It’s not about English-ness, but British-ness.

David Cameron got a major fright in the Scottish Independence Referendum, but now he has become the political opportunist again, seeking to turn the result to his advantage.

The Referendum did raise lots of questions which we need to find answers for. But we don’t need to find them quickly. And the ‘English’ issue is a complete and utter red herring. For me, the biggest issue that has come out of this is about Britishness.

Scotland didn’t win independence, they remain part of the Union. So our response should be how can we strengthen that union. There remains a large sector of Scots who are disenfranchised from Westminster politics. The solution to that isn’t to disenfranchise other sectors of Britain too, but to try and build the unity that a lot of us outside Scotland felt should have been at the heart of the ‘Better Together’ campaign. But David Cameron’s answer is to introduce greater segregation into our political system (the English Votes for English People).

I am one of hundreds of thousands of British citizens who lives in England, but was not born in England. I am proud to describe myself as British and I feared Scotland not being a part of the Union because that reduces what I am. I am not English (or Welsh, or Irish). But David Cameron and any politican that dares to raise the ‘English’ question is looking only to a very select group of British people (as usual).

Labour should not play these games. Yes more powers of devolution were promised to the Scots during the independence campaign and these promises cannot be ignored or shirked. But there is no ‘English’ question. Cameron sees this as a last chance of this failed conservative government to introduce further de-regulation to regions perhaps, under the guise of giving them ‘greater autonomy’, he sees this perhaps as a chance to regain power in Parliament by depriving Scottish MPs of a vote on all issues.

I hope that Labour (as the only viable Political opposition) hold their nerve. Don’t stoop to this level. Ignore these cries and dismiss them for the opportunism they are. And lets all work together to develop more unity in this country. Let’s listen to each other more, let’s make our society more equal, let’s respect each other more. That would be a Great Britain we could all be proud of.

Michael Gove has been sacked.

Michael Gove has been sacked.

Make no mistake about the significance of that.

Yes, there’s still a right-wing ideologue in charge of education, someone who voted against equal marriage and there’s no reason to believe Education policy will change significantly. Yes, Michael Gove was Osborne’s man and it does look like Cameron has shed cabinet of Osborne’s men (perhaps nominating Theresa May as his preferred successor). But by sacking Michael Gove, Cameron sends out a strong message to teachers and the NUT that they’ve won. He wouldn’t do that lightly. In fact, he’d only do it if he absolutely had to.

Reports are that Lynton Crosby (the Tory Election strategist)’s polling proved how toxic Gove was. To quote one of the thousands of teachers marching somewhere in the country last Thursday “Michael Gove you’ve got to go.”

The National Union of Teachers and their thousands of members that have taken strike action on three occasions, and spoken to parents and members of the community about the Stand Up for Education campaign can all take lots of credit for this. We didn’t create Gove, we didn’t even make him unpopular (he does a good job of that himself), but we helped to pull together that feeling and present the very clear arguments for what his ideological policies would do for the education of children. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT said this morning that Gove has clearly lost the support of parents.

Where does this leave us?

Well probably no-one’s quite sure. Will talks continue with Nicky Morgan about our dispute? Hopefully. She doesn’t have to dig her heels in. If, as above, the Tories are serious about their electoral prospects, then it would be very popular with teachers if she were to give us a serious concession.

What about Ofsted? Things are at breaking point at the moment. Will David Ross of the Carphone warehouse still be appointed chairman of Ofsted? Probably not. Will Michael Wilshaw be sacked? Probably not. Will Ofsted start to be more reasonable? Gove wanted that anyway… who knows.

And finally, will this meet their objectives? Will this catapult the Tories back into office?

It’ll certainly help, but in the rest of the re-shuffle, Cameron’s moved the Tories significantly to the right. Whenever the tories move to the right they become less electable. Cameron only managed to get control (and I say that, especially, rather than get elected) in 2010 because he managed to convince a sufficient number of the public that he was closer to the left (remember that ‘greenest government ever’ pledge?) Most of us weren’t fooled.

The ball’s in your court now Ed Miliband…

Camden Education Question Time

Last night we held our first Question Time event.  I got home feeling very proud and pleased and wanted to share some of these thoughts and why it’s well worth doing. 

