We need "pushy" parents supporting their local schools

Francis Gilbert's picture
When parents support local schools -- and are not terrified of sending their children to them -- then things do get better. We need articulate, "pushy" parents buying into local schools like the rest of the community. Since my son attended his local primary, things have got a lot better for him and it's also made a difference to the school possibly as well.

He's going to the local secondary school, which I've supported in its bid for Academy status because I believe that way it will become a better local school, which will appeal to a broader cross-section of the community. I am doing my best to change perceptions of that school in the local community by encouraging parents who wouldn't normally seriously consider it to have a look, to observe lessons, to talk to the teachers, to make their own judgments.  It's a good school, but many "well-off" parents are still reluctant to consider it. Saying that the whole system is broken when it's not is counter-productive. When the whole community "buys into a school" it makes a difference.

There is a discourse in the media which relentlessly denigrates local schools. Having had bad experiences of teaching in my early career, I've been drawn into talking about my experiences of chaos in the classroom during the 1990s, although I must stress I've taught in good schools for the past decade.

As I get more distance on the Labour Party's years in government, a few things become clear; they changed perceptions about education. Firstly, they spent a great deal more on schools than any previous administration; schools are much better resourced than when I first started teaching and this has largely had a positive effect. Secondly, amidst many policy failings, they did finally shift the focus onto the key area: improving standards of teaching and learning. Thirdly, they introduced quite a few "micro" things like "one-to-one tuition", pastoral support teachers, a broader spectrum of qualifications and expanding the provision of support teachers which made a qualitative difference to pupil and teachers' lives. They also introduced "academies" in areas of social deprivation which gave a new model of how things could be done. Standards did go up, behaviour did improve. I think there's a fairly large consensus about this.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Sarah Dobbs's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 05:44

I totally agree with the all that you say about Labour's track record Francis. I remember teaching under the previous Tory administration when I first graduated (yes, I really am that old!). It was, at times, quite shameful. In contrast, I have just finished my second year of teaching the 1-1 writing tuition programme. This year, my schools has seen their highest ever writing SATS results, with all of the children I have tutored making a level 4, when in previous years they were simply borderline. Luckily for me, the children and the school, my LA are sticking with the 1-1 tuition programme. I already cannot wait to get started again next September!

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 08:17

As well as "articulate pushy parents" waving the banner for local primary and comprehensive schools are there any famous celebrities from music, sport, acting or the media who are ambassadors for state schools?

From what I can tell the only celebrity who has vocally stood up for comprehensive education and supports them through sending her children there is Fiona Phillips (what is it about these attractive early 50 something blonds called Fiona and their zeal for state education?). I vote that Fiona Phillips should be made honary life member of the LSN network.

Off topic, I see that in the light of the recent Sutton Trust report which seemed to emphasise the gulf between the state and private sector of children going to Oxbridge and the T30 universities, I would like to give one case to redress the balance. My daughter's fiancee attended his local comprehensive and 6th form college, secured a place at Cambridge (Jesus), but instead chose to study at (local) Sussex which is one of the "1994 Universities" but doesn't even make it onto the T30 list despite being ranked at 11th in the Guardian 2012 rankings.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 13:05


I may have got the wrong Fiona Phillips (I don't think I have), but check the link here:


Not sure if you'd still want her to be made an honorary member!

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 15:15

I didn't know about this. I see the article was dated in May last year shortly after Labour left office, who had pioneered the concept of free schools and academies operating in a climate away from local authority control. It would be interesting to know whether she now endorses Gove's policy of giving carte blanche to free schools/academies to the potential detriment of maintained schools bearing in mind it's Conservative policy.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 15:27

Yes I agree Nigel it will be interesting to see if Fiona Phillip's views has changed now government policy has emerged.

The fact that her letter appeared in the Labour-supporting Mirror and that she mentions that the school her son will be attending was her fourth choice suggests quite a deep frustration with the current system. Out of interest could you link me to statements she has made in support of the current system? Of course it is perfectly possible to be in favour of the system as a whole but have criticisms of local provision, which seems to be the case here.

It's clear that she feels the local authority was not responsive to parental need and given the date of the letter (soon after the Coalition was formed) it is probably appropriate to view the final line

'The sooner schools are freed from local authority control, the better'

as an encouragement to the new government to press on with policy in that area.

