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The Education White Paper

December 6, 2010

The recent Education White Paper has prompted a new, more realistic education debate. For the first time in quite a few years government is now acknowledging the actual problems of the education system: dumbing-down, the behaviour crisis and prescriptive bureaucracy. The question is: how far does the White Paper confront these problems?

On the first point – dumbing-down – the news is generally good. It is recognised that: “Schools have become skilled at meeting government targets but too often have had their ability to do what they think is right for their pupils constrained by government directives or improvement initiatives.” The curriculum is to be reformed to have a greater focus on subject content. Vocational education is being reviewed by Alison Wolf who is a prominent critic of worthless vocational qualifications. Testing is not to be eliminated, but will be reformed to improve on the current system which seems to test exam preparation more than ability. An “English Baccalaureate” will be introduced to identify actual broad academic achievement in a way our current targets don’t. Schools will still be expected to meet minimum standards.

One of the more controversial measures is a restriction on who will be funded to train as a teacher; it will be expected that teaching trainees should have at least a 2.2. This is always going to be condemned, people love to tell anecdotes about terrible teachers with PhDs and excellent teachers with minimal qualifications and suggest that this is the rule rather than the exception. However, the reality is that highly effective school systems invariably recruit from the most able graduates. If less, rather than more, academically gifted teachers are thriving in our system then it is an indicator of what is wrong with our system not evidence that we can ignore the advantages of excellent subject knowledge.

However, not everything is perfect on the “dumbing-down” front. Teachers teaching outside of their subject are not mentioned, even though this is likely to be far more of a problem than teachers with third class degrees. While it is for the best that the National Curriculum will be redesigned to take up less time, it is not clear what will prevent schools introducing more dumbed-down non-subjects in the extra time. PSHE is to be kept, despite being one of the best examples of wasted curriculum time. A greater emphasis on classroom-based, rather than university-based, training has some advantages but will not raise the academic expectations for teachers. While there is every reason to be sceptical about the usefulness of PGCEs, a sincere opponent of dumbing-down would have increased the academic demands of university training rather than trying to undermine the need for professional knowledge as well as professional skills.

On behaviour, it is gratifying that the problem is being acknowledged. After the denialism of the last 5 years (exemplified by the Steer Report) it is delightful to see official acknowledgement that “teachers consistently tell us that their authority to deal decisively with bad behaviour has been undermined”. Unfortunately, the policy suggestions don’t begin to meet the challenge: minor administrative changes on detentions, searching pupils and exclusions. Worse, there is a suggestion that schools be given responsibility for the education of students they permanently exclude. This policy may result in a return to schools being financially penalised for exclusions and encourage schools to keep disruptive students in the classroom. The whole point of permanent exclusions is for schools to be able to admit “we cannot educate this student”. Any policy that deters schools from acknowledging this when it is the case will only harm discipline.

The White Paper acknowledges another problem: that “too much [money is] consumed by bureaucracy”. “Government [is] ceaselessly directing [teachers] to follow centralised Government initiatives.” The policies intended to achieve this are more of a mixed bag. The problem of poor teaching methods being forced on teachers is recognised:

“The National Curriculum should set out only the essential knowledge and understanding that all children should acquire and leave teachers to decide how to teach this most effectively.”

One example of this is excellent news: it is promised that “We will not be prescriptive about the use of the ‘Assessing Pupil Progress’ materials”. OFSTED is correctly identified as a major cause of bureaucracy in schools:

“The current Ofsted framework inspects schools against 27 headings – many reflecting previous government initiatives. In place of this framework, Ofsted will consult on a new framework with a clear focus on just four things – pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, leadership and management, and the behaviour and safety of pupils.”

