National v Local

The centralisation of control of education is leaving schools prey to even more political influence. The pendulum will swing back – this usually happens as a result of an eventual realisation that things are not working and because of a weakening of the collective amnesia as to what the merits of the old order were.

Local management of schools brings the system closer to the parents and communities which the schools serve. One of the areas of collective amnesia at the moment is about schools being an organic element of a community – if you detach the system from its immediate roots it will inevitably wither.

Schools work best when the community and the parents feel ownership. Teachers feel valued for the wider aspects of the work that they do in supporting families and community.  The curriculum can be adapted to suit local needs. The whole process is a partnership, a joint enterprise. It surely takes the proverbial village to raise the child.

The current climate is pressing schools to collaborate – the economies of scale in the current climate are too great an advantage to forgo. The threat of take over by an external asset stripping academy chain is another driver towards local networks. What we miss at the moment is local leadership. This has been exacerbated by the relentless attacks on Local Authorities and it is difficult to see where leadership will emerge. Such a need for local leadership is not confined to schooling – locally organised responses to economic hardship, energy supply and threats from a lack of planning control also stand out.

Atomised societies are difficult phenomena to change.  What we need are successful pioneers to emerge and for their achievements to be shared and understood. There must be a community somewhere in the Western world that is leading the way, but where?

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The good school and the statistics

If you plot the GCSE results against the level of deprivation/affluence in this country (Financial Times 22nd Feb) you end up with a graph that hasn’t really changed over the years and tells an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. A school’s performance is inextricably linked to the nature of the catchment area, which will be by far the greatest influence on childrens’ progress. Alas, in general, schools make little difference to this although, of course, an individual teacher can have a positive influence on an individual child.

With this information one can begin to shoot foxes; the rapidly improved, headline grabbing schools may simply have achieved this by managing to change their intake,poor performance cannot be laid at the door of Local Authorities,the targets culture, Free Schools, Academies, EBAC and OFSTED regimes are never going to make the difference.

The schools that seem to buck this trend and do well despite the relative ‘disadvantage’ of their catchment area (and there are a few notable exceptions) are often schools where parents, for cultural or ethnic reasons, support and encourage their offspring. Here lies the uncomfortable truth. To raise educational achievement (and social mobility), governments must find a way of engaging with parents. They must also find a way of convincing parents that education can actually make a positive difference to a family’s future, i.e. that there are genuine opportunities. A huge task and one that any Government should be supported to address. Alas, all we get is the cosmetic and the deceit of uninformed, gallery pleasing headlines.

We need to begin with the current school population. If we can ensure that their experience of education is positive and rewarding, where every child is taught how to support learning for themselves and for others, then there is a chance that they will pass this on to their own children. This also means a curriculum that excites and where jobs follow. We can at least make a start on the curriculum, now about those diplomas…..

Strategies for Schools: Ten Thoughts for Turbulent Times

  1. The need to protect your own capacity to develop and sustain high levels of achievement by each student and each member of staff.
  2. To conduct a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities,Threats analysis to assess your situation objectively and to consult with all your stakeholders about the school’s priorities.
  3. To avoid invitations to join projects of the  ‘how to fill the vacuum left by Local Education Authorities, or how to help us to sustain our QUANGO, or how to maintain another school’s position of influence, or how to run the system with less funding’ variety, unless they relate to schools, institutions or agencies with whom you share the same young people and families, or schools with a genuine and pressing need to which you can, in some part, respond.
  4. To remember to differentiate between the political whims and swings of the pendulum, from that which is unchanging and which will not be reversed or dropped at some future point.
  5. In consultation with the whole school community, to save costs and through collaboration with other schools and partners, to achieve economies of scale and commissioning power.
  6. To sustain and develop your recruitment by taking advantage of and developing your existing ITT Partnerships. Be ready for the training places opportunity offered by School Direct in 2012, identifying prospective employees in advance, ensuring that your school is a highly desirable employment and career destination.
  7. To secure Academy status under your own terms and to seek to consolidate your position and that of your partners’ by having a clear and unambiguous ethos and perhaps an affiliation to an umbrella organisation (e.g. Schools Co-operative Society, Faith Groups, Local Authority, Commissioning Mutual, Local Area, Trust etc).
  8. To develop closer links and collaboration with your Secondary, Junior and Infant link schools.
  9. To ensure quality in your classrooms and management systems through research, critical enquiry, dialogue and reflection.
  10. To strive, as appropriately and as far as possible, to achieve the goal of all your students, staff, visitors and friends finding your school to be a happy and rewarding place to be. 

