Labour’s assault on private schools

Or at least, that was the headline. At last, I thought. the Labour movement finally has the guts to take on the entrenchment of privilege and cash which forever divided this country and ensured that we’re peculiarly obsessed with social class, and the right to choose a school. Twenty years ago, when Labour seriously looked as though it might finally be forming a government, Blunkett wanted to tackle the massive tax concessions given to public schools, but Blair (the great prophet of parental choice) override him and kept things as they were.

But as it happens, this week’s revolution is far less radical than the headline makes it sound. Tristram Hunt is grovelling around the public schools, spellbound by their clear superiority, and wants to set up a few deals whereby public schools help out their less fortunate brethren by sharing a few resources. Back to square one, again. There was, briefly, a time when some of us thought that we might have a fair education system which gave every child a decent deal, but that was long ago.

Narrowboat Poetry

This was the first event we went to at this year’s Birmingham Literary Festival, and it was great. Two hours on a narrowboat, exploring the world of Birmingham’s canals, with Jo Bell, who’s worked on the canals as an industrial archaeologist, and lives on a narrowboat. She’s also a talented and entertaining poet, which made for a great morning, and rendered the surrounding gloom and drizzle totally irrelevant. We learnt a lot, and had a great time – exactly the kind iof pleasant surprise that festivals ought to provide.

Trojan Horse Terrorism

I don’t live in Birmingham and i don’t know what’s been going on its schools. But i’m sure that Gove’s heavy-handed approach, calling in a terrorism expert to investigate school governance, has raised the headline stakes and distorted sensitive relationships. This’ll be yet another part of his legacy we’re going to regret at leisure. It’s also  a reminder of tony Blair, and his cheery insistence that faith schools were part of parents’ freedom to choose how their kids should be educated. What a writhing can of worms that’s turned out to be. Thanks, Tony.

Gove goes

And not before time. Tellingly, it’s not the fact that he does damage, doesn’t seem to think or care about what he’s doing, can’t work with any professionals in the field that gets him sacked. No, it’s Lynton Crosby leaning on Cameron, saying “This guy will cost you votes.” We’re in election mode, not government, so that’s the reason for everything. But for this relief, much thanks. It’ll take years to pick up some of the pieces, and some of the damage will never be repaired. Still, he enjoyed himself.

Far from the Tree

Julie Myerson thinks this is a book “that everyone should read.” That’s a crazy thing to say, but she’s right. It’s a study of parents and children, 700 pages long. It’s intensively researched, based on 300 interviews with families. but it’s also brilliantly written, with flashes of wit and insight, and more probing questions than you’ll hear in a week’s television coverage. If you flicked through the chapter headings, you’d think you were in for a gloomy procession through misery – autism, dwarfs, disability, schizophrenia, rape….But it’s uplifting and fascinating, a wonderful way of briefly trying on the lives of others, many of them coping superbly with challenges we don’t ‘normally’ face. Though as you read this book, don’t be surprised if your assumption of ‘normal’ flies out of the window. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. I got it out of the library, and took it back after forty pages. Just borrowing this book is not enough; you really need it with you for the rest of your life.

Gove little England shock

Well, it’s Gove again, so it’s likely to be silly/arrogant/presumptuous/short-sighted. This time he’s fiddling with the books studied for literature exams, and he’s cutting out 20th century Americans, to make more room for 19th century Brits. People have got angry in defence of To Kill a Mocking Bird, but the casualty that annoys me most is The Crucible. It was a great play to teach, with so much going on – personal story and politics, the staging of set pieces, the McCarthy/witchcraft parallel, and so many intertwined stories of people under pressure – John, Elisabeth, Danforth, Hale…..Still, they can always read Priestley.

Teaching economics

Economics students are in revolt. No, they’re not after plush jobs or cheaper beer in th student union. They want their subject realistically taught. Most university economics courses have found the financial upheavals from 2008 supremely inconvenient, demonstrating the irrelevance or falsity of the beliefs and models they have come to take for granted. Students want a wider diversity of interpretation, something that helps them to make sense of the confusing but important stuff that’s going on, It’s an uphill climb, persuading lecturers that last years notes will still be good enough, even if they don’t fit the way things actually are – but good luck to them.

