Education, Control and the Individual: Do you want your child to be a faceless member of a school community?
You haven’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been thinking. A lot. So much has happened in the past weeks. There’s been the Labour Party Conference at which Angela Raynor introduced the National Education Service, and I’ve started teaching, as I mentioned in my last blog, but in the adult education service. I’ve also visited my favourite head teacher for a tour of his school and there’s been Damian Hinds too of course. As I said, a lot to think about. Here are a few of my musings to which I hope you may have some comments, questions, or even better, the answers.
It’s time we change our response from ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘We know this is happening and we want change!’ I’ve talked before about the cynical treatment of our education and other public services under this government and I will say it again. They know exactly what is happening in our schools. They know the curriculum is being streamlined; they know zero-tolerance behaviour policies are rife and they know their teaching community is becoming younger, less experienced and more malleable. This culture is their baby and it’s growing well in their eyes. We need to start fighting not questioning.
The Mercia Learning Trust has created great discussion and surprise, but from my experience as a parent where I live, their policies are nothing different to what is on offer for my children in a couple of years’ time. Admittedly, our local school doesn’t bully parents in or out of their choices through nasty rhetoric, but it certainly gives no leeway for us to respond to their offer on the table. These schools are free to do this, and in fact encouraged in this free for all which is our current education system. They’ve got results in mind, so everyone has to put up and shut up – or in the jargon of schooling today, be resilient. This zero tolerance approach to behaviour is leading to the extreme off-rolling statistics. It is creating a culture of fear across school communities; the sort of fear which shuts down the conscientious, keeping their heads down so as not to get into trouble for the lack of a pen and kicks out those who really don’t need to be kicked out.
I am going to be radical. What would happen if children were treated as the individuals they are? Something obviously abhorrent to the team at Mercia. This has really struck me in my new job. Teaching adults, I am faced by a group of people now able to bring their individuality to the learning space. As much as I can deliver lessons that I deem appropriate for their level and support needs, I can also respond, dare I say it, to their personalities. Instead of a sea of blazers and ties, dulling their individuality, I am looking at peroxide hair, tattooed arms and faces, tracksuit bottoms and a sea of pattern and colour. They walk in with their identities proudly on show and I am challenged to work with them as such. A wonderful, fruitful challenge, evidenced by the comment my peroxide blonde, tattooed, track-suited student made at the end of his fourth lesson with me, ‘I love how animated you are!’
And remember, many of these are the kids who have failed in the past few years. They still blame themselves for a poor relationship with schooling and attribute their failure to their poor attitude. They tell me they struggled at school; they didn’t get on with school. For me, their reasons suggest a lack of support and engagement at the systemic level. One tells me his attendance averaged 10% and that he lacked a traditional support structure; another that she moved between her parent’s homes but failed to connect at any of the schools she attended. Teachers can be inspirational and committed but if the child feels excluded from the system at any level, that battle to get them through becomes an uphill struggle, which sometimes leaves them and you rolling back down into the abyss.
You see, going back to my point about their individuality and identity pervading the learning space, I don’t buy the ‘uniform creates an egalitarian belonging for all’ argument. It didn’t work for me. I wore a uniform for 11 years of my schooling and never felt I belonged. My children are at a state primary without uniform and skip into that place daily, clearly happy, even proud to be a member of their school community. Some days they are dressed in football kits, others my youngest is in his tiger trousers and my eldest is in a t-shirt he designed himself. Depends on their mood. And what a dynamic space an assembly is, with all those colours and patterns to stimulate your creativity! But also, my children’s teachers can again read their students’ personalities…their identities. Isn’t it important to be able to assert your individuality in order to find your place within a community? And be able to accept others’ within it too?
Schools present a mould into which all children are expected to fit. So many don’t. I spent much of my teaching time in the behaviour unit at my school with those students who had been removed from the classroom for persistent poor behaviour. It was there that you were able to engage with them, to talk about their realities, to get to know them. Mostly, they were bright, they were keen to belong to something but they did not fit the mould of these faceless school communities. They weren’t compliant, their lives were complicated, their support structures erratic. They wanted to be seen and heard and unfortunately this usually only happened for them when they caused trouble. Their time with me in the behaviour unit became quite precious. I gave them creative tasks, such as making a storyboard for a film about their lives, and while they did this, they talked and I listened and I responded. They asked me questions about my choices, my life and I answered. A dialogue formed which was healthy and honest. Their behaviour settled in my space. The thing is everyone likes to be recognised for who they are. If they aren’t getting it at home, due to difficult spaces and relationships, working patterns, and the stress of poverty, they seek it elsewhere. A school should provide this. Zero tolerance is at best a ridiculous policy; at worst it is harmful. As parents, we really shouldn’t accept it. Surely we want our children to be seen as individuals who do deserve some personalisation and differentiation.
