Schooling Biography

The more I debate education the more convinced I am that people’s own educational biographies impact their idea.  For this reason I am putting together an ‘educational biography’ similar to the reflections PGCE courses require of new teachers.  Reading it may highlight why I hold some of the beliefs I do and it’s also a place I can refer people when they incorrectly make insinuations about my own education/life as a child. It is amazing how often that happens.

School (until 16)
My childhood was most conspicious for its utter normality. I lived in Widnes; a small Northern town mostly known for its chemical industry and enormous power station.  My dad spent 29 years as a busdriver before his 65th birthday last year, my mum is still a secretary.  Both passed their 11+ exams but for various reasons both ended up in a Secondary Modern school.  Between them their education bestowed a grand total of zero qualifications. So much for the grammar system.
Being normal I went to the local comprehensive school. At university people would often tell me I went there because my parents didn’t love me enough to sacrifice holidays abroad to pay for private school.  They were surprised to learn I was offered a full scholarship to a private girl’s school in Liverpool on the basis of my Year 6 SAT results. I didn’t go to the private school because my best friend was a boy and he couldn’t go with me. In response the same people would tell me my parents really didn’t love me because parents who love you send you someplace where you will be miserable but extremely well educated.  Me and these people have different ideas about love.
During my normal education I was taught in classrooms suspiciously like the ones my privately educated friends would later talk about. We both had some teachers who were fantastic, and others who weren’t. Some subjects bored us to insanity , some fired enthusiasm.  Some kids we knew became drug addicts; some (like me) never even touched a single cigarette.  The only thing I ever remember thinking seemed different was the access to facilities. Where we had worn-out textbooks shared between two that were counted in and out each lesson, richer counterparts talked of having one for school and one for home. Where our gym hall was lopsided from subsidence they had pristine pitches, training gyms and boats. The difference between trips was particularly upsetting: I was crushed when I learned some regularly had chance to spend a week in New York whereas we’d been grateful for a Year 8 trip to Menaii. Even as I’ve grown older each conversation I’ve had with privately educated people has made me believe the only real difference between what they had – and what we had – were only facilities, class size and extra-curricular activities. The rest is identical.
Nevertheless school agreed with me. Even as it slipped towards ‘Notice to Improve’ (it is now closed) – and my form of 26 bizarrely fell to 15 due to truancy and exclusions – it never bothered me. I had friends, I learned, I achieved. By 16 I received the highest GCSE results in the borough, but by that point I was thoroughly cheesed-off with everything  school was. The petty rules, wearing a uniform, not being able to listen to my walkman in the corridor, having other people sign my homework diary when I was perfectly capable of dealing with homework myself – all of it seemed so pointeless.  I wanted out.
So I ran away, at least as much as you can when you’re 16. I signed up to study A-Levels at an adult education centre two bus journeys away.  More upsetting for the careers advisors was my decision to study English, Maths, Politics and Film Studies A-Level (I can hear the EBacc purists crying into their tea). Unfortunately I found out the day before I was due to start that English clashed with Film, and Politics was cancelled.  With only one afternoon to make new decisions I rang mum who asked which one I most wanted to do out of English and Film (Answer? Film. Yes, yes, sob away).  This left a choice in the other block between Law and Psychology.  Mum asked some other people in her office what I should do and Kate – a secretary in her early 30s who I only ever met once – said she had “really enjoyed a Psychology module” when she was at college.  Thanks to Kate, Psychology it became.
People sometimes find this story upsetting. How dare mum have allowed me to choose Film over English? Didn’t she realise this would bar me from entry to the elite Russell Group?  Didn’t she think it was important that I spent hours researching my future career and working backwards? No, she didn’t. Because my family were *normal* people and we had no idea about these things. Besides, as it turns out, it wouldn’t affect my future at all.

