Michael Gove were a child, his guardians would have been called in to see the head several times by now and he'd be looking at permanent exclusion.

He just doesn't seem able to get on with the other children for more than five minutes, does he?

People (mainly journalists) continue to refer to his politeness and charm, yet these qualities seem lost on anyone with whom he is expected to co-operate.

It goes without saying that he has alienated what he calls in his charming way The Blob - that is, a very large group of people who actually know something about education, having worked in it for many years.

He's been very rude about school governors on more than one occasion, peddling myths about them being ineffectual sherry-drinking local worthies - so they're no fans of his.

Then he had a spat with his fellow education minister David Laws which descended quickly into name-calling and yah-boo-isms. Gove's old chum the mind-bogglingly horrible Dominic Cummings was wound up and set running to insult the Lib Dem minister. Then they had to be made to make up and be friendly.

Now he's managed to fall out with Theresa May and Home Office over the so-called Trojan Horse manoeuvrings of some Birmingham school governors. Headmaster David Cameron's got to come back from the Continent to sort out the mess.

And now he's having another pop at The Blob, via his favourite right-wing think tank, asserting that anyone who opposes his peculiarly narrow view of education must by definition be in favour of letting down the nation's children.

There's a lot of bad news these days about failing free schools and academy chains. Almost every day some new horror hits the headlines. The more wheels that come off his pet projects the more aggressive and hysterical he's getting. This cannot end well - though he'll be OK, of course. It's the children and our schools - all of them, not just academies and free schools - that'll suffer and it'll take years to sort out the mess after he's gone.

As one teaching union leader put it recently, Gove once described himself as a clever dick - he was at least half right."

Now events have conspired to put this "clever dick" within range of becoming Prime Minister.

I genuinely feel sick at having written that sentence.

More recently, I wrote "I haven't forgotten that early in his previous reign, Gove was swatted by an exasperated High Court judge: Mr Justice Holman said Gove's actions over the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future initiative in 2010 had been "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power". I'll be watching Govey's career trajectory with renewed interest."

Well, he's outdone himself, hasn't he?

With his supposed friend Boris Johnson and standing in front of propaganda which he knew very well was a howling lie, he ended the career of his reputed best friend in politics, David Cameron. Then he destroyed his friend Boris.

What a poisonous, vicious "friend" (and self-described "team leader").

A man who said so many times - quite rightly - that he's nowhere near Prime Ministerial material yet then stands for the office.

What a monstrous hypocrite.

A man who famously derided the advice of the majority of UK and world economic experts: "we've heard enough from them". A man who, should he become Prime Minister (oh, dear God), will depend on the advice of those and many more experts to dig the country out of this terrible crisis that he has helped to create - with no plan of any kind.

What an ignorant and insulting egotist.

A man who worked for months alongside Boris Johnson but only realised at the last minute, according to him, that BoJo wasn't up to it.

What a blatant liar.

A man who decided to stand for Prime Minister when it became clear that Rupert Murdoch would support him.

What a pathetic little puppet.

Instead of aiming his angry words at Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs this week, Cameron would have been better advised to tell Gove:

"For heaven's sake man, go."


Monday Jun 27, 2016 - Lost for words part 2

Lost for words part 2

My first question: why hasn't UKIP disbanded now it has achieved its ends?

I can't begin to convey how I feel about the decision. I feel sick, sad and full of fear but that doesn't get anywhere near the depth and breadth of it.

I'll just focus on education, which was never part of the "debate" over the EU but there will be repercussions of Brexit for my grandchildren, two of whom have just started school.

When the next Boris Johnson-led more-right-wing-than Tebbitt government unveils its exciting new education policies in October, what might be on the agenda?

Here's my suggested curriculum:

  • The full privatisation of schools via the multi-academy trust model, whereby SERCO, G4S, assorted arms manufacturers, Nigel Farage, Toby Young and the Murdoch* empire take the reins and rake in our taxes for their own personal use. *Journalist Anthony Hilton once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. 'That's easy,' he replied. 'When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice." Both Gove and Johnson were employed by Murdoch newspapers. No possible connections to be made there, though.
  • Adam from Manchester as Education Secretary. (When interviewed about having voted to leave, he came out with the immortal lines: "I'm shocked that we actually have voted to leave. I didn't think that was going to happen. My vote, I didn't think was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to remain.") See? Who needs experts when "the real people, the ordinary people, the decent people" (Farage, N) (ie those who voted to leave) display such a convincing grasp of reality?
  • The reintroduction of grammar schools - and, of course, secondary moderns for the vast majority of children. We clearly don't need no education when the masses can be relied upon to make the right decisions for us all.
  • National Curriculum to be massively streamlined by removing all references and content related to experts of any kind. Small team of taxi-drivers (as long as they're not bloody foreigners) to draft new curriculum drawing on their vast knowledge of whatever was said by whomever they had in the back of their cab once. Co-ordinated by Andrea Leadsom.
  • A new history curriculum, written by non-experts like Michael Gove, in which the UK, no, er, mean..England...or Inngeeeeeerland is always best at everything, just like in the good old days before the EU when we were at war with one European country or another every century.
  • Only boys to attend school. Education is wasted on girls whose job is to look pretty, clean behind the fridge and just shut up, alright? Not that we're like ISIL or DAESH or whatever they're called this week. Actually, "caliphate" has a bit of a ring to it, doesn't it? Goes nicely with "academies". "Multi-academy caliphate", anyone?
  • No foreigners. As teachers. Or pupils. Or people.
  • Geography to be revised so that any references to European countries or maps showing Europe are abolished. And Scotland. And London. And Northern Ireland. And Brighton.
  • No maths, so children won't be able to challenge the fantasy economics pumped out by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, one Gove, M. Office for Budget Responsibility to be renamed Team Gove. All other financial advisers and "experts" to be imprisoned. Sorry - make that "re-educated" in specialist centres provided by G4S and managed by Chris Grayling.
  • Economics to be introduced as a compulsory subject. Curriculum to be written by Mike Ashley, Sir Philip Green and his lovely wife Tina, to whom all payments should be directed, via Monaco.
  • Boys to leave school at 13, going on for degree studies at the University of Life What Never Did Me No 'Arm. Subjects to include "What This Bloke Down the King's Arms Told Me"; "What It Is, Right..." and "That Boris, He's Alright...Very Clever Bloke Underneath It All". Oh, and "Enoch Had It About Right".
  • Reintroduction of corporal punishment and abolition of do-gooding Safeguarding policies. John Whippingdale to manage the roll-out of the policy.
  • Abolition of Ofsted so that no-one can spot where and when it's all going wrong. To be replaced by a flock of sheep in every school trained to rebleat: "academies good - council schools bad" ad infinitum (see new Latin policy, below).
  • Abolition of universities* to save the money that was supposed to be saved by leaving the EU but never materialised, oddly. *And the NHS. And all council-provided services. And selling off the Isles of Man and Wight to China. Money to be spent on more perks for pensioners and non-doms.
  • No Turkish Delight to be sold in tuck shops.
  • Latin to become the national language so that the PM can chat to anyone in his native tongue.
  • 23rd June to become "Farage Day" in perpetuity. Children have the day off to go round their local community insulting any East Europeans that haven't had the sense to get the hell out of this doomed realm. The frog to replace the queen's head on all postage stamps.
  • The terms "global warning"; "hottest (insert month or year) on record"; disastrous climate change" and "end of world nigh" to be excised from all text books to be replaced with a picture of a glowering Nigel Lawson.
  • Michael Gove's Bible ("and he saw that it was good") to be removed from all school libraries and placed in a silver display cabinet in the foyer of every school with a massive framed portrait of the famously modest politician on the wall above. All visitors to schools to kiss the portrait.
  • Public schools to retain the title of "public schools" to avoid any confusion. And retain charitable status, of course. Members of the public or children of anyone voting to Remain banned.
  • Annexation of Gisela Stuart.

But, as the Leave vote proves, be careful what you wish for.


Wednesday May 11, 2016 - I told you so...

I told you so...

No-one likes a smartass, I know, but it's hard to resist saying it to Nicky Morgan. Her u-turn was very avoidable. It's no good saying "we're changing tack because we're listening to our critics" when you should have listened to them before rushing out that awful White Paper. Some say it's not her fault, that George and Dave needed a rabbit to pull out of the hat on budget day and mass academisation was the rabbit they chose. If so, she can only be seen as a cipher, a hapless drudge to be ordered this way and that by the big boys. She is, of course, Women and Equalities Minister, so no great triumph for her in that role, either. She also made things worse for herself by saying the government had no reverse gear over this policy. Whichever way you look at it, she's lost a lot.

That doesn't mean that the push for full academisation won't continue, of course. The government has allowed itself a lot of leeway to force some LAs to academise all their schools if they are underperforming or if the LA hasn't the capacity to improve its schools. So, easy-peasy, keep cutting LA budgets and sooner than you know it we'll have lots of failing LAs we can then force to academise. But the critics won't pipe down, either, since many good schools will be caught up in this alternative policy, so it's another battle for another day.

And another day will be after 23rd June, which will be a watershed. Can anyone really imagine Morgan staying on as Education Secretary, whatever the outcome? Critics have already noted her many absences from key events, being replaced on the day by the failed grammarian Nick Gibb, whose charisma deficit disqualifies him from the post. Not that that stopped Gove, once tellingly described as looking like a little boy and an old man at the same time.

So who might replace her?

If the Remain squad triumphs (or rather squeaks through) shining stars like Jeremy Hunt or John Whippingdale (no, I know. It's deliberate. Do keep up!) are ripe for a new challenge. They'll need to find someone to put the frighteners back on schools, head and governors. What's Norman Tebbitt doing these days? Or John Redwood?

If Boris and co storm to power, Gove will see Education Secretary as a demotion, not worthy of his valuable expertise, so "The Return of the Gove" is not likely to grace any screens in your area.

Oooh, I know, what about Chris Grayling? Gove has spent the last year or more unpicking all of Grayling's disastrous Justice policies and is bent on turning prisons into the equivalent of academies. Maybe he feels Grayling should go back to school, almost literally?

Or maybe it needs a woman's touch, once more. Priti Patel might be an attractive option, from Boris's point of view...

It doesn't matter, really, does it? Whatever the outcome and whoever replaces the hapless Morgan, academisation will trundle on, LAs will be continue to be underfunded and undermined and full privatisation of the academy sector will just be just a couple of years away.

I find I'm spending more time on my allotment these days and looking at moving to somewhere like Ireland if the EU referendum goes the wrong way. Fortunately, my partner can claim Polish citizenship and so we can remain part of a more enlightened world than the "cake-filled misery-laden grey old island", so accurately described by Emma Thompson, that an isolated England will become.

As Boris himself might say, quoting Cicero: "O tempora! O mores!"


Friday Apr 22, 2016 - It's dead but it keeps on twitching

It's dead but it keeps on twitching

Anyone as old as me will probably remember the violent ending of Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde, or the balletic slow motion final reel of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, in which the protagonists are shot by what seems to be thousands of bullets, their bodies twitching with the violence of the assault long after they've died.

The images came to mind as I heard Cameron's lonely, pathetic attempts to justify mass academisation at PMQs yesterday. The worst education White Paper in history has been peppered with hugely damaging criticisms from a surprisingly inclusive posse of opponents.

Perhaps the most surprising gunslinger of all was Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, which manages 37 academies in London, who, according to the Observer, said "For me the priority would be: in London you can call schools what you like but if there aren't the teachers there because you can't give them anywhere to live, that's the bigger priority. I'd be spending the money on that" and "My view would be you go to the places where what is happening now is not working, either because there is a big academy chain that is not delivering or you have a council that is not delivering. The child that fails and has blighted life chances, either because of an academy chain or a council, isn't interested in the politics, they just need action. And those are the places I would target first.... It's always been an expectation that teaching is a respectable profession and you should be entitled to have somewhere to live but it's not the case now, and nobody in politics is addressing it. That to me seems a far more fundamental thing to be worrying about than whether all schools should be academies by 2022."

Now come on, seriously, Mrs Morgan, if the CEO of one of the most government - friendly academy chains says you're barking up the wrong tree (or maybe just barking), you really should stop to think whether you are focusing on the right issues.

You can and do ignore all the other critics, such as the NUT, whose forensic destruction of the DfE's attempts to justify mass academisation is peerless, or David Blunkett or the Labour and Lib Dem parties or the various spokespeople for the LGA or all the other representatives of what Gove liked to call "the Blob" in his customarily charming and courteous fashion.

But look behind you.

Local Government Tories reckon your plans are "bonkers".

The Chair of the 1922 Committee "has raised serious concerns about plans to force all state schools to become academies by 2022, in a blow to government hopes of forcing them on to the statute book. In a sign of the depth of Tory unrest, Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, said the plans announced by George Osborne could lead to the creation of "new and distant bureaucracies" rather than delivering greater freedom and autonomy for schools. He also said they could have the unwelcome effect of removing parents from governing bodies and reducing accountability...(and) suggested the reorganisation could cost more than £1.3bn...", according to the Guardian.

