Ding Dong – a report’s ‘expected’ findings already being used as political football.

Janet Downs's picture
The Government’s flagship policies have had little or no effect on school improvement according to an Education Select Committee’s report due to be published this week, says the Guardian’s front page. Evidence that academy conversion raises standards is ‘inconclusive’.

I can’t comment on the report because it’s unpublished. However, it’s already become a political football.

Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, said Labour's sponsored academies, investment, school reform and ‘raising the bar on what we expect from teachers’ had been more effective than Government policies.

While Hunt is correct about the damage done to English education by the Government’s ‘market ideology’, he’s on less sure ground when he praises Labour’s legacy. Deception about sponsored academies started when they were established; school ‘reform’ increased the high stakes nature of tests; Labour’s response to the extensive Cambridge Primary Review was lukewarm; and the late Ted Wragg wrote an excoriating article about how heads were being ‘harangued to meet their targets’.

That said, the London Challenge and the City Challenge were successful. Hunt should make more of these as long as he remembers their achievement had little to do with sponsored academies.

The Department for Education hit back at Hunt’s comparison between sponsored and converter academies’ improvement rates. Sponsored academies were bound to have a higher improvement rate, a DfE spokesperson said. They improve faster because they have further to go.

What? After years of saying sponsored academies improve more quickly than other schools, the DfE has done a complete turnaround and admitted what we on LSN have been saying all along – sponsored academies start from a lower base so their improvement rate will be greater than schools where results are higher.

The DfE spokesperson obviously hadn’t read letters from the UK Statistics watchdog concerning misleading remarks by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan about literacy and numeracy standards under the last Government. Labour had left a ‘legacy’ where one third of pupils left primary schools ‘unable to read, write or add up properly’, the spokesperson said. Adding the word ‘properly’ to Morgan’s discredited statement doesn’t make it accurate - ‘properly’ is subjective.

Britain is ‘stagnating’ in international league tables, shrieked the DfE spokesperson. It’s true Britain’s performance in OECD PISA tables has been consistent since 2006 – UK 15-year-olds score at the OECD average in Reading and Maths and above-average in Science. But England still remains in the top ten countries for primary maths according to the 2011 Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS). The performance of English 14-year-olds in Science in TIMSS has remained consistently high since 1995. And the performance of English 10-year-olds in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 rose - English top-performers are up there with the best in the world.

This success, however, was ignored by the DfE spokesperson keen to promote the ‘stagnating’ line.

100,000 more six-year-olds could read because of the Government’s emphasis on phonics (unspecified method), the spokesperson said. But the phonics screening test doesn’t test reading – it tests decoding. And DfE research contradicted the spokesperson – the majority of teachers of reading were using other methods alongside phonics.

Hunt accused ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove of making ‘cheap political capital’. He’s right but he must take care not to make the same error himself.

CORRECTION 26 January 16.22. The above article has been amended to include the name of the ex-Education Secretary. This was missing.

UPDATE 27 January 15.20. The Education Select Committee's report on academies and free schools has now been published. A summary of its findings is here.
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Frustrated Teacher's picture
Mon, 26/01/2015 - 13:13

Hunt's ideas on educaction policy are as lamentable and loathesome as those of the current Government. So it's pointless urging him to 'take care' of the details of his policy line.

Most people on LSN know what Labour SHOULD do but we all know that they won't because their ideology is NOT different to that of the ConDems.

As far as I can tell the only party in England that wants to return to LA-wide co-ordination and comprehensive education is the Green Party. Since they won't win in May we are definitley stuck with failed, damaging education policies for the forseeeable future.

Unless the impossible does happen in May and Labour needs the Greens for a majority. Then things might get interesting.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 26/01/2015 - 16:05

Frustrated teacher - I share your frustration. The Greens have now overtaken the Lib Dems in the polls. This has put Hunt on the defensive and he's attacked the Greens' education policy as a throwback to the 70s.

He doesn't seem to realise many would cheer at that - little Gov't interference; no politicians (with media support) trumpeting one type of school over another; no league tables; no international tests which can be picked over to find the one(s) which best suit Gov't propaganda; no politicians whizzing round the world like vultures picking the bones of other countries' education system for juice nuggets (until the flesh is found to be a bit whiffy); no high stakes tests; benign HMIs instead of an inspectorate which strikes fear and loathing...

