Posts Tagged ‘politics’


Bye, Bye, Mr Balls

May 15, 2010

One of the difficulties with the education bureaucracy is identifying who is to blame. Politicians can pass laws that say one thing, and something else can result entirely. For example, David Blunkett’s legislation on inclusion made it clear that it should not be used to keep badly behaved children in school, and yet that is exactly what happened.

So I have hesitated to blame too much on individual education secretaries. Since Blunkett, most of them have been in office for such a short time that it is not surprising they did no good.

However, Ed Balls, is an exception. He left office after almost (but not quite) three years.

He has no excuses.

He is responsible for:

  • The introduction (with extensive government money) of Assessing Pupil Progress, a barely tested, ever-changing scheme of assessment , based on a belief in bureaucracy and basic  confusion between formative and summative assessment.
  • Accepting the claims of the Steer Report (which stated that serious misbehaviour in schools is rare).
  • The removal of “Education” from the name of the department running schools and the continuing disastrous attempts to combine education and children’s services into one incompetent bureaucracy.
  • Ignoring the evidence from the government’s own research that support from teaching assistants harms the progress of students with SEN.
  • Supporting SEAL and attempts to replace education with socialisation.
  • Introducing constant curriculum changes (even more than usual), including such highlights as new Diplomas and Functional Skills.
  • Attempts to increase the burden of the SEN bureaucracy.
  • Allowing OFSTED to fail some of the most successful schools in the country.
  • Continuing to allow schools to spend money on gimmicks, even after admitting that Brain Gym was pointless.
  • Blaming schools, rather than his own policies, for stressing children out with tests.

I had hoped that regardless of the election result he would cease to be in charge of the nation’s schools. But now he’s left office I have something greater to be worried about. I’m considerably more worried that there are people out there, who would have him as leader of the opposition, and, potentially, prime minister.

Enough is enough. The man could not run one department successfully, don’t let him run Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Or to put it another way: Don’t make me vote Tory.

Update: I have decided to set up a Facebook group for people who feel the same way about this. Anybody has anything to contribute (like say a picture suitable for the group) please help. I can’t help but notice there’s only 23 people in the facebook group in favour of him becoming Labour leader.


Parental Choice

December 22, 2009

Parents have some choice of which school to send their kids to. Not a great amount because, surprise, surprise, the best schools are already full up. But since the eighties they can choose a school and, where there is space, their kids can go there.

For some on the left this is a great injustice. Middle class parents should be forced to send their children to really bad schools, because those schools would be better off with the children of aspirational parents conscripted into them. According to the theory, middle class students are a joy to teach and they raise morale and standards by their mere presence. I suppose by a similar argument hospital wards would be more effective places if we made healthy people stay in them. Maybe prisons would be happier places if we locked up more innocent people?

Of course, the reason that this is nonsense is that while the culture of a school is influenced by parental background, it is not the whole story. Middle class children who are surrounded by the underclass tend to either become either very quiet, desperately trying to hide from their peers, or they “go native” and behave as badly as anyone else. Schools are not changed much by fluctuations in their intake. You can throw as many sheep to the wolves as you like, the wolves will still act like wolves.

However, these days the pendulum has swung the other way. The fashionable idea, and, if the polls are to be believed, the policy of the next government, is that of increasing choice.

There are many variations on this policy. Some talk of “vouchers” as though giving a piece of paper to parents makes their choice more real. Others talk as if no choice currently exists and we were still in the 1970s. Many talk as if the problems of the system will soon be solved by the magic of choice and competition. Yes, it’s the 1980s again and this time reality is not going to stand in the way of this policy.

There are red-in-tooth-and-claw versions of this policy in which vouchers can be used to pay part of the fees at private schools, effectively redistributing resources from the majority to the most privileged minority. There are versions of the policy in which selection is brought back, making parental choice secondary to the choice of the schools. But the usual version of the policy, and the one the Tories are now proposing, is to have things basically the same as they are now but hope that by waving one’s arms wildly one can conjure up new schools from nowhere and, even more implausibly,  stop anything too bad happening to the students still at the old schools.

Now there are quite a lot of people out there willing to run schools. Some are mad, but probably no madder than a lot of the people already running education. The problem is that we have already had several years of letting private groups run schools as part of the academy program. It has revealed that a) some of these people can make an excellent contribution to the education system and b) some of them can’t and simply piss public money up the wall. The fantasy ignores this and dreams that we can simply make it easier and easier for people to set up schools without getting worse and worse people involved in doing so. In some versions of the story schools will appear anywhere, in old office blocks or any convenient building. No problem. Some people believe that setting up and running a school is no more difficult than, say, running a car boot sale and once you get fifteen kids and a teacher you have a school.

Of course, the reality is something different. According to studies cited in Johnes (1993) primary schools need 70 or 80 students and secondary schools well over 1000 to be efficient. Lots of smaller schools are likely to waste a lot of money even if they are well run. If they are run by idiots (or should I say greater idiots than currently) we can expect even more money to be wasted. Either the private organisations involved are going to be given enough money to waste or they will think twice about risking their own money setting up a school. This is without considering the costs incurred in schools which are suddenly half-empty due to an exodus of students.

