Liz Kendall is right about free schools

Off to work like...

Off to work like…

First, a confession: as of Monday, I will have ceased being employed by a free school so that I can take up a role with an academy chain. To many in Labour, I will have thus ceased working overseeing a slave pit in the Mines of Moria to take up a broader role destroying whole planets with the Galactic Empire; I am a Red Tory, my Labour values self-evidently corrupted. But I would like reverse the proposition: I went to work at these places precisely because of my Labour values, because I believe English education isn’t good enough, and the people for whom it is failing most are those Labour has always sought (not always successfully) to help, and that those institutions which are challenging the inadequate status quo are precisely those which Labour ought to be supporting.

It was this reason that I was delighted to see Liz Kendall’s uncompromising backing for successful schools during her recent speech to the Westminster Press Lobby:

As leader, I’m not going to waste time obsessing about school structures. If a school is providing a great education, whether it’s a local authority, academy or free school, we will back it. What’s more, if someone wants to help run their school, they deserve credit, not criticism.

The crucial part here is the last line. It is strictly true to say that Kendall is committing to nothing new overall: had it won the 2015 election, Labour did not intend to close successful free schools nor academies. Moreover, the free school programme was to be replaced by Parent-Led Academies, an idea whose distinction from free schools lay mostly in the use of capital letters.

But, regardless of both commitments, the rhetoric in the lead up to the election was uncompromisingly hostile to the idea of free schools, and provided very little encouragement to academies either. This was a perverse situation, in which Labour engaged in an ill-omened balancing act that risked looking indecisive, deceitful or both: we didn’t like free schools, but we’d keep them, and maybe we’d let people open things that were very similar, but we didn’t much like those people either.

Kendall’s decision to put herself squarely beyond such prevarication is excellent news. Not because all free schools and academies are excellent (some are not) or that everyone who wants to open a free school is an excellent person to do so (some aren’t) but because it evens out the inconsistency in our education policy in a way that will be a relief to many of the most effective providers of state education, whilst giving us a far simpler message for parents (and the only message most want to hear): we will get you a good school, by any means necessary.

Of course, there are areas that will need to be tidied up: Kendall has rightly distanced herself from the “preferred provider” model in the NHS which would overcomplicate the work to improve that service by favouring a particular provider, in this case the one directly controlled by the state. The current commissioning system for schools in England—almost all of which is done under the Basic Need Programme and not via the semi-separate free schools system—operates on the same basis but in reverse, preferring non-state providers even where they may be less good than public options. This ought to be corrected, not least because it will help ensure that poor-quality providers are kept out of the system. Further, the Labour leadership should provide strong support to those Labour local authorities sensibly engaging with free school and academy providers to expand provision against opportunistic and aggressive opposition which is sadly too often led by other Labour members.

On school structures, Kendall has not only committed Labour—should she become leader—to the correct route but proudly proclaimed it. Some in Labour won’t like it, but in the end the only thing that matters to a truly liberating education system, is what works. End of.

For TES: “There is no workload crisis – just politics”

My latest Opinion piece considers the evidence for a “teacher workload crisis” and posits that much of the activist pressure to view this as a system-wide breakdown (as distinct from individual examples in diverse schools) is driven by more ideological considerations.

Workload is the word of the moment. It has achieved the ultimate accolade: a government inquiry. The Workload Challenge, instituted by Nicky Morgan early in her time as education secretary, famously gathered tens of thousands of responses from teachers and generated concrete policy proposals from the Department for Education.

You can read the rest over on the TES website…

For TES Digital: We Need To Talk About Finland

Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment has produced an excellent short summary of the myths about Finnish education, correcting each one. I’ve written a piece for TES Digital exploring why Oates’ arguments here should change both the rhetoric and the deeper policy debate about education reform in England:

The real lesson of Finland’s school reform isn’t bohemian laxity of approach but total, system-wide commitment – and that is a very bold lesson indeed.

You can read the rest on TES…

For Labour Teachers: Doubts about the College of Teachers

I have written a piece for Labour Teachers (which is now under the sound guidance of Old Andrew), on why I am less and less enthused by the plans for the College of Teachers. 

There is, evidently, something very appealing in the idea of a College of Teaching. The vision of a new professional body for teachers is endorsed by all the political parties and the Claim Your College consortium can boast a 100-strong list of supporters. Given I once called for Labour to make support for such a college a key plank of its educational policy, I should be delighted, yet actually, I can’t help but harbour some doubts.

You can read the rest over on Labour Teachers…

For Bristol 2014: The tragic necessity of the First World War

This piece was first published in Bristol and the First World War, a book produced as part of Bristol 2014: The City and Conflict from the First World War to the Present Day. More details can be found here.

Dulce et decorum est...?

Dulce et decorum est…?

