Tag Archives: Michael Gove

Morgan – More of the same

I’m sure every teacher, parent or educator was jumping up and down with joy at the departure of Michael Gove, I know I sure was. What I was also hoping for is this means that the new secretary Nicky Morgan would slow down a few of her predecessors changes which are deemed somewhat controversial.

Well sadly for all you optimists out there, Mrs Morgan’s first speech in the House of Commons didn’t bode well. Mrs Morgan pledged to carry on the work of Michael Gove by radically expanding free schools, supporting unqualified teachers and keeping changes to the exam system, despite the unpopularity of her predecessor with teachers. Morgan made clear she admired Gove’s legacy and would maintain “undimmed” enthusiasm for free schools – the programme of new state-funded schools built by third parties such as parent groups, education charities or religious groups.

She made the remarks after Richard Fuller, MP for Bedford, said Gove had not been radical on free schools and called for a rapid expansion of the programme across the country, to which Morgan replied: “Can I thank the honourable gentleman? It’s always very exciting to be tempted and asked to be more radical. Absolutely. I am undimmed in my commitment to free schools and look forward to working with him and members on all sides in getting more free schools up and running.”

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, called on Morgan to “make the break and put the interests of pupils and teachers above Tory party ideology” by ditching the party’s commitment to allowing unqualified teachers in free schools. He said Gove was “a man full of ideas – they just happened to be the wrong ones”. But Morgan responded by mocking his “theatricals typical of someone who took part in the Cambridge Footlights as he did”. She also accused the history lecturer, who has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, of being an unqualified teacher himself. After ignoring the insult, Hunt asked Morgan whether she would slow down the government’s “rushed curriculum changes that risk undermining faith in the examination system, causing confusion for pupils and parents?”

“Already Ofqual has warned of greater than normal turbulence in examination results this summer. Is the secretary of state fully satisfied that her government’s changes will not compromise fairness and consistency as pupils receive their results in August?” he asked.

Gove argued his changes to the curriculum would make education more rigorous by placing more emphasis on “knowledge-based” exams and less on coursework. His critics accused him of trying to bring them in too quickly, returning to old-fashioned ideas and meddling too much in specifics of what should be taught, such as prioritising British history and authors.

Morgan, who described Gove as “one of the great reforming secretaries of state for education”, replied that she was confident in the exam results because a quarter of a million fewer pupils were now in underperforming schools and there were 800,000 more pupils at schools rated good and outstanding.

“That is the legacy left by my right hon friend the member for Surrey Heath, which I intend to be building on,” she said.

Morgan did not comment directly on last week’s report about extremism in Birmingham schools, which revealed evidence of “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools in the city”.

The conclusion emerged from a draft of a report leaked to the Guardian, which was commissioned by Gove and written by Peter Clarke, the former head of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism command.

Morgan will make a statement in the Commons on the report at some point today and told Birmingham Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmood: “There is absolutely no place for extremist views in our schools.” She declined an invitation from Liam Byrne, the Birmingham Hodge Hill MP, to apologise for failings by the government to keep schools in the city in check.

Teachers are banking on Morgan to build bridges with their profession after criticism that Gove dismissed much of the educational establishment as “the blob” and pushed through radical changes without listening to warnings about the possible consequences. The Observer reported on Sunday that Morgan rewrote a final ministerial statement from her predecessor to include a promise to listen to their views on schools reform.

The new education secretary has said she will be “nice to teachers”, but she made it clear in an interview with the Sunday Times that she would not be “soft-pedalling” in the job.

This is an interesting point for those who have followed my blog before and remember my post Prosecute the term time holiday parents! (Can be found here if you haven’t read it: https://markmelaney.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/prosecute-the-term-time-holiday-parents/ ). She also backed Gove’s changes that mean parents can be fined for taking their children out of school in term time. She said: “For every day or half-day that a child misses school, it does affect their education. From the prime minister downwards, we have made it clear that being in schools during term time is the best place for children to be. I’m really clear that will continue.”

So all in all, what to make of Mrs Morgan so far? Well being brutally honest there were little glimpses there, particular regarding to term time holiday debacle and the rewriting of a final ministerial statement to give the educational establishment a bit of input which didn’t happen under Gove. But the reality is, it’s all more of the same. More and more unqualified teachers are set to enter our schools, despite the fact that it completely undermines the profession to the point where can we really call teaching a profession anymore? With all these free schools appearing is there a need for universities to offer teacher training programmes at all when even with a degree your job can be secured by someone who has no degree whatsoever. That is of course a whole different debate.

I don’t believe in free schools, I never have done, although most of what I know about them comes from looking from the outside at media and polls etc. The fact that unqualified teachers could be teaching the next generation of kids worries me too much to want to be in a free school (that’s not to say I wouldn’t teach in one if the job came round). If there is any policy stopped this is one I would definitely like to see grounded to a halt.

