Today is strike day. Many of my colleagues have already made the decision to go on strike and are, I suspect, having a nice lie-in right now. Good for them – it is their right to strike, and they’ve received a clear strike call from their union.
But I’ve argued for a long time that the NUT’s campaign against, well, everything in education, is going absolutely nowhere, so I am sad that teachers up and down the land are today losing a day’s pay purely so their leadership can pose as effective trade unionists, when the reality is they lost this battle long ago. Part of the problem is the sheer lack of imagination displayed by the NUT Exec: another strike? What really? Are there no other campaigning tools you can think of? The world has erupted in single-issue campaigns and even revolutions over the last 20 years, all running with new and different ways of getting messages across, and yet the NUT still thinks “all out” is the right tool for every job,
This kind of thinking, especially from people who will happily chant the mantra that school organisation is “stuck in the mode of the industrial 19th Century”, is deeply peculiar, because nothing is more stuck in Britain’s faded industrial past than strike action from public sector unions.
In industrial circumstances the threat and meaning of a strike is absolutely crystal clear: we do the work that makes the money; we don’t work, there is no money. Private sector employers can find various ways to hold out against this, and ultimately there is always the Mutually Assured Destruction threat (“if there’s no money for long enough, they’ll be no company and then there’s no money forever”), but the cause and effect relationship is obvious.
That is not the case in teaching – there’s no profit being made, so the strike is an indirect attack: parents are inconvenienced by the need to keep kids home (and kids obviously lose a day’s education). To make this in any way effective as a tactic, the response of the parents is the crucial battleground. In local or individual school strikes, this can be highly effective: headteachers are placed in an extremely awkward position if they have to write home to parents saying that actions they, the Headteacher, has taken, have driven out on strike the teachers that the rest of the year the Head praises to the skies. A personal washing of dirty laundry in public is unpleasant and favours dispute resolution.
None of this applies in the case of a national strike. In the first case, the battle is not between your child’s teacher and your child’s Headteacher, it is between teacher trade-unions and an elected politician; much more impersonal, and between people much less trusted by the populace at large. The terms of battle are entirely different, the access to (and respect available in) the media are profoundly imbalanced and the audience is not simply parents concerned about their children, but citizens and tax-payers weighing up who is managing the economy well and capable of solving the country’s problems. In such a battle, any government–even an unpopular government–can hold out for as long as it is prepared to: after all, it is the teachers who are shutting the schools, not the government. Government looks responsible and sensible so long as it even suggests it it open to talks, the unions look angry and exploitative, especially if, as is the case with this strike, there is a fatal lack of clarity about what it is actually about (although attempts to explain it is about pensions are, as ever, likely to go down like a lead balloon with a populace who couldn’t buy for love nor money a pension half as good as that of teachers).
Individual and local strike action can work (whether it is the most effective and sensible tactic is another issue) but it is increasingly obvious that national strike action by teachers is fundamentally flawed: it not only fails to deliver its objectives, but every time it gives government a chance to denounce unions as irresponsible and unrealistic it makes the tool ever less useful in future.
Today thousands of teachers are missing a day’s pay, thousands of students are missing a day’s school, and thousands of parents are missing a day’s work, which is all cases many can ill-afford, and the sum result will be negligible. The vanity and pride of the NUT Exec has led its members into a campaigning cul-de-sac. The vital need for stronger and better professional leadership for teachers has never been clearer.
Last night I attended an event at the Institute of Education in London. Four big names in education politics (Ken Baker, Sally Morgan, Estelle Morris and Jon Coles) discussed what potentially might appear in the major party manifestos for the next general election. In a way, it was a peculiar event: by focussing on all the parties, it inevitably tended towards a broad brush approach, which then tended to consensus, since in the broadest terms, the major political parties obviously agree. Education reform over the past 30 years has always been a cross-party affair: Callaghan’s Ruskin speech is as much a forebear of the Education Reform Act as the Black Papers were, and Michael Gove’s Blairite heritage is a matter of public record. The big ticket items of education policy–school autonomy, strong accountability, rigorous qualifications–are all agreed by the education policy-makers in the major parties.