Unfortunately, the positives on this issue are offset by the delusion that school management is an unwilling participant in the imposition of teaching methods. Despite the talk of teacher autonomy, this is only autonomy from government not from SMT. Schools managers are, if anything, meant to interfere even more with teaching, with more observations and scrutiny of teachers. There appears to be a belief that transferring responsibilities from central and local government to headteachers is inherently a reduction in bureaucracy rather than a redistribution of bureaucracy. There is no recognition that school management itself has become dominated by bureaucrats and micro-managers and that increasing their power is going to worsen the burdens on teachers, particularly when combined with greater power over pay and conditions in many schools. This approach is the major ideological flaw in the white paper; it is believed that giving bosses autonomy and power is always for the best even in a public service where the bosses are a major problem. This is something which can only be believed by people committed to the view that the business model is the best one for schools.

So overall, I would give the white paper ten out of ten for recognising the problems in our schools, but only five out of ten for identifying effective policies for dealing with them.

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20 comments

  1. Hey, ten out of ten for recognising and five out of ten for dealing with the problem is about fourteen more points than I’d have expected.

    With specific regard to this: “This policy may result in a return to schools being financially penalised for exclusions.” The use of the phrase “return to” implies that at present schools are not financially penalised for exclusions. As a currently serving governor of a secondary school I can state that the information I have from the head teacher is that the two exclusions the school made last year *each* cost the school £3,000, directly. Could you comment on this please?
    Thank you.
    (Please note: I have just become a governor. A factor in the decision to take on the role was the experience of reading this blog. So, thanks for that.)


    • I assume that’s just the funding per pupil. There used to be additional fines:

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/3501398/Schools-fined-for-expelling-violent-pupils.html

      The proposed new system could have the same effect in that the costs of putting students in PRUs, arranging home tuition, or whatever else, might become necessary for the worst offenders will fall on the school. In effect schools will be discouraged from permanently excluding the worst offenders, or children who bring in the pupil premium, and only exclude non-FSM kids who get off to a bad start but might well be fine after a chance to start over in a new school.


  2. Great piece.

    Schools are allocated funding per student at present; more for a sixth former. Therefore when they exclude they lose that funding, although it might not take effect until the new academic year when the calculations are remade. This discourages schools from permanently excluding, and has helped to encourage a culture where schools are reluctant to exclude. Which has been a disaster for sanity, and children in general.

    I THINK that this new proposal indicates that funds allocated would still be available to the excluding school, but only insomuch as they would have to use it to pay for the education of that student at another school (but happy to be corrected). So there will still be a massive deterrent. It’s still in Pilot Scheme stage, so I’m crossing my fingers that The DemocraCons see sense at the last minute…


  3. High quality essay as usual.
    Not sure I like the idea of baccaulareate- I still think A Levels are the best model.
    2.2- Minimum?, I guess I’m one of the guys that provided anecdotes about underperforming but well qualified teachers. I got a good degree myself so I truly have no axe to grind on this. But I have seen this pattern many times in multiple schools. I wonder if there is any research in this area? The majority of teachers that needed support with their classes and had complaints about the quality of their teaching had 1sts or PhDs. It was true of both genders and I knew of one headteacher who had eventually learnt never to hire PhD staff. This is an importnat point because if you exclude thoese with 3rds you are damaging recruitment numbers and denying students access to some excellent staff. Academic schools are free to prefer 2.1s but to not allow them on PGCE courses? a poor decision. One of my 1st line managers (adored by students and staff alike) had a 3rd and was proud of it. Seems a shame to lose such talent.


    • I think the policy is not to fund those with thirds rather than to ban them outright, so if somebody was sufficiently dedicated to becoming a teacher it should still be possible.

      With regards to the anecdotes, I have plenty going the other way. That said, it is not at the individual level where the problem of non-academic teachers manifests itself. It is in the culture of the school. If the academically well qualified make such lousy teachers then I would like it explained how the top schools in this country seem to employ so many of them, and how countries such as Finland can be so fussy about the academic quality of teachers without disaster. Finland must lose a lot more “talent” than we do and yet seems to manage.

      All schools should be “academic schools” and I would argue that if schools won’t act like that then it is appropriate for government to push the issue. That said, as I said in the post, teachers teaching out of subject are more of an issue than teachers having a low degree in a subject they are trained to teach.