College (16-18)
In the year 2000 I was assaulted by a mental health patient, got a caution put on a stalker, won a McDonalds Super Team trophy and gained a serious boyfriend with a toddler-aged daughter in tow. But none of that was the most remarkable part of year: no, that was reserved for the privilege of getting an Oxford University interview.
Padgate College was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Like my high school, it no longer exists. Labour tried to shut it down when I (and my friends) were half-way through our first year because it was too expensive and too niche. Mostly it provided ‘day release’ courses for mature students but a few “young ‘uns” like me were allowed into its fold. Many courses, including the English A-Level I took in a year, were delivered in the evenings and because of this, plus its mature student intake, the pass rates were predictably low – about 19% – and the local council felt the cost of the place wasn’t worth it for such awful achievement. Thinking about how that looked on paper I can see how it seemed a sensible decision. But for me, Padgate was like heaven.
The A-Level centre was a converted residential hall in the corner of what was then a University of Manchester campus for Sport Science and Media students. On the same site were also the Greater Manchester Police Training school (Bruge) and “Stepping Stones”, a centre for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. Every morning the canteen was alive with stereotypes: bobbies in their hi-vis jackets supping hot coffee, students with Down Syndrome working behind the counter learning how to count out change, sporty students hopped about in shorts while the media students wafted by with dramatic outfits and pitchy voices. The library was university standard – and it was there I first learned about academic journals – prompted by my amazing Film Study tutor Alan Ellison who part-pioneered our entirely theoretical Film A-Level based on his own experiences of teaching undergraduates.  Psychology class counted among its rolecall a young offender on remand, a man in his 40s with Post-traumatic stress disorder from a horrific car accident and Vinnie, our real live Schizophrenic. I use that term ‘real live’ purposely, because at 16 that was how I saw him. Up until meeting Vinnie mental health disorders were something I read about in library books with an almost grim fascination and now, in this weird learning universe, I got to sit next to a real, live Schizophrenic who would kindly and calmly update us on his episodes and ensure to brief us if any ‘extra’ guests were sitting with him in class that day. On reflection I feel like that could sound cruel, almost mocking, but that was never the tone of his dealings with the class nor our dealing with him. Padgate was just a place where people – of any and all varieties – learned together, and I loved it.
Beyond the diversity, the second best thing about Padgate was the timetable. Many students were on day-release from work so they squashed the lessons together as tightly as possible. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I was there from 8.30am until nearing 5, and with my evening class on Wednesday I didn’t finish until 9. But this meant that Thursdays and Fridays were half days and Mondays were gloriously free. In order to get money for a car so I could stop sitting on the bus for 3 hours a day, I got a job working at McDonalds. For the first six weeks I hated it because I was useless. GCSEs were easy for me but putting burgers and fries into the correct bag? Apparently that was impossible. One day I got yelled at violently for putting through an order of “Big Mac no mayo”, I was so embarrassed I cried through my entire 40 minute break. Apparently Big Macs don’t have mayo on them, they have Mac Sauce, and this mattered more than anyone could have expected. After six weeks of torture I wrote out a resignation letter and, somewhat trembling, I took it to the manager’s office. I knocked, but he wasn’t in. Dejected, I put the letter back and with a heavy heart started my shift. For whatever reason, the work that day wasn’t so bad. In some ways I kind of liked it. Twelve months later I finally threw away that letter when I ditched my work bag and replaced it with a new one bought using vouchers I won when receiving the coveted Super Team Award for Best Counter Service.
I worked thirty hours a week in that McDonalds. Three ten hour shifts every single week. By the Summer of 2000 I was asked to take the Floor Managers exam, though the asking was more a process of elimination than anything more complimentary. At that time becoming a Floor Manager involved sitting three exams: a multiple choice, a short answer exam and one on maths. Restaurant managers booked exam seats weeks way in advance and paid for the privilege. Someone in our store – I can’t remember who – dropped out of their exam 3 days before it was due and so the restaurant manager called me into his office. On his desk was a manual the size of the phone book and he told me I had three days to memorise it. I could sit out the front of the store, I could have any food or drink I wanted, I would be paid for every minute I revised: I just needed to pass the bloody thing. The story would end wonderfully if I could tell you I aced the test, but facts are, I didn’t. The book was huge and I’d only spent a limited amount of time in the kitchen so I didn’t understand half it. That said, I passed, in no short part due to my Maths A-Level and everyone else’s maths illiteracy. There were no flying colours when my results were announced, but I donned a Floor Managers uniform before the summer was out. I remained at McDonalds for a further two years – including a year while I was at university.  And the guy who made me cry over the Big Macs? He was the one who eventually became my serious boyfriend. Life gets you like that sometimes.
So now for the important bit: Oxford. Over the years my story about applying has become a bit warped so I’m never really sure anymore what’s true about the application process and what’s not. The only bit I am certain about is how I came to my decision that I would apply at all. Until the summer of my AS year I hadn’t even thought about applying. As far as I was concerned I would study Film at university, possible even a specialist Film & Television school. Then three things happened. First, I saw a poster for Cambridge University that said “Did you know you only need six GCSE A-grades to be considered for Cambridge?” Weird, I thought. I’ve a lot more than that. Does that really mean I could go to Cambridge? Weird. The poster bugged me for about two weeks and then it got ripped down and I stopped thinking about it until a few weeks later when I was sat with friends having a conversation about the talent we would most like to have if it was to be granted to us with absolutely no effort required on our part. I chose the ability to play drums as marvellously as Tre Cool in Greenday. My friend, Carrie, said she wished she could be clever because then she could go to university and probably study something like medicine so she could save young people who died. After all, she said, that would be a pretty cool thing to do with your life. I immediately regretted my choice about the drums. In fact, I suddenly regretted a lot of choices. I was smart enough to go to ‘proper’ university and I was probably smart enough to study medicine, but instead I was going to do film because it wasn’t too hard and I liked being able to talk about it with my friends. Sure, I liked film – I still do – but it wasn’t really what made me fired up inside. Dang it. Being a doctor was now unlikely, I didn’t have the right qualifications, but perhaps I could think more seriously about what I really wanted to learn at university. Maybe even at that Cambridge place?