Or, at least, they are all agreed upon in contrast to the statist command-and-control agenda which education reform arose to combat. But that view, though it still finds it’s friends in parts of the education policy world, is neither dominant nor likely to become so again. The united front of education reformers against their common enemy is in danger of closing down necessary discussion about what does divide them. Last night, for example, funding was barely mentioned, yet there is a very real risk that that FE colleges are going to start going bust inside the next two years: that needs a fix. Some would say that should be answered by a pure free market – send the weak to the wall. Others would point out that the financial architecture underpinning FE, and indeed schools, is presently so full of perverse incentives that there is no guarantee it is the truly weak who will go down. Thorough-going debate about that is essential to ensure that, whoever is in government, the scenarios have at least been considered.
Curriculum was discussed a lot, but mostly in focussing on “creativity”, a term which was used abstractly and differently by all the panellists and those in the audience, and with no one getting their teeth into the real debates going on about how, and why, a particular curriculum might be worthwhile in a school. Too many still seem to believe that the content of the National Curriculum is the most important determinant of what happens in schools, rather than how schools (and the trusts or academies they fit may belong to) respond to that document, a response mostly driven by the requirements of the inspection and qualifications frameworks.
On professional development, everyone agreed that “human capital”–please God can that phrase be exiled from debate–is important and that central government fiat is not the way to ensure it is developed. But that doesn’t mean government (or potential governments) shouldn’t be thinking about who will do these things, and have some idea how they might do them. At the very minimum, politicians cannot announce something is going to happen without a clue how it will be delivered or if it is even possible.
Education policy is running with a surfeit of vision and a deficit of detail, which is ironic given that in all parties the details-people are in charge. The bear pit of the Commons and the media’s desire for personal acrimony is breeding arguments over the wrong things (under whom will Jane Austen be taught better is not a sensible debate) and ignoring the things that matter. A debate about how to make INSET days better isn’t going to make it into any election manifesto, and education could probably do with some time out of the limelight, but some very boring, very necessary work needs to be done by reformers in all parties, and some arguments need to happen between them, to ensure that the achievements of education reform are not lost in a consensual discussion, which whilst not false is not the whole truth either.
p.s. It was great that IoE organised this event, but the construction of that horrendous building means phone reception is negligible in the concrete basement and the wifi networks were locked, so only about four people out of the much larger audience could live tweet. That was a shame.
I’m not a huge fan of Vince Cable*, but two things strike me about his statement that “teachers know nothing about the world of work“. The first relates to general dissatisfaction I have with the nature of a lot of discourse about education, and especially about teachers: hordes of people turned up on Twitter berating Cable for having said it, and saying how mean he was being about teachers. The same thing happens every time Gove, or indeed Tristram Hunt, says anything about teachers: teachers complain they are being disrespected, as though no politician can be permitted to talk about education without first saying how absolutely lovely and hardworking teachers are. This is plainly absurd and a mark of a profession peculiarly uncertain about its status. Do we honestly need to be love-bombed by Westminster’s finest every time they speak about our field? Are we so unsure of the value of our work that we need politicians to tell us it is any good? It is a tedious discourse, taking offence when it’s probably best left lying where it is (which would, incidentally, have the effect of blunting a significant number of the DfE’s media attacks, but that’s a different matter). It was abundantly clear that Cable wasn’t writing off all teachers as idle shysters who’d managed to bandy access to a blackboard into a lifelong laze in front of the class, so the outrage was utterly unnecessary.
It was also unhelpful, because it obscured a chance to discuss something quite interesting (and this is my second point): Cable is pretty much correct. Cable’s point was clearly that teachers are not especially good at preparing their students for the world of work. Not only is this mostly true, I would argue that it is pretty much as it is supposed to be. Between myself and the state, quite a lot of money has been spent training to make me a history teacher. My job is to induct students as best I can into the discipline of
history. That I should necessarily be expected to also acquire to skills of a careers advisor and interview coach seems to me a misallocation of resources: I have one job the state pays me to do, why do I need another one?
