Pugilistic Cameron talks tough in his attack on “coasting” schools

Janet Downs's picture
Mr Cameron is “revolutionising education”. His “shock troops” (free schools) will “smash through complacency”. He will “remain relentless about combating entrenched failure”. And he believes it is “vital to shine a spotlight on secret failure”. He’s going to “sort out league tables” and give people the data they need “to fight for change”. He’s “toughening up exams” and there’s been a “stunning 82% increase in the numbers of pupils studying triple sciences”.

Let’s take each point in turn:

1 The “revolution”. That means moving away from what high-performing countries are doing and returning English education to a supposed “golden age” situated somewhere in the 1950s.

2 The “shock troops”. Only 19 of the 24 free schools in operation are new schools. Five were private schools already in existence. I’m sure Mr Cameron didn’t mean to suggest that the much-praised 19 pioneers will make their pupils wear brown shirts and goose step round the playground, but it’s an unfortunate analogy, nevertheless.

3 “Entrenched” and “secret” failure. Mr Cameron says “secret” failure is what’s happening in the shires where the schools don’t do as well as Mossbourne Academy. What he doesn’t say is that Mossbourne is a fully-comprehensive school with a strict banding system which ensures it has a full range of ability including 25% high fliers. In some shires, particularly those like Kent and Lincolnshire which retain selection, the 25% high-ability pupils are creamed off into grammar schools. This leaves secondary-moderns to cope with the rest.

4 League tables. Mr Cameron didn’t mention that the new league tables will leave out the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said was a “step in the right direction”* in the development of more sophisticated ways of measuring school effectiveness. Instead he’s going to publish the “huge amounts of data” which he alleges the last government kept “under wraps”. He says the DfE has already made spending data public, but doesn’t say that this isn’t available for newly-formed academies. Publishing lots of statistics doesn’t necessarily lead to greater understanding even though he believes that publication will reveal “secret” failure and those schools which “muddle along”.

5 “Toughening up exams”. Mr Cameron didn’t mention the criticism of the Ebac by the Education Select Committee. However his boasting about the “stunning” increase in numbers of pupils taking Ebac subjects gives credence to the suspicion exposed by the Select Committee that the retrospective introduction of Ebac was a cynical attempt by the Government to find a low base from which to be able to claim success.

Cameron’s combative language may play well with his supporters but it is empty, self-congratulatory bombast.

*page 101 “Reforming Education in England” in OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011 (not freely available on the internet but details of how to obtain the document are here)

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Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 14/11/2011 - 17:59

Janet is it politically incorrect to want to raise the bar of school performance?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/11/2011 - 08:47

What does raising the bar of school performance actually mean? It looks good on paper for a government (any government) to say that more pupils are gaining, say, GCSE Cs than before, and that this is a sign of a rise in standards brought about by that government's policy. But it isn't - it's a sham. Consider this: when GCSE was introduced in 1987, teachers (I was one of them) were told that GCSE C would be the threshold for above-average ability. GCSE A was for exceptional achievement and was intended to be awarded rarely. GCSE E was the grade which the average pupil was expected to achieve.

When it was found that so many pupils were gaining the exceptional Grade A that it was no longer a sign of exceptional ability, a supplementary grade had to be introduced: A*. And GCSE C is now the expected grade, not the grade demonstrating higher-than-average-ability. Some people (eg Deborah Orr writing in the Guardian) even believe that GCSE C is the threshold of functional literacy.

So in 25 years GCSE C has dropped from being a sign of above-average ability to a threshold of functional literacy in some quarters. And that is supposed to be a sign of higher standards.

The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found that the apparent rise in GCSE grades is not reflected in a similar rise in PISA results. OECD also says that there is an excessive emphasis on raw test results in England which could lead to grade inflation, teaching to the test, "gaming" and neglecting important skills which are difficult to measure.