Labour would do well to look at the NUT Education Manifesto. If it doesn't then there might well be that teachers who previously voted Labour could vote for the Greens.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 26/01/2015 - 19:56

Another very insightful disclosure about the utterly disastrous governance of education in our nation. I read through all your links, Janet, and clearly, the history of the events you highlight tells me one thing, the future of education reform and with this the education opportunities of ALL our young people, have no chance of working out any different from the past unless a radical change takes place soon.

This link to the IOE blog talks about just one individual community that is suffering the consequences of political interference in restructuring local education.


It focuses on the pressing need for political accountability - "Politicians of all parties should be made to explain what steps they have taken to safeguard the interest of students (or other users of services, such as patients) before they implement their pet initiative, in case it fails."

The point is, people are trying to make politicians take responsibility but nothing changes, as the back-reading to your thread informs us, Janet. I maintain, until education is removed from the political arena, our politicians will play party political football with it.

We all know instinctively, it won't much matter which party is in power after the election. And why is this? It's because of one simple truth. Even if their intentions are worthy, their policies correspond with the interests of teachers and pupils and they sincerely wish to be the architects of lasting, far-reaching change, the electoral cycle will inevitably (and often very thankfully in most instances) bring an end to their reign and their apparent vision. Why would any responsible public servant wish to keep themselves locked into such a cycle?

It would help restore my flagging confidence in the democratic process if just one serving politician were to sign the petition on ordinaryvoices.org.uk calling for the establishment of a National Commission for Education.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 09:39

the reality is that the academy policy is Labour's policy, devised by Andrew Adonis, and any attempt to divorce Labour from the policy is doomed to failure.

Hunt is a Progress Vice Chair, as is Stephen Twigg, and Adonis is an ex chair of progress (as I think was Stephen, though I personally like Stephen, he was never effective as shadow minister as Gove kept pointing out his ideas were those of Adonis) - so the key issue here is the continuity of policy.

The wheels are coming off the wagon.

Anyone going to the SERTUC conference on the 7th? See you down there!

Trevor Fisher

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 16:39

Trevor is right about the ideological roots of Academies. Tristram Hunt's claims for the success of Labour's sponsored academies would not have withstood a Janet Downs or Henry Stewart style analysis had LSN been around at the time. I did my best in my 2008 paper, 'How Academies threaten the Comprehensive Curriculum'. You can view or download it here.


How the impression of spectacular improvements in sponsored Acadmies was successfully sold to the media and the public gets a detailed analysis in Section 3.2 of my book, 'Learning Matters'.

It was largely a very skilful 'smoke and mirrors' job based on exploiting Blair's newly introduced GNVQs.

Here is an extract.

No doubt then that radical changes had taken place in the curriculum of Academies, but were these changes for the better? Academies had increased their use of vocational qualifications like GNVQ by a factor of fourteen times compared to the predecessor schools. However, far from radicalising the curriculum, Academies largely concentrated on just two GNVQs: science and ICT both of which were just easier versions of existing well established core curriculum GCSE subjects, but now they were much easier and counted for four subjects each instead of just one or two. When combined with a C in English and maths the league table and floor target drivers are met with just one extra subject needing no more taught time than the GCSE version they replaced. Just how easy was determined by statistical analysis of exam results by [Terry] Wrigley. This showed that a GNVQ pass was equivalent to about Grade E at GCSE (at that time). Yet each such GNVQ pass counted as four A*-C GCSEs. In 2006, pupils in academies gained 4712 A*-C equivalents through GNVQs, of which 4024 were in science and ICT.

Don't be put off by the temporary Amazon availability glitch for 'Learning Matters'. You can get it from the on-line booksellers 'Wordery' (at present only £4.46 inc delivery).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 18:18

Glitch solved - 'Learning Matters' is now back on sale on the Amazon website.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 10:16

It is interesting to note that at the time, the illusion of the success of Blair's sponsored Academies was swallowed whole by the left leaning media including the Guardian and the Independent. (Not so now - the Guardian is at the forefront of the current tide of exposees of dubious practice in Academies and Free Schools).

Apart from some isolated examples including me and Edinburgh based academic Terry Wrigley, the only penetrating evaluations were coming from Anastasia de Waal of the right wing think tank Civitas. Her 2009 Report 'The Secrets of Academy's Success' can be viewed and dowloaded here.