The Sutton Trust report clearly misses students like your daughter's fiance who got an offer from Cambridge but turned it down. I know several of these myself. Perhaps Oxford and Cambridge could publish the number of offers they give to state school pupils, preferably separated into selective and non-selective schools. We hear of plenty of students who are deterred from Oxbridge because of the perceived ethos, yet there are still pupils from similar backgrounds who succeed in getting offers but opt not to take them up.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 17:30

I wouldn't be against the idea of 'Ambassadors' for state schools in principle, but I think there'd have to be a few 'tests' each celebrity or person in the public eye ought to pass before being allowed that kind of role. I'd like to know:
1. The school to which the Ambassador sends their children - is it typical of the 'average' comprehensive school, or in the case of politicians, distinctly un-average.
2. The catchment area the Ambassador lives in, if the school is the most local to them (and it ought to be, right?)
3. If the house the Ambassador lives in was selected for any reason to do with proximity to the school, and if the price of the house was affected by the proximity of the school.
4. If the Ambassador had used private tuition in order to boost the child's grade.

If the Ambassador were to pass all of these critera, it would be clear that they represented the 'average' parent, and ought to be given media access to promote their local school, and encourage 'pushy' neighbours to do the same.

Somehow I doubt many would pass the test..

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 17:28

Of far greater importance than the views of Fiona Phillips are the opinions of the shadow cabinet, Andy Burnham, local councillors, educators, school governors, ordinary parents, students. I think there is a real danger that when "celebrities" attach themselves to a cause and give publicity to it, it can take the focus away from the real debate and onto the celebrity themselves. Labour invested a great deal of resources into education and classrooms are better equipped than ever before, so I would be much more interested to learn, for example, what Labour feel were the mistakes in their policies and how the present government have actually embraced them and multiplied them further.

I don't see the relevance of Fiona Phillips writing for a Labour supporting newspaper. This in itself does not reveal her political affiliation so the inference that even a leftie is fed up with the system just doesn't wash. Julie Burchill was quite happy to work for a number of broadsheets and tabloids, including the Guardian, The Time and the Mail.

Instead of blowing this superficial comment way out of proportion, I think what we should be asking is why more serious journalists are not vigorously and repeatedly defending education against the destructive policies of the coalition

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 17:38

I definitely agree Allan that the role of 'celebrities' on issues can be negative.

You've hit the nail on the head about what we should be discussing. Yes, Labour invested huge sums into education, now we can judge the results of that investment in terms of attainment, discipline, social mobility and so on. As Janet Downs helpfully reminds us often, we are average in terms of the OECD for Maths and English, and above average for Science. All that investment just to be average in comparison with the developed world.

It is clear that the increase in BTEC Firsts (GCSE level) 184,584 two years ago to 364,229 might have had an effect upon the increase in 'attainment'.

Anyway I digress, plenty of time to discuss what Labour might want to reflect upon.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 18:15

No we can't judge Labour's investment into education because the long term effects of it were cut short by the coalition, who are now claiming to be continuing Labour's policies but who in fact have brutally cancelled them or bastardized them. I don't understand why you have to put speech marks around the word 'attainment' - is this an example of your sniping? A lot of young people are very happy to have BTEC qualifications. Not everyone is hothoused for Oxford or Cambridge. And no - I am not putting words into your mouth, but by casually denigrating BTECs you should expect an equally outrageous, but open, rebuttal.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 18:34

By raising concerns about the rapid increase of vocational qualifications that makes me fair game for an 'equally outrageous, but open, rebuttal' ? Forgive me for not seeing how there is anything 'outrageous' in questioning the rise of the BTEC.

Do you welcome the increase in BTEC uptake over the last two years? Do you see any correlation between the rise of vocational qualifications and results? Do you think schools might guide pupils towards vocational qualifications because they perceive they will not do well in traditional exams? Do you think it is acceptable for schools to replace and subsitute the traditional exams with such vocational qualifications?

After thirteen years of government it is time enough to judge the policies and investment which occurred over that time. Two cohorts of secondary schools, years 7-11 have been and gone in that time. We are perfectly entitled to judge what the spending actually achieved, good and bad.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 18:47

In a non-selective, mixed ability school children can study for GCSEs and BTECs. There is no reason why they cannot mix them, so the question of substituting one or the other does not arise, does it? It DOES arise in Academies and Free Schools which offer a narrow, exclusive, what you call a "traditional" and what I would call a "regressive" curriculum where only the academically inclined are tolerated and taught. So to turn your question around - do you think it is acceptable for schools to replace and substitute a full and inclusive academic and citizenship curriculum with one which is restrictive?

