Should I appeal this #FOI about the DfE's investigation into 'mass migration'?

“The Education Secretary reveals she has ordered a wide-ranging inquiry into the impact of mass migration on state schools, as tens of thousands of parents struggle to find school places for their children. “
Those are the words in a Telegraph interview with Nicky Morgan back in April.
It’s now the distant past, but these were the days when Nigel Farage was jostling for a sweep of UKIP seats, and David Cameron was paling aside the Miliboom (I know, I know, how deluded it all now seems).
At the time it struck me as strange that a Secretary of State, coming near the end of their term, would order such an inquiry. Especially when immigration has barely come up as an issue in schools.
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So, on 22nd April, I put in a simple FOI request to the Department for Education asking for:
(1) The document describing this order in whatever manner it was delivered – e.g. email, memo, report, etc. If it was by speech to please pass on the documented minutes.
(2) The scope of the review – in whatever format it is available.
Mostly I wanted to check that the review was really happening and wasn’t just said in an interview for electioneering purposes. And two, I wanted to know what aspect of ‘mass migration’ we are talking about – especially as it doesn’t seem to me like school places are being particularly squeezed. If there is something of interest, however, it would be good to start looking into it sooner rather than later.
The request was due back on 20th May. After some haranguing a reply arrived on 2nd June.
The civil servant said the information was covered by Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act. This section protects ministerial advice for decision-making purposes. Information that falls under this category faces a ‘public interest’ test. Thea presumption is that information should still be released even if under Section 35, unless there is a potential damage to policy-making.
The response argued that:

  • Ministers need to have a safe space to consider live policy issues. It is in the public interest that the formulation of government policy and government decision making can proceed in the self-contained space needed to ensure that it is done well.”Specifically, Ministers need to feel that they have a safe space to ask for information and advice candidly without worrying about the public presentation (or interpretation) of such requests and commissions for advice.
    “Furthermore, releasing information about policy considerations prematurely could put Ministers under pressure to make policy decisions before they have had sufficient time to consider all the evidence and options.
    Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, I consider that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.”

Sigh.
I wrote back asking for an internal review pointing out that if Ministers will go around telling the public through the pages of the Telegraph that they have a commission underway about mass migration into state schools then they have already snookered their safe (by which I think they mean ‘private’) space.
Also, I wasn’t asking for the advice itself. I just want to know what she’s asking about.
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I asked for the internal review on 2nd June. I got a response today (after eventually complaining to the ICO about the delay).
They are still turning down the request on Section 35, and have given new reasons.
Here’s where I need your help: Does this rejection sound reasonable, or should I appeal?
I don’t think it’s cut and dry, and I don’t want to waste ICO time. So any help would be appreciated.
This is what they wrote:

  • “In favour of release:•         In general there is a public interest in having an open and transparent Government. It increases trust in, and engagement with Government which can help the policy making process.
    •         There is a public interest in understanding what work is being carried out by civil servants and in this case, it could be argued that there is a public interest in understanding the accuracy of media relating to Ministers and government departments.
  • In favour of withholding the information:•         The Secretary of State’s statement provided information about the scope and approach of the review, and so release of the specific commission does not add to public knowledge.
    •         Ministers at all times need to feel that they have a safe space to ask for information and advice candidly without worrying about the public presentation, or interpretation, of such requests and commissions for advice.
    •        If Ministers believed that commissions would be routinely released to the public it could dissuade them from commissioning detailed work on specific or sensitive policies areas. The chilling effect on Ministers and/or officials would lead to much more broadly-phrased requests for information, and broadly-scoped responses. This will inhibit effective advice and reduce efficiency if advice is actually needed on a more specific question. Additionally, Ministers are not able to make good policy decisions if they only have the confidence to commission high-level advice.
    •         With regards to this request in particular, the work being commissioned is likely to involve conversations with stakeholders, and remains a ‘live’ area of policy-making. If the specific detail of the commission is released into the public domain, this could influence the views that stakeholders give to officials and Ministers, and therefore undermine the quality and balance of evidence that is available to inform decisions.
    •         The Department’s view is that releasing the specific content of the commission could raise public expectations about the timing and nature of future policy. Doing so at this point could inhibit the quality of ongoing discussions with stakeholders to gather evidence; and could also prompt public discussion about policy options at a point when the ‘safe space’ arguments are still needed to allow for frank discussion, and when the chilling effect is likely to risk closing down discussion of some options.
    I hope the arguments set out above clarify the Department’s position that not only is Section 35(1)(a) is engaged, but that it is also in the public interest to withhold the information.”

