Unqualified headteachers? Welcome to Michael Gove’s educational dystopia . .

Pimlico Primary, a new free school in London, made the news this week for hiring a  27 year old as the head teacher ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-22016045 ).  27 does seem a rather young age to take responsibility for a school, although an outstanding candidate with 5 years of experience in the classroom and as a deputy head could take the role and make a success of it.  Except this appointee has none of those things. Anneliese Briggs does not have a teaching qualification. Yes, that’s right, a school is hiring a headteacher who is not really  a teacher.

How in the name of feck did we get to this sorry state of affairs? I have nothing against Ms Briggs personally, and I think she is probably a victim in all of this caught up as she is in the ideological blitzkreig which Michael Gove is waging against state education.

Apparently what makes Ms Briggs suitable to be the leader of a state funded school (so we pay her salary), is her experience with the ‘cultural literacy curriculum’ of E. D.  Hirsch. Hirsch’s emphasis on the systematic teaching of facts and his creation of a curriculum which appears to follow a logical order has been the doyen of Gove’s eye for many years now, offering as it does a veneer of theoretical credibility to his curriculum reforms which are leading to a bloated and fact-heavy curriculum.  I too have experience of the concept of cultural literacy as a curriculum, and cutting the chase I can let you have my expertise for free right now, the cultural literacy curriculum is a load of old tripe.

Briggs was no doubt involved in Civitas’s ‘anglicisation of E. D. Hirsch’s curriculum ( http://www.coreknowledge.org.uk/coreknowledge.php ).  Maybe she even helped draw the wonderful diagram below, with its *amazing* insights into how a school curriculum is not just about core knowledge, but also about the school’s ethos and values.  Not that the diagram is wrong or anything, it’s just that it’s so glib and patronising.  The whole thing reeks of posh kids holed up in a London office thinking they have all the answers to education because they can draw a pretty diagram using PowerPoint.

It’s hard to know where to start with the debunking of the snake oil drenched chicanery of ‘core knowledge’, there’s just so much to go at.  But how about you just pause reading and quickly outline the story of Gawain and the Green Knight (from the top of your head, no Googling it). I don’t want you to quote from the original, just tell what the story is, and what it’s meaning is within Christian thought.

No doubt you rattled that off easily, but if you had trouble, then bear in mind that Civitas recommends that Year 5 children are familiar with the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight.  And if you teach in a school using the core knowledge sequence then you can’t miss this out, as the theoretical foundation of cultural literacy is that it is impossible to acquire later knowledge unless each interim step has been achieved. So miss out Gawain and his jolly green mate, and you’re stuffed when it comes to year 6 and you have to learn about ‘The legend of Culhywch and Owen’.. it will make absolutely no sense whatever to you. *

Gove, and his previous school minister Nick  Gibb have been obsessed with curriculum reform, because the curriculum seems, to the education outsider, the one thing you can grab hold of in education and change to impose your will on schools and bring the unruly teaching profession to heel.  But if  you’ve worked in education for even a short time (ie longer than Ms Briggs), you will soon learn that the curriculum is only part of the complex picture of education. Driving up standards and the quality of learning is not all about changing the curriculum, especially if your conception of the curriculum is a list of stuff to be taught and learned, rather than a more progressive view of the curriculum which is rooted in what we know about learning and child development.  Andrew Pollard writing of the pernicious influence of Hirsch’s ideas on the new national curriculum pointed out that  the new curriculum ‘neglects the way children learn’ ( http://www.ioe.ac.uk/64559.html ), but his views were ignored by Gove. Pollard has decades of experience in education and published his first book on primary schooling in 1985. If he was 27, had spent a few years knocking around in a think tank and spent a few hours once in a school, maybe he would have been listened to.

This whole story summarises what Gove is doing to UK state education.  He is using his pet free school project to create chaos and uncertainty, and undermine the professionalism of teachers in the most cynical of ways.  No doubt, Pimlico Primary will have lots of help from the DfE once opened (although we probably will never know how much as previous FOIs to determine levels of spending on free schools have been ignored or bypassed), so it will be a success and Gove can confidently declare that not only teachers not need to be qualified, but head teachers don’t need to be either.  And so the assault on state schools will continue as more are driven into the academy chains of the Tory backers and primed for profit making.

Welcome to the topsy turvy world of Michael Gove’s education dystopia, a nightmare from which we may never awaken.

* Just for the record I had to study Gawain and the Green Knight at university, but I never really got on with it, so I missed the lectures and tutorials and in the exam answered on Chaucer instead. I still have no idea what Gawain and the Green Knight is about, I know a Knight is involved and he is green, but my ‘core knowledge’ fizzes to a halt then. Thank god cultural literacy was not invented when I was a student or would have been stuffed for any literature written after 1370 which would have had serious ramifications for my degree .

It wasn’t so I graduated with a 1st.

