School funding in the budget, teacher strikes and Ben Goldacre

5th March 2013 at 13:34
All the latest schools news, views and comment, brought to you by the TES editorial team

A word in your ear: Gove hints that schools funding will remain secure in Budget - 19 March 2013

Heads and teachers could be forgiven for awaiting tomorrow's Budget with some trepidation.

The schools budget is currently ringfenced, offering protection against funding cuts for the duration of this parliament. However, several prominent members of the Cabinet are understood to be unhappy that their departments have borne the brunt of cuts, and feel that the Department for Education should share in the pain, as should other budgets afforded similar protection, such as those for the NHS and overseas aid.

But in addressing delegates at the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference in London last Friday, education secretary Michael Gove gave the strongest hint yet that the schools budget will remain intact.

After stressing that he didn't want to "circumscribe [Chancellor George Osborne's] freedom of manoeuvre", Mr Gove continued: "The Prime Minister was pretty clear last week, when one or two of my colleagues were floating imaginative suggestions about how budgets could be restructured.that those areas around which we have a ringfence, the NHS and schools - not the whole education budget, sadly - but schools and overseas aid would be protected."

Mr Gove said there were "101 reasons" why the status quo should remain, adding: "I am keen, David Laws is keen, lots of people in the coalition are keen, not to go back on that."

While it might be premature for school leaders to breathe a sigh of relief, this will perhaps help them to sleep a little more soundly tonight. However, Mr Gove's reminder that post-16 education is not afforded the same protection could be reason enough for those in the FE sector to have a wakeful night.

Stephen Exley

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Open warfare set to resume as government unlikely to bend to unions demands - 18 March 2013

More than a year since the last national strike in schools, teachers will once more be taking to the picket line. Yes, after weeks of frenzied speculation about what - if anything - the NUT and NASUWT had up their sleeves, the unions have finally announced the next phase of their industrial campaign.

The programme will kick off with a regional strike on 27 June in the North West. A series of rolling regional strikes will continue after the summer holidays, although the locations and timings have yet to be confirmed. A one-day national strike in England and Wales will then follow before Christmas.

At the press conference this morning, union leaders stressed the action was "reasonable" and that they hoped education secretary Michael Gove would be prepared to engage in talks to avert it.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates accused Mr Gove of pursuing "a relentless attack on the profession", adding that "teachers' patience has been exhausted". Her counterpart at the NUT, Christine Blower, said: "If there is no positive response to our reasonable demands, the joint strike action we are announcing today is inevitable."

The unions issued three demands:

- "genuine engagement" by the government in a "dispute resolution process" with the unions;

- the suspension of plans to introduce performance-related pay for teachers, which is due to start in September;

- the publication of the valuation of the Teachers' Pension Scheme, and further discussions with Mr Gove on its findings.

It seems unlikely that Mr Gove would agree that the unions' demands are reasonable, particularly the ones relating to his flagship pay reforms. And, given that a source close to the minister told The Sunday Times back in December that a strike was "a price worth paying to change the culture and break the destructive power of Keates and Blower", expect the war of words to escalate in the days to come.

Stephen Exley

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

One-nil to Hunt as DfE loses debate over ringfencing PE cash - 18 March 2013

On Saturday, Prime Minister David Cameron finally revealed just how much money schools will receive in sport funding to help them maintain the Olympic legacy from London 2012.

Since the beginning of the year, government spokespeople had been saying the announcement was "imminent" but it was not until midway through March - seven months after the Games - that Mr Cameron finally revealed the figures.

The announcement itself - that primary schools will receive pound;150 million a year for the next two years - is something to be warmly welcomed.

While not at the level of the pound;162 million-a-year school sport partnership cash that was scrapped by education secretary Michael Gove back in 2010, it is still more than many had expected.

But the delays to the announcement and the fact that the money will be "ringfenced" suggest that health secretary Jeremy Hunt has scored a key victory over Mr Gove in the name of school sport.

As culture secretary, Mr Hunt realised that pulling the plug on the school sport partnership cash less than two years before the country hosted the Olympics could be a political own goal and was instrumental in forcing his Cabinet colleague to reconsider his decision. Instead, Mr Hunt persuaded the education secretary to provide pound;65 million, which runs out in July.