Over the summer I decided I wanted to study philosophy & economics. Philosophy because I liked thinking, economics because it would be useful. At least if I could become a banker then I could probably make enough money to pay for some third-world doctors and assuage my continued guilt. Having typed those subjects into the UCAS search engine I came across Politics, Philosophy & Economics as a course, which sounded ace, but it was at Oxford. Huh. Oxford. Okay. But really, Oxford? If I went there wouldn’t everyone think I was a prat? How was I going to explain it to people? “I’m thinking of applying to Oxford”… “Wow, you think you’re smart don’t you?” “Err….yes?”  Such conversations felt like they would inevitably end with a slap. In fact, the idea of having to tell my friends that I had the audacity to even attempt to get a place at Oxford was almost enough to put me off. And then I watched Good Will Hunting.
A scene in that film changed my mind entirely. In fact, it made me think that applying to Oxford was the most important thing I could do. The scene is near the end of the movie when Will, a prodigy at maths, has turned down his offer of a scholarship at Harvard to continue working on a building site with his buddies. Explaining his rejection of the Harvard offer to his best friend, Chuck, who Will seems convinced will be pleased because it means they can raise their kids together, teach them Little League and continue drinking beers on the building site. Chuck, however, is disgusted.  He tells Will that if in 20 years he still lives on the estate it will be an insult. Will, annoyed at the response venomously spits out words I had said, in the same ridiculous manner, in my own head several times: “Why? Because I “owe it to myself” to go? F* that, what if I don’t want to?” Chuckie turns back to Will and points out that no, Will doesn’t “owe it to himself”, he owes it to his friends, because the other people on the building site would give anything to have the lottery ticket way-out that Will had and being too scared to cash it in was, quite frankly, an insult to them all. Hearing those words was like hearing my own demons being set free. If I didn’t apply it couldn’t be because my friends would be pissed off at me. They wouldn’t. I had created that myth in my mind. They would be far more pissed off, in fact, if I chose to squander my chances.
The rest is hazy after that. There’s a disasterous Oxford application form with a question that no-one knows how I am supposed to answer, the college gets everything off late, there’s an interview and there’s an acceptance. The only thing I remember about the acceptance is that it arrived on a day when it was pouring with rain and I’d worked five hours overtime on my McDonalds shift. Fighting fatigue as I drove home under lashing skies, all I could think was that if I drove off the road and crashed and died the headline would be all about that letter at home waiting for me.
Why did I get into Oxford given that I had such a hotch-potch of A-Levels? I don’t know. I do know that I didn’t do very well on the entrance exam, which is unsurprising seeing as no-one had been able to tell me in advance what was on it and most of the other students had been practicing at lunchtime with their school tutors. And I do know that the tutors were a bit baffled by my Film Studies A-Level. But I also know that I can reasonably hold my own in a debate, and I particularly remember when they asked why I wanted to study at Oxford that there was a moment when I came across like Billy Elliot’s dad in the Ballet School who, having endured great lengths to get enough money to pay for Billy’s audition, is asked whether or not he is a supportive parent. Without adequate words to explain just how much he supports his son he does nothing more than nod,  but somehow – in that nod – one gets the sense he would walk to the ends of the earth to ensure his son learned ballet. Similarly, I remember the tutor asking me what it meant to study at Oxford and all I could get out was a sort of half-gasped “Everything. It means…well…everything”.
Looking back now it’s hard to believe that could be true. Twelve years can do a lot and I know that I now sound – in accent, manner, confidence, vocabulary – nothing like the 18 year old me who sat in front of those scary wise men and spluttered about the difference it would make to access a library with decent books in it. That person is so far gone it’s hard to write about her in anything other than hackneyed clichés, and it’s often hard to believe that those clichés are real. But one thing helps: I still have the emails from those first few months at Oxford. Slivers of reality occasionally sent home to mum, nan, and the boyfriend who made me cry about the Big Mac. The girl who wrote those emails is clearly scared, and lost, and doesn’t fit in. She talks about the way that people make fun of her accent, and how she can’t cope with the work, and how the tutor tells her that she’ll never get more than a 2:2 unless she shapes up, but she doesn’t know how to shape up because whenever she asks for help they tell her that this is Oxford and there’s no hand-holding here. Reading those emails reminds me of how out of place I really felt (even though I absolutely think I was in the right place) and allows me to remember that Oxford really did mean ‘everything’ to me and more.
They succeeded in closing Padgate after we left. We fought and fought for it to stay open: writing letters to MPs, going on local radio, I even read every darn page of the minutes of local council education meetings and dug out the laws on Curriculum 2000 in order to make my case, and this was before the internet so I spent a lot of time poking around various vaults at the local library. The letter we received from our MP saying the college agreed they would stay open for one more year so we could complete our studies was priceless. The letter from the college Principal said: “I have commended them on the well argued case they presented to us”. It’s not true, no-one ever commended us, but we got to finish our studies in peace and didn’t have the negative effects of moving schools half-way through our studies. Years later, when I taught Citizenship, I would show students that chain of letters as proof positive that children can and must stand up to adults who are trying to destroy their world without due regard for what that will mean.