Hegemony and Education

Education often registers high up in any poll about public concerns. We are currently in the latest, most radical and extreme phase to shake up the school system, in another attempt to ‘lever up’ results. The direction of travel is, by accident or design, likely to further widen the gaps between school performance levels and thereby provide another blow to any chances of improving social mobility. This accepted status quo also includes an all powerful independent sector which has  a stranglehold on Oxbridge places and most positions of power in society. The current wheeze of cherry picking other countries apparently successful school systems carefully avoids the published failures of such systems and the wide spread misgivings of many local people. So when will the whistle blow on all of this? It may be that our politicians are collectively deaf and blind to some of these injustices as they, after all, have done well by the current system.

In the name of ‘fairness’ and social justice I offer three questions: 1.Is it not the case that every child in this country should have easy access to a local and successful school? (by successful school perhaps a school that rates as Good by OFSTED) 2. Do we know how close we are to achieving this and what resources and policies would be required in order to do so? 3. If the over riding aim is to maximise the potential of every child in this country, surely such a system as this would provide the best solution?

  I find it hard to believe that the answers to these questions would not be: Yes, No and Yes. If this is the case, I smell a very large rat sustaining and sheltering behind this hegemony.

Riots

I will try not to succumb to a knee jerk reaction but there are a number of thoughts that spring to mind. The now infamous 120,000 families targeted by the government in a ‘see to them before the next election’ claim, do of course contain some of school age. In the short term, making better use of the fact that many teachers and schools have built up good relationships with some of these young people and their families, ought to be a priority – if only to listen. This age group will need EMA, help with finding a job as well as the support of youth and community groups. Expensive – yes, but cheaper than rebuilding city centres.

For the younger age groups, changes to the curriculum should surely be a priority. This will probably need a loosening of the current straightjacket on schools of ‘exam results accountability’  and a restoration of the funding that was deployed in the most recent attempt, now strangled, to provide a decent vocational curriculum. Parenting will also need to be a focus and the spirit of Every Child Matters, and a locally co-ordinated approach, needs resurrecting.

The problem always seems to be one of amnesia on the part of politicians looking for easy wins and the rest of society, who look the other way. We know that this challenging group exists. We have been trying to do something about it and this has probably prevented previous riots. Recently, the volatile mix of  student fee protests, phone hacking scandals, cuts, unemployment, banking bonus excess etc has tipped things over the edge.We forget that we cannot afford to stop trying and that we have not, as yet, exhausted all the different approaches. The big challenge, as we see the lurch to the right, is to have the courage to make the arguments about the need for ‘tough love’. Schools are pretty good at this and in the best ones, as in the best families, a recognition that there is the need both for the tough and for the love.

‘Good Schools’

The Department for Education currently has a web site headline ‘admissions statistics show there are too few good schools’. My first reaction is one of surprise that such a  generalised statement could appear in this way. The statement suggests that in order to be a good school you need to be over subscribed. I won’t go into the host of reasons as to why this does not always follow, not to mention that one might be preferring one good school amongst several, or the research that points to parental support as the over riding determinant of student success. What concerns me is the underlying negative message about schools that seems to be regularly promoted by government and by the  media.

I work directly or indirectly with scores of schools and the vast majority seem, in my opinion, to be doing a good job. Even the minority that are struggling still deliver great commitiment and a degree of good teaching . It is worth remembering that our state school system has to manage without the influence and wealth of a significant group of parents who opt out of the system. It is also worth remembering that our system, unlike many countries, is genuinely  in loco parentis and provides substantial additional social and psychological support for children and families. Schools also have to cope with a bewildering and exhausting amount of tinkering, often in the name of political parties chasing the floating voter. Who, other than Local Authorities, speaks up for the majority of schools? Schools would surely prosper from the encouragement that would follow from an accurate portrayal of their achievements. The extent to which we can claim to live in a tolerant and civilised society has much to do with the contribution of our schools, particularly the primary school.

I cannot speak with the authority of an official spokesman but I can speak as I find.