And, in just the last 7 days, we have learned the following:

  • Ofsted are managing to inspect only half as many schools as before, following their reorganisation.
  • The DfE has been forced to come clean about the lack of transparency surrounding Regional Schools Commissioners' job descriptions and the terms of reference of their undemocratic headteacher boards.
  • Nicky Morgan had to give (unbelievable) reassurances to Tory Shire MPs about the future of small rural primary schools and standalone academies.
  • Schools with the best Ofsted ratings are more likely to socially select their pupils from higher-income families, according to a new study. The report found 13 per cent of schools rated outstanding by Ofsted were socially selective, compared with the 7 per cent rated as requires improvement and the 6 per cent rated inadequate.
  • The quite astonishing shenanigans at Perry Beeches Academy Trust came to light. There's not space here to do justice to the appalling abuses of power and financial regulation that occurred, all of which bypassed the internal and external auditors, the DfE and EFA. If a brave whistleblower hadn't acted, it would still all be going on.
  • The DfE executed a massive - and predicted - U-turn over baseline testing in the Early Years.
  • Research shows that the government's much-used superheads are phenomenally expensive and tend to make things worse: What was the impact? Short-term positive improvement: 9 per cent increase; Dip after departure: exam results fell 6 per cent and only started to increase three years later; Larger dip if in place for longer: if superhead was there for three years, the initial dip was 9 per cent and Better results without superheads - sustainable leaders had slower growth but avoided crashes.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) paid out £1.7 million in bonuses last year - with top civil servants pocketing up to £17,500 for good performance. Figures released last month by the government also reveal Ofsted civil servants received bonuses of nearly £900,000. At the same time, the DfE was given a stinging bollocking over its accounts, which were four months late and lacked "truth and fairness" according to the government's audit watchdog. Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) Sir Amyas Morse branded the level of error and uncertainty in them as "material and pervasive". The DfE had exceeded three expenditure limits set by parliament and, believe it or not, wrote off nearly £10 million as losses soared under the expansion of its free school and academies programme, nearly five times as much as the £2 million loss recorded in the previous year.
  • The government has been accused of trying to avoid bad publicity by delaying the release of documents relating to poor pupil performance and governance at 15 academies.
  • Material to be used in the new primary school assessments has been accidentally released online by the government agency responsible for testing.

Can things get any worse? Why on earth would anyone put their trust in these idiots to manage the unwanted and unnecessary top-down reorganisation of the nation's schools? What else has to happen before Cameron shoots the dying beast in the head and kicks it into the nearest deep ditch?

Oh, I know...the EU referendum.


Monday Mar 21, 2016 - 12 reasons why mass academisation will never happen

12 reasons why mass academisation will never happen

The White Paper "Education Excellence Everywhere" (available in the Government Policy section on the downloads page) is a tediously repetitive exercise in magical thinking. Here are some reasons why it will never be fully implemented:

  1. At its heart is a massive lie, that the 70% or more of schools that have so far resisted 6 years of bribes and siren calls from the DfE to become academies are desperate to throw off the chains of serfdom imposed by evil local authorities. On the contrary, the vast majority of schools have considered the pros and cons carefully and have realised that they are better off staying as they are. They know that if they become an academy, far from achieving the promised autonomy, they will have to surrender to the diktats and top slicing of a large unaccountable multi-academy chain. (By the way, isn't it ironic that Michael Gove, the architect of this emasculation of individual school decision making, is campaigning to get out of Europe in order to protect our sovereignty?) To bring about the change the DfE wants, they have to win over the hearts and minds of heads, teachers and governors. They have signally failed to do so far. The imposition of academisation will be resisted.

  2. George Osborne made mass academisation a central plank of his budget speech, thus taking on the mantle of Secretary of State for Education, albeit temporarily. Within 24 hours he was executing a U-turn over cuts to benefits for the disabled when he realised that there might be some principled opposition to it for once. Then IDS resigned and holed the Chancellor below the waterline. The White Paper is a hostage to his fortune. Either he or it will not survive.

  3. There's a referendum in June (who knew?) that could end the careers of many government ministers, whichever way it goes. We could see a new Prime Minister, Chancellor and Education Secretary all wanting to make their mark. Pushing ahead with a predecessor's plans is seldom attractive to a keen new Minister. If the current bunch keep their jobs, they may well have survived by the skin of their teeth. Pressing ahead with unrealistic, costly plans may well no longer be an option, politically and economically.

  4. The White Paper will have to become an Education Bill before it becomes an Education Act. Perhaps for once the Opposition and House of Lords will find their cojones and grab this opportunity to defeat a weakened government with a tiny majority over an unpopular set of proposals.

  5. Despite the fact that mass academisation featured in the budget, there was no reference to how much it would cost, in the context of overall budget figures showing growing problems and expanding holes in the arithmetic. It doesn't take a lot of thought to see just how unaffordable the proposals in the White Paper are and will be. The sheer cost of conversion of 70% of the country's schools ought to be enough to raise alarm bells, even if the costs are borne by the schools themselves, as looks likely. Then there's the cost of dismantling local authority education services - including the redundancy of thousands of so-called bureaucrats (ie school improvement professionals, HR specialists, finance team members and so on). Then there are the costs of the many proposed new bodies to be set up and maintained. Then the rapidly expanding (possibly already out of control) costs of the new system of Regional Schools Commissioners, headteacher boards and their support teams (not bureaucrats, of course - you only get those in the public sector. Oh, hang on, they are civil servants, aren't they?). Then the explosion of salaries and bonuses of senior staff and chief executives of the expanding MATs and chains. I think I'll stop there. It is completely unaffordable.

  6. The whole project will be overseen by what the BBC's education correspondent described as the least effective department in the government, which is saying something. The DfE cannot manage its own budget and has failed miserably to address the real and immediate threats to the future of education, namely teacher shortages and increased pressure on school places. And its staff will be cut further as part of Osborne's "efficiency savings" in Whitehall. What could possibly go wrong?

  7. Academies and MATs are no more successful than maintained schools especially in bringing about improved outcomes for pupils. Even if they were, the Education Secretary would still find that 50% of all academies were below average, a statistical reality they never seem to grasp. Should Education White Papers not be based on a convincing evidence-based case for changes likely to lead to improvements to educational outcomes? The document is a castle built on sand.

  8. There have been endless examples of academies and MATs that have failed spectacularly, wasting millions of public monies. To give just one topical example reported in the excellent Schools Week - "The government spent at least £19 million opening university technical colleges and studio schools that closed within four years". Ofsted found that seven large MATs were failing, worse than the worst local authorities. Many large chains have been told to shed up to 10 academies because of their inability to manage them successfully. No objective evaluation of MATs and chains could possibly argue that they provide a model for all other MATs to follow. The House of Commons Education Committee has begun an investigation into MATs. I wonder what they will uncover? The publication of their report is likely to come at an awkward time for the Education Secretary.

  9. Much of the success or failure of the White Paper depends on the so-called great heads and great MATs endlessly bigged-up by the breathless anonymous ingénues who wrote it. I have no doubt that there are many very good headteachers and senior staff in all our schools. They are not limited to academies. But some of them aren't so great and even those who appear to be great can turn out to have been bullies and bullshitters when driven from their outstanding school by angry parents and teachers bearing grievances. Too many academies praised to the hilt by Michael Gove and David Cameron later turned out to have major failings. CEOs like Sir(!) Bruce Liddington and so-called great heads like Sir(!) Greg Martin in the worst examples have abused their powers, unchallenged by weak Trust Boards. Even if there were to be a steady supply of genuinely great heads, they can only ever be as good as their team of teachers…and there is a massive problem of teacher recruitment and retention which the DfE is failing to address.

  10. There is already a backlog (up to a year) of inadequate schools subject to forced academisation via a sponsor who is yet to be found. There aren't enough sponsors to go round at the moment, let alone in the future. The White Paper claims the DfE will recruit more but has no substantive plans to do so nor reason to believe they will succeed.

  11. The White Paper will be making its way into law and possible implementation at the same time as a common funding formula is supposedly coming into force. The Secretary of State is blithely confident that this can be done with minimal fuss by 2017. While no thinking person can possibly object to the desire to see a fairer system of school funding being put in place, it is a political time bomb. It will create winners and losers. The losers will not accept their losses quietly. Quite a few of them will be represented by Tory shire MPs keen to be seen to stand up for their angry constituents. How long will the perpetually surprised-looking Nicky Morgan survive their wrath and manoeuvrings, even if she survives the outcome of the European referendum?

  12. The White Paper will create many potentially powerful victims and opponents, including teaching unions, parent governors, parents, local authorities and the LGA, Ofsted and others - the return of the Blob! If these disparate groups can harness their combined voter power and political influence, they could stop this Stalinist centralisation of power over our schools. This may be a vain hope, but even partial opposition could be effective in the context of all the other points raised above.

In the Observer yesterday former Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett warned the arrogant and ignorant Nicky Morgan that she should learn the lessons of Andrew Lansley's laughable and disastrous attempt to impose unwanted top-down "reform" of the NHS. She won't, of course and will be condemned to the same fate.


Thursday Mar 17, 2016 - Great "who'd have guessed it" headlines of our time number 32: Tories nationalise education:-

Great 'who'd have guessed it' headlines of our time number 32: Tories nationalise education

The education system that's been in place for 100 years is being ripped up in front of our faces. Maybe it deserved to be, but where's the debate? The arguments in favour? The objections? The consideration of the proposed alternative?

Last autumn we learned from George Osborne that "The Spending Review and Autumn Statement represents the next step towards the government's goal of ending local authorities' role in running schools and all schools becoming an academy." When was that goal first announced? Was it, ever? What rationale was placed before the electorate?

I don't think it's ever been publicly rehearsed. The Government starts from the assumption that all local authority influence - one can hardly call it control - over education is necessarily bad and must be ended.

Why? No evidence has been presented. It is a policy based on prejudice or ideology - take your pick.

The Conservatives didn't start it, of course. It began under New Labour. Again it was never explicitly stated that local authorities should go. But each year cuts to various aspects of LA budgets were made, gathering pace and scale under the Coalition and now under this government. There's not much left and even that little is to be axed, leaving thousands of schools unsupported and unchallenged.

This at a time when 75% of all schools are still "LA controlled", as the DfE would put it. Schools have had 6 years to decide whether or not they wanted to become academies. The vast majority have chosen not to do so, for many good reasons. Now they are all going to be forced to become academies.

I can't put it better than Peter Newsam, writing to the Guardian today:

"A school created by and wholly dependent for its existence on a funding contract with a government minister is, in plain English, a government school. That is an academy's defining characteristic. If all schools in England become government schools, the English school system will have been nationalised. Is that what anyone in England has ever been invited to vote for? In 1944, towards the end of a war against a dictatorship, in The Road to Serfdom, Hayek wrote: "Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government." That remains true. It is democracy itself that is now under attack. For the first time since 1870, locally elected people are to be excluded from oversight of schools in their area. In their place are to be persons, elected by no one, appointed by and accountable to an individual government minister."

One might expect that anti-statist, libertarian Conservatives would oppose till their last breath the forced academisation of all schools. Isn't that what totalitarian governments do? What would Tories say if Jeremy Corbyn proposed such a thing? Can we imagine the screaming red-top headlines? The hypocrisy sucks the breath from your lungs.

The Education and Adoption Act has given our Secretary of State for Education and her unelected RSC enforcers unprecedented powers to shut down any possible dissent and force governors, schools and local authorities to do their bidding in a process of mass academisation that no-one actually voted for.

New head Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter made very clear at the ASCL conference recently that about 1,000 new multi-academy trusts will be created by 2020 with smaller chains having to grow to accommodate more schools. "My challenge is we are probably going to need some of our trusts to grow again. The three to six-academy trusts will struggle to be sustainable. We need them to grow, to 10, to 15, to 20."

59% of academies are in MATs and 39% of academies are in MATs of between 2 and 10 schools.

This might be a good time to get into the cattle prod business.

So - you're a governor of a school that chose to become a standalone academy in 2010, seizing Gove's promise of autonomy, more money and freedom. Then you saw the writing on the wall and joined a small MAT in 2013 in order to feel more secure. Now you're being told the MAT is too small to survive so you face the prospect of ending up as just one part of a large chain which then removes direct governance from all of its schools, just as EAct did recently. You've surrendered any local decision making on finance, staffing, curriculum and strategic planning.

At what point do you say "Hang on! This isn't what Gove promised us! We've got less control than we had when we were part of the LA! We've been had"?

And, in the meantime, you can't replace staff who leave and your budget shrinks but the top slice gets bigger every year in order to pay the ever growing salaries of the Chief Executive and the Trust Board (four chief executives received salary increases of at least £20,000 in the past 12 months).

Then when your MAT fails, you will be forced to be taken over by a new sponsor over in the choice of which you have no say (and this process can cost up to half a million). Still, not as bad as when you were LA-controlled, eh?

Now he's going, Sir Michael Wilshaw seems to have plucked up the courage to complain about these messes and outrages that some of us have been writing about for a long time. For example, it turns out that despite having operated for a number of years, many of the seven multi-academy trusts inspected by Ofsted recently "manifested the same weaknesses as the worst performing local authorities and offered the same excuses. There has been much criticism in the past of local authorities failing to take swift action with struggling schools. Given the impetus of the academies programme to bring about rapid improvement, it is of great concern that we are not seeing this in these seven MATs and that, in some cases, we have even seen decline."

And while the Secretary of State, RSCs and DfE obsess over the impossible logistics of forcing all schools to become academies in large MATs, whilst simultaneously opening 60 free schools in each RSC area by 2020, it turns out that there's a growing teacher recruitment and retention problem. An investigation by the National Audit Office not long ago slaughtered the DfE's woeful performance in this area. But Ministers adopt the old Jim Callaghan headline: "Crisis? What crisis?"

