The Tories Say They Support Education – So Let Them Start Doing What is Necessary

Education minister at Sprites Primary
Image by Regional Cabinet via Flickr

More evidence of Britain’s poor performance at Maths.

The Sutton Trust has produced a report that compares a number of countries on the basis of a common international test.

Only 1.7% of British pupils reached the highest level, compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.

Some countries were way ahead of Britain. Switzerland and Korea, the figure was 7.8%.

This matters. Maths is the foundation for excellence in most things – from engineering to economics.

The problem is partly cultural. We have this ridiculous attitude in Britain that Maths is “much too hard”, and people tell each other proudly, “Oh, no, I was never any good at Maths! My teachers were in despair.”

Being rubbish at Maths is nothing to be proud of. It is just as shameful as being rubbish at your own language, which is English for most of us in the UK.

We do have to change that national attitude and start valuing Maths. Kids who are good at it need to be encouraged – but not told they are somehow special just because they are good at Maths rather than anything else.

“Oh, wow, you got an “A” in Maths! That’s incredible! I was never any good at Maths,” is not the right thing to say to a kid. Maths, at least basic Maths, is simply a fundamental part of a decent education.

It is not just cultural though. It is part of a wider breakdown in our education system.

The report argues that England is falling down international tables because of successive failures to help the most able pupils.

It calls for bright children to be identified at the end of primary school, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on.

That used to happen of course. “Identifying bright children” used to be done by the 11+ exam. And their achievements and progress were boosted by grammar schools from that point on.

Look at this from the BBC’s report:

Brighter pupils are more likely to go to private or grammar schools rather than other state schools.

Er – wrong. Brighter pupils who go to private or grammar schools are more likely to excel. Or put it another way – brighter pupils who go to our State comprehensives are more likely to stop doing well.

The government’s response to the report? It’s all Labour’s fault:

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: “We already knew that under Labour we plummeted down the international league tables in maths.

“Now we see further evidence that they betrayed bright children from poor backgrounds.”

Well yes. So why are you continuing with that betrayal, Mr Gove?

Labour’s answer? Everything was rosy under Labour:

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: “Results for all pupils, including the brightest, improved under Labour.

“While there are always improvements that could be made, gifted and talented pupils were stretched through a National Academy, targeted scholarships and a new A* grade at A-level.

“While we want to see bright pupils stretched, this can’t be at the expense of leaving some behind.”

Hard to know where to start with that one. How can a bright pupil be stretched without leaving less bright ones behind I wonder?

The NASUWT teaching union produced an even less self-aware response:

Nasuwt teaching union head Chris Keates said the tests used to draw the comparisons, and the way children prepare for them, differed between countries.

“Their conclusions raise more questions than they answer. They are not comparing like with like.

“The education systems are different…

Well, yes, Chris. The education systems in other countries aren’t run by your members.

So which of these actually supports identifying the brightest pupils at age 11 and stretching them? In other words, which supports the reintroduction of grammar schools?

Labour? You must be joking. They abolished them in the first place and remain committed to keeping them out.

The NASUWT? Don’t make me laugh.

The Conservatives maybe? Nope. They support the present law that makes it actually illegal to open new grammar schools. If your local council wants to reintroduce selective education in response to local wishes, you can forget any support for that from Mr Gove. And if you think his new Free Schools are going to be allowed to be selective, think again.

David Cameron himself called the supporters of grammar schools “ideologically self-indulgent”. I’m not sure what that means – perhaps it means thinking for yourself as opposed to following orders from Mr Cameron.

Or perhaps it means supporting UKIP, who are now the only big party that support new grammar schools.

Just Another Brick in the Wall

Michael Gove at Conservative Party Conference
Michael Gove – image by conservativeparty via Flickr

The last government announced that the school leaving age was to be raised to 18.

Well, not quite. It was going to be compulsory to be in education or training up to that age. Employers were to have a legal duty to check that 16-18 year-olds were getting training before employing them. Needless to say, that was likely to cause employers to avoid employing 16-18 year olds in the first place.