Profit-Making State Schools: Why this is a terrible idea. (Part 1)

Gove’s education reforms, in particular his expansion of the academies programme and the launch of free schools, are moving inexorably to the moment where companies will be encouraged to run schools for profit. Gove let slip at the Leveson enquiry that he would be happy to see Free Schools make a profit in the second term of a Conservative administration and Think Tanks such as Policy Exchange have been agitating for quite a while to let providers make a profit from state education. A recent posting on this site  (http://bit.ly/11EYNRc) called for the ‘profit motive’ to be allowed into education so that the ‘disgraceful situation’ of only 7% of state educated people getting top jobs could be remedied.

Education is now being ‘worked-over’ in a classic neo-liberal pincer movement with the end game being the state allowing companies to take tax-payer money for providing a service, and extract a profit from this.  The first part of the pincer movement is to comprehensively rubbish the existing state run system. Gove has been working hard at this from his time as shadow education secretary to the present day. He frequently cites the International PISA studies and England’s position in them. He relishes statistic showing Britain has plummeted down the league tables for Maths, Science and Literacy like a football pundit commentating on a team’s slide from Premiership dominance to 2nd division obscurity.  The media have followed Gove’s lead and the general perception is created that schools are failing, that students leave with limited literacy, no understanding of science and mathematical skills equal to the average South Korean child at the age of just 6.

How uncomfortable it is, then, when the very same international comparative measures show a different story.  The company Pearson conducted a meta-analysis of the international comparative measures (such as PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS) and found that the UK came 6th in the league table of education systems in the developed world (http://bit.ly/VbKhL8). The combined school systems of England, Wales and Scotland beat the Netherlands (7), and beat Germany (15), and Sweden, the model for Gove’s free schools did not even figure in the top 20. Finland was the only European country to beat the UK, the other 4 countries were those Asian countries which always do well (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea) largely as a result of the extremely high intrinsic value placed upon education culturally.  This composite did merge the English, Scottish, and Welsh systems into one but English schools are the largest proportion, and the Scottish and Welsh performance is very close to the English number.

The conclusion is quite clear, the crisis in education we are constantly being told about is a construct, a convenient fiction, or a downright lie (take your pick). If the advocates of profit-making schools confronted reality, then they would have to admit that, whilst not quite world-beating, the schools in the UK are well above average and better than countries such as Germany so often held up as shining examples of economic prosperity and productivity.  Of course the doom-sayers can always come back and say the measures used in this analysis are not the right ones and they paint a far rosier picture than is really the case, but Gove can’t have his cake here and eat it.  He constantly used PISA scores to denigrate the system and convince people of the need for reform, so he’ll have to swallow it when the same measures show that things are not as bleak as he paints. This is clearly a case of PIRLS before swine.

The second part of the neo-liberal pincer movement is to stress how much more efficient private enterprise would be running state schools. The argument here is that the state is a bloated, slow-moving dinosaur, unable to innovate or act quickly, whereas companies bring new thinking, new methods and can implement these rapidly and effectively. The motivation of a profit to be had at the end of the quarter focuses the company ruthlessly on results and outcomes, and the juicy lure of the bonus gives the organisation a hunger and desire which the dead-hand of the state could never have.

Well if this is the case, and if it is going to apply to schools, then the neo-liberals have some more explaining to do, concerning the liberalisation of the rail network in the UK and the privatisation of energy supply. The bracing winds of the liberalised market were allowed to blow through energy and rail during the 1980s and 1990s, so these are hardly new reforms and have had a lot of time to bed in.  By now, if the logic of the neo-liberals held true, then competition in the energy market should have delivered world-beating service and low prices to UK consumers for electricity and gas and a constant stream of new innovations.  And likewise the rail network in the UK should be one of the most efficient in the developed world delivering great value for the traveller and clean uncrowded trains running exactly to time. The reality is once again very different. The UK energy market is confusing for the domestic consumer with an abundance of tariffs making best value very difficult to assess. In fact the failure of the market to deliver value for the customer has been a source of embarrassment for politicians, most notably David Cameron who promised legislation to force companies to put home-owners on the best possible tariff, but then had to backtrack on this when it turned out to be unworkable (http://bit.ly/VbLC4x) .  On top of this, the big 6 energy companies are currently being investigated for what looks like a massive and cynical (even criminal), market rigging exercise (http://bit.ly/11EYNRc). The consumer was promised a competitive market; but neo-liberalism has delivered a cartel.

Rail it seems has done no better from the neo-liberal experiment, UK fares are among the most expensive in Europe (popular commuter routes are sometimes 3x more expensive than comparative German or French routes), trains are crowded and dirty and the tax-payer subsidy for the network is much larger than countries which have retained public ownership of rail. On top of this the bidding process for the renewal of the West Coast Franchise went spectacularly wrong when it was revealed the winning bid had used profit projections for the final years of the franchise which were so exaggerated as to be either the result of gross incompetence or downright lying on the part of the bidders.  Scrapping the bid alone has cost the tax payer over £40M.  All of this profit making seems to come at a cost, a cost largely borne by the tax payer and the customer.