  4. I understand what you are saying about the teacher qualifications but today just because you have a 1st or 2:1 does not mean that you are academically gifted. It can mean that you are ‘gifted’ enough to work through the hoops that are set to achieve the award. Now this may actually be the best thing to have in order to work in education as a teacher. An example would be in languages where, if you are fluent, you would use more complex linguistic features and structures than the course markscheme recognises. Therefore, you do not get so many marks and thus achieve a lower award though you are more competent at the language.


    • Fair point, I guess.

      It might be better if potential teachers had to pass entrance exams rather than rely on their existing degrees being any good.

      I think that’s what happens in France.


      • Well that would certainly make some sense, I suppose. Of course, in France there is – I believe (it’s a while since I talked to my friends who work over there) – a more marked divide between the pastoral and academic aspects of education, which is reflected in teachers’ very different roles.

        Here we have a system in which classroom teachers are also personal tutors, heads of year, and the like. Would an entrance exam for teaching recognise those other qualities which many teachers bring to their work, or would it be another academic (or non-academic) hoop-jumping exercise?

        I’m not entirely sure what my own thoughts are about this, so I’m not saying any of this from a dogmatic position (beyond my usual knee-jerk leftism).


        • The point would be to get away from the idea of “other qualities” that mitigate for a lack of mastery of their subject.

          Doctors might have a good bedside manner, or good clinical management skills, but their qualifications should be about their knowledge of medicine. There’s more to being a doctor than that, but this is the bit that the qualifications tell us about and it is a bit that is vital.

          I feel the same way about teaching; subject knowledge and teaching knowledge are what should be examined. There is more to teaching than that, but this is the bit that qualifications tell us about and it is a bit that is vital.


  5. I don’t understand all the hate for PSHE. It was taught when I was at school and I found it very helpful. I can imagine possibly suggesting that there is not enough content for the amount of time PSHE allocated, but I would be surprised to hear that you wanted, for example, sex education removed from schools.

    Is there a particular entry where you deal with this?


  6. There’s plenty I would agree with in what you say here, but I think you’re wrong about teachers’ qualifications.


    • I should probably write a single blog entry to discuss this in more detail.

      However, let me put it to you this way: the average qualifications young people will have when they finish full time education are rapidly approaching the current entrance qualifications for a PGCE (C in GCSE maths and English plus a degree).

      Do you really think it is sustainable to have an education system run by the academically average? We risk a situation in a few years time where the average parent is better educated than many teachers. Do you really think that education will have much credibility under those circumstances?

      Meanwhile, more educationally successful countries all appear to be recruiting from the educational elite (We keep hearing that Finland recruits from the top 10% of graduates). Surely, this is not coincidence?


      • Is it really fair to say that because the entry qualification is x it therefore follows that all PGCE students will be qualified at x level? Also, does the PGCE not “add value” in and of itself?

        In my experience, the PGCE I did (at Leicester back in 1994) was one of the best courses (of any type) I had come across then or have ever come across since. It made me want to teach and to become a really good teacher – obviously something I’m still trying to become – and I know that many of the others on that course felt the same way.

        You wrote off my comment about CPD on a previous post because your experience of it was poor, but I honestly think that you can make teachers better through CPD in their subject areas. By pulling up the drawbridge and only permitting 2,1s and firsts through into teaching you’re going to miss out on a lot of potentially very good teachers and admit quite a few who aren’t going to be able to translate their knowledge into something that can be passed on to young people.


        • I am not saying PGCE students won’t be qulified above the minimum level, but plenty will be qualified at the minimum level, because the worse your qualifications are the less attractive alternatives you have to teaching.

          With regard to “missing out” all I can ask is how do those countries with high standards for entrance to teacher training manage so well?

          With regard to CPD, yes, my experiences over many years are poor, as, I suspect are those of many other teachers. It is very much something that has to be done, rather than something that serves a clear purpose.

          However, my objection goes further than that. The whole insititution of INSET and training courses assumes that teachers are neither bright enough to learn from books nor likely to have informal access within the school to talented able teachers with much more relevant expertise than any outsider.