Exams have always been a tricky one throughout my years of existence and beyond that. I’m not old enough to remember O-levels or such like, but the change from O-levels to SATs, GCSEs and A levels has been all over the shot. The debate between exams and coursework will go on forever and a day but I do feel that you can look back on a lot more with coursework than you can with exams because exams is basically how much can you remember in the allotted time frame. Time is an unnecessary pressure for me when it comes to exams. What I find interesting is that Scotland’s new system is actually heading the other direction towards a more coursework based exam structure, so in the next couple of years we’ll get a pretty good picture as to what the differences are in performance.

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Gove Out, Morgan in!

It has been long said by the vast majority that Michael Gove should not be our Education Secretary after his seemingly relentless assault on the teaching profession.

Well it seems our wish is David Cameron’s command, as Mr Gove is no longer the Education Secretary as he has been moved to Chief Whip in one of many changes made in a cabinet reshuffle.

He has been replaced by former Treasury Minister Nicky Morgan in a move by David Cameron to promote more women into top jobs in an attempt to convince voters that the ‘male, pale and stale’ imagine that has often been linked to the Conservative government in the media is inaccurate.

So who is Nicky Morgan? Well, she is a Loughborough MP who has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the politic hierarchy in the last 4 years, and The Huffington Post list 7 things that we need to know about her;

1) She’s only been in politic office since 2010
2) She is one of 2 mothers in the new cabinet (hardly an act to deal with the ‘male, pale and stale’ image but it’s a start I guess)
3) She voted against gay marriage, although did explain that she is not against same sex relationships, but to her marriage is between a man and a woman
4) She won’t be dealing with gay marriage. Downing Street hastily announced Nick Boles, the new education and skill minister who is also gay, would be taking charge of implementing same-sex marriage.
5) She famously said in January that the tories should ‘hate less’. Morgan said in January the party needed to have a more constructive message than simply: ‘we’re against this, we’re anti-that, we don’t like them, we don’t want them here, we don’t want them doing this.’
6) She supported a reduction in the upper limits of abortion from 24 weeks to 20
7) She is one of 14 Oxbridge graduates out of 23 members of the new cabinet (Hardly representing the major population are they?)

As you can see from this list, none of that has anything to do with education as such. Well that is because if we examine her background, education hasn’t really featured a huge amount at all. She graduated from Oxford as a solicitor and worked as a corporate lawyer specialising in mergers and acquisitions.

Politically speaking, the only real mention of anything education related noted about her was in the early stage of her political career where she appeared on the Politics Show in 2010 talking about the tripling of the student tuition fees.

Am I the only one thinking here that this is not the sort of person who we want to replace Michael Gove? In all the time I’ve been interested in politics, it has always been my belief that the person who takes on a political role should have experience in that field, for example, the Education Secretary should have experience of education, ie. a former teacher or head teacher perhaps. Aside from being a mother and her own school experiences, she has none. As much as I respect Mr Cameron’s ploy to get more women in top roles in politics and I support that, we need to make sure the right people are in the right roles to ensure the growth of our economy and keeping the growth stable.

I am eagerly anticipating what is gonna happen now we have someone new in charge of our education system. Here’s hoping this Education Secretary listens to everyone else before making rash decisions.

Prosecute the term time holiday parents!

I never thought I would say this, but I agree with one of Michael Gove’s actions: prosecuting parents who take their children out of school during term time to go on holidays.

Two parents have been given criminal records after being prosecuted for taking their children out of school to visit relatives in Australia amid a growing backlash over new rules on term time holidays. The pair were handed conditional discharges at Nuneaton Magistrates Court under the Government’s new law against breaks during the academic year.

Speaking outside court, one of the parents branded the rules “flawed” and insisted the time had come for a major legal review. Being brutally honest, I don’t really see how it’s flawed. Children’s learning is vital and any major breaks in their learning could disrupt their development.

The couple from Coventry, who have not been named, insisted their family had been “suffering emotionally” at the time of the holiday and the break had been needed for the children’s sake.

It is the latest in a series of challenges against Michael Gove’s crackdown on parents who take children out school during term time. Last month, it emerged that a city banker was to fight a test case over the rules after being was summonsed to court over his refusal to pay a £120 fine. He had taken his children to America for six days for a memorial service for their great-grandfather.

More than 200,000 people have also signed a petition backing a group of parents who are seeking a judicial review of the rules, which they claim are a breach of the human right to family life. But the Education Secretary has refused to cave in over the change, insisting all children should spend the maximum amount of time in school. Under new guidance issued to schools across England, heads are prevented from giving parents up to 10 days discretionary leave during term time, apart from “exceptional circumstances” such as family bereavement. It has been backed up with tougher fines for families who condone truancy.

