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TES Big Ed Blog

The new TES blog - brought to you by a crack team of TES journalists - will keep you up to date with the news and views from the world of teachers, teaching and education

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The new TES blog - brought to you by a crack team of TES journalists - will keep you up to date with the news and views from the world of teachers, teaching and education

EBC or EBacc, it's as clear as mud - January 17 2013

For weeks we have been reading about how former ministers, artists, athletes, and last week even art dealers, were fulminating about the damaging consequences of the government's proposed GCSE replacement, English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBC).

Or were they? The stories are clear that it is the risk of Michael Gove's planned replacements for GCSE subjects in core subjects, to be introduced from 2015, squeezing out study in other areas that is the concern.

Yet the quotes included often give the distinct impression that it is actually the Government's English Baccalaureate league table measure - introduced in 2011 - that has got someone's goat.

Those suspicions were confirmed earlier this week during a House of Lords debate, ostensibly about the EBC.

When the Earl of Clancarty first started speaking, it seemed clear that he was talking about the proposed qualification as he asked ministers to "reconsider the omission of arts subjects from the EBacc, if the reforms go ahead?"

But the picture quickly became clouded. And by time the cross-bencher mentioned an inquiry into the EBacc during 2010 - two years before the proposed qualification was even mooted - it became obvious he was in fact talking about the league table measure.

Tory peer and former chief schools inspector Baroness Perry was quick to spot and point out the "confusion". But despite her intervention the debate continued to switch between the two separate subjects, as did a House of Commons debate on Wednesday.

It is easy to see why people get mixed up. The English Baccalaureate and EBC have very similar names and both - as they currently stand - make no provision for subjects like art, sport or design technology.

But they are also very different. One is a performance measure, taking into account GCSEs, that schools do not have to follow if they so choose.

The other is a completely new qualification that stands to revolutionise the exams system, abolish most coursework and make it much harder for many pupils to gain the main schools qualification aged 16.

Any opposition or support for either idea is likely to be much more effective if people are clear about what exactly it is they are taking about.

Postscript: There will of course be no such confusion in tomorrow's TES cover story, which explores just how the government has managed to bring together such an extensive - and diverse - group of opponents to his EBC plans. Don't miss it.

William Stewart (@wstewarttes)

Ofsted unveils new area-specific approach with raid on Derby schools - January 17 2013

Ofsted was back at the top of the news agenda this morning as it began a wave of simultaneous, "focused" school inspections in Derby.

The watchdog's five-day swoop in the east midlands city is the first in a series designed to improve standards in areas of the country identified as under-performing.

The schools that were were due to be visited in this academic year have had these inspections brought forward into a single week as part of the intensified new drive.

Inspectors will also be gathering evidence on council school improvement services in the area, with each school asked a series of questions about the effectiveness of the support they receive from the local authority and about the authority's "vision for improvement".

The exercise will then shift to five or six other authorities, where a relatively small proportion of pupils attend schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, as the term progresses.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief schools inspector, said: "In these focused and concentrated inspection programmes, we will be seeking to determine whether councils are really fulfilling their statutory duties to promote high standards and fair access to educational opportunity."

"Ofsted will inspect without fear or favour, and with no preconceived idea of what we will find. If we find that the local authority is proactive in addressing the key issues, and standards are improving, that's absolutely fine.

"But where we find evidence that the local authority is not demonstrating effective leadership, then we shall inspect it."

Ofsted's annual report last year identified Derby as having just 43 per cent of pupils attending good or outstanding primaries, compared to 92 per cent at the best in the country in Camden, north London.

Sir Michael is due to say more about the initiative at the North of England Education Conference in Sheffield this afternoon.His speech is also expected to reveal that a new framework for Ofsted to inspect school improvement services being provided by under-performing local authorities, is being introduced.

It's fair to say that not everyone is a fan of the new approach. "These `dawn raid' inspections have nothing to do with raising standards or tackling inequality.Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said. "These are crude spectacles organised to create a climate of fear and panic."

"[Ofsted is] no longer an independent body operating in the public interest. It is now merely the Secretary of State's hit squad."