So a simple question should be posed to the profit making school hawks:

What will be different about the contracts and execution of the deals which let private companies run state education to those which have gone so badly wrong in energy and rail? 

And if you have the answer to this question, can you please let the Energy and Climate Change Secretary  and the Transport Secretary know as soon as possible, so they can correct the gross distortion and terrible value for the tax-payer operating in their respective areas.

This blog post originally appeared on the Back Bencher Site http://thebackbencher.co.uk .

Anthony Seldon and his lavish praise for Michael Gove

Wellington College
An average comprehensive school

Anthony Seldon the Master of Wellington College has written a piece for The Daily Telegraph titled “The Grades are down, well done to you all“. In this piece he celebrates the reduction in the pass rate for GCSEs and hails this as a victory for Michael Gove and Nick Gibb (the schools minister) and their determination to halt the grade inflation which he argues has robbed the GCSE of its validity.

The level of patronisation in the early part of the piece is extreme.  Seldon scripts it as if he were giving the send off at a speech day where the glittering riches of the Wellington clientele gather on the immaculate lawn to celebrate all that is great and good about themselves. But for the thousands of ordinary, working class kids who failed to get a C at GCSE because the exam boards changed the grade boundaries in the middle (yes the middle) of the assessment period, this tone of paternalistic self-congratulation and barely concealed gloating at the fall in pass rates is likely to ring hollow.

Seldon’s cheerleading for the Gove regime at the DfE is a real toe curler too. Especially as he parts company so early with any of the actual facts about what Gove is doing to state education.  He soon settles down into parroting the frequently held opinion that academies and free schools are: ‘given freedoms enjoyed by their independent-sector colleagues.’  Seldon is reproducing exactly the Gove mantra here that bog standard schools are in the thrall of the Local Authority and are unable to innovate or even change as they are held down by the dead-hand of local bureaucracy.  I simply do not believe this to be the case, and I don’t think heads (from either LA schools or academies) believe so either. If heads at community schools felt stifled in their attempts to innovate I rather think that a few of them would have popped up by now to tell their story. Conversely most schools which have converted to academies have done little radical in the way of innovation. Changing the uniform and logo don’t count here, I mean innovation which actually uses these much vaunted freedoms in creative and genuinely new ways. Some academies of course have innovated, but many of the ‘dash for cash quick convertor academies’ have simply undergone a change of name and legal status and business has remained much the same.

By linking Academies with the independent-sector, Seldon faithfully and masterfully reproduces another central plank of the Gove master narrative on schools, namely that the social class of the students is irrelevant when it comes to results.  Gove is impatient of arguments which cite poor social backgrounds as an excuse for educational underachievement (and nearly all educators would join him broadly in this assertion), but in seeking to remove social class so completely from the picture the argument becomes futile.  Some schools in poor areas have students who come to school hungry; the growing evidence of school age children who rely on food banks (http://bit.ly/RKuSDs).  Students may also come from chaotic home backgrounds, have to cope with domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction from parents and carers and many of them will be carers for members of their family. Many will not have a space in the home where they can study or store their books, and access to a computer and an internet connection, something which the middle class now see as vital as having an inside toilet, may also be lacking.  Middle  England is hurting too as the recession deepens like a coastal shelf and job losses, house repossessions and a general lack of security amongst white-collar families is something that state schools are dealing with on a regular basis.

Fees at Wellington begin at £27,000 per year.

Seldon and Gove’s arguments, which eradicate social realities from schooling, are a subtle yet vicious form of class warfare. By eradicating social class from the education picture, despite overwhelming research evidence that it has a massive impact on achievement, Gove and Seldon can settle back with their glass of Pimms and look smugly at other schools and ask ‘why are they not achieving what we are?’.  The truth is that the social class of students and their socio-economic status is not an excuse for poor performance, it is a sodding REASON for poor performance and many schools in the state sector manage to take students from poor backgrounds and raise their attainment way beyond what it should be by dint of creative teaching, pastoral interventions and hard work. And this has little to do with whether they are academies or LA schools.  Wellington has almost unlimited resources to throw at any educational challenges which may come its way, one-to-one tuition to bring stragglers back up to par, extra lessons and so on will all be a natural part of the regime. Luxuries which state education cannot afford.

Towards the end of the piece Seldon reveals  a little more as to why his joy at the lowering of success rates for GCSE is so unalloyed. It turns out that students at Wellington don’t actually bloody do GCSEs anymore. Instead they follow the middle years International Baccalaureate where teachers ‘set their own tests under a framework overseen by the IB’.  No wonder Seldon can be so upbeat about the whole GCSE debacle, his merry band of 1%ers have totally escaped the shit-storm created when Gove pressured the exam boards to rejig the grade boundaries and they are progressing into the sixth form before you can so much as say ‘ya, ya ya’, and ‘here’s another cheque for 30 grand bursar’. Seldon urges other schools to follow this IB programme in the same way as a posh uncle would urge you to take up lacrosse.  So far out of touch with Gove’s real agenda of centralised control  is he, that he honestly believes that state-funded schools could get away with switching to an exam regime where the TEACHERS write the exams for the kids. Now I am not a betting man, but if I was I would stake my house on the fact that Gove would never allow teachers at state schools to set their own exams for students at age 16 and have these results as the basis for league table positions.