Of course, that’s half of the appeal of the policy. In the fantasy bad schools will lose pupils and go out of business, good schools will grow and new schools will meet any surplus demand. Unfortunately supply and demand don’t work quite so conveniently in education. There are considerable rigidities involved. People don’t want to change schools as often as they change supermarkets. Good schools don’t actually want to grow indefinitely. Why should they? If you have a successful school with 1000 students in it, why would you want to try and cope with any more students? It is possible that letting private companies run schools for a profit would create some incentive for this, but the Tories have said they won’t do this. More importantly, bad schools cannot be easily closed. There are two problems with closing schools, firstly you have to find somewhere for existing students to go, secondly you have to convince parents that they want their children to go somewhere else. The first can be an extremely difficult endeavour in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy world where you can apparently set up a school in your garden shed). The second is a policitician’s nightmare: hundreds of pissed off parents who are about to be seriously inconvenienced by relocating their children. Local authorities struggle with this in the situation where they have monopoly powers. How private organisations would deal with this is beyond me.

Of course, none of this is new. This is the reason why this policy was never followed through even during the free market enthusiasm of the eighties. However since then the Tories have a new magic word: “Sweden”. Sweden has opened up its school system to greater competition and it seems to have worked okay. To hear Tories talk about it you’d think it was some kind of utopia (as opposed to successful by low British standards but nothing to make Finland feel insecure about). The assumption is that we are just like Sweden: A monolithic, state-controlled, secular system with a pool of highly qualified professional teachers, just waiting to be energised by allowing greater diversity, such as private schools and faith schools, into the system, with competent local authorities who can be trusted to responsibly regulate the system.

So really, the only question to be asked is: how long is it going to take them to notice?


Johnes, Geraint. The Economics of Education. Macmillan Press, 1993


Why Sir Alan Steer Should Stick his Stupid Lying Report up his Arse

February 14, 2009

Next time you see the latest news from Australia about the tragic bushfires that have destroyed people, property and nature, I’d like you to try the following thought experiment.

Imagine that you were an Australian firefighter who had seen the fires first hand. Imagine that, while you may not have suffered terribly yourself, you had found it stressful and you were aware that the problem was huge and was wrecking lives. Now imagine that you switched on the television to watch the news and heard there was a new report from a committee headed by a senior firefighter, described as the government’s “bushfire tsar” claiming that there were no bushfires. Imagine that it was claimed that academics recognised the truth that there were no dangerous fires, just poor firefighting. Imagine that a representative from the firefighters’ union appeared to agree with this, carefully suggesting that if firefighters had been better trained then nothing bad would ever happen.

Now imagine that this was followed by an interview with the “bushfire tzar”. Imagine he explained that actually the bushfire problem was less severe than it had ever been and as evidence of this he observed that the Australian Tourist Board hadn’t been complaining about fires. Imagine that, having claimed there wasn’t a problem with bushfires, he conceded there might be a more general environmental problem, but that this problem had been around for hundreds and thousands of years. As proof of this he might suggest that many years ago as a child, perhaps in the Scouts, he saw a campfire, but in all his years as a firefighter he’d never seen a naked flame. Imagine if he then proceeded to pour scorn on the idea that anyone could ever have poured water on fires as there was no evidence that pouring water on fires had ever stopped combustion occurring in the first place. Imagine if he described pouring water on fires as something that showed a lack of intelligence, and complained that people were hypocritical and uncaring if they object to seeing woods burned to the ground. Imagine if he finished by claiming that he’d recognise that his suggestions had been successful if people stopped calling the fire brigade so often.

If you can imagine all this then you can probably imagine how many teachers in Battleground Schools feel about this news report and this interview that followed it early today.

I’m too lazy to reference every experience and every statistic I have ever put on this blog to explain why what Sir Alan is saying is an evil pack of lies. But I am still shocked that he could so blatantly refuse to acknowledge the violence, abuse and disobedience in our schools and the management culture that condones it. This is not just because Steer’s claims contradict my own personal experience in several schools. This is not just because they are countered by what I’ve been told by hundreds of teachers and ex-teachers I’ve met in real life or heard from online, and what’s been said by thousands of teachers in surveys and opinion polls. This is not just because his claims defy reason by suggesting that good relationships cause good behaviour, rather than the other way round, or by claiming that a problem can be both non-existent and a natural and unchanging part of childhood. The reason I am shocked by these claims is because they are such that even a slightly honest man could have found reason not to say such things.

It really wouldn’t take much to realise that this would lead to teachers up and down the country starting their half-term by spitting their coffee at the TV screen. All Sir Alan would have needed to do to test his ideas for plausibility is to put down his fiddle for a moment and sign up as a volunteer firefighter, sorry, secondary supply teacher for a few weeks. This way he’d be visiting, not  a few handpicked schools as an honoured guest, but a good number of disaster areas as part of the frontline. If he survived the inevitable abuse, intimidation, insubordination and blame that are a part of so many schools, he’d emerge with nothing more than a desire to put a match to his own report. This is, of course, assuming that none of his colleagues had discovered who he was. After all, how many teachers  would, in the interests of natural justice, want to make sure that this particular revisionist tract was firmly inserted somewhere he wouldn’t be able to reach easily?

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