This is not to suggest that schools shouldn’t take a very large role in careers training, but why expect a profession made up, in the main, of people who pursued academic training in a particular subject to suddenly acquire a profound insight into how to persuade organisations as diverse as Gregg’s and GoldmanSachs to give students a job. I’ve had five jobs since I left university: one I was elected to, and the other four were decided by interviews in schools, three of which involved teacher a demonstration lesson. None of these experiences are even remotely representative of the ways most students will find work. This requires dedicated attention and skills, yet career responsibility in schools remains largely an additional responsibly put on top of a teaching load. Of course, many such teachers do their jobs well, but inevitably most don’t have either the time or the space to focus on developing the strength and depth of careers advice, links to the local employment market and quality work discovery and work experiences that are required to make careers training truly effective. Fundamentally, this needs to be a role that belongs to someone full time; at present, the non-teaching full time staff of a school include admins, site supervisors, nurses, EWOs and data managers. In such ways are the things schools find important reflected. Full time careers officers in school are a vital part of improving careers advice.
But a final point, and this is what Cable should really have been criticised for: although schools should be the site of great careers advice, a significant portion of the responsibility should fall on companies (like those led by those Cable was talking to) themselves to build links to schools. That’s the message he should carry to them: if you want schools to help you, it’s time to help them.
* I’m not a huge fan of any of the Coalition LibDems, notwithstanding that their politics are more congenial to the Labour Party than their Tory colleagues: it will take a long time for the generation sold a pup by the LibDems on tuition fees to trust in politics again. They were probably right to put up fees, but when your only distinctive policy is that you won’t, and you make absolutely no effort to defend that policy (as the memoirs of the Coalitions negotiations make clear they didn’t) you’re engaging in pretty cynical politics.
The BBC experimented with a new form of public history over the weekend, in which a lecture presented by Niall Ferguson on the causes of World War One became the keystone of a debate on air and online, which as well as being open to all those who tuned in and had internet access included a truly stupendous lineup of academic historians. Despite some misgivings, about the format generally and some of Ferguson’s history specifically, I think the idea was a great one and should definitely be repeated. I thought I’d jot down here some more comments about the whole thing.
Ferguson’s star power was clearly a big selling point for the BBC, and he very much took pride of place – I’ll address some of the problems that created in a moment, but I also wanted to highlight some of the very real problems in Ferguson’s historical argument. Ferguson is no academic lightweight and has written directly (in a book also titled The Pity of War) on the points he covered in the programme. Moreover his central thesis–that WW1 was a straightforward conflict of imperial conquest, and Britain would have been better off out of it–is on the face of it a reasonable interpretation of the facts. However, in arguing his case, there were points where Ferguson dismissed or failed to even mention evidence in a manner that was slapdash at best: commenting that a higher percentage of the French population was in military service than that of Germany ignores the fact that France has a smaller population; bringing up the spate of German surrenders in the closing months of the war whilst failing to mention the Ludendorff Offensives of early 1918 avoids making clear that the Allies decisively defeated them (thus undermining Ferguson’s argument about the superiority of German soldiery, itself based on some suspect use of statistics which ignored the strategic disposition of forces); implying that a Kaiserreich customs-union would have been substantially similar to the European Union is a piece of counter-factual reasoning too obtuse to be of any use (as someone else commented, “What if the Aztecs had attacked, what then?”). These are the kinds of historical cheap shots which undermined the seriousness of Ferguson’s argument, and for the first time made clear to me why he is rumoured to be the basis of Irwin in The History Boys, offering easy controversy as a substitute for complex reasoning.
