Rescue Our Schools

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Parents, our children are in the hands of careless money-makers and political agendas. Isn’t it time we demand change?

This week you’ll find my blog takes quite a personally political journey. My politics are very left leaning but I am also very angry with this current government as I witness the impact of their policies furthering the hardship suffered by those already battling on the invisible periphery of our society. These are my opinions based on my observations and I invite all to comment, to engage, to discuss where we find ourselves today, how we feel about it and most importantly, what we want done about it.

I have a new job in adult education. On my way to work I pass the Grenfell Tower. Today a tall white tarpaulin structure supports the weakened skeleton beneath and hides the devastation of that night. The green heart, chosen by school children local to the area, symbolising their love for those they lost, adorns the top section of this otherwise clinical memorial. It is hard not to be moved every time I trundle past on the daily commute. It’s hard not to be ashamed that this actually happened in London, in 2017, in a borough which hosts some of the world’s wealthiest people. But what is particularly unforgivable is how the residents had complained over and over again, fearing it would only be when a tragedy occurred that the powers-that-be would listen to their voices. Unforgivable but unsurprising.

Why am I writing about this, you may wonder? Because it is a physical representation of how broken the ‘system’ has become as the neoliberal project powers full steam ahead here in the UK. Money rules. If you can save a pound here or there, apparently it is okay to view human life as collateral. We have a government that endeavours to turn all aspects of social care and provision over to private providers. Whether it be the cladding of social housing or access to good education, ‘bidding’ and ‘tendering’ have become the language of our human rights. How about ‘Everybody’s right to life shall be protected by law’ (European Convention on Human Rights, Article 2)? Anyone? Who’ll start the bidding? Or how about: ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29)?  Of course, the neoliberal line is all about freedom, but freedom for whom in this trickle-down economy? Certainly not those living in Grenfell Tower. Their freedom of voice was ignored at every turn in their battle for the legal right to life. Must they really wait for that trickle to enter their neighbourhood before they earn that freedom? Meanwhile, no money, no power.

The Grenfell fire came out of the same neoliberal agenda as our current education system. The shutting down of parents’ voices in education by the loud and affluent men at the heart of our children’s education, Lord Nash, Lord Agnew, Lord Fink (anyone spot a pattern?) and their millionaire buddies, is leading to the catastrophic failing of schools to provide the right to education for every single child. Not every child is guaranteed safety in their home, nor a chance to thrive under this government. But do our leaders care?

Not really. People really are an encumbrance to our government. Remember Theresa May’s apology for her poor response to the Grenfell community on the anniversary of the disaster? Stating she regretted not meeting them, she has gone on to not meet them. Her apology took place in the safety of an interview with Sky News. The carelessness and cynicism with which our government treats those it is supposed to serve is unconscionable. That apology is meaningless. It’s offensive. But maybe it’s meant to be. These people demanding action and support from the State really are trying their luck when they know they must wait their turn…you know, for that trickle to reach them.

If we needed more evidence of the cynical treatment of our children under this government, we can look to Damian Hinds every time. He views everyone he has responsibility for, students, parents and teachers, as liabilities. I’d like to draw your attention to a quotation from last week’s TES regarding the recent reports on the impact of the new GCSE assessment on students’ well-being. Findings from research carried out by NEU, ASCL and Rescue Our Schools have suggested categorically that this is an urgent matter of concern to be dealt with at the highest level. Mr Hinds responded:

“Having, for most subjects, the exams at the end of the period also enables you to think, to consider all the different aspects of the subject together and, in turn, then helps you if you are going on to A levels for those that are, to go on for that, and then for those going on to university, but of course GCSEs are there to help you prepare for whatever your next step is.”

It’s rather like when you pick dropped food up from the floor and you okay its consumption with ‘a bit of dirt never hurt.’ There is no substance to this answer. Some bits of dirt actually probably do hurt, as does the introduction of retrograde policies. The uproar and controversy this return to 100% examination has caused is widespread. The stress amongst students is leading to increased levels of anxiety and both parents and teachers are shouting out their concerns. But Mr Hinds brushes this off with the glibbest statement ever: bit of thinking, great for A levels and university, oh yeah and for those others.