Is there any connection between these things?

Our gung-ho Secretary of State believes that a national funding formula can be put in place by 2017. Nobody in their right mind could argue against the long-overdue need for a much fairer funding regime but it's really not that easy to achieve. David Blunkett was the last Secretary of State to attempt it and he backed off when he realised just what he had taken on.

The best funded areas in the country - all in London, natch, also produce the best results. More money doesn't necessarily lead to better results, but on balance, the London experience suggests that it is a pretty important factor. Reduce that funding in order to level the playing field and what is bound to happen?

You don't need me to tell you.

And the large Tory controlled local authorities currently receiving the highest levels of per pupil funding are likely to see that funding cut. Despite minimum funding guarantees and limits on gains and losses, will their MPs stay silent when angry parents storm their surgeries?

And once you've got rid of local authorities, who will people blame when things inevitably go wrong?

Nicky Morgan brushed aside concerns: "Let me honestly ask you, how many local elections in your patch have been fought over the quality of education? I don't ever remember being on a doorstep and being quizzed on what my local authority was doing on local schools."

Perhaps she could learn from what happened at Christmas last year at Trinity Academy in Radstock. If you missed this little gem of a story, just Google it. I won't spoil it for you, but the lesson is that you can get away with bullying and covering up the truth for quite a long time but when the cracks open up, the whole edifice falls apart dramatically and suddenly. The idea that superheads are the best solution to educational problems is bankrupt - but part of new educational policy.

And heads will roll.


Monday Feb 15, 2016 - Lost for words:-

Lost for words

Ever since before Christmas I've been trying to write something new for my website. The problem I keep coming up against is the unrelenting volume of news about how badly the government is managing everything it's responsible for, let alone terrifying events in the rest of the world.

Just as I'm about to write something about the strange rehabilitation of Michael Gove as an enlightened justice minister (well, in comparison to his ghastly, bumbling predecessor), David Cameron announces a series of reforms to the prison system based on the academies model in schools. And as I'm about to point out, yet again, that there is no evidence that academies have improved the education of children across the country, so why would the adoption of their principles improve a desperately awful prison system, Michael Wilshaw lambasts two of the biggest academy chains for failing their pupils. Had they been local authorities, Osborne, Morgan and Cameron would have been falling over each other to demand their closure or takeover by a private sector organisation. So far, though, silence.

I could have got started on the introduction of new accountability mechanisms for primary schools but then my attention was seized by news that the DfE failed to meet the requirement placed upon it to publish its accounts on time, using a statutory instrument to buy itself more time. The Education Committee plan to investigate the delay.

Maybe I could have written about the recent report on Regional Schools Commissioners and the many holes in that new system revealed by the Education Committee's review but I got distracted by the news that E-Act have abolished governance in their chain of academies, which is perfectly legal. But why should it be perfectly legal, especially when Ofsted then criticise E-Act for its woeful performance? Is there any connection between the abandonment of local accountability to a proper governing board and falling standards in particular academies?

The news that the DfE spent more than £3 million to transfer 23 academies to new trusts - with the rebrokering of one school costing more than £500,000, made available to us taxpayers only because of an FoI request certainly had me poised to write a new blog. But then there was the news that an academy had been given a financial notice to improve after asking for a government handout to balance its books, which took my eye off the ball, as did the story about the DfE awarding contracts totalling £12 million to 93 contractors to support the academies and free schools programme, some of whom have an obvious conflict of interest. This while we await the DfE's own accounts for the last financial year...

And, of course, the news that "Durand Academy's much-hyped free boarding school is in £476,000 deficit - after just one year" caught my attention but my butterfly mind was then seized by reading about the 22 new free schools that have opened. Only one has been founded by a parents' group. So much for Gove's idea that parents and teachers were queuing up to open new schools all over the place. 11 are in London and the South East; 5 in the North; 3 in the South West and 2 in the Midlands. Am I surprised?

Then, today, confirmation from the Audit Commission that there really is a massive teacher shortage which the DfE is failing to tackle in any meaningful way. Perhaps they're too busy fiddling their accounts?

All of this woeful education news is leaking out and often barely noticed by the national media who seem obsessed by the forthcoming EU membership referendum and Labour's internal arguments about Trident, rather than the real world events that threaten our very survival. The frightening tensions and warfare in the Middle East and the increased flow of refugees into Europe, North Korea's atom bomb and recent rocket launch, the hideous rhetoric of the Republican in-fighting and the rise of Trump all make my concerns about our education system seem puny and insular, leaving me in powerless despair.

But at least I've managed to write this.


Monday Nov 30, 2015 - Welcome to the DfA:-

Welcome to the DfA

It is high time the Department for Education changed its name to reflect reality: it is, and has been for some time, the Department for Academies.

It its crazy looking-glass-world, academies far outnumber and outperform maintained schools. They are the only schools that matter and are given high status and prominence in all the DfA's publicity and "guidance". The DfA website is obsessed with all aspects of academies, seizing the slightest opportunity to crow about unvalidated evidence of some glimmer of hope that academies might be getting slightly better results than maintained schools. Untroubled by the stinging criticisms of the Tory-dominated Education Committee and the almost weekly reports of abuses of power and finance in another academy or academy chain, the DfA, led by the Supreme Visionaries, Nicky Morgan, Nick Gibb, Lord Nash and a small band of avid disciples, push on regardless towards the nirvana of an education system which is entirely privatised and ready for selling off to the highest bidder (or China, perhaps).

On the other side of the looking glass, what some might call "reality", the best part of 80% of the nation's schools are NOT academies. On the basis of evidence going back as far as 2002, academies do not outperform maintained schools, overall. Despite six years of unrelenting pressure, the vast majority of people working in schools do not want academy status.

The DfA's attitude would be laughable if it did not have serious consequences. It must always be recognised that there are many successful and thriving academies and MATs. I have nothing against any of them. What I am against is the way the playing field has been tilted dramatically and unfairly towards academies and the government's and DfA's unrelenting hostility towards and prejudice against the schools attended by the vast majority of the country's children and young people.

Leaving aside the massive costs and wastage of funds involved in the academisation project (such as £7.2 million to 17 Trusts to take over struggling schools - but who haven't done so) which could and should be used to benefit all the pupils in the country, the DfA effectively prevents excellent maintained schools and local authorities from sponsoring coasting or failing schools and seeks to enshrine this in the Education and Adoption Bill. The assumption underlying this is sheer prejudice: maintained schools will never be good enough to support the improvement of failing schools, including failing academies, simply because they do not fit the DfA's idea of a successful school. This represents a huge waste of talent and opportunity.

The recent Autumn Statement enabled the government to reinforce its message that local authorities should lose any remaining education power they might have. The Education Services Grant (ESG) will be virtually abolished, cut from £815 million to £215 million at a stroke. The ESG funds LA School Improvement Services, which support and challenge the 80% of maintained schools in the country. In his last annual report, Sir Michael Wilshaw bemoaned the fact that standalone academies are very vulnerable through lack of support and challenge by external agencies - (previously provided by their LA). LAs' services to schools have been reduced by around 40% and more in some cases in the last few years. Removing School Improvement Services support and challenge from 80% of the country's schools is an act of vandalism intended to ensure that those schools fail so that they can be forced to become academies. It seems to me to be an outrage that a government can get away with acting against the interests of the vast majority of its citizens in this way.

At the same time, we learn that many staff at the Education Funding Agency, which funds academies and free schools, are to be paid bonuses of £15000 each and £75000 grants are to be made available to groups of primary schools taking on academy status. And the promise of a national fair funding formula. How fair will it be to non-academies, I wonder?

Now we have a new Governance Handbook to replace the old (well, since January) Governors' Handbook, with its interesting subtitle "For trustees of academies and multi-academy trusts and governors of maintained schools". There's your priority, writ large. The governors of 80% of our schools are last on the list. The same pattern is reproduced throughout the document - "academies first" is the theme. There is much in the guidance that is good. I support the "professionalisation" of governance.

But until academies make up the large majority of schools, we should not be putting them first.


Saturday Nov 21, 2015 - 21st century governance needed for 21st century schools:-

21st century governance needed for 21st century schools

Sir Michael Wilshaw's latest thinking on school governance - another repeat of what he has already said several times before - deserves consideration and a robust response, so here it is. The original text is in black. My commentary is highlighted in blue.

"It seems he (Sir Michael Wilshaw) cannot break the cycle of speeches and media attention - this cycle continues regardless of however many times he is asked to focus. He seems unable to change this substantially."

So wrote the deeply unpleasant Dominic Cummings when he was a SPAD at the DfE under Gove. It pains me to recognise that he may have had a point.

He went on: "I am increasingly alarmed about Ofsted... Nobody who we think is good - AND everybody else - say they are at best a poor organisation. I never hear anybody say they are good. They have missed massive child abuse scandals under their noses, which they are very lucky not to have been hammered for. They are easy to con into giving inflated judgements. There has been an abyss between stated goals and practice and the actual behaviour of their inspectors. Wilshaw himself admitted when he took over that 'about a fifth' of his inspectors are 'no good'."

It's worth bearing this in mind when reading Wilshaw's latest thoughts.

Five hundred failing governing boards identified by Ofsted this year - time for a re-think? Out of how many? About a fifth, by any chance?

Following on from my commentary last month on the progress that has been made by primary schools in recent years, I want to turn my attention this month to the issue of governance.

The role that governance plays in ensuring that every child receives the best possible education has never been more important.

Little of what Wilshaw writes is new. For example, back in 2011, I wrote this:

"Sir Michael Wilshaw, described as "the super-strict head at Mossbourne academy in Hackney, and rumoured to become the new head of Ofsted", was very critical of governing bodies in the Saturday Interview by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian on Saturday 17 September 2011. Rustin wrote: Governance is Wilshaw's other theme, and he is scathing about anti-academies campaigners who complain about the schools' lack of democratic accountability. "If local democracy had worked, if local governing bodies had worked in the most challenging schools and for the most disadvantaged children, we would never have needed academies," he says. "Often governing bodies are the problem, actually."

The huge changes to our increasingly autonomous education system over the past 5 years, including the rapid growth of academies and free schools, has placed more power into the hands of governing boards than ever before.

So, he (appointed because he was previously head of an academy) seems to be suggesting that maybe academy governance is no better than maintained schools governance - or that the increase of power for trusts and academy governors tends to lead to more problems with academy governance. I wonder how robust was the challenge he received from his governors, and how he reacted to that challenge.

Governors and trustees are there to set the school's vision, ethos and strategic direction. They are also expected to hold the headteacher to account for the performance of teachers and pupils, and to ensure that public money is being well spent.

Governors have to be perceptive people who can challenge and support the headteacher in equal measure and know when and how to do this. They must never overstep the mark and try and run the school themselves. As the Chief Executive of the National Governors Association succinctly puts it, governors and trustees should be: "Eyes on, hands off!" They also have to understand the complexities of school organisation and be able to analyse the wealth of data that now exists on school performance.

We should not underestimate just how vital the role of governors and trustees has become in helping to raise standards. It is also why Ofsted now shines a brighter spotlight on the effectiveness of governing boards, and reports on their performance and their impact in greater detail. In every Ofsted report, inspectors are expected to write a discrete paragraph on the effectiveness of governance and whether it is influencing school performance.

How well is this working? Inspectors spend very little time talking with governors during an inspection and tend to be heavily influenced by what the head says about governance. Inspectors tend not to be serving governors because it is frowned on by Ofsted. How well do inspectors really understand governance?

In short, the role is so important that amateurish governance will no longer do. Good will and good intentions will only go so far. Governing boards made up of people who are not properly trained and who do not understand the importance of their role are not fit for purpose in the modern and complex educational landscape.

That is why, last year, I recommended to government that it should give serious consideration to mandatory training for all governors and trustees. I am disappointed that there has been such little progress on this recommendation. High-quality training for all governors, but particularly the chair and vice-chair, is vital to the success of our schools. I have, therefore, asked Her Majesty's Inspectors, when they make a judgement on governance, to focus particularly on training and the arrangements schools are making to source expertise in this vital work.

Wilshaw has been arguing for mandatory training for years now - but has never explained how he thinks it might work in practice, which is something of a gap in his argument. This is what I wrote in July 2013:

"Governor training is recognised as being hugely important yet the government is effectively scrapping the main traditional source of that training - local authority governor services - by year-on-year cuts to budgets. Wilshaw recently made a speech arguing for the importance of governor training yet takes a gung-ho approach to LA school improvement services in general, knowing full well that they are less and less able to do their job because of the government's overt and covert destruction of local authorities. Such cynicism and hypocrisy deserves to be exposed in a report such as this. (ie "The Role of School Governing Bodies" House of Commons Education Committee).

This is the elephant in the room: school governance has been neglected for twenty years or more and has only survived and been reasonably effective because of the dirt-cheap but good quality support of local authority governor services teams. It's time this fact was recognised - but it's already too late to stop the wanton, counter-productive vandalism of this ignorant and arrogant government."

We know what can happen when things go badly wrong with the governance of a school.

We have all heard about the governors in Birmingham who abused their position to try to alter the character of a number of schools in line with their own personal ideology - both 'eyes on and hands on'!