What Hating Alexis De Tocqueville Taught Me About Learning

I wrote a blog for LKMCo today about the work of ED Hirsch and its current use in the UK debate about National Curriculum.  One of Hirsch’s principles is that there is a ‘correct order’ in which ideas should be taught so that children best understand them.  It’s a noble idea and for the purpose of creating a curriculum I can see why it is rational. Nevertheless, I am minded of something I once heard a US academic say.  His story went as so:

For ten years my university has been trying to get me to use Powerpoint. They sent me on courses, would buy me books, and each time I would pay attention – nod when required – and then would promptly forget everything I knew within a few days.
Last week I had to give a presentation to the US Department for Education. They required Powerpoint; no arguments, get your powerpoint done. Two days before it was due I dragged my 10 year old daughter out of her bedroom and made her show me how it was done. Two hours later I was happily (if still somewhat slowly) using the thing and from then I could use it as and when required.

He told the story to point out that sometimes what is missing in education is not information.  No end of effort was put into pumping Powerpoint instructions into his mind.  What was missing was a reason to understand and remember those instructions.
I empathise because today I am finalising some papers for a US Education History course and I am suddenly moved to read Tocqueville’s work. I hated learning Tocqueville at university. Couldn’t make it head nor tails of it; hated it. But then I didn’t know anything about the creation of America, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the creation of America, and I didn’t appear to have any reason to be interested beyond the fact that someone was telling me I had to be. So, like the story above, I grinned, bore it, read what I read, vaguely made things up in discussions and promptly forgot about it.
Then suddenly – out of nowhere today – he comes up, and I get what they are saying, and I finally think: “Ooh – interesting. I need to read more Tocqueville”. And I open a Wikipedia page. And I checkout the library roll call to see where I can get his book from. And all of a sudden – eleven years after our first introduction – I finally want to learn all about him.
Hirsch can write a big list of what everyone should know and he can dictate when they will be told it but he can’t decide when they’ll be interested and when they’ll actually care enough to learn about it. That’s a different calculation altogether.