Families can be hauled before the courts for failing to pay and large numbers of parents have already been prosecuted. Some councils have reported a doubling in the number of prosecutions this academic year compared with 2012/13 – before the rules were introduced.

Last year, a couple from Telford were fined £630 and ordered to pay £300 court costs after taking their children on a week-long break in Greece during the school term. In the latest case, the mother was convicted following a trial and given a 12-month conditional discharge. The father, who later changed his plea to guilty, was handed a 10-month conditional discharge. The mother told the court that her family had been “suffering emotionally” at the time and that they had been visiting relatives in Australia. “The magistrates gave the fairest verdict they could under the current laws, which are flawed,” she said. “I fully support any campaign to call for a judicial review. I still feel I did the right thing for my children at the right time.”

Coventry City Council told magistrates that the only legal justification for children of compulsory school age being absent during term time was “for sickness or an unavoidable cause”. The pupils’ head teacher had refused to give permission for the absence. The couple were issued with a £240 fine on their return from holiday in October, which they did not pay.

I am sorry, but I question the parents’ decision making here. The law is very clear on what is allowed for an absence, and going on holiday to Australia is not one of them. The head teacher refused permission for the absence and thus you took your child out of school unauthorised and illegally. As a parent, you should know your child’s education is the most important thing, and disrupting that child’s education could cause more long term effects.

Honestly, I have a lot of sympathy for suffering emotionally, believe you me I know a lot about that in my 22 years of existence. But that is not an excuse for taking unauthorised absence. I’m all for taking a necessary absence, but there are procedures to follow and if you fail to follow those procedures, you are justified in being fined and should be forced to pay it. If you are in desperate need of a holiday, you have 2 weeks of Easter break, a few weeks of half term holidays dotted around the year, Christmas and at least 6 weeks of summer for holidays. If you want a holiday, go then, avoid the unnecessary fines and the need to whine at the government when you get rightly penalised.

Dear Mr Gove

It seems I’m not the only one who believes that Michael Gove hasn’t got a clue. An excoriating poem lambasting the policies and the “Dark Ages” curriculum of Education Secretary Michael Gove has become an internet sensation among teachers.

Dear Mr Gove, by Jess Green, has been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube since it was posted on Monday and is being emailed among professionals disenchanted with the Coalition’s reforms. Ms Green 24, who has been leading poetry workshops and working as a librarian since graduating from university, told The Independent that teachers were struggling to cope under the current workload whilst being demonised in the media.

“A lot of the mainstream press make out that teachers are lazy and take long six-week holidays and are selfish but it is not until you go into a classroom you realise how hard it is,” said Ms Green, whose mother is a head teacher in Leicester. “I have been working in schools for the past three years and I come from a family of teachers and I have seen how downtrodden teachers have become. They are being asked to reach completely unrealistic targets and for pupils to make huge levels of progress regardless of whether they have come from a privileged private school background or have just come into the country from a war zone,” she said.

The poet said she had been overwhelmed and moved by the response. “I have had an email from one teacher saying that ‘I work from 6.30am to 11.30pm’. This person said they felt isolated and that their friends who were teachers didn’t understand. They felt they were too old to leave the profession and do something else and too young to retire,” she said.

Included in the targets she takes aim at are Mr Gove’s insistence on teaching a more patriotic history of the First World War and his controversial plan to send Bibles into school. “Teachers need to be celebrated a little bit more. People need to realise how hard they work,” she added.

Now I’m not one for looking at youtube comments, but this video had some really great responses in amongst all the trolls. Among the comments posted on You Tube is one from a trainee teacher which said: “It’s sad enough that most kids aren’t enjoying school but the fact teachers are finding it torturous too is reason enough for dear Mr Gove to face the facts that something isn’t working here. Things need to change.”

Another said: “It should be made into posters for every classroom in the land; we should chant it like a mantra or sing it set to music at the start of every NUT meeting.”

What surprised me was that it was even generating support from outside the profession. “ Bloody beautiful words, genius. On behalf of all non-teachers, unilluminated parents and people of under-bolstered intelligence I salute her!” said another poster.

Ms Green, who studied creative writing at Liverpool John Moore’s University before working as a freelance poet, is writing a full length comic play about education to be staged at this year’s Edinburgh Festival entitled Burning Books, which she admits is “ quite left-wing”. She is also due to perform at the Latitude festival. Not gonna lie, I really wish I could go to these festivals to seem these performances. Hopefully someone will record it and put it on youtube for us all to watch 😉

I shall leave you with the video itself. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ8RA3QF0EU

British teachers behind Chinese counterparts?