William Stewart

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

"You've all done terribly well!" Michael Gove's DfE compared to Are You Being Served? by Tory former minister - January 16 2013

Micheal GovePolitical slanging is usually saved for Prime Minister's Questions, and generally aimed at the opposition benches. But Conservative MP Tim Loughton ignored convention today by tearing into education secretary Michael Gove.

The former children's minister was giving evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee and wasted little time in delivering a withering assessment of the Department of Education, branding it as inefficient and bureaucratic as well as having an "Upstairs Downstairs mentality".

The backbencher, who was very highly regarded as a minister in the sector, even described his former boss as Mr Grace from TV sitcom Are You Being Served?, who famously had little clue of what was going on in his department store, Grace Brothers.

"Most officials have never met the Secretary of State other than when he will troop out a few chosen people for the new year party, Mr Grace-like from Grace Brothers, and tell us we've all done terribly well and then disappear," Mr Loughton said.

"That is no way to run an important department. It is terribly anachronistic, terribly bureaucratic, terribly formal."

He also bemoaned the influence and reach of Special Advisers, who are political appointees, within the Department, adding that they often acted as obstacles to communication "rather than facilitators".

But he was most critical about the sidelining of the children's agenda, adding that there had been "complete radio silence" from the DfE on child safeguarding in the wake of the Jimmy Savile abuse and Rochdale child grooming cases.

Severe, eh?

Richard Vaughan

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

Gove confirms abolition of the national pay scale - January 15 2013

It's official: Michael Gove's overhaul of teachers' pay has been given the green light. Following a brief public consultation over the Christmas break - described as a "sham" by NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates - the Department for Education today predictably confirmed that the main pay scale is being abolished.

This move gives heads the freedom to set a teacher's pay anywhere between the minimum and maximum spine points (from the highest band of pound;27,000-pound;36,387 for teachers in London, down to pound;21,588-pound;31,552 for those working in other regions of England and Wales) depending on their performance. All other spine points will be officially scrapped.

This spells the end of the long-held assumption that teachers will see their pay go up by around pound;2,000 a year in their first few years in the job. Despite reassuring noises from the School Teachers' Review Body, which drew up the plans, it's safe to say the unions are less than happy at plans which NUT general secretary Christine Blower has said will "effectively demolish the national pay framework".

Earlier this month, we reported that some leading union members are pushing for strikes before Easter; Gove's latest move leaves the ball firmly in their court.

Stephen Exley

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

Should the government make maths until 18 compulsory? - January 15 2013

Certainly everyone, including ministers, wants far more sixthformers to study maths - that only one in five youngsters go on post-GCSE is embarrassingly low.

But the question of how to get there is unclear, especially for those in the mid-range of mathematical ability - those who achieved the C or above at 16 but are delighted to drop it like a stone at the first opportunity.

Scientifically-minded high-achievers will almost certainly take maths at A-level while low achievers will be subject to a new ministerial diktat that they will have to keep taking the GCSE over and over until they achieve C, right up until the end of compulsory education at 18.

What about the rest? In October Michael Gove announced that he was backing with cash an idea proposed by Professor Timothy Gowers for a curriculum for teaching maths to sixth-formers through real-world problems. However, ministers said it would not be compulsory.

Today the Nuffield Foundation think tank published a report calling for a new qualification in functional maths that would suit those who had achieved the GCSE but were not doing A-level. The highest take up for such courses, researchers said, was achieved in countries such asNew Zealand and Singapore, which have not made it obligatory. Make it essential for university entrance, Nuffield said, as a good way of encouraging uptake.

Ministers' response? To say that these proposals fit neatly with their policy of aiming for "everyone studying maths until 18".

But without it being compulsory, persuading every last pupil - including the many who achieve a C at GCSE but don't plan to go to uni - to voluntarily sign up to extra maths seems a little ambitious.

Ed Dorrell (@eddorrell)

Remember, for state school kids being a teacher may be as desirable as working for Deloite - January 14 2013

More bad news for the downtrodden state-educated citizen. It seems it's simply not enough to work your socks off at A-level and forgo student shenanigans in exchange for a first-class degree.