As Jane Austen may well have written: “Seldon, very Seldon, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; Seldon can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”

Forever Young . .

Today Toby Young published a piece in The Spectator. The majority of it lives behind a paywall, but the first two paragraphs caused a bit of a stir amongst the good folk of twitter as the founder of the West London Free School eased into his usual combative style to defend Michael Gove’s championing of a two tier exam system at age 16.

The concept of inclusion seems to have particularly got Toby Young’s dander up as he rails against this ‘ghastly, politically correct’ word.  According to Young, inclusion has created conditions of quite unbearable egregiousness in the British education system, through, for instance, its insistence that wheelchair ramps are installed for disabled students.

I’ll wait for a few moments whilst you go back and read the end of that last paragraph again.    You back?   Good, now you have seen (and probably clicked the link to the Spectator original to check I was telling the truth) that indeed Toby Young is intensely annoyed that schools have to install wheelchair ramps so children using wheelchairs can get into the school. And his ire does not die away quickly, he soon turns to a berate a mythical ‘special needs department’ where students with dyslexia and mentally ill parents are pandered to.  For his encore, and definitely warming to his theme of how dysfunctional humanity and the halt, the lame and the blind will be the downfall of any right thinking society, he opines that laws on equality will prevent any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six”.

No doubt Young sees these evils as an inevitable consequence of the unnacceptable meddling in education of the state and big government.  This is after all the man who celebrated the sentiments of Grover Norquist who wanted to shrink the government, drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the battub (http://bit.ly/Mjz7CI)

This is fine Tory fare; grandstanding to a stale smelling legion of Bufton-Tuftons sat swilling gin in country clubs and wanting a return to a 1950s pedagogy pickled in aspic and the certainties of a class system  where children were sorted into sheep and goats at age 11 and nothing challenged this status quo for the rest of their lives.

But certain uneasy questions remain. The first is why, if Young is so anti-state and anti-government, that he chose to found his free school with tax payer money. The last time I checked DfE funding is raised by general taxation, and the setting up of the West London Free School was therefore paid by the very same state which Toby Young would like to murder, leaving only a neo-liberal paradise of private provision in its wake.  The true costs of the WLFS are not yet known, as Gove’s department has been less than transparent with figures, but if Toby Young went beyond the facile flashiness of his puerile political beliefs he would have to confront the gaping paradox of why he didn’t found the West London Free School using private capital and make it fee-paying. Or will it be the case that he’ll not drown government in the bath-tub, just subject it to a protracted period of water-boarding.

The second question to remain is Young’s simultaneous commitment to a genuinely comprehensive system  (no selection) and the offensive and divisive comments we read in The Spectator piece.  Put simply Young cannot have his cake and eat it.  He has a perfect right to argue that some children are illiterate savages with no hope of redemption, or they come saddled with physical or mental disabilities which will drag education down to a hopeless pool of mediocrity.  But arguing that his school can be genuinely comprehensive and non-selective whilst holding these opinions is simply not tenable.

Which is why, when I asked him on twitter, what the West London Free School would do when troglodytes, dyslexics and wheelchair users applied to the West London Free School, he blocked me rather than supply a credible answer to a reasonable question.


Update: the full text of the Spectator article is now on Toby Young’s Blog (http://bit.ly/Mn2Pa2).  The remainder of his argument is that a two tier exam system will not ruin the life chances of those not selected for the upper tier (O level) exams and that 14 year olds are robust enough to cope with this.  As evidence for this argument he cites a case study, namely himself who was initially in a mixture of O level and CSE classes but then returned to study to gain A levels and a place at Oxford.  If only Young could find one other person who struggled with CSEs and then became a success he’d have TWO case studies, and of course as the plural of anecdote is data, he’d have a rock solid research-based educational argument.

There is also an addendum where Young explains his comments about the troglodyte and takes special care to show he is talking about a ‘dumbed down curriculum’ rather than children with SEN.  So it turns out that a ‘troglodyte’ in Young’s bestiary is not a child with SEN, merely a child of very low intelligence, and by the same logic a wheelchair ramp in a school is not part of the school’s commitment to inclusion, it is merely a symptom of the dumbing down of the curriculum.  And if you find this logic hard to follow, and his explanation for his comments convoluted, then feel free to join me in the CSE group at the back of the class.

Steiner Free Schools – Free from everything?

The latest batch of ‘Free’ Schools have been announced (http://on.ft.com/qc6qMQ) and amongst them is a Steiner school planned for Frome in the West Country. The first state funded Steiner School opened in 2008 in Hereford when its existing fee paying structure was substituted for state funding (http://bit.ly/rsbtax). The website of the Frome Steiner Academy (http://fromesteineracademy.co.uk/) indicates the school has been approved and will be state funded from 2012.