Ms McInerney's "Book of Consequences" Detention System

When I first started teaching I cried at least once per week for three months straight. One day a teacher even found me sobbing on my classroom floor in the pitch black at 3.30pm. The kids – probably thinking it best that no-one saw the mess they had made of me – had turned the lights off as they left. I didn’t have the strength to turn them back on.
But I was determined that it wouldn’t continue. Like some kind of value-brand Michelle Pfeiffer, I was hell-bent on winning the behaviour stakes though, unlike Pfeiffer’s character, I didn’t know any karate. Detentions, instead, would be my weapon.  Unfortunately what no-one tells you about detentions is that (a) getting naughty students to turn up requires you to possess the cunning of a diamond theft,  and (b) once in the detention you now have to spend A WHOLE HOUR with the children who are most annoying. Simply because it’s after school they don’t suddenly become perfect human beings, in fact if they’re annoyed about the detention they can become downright unpleasant. Worst of all, if you have several children on detention at once (or several-teen of them as was often the case for me) then they will delight in whining, deriding and generally scoring points for how obnoxious they can be in front of one another. Without careful planning detention can turn out worse for the teacher, than it can for the kids.
So what could I do? How could I use detentions effectively so that they didn’t end with more tears?
First – I became fanatical about my detention appointment systems. The school I was in required my filling in a triplicate detention sheet: giving one to the child, one to the form tutor and one to the school receptionist. To manage this I did batches each evening based on lists I gathered throughout the day. I always told students to expect to see a detention slip turn up the next day but I’m certain they didn’t believe me. It took a while some nights to fill them sll in but I never failed on it. I put the slips for the child in registers and/or gave to the form tutor. If a child came and told me they couldn’t do the detention for a reason (football, dentist, whatever) they had to change their appointment in a folder where I kept a diary of all exoected attendees. That was their only choice. If they missed detention I doubled it (first one was half an hour, second one was an hour). If they missed it twice I phoned their parents and made their parent come in and BRING the child to detention. I only ever did this three times. Word gets around.
But, even more importantly, I found the Book of Consequences. At the time it was on a website by a ‘Mr Shephard’but it no longer exists. The link above is the nearest thing I could find. I printed out copies for each of the ‘crimes’ and put into a folder that looked something like this.
UPDATE 2017: That site also no longer functions easily. So here’s a link to my Dropbox folder.
As you can see, there is a paragraph they have to copy out and then some questions about what they are on the detention for, why, and what they are going to do to stop the issue in future.

When students came into the detention they were given pen and paper and told the following:

  • Write at least 5 lines for each of the questions
  • Copy the paragraph and sign it 
  • Line up at my desk in silence and wait for me to read your answer. I will write comments  or further questions if I have any.
  • You will write answers to new questions and I’ll read and decide if you’ve understood the issue and have a sensible solution for the future
  • Repeat until Miss is happy and you can leave or complete a restoritative task, depending on circumstances (e.g. clean names off table, re-do work, etc.)

At first the students moaned. “I’m not writing this…” “I didn’t do anything…” “No way…”  I kept repeating “Write down what you have to say, then I’ll look at it, and then you might be able to go”.  Protests would continue a while but after 5 minutes most would fall silent and surrender. Occasionally a student would try to sit it out for the whole detention. If this was becoming the case I would simply point out that they would have to do another detention until it was done. With a flounce and a huff they would inevitably start.  If students started talking to each other when I was reading a response or writing my comments I would stop what I was doing and wait. Not wanting the process to slow down they would soon be quiet and we could continue. No matter how much they tried to draw me on conversation, everything was written down. I didn’t much care for the quality of their handwriting or spelling but the writing things down was crucial in making sure we were all being thoughtful, truthful and in keeping my sanity.
Three amazing (and unexpected) things happened from this process: First, the initial question on the sheet asked pupils to write why they were in detention. I reckon about 60% of kids said something different to the reason why I had put them on detention. Sometimes they even admitted things I hadn’t seen. As someone who prided myself on being a clear communicator I found this disheartening, and was always glad of an opportunity to put students right on the reason for a detention as, in the heat of being told off, it does seem that students stop hearing or we stop explaining clearly – maybe a bit of both.  Secondly, students lied a lot less about what had happened because their words were being put down on paper.  And thirdly, being able to write my views meant students couldn’t ‘switch’ off, and I think they appreciated that I took the time to explain how I felt and what I had seen in the class rather than yelling at them. Especially if things had been quite heated in the lesson, the writing meant we could work more calmly towards a solution for future lessons than I think I (or they) would have done verbally.
The other unexpectedly glorious thing about this system is that you get to keep the papers. I always make pupils sign their papers and agree to what their future solution will be. Being able to get out those papers if there is ever another detention is VERY helpful for parent’s evening or if you have to make referrals. Sometimes they’re also quite funny and being able to share with students as they get older (and better behaved) can be touching as they often balk at their tenacity. As one ex-student wrote when I said he’d verify that I used this system: RT@ahmed_masrur “Yhup, she did! I wrote how I was too clever for the class…then spelt a word wrong”
No doubt there will be some people who disagree with the use of detentions or who – for logistical issues to do with the school – are unable to do detentions. All I can say is that I found them an extraordinarily good way of being able to have a firm and fair sanction that children didn’t like but which did take account of their views (sometimes the letters provided information which enabled me to understand the child better and re-think their detention) and which seemed to genuinely work in helping kids understand the boundaries.  Obviously it didn’t work overnight for everyone, some kids found their way into detentions more than once in a row, some sporadically popped up over the years. But when you hear a kid say “Don’t do that or she’ll make you write from that book thing” then you know that the behaviour work is now being done for you and you can worry almost exclusively about the learning.
After my first year of teaching my behaviour management improved and once I wasn’t scared to give out detentions I perversely found that I needed to give them out a lot less. It’s amazing what confidence in your sanction system does for pupil compliance to your rules. The Book of Consequence was therefore used much less often, though it was not without occasional outings. Thankfully after that first year, the tears stopped for good.

