Parliament is in another frenzy as IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, has had its 10% pay rise for MPs bitterly rejected by many of the future recipients before they voted to accept it in full.
IPSA says that it isn’t as good an offer as it looks since the golden goodbyes are being scrapped, fiddling expenses will become more difficult and the fantastic pensions are being trimmed a little. Sir Ian, the head of IPSA, says
In making this decision we are very aware of the strongly held views of many members of the public and by some MPs themselves.We have listened to those views.
We have made an important change to the way in which pay will be adjusted annually.
Over the last Parliament, MPs’ pay increased by 2%, compared to 5% in the public sector and 10% in the whole economy. It is right that we make this one-off increase and then formally link MPs’ pay to public sector pay.
It is the season of heart-warming warming tradition, joy, pre-Christmas sales and crass householders generating enough global warming for a whole town with their shameless lighting displays. So what better way is there to prepare for the holidays than unwrapping the education sector’s annual ticking-off, as Michael Wilshaw issues his Annual Report on Schools?
Wilshaw, forever fighting the urge to tell us how he single-handedly turned his Hackney school into an outstanding beacon of excellence by recruiting middle class students from out of town, this year ripped in to schools with little sixth-forms. Apparently, students attending small school sixth forms “achieve considerably poorer results than those in larger sixth forms”.
Very Small Sixth Forms
Wilshaw said: Read More…
Headteachers are demeaning themselves in their rush to criticise the new English Baccalaureat figures included for the first time in this year’s league tables, and thereby excuse their own schools’ poor rankings.
The English Bac, or EBac, is awarded if a student gains GCSE grade C or above in each of English, Maths, Double Science, a humanities subject and a language.
Complaints have grouped into three main lines:
1. No time to properly game the system.
The main complaint is that the figures are retrospective, with the rules of the game only published after the exam results were out. ‘How can we be expected to do well without the time to change our curriculum policies?’ chant the headteachers.
This exposes the key moral weakness of modern schools, which is that directly manipulating the key indicators to make the school look good is preferred to actually improving the pupils’ education.
Gaming the system, then, is the main occupation of school managers.
2. The EBacc is a return to Academic Snobbery.
Why not allow vocational courses as well?
Schools have a choice to make. Enter children on to the course with the best educational aims (say, French or Science GCSEs) when many will achieve grades D to G passes and so not count in the laegue tables. Or, enter them for vocational courses such as the Btec, that guarantee the ‘equivalent’ of four GCSE grade Cs to any pupil still conscious at the end of the course.
The choice is really this stark, and sadly most schools go for option B with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those under the cosh from Ofsted especially realise this is the only way out of ‘special measures’. Look at the tables and you can spot such schools: they will have improved their 5 A to C figures at improbably fast rates, have high CVA (value added) scores from the additional ‘equivalent’ courses and LOW EBacc rates.
The ‘most improved’ school in the country, Perry Beaches in Birmingham, has moved its 5 A to C figures from 21% to 74% in four years. CVA is also high, but only 3% got the EBacc. Since it takes four or five years to progress through the school as a pupil, the changes must have been instantaneous to have fed through this quickly.
Certificates of GCSE equivalent passes shouldn’t count if everyone passes them. It misleads prospective parents into thinking the school is academic and improving, when it is only the figures that are going up. The quality of the education may actually be declining in these schools as they move from GCSE to Btec and other similar courses.
3. Independent schools are unfairly penalised.
Independent schools are not restricted to only offer courses approved by the politically directed Qualification Curriculum Authority which only approved courses with sufficient levels of coursework in their assessment schemes.
Independent schools don’t approve of coursework, so many offer alternative courses, such as Classical Civilisation, which don’t count towards the EBacc, damaging their figures.
Now, this is a fair complaint. But Independent schools are not compelled to enter the League Tables manipulation game, or even publish figures at all. They are free to create their own tables if they wish so they can compete on their own manicured level playing fields with their own rules.
Unfair, perhaps, but they can take their ball and play elsewhere if they don’t like it.
Less Gaming, Please.
The arrival of the EBacc has embarrassed lots of schools. They complain of the pressures of league tables and the focus on A to C grade passes which excludes the varying efforts of anyone not near the grade boundaries. But they should welcome anything that makes gaming harder and so less attractive. Less gaming should herald a move back towards professional judgements in schools instead of political ones, where the children come first.
I won’t be holding my breath though. Heads have been manipulating their table positions for a long time, and will be looking for ways to continue the game. It is all many of them know.
Once upon a time, secondary schools had catchment areas and feeder primary and middle schools. The parents’ role was simply to aid the transition and buy a new uniform and pencil set. Life was simple. But not now.
There is a bewildering range of information available about schools, from the percentage of GCSE A* to C to the school’s Index of Multiple Deprivation and Free School Meals, as well as the Open Day visits. However, the complexity of the data masks the main truth that the story it tells is simple and not so hard to judge.
It boils down to this: will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?
First, the league table figures you see in the broadsheet newspapers are easy for schools to massage, and they rarely tell you anything you didn’t know any way.
Everything from entering pupils into easy online IT course and vocational BTEC subjects, officially worth several grade C GCSEs each but with a much reduced challenge, through to picking out a couple of dozen lazy grade D boys and squeezing them until the pips squeak and they get a clutch of grade Cs. Coursework regulations, intended to ensure that only a pupil’s own work is submitted, are routinely ignored, with substandard work repeatedly marked and returned until it is good enough. Schools will even switch exam boards to chase those examiners that ‘grade high’, often following the appointment of a new head teacher looking to quickly make their mark.
