Will Nicky Morgan fiddle while Rome burns?

Janet Downs's picture
It could have been worse. Tim Montgomerie in last Saturday’s Times (behind paywall) advised David Cameron to swap Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary at the end of the last Parliament, with her predecessor Michael Gove. This, Montgomerie wrote, would allow Gove to finish the job of reforming England’s schools.

But Gove is now Justice Minister and Morgan has been reinstated. It’s unclear how Gove’s idea of what constitutes evidence will meet the standards expected in a Court of Law – citing surveys from the likes of UKTV Gold and ignoring caveats not to use faulty figures to make comparisons would fall short.

Before the election, Morgan listed four priorities:

1Changing school structures through the free schools and academies programme would mean the ‘best possible schools’. But the Education Select Committee and others found these types of school were no better or no worse than other types of schools.

2Collaboration and development would result in the ‘best possible workforce’. But collaboration is less likely when schools are in competition with each other and ‘development’ can hardly be a priority when the last Government said teachers didn’t need training.

3Raising academic standards through a new curriculum. But any curriculum, new or otherwise, can be ignored (in theory) by academies and free schools. In practice, of course, they are as hidebound by the mandatory curriculum as non-academies – the accountability system in England ensures this. There was already too much emphasis on exam results in England, the OECD warned in 2011. Since then it’s got worse, not better. And Morgan told a teacher conference that politicians, not teachers, should decide the curriculum. So much for autonomy.

4Vulnerable young people should be protected – schools had an important referral role to play. She’s absolutely right about protecting such pupils but it takes more than referral. Schools need to tackle this through good quality PSHE and nurturing an atmosphere of trust. Obsession with tests and certain subjects such as EBacc reduces time spent on PSHE and building trust.

Morgan added a fifth: schools should produce ‘well-rounded youngsters’. But as Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said, ‘a very narrow academic agenda…dictated by a punitive accountability regime’ makes it difficult for schools to deliver her fifth objective.

It appears, then, Morgan will continue pursuing expensive policies which fragment the school system while exhorting schools to collaborate at the same time they are in competition with each other. She promises more fiddling with the curriculum which will divert the attention of teachers, already punch drunk with imposed initiatives, away from their prime duty of nurturing all young people.

Are these really her main priorities? She’s also mentioned tackling teachers’ workload but this can’t be reduced until ministers stop meddling. Where is there any acknowledgement of two pressing issues: the shortage of school places which will include secondary schools before the end of this Parliament; and teacher recruitment.

The 500 promised free schools could supply some places but only if they are in areas with a forecast need. Setting up schools in areas where there’s already a surplus, letting undersubscribed private schools into the state system and establishing expensive but not-particularly-popular UTCs won’t solve the problem. This is especially true now it’s becoming apparent academy chains can shut academies or apply to reduce their Pupil Admission Numbers.

Teacher recruitment is down at a time when pupil numbers are rising. Numerous schemes introduced by the last Government and an irrational hatred of University education department have flung teacher recruitment into chaos. Allowing academies and free schools to recruit unqualified amateurs, however enthusiastic, will not solve the increasing shortage of teachers. Quality is as important as quantity. Teaching is an intellectual activity and needs good teacher education and continuing professional development.

These two problems, school places and teacher recruitment, didn’t feature in Morgan’s list of priorities. She may belatedly start to tackle them but if she doesn't she’s acting like Nero: fiddling while Rome burns.

UPDATE 12 May 08.47. Morgan pledges to tackle teacher work load, reports the BBC. So, will she reduce the excessive emphasis on exam results or the demand for data from the DfE? Will she stop ministerial interference in curriculum and exams? This is hardly likely but it is these which contribute heavily to teacher workload.

Instead, she says academy conversion and more free schools will help provide every child with an excellent local school and ensure 'social justice'.

This is blather. The evidence (from Education Select Committee, the Academies Commission and others including LSN's Henry Stewart and even the Department for Education in its little-publicised evaluation of City Challenge) shows that academies are not a magic bullet. Ofsted said the inspection profile of free schools so far was the same as other schools. The National Audit Office found informal interventions such as local support were more effective in helping struggling schools than the far-more expensive academy conversion.

It appears Morgan will follow the example of her predecessor: ignore evidence and plough on regardless with expensive structural change.
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Kevin Anderson's picture
Mon, 11/05/2015 - 13:38

Response to Guest blocked on a previous thread:

You are spot on regarding the lack of impartiality of this site. I used to refer to the LSN as the Luddite Socialist Network and ceased participating after multiple incidents of censorship and abuse; a hallmark of a number of left wing sites/blogs and a particular shame on a website set up to concern itself with education of youngsters in this country. What a dreadful example.