We had planned to do this one, see how it went and then maybe aim to do another one, in a different part of the borough.  We will definitely do that now and we’ll do it slightly differently, but that doesn’t take anything away from this one. I can see that there is room for this event to be repeated in all sorts of different ways.

Ours wasn’t particularly large – there were only about 50 people in the room.  And most of the platform were in broad agreement.  But they all had a slightly different take on the issues and that meant that we still had a genuine debate.  And that debate brought forward little threads that we mightn’t have expected to be discussing that provoked thought.

I think next time it would be nice to have a wider range of views on the platform… but they don’t need to be high-powered politicos.  There are lots of opinionated people out there and any one of those on the platform will stimulate debate.

The format is a very good one, because it puts the emphasis on the panellists rather than on the floor.  It makes it genuinely interesting for those of us that have been to loads and loads of meetings.

Finally, the thing to remember is that there will be people live tweeting from the event (if not, then organise someone to do so) and that means that the debate and the conversations opened up will go to a much wider audience anyway.

So if you’re thinking about organising one then do.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t have anyone high powered (put some local opinionated people and a teacher and parent on the platform) and it doesn’t matter if the audience is only small.  Don’t see it as a one-time event, but as a series of smaller events.  Don’t worry about the set up – you don’t need a lot.  A table at the front is easy to organise… we made some question cards ourselves and had our committee act as stewards.

Some quotes from our event (all of which could be the start of a debate in their own right):

Professor Stephen Ball (SB)  “What we really need is a debate about what are schools for.  Who should decide that?”

Fiona Millar (FM) “Good local schools are the last way to build stronger communities.”

SB “Accountability should rest with local communities.”   “I don’t think we should be training teachers, I think we should be educating them.”  “PRP reinforces the process that children are trained to pass tests.”

FM “There’s no such thing as parental choice.  You can never satisfy every parent.”

Alyson Dermody-Palmer  “Getting rid of levels will lead to testing at the end of every year.”

Natalie Bennett  “Free Schools are based on the principle that some schools will fail.”  “..that’s [those childrens’] whole educational career disrupted.”

SB “The overwhelming majority of research into Parental Choice suggests that parental choice is not a very good thing.”

FM “The Tomlinson report [had it been adopted] would have taken ten years to be implemented.  We’d be seeing the results of it now.”

And on what is education for, Fiona Millar : “Education is about creating a fairer and more just society and give every young person a chance to discover what they love.”

And having dealt with all of that.. that best thing that came out of our event was that we have cracked open a debate in the local Labour Party about their support for a new school (which would inevitably be a Free School).  It’s in their manifesto, but it’s unneccessary.  Several people said so last night, including some in the Local Labour Party.  The local press have picked up on this and now one feels there will be a proper debate about it in the local Labour Party (who run our council).  Another unexpected bonus.

Well done and thank you to all who came, tweeted, re-tweeted, helped publicise or inspire our event.  And go and do it.

 

David Blunkett/Labour’s plans for Education

I have now read David Blunkett’s report on Labour’s proposed Education policy (well, I skipped a few bits I wasn’t interested in) and I think its important to note that if Labour got in, and this became their Education policy, then…  it’s nowhere near as much as most of us would like, but it would give us areas to campaign towards. 

Main highlights for me:

1) whilst Academy’s are described as being ‘here to stay’, he says that ALL schools should be funded through local associations and discusses the corruption in the DfE with advisers/ministers/donors all involved in school companies.  He states that he would like to see smaller Academy chains servicing the needs of communities, rather than big national companies.

That’s not taking all Academy’s back into LAs as maintained schools, which is what I would like to see, but it is a significant improvement.

2) It doesn’t prohibit Local Authorities from indirectly building new schools.  In fact, it says that if there is a need for a new school, that a competition should be established (the last Labour government set this up, but prohibited any Authorities from taking part unless they were A-rated Education authorities) and that Parents, Interested groups, or Community Trusts could take part in that competition.

“Community Trusts” is the significant term here.  If he’s referring to the same Community Trusts Fiona Millar is referring to here (http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/04/labour-and-schools/), then that’s promising.  There is a lot of detail to be defined, but if Labour are advocating an LA appointed Director of School Standards, who can oversee the competition for a new school, and if a Local Authority maintained Community Trust can bid for and run that school, then that’s a very large step forward.