The question of why the First World War broke out is subtly different from the question of why Britain fought in it. On the face of it, there was little to connect the interests of the most powerful empire in the world with that of a small, increasingly-aggressive Balkan state in its confrontation with a decaying Central European empire. There had been two Balkan Wars in the years prior to 1914 which Britain had not deigned to engage with, why was the Austro-Serbian conflict of 1914 not simply another one of these? Of course, the intervention of Russia in the Balkans heightened tensions, but despite a century’s-worth of misleading textbook assertions, Britain had no alliance with Russia, and indeed significant reason to want her kept busy and away from the frontiers of the British Raj in India. So it is conceivable that a war could have been fought on the edges of Europe in which Britain had little interest and no intention of expending blood and treasure. Some have even recently argued that, even once Germany had found a way to involves itself—a way which necessitated war with France—Britain could still have stood aloof.

Given that Britain was the last of the major belligerents to declare war, it is clearly the case that Britain’s involvement was not essential for beginning or expanding the conflict. However, to argue that Britain could, or should, have kept away from the pan-European conflagration is not simply politically naïve, it is morally deficient. Continue reading →

Oathkeeper: Tristram Hunt and professional maturity

The last day of teacher training was always a bit special since Tristram Hunt became Secretary of State.

The last day of teacher training was always a bit special since Tristram Hunt became Secretary of State.

“For so sworn good or evil an oath may not be broken and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion    

I have written a very short blog for TES Online responding to Tristram Hunt’s suggestion of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers.


On Sunday morning, Tristram Hunt suggested he wanted to add a new ritual to the world of education, the swearing of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers. Responses to this idea came in three flavours: outrage, mockery and bafflement.

The first need not take up too much time: say absolutely anything in educational policy discourse and some part of edu-Twitter will explode. The mockery, while funnier, is also fairly predictable: teachers are a cynical folk and deadpan humour helps while away the hours. The bafflement is more a problem, because it seemed both more common and shared by many sensible people: why an oath? Why now? What was it designed to achieve?

You can read the rest at TES…

Workload, Middle Leaders and school IT systems: a modest proposal

This blog first appeared on NAHTEdge, the new union for middle leaders.

All school information managements systems, ever.

All school information managements systems, ever.

The launch of a new venture in teacher trade unionism is a big deal. The recognition of the need for a distinctive voice for middle leaders, the staunch stokers of the engine rooms of successful modern schools, is even bigger. In a movement characterised by the conviction that the strength of our common endeavour is greater than our individual capacity, how do we explain why a separate unit needs to exist for those who have acquired some greater responsibility, but are not yet sat in the big chair?

To illustrate the value of marking out a space for middle leaders alone, I’d like to focus on perhaps one of the biggest issues handicapping our profession: teacher workload. Everyone recognises this, from the Secretary of State down. There is, however, often precious little we seem to be able to do about it. We could plan and mark less, of course, but the evidence is clear that (done well) those things are vital contributions to the quality of our teaching. We could rip out entirely the inspection and accountability regime and bin the league tables, but Wales did and, by some measures, it didn’t work out very well. We could ignore the possibilities of developing extensive data and never enter anything into a spreadsheet again, but that would be to stand against a (potentially very valuable) tide.

Instead of thinking on the big scale of abolishing Ofsted or forcibly uninstalling Microsoft Excel from every staff room computer, what if we came up with much, much smaller and perhaps more effective changes? One area I think we could do small but vital work in reducing the load is in an area I’m sure many middle leaders will shudder to think of: school management and information systems (MIS). The advent of networked computing in schools opened the door to integrated databases which ought to make overseeing attendance, punctuality, behaviour and academic interventions more straightforward. Far too often, however, the systems purchased by schools to do this are unwieldy binary behemoths which need hours more work to operate as required. To give an example, one system I’ve previously worked with provided breakdowns of behaviour incidents which occurred in school on a daily, weekly, termly and annual basis. It was possible to further examine this data by year group but not by subject, so collecting reports of disruptive behaviour in my department (a requirement of our school behaviour management policy) became an elaborate process of additional emails, in-system messages and fly-by conversations. This left chains of evidence in a mess which often took more time to clear up than the original problem.

Why would a bigger voice for middle leaders assist here? In almost all cases, it’s middle leaders who end up filling the gaps in MIS because as either academic or pastoral managers they’re the first responders to school policies. Although they’re often the primary users of the nuts and bolts of MIS, the product isn’t marketed to them. Only senior leaders can decide to implement a new MIS, and only they’ve the budget-holding responsibilities to pay for it. Often the functions of the system chosen are those most appealing to the customer sat in the IT providers’ sales pitch even if they mostly examine the outputs of the system and are less concerned with the inner workings. This is not a criticism of senior leaders: of course it’s right the system should work for them, and the purpose of having senior leaders is that they take a more strategic look at the operation of the school. But, technocratic and even dull as such conversations might be, a louder, more confident and better trained voice asking precisely how these systems will work day-to-day could be a useful addition to school discussions in the name of efficiency, effectiveness and workload.