Those others. Again, we see those who don’t fit the government’s agenda being brushed under the carpet. They’re not important. They don’t need thinking about. I am not happy as a member of the London community to see any child in my city be swept under the carpet. I will get my children through, one way or another, but I cannot stand the thought that it’s not the responsibility of the State to ensure every child actually lives to adulthood and is allowed to prosper. I have seen children arrive in year 7 full of aspiration and dreams and watched them realise by year 10 that they aren’t the ones that matter, and they start to slip from your hands.

I remember, with great frustration and sadness, one of my year 11 boys becoming homeless in the run up to his exams. He was so clever, undoubtedly a Russell Group university candidate, but his controlled assessment folder was incomplete, his attendance was poor and his behaviour volatile. Prison was also another possible destination. Living in a hostel with his two sisters and hardworking mum, his school work was not his priority. He became passive and withdrawn, both physically and psychologically. If challenged, he exploded. As his English teacher and one of his heads of year, I made it my aim to make him feel safe in my space. He finished his controlled assessments – and believe me, his creative writing was stunning in its craft but also its visceral emotion. I did cry. Unfortunately, he was placed on a fixed-term exclusion for swearing at another teacher. At his ‘return from exclusion’ interview, he apparently sat silently until he was asked to offer his opinion regarding his attitude going forwards. He simply responded with a number of the most hardcore expletives. He was permanently excluded so spent the exam period locked in a room in a hostel, revising. This broke my heart. For me, that was a shout out from a young person, to see if anyone was going to care, if anyone was going to grab his hand and get him through. The system instead just confirmed for him that he actually doesn’t belong within it. Where he is today, I don’t know, but I’m going to guess he’s not about to enter the doors of the university he is so academically suited to.

Let’s be very clear, this government seeks to wash its hands of education. It seeks to strengthen the market to create competition between ‘providers’ (in the old days these were known as ‘schools’) and ultimately privatise education. The responsibility for failure is no longer theirs. Any offer it therefore makes is not to nurture the system but make it vulnerable to those with pound signs in their eyes. Panorama’s report this week on the Bright Tribe Academy Trust could not have exposed more clearly how schooling has become vulnerable to profiteering at the risk of our children’s learning, but also their lives. Fire doors not fitted, ceilings not secured nor fire safe, despite grants worth thousands of pounds handed over unquestioningly by the Department for Education. Where is our money? Whose bank accounts is it now in? Why are our children allowed to enter these lethal buildings? If the CEO of a trust needs a lawyer present to talk about their provision, it’s time, surely, to put a stop to this policy and bring education, our human right, back into the hands of the democratically elected local government; accountable to the government, accountable to us.

Now, you may be lucky. Your child may be in a school with an ethos of care where children are placed at the heart of all they do. And this is of course happening across the nation. Despite the funding cuts, limited curriculum and increased stress, they are doing their utmost to protect your child’s education. But we know others are not having that experience. They are lost in a world of money-makers and agendas. Their education is suffering and their safety is not guaranteed. Parents are cut out and disempowered. If we believe in a good education for our child, we simply must ensure the same for other people’s children too.

Let’s start fighting for the prevention of horrific outcomes. Grenfell shocked our nation and the response was overwhelming with donations and sympathy. But we need to act sooner. We need to demand people are not unwittingly placed in danger; that everyone is heard. If you live in social housing, if you attend a state school, you should be safe in the knowledge that government, both local and national, has got your needs and your rights covered. At the moment, this is not the case. Local government is being steadily brought to its knees; the Prime Minister doesn’t want to see you and Damian Hinds will brush you off like dandruff from his shoulder. It is time to make it clear that we are not liabilities in the path of their agenda; their agenda is the liability in the path of our children’s progress. We want it cleared.


Did you go to great lengths to get your child into a school?