It is a very well documented fact that China, along with a lot of Asian countries, rank very highly in the Pisa rankings, and are deemed the strongest education system in the world. Education Minister Liz Truss goes further to say that Chinese teachers are ‘more effective’ than their British counterparts and their methods must be brought back to what she describes as ‘stagnated’ schools in the UK.

Liz Truss the “Shanghai method” should be brought into to improve Britain’s schools and excuses should not be made for falling behind the levels of the “East”.

The education minister is visiting the Chinese city’s schools after they were marked out as the most successful in the world in a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Shanghai students topped the rankings in a series of reading, maths and science tests administered by the organisation. The UK ranked 26th.

Fifty maths teachers have already been to Shanghai to study the methods that have brought Shanghai students three years ahead of their British counterparts and have seen results improve back in their classrooms in the UK, Miss Truss said.

Chinese students are taught maths in both small and large classes and complicated core arithmetic is introduced at a much earlier age than in the UK. She added that teachers in China “follow up” with their children more than they do in Britain making sure that each child fully understands any concept they are struggling with.

She said that German and Polish teachers had already incorporated methods from schools in the Far East into their lessons and curriculums while Britain’s performance in maths had instead “stagnated” over the last fifteen years.
Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme she said: “What we see is very effective teaching methodology going on and that is what we are interested in learning about while we are over here, because it seems that the Shanghai teaching methodology uses resources much more effectively and also focuses on the core arithmetic that children need to have from an early age. So we see very high levels of verbalisation of maths, very high levels of specialist maths teaching in primary schools as well as in secondary schools.”

Her comments come as the influential Brookings Institute at Harvard University poured doubts on the OECD results arguing that the fact the children of migrants in Shanghai are forced to attend school in their home provinces skewed the results. However the Education Minister said that Britain was “kidding ourselves” if we accept this as an explanation for China’s better performance and that she had seen for herself that children were understanding complicated concepts at an earlier age than British children. She said: “What this visit is about is deepening that relationship to make sure we can learn even more about the positive attitude and the positive culture towards maths in China. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that there is somehow an explanation for that very high performance that isn’t about what’s going on in those schools – because I have seen it for myself, I have seen the very high quality teaching that is taking place I have seen that children are understanding concepts at an earlier age than they are in England. What I want to do is learn from that really good practice so that we can apply it in England, because at the moment we have stagnated in terms of our maths performance for the past 15 years while other countries like Germany or Poland have been learning from the East. They have been taking those lessons back, they have been improving their teaching standards and their curriculum – we need to do that too, we cant spend our time trying to explain away differences instead we should be looking at what these countries are doing successfully and apply it to our own country.”

Here’s my question in response to that: If you are recognising that the so-called ‘Shanghai method’ is so effective, then why is Michael Gove being allowed to tinker with the maths curriculum, which still does not even consider the method? Does this mean that there is further evidence that Gove’s plan isn’t so perfect after all? So should the next election be won by the Tories as opposed to a coalition government, will the curriculum be changed again to reflect this method? I agree that we should be looking to other education systems around the world and comparing notes to inform and improve our own education system, but as it stands you can’t have it both ways. It’s great that the first step has been realised (ie recognising the need for improving), but the actual improving stage hasn’t really happened, and it’s unlikely to happen with this new curriculum.

Longer school days? Board says no …

One of the many features of our Education Cannibal Michael Gove’s plans were to cut school holidays and make the school days longer, describing the current hours as ‘a relic of an era when children were expected to also work in fields.’

Well, the School Teachers Review Body (STRB) which was set up to advise the government on teacher pay and conditions, has published a report which rejected these proposals as unnecessary as teachers already work well beyond their hours.

Chair of the STRB Patricia Hodgson states, ‘We endorse the current provisions of 195 working days and 1265 hours. We note that teachers currently work additional hours beyond directed classroom sessions and there is already flexibility for heads to deploy teachers according to the needs of their pupils.’

The report highlighted concerns that attempts to extend school hours could kill off the culture of after-school clubs. It found that “Teachers who currently run after-school activities on a voluntary basis might not do so if working hours were extended. This would mean that in future, schools would have to pay for work that is currently undertaken by teachers on a goodwill basis without extra payment and a likely consequence would be that many schools would have to stop providing these activities due to lack of funding.’

Another problem I can see with increasing the working hours comes the time for planning. Teachers are heavily prescribed as it is, which has resulted in the need for Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time. In order for these extra hours to be accommodated, more PPA time will be needed to cover it.

The report’s findings perhaps unsurprisingly have been welcomed by the unions. General Secretary of the NUT Christine Blower said, ‘The STRB has delivered Michael Gove a huge blow by rebuffing his recommendations for further attacks on teachers’ conditions and pay. Michael Gove sought to persuade the STRB that the teachers’ contract undermined professionalism and that the provisions were over-prescriptive. He failed on all counts.’

