The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘education reform’

Cambridge To The Rescue

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 23, 2010 @ 10:00

We need to see less of this...

A lone piece of good news today comes from an unlikely source. Cambridge University…

Cambridge University has criticised the government’s plan to scrap the current system of A-levels in a letter to Michael Gove, the education secretary.

As I pointed out recently, Michael Gove is a liability. This latest bad PR day comes from the fact that a week or so ago he told everyone, without the merest hint of consultation or evidence that his plan had any merit, that the old two-year A-Level would be returning.

A-Levels were changed – split into a modular system – in 2000 as part of the Labour government’s Curriculum 2000 reform. It was, broadly speaking, a good change. Modular exams are now the norm across all qualifications and institutions in society, providing a much more thorough examination of the subject.

Indeed, contrary to what Michael Gove thinks, I would argue that the new A-Levels, which invariably require the student to sit five or six exams over two years, plus one or two resits, are much more demanding and stressful on a student than the previous unfair “how’s your luck today?” old system whereby a student would stand or fall based on a couple of exams at the end of two years.

The AS-Level, which students usually do in Year 12,  has had an added bonus. It’s given universities the chance to have actual exam results to base their admissions decisions on, something they never had in the past. Getting rid of them is what has got Cambridge, and doubtless many other universities, rather flustered. They know they can no longer rely on the goodwill and honesty of Sixth Form tutors for predicted grades – the old system – precisely because competition is so fierce, and a little white lie here and there makes the whole thing so difficult to be certain about…

The hilarity of it all is that in the original plan for reform, just 19 days ago, we were told that

Universities fear that the current “bite-sized” system in which courses are broken up into units with their own exams fails to prepare students for the demands of a degree.

… which is truly remarkable, since it brazenly fails to tell the reader that almost every university degree is “broken up into units”. Modular is the already here, it is well established, it is still the way forward, and it should be here to stay.

Furthermore, his plan was to get the likes of Cambridge to write the syllabus for his new “deep thought” A-Levels. Sounds like they’re not too keen after all.

Please, Mr Gove, stop tinkering for the sake of your ego. The education system is fed up with perpetual revolution. Admit you have spectacularly misjudged this one.


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Will Schools Be Free Or Not?

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 21, 2010 @ 21:24

He works in the Roman Catholic church down the road

We are told that the goal of some of the education reforms will be to free schools of burdensome regulation regarding the National Curriculum. This seems like a noble goal. After all, we want to trust teachers. They know best. Free them to unleash the spark of creativity that the rigid system often doesn’t allow them to do.

When this subject crops up, it’s often the idea that teachers should be free to use whatever inspiration they need to do the task in hand. And so they should. They are the professionals, right? They’re going to know the best way to motivate their classes, engage them in their subject. Not whinging parents, right?


In the past few years, when I harboured ambitions of being a teacher (note the past tense), I met some truly inspiring ones. They could take almost any subject and fit their unique way of thinking around it. Even with a prescriptive curriculum, there was always flexibility in the method of delivery. You want to teach the facts of something in a song? Well, go for it. Poetry? ICT, with whizzy flashes and zooming thingys? A game? You got it.

Teachers like that, while still frustrated by how bureaucratic teaching has become, still found ways around it. That’s, of course, because they’re Good Teachers.

The problem is that in our new age of parent power, and schools having to fight tooth and nail for pupils, schools have to listen to what everyone has got to say. Even if they’re idiots and don’t understand what teaching is all about. Not what they think teaching is all about. I assure you, it is not what it was even 10 years ago, let alone when most of the moaning parents in the news article featured above were in school.

In the future, if the present government enacts what it says it believes in, we may well see more stories like this. If more schools are freed to pursue curricula and qualification specifications in much looser ways, more teachers will be persuaded to put their own spin on what they’re being asked to do. And more freedom will inevitably mean more disparity. More disparity means even more of a postcode lottery than now.

Parents need to decide. Do they want schools to be free to run their own affairs, responding to the needs of “local” people, with all the good and all the bad that may bring, or do they want centralised, rigorously controlled institutions, which may not be very creative, but might at least have a better network of bureaucratic support and minimum standards?

Do we trust teachers to do their job? Because if we do, “Simpsons lessons” be only the beginning.