A national newspaper is looking for parents who would be willing to talk to them anonymously about the lengths they have had to go to in order to secure the school place they wanted: e.g. move to another area, go to Church, appeal, etc.

If you are willing to talk to their very trustworthy education correspondent, please email us at asap today Wednesday 12th September.

Thank you.

Sometimes, education ministers say things that make you wonder more about their own experience of education than their understanding of the issues they are responsible for. Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State for Education, has attempted to defend the new GCSE exams by suggesting that managing exam stress is useful learning for later life.  Let’s be charitable: it’s possible – IF your later life is going to include exams – and IF you are the kind of person who is likely to do well enough in exams that you won’t be cowed by the experience. And IF you are the kind of person who has  parents who can support you, teachers who have had enough time and resource to implement the new syllabus, and who aren’t being paid by the results their pupils achieve. And so on.

Over the summer, we heard lots of concerns about the impact of the new GCSEs on pupil wellbeing, and carried out two snapshot surveys about the impact of the new GCSEs (one for parents, one for teachers). Our results corroborated those found by ASCL, the union for school leaders, which carried out it’s own research. We found that the majority (over 75%) of parents and teachers found the new system to be less fair, less accessible to all but the brightest pupils, and caused higher levels of stress than the previous system. Not just ‘normal exam anxiety’ – significant levels of distress leading to many young people needing referral to the (already overstretched) mental health services, and other young people just giving up on the exams altogether.
One of the most telling things Hinds said was that the new exams would prepare pupils for A levels and then university. But at least half of pupils won’t go to university. A very significant proportion of them won’t do A levels as their skills and interests lie in other directions – as several of the parents responding to our survey pointed out.
Of course GCSEs are going to be stressful – they  influence the choices available to them for their next steps. But the idea that pupils will be ‘toughened up’ simply because GCSEs have been made harder and taken us back to the Victorian school room is just nonsense. It rather suggests that our education secretary thinks of year 11 as a kind of educational boot camp, in which he wields the stick. A camp from which some may triumph, but many will emerge muddy, tearful, and injured. All of which sounds a rather ineffective means of nurturing the next generation of citizens – let alone pleasing their voting parents.
To say that Damian Hinds’s response to the widespread concern about pupil wellbeing this summer is inadequate is a gross understatement. He appears not to have read the research available to him, but also to have no interest in doing so. Which is why we, alongside educational and mental health experts,  have called for an urgent inquiry into the impact of the new GCSEs on mental wellbeing.  Once that’s underway, he should then read all the research and recommendations that are gathering dust in the DfE offices questionning the very purpose of GCSEs in the current education system.
We know that many of you agree with us, so we need you to sign our petition. It is going straight to Damian Hinds and we think he should listen. Please sign and share it with your friends and familiy

State or Independent Education? If you can make this choice, the state sector needs you!

I didn’t go back to school this week. After twelve years of returning from the six-week summer break to inset days and Learning-to-Learn days, this lack of attendance marks the start of a new era for me. I am no longer a school teacher. And I grieve for my career.

I had a conversation yesterday with a woman in the park whose son was experiencing his first day of secondary school. We were quite well into our conversation about schools in the area before she ‘admitted’ apologetically that her son was now at a local independent school, and that she had also moved her daughter from my sons’ primary school to a local independent girls’ school. Her argument is one I’m hearing more and more where I live. They don’t want their children’s opportunities to be limited by their education. Wow, that’s a difficult to sentence to write as a member of the teaching community. It’s one reason I grieve. Because she’s not wrong, is she?

The cutting of the arts from the curriculum was her first concern. Now, we have to really question the motive behind this. We all know how the working world is changing and how the skills developed when studying the Arts will prepare our students perfectly for this future. We also know how expressive the Arts are. You need to free your ideas and question, be prepared to challenge and even transgress to succeed in this field. But our current government does not want this. Schools today are places where compliance and performance are encouraged. There is an agenda here to shut voices up, not free them. My own GCSE Art teacher told me my homework was better than my classwork. Her theory? Uniform restricted my creativity. This statement has stuck with me since. My identity was squashed by the enforced dominance of the school’s. As a university drama student, I had to wear all black for our practical sessions. Now, this might sound pretentious, but the idea was to strip you of your identity so you could become a canvas, so to speak, to leave you open and uninhibited to allow exploration and expression.