Teacher stabbed

It’s a brutal headline, but there’s no other way to put it. Tragic anyway, but especially so because Anne Maguire seemed to be the best sort of teacher, A 61 year old Spanish teacher with forty years experience isn’t the sort of figurehead ikely to be featured by Education Departtment propaganda, but it’s clear she was a potent force in the school, widely recognised by staff and students alike, because she was totally committed to the best interests of the kids. And as they know better than anyone, that doesn’t mean letting them have their own way. Someone with confidence and conviction sets an example and, occcasionally, sadly, in the process makes themself a target. It’ll be a while before we know anything about who did this and why, but I can’t see any way in which it isn’t a tragic waste. But Anne Maguire was still right: the answer isn’t to turn schools into fortresses, with weapon-detection systems at every door.

Richard Hoggart

It wasn’t a surprise to hear that Richard Hoggart had died. He was 95, and had been ill for some time. His son Simon, much more of a celebrity, had died recently. But it’s still a big moment, for those of us brought up on the Uses of Literacy, but also used to hearing Hoggart on TV and radio, always careful and thoughtful, anxious to get things right, and not to fall for crude simplification. As many tributes have spelt out, we owe him a lot, often in very undramatic ways – his presence on influential committees, or in setting up cultural studies. Not much chance that anyone could make that kind of contribution now; who in this government seriously believes that anyone outside it actually knows anything?

Free Schools alert

There was never much doubt, but now it’s official. Gove’s over-riding priority is to establish free schools, and proclaim them a success. If some of them look like not being a success, they get very fast, very special, very expensive attention, to make sure that they don’t become embarrassing failures. Preferably, the Department for Education move in before Ofsted get the chance; that way, damning headlines are kept to a minimum. It’s the Blair/Campbell handbook, perfected by George Osborne. Politics as chess. Outwit the opponent, seize the initiative, make sure the headlines are on your side. There is no recognition in this devious calculation of advantage that this is about the education that kids are or should be getting.

Gove again

There’s an army of commentators out to nail Michael Gove. He’s so smug, and pleased with himself, and busy, desperately generating headlines every week. It’s not surprising that much of the criticism he gets sounds like desperate hot air, from people who’d love to be able to have an effect, but haven’t got a chance. For me, there’s a letter in today’s Guardian which does the job superbly. Don’t rant in outrage; follow the money:
“Over three years, £100,000m has been cut from 93 sixth form colleges with 150,000 students. However, nine free schools, with 1,557 students, had £62m poured into their coffers.”
Bias, unfairness, waste. That’s the charge, and we have to make it stick.

Private and state schools

You shouldn’t laugh. On the other hand…Antony Seldon, master of Wellington College and biographer of Tony Blair, has apparently always wanted to run a state school. This year he gets his wish, and gets to address an assembly of 12-13 year olds in a Somerset comprehensive. According to an anonymous witness, they don’t listen as carefully as he’d like. ‘ “You stand up when I enter the room”he shouts. “You will stand up and you won’t slouch around..” He was just going bonkers, telling them they were the most badly behaved kids. It went on for two or three minutes.” ’ Like any other comprehensive teacher, I’ve got my own memories of such incidents, but you’d have thought he might have known what was coming.

Head resigns

Another head teacher has resigned. Oh yes, and she’s a 27 year old blonde who takes a nice photo and has no training or experience. One teacher commented: “She was not happy because she could not cope with the job, full stop. It was too much to learn, too quickly.” Well, who’d a thunk it?

What makes it worse is the refusal of those in charge to face the facts. A spokesman for Future Academies seems to think that resigning after five weeks in her first term was all part of the original plan: “Having successfully set up Pimlico Primary, Annaliese Briggs has decided to leave Future Academies to pursue other opportunities in primary education.” Yeah, right.

The Stuart Hall Project

When I was a student teacher in the sixties, one of my bibles was The Popular Arts, by Hall and Whannel. Leavis didn’t have to be right. Great literature wasn’t the only route to intelligent discrimination, and mass media wasn’t an impersonal sea of corruption, dragging adolescents down to damnation. Teachers prepared to think could profitably encourage pupils to examine TV, newspapers or popular music.