3) All teachers will have to be qualified.

There is more in this report.  There’s a lot of disappointing language and lots for education campaigners, teachers and parents alike to continue objecting to.  But there’s also a little something to work with and a few promising signs.

The devil will be in the detail.

semi autonomous but maintained , funded through the local authority and part of the local family of schools, rather like the current foundation or voluntary aided school model. – See more at: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/04/labour-and-schools/#sthash.pxh6Kq9Q.dpuf
semi autonomous but maintained , funded through the local authority and part of the local family of schools, rather like the current foundation or voluntary aided school model. – See more at: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/04/labour-and-schools/#sthash.pxh6Kq9Q.dpuf
semi autonomous but maintained , funded through the local authority and part of the local family of schools, rather like the current foundation or voluntary aided school model. – See more at: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/04/labour-and-schools/#sthash.pxh6Kq9Q.dpuf

Gove as Tory leader… or Boris?

A YouGov poll for the Times was released today (it’s here, but only the first part can be seen for free: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4030529.ece).

The main obvious headline is that 43% of voters think that Boris Johnson could improve Tory chances after the election if he was the leader.  The analysis doesn’t give the political affiliation of those polled.  It says that that rises to 56% among those Tory voters, so obviously some voters of the other parties were surveyed.  However, those polled responded to an online survey, so it’s probably fairly safe to assume they have an interest in politics.

That is scary.  Very scary.  Particularly for those of us that live in London who know how completely and utterly dreadful Boris Johnson is and how very right-wing.

However there is good news in the survey.  Apparently 5% of respondents thought Michael Gove would improve their chances.  But what the headlines didn’t all reveal, was that respondents were also asked who they thought would DECREASE the Tories chances after the election.  Let’s take those out and put them in order:

George Osborne (56%)

Michael Gove (51%)

Jeremy Hunt (42%)

Theresa May (35%)

Boris Johnson (24%)

Revealing statistics indeed.  George Osborne, not surprising.  He’s the Chancellor.  He’s the villain who made all those cuts to public services, who helped rich people by cutting their tax.  He even got booed at the Paralympics.

But Michael Gove is next.  People think he’d be worse for the Tories than Jeremy Hunt (who, let’s not forget told the Murdochs they had nothing to worry about with the BSkyB issue – he’d see it through, then moved to Health where after being prevented from being able to close Lewisham hospital then changed the law to allow him to be able to do what he wanted).

Michael Gove is deeply unpopular with the public (a large sector of whom are Tory voters and supporters).  His Education agenda has wound people up so much that the profile of his reforms seems to have overtaken the changes being made to the NHS.

This is real Mr Gove.  It’s not just Trade Unions and Teachers you’re annoying.  You have it in your power to change this.  And Tristram Hunt… take note.  People care about Education.

Yodel demonstrate why Capitalism doesn’t work.

Capitalism is fundamentally flawed.  Here’s why.

If a company sends a parcel to me via Royal Mail (back in their sadly gone state-owned days) and someone fails to deliver it, or fails to deliver me a card, or delivers me a card but, say, writes nothing on it – so I’ve no idea whether it’s with a neighbour, sent back, at a depot or ready to be sent out again the next day – then they are accountable to the public.  They weren’t a company, but a service provided by the government and as such they become publicly accountable should they fail to do their job.

If the company I’ve ordered from chooses Yodel to deliver my parcel and Yodel leave a card with nothing written on it so I’ve no clue what’s happening with it, then who are Yodel responsible to?  Capitalism, if I’m not mistaken, would say their shareholders, or their customers, who won’t choose them again in the future.

Clearly if they have shareholders, then their shareholders don’t care about the level of service they offer.  I am not their customer, the company I’ve ordered from is.  I tell every company I ever deal with to use Royal Mail please, not some horrible private courier company (and certainly not Yodel), but usually I’m told they have to because “that’s who we have our contract with”.