I was, however, told by my favourite local Executive Head that creativity needs to be controlled: ‘Get the shoes shiny and the tie straight, get control and then you can enable creativity.’ Now, I entered the teaching profession because I wanted to inspire learning and help children blossom into happy, productive adults. I never said, “I really want to control children.’ When the word ‘control’ is used so freely by senior members of our teaching community, we must look at the agenda leading reform. Education is being used as a tool to divide and rule. Most likely my opportunity to wear all black and become a vehicle for artistic expression, even transgression (I did get to perform the role of Simone in the Marat Sade) was a privilege I earned by getting a place in an elite university.

But those able and inclined to make the choice to take their children into the independent sector are rewarded with earlier access to a breadth of curriculum and opportunity. As for everyone else? We are told untruths. I know of a school in a challenging inner-city context that has shut down all its arts and vocational courses, making numerous teachers redundant, but it’s okay because they have introduced Latin. What’s the story here? On board with the Conservative agenda, they will bombard these children in this difficult context with the academic rigour of the EBacc, and this will enable them to compete with those at the independent schools surrounding them. This is dangerously misleading. I once attended a university open day with year 12 students from my school based in an equally deprived area. We piled off our coach straight into another recently arrived cohort. Just by looking at the two groups, it was obvious that my students were already a step behind in that competition. Apart from the fact those we’d met were literally double their height, the way the two groups dressed told a visual story of a social gulf. My girls were in little dresses and shiny shoes, our competitors in fashionably ripped denim and hair flicked dramatically from one side of the head to the other. We could get the academic results out of our students but their social naivety, their lack of access to a world inhabited by this other group would always keep their ceiling lower, the rungs of the ladder harder to reach. And stripping the Arts from those lower down the ladder will ensure their ideas remain latent, silence their voice in debate, and, let’s face it, halt the possible revolution which surely would follow if those currently held down by the system were exposed to the real agenda. As my conversation buddy said, you only get one shot at this. For some that shot will always fall short of the target. But maybe I’m just cynical, sitting here in the ashes of my career; no, I’m sure a weekly Latin lesson will level those ceilings perfectly.

The conversation moved on to another concern: Who will actually be teaching her children? She has seen there is a recruitment and retention crisis. The NEU reported that in 2016, one in every ten teachers left the profession. And of those who qualified in 2010, nearly a third had left five years later. And connected to this level of exodus, it was reported last week that children across the country are not being taught by subject specialists. I was told by the Head of my nearest secondary school that yes, they do teach formulaic lessons (all teaching the same lesson content at the same time, planned by a teacher who has some knowledge) because, and this is a direct quote: ‘Well, you can’t get the quality of teachers these days. You can’t trust them to do it themselves.’ Wow! That’s a bold statement to a parent touring your school.

The irony here is that I left teaching partly due to this peculiar ‘Schooling in a Box’ approach infiltrating our education system. I don’t believe I am the only member of my generation of teachers struggling with this lack of pedagogical freedom. I was told in my last school to start every lesson with a ‘Do it now!’ task. A teacher friend of mine told me learning walks in her school are used to check if you are on the right section of the lesson at the right time. Another told me at her school they had to ensure the ‘Eight Must Haves’ were in every lesson. They were so focused on meeting this they weren’t really focusing on the needs of the individuals in their classrooms, and were criticised for this in observations. Left drained and teary, they could only question what more they had to do? And put yourself in the shoes of a student: every lesson so predictable in structure, every lesson requiring the same performance. Inspirational stuff!