It is, however, important to note that some sponsored Academies were indeed improving the life chances of their pupils. The reasons for their success and how they were able to achieve it are the subject of Part 4 of my book. These reasons are connected with Admissions Policies and the issue of 'Fair Banding'. They are complex and have to be unpicked with care as they are disguised by a battery of commonly accepted but misleading counter-intuitive assumptions.

Here are some quotations from my book.

From 4.2

The principle of ‘fair banding’ is to provide a school with a pupil intake that reflects, so far as possible, the national or local ability variation profile. If a particular Local Authority area produces pupil CAT scores with a mean of less than 100 (the national average) it might then be expected that the mean intake score for each school would match the mean for the LA. This would result in, so far as possible, all schools in an LA area having intakes of comparable ability albeit with means below the national mean. It is only ‘so far as possible’ because any school operating ‘fair banding’ has to attract sufficient applicants to fill all its bands. Even if a school cannot attract enough first preference pupils to fill its top ability band, fair banding can potentially limit the numbers of pupils in lower ability bands it is compelled to accept.

This can protect schools located in poor areas from being so swamped by admissions of many lower ability pupils that no spaces are available for more able pupils, resulting in a skewed intake in ability terms that would make it more difficult for the school to meet the government’s ‘floor targets’ and/or do well in local league tables, resulting in a downward spiral towards failure. The first tranche of Labour’s sponsored Academies mostly replaced such schools. Many of the new Academies chose to protect themselves from the same fate as their predecessors by choosing to have a banded admissions policy.

This opportunity was not, of course, available to the neighbouring LA schools, which were therefore placed at an even greater disadvantage than before the new Academy competitors were visited onto them. Urban LA Community Schools are unlikely to succeed in competition with banded academies unless the LA operates a uniform system of banding for all the schools in its area.

From 4.6

As schools are always likely to vary with regard to mean CAT scores and because cognitive ability is the main driver of school attainment, not relative affluence or social class, as correctly argued by Peter Saunders (1.3), it makes school league tables that take no account of such differences statistically worthless and explains why hundreds of schools serving poor communities with low average ability intakes, like Hackney Downs school, have been written off as failing when their comparatively low raw GCSE scores were just what should have been expected from their intake ability profiles. It is important to note that there is no necessary disadvantage to any pupils attending a lower average intake CAT score school provided their GCSE results do justice to their cognitive abilities. A school with a poorer intake ability profile could have been achieving just the same success for their more able pupils as Mossbourne, but there would be proportionately fewer of them, resulting in the league table position of the school being lower. However, the more balanced the intake ability profile, the easier it is for any comprehensive school to be able to adequately meet the developmental entitlements of all of its pupils.

So securing reasonably balanced intakes is important for any comprehensive education system, but for complete fairness they only need to be exactly balanced in a competitive league table based system like that which uniquely prevails in England.

As we have seen even in Hackney, which probably has the fairest system currently possible, further improvements require the dismantling of school league tables together with the artificially created market that they drive.

From 4.7

It is unbanded Academies located like Mossbourne in poor areas, but whose sponsors and managers believed that the invigorating effect of a commercial sponsor applying the purgative rigour of the free market would be sufficient to secure transformations, that have proved to be the least successful, especially with the demise of the ‘vocational equivalent scam’ (3.3, 3.4, 3.5) that appeared to provide protection, albeit to the ultimate disadvantage of their pupils.

Sir Michael Wilshaw and his co-founders of Mossbourne were therefore very wise to take the banding route to success. There is nothing unreasonable or educationally undesirable about this decision.

From 4.13

Academies however differ from Community comprehensives in one vital respect. They have the power to set their own Admissions Policies and it is here that a gulf of opportunity opens up that is not normally available to LA schools, which are bound by the Common Admissions Policy of the Local Authority. Religious schools have more freedoms, which many exploit with some vigour, but Academies only have to get the approval of the Secretary of State for Education for their Admission Policies and that has usually been readily forthcoming even for arrangements that may disadvantage neighbouring LA schools. The most important of these freedoms has been the right to have banded admissions policies driven by Cognitive Ability Testing. The enormous significance of this has been explained at length and in detail.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 10:41

I agee with the thrust of this, but the 'freedoms' - which Tristram Hunt wants to extend to all schools, effectively demolishing Local Authorities and creating a jungle where selection is dominant without having the objectivity of the old eleven plus - include not only admissions but curriculum.