Mary Bousted of the ATL adds, ‘We are relieved the STRB has sensibly resisted pressure from Michael Gove to increase teachers’ formal working hours and has also decided to protect the existing limits on what teachers are expected to do in their own time.’

All this isn’t to say the STRB completely rejected everything that Gove proposed. The STRB agreed with proposals from Gove to remove regulations restricting teachers from conducting tasks such as bulk photocopying and filing. They also agreed that schools should be given greater flexibility to give headteachers large salaries. Make of these what you will …

The Department for Education claim to accept the conclusions and key recommendations from the report, subject to public consultation. Anyone else reckon this is their way of saying ‘we want to tell the public the STRB are wrong and we want to do this and that and make things better’?

The row over the Head of Ofsted role

One story that has gripped the national headlines of late has been the dispute over the non-renewal of Labour Baroness Morgan’s role as Head of Ofsted by Michael Gove.

It is not yet known who will take over the role, but nonetheless a row has still broken out.

Baroness Morgan claims that she was a victim of a ‘determined effort from Number 10’ to appoint more Tories into the top political jobs. From the outside, this may not seem so surprising, given that we have a Liberal-conservative coalition government at this present time.

Another argument that has arisen from this comes from David Laws. He argues that actually, the inspectorate shouldn’t in fact be political at all, as it is supposed to be an independent organisation. He too argues that Baroness Morgan’s removal was politically minded. A source close to him said: “The decision to get rid of Sally Morgan had absolutely nothing to do with her abilities, or even education policy, and everything to do with Michael Gove’s desire to get his own people on board. David Laws is absolutely determined not to let Michael Gove undermine the independence of this vital part of the education system.”

Of course, Michael Gove is desperate now to try and defend his decision. He argues that the decision to remove Baroness Morgan was entirely his and had absolutely nothing to do with Number 10. He told the Andrew Marr Show: “I think she’s done a really good job. I think that she and the chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw are a fantastic team. But one of the things I feel – and across government – is that from time to time you need to refresh the person who is in charge of an organisation.”

On top of that, he adds that Baroness Morgan had come to the end of her three-year term as Ofsted chairwoman and it was good corporate practice not to automatically reappoint people – a different person could come in with a “new perspective” and make sure there were “tough questions asked”.

Mr Gove pointed out that he had appointed Baroness Morgan in the first place, knowing she was Labour, adding: “It’s also the case that we’ve recently appointed a former Labour special advisor Simon Stevens to head the NHS. Now when we come to appoint the new head of Ofsted I will appoint, and we will appoint, on merit.”

Here is something that I reckon he’s hoping that we will not notice. One thing he did not do was rule out the possibility of Tory donor Theodore Agnew as the next in line for the job. Of course it would be wrong to rule out a suitable candidate based on their political allegiances, but it does look suspect when a Tory is the only real reported candidate to replace Baroness Morgan. I bet Gove’s hoping that another candidate who isn’t a Tory announces themselves as a candidate to take over.

So what Mr Gove that a former labour special advisor is now the head of the NHS? What about the non-tories who were removed from bodies such as the Arts Council and Charity Commission and replaced with … you guessed it … tories? There is no way of avoiding the fact that it does look very suspect from the outside.

Harriet Harman takes the argument even further. Ms Harman claims that there was a trend that women in senior authoritative posts were losing their positions and being replaced by men. Gove hit back by saying the Tories have had a female prime minister, and had appointed these women to senior positions in the first place, including Baroness Morgan.

I’m all for the idea of Ofsted not being political at all, in fact I think education as a whole should not be political at all. Stories like this for me really provide clear arguments why. Why should a politician decide what the needs for our children are?

Government secretive about free schools: One woman’s battle for the truth

We all know that free schools are being approved up and down the country whether we like them or not. What we don’t know is how the government choose which ones to approve and which ones to reject. Well the Guardian published an article by Laura McInerney, who is taking on the DfE in a legal battle to force the government to release this information under the Freedom of Information Act. Here is what she says;

I never intended to involve the lawyers. Really, I didn’t. I made a simple request for information from the Department for Education, expecting they would just hand it over. But, rather than release it, Michael Gove, the education secretary, has told MPs he will do “everything possible” to stop me getting it. In the coming months, his department is taking the Information Commissioner – and me – to a tribunal in an attempt to block its release under the Freedom of Information Act.

This whole saga started 15 months ago, when I submitted what I thought was a simple request for information to the DfE. What explosive material did I want? A surprisingly dry package: the application forms sent in by people applying to run free schools, and the letters later sent back explaining whether or not they were successful. Hardly the Pentagon Papers.