In any case "gaming" is another word for cheating. See below for link to a TES article about widespread cheating in the US following the imposition of high-stake testing. Note in particular its conclusion: that the real victims of this are the children who are given a incorrect assessment of their ability and weaker ones being denied remedial help.


Alan's picture
Mon, 14/11/2011 - 21:43

Point 3: The failure of one child is a tragedy; the failure of many more is hidden in the statistics. League tables don’t take into account the long term effects inequality on individual children, selection belongs in the past.

Alan's picture
Mon, 14/11/2011 - 22:40

Raising the bar is a sound bite - no-brainer!

caz's picture
Tue, 15/11/2011 - 17:01

I suggest people check the youtube video ‘Ark Schools Academies and Eugenics’,
Also the indymedia article titled ‘What lies beneath the Ark Academy in Brent?’ including related comments.
The ‘Teens and Toddlers Sustainability Replication Programme’ is being implemented, the first step of ‘Children: Our Ultimate Investment’, the 6th step being ‘Project Caressing’. The data from this is being processed by ‘The Dream Mill’ located in West Hampstead.
Ark acts as a funding agent for what is going on in many schools, not just Ark Academies, and not just academy schools, and is linked to the Dutroux Scandal. Irrespective as to the very threatening Schillings solicitors letters received, (available on-line) they have not instigated any court case , and this after 3 1/2 years.
For those interested in this story, go to the John Adam St Gang scribd account, document 505, which suggests the position of the main stream media on this issue.

JimC's picture
Wed, 16/11/2011 - 06:37

"1 The “revolution”. That means moving away from what high-performing countries are doing and returning English education to a supposed “golden age” situated somewhere in the 1950s."

Is the purpose of the LSN to promote state education or particular teaching methods. Not everyone who believes in state education believes in 'progressive' teaching methods Janet. You are dividing your support.

JimC's picture
Wed, 16/11/2011 - 06:48

For anyone interested an earlier, more in depth discussion about the sort of education offered by high performing countries is here.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/11/2011 - 17:50

Thanks JimC for the link to the earlier thread. Unfortunately, it only discusses Shanghai. Below is a link to what is happening in Alberta:


And another which gives a brief overview of what is happening in other high-performing countries. Unfortunately, the discussion that followed got bogged down in discussing "jargon" rather than the education systems which Mr Gove says he admires but doesn't follow their example.


If I have missed any earlier LSN discussions, it would be useful if you could provide further links.

JimC's picture
Wed, 16/11/2011 - 21:38

A couple of things.

a) I presume you have some form of link that describes how Alberta's 21st centuryness manifests itself?

b) What do you think education in the 1950's was actually like?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/11/2011 - 09:56

JimC - I presumed that your link and my subsequent ones about high-performing countries were to provide an overview about what these countries are doing should readers be interested. However, my original post didn't actually mention other countries so entering into a discussion about them here risks going off-thread (as has happened previously).

However, your question re 1950s education is relevant. In my original post I referred to a "supposed golden age": one where bright, working-class children were released from poverty by passing the 11+, studying rigorous academic subjects, passing GCE Ordinary Levels, staying in the Sixth Form and entering Oxbridge. Some did (and these were mostly boys) - but most did not.

The reality: in the 1950s and early 1960s, 75% of pupils were educated in Secondary Modern Schools and they left school at 15 having taken no exams. A small number of grammar school pupils also left school at 15, again with no exam passes. More boys went to grammar schools than girls - not because boys were more clever but because more places were available for boys than girls. There was a prevalent belief in the 1950s (and even later) that it was not necessary to educate girls because they got married, had children and were supported by their husbands. When girls did take GCE 'O' level their subject choice differed from that of boys. Girls were more likely to take English, modern languages, humanities subjects and Domestic Science. Boys were more likely than girls to take Maths, Science (other than biology), Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing. Note that the last three subjects are practical - today they would be studied under D+T - so the idea that grammar school pupils only studied academic subjects is unfounded.


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