No we are not entitled to judge what the spending achieved because major initiatives like BFS were cancelled, the funds allocated for schools resources via local authorities have been truncated and what paultry monies there are are being diverted into the scheme of Academization and funding pop up free schools. Only someone blindly in thrall to the grandiose claims of school reform would be so keen to judge

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 19:14

But Allan, in the pre-EBacc days, schools were only required to enter pupils for GCSEs in English and Maths. Schools which once would have offered subjects like MFL, History, and so on were no longer compelled to do so, and instead began putting on other courses, like BTECs, depriving pupils of the chance to study things like history or a language. In schools were an MFL was not offered, there was little choice there. Of course, a mix of GCSEs and BTECs is fine, and with only 5 GCSEs counting for the EBacc there is plenty of room in the curriculum for both types of learning. Importantly, one isn't sacrificed for the other, they are complementary.

I accept that of the free schools proposed to open this year, the emphasis has been on a traditional, academic curriculum. That has been the decision of the founders, and they have attracted signatures from local parents interested in such a curriculum. Perhaps there will be a vocational free school movement, where parents want schools that teach purely vocational courses. If sufficient parents wanted such a school, and were not satisfied with local provision, I'd support them in their aim.

It's always interesting how the terms 'traditional' 'academic' 'rigorous' get thrown around by both sides in the schools debate without referencing what is actually to be studied. English, Maths, separate sciences, History,/Geography and a foreign langauge. I don't find the study of those things 'regressive' and in fact would state that the potential to be a good global citizen is only made possible when the history, geography and languages of the world are studied. Without everyone taking a language to 16, we're only going to become a more insular society. I'd further add that a government that allows schools to opt out of teaching languages to 16 was not acting responsibly in a multicultural and globalised world. I'm personally glad I was able to take a GCSE MFL before schools did not have to offer them. Thankfully my old school teaches languages to 16 still, and even offers a second foreign language for more able students.

So do I think it is acceptable for schools to insist on these subjects being taught? Yes.

There is still plenty of room within the curriculum for other things.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 20:13

Firstly, not many - if any at all, I would suspect - limited themselves to entering students for just GCSE in English and Maths.

Secondly, putting BTECs course do not "deprive" pupils of studying other subjects or GCSEs - they are a complement or an alternative. Your tiresome insinuation that a BTEC is worthless or enforced and that GCSEs or EBACCs should be the standardized norm of qualification in all subjects and for all students, regardless of their own career ambitions or attainment expectations, essentially segregates a whole section of children back into the bad old days of secondary moderns.

Thirdly, I did not argue that "traditional" academic subjects are regressive. I said that a narrow, exclusive one was and that such a policy attracted and benefited only the more academically able. If the school (and Academies and Free Schools can pick and choose their curriculum) is offering history, latin, languages, Ancient Greek, history etc. but does not offer IT, textile, design, media studies AS WELL, then it is by nature exclusive.

Fourth, I think you will find that most maintained schools "insist" on academic subject being taught. It is Academies and Free Schools that "insist" on not teaching the more practical and vocational andsubjects. I think these are just as much use in your multicultural, globalised world than being able to speak French in France.

Fifth, I don't think speaking a foreign language is going to make us less insular. I think other factors have already played a larger part in that - The EC, the foreign holidays that you were so happy middle class people were able to take to broaden their children's minds, immigration, cross-culturalisation.

And you are right - plenty of room for other things such as more practical subjects and BTECs, so why are these new schools not doing them? Maintained schools always have. So can you tell me which type of schools have the broader curriculum?

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 21:24

There are many instances where schools do not teach GCSE History or offer a GCSE in a language. That deprives pupils of the chance to study these subjects. Only about 30% of pupils take a GCSE in history, and this is declining in state schools. In the independent sector take-up of GCSE History has hit 50% and is on the up.

I do not assert that BTECs are worthless qualifications. I agree that they form part of a balanced curriculum, some pupils might want to take them and others won't. What I have questioned is the doubling of BTECs at over the last couple of years, and questioned the motives behind this. Would you care to elaborate on the expansion of the BTEC, and whether you think this is a good thing given the decline of subjects like GCSE history? There are certainly justified fears about the worth of *some* vocational qualifications and these are being reviewed.

As for segregation, denying pupils the chance to study history or a language to GCSE segregates them for their independent-sector peers. What we need desperately to avoid is a situation where academic subjects become the preserve of an academic or financial elite - those at grammar or independent schools.

Clearly, studying French, German or Spanish is much more than just learning how to describe your family, pets and holidays. You get to study how different countries and cultures celebrate events, in particular the divide between Protestant and Catholic Europe. This tends to make one more culturally aware.

I don't think we should have an education policy that denies that chance to everyone.