To say I am surprised the DfE is behaving in this way is an understatement. I thought the request was a no-brainer.

For the uninitiated, the free schools policy, introduced in 2010, allows any group of people to apply to the DfE for funding to open a state school. The government talked at the time about the policy’s prior successes in America and Sweden, but the lesson of the American experience is that some US states do it well and some do it badly. To further research the topic, I took a break from my job as a secondary teacher, and in August 2012 accepted a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Missouri.

It quickly became apparent to me that implementation matters – and the application process is critical. If taxpayer money is being handed out to members of the public, we need the government to be savvy about which groups they back and why.

So I decided to ask for the applications and the basis of the government’s choices – a process that is otherwise entirely opaque. Prior to 2010, the opening of new schools was far more transparent. The reasons for accepting or rejecting all new school bids were routinely published on the Schools Adjudicator website. Local authorities published school bid information when running new school competitions. Naively, I assumed the government would maintain this level of openness.

The information, however, was nowhere to be found.

I therefore asked for it from the DfE, using the Freedom of Information Act. The act is not well known, but it embeds in law the presumption that information held by public authorities is open to anyone who asks for it, unless there is a specific reason not to disclose. And, usually, even if there are reasons why the government would prefer not to give the information, those reasons must be balanced against public interest. As I saw it, if this sort of information had been available before, why not now?

Yet the DfE rejected my request – twice. Among the reasons given was that releasing the information “would allow opponents of free school applications to attack applications more easily and could undermine local support”. But why shouldn’t the public know about any issues with the applications? It is our money paying for the schools and our children walking into them. It also claimed the amount of information released would be “overwhelming”. Given that the department trusted me to teach people’s children, I’m fairly certain I can handle reading some application forms.

Nevertheless, the department disagreed. When a public authority turns down a request even after you have appealed to it, you can then appeal – free – to the Information Commissioner’s Office, an independent authority whose job it is to uphold information rights.

I was reluctant to go down this route, but was encouraged by FOI campaigners. As one pointed out: “A response is not a favour to be granted, it is a legal obligation. You are a member of the public, and you are paying their wages. You have a right to the information.” In the past 15 months, I have repeated this point to myself time and again.

Getting an ICO judgment was not quick, but their officers were extremely helpful. My case worker constantly and professionally explained the legal oddities and remained upbeat. Yet each time there was progress, the DfE would raise a new point – dragging the whole process on for months.

In July 2013, I was finally told the ICO was near a decision. Nothing. By September, the draft notice was apparently ready. Still nothing. In October, I wrote asking for an update. Nearly there. By mid-November, I had practically given up when an email from the ICO dropped into my inbox.

I had won, and then some.

Figuring it out was not easy. Flicking through the 17-page judgment, written in legalese, I struggled to understand what it meant, but the following line made it all worthwhile: “The Commissioner considers that the public interest factors in favour of the disclosure of the withheld information are very strong.”

This was not a half-hearted judgment. The ICO argued that the case for disclosure was “very strong” and it would provide “considerable information about the implementation of a relatively new and very important education policy”.

The news was timely, arriving hot on the heels of troubling free school developments. Al-Madinah free school’s Ofsted report labelled it “dysfunctional” and inadequate in every category. King’s Science academy in Bradford is being investigated for fraud. Discovery New School, Crawley, is considered so problematic that it must close before the end of the academic year.

And these free schools have been no small cost to the taxpayer. A recent National Audit Office report price the policy at over £1.1bn. Of this, more than £700,000 was spent on schools that passed the application stage but never opened, and £241m went on schools that opened in areas with lots of spare local school places. The NAO report also noted that some high-scoring free-school applications were rejected, but some low-scoring ones were accepted. Why? On what basis? No answer is given.

How can the public be sure ministers weren’t waving through applications from their mates and turning down those whose faces didn’t fit? We can’t. Without the applications being public, there is no way of knowing if the process was corrupt, or not.

Also, school applicants must include evidence of local “demand” or “need” for their proposed school, usually gathered during a required local consultation. But how can residents know that the reported results of the consultations are fair? There is nothing to stop applicants from writing that everyone was positive at the event even if the exact opposite is true.

Of course, amid this mess some free schools are doing marvellously. I recently visited Greenwich free school, one of the most over-subscribed schools launched under the policy. I was impressed with the teaching, and the pupils, and I spent time discussing with school leaders how the school might continue being great. In fact, it is precisely because I want free schools to be great that transparency is so important.

No one benefits by having applications locked in a dusty vault. In fact, in the US, supporters of the policy – such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools – actively press for total transparency around the process. In this country it would build public support, prevent cronyism and allow prospective applicants in areas with huge primary school place shortages to learn from the best applications and improve their chance of getting the school they need.