A new report reveals that while students from state school backgrounds tend to do as well - if not better - as their independently educated counterparts at university, they are less likely to go into well-paid graduate professions.

Among students graduating with first-class degrees from the Russell Group and 1994 Group "top" universities, nearly 82 per cent of privately educated students are already in graduate employment six months after graduation. This number drops to 76 per cent for comparable state school graduates.

For those students graduating with any degree class from top universities, the gap is even more marked: there is a 10 per cent gap in the proportion of privately educated graduates and state educated graduates finding "professional" employment.

And even among those lucky enough to find graduate employment, state-educated graduates with firsts were earning on average pound;2,258 less than their counterparts from private schools.

The reasons behind all this are bound to be extremely varied. While there is probably a handful of rich, dim, well-connected students with third-class degrees scooping jobs at their daddies' banks, this can't account for the whole gap.

Six months after graduation is not such a long time, with many graduates unclear about what they want to do straight away. It is far from uncommon for academic highfliers to temp in an office for a year and then go into further training before embarking on their chosen career.

Perhaps graduates from private schools are more likely to "chase the money" at big law and accounting firms offering attractive "graduate packages"? Are their state-educated peers more likely to opt for lower paid but noble graduate professions such as teaching, for example?

The new charity upReach, launched this week with Government support, wants to work with talented students from underprivileged backgrounds to help them "fulfil their potential" beyond university. The charity is concerned that those from poorer backgrounds lack communication, teamwork and organisational skills that are key to top employers and come so naturally to the privately educated.

This is all extremely laudable. In this meritocratic age, who would want to see a talented maths graduate from a deprived background denied the chance to work for Deloitte because he didn't know how to handle the job interview?

But one thing that the charity must bear in mind: aspirations vary and values vary. One man's success is another man's failure. While one graduate may dream of becoming a CEO of a FTSE 100 company, another may hope to become provincial English teacher. For some, it's not all about the money.

Irena Barker (@irenabarker)

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

From scientists in uproar to self-diagnosed depression in pupils, read all about it - January 11 2013

To say that the government's reforms of GCSEs have proved controversial would be a massive understatement; barely a week goes by without supporters of one subject or another claiming they have been marginalised by the Ebac.

But scientists have, generally, fared well under the coalition. There is a renewed focus on pupils taking single sciences and there has been success in attracting more qualified chemistry and physics teachers into the classroom.

So it will not please ministers that they have come under attack by all of the major science bodies - as we report in this week's TES - over fears that a funding overhaul of 16-19 qualifications could see the number of schools offering A level science plummet.

The funding shake-up will mean that schools no longer receive extra money for offering expensive practical courses. This will provide an incentive to schools to push cheaper courses instead, such as English, according to Score, a group that includes the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology. Not exactly the kind of news that a government keen to promote its scientific credentials will want to read.

Elsewhere in this week's magazine, we report on new research into the problems teachers face in meeting the special educational needs of children born extremely prematurely. Research has shown that a shockingly small percentage of teachers have had any training to deal with what are often complex needs, despite vastly improved survival rates for premature babies.

And we report on a major new four-year trial that will test levels of anxiety and depression among teenagers in a bid to improve well-being and exam performance. Traditionalists may baulk at the idea of pupils getting more in touch with their feelings, but a former policy director for David Cameron, who is behind the project, insists teachers need to know "what is going on inside your students' heads".

For more on these stories - and a whole host of others, including pieces on academies, the pupil premium and, less typically, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez - pick up a copy of this week's magazine. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

David Marley (@davidjmarley)

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

A glimpse into the inner sanctum - January 10 2013

Just as one schools minister is appointed - welcome John Nash, venture capitalist and Pimlico Academy sponsor - we get news of a gaggle of former ones.

It's not often those of us at TES - or indeed teachers - get a window into the innermost secrets of life at the Department for Education. To many the idea might seem boring, but the policies, regulations and diktats that emerge on a seemingly daily basis haunt the dreams of many school staff and leaders.