So at the end of the day, me – the consumer – is not getting a better service.  Take that Capitalism.  Now I know I could stop using the company that won’t stop using Yodel.  I have, sometimes, but that’s not really the point.  There are some things that I just consider a service, like delivering a parcel to me.  I don’t see why companies like Yodel should be allowed to exist to reduce the service level delivered to an ordinary citizen like myself, but Capitalism allows them to exist.

If the Capitalism model doesn’t work for something as simple as Yodel, it’s little wonder it doesn’t work for healthcare and education.

The future of Schools Inspection

News came out this weekend about criticism of Ofsted by factions within the Conservative Party.  The main story seemed to be focussed around whether Gove himself was one of those.  Lots of us on the teaching left reacted with joy that Wilshaw was now going to have to face the same criticism and uncertainty that his organisation doles out on teachers and schools daily.

 

My first instinct was that the two Tory think-tanks, Civitas and Policy Exchange felt that Ofsted was a potential thorn in the side of Gove’s Education project.  Gove’s project has always been not about raising standards, but about the privatisation of education.

 

This has been done fairly effectively to date.  In the almost four years since Gove became Education Secretary over half the secondary schools in the country have left Local Authority control to become directly funded Academies and 179 Free Schools have been set up.

 

But these are troubled times for his project.  ‘Free Schools’ is becoming a dirty word – something parents increasingly don’t want to be associated with after the allegations of corruption from Kings Science Academy in Bradford, the Al-Madinah School in Derby and the poor treatment of staff at the STEM6 Free School in Islington.  And there’s always the threat that Michael Wilshaw’s Ofsted could come and find them not up to scratch.  That would undermine the project even further.

 

Michael Wilshaw, whilst towards the right of the Education political spectrum, is also fiercely independent.  And he knows that his job is supposedly about raising standards.  According to Sunday’s Telegraph, he “insisted that Ofsted would not be frightened into softening its inspections on academies and free schools”.

 

So where does that leave Gove’s project?  It doesn’t look very good to bully Ofsted into supporting the project.  It’s easier to insist that Ofsted isn’t fit for purpose and find some other way of holding schools accountable.  Teachers and teacher unions have been saying Ofsted isn’t fit for purpose for years, so that’ll prove popular.  And by taking the Inspection of schools into the Department for Education we’ll be doing away with another quango.

 

That was what I thought when I read the story.

 

And therein lies great danger.  The last thing we want is for Gove to have control of inspecting schools as well.  Onerous as we find Ofsted, and much as we might find it difficult to share Wilshaw’s view of what might or might not raise standards.  At least they have some independence.   Bearing in mind what Gove’s project is all about, the last thing we would want is to give him the means as well the excuse.

 

Now let’s look at what Civitas actually said.  According to David Green, a director of Civitas writing in The Spectator, “Ofsted’s imposition of standards is erratic and often varies with the personal tastes of individual inspectors. The style of inspection should be more about senior teachers giving professional advice to colleagues than grading schools.”

 

I think virtually all teachers would agree with that.

 

He goes on to say, “In schools, ethical conduct is best achieved when teachers identify themselves with the moral obligation to do the right thing for their pupils. Moral obligations are best reinforced by a shared professional ethos and by the mutual oversight of colleagues. The objective should be continuous personal improvement, rather than public ‘naming and shaming’.”

 

In other words, Ofsted should be more supportive rather than just telling teachers and schools they need to improve.

 

Many of us have argued for years that constant observations and appraisal aren’t a helpful and supportive way of helping [the relatively few] struggling teachers.  We have asked ourselves why if we’re struggling, a senior teacer should observe us.  Surely we should be given the opportunity to observe good teaching instead.

 

So we could probably all agree with Civitas on some of that.  Does that mean we have the same position as them?

 

Proceed with care.  For the reasons I outlined above we should not be calling for Ofsted to be scrapped, but to be reformed.

 

And therein lies the problem in our strategy to date.  I have often wondered why year after year, we (in the NUT at least) have Conference motions saying that Ofsted is bad and should be scrapped… and nothing happens.  What is it in our power as a professional body of teachers to accomplish?

 

But I think we should all get together in our associations and wider over the year before our next round of conferences.  We should bring together teachers to talk about Ofsted – the negatives, and difficult though they may be to think of, the positives.