Whenever I read posts on TES about compassionate behaviour management, there’s always a comment about ‘I’m a teacher, not a psychologist!’ Depressing that any teacher can see their profession like that. I taught a boy whose mother suffered a severe mental illness. She was no longer allowed near her children. It was not surprising that this boy struggled to form relationships with teachers, particularly female teachers. If one thing went against him, that was it, you lost him. Punishment meant little. He didn’t care about being put in isolation – that has been going on for years by the way. He was too damaged to be hurt by such things. There had to be another way. It had to be something compassionate; it had to be considered. A young man soon to be an adult, he needed to feel someone would give him the time. He was one of the biggest battles I ever faced: told me he hated me numerous times; sent lessons into chaos, but the joy was that he returned to the school with his younger sister for her options night four years after he’d left, and sought me out to tell me his future career plans. We’d got him through and he rated that. He’d become a man, apparently happy and positive.
I am so scared for my children’s next step into schools that present this ‘one size fits all’ model. On my tour of my nearest school, I was informed that my child will wear a cross on their blazer, they will start preparing for their GCSEs from day one in a culture of ‘an uncomfortable sense of increased competition’, they will sit in rows and be silent everywhere! Apparently, they can tell my sons not to have tram-lines in their hair, or a quiff as is fashionable now. The office manager very comfortably informed me of this. So despite the fact that we are not religious; that we talk about learning as a lifelong journey to enjoy; that we encourage their discussion and argument, that we desire their individuality to be at the heart of their development, we will lose all say in that! I love the fact that my children rifle through their wardrobes in the morning, deciding what to wear, and when we go to the barber, they tell him what they want; last time the youngest chose tram-lines and the eldest a lightning bolt. But soon, the school will dictate that as anti-learning and that they must sport the same haircuts as all the other boys in the building. And they will sport their conformist haircut at the weekend too because their school has to ‘assert their brand in the market-place’. His words, absolutely not mine!
I know I am in the minority with my anti-uniform spiel but for me teenagers are not people in need of control. They are exciting, complex people in need of direction, support and guidance. Every child enters the school space with their narrative, with their baggage, with their identity. It is not the place of the system to flatten that, to undermine or negate that, but to engage with it and allow their new school identity to fuse with all the other extrinsic influences as they continue that journey of self-discovery. If a school seeks to flatten, undermine and negate an individual’s identity, it is obviously part of an agenda of control to maintain a social construction that suits those at the helm. Mr Hinds popped his head out of his office to state there will be a cash injection to look at improving behaviour, and there’s been a call out to ex-army service people to join the education service. If they want to teach, great, but lets tell Mr Hinds we know where disruptive behaviour comes from. Lets tell him to fund support for those with special educational needs and for anyone vulnerable within the system. Lets tell him to look at the impact of the government’s austerity measures on children’s levels of home-life security. Lets tell him to consider why knife crime has gone up at a time when other resources have been stripped. Lets tell him not to just send ex-army officers in to shout. Lets tell him to train all teachers, whether they’re ex-army or not, to consider their sociological role and consider the psychological impact of life experiences on the young people in their classrooms. Let’s tell him we are not sending our children to private schools, as he would like, but we are staying right here to ensure the government does not strip the state sector back to its bare bones and undermine the chances of all children to succeed in their own right. We see the agenda and we will fight it.
We need as many MPs and Peers as possible to attend a briefing we have organised.
On 10 October Save Our Schools, Fair Funding for All Schools and Rescue Our Schools parent groups are taking their children to Parliament to tell their stories about how underfunding is damaging their schools, their education and their communities.
Please encourage your local MP to come to this event and listen to children from around England telling their stories. How? Forward this video to your local MP on Facebook, then share this animation widely asking all your friends to do the same. You can find out your MP’s Facebook address by going to https://www.theyworkforyou.com and scrolling down to the Social Media part of their profile.
