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.
In 2006, only two hundred out of ten thousand trainee primary teachers had technical, numerate (STEM) degrees, and this number was half the figure from 2004. It is clear that teacher subject knowledge is a key factor in the success of pupils (e.g. here), but it is also plain that specialists are very rare: out over a hundred Initial Teacher Training courses, nearly half offer an emphasis on a modern foreign language, one offers mathematics and none science.
The Williams Review into primary school Maths teaching recommended in 2008 that much of the current malaise in maths education could be solved if every primary school had at least one teacher with a ‘deep understanding’ of mathematics, so we ought be pleased that the government has announced a program to provide maths ‘specialists’.
But, as with many government solutions, the Maths Specialist Teachers Programme (MaST) is more about appearances than solving the shortage of expertise. In service teachers are to be given three autumn-term days of training at a university, two weekend residential and twelve half-days of in-school support over two years, after which they will be described as Maths Specialist teachers.
I don’t know how long it would take to turn a primary school teacher, with perhaps a Fine Arts or English Literature degree, into an expert Maths teacher, but I’m sure it’s more than the ten days offered in the MaST program.
Since the Schools Secretary has failed to answer any questions I’ve addressed to him in posts, I submitted a question to Sarah Ebner’s blog over at the Times. She had managed to get Balls to join a live Q&A session and had asked for questions to ask his. Needless to say, the slimy minister read all the questions and proceeded to answer the ones he had prepared earlier, in true Blue Peter style.
The full discussion is here , with my question down at times 14.02 to 14.05. The accompanying photo, captioned http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/live_debate/article7012253.ece is reproduced here — does he look shocked at the quality of the question?
The edited sequence goes like this:
14.02 Sarah Ebner:
This is another point which comes up often on the blog. Glen asks: why persist with judgements of schools based on raw percentages of students achieving 5 grade C GCSEs? It penalises schools serving deprived areas – schools which need a hand up, not a kicking. It also pressurises schools to focus on grade D students, and encourages entries into easier ICT online courses and such like.
14.05 Ed Balls:
Sarah, you are completely right and so is Glen, as parents we all have to look at the current league table and try to work out what they really mean on the basis of what we know about the school itself, the catchment area etc. And league tables can sometimes suggest schools are ‘high achieving’ when they actually do a poor job at raising standards and supporting progression. Our new Report Card is designed to give parents much more information – about raw results but also whether all children make progress, discipline, parent satisfaction etc. I think it will be much fairer and more informative – it will be in all schools over the next 2 years.
So, I had asked him about the huge pressure that the government and Ofsted puts, often unfairly, on schools in difficult circumstances, distorting their priorities, and he answers an imaginary question about league tables!
OK, he did that to all of the questions, but then why did he bother to travel to the Times offices, just to act as if he were in the House of Commons (not) answering questions put to him there?
Looking through last week’s papers (our paper delivery boy made it through all the snow disruption last month, but seems to have forgotten today now the weather’s fine and the sky is blue) I found a story I had missed.
The small front page story started with
“Gordon Brown has insisted Labour could still win the general election outright as another poll showed the Tory lead narrowing.
Research by ICM for the Sunday Telegraph put David Cameron’s party down one point since last month on 39%.”
I know it might indicate something about my personality type, but the story irritated me. Down one point, with a sample size of a measly thousand?
Now, results of course vary from sample to sample in a predictably random way, which puts a limit on the reliability of any judgements made from the data from just one sample. But how much? Trust the data to within 0.1%? Or 10%?
Here’s the maths bit — skip to the next paragraph if it’s not your thing.
If the poll results over time can be represented approximated by a Poisson distribution (a reasonable assumption), then the variance of the number of people preferring one party is equal to the mean number of people choosing that category. For opinion polls, we don’t know this mean, but it is close to the reported figure, i.e 39% of 1002 in the sample. With this variance, we can be about 95% sure that the true mean number of people in repeated samples choosing Tory would be 390 (40%) plus or minus twice the square root of the variance (about 40 votes, or 4%).
And the result is:
So the real result is “The Conservatives polled between 35% and 43%, which is consistent with no change at all.” OK, not a good headline, but even newspapers have an obligation to at least try to be right. I’m sure papers used to put this sort of information at the foot or the article (where hardly anyone would see it), even if the article writer ignored such a basic check. But to have every outlet from newspaper to the TV news run a similar story is laziness.
Every newsroom must have someone with enough maths skill to do this right, haven’t they?
“Even more encouraging is the clear fact that children who have faced the most challenging circumstances over the past 12 years have not been cast adrift and left at the bottom, but thanks to the Academies, National Challenge and City Challenge programmes have actually seen a more rapid improvement in results than those in the least deprived areas.”
The biggest concern with the steady and dramatic increases in the figures, after grade inflation, is the widespread tactic of entering weaker pupils for the laughably easy vocational courses that have ‘GCSE equivalence’. For example, half of all schools enter almost everyone into the vocational ICT course instead of the more challenging GCSE ICT, as it can be completed in one year and can be worth anything up to four GCSEs at grade C or above. The Telegraph reports:
A report last year by Ofsted, the education watchdog, found that qualifications such as the one run by OCR were “less demanding” than other mainstream exams. It said pupils were able to pass “whether or not they had understood what they had done”.