That said, given that Ferguson was clearly calling the shots on this programme, he deserves significant credit for being willing to cede a lot of screen time to a line up of academics who, by and large, tore his argument to pieces. Heather Jones, Gary Sheffield, David Reynolds and Hew Strachan amongst others responded to Ferguson’s arguments robustly. This was by far the best part of the programme and the BBC should be congratulated for having gathered such an impressive line up… But the very fact of how impressive the line up was made it frustrating that we didn’t hear more from them, and more discussion between them. The role assigned to the historians was to dispute with Ferguson, and given how outlandish some of his claims were and how easily knocked down, this seemed a waste. I’d have preferred if the programme had addressed itself to, say, five key questions about the war and asked a different historian to take each in turn before that historian could chair discussion on that issue. Gary Sheffield suggested to me that the BBC is overly obsessed with celebrity historians: my only response is that every single historian interviewed that night could clearly carry a programme on their own, indeed some of them already have, so why not expand the pool of celebrity historians?
Other aspects of the format also jarred. All the shiny special effects were unnecessary, and indeed illustrated to be so by the occasional sudden flashes of AJP Taylor talking directly to camera with nary an animated map or neon bar graph (though he was rocking a quite exceptional green shirt and tie combo). The “final thought” speech from Ferguson at the end was not just a bit cheesy, it also summed up a debate that hadn’t happened (i.e., one in which anybody else had agreed with Ferguson). Overall, Ferguson had too much of a commanding role, was at times bending the rules of history to suit himself and left a sense that most historical debate is just statements of personal preference rather than evidenced rigorous debate.
But all-in-all, The Pity of War was a welcome mark of the BBC treating history as a serious endeavour and historians as people worth putting on the tele. Now, if it can only strengthen that commitment, it’ll be doing very well indeed.
Tony Blair was arguably the greatest and certainly the most successful leader Labour has ever had. Whilst he was always the decisive captain of his political destiny and often happy to be out on a limb leading his party, he was never entirely alone. The team around Blair was remarkably talented, and contributed considerably to why he was so effective as Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly many of these effective and able people went on to become public figures themselves: Peter Mandelson (MP, EU Commissioner, linchpin of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet), Alastair Campbell (writer and campaigner), Matthew Taylor (chief executive of the RSA), Lance Price (writer of books about how dreadful the whole experience was). However, one of the most important members of Blair’s team, who joined the Downing Street staff from the Labour Party in 1997, served briefly as a minister before returning to No. 10 as Director of Government Relations, was Sally Morgan. Despite her immense influence and great skill at holding the No. 10 operation together through the second and toughest term of Blair’s government, Morgan is little known by the public: of the six people mentioned in this paragraph, she is the only one whose Wikipedia entry is designated “a stub”*. She doesn’t even come up first when you Google that entry. And that’s precisely as it should be: Sally Morgan was a significant part of what made the Blair government work, and a crucial component of how she did that was by never being the person in the public eye.
I relate all this because there have been three types of response to the news that Baroness Morgan of Huyton, as she now is, is not to be given a second term as Chair of the Board of Ofsted:
- Anger - that the current government is trying to stuff public bodies with Tory-supporters (and, whilst doing so, is dismissing the very few women they’ve bothered to appoint to public office);
- Boredom (mostly feigned by political commentators) – that this women no one has heard of is complaining about a job no one understands
- Acceptance - that Ofsted is basically a broken reed and sacking its chair is a damned good thing
Whilst I think the first has some justification, and was clearly articulated by Morgan herself on yesterday’s editon of the Today programme, I think it does not reach completely to the heart of what is wrong with the decision not to re-appoint her. The second response is, as I’ve tried to illustrate above, wilfully ignorant from people whose job is to understand politics: the whole point of hiring people like Sally Morgan is you don’t hear a lot about them because they are exceptionally good at their job, and part of their being exceptionally good at their job, is that they do it in a low key fashion.
It is in rebutting the third response, however, that I think it is possible to begin to see why everyone in education should be interested in why Baroness Morgan will be unwelcome in Ofsted’s Store Street HQ come September. Ofsted has never been short of critics: Chris Woodhead, the last Chief Inspector under the Tories and the first under New Labour, was so reviled that the NUT website still carries a blog from a teacher wishing him dead. The impact of Ofsted inspection decisions on a school is such that no one in education—not even me, who is proud to defend the role of Ofsted in the school system—thinks about a visit from HMI without some trepidation. And, of course, the political debate around education has often made Ofsted a hot topic, as when Downhills School in Haringey was instructed to take on academy status as a result of poor Ofsted reports. Recently, however, a stronger strain of criticism has emerged. Whilst the theme is similar to that in the blog referenced above (that Ofsted is imposing terrible things on our children), the content is very different: Ofsted’s reports have been clinically dissected to illustrate that inspectors continue to endorse and expect a child-centred pedagogy, predicated on a progressive educational ideology. Certainly, it is not necessary to accept in full that Ofsted is in the grip of its own Summer of Love to follow Old Andrew’s evidence that reports have violated the guidance laid down by the Chief Inspector; indeed, the Chief Inspector has himself pointed this out.
But, and this is the crucial thing for challenging the assumption that Morgan has been fired for failing to deal with this, it is being dealt with. That letter from Wilshaw is unprecedented in the history of Ofsted in both its frankness and the publicity it has received. It is now said that HMIs are being pulled off other work to take in hand the teams of sub-contracted inspectors who continue to produce sub-standard reports. The whole question of whether Ofsted should even be inspecting individual lessons in the manner which allows reports like those cited to be produced, is up for discussion. It is not easy to shift any bureaucracy, least of all a government one, to a point of self-criticism and change but Morgan and Wilshaw have actually achieved this: before our very eyes Ofsted is changing, and changing in a direction its most vocal critics have demanded. But now, apparently on a political whim, Ofsted faces massive disruption, not simply getting a new chair but the eight months in which the current one remains in place waiting for removal coupled with the inevitably months whilst the new person comes to grips with the levers of the office. The education system built up by both Labour and Tories over the past 35 years requires strong accountability, and that needs an effective inspectorate. Whatever might still be wrong with Ofsted, sacking Morgan is a staggeringly unhelpful distraction from making the necessary changes.
* As, incidentally, is the Wikipedia entry of Blair’s previous Director of Government Relations, Anji Hunter. Although, of course, Morgan and Hunter share one other characteristic which may explain why Wikipedia editors are in so much less of a hurry to fill in the details of their lives #EverydaySexism.
This post also appears on Labour Teachers.
1. a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification:
his chosen profession of teaching
a barrister by profession
If the definition above, from the OED, is accepted, teaching has ceased to be a profession. Although Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) still exists and is available to those who complete a validated route into teaching (PGCE, GTP, TeachFirst), the Coalition government decided to dispense with the requirement that teachers in maintained schools possess QTS*. Many teachers, it is fair to say, were against this. The ending of the QTS was castigated by the teaching unions and by many individual teachers. Labour’s new Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, went on the offensive, launching a campaign saying Britain now had the lowest teacher eligibility requirements anywhere in the developed world; this was popular with teachers.
This is the context in which to read Hunt’s announcement of a re-validation process for teachers – as part of developing, not a further undermining of, teaching’s claim to professional status. Despite the headlines and despite the very negative reaction from many teachers (including a move by the NUT in the space of 24 hours from cautious acceptance to predictable hostility), three things should be clear from the combination of Hunt’s previous statements on the value of a qualified teacher workforce and the things Hunt has said in his media interviews about this particular policy:
1) This is a policy very much in embryo – teachers can and should engage to make it work.
Although it is similar to, it is not the same as the ‘license to teach’ slated for introduction by Labour prior to the 2010 general election**; nothing I have seen suggests that Labour has committed itself to any particular version of the re-validation process. In my next blog, I intend to offer a couple of suggestions for how the policy might be carried forward, but the most important point at this stage is that this is an offer from Hunt, not an instruction, and as teachers we should be prepared to engage with the huge potential of this idea. It is dispiriting to see teachers so keen to condemn a politician without, at least, asking for clarification or considering the bona fides of that politician. Hunt has been as strong a defender of QTS status as any teacher, so suggestions that he is just aping Michael Gove are way off – not least because, whatever else might be said about this policy, it is the precise opposite of Gove’s approach on this issue. Education is presently in flux – the politically savvy are moving to debate, shape and even create their own versions of the future, like ARK with its earnest inquiries into new assessment systems, or the RSA, with its academies commission, or those proposing a Royal College of Teaching – Labour is offering a chance to be part of that shaping process. Well-reasoned argument backed by evidence will find a hearing; angry denunciations of politicians for making perfectly reasonable demands of accountability will not.