Finding out more about Steiner Schools requires some patience and you have to get to grips with the man who inspired this model of education. Rudolf Steiner was a rather intense and complicated individual who seemed to have read widely and had a particular talent for synthesising disparate intellectual material into grand structures of belief.  Being positive about him would require us to note his amazing appetite for knowledge and ability to formulate opinions on just about everything. But we could also see Steiner in a different light, as an eccentric and even deluded individual, who dabbled dangerously in many fields and ultimately descended into a twilight world of childish fantasy and pseudo-scientific nonsense.  If you think this is harsh, then remember that he believed the Atlanteans had a way of turning the life force of a seed into a usable form of energy. They used this energy to power planes which floated above the surface and they could steer these vehicles over the mountains if they needed to. These are the Atlanteans who lived on the mythical island of Atlantis. The island which even modern Archaeology has failed to find any evidence for whatsoever.  But back to the magic planes; unfortunately for those of us stuck with a Ford Mondeo on the drive and seeking a plane we can fuel with a few wafers of shredded wheat, these revolutionary vehicles – according to Steiner – would not work today as the air in the time of Atlanteans was much much denser than today (http://bit.ly/peyE6w). Don’t you hate it when the air gets much thinner and renders a revolutionary form of transport redundant? Although back in the field of education and child development Steiner did have an excellent diagnosis for why some children are ‘weak-minded’. It appears they have ‘worms’, but a good dose of carrots can cure this unfortunate affliction.  Apparently carrots have the ‘forces of the earth’ in them and can work their way up through the blood to the head (http://bit.ly/oyKZxI).  All sound and sensible stuff I am sure you would agree, definitely the basis on which to build a philosophy of education.

Steiner education (also known as Waldorf education) is a humanistic pedagogical system, according to the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship:

This philosopher and scientist’s insights inspired what has become a worldwide movement of schools that espouse and promote universal human values, educational pluralism and meaningful teaching and learning opportunities.” (http://bit.ly/nmB5i5).

So far so good, but this is a little vague I feel and I struggle to take from it any real sense of how a Steiner/Waldorf education is different. After all, what schools would seek to promote ‘meaningless teaching and learning opportunities’? The website of the Frome Steiner Academy uses much the same kind of language, opining that ‘successful education is education which is in tune with the child’s developmental needs’. This is hard to argue with on educational terms, but you could visit 100 state funded primary schools in England and find exactly these same values being stated and put into practice in the classroom.

Other research into the Steiner/Waldorf model of education reveals that it is Piagetian in its structure, with a clear sense of child developmental stages. In the early years children are encouraged to learn through play and the teacher encourages a multi-sensory approach to exploring the world with frequent trips to explore the world outside the classroom.

the teacher presents a curriculum that has structure and sequence but that relies on lessons unaccompanied by textbooks.  This approach fosters an integrated multi sensorial approach to learning and expression, with more emphasis on oral listening and memory than is found in other childhood models for the primary years (http://bit.ly/olRkmd)

What is interesting about this is how far it is from the official line on early years being touted by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb. They are concerned with the lack of reading skills in young children and have taken every possible opportunity to promote the use of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ as the best way to teach reading (http://bit.ly/pF5xjX).  So the simple question here is whether the state funded Steiner Free School will be using synthetic phonics or not.  To do so would seem to compromise its espoused educational values (this approach is heavily predicated on text rather than oracy), but not to do so would put the school in direct conflict with the pedagogical approach being heavily promoted by the Secretary of State and the Schools Minister.

Other aspects of Steiner pedagogy also appear to be heavily in conflict with the paymasters back in Whitehall. Nick Gibb has frequently spoken of how schools should get back to teaching facts, giving students the building blocks of knowledge and not falling prey to foolish modern fads in learning. Gibb has stated:  “What is to be criticised is an education system that has relegated the importance of knowledge in favour of ill-defined learning skills,”(http://bit.ly/qFJnMv). You know where you are with Nick Gibb, he likes knowledge and facts and he dislikes trendy approaches to learning. He’s a no nonsense kind of a bloke, old school.  He’d probably cane you if he could get away with it.  So will he be making a visit to the state funded Steiner school to see the students interpret the spirit of Great Expectations using ‘eurythmy’, an expressive form of performance art? And would he be happy to talk of this experience in one of his speeches extolling the virtues of the Free Schools approach? After all, the students need to know who ‘Miss Havisham’ is, of that we are certain; but presumably how they express this knowledge is largely irrelevant and surely a funky dance in a floaty dress is as good as an essay?

This was not an attack on Steiner education per se, a quick search on the internet will reveal many sites which are critical of the approach.  This post is rather a call for coherence and honesty in policy making, a coherence and honesty which is sadly lacking when the Secretary of State can approve a Free School in the Steiner/Waldorf model and commit tax payers money to this project.