Related Posts:
Homework Excuse Notes
My Best Classroom Explanations

Total Percentage of Spoiled Ballot Papers in Police Commissioner Elections

** Update 20/11/12: People have been very kind in sending through any new information which I am putting into the figures below as we can find it. That this has been such a ridiculously complex task is making me believe that future elections really should have one central website at which the Results Certificates are uploaded as soon as announced. That would provide far better information for the public, researchers and journalists than crazily crawling through websites.
Some results are still differing from other figures. As noted, I initially used the Guardian dataset but that looks to have been a little off (I think because spoils were taken out) so some of the percentages are slightly out.  However, an excellent post by Alan Renwick at the University of Reading has all data here and gives an analysis of what the results meant. He concludes that the spoils were not dramatically high. It’s an interesting piece and I highly recommend it even if you disagree with the conclusion.
Original Post from Day of the PCC Election Count
Can’t find a single major media outlet with the figure of rejected ballot papers (admittedly that includes ‘incorrect’ votes as well as protests) so, along with @michaelt1979, we crawled local area websites where results are required to be published as soon as possible after the election has finished (according to rules of the game by the Electoral Commission).  Many councils do a great job of putting it somewhere accessible and provide lots of details; sadly, it’s amazing how many of them really don’t.
Having looked up a number of local election results from 2008 (2010’s general elec was an unfair comparison) the average rejected paper rate is between 0.15 and 0.35% in all the areas I viewed. Almost every election below had a spoil rate ten times higher than would be normal for their area. Put that against the lowest turnout ever in an election and I really do feel the public have spoken on this one.
There are almost definitely some mistakes below – some of it is caused by discrepancies between available datasets and we don’t necessarily know which ones are correct, however where possible we have linked to our source. Please give me a shout via twitter (@miss_mcinerney) if you see something incorrect and I’ll update.
Wiltshire – 3.3%
Dorset – 2.5%
Suffolk – 3.9%
Dyfed – 4.5%
West Midlands – 3%
Hertfordshire – 3% – UPDATED: Certificates of result now online, thanks to blog reader for emailing to update me on this one.

Cleveland – UPDATED: The only figures available on the Cleveland website are for the ‘second round’ count. By this point the spoils have already been removed. So I can’t find the correct figure. *Sigh* Another Returning Officer who hasn’t read the guide book?

Greater Manchester – have published without rejections, poor form.

