What do you notice about this Free School monitoring form?

The Department for Education has always said Free Schools were visited periodically after opening to ensure all was well. It was never clear who was making the visits, or what they involved, or what sort of feedback schools got – but we knew there were visits.
To find out more I put in a Freedom of Information request. I was particularly interested in the visits that happened prior to Free Schools receiving their first Ofsted inspection. This is because the Ofsted judgements of Free Schools have been touted by the Secretary of State as a demonstration of free schools’ excellence.
The DfE have said that they cannot release the forms (yawn – inevitable). However I also asked that if they were going to decline to release, they should nevertheless release a blank template. [It’s quite difficult to argue against that].
So here it is. Tell me, what do you notice?
Free School Monitring Template
Is it just me, or does this look like Free Schools are getting a report from the DfE that exactly mimics an Ofsted report in the time period before the school’s actual Ofsted inspection?
On the one hand I can see the argument is that schools needs support. But the point of being a “free” school is supposedly that they are free from the government…. So why are the DfE providing this help? Also, who pays for it? Can other schools ask for this kind of support from the DfE? Are ex-inspectors involved? Are current inspectors involved? All manner of tricky questions come to the fore.
I’m also intrigued by the confidentiality bulletin at the top. Subtext: NOT TO BE MENTIONED. AT ALL. EVER.
Sigh. I really hope we get to some transparency soon on these processes. It really would help.

No Use Crying Over Spilt Dinner Ladies

My Guardian column this week is about the move by one academy chain to outsource its non-teaching services.
I’m generally known for being conciliatory and not trying to kick up too much conflict, so writing something which “picked on” a group, and which mentioned a hypothetical situation (that dinner assistant wages might be driven down), is not my usual go-to. It felt a bit uncomfortable to do, to be honest. But I had to write it.
One of the things I am lucky enough to be experiencing out here in Missouri is the university’s Journalism School. It’s the oldest ‘J-School’ in the world and regularly jostles with Columbia for title of best in the country.  In a class last week the tutor, Mark, made the point that it’s often useless to write about something after the event. At that point all you can do is empathise with victims and hope to nail blame. If there’s a warning flare then it makes more sense to bring it to light while change is still possible.
I’m not a journalist anymore than journo friends who used to come speak to my class on occasion were teachers. But the fact that academy chains are expanding rapidly, and without any cap on the money that can be passed to sister for-profit organisations, or into the hands of executives, bothers me. That there is even the potential for low-paid workers to end up with even less bothers me. And to have sat on that information and not said anything when I get such an incredible opportunity once a month to bring people’s attention to such issues would have really truly bothered me.
So now the ball is in AET’s court. They say they want to run a fair bid and outsource in a way that will provide good things for all involved. Kudos to them, I say, and I look forward to them proving that it can be done. But the point of the column was really to say that we are watching. After all, there’s no point crying with outrage once things are too late to change.

What I Learned From Writing About Vocational Education

In last month’s Guardian column I wrote about the dilemma facing policymakers deciding how students should progress down ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ routes to qualification. 
The problem seems to be that the earlier you ‘track’ students into vocational routes the more likely you are to reduce social mobility. In England this is because students most likely to take vocational subjects are those from lower income backgrounds, and because the jobs gained at the end of a vocational route often pay less well than those from an academic route, then you end up with lower income students remaining in lower income jobs.
However, if you keep students in ‘academic’ routes for a longer period of time, and some students don’t achieve well within this sphere, and so drop out of school without any qualification then youth unemployment rates go up.
So, increase vocational routes and the country will get lower unemployment but also lower social mobility. Hmm…What to do?
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Whilebelow-the-line comments were a bit sparse, several people engaged in debate via twitter and email.
Daniel Acquah, a research associate at AQA, pointed out that vocational education too often acts as a ‘safety net’. Vocational subjects are forced to take any student who is struggling because otherwise what will they doooo? Only, if vocational subjects are seen as ‘what the struggling kids do’ then this is what devalues them. 
If we truly want to ‘raise the status’ of vocational education (something every politician says, but no one ever manages) then we need first to solve the problem of what to do with students under-performing in core academic subjects. (A matter I tackled previously here).
Organisations like the London School of Business and Finance also pointed out that there are ways of combining ‘graduate style’ jobs with vocational style training. For example, LSBF offer ‘Higher National Diplomas’, which are considered ‘vocational’ because the qualifications offered are specifically related to an industry – e.g. accountancy certification exams – and don’t rely on individuals having the sort of entry qualifications needed to get into university, but they open ‘professional’ pathways to students who might not otherwise have had chance.
Finally, the Edge Foundation, a group promoting vocational education, shared some of their most recent research which disputes that academic graduates will earn significantly more over their lifetime. For example, the average construction apprentice is expected to earn £1.5m over their lifetime, a graduate £1.6m. The £100k difference is still a fair amount, but not quite the gap that many people expect.
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Skip to the end: The problem of vocational education seems to come down to the fact that (a) we don’t really have a plan for students who are not achieving well in core subjects other than go work with your hands, and (b) we seem to have become obsessed with the notion that vocational jobs either pay poorly or no one would want to do them – but this isn’t necessarily true.
For me the dream is still that all students would experience a broad range of subjects up to 18, with equal encouragement across all fields – technical, practical, artistic, academic. School is one of the few chances we have in life to see what we might like to do. It seems such a shame to limit it.