So ‘free’ schools are definitely NOT free in the sense of cost to the tax-payer (of course). Schools which were previously privately funded are now being state funded at a time when public expenditure is under an unprecedented contraction. This appears to be a lavish misuse of public money to prove a narrow ideological point.  Where areas need more school places, use the existing schools to provide these, a process which would be far more cost efficient than creating bizarre boutique schools dotted randomly around the country. Free Schools are of course free of local authority control and they are free to apply their own curriculum and employ staff on local contracts and conditions.  Paradoxically they are also FREE of the self same strictures which the government is placing on state schools in terms of what they teach and how they teach it.  The rush to create new free schools appears to have created a situation where even schools which are directly contradictory to official policy are given state funding whilst existing schools are forced to bear the brunt of ministerial meddling.

And if the thrust of Free School funding is to raise standards and achievement as we are told so often, then visit this link (http://bit.ly/pVthwG) which compares the Steiner Academy in Hereford’s results with its nearest school. With no figures entered for any of the tests (most parents withdrew their children), this school is the lowest performing primary school in the entire country.  What might the tax payer make of that?

Birbalsingh and competition within the classroom

Is letting students know their grades and their position in relation to peers a good idea?

This week Katharine Birbalsingh gave the 5th Sir John Cass Foundation Lecture. The lecture was titled ‘Is the English Education System Broken?’ and she returned to common themes she has developed in her blog for the Daily Telegraph.  The Guardian printed an edited extract of the lecture http://bit.ly/oYQN6y and this piece is based solely on that text (I was not present at the lecture).

Central to Birbalsingh’s argument is the concept of competition between pupils.  She would like students to be competing to score the highest grades and also for them to know at just about every point, where they stand in relation to their peers. Here are two paragraphs to illustrate that point

The tradition of competition which we celebrate in sport has become unfashionable in the classroom. Now innovation requires that children never be given grades, and never be allowed to know where they stand in comparison to their peers.

The truth is that allowing children to win and lose naturally stimulates their desire to succeed and motivates them to try harder. Killing motivation and aspiration encourages bad behaviour in children, and this is why we have constant chaos in some of our classrooms.

The mention of constant chaos is slipped in here adroitly, despite the fact that Birbalsingh has now been out of the classroom for some time. She *could* be right about the chaos, but surely some kind of evidence would be useful to back up her case?  Birbalsingh is keen to paint a picture of classrooms in chaos, or rather classrooms in state schools in chaos, so she can offer up the antidote in the form of free schools with perfect discipline and a clear focus on standards. Just as worrying are the words she uses to introduce these ideas ‘The truth is that…’.  These are confident words for a policy as bold as letting some students know they are top of the class, and by the same logic letting others know they are bottom. And anyone who has had any involvement with education will know that pedagogy is a complex business, and words like truth, although aspirational, are best used with caution. Teaching and learning is a messy business, it’s not like solving quadratic equations or naming the capital of France.

Again we should ask whether there is any evidence that the situation in classrooms where students never know their grades is as black and white as Birbalsingh argues.  I would wager that some teachers do let students know how they are doing and students are very good at picking up on extra cues and working out where in the academic pecking order they are. Indeed there is evidence that this kind of tacit competition is common in classrooms. The idea that classrooms are in uproar because students never know what progress they are making is a crude generalisation, the first of a whole army of straw-men dancing in the stiff breeze of Birbalsingh’s ungrounded prose.  But those objections aside, the strategy is clear enough here; teachers should post frequent scores within a class letting every student know what their score is, make these available to the whole class and rank them in order from top to bottom. Some will come top, some will come in the middle and some will come at the bottom.

This set me to thinking. If this was such a sure-fire policy to not only raise standards, but also calm the chaos in the classroom, surely there would be some research evidence to support this. It is surely unthinkable that such an effective strategy has not been researched and its merits reported in a series of peer reviewed articles.  So off I went to the library (well the online e-journal repositories).  I was not overwhelmed with articles on competition within the classroom, as most articles were about competition between schools, but I did find 3 which are of interest. I spent about 30 minutes searching and reviewing the articles, which is not a long time to research something this complex, but it is 30 minutes longer than Birbalsingh spent evaluating the evidence before writing her lecture. Unfortunately the articles are behind paywalls but I have done by best to review them objectively.

The first article was American, based on an interview with 47 black high school students (Bergin and Crooks). They were interviewed about how they competed in class to raise their grades (the GPA). This article was initially very favourable to Birbalsingh. The students did compete with each other, often selecting peers who were around their ability and trying to beat them. They spoke of the motivation of competing in this way which suggests that competition may well be the magic bullet to ‘fix our broken classrooms’.  But read on and the picture gets less rosy, the study also mentioned students whose scores were poor and had decided to stop trying. And the authors themselves noted in the discussion that the interviews showed the students (even those at the top) were focused on the grades rather than the learning.  The raw score was everything, getting that up and keeping it up was the whole game of schooling, the GPA tail was wagging the learning dog. There appeared to be little passion for learning for its own sake or enjoyment in these students.

The second article was more recent and Swedish (Williams and Sheridan 2010). It explored a pedagogic strategy of grouping students and having them collaborate on tasks and then compete as groups. As such it does not fit the Birbalsingh model of fierce competition between individuals, but it was a useful read as it cited a great deal of education research which noted how individual competition in schools can be destructive, especially for those left at the bottom of the class who become extremely demotivated.  The rest of the article (which was an excellent one), explored how to create the conditions for collaborative competition amongst students. It found that competition could be useful, but it needs to be part of an overall strategy and teachers need to plan effectively to avoid the kind of crude comparison of grades and scores where students ask ‘what did you get’ and do not further reflect on what this means. This article reviewed many other sources on competition between students and there were few citations of positive results without any caveats needing to be applied.

The third paper was from a journal called Education Economics and used ‘economic behaviour analysis’ to explore the effects of competition between students (Wang and Wang 2003).  This paper used some industrial grade equations to explore how students motivate themselves when competing. I have to admit to not understanding all of the equations, although the thrust of the meaning was clear enough.  The authors point out a theory from economics called ‘loss aversion’.  Put simply this is the fact that people hate to lose things. We have more pain from losing £200 than joy from earning £200.  This aversion to loss seems to spur those students who become sure they will not win to lower their effort as if they did put in maximum effort and still not win, then this would be a bigger loss: ‘If students are concerned about their perceived ability, they may be motivated to lower effort – a strategy to win by not losing.’

This quick review of three papers goes to show that Birbalsingh’s idea that competition is a great way to increase learning maybe flawed. Firstly there is the difficulty that students may focus solely on grades and lose sight of learning. This may lead to brittle learners, unable to tackle new challenges where success is not guaranteed and who find it hard to engage with a learning task for its own sake. Are these the students who will be equipped to succeed in the workplace and study at University?  Secondly there is small matter of how this competition is handled within the existing pedagogy of the classroom and the school.  Just posting lists up seems a rather crude way of letting students know how they are doing, but Birbalsingh does not appear to outline a more elaborate or thought out strategy for this. And finally there is always the issue of what happens to the lower ranks of the group.  In her simplistic model those dunces at the bottom will be so desperate to rise up the list that they will double and redouble their efforts, fighting their way out of the gutter with a raw passion to ascend the scale. But other models suggest these students may cut their losses and give up, with the result that the strategy works to motivate the higher achievers (those who need it the least), and demotivate the lower achievers because of the very public exposure of their weaknesses. ‘The truth is that allowing students to win and lose naturally stimulates their desire to succeed’ is what Birbalsingh wrote, but unfortunately the evidence I reviewed exposes that statement as simplistic and crude.

But perhaps this is what Birbalsingh wants, the smuggling of social darwinism into the classroom, those unwilling or unable to achieve hit hard with this news every time they come to school. The school itself re-conceptualised as an instrument to weigh the social worth of its students and prepare them for a life where only dog-eat-dog competition with their peers will bring them success and happiness.  This is a traditional and well tested ‘riff’ of the Right;  success is the result of hard work, but failure is the lack of hard work and application.  Birbalsingh ends by arguing that free schools are ‘free’ to apply these traditional methods, and indicates a shadowy kind of ‘cultural pressure’ which prevents other schools (presumably those under Local Authority control), from adopting this strategy. Only schools, she argues, which break free of the progressive orthodoxy of not grading students publicly will allow us to fix our broken system. At this point the straw men are so numerous that we only pray one of those unruly students doesn’t light a fag, one spark and the entire lecture would be up in flames.

Well if this is the price of fixing the ‘broken system’, then I will be delighted to send my daughter to a ‘broken school’ where grades do not drive everything which happens, where teachers do not articulate all of their activities in terms of numeric feedback and shallow conceptions of achievement and she doesn’t have to read her name on a piece of paper posted to the classroom door.


Bergin, A.D. & Crooks, H.C.  (2000) ‘Academic Competition among Students of Color : An Interview Study’,  Urban Education, 35: p 442-472

Wang, H.  &  Yang, B. (2003) ‘Why Competition may Discourage Students from Learning? A Behavioral Economic Analysis’, Education Economics, 11:2, 117-128

Williams, P.  &  Sheridan, S. (2010): ‘Conditions for collaborative learning and constructive competition in school’, Educational Research, 52:4, 335-350

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Extra lessons at Free Schools: Is cramming more teaching in a good idea?

Free Schools are finally opening and Michael Gove’s flagship policy is morphing from an ideological position on supply side reform to schooling to physical reality. The number of free schools opening this term is 24 which is a tiny proportion of the state funded schools in England, but the media attention is blown out of all proportion as everyone tries to find out a little more about what these schools will do once open, and more broadly what the ‘Free School’ agenda means.

