Tag Archives: academies

Waging War on Mediocrity – The Education Plans

So, just in case people didn’t know, there’s an election coming up, and all the politicians we’ve all come to love or completely despise (yes looking at you here Mr Gove) all come up with their remarkable promises that pretty much every single time they don’t stick to (take the Lib Dems and university tuition fees).

So what’s been happening this time round? Well Mr Cameron promises that in a Conservative government, there will be no cuts to the schools budget in cash terms. He also promised that he would provide an additional £7bn for places for the rising number of pupils due to the baby boom we’ve had over the past few years. Well on the face of it, that sounds all rather nice, yay no cuts. But wait … hang on a minute. He said ‘in cash terms’, which means that it doesn’t increase in line with inflation, so in ‘real terms’ what he’s actually saying is that he is actually cutting the schools budget.

Another promise that came up concerned schools becoming academies. This was initially a Labour ideal but the Tories have brought it on further. Mr Cameron says he is ‘waging war on the mediocrity of our schools’ and he believes academies are the solution. What I find interesting about this is that Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, who represents the party that started this whole academy process off, suggested that this isn’t the only solution. Say what you like about academies, but for me there is genuinely not enough evidence to suggest that academies have been an effective way to solve our education issues. What Mr Cameron wants to do is make more schools that aren’t rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted become academies in a bid to improve standards. But how reliable are Ofsted’s judgements? We constantly hear them come under fire from all directions from teachers to parents and unions. I personally have been a pupil and taught in several schools rated from what is now ‘requires improvement’ to ‘outstanding’ and in some cases have not seen a difference in ones that require improvement and outstanding schools, so begs the question of why the inconsistency. There are also schools out there, such as schools that specialise in SEN, where the progress targets are not so easy to meet.

Talking of Tristram Hunt and Labour, they also came under fire today with a pledge that has leaked out with regards to the tuition fees. I took a bit of a swipe in my intro at the Lib Dems putting the cost up to £9000 per year, well Labour want to do something about this by reducing the fees down to £6000 per year. Once again this sounds really good and will certainly ease the cost of higher education. However, if you work out the costings of all of that, it works out that over the next Parliament, Labour would have to find somewhere in the region of £12bn to pay for it, so the burning question in my mind is ‘how do you propose to pay for that?’ We all know the common answers: increase taxes, cut spending in other areas, or do a Gordon Brown and go on a borrowing binge. Why not get a loan of £12bn from Wonga? Not like we have a high national debt right?

I’ll be honest, what I’m getting from all of this is that we’re not going to see anything particularly positive with regards to our beloved education anytime soon no matter who we elect into our next Parliament. All the more reason for me to not really want to vote for anyone because noone is able to make a positive difference.

The Free School Debacle – My take

It’s been an interesting weekend in terms of education this past weekend. Within the past couple of days, Michael Gove’s flagship policy, Free Schools have been back in the news once again.

Over the weekend, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (who’s he?) has reported that Free Schools need tougher controls, ie only employing fully qualified teachers as opposed to the current structure when they can employ basically any Tom, Dick or Harry. Mr Clegg also doesn’t like the fact that Free Schools are not required to adhere to the national curriculum. He believes that they should follow the national curriculum so that parents can be sure that their children were receiving a high standard of education.

Well this morning the Tories, in particular Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, has hit back at Nick Clegg, outright rejecting the calls for tighter controls. Mrs Truss said: “It’s a shame some Lib Dems didn’t back Free Schools. The whole point of these schools is they have freedoms. That’s what’s helping them outperform maintained schools. On average, Free Schools are doing better … academies improve performance more rapidly.”

Ok Mrs Truss, I don’t like the fact that you are calling Academies and Free Schools the same thing. The reality is these two school systems, while they operate in a similar way, are not identical. Yes both are outside Local Authority control, do not have to adhere to the national curriculum (despite Ofsted assessing them against it), and they can employ unqualified teachers, but there is one key difference: who and how they are set up. Academies are often very high performing schools converting into an academy, or poor performing schools being ‘sponsored’ by someone on behalf of the DfE to build up support and the quality of the school. Free Schools are slightly different. Often these are set up by parent groups and are often state-funded, to which academies are not necessarily.

The other thing that bugs me about what Mrs Truss said was about Free Schools doing better. Am I the only one who thinks this is an attempt to try and make people forget about the al-Madinah Free School in Derby that was deemed inadequate by education watchdog Ofsted? This isn’t the only Free School deemed inadequate or requires improvement either. This means that even Ofsted, who largely will want to produce results which will please the government, are not necessarily that impressed by some Free Schools.