Brian's picture
Mon, 11/05/2015 - 17:02

Who said LSN contributors have to be impartial? As far as I can see the site managers take comments from a range of viewpoints. Agreed the main contributors have a clear agenda but it strikes me that the pieces they write are always based on clear evidence. Of course presenting evidence which undermines the 'everybody knows' and 'I reckon' stances which so often attempt pass for valuable comment will always be seen as lacking impartiality. Good!

David Barry's picture
Mon, 11/05/2015 - 19:18

I am surprised that you had your response "blocked" as this site is post moderated...

But I have just heard of some one else seemingly having difficulty commenting.

Is there a fault?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/05/2015 - 07:35

David - anyone who finds it difficult to comment should email nfo@localschoolsnetwork.org.uk with details. It would help if the email was accompanied with a screen print of any message received when the writer pressed 'Submit'.

As you rightly say, comments are not moderated before publishing. The computer programme accepts all comments except where they contain more than one link. These wait until a moderator approves them. This is to prevent Spam with numerous links from bombarding the site.

Sometimes there is a problem with the Captcha question which has to be answered by responders who don't sign in (perhaps because they're not registered). This should be solved by the responder registering and then signing in before submitting a comment.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Mon, 11/05/2015 - 14:57

In response to the question in your title: yes, most probably. It doesn't seem that anyone is taking much notice of what's going on in education. As has been said before on this site, education dropped off all parties' radar some time before the election.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 11/05/2015 - 15:18

Hi Janet, I don't suppose you are subscriber to The Times so you may not have seen the article in yesterday's Sunday Times about the Swedish free schools

: A chill wind from Sweden sets free schools shivering

Plunging education standards in the home of free schools may bode ill for the English system:

"Ahead of last week’s general election, the issue of free schools had emerged as a dividing line between the two main parties.

Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, said he would end the free school “experiment”, keeping existing schools open but stopping any more from being created. The Conservatives, whose former education secretary Michael Gove introduced the free schools programme in 2010, have pledged to build another 500.

In Sweden, however — a country that was one of the architects of the free school system and that inspired Gove, on a visit there in 2008, to bring free schools to England — they are falling out of favour.

Sweden’s centre-left government, which ousted a conservative alliance last year, has pledged to tighten controls on the country’s 1,252 free schools, of which 452 are sixth-form colleges.

“We want to create an education system that keeps our society together and that is more equal,” the prime minister, Stefan Lofven, said last year. “A school isn’t just like any other market. It should be steered by democracy.”

His party, the Social Democrats, says it will increase quality controls on free schools, put limits on the number being built and return control over them to local authorities.

The Swedish government is under intense pressure to raise education standards after a scathing report published last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) detailed the decline of performance in Sweden’s schools and recommended immediate “profound changes”.

Between 2000 and 2012, Sweden’s scores in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment plunged further than any other country’s, turning it from a much-copied beacon of progressive education to one of the lower-performing high- income countries — lagging behind the UK and America.

“The situation in Sweden has been a disappointment for me,” said Andreas Schleicher, the author of the report. He added that since the early 1990s, when Sweden first initiated the free school programme, “it seems like the school system lost its soul”.

The report was met with resignation in Sweden, where the educational establishment has long been aware of the decline in standards. “It is no surprise that Sweden has to get better,” said Anna Ekstrom, head of Sweden’s education agency. “Our education system has problems.”

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/05/2015 - 18:07

Thanks, Patrick. Problems from Sweden were apparent even when Gove was saying how wonderful it was. Some first-wave free school providers visiting Swedish free schools for inspiration. The Swedish firm IES was given a contract to run a free school in Breckland (now called IES Breckland) to much fanfare (the DT congratulating Gove on introducing for-profit schools by stealth). However, it was judged Inadequate. Kunskapskollan is involved via its charitable arm Learning Schools Trust in four academies - the three which have been inspected are all less than good.

Since then the number of free schools in England has risen. Some have been successful (eg School 21) but there have been spectacular failures. As a group they are no more successful than other types of school but money has been thrown at them and some are in areas which already have a surplus as I said above. A 14-19 free school has just announced it's to close leaving GCSE pupils to find other schools.

This Government is committed to further academisation despite growing evidence that changing school structure doesn't guarantee improvement. Non-academies in similar circumstances do just as well (and interventions in these are cheaper and more successful - academisation is the most expensive option).