Since then, he and Lord Coe, the London 2012 chairman and government Olympic legacy adviser, have argued strongly in favour of ringfenced school sport money aimed at the primary level.

Mr Gove has always championed the notion that heads should have the final say over how they spend their budgets. But on Saturday, Mr Cameron announced that every primary head will be expected to spend a portion of their money on providing school sport using local expertise and coaching.

The Department of Health will stump up pound;60 million towards the new school sport fund, while the Department for Education will give pound;80 million, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport providing the remaining pound;10 million.

It is believed that one of the reasons behind the delays to the prime minister's announcement was because the DoH insisted the cash should be ringfenced. It appears that Mr Cameron agreed.

Hunt one. Gove nil.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Spiky atmosphere as secondary heads gather in London - 15 March 2013

Given the high-stakes nature of school inspections, every single word in an Ofsted report is scrutinised in detail and can have profound implications for the school involved.

Indeed, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was so concerned about the implications of the "satisfactory" category that it has since been renamed "requires improvement", just to stress that satisfactory is no longer, well, satisfactory.

Not surprisingly, Ofsted is one of the hot topics at the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference in London. One of the main concerns expressed by ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman in this morning's press conference surrounded one simple sentence, which is now used at the start of all Ofsted reports for schools rated as requiring improvement: "This is not a good school because."

Mr Lightman said many members have reported that the sentence is having a demoralising effect on students, teachers and parents. "Would you want your child to go to a school if it is labelled `not good'?" he said, adding that schools that miss a "good" grade by a "whisker" - even the ones that have some good features - are tarred with the same brush. "If you're not careful," he said, "you could push that school into a spiral of decline".

With feelings running high among school leaders about the plethora of changes they are currently having to contend with, this ASCL conference is certainly spiky.

For the news from ASCL as it happens over the next two days, follow @tes on Twitter.

Stephen Exley

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Bad education? Ben Goldacre takes his campaign to teachers - 14 March 2013

No one in government would tell a doctor what to prescribe: we expect the medical profession to be able to make informed decisions about which treatment is best for their patients. And campaigning medic Ben Goldacre is predicting that teachers could one day be in the same position, set free from government edicts.

Dr Goldacre, perhaps best known for his newspaper columns and bestselling books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, is an advocate of evidence-based practice, both in medicine and elsewhere. This morning, he has published a paper for the Department for Education on how to build evidence into education.

In it, he argues that "collecting better evidence about what works and establishing a culture where this evidence is used as a matter of routine" will improve outcomes for children and increase professional independence. He points out that this is how medicine works and that education could collect a "huge prize" by changing to a culture where running randomised controlled trials becomes standard practice.

"I know that outsiders often try to tell teachers what they should do, and I'm aware this often ends badly," Dr Goldacre says, but he stresses that he is not trying to tell teachers what to do, but instead empowering them to make their own decisions.

Randomised controlled trials, he says, are not always appropriate, but he adds that certain myths about them are slowing down progress: for example, that it may be unethical to give new "treatments" to some children while depriving others. This, he argues, is not the case: it assumes, wrongly, that any new treatment (or educational intervention) will be better than doing nothing.

His report is, he says, a "call to arms". Dr Goldacre wants to see more research done by more teachers and to get the results disseminated. He also wants to see all teachers taught how to evaluate research, pointing to Shanghai and Singapore where teachers have "journal clubs" in which they do just that.

In a thinly disguised jibe at much of the research work currently being undertaken in the sector, he also warns against teachers who "pour their heart and soul into research projects" that are too small to provide useful information.

This desire for evidence-based educational strategies is not new. The current government set up the Education Endowment Foundation in 2010 as a way of funding research specifically aimed at boosting the attainment of poor children.

But at a recent EEF conference on how to integrate science into education, a number of risks in the process were highlighted, not least of all "what Ofsted would think". However, Ofsted does not appear to feature in Dr Goldacre's plans - the inspectorate is not mentioned in his paper.

Helen Ward

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

What price the Olympic legacy? We should find out this week - 13 March 2013

The long-heralded announcement about funding for school sport is expected at the end of this week, with Saturday being tipped as the day to watch by some insiders.

The money is widely considered to be a key part of the London 2012 Olympic legacy, with Lord Coe, former chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, playing an influential role in the plans.