This flummoxed me in what turned out to be the final observation of my career. In previous years, I had used observations to test and develop myself. For example, I taught agenda in war poetry with half the class sitting in trenches constructed using our desks and chairs, whilst the other half of the class were army generals sitting around large board-room tables. They wrote stanzas for a poem about the soldier’s life in these contexts. And they got the importance of writer’s agenda. However, in my final observation I felt the pressure to tick the list of school requirements, and I failed to take ownership of the content. My husband’s feedback on my lesson plan summed it up: ‘It’s not your usual stuff.’ He was absolutely right. It was dictated and therefore impossible to deliver. I left teaching feeling a failure and a fraud.

But I am no fool. I understand the agenda here. I’m an experienced and effective teacher borne from an era when teacher training focused hugely on pedagogical research and experimentation. No question, many unnecessary gimmicks came out of this period, but what it instilled in this generation was the energy of inquiry and commitment to the art of teaching. I treasure memories from my PGCE days of university-based sessions designed to support my classroom practice: fantastic sessions on educational theory; interactive workshops on behaviour management with some of the most experienced practitioners in the field; work on how to use your voice effectively; being surrounded by academics who made you question and reflect all the time.

Today, in England, we have teachers with the least amount of training in a culture of ‘chuck ‘em in and see if they sink or swim’ schemes. They have come into teaching at a time when you are not being trained to question or reflect, as you only have time to get on and teach what you’ve been told to teach. If we want to compare this practice with the global high performers, we see that Singapore advocates a theory-practice teacher training; a four-year undergraduate degree or between 16 months to two years for a postgraduate course. Finland is five years university-based training resulting in a Masters level qualification. Their investment in teachers demands a commitment to the long-term as well as a high level of academic achievement. In return, teachers leave their training with the tools to step into the classroom and take ownership. Plus, they are trusted to do so.

So, I have sympathy with my friend in the park. Students are experiencing a high turnover of teachers, and may have a year or so with a number of supply teachers endeavouring to get them through. Sometimes they will have a PE teacher teaching them Geography because they did it at A’ level. With budgets tight, the experienced teachers are expensive, so take a glimpse at the TES job pages and see how many ask for NQTs, especially those beast-sized MATs. I have sympathy too for her argument about the creative subjects. I witnessed the shrinking of the Art department at my school as the Science department crept quietly down the corridor, transforming art studios into laboratories every few months. The Arts will become the preserve of those who can afford them, those who are allowed to have their say in this divided nation.

Despite my sympathy, I would ask my friend in the park, and others who are debating their options to consider how their choice to step into the independent sector may ensure their children’s future, but it only serves to further reduce the opportunities for those without such a choice. I would urge those parents to stay with us and fight for the best teachers with the most impressive training, and demand teaching is valued as much as in other countries. I would urge them to demand access to the Arts for all; to ensure spaces are open to all to express their emotions, talents, and ideas. Don’t let others get left behind.

Don’t let other children’s opportunities be shut down by their education.


A good art provision in primary schools supports well-being.

My name is Emily Gopaul and I am an artist, art teacher, author and art education advocate with Rescue Our Schools. I recommend approaches that primary schools can adopt to ensure children have access to a high-quality art curriculum.

The arts are steadily being downgraded across our education system, but primary art education should be non-negotiable and should not be side-lined for other subjects, or SATS preparations. There are many reasons why I advocate art in the primary sector but on a fundamental level, creativity is our human right and it makes us feel good.

Recently, I read an article by Andy Cope about children’s mental health. The article highlights that statistics show that one in 10 children – an average of three in every classroom – has a diagnosable mental health problem. I agree with Cope that we should be looking at how we can prevent young people from experiencing mental health difficulties in the first place.

Stresses in life, whether as an adult or child, are inevitable, but creativity – be it the visual arts or otherwise – can serve as an outlet for stress and anxiety; this does not have to be in an art therapy context. Creative endeavours can be a way to express emotions that are difficult to process or vent in other ways. Sometimes art communicates the artist’s experiences so well that we, the viewers, are informed or moved by the work. I am reminded of the many famous artists who did this so well: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Billie Holiday and Edvard Munch with The Scream, to name but a few of my personal favourites.