Your call, electorate.

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Is Gove A Liability?

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 8, 2010 @ 10:04

Well I never thought he had it in him...

After yesterday’s rather embarrassing fiasco regarding the Building Schools for the Future programme (see Hansard) and this little gem

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): … they have seen the Secretary of State come here humiliated for the second time this week to apologise to them. He can embarrass himself; he can disgrace his party; but what is intolerable is that he has cynically raised the hopes of hundreds and thousands of families. You’re a miserable pipsqueak of a man, Gove. You have-

… at which point Mr Watson was politely interrupted by the Speaker…

… I am starting to wonder whether trusting and believing in what Michael Gove is up to may turn out to be a very risky gamble for David Cameron.

There has always been something of a media love-in for Mr Gove. There is no doubting he is an intelligent man, and believes in what he wants to do. It is nice to actually see a Secretary of State for Education who actually wants the job, and wants to do something with it, rather than the decade of Labour incumbents who had no interest in the subject or used it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

But there is just something amiss about Michael Gove. Maybe it’s that David Miliband geekery that puts me off. I also find his demeanour somewhat irritating, and slightly patronising. But that’s not it either.

David Cameron has placed his faith in him to do this job. Cameron has some interest in education, but he’s never really let it be known that it is his passion. To some extent, no one really knows what the impact of Gove’s education reform agenda is going to be, but Cameron, with his fresh mandate, is prepared to spend a little of it on a friend.

Fundamentally, I disagree with a great deal of what this government plans for education. I have watched Michael Gove and his obsession with “free” schools for many years now and have been a little discomfited by just how infatuated he is with his dream. Over the years, I’ve shuddered at the prospect of him being in place to implement his ideas. Ideas that are either going to be a pointless waste of money, add little to the impact of education, or could actually work.

It’s a massive gamble. We’re used to Education Secretaries tinkering with the system. But never before have we had one who wants to transform the system in his own image. Gove is the first Education Secretary we’ve had in a long time who knows what he wants to do with it, and is very likely to achieve it.

Assuming he’s right.

If he’s wrong, Cameron will eventually call time on this little experiment. But not before several more years of children being guinea pigs to this ideological battle.

Gove is indeed a liability in the sense that he may well be spectacularly wrong. He may well have completely misjudged whether the English public (for this is an England only matter) have any real desire to run their own schools.

But yesterday’s incident made me just as worried that maybe he’s not quite the safe pair of hands many people think.

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Who Wants To Be An Academyanaire?

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 26, 2010 @ 15:44

There is a cartoon character that looks a bit like Michael Gove. But I can't think of his name...

I’ve moaned in the past about the useless concepts of academies and free schools.

And with today’s announcement that Michael Gove wants all schools to be one or the other (no idea what the difference is though), I expect I’m gonna have a lot more moaning to do.

Academy schools are the brainchild of New Labour. The concept: a classic public-private partnership, where the private sector gets a lot of influence for only a little capital. Throw ooodles of government cash at it, maybe with a brand new building, and some new swanky titles like Executive Headteacher, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Some academies have worked. Some haven’t. That disparity suggests there’s nothing magical going on here. We’re merely polluting the educational pathway with a deluge of modern managerialism, and worse, combining it with the opportunity for the private sector to stick their oar in where it’s not wanted.

Labour spent 13 years obsessing over what type of school a community should have. The Lib-Con coalition now looks set to do exactly the same.

It is a mistake.

Disconnecting schools from local authority control means that local authorities are going to be doing even less. As if councils could be more emasculated, more impotent, bang will go another reason for their increasingly pointless existence.

But our new “free” schools will not exist in glorious isolation. No sir. They will, of course, be accountable for their standards directly to the Secretary of State. In Whitehall.

This is not a power devolution exercise. Just as Lord Adonis was intimately involved with the school academy programme, so too will Michael Gove. These schools may be free on a day-to-day basis, but overall they will have to respond to the direction of central government. And does central government really know what is appropriate for a local community?

I have no principled objection to giving schools more freedom. I have seen the bureaucracy they exist under first hand. But the answer is not to open up a system, removing all strategic planning from the local people who know best what’s appropriate for their area, and putting it all either in the hands of a clique of middle-class parents with too much time on their hands, a strange collection of “social enterprises” (read: The Vardy Foundation) or civil servants in Whitehall who will no doubt have their own pet schools to look after.