The Coalition government, when it came into office, had ample time to reverse the policy – it wasn’t due to start implementation until 2013. Instead they continued to support the whole policy of the outgoing Labour administration.

The BBC explains the reasoning behind the change thus:

Under the proposals, the process of raising the compulsory age for education and training to 18 will be completed in 2015.

It will address the high drop-out rate at the age of 16 – a measure in which England’s school system has lagged behind many other industrial countries.

In other words, instead of addressing the reasons why children drop out at 16, they are tackling it by simply making it illegal to drop out at 16.

Now Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has announced that pupils who fail to get “a good grade” in maths and English at age 16, will be forced to continue with those subjects until they do. Or until they finally escape aged 18. (Nobody seems quite sure what “a good grade” means – presumably a “C” at GCSE.)

This whole affair is quite depressing. One of the positive things for children entering sixth forms was that everyone in the class would actually want to learn.

Indeed, the teachers at my children’s school were telling the kids who were keen to go into “A” levels that the sixth form would be completely different. All the disruptive kids who had no interest in working would have left, leaving the sixth formers (and their teachers) to work in peace.

Up to age 16, the teachers would spend three quarters of their time trying to keep order in the class. After 16, suddenly they could spend near 100% actually teaching.

And the kids who actually wanted to drop out of school at 16 could go to work. Some of them would find that at work, their motivation would improve so much that they would make quite a success of their careers. Terry Leahy, who recently retired as Chief Executive of Tesco, famously started his career as a shelf-stacker. John Major, British Prime Minister in the first half of the 1990s, left school at 16.

Michael Gove probably thinks he is showing a passion for education. He is not. Our education system is in a complete mess. The root causes of that need to be tackled. So far he does done precious little.

Our schools need to be sorted out properly – which means destroying the whole stifling bureaucracy that has grown up around them. Mr Gove’s department is part of the problem, not part of the solution – which is why his Free Schools, responsible to central government rather than Local Authorities, won’t help.

The Tories have turned their backs on the foundation of new grammar schools. And all the main parties have point-blank refused to even consider the use of “education vouchers”, under which parents would be able to use State funding to help send their kids to private schools.

Our education has been undermined by successive governments for half a century. Our entire Establishment has had the strongest possible desire to destroy excellence and tear down success. The result is that our secondary schools are nearly all comprehensives. Although there are some good comprehensive schools, overall the system has been a disaster. That much we know.

We also know that there are thousands of parents who cannot quite afford to send their children to private schools, but would do so if they had those education vouchers to help them. Private schools stay stubbornly at the top of the academic league tables, and their social, cultural and spiritual provision is generally much better as well.

The sorry state of our schools is the result of half a century of socialism. Together with the welfare state, it is the main legacy of the domination of British politics by the Left since 1945.

The answer to the failure of our school system is to sort out the schools, not to use the law to keep disaffected, bored youngsters in the classroom for an extra two years.

Keeping the Conscripts at School, and the Cheshire Cat

Michael Gove
Image by quisnovus via Flickr

The Cheshire Cat – aka Michael Gove

The Department for Education has been releasing details of its plans for teaching 16-18 year olds, as the compulsory school leaving age rises from 16 to 17 in 2013, and then to 18 in 2015. The plans are all about forcing 16-18 year olds who have failed at Maths and English GCSEs to resit the exams during their compulsory “sixth form”.

This all makes quite a contrast to the views of Chris Woodhead, former Director of Ofsted, who was calling earlier this month for the leaving age to be cut to 14 rather than raised to 18.

What a difference three years makes. Back in 2008 Michael Gove, now Education Secretary, was opposing government plans to increase the leaving age, in no uncertain terms:

The presence of sullen conscripts when they are resisting being there is unlikely to lead to a sudden conversion to the joys of learning and is unlikely to contribute to a calm and peaceful environment for those who do want to learn,” said Gove. “The task of enforcing attendance post-16 will certainly be a challenge. An approach based on coercion will be less successful than one which places incentives at its heart.”