2) The idea of the policy is a good one: it is not enough simply to return to the days of one-off QTS.
I found the whole debate around QTS quite dull and difficult to engage with, because at present QTS is meaningless: it isn’t remotely difficult to get and once achieved it is only taken away for extraordinary breaches of professional duty. When Labour proposed insisting that all teachers get QTS, it seemed a bit strange because, for me, getting QTS simply involved living to the end of my NQT year – most unqualified teachers will have taught for that long if not longer, so requiring them to do something else to match my QTS seemed arbitrary and possibly self-defeating. However, setting a higher bar for all teachers, and introducing a re-validation process that requires an ongoing engagement with pedagogy, subject knowledge and (for those needing it) specialist training in, say, special education needs (SEN) or management, is a boon for all teachers. The best parts of my PGCE were about a critical engagement with the literature of history education, but I could have achieved QTS without it – that should no longer be possible. It also shouldn’t be acceptable for teachers to stop engaging with that literature the moment QTS is achieved. For example, there is at present much excitement about the potential of Willingham’s and Hirsch’s work to make a real difference to students’ progress – whether this excitement is justified should be tested on the evidence, but it should certainly be a requirement that all teachers engage with the value of new developments; that Vygotsky still seems to rule as the last word on pedagogic theory is, frankly, barking.
Many will say that teachers don’t ignore the need to update their professional knowledge – they complete their own professional development, either via school-funded CPD or off their own backs. In response, I would say: a) many teachers do this, but the quality of CPD provided, both school-funded and personal, is incredibly variable – I discuss this further below; and b) some teachers aren’t doing this, or are doing it very badly, and it should be possible to remove them if that is the case. Capability procedures exist to do this, but they are unevenly applied to an extent that the actual standard of teaching that gets you sacked is almost arbitrary. Re-validation should ensure far greater standardisation in Teacher Standards, which at present can vary not just from school-to-school but department-to-department. That variability should end, and the rights of teachers at risk of failing re-validation should be clearer than at present.
3) This policy is not about bad teachers, but about better teachers.
It is inevitable that any system requiring full engagement from a group of people requires sanctions for those who do not engage – hence the need to de-validate those who do not maintain the required standards, although as I suggest above, teachers in such a position actually have a lot to gain from better standardisation and greater rights to training. But fundamentally, to focus on those teachers is to miss the point: there are many, many more competent teachers than there are failing ones, and this policy is about helping those teachers achieve an ambition held by all competent teachers–to be a better teacher.
At the moment, the quality of professional development available to teachers is, to put it mildly, variable. This is not a function of the level of qualification achieved by the CPD. Whilst all teachers can probably recall an epically awful one-day of external training relieved only by the quality of biscuits on offer, as a higher education academic (who shall remain nameless) pointed out to me at an event, “There’s no shortage of utterly pointless education Masters degrees out there”. As such, it isn’t just the variability that is a problem, but the lack of good quality information about what is good quality CPD. At the moment, aside from a desire not to be bored, there is little incentive on teachers to shop around for quality school-funded CPD and very little information which could help them shop around for self-funded university courses. With the introduction of re-validation, it will suddenly matter a great deal, and a confused deputy head booking some snake-oil salesman with a flash website but no insight is likely to be deluged with very real complaints. Moreover, re-validation will make the matter of CPD an issue of industrial relations: if getting bad INSET is likely to cost you your job, it is perfectly legitimate to involve your union, invoke a trades dispute and even go out on strike to get better professional development. The sight of teachers on the picket line demanding better training so they can teach better is far more likely to engage parental support than telling them about changes to a pension plan which no non-teacher could buy. Clearly the introduction of re-validation will need to take account of the availability of CPD, but it should also have the effect of improving it. But that isn’t all – done well, re-validation can become the prism through which many of the teaching profession’s greatest bug-bears are dealt with: workload can be reduced as low-impact, high-intensity policies are discarded in the face of an increasingly well-trained profession able to assert itself on the basis of evidence against unreasonable demands. Of course, it may turn out that some unpopular policies are actually proved to be highly effective, but a profession can hardly demand to be treated as such if it ignores the evidence. It won’t be easy, or quick, to build world-class professional development into England’s education system, but it is certainly worth the time and effort to do it.
The assumption should not be that re-validation is aimed at developing a “bad teachers” narrative. But it is evidently, and unashamedly, proclaiming that teaching and learning could be better – and this is obviously the case, and ambitious teachers agree with this. Labour is proclaiming that teachers should have both the right to high quality professional development and the responsibility to deploy what they have learned. Tristram Hunt is offering teachers a chance to shape and create a new model of professional development that meets their needs whilst also meeting the needs of their students. In my next blog, I want to suggest some ways forward, but I think it essential now to ask that those who have something to offer to this process do not walk away from it. There is great potential here – let’s seize it.
* Strictly speaking, this isn’t true: schools have long been able to employ teachers who did not hold QTS, but it was a requirement that such teachers enroll on a route which would result in QTS.
** About which, a few words: the BBC, among others, has suggested that license to teach was defeated by the teacher trade unions in a battle with the last Labour government. This is simply untrue: license to teach commanded significant support from within the profession, including the avowed backing of the NASUWT and the NAHT, and only failed to be introduced because the Tories wouldn’t vote for it in the Parliamentary “wash up” when (for slightly archaic reasons) the opposition suddenly holds the whip-hand over the government in the closing weeks before the end of a Parliamentary session.
I’ve written a piece for TES, asking questions about how we teach the First World War and suggesting that popular memory remains committed to a series of myths which teachers must challenge.
You can read and comment on the full piece via this link.
I also spoke to the TES podcast as part of their World War One special. You can listen and subscribe to the podcast via this link.
The Da Vinci Code is the most famous of Dan Brown’s utterly dreadful books about Havard “made-up-subject-ologist” Robert Langdon and his curiously obsessive if largely accidental war on the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t the first. That book, entitled Angels and Demons, I first read as bookshop assistant on my lunchbreak, choosing it from the free, pre-release paperback samples (sent constantly to bookshops) on the broken shelf in our subterranean staffroom. The cover was cleverly designed, so that whichever way up it was held, the title still appeared: the gaps in the word “angels” spelling “demons” and vice versa. This morphed into the book’s story, in which those who should be saintly turn out to be sinners and nothing is as it seems; ultimately, pleasingly, it’s all solved by a very clever man with a doctorate. I was sixteen, into conspiracy theories, and I thought it was terribly good.
I say this, for today should have brought another epic confrontation between a brilliant young holder of a PhD and a shadowy, sinister mastermind operating in the shadow of a great church (the DfE’s Sanctuary Buildings stand just behind the imposing edifice of Westminster Abbey). Sadly, Michael Gove (he’s the mastermind in case this tortured link got lost there) didn’t bother to turn up to confront Dr Tristram Hunt, newly-minted Shadow Education Secretary, so we got David Laws instead; as though, to move film metaphors completely, Bond rocked up to the volcano lair to find not Blofeld but just the pretty little cat.
Still, the showdown was on the question of the al-Madinah free school, which has now been operating in Derby for a year, and has just received what must rank amongst the worst Ofsted reports of all time. In such a circumstance, it should have been clear who was on the side of the angels: the Labour Party, attacking Gove for having permitted this terrible school to open and serve students, despite repeated warnings about the weaknesses of this school in particular, and the general lack of due diligence on free schools in general.
