The day started off with a keynote address from Michael Gove MP who is aspiring to replace Ed Balls within the next administration. He led on the premise that, after thirteen years of very welcome additional funding, sustained improvement has not happened. He agreed that the results were better, but that this is against a backdrop of the dumbing down of examinations especially when compared against worldwide attainment and performance gains. He cited PISA performance tables where the UK has fallen down the international league – from being just in the top ten to just in the top thirty or worse. There were some challenges from leading academics, later on the platform themselves, but he was not to be swayed. Nor was he persuaded that TIMMS is more appropriate as the context of the tests differs. See an article in the TES for a little more background information. It was surprising that he didn’t support the TIMMS studies as they look beyond the measures used by PISA and link more relevantly to the needs of knowledge economies.
The next premise was that education has become more stratified, that the gulf between the best and the worst has grown over the past years. Some facts he quoted: 15% of pupils qualify for Free School Meals (FSM); 20,000 students per annum achieve three ‘A’ grades; <1% of these students are FSM; this equated to 189 children of which 75 were boys; Eton gained > 2 times this number of three ‘A’ grade students. His conclusion: we are squandering our intellectual capital; children are not getting the education they deserve.
So now for the good news! There are, according to Gove, three areas where we are doing well. Firstly, Universities – a success story, they’re internationally acclaimed and are generating much investment from home and abroad. Secondly, fee paying independent schools – ditto as Universities. Thirdly, a group of state schools, ‘CTCs and Academies’, who he states, ‘are better because they have freedom, are independent and are socially comprehensive’. The current government he stated ‘are engaged in a war against independence’ yet under Lord Adonis academies were given the ‘green light’ and ‘full steam ahead’ so does Gove think that the current administration getting something right? Perhaps. But later I felt that speakers thought they have, in academies, the right solution but that the implementation was flawed.
We then had a trip round the world – Sweden, Canada and the States to be precise. It would appear that Sweden could do no wrong. Yet some of their results would belie this, their poor schools haven’t closed (from Dr Sandra McNally’s session). Competition (parental choice) has changed the landscape but it still isn’t flat. Probably this won’t happen until the capacity of the free schools is great enough to cope. Parents have a voucher to take where they want, it’s worth less if they take it to a private school. According to a later speaker, Anders Hultin, the commercial model, where organisations running schools profit, literally, from their success would lead to sufficient capacity for all pupils to have the opportunity to attend a good school. In Canada (Calgary / Alberta) parents have the funding and take it to the school of their choice. In the US ‘charter schools’ have similar freedom, are outside state control, and are also seeing higher levels of attainment. Gove stated that we need the same revolution, but that we must do it better if we are to compete as a nation.
He then went on to list a number of proposals; they’re all in the party’s education manifesto so I won’t repeat them. To read them in full go here.
There then followed a Q and A session.
• When asked about the new primary curriculum – ‘we don’t like it and we won’t implement it’. Gove went on to add that ‘cross cutting themes is the wrong way to go – it undermines the place and value of knowledge’.
• On PFS – ‘chaotically inefficient’ – so who’s on the quango hit list now?
• On ‘Could people be bothered to choose their children’s school?’ – he stated ‘that Social Grade D and E women are more enthusiastic about school choice than women from other grades’. ‘Aspirations exist in all tiers of society.’
• On leadership – ‘it’s the single big thing – with the freedom to demonstrate it’.
• On technology – ‘it’s led to the democratisation of knowledge, which will outstrip the capacity of politicians to predict the future’. I hadn’t seen much evidence of this historically – would you have claimed for the duck house if you’d known your claim would be made public? So perhaps this was said tongue in cheek.
• On working together – ‘school led collaboration will achieve more than any LA led initiative’.
• On inspection – OFSTED will change radically.
His key aspiration? To permeate the public school mode throughout the state sector.
The day then moved on to a succession of speakers all talking on the common theme.
Prof. Dylan William (Institute of Education University of London)
Some interesting quotes:
• the difference between schools is small, the differences between teachers is huge;
• it’s the quality of teachers that matters;
• teachers need to continuously improve their practice.
• The art of leadership: stopping people doing good things to give them the time to do better things. The underlying assumption here is that doing bad things has already stopped.
Sir Bruce Liddington (Director General E-ACT)
Sir Bruce spoke about ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ leading to success, but this autonomy has to be strongly regulated with the rules and responsibilities clearly articulated and upheld.
• Take reasonable risks to bring about success – not the freedom to fail nor be unaccountable.
• Reject schools as office blocks (BSF) – honour the spirit of the building code and spend 1/3 of current levels.
• why shouldn’t all schools be free – at liberty to be different.
• The LA influence on academies is stifling innovation – they’re still not free – at liberty to be different.