Education secretary Michael Gove scrapped the pound;162 million in annual funding for school sport partnerships in 2010, but widespread objections forced him into a partial U-turn.

According to some reports late last night, schools could be in line to receive pound;100 million in sports funding, but it was unclear over how many years and between how many schools that money would be divided.

It is thought the cash will be heavily weighted towards primary schools, with every primary being given a sports grant based on the number of its pupils.

It is understood that it will then be up to heads how best to spend the money, but this raises a few problems.

If a headteacher understands the importance of school sport and PE not just in keeping pupils physically active but also in improving attainment elsewhere in the curriculum, that is all well and good. But what happens when a head doesn't see the importance of proper, well-structured PE lessons as well as the provision of wider school sport?

Baroness Campbell of Loughborough, the head of UK Sport, told TES recently that too many heads, particularly in the primary sector, are content just to see children "running around making lots of noise" rather than being taught proper PE and sports skills.

Many school sport partnerships were allowed to wither in the wake of Gove's decision in 2010 while other, more committed groups of schools maintained theirs. This week's funding announcement will not change these respective attitudes as the government will not be telling schools how to spend it.

However, ministers will need to be careful if the legacy of the hugely successful Olympics is not to be wasted.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Why are the banks so shy with the cash needed to rebuild our schools? - 12 March 2012

After the pound;55bn Building Schools for the Future programme delivered a rather paltry 300-odd schools in umpteen years, it should come as little surprise to anyone that the government's latest school building scheme is already failing to get off the ground.

According to reports today, the coalition's Priority School Building Programme is facing delays due to a lack of the private money needed to fund it.

Westminster, it seems, is not very good at rebuilding schools.

It is ironic that BSF stalled in its early days because local authorities were ill-equipped to deal with the eye-watering sums of cash they were handed to rebuild about 2,000 secondary schools, whereas now there simply isn't enough money to rebuild 200.

But what is surprising and more than a little mysterious is why there isn't enough private finance to get the wrecking ball moving.

There is even a suggestion that officials will be forced to turn to the European Investment Bank to help fund the building programme, which would be the second time the government has gone cap in hand to the European Union's investment agency.

The first occasion was in 2007-08, when BSF was teetering on the brink after the global economic downturn left the world's financial system frozen with fear and banks refusing to lend. But the fact that the government could be forced to turn to the EIB again due to a lack of lending is harder to fathom. The UK, while still in a perilous financial state, is a long way from where it was five years ago.

One would have thought investors would be salivating at the prospect of financing the construction of scores of new schools backed by the government. But the opposite appears to be true. Perhaps it's a sign of the austere times we live in, or perhaps the banks know something we don't. Either way, it is not good news for any of us.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

School budgets: Are they to finally feel the Osborne scythe? - 11 March 2013

Over the past few weeks, a growing number of stories in the press have suggested that Chancellor George Osborne is under pressure to cut school budgets.

Mr Osborne will set out his Budget a week on Wednesday, and with the chancellor seeking an additional pound;10 billion of cuts for the first year of the next parliament in 2015-16, Cabinet ministers and backbenchers alike are wrangling over where the axe should fall.

When the coalition was formed in 2010, it was agreed that spending on the NHS and schools should be protected for the duration of this parliament. Although most schools have had a real-terms cut in funding overall, the decision to freeze per-pupil spending three years ago was still far preferable to the fate suffered by many other government departments, which have been forced to slash up to 30 per cent from their budgets.

But the situation for schools now seems rather more perilous. The chancellor has ruled out borrowing more money and the pound;10 billion in savings has to come from somewhere. Prominent members of the Cabinet such as business secretary Vince Cable, home secretary Theresa May and defence secretary Philip Hammond are believed to have said that their departments can no longer bear the brunt of the cuts.

And today, the former defence secretary and prominent backbencher Liam Fox is expected to make a speech calling for schools to shoulder some of the weight.

His comments follow other reports in Sunday's papers that education secretary Michael Gove's pet free school policy may suffer at the hands of the chancellor next Wednesday, as Mr Osborne searches for any remaining fat to trim.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg played a crucial role in protecting school spending in 2010, as he told TES in an interview to be published later this week. If schools are to enjoy the same security this time round then he will have to do the same again.