Most ordinary parents couldn’t care less whether their school is free to pursue its own curriculum and manage its own budgets, or has every second of its existence regulated down to the last turkey twizzler. They just want to know that the school has a strong ethos, is a safe environment and is going to deliver rigorous, excellent teaching and learning.

Structures make at best 20% of that. And that’s me being generous.

Teachers, leaders… and most of all, the headteacher, provide the rest.

Here’s to freedom.

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Who Wants To Be A Headteacher?

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 17, 2009 @ 09:52

Apparently this makes sense to the educational organistion that own this logo...

One of the “most radical” reforms that the Tories are planning for government is the idea that any “suitably qualified organisation” will be able to set up a school. Any kind of school. Infant, junior, primary, a middle school, a secondary, or one of those rare beasts, all of the above.

Not my words, those of David Cameron in today’s Times.

What makes these reforms so radical is hard to ascertain. For starters, one generally probably shouldn’t save one’s most radical reform for the eighth paragraph.

Secondly, thanks to Labour’s appalling school academy system, almost any organisation with the cash can already found an educational establishment. And, in a classic case of Labour’s principles being available to the highest bidder, this gives them the right to influence the curriculum. Hence the “creationist academies” founded by Sir Peter Vardy. Perhaps Cameron’s reform will allow even more such insitutions to arise. I can hardly wait. But since it’s happening already, again, it can’t possibly be “radical”.

And thirdly, the whole plan is very big on vision but short on detail. All we ever hear is that it will copy “the Scandinavian model”. We are also supposed to be reassured that such an apparent oasis of lefty-liberalism engages in such decentralised, individualism, with a large dose of healthy competition inspired by the free market. And yes, we’ll just forget that they tax and spend a lot more on schools per capita than we do. That’s not important…

But finally – and here’s what makes me sceptical – where are these great hordes of people across the land that are waiting to be freed by the state into launching their own schools? Cameron and Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove frequently frame the debate in terms of giving parents the power to set up their own schools. But do these people actually exist?

Are there that many parents out there that are so horrified at their child’s education that they would grab a bunch of like minded people and jump through the necessary hoops to get an alternative school up and running? And what about the fact that the time it takes to do would probably be too long for their own child to benefit anyway?

Furthermore, what kind of people are they? Are they middle-class pushy parents with time to kill? And are these not the people favoured by the current education system anyway?

The answers to these hypotheticals are obvious. The middle class already know how to work the system. They already know how to feign a faith in order to get into the nice Catholic school. They already know where to buy houses to land in the catchment area for the good schools.

As usual, the people who will not benefit are those who greatly need it. Try as you might, it’s hard to imagine the council estates rising in revolt against their local comprehensive to start their own alternative, providing a meticulously designed curriculum to teach the children to rise up, aspire to something better and escape the poverty and squalor of their current existence…

Sorry, Dave. This is just one of your “policies” that isn’t based in the real world.

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A Tear For The Education System

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 31, 2009 @ 08:15

Perhaps this scale of complexity makes sense to someone, but not me...

Perhaps this scale of complexity makes sense to someone, but not me...

There was a story in the Guardian yesterday a few days ago how the government’s new fangled diploma qualification, a “better” alternative for those less academically inclined, have turned out to be “too hard”.

It’s enough to make anyone weep.

What a shambles the education system in this country is now. Endless “reform” and the exam culture have destroyed any semblance of point to what we put our children through.

Diplomas were first suggested by the excellent Tomlinson Report. The government had commissioned Mike Tomlinson to investigate the post-14 education system in light of continued accusations of narrow curricula, falling standards and teaching to the test.

He came up with a very radical solution, which was, in effect, to subsume the current bizarre arrangements of GCSEs, AS-Levels, A-Levels, NVQs, Key Skills and a multitude of other qualifications into a new National Diploma. The diploma would now be the qualification of choice. Earned at 18, it would consist of four years study, though its modular nature would mean a great deal more flexibility for schools.

The idea worked because it would pull together all these silly qualifications, many of which have been sadly undermined by years of abuse, into one national framework for the first time. It would give vocational subjects the equality they deserve, as a Diploma could be earned by achieving the necessary credits and criteria, regardless of which subjects or disciplines the credits come from.

It would also have the useful result of demonstrating that education should not be considered complete for some people at 16. Now you could only get your qualification by sticking it out.

The Diploma had the support of the teaching unions – vital to secure implementation – and the universities, who thought it would help them differentiate between students better than the present system. Amazingly, it also had the support of business, which had deemed that the Diploma would bring a better focus to the skills required from employers.

Unfortunately, it didn’t have the support of the only people that matter: the government. In the run up to the 2005 election, Labour didn’t want to be seen as being too radical. On the other side, the Tories were whinging about wanting to preserve the A-Level “gold standard”. Suddenly, Labour were on the wrong side of the PR battle, wanting to remove such a marvellous “gold standard” is apparently not what the country wants to hear.

After the election, Labour decided Tomlinson had some good ideas after all. They implemented the diploma system anyway. But in such a way that they were doomed from day one. Tomlinson only worked as a package deal. Instead, Labour brought in diplomas but only for vocational subjects.

The result: a total mess. Yet another qualification. The continued demise of the GCSE, leading to schools offering International GCSEs and Baccalaureates.  Which are yet more qualifications, promoting more confusion and making it impossible for employers, colleges and universities to compare standards.

Worse, the new qualification they have introduced is stillborn. By making it look like it’s only for the thickies, it hardly encourages uptake. Having more things for teachers to learn before they can even begin to teach it is not good either. And such a half hearted implementation will surely make students and teachers alike think: “Why study something that may be obsolete in just a few years?”.

But then to build the diploma in such a way that it’s actually much harder than the qualifications it is supposed to be equivalent to, thus adding to the unfathomable web of different qualifications, all at different levels of difficulty? That’s shambolic and unforgiveable.

In some ways, it can be likened to an attempt to build a free market in the education system. Choice and competition.

And that is why it’s a failure.

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How To Sack A Teacher

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 26, 2009 @ 07:45

He looks a bit like this, actually...

He looks a bit like this, actually...

There’s a little problem in schools throughout the country. It’s not a problem unique to schools, in fact most organisations have it at some point.

It’s the question of how to let somebody go. Gracefully, if necessary, but with a firm kick if all earlier efforts fail. But there’s something about schools that makes this problem especially difficult.

It’s the small problem that, in the eyes of the profession, there are no bad teachers.

Sadly, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students throughout the country that would beg to differ, their educational careers being blighted as they are by shoddy standards.

There is a certain school I know and have a particular insight into. It’s not a good school. It only just scrapes by the government’s various benchmarks. In fact, it probably won’t be with us in 10 years time, instead merged (or “federated” in new educational-speak) with another failing school into an Academy. Why anyone thinks changing the school’s structure will solve the problem I don’t know, but that’s New Labour for you. Anyway…

This school has a couple of members of staff who really should have been put out to pasture a long time ago. One of them is a maths teacher, who is ageing badly, has no enthusiasm for his job, makes no effort to teach, and goes through the motions in order to get paid. His demeanour is belligerent, his attitude to professional development is one of arrogance, and his opinion of students is not printable on a decent publication such as this…

The students hate him. Most of the staff dislike him. Some have even noted that his behaviour towards students is such that he seems to be hoping one of the students take serious offence to his behaviour and stick one on him, giving him the perfect excuse to retire with an extremely generous compensation package.

But he goes on. And on. The man has been ruining children’s careers in mathematics for over 20 years. And for all that time, no headteacher has had the balls to take him on.

Anyone who’s run a business or any organisation will tell you that it requires leadership to sack someone. Headteachers are no different. But, throughout the land, poor headteachers are not brave enough to put inadequate teachers through the mill, instead hoping for an easy life by ignoring problems and instead being happy to “coast”.

The teacher in question has a very strong union on his side. A union’s job is to stick up for its members, so one would expect no less. The question of union strength is not the real issue, though. After all, it is a fellow teacher, his immediate “line manager” as head of the maths department, who has spent years trying to go through the procedures to get him out of the job.