Yet Ofsted itself was criticised heavily in a House of Commons committee report following the so-called Trojan Horse affair:

"Ofsted's inability to identify problems at some Birmingham schools on first inspection when they were found shortly afterwards to be failing raises questions about the appropriateness of the framework and the reliability and robustness of Ofsted's judgements and how they are reached.

Either Ofsted relied too heavily on raw data and did not dig deep enough on previous occasions or alternatively the schools deteriorated so quickly that Ofsted reports were rapidly out of date, or it could be that inspectors lost objectivity and came to some overly negative conclusions because of the surrounding political and media storm.

Whichever of these options is closest to the truth, confidence in Ofsted has been undermined and efforts should be made by the inspectorate to restore it in Birmingham and beyond."

Funny that Sir Michael seems to have forgotten this awkward fact.

We have also read the stories about governing boards nodding through wildly excessive remuneration packages for headteachers and lacking proper oversight of school finances.

This is interesting, since he doesn't say which schools he's talking about but the most recent and dramatic cases are all in academies - see:

It doesn't suit his politics to state the truth, which is that it's a lot harder - though not impossible - to fiddle the books in a maintained school where the LA finance team has oversight.

These are, of course, mercifully rare cases, (really? There seem to be an awful lot of them and they're happening more frequently. How many more should we expect?) but they do serve to illustrate the influential role that governing boards play in modern schools.

There are thousands of people across the country who give up their time to serve on governing boards. We know that the majority take their duties very seriously and act responsibly and in the interests of the whole-school community.

Inspectors find that in many schools, governors and trustees are making an important contribution to raising standards and lifting aspiration. The best of these champion the school in the local community and take great pride in the success of their pupils.

Take, for example, these 2 extracts from recently published inspection reports of primary schools in Berkshire and the West Midlands respectively.

Governors work very effectively with school leaders to ensure the school is a successful learning community. They hold the leaders robustly to account for the school's performance. The range of governors' expertise and their knowledge of the school are excellent. Governors are fully tuned into pupils' current and future needs.


Governance is outstanding. Governors hold the headteacher to account very well. They use their deep understanding of the school's performance to ask challenging questions such as, 'Why are standards in mathematics not improving as quickly as those in reading, and what is being done about it?'

Unfortunately, such strong, dynamic and cohesive governance is far from universal. Ofsted comes across too many schools where oversight is weak and the governing board is struggling to have the necessary impact.

In his last annual report Wilshaw wrote this:

"Schools are less likely to succeed if their governance is poor. This is clear from the results of our study of 114 schools that had declined to be less than good. The governing bodies of almost all those schools had failed to provide strategic leadership or hold the headteacher to account. They relied heavily on the judgement of the headteacher, and the chair of governors often had too close and 'cosy' a relationship with the headteacher. When we analysed what had been happening in these schools before their inspection, we found that governors were entirely unaware of problems or had discovered them too late to secure improvement by the time of the inspection. In some cases, this was because the schools' leaders had not given governors access to the full performance information. In others, it appeared likely to the inspectors that governors had been presented with partial or misleading data. In circumstances like this, it is hard to see how governors can hold schools to account for their performance or fulfil their vital strategic role."

The sentence in bold is crucial. Ofsted do not know any better than governors how to tell and what they should do if unscrupulous school leaders hide the truth from them. However professional the governors might be, they are always at a disadvantage when the professional staff choose to mislead them.

In the last academic year alone, there were nearly 500 schools where inspectors were so concerned about the performance of the governing board that they called for outside experts to be drafted in to carry out an urgent external review of governance.

In a speech I made nearly 3 years ago, I argued that we needed a more professional approach to school governance, especially in our most challenging schools serving the most deprived communities.

I also said that the first sign that a school was in decline or in difficulty should trigger intervention by the local authority, academy sponsor or the Department for Education, with additional professional appointees being parachuted onto the board.

And this is what I wrote at the time in response to this criticism of LAs:

"But isn't it a bit rich to be blaming local authorities in this late stage of their emasculation?

The restriction of the influence of local authorities over the schools in their area began with Local Management of Schools back in the 1980s and has continued ever since. Most recently, of course, the Blair and Brown governments promoted the notion of "intervention in inverse proportion to success" and introduced sponsored academies and the School Improvement Partner, telling LAs that their job was to commission rather than provide services for schools, including school improvement.

The Coalition's continuing slash and burn approach to LA funding and capacity has led to the disappearance of school improvement teams in many areas, with some larger authorities just about hanging on to a few key officers until the next round of savage cuts. Although LAs have some statutory responsibilities for the quality of education in their schools, they lack the means to fulfil them, as a direct result of government policy.

At the same time, their use of abrasive and prejudiced language of "setting academies free from LA control" leaves no room for nuance: the government pursues a "four legs good, two legs bad" ideology. They want all schools to become academies. It's all about autonomy because autonomy is good for you. And if bad schools are too stupid to seize autonomy for themselves, then autonomy will be thrust upon them, whether they like it or not.

Academies are supposed to seek out and support weaker schools, to help them improve, but all the evidence shows that few, if any, actually do this and the government turns a blind, indulgent eye.

So when Wilshaw sends his storm troopers into places like Derby and berates the local authority for failing in its duty to improve standards, will he bother to find out if there's anyone another than one man and his dog left at the Town Hall? And will he also castigate any academies in the area for their abject failure to carry out their legal responsibility to support failing schools?

Of course not. Wilshaw, like his puppet master Gove, blames the scapegoats."

Finally, I expressed my belief that we should not rule out payment to governors with the necessary expertise to challenge and support schools with a long legacy of underachievement.

Aside from a relatively small number of interim executive boards that have been put in place in some of the worst cases, nothing I have seen or learned in the intervening period has altered my view on these matters. Indeed, if anything, the need for decisive action in this area has become even more pressing, especially when it comes to underperforming secondary schools in certain parts of the country.

This is what I wrote about IEBs in July 2013: "The report advocates a more widespread use of LA intervention powers, including the setting up of IEBs. Having chaired an IEB, I think I can see why they are not used more often - they require a huge amount of time from skilled LA colleagues who are pulled in many different directions as LA capacity shrinks. Small LAs are simply unable to muster sufficient IEB members of the necessary calibre and even large ones are increasingly challenged to do so."

I therefore pose the question once again: has the time not come to consider paying chairs and vice-chairs in order to recruit the most able people to schools in the most difficult circumstances?

This is what I wrote in March 2012:

Should governors be paid?

"My view is that when a school is doing poorly, we need to think about paid governance."
Michael Wilshaw, Chief inspector, Ofsted

"Most governing bodies pay for their clerks... we should also move to paid chairs of governors."
Lord (Jim) Knight, ex-Schools Minister

Two voices in recent days called for change - for different reasons but the same old basic argument. (Some) governors aren't good enough. They lack the right skills to do the job. You have to pay to get the right people with the skills to do the job.

Whereas Wilshaw was speaking somewhat off the cuff, Knight had thought his argument through. He acknowledges that to make it affordable, you'd have to radically cull the overall number of governors by at least 90%. But there's no evidence to suggest that only one in ten governing bodies are any good. And there's little evidence that paid governors in other sectors are any better than the volunteers in education. Wasn't there a massive failure of corporate governance in the private sector recently - the banks, the media? The civil servants overseeing MPs' expenses were paid but it didn't stop Jim and his mates getting their snouts in the trough. Paid Directorships are a nice little earner for ex-Ministers but it's about boosting the company profile, not strengthening corporate governance. I wonder if Lord Jim has ever read that novel about him?

At the moment governors are not allowed to be paid. The National College has recruited 50 National Leaders of Governance to support chairs of governors around the country but they're not allowed to pay them directly for the work. That does seem perverse - but it's a different argument, a different case. There is an exception to the rule. LAs and the DfE can remove a failing governing body and replace it with an Interim Executive Board (IEB) and pay the chair and /or other governors. It's strange that Wilshaw doesn't seem to know this, since it's the solution he's arguing for. There has been no serious study of the effectiveness of IEBs to show any correlation between school improvement and paid governance. Until there is, we'll never know whether the money makes any difference.

In past years governors' opinions have been surveyed reasonably regularly and the majority is always opposed to being paid. The arguments are consistent and compelling: we can't afford it anyway when the economy is in such a mess; it's unfair to pay some governors and not others, even the chair; we don't do this job for money; it would change the whole ethos of governance for the worse...

Cameron may have ditched the Big Society but school governors haven't. Long may it prosper.

Then again, I wrote in March 2013:

"I have said it before and I will say it again, we should not rule out payment to governors with the necessary expertise to challenge and support schools with a long legacy of underperformance." Michael Wilshaw

Yes, you have said it before and you've now had plenty of time to think about how exactly it would work. But you have nothing new to tell us. Which governors should be paid? How much? How often? From which budget? What if they don't improve? Oh, and by the way, it's already happening. Governors on Interim Executive Boards (IEBs) can and often are paid. Has Ofsted reviewed the effectiveness of IEBs and assessed the impact of paid governance? Of course not. Facts can be so inconvenient."

I therefore ask you the question once again, Sir Michael, how would that work in practice? Until you can be bothered to think through the implications, for God's sake shut up about it.

When leadership and management of a school are judged to be ineffective, entrenched weak governance is invariably one of the underlying reasons. Time and again in these cases, inspectors come across the same type of issues:

  • governors who lack the professional knowledge or educational background to sufficiently challenge senior leaders
  • governors who have not received the regular, relevant, high-quality training to enable them to do their job effectively
  • governors who lack curiosity and are too willing to accept what they are being told about pupils' progress and the quality of teaching. As a consequence, they often hold an overly optimistic view of how the school is performing
  • governors who may know what the school's pupil premium funding is being spent on but have little idea whether it's actually having any impact on improving outcomes for disadvantaged children
  • governors who devote too much time and attention to the marginal issues (like the school uniform, dinner menu or the peeling paintwork in the main hall) instead of focusing on the core issues that really matter - the quality of teaching, the progress and achievement of pupils and the underlying school culture

Depressingly, we often find the weakest governance operating in the most challenging schools in the poorest areas of the country - the very schools that stand to gain most from strong, professional and forensic governance and are least able to muddle through when this is absent.

Hardly surprising, is it? What do you suggest should be done about it?

That does not mean that our inspectors do not come across the type of weaknesses I've highlighted above in more affluent parts of the country. We also know there are schools where governors and trustees are aware of the overall attainment of pupils at the end of the key stages but do not realise these figures mask inequalities among different groups of pupils. They are also unaware that children further down the school are making less progress than they should be from high starting points.

Schools are now complex institutions subject to far greater external accountability than they were in the past.

In this context, being a governor is far more demanding and carries huge levels of responsibility.

It would be unrealistic to expect every member of the governing board to have a deep knowledge of educational issues. However, for the 2 or 3 people who hold the most senior roles on the board, and who could be responsible for 'cascading' training to other members, I believe this is essential.

So what are you saying? Only people with an education background should be chairs and vice chairs? The definition of a governing body in Victorian England was this: "a body of local people to represent the public interest in its affairs". If governing boards become more and more exclusive, as Wilshaw seems to be advocating, then how will local people be able to represent the public interest in schools?

In addition, these senior governors need to be able to ask the probing questions and hold the difficult conversations when necessary. That can be harder if governors lack confidence in their own knowledge of school organisation and performance. Indeed, lack of confidence can easily lead to a 'cosy' relationship with the headteacher and far too great a reliance on the latter's viewpoint.

So maybe heads should be trained, too, to work productively with governors? It's unfair just to blame governors when governance is weak: heads are equally culpable.

Undoubtedly the most important task that will ever fall to a governing board is to appoint a new headteacher.

I suspect nearly all of us who have spent our careers in schools can cite examples of the wrong person being handed the top job. (Have you been looking in the mirror again, Michael?) I think it is, therefore, legitimate to ask whether senior governors who lack the professional credentials (which would be...what? HR specialists? Headhunters?) can be relied on to make the right appointment that serves the interests of children. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to standalone academies that have opted out of local authority control but are not part of any multi-academy trust. In such cases, the governing board may have no-one to turn to for professional advice and support when deciding on a new head to lead the school. It is surely no coincidence that in last year's Annual Report, Ofsted identified standalone academies as the most vulnerable to decline and failure.

But you have advocated the autonomy of academies many times, Sir Michael. Do you not see any connections here?

I believe we also need to look seriously at how some governing boards are constituted and in particular at the role played by what are known as representative governors, in particular parent governors. As the latest Department for Education guidance rightly makes clear, good governance is predicated on having the right range of skills and experience needed to do the job effectively. It should not be about how many people represent particular interest groups but about the level of knowledge and expertise that can be brought to the table.

Be brave, Sir Michael. Say it. You think parent governors should be abolished. And staff governors, too, since they are the other representative group?

That is not to say that simply having the right people with the right professional qualifications guarantees an effective governing board. The role demands commitment. There can be no place for those who have signed up to become a governor because they think it will boost the credentials on their CV and are content to sit passively through meetings where important aspects of the school's performance are being put under scrutiny.

So, let me get this right. Your idea of the governing board of the future would be this:

  • Mainly professional people with a background in education or HR
  • No parent or staff governors
  • No amateurs
  • Mandatory training (for volunteers) provided by...?
  • Pay for the chair...and maybe other governors
  • Commitment (undefined)

The issue of governance is fundamental to the success of our education system in England and to whether we can sustain and build on the improvements in school standards of recent years.