I also agree with Mr Clegg with respect to the curriculum, although with some limitations. Mr Clegg makes the point: “why do we have a national curriculum if only a handful of schools have to teach it?” He’s right in that sense, but what he’s ignoring is whether this curriculum is fit for purpose. In many respects, the national curriculum isn’t for teachers, pupils or parents. It is largely for the government to say ‘look at our education system! This is what English children can do at this age!’ What the current curriculum, and in some respects even the curriculum due to come in over the next couple of years, both primary and secondary, neglects is the ability to be creative with children’s learning.

Academies: My take!

We’ve seen them crop up all over the country, and Gove and Cameron are trying to persuade more and more schools to become one, yet they seem to have evaded my attentions, until I was asked by a friend to talk about them. So today’s post is going to be on academies.

Mr Gove has set out his vision that the vast majority of primary and secondary schools to become academies. I find this rather bizarre when you consider that the very same Mr Gove is intent on changing the national curriculum.

There are currently two ways to become an academy: conversion academies (schools deemed to be performing well can apply to convert to be an academy. Their governing body may remain in place, but it will have greater freedoms and responsibilities in running the school), and sponsored academies (where a ‘sponsor’ is brought in to run the school on behalf of the DfE. This can of course be a parent)

An academy works in slightly different ways to a mainstream school, of which I’m going to give both sides of each point.

One key difference is that an academy is out of the control of the Local Authority (LA). This means that there is potentially more room for flexibility of the schools budget, allowing the school to put more money onto where it feels that more money is needed. There is of course a serious downside. Without being under the control of the LA, they potentially lose all the expertise in HR, budgeting and other important services for them. It also means that schools lose economies of scale, causing a serious rise in costs. This can of course be averted by working with local schools and the LA should they wish to keep costs down. Of course should this not happen, it may mean that there is a conscious shift in the attentions of the management team to focus on raising funds rather than provide the quality education that their children deserve.

An academy also owns the premises it works on. This of course can produce an option for raising funds, ie renting premises out. But it also means that the school in itself is liable for any maintenance issues that arise from problems, ie a broken window where a child has thrown their shoe through it during a maths lesson (I have actually seen this happen before). Of course several of these means the budget can be squeezed to the point of ending up in a deficit. If the school is outside of Local Authority control, there is absolutely no protection whatsoever for the governing body should the school encounter a deficit.

One prospect of an academy, although this may not only be reduced to academies if Gove gets his way, is the fact that they can set their own pay and conditions for their staff. This means that the school will have the ability to set their own incentives such as bonuses to retain key staff. However, this seems a little too much like performance related pay crossed with the pay structure used by CEOs and directors of banks who may have caused a recession in the last few years (hint hint). If certain teachers are attracting bonuses and others are not, morale could be crushed and staff turnover may well increase. This in turn will affect the continuity and quality of teaching at the school, which won’t please Ofsted (as if it’s possible to please them anyway but let’s go with it).

One of the potentially most significant differences lies in the delivery of the curriculum. While these academies will still have to take the standardised tests such as SATs and GCSEs which will be used to benchmark the school, the way they deliver the curriculum is a lot more flexible. However, you would think that deviating too far from the national curriculum is risky for a primary academy, as going into secondary school having deviated too far may cause the child to be under-prepared. I would however like to see schools and teachers be more creative, which is something that the current national curriculum doesn’t do (although next year’s curriculum could inspire creativity anyway). There is also the potential to change the timings of the school day and term times, which could possibly improve children’s learning, although research into the lengths of summer holidays and how it effects children’s learning has yet to be carried out and produce significant results. Also longer (or shorter for that matter) school days may cause problems for working parents with childcare etc.

Overall I would think carefully if I was the governing body of a school looking to become an academy. The increases in both cost and liabilities as well as the potential loss of support and expertise that an LA can provide is quite a tough burden to deal with. If you convert and suddenly hit a huge rise in costs and thus have to make cutbacks, it could end up damaging both the quality of teaching and resources, as well as the reputation of the school itself. We all know what happens to a school with a poor reputation: parents don’t send their children there, which reduces the amount of intake in money and children the school takes, potentially forcing the school to close. If a school is forced to close, that will then mean that parents will have to send their children further away, causing competition for places, running the risk of children not having a place in education.

Wow I’ve rabbited on a lot in this post. I hope you guys enjoy and if my friend who asked me about has survived reading about this, I hope this answers your question 🙂