Wellington College, Sugata Mitra, Stephen Twigg, crowdsourcing Shakepeare and other educational news

18th February 2013 at 14:58
All the latest schools news, views and comment, brought to you by the TES editorial team.

Independent schools enter the teacher training sector with Wellington signing up - 04 March 2013

Is there an impenetrable divide between the state and private sectors? The government certainly doesn't think so: it is desperately keen to get both sides working together, encouraging independents to sponsor academies and support other underperforming maintained schools.

It is among the coalition's favourite headline-friendly stories - just look at the publicity that surrounded Eton's decision last month to start a state-funded boarding school.

Another area in which the private sector is being invited to play a part - but which has escaped much notice - is teaching schools. This is the special status given to the outstanding schools being tasked with taking over much of the training of new and existing teachers. It is part of the government's very real desire to completely overhaul the age-old university and college-based system.

So far 350 schools have won teaching school status, but to date just one independent, King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham, has been given the role, which will see it training teachers for the state sector.

But today news broke that should have ministers hollering from the rooftops in Whitehall: the prestigious Wellington College has joined King Edward VI.

The school's high-profile headmaster, Anthony Seldon, said the involvement of independent schools would be responsible for "smashing down the barriers between both sectors". "Now we can work side by side and realise that we share far more in common - namely, teaching children to the best of our ability - than divides us," he said today.

"This ushers in a new era in the relationship between state and independent sector working together. Throughout the 20th century, state and independent schools were handicapped by working almost entirely in silos."

Wellington and King Edward VI are not alone, being joined by Guildford High School. Head Fiona Boulton told TES she also feels strongly that the independent and state sectors can learn from each other, and share the secrets behind their "dynamic practices".

It remains to be seen if projects like this will indeed break down barriers between teachers in state and independent schools - are the differences too entrenched? But it is worth remembering that for years the public sector has trained almost all teachers, only to see a chunk disappear into private schools, so at the very least this could be seen as something of a balancing out.

Kerra Maddern

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

Is Stephen Twigg preparing to engage the enemy? - 01 March 2013

There are those - including, on at least one occasion, this blog - who have accused shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg of being somewhat absent from the education debate in this country. Certainly, it has seemed he has not been aggressive enough.

But there are signs that this could be changing. Writing in today's TES magazine, the former schools minister - and, for those with longish memories, the scourge of Michael Portillo - has launched a searing attack on the coalition's schools policies.

Comparing Michael Gove to Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender in the jungles of Southeast Asia long after the 1945 armistice, Mr Twigg suggests that his Conservative counterpart is fighting an ideological war long over.

"Nearly three decades ago, in 1984, O levels were abolished for being out of date, but Gove would love to bring them back. The two-tier system was in full swing then - social inequality in education achievement actually worsened in the UK during the 1980s and early 1990s."

Strong stuff.

And now Mr Twigg has agreed to enter a different fray, taking on the ultimate challenge - a webchat with you, the readers and users of the TES website. Previous protagonists have included Michael Rosen, Robert Winston and Anthony Horowitz, but this is the first time we've hosted a political heavyweight.

Don't miss it. This Monday. 5pm. It's going to be fascinating.

Ed Dorrell

Um, we're not sure about that strike, says NUT - 28 February 2013

Speculation has been rife in recent days about whether a national strike by the NUT over teachers' pay, working conditions and pensions was imminent. But a statement released by the union following this afternoon's meeting of the national executive revealed, well, very little.

Some members had been calling for a national strike on 20 March but there appears to have been little concrete movement. General secretary Christine Blower said that the union's disputes were "still live" and that "industrial action is still a possibility".

"There will be no announcement today on how the disputes will be taken forward," she added.

The NUT executive is understood to be split on the issue, with some members reluctant to strike without the NASUWT union. At the previous meeting of the NUT executive, a strike proposal for 13 March was narrowly opposed by 22 votes to 20.

Realistically, barring any dramatic developments behind the scenes, further industrial action before Easter now appears unlikely. However, with many NUT members desperate for strike action to put pressure on education secretary Michael Gove, this Easter's annual conference in Liverpool promises to be a lively affair.