However, his fellow Lib Dems have said that the welfare budget cannot suffer any more cuts, and with prominent Conservative ministers telling Mr Osborne to look elsewhere for his money it could be a very difficult case for Mr Clegg to put forward.

We will know how successful he is when the chancellor takes to the despatch box in just over a week's time. Headteachers should start crossing their fingers now.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Want to avoid performance-related pay? Perhaps you should move to Wales - 08 March 2013

The Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones has been making big noises about the further devolution of powers from Westminster to Cardiff Bay, particularly in the areas of policing and justice.

But when it comes to teaching, he has been strangely quiet. Wales already controls education policy but currently exerts no control over the always thorny issue of teachers' pay.

In years gone by, most teachers in Wales have been happy enough with the status quo, fearing that moving away from the system in England will leave them financially worse off. But all that could be about to change.

As education secretary Michael Gove pushes ahead with plans to link pay to performance, teachers in Wales are beginning to wonder whether it is time they took control of their own affairs.

In its submission to the Silk Commission, the body looking at further devolution to Wales, the UK government rejected any "radical" changes to the settlement but said teachers' pay and conditions could be ripe for devolution.

"The school systems in the two countries are diverging at a growing rate and it could be argued that devolving the pay and conditions of teachers in Wales is a logical consequence of deregulating teachers1 pay and conditions in England and should be explored," it said.

The Welsh government has always been staunchly against the move, saying a national system is better, fairer and more cost effective. Until recently the only voices calling for a change were opposition party Plaid Cymru and Welsh teaching union UCAC.

But now, more unions are warming to the idea. "It may be the lesser of two evils," Dr Phil Dixon of ATL Cymru, said last year.

A spokesman for the Welsh government said it would read the UK government's evidence "with interest" and wait for the commission to have the final say when it reports back next year.

But if Mr Jones is sincere in his desire for a "simpler and clearer constitutional settlement" and really wants to "strengthen accountability" in Wales, taking control of teachers' pay and conditions would be a good place to start.

Darren Evans

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

New vocational qualifications: Is this another exam u-turn? - 07 March 2013

Three years ago, as he announced the partial scrapping of Labour's vocational Diplomas, Nick Gibb, the then Conservative schools minister, declared that it was not for government to "force the development of new qualifications".

This morning's news that the coalition is developing new vocational qualifications in engineering and construction for 14- to 16-year-old students might prompt some critics to argue that there has been another exams U-turn.

Ministers will counter that industry will be heavily involved in the development of the new courses. But that was the case for Labour's Diplomas, too.

The latest attempt to produce vocational courses that everyone is happy with will mean a new advisory committee, involving employers, exam boards, professional bodies and higher and further education, creating three new construction qualifications of GCSE size.

Roy Cavanagh, the training and education executive from Seddon Construction who is chairing the committee, said: "The new flexible qualifications will offer many exciting openings for students and will ensure they are equipped to match the requirements of employers and have the confidence to succeed."

Labour's highly complex Diplomas suffered from general low take-up. But the engineering version proved a more popular exception and had the backing of industry leaders and academics.

These supporters have complained that the coalition has downgraded what is a good engineering qualification by reducing its worth in the school league tables from the equivalent of five GCSEs to just one.

Chancellor George Osborne responded in November by saying that the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), backed by the Department for Education, would work with employers to redesign the main part of the engineering diploma and turn it into four qualifications, each equivalent to one GCSE.

Today the DfE has confirmed that the RAE will be working with other engineering organisations to do just that.

William Stewart

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

United Learning takes on first academy to dip into special measures twice - 06 March 2013

After becoming the first academy to sink into special measures twice, there have been more developments today at the sick child of the academies movement, the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, Cumbria.

It has been announced that the beleaguered school, along with its sister academy Richard Rose Morton Academy, is to join United Learning, one of the country's biggest academy chains.

Until now, just four academies have had their sponsors changed because of chronic underperformance and the Richard Rose Federation is the most high profile. The two schools had been sponsored by Brian Scowcroft, a local property magnate, but in a letter to parents last week Mr Scowcroft hinted that the sponsorship might be changing after Richard Rose Central was placed into special measures for a second time.

Richard Rose Central has been beset by problems since its opening in 2008 when it became the first state school to be led by someone with no classroom experience. Peter Noble, a former health service manager, was chief executive of the Richard Rose Federation for barely two terms, overseeing Richard Rose Central's first fall into special measures.

The school experienced something of an improvement after Mr Noble's departure but this didn1t last.

Last week, a new executive principal, Derek Davies, was appointed and DfE officials hope that this, together with the change in sponsor, will provide a boost to the ailing school.

The choice of United Learning is interesting in itself. The academy sponsor is also one of the country's biggest independent school providers, but in 2009 it was banned from sponsoring any more schools by the government because of concerns over performance.

The ban was lifted by Michael Gove when he became education secretary in 2010, but since September the chain has been sent two so-called `pre-warning letters' over standards in its Sheffield Springs Academy and Swindon Academy.

However, schools minister Lord Nash said that United Learning would provide the `strong leadership and external challenge' that both Richard Rose Central and Morton require `to turn them round'.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Is Wales mad to welcome Facebook and Twitter to the classroom? - 06 March 2013

Pupils in Wales could soon be allowed to "poke" their teachers on Facebook and "retweet" their favourite lessons on Twitter, albeit in 140 characters or fewer. Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews has today asked local authorities to allow schools to give their pupils greater access to social networking sites.

Such sites have been banned in Welsh schools - and remain largely banned in English schools - since 2006 over safety fears, but Mr Andrews has decided to reverse that decision as part of a wider effort to turn the country's pupils into so-called "digital citizens".

"Social networking sites have become integral to the day-to-day use of the internet," Mr Andrews said. "Our young people know all about them and, more importantly, they want to use them. Rather than them doing this in secret or in an unsupervised environment, I'd prefer we teach them about how to stay safe online and how to make the most of the web in school."

The minister is particularly concerned that because social networking sites are banned in schools, pupils might be using them unsupervised at home or on mobile devices without proper guidance and support. The Welsh government is now writing to all 22 local authorities in Wales to ask them to take a "more positive view" on the use of social networking in education.

Wales was the first country in the UK to introduce the teaching of safe and responsible use of the internet into primary and secondary curriculums.

Schools are expected to teach children how to use the internet safely under supervision and then help them to develop the skills to use the web independently. But there is still widespread debate on how far social networks should be used in the classroom.

The government says it will now work with local authorities to find the best way of implementing the new approach. There is no word yet, however, on whether Welsh pupils will be taught about agriculture through Farmville or encouraged to display their homework on Pinterest.

Darren Evans

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Raising the floor targets is one thing but messing around with "requires improvement" is a bigger deal, say heads - 05 March 2013

Primary school headteachers are feeling "suffocated" by the constant "churn" of targets hitting their schools, a heads' leader warned this morning as another set of major changes was announced.

Under plans unveiled today by the Department for Education, from next year the floor targets will be raised for all primary schools to ensure that 65 per cent of 11 year olds taking national tests achieve at least a level 4 in English and maths. The threshold currently stands at 60 per cent.

But heads are more worried by changes to the newly introduced Ofsted category "requires improvement".

Under the plans revealed by schools minister David Laws, any school judged to be in the "requires improvement" category or below must close the gap between its disadvantaged students and the other children it educates or it "will be ordered to draw up action plans - alongside experts - on how [it] will spend [its] pupil premium money".

According to the DfE, these plans would be drafted in consultation with "outstanding education leaders" either from the National College or from a school that has a proven track record of boosting performance among poorer pupils.

Ofsted inspectors will then take the proposal, and the school's adherence to it, into account when they judge the school, officials said.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of head's union the NAHT, said headteachers were barely getting to grips with the new Ofsted category and already officials were making changes to it.

"[Requires improvement] has barely been in place six months and they are already altering it," Mr Hobby said. "It's the constant churn of targets that is the problem. Clearly the Lib Dems are very keen on how the pupil premium is spent but they have barely given us a chance to get to grips with the new category."

"Heads have no problem with the raising of the bar; it is right that this happens. All heads would want to see 80 per cent and upwards hitting level 4. But we need some breathing space. Heads are beginning to feel suffocated by the amount of change and pressure they are under and this pressure will be passed on to their pupils," he said.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Catch up with our earlier news stories


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