The English school system is fractured right down the middle, with county schools on one side and government academies on the other. While county councils try to develop relationships with the whole family of local schools and get to know the staff in them and their particular issues, the Department for Education has thousands of schools and a strategic view that means they will only get involved when there is already a known issue. Hands on versus hands off: it is, after-all, what the academy system was all about, freeing schools from the dead hand of council control.
But do schools work best when no-one is watching too closely?
Birmingham schools get their OFSTED reports today, with the politicians and press focussing on the extremism, but the real issue is the governance of Academy schools and the fact that OFSTED found itself hoodwinked by the schools themselves. Now, the fact that Head-teachers routinely game the system to the school’s advantage should not be news to anyone involved in the education sector, but it seems to have surprised Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Read More…
It has been nearly a thousand days since my last post, and a lot has happened in that time. Mr Gove has gone from a reasonable sounding shadow education minister with some good ideas, to an arrogant, self-assured education minister surrounded with yes-men and no ability to distinguish the good from bad.
We now have religious fundamentalist schools redacting parts of science exam papers with which they disagree, a rapid growth of academies without local oversight, radically changed teacher working conditions and pension arrangements, and an untested performance pay system with new head-teacher powers. There are also radically changed exam arrangements, new performance tables, a swelling Maths curriculum, arguments about English and History contents and a minister who seems to be manoeuvring for the party leadership if the Conservatives lose power in the next general election. And there is UKIP making dodgy sounding statistical claims about immigrants, along with the other right wing xenophobic parties getting more shouty all over Europe and America.
On the science side we have the Higgs Boson discovery, badger culls, shale gas extractions, wind turbine fields, the pause in global warming, observations of cosmological chaotic inflation and of quantum gravity waves.
I had originally planned to post to this blog every couple of weeks: that makes me seventy post behind schedule, so it is time to get cracking!
Gove’s plan to remove BNP members from schools is an ominous restriction of political freedom.
Michael Gove, the Coalition Education Minister, has allowed his political instincts to take second place to following the vocal crowd, and has promised that schools will be allowed to sack BNP members from their staff. The rationale, if you can call it that, is that BNP membership is incompatible with the ethos of schools, and that clearing these outcasts from schools will be an unalloyed good.
But why stop at the BNP? Which other groups have politically incorrect views that the famously tolerant British should not tolerate?
How about UKIP with their dodgy views about foreigners? Or islamist affiliations who want a European caliphate? Sinn Fein or Plaid Cymru members who want to break up the Union? Tories? A teacher who doesn’t want to sign up to the school’s statement of ‘shared values and beliefs’?
Don’t laugh at this last one, though. This has already happened! I have been told during a ‘training’ session that anyone who voiced an opinion in the staff room that a Sixth Form College should focus more on A Levels, and less on vocational courses, would not be tolerated. The suggestion was that such a teacher should be ‘encouraged’ to leave unless they buttoned up and signed up.
If the aim of this new policy is to allow heads to sack teachers who use their position to proselytise their political views, then Gove would be pleased to know that this behaviour would already be in breach of contract. I am certain that most teachers with odious views are not actually members of a political party, and also that many members of the BNP are not as unlikeable as their simpleton leader. I am also pretty sure that an hour a week with a maths teacher who holds radical views is more likely to be educational than dangerous for children. They will benefit from seeing a range of political views from the staff instead of the current, uniform Guardianista viewpoints.
OK, I know slippery slope arguments are often spurious, but in this case the motivation behind the policy seems to be a response to pressure groups to keep ‘keep them away from our children’. A success here will encourage an extension to teachers who openly support the BNP but have not joined as members, or have resigned. After that, then, which other ‘opinions’ would become adopted as thought crimes, punishable by summary dismissal?
While I would not mourn the departure of some staff, dismissal for supporting a legally established and state funded political party seems a bit too Orwellian for comfort.
If you don’t speak up for others’ political freedoms now, who will speak up for yours when they come for you?
The ongoing crisis in school Physics teaching was not improved much by the last government, leaving most lessons taught by biologists or chemists. Most English teachers have first class degrees, but a quarter of new Physics teachers have third class degrees, more than any other subject. This is for two main reasons.
First, physicists are drawn to the abstract and the impersonal, and so not many are cut out for the intense social experience that is teaching. This leaves teacher training colleges accepting almost anyone who applies.
Second, few qualified physicists and engineers are willing to work for the kind of salary that is intended to be attractive to people with English or History degrees. Industry pays what is needed to attract those with shortage skills.
The Education Minister, though, has a cunning plan: bar those with a third class degree from funded teacher training places. This will, apparently, make teaching more attractive to the better educated and improve the quality and standing of teaching as a profession. And, to give Gove some credit, there is some logic in this.
Modern students deciding on their career choices do see the most difficult to enter professions as the most desirable, so the elite students gravitate to Medicine, with its history of insufficient training places to train all the physicians we need. The restricted entry leads to high levels of salary and a social standing out of all proportion to the skills actually needed to work as a GP.
So Gove’s solution is to raise the entry bar for prospective teachers, without a corresponding pay rise for those with shortage skills. Pay has not risen above inflation for the last decade, and it is still impossible for many schools to fill their Maths and Physics posts with specialists as a result.
The problem Gove has, though, is that teaching is a profession accepts anyone with a non-honours pass degree from a university which may only ask for two grade E’s at A Level. Rejecting third class honours wholesale says that a Third in Physics from Oxford or in Engineering from Imperial College is not as desirable as a Lower Second Class degree in Textiles:Knit from the University of Westminster.
An engineering company short of skills or experience would offer a rewards package to attract the best people to apply, and then employ the best amongst the applicants.
Teaching will not become a desirable career for the best qualified and most able people until the salaries reflect the level of ability needed for each post. It takes more money to employ a good mathematician or physicist than it does to get high quality English teachers.
Does Gove have the courage to introduce differential pay in the face of the unions? The current funding squeeze is the perfect cover with the unions weakened, and will be the only chance for a generation. I won’t be holding my breath.
Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, has announced that the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) is to be abolished in the autumn, and not a moment too soon.
It has cost a small fortune to run and was never going to be a rallying point for teacher professionalism, and has failed even to act as a guarantor of teacher quality by disciplining us.
When the GTCE was created in 1998, it had so few teachers paying their subscriptions, even under the threat of de-registration, that it had to arrange for salary deductions to cover its expenses. I, like many other teachers, saw no benefit in the extra layer of bureaucracy. All teachers were already registered with the government Department for Education (and its heirs and successors), many were also members of unions and teacher subject groupings (such as the ASE) and felt we were already quite well represented and regulated.
For my own part, I did not pay any subs until salary deductions started, I responded to no letters, and was pleased that when I moved to a Sixth Form college which didn’t require my registration, the GTCE was unable to take any further money. I had a letter saying that I would be de-registered (struck off) if I didn’t pay up, so I was surprised that two years later they wrote again to say I owed them two years’ payments. They couldn’t even get that right.
The GTCE is, and always has been, a complete irrelevance to teachers. When it finally goes, few will notice and none will care.
So what did the GTCE say on hearing the good news? Did they respond by apologising for wasting everyone’s time and money? Promise to do better? No, they said that they were “seeking legal advice on (their) position“.
Parliament will surely vote to abolish the GTCE later in the year, and it can be finally buried, unloved and unmissed, in the graveyard of the Quangos.