What’s class got to do with it? My ResearchED 2014 presentation

Bourdieu model

Anyone who is interested can download the slides from my presentation today on the problems of class in educational research here, including the exciting attempt to explain Bourdieu’s model of social reproduction in a SmartArt diagram:


Class – researchED presentation 2014

Michael Gove: The George S Patton of English education

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”

I’ve written a piece for today’s TES explaining why Gove remains such a signififcant figure for all education reformers (of whatever political background). His ambition and willingess to slay sacred cows was exhilarating, even whilst the precise nature of his ambitions and his slaying techniques could be exasperating. With him in charge, education had not just a day but several years in the sun – and as anyone who’s looked outside today will tell you, the sun can burn as well as heat.

Anyway, my piece is about two-thirds of the way down this page, and it starts like this:

“Famously, on the wall of what is now his former office in the Department for Education, Michael Gove had pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. However, the historical figure he most reminds me of is George S Patton, the maverick American general of the Second World War. Almost any Patton quote sounds like a Govian manifesto: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week” or “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”. Like Patton, Gove is charismatic, aggressive and steeped in the history of the battles he fights.

His forcefulness and unwavering commitment to education reform often cast those of us who believe in the need for great change in England’s schools (especially those of us from different political traditions) as Omar Bradleys…”

Read the rest at TES.

Build bridges not lifeboats: Why Open Access isn’t the right answer

This post is cross-posted from Progress.

As the Major government limped to its destruction at the hands of New Labour in 1997, it played a few final cards in a desperate bid to cling on to the political hegemony established in 1979. There was the famous New Labour, New Danger poster, which only served to illustrate that, even with the eyes of an infernal horror from the lowest pits of hell, Tony Blair still looked a more plausible leader than any Tory. Policy-wise, perhaps attempting to recover from the spectacularly minimalist Cones Hotline-style gimmicks, there was to be ‘a grammar school in every town’, a truly audacious promise to reverse the greatest structural change in English education since the war.

It would be wrong to suggest that grammar schools are written into the DNA of the Conservative party – Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who closed the most, often at the behest of Tory councils whose voters were suspicious their children weren’t going to get into them – but to be in favour of selective schooling, either state- or privately provided, is not a sin in the Tory party, while within Labour it is the Ultimate Heresy. Aside from the NHS, nothing unites a Labour party meeting faster than a denunciation of selective schooling, especially if it is paid for directly by parents, whereas the Tory party is led by the privately educated, and aspirations for selective schools are considered healthy, perhaps even praise-worthy.

Which makes it all the more interesting that the current Conservative government, despite the educational storm and fury of the past four years, has not only made no move to expand grammar schools, but has actually presided over the elimination of numerous private schools, which have entered the state-sector as academies. Though undoubtedly committed to traditional Tory educational values, Michael Gove has explicitly justified himself as seeking these things for the many, not for the few. Much of the upheaval in education has been a result of the education secretary’s determination that his curriculum and qualification convictions should be felt by every teenager, not merely by the privileged.

In such an educational environment, in which both the major parties are committed to the provision of excellent non-selective education for all young people, it seems very odd that the Sutton Trust should commit itself so forcefully to a new version of the old assisted places scheme. Yet last week, on the back of research illustrating that privately educated young people have access to higher earnings over the early career, the Trust essentially advocated exactly that: the state should fund needs-blind admissions to leading private schools for the most able pupils.

The idea that the answer to England’s educational woes (and they do exist) lies in providing golden tickets to a lucky few is profoundly misguided, and rests on some very faulty assumptions. The first is actually revealed in the report itself: although the earnings premium for private school pupils is trumpeted as being nigh on £200,000, taking account of social background and prior attainment it comes in at just over £60,000, or about £300 extra per month over the early working lifetime (26 to 42). That is not nothing, but it hardly seems enough to justify an outlay of several hundreds of millions on the Open Access plan.

Second, there can be little reason for assuming that the answer to a state/private earnings gap is to have thousands of young people abandon the one system for the other, rather than examining what about the private system causes its products to be more successful. Cristina Iannelli of the University of Edinburgh has recently produced research suggesting that the earnings differentials for pupils attending selective schools are a result of the curriculum on offer. In short, the academic curriculum is not only appropriate but also necessary for all children to have a chance of social mobility. It should not be necessary to send young people to fee-paying schools to deliver such curricula, it should be their right to access it in the schools their parents’ taxes pay for.

Open Access is an unnecessary way forward for England’s education system. Already, we have in place the tools by which the excellent practice found in many private schools can be shared with the state sector. Already, some state schools match and exceed the success of parts of the private sector. Some private schools are becoming academies, other leading public schools are sponsoring academies. The pioneering London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, where I will be working from September, is supported by Brighton College, Eton, Caterham and others, sharing best practice in both directions. Bridge-building, not lifeboats, should the foundation for stronger links between private schools and the state sector.

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