Thank you for helping to ensure that when children speak, MPs listen!
In their Manifesto for the 2017 General Election, the Labour Party committed to developing a National Education Service. Now the Labour Party has published a short consultation on the NES, and wants to hear from anyone interested in education (NOT just from party members!)
How is RoS planning to respond?
We are responding in two ways. Firstly, RoS is part of an alliance of education campaign groups known as Reclaiming Education, which has developed a group response which you can see here http://www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk Secondly, we are also submitting our own response.
Last year, we at RoS published our own Manifesto – our priorities for the changes needed on a range of issues if our education system is to be fit for purpose in the 21st Century (that means meeting our children’s needs and the requirements of employers and society). We will be submitting our Manifesto in response to the Labour Party consultation, and explaining how the Labour Party proposals so far address – or not – our concerns. Our initial thoughts on this are set out below, but we would like to include more comments, views and examples from you, our supporters.
The consultation sets out ten principles and some specific questions. Here they are, together with our initial thoughts. Do you agree? Please let us know what you think.
The 10 Principles set out in the Labour Party Consultation
1. Education has intrinsic value in giving all people access to the common body of knowledge we share, and practical value in allowing all to participate fully in our society. These principles shall guide the National Education Service.
Yes, education has intrinsic value. But it’s vital that education covers not just knowledge but also the skills and cultural capital to use it effectively. We now live in an era where much knowledge is easily and instantly obtainable – but developing the ability to analyse, interpret and refine that knowledge, and acquiring creative and interpersonal skills, is what will make a difference to our work and home lives.
2. The National Education Service shall provide education that is free at the point of use, available universally and throughout life.
Education is a right, it should be available universally. We agree with the intention to increase access to childcare provision and the plans to change the funding model (current policy is penalising providers, misleading parents and making it hard for some to access childcare). As part of the Fair Funding for All Schools campaign we have always been clear that schools are struggling in the face of increased costs and reduced budgets. Further Education has seen its funding cut even further – yet is now supposed to be delivering more than ever. It is absolutely imperative that Labour commits to increasing funding for schools and colleges.
3. The National Education Service provides education for the public good and all providers within the National Education Service shall be bound by the principles of this charter.
We agree. RoS was founded in direct response to the 2016 proposals on forced academisation of all schools. Even though the headlines of that policy have softened, schools across the country have been forced into Multi Academy Chains with no clear accountability to parents or local authorities. In many cases these MATs have proved unable to meet the challenges facing local schools, but left parents (and councils) with no means of redress. Schools need to be rooted in communities, not hidden behind corporate branding.
4. High quality education is essential to a strong and inclusive society and economy, so the National Education Service shall work alongside the health, sustainability, and industrial policies set by democratically elected government.
Yes. Silo working in government departments risks losing people between the cracks, duplicates effort and wastes resource. But it’s easy to talk up joined-up working – actually doing it in practice means agreeing on the principles and compromising on control of the detail. We look forward to seeing what this means in practice – Young people’s mental health would be a great place to start.
5. Every child, and adult, matters, so the National Education Service will be committed to tackling all barriers to learning, and providing high-quality education for all.
Yes every child does matter. But at the moment, children with SEN are being left behind, and more children face exclusion. And schools are expected to pick up the pieces for failures in social policy (by providing breakfast for children whose parents cannot afford it, for instance).
Current and previous governments (including Labour) have been caught up in the mantra of ‘parent choice’. In our experience, what parents want is a good local school for their children. Adding choice just for the sake of it creates a distraction and diverts resources, without benefitting all children overall.
6. All areas of skill and learning deserve respect; the National Education Service will provide all forms of education, integrating academic, technical and other forms of learning within and outside of educational institutions, and treating all with equal respect.
This principle should explicitly include creative, personal and cultural learning. It should also include a commitment to independent expert review of the need for qualifications at 16 as well as 18 – and to implementing the results of that review.
7. Educational excellence is best achieved through collaboration and the National Education Service will be structured to encourage and enhance cooperation across boundaries and sectors.
We agree. Collaboration achieves so much more than competition. London Challenge proved this some years ago.