But Morgan will plough on while the teacher supply problems worsens and local authorities find it difficult, if not impossible, to manage school place supply thanks to Gove's policies.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/05/2015 - 08:10

The BBC says Morgan has pledged to tackle teacher workload and increase the number of academies and free schools. The former can't be lessened until politicians recognise their interfering initiatives and directives contribute heavily to teacher workload. And she persists with the latter despite evidence showing academy conversion is not a magic bullet. It's also expensive. She should not be committing taxpayers' money to a policy costing billions when there are more effective and cheaper options.

The report contained nothing about how Morgan intended to tackle the teacher recruitment crisis or ensure sufficient school places where they are needed.

For more detail see UPDATE in main article.

agov's picture
Tue, 12/05/2015 - 12:46

David - I am informed that a fault has been identified with the site's software. Presumably other people have the same experience as myself i.e. the blue 'Reply' button to the right of a post never permits any attempted posting to succeed. The black 'Reply' facility at the bottom of the page does work. The fault apparently only affects users of Internet Explorer, a mere 20% or so of web users. Although mainframe programmers might be appalled at a 20% failure rate, an 80% success rate may count as virtually unblemished perfection for pc/internet programming. I gather it is to be fixed. At some point.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/05/2015 - 14:09

Thanks for the feedback. I'll let the technical boffin know.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 12/05/2015 - 14:51

On School places:

There are actually two issues that arise.

1. In a number of areas there are serious shortages of school places building up, which will in die course move on to secondary - as has been observed. In that context the Government target of creating 500 more Free Schools might well be capable of achievement by only authorising them in areas where the LA, which is still the relevant body, has identified there will be a need. I suspect that this is, in fact, what wil happen with the DfE tightening up further on the "need" part of the application. However a comsequence of this approach will be that Free Schools will cease to advance the "choice" agenda. In which case parents who find themseleves with no choice BUT their local Free School will look less kindly on the more ...individual...types of Free Schools, to which they may find their children committed willy nilly.

2. In my own local area we have a "new" Free School, Whitehall Park School on the old Ashmount site - do a search on this site under "Ashmount" and you get all the postings.
In this part of North Islington, while we do, it seems, have a growing school age population, there was enough physical capacity in local schools - some had had their PAN reduced in the past, and could take their PAN up again at low cost. But instead Whitehall Park School has been set up, and thereby created a significant surplus of places, on last years figures well over thirty for the area. This is explicitly justified by the DfE as enhancing parental choice in the area. However as Islington are obliged by law to manage school places, they now have to take this Free School provision into account. Thus they will soon, if the extra children do not arrive, shuld start managing the surplus out of the local provision. But of course they could only do this by reducing enrollments in Islington schools. But those schools in general do NOT have a surplus, the surplus is concentrated in Whitehall Park School and likely to be so for the forseeable future. Especially as WPS currently only has portocabins for its children, on what, if their plans do go through, will be a building site for several years. At the end of which they will have a new building, it is true, at a cost of many millions.

They may, by that stage have enough children to fill, but if so, this will only be because Islington will of course have not chosen to exapnd existing well regarded schools in the area, which they could have done at a fraction of the cost.

Thus after all the expenditure, parental choice will be back to exactly what it was, due to Islington obeying the law by not creating extra places, and thereby creating a surplus.

Please do tell me I am missing something.....

Michael Pyke's picture
Tue, 12/05/2015 - 20:39

To add to the shortage both of teachers and of school places, Morgan will find herself increasingly grappling with the problem of schools running out of money. For obvious reasons, there is nothing she will be able to do about any of these problems. Just as in the Major government, it will be claimed that schools are "sitting on balances" and are able to make "efficiency savings". The teacher and school place shortages will simply be denied and there will be the same quoting of fraudulent statistics that we find in debates about the NHS. With the dismal Hunt continuing as shadow education secretary, don't expect vigorous opposition from Labour.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/05/2015 - 08:07

David - the Local Government Association said some time ago that local authorities would find it difficult to manage school place supply because of the academies and free schools programme. It there is a surplus in a local area, LAs have traditionally reduced schools' PAN or even closed or amalgamated schools. They can do none of these with academies or free schools. This could mean an LA with a large surplus being forced to close a popular and good (or better) LA school because it doesn't have the power to shut academies or free schools. This is hardly going to be popular with parents.

Similarly, LAs can't open their own schools. It's expected any new provision will be an academy or a free school. But academy chains and free school proposers might be unwilling to set up schools in areas where there are 'challenges'.

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