Compass Education Meeting 18 October

Adrian Elliott's picture
I attended the meeting organised by Compass this week on education. Stephen Twigg, Margaret Tulloch,Ken Spours, Becky Francis, Lisa Nandy MP and Sir Alastair MacDonald were the main speakers.

Whilst there was a good deal of consensus on some key points (if pretty obvious ones) such as the need for a high quality,well-supported teaching force I felt that some issues might well have been skirted round had they not been raised from the floor. For example, the whole question of whether all political parties now accept the virtual demise of LAs was not really addressed until question time.

Above all, I am still left baffled about why an academy sponsor, however highly principled, is superior to an elected council in the supporting/oversight role for schools .

I felt we were expected to sigh with delight at the thought of the co-operative society or the RSA sponsoring schools. As I have a vote for neither body I don't share the enthusiasm and I found the RSA representative rather patronising about LAs.
'I have seen examples of good practice in some local authorities'.

I thought one of the key points made was by the speaker who noted that he knew of no major country
where there was no support authority between the central government and the local school,however small and remote - and yet that is the logic of where the present government policies (perhaps supported by the opposition?) is leading us.

And I have never heard a convincing explanation, as some one who was head of a good and popular school for nearly twenty years , what it was I was missing through not being a grant maintained school or later an academy. (Well,of course, I was missing some money because the conservative governments of both Major and Cameron gave extra funding to the favoured few -at the start at least! )

The other issue which caused a good deal of debate was that of 'narrowing the gap', obviously an avowed
priority of all three major parties. May put some thoughts on this later but as there is no 'save' facility here I'd better post this before my laptop blacks out which is does sometimes.
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Ian Taylor's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 13:07

In all spheres of society and business there are some organisations that are better than others. Entrepreneurs take a risk to make money, and sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. I am happy with that idea. I am less happy with the idea that entrepreneurs take a financial risk with the education of our children. If a business is likely to lose money it is going to fight dirty. Some might call this raw capitalism.

We have seen in banking and energy that regulation is essential to maintain systems which look after the little people (you and me). So far we have not got satisfactory regulation in these areas, and whilst we are trying we are putting a lot of people through misery.

When we have Academy Chains fighting for business as they surely will, who will do the regulating? If you have a complaint about an Academy Chain, who will do the listening? If a school within a Chain is not succeeding, who will do the whistle blowing? If you are a teacher in a Chain school who will consider your rights? If you are an “expensive” SEN student in a Chain school, who is going to want you? If you do not have the aptitude as a student to be an EBacc clone, who will welcome you?

Local authorities have no incentive to “cook the educational books”. Academy Chains have “shareholder value” to uphold.

Of course, if you are a member of the government, you likely don’t use the state education system anyway, so marketisation is probably an interesting experiment for you, and it won’t affect your children.

Where is the local accountability of Academy Chains? Will the next “Fred the Shred Goodwin” be coming from the educational sector? Will we realise this too late?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/10/2011 - 16:27

The endgame is allowing profit-making companies to run state schools (see link below). The primary responsibility of a profit-making company is to its shareholders so they will take priority over the customers (ie the children). Of course, such companies argue that if they don't keep the customers happy they can go elsewhere, but this is of no use if there is no other school locally (as is likely to be the case outside cities and large towns) or the only other schools are run by the same chain (as is likely to happen in Lincolnshire where the council has recommended that all schools become academies and the preferred provider is CfBT Education Trust). And we've already seen what has happened with the International School run by Cognita (the profit-making firm whose investers include Chris Woodhead, the ex-Ofsted chief inspector). A group of parents accused Cognita of "milking" the school for profits at the expense of the education of the children. Chris Woodhead made it clear in last week's TES (not available on-line) that his investment in Cognita was to make a profit when he, or his family, sold the "wretched company". Serco, the profit-making firm mentioned by Mr Gove in his speech to Policy Exchange in March 2010 has not had its contract with Bradford renewed. Bradford has now taken back control of its education service (see link below).

Parents who have a complaint about an academy which is unresolved after going through the academy's complaint procedure have to complain to the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) which is to become part of the Education Funding Agency (EFA) in April 2012. They will need to have copies of all correspondence etc. I don't think many parents know that. It used to be so much easier when parents could complain to the local authority. Parents with children in academies will no longer be able to do so.