The process is a nightmare, especially when a teacher is able to protest that they are being unfairly singled out. Perhaps they are even being discriminated against. Such allegations make the chances of getting rid of a teacher almost impossible.

There are other options. Early retirement. Ill health. Redundancy. The only problem is that, throughout the education system, there are teachers who don’t want to teach any more, but don’t want to do anything else. They want to keep collecting their pay cheques.

So the teachers don’t take any voluntary offers to go. They dig their heels in. Somehow, they evade OFSTED inspection. Governing bodies are incredibly weak and at the mercy of their chair (who may be in cahoots with the headteacher) – and so nothing happens.

And so, it brings it all back to my main point. If the head isn’t brave enough to take on a failed teacher, nothing happens. Instead, the problem gets passed on and on to each successive year group. In doing so, we let down our students very badly.

Schools and teachers must not be allowed to coast. Like it or not, it is an extraordinarily high-stakes profession, and must start to be treated as such. If teachers and school management cannot stand the pressure, then they need to get out of the way. There is too much money and time invested in education to allow students to suffer a failing system.

There is no bigger issue for improving outcomes for students than the quality of the teaching profession.  Solving the problem of how to sack a bad teacher – in an age when the number of available, alternative teachers is going up and up – is the first thing that any future education policy needs to tackle.

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It’s That Time Again

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 20, 2009 @ 07:08

Argh! Shiny, happy people! Curse you R.E.M. for such a haunting song!

Argh! Shiny, happy people! Curse you R.E.M. for such a haunting song!

Yes, we have reached the final two Thursdays in August so that can only mean…

It’s Condemn The Youth Day! Woohoo!

In honour of it, I have provided you with a rough schedule to how today will go. Enjoy!

8am-9am: “live” televised openings of results envelopes. And, whaddaya know, everyone got what they needed for university! That’s because they have already checked their results beforehand. No one wants to go on telly if they’ve failed, and no one takes that risk.

8am-12 noon: BBC and others take to the airwaves praising children and their achievements, while launching their helpline for those who struggled. Radio 1 lauds its DJs for taking “hard” A-Levels and getting miserable results. Chris Moyles will claim that it proves A-Levels are hard after all and we should stop knocking kids. He would say no less, of course. Children and young adults are the majority of his audience.

12 noon: Meanwhile, Talk Radio, callers on Five Live and “Professor” Chris Woodhead will join battle and tell us how the education system is a total shambles and we are “schooling failure”. The exams are “getting easier” and students are leaving education with “fewer skills and shallower knowledge than at any time in the modern era”.

3pm: headteachers emerge – after fully digesting the results for their school/college – and start telling us how their schools have achieved 141% pass rates this year, with not a single student getting less than a B for every single module they sat. “Hurrah for my school!” they will say, while demanding the government turns over the FE funding they promised and saying that such good performance can’t be sustained unless they comply.

5pm: more “experts” start telling us that students can’t read or write; while others tell us that they’re smarter now than ever before; teaching unions tell us we have the best teachers in history, while the government jumps on the bandwagon by telling us that these results show us just how successful Labour’s “reform” of the education system has been.

10pm: first editions of the morning newspapers include much hand-wringing about “lamentable” education failure while sitting next to several pages of attractive young ladies “celebrating” their A in Media Studies. I knock media studies in jest; I apologise. After all, I have my very own A-Level in it. At grade A, no less!

And it certainly wasn’t easy.

This whole episode will be repeated next Thursday when GCSE results emerge.

It’s all so boringly predictable that no one ought to avoid the sneer of my cynical side. I do send my congratulations to everyone who succeeds today, because they fully deserve it. They have been set hurdles by the system, and they have worked hard and jumped over them. That’s no easy task, and fully worthy of praise.

Meanwhile, there are wizened hacks who enjoy nothing more than putting the youth down unnecessarily. They don’t understand how times have changed, and that educational standards are both quantitatively and qualitatively different these days.

Nevertheless, they do have a degree of worthiness. We do need to look at our education system to see if it’s doing all it can for our youth. Is it serving them well by wanting to send most of them to university? My experience is mixed, and maybe I’ll return to this at a future date. How exciting!

But days like this just depress me. The cyclical nature of news and politics does that because it shows me that nothing ever changes.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

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