Other times though, outcome is not important. It is the creative act, the process in itself that provides us some respite from life. When we are absorbed in making, nothing else matters, the rise of the adult colouring book is an example of how many of us have realised this. Some of us are fortunate enough to have found or rediscovered some such creative activity, one where time passes without us realising and we enter a focused, almost meditative state.

In my experience, when children have the time and the space to be creative, without the pressures of achieving a particular outcome or grade, they experience a sense of calm and freedom that can feed into their lives and even enhance their academic achievements. In my thirteen years of teaching art, I have spoken with many primary and secondary school children about why they enjoy art, and there appears to be a consensus. Children report that art makes them feel free, that art is good because there are no rules, that they feel peaceful when they create art and that they feel happy and calm in the art studio. More times than I can count, teachers have happened upon a class of mine working in absolute silence and commented upon it. What is always remarkable is that I hardly ever demand this silence. It happens naturally when the children are absorbed in their art work, and when that happens the creative, calm atmosphere is tangible; I call it being ‘in the zone’.

Many times, I have known children who are disengaged with school or experiencing difficulties at home or otherwise to seek out the art studio as a refuge and quietly sit and create during breaktimes or after school. I was one of those children, and had it not have been for a love of art that was inspired in me by my primary teacher, I would not have known that I could utilise art and the art department as a safe space, when life as a teenager became overwhelming.

As an art teacher, I am passionate about the skills and visual language that primary art can impart, the visual literacy that it can support, the beautiful artworks the children may produce, the history and geography that can be learned through art and the cultural enrichment to be gained through a good primary art curriculum. Almost more than all of this though, I am sure that space and time to be creative is vital to us as well-rounded human beings.

A good art provision contributes to a positive primary school atmosphere, which reflects the extent to which the school takes care of the needs of the children. Furthermore, if we are introduced to the magic of creativity at a young age, it can serve as a resource for us throughout life, and support our emotional and mental well-being as adults too.

Natasha Devon, a mental health campaigner, was on channel 4 last night talking about exam stress and academic anxiety being on the increase. She mentioned our petition ! Please watch her interview here and sign and share our petition.

Parental choice: the schools all look the same so do we simply get to choose our favourite colour blazer?

I am going to hazard a guess: I think a lot of parents heard the Conservative manifesto about the Big Society and the free school movement in 2010 and, quite understandably,  thought to themselves: ‘What a great idea! We get to have more say over our children’s schooling! We get to tailor it more to their needs!’ What an exciting opportunity! Free from the curriculum! And, apparently, it’s worked a treat in other countries so how can it possibly go wrong here?’

You see, Michael Gove did state in the 2010 white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ that ‘convincing international evidence’ existed to prove ‘the galvanising effect on the whole system’ of allowing ‘new entrants in areas where parents are dissatisfied with what is available’. He also went overboard with excitement about the ‘innovation’ this was going to lead to – twenty-eight times he mentioned some derivation of the word! Oh, and the autonomy these academies and free schools were going to experience would be the ripping off of those chains so tightly held by the hands of the State. It was going to be all about developing specialisms, ethos and character.

The picture created was utopian for any parent. Imagine, ‘Autumn Term Secondary School Open Evening Season’ begins in September, and you are skipping and weaving through a myriad of opportunities and innovations which blow your mind. You’re inspired to question thoroughly, ‘Where would my child be happiest? Here, this school is demonstrating advanced problem-solving skills with a strong focus on STEM through project-based learning, whereas yesterday, down the road, I listened to students’ compositions being performed by the school orchestra …’ Long-gone are the days of walking through the corridors of ‘OFSTED GRADED OUTSTANDING’ posters and tedious conversations with the Key Stage 3 coordinator for English about the texts they will be studying in preparation for the GCSE texts in a couple of years’ time, and watching some bored volunteer year 9 students fumble for answers to questions about what they like most about the school. This was to be the beginning of a new era: everyone engaged with education; everyone leading on education; everyone achieving in education. At last!

But, I am going to stop right there and take you back to that ‘convincing international evidence’ Michael Gove found. He was inspired by the free school movement in Sweden and the Charter School programme in The United States of America. Now, I looked extensively at the Swedish reform in 1993 introducing the free school system there and, quite simply, I don’t agree with him.