Merseyside – UPDATE: figure is 2% (2915) – given to me by @michaelt1979 – It’s buried in a daft part of the council website
Sussex – Clearly trying to be helpful the results page talks through how the count worked but doesn’t mention rejected papers. Another potential Election Commission rule failure. Just had this pointed out to me though suggesting a 3% figure:
Lancashire – have a fancy PCC website and say they are going to update in next few hours: keep watching >
Thames Valley – 3.4% 

Northumbria – 2.2%

Hampshire – 2.5% – 

Durham – 2.1% – First place I have seen a UKIP candidate score higher than the Conservative candidate 

South Yorkshire – 2.8%
Gloucestershire – 2.7%
Nottinghamshire – 2.2%
Cambridge – 3.3%
Kent – 1.8%
Northamptonshire – 2.9%
Norfolk – 3.3% – this might be 3%, the figure I have for total turnout is from Guardian datablog but showing up a little differently to Norfolk results. Somewhere between the two seems likely!
Staffordshire – 2.9%
Essex – 2%
Cornwall – 3.2%
 Leicestershire – 2.6%
Cheshire – 2.2%
Avon & Somerset – 3.8%
West Yorkshire – 3.7%
Humberside – 1.7%
Lincolnshire – 2.2%
North Yorkshire – 7.23% (really quite incredible!)

Request for Internal Review of FOI Request for Free School Applications & Decision Letters

Spurred on by many helpful commentors and FoI people on Twitter I have just sent a request for an internal review of the DfE’s decision to turn down my request for the sharing of redacted Free School applicants’ proposal forms and acceptance/rejection letters.  (I’ve blogged previously on the content of my original request and their reasons for rejecting).
There appear to be several flaws in their original argument however I have tried to stick to just a few of the key ones for which I think they need to provide better evidence.  Here is what my request says:

Dear Department for Education,
With regard to the decision above I would like to request an
internal review.
Though I do not need to give grounds for asking for the review the following might be helpful in ensuring you understand my reasons for the request.
Though the issue of prejudice has been qualified the matter of ‘public interest’ is only cursorily dealt with and I am not
convinced an adequate consideration was given to the matter of public interest as it is more broadly defined.
Public interest can include:
1. That open policy making may lead to increased trust and
engagement between citizens and government.
2. The desirability of citizens being confident that decisions are taken on the basis of the best available information.
3. That the information would expose wrongdoing on the part of government.
Without the release of information regarding the application and decision-making process for Free Schools, I do not see how citizens can be confident of (a) how the decision is being made, nor (b) if the decisions are being made consistently and fairly. At present there is no opportunity to expose wrongdoing in this process nor to find out which information is being considered and how. Therefore
the ‘public interest’ is not just about engagement and transparency here but also about ensuring the scrutiny of a process.
Secondly, while the argument that the DfE would not wish to ‘discourage’ applicants appears reasonable I would like to ask for the evidence showing that if redacted materials were released people would (a) be less likely to apply, and (b) would be less innovative. Given that before Free Schools new school consultations and competitions were party to public scrutiny, and yet those schools managed to proceed, I feel it important to understand what evidence is now available that shows openness to now be an impediment to the process. Furthermore, if Free Schools are ‘innovative’ then necessarily the successful application forms will be very different to one another and in my estimation this would mean future applicants would instead be encouraged to continue this diversity. I would like to see the evidence that supports the opposite viewpoint that such openness would stifle innovation.
Thirdly, applications and reasons for acceptance and review are, I believe, passed to the New Schools Network who then advise future potential applicants (this was referred to in the 2010 Information Commisioner’s review of an FOI request for NSN/DfE correspondence). If true, I do not understand how this sits with the idea that releasing applications more widely will run a ‘risk’ of copying but when passed through NSN it does not.
Finally, while I completely understand concerns regarding
embarrassment and targeting of applicants I would remind the internal reviewer that the request was for materials where the names of schools and their leaders would be redacted.
A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is
available on the Internet at this address:…
I look forward to receiving either the materials as requested or a more complete explanation of the reasons for withholding.
Yours faithfully,
Laura McInerney

Anger not Apathy: Why spoiling your Police Commissioner ballot paper is more important than not voting