These dodgy practices are sometimes apparent in the figures as a series of sudden jumps in the A* to C rates, as each new trick comes online, when even brilliant changes should take some time to feed through as new pupils move up the school with a new system.
A Social Measure
The league tables do, however, tell you much about the economic background of the families whose children make up a school’s population. If you compare the league table with the ranking according to the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), you find they measure substantially the same thing. A school high in one list will be low in the other. (For those interested, the rank correlation is around -0.75, at least in my county). The IMD accounts for around half of all the differences between schools in the tables, which makes it a more important measure than any other single factor.
So league table position, GCSE A* to Cs, and all that complex data tell you little more than you could find out from parking near the school and watching the children as they pile out at the end of the day. Posh or rough? And if you are applying to local schools, then you already know their social make-up.
Ignore the Flashy Talk
Ignore the head teachers’ Powerpoint presentations, where they tell you that the school is more than just a few numbers but here they are anyway, and go on a tour around the school. (However, a really poor presentation can tell you something about their attention to details.) Talk to the tour guide and talk to pupils you find in the corridor. Peer into any classroom with the door closed, and see what the children are doing when they think they’re not being watched. Talk to the teachers, but not about the school, since they will be on their best behaviour and supporting their employer — ask them about themselves and their job. Teachers spend their days talking, so get them talking about their days and experiences and be interested in them. Are they at home and comfortable in their jobs, do they travel for to be here, and do their own children attend the same school?
The league table position tells you how the school did with the mix of children they had, but it tells you little about how your child will do. So the real question is: can you see your own child fitting in with the children you have seen there?
It is not the prefects who showed you round you should be watching, who really ought to be smart, but the surly ones who’ve found their way to the corner on the back row of the class. There will always be some, but if there is more that a few in each room the teachers’ jobs become much harder and the easy children get less of the teachers’ attention.
The task of choosing a secondary school has become very complex if all the school gate discussions are to be believed. But, in reality, the judgement to be be made can be made without reference to all that conflicting and compromised data $mdash; just try to picture your child in amongst those who you see in the classrooms and corridors.
Will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?
Listening to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 this week, I was surprised by the panellists’ response to a question from the audience about parents who lie on school application forms. It followed the case of Mrinal Patel, who was accused by her council of fraudulently filling in an application for an over-subscribed primary school.
The panel, comic Will Self, columnist Rod Liddle and a couple of historians, all seemed to approve of parents who are economical with the truth because any good parent will do anything for the kids. Since when has the responsibility to push your offspring further and higher trumped any objection to being a deceitful two-faced liar?
Desirable school places are a limited resource – it is a zero sum game. What one parents gains from underhand behaviour, another will lose from following the rules, and this is an objectionable and immoral position to take. Claiming to be doing it for your child is a cop out – next we’ll hear the great and the good on the wireless smugly claiming that they jump the queues at Tesco and Disneyland rides for the kids.
The LSC, the government funding body for Sixth Form Colleges, has written to college principles this week to admit that they have messed up again.
In April this year, they wrote to say that the few successful projects from the mishandled multi-billion pound college rebuilding programme would be selected and announced on June 3rd (today). The main criterion they had hoped to use was a readiness to start building within weeks, assuming that most projects would fail to jump this hurdle. Now the LSC admits that they had seriously underestimated the numbers that would succeed, and will not be able to make a decision this month:
“Many more colleges have put forward a case for their projects to be considered as ‘shovel ready’ than expected, and so unfortunately we are not in a position to ask the Council on 3 June to approve individual projects.”
Most of these project have started to build already or could do so by September, so this is already cutting it a bit fine for instructing the contractors.
So, to further cull projects, the suggestion is now to pressurise colleges to cut corners on their plans:
“The challenge for colleges will therefore be to radically reduce the cost and the scope and sourcing of the funding of their projects. Revisions to the scope of projects could include rethinking or deferring whole projects, or components of projects, in favour of a contribution to costs incurred to date and/or funds for refurbishment. We will only consider funding complete re-builds where they are absolutely necessary, which should be in only a few cases.”
And although not wanting to rush anyone into any rash changes:
“We will expect all colleges on the short list to come back with revised bids and plans by the end of the month …”
The other selection criteria suggested will favour urban regeneration and poor inner-city areas, so there seems little chance for my college’s project to get the nod. It is a complete rebuild in a provincial Sussex town, and although we currently squeeze 1500 students into what was, half a century ago, built as a 600 pupil boys’ high school, I don’t see us getting very far up the list.
The college building programme, a desperately needed 2.7 billion pound project to replace crumbling and cramped buildings country-wide, has actually only got 110 million pounds to spend, according to the Prime Minister when questioned by a Member of Parliament. The whole national programme, then, could just afford to pay for the two Worthing rebuilds when there are 136 projects around the country on hold.
The Learning Support Council (LSC) funding story has descended into farce since I posted about the first problem a few weeks ago.
Many colleges have already spent up to 2 million pounds on the detailed planning provisions and face going bust if the projects cannot go ahead in the autumn as planned.
And then the LSC writes to every college in the country to confirm next year’s budgets, allowing the recruitment to increase student numbers, only to decide later that they meant to say that these were provisional budgets, which will have to be reduced by 100 million pounds. With some colleges losing up to 250 thousand pounds from next year’s accounts, redundancies look likely. Having built up expectations for college buildings that are fit to learn in (my college has 1600 students in what used to be a 600 boy middle-school), and emphasising the need for an expansion of education in a recession, the minister Ed Balls has messed up again. The head of the LSC has resigned, but Balls remains Teflon coated.