Between Ashes drama and what many are describing as a Boris Johnson coup, much other news and comment was eclipsed this week. Nonetheless, Tuesday produced what seemed to me to be three particularly significant items.
I was struck first by a powerful column in The Times, in which Rachel Sylvester described her experience of how “atrocious, unregulated schools have become a dumping ground for problematic pupils”.
She reports that, since 2016, Ofsted has investigated more than 500 unregistered schools, where some 6,000 children are being educated – or, rather, not being educated. More shocking than her description of disgusting, insanitary and hazardous premises was, to my mind, the fact that more than a quarter of such places were offering alternative provision (AP) to pupils excluded from mainstream schools.
Sylvester joined the Ofsted investigations team at an unlicensed West Midlands school, now subject to an Ofsted investigation that may lead to criminal charges. Astonishingly, this school is run by the local authority, an arm of government ignorant of, or ignoring, the fact that it’s sending children for whom it is responsible to an illegal institution.
Alternative provision in unregistered schools
But is it really surprising? When schools, cut to the bone by this government, struggle even to keep their classrooms running coherently, it’s small wonder that such less-visible “fringe” operations as AP are in chaos. Out of sight, out of mind, out of funds: a form of neglect as old as government itself.
Still, surely the Johnson government’s new focus on education, as leaked this week, is welcome?
A one-off £2.8 billion extra for schools and higher salaries for teachers are not to be sneezed at, even if Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton wondered whether this “isn't simply part of a strategy for a forthcoming general election”, while NEU’s Mary Bousted declared the whole package bogus. I suspect both are right.
And what of the other (as yet unconfirmed) pledges in the leaked document? “This government backs headteachers to improve behaviour and will support them to create safe and disciplined school environments.”
The Get Tough message is as obviously a Tory crowd-pleaser as it is perpetually unconvincing. Showing my age, I recall Michael (now Lord) Howard, then home secretary, was cheered to the rafters at the 1993 Conservative Party conference when he insisted: “Prison works." Like it’s working currently, presumably.
The risk of more school exclusions
Schools have been blamed for excluding difficult pupils, and even for rising knife crime. Tory voters might welcome this push for stronger discipline, but even the Department for Education is nervous of government making it easier for headteachers to exclude pupils, let alone restrain them physically, while simultaneously looking to reduce the number of teaching assistants.
Given that double-whammy, the four “behaviour tsars” (somehow evocative of those Marvel Comic superheroes) might struggle to hold – let alone reduce – the number of children excluded from school.
Where will those lost pupils end up? The few successful examples of AP achieve fantastic results. Sylvester claims that it would cost relatively little to give all excluded children a fair deal, because their number is small. But I fear it won’t happen: the leaked document makes no mention of AP.
Tough on wellbeing
Set all this against the grim background painted by the third document I encountered on Tuesday, The Gregson Family Foundation’s report “Why we need to measure student and teacher wellbeing in every secondary school in Britain."
While governments around the world increasingly recognise that a happy child is a learning child, this report declares it unacceptable that the UK allows its children “to be so unhappy and educated so poorly”.
It deplores the fact that Ofsted assesses children’s progress only through academic attainment, and implies that it should systematically monitor child and teacher wellbeing. I confess I can’t help smiling at the ironic thought of government’s Rottweiler being tasked with getting tough on wellbeing, but I get the point.
Since 2010, we’ve had a bellyful of education ministers boasting of their determination to “reform” the system and “drive up standards”. We may argue about how successful they’ve been. But they would achieve a great deal more for the least fortunate if, instead of political machismo, they displayed a measure of compassion.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford