TES Big Ed Blog

18th January 2013 at 18:31
The TES blog - brought to you by the editorial team - keeps you up to date with news and views from the world of teachers, teaching and education

Not a great day for the teacher unions - 30 January 2013

With teaching union leaders from across the world gathered in London for the Education International conference, the NUT and NASUWT received some unwelcome publicity this morning.

According to a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), 60 per cent of teachers say the unions' continuing work-to-rule industrial action is having no impact because staff at their school are simply not taking part.

The publication of these findings comes against a backdrop of uncertainty over whether the two unions are going to carry out strike action this Spring. Certainly the NUT has voted not to walk out in early March, while it is wholy unclear whether the NASUWT is in favour of any strike action at all.

As part of the work-to-rule campaign, teachers in the unions have been given a list of 25 instructions, which cover areas such as appraisals, lesson observations and meetings. They have been instructed to not submit lesson plans to senior management, to not send emails outside their directed working hours and to not cover for absent staff. The unions insist the "pupil-, parent- and public-friendly" action is easing the bureaucratic burden on teachers while not affecting lessons at all.

But feedback on the impact the campaign is having has been mixed. The NFER report, commissioned by the Department for Education, claims that 13 per cent of the teachers surveyed were unsure if their colleagues were actually working to rule or not. In comparison, 10 per cent said staff were following the action but were not sure whether it was having an impact, while 8 per cent said it was not having any impact. Just 9 per cent said the action was definitely having an impact on their school.

It's fair to say that NASUWT deputy general secretary Patrick Roach was less than impressed with the coverage of the survey, which was conducted in November.

"Teacher unions are under attack," he told conference delegates. "And those of you who woke up this morning to read our `wonderful' national newspaper The Times will see the extent of the attack on teacher unions even here in the UK. Our government is seeking to undermine the work of two unions - the NUT and my own union, the NASUWT - in the context of the national industrial action we are taking to defend our members' terms and conditions of service and also to protect quality of education."

He continued by describing his vision for unions and government working more closely together. "We need to see deep engagement with unions as being critical to the success of individual education nations," Mr Roach added.

It seems unlikely that education secretary Michael Gove would agree. While ministers and general secretaries from the OECD countries will be coming together in Amsterdam in March to discuss the future of the teaching profession, TES understands that the Department for Education has privately confirmed that it will not be represented.

While the representatives from the UK's classroom unions may have won many admirers from their peers across the globe with their passionate speeches at this week's conference, it seems that they are finding it much more difficult to make their voices heard closer to home.

Stephen Exley

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

The man behind Pisa charms the world's teacher trade unionists - 29 January 2013

Gathering at the Trades Union Congress headquarters in London are enough "enemies of promise" to bring Michael Gove out in a cold sweat.

The TUC is hosting the conference of Education International, the federation of teaching unions from across the globe. More than 150 delegates from 24 different countries are in attendance, including the likes of Dennis van Roekel and Randi Weingarten, who lead the two biggest education unions in the USA, as well as their counterparts from as far afield as Chile, Israel and New Zealand. Senior representatives from the NUT, NASUWT, ATL and UCU are also present.

The big name speaker on the first day of the conference today was Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the man behind the international Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables, so beloved of our own education secretary when justifying his many reforms.

Mr Schleicher spoke thoughtfully about the challenges facing education in OECD member countries - and gently batted away representatives from the UK unions who made known their frustration at how his data have allegedly been misinterpreted by Mr Gove to suit his political purposes.

Mr Schleicher politely refused to be drawn on the issue. Given that he admitted meeting Mr Gove last night, this was perhaps a sensible move. He still received a warm reception from the union leaders in attendance, displaying the diplomatic skills that have helped him to become one of the most recognisable faces in global education.

Popular with Michael Gove and teacher unions, eh? There aren't many people who can make that claim. Perhaps the UN should use Mr Schleicher for a peace mission or two?

Stephen Exley

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

Seconds out! Primary national curriculum scrap nearly under way - 28 January 2013

The national curriculum for primaries is due any day now. Given that the Labour government had been reviewing it for three years prior to the election in 2010, and the coalition has been doing likewise ever since, an entire cohort will have gone through primary school by the time any changes are introduced in 2014.

In June 2012, three documents were published setting out draft curricula for maths, English and science, so we already have an idea of some of the battlegrounds likely to be scrapped over the next few days.

There are, for example, fears that the English curriculum does not put enough emphasis on the importance of spoken language, while many maths educators want to see more problem solving and less focus on formal written methods. Meanwhile the science community is already concerned about the emphasis on factual recall rather than deep understanding.

But, apart from the announcement that a modern foreign language will be required from age 7, the remaining subjects are still waiting to hear what their roles will be. All they know is that they've already been told that they are going to have shorter programmes of study - `to give primary schools greater flexibility to set high expectations'. This is where the different interest groups will really tear each other apart.

It's going to be one hell of a bunfight.

Helen Ward

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

Wilshaw suggests able pupils are being failed by secondaries - 28 January 2012

Yesterday Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted's chief inspector, voiced his concerns about the country's most able students being "failed" by comprehensive schools.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Sir Michael pointed to the number of children that leave primary school achieving the highest levels in literacy and numeracy only to be "let down" by secondary schools that allow them to "coast".

Sir Michael said his office will publish a "landmark" report in the spring, looking into concerns that bright pupils are not being stretched by their schools. Among other things, it will, he said, look into the accusation that secondaries enter bright kids for GCSEs early as a way of "banking" early C grades, while they might get much higher results if given another year1s study.

Sir Michael also rolled out time-worn figures from the Sutton Trust that showed that more students from just four private schools and one prestigious sixth-form college than from 2,000 state schools end up at Oxbridge.

Although it is not new, the statistic is nonetheless still striking - and it does make you wonder why Ofsted has not asked the question.

Some will certainly react to Sir Michael1s new focus by pointing to the coalition's removal of the ringfence around gifted and talented funding and the impact that has had on schools' ability in this area.

But it is worth remembering that Sir Michael has form in this area. There is a reason why places at Mossbourne Academy, the school he led until taking the top job at Ofsted, are eagerly sought after. Stretching pupils is his thing. Don't expect his intervention to be a flash in the pan.

Richard Vaughan

Will planning shake-up see free schools open in bookies? Don't bet on it - January 25 2013

Michael Gove and communities secretary Eric Pickles cheered today as they trumpeted changes to planning regulations making it easier for free schools to open in offices, hotels and warehouses.

According to ministers and champions of the free school movement, trouble securing sites is one of the biggest obstacles preventing the policy from taking really taking off. Mr Gove is understood to be exasperated by local council planning departments standing in the way of his free school revolution.

Today's announcement means a free school can open in almost any building for a year without needing any planning permission, circumventing the tricky town hall planning department.

The Department for Education cited Bedford Free School as an example of a free school being forced to battle the local council for eight months before it was able to open. However, the main stumbling block in that instance was around traffic congestion.

The new planning rules, contained in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, will also see free schools given priority when it comes to appeals, and sets out that councils must give "priority to the need for new school developments when considering planning".

Unsurprisingly, town hall bosses are not over the moon with today's news with the Local Government Association stating that if Whitehall wants to see more school buildings, it should stump up the capital to build them.

Councillor David Simmonds, the LGA's chair of the children and young people board, added: "Councils ensure children are taught in proper classrooms in state schools with playing fields not in disused industrial buildings or redundant offices. Parents should expect nothing less from free schools."

It remains to be seen whether there will be an appetite among parents, free school applicants and teachers to set up in a disused hotel, betting shop, pet shop or indeed, as was once suggested, an undertakers.

Richard Vaughan

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

Secondary league tables - yet more accountability measures to be judged against - January 24 2013

It's that time of year, when the data is crunched, rankings compiled and schools across the country find themselves condemned for results that many argue are more about intakes than quality of teaching.

Yes it's secondary school league table day and this year they are being judged on more measures than ever. The most eye-catching new column in the government data records the percentage of pupils at each sixth form who achieve at least two A grades and a B at A-level in "facilitating" subjects, those most often required for entry to elite Russell Group universities.

Around 600 of the 2,540 schools teaching A-levels have fallen foul of this tough measure with no pupils at all getting the necessary grades.

Also new for 2013 are columns that separate out results for boys and girls and pupils with English as an additional language.

Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, fears this proliferation of measures is becoming confusing.

But it is a deliberate government strategy aimed at giving the public the fullest possible picture and making it difficult for schools to "game" the tables on any single measure.

Nevertheless many newspapers continue to focus on the main - percentage of pupils achieving at least five GCSEs at C or better including English and maths - measure.

But for a minority of secondaries, often serving very disadvantaged areas, the local newspaper ignominy of being "beaten" by the neighbourhood independent selective school is nothing compared to the consequences of missing the government's floor target.

This year that could ultimately mean closure for 195 secondaries below the new required standard of at least 40 per cent pupils achieving the main GCSE measure and where pupils have failed to make "adequate" progress in English and maths.

Another 20 schools also failed to meet the target but have already closed, with most since re-opened by an academy sponsor.

Last year only 107 secondaries missed the then 35 per cent floor target. But the Department for Education argues that things are improving as last year 251 secondaries would have finished below the new standard.

However analysis shows that the 68 of the schools below the floor target are sponsored academies, with another 14 among those that recently converted to academy status on the basis of being given good or outstanding Ofsted ratings.

And since Michael Gove sees academy status as a major way of improving results, those figures could make troubling reading for the education secretary.

William Stewart

The emphasis on spelling and grammar isn't going anywhere. Here are some helpful ideas - January 24 2013

By any standard, spelling, punctuation and grammar - fondly known in schools as SPaG - are not the most glamorous parts of teaching English.

Most teachers reasonably believe that there is more to writing than the correct use of the semi colon; to place too narrow a focus on SPaG is to risk undermining the potential of language as a creative tool that can be used to engage and inspire readers.

Yet between the implementation of the new Key Stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test in May this year, and additional marks being awarded for `Quality of Written Communication' in current GCSE mark schemes, it doesn't look like the emphasis on SPaG learning will be going away any time soon.

How should teachers, who may or may not be completely confident in their own knowledge of grammar (see Adi Bloom's great feature for background), begin to teach it with more regularity?

The trick could be to introduce SPaG-focused activities little and often, while still allowing time for creative literacy work. And this is where our top people come in - they have developed a framework of Resources for Writing Progression.

These collections gather together a selection of the best teaching resources uploaded by teachers to support primary writing. And for those who feel shaky in their understanding of grammar, there are a set of `desk drawer' flashcards which can be referred to in the middle of lessons.

Like it or not, children will continue to be judged on their ability to spell and punctuate. And teachers have a responsibility to prepare them as best we can for this, without letting them forget that there is more to life (and literature) than recognising an Oxford comma.

Helen Amass

How would you react to Michael Gove turning up with the inspectors? - January 23 2013

Heads expecting the arrival of Ofsted inspectors tomorrow will have let out a collective scream this morning after Michael Gove revealed he is to shadow an inspector on a visit.

The education secretary told the Commons Education Select Committee this week that while he was yet to meet a commitment he gave to shadow a teacher, he was planning on following an HMI on Thursday.

TES can only imagine the fixed smile on that poor headteacher's face dropping upon seeing Mr Gove appear with one of Ofsted's crack teams.

No doubt there will be more than the usual amount of prayers offered Heavenward from those heads awaiting their visit from the watchdog.

The good citizens of Twitter got all of a fluster following the secretary of state's announcement with some teachers even volunteering to be followed. One such, @ManicStTeacher, contributing: "he can shadow me in a pupil referral unit! Ha".

Well quite.

Richard Vaughan

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

Two year A Levels - blessed relief or a backwards step? - January 23 2013

Pity England's teenagers. They are about the most tested of any country in the world, with the exception of South Korea. Almost every year they face another crucial set of external exams - with GCSEs when they are around 16, the AS exams at 17, and the A2s at 18. To add to this barrage they may also take GCSEs early at 15 as well.

So it would be understandable if some teenagers were relieved by Michael Gove's announcement that he is turning A Levels back into a two year course. With all those external exams, they deserve a year off, surely?

A large number of teachers may also support the move, which Mr Gove implies will give them greater freedom to teach their subjects to the depth they desire, instead of simply preparing students for a conveyor belt of modular exams. And, of course, the change may appeal to all those who believe modern pupils should face exactly the same kinds of exams they once did (which in the case of two-year-A-levels courses could be anyone over 30).

Mr Gove's plans do not mean an end for AS exams - just that they will revert to being the exams they were in the 1990s: the same difficulty as A levels, but half the content. As then, taking two should be treated by universities as the equivalent of a single A Level exam. The Geography AS exams in that period, for example, placed the human geography in one exam and the physical in another.

However, before rushing to embrace the change, it should be recalled why Labour decided to introduce Curriculum 2000 in the first place.

A key reason the new A2 and AS exams were brought in because of the concern that teenagers in England were studying too narrow a range of exams, compared to their counterparts elsewhere, including Scotland, and countries such as France with a baccalaureate system

While the AS exams may have not grown into a fully fledged alternative to a baccalaureate - particularly as the key skills tests component was a dud, and dropped early on - they do offer the possibilities of broader subject choice than the old full A-levels.

Getting rid of them may also make it trickier to see how Gove will meet his aim to get the vast majority of pupils studying maths to 18. Will this involve a new exam, or will every student be forced to make maths one of their few A Level choices?

The other concern behind Curriculum 2000's introduction was the all-or-nothing nature of the old A Levels. A 1993 report by Ofsted and the Audit Commission pointed out the wasteful nature of a system which left many teenagers with no qualification at all. This concern will no doubt be raised about the return of the old A Levels, as it has been about the plans for English Baccalaureate Certificates.

A final lesson from Curriculum 2000 was the mess over grading that occurred when it was brought in. Changing the qualification back is as likely to create as many problems over equivalency - and this Government has already annoyed schools enough on that topic with its handling of GCSEs.

Michael Shaw

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

Another retrospective league table measure. Sound familiar? - January 22 2013

Another week, another new league table measure.

Ministers are to introduce what is effectively an Ebac for A levels this Thursday and school leaders fear it could see pupils being pressurised into taking unsuitable courses.

Secondary school performance data being released by the government on Thursday will include a new column showing the percentage of pupils at each sixth form who gained at least two As and a B in A levels in so-called "facilitating subjects" - those valued by elite universities.

Justifying the move, Tory education minister Elizabeth Truss said: "We want parents to be able to identify those schools and colleges where A level pupils achieve great results in the key academic subjects that most often lead to the top universities."

These are subjects identified by elite Russell Group universities as their most commonly required A levels and will include maths, further maths, English literature, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, history and modern and classical languages.

Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: "It's perfectly valid for people to ask questions about the A levels schools take, but A levels are not only about access to Russell Group universities.

"Many very good schools will be enabling their students to achieve good A level passes in other subjects which lead to very good careers. We would certainly not encourage students to be pushed into courses which didn't meet their needs."

Asked if there was a danger that could happen, he added: "If pressure was applied too hard that is possible. What we don't want to see is students going to Russell Group universities and then dropping out of the courses because they weren't the right thing for them."

Like the Ebac, this new measure, has been introduced suddenly and retrospectively. But so far this aspect of the policy does not seem to be attracting quite the same level of outrage as its GCSE-based cousin did, at least among heads' leaders. They are more concerned about the government's entire approach to league tables.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said: "I think the constant reliance on league tables to change school behaviour is a failure of the imagination.

"Rather than building a moral case and developing a professional view of this we are just going to incentivise schools and that doesn't seem like a way of getting the best outcomes because you tend to get gaming of the system rather than a broader values based approach to it."

William Stewart

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

David Walliams drops by school ahead of new role as chemistry teacher - January 21 2013

Exciting news reaches us from Southwest London. David Walliams, comedy actor, charity swimmer extraordinaire and children's author, is preparing for a new lead role as a science teacher in a BBC sitcom about secondary school life.

David Walliams

Walliams, we understand, has even gone so far as visiting one or two such institutions to get a flavour of what it's really like at the chalkface, ahead of filming what is provisionally titled Autumn Leaves.

The Little Britain star, who is co-writing the series, dropped by Richmond Park Academy on Friday where he sat in on a PE lesson, a drama lesson and a science lesson.

The programme will apparently feature a dysfunctional staffroom and an irascible head, neither of which are modelled on Richmond Park, we hasten to add.

Similarly, those who know Richmond Park tell us that it bears no resemblance to the school in Autumn Leaves, which the Beeb describes as "Grange Hill meets Remains Of The Day".

The new show follows in the footsteps of Bad Education, in which "posh" comedian Jack Whitehall played a history teacher.

Whatever next? Bill Bailey playing a geography teacher? At least he wouldn't need a wardrobe budget.

Ed Dorrell

Children "raised in captivity" no longer "know how to fall over" - January 18 2013

Today's children are no longer "free range", apparently, and are being "raised in captivity" by overly protective parents.

At least that is what leading child psychologist Tanya Byron believes. So bad is the situation that increasing numbers of children are admitted to accident and emergency for sprains and scrapes each year because "they no longer know how to fall over".

The professor, a former adviser to Gordon Brown's government, said there was a "paranoia" among parents. And in comments that are likely to make the Daily Mail combust, Byron said that health and safety was making parents and their children so risk averse that kids are instead taking all of their risks online.

"We have children who are being raised in captivity, children are not free range anymore," she said.

However, when it came to the internet Byron said children were "taking risks we are not preparing them for". "They are having a blast on this fantastic global space and I would argue they are more vulnerable there than if they were hanging out on the street," she added.

Richard Vaughan

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

From increased scrutiny of academies to Baptists for gay marriage, it's all in today's TES - January 18 2013

Pressure on struggling schools to up their game is never far from the top of the political or news agendas, and so again it proves this week. The day after it emerged that Ofsted had launched coordinated inspections on schools in parts of the country thought to be under-performing (see earlier post), we report exclusively on the unprecedented scrutiny being put on academies.

Government ministers have long told anyone who will listen that the academies programme is the key to improving school standards. What they have been less clear on is how the performance of academies should be checked up on and by whom.

It has now emerged - as we reveal in our main news story this week - that around 100 academies that have been identified as causing concern are under instruction to submit highly detailed performance `scorecards' to the Department for Education every six weeks.

Not surprisingly, this has not won a whole heap of praise from the unions representing school heads, with claims that some academies are now under greater scrutiny than schools in special measures. It would obviously be a massive embarrassment to ministers if academies fail to perform, so for all the talk of freedom from government, those in charge of academies can expect more of the same if their results slip.

Elsewhere, we report on the heartening words of Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister and the founder of the Oasis Community Learning chain of academies. Rev Chalke tells TES of his concerns that the bitter debate over gay marriage risks increasing homophobia in schools and calls on teachers to make sure their classrooms are "safe havens". The gay marriage debate will, no doubt, become increasingly vociferous and schools can expect to be an important battleground.

We also report on the continued problems being faced by some independent schools to cope with a stagnant economy. More mergers are on the cards, according to the out going executive director of the Girls' Schools Association.

And in a potential U-turn - that favourite phrase of journalists everywhere - it appears that the government is consideringintroducing league table measures that reflect the socio-economic background of pupils. Having banned the controversial contextual value added (CVA) measure, education secretary Michael Gove has now spoken in favour of league tables reflecting the wealth of pupils.

These are just the highlights - there is plenty more on everything from Ofsted to the Ebac, the latest problems in Welsh schools and the ambitious plans of Bradford College to dominate its sector. Oh, and how Gangnam Style is something far more pernicious than a slightly annoying yet infectious pop song. As ever, let us know what you think.

David Marley

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

Read our earlier stories here


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