And so I ended 2013 much as I finished 2012 – sitting down, for the second New Year’s Eve in a row, to write an appeal against the DfE’s counterproductive desire for secrecy. This one, however, will be sent to a judge in the First-tier Tribunal, who will hear the case brought by the DfE against the ICO and me. These courts are designed with lay people in mind, and no legal aid is available, so I am likely to be representing myself.

Surrounded by highlighters, guidance documents and notes, I veer between feeling like Erin Brockovich [the US activist – played by Julia Roberts in a movie – who fought an energy company over contaminated water] and a 12-year-old trying my best with a history project. Still, parents, teachers, pupils and local residents deserve absolute openness in the operation of our schools. I plan to do everything possible to make sure they get it. After all, as I have told myself for the millionth time, transparency is a right – not a favour.

The tribunal is expected to take place in the summer of this year, and I will of course be bringing you the outcome as and when it happens.

Get Gove in the classroom!

While, Michael Gove remains wrapped in a battle over his analysis of World War One, he may soon be encouraged to return to the classroom to brush up on more than just his history.

A petition on 38degrees.org has gathered almost 100,000 signatures, calling for the Education Secretary to return to the classroom for a term to see how the teaching profession really works.

Amy Neill, who started the petition, is a teacher herself. She wrote: “We would like you to teach a class of primary children for at least half a term in order to appreciate and respect what a challenging job we actually do. It is absolutely absurd that, in this day and age, the secretary for education, who has the power to make important changes, has no grasp on the education system and what teachers do.”

At the time of writing, the petition had gained over 96,000 signatures, and looks set to reach its six-figure target within days.

A range of teachers, students, journalists and members of the public have got on board with the petition, which was started six months ago.

Sam C, who signed the petition two days ago, commented: “Gove telling teachers how to teach is like a child telling a surgeon how to remove an appendix because they’ve played a game of operation.”

Hilary N said: “I wouldn’t want my child to be in his class!”

Ian C said “The Right Honourable Gentleman really should have a clue what he’s talking about, rather than the busking he does basked on 1/2 remembered episodes of Grange Hill.”

Well we all know Gove’s employment history. Before entering the cabinet, he was a journalist. We know how biased journalists can be dependent on the political party their paper supports. I signed this petition because I want to see the look on Gove’s face when he realises that he cannot do the job he governs, and thinks he knows how to solve the problems which he knows very little about.

Pushy parents, staff clothing, and canes

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief of Ofsted, and one of the most hated names among teachers in the country at the moment after his changes to inspections to little or no warning among other things, has spoken in the last few days about not shying away from improving every English School. Sounds nice, but he also talks about a few other things.

While Sir Michael has no recollection of ever owning a cane in the 1970s, he does recall using one on pupils. “I am sorry to say that I did,” Wilshaw admits, with what appears disarmingly like a flush to the cheeks. “I was a head of year in London at a time when it was part of the disciplinary cultures and procedures of the school. It never worked. I stopped corporal punishment because I realised that it didn’t work, because the youngsters you were using the cane on were used to physical violence, often at home. It sent out the wrong message. When I look back on it now I can’t imagine why we ever did it.”

This all sounds very nice, recognising that corporal punishment shouldn’t ever exist. But the problem for some of the 400,000+ teachers is that this where all the regrets from this man end.

It is now two years since Wilshaw, former headteacher of Hackney’s Mossbourne academy, and “hero” to education secretary Michael Gove for his undeniably impressive work in building one of Britain’s best schools on the old site of arguably its worst, was appointed to head the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) to whip England’s schools into shape. “It feels longer,” he admits. Indeed for me it feels longer too.

Before taking up the post, Wilshaw told a committee of MPs that he used to glaze over when reading Ofsted reports, because the language was so dull and bureaucratic. Of all the criticisms that could be thrown at Wilshaw, a lack of clarity and straight talking from Ofsted under his leadership would not be one. His tenure has been peppered with demands by unions for his resignation.

Whether by introducing school inspections with little or no warning, relabelling schools as “requiring improvement”, dismissing complaints of poor morale among staff as a sign of progress, or questioning the stress levels of principals, Wilshaw has managed to irritate many, probably most, of the country’s teaching staff. He insists that his comments have either been misconstrued or taken out of context. And, while Wilshaw’s regrets over the use of his cane in the 1970s don’t quite extend to his employment of tough talk over the past couple of years, he is keen for his goals to be understood. “I am not going to say that I haven’t made mistakes. And one of those is I need to be judicious in what I say. But, broadly, do I regret making important policy decisions? No.”