So where is Mr Gove now? Why has he not changed these plans? Why has he allowed the Department for Education machine to drive through this change, that he was opposing so recently? It is not as though it is all too late to stop this – the changes are not due to happen until the year after next after all. Why is he now silent as his officials start the process of locking those “sullen conscripts” into school?

Mr Gove is a bit like the Cheshire Cat – all but disappearing except for the grin.

Update: Mr Gove can’t even blame the Liberal Democrats for this fiasco. Their general election manifesto said on page 36 that they would

scrap the government’s plans to criminalise those who leave education between ages 16 and 18.

Special Pleading Appears in All Kinds of Guises

Fabian Hamilton photographed outside the House...
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Fabian Hamilton, MP, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Education

The BBC today has a quite bizarre article headed “Schools ‘pushed into phonics by financial incentives'”.

The article reports on a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education that bemoans the fact that government policy is pushing schools into teaching reading by synthetic phonics. It also castigates the government for only providing matching funding for schools that buy approved educational supplies.

For cash-strapped schools the incentive to take advantage of the matched funding offered for phonics products and training will push them in the direction of synthetic phonics.

Well, yes. That is explicit government policy, and quite right too. (Synthetic phonics is teaching reading by teaching children the sounds that individual letters make, then getting them to construct words by putting the sounds/letters together. In other words, it is the method that works, and that was uncontroversial until the Socialists wrecked Britain’s education system in the 1960s.)

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, was having no truck with the report. He said:

It is vital that we focus on the reading skills of children early on in their lives and give those who are struggling the extra help they need to enable them to go on to enjoy a lifetime’s love of reading rather than a lifelong struggle.

Schools have the option of applying for match-funding to buy approved products and training to help them teach high-quality systematic synthetic phonics.

And indeed it is now accepted by pretty much everyone that synthetic phonics is the way to go. So why did that All-Party Parliamentary Group produce a report like this? Why did they object so strongly to the government providing funding only for the approved teaching materials? And who are the Group anyway?

Here is what the British Educational Suppliers Association has to say on its website:

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for education was established to build a stronger relationship between the education supplies industry and Parliament. The Group has covered a broad range of topics that affect education, education resources and associated industries.

This group of parliamentarians, led by Fabian Hamilton MP, has given invaluable support and advice to the industry and to the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). The APPG provides a forum for debate between legislators and industry representatives and an excellent opportunity to brief MPs and Peers on the challenges facing the education supplies industry and education in general.

Mr Fabian’s own website has this about that All-Party Group:

The APPG Secretariat is provided by

Anna Wolffe
Ranelagh International Ltd

And Ranelagh’s own website reveals them to be a parliamentary lobbying company founded by ex-Conservative MP Jonathan Sayeed. It says that Anna Wolffe

has successfully established and provided the secretariat for a number of All-Party Parliamentary Groups; built informed relationships between clients and key decisions-makers in the Commons and the Lords and provided strategic advice to build campaigns over many parliamentary sessions.

Ah yes. I think all is now clear.

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Education and the Welfare System

Michael Gove speaking at the Conservative Part...
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Michael Gove – Turning State Education into a Welfare Benefit for the Poor

Is free education welfare? Traditionally, we have not believed so in Britain, and have seen free education as something that should be provided to all regardless of income.

However, the Coalition government has taken another step towards means testing free state education.

Back in April, the “pupil premium” came into effect. That was foisted on the Coalition by the Liberal Democrats, and gives schools an additional £430 per pupil who is on free school meals.

And now, the government is proposing that Academies and the new Free Schools should be allowed to discriminate in their application procedures in favour of children who get free school meals.

What all this means is that schools will have a strong financial incentive to choose to take pupils from poorer families.