So, any thoughts on appeal?

Forget boycotts, get PARENTS to 'opt-out' of tests for 4-year olds

Tomorrow the National Union of Teachers will debate whether teachers ought to boycott the government’s proposed ‘tests for 4-year olds’. But the NUT are missing a trick. Instead of pushing teachers into looking like work-shirkers, why not encourage parents to opt-out of the tests?
The opt-out strategy is currently being used, with reasonable success, across the US in response to a country-wide policy requiring students to sit various tests and have the results be reported to the state and federal government.
From the US government perspective, wanting to know pupil progress over time is not an unreasonable desire. How can you evaluate if children are progressing, or teachers are performing well, or taxpayer money is being spent effectively if you don’t have a ‘baseline’ figure from which to check progress? (And ongoing results to see how the cohort is improving?)
But the test opposers have been smart. Even if wanting data is sensible, tests make parents nervous. It’s their kids they are handing over – the thing they hold most precious. If you can make parents not want their kids to sit the tests, what the government wants pales into comparison.
So how did test-opposers make parents want to ‘opt-out’ of government tests?
First, they got organised. Facebook groups, twitter, and blogs were all used to create letters for parents to send to schools saying they were removing their child from exams. The OptOutOfStandardizedTest wiki is packed with this sort of info.
Second, they stoked concerns about data protection. Would a child’s score ever be leaked? Could it be used to deny them provisions? Could it be asked for many years later and used against them? (Sounds crazy, but there are examples of this kind of behaviour that makes me think it’s nowhere near as unlikely as we would think it to be in England).
Third, they repeated the use of the phrase ‘standardized’ tests and all the grungy ideas of ‘measuring children’ that comes with it. No one likes to think of their child being ‘standardized’. Mention the cattle-market, Brave New World-ness of it often enough and you can basically creep parents into opting-out.
Fourth, they played on nostalgia. “Remember when you were four/seven/ten and played in the sunshine for hours? Well your child will be locked inside revising”. Cue pics of exhausted children sleeping on textbooks while pristine swing sets sit abandoned. *sob*
Could this work in England?
Potentially. Even just going for a more straightforward line would likely do it: “Parents, if you don’t want your child to have to sit onerous tests that the government will record and keep on file about your child forever please send this letter”
After all, how are Conservative politicians going to argue that parents shouldn’t have such power? The whole premise of Conservativism is that the family should have as much autonomy as possible. With increasing awareness of Data Protection, plus recent outrages over the sale of NHS records and people’s tax information, it’s possible the records angle would have traction too.
Should the unions follow this line?
Ultimately, I don’t know if tests for four year-olds are a good idea. I’ve never really dealt with that age group. But what I do think is that parent opinion is more powerful, and likely more important, than teachers on this one. If they really don’t want this, it will be hard for the government to argue. If they don’t care, if they think “this would be quite useful”, then the teaching profession should probably let it go. The public pay our wages and send us their children. If they’re okay with their children doing the test, I’d likely trust their judgement.
Either way, though, if I was leading a union wanting to oppose the tests I’d absolutely be starting with parent boycotts before teacher ones. It’s easy to spin teachers as being lazy and difficult. But get the Parents’ Army onside, and politicians may well find themselves facing a group who are impossible to defeat.
 