 

I think it’s right that Schools are held accountable.  And I think it’s right that the body that does that has some autonomy from the Government.  I don’t think it’s right that individual teachers are criticised by Ofsted and I certainly don’t think it’s right that Ofsted can breeze in to a fully functioning school one day and breeze out two days later leaving it’s energy, morale and ethos sapped completely, decimated and slashed.

 

What is right?  How could Ofsted function differently?  What can we achieve?  I’ve got ideas, but I think we all need to go away and discuss.

My personal cultural highlights of 2013

As in recent years… a few personal cultural highlights from this year.

Albums:

Kairos 4Tet – Everything We Hold

A bit of a strange album – part jazz album, part songs (and not necessarily jazz songs, though definitely jazzy).  But lovely.  And I keep playing it.

Opus 5 – Pentasonic

My kind of burning bost bop jazz.  Donald Edwards is one of my favourite drummers ever.

Tomasz Stanko – New York Quartet

I’ve always loved Stanko’s trumpet playing and composition.  Here he gives us a full double album of new material.  Exquisite.

Goldfrapp – Tales of Us

I loved their last album, the synth-poppy Head First, but this is a lovely, contemplative album and a good companion to Head First.

Prefab Sprout – Crimson/Red

I would have preferred a full band rather than Paddy playing everything himself, and some of the arrangements are a bit strange.  But it’s Prefab Sprout!!  The lyric-writing is just in a different league and the melody writing is effortless.

Suede – Bloodsports

Bloody good.  Sadly overshadowed by their idol Davie Bowie springing an album on us a week or so before, but this is a much better album.  More consistent, catchier and definitely one of their best albums.

Curt Smith – Deceptively, Heavy

Probably his best solo album to date.  Vibrant and catchy.  Every song is hook-laden.

Other releases:

Ready to Start – Tears for Fears (Arcade Fire Cover)

It sticks in my head – in a good way.  Roland’s voice is perfect for it.

Looking forward to in 2014:  New Joan as Policewoman, Jimi Goodwin (Doves), Tears for Fears, Phronesis

Books (I’ve read lots, but of those that actually were released this year, my favourites are):

A Delicate Truth – John Le Carre (blogged about here)

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (I’ve found all her books incredibly moving.  Loved this)

Films:

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino

Argo – Ben Affleck

The Place Beyond the Pines – Derek Cianfrance

Haven’t been to the cinema as much as I would have liked this year, but these three films really stand out from what I’ve seen.

Gigs:

Phronesis – The Cockpit Theatre

Peter Gabriel – Back to Front Tour

Manu Katche – Ronnie Scotts

TV:

Homeland, Borgen

Why crime rates don’t tell the full story and what government could be doing if it wanted to.

I was struck by the news headlines about crime rates and re-offending this week.  Particularly this:  that the shorter someone is in prison for, the more likely they are to re-offend.  The highest re-offending rates are for youths.

Now as a teacher, this is tragic news.  As a political demon it set my mind off in a different direction.  And as a statistician it’s obvious.  Being in prison for longer means you have less opportunity to re-offend.  You’re in prison after all.  But I’m not sure if that’s entirely what was meant.

Many will leap to the obvious conclusion… the way to reduce re-offending is to lock criminals up for longer.  But isn’t this a false economy, both financially and morally?  It doesn’t deal with the cause of the problem, it just puts it off.  This is a bit like saying we don’t need to worry about finding sustainable fuels, let’s just lock up all the emissions and waste in big steel boxes and throw them into the sea.

I’m not a criminologist, but I suspect that the main reason for crime in the first place is a lack of wealth and a lack of hope.

Creating wealth for those in poverty is difficult.  Successive UK Governments of the last 20 years at least have done nothing to address this.  In my opinion, they’ve exacerbated the problem, whether intentionally or not.   But creating hope has to be easier.  Is it going to be achieved by offering more talent shows?  By increasing the rhetoric that people from Eastern Europe are taking our jobs?  Is it going to be achieved by closing our youth clubs and our after school clubs?

No, obviously. 

Is it going to be achieved by doing the opposite of those things?  Probably not.  It needs more than that, but perhaps not much more.