The 67-year-old insists that everything he says and does is with the aim of rescuing children from what he described in last week’s Ofsted annual report as a “poverty of expectation” in some schools that condemns unlucky children to unlucky lives. It is, he says, the poorest children who benefit the most from the structure and discipline that he wants to see in schools.

It is not that children fail to live out their dreams because of poor schooling, but that they are not supported in even having dreams, he suggests. And it is not that he wants to be loathed or feared, Wilshaw says, but that he has a job to do. “If we are seen as a soft inspectorate, a soft regulator, we won’t then do what we should be doing. It is not so much about fear as knowing that Ofsted will be tough on schools that are underperforming. I am in this job at a relatively advanced stage of my life, so I will do what I think is necessary.”

Earlier this month figures from the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development compared standards achieved in core academic subjects by more than 500,000 pupils aged 15, in 65 countries. The UK was ranked just 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science when tests were taken in 2012. Wilshaw says the UK can’t ignore the results. I never thought I’d say this, but I agree. That is a pretty shocking statistic. Of course what this doesn’t tell us is who the other countries were. I wouldn’t mind betting countries like South Korea, China, Finland and Singapore were all there, taking the top spots.

Meanwhile, the government’s own figures, out last week, showed that 25% of children (129,000) left primary school in July without hitting the expected standard for their age. This is quite a scary thought in itself, and poses question marks on our education system eg. how are 25% getting through and not coming out of it with everything they need?

A major theme of last week’s report was that low-level disruption by unruly pupils is a major problem that drags whole classes down, and that too many teachers are turning a blind eye to it. Authority needs to be imposed, Wilshaw says, whether that means teachers dressing as professionals, or ensuring no child is tempted to call a teacher “mate”. “It is the responsibility of headteachers to be out in the corridors making sure that isn’t happening, and impressing upon teachers that they are in authority,” he says. “Teachers who dress badly, for example, or who become too friendly with children, shouldn’t complain when children are cheeky back. There has to be a degree of formality.” I agree that there needs to be formality in the classrooms. There needs to be some ground rules to ensure the maximum amount of learning can happen. I wear a suit, which to some might seem like overdressing but that is my style. It shows children how to present themselves, and may encourage them to smarten themselves up to. I’ve seen a lot of kids even in secondary schools go into school like they’ve been dragged out of a hedge first thing in the morning, which annoys me to no end (OCD much?)

And far from criticising the pushy parents who complain about teacher performance without understanding the pressures they are under, he celebrates them for pushing standards up. In fact, he adds, more parents should write to Ofsted to complain if they feel their school is failing. Wilshaw doesn’t necessarily want to upset teachers, but all of this obviously will. Indeed, he can barely stop himself from upsetting them.

Do teachers have too many holidays? “I think the six-week holiday is too long.” Is there too much time-consuming and pressure-inducing testing in schools? Not at all, says Wilshaw, who would bring back external national tests for children at seven, to ensure that schools put as many resources into that age as to older groups. He’d even have children tested annually. “If a headteacher wanted to introduce tests every year they would receive my support in doing so,” he says.

As much as I despise the man, there are some points worth mentioning which are airing on the positive side. For Example, Wilshaw insists he will be as tough on free schools and weak academies as on any other institution. What I like about this is that this comes despite the strong working relationship Wilshaw has with Gove, he’s not prepared to be suckered into Gove’s intention to make his flagship education reforms look like a success. We’ve already seen a couple of free school dilemmas, including closures, so Gove is not necessarily going to have everything his own way with such institutions.

And there is another telling facet to Wilshaw that is lost on many. Next week the Sutton Trust is expected to publish the results of a survey showing the extent to which middle-class parents admit to having moved home or started going to church to access a successful school. The survey also found that the 500 highest-achieving comprehensives have half the proportion of pupils on free school meals as the national average.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the trust, says: “Lower-income students do better when there is a mix of students of all backgrounds in a school.” Wilshaw agrees. He abhors the social exclusivity that sees a good school becomes a middle-class school because of the £200,000 premium on homes in its catchment area.

There are other things to note in Wilshaw’s employment history. In his first headship (1985 to 2003) he turned St Bonaventure’s school, in Newham, east London, from a failing school to an outstanding one. He then moved on to Mossbourne Community Academy, which replaced the fail Hackney Downs School. Wilshaw revolutionised Mossbourne and received two outstanding judgments from Ofsted and placed eight people in Oxbridge, despite turning it into one of Britain’s strictest schools with a traditional uniform policy, haircut regulations and Saturday morning detentions.

Despite all appearances – and confessions of cane-wielding, Wilshaw may not be the hang ’em and flog ’em chief inspector many assume. For me question marks still remain over his approach to reforms. Getting almost an entire country’s teaching staff on your back is not a criterion I would place for a job as the Chief of Ofsted. That’s Gove’s job it would seem …