 

Debunking ConservativeHome on Unqualified Teachers

Spending time debunking guff written about unqualified teachers could be a full-time job, so I usually don’t bother. But this piece from Conservative Home on Twigg’s announcement today tested my limits. So here is my take on it:
What they said:
“As Harry Phibbs wrote yesterday, that isn’t the only inconsistency. While private schools are, in Labour’s eyes, at an unfair advantage, state schools are to be banned from copying their successful policies.
For example, independent schools regularly employ teachers who don’t have official qualifications – indeed, such teachers make up a large proportion of the staff in Britain’s most successful teaching establishments. That is why Gove has granted state schools the freedom to employ them, too.”
First off – who are Britain’s most successful teaching establishments? If you look at the ones mentioned by Gove, you’ll find they are state schools: Mossbourne, Perry Beeches, Elmhurst Primary. Secondly, even if we assume that “most successful” means the private schools who top league tables, there’s not a great deal of evidence (if any?) that says this is down to the quality of their teachers over and above the quality seen in state schools. If anything, the evidence tends to run in the opposite direction.
And yet Twigg denies the evidence. According to his speech, qualifications are the only indicator of good teaching – an assumption which, if true, would mean the nation’s private schools would be basket cases, not the bastions of privilege and elitism which Labour claim.
Twigg never said having a teaching qualification was the only indicator of good teaching; but it is a nationally-recognised minimum standard, and that is important. It is important because it ensures the person has been through all appropriate training, some of which is not just to do with teaching but issues such as health and safety (yawn away, but you’ll regret it when you find yourself in a school trip bus crash) or child protection (no yawning here I hope). Sure, some people drive for twenty years without a licence – and without an accident – but we still expect everyone to pass a test. Let’s not allow less than that for a profession dedicated to our children.
Bravely forging ahead despite the inconvenient obstacles thrown up by reality, he therefore commits that he would ban all state schools from employing teachers who don’t hold formal teaching qualifications – which would mean sacking up to 5000 of those currently changing kids’ lives for the better.
No. He said that schools would not be able to employ teachers who do not get a formal teaching qualification within a reasonable period of time (this is a common journo mistake, see more here). As long as all teachers are given adequate opportunity to get qualified and they are genuinely changing kids’ lives for the better, then no doubt they will pass.
This policy shows the fingerprints of the NUT, the union which loves to say “never”. Where Gove has demolished the dominance of their vested interests by allowing teachers to be employed based on ability rather than paperwork, Twigg seeks to restore protections for NUT approved employees – at the cost of the quality of education on offer to children.
“Teachers to be employed based on ability rather than paperwork” – This is a rum statement. One: teachers teach kids to pass stuff. If the teacher can’t pass QTS, how good can they be at helping other people pass things? Two: If you do have the ability you will pass; if you don’t have the ability, you won’t. And, three: If you’re no good at paperwork you will suck at being a teacher who has to deal with exam entry forms, trip permissions, assessment recording, etc.
That the general public often forget teaching is more multi-faceted profession than pontificating at the front of a classroom is annoying, but understandable. That such ignorance pervades in the words of people wanting to represent a political party is not.

"You get what you Gove"

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New teachers quickly learn that demanding behaviour from students that you’re not willing to demonstrate yourself is entirely pointless.  Calmness, courage, patience, thoughtfulness – you want them? Model them. Over, and over, and over.*
Gove is often a pro at behaving courteously. He compliments question askers in Parliament, charms speech audiences with anecdotes, knows his brief in Committee sessions. But when it comes to hiding what comes across as a deep dislike of most teachers, he struggles. Reminiscent of a teacher who speaks sweetly to the top set but turns nasty when facing slow, lumbering set six, it sometimes comes across as if he believes that lowering himself to the level of understanding an ordinary teacher somehow means they’ll infect him.
Such irrational arrogances stop otherwise outstanding teachers from being any use at all with lower sets. And, if not careful, acting in this way will stop Gove making lasting changes – even ones that are important and useful.
Last November Nansi Ellis wrote an excellent piece pointing out the problem of Gove asking for teachers to behave in certain ways:

Gove’s call for openness is all one way: teachers must be open to the government’s ideas. A government that really believed in openness wouldn’t start a consultation on the biggest exam shake up for decades by asking whether it’s given the new exam the right name.