For this reason, I have commissioned inspectors to carry out an in-depth and far-reaching survey into the effectiveness of governance in our schools. We will publish a report next year.

Today I am launching a call for evidence to inform this piece of work from anyone who has views and experience to contribute.

This thematic survey will explore in detail the issues I have raised in this commentary.

Specifically, it will:

  • examine whether governing boards have the right mix of professional skills and experience needed to perform their increasingly important role
  • assess whether the time has now arrived to make provision for paid governance
  • look at whether local authorities, Regional School Commissioners and others intervene early enough when problems with the governance of a school are spotted between Ofsted inspections
  • explore whether in an increasingly diverse system, the right structures are in place to support governors and trustees, and to deliver the training they need to hold schools to account
  • investigate the level of guidance and support governors receive for headship appointments
  • look at the extent to which governors are involved in succession planning for school leaders
  • look at whether external reviews of governance are an effective tool for improving standards
  • look at the role performed by National Leaders of Governance and whether there are enough of them to make a difference
  • examine some of the specific challenges facing governors of standalone academies
  • explore the relationship between multi-academy trusts and their local governing boards. Our survey will seek to determine the extent to which their respective roles are clearly defined and delineated

Governance is an issue that does not always get the attention that it merits (therein lies the problem, Sir Michael). I hope this commentary and the survey that will follow will go some way to changing this. I look forward to hearing from serving governors and trustees, headteachers, teachers, parents and others whose view will help determine the way forward.

I've had my say.

Michael Wilshaw



Friday Oct 23, 2015 - Back to the future:-

Back to the future

Okay, so I just missed the film's anniversary, but time travel is not an exact science.

Apparently David Cameron made a lame, badly delivered "joke" at PMQ's yesterday, banging on again about Corbyn's supposed rootedness in the mid-80s.

An odd comment, given that just a few days previously his Education Secretary approved a new satellite grammar school in Kent. Back to the 50s and 60s, I think, Prime Minister.

UKIP's sole education policy seems to be "a grammar school in every town". Is that also the Tories' secret plan?

From a poor background I attended a boys' grammar school and it did me proud. I loved school and had some great - and some very poor teachers. Some were, looking back, quite left wing in their views.

I used to cycle to school with my best friend from primary school but at the end of the ride we had to go our separate ways - he to the secondary modern on one side of the road, me to the grammar on the other. At the end of the day we'd meet up and cycle home together again. All because I did a bit better than him on a limited test at the age of 11. We lost touch, so I don't know what happened to him. I went on to university and a career in education. My grammar school education certainly improved my social mobility but at the cost of some friendships.

I taught in a secondary modern school for two years at the start of my career but otherwise in comprehensive schools, some excellent, some not so good.

I don't long for the reintroduction of the grammar school system. For every grammar school there has to be 3 or 4 secondary moderns. That means a second class education for the majority of all children.

By the way, let's just stop to consider the names we give our schools in England and the subtext of each name.

Public school - a private school

Independent school - a private school

Private school - a private school

Grammar school - an historical term, relating back to Shakespeare's time and beyond, denoting a very different kind of curriculum to the one we teach now (except in Toby Young's Free school). It conveys tradition and a range of non-practical, academic subjects. Bring back Rhetoric, I say! (No I don't). Though there were meant to be Technical Grammar schools, too. I did my teaching practice in one of those, but they were rare beasts.

Secondary modern - whilst secondary relates to a phase of education, it can also imply second best. Modern sounds like a form of compensatory language - your school may be second best but at least it's contemporary. Except that many secondary moderns are in buildings that are falling to bits, not least thanks to Gove, M's abolition of that dangerously socialist notion, Building Schools for the Future. Hang on, though, aren't we now doing deals with the world's largest Communist country, selling off all our assets to them while our own industries fail as a result of their dumping of cheap products? I do struggle to keep on top of all this.

Academy - harking back to the classical period, academy implies ancient tradition, scholastic excellence, superiority... but these are actually comprehensive schools in all but name.

Free school - in the 60s Free schools were anti-establishment, hippy idealist schools. And in the Victorian era they were something else again - sometimes known as Ragged schools. What a fabulous name! It can only be a matter of time before Nicky Morgan reintroduces it for all those stubborn maintained schools that refuse to become academies. Now they are a form of academy. In what way are they free, though? Only perhaps in the sense that parents don't have to pay fees yet. They are state-funded and inspected by Ofsted, and pupils are assessed via SATs and GCSEs...

Comprehensive - or bog standard comprehensive as the charming Alastair Campbell famously referred to them. Based on the outrageous idea that all children should be given an equal chance in life. The antidote to the idea that children should be separated into sheep and goats at age 11. And never truly comprehensive because successive governments lacked the courage to abolish all grammar schools and private schools.

Anyway, back to the point. People like me are sometimes accused of pulling up the ladder that helped us get on in the world by denying others the same chance I had. There is some truth in that, for a very small number of young people. On the other hand, I know from experience that my enhanced social mobility was built on the back of massively reduced social mobility for the vast majority of my contemporaries.

For that reason, I continue to support comprehensive education and, like Alan Bennett and many other people, would like to see the project fully realised by closing all selective and private schools. If all families were obliged to make use of the state system it would be improved, given how good the sharp elbowed, eloquent upper and middle classes are at getting their own way in this world.

Having said that, I can't ever see it happening, especially under this government where a private education seems to be essential to any MP wishing to get on. In his speech to the Tory party this autumn David Cameron talked about:

"Our belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome... not everyone ending up with the same exam results, the same salary, the same house - but everyone having the same shot at them... Listen to this: Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world... We know that education is the springboard to opportunity... That is why I'm so passionate about academies and free schools:

Head teachers are growing in confidence as they throw off the shackles of local council control, raising the aspirations of children, parents, communities..."

I think we should just pause here for a moment and think about an old Etonian millionaire prime minister (of five and a half year's standing) surrounded by the wealthy and well-to-do products of the private education system - or those who desperately wanted to participate but couldn't afford it - expressing horror at our appalling lack of social mobility. What on earth stopped our wonderful leader from doing anything about the problem when he was in Coalition for five years with a political party who expressly advocate social mobility? Did he stop for a minute to note that his own social mobility was paid for by millionaire parents? Does he not know that the vast majority of people in this country, let alone the world, are not and never will be millionaires? Where are Gillray or Cruikshank when we need them?

No mention in his speech of reintroducing grammar schools - but he was clearly very happy to approve the new Weald of Kent grammar school "annexe". In a grammar school context, equality of opportunity ends at age 11.

Given that just 20% of all England's schools are academies, the implication of Cameron's speech is that 80% of the country's schools are deliberately not enhancing social mobility - only academies can do this (and, I assume, grammar schools and private schools, like the one he attended). I look forward to reading the convincing objective evidence that academies alone can provide social mobility.

The objective measure of enhanced social mobility is exam results. There is simply no evidence that academies are any better than non-academies at improving these outcomes. Which makes Cameron a fool, doesn't it, for continuing to believe in a lie? And a liar, for continuing to pretend and boast that academies and free schools promote enhanced social mobility.

Cameron wants to see:

"Every school an academy... and yes - Local Authorities running schools a thing of the past."

So let's look forward to that glittering future. Every school an academy. In reality, that is the same as saying "every school a comprehensive" unless they are allowed to set up exclusive admissions policies. But then where would the ragged children go?

And how realistic is it, as an ambition?

This is what it said in the DfE Review Report (Nov 2012): "By March 2015 around one-quarter of schools will be Academies or Free Schools if conversion continues at its current rate." This would mean it would take until 2030 for all schools to become academies. In reality, the "current rate" was about 20%, not 25%.

There is a yearlong backlog of failing schools waiting to be turned into sponsored academies. There aren't nearly enough sponsors willing to take on newly identified failing schools. Schools that wanted to convert have already done so.

A spending review is coming soon. Academies have been warned by the Education Funding Agency to expect the worst:

"One of the most important matters you will need to address is the financial health of the trust. We start the academic year facing a period of challenging public finances. Whilst the overall scale of financial challenge will become clearer after the Spending Review later in the autumn, you will already be seeing a tightening of budgets in the 2015 to 2016 academic year."

Academy conversion is an expensive process. Free schools cost much more to set up.

Too many schools and governors are being persuaded that there is no alternative to academy status so they might as well go for it rather than wait to be pushed. Too many local authorities are adding to this pressure, not least because they can no longer afford to maintain their schools because this government is slowly strangling them.

Then there's the obvious plan to do away with any form of local democratic accountability and management of schools. Okay, so let's assume there are no LAs left in 2020. We've already seen that the Secretary of State and the DfE/EfA are incapable of direct oversight of even a relatively small number of academies hence the creation of the democratically unaccountable pro-academy Regional Schools Commissioners, whose number is already far short of what's needed. There will be a need for a massive army of them in Cameron's brave new world. And the budget to pay for them?

And what if the grammar school expansion gathers pace? Who is going to tell the supposedly autonomous academy heads the good news that you, over there, your school's going to be a grammar school and the bad news - oh, and by the way, you lot are being downgraded to secondary moderns?

I simply don't believe it.

There will never be a time when all schools are academies.

Even if there were, how long would it be before some new Secretary of State for Education took the view that the problem of the nation's education system was a lack of diversity and choice of types of school? This is where we came in, isn't it? The Very Rev Blair was all in favour of a diverse school landscape. And he invented academies (with a lot of help from Lord Adonis. Lord Adonis? You couldn't make it up! A name that suggests a gay porn mag from the 1980s) as a way of breaking up the monolithic comprehensive system.

My long-term vision of the nation's education system (not the one I want, just the one I predict) might look like this:

Public schools (ie private schools) for the ruling class (no dogs, no immigrants, no Irish)

Lord Gove schools (ie ex-Free schools run by the private sector, fee paying) for wealthy vegans, transcendentalists, creationists, various religious groups, polyglots, troglodytes, lickspittles and loblollymen (thanks to Philip Larkin, there)

Adonis Academies (ie comprehensives run by the private sector. No fees but all contributions welcome. Or you're out. No trainers.) for the aspiring sons and daughters of the hard-working families in the south of England who vote Conservative or are Chinese. Dedicated wholly to improving social mobility for the 5% of the population who can afford to attend. No longer subject to inspection because they are self-evidently perfect in every way.

Ragged schools (or Socially Mobile Excellent Learning Laboratories - see what I did there?) for the oiks, ragamuffins, immigrants (unless Chinese), disabled, LGBT, educationally-challenged, benefits-claiming, blinds-drawn-down shirkers and obese chavs... and the rest of the 90% of the population. Housed in disused and derelict County and Town halls, empty Tesco stores and decommissioned power stations. Shunned by the private sector. Scapegoated by all governments. Always in Special Measures.

Oh, brave new world, that has such people in't!

Though as Prospero remarks, drily: 'Tis new to thee.'

Friday Sep 18, 2015 - Chipping away at a bad bill:-

Chipping away at a bad bill

The bad news: the Education and Adoption Bill recently passed its third reading by 300 votes to 200. The better news: it will now be considered by the House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not have a majority and Labour will be hoping to try to amend the legislation with the help of other parties.

According to Schools Week new Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell argued strongly for amendments to this bad bill and made some really effective points including the fact that during a debate in June Nicky Morgan described the Manchester Enterprise Academy as having been "turned around" by its conversion to an academy but as the MP for Manchester Central, Lucy Powell said that the school's main academy sponsor was, in fact, the local city council, but that it had faced "leadership changes, financial problems and low attainment for many years after it became an academy" and had seen its GCSE results "drop by 9 per cent this year".

She said: "This example she cited highlights my bigger point. As secretary of state, despite having a whole department working on her speech and sourcing examples, no one brought the real situation of the academy to her attention, yet local representatives could have told her. This only highlights the difficult job the secretary of state has in being singularly responsible for thousands of schools."

Well, exactly, Lucy - spot on. How refreshing to know that Tristram Hunt's replacement is so on the case in a way he never seemed to be.

In defending the anti-democratic paragraphs in the Bill which would emasculate the rights of parents, governors and councils, grumpy Nick Gibb said "We have seen too many instances of deliberate procrastination by people ideologically hostile to the academies' programme". Some opponents might indeed be ideologically opposed to the ideologically imposed Bill - but all the evidence against academies and free schools is in their favour, a point lost on Gibb.

On 16th September, speaking to the Education Select Committee, Sir Michael Wilshaw became one of the many people calling for an end to the government's obsession with structure. He referred specifically to academies and free schools, and said we should focus on "capacity issues" and asked "have we got enough teachers?" Presumably Nick Gibb would dismiss this as an ideological hostility to the government's faultless education policy.

Further examples of the messy and sometimes disastrous free schools and academies programme came to light in recent weeks.

In March the government promised that 49 new free schools would open in September. In reality, just 18 actually opened.

Research by the Guardian, based on Freedom of Information requests (which the government is seeking to curtail), shows that free schools overall receive 60% more funding per pupil than LA maintained schools. This alarming figure is partly the result of free schools often failing to attract the number of pupils they claimed they would.