      • One thing not so far mentioned is GCE/degree grade inflation over the last 30 years. A 2:2 degree in 1980 from a redbrick, was a “good” degree – and was the norm, as I recall, from my degree ceremony. Of course it varied according to university and subject. Today – anything less than a 2:1 seems to be uncommon. I’m not sure that those under 30 with a 3rd are as intellectually able as those awarded a 3rd who are now in their 50s. (I have a 2:2 and am in my 40s).


        • Grade inflation over a long period of time has inded made its mark in terms of weak subject knowledge in more recently qualified teachers. The teachers under 30 in the English Dept I teach in do not have the grammar knowledge I think they require to teach GCSE. I don’t know what their degree level is…but I’d guess none of them has a third. Deeply worrying.


  7. Yes, there is the issue of parity of degrees.
    I admit that in my many roles in a variety of very different schools I have sometimes directly or indirectly had to support teachers whose weakness was subject knowledge. But this was very rare and restricted to the highest y11 class or post 16 classes. Far more frequent was the timid idealist or the uptight boffin who just couldnt handle kids. The latter is a lot harder to solve (often impossible actually).
    If you have any degree in a subject you surely can cope with gcse?
    Even A level should not be too difficult with some preparation. A good dept should support new or lesser teachers in the altruistic pursuit of excellence for their students.
    If as old Andrew suggests, those with a 3rd are not barred then fair enough. If I am presented with a candidate with a 3rd but is diligent, professional and a great communicator and a 1st class honours candidate with an attitude and an inability to handle the rgours of the job it’s a no brainer. I should also add that academic schools often have very bright, cheeky, vindictive little so an so’s that can tear apart staff who are bereft of wit and a bit of the ‘streetwise’. It’s all about ‘fit for purpose’.


  8. Parity of degrees is important and not just in terms of the year you took them. A degree from a university where the majority of the class of degree is judged on the third year exam, is going to be harder than a degree where the it’s fifty fifty in year 2 and 3 and exams after every module.


  9. Perhaps this might fetch you up to date with education in France.
    I have worked and lived in France since 1997 and have two close friends and several acquaintances in educational activities in France. Of my two close friends, one is a teacher in a university (one of the grandes écoles ), and the other in a lycée. The others teach in commercial colleges or language schools.
    The basic structure of secondary education in France is at 11 years pupils will attend a collège and at 15 move on to a lycée where they will prepare for their baccalaureate which is taken at 18. If successful, and around 80% were in 2010, then they have an automatic right to go on to university. There are private schools which are generally run by the Catholic Church because state education is secular in France. Private school fees are nothing like those of the UK public schools and I don’t think they give any advantage over the state schools.
    Universities are split into two basic groups the universities and the grandes ecoles. The top 5% go onto the grandes ecoles and are selected by “concours”; a competitive examination either from a “prepa” a sort of cramming school or after the first year at university.
    To teach in secondary or tertiary education in France you need to qualify by “concours” by taking the CAPES or the Agrégation; these are competitive examinations that facilitate entrance into the civil service. You would then need to complete a year in secondary education under the auspices of a university but mentored by secondary school teachers. Quite a challenge for potential high flying academics destined for the top universities.
    There is a myriad of qualifications once one is into higher education, however, after the high pass rate for the bac there are the first year exams, and many fall by the wayside. There is, or was, a second chance in September to retake the exams but few pass the September exams, An example of which an acquaintance, at a well know provincial university, explained to me that of 250 students who failed their first year exams only four passed the September retakes.
    The CAPES and Agrégation pass marks are adjusted to anticipate the demand for newly qualified teachers. The Agrégation is an extremely difficult examination and only a very few who embark on it pass.
    I cannot imagine why the anyone in English/Welsh education would want replace A levels with a version of the French Bac. I have one of the 2010 Mathematics papers on my desk as I write this and, frankly, it is ludicrously easy.
    I hope that this is of interest.



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