Stephen Exley

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

`Hole in the Wall' pioneer Sugata Mitra wins $1m TED Prize - 28 February 2013

Sugata Mitra, the educational researcher whose experiments inspired the novel on which the film Slumdog Millionaire was based, has won a $1 million (pound;660,000) TED Prize.

This annual prize is awarded by the California-based not-for-profit ideas network TED to a "visionary leader" with a "wish to change the world". Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, plans to spend the cash on his "School in the Cloud", an online learning lab in India where children can connect with information and mentors via the internet.

This is the most recent evolution of his work on self-organised learning environments, which began in 1999 with his celebrated "Hole in the Wall" experiment.

This involved putting a computer with internet access into the wall of a Delhi slum at child height and leaving children to work out its functions for themselves - which they did successfully.

This experiment in self-directed learning inspired the book Qamp;A, which director Danny Boyle later turned into the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

In Professor Mitra's subsequent work, he has installed computers in rural areas in India - one of them working only in English. The children, he discovered, taught themselves English.

Professor Mitra came to the UK in 2006, joining Newcastle to research ways of using the "granny cloud" - a group of retired teachers who connect with pupils via the internet to inspire and encourage their questioning.

In 2011, TES interviewed Professor Mitra about his work. It's a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about how all that prize money will be spent.

Helen Ward

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

Michael Gove: witty or rude? - 27 February 2013

Michael Gove is nothing if not accommodating. After today being summoned to appear, yet again, before the Commons Education Select Committee to face questions about the actions of his key political advisers, the education secretary responded using unfailingly polite language.

The committee had decided to recall Mr Gove to further probe accusations of bullying within his department. And, in a manner that befits the practice of a political wag, the education secretary wrote back this afternoon to the acting chair of the committee, Pat Glass, in a fashion that illustrated wit but not a little frustration:

"I will, of course, be happy to appear in front of you at any time to discuss any issue. I am, in fact, free tomorrow to answer any questions you might like to put. Then, perhaps the DfE team can get on with improving children's lives and you can consider where your own energies might be directed."

Bearing in mind that Mr Gove's relationship with the committee has been prickly in recent months, is this waggish or rude? We'll let you decide.

Richard Vaughan

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

Redistribute pupil premium cash to secondaries, says influential thinktank - 27 February 2013

How does your school spend the pupil premium for disadvantaged children? One-to-one tuition? Extra teaching assistants? Or something else altogether? Either way, not enough reliable evidence is yet available to assess how much this policy is helping the most vulnerable pupils.

But there are some clues: headteachers questioned as part of an Ofsted survey last year said they were using the funding to maintain or enhance existing provision, rather than to establish something new. Only one in 10 school leaders said that the premium had significantly changed the way they supported pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Now a new book - The Tail, edited by Paul Marshall, chairman of Ark Schools, and supported by the thinktank CentreForum - recommends that pupil premium funding should partly depend on results. Money would be recouped from primary schools if children do not reach the expected level 4 in literacy at key stage 2, and given directly to their secondary school. Teachers there would use the money to pay for a remedial reading programme for the child.

This is the idea of Chris Paterson, senior researcher at CentreForum. In the book, out today, he argues that the money recouped from primary schools that don't meet the KS2 literacy target should be up to one year's worth of the child's pupil premium funding.

"The driving purpose behind this policy would not be punitive - it would not be to blame `bad' schools or teachers. Instead, it would be actively positive," Mr Paterson writes.

He is concerned that the current system won't address the fact that thousands of pupils leave primary school without reaching the minimum expected standards of literacy. Expectations exclusively fall on secondary schools, he warns, because they have to try to help these children later on in their education.

The fact that schools can choose how they spend the pupil premium is a "significant problem of accountability" in a period of economic troubles, Mr Paterson added.

So how likely is it that the government might adopt this idea? The book certainly has the tacit support of influential ministerial figures - education secretary Michael Gove, schools minister David Laws and chair of Ofsted Baroness Morgan are helping to launch it today.

But, of course, if schools are found to be using the pupil premium wisely and effectively none of this would be necessary.

Kerra Maddern

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

SEN reforms need more cooperation, but will doctors and teachers play ball? - 26 February 2013

All agree that upcoming reforms to the way children with special educational needs (SEN) are supported will demand cooperation between health professionals, local authorities and teachers.