I presume the new free schools feel the curriculum they will offer is every bit as inclusive and thorough as other types that may be on offer elsewhere. I don't specifically seek to defend every free school or Academy.

A broad curriculum can be distinguished by stretch of subject as much as the academic/vocational or knowledge/skill divide. I think there's definitely room within any 'academic' curriculum to inject vocational aspects. Learning and applying the skills of an historian - research, note-taking, presentation - are 'vocational' skills as they relate to the job of the historian, yet they sit perfectly, and indeed necessarily alongside the study of history.

O. Spencer's picture
Sat, 16/07/2011 - 19:04

To pick up again the languages point, I have been trawling the archives of this site for a couple of days and have found a particularly eloquent piece on languages by Francis Gilbert in a comment,

'I see learning another language as vital in creating an awareness of other cultures, in learning how language works generally, in developing flexibility of mind, in opening one’s mind! As Naom Chomsky has shown so articulately the human language lies at the very heart of who we are as a species; exploring its different manifestations in cultures is very important in gaining a perspective on this and developing one’s intellectual and vocational skills. We need to get our children ready to work in the whole of Europe! They need to be ready explore and not confined to the horrors of the UK; they need to see the way the French, the Spanish, the Germans, the Italians do things…

It’s vital Henry, absolutely vital; the UK is shockingly insular in this regard. I think it’s particularly important for children from socially deprived backgrounds not to be fobbed off with courses that make them feel good but don’t stretch them. These children need to learn about other cultures but they need to be well taught and not bored by them. The subject needs to be approached positively.'

I agree entirely and couldn't have put it better myself.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 21:46

They may "feel" that their curriculum is inclusive and thorough, but they aren't if they ignore vocational and practical subjects. And you are really stretching credulity arguing that research, note taking and presentation in an historian are vocational. They are fairly basic skills applicable to most disciplines including actually practical ones like textile design or music technology. You can inject academic aspects like, er, English, into Food Technology but it ain't gonna make it academic

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 08:20

Exactly Allan, I was trying to suggest that most academic disciplines impart skills that are useful to employers. If you can't communicate clearly (the major skill learned by students of English and history) then you're not going to be very employable.

I don't think it is stretching credulity at all. Teachers have long told me that such skills are useful in a whole host of jobs.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 08:34

We are talking about practical, vocational subjects being stand-alone qualifications. You are stretching credulity to beyond breaking point by arguing that history and English teach students how to communicate. That is a by-product of learning anything anywhere, but you still end up with a GCSE in History, not Textile. Not the same thing. Fact is, many of these new schools are not offering non-academic subjects in the curriculum, which is regressive in a modern world

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 09:54

People with strong analytical and written communication skills are an asset to any employer, and as the economy gears more towards knowledge rather than low-skill occupations, more of these people need to be nurtured through school. Studying history develops these skills. If pupils are denied the chance to study history, as some are, then the chance to develop these skills, as well as a well-rounded and detailed knowledge of history, is lost. Is that something we should be encouraging, or something we should fight against tooth and nail?

Of course on some level 'communucation' is a skill developed in any learning environment. But written and oral communiucation skills can be developed by studying history and English to an extent that is not possible by studying textiles. Debating in class, summarising arguments, etc. etc.

If those responsible for the curriculum at the WLFS or anywhere else feel that these skills are more important than textiles or food technology, that's a decision they should legally be able to take. If parents feel that that kind of curriculum is regressive or might damage their children, they can vote with their feet.

Looking at the Reform 'Core Business' report it is clear that the UK has one of the most basic requirements of pupils at 16 than most in the OECD. Such a system makes academic subjects vulnerable, although many schools recognise the importance of them.

To bring in what has been discussed elsewhere, the key to the success of state schools is to increase the 'buy in' from middle class parents. Such a curriculum and ethos might just do that. There is of course the possibility of some pupils at a free school going elsewhere for particular lessons in subjects not offered, in exchange for a pupil coming to the free school to study Latin.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 10:10

You seem unable to differentiate between an academic subject and a non-academic one to the extent that you are blinding yourself to the latter..

Yes, parents can "vote with their feet" but the issue here isn't a temporary or a local one. It will have far-ranging and profound consequences on the next generations on children who, in increasing numbers, will be offered a restricted curriculum in more and more schools. This does not increase choice does it? It limits it and education, if based widely on purely on a handful of academic subjects will be regressive not just for those opting for somewhere like WLFS but for the whole nation. You can't vote for something not being offered.

You bring up WLFS quite often, so perhaps you might be able to explain what the partnership between WLFS and London Oratory School will entail?