Of 254 free schools open so far 136 have been inspected by Ofsted. 106 of these received a good or outstanding judgement (78%). 22% were judged to be requiring improvement or inadequate. Compare this to the figures for LA maintained primary schools (as published in the last Ofsted annual report): 81% good or outstanding. The picture is less rosy for LA maintained secondaries - just 64% - but for special schools, the percentage is 89%. One wonders what the figures would look like if free school funding were the same as in LA maintained schools.

It will be interesting to read the Education Committee's report on their current investigation of the increasingly powerful and unrepresentative Local Schools Commissioners, one of whom was recently poached by Lord Nash for his own academy chain.

Lucy Powell faces an uphill struggle in presenting effective opposition to the academy-obsessives Cameron and Morgan and their ideological DfE troops but seems to be showing already the skills and determination required. Some cause for hope, then...


Monday Aug 24, 2015 - Silly season:-

Silly season

August is a strange month, when the normal flow of news meanders into an ox-bow lake and the television channels clog up with unbelievable piles of detritus.

What is a boy to do?

Me, I decided to re-watch The Wire - all five seasons. I think it's the third time I've watched the whole thing and it repays repeated viewings, not least because of its Dickensian complexity and lack of concessions to the viewer in the intelligibility of what the characters say. You have to concentrate and tune in to the unfamiliar rhythms and speech patterns. Unlike almost every other TV series I can think of, it treats you as an intelligent, patient adult.

Season 4 looks at the education system in Baltimore and by implication throughout the US. Because over recent years various Secretaries of State for Education have borrowed ideas from America, it also has a lot to say about our education system, too.

Following the fortunes of four boys - Dukie, Michael, Randy and Namond - the season shows clearly the stark differences between the reality of the boys' lives and the statistics-based school system which takes no account of that reality. Teachers who begin to succeed in reaching and motivating the boys see their efforts dashed by the imposition of teaching to the test and the cancellation of a special project designed to help the "corner boys" - those most involved in the prolific drugs regime outside the school.

Each boy's story confounds expectations.

Michael seems to be the strongest, most independent minded of the four, acting as a dedicated father to his little brother, standing up against the easy lure of the drugs trade - but ends up as a vicious member of a small hit team.

Dukie is the most deprived boy, whose family sell his clothes and are regularly evicted from wherever they find a place to live. Rejected by most of his peers and mistreated even by his small group of friends (except Michael), his innate intelligence is harnessed by his teacher who encourages him to shower each morning at the school and who takes in Dukie's laundry. While he's at this middle school, Dukie prospers but as soon as he moves on the senior school, things revert to normal and he's back on a corner, reluctantly selling drugs.

Randy has an excellent foster mother whom he loves and respects. At first one expects Randy to have the best chance of success but because he lets slip his tangential knowledge of an event that led to a death, he becomes known as a snitch and is rejected by all, except his small band of friends. His house is fire-bombed and his foster mother very badly injured. Despite the best efforts of a teacher and police officer, Randy ends up in a grim group home where his pariah status leads to an early beating.

Namond seems at first to be the most rebellious and most likely to end up dead. The son of an imprisoned middle ranking drug lord, whose mother leaves him alone for days to go shopping in New York, Namond shows himself to be sensitive and vulnerable - usually fatal qualities in his environment. Despite his superficial aggression and rudeness to his teacher, Namond shows himself to be intelligent and ends up being looked after by him and his future begins to look good.

The system remains dysfunctional. The statistics-driven regimes of the policing and schools services lead to massive aberrations and devious tactics - "jukin' the stats" is the only game in town. A newly elected mayor discovers a $56 million hole in the education budget and has to starve the police of pay and resources in order to prop up the schools. Meanwhile, school leaders literally turn up the heat in classrooms to make the students more docile as they are drilled in repetitive test-passing techniques.

It is largely depressing but gripping and provocative television. It smells real.

Then I turn to the newspaper and the radio and what do I hear? Nicky Morgan wanting every primary school child to enrol at a library when for six years Tory-led administrations have been starving local authorities of cash, of which libraries were the first casualties. Birmingham's spanking new library cuts its opening hours to save money and, it turns out, there's no money left to actually buy any books. Cameron makes a speech to mark his first 100 days in office and his main theme is allowing every school to become an academy:

"We want everyone to have a chance to succeed and education is the best way of ensuring that. This means schools with strong standards and discipline, offering our children a firm foundation for future success. It also means giving great headteachers the freedom to run their own schools with the ability to set their own curriculum and pay their staff properly. Academy schools were created to do exactly that.

I profoundly believe this is the right direction for our country because I want teachers not bureaucrats deciding how best to educate our children. We have already seen how academy freedoms have been fundamental in turning around failing schools - like Manchester Enterprise Academy, where results have almost doubled during its time as an academy. That is why in the first 100 days we have brought forward legislation to transform all failing schools into academies and for the first time taken the power to convert coasting schools into academies too. But we have also seen how these freedoms can help all schools, with more than 3,000 good and outstanding schools already making the decision to become academies themselves.

I want every school in the country to have the opportunity to become an academy and to benefit from the freedoms this brings. So we will make it a priority to recruit more academy sponsors and support more great headteachers in coming together in academy chains. In doing so, we can extend educational excellence and opportunity to every school and every child in our country."

The massive lie underpinning this Panglossian nonsense was not seized upon by any newspaper as far as I know, despite the dizzying piling up of reports proving that academies make little or no difference on the whole and cost a huge amount of public money. The vast majority of schools are not academies and are doing very well. The last thing they need is the distraction of becoming academies. Had their heads and governors wanted them to become academies they would have done so by now.

In the context of The Wire, Cameron and Morgan are exposed as the charlatans and bean counters they really are, their tiny perspectives unencumbered by any direct experience or understanding of the systems over which they preside or real understanding of the casual damage they inflict daily on the teaching profession through their prejudiced and ignorant speeches and policies.

I would love to force them both to watch all five seasons of The Wire in the hope that they might learn something and emerge with a little less arrogance and ignorance - but I doubt whether they'd have the attention span or openness of mind to benefit from the experience. That's why they're in politics, I guess.

Just a few more episodes of Season 5 to go, then it's back to the new school year....


Tuesday July 28, 2015 - Wilful blindness... or a cunning plan?:-

Wilful blindness…or a cunning plan?

Predictably, evidence continues to pile up that academies are very far from being the sole solution to the supposed problems of the education system.

At the same time, the new government is pushing its controversial Education and Adoption Bill through Parliament, aiming to force many more schools to become academies and remove any remaining chance of resistance to this counter-productive policy.

The latest evidence is captured in the Sutton Trust's authoritative Chain Effects 2015: the impact of academy chains on low-income students published unhelpfully just as schools broke up for the summer. Nicky Morgan must have punched the air with relief at that minor bonus. There's precious little else of comfort in this report for her.

The report concludes that:

  • Overall, in comparison with the national figures for all secondary schools and academies ('mainstream schools'), the sponsored academies in this analysis have lower inspection grades and are twice as likely to be below the floor standard. In 2014, 44% of the academies in the analysis group were below the government's new 'coasting level' and 26 of the 34 chains that we have analysed had one or more schools in this group.
  • There is very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. Some chains continue to achieve impressive outcomes for their disadvantaged students against a range of measures, demonstrating the transformational impact on life chances that can be made. However, a larger group of low-performing chains are achieving results that are not improving and may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students.
  • Our longitudinal analysis suggests an exacerbation of this trend. The contrast between the best and worst chains has increased in 2014. Some chains with high attainment for disadvantaged pupils have improved faster than the average for schools with similar 2012 attainment. In contrast, the lowest performing chains did significantly less well over the period 2012-14 than schools with similarly low 2012 attainment. In other words, chains at either end of the spectrum have further 'pulled away' from the majority in relation to the attainment of their disadvantaged pupils.
  • Although results for young people with low prior attainment have generally fallen across all school types, on average the fall was less dramatic for chains than for other types of school, and a few chains succeeded in significantly improving the attainment of this group, an important demonstration of value. However, half the chains did less well than the mainstream school average (the average of all state funded schools and academies).
  • Since 2012, the academy chains in this study have reduced their use of equivalent qualifications, but their use in sponsored academies remained above the national average in 2014. On average, they still underperformed on the EBacc measure; nevertheless a few chains strongly outperformed other school types on the EBacc, and several more had dramatically improved results against this measure. More than half the chains exceeded the national average figure for pupils making progress in English.
  • When analysed against a range of Government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains analysed still underperform the mainstream average on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils. As in 2012, while some of those below the average are continuing to improve, others are not.

This damning report follows hard on the heels of the LGA/NFER Analysis of academy school performance in GCSEs 2014: final report which found that:

  • Sponsored academies outperformed similar maintained schools in 2013 when equivalent qualifications were included, but not when they were excluded nor in 2014 when the contribution of equivalent qualifications to pupils' overall point scores was reduced considerably. This is consistent with previous research findings that sponsored academies make more use of equivalent qualifications compared to similar maintained schools (Worth, 2014; DfE, 2012b).
  • The analysis found that there was no significant difference in school GCSE performance in 2014 between converter academies and similar maintained schools. There was no evidence of a trend towards school performance increasing relative to similar maintained schools over time.
  • It is still too early to judge the full impact of converter academy status on school performance because almost all converter academies have been open for three years or less, but the analysis shows that there are no short-term benefits in improved school performance associated with converter academy status.

Reports such as these would give any thinking person cause for concern if they had given the Coalition and the current government the benefit of the doubt over their claims for the benefits of academisation.

Unfortunately, Secretaries of State for Education tend not to heed evidence that their policies aren't working. Nicky Morgan is no different to her predecessors.

She doesn't foresee any problems in imposing academy status on another 4000 schools, possibly against the wishes of parents and governors, since they will have any rights to object removed by the new Bill when it becomes an Act. Will that stop the protests? Recently parents in Norwich marched against the takeover of their school by one of Gove's favourite sponsor academies. If they are angry now, how much angrier will they be when it becomes illegal to mount a principled challenge to an obviously flawed policy?

What is certain is that the tide of evidence of the failure of academisation to improve all schools will not turn.

The Coalition/Tory academisation project was, from the start, an act of faith and doomed to failure. The plan was, and probably still is, to turn all schools into academies. Even if that were possible, and it looks increasingly unlikely, once achieved, 50% of all academies would still be below average. The standard bell curve of distribution of Ofsted grades would continue to apply.

Cynics will see academisation as a threadbare cover for the real project: destroying local authorities and preparing the ground for the monetisation of the nation's schools, selling them to the highest bidder.

Far-fetched? Maybe, but we have just learned of the sell-off of the National College building in Nottingham as part of cuts to the education budget. Once the building has gone, the agency itself cannot be far behind. Say goodbye soon to national support for NLGs, NLEs and training for clerks and School Business Managers.

Still, why should a government choose to invest in teachers (too many of whom leave the profession in their first year) and increasingly hard to recruit school leaders if they'll soon be employed by a monster plc based in the Far East funnelling its profits through some off-shore tax haven?

Not our problem, eh? This government lark is a doodle!


Tuesday July 7, 2015 - Democracy in action?:-

Democracy in action?

As I write this, I'm listening to the news of the outcome of the Greek referendum. Whatever your views on the matter, it is an undeniably significant reminder of the power of democracy in the country that invented it.

It's not a perfect system. As Churchill famously remarked, it's the worst - apart from all the rest.

It can lead to some perverse outcomes, such as a Conservative government in power despite the fact that only 24% of the plebiscite voted for it.

And, despite taking advantage of the democratic system in achieving its fragile majority, in education, at least, the Tory government seems hell-bent on destroying it.

Back in 1870, an Education Act established the principle that schools should have a governing body made up "of local people to represent the public interest in its affairs". Seems reasonable, doesn't it? That has held good until now.

During the last 12 months governing bodies have reconstituted themselves according to DfE guidance which weakened their representativeness in favour of a more skills-based board. But that reconstitution process maintained some kind of balance between skills and stakeholders, ensuing the continued right for parents and staff to be elected onto the board.

Now Nicky Morgan is intent on removing the stakeholder principle in its entirety, apparently.

According to the National Governors Association, "the Secretary of State for Education announced her intentions to consult about further amendment of the constitutions of governing bodies to remove reserved categories of governors. The DfE informs us that more information is likely to be available next week."

This raises a few immediate questions.

  • If all those with a direct interest in or responsibility for a maintained school (eg local authorities, dioceses) are to be denied an automatic place on its board, will the same principle be applied to academy sponsors?
  • If, on the other hand, the churches are allowed to maintain their Foundation governor presence, as seems likely, and academy sponsors their domination of academy boards, why should other groups with a legitimate interest in those schools be denied their rightful places?
  • How will the views of parents and staff, especially, be taken into consideration when they no longer have a voice on the board?
  • How will this contribute to the DfE's avowed attempt to stop schools being dominated by the views of particular interest groups?

If one takes a longer term view of this latest pronouncement, one can see it as part of a pattern of undermining, if not destroying, the democratic accountability of schools.

A few examples:

The redefinition of academies by the Coalition government in 2010 and the rapid expansion of the academy sector has taken between 4 and 5000 schools out of local authority "control", as the enemies of local democracy and accountability like to put it. Those academies became accountable only to the unelected EFA, Companies House and the Secretary of State.

The great drive was to give academies more autonomy which, inevitably, tends to mean reduced local accountability. Academy governance was not subject to the same representative principle as maintained schools. Governance of academies within a chain could be and often is reduced to almost meaningless "advisory bodies".