But is this new collaborative approach a priority for those planning the health and education services available to communities? New research suggests not.

Under the proposals, the current SEN statement will be replaced in 2014 with what is being referred to as an "education, health and care plan". This aims to reduce the number of hoops that parents have to jump through because doctors and teachers do not work together to plan provision or share information.

According to education minister Edward Timpson, the changes will give parents more of a say in what happens to their child. They may even take control of a personal budget.

At the core of these proposals is the idea that medics and teachers must work more closely together - but because the NHS is run very differently from the education system this is already proving difficult.

This week, as politicians continued to debate the reforms in Parliament, more evidence emerged that SEN is not foremost in the minds of those planning local health services.

By April, each of the health and well-being boards - the organisations that make decisions about health and social care on a local basis - is due to have published its strategy for the years ahead. But according to a survey by communications company MHP Health Mandate, well over a third of the boards in areas where the new special needs programme is being trialled failed to mention SEN and disabilities at all.

According to MHP, the 39 per cent of these "pathfinder" areas that did not mention SEN are failing to "prioritise special educational needs".

One reason for the omission could simply be that these strategy documents have to cover a huge amount of information. But if the needs of children with learning difficulties are not mentioned in these important pieces of work,it raises the question of whether the kind of joined-up thinking essential for making the SEN reforms a success is even possible.

Kerra Maddern

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

Crowdsourcing the Bard: teaching tips from Twitter come flying in - 25 February 2013

During my teacher training, a wise teacher offered up a very wise piece of advice on learning to love Shakespeare: "You won't get it at first but keep giving it a chance. One day something will click and you won't believe there was a time when you didn't know what all the fuss was about."

For those of us who have already been converted to the joys of iambic pentameter, it can be easy to forget just how bewildering and alienating Shakespearean language can be for new learners. As Benedick says in Much Ado About Nothing, "every one can master a grief but he that has it."

Teaching Shakespeare is a hard sell, and yet the Bard continues to enjoy an unparalleled position of privilege in the English curriculum. Whatever changes a government might make to programmes of study, there is one thing you can be sure of: Shakespeare is going nowhere.

In fact, a draft programme for key stage 4 English released earlier this month suggests that pupils could soon be studying two plays by Shakespeare (they currently study one) during an already tight two-year course. Understandably, some teachers are concerned that increasing time pressure would turn studying these difficult texts into an exercise in drudgery.

Enter the TES Twitter community. A recent request from the @tesresources account for ideas on how to engage lower-ability Year 9 classes studying Shakespeare sparked a flurry of creative suggestions from our followers. We have gathered them together and shared the list online as an interactive document. It is a treasure trove of inspiration for any teacher looking to make Shakespeare more accessible and is still open for further contributions.

Shakespeare's plays were not meant to be experienced flat on the page. They were written to be engaged with dynamically - as boisterous, interactive performance. While a last-period English lesson is hardly a matinee at the Globe theatre, a little creativity can still go a long way towards altering perceptions.

It is not realistic to assume that every pupil will come to Shakespeare with open arms. But if we can make sure that they do not look back on him with hatred, then there is every chance that "merry war" will one day blossom into love. And maybe our collection - courtesy of the good folk of Twitter - might just help this to happen.

Helen Amass

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

Why secondaries aren't to blame for our brightest pupils falling behind in maths - 22 February 2013

"Bright pupils falling two years behind peers in the Far East," newspaper headlines screamed this morning, reporting on the findings of a study which has found that the gap between the highest achieving children in England and those in Taiwan and Hong Kong widens in maths by as much as two years between the ages of 10 and 16.

Responding to this news, Tory education minister Elizabeth Truss seized on the research - by John Jerrim from the Institute of Education, University of London and Alvaro Choi from the University of Barcelona - as evidence to justify the government's plethora of reforms.

However, while education secretary Michael Gove wants to make radical changes to exams and the curriculum, the academics say there is actually "little evidence" to suggest that secondary schools are responsible for England's disappointing position in some international rankings.

Indeed, the academics are careful to point out that reforming secondary education may not be the most effective way for England to catch up with the nations who get the best maths results.

Instead, they say, the government would be better off supporting children during preschool and primary school, and reforming maths education for pupils of this age. The study also found the parenting practices, local culture and events outside school are responsible for pupils' performance in maths.