Where is the desk of the new Regional School Commissioners?

A few months ago the government advertised for 8 “Regional School Commissioners”. Since then Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, has said several times that the Commissioners with be the eyes and ears of the Department for Education. He will devolve his school monitoring and closing powers to them so they can become a sort of academy ninja mob roaming the streets of ‘places that aren’t London’ taking out bad academies and spreading love for the good.
While there are lots of questions I could raise about this policy I keep coming back to the same one and so far no one has an answer:

Where will their desks be?

People look at me like I’m mad. “It’s a digital world,” they say, “the Commissioner’s desk can be in Starbucks, or their car, or a school….”

I look at them they like they are mad. “These eight people will be paid over a hundred grand each. They will be among the most powerful people in education. And you expect them to have meetings….where? In their living room? Will academy chiefs be popping round for a cup of tea? Also, what about their documents? Some of those will be pretty confidential. Is it a requirement of the job that you have secure filing space? And I presume they will have staff. Maybe a secretary? A few admin bods? Where will they be?”

It sounds sarcastic, but it’s really important.

Let’s think through the options:

(1) They are all based in Westminster. Not a bother perhaps. But then what makes them “regional” or “devolved”?

(2) They are based in academy trusts/schools. Hmm…*Sounds the conflict-of-interest alarm bells*

(3) We create eight “regional” offices for them. What? After shutting down regional development agencies, regional DfE buildings, gutting local authority offices you’re now going to open eight offices? Good luck with that.

(4) The regional Ofsted centres (as posited by Sam Freedman) – Ah. So, we would have people with devolved central government powers sitting in the same place as people who are apparently completely independent from government. *Shrugs*. Could work. Can see why people would be tetchy about it though.

(5) There is a ‘hub’ in the centre of England for them. Maybe in the old BECTA offices. Or some such place. < See, now we’re talking. But if that’s true, I once again question if what we aren’t actually talking about is a national office for school commissioning with regional directors. If we are that sounds amazingly sensible. Yet whenever I suggest this idea to people they again look at me as if I am mad.

At which point I shrug and simply repeat “So tell me again about these desks….”

Jesus is the Elephant

Owly Images

“If you tell people not to think about elephants, they will think about elephants. And, in US schools, Jesus is the elephant.”

Last Friday, the TES published my longest US feature yet: “The Godless Delusion”. The piece muses on the fact that American schools are most definitely not allowed to involve religion. Perversely, school leaders spend waaay longer than necessary worrying about it.

Many of the case studies described in the piece were raised in an ethics class I took last semester here at the University of Missouri. It’s amazing the cultural differences in such things. During one class we read a case study about a 17 year old student who was strip searched by the school principal and his assistant. The student had been watched for a few days due to an “unusual bulge” in his trousers (the case studies words, not mine). At the end of the school day he was therefore prevented from getting on to the school bus and instead escorted to the principal’s office. The principal called the student’s mother to ask permission for a pat-down. She refused. The principal therefore escorted the student to the changing room, where he locked the door (apparently for the students’ privacy) and then instructed the pupil take off all his clothes, in full view of both male staff members, before putting on his sports kit.
The lecturer stopped at the end of the case study: “Who felt that this was inappropriate?”
My hand shot up. A few other hands see-sawed. Most stayed down.
Not only did the people in the room not see it as problematic (in fact several defended it), but the Supreme Court’s conclusion on this case was that while the student’s right to privacy was contravened, the school district nevertheless imposed no punishment on the teachers. No disciplinary, no nothing. Mind-boggling.
Thankfully, this article is a little more gentle – looking as it does at US nativities and the Plastic Reindeer rule- but I hope it is still interesting. It certainly was to write.