Next week there could be a chance for us all to get an insight into how and why this stuff is generated - the three ministers given the heave during the reshuffle last September have been asked to spill the beans about their experiences at the DfE.

Tim Loughton, former under-secretary of state for children, schools minister Nick Gibb and, perhaps most interestingly, Lib Dem former children and families minister Sarah Teather will all appear before the education select committee next Wednesday in a session on the workings of the Department.

Will it be a case of "hell hath no fury like a former minister scorned"? Let's hope so.

Kerra Maddern

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

The Academies Commission that is all things to all men - January 10 2013

The people behind the report into academies published today were never shy about their aims.

There was a very grand "Academies Commission" title and an ambitious remit promising a "major inquiry into whether the increasing academisation of our schools. enables us to cope with the uncertainties of life, develop our potential, and extend our opportunities. to correct underlying inequalities, and to advance other shared social and economic objectives".

In reality both billings could be seen as a little misleading. Commission implies an official body appointed by government to make recommendations on an area of policy, or as the Oxford English dictionary puts it: "a group of people officially charged with a particular function".

The Academies Commission has nothing to do with government or anyone official, but is a joint venture between the independent Royal Society of Arts and Pearson, a private education company.

As such there is nothing compelling ministers to take any notice of its findings. So to make nine months of evidence-taking and report-writing worthwhile the commissioners had two realistic options.

They could either come up with a finding or recommendation so shocking and newsworthy that the government was forced to address the issue, possibly against its will. Or they could work with the grain of the public policy and make suggestions that might improve things, without providing any head-on, confrontational, challenge to the status quo in the hope that the Coalition would act on their constructive input.

The "Commission" appears to have gone with the latter option. Today's report does not, as was originally suggested, look at whether academisation is a good thing at all.

Instead as the final title, `Unleashing greatness. Getting the best from an academised system' makes clear, the policy is accepted as a given.

So some fundamental objections to the programme - for example the idea that more academies, operating outside the control of a common local authority, will create more competition between schools - could be seen as being glossed over.

Schools have already worked "in a competitive environment. for many years," the commission notes.

"It is not contradictory to argue for more powerful and effective collaboration to sit side by side with this," its report asserts. "While there is a tension between collaboration and competition, it can also be an energising one."

No further explanation is provided as quite how this energising tension works or manifests itself in schools.

That is not to say that the report is uncritical and it does go on to note that not all "converter academies are fulfilling their commitment to supporting other schools to improve".

But, as TES editor Gerard Kelly (@teseditor) argues in tomorrow's magazine, the academies sector today has already become such a broad church that "making generalisations" about what should happen with these schools "is nigh on impossible" as the academies label has become "taxonomically useless".

Despite this problem, and its own cautious approach, the commission did score one major hit on the news agenda, noting that it had heard "of some academies willing to take a `low road' approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions".

"Numerous submissions to the Commission suggest some academies are finding methods to select covertly," it reported. No new work seems to have been done to further explore or quantify this problem. But that did not stop the story gaining a prominent place in BBC news bulletins and on the front page of the Guardian.

So will Coalition ministers listen? The lack of traction in the more right wing press and the Commission's Labour connections - RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor is a former advisor to Tony Blair and `commissioner' Christine Gilbert is married to a former Labour minister - may make them less than receptive.

The Department for Education did note that the report "rightly acknowledges the overwhelming success of the Academies programme in driving up standards".

But this is a document so carefully couched that everyone seems to have been able to find something positive in it, regardless of their stance - the Association of School and College Leaders was pleased it recognised "the excellent practice that is driving up standards in many academies", while the NUT welcomed its "damning indictment of Michael Gove's education policies".

Whether that makes for an influential outcome remains to be seen.

William Stewart

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

White British pupils twice as likely as Asian peers to be diagnosed austistic - January 09 2013

Well this is fascinating. It is the first time that researchers have drawn links between ethnicity and speech, language and communication difficulties.