By that - are you referring to the partnership with London Oratory School? Can you tell us more about how this will work?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 14:07

O Spencer – you mention the Reform report. I've commented on it on a previous thread. However, here’s a summarised reminder:

The report was published in 2009 so is a bit dated as PISA 2009 figures were not out. The report used TIMSS 2003, but TIMSS 2007 showed England to be the top performing European country in Maths and Science.

It’s true that in 2009 England only has two “compulsory” GCSEs. However, that doesn’t mean that most pupils only took two. The average number of GCSEs entered per pupil in 2010 was 8.


Some high-performing countries had a large number of compulsory exams (like Japan with 5), others did not (like Australia with 2, and Sweden with 3).

The report said GCSE was less rigorous than in other countries. This is confirmed by OECD who said the large number of pupils getting high grades suggested grade inflation, and the excessive emphasis on grades and league table position could be a factor in this*.

Particularly interesting was the core curriculum in Japan: Japanese, social studies (history/geog), maths, science, fine art, music, industrial arts, homemaking and foreign languages. That sounds quite good to me – emphasises the arts, industry and practical life skills as well as academic.

It’s difficult to compare school-leaving exams in different countries. Are they designed to show academic excellence or basic achievement? We need to know this when we compare UK exams with those in other countries. For example, in Germany only students at “Gymnasium” schools take the Abitur examination which is designed to show academic achievement. Students at Hauptschule are awarded a Hauptschule Certificate which demonstrates that students completed their secondary education until age 15.

*OECD Economic Survey UK 2011

My opinion (not backed up by any evidence) is that all pupils, whether in state-funded or independent schools, should follow a basic, core curriculum. The Japanese model looks an interesting template. I would also add Religious Education - that is education about religions NOT knowledge about one religion. As European culture is based on Christianity, then all children should have a knowledge of the stories that underpin it - no-one can understand Western culture, art or music without this knowledge.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 10:30

Of course I am capable of recognising that history is an academic discipline, while something like food technology is not.. What I tried to emphasise is that even in what we'd call 'academic' subjects, there are plenty of 'transferable' or 'vocational' skills that employers might prize.

The Ebacc subjects only account for half of the curriculum taught in schools. I expect some like the new free schools will top up this with further academic subjects (assuming pupils take on average 10 GCSEs) - Latin, a second language, classics and so on. Many others will not, and pupils can study vocational subjects alongside the EBacc subjects. I haven't got any problem at all with this. Looking at other OECD countries, the EBacc does not appear restrictive or regressive at all, and most countries seem to strike a good balance between expecting pupils at 16 to have a good grounding in core subjects with room to expand in other areas.

If the curriculum offered by schools like WLFS or the Michaela Community School is popular, and other schools start to copy elements of it to appeal to parents, I can't see the inherent problem. If this means schools become more responsive to parental need, I applaud it. If schools drop Leisure and Tourism in favour of Latin or Classics because they feel that parents might want it, again, where is the problem? Incidentally, were schools to offer more vocational courses on top of the EBacc subjects in response to parental demand, I'd support that too.

On the exchange point - I just meant that it could be a good suggestion for free schools to offer their pupils something additional by sending pupils to another school, and would also benefit other schools who do not offer a subject that the free school might. Benefits for both - an aspect of schools collaborating. Aside from potential logistical issues, particularly if the schools are not within walking distance, this seems to be a perfectly good suggestion. My own school had a construction course for the less-able located at a local college.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 10:35

Oh. I thought you might be on the WLFS committee and might therefore be able to clear up whether there is a a partnership with LOS. One side says there is. The other denies it. Some is telling porkie pies

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 11:33

Sad to say I have no involvement with WLFS so can't be of use here.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 10:51

By the way - There was a scathing criticism of the English Bac by experts this morning. the CEO of the Curriculum Foundation said it's made us the "laughing stock" of the world.

O. Spencer's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 11:30

Many of the OECD countries which rank above the UK on the latest PISA tables have more than 2 compulsory subjects at 16. Perhaps they are also a 'laughing stock'.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 14:23

There's an interesting alternative to the EBacc being proposed. It's called the ModBac and includes extra subjects such as ICT. It also comprises a foundation level which allows pupils at the bottom of the ability range to achieve something in a way that Gove's EBacc won't since the EBacc threshold is GCSE 'C'. Details are here:


Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 12:21

What has that got to do with EBACC???

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/07/2011 - 14:13

And many of the OECD countries which rank above the UK only have a small number of examinable subjects (see my longer comment above - the critique of the Reform report).

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.