The BBC carried an umbrella story on the fledgling free schools earlier in the week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14731677 .  In this article we read about Alborough Academy, in Redbridge London which is run by the E-ACT group. Those of us who have been following the Free School movement have been quite rightly asking how these schools will be different to the Local Authority controlled schools which they are set to compete with/replace/augment (choose the term based on your politics and reading of the spin).  I had hoped that Free Schools could use some of their freedoms to do attempt some pedagogic innovations.  Rethinking how teaching and learning works, trying some experiments out; these kind of  activities could see the Free Schools challenging the orthodoxies of teaching and learning and offering genuine alternatives, and in the process stimulating a much needed debate about teaching and learning within the wider education community (including politicians and parents).

I was, therefore, a little disappointed to read of the comments of the chair of Governors from Alborough which appeared to offer little understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning within school settings. To quote the section in full:

 There will be an optional extended day – with an educational slant – says Mr Greatrex, who will be the leader of the school’s governing body.  Children could be at school from 08:00 to 18:00 – and could find themselves in extra lessons after school if they are not making enough progress.  “Teachers’ focus will be on high attainment and they will track pupils’ progress in every lesson. If a child does not make enough progress in a lesson, they will be asked to stay later that day,” said Mr Greatrex.

There is some confusion here, firstly the extended school day is optional, but a few words later it seems pupils not making sufficient progress will find themselves (as if by some miracle it seems) in extra lessons. Will they be forced to attend or not is the simple question, and once open the school will realise that writing policies is the easy part, implementing them justly within the busy chaotic life of a school is the challenge.  Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one pupil’s extra lesson may be another’s pupil’s detention. I struggled hard to think about how children kept behind for extra lessons could fail to see this as some sort of punishment, or at least a palpable signal to themselves and the school that they are not learning as much as they could.

But what concerns me most about all of this is the crude, even simplistic understanding of the nature of learning which it reveals.  The idea that within a single lesson a student should make progress sounds great as a soundbite, but learning is often not like this, particularly with concepts which challenge and test student’s cognitive abilities. I sat in Maths lessons as a pupil and often struggled to make sense of what was being taught, despite listening hard and desperately trying to understand. Learning somedays would just not happen, although often a few days, weeks or even months later something would slot into place and things would start to make more sense. Dylan Wiliam has a brilliant phrase for this:  ‘Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos’ (Wiliam 2007). He bases this insight on a review of papers about the learning of Mathematical concepts which show that learning is indeed chaotic. Some students learned concepts at the point at which they were taught, others did not learn at the point of teaching but understood after 3 months, some understood at the point of teaching but 3 months later had lost that learning.  Learning is only partly controlled by the teacher, and only partly controlled by the learner; it’s a slippery process, sometimes difficult to pin down. The idea that you have to learn something which can be measured in every lesson and face sanctions if you do not learn is problematic for me.

Putting children under notice that unless progress was made in each and every lesson surely could create unnecessary stress, particularly for those who regularly have to stay behind. People of any age under stress do not learn well; the physical responses to stress are about fight and flight rather than thinking.

When you picture the kids staying behind each day, what mental image do you have? If you had a mental image of a group of 11 year olds trudging into a classroom to reluctantly do battle with Algebra and the Kings of England for a second time, then you are wide of the mark. Alborough has two classes, one reception and year 1, so we are talking about  4 and 5 year olds here!! It is true that the spokesperson for Alborough explains that the after school activities will combine fun with learning, such as doing mental arithmetic whilst playing cricket, but that whiffs of gimmickry to me. What if the progress not made cannot easily be fitted to a social or sporting activity? What if teachers under pressure from management and governors to create remorseless progress, simply resort to repeating the lessons of the day to the unfortunate non learners? A final irony is the young children who are going to get this kind of cramming approach would not even be in school in a country in Finland where formal schooling does not start until 7.  Surely this approach will see the UK pull even further ahead of Finland in measures of international achievement?  Well not quite, the UK lags well behind Finland in the PISA tables. 28th position in Maths in 2009 as opposed to 6th for Finland. 25th position for reading as opposed to 3rd for Finland.  Rather than seeking new and unusual methods for cramming even more teaching into the school day, perhaps the English education system should be looking to countries to Finland to see how their policies which counter intuitively start formal teaching much later, have delivered much better results. We need to think about the Finnish concept of teaching less and learning more.

Ultimately what we can learn from this is that the debate about teaching and learning currently underway as a result, amongst other things, of Free Schools, is the need to increase the quality of the debate about teaching and learning.  The outline of the pedagogic strategy from Alborough suggests a school leadership which has a rather simplified and ultimately unrealistic notion of what learning is. Their position appears uninformed by any of the research work or even some basic reading of the vast literature about learning which is freely available.



Wiliam, D. (2007) Assessment, Learning and Technology: Prospects at the Periphery of Control, Keynote at ALT 2007. Available from http://www.alt.ac.uk/sites/default/files/assets_editor_uploads/documents/altc2007_dylan_wiliam_keynote.pdf. Date accessed 3/09.2011

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