"A clear implication for policymakers is that it is not during secondary school that the leading East Asian countries pull away from England in terms of school pupils' math skills," the report says.

The academics, using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, found that the achievement gap in maths did not widen for all pupils between the ages of 10 and 16 - although pupils of all levels in East Asian countries scored higher on average in the tests - but only for the brightest children.

As a result, they recommend that politicians and officials should concentrate on reforming primary and preschool maths education, running schemes for gifted and talented children and helping disadvantaged children to improve basic skills during their early years.

However, that's probably not as distracting for senior politicians as, for example, overhauling the entire secondary school landscape.

Kerra Maddern

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

"Actually, things aren't so bad," finds Ofsted in its first raid on an "underperforming" local authority - 21 February 2013

In Ofsted's crackdown on local authorities with the worst-performing schools, Derby City Council seems to have borne the brunt of Sir Michael Wilshaw's ire. In the watchdog's annual report, Derby was ranked as the second-worst LA in the country, with just 43 per cent of pupils attending schools rated good or outstanding in their most recent inspection.

It came as no surprise, therefore, when Derby was the first authority Ofsted chose to swoop on earlier this month. It spent a week inspecting 10 randomly selected schools in the city. Announcing the move, Sir Michael said: "We are targeting the lowest-performing local authorities and we will go into Derby today to find out what is happening. In Derby, parents have a less than 50 per cent chance of finding a good primary school and a 40 per cent chance of a good secondary."

And last week TES reveled that nearly half of England's LAs could face sudden Ofsted inspections under this rationale. The majority of triggers for the visits, for which the watchdog will only give up to five days' notice, will be based on national averages and therefore automatically expose a large proportion of the country's town halls to the extra scrutiny.

But if the watchdog had been secretly hoping that its warnings of doom in Derby would prove correct in order to justify this approach, it will have been sorely disappointed. Not one school dropped a grade, and four of the schools previously found to be satisfactory were judged to be good.

In a letter to the council, Sean Harford, Ofsted's interim regional director for the East Midlands, wrote: "The improvement of just over half the schools previously judged satisfactory gives cause for optimism and reflects well upon the hard work of the senior leaders, teachers and pupils since their last inspection."

But he added that it "remains of concern" to Ofsted that three of the satisfactory schools remain stuck in the "requires improvement" category.

All in all, though, Derby City Council could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief and acknowledging that things could have been much, much worse. Quite what Sir Michael and his team will make of the "good news" is open to speculation.

Stephen Exley

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

More bad news in Wales as two LAs teeter on brink of special measures - 20 February 2013

More bad news for the Welsh education system. Merthyr Tydfil and Monmouthshire have today been added to a growing list of local authorities whose education services have been judged unsatisfactory.

Estyn, the Welsh schools inspectorate, thinks the situation is so serious that it has recommended both authorities be placed in special measures. This would mean that five of Wales' 22 councils would be in the category.

The news comes just a month after Estyn chief inspector Ann Keane said there is still "much to be done" to improve education in Wales, especially in literacy, numeracy and in tackling the link between poverty and low attainment. It performed worst out of the four UK nations in all measures on the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, and GCSE and A-level results continue to be lower than those of England.

Labour education minister Leighton Andrews is clearly upset by the latest Estyn reports. He called them "disappointing" and said that Merthyr's in particular was "one of the most depressing reports" he had ever read.

He has promised urgent action. Independent boards of education experts are likely to be set up to help recovery, and the councils could see some or all of their executive education functions handed to other bodies.

The two authorities couldn't be more different in terms of geography and social makeup. Monmouthshire is leafy, rural and relatively affluent while Merthyr is a deprived former industrial heartland, yet both are equally struggling to maintain school standards.

Although Monmouthshire has some of the best schools in Wales, they should be performing much better considering the social circumstances, and even taking Merthyr's poverty into account, its schools are being outperformed by others in similar areas.

If special measures are imposed, Merthyr and Monmouthshire will join Blaenau Gwent, Anglesey and Pembrokeshire on the list of councils that have faced Estyn's ultimate sanction.

The move will also add weight to the argument that local authorities lack the capacity to run their schools properly, and that they should lose some or all of their education powers as a result.