8. The National Education Service shall be accountable to the public, communities, and parents and children that it serves. Schools, colleges, and other public institutions within the National Education Service should be rooted in their communities, with parents and communities empowered, via appropriate democratic means, to influence change where it is needed and ensure that the education system meets their needs. The appropriate democratic authority will set, monitor and allocate resources, ensuring that they meet the rights, roles, and responsibilities of individuals and institutions.
Yes. We need a return to local accountability for all schools. Local authorities need to be able to plan effectively for school places and to be held accountable for supporting schools and promoting collaboration.
To use limited resources effectively, Labour will need to commit to making decisions which may be unpopular with some – but will ultimately benefit all. Grammar schools have remained in place for political reasons, not educational ones. It is time to end selection. Labour must also review the need for additional schools which are surplus to requirements and only provided to increase parental choice (such as free schools in rural areas), and enable Local Authorities to take action when required.
9. The National Education Service aspires to the highest standards of excellence and professionalism. Educators and all other staff will be valued as highly-skilled professionals, and appropriate accountability will be balanced against giving genuine freedom of judgement and innovation. The National Education Service shall draw on evidence and international best practice, and provide appropriate professional development and training.
10. The National Education Service must have the utmost regard to the well-being of learners and educators, and its policies and practices, particularly regarding workload, assessment, and inspection, will support the emotional, social and physical well-being of students and staff.
We agree, but these are easy words to say – the policy detail is what will ultimately make a difference. Those policies must include 1) reducing political interference in matters that should be left to experts (such as appropriate assessment and curriculum detail), 2) including emotional, social and physical wellbeing of students and staff in the school inspection framework, and 3) breaking the link between assessment and school accountability. There are other ways of measuring teacher and school performance that do not result in teaching to the test and reducing access to cultural, creative and technical education.
The 10 Questions in the Labour Party Consultation
1. What should a National Education Service be for and what values should it and the draft charter embody?
The purpose of the National Education Service should be to enable all children, young people and adults to develop the abilities, knowledge and skills needed to become engaged, confident and healthy citizens, able to contribute creatively and purposefully in and outside work to the goal of a more cohesive society. In order to achieve this, it must ensure access to life-long learning for all, in order that people can thrive in an increasingly automated world.
2. What amendments, if any, should be made to the principles outlined in the draft charter for the National Education Service?
Please see our responses to the individual principles.
3. What additional principles should be considered for the charter of the NES?
The following need to be added to the principles of the NES:
• The purpose of the NES
• Commitment to reducing micro-management by politicians in education matters (what happens in the classroom is for experts, not politicians).
• Comprehensive education for all – an end to selection at age 11.
4. What barriers currently exist to cooperation between education institutions, and what steps can be taken to remove them and ensure that cooperation is a central principle of our education system?
This is a complex question that needs more comprehensive consultation given the current state of the schools system, with MATs vying for business in some places and actively trying to discharge responsibility for schools in difficult situations. Fundamentally, the Labour Party needs to commit to ending the market in schools.
5. Through which channels and mechanisms should the public be able to hold educational institutions to account, and how should this vary across different educational bodies?
We want to see a return to local accountability, with a clear role for local authorities and elected councilors, and with parents and communities empowered to influence change when it is needed. Current arrangements – including RSCs, DfE, local authorities and Ofsted, are multi-layered and confusing, and yet there is no effective oversight of MATs. Labour should consult widely before setting out new policy on this area in order to ensure that the new system is fit for purpose.
6. What can we do to reduce the fragmentation of the education system, and to move towards an approach that is integrated and promotes lifelong learning?
This is another complex question that will require more careful consideration and options appraisal, given the current state of the schools system. Withdraw the market in schools so that neighbouring schools are not actively competing for pupils, and can instead concentrate on collaboration. Link establishments more clearly at local level, alongside implementing the changes needed to local accountability. Remove charitable status from private schools.
7. How do we improve the quality of early years education, in particular with relation to qualifications and staffing levels?
Labour should look to the evidence from Germany and other European countries on early years and raising the age of school entry. Early years education does not have to take place in schools in order to be effective.
8. How do we achieve genuine parity of esteem between academic and vocational/technical education? How do we improve outcomes for those young people who do not choose to follow what is seen as the traditional academic route?
Government at all levels needs to be seen to be valuing vocational and technical education as highly as academic education, rather than always focusing on university entrance. This is a debate about the kind of society we want to live in, rather than simply a matter of talking about specific kinds of education.