For fifty years since the name of Stuart Hall (no, not the guy from It’s a Knockout) has been synonymous with intelligent, critical thinking, raising questions and valuing ideals which lazier figures would rather dismiss. This film, The Stuart Hall Project, is both a celebration of Hall’s work, and a history of the last fifty years. As a fellow leftie and grandad, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Morris 2 Gove 0

Estelle Morris was never a big hitter. How could an unassuming PE teacher from Coventry ever hope to be a superhead, let alone light Alistair Campbell’s fire? Her departure from office was a typical Blair era tragedy – she felt obliged to resign because of a bet made by her macho predecessor, that he could produce a magical improvement in test scores, which never actually arrived.

So it’s entirely fitting that Morris should provide a more telling indictment of Michael Gove than anything the Labour front bench has achieved in the last twelve months. A typically calm, patient article, tucked away in Education Guardian, details how the English educational system faces two key crises – in the provision of school places, and the training of teachers. It may come as news to Gove that we don’t pay him to recommend Dryden, tweak the details of black history or promote academies. We pay him to maintain the system, and in this he has dismally failed. He didn’t try and failed; he didn’t even try. Maybe he thought the market would provide, but he disclaimed responsibility for planning the future, and we’re all going to suffer as a result.

Exam crisis

I try not to follow the exam result stories. They’re so depressing, and so predictable. One of this year’s panics is about Languages. Not enough students are studying languages, and as a result we produce far too few expert linguists. Shock, horror.

Fifteen years ago I taught in a Telford comprehensive, where we welcomed some things about the National Curriculum. We liked the commitment that all pupils would study languages up to the age of sixteen. Not many of our pupils were natural lingsuits, and it was hard work to deliver, but worth it for the commitment to a national ideal – awareness of other countries, ability to speak their languages.

But all that got ditched in the league table race. Get as many 5 A-Cs as you can, and we don’t care what they’re in. Canny calculators chopped down language departments, aimed pupils in the direction of courses where grades were easier to obtain, with the very predictable result we’re looking at today.

13 “A beacon of the system.” (Gove on the Harris academies)

So you’re a bright new academy chain, committed to raising standards. What do you do? If you’re the Harris chain, you withdraw students from an exam if they’re predicted to get D or lower,so you keep the percentage pass-rate up. One teacher said “I’ve had students where a D would be an amazibng result for them, or help them get on a course, and they’ve been told they can’t sit the exam. They feel they’ve wasted two years of work and they’re understandably distraught. “

Or maybe you switch lower sets from one science syllabus to another, and help them catch up the coursework they’ve missed by telling that kids what to write. That’s what exam board Edexel is currently investigating. It’s called raising standards, and it comes at a price.

World-class curriculum

Finally, we approach the launch of the Gove curriculum. We’ve already had the headlines about focussing on English history, and ditching climate change. In rather smaller print, we’ve had the news that following further discussion both these initiatives have been ditched. But there are still massive changes, which will require rapid and expensive changes to both teaching and materials, but Superdad wants the best for his kids: “I want my children, who are in primary school at the moment, to have the sort of curriculum that children in other countries have, which are doing better than our own.”

Fine. Unless of course, they go to an academy or a free school, which have the power to ignore all this prescription, and do fun stuff they can dream up on their own.

Finnish Excellence

A heartwarming account of education in Finland, where they start schooling at 7, all attend comprehensive schools, don’t have league tables or uniform, and charging school fees is illegal. And there was something else…what was it? Oh yes. They’re the best in the world.

Wonderful low key quote: “We never aimed to be the best in education, only to have good schools for all.” Gove, like Blair, thinks you get to the top by describing yourself as “world-class.” The Finns, who actually are world-class, know better.

Superhead suspended

Jo Shuter, charismatic head teacher of an academy, has been suspended following allegations of financial mismanagement. When appointed, she was one of the youngest headteachers in the country. She was due to be the subject of a TV documentary, which the BBC scrapped when they realised it had been produced by Shuter’s sister, and directed by her sister’s partner. Seven members of her family had been employed by the school. An investigation concluded that Shuter had “blurred the boundaries between personal and professional resources.”

Having a quirky memory and a filing system, I was reminded of Richard Wealthall, a headteacher suspended in July 2002 for employing and promting members of his own family, including his former wife and his mistress. He was also accused of bullying staff and abusing school resources.

Two tragic cases, more than ten years apart. What do they have in common? Both headteachers had been enthusiastically praised by Tony Blair. Exactly what was it that attracted him to trusting chancers who thought the rules applied to someone else?