A major review conducted by Robert Hill, once an adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair, is currently looking at a range of options and will report back by Easter.

But it's no secret that Mr Andrews has been growing increasingly frustrated with the performance of Wales' local authorities since he took office in 2009.

Although he blames Conservative local government reorganisation in the 1990s for many of their current failings, Mr Andrews also knows that many of his messages on school standards have fallen on deaf ears in some town halls.

Darren Evans

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

Horsemeat and school dinners - could it transform food culture out of all recognition? - 19 February 2013

The lasagne has lost its allure, the meatballs' magnetism is missing and spag bol has never seemed so unsavoury.

Unsurprisingly, the horsemeat scandal trotted up to the serving hatch of school canteens this week, leaving local authorities and catering contractors galloping to test for "equine DNA" in everything from burgers to Cornish pasties. And judging by the news that one council has withdrawn cottage pies that tested positive, they may well be shutting the stable door long after the proverbial nag has bolted.

But there is surely a huge silver lining to this culinary crisis. One could argue that the whole horsey farce will turn out to be the best thing that has happened to school dinners, food technology and the fight against obesity.

This scandal has done more to raise critical issues over food and healthy eating than any number of compulsory vegetable-identification workshops ever could.Ditch the aubergine and watermelon flashcards: let's spend today's lesson looking at exactly where in rural Romania that horseburger came from. Geography could get a boost, too.

Jamie Oliver did some good work highlighting the issue of "pink slime" in our breaded meat products, and Turkey Twizzlers now enjoy a cult status previously afforded only to absinthe. But this scandal takes it all to another level.

With any luck, schoolchildren and their parents will start to think about the provenance of their food and the potential benefits of good old-fashioned "cook-it-yourself". Domestic science will be as trendy as an equine DNA testing kit before the year is out.

Our divided food culture - which currently swings between the chocolatey indulgence of Nigella, Heston's Michelin stars and the pound;2 Asda chicken - could be transformed. By forcing us all to take a long hard look at where our food, and the food we serve our children comes from, perhaps we will become a better country.

Of course, only time will tell if the impact of Dobbin-gate will be this marked. But one thing is for sure: packed lunches will remain popular.

Irena Barker

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

The @toryeducation Twitter account is the story that just won't leave Michael Gove alone - 18 February 2013

It probably won't have escaped your notice that for the umpteenth Sunday in a row, the nation's broadsheets were carrying stories about the people behind education secretary Michael Gove. While the latest events are unlikely to have the slightest effect on the day-to-day lives of heads and their staff, they are nonetheless worth exploring.

The story revolves around Gove's two so-called Spads (special advisers), Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete. Both have been accused of contributing to an unattributed Twitter account - @toryeducation - which has launched sometimes personal attacks on other Twitter users that it deems to be opposing Conservative education policy.

The two advisers vehemently deny being behind the account, which would put them in breach of the civil servants' code of practice. And, being on the Department for Education's payroll, neither can put forward partisan views without going through official channels.

The media scrutiny led to the appearance of a second story involving Cummings, who had allegedly been the subject of a grievance case brought by a civil servant. An employment tribunal was avoided after the complainant was awarded pound;25,000 in a private settlement. Cummings said that he had been cleared of bullying and intimidation and that, contrary to reports, the case was not brought against individuals but against the DfE as a whole.

The story was given added prominence because Gove had given evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee just a couple of weeks previously, stating that he had no knowledge of allegations of misconduct within the Department. This led to accusations that Gove had "misled" Parliament, although the education secretary maintains that he was not aware of the case.

It is not the first time the Conservative MP and his advisers have been the subject of media scrutiny. Two years ago, the trio landed in hot water for using a private email account to discuss government business - and in doing so avoid any correspondence being subject to Freedom of Information requests. The Information Commissioner last year ruled that the emails should be subject to FOI requests.

Are these stories anything more than Westminster village gossip? Probably not. Are they interesting? Well, a little. Regardless of whether the stories are completely accurate, they undoubtedly give a little insight into the relationship between education ministers and the mainstream media.

Will it have any impact on how you deal with class 2B? Not a jot. But it might be something to natter about over a coffee in the next few days.

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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