Of course, while we have a government in power that has out-sourced  running of prisons to the private sector, there probably are some out there that are quite happy to just keep prisoners locked up.  Particularly if they get more money from the government for having more prisoners (these funding agreements are complex, but there is evidence that at least in the USA, this seems to be happening).

I spoke with a colleague who works in the Youth Offending Team, in the part of London that I work in.

He put a slightly different spin on youth re-offending.  Anecdotally at least, it seems that up to about 60-80% of youths arrested are for Cannabis related crime.  Butthe number of youths arrested has fallen in recent months – probably simply because there are less police around.

Crime statistics therefore are open to immense interpretation.  Reported crimes can be higher in different areas at different times, due to numbers of police, numbers of population or types of crime.  All of these can vary hugely so we shouldn’t read too much in to it.

That’s the statistician in me.

But what we can’t deny is the proportion of drug crimes and the reason for offending in the first place.

Uruguay took a bold step last week and legalised cannabis.  They had a problem with gangs and serious violence that centre around the drug trade.  By legalising it, there isn’t a need for gang culture or violence. 

It’s a bold step and one that strikes me as being mostly pragmatic, but certainly one that is aimed at giving hope to youngsters.  I’m not proposing this is the solution to all our problems, but it’s interesting that the powerful forces of western government (the UN) feel so threatened by this that they are claiming it’s illegal.

I think that if any governments were serious about tackling the issues of crime – and particularly youth crime or re-offending – then they would be looking at radical, out-of-the-box ideas aimed at doing just that.  More prisons isn’t the answer.  More private prisons is certainly not the answer.

Yet more proof that our government doesn’t care.

 

 

Which has a bigger affect, Genes or Poverty?

I have a big problem with this story: http://ind.pn/1dsOiTB  (“Conclusion that teachers are less important than biology sparks outrage, as researchers call for national curriculum to be abandoned in favour of personalised lesson plans”).

Firstly, the national curriculum should be abandoned.  This is a truth universally acknowledged.  Acknowledged by teachers ever since its introduction and acknowledged by Michael Gove.  He might not say that, but by giving his flagship Academies and Free Schools the opportunity to opt out of the National Curriculum, he clearly doesn’t think it helps to raise standards.

Secondly, so what if students ability to attain well in school is linked to their genes?  Whether you think that’s true or not (and without having read the report itself its difficult to know how to interpret the results), that doesn’t make any difference to how you teach someone.  Every student should be led by a teacher so that they’re always making progress, always pushing themselves… that’s what good teaching is.

And most teachers will do that.  Further, they’ll have to work harder to that at times because of the constraints of the National Curriculum and other obstacles put in their way.

Surely the bigger story here is what else makes such a big difference to students’ attainment.  And upbringing has so much to do with that.  It may be true that identical twins from a poor family without much history or culture of education might perform more similarly than fraternal twins from the same block.  But I’m reasonably sure that the fraternal twins from a leafy suburb not far away, with parents who are both graduates and in professional jobs who take them away to France every year for four weeks holiday, will find it easier to attain higher.

That’s nothing to do with their Genes, it’s just to do with the number of barriers needing to be overcome being greater.  Good teaching should mean that both of those groups of children (and everyone else) can succeed in education.  And by success I mean that they can be kept engaged in learning, making progress and developing their own view on society, on how to navigate that society, of how to find their own place in it.  If that involves them having to ‘pass’ exams or other barriers put in their place to prove that they’re as good as the next child then so be it.

And good teaching like this does go on, every day, in Camden certainly (Ofsted praised the schools at both Primary and Secondary http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/annualreport1213/regions/london) where some of the poorest and most deprived children in the country go to school, as well as some of the most affluent.  (Camden also incidentally, has just one free school and one struggling, academy).

However, it’s not just in Camden where this good teaching goes on.  It’s what teachers do.  So let’s agree that the National Curriculum is a barrier.  Let’s agree that what Richard Garner calls ‘Personalised Learning Plans’ are an imperative for good teaching – that already exist.  But let’s also agree that Poverty and relative socio-economic status of children is a bigger cause of disparity and finally, let’s agree that who achieves what grade in GCSEs is only a very small factor in determining success out of the education system and success of teaching.