It is true that the number of students nationally that gain 5 A*-C grades is only 3% less if you exclude the ‘equivalent’, vocational courses, but there are categories of schools which have a lot to lose if their pass rated don’t improve sharply.
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker’s press-release said that the new Academies A*-C grades had increased at double the national rate, so I looked at the accompanying data.
The data looks comprehensive, and even breaks down results for different types of school and with/without the vocational courses. The time series do indeed show Academies improving faster then any other major category of schools, but the figures for the Academies without the vocational courses are missing!
Vernon’s minions emphasised the Academy raw percentage increases, but rolled their key data in with that for comprehensive schools, making it impossible to see what effect the dash for vocational courses has had.
Since it is just these schools that are most desperate to bump up their figures quickly to avoid the Wrath of Balls, it is very suspicious that the data, which was released with some fanfare, should have been airbrushed like this. What is the government afraid of? Given the obsession of the government with media manipulation, one can only assume that Academies have achieved their politically essential successes through a choice of courses that benefited the school more than their unfortunate pupils.
With the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, signalling a public sector pay squeeze, and the ever more political and activist head of the Audit Commission quango, Steve Bundred, recommending a pay freeze as “a pain-free way of cutting public spending”, it is worth looking at the figures to see how much teachers have really benefited from government largess during the boom years.
The answer, in case you don’t want to read to the bottom to see the graph, is not at all!
Bundred wrote in the Observer last Sunday:
“let’s dismiss the notion that spending on health and education will be protected. There are good reasons why they won’t and shouldn’t. One is that, at a time when inflation is likely to be between 2% and 3%, a pain-free way of cutting public spending would be to freeze public sector pay, or at least impose severe pay restraint. This is especially true if real wages in the private sector are still falling.”
adding a political stance with:
“Health and education will not be immune from pay restraint, partly for reasons of fairness to others, … and also because ministers will correctly assume that as public sector workers have done well over the past decade, they will tolerate some modest real reduction in earnings.”
This is misleading in two ways.
Wages Are Not Falling
First, although pay growth has slowed, wages are not falling. As Ken Mulkearn of Incomes Data Services wrote in the Guardian, the reported negative private sector pay awards are skewed largely by the loss of bonuses in banking:
“The data for April 2009, using figures not seasonally adjusted and excluding bonuses, shows earnings growth of 2.5% in the private sector and 3.3% in the public sector, consistent with IDS research on pay settlements. In the private sector, the official figures show manufacturing (where most freezes are) at 1% and private services at 2.9%.”
Teachers Have Not Seen Pay Rise
Second, teachers have not done well out of the last decade, despite repeated claims from ministers and the uncritical acceptance of this factoid in the media. The graph shows an index of how (sixth form) teacher pay, which has been largely pegged to school teacher rates, has increased compared to the All Items Retail Prices Index. I start at 2001 as that is the earliest data I can find from the teacher union websites.Clearly, our pay moved ahead of inflation for the first couple of years, but since 2004 there has been steady slide. Not bad, but we’ve hardly “done well over the past decade”
What? Ministers are Being Deceitful?
Now, I don’t mind joining in on a general belt-tightening, but at least I would like my pain to be recognised — I can’t bear to have the millionaire ministers looking down their patrician noses at me, feeding me lies about my own pay and telling me that I should be grateful to have had it so good.
Results day is nearly on us, but those unfortunate students who miss their offer grades will have fewer options than usual this year. There is more competition, and even the standard fallback, clearing, will not have many course places to offer.
For a quick assessment of the regular effects of this silliest part of the silly season on teachers check last year’s post on the matter (the newspapers will just roll out the same stories anyway). This post will focus instead on the students.
This Year is Different
This year is different for anyone biting their nails waiting for Thursday’s results, because of the combined effects of three government policies:
- One is the often discussed grade inflation, which leads ever larger proportions of the school population to feel they have what it takes to succeed at university, and allows the government to claim standards are improving.
- The second is the lack of funding to cover the extra costs to institutions of teaching the increasing numbers of undergraduates.
- And the third is that, for the first time in fifteen years, universities will be financially penalised if they over-recruit.
Traditionally, students’ applications to universities are based on the school predicted grades, which are inflated to improve the chance of an offer. It is not as risky as it sounds, since universities routinely allow students who only miss their offer by one grade to still keep their place. And everyone does it, making it fair, at least. And if they missed out, then last year 44 000 applied for course during Clearing, filling up the remaining university places.
But now, with 40 000 extra applications and only 3 000 extra places, Clearing will only have around 16 000 places on offer, leaving 65 000 hopeful students without a place. And with a demographic peak reaching college in the next year or two, taking a year out and applying again next year is now looking to be a silly strategy.
One could hope that the main effect of all this is that only those students with poor grades applying to weaker institutions will suffer, but many students are unrealistic when it comes to selecting competitive courses at prestigious universities.
Admissions officers are saying they will not allow any ‘softening’ of offers, so missing one A level subject by one grade will lead to a rejection. Even our local ex-teacher-training college-now-university will not soften requirements or offer places for clearing on any but the two most frivolous courses.
The next couple of weeks look likely to deliver heartache on a large scale.