It is one of the astonishing factors that the media can never understand, that the national curriculum does not have to be followed in academy, free or faith schools.

As the media constantly carry stories that x or y should be 'on the national curriculum' including increasing support for financial education, why is the Westminster consensus that it should be removed by academisation not getting through to the media donkeys?

Trevor FIsher.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 12:09

Your are right Trevor. This is because Tristram Hunt shares the ideology of Adonis and Blair (that had its origins with Margaret Thatcher) that market competition always raises standards. This may be true for for cars and computers but not for public services, where the exact opposite is the case, as has been revealed by the ongoing catalogue of deaths (literally), social devastation and financial malpractice disasters of so many examples of market based outsourcing of services that are much more effectively and economically run as unashamed state bureaucracies.

Even the services that are still run by the state such as NHS Trusts and their regulators are forced by current laws to pretend that they are private businesses competing in a (artificially created) market. This requires them to have 'Boards of Executive and non-Executive Directors', Chairs, PR and legal operations much of which are inappropriate, irrelevant and/or destructive, as well as justifying an astonishing inflation of management salaries all round.

These same drains on the taxpayer are now being replicated in Academy and Free School management chains and increasingly even in individual schools.

Unfortunately Tristram Hunt and the likes of Alan Milburn believe in all this stuff. They are a threat to the education and health services respectively.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 14:26

Trevor - it's not just the media. The School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb, is always saying how the new National Curriculum lays down the content which must be taught. But he seems to forget the NC doesn't apply to his beloved academies and free schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 14:18

Roger - the myth 'Choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success' is thoroughly debunked in our 'School Myths: And the Evidence that Blows Them Apart' out today - available here.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 15:00

Janet, is there any way of taking this conversation to a wider public? There are intelligent, concerned parents and professionals out there who would understand the treachery of the general media's (and parliamentary) indifference to the lies, distortions and exaggerations surrounding the debate about education at present. You and others have surely produced enough grist for the mill to make this a major issue in the run-up to the next election.

It is a betrayal of our democracy that so many who have opted to serve the public in high office are prepared to continue their ridiculous mud-slinging in place of an honest engagement about the future of our nation's education service. It is of no significance which party did what or said what and when to get us where we are today. The fact is that with its importance for the future of our nation and our young people, education is TOO important to be left in their hands. Surely, anyone with a neutral neuron in their head would regognise that it is time to call 'last orders' on a system of political dominance in education governance so that we may have coherent reforms that are not subject to the 'stop-start' process that currently exists.

There may have been a time (now long gone) when it might have been appropriate (I need convincing, however) for the party in power to make all the running. Right now it is an anachronism that is blighting our nation. www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk to support this vital reform.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 14:44

Brilliant, Janet and Melissa.

This is a significant myth-buster, very well done.

When can I buy the paperback version?

Congratulations and best wishes for the success of your book.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 15:43

John - we hope our book, published today in Kindle version, will go some way to getting the myth busting message to a wider public.

Brian's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 21:54

'School Myths: And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart'

Bought it at 6 o clock, started it at 7:30, finished it at 9:30 without a glance at the television apart from a few seconds when they were talking about how long goldfish retain memories*.

Brilliant but left me with a seething rage. I can hope only that this excellent publication is picked up widely by the media and used to hold politicians to account. The extent of manipulation and misuse of evidence exposed in your book is staggering ... in the business world this would surely be fraud.

* Five months.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Wed, 28/01/2015 - 22:31

its a pity that the book is only available on Kindle, as this is a restricted format. It would be useful to have a print version. I and colleagues are working on setting up a paypal system that will allow for selling print material via the internet. Some issues still to be resolved, like whether pdfs can be sold or only hard copy, but in principle the use of electronic media is not an issue.

The more information that can be got out the better. This is the first time I have heard about this, and would suggest the publication is widely notified, using all the email networks. AAA, SEA, the Reclaim Education Alliance networks, all should be used.

However there has to be mainstream media covereage to make a difference, so how to get this is the big question. If the organisers can get sympathetic journalists to write about it that would be good. Otherwise we will need to get a media strategy together, pooling contacts.

trevor fisher.

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