While it is relatively well known that the number of children with autism is soaring (up more than 20,000 since 2007 to 66,000) no one has ever broken this down by ethnic group.

The new government-commissioned study has found, for example, that pupils of white British background are more than twice as likely to be identified as having an autism spectrum disorder as those of Asian heritage (pupils of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage).

The research - The Better Communication Research Programme - was produced by academics from the universities of Warwick, Newcastle, the West of England and London University's Institute of Education. We will analyse their conclusions in more depth in next week's TES magazine.

But the research team believes that the striking differences between groups can largely be put down to language difficulties masking other issues and cultural reticence to admit such problems among parents.

Nonetheless, Professor Geoff Lindsay, research project manager, says that these finding "have huge implications for practice, and suggest children's needs are being missed".

Well quite.

Kerra Maddern

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

Gruffalo author wades into the ever-contentious phonics debate - January 8 2013

For many the highlight of Christmas day was the first showing of the animated version of Julia Donaldson's story Room on the Broom.

It wasn't just that the animators managed, with the sweep of a raised-eyebrow, to convey the cat as a flawed-yet-noble character, or provide a poignant back story for the green bird, or even that the voices were provided by stars such as Rob Brydon and David Walliams (appropriately the comediancross-channel swimmer was the frog).

No, it was because when the living room was knee-deep in discarded wrapping paper, broken toys (already!) and simmering tensions, everything stopped for a film that promotes the beautiful, simple message of the importance of listening to others and helping them because it's the right thing to do.

Donaldson, the children's laureate, is best known for the Gruffalo, but she is also the author of a series of phonics books, Songbirds. She is clearly a fan of the teaching method.

And so today, when she spoke at the launch of a series of plays aimed at raising children's reading skills, it was a big deal that she repeated her concern that perhaps the focus on phonics had gone too far and questioned the government's Year 1 phonics test.

To be clear, she has made the point before - when she became children's laureate last year the TES carried this feature but her words may carry even more weight now that the first phonics test has been taken and has resulted in controversy (see this for more).

"It is important to learn the different sounds, and teachers do their own checks. I think it [the test] is a bit patronising for teachers," she told the launch. "The government may underestimate how easily children can feel that they're not quite up to scratch."

Phonics is essential says the government, and few with any knowledge of reading research would disagree. The Rose Review of Teaching of Early Reading is a prime example.

But Donaldson's argument is about listening to children and trusting teachers, and enabling them to work together to find the best way to tackle illiteracy - not prescribe one method for doing so.

Oh and while we're on the subject, take a look at the lovely TES webchat with Donaldson from last Autumn.

Helen Ward

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

Cameron and Clegg bask in their educational `achievements' - January 7 2012

There was no rose garden this time, but today Messrs Cameron and Clegg began the New Year by renewing their vows and publishing their mid-term review of how the coalition has performed thus far.

Ignoring the fact that the halfway point of the coalition was back in November, the Conservative prime minister and his Lib Dem deputy stood side-by-side in one of the more sober corners of Number 10 to espouse the Government's achievements so far, while setting out a raft of policies for the next two and a half years.

And they are certainly keen to push their educational `achievements' to date. The DfE is considered one of the Government's highest achieving departments. Think free schools, academies and the abolition of the Ofsted `satisfactory' category.

In the review document's foreword, Cameron and Clegg jointly herald the `new ambition' that has been `injected' into the education system.

Whether that `ambition' will be met by the teaching workforce is very much in doubt. Already the classroom unions are rattling their sabres with industrial action almost an inevitability before schools even break for the Easter holidays. Survey after survey finds staffroom morale at an all time low.

Teachers' misgivings about the coalition will be further hardened by the inclusion in today's document of the Government's plans to press on with performance-related pay.

Add to this the tricky task of selling the new English Baccalaureate Certificates (which seem to garner new objectors by the day), as well as the anticipated reforms to the primary and secondary curricula and the challenge facing the coalition over the remainder of this parliament look stark.

But don't expect the Government to stop banging on about its achievements in schools - compared to the economic news, for example, they look positively glorious.

Richard Vaughan

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

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