If you are looking for the number of people who spoiled ballot papers, I am putting them together in a separate blog here.
Several people in my timeline have shown concern about the upcoming Police Commissioner elections on November 15th. There is a general feeling that party politics is an unwelcome intrusion into a service working perfectly well and which, when it needs political interference, already gets it in a multitude of ways. Tweeters are concerned that adding another mouthpiece with their own axe to grind and a need to be ‘seen’ in the newspapers won’t help anyone do anything more effectively.
For this reason many people are thinking they won’t turn out to vote. Please, please, I beg of you do not let your anger be taken for apathy – go and spoil your ballot paper instead.
Why should you bother? Firstly – from my experience in local elections – candidates, or at the very least their agents – eyeball all spoiled ballot papers. The main reason is because some are ‘marginal’ cases (i.e. the person has ticked two boxes, or ticked next to a box) and there needs to be agreement on who it counts for. I have, however, seen several papers with much more on them – “You’re all as bad as one another” is common, as are expletives. But – very occasionally – I’ve seen a lengthier response. One year I remember a woman writing a story about how she felt let down by her local candidate and couldn’t vote for them.  The counters saw it, the scrutineers saw it, the returning officer, the candidates. It’s stayed with me and I bet it has with them too.
Secondly, spoiled ballots are counted and their numbers are published in the UK. In future, being able to point to the number of spoiled ballots is a clear way of showing that there is anger – whereas when people don’t vote this is labelled as apathy (i.e., they didn’t care either way). If you really care about this issue I strongly encourage you to write to your MP and to other lobbying groups in the future highlighting the number of spoiled papers as an issue.  If you really don’t care, stay home. If you do, either vote or spoil.
Thirdly, why not come up with an interesting spoil and make it viral? Think of the many protest placards that now gain attention on Twitter and Facebook. Spoiled papers shared online could be one of the easiest ways to widely demonstrate your anger at this change.  In the US Presidential Election I know that in many states taking a photo of your ballot paper is illegal. I’m not sure what the situation is in the UK (anyone know?) but people in the US are doing it anyway and if things are really so bad I am sure someone can start an anonymous Tumblr or something from which to collate the information.
Finally, it’s a cliche, but for so many years people fought hard to get the vote. I really do think it is incumbent on everyone of us to use the few opportunities we have for political clout and we should say something. If what you want to say is “I don’t care who wins” then fine, stay at home. If you agree with commissioners or you really would rather a certain party won, then please use your ‘x’. But if you want to say more – if you want to suggest concern, or anger, or dismay, or anything other than a cross in the box, then please: write your message on the paper and let the people in power know EXACTLY what you think.
[In the interest of fair debate on this matter, this blog is about why spoiling ballot papers is useless. It’s worth pondering both sides before making your decision, though the blog above shows which side of the debate I am on]

Free School FOI Turned Down….Again

Further to my previous blog pondering why Free School FOI requests are always turned down, I finally got a response to my own request today.
The response can be seen in full here, however the main gist is that the DfE feels releasing application forms and/or rejection letters would:

  • Encourage people to ‘borrow’ from successful application forms when making new proposals and this would stem innovation
  • Discourage people who were not successful from reapplying and, with the potential for embarrassment if rejections are made public, it would put off potential free school bidders in the future.
  • Be used against schools to say that they strong feedback was given before opening, and this is unfair given that they may well have now addressed those issues and will now be party to Ofsted inspections which are really what counts.

While in some ways I can see where the DfE is coming from I think it must be borne in mind that:

  • The information can be redacted. There’s no reason to know which school is which from feedback. If applications are not released and only feedback letters are granted there is definitely no way of knowing whose letter is whose.
  • Application forms are passed to New Schools Network who then advise applicants on their proposal. Given this, I don’t see how it can be true that the DfE don’t want people to see successful application forms in case they ‘copy’ them. Indeed, in the 2010 review by the Information Commissioner on this matter, the DfE said that it was wholeheartedly planning to publish successful applications – this is how it managed to get out of publishing them in 2010.
  • One of the comments made in the longer DfE piece is that it may encourage copying of proposals when it is inappropriate for the local need, but if so then the application will be rightly turned down. Furthermore, if there is diversity in successful applications (which one would hope there is given that the government specifically says in its reply to me that the purpose of the free school policy is innovation) then anyone reading the successful applications would know that it would be silly to copy just one type of school – after all, which one would you pick?!
  • Finally, I do think it is important that a process of tendering is transparent. I note that the DfE had no qualms at all about releasing the reasons for rejection of the group that stood against the New Schools Network to be the advisory body. They even named them. I therefore wonder if embarrassment on the part of schools is really the issue.

A few other oddities have been pointed out by people on Twitter:
@tiddymoke noticed that the Minister who has made the decision is Liz Truss. But she’s not in charge of Free Schools, Lord Hill is.
@StephenJMayo pointed out that private companies applying for several schools are at an advantage because they can recycle their own applications, and can work out what does and doesn’t work, but this information is not being more widely shared.