Lessons from Sweden and America
Dr Mikael Sandström (State Secretary, Prime Minister’s Office, Sweden):
• Lessons from Sweden must be adapted to meet English circumstances and not simply transferred as is. The cultural differences between the two countries are too significant.
• School choice on its own won’t deliver the results that we want.
• Measure performance and allow good schools to expand – get the funding model right so this can happen.
James Merriman (CEO New York City Charter School Center):
• A free market in education does not, in itself, bring increased performance – there has to be an entry barrier and monitoring if we are to avoid the ‘wild west’ approach to providing education;
• A government accountability system is necessary but shouldn’t end up recreating the existing environment as a result;
• Don’t wait five years to check whether something is working that’s too long – especially if it’s failing;
• To use autonomy well needs talent and in use well attracts talent.
Anders Hultin (CEO GEMS UK):
• Profit is important, it makes for growth – good schools will grow and bad ones disappear;
• Achieving a critical mass is crucial, once achieved then there can be growth and there is increased attractiveness (magnetism) as a result.
On technology and innovation:
Steve Beswick (Director of Education, Microsoft):
• Innovation is not just about technology it’s about the application of technology;
• Do things differently in order to do them better;
• Technology is changing where learning can and does take place;
• On content – the source of content and the market for it is changing;
• Increasingly ICT will have to save money as well as enhance teaching and learning;
• Good use of ICT will stop you from doing many things (photocopying, buying more servers, wasting power etc) Microsoft estimate that a school using ICT effectively could save £400k over three years.
Sarah Hunter (Head of UK Public Policy, Google):
• Create an ‘innovation climate’ – get the atmosphere right – she cited the many fun activities and environments within the Google offices;
• Celebrate failure (providing you learn from it?)
• User generated content is one way that students can re-discover the fun in learning;
• We have the tools – the challenge is to ensure fair access both in school and at home.
Dan Sutch (Senior Researcher, Futurelab)
Dan posed a number of questions/challenges we should consider when examining the current or any future education system:
• How do we judge success (what makes a good school)?
• What is the function (role) of a school?
• How is knowledge generated? – individuals are members of a community;
• Schools are the dominant learning providers but there are other forms of provision that have a role;
• We must create informed debate;
• Education change is very much slower than technology change; many factors contribute to inertia in the system.
Terry Fish (Headteacher ,Twynham School)
• There is too much emphasis on technology and not enough on pedagogy;
• Greater opportunities for innovation are essential – he wants fewer locked-down systems and more opportunities for tinkering – he’s an advocate of Microsoft SharePoint and the freedom this brings him.
David Knowles (Bid Director, Interserve)
The programme is working well with many successes – he highlighted the achievements in Leeds.
Tim Byles (CEO, Partnership for Schools)
Tim celebrated the successes to date, the progress made and the learning that made the processes ever simpler and speedier.
• Schools are now operating without the distraction of problems causes by the buildings and the resources within them;
• We’re very bad at maintaining public buildings (schools included) and the BSF and Primary Capital programmes are going a long way towards putting right this legacy of neglect;
• On VFM – BSF is now delivering and since PFS took over the academies programme it’s progressing well with a 30% reduction in cost.
However, from another conference I attended recently, there were concerns that innovation is still not that apparent and that the BSF payment mechanisms discourage innovation – suppliers are using tried and tested technology rather than run the risk of financial penalty. This is where pedagogy becomes ever more important – perhaps we need proven technology to be applied in ways that are innovative in this sector – do we need imagination more than ever before?
The conference had elements of both accord and discord. Even within Gove’s keynote both appeared. On the one hand there was the setting of the entry threshold for teachers to a lower second class honours degree and at the same time a ‘troops to teachers initiative’ with no mention of entry requirements. There was the avowed intention to reform the National Curriculum and at the same time increased opportunities to opt out of it – traditional reform and radical change. He wants state schools to be more like independent schools with the goal that fewer children are taught in the independent sector. We are already seeing the impact of this migration in many local authorities as they cope with a new wave of requests for places within their sector as the number of parents being able to afford independent education reduces.
All in all it was an interesting day – will there be a revolution? It’s easy to say but it really does depend on the outcome of the election. The two main parties are both proposing change – find the Labour party schools policy here - in varying degrees. Change happens – the speed of change will depend not only on whether any one party gains a workable majority but also on the capacity and appetite for change within the system. We will need brilliant and imaginative leadership; we will need an environment in which potential leaders are prepared to step forward; one in which the challenges are more focussed on pedagogy and less on bureaucracy. If there is to be a revolution that delivers sustained improvement then our politicians will have to back up the rhetoric of the manifesto with support for all of those involved – educators, pupils and parents, employers and the wider community. We’ll need a lot of carrots as well as a big stick!