9. What can be done to ensure that the NES has the staff it needs, in particular with reference to the ongoing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention?
Ask the teaching unions, the teachers, the education colleges, and put their recommendations into action! More broadly, remove the link between assessment and school accountability, which is distorting the curriculum, creating unnecessary work for teachers and school leaders and affecting morale. Increase funding so that childcare providers, schools and colleges have the resources they require rather than being expected to struggle on without the support staff, planning time and materials needed.
10. What steps can be taken, at both the training stage and during continuing professional development (CPD), to ensure that teachers and support staff have the knowledge and resources they need to teach the whole curriculum? For instance, with reference to mandatory, age-appropriate relationships and sex education (RSE) and personal, social and health education (PSHE).
Effective, evidence-based delivery of mandatory RSE /PSHE across the primary and secondary curriculum should be included in the school inspection framework. At local level, the new accountability framework for schools should facilitate links with public health and mental health (both providers and commissioners). More broadly, the NES needs to champion the intrinsic value of RSE/PSHE rather than treating both as an add-on. Similarly, the NES should clearly articulate and promote CPD as the means by which teaching staff can both access and contribute to the evidence base, and increase access to options such as sabbaticals.
What do you think?
Do you agree with our responses to the Labour Party NES principles and questions? If so, is there anything you would like to add? If no, can you tell us why not? Please let us know as soon as possible. Deadline is this Sunday.
You may prefer to submit comments and questions directly. If so, go to https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/education to view the comments and discussions so far, and to find out how to submit comments and feedback. The deadline is Sunday 24th June.
We are working with our partner More Than a Score to support you along the way with resources, ideas and opportunities to meet others in the same boat.
Let us know what you think by filling in this short form.
Watch this brilliant film from one of our partners, More than a Score, about how headteacher, governors and parents of Little London School in Leeds decided not to put their year 6 children through SATS.
Listen to this short clip of Ken Robinson talking about testing in school today. He as a book out called You, Your Child, and School – well worth a look.
Rescue Our Schools’ co-founder Madeleine Holt was invited to attend the conference of a pioneering group – Schools of Tomorrow. The collection of schools in the West Midlands, Peterborough, Bedford and Bristol are working at coming up with an alternative assessment framework. Their key aims are to attain the highest levels of achievement and well-being alongside preparing children for the future and engaging with families and the community.
Schools of Tomorrow believe in involving children and young people in decision-making within their schools. They value peer review, student-led research and allowing students, staff and parents to review their schools’ development.
Key note speakers at the conference at Birmingham University were Steve Munby, formerly Chief Executive of the National College for School Leadership, and Leora Cruddas, CEO of Freedom and Autonomy for Schools.
Munby talked about how no other country in the world has such a high stakes accountability system as England, putting headteachers under unique pressure to deliver results or face the sack. Cruddas pondered why England had no ethical framework for heads and teachers – in contrast to the rigorous requirements of doctors and lawyers.
Schools of Tomorrow is part of the nascent Big Education Conversation, which has sprung up since the publication of Education Forward. Madeleine Holt contributed a chapter in Education Forward on the need to find alternatives to standardised tests in primary education, currently damaging children’s education and well-being.
Rescue Our Schools was proud to speak at the launch of More than a Score’s Baseline dossier – an indictment of the government’s plans to test all four-year-olds in maths and literacy. Tracy Brabin, shadow early years minister, hosted the event at Westminster.
Joining Tracy on the panel were Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, Nancy Stewart, Vice Chair of TACTYC early years organisation, Elaine Bennett, Co-Founder of Keep Early Years Unique, and our own Madeleine Holt, co-founder of Rescue Our Schools.
Madeleine introduced her ten minute film on baseline testing – a failed policy from both 1997 and 2015. If the government gets its way, four-year-olds will face a 20 minute test within their first six weeks of school. The unreliable results will be used to predict how children will do in SATS in Year 6. England will become the first country in the world to put such young children through a high stakes test. Trials could start later this year.
Please support More than a Score’s campaign to stop baseline testing.
Rescue our Schools was at the Headteachers’ Roundtable conference yesterday, to learn from headteacher Caroline Barlow about how the Worthless campaign got school funding up there as a political issue.
Just in case you missed it, here is a clip of Madeleine Holt speaking to Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd last monday.