Melissa Benn's picture
Sat, 22/10/2011 - 09:32

Adrian, thanks for that clear summary of what was discussed at the meeting and what was not. I have yet to read the Compass book, which I will do with great interest, but I was struck, in Neal Lawson and Ken Spour's article, by their need to distinguish a path through defence of the comprehensive and the right's current position. I am curious about what they mean by this. Presuming they still support the comprehensive principle; presuming they still support the idea of a good neighbourhood school for all; presuming they support autonomy in the classroom and great professional freedom for teachers, presuming they support smaller classes oh and greater resources for poorer schools and children; in other words all the elements of a good - and fairer - educational system that progressives have fought for for years. So that leaves the question; what in the progressive support of good neighbourhood schools don't they support? Adrian's account of the meeting provides a clue; it is the role of local democracy that they don't feel easy with. As I say, I need to investigate this further - but it seems a reasonable interim conclusion.

If it is, then I think they are in dangerous territory, because they are letting the right completely define the debate and under cover of criticism of some poor local authorities ( and no mention, as Adrian implies, of the many excellent local authorities there are) ceding the ground to wholesale marketisation and consequent lack of accountability.

I suspect the hunt in post New Labour is for something new. But the right's ideas have been around for thirty years. And if labour folk adopt those ideas as their own new/blue skies thinking, god help us!

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 22/10/2011 - 17:13

Some thoughts on another major issue at the meeting -'narrowing the gap'. I have one or two concerns about this objective - which very laudably is a priority for all parties.

First, several speakers seemed to assume that the gaps between richer and poorer children and between higher attaining ethnic groups and others had all widened in recent years whereas my understanding is that the picture is not as simple as that - especially in London where the meeting was being held and most of the speakers based.

Secondly, there seemed to be little understanding of the huge challenges for school in narrowing the gap - I prefer 'gaps' because there a number - rather than simply raising achievement for all groups at roughly the same rate.

For example, my own school was picked out by Ofsted in the late 90s for work we had done on improving boys' achievement . The 'problem' was that the various strategies we employed,which were discussed in an Ofsted report , worked just as well with the girls as the boys and whilst boys results improved so did the girls, at at least the same rate. Of course, it wasn't really a problem at all but the gender gap remained.

What worries me is that whilst these issues are familiar to many, if you read the comments on media websites and elsewhere, it is clear that a lot of people think that the concern about poverty,gender or ethnic gaps in education means that the less successful groups are actually doing worse in real terms not just relatively .

Having read this over it sounds as if I am under-playing the significance of relative educational under-achievement . I am not: simply asking for understanding
of the problem schools have in narrowing the gap between their most vulnerable groups and others whose parents may be better educated,much more motivated and far more savvy about how to help their offspring.

That said, I am fully aware that some schools (and above all many other countries) succeed far better in this than others.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 09:21

What causes educational underachievement? International and national research (see below) finds that socio-economic background has a major effect on educational outcomes not just for disadvantaged children but for advantaged children who find themselves in schools where there is a majority of disadvantaged children. There is significant performance variability within the UK and 77% of this gap is explained by differences in socio-economic background.*

Disadvantaged pupils, however, can defy the odds against them if they have the opportunity to do so. This includes fostering self-confidence and motivation while simultaneously ensuring pupils receive sufficient teaching time and have equal opportunities to learn.**

“Education at a Glance 2011” found that globally the most successful school systems tend to be the most inclusive: they do not segregate children academically or geographically. Yet the government and much of the media ignore this. Instead they promote a “no excuses” mantra which ignores socio-economic background. Mr Gove highlights the excellent results achieved by Mossbourne Academy but neglects to mention that this school has a strict banding procedure which ensures a truly comprehensive intake with 25% of pupils being in the top quartile of ability.*** If all English schools had a similar comprehensive intake then this would benefit all children, advantaged and disadvantaged.

*(OECD Viewing the United Kingdom Schools System through the prism of PISA, 2010 )

** PISA in Focus 5


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 23/10/2011 - 22:26

Thanks for sharing the insight Adrian.

If you're looking for reassurance that you are entirely sane and they are bonkers, please accept this virtual bucketload I am sending you now.

Rebecca :-)

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