One can highlight countless other areas where openness hasn’t happened – the EBacc, disapplication of the curriculum, academy takeovers, the push to SchoolsDirect over PGCEs, AS Level reforms.
It is of course unreasonable to expect any Secretary of State to beat his drum solely to the rhythm of professionals. He works for the public, not the profession. But Ellis suggests a middle way:

True openness requires the humility to realise that you might be wrong, an ability to listen to people with different ideas, and an acceptance that people with different views might also want what’s best for children and young people.

The U-turn on GCSE reforms was one example of this. But it’s not enough. If Gove, like any educator,  wants calmness, courage, patience and thoughtfulness, then he – like the rest of us – needs to model it over, and over, and over again, until he gets the behaviour he wants and need.

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NB: I don’t think you just need to be calm, patient and thoughtful to get students to behave. Would it were that easy! You also need things like clearly and firmly enforced rules (see here or here for more on that). But as a teacher you need to be clear and firm, while also modelling the behaviours you want. As annoying and difficult as that is, it really is the only way.

Gove and the Socialist Wreckers

At today’s Education Oral Questions in the House of Commons, Michael Gove was asked about the impact of the impending reform where anyone receiving housing benefit and deemed to have a ‘spare’ bedroom will have their income docked. ‘Spare’ bedrooms include those occupied by people’s children away at university, those serving in the military, children who only live with a parent for part of the week, and foster children. The docking is significant – 14% for one room, 25% for two – and is causing considerable distress among vulnerable groups.
Gove’s response:

“I don’t know why the honourable lady, and indeed her honourable friends, keep referring to this bedroom tax. It is not a tax. It is timely and necessary action to deal with our out-of-control welfare bills, and that action is needed because of the way that our economy was driven into the ground by the Labour Party.
Thirteen years during which no effective welfare reform took place and in which time money was spent on a series of vanity projects which only left the country saying “thank heavens that a coalition government has two parties clearing up the mess left behind by that crew of socialist wreckers on whom we wish nothing, NOTHING, but a rapid path to contrition”

The phrase was delivered with venomous emotion and met with jeering bewilderment by the party opposite. On Twitter a few people pointed out that “wreckers” is a favourite Ayn Rand term.

For me the most disappointing part of the whole quote is the idea that Labour spending 13 years rebuilding hospitals and schools was a vanity project. To those who spent the early 90s rubbing shoulders with newspaper moguls maybe it seemed frivolous.To those of us who spent the 90s living in broken towns denudated by Conservative policies, it felt really rather necessary.

Schools, Trains & Franchises: Why Select Committees May No Longer Be Fit For Purpose

Both the West Coast Mainline fiasco and the issues with Ofqual have got me thinking about public expectations on government Ministers and ordinary MPs to deal with an ever-increasing level of complexity across a range of sectors.  I have worked both as a member of a train bid team and as a school teacher, and both things are fiendishly complicated even though they involve services that we regularly interact with. In fact, I wonder sometimes if the mindless way we use transport and schools is one of the reasons why people expect it to be easy to understand when the brutal reality is that many of your taken-for-granted assumptions about the way those sectors should work are often quite wrong.
One big concern is that as we move toward a system where governments outsource the provision of services to outside agencies there actually becomes a greater responsibility on government for scrutinising (a) who will be the right person to run the service, and (b) are they doing a good enough job of it.  On the one hand this should be easy because the people involved in the commissioning are now at arms length from the service and so should more easily be able to see what is going on in a dispassionate manner. But on the other hand, if Ministers are parachuting in and out of departments along with their special advisors and civil servants fastly streaming around in order to get to an executive position, then it can mean that expertise are vitally missing in order that scrutiny can be adequately carried out.
At present tender/franchise situations work like this:

The government writes a ‘tender’ (a document saying what it wants in a service) for a train service and then all the train operating companies hand in their best offer.  Arguably, this is the same situation for Free Schools (although there’s no official tender writing) and it’s what will probably happen with new exam boards.
But the big red circle shows the main problem: Who decides whose bid is the best?  And how do they decide?  In the case of exam boards, for example – who will make that call?  Will it be the Minister?  What if they’ve just arrived and don’t really understand anything about their topic? (You can tut at that remark, but I would argue that Justine Greening never really understood much about trains – as was apparent in several questions she answered on tv – and in the amount of time she was in the position it is small wonder) .  The view seems to be that, technically, civil servants are making these decisions and then they are signed off by Ministers. However even that appears to be problematic.  How do they know what is the best one?  Do they have to take advice of people within the profession?  Unions?  Technical bodies?  Is this advice open to the public once the decision has been made so that it can be scrutinised?
And even if we assume that hero civil servants do understand bids fully there is still a problem: They are not the ones doing the scrutiny.  You see, the next stage in this process is that once the service is given over, MPs on select committees generally try and scrutinise the goings-on. Where something goes wrong (as in the case of the exam boards) the Select Committee are supposed to get to the bottom of what is going on. But unfortunately, and to put it bluntly, most MPs are not very good at  this part.
So now we have this problem:

The Select Committee that spoke with Ofqual on the GCSE Fiasco spent most of their time trying to get their head around the basic day-to-days of a service and didn’t really ask the hard questions that would hold the service to account. Members on both sides, whose primary job is as an MP, found that they were supposed to understand the inner-workings of something that we all think is simple (schools) but actually has incredibly complex parts to it.  This then means that we have parts of public service fundamentally breaking down and disappointing people but without there being clear and transparent mechanisms for people getting to the bottom of the matter.
At one time this might have been okay. The whole of Parliament was a sort of mist through which only the political and media elites could peer and if things were a little difficult it didn’t  much matter. But as Parliament TV, and access to internet records, are meaning that more and more people are able to see what is happening there has to be a ‘clearing up’ of all this mist so that the processes are more clear and that the electorate can clearly judge if things are being run competently and in a manner that they believe to be suitable.
This means that certain aspects of Parliament have to change, particularly the Select Committee system.  One of the suggestions I have made before is around review boards.  That blog specifically suggests a Curriculum Review board for education but I think there may be something in a more specific use of experts, perhaps using a list system, or drawing more systematically on the expertise of the House of Lords.  Indeed, I think if such review boards became the basis of appointment to the House of Lords it would be a reform of the system that would help make it more useful to the electorate without the requirement for Lords elections.
Unfortunately this is not a sexy issue nor is it one that the public readily understand. I doubt if changes like this would make more than a 5 minute slot on Daily Politics, however they could have a meaningful impact for political debate and its legitimacy in the future. I also genuinely believe it would help to lessen the number and impact of political fiascoes appearing due to problems around franchising, and without this change I can only imagine that their numbers will grow given the tendency in government (on both sides of the house) to move towards the government as a commissioner and chief scrutineer of public services rather than the government being the lead provider.

A Blog I Wrote About David Cameron in October 2005

Here’s a blog I wrote about David Cameron back in 2005.  I still stand by what I wrote at the time (and I still love that I called him “the bloke”!)

David Cameron: I Told You So….
I agree, David Cameron is clearly the best person to lead the Conservative party if what the party want is to be elected. The fact that I agree with this is weird as (a) it means that I empathise with Conservative voters and (b) it means that I think the Conservatives have a chance at winning an election – a terrifying thought.
However, I can’t say I’m surprised by him becoming leader. Back in, ooh, about February time Cameron wrote an outstanding article for the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1436833,00.html
It was obvious at this point that he was a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, it was so obvious that I leapt from the dining table and made my partner read the article. His usual disdain for any Tory shone through, but even he had to admit that the guy had a point. And that’s precisely where he is dangerous. In 1994 when Tony Blair stood up as leader, no matter how much people had previously hated the party they thought to themselves “Why yes, you are a bunch of crazy lefty trade unionist loons – but by George, the man has a point!”
Furthermore, Cameron didn’t just write this one article. Oh no. Do a quick search on the bloke and you’ll see that he’s written many articles, book reviews, speeches, etc that have been printed in the Guardian this year. That’s right. The Guardian. He’s practically in bed with the ‘woolly thinker’ voter that Labour has so heavily relied on. And it seems that I’m the only one who has been noticing this until now.
Cameron is a dangerous, dangerous man if you sit on the left side of the house. Conservatives, however, should get up and rejoice. But for me, the only surprise is that anyone be surprised about him at all.