Clearly, none of this will matter in the least with under-subscribed schools. Anyone who wants to go to those schools will continue to get in. But with over-subscribed schools, their admissions policies will start to favour poorer families.

We will therefore move closer to a situation in which the only state schools that are open to middle class families are the state schools that are rubbish. They will have a choice between sending their kids to a bad school, or sending them to a private school.

This is all part of a general move to take state provision away from the middle classes. (Other examples are the removal of child benefit for higher rate taxpayers, the severe cutbacks to tax credits for middle income people, the new student loans system and the increased means testing that will be included in the replacement for the Education Maintenance Allowance.)

Of course, the Tories have been in favour of means testing for many years. Even under Margaret Thatcher, they used to talk about opportunities to increase it. They tackle it from the middle class side, talking about how best to take benefits away from the middle classes. (They call it “targetting help on those who need it”.)

Labour too are in favour of means testing, but they talk about it from the working class side. They talk about how best to provide new or increased benefits to the poor. (They call it “helping the most vulnerable”.)

All this is very worthy, no doubt, but it already has a severe downside – it reduces the incentives to work hard, to get ahead and to earn the money to support your family.

The situation is now so extreme that an even darker side of it will soon emerge. There is a danger that the middle classes will withdraw their consent to the whole welfare system. What that means in practice is not revolution and blood on the streets. It just means that the middle classes will stop seeing taxes as something unpleasant that it is their duty to pay. Instead they will start seeing them as state-sponsored theft.

And if they see taxes as state-sponsored theft, they will stop paying their taxes. We will go down the road already trodden by countries like Greece and Italy, with huge black economies.

Everyone seems to say that Michael Gove is an education expert, a thinker and somebody who understands the way forward for the education system. I have to say I can’t see it.

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BBC Management Really Need to Get a Grip on the BBC News Website

A graph showing the BBC's weekly audience reac...
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Reaching 57 Percent of People – But Is It Under Proper Control?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has announced plans to shake up school music provision.

Funding is to be frozen this year, and then a new formula, which is yet to be worked out, will control the amounts allocated to each council from the following year onward.

Obviously individual local authorities will be nervous of being singled out for a big cut, so Mr Gove has promised that no local authority will lose more than 10 percent in that year.

The BBC spins this as “School music services face budget cuts of up to 10%”.

Or maybe the new formula will increase the amount spent. We simply don’t know yet, because the government is still working on the new formula.

No uncertainty about where that journalist’s sympathies lie then.

There is a big problem with the BBC News website. It is very well run, and technologically capable. The BBC spend a lot of money on it.

The result of that, though, is that the number of pages on the site is absolutely huge.

In the old days, any BBC (or ITV come to that) bias was quickly seen. There were just a few news programmes, and they were monitored by the political parties.

Now, with this huge internet site, that is not really possible any more. And of course the BBC can change pages at a moment’s notice. The page in question was last updated at 1:45 pm today, but might easily be updated again before you read this post.

All this gives licence to unscrupulous journalists to let their biasses hang out. In the long run, that doesn’t hurt any party – next time the bias might be the other way. All it does is hurt the reputation of the BBC.

BBC management needs to get a grip of what is published on the BBC News Website, and make sure the same high standards of impartiality are maintained as has been the case in television.

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What’s in a Name

Labour’s Education Rebranding Has Been Ditched

Michael Gove, the new Education supremo, has wasted no time in stamping his authority on his department.

New Labour rebranded it “The Department for Children, Schools and Families”, complete with a pretty rainbow logo and no capital letters, to show how warm and friendly it was. They gave it responsibilities for tackling child obesity, and even for youth crime.

Mr Gove is having none of that. He has changed its name back to “The Department for Education”.

You might say that all this really isn’t very important. But it is. This change, minor though it is, is a sign that the wasted Labour years are over.

The fuzziness, spin and marketing drivel of Labour is gone, and the department is going to get back to the serious business of doing its job.

Good start, Mr Gove.