Even Michael Gove had to concede that such a system was unsustainable and so introduced the unelected Regional Schools Commissioners (accountable only to the Secretary of State) to be an intermediary body, supported by small panels of academy heads, elected by other academy heads. But, despite assurances in 2014 that their powers of intervention would be limited to underperforming academies, it is now clear that their role is expanding very rapidly, taking in good or better academies and maintained schools.

Forced academisation has been resisted successfully in a small number of cases, by committed groups of parents and teachers, taking advantage of their democratic rights under the law. The government's response is, of course, to change the law so that this cannot happen again. In the DfE's own words: "The Education and Adoption Bill will force councils and governing bodies to actively progress the conversion of failing schools into academies, removing roadblocks which previously left too many pupils languishing in underperforming schools".

At the same time, a veil of secrecy has been drawn over the increasing number of failures of and abuses of power in academy chains and free schools. Gove had to give in on making academies subject to Freedom of Information requests despite his undemocratic instincts to allow them to hide. As with most attempts to avoid the light of democratic accountability, eventually the veil is swept aside and the lurking horrors exposed to the light.

The anti-democratic trend of especially this and, to a lesser extent, the previous government will continue - and we should resist it whenever we can.

Of course schools need skilled governors. That is not incompatible with a degree of representativeness. Schools do not exist in a vacuum, however much the more gung-ho heads of some academies and maintained schools might pretend that they do.

Local communities have a legitimate interest in their schools. We pay for our schools through our taxes - academies and free schools included. We have a clear democratic right to be represented on the bodies to which they are accountable.


Thursday June 11, 2015 - The silent revolution (will not be televised):-

The silent revolution (will not be televised)

Last year the DfE said:

"From September 2014, 8 regional schools commissioners will be responsible for taking important decisions about the academies in their area. The commissioners will make decisions on applications from schools wanting to become academies and organisations wanting to sponsor an academy.

They will also be responsible for taking action when an academy is underperforming. The commissioners will not be involved with academies that are performing well or with local authority-maintained schools.

Each commissioner will be supported by a board of 5 or 6 outstanding academy headteachers, who will be elected by other academy headteachers in the region."

In October2014, the Daily Telegraph reported that:

"School commissioners will have the power to fire headteachers on the spot and punish bad behaviour. They will be able to implement new uniform codes, change homework policies and remove teachers in schools deemed by Ofsted to be failing. They will also be able to step in from the moment the schools inspectorate issues a bad report. They will also be responsible for all state schools. They will have the power to impose new discipline codes, including a "tariff of punishments" for poor behaviour."

Who are the Regional Schools Commissioners?

Research by the NUT and NAHT found that RSCs are appointed on salaries of up to £140,000 a year - an annual commitment of £1.12m across the eight regions (which are not the same as Ofsted's regions). They have to report to the part-elected Headteacher Boards, as a corporate chief executive would report to his or her board. Each RSC "line-managed" by the national Schools Commissioner, Frank Green.

Who are the Headteacher Boards?

The NAHT and NUT found that on each HTB, four members will be the heads of Ofsted-outstanding academies or free schools in each region, elected by "their peers". A further two members of the HTB will be appointed by the RSC, with the HTBs themselves then "co-opting" new members "on approval that co-option is necessary by the Secretary of State". Payments for academy heads serving on the HTBs will be £500 per day and they will be expected to spend at least half to one day per week on the role.

Warwick Mansell, on behalf of the NAHT, found that the RSC role is to:

  • Encourage would-be academy sponsors to come forward
  • Approve or reject organisations' applications to become academy sponsors in the RSC's region
  • Decide which existing academy sponsor in each region should expand, and which should not
  • Decide on actions to be taken in relation to underperforming academies, short of deciding to close a school including sending warning notices if academies perform below expectation
  • Recommend a sponsor for a particular school which the DfE has targeted for turning into a sponsored academy
  • Support the process whereby the DfE encourages non-academy schools - successful schools, that is, not at risk of forced academisation - to convert to academy status
  • Approve the funding agreement setting up the academy when this happens
  • Approve significant changes to open academies, such as changes to the age range of their pupils
  • Discuss with the DfE applications to set up free schools, and oversee approved free schools prior to, and in the initial phase after, opening

More recently, Schools Week found that RSCs have also:

  • Told a school they should standardise lesson plans
  • Met school leaders for emergency meetings (and shunned parents)
  • Became the people in charge of free school decisions
  • Set up 'challenge boards' for under-performing areas

Their targets have been identified as:

RSC key performance indicators list image

In January 2015 the House of Commons Education Committee reported on Academies and free schools and included the following:

"The RSCs have no responsibility in respect of maintained schools at the moment but the Secretary of State confirmed that the "direction of travel for the Conservative Party" is for Regional Schools Commissioners to oversee all schools: academy and maintained...

Concern focussed on the size of the regions covered by each RSC and how they have been designed. Witnesses argued that the regions covered by each Commissioner were too big to be manageable and that there should be more localised oversight.

The regions were criticised by some witnesses for not recognising natural geographical boundaries and by representatives of the Church of England for creating difficulties for academy chains where their schools spanned different RSC regions.

The lack of alignment with Ofsted's eight regions was also raised as a lost opportunity for closer working between central bodies with responsibility for oversight and monitoring of academies. Emma Knights described the lack of commonality as "daft".

Frank Green acknowledged that, as the number of academies increased, the regions may need to be divided up and the DfE "will need more RSCs"

Theodore Agnew...accepted that "if all schools are to become academies [...] then I would see there being maybe 30 regional school commissioners"

Rapid growth

According to Schools Week: "Plans revealed in the Queen's Speech plans suggest RSCs will be given intervention powers in all schools. They will increasingly be expected to intervene in 'coasting' schools - which could include 'good' schools with poor progress measures, as well as those covered by the 'requires improvement' label

Hence, this group of civil servants will both simultaneously hold schools to account for their performance and be performance-managed based on how many they convert. It will be a challenge for commissioners to balance these interests and no doubt scrutiny on decisions will increase as they do so"

What are we to make of all this?

1.   Most of this development has taken place in secret with no debate in parliament other than as a small part of the Education Committee's research.

2.   The DfE lied in 2104 about the role of the RSCs vis-à-vis maintained schools

3.   This is part of a long-running campaign by Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments to emasculate local democratic control and oversight of education and establish a new and largely unaccountable bureaucracy in its place.

4.   Only one solution is now allowed for any struggling school: academisation. This, despite the fact that there is no evidence that academisation improves schools. The latest Ofsted data show that there are currently 133 academies rated as inadequate and 28 schools that were good or outstanding when they first converted to academy status but have subsequently fallen into special measures.

5.   Heads of maintained schools (ie not academies), which remain the majority of schools in the system, have been excluded from voting for RSCs or HTB members. The obvious assumption is that in the DfE's eyes only academy heads are worth any respect.

6.   RSCs face a major and obvious conflict of interest. They are charged with increasing the number of academies but also hold schools to account for their performance, encouraging academy status when they wish.

7.   There is a confusing overlap between the respective roles and powers of LAs, RSCs and Ofsted. Ofsted and RSCs are likely to run into conflict with one another.

8.   Academies that fail or coast will, it seems, simply be transferred to a different sponsor. Not, sadly, as recently suggested by Stewart Lee, be taken over by FIFA. Figures obtained by Schools Week via a Freedom of Information request reveal that 26 individual academies changed sponsor last year, compared to just three in 2012. And in the first four months of this year, 21 schools transferred ownership, with 11 switching on April 1 - the last day possible before the general election.

9.   The rights of parents and local authorities to protest against academisation will be abolished by the Education and Adoption Bill, as will the rights of LAs to have a say in the membership of any IEB imposed on a school.

10.   Governors are likely to be steamrollered if they get in the way of any RSC in future. And there will be many more RSCs to come...

If you want to know more and keep an eye on this worrying development:

Warwick Mansell NAHT blog

Also read 'Barely_under_Control.pdf' added to the Big picture of education section on the downloads page.


Tuesday May 19, 2015 - Coasting towards the waterfall:-

Coasting towards the waterfall

Nice to see education policy coasting along in the same old way.

Nicky Morgan apparently intends to deal with "coasting schools" with the same old tired and unproven solution of academisation and intervention by superheads. Her untouched-by-reality thinking on the matter is entirely predictable and depressingly ill-informed, based as it is on lies and prejudice, with no thought to the longer term consequences. Other than that, she's on the money as always.

Her solution raises many more questions than it answers and confirms a continued ideological disregard of local authorities and non-academy schools.

What is a coasting school? There is no agreed definition. Schools requiring improvement are not necessarily coasting. Some schools graded outstanding could well be coasting, especially if they haven't been inspected for three or more years. Will a clear definition be agreed before the intervention is dumped on the school?

There is no evidence that academisation improves schools. I don't know how many reports have to be published before this is generally understood. Maybe that's not it - ideologues are not swayed by evidence that contradicts their prejudices.

Decisions will be made and acted on by Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and members of regional headteacher boards. Who are these people? They are all academy principals, of course. RSCs are appointed by the Secretary of State and accountable only to her. Headteacher boards are elected only by other academy heads. At a time when we have a government elected by just 24% of the population, should we be surprised by the supplanting of democratically accountable local authorities with these undemocratically selected superheads who by definition have rejected the local authority system? What gives them the right to recommend the removal of a headteacher of a maintained school?

The figure of 3000 schools being forced to become academies was included in the Tories' manifesto. Potentially, that could mean a loss of 3000 headteachers from the education system. To be replaced by...? Just how many schools can a superhead run? What kind of incentive does this give to any teacher thinking of becoming a head? Only megalomaniacs need apply.

What happens when academisation fails to turn a school around? Some academies have had two sponsors already. Does this become an endless merry-go-round until we all disappear up where the sun don't shine?

It is obvious that this is really nothing to do with schools and school improvement. It is the continuing process of the destruction of local authorities which started under Labour and has now been given a renewed momentum by a red-in-tooth-and-claw Tory government. It is partly to do with saving some of the £12 billion promised by Cameron and Osborne but mainly ideological. These people hate local democracy. No - democracy, actually, and real accountability.

What will the education world look like when all schools are academies? From Nicky Morgan's fantasy island perspective, it will be perfect. All academies are, by definition, excellent. There won't be anything left to do.

Well, maybe...maybe not. On a bad day, and I haven't had a good one since May 8th, I foresee this...

In terms of results, there will inevitably be the traditional bell curve of distribution. 50% of all schools will still be below average. This will continue to puzzle statistically ignorant Secretaries of State.

The cost of education will have increased massively because of diseconomies of scale. There will be no DfE. RSCs will be all-powerful, paid eye-watering bonuses for doing very little. The Education Secretary will hide behind them whenever a hard truth emerges.

Academy chains will be remote and unaccountable, their CEOs on massive and unjustified salaries taken from the public purse. Individual academies within a chain will have none of the autonomy they thought they were buying when they left the LA. They will be powerless puppets within a mini-tyranny.

There will be a few high profile scandals involving the misappropriation of public money by these oligarchies but it won't change anything. Schools will be traded as commodities by large education PLCs owned by the likes of Rupert Murdoch. In time most schools will be owned by countries other than England, in the same way that former public utilities now are.

And then some bright spark will come up with the idea of introducing more diversity into the system, suggesting that an educational monoculture stifles creativity and innovation. What we will need is a new kind of school...and perhaps some local accountability and management and leadership of all the schools in a locality...OK - over to you to finish this off.


Tuesday May 12, 2015 - Post-match analysis:-

Post-match analysis

Justice? What justice?

The American comedian and musician Tom Lehrer famously said that satire died the day Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.

It's not on the same scale but I felt the same when I read that Michael Gove is now in charge of justice. It seems only five minutes ago that he was removed as Education Secretary because he was seen as an electoral liability, having alienated virtually the whole of the world of education. However, I also heard Clive Anderson saying that if Gove thought that the Blob was resistant to change, wait till the judges start to flex their muscles. I haven't forgotten that early in his previous reign, Gove was swatted by an exasperated High Court judge: Mr Justice Holman said Gove's actions over the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future initiative in 2010 had been "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power". I'll be watching Govey's career trajectory with renewed interest.

What, though, for education?

Permanently surprised-looking Nicky Morgan remains Education Secretary, following an election result and confirmation in a role she can't have been expecting. Has she, like Gove before her, got a carefully planned White Paper ready to loose on the world, followed by a radical Education Bill? Something makes me doubt that and I think I might breathe a cautious sigh of relief, at least in the short term.

Education barely registered as an issue in the election for any party, though I feel cheated that I may not see the building of a grammar school in every town, as UKIP promised, which are then filled with the children of aspirational immigrants - nor the look on Paul Nuttall's face when it finally dawns on him what has happened.

So what did the Tories promise in their manifesto? (By the way I note that they have already broken one of their promises, within 3 days of the election result. According to the i newspaper (11.5.15), regarding the redrawing of electoral boundaries, Cameron has already scrapped plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.)