When, for example, the Swedish Education Minister, Bertil Ostberg, said in 2010, ‘We have actually seen a fall in quality of Swedish schools since the Free Schools were introduced’, what bit of that statement did Gove find convincing? Plus, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Country Note on Sweden, after the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, stated that the gap between rich and poor had increased since 2006 and was wider than the average across the OECD countries. Again, where does this support Gove’s pursuit of this policy? I mean, he did state clearly that one lesson to learn ‘of the best education systems is that no country that wishes to be considered world class can afford to allow children from poorer families to fail as a matter of course.’ If he wanted to achieve this, the OECD names Canada, Estonia, Finland and Japan as the best performers with regards to high levels of performance and high levels of equity in outcomes. Why on earth weren’t Gove’s minions out policy researching in these countries to discover how England – because it’s not the whole of the UK having to trot along with these inflicted reforms – could choose and adapt the most suitable practices from these nations to improve the equity here and address all those issues of social justice Gove wanted to tackle so desperately?

Because it was nothing to do with that. There is turmoil in Sweden, there is turmoil in the United States, and now we have a system in chaos right here in England. Where I live, a free school was given the go ahead in one of the early waves of agreed proposals. A group of parents led on it and immediately the local parents jumped on board! Straightaway, the free school was their first choice. Nothing to evidence its strength as an educational institution, but it was at the top of their list on the applications. Of course, I was grumbling about my dislike of the policy. If a government wants to ensure social justice, it holds on tightly to the institutions which will ensure this, not hand them over to anyone with their hand up…oh, and with a lawyer and an accountant in their steering groups in order to be able to actually navigate the process. I was asked numerous times, ‘But as a parent, what would you choose for your children?’ Somehow, I was supposed to want something different for my children than for those I taught. I never understood this distinction – I want my child to have as good an education as the next, and the next child to have as good an education as mine. But, yes, of course, this policy was based on individual needs, not societal needs. But then Gove did mention social justice a lot when promoting his reform. And the notion of social mobility is at the heart of recent Conservative rhetoric on education. Just look at the digging up of grammar schools, but that’s for another week.

Let’s move on a couple of years, after a false start and the school not opening when it was initially due to, and then a head teacher leaving after a year, and of course the school eventually opening on a temporary site (where it will remain for another four terms, at least), they now belong to a Multi-Academy Trust. This happens to be a MAT started by a Church of England school, so now the school’s ethos is based on ‘a Christian framework’ and the uniform is changing this September to fit the ‘brand’: tartan skirts and crosses on the blazer pockets. The parents who were singing and dancing about the new school five years ago now sound a little muffled. They didn’t sign up for a religious school. They were happy with the uniform. But now, the parents’ voices have been muted by the words ‘These changes are non-negotiable.’

The MAT is a powerful force. The Executive Head of a MAT is hard to find, let alone question. The parent is no longer anywhere near the centre of this policy. In fact, a recent report from the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Education Research stated only one out of five free schools have been opened by parents. It is the MATs and heavily-sponsored academy chains sweeping up schools – especially those still run by the LEAs whose money is becoming tighter, resources limited and therefore their futures overshadowed by the looming, grasping claws of Ark and Harris, or any of those being fed money by the Department for Education, as they willingly ride the Govian agenda and swot their impoverished competitors aside.

So, I am not excited about entering the ‘Autumn Term Secondary School Open Evening Season’ with my eldest in a couple of years’ time. My choice will be Ark down one road, a (now) Christian academy down the other, or my only LEA comprehensive which is now a little too far out of reach since the Christian school will be opening on its permanent site at the end of my road. I think I am going to be sold two brands, which fundamentally will look the same as they are corporate operations now, not innovative learning spaces, all being driven by the high stakes accountability game, undermining the whole concept of free schooling from the get go. I will still be listening to targets and data and how they prepare for GCSE from the day my children cross the threshold. Let’s face it, I won’t be skipping