But Laws, feline-like if not feline-looking, wriggled free: when Hunt announced, “It is not just Al-Madinah school which is dysfunctional. It is the education secretary’s free schools policy”, Laws suddenly proclaimed that actually al-Madinah was evidence of the success of free schools. On the one hand, he thundered, most free schools weren’t like al-Madinah, and on the other hand, that al-Madinah was being so ruthlessly intervened with was in stark contrast to all the failing schools Labour had left behind. The Tory whips had clearly decided to back their honorable friend in the LibDems and duly marched in MPs to proclaim how dreadful Hunt was for bringing up a failing free school but not any other type of school, and how he’d done a U-turn on support for free schools. The angelic doctor was revealed to be a demonic dogmatist; he was the sinister shadow in education policy, not Michael Gove.
This is, of course, nonsense. Three points need to be made clear: 1) Hunt has made no U-turns; 2) bringing up al-Madinah in the House was right and necessary and Gove should not be permitted to evade the very serious questions he has to answer over that school; 3) Coalition claims that they are ruthlessly intervening in all failing schools are demonstrably false.
On the first count, claims Hunt has changed his position from Sunday do not stand up: under Stephen Twigg and now Hunt, Labour has committed itself to the retention of all currently-existing free schools where they are good; no one has turned on excellent examples of the type, like School21 or even Toby Young’s West London Free School. However, Labour has voiced serious concerns over the level of due diligence performed by the DfE in setting up free schools; in his Sunday interview on Andrew Marr, Hunt specifically referenced al-Madinah as an example of the kind of mistakes that have been made. This is why Labour will offer “social entrepreneurs” who want to establish new schools the chance to establish Parent-Led Academies (PLAs) using more stringent criteria than the current free school system. That is no U-turn.
On the question of why this school was raised at this time in that place, where else should Hunt have raised the problems of al-Madinah? The Secretary of State for Education is, by virtue of the funding agreements for free schools, the legal authority with oversight of them – it is entirely proper this be raised in the House. What is not at all proper is that the Secretary of State did not bother to turn up to answer these questions. A teacher asked this morning if I believed Gove should resign over al-Madinah; at present, I would answer ‘no’ – I think ministerial resignations rarely solve anything as often the problem runs deeper than a single individual. But Gove does have questions to answer: what went wrong in the application stage for free schools which permitted al-Madinah to get this far? Why were the pre-opening warnings from Ofsted not heeded? What has changed in the assessment of new free school applications which will prevent this from happening again? How, if necessary, will this school be closed and the students’ well-being safeguarded? These questions may have excellent answers, but Gove himself should give them. If he continues to dodge these questions, then it is entirely fair to say Gove’s free school policy is in trouble and he himself is in trouble. Schools must be accountable and so must ministers.
Gove, and indeed Laws, should also account for the misleading of the House which went on today. Laws repeatedly claimed that the current government is ruthlessly intervening to improve failing schools. That would be news to the parents of Seven Sisters Primary School in Tottenham, which was found to be inadequate by Ofsted a year ago, and should therefore have been found an academy sponsor to take on running it and begin improving it from the woeful state it finds itself in. However, the failed management are still in place, some of them key leaders of the ferocious and wrong-headed attempt to prevent the Harris Federation from taking on and improving neighbouring primaries. The local authority is powerless to do anything about it because responsibility now lies with the DfE. Presently, a new free school is being considered for Hornsey, wealthier neighbour of Tottenham, yet a poorly-performing, mismanaged primary–in the heart of a deprived community–has gone entirely unaided.
There are few in the Labour Party who have been more vociferously in favour of the kind of ruthless intervention against failure which Laws proclaimed the government was performing, and few more willing to endorse the freedoms of free schools than I have been but today, I found myself incredulous at the way Laws and his Tory colleagues responded to a sensible and necessary question about their policy with an attempt to demonise the opposition and mislead about their own weaknesses. Gove dodged an important test. Education reform deserves better than being made a cheap political thriller.