Let's remind ourselves of what they said they would do and think about the possible consequences:

Create 500 new free schools and force 3000 schools requiring improvement to become academies

There is no evidence that free schools or academies actually raise standards. It costs a small fortune to set up each free school and despite the rhetoric about groups of parents and teachers setting them up, many are now being set up by the large academy chains as part of their growing fiefdoms. The loss of each maintained school leads to another cut to local education authorities - the not-so-hidden agenda here, in the context of massive cuts to government departments, including the DfE. Gove was in favour of free schools being run for profit. There is now nothing to stop this development. We are looking at the long-term possibility of a wholly privatised education system funded from public money with schools run for profit by unaccountable academy CEOs, the voices of parents silenced forever.

No increase for inflation

This means, in effect, a cut of up to 12% for every school: in other words, redundancies, larger classes and deteriorating school buildings. How will Tory-voting parents feel about that in two years' time?

New baseline tests for four year olds and SATs resits in Year 7 for Year 6 pupils who fail the tests

Because we all know that the quickest way to fatten a pig is to weigh it. Our children are already the most frequently assessed school children in Europe. Clearly, it's not yet enough. The Tories have learned nothing from the last decade.

Of course, other manifesto promises in areas other than education will impact on schools, such as:

£12bn cuts to working age benefits

Child benefit is just one obvious target. Schools are already picking up the pieces of the devastation of the welfare state. Child poverty and a decrease in social mobility characterised the last 5 years. It is inconceivable that things will not get a whole lot worse now. What, especially, will happen to the Pupil Premium, one of the real achievements of the Lib Dems in a Tory-dominated coalition?

And then there are the education issues that didn't register in manifestos:

4 in 10 new teachers leave the profession before the end of their first year

How can this not be the single most important issue? How can a Tory government go on ignoring it? Everyone knows that the raising of standards, which is what the politicians always say they want most, is dependent on the quality of teaching. That depends on having teachers in the first place. Does even the most committed Tory believe that this is somehow all Labour's fault, like the global financial crash, the Great Fire of London and the extinction of the dinosaurs?

Ofsted discredited by the so-called Trojan Horse affair

How much longer has Wilshaw got? Gove and his mad buddy Cummings champed at the bit to remove the Chief Inspector but didn't manage it. Gove's think tank also lambasted Ofsted as an organisation and force for change. Ofsted takes everything in house from September (a tacit recognition of the failure of outsourcing school inspections) and in effect becomes the provisional wing of the DfE. Who's being lined up to be the puppet in charge? My guess is one of the Regional Schools Commissioners, who at least have some experience of education, or more likely, some Tory-donating hedge fund manager who knows nothing about education other than the private school he attended as a child.

Unaccountable Academy chains and multi-academy trusts

Despite an unusually united call for the inspection of academy chains, only Nicky Morgan resists. How much longer can this go on? It is farcical that Ofsted teams can only inspect Local Governing Bodies or Advisory Boards in MATs, which possess few or none of the real responsibilities of governance while the Trust Boards, who are the real governing bodies, escape any kind of meaningful external scrutiny. I suspect that many skeletons are waiting to spill out of a lot of academy and free school cupboards as Morgan tries to hold them closed and shouting "Over there!" to distract us.

The expansion of grammar schools

Morgan has to decide whether to allow a Kent grammar school to set up a satellite in another town. In itself, this may not seem like much but the newly empowered hard right in the Tory party will see it as their thin-end-of-the-wedge opportunity to go back to their childhood and, like the now dormant Farage, look for a grammar school in every town. They do tend to ignore the fact that this means three or more secondary moderns in every town, too, attended by the majority of the children in the area, including those who voted for the Cameronian dream.

The death of hope?

Can we expect the SNP contingent to work with the other opposition parties to soften the blows? Maybe, but the Scottish education system is unlike the English version, so how well will they understand or care about it?

The only hope for non-Tory disciples is that Cameron's skinflake majority gets blown away within months. If it doesn't, education is about to get hammered in a way we haven't seen for as long as most of us can recall.


Thursday April 23, 2015 - Shhhh...don't mention education:-

Shhhh...don't mention education

Tony Blair's mantra at the time of his first landslide election victory was famously "Education, education, education". It was shorthand for a recognition that the improvement of our society, its well-being and prosperity, depend on the quality and effectiveness of the education system in the UK - and that the sooner it starts, the more long-lasting the effects. Successive Labour governments invested heavily in education and brought about many changes, some good, some bad.

Whatever one's view of Blair and his governments, one cannot deny the high profile given to education.

To be fair to Cameron and Gove (and I don't find that it comes easily), they made clear their education agenda in the White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" (2010) and pretty much implemented it. Again, whatever one's view of the changes made, they did recognise that education matters and did get on with making the changes they saw to be necessary.

Where the hell is education in the current election build up?

I have read the various party manifestos, at least as far as education is concerned, and I'm left wondering why they have so little to say on the subject. It's mainly focused on funding, which matters, of course, though I feel that readers of those manifestos would be naïve to believe that there will not be significant cuts to the education budget in the next few years, whoever's in power. Even a protected standstill budget represents a significant cut.

There are references to tuition fees, childcare costs, more free schools....but no big idea, no vision. This at a time when there's an increasingly scary muddle in the oversight of schools, with the DfE, Regional Schools Commissioners, Academy Chains and LAs confused about their role and its boundaries - it cries out to be addressed in the interest of schools and their pupils. Ofsted is long overdue for a radical reappraisal, especially after the (non-existent) Trojan Horse panic. Even after a decade or more of academisation, there remains no firm evidence that academies make any difference to standards - so isn't it time to call a halt - at least temporarily - to the monomaniacal belief that the only solution to under-performing schools is to turn them into academies?

This follows the teaching union conferences at Easter which highlighted some dark developments, such as parental abuse of teachers via social media and most alarmingly, the rising drop-out rate of new recruits.

It seems to me that these issues should inform a radical agenda for change but the manifestos and politicians on the hustings have nothing to say about any of these pressing matters.

Maybe this means that post-election schools will be left alone to consolidate recent changes and get their breath back.

Sorry, don't know what I was thinking there.

Of course education won't be left alone. It never is. Every incoming Secretary of State feels he (or, rarely, she) has to make a distinctive mark in a few short years with some eye-catching but nearly always ill-informed "reform". As David Bell put it recently:

"I worry, as many others do, about education policy being constantly at the behest of five-year electoral cycles and ministerial whims. Because teaching practice, knowledge and skills evolve faster and more organically than Whitehall can possibly direct. That means we can end the ridiculous situation where some ministers feel compelled to sit in their offices drafting maths and science curricula. Particularly ridiculous if they have never taught a class of children or young people in their life."

This mild and valid criticism was, of course, met with crude abuse by the apparatchiks at the DfE.

Is it better that they don't tell us in advance what mad schemes they have up their sleeves, or should we be told? Would we believe a word they said if they did?

I look forward with trepidation to the next White Paper on education.


Tuesday March 24, 2015 - Greek and other myths:-

Greek and other myths

The story of the Trojan Horse can be found in Homer and Virgil, both of whom describe it in their fictional works, which I'm sure my dear readers know well. Historians doubt whether a real wooden horse bearing soldiers in its insides ever existed. It might have been a battering ram or a boat, apparently. So it's unlikely to be real and is described, let's not forget, in works of fiction.


Funny, that, how something that probably never happened is remembered as if it did, because of a snappy name.

Are there any modern parallels, I hear you ask?

It seems that there are - and rather too close for comfort for some of our inspiring leaders. Anyone with even a passing interest in education cannot have failed to be aware of the so-called Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last year. Inevitably it generated shock-horror headlines and much wild speculation. And, believe it or not, nine investigations.

Ofsted were immediately (well, it took three weeks, in fact) mobilised by an energetic Secretary of State, when he eventually woke up, along with his faithful hound Wilshaw, to go in and, sorry, investigate thoroughly and then downgrade four of five schools from outstanding to special measures, almost overnight.

Are we smelling any rats (or wooden horses) yet?

At the end of those nine investigations, what was the conclusion?

"No evidence of extremism or radicalisation, apart from a single isolated incident, was found by any of the inquiries and there was no evidence of a sustained plot nor of a similar situation pertaining elsewhere in the country."

Let's just pause there for a second or two. There was no Trojan Horse. There was no Trojan Horse.


No, I didn't, because they were never published. I'd really like to know why not.

The events in Birmingham are still being referred to as the Trojan Horse affair, even though it never happened. It was a myth and has entered into myth, named after a myth.

The report of the House of Commons Education Committee "Extremism in schools: the Trojan Horse affair" (see what I mean?) was published a few days ago. It makes for depressing reading, following hard on the heels of the same committee's report on academies and free schools.

No authority comes out of the report with anything other than, I sincerely hope, very red faces, shame and a desire not to screw things up so badly ever again. Pity the poor kids attending those schools. They barely get a mention, of course.

Here a few choice cuts from the report - and I just can't stop myself from commenting on some of them:

The number of overlapping inquiries contributed to the sense of crisis and confusion, and the number of reports, coming out at different times and often leaked in advance, was far from helpful.

Michael Gove was in the best position to make sure this didn't happen. Epic fail, Govey, as those pesky youngsters like to put it these days, (unless that is like, SOOOOO last year).

Ofsted's inability to identify problems at some Birmingham schools on first inspection when they were found shortly afterwards to be failing raises questions about the appropriateness of the framework and the reliability and robustness of Ofsted's judgements and how they are reached. Either Ofsted relied too heavily on raw data and did not dig deep enough on previous occasions or alternatively the schools deteriorated so quickly that Ofsted reports were rapidly out of date, or it could be that inspectors lost objectivity and came to some overly negative conclusions because of the surrounding political and media storm. Whichever of these options is closest to the truth, confidence in Ofsted has been undermined and efforts should be made by the inspectorate to restore it in Birmingham and beyond.

Seriously, does Ofsted have ANY credibility after this? Why hasn't Wilshaw resigned yet?

Sir Michael Wilshaw visited Park View (one of the schools downgraded) himself in 2012 when it became the first school to be awarded an outstanding rating under the new tougher Ofsted framework. He declared "All schools should be like this and there's no reason why they shouldn't be".

See what I mean?

The greater autonomy of academies makes it easier for a group of similar-minded people to control a school.

And to whose igloo do the footprints in the snow lead? You know. I'm not going to make it that easy for you.

The Trojan Horse Review Group asserted in their report that "the central challenge emerging from [Kershaw's] investigation and related matters is the credibility and transparency of the framework within which school governors operate." Both Kershaw and Clarke found the behaviour of governors to be at the heart of what had occurred, leading to a series of recommendations on improving governance in schools. Ofsted came to similar conclusions and advised the Secretary of State on action to be taken to address common issues with regard to governance, including mandatory training, the introduction of professional governors and the publication of Registers of Interest.

So, it's governance that's the problem. There have been calls for mandatory training for the last two decades, always ignored by the DfE. During that period successive governments have been determined to get rid of the red tape (or necessary safeguards as some of us might prefer to call them) surrounding governance. The Guide to the Law for School Governors was chucked out by Gove and replaced by the much looser Governors Handbook. Part of the problem here is that ideology has replaced common sense. Governors have huge responsibilities and their accountability has been weakened progressively, recently and especially in the academies and free schools set up since 2010. We are reaping the Coalition's whirlwind. Where were those footprints leading, again?

The DfE has responded to the recommendations by revising the Governor's Handbook to ensure that governors are aware of their responsibilities and the skills required and to address issues of whether governors have the capacity to serve in more than one school. The handbook now also advises all schools to publish information on their governing bodies on their websites.

That ought to do it. Not.

The DfE must be joking, surely?

Have they any idea just how many governors don't read the Handbook and how many more don't even know it exists? And how many ignore it even if they do know it exists? And that merely reading it doesn't necessarily ensure good behaviour? And that academy governors have to pay much more attention to their Articles of Association than the Handbook? I could go on, but let's move on...

Nicky Morgan has stressed that "At the end of the day, this is all about making sure that the young people at the heart of these schools get the best possible education to fulfil their potential". There is some way still to go to make this a reality. Prior to the Trojan Horse investigations, the Park View Educational Trust appeared to be providing a high level of education for students at its academies. Both Oldknow and Park View itself were judged to be outstanding and results at both schools were above the national average. Following the upheavals of last spring, GCSE results at Park View dropped significantly in 2014 from 75% A* to C in 2013 to just 58% in 2014. Councillor Jones told us that "a lot of the children in the schools affected have had a very difficult time [...] There has been relentless negative media coverage of them, their communities, their religion, their schools, in the press, day in and day out".

So, let's just remind ourselves: there was NO TROJAN HORSE. These kids have paid the price of the stupid mistakes of a massively over-reacting and incompetent Secretary of State and HMCI. Why is Wilshaw still in his job? Why hasn't Gove hidden himself away from public view? Oh, hang on....isn't that his fat arse sticking out of the entrance of an igloo over there?

The Trojan Horse affair epitomises many of the questions and concerns expressed elsewhere about the changing school landscape and the overlapping roles of the organisations responsible for oversight of schools. In this light, it is less about extremism than about governance and the ability of local and central agencies to respond to whistleblowers and challenges posed by individual schools. We note once again that no evidence of extremism or radicalisation, apart from a single isolated incident, was found and that there is no evidence of a sustained plot nor of a similar situation pertaining elsewhere in the country.

That last bit cannot be repeated too often. There wasn't a crisis in Birmingham schools. But there clearly is in the DfE and Ofsted.

You can see the House of Commons Education Committee 'Trojan Horse Report' in the Big picture of education section on the downloads page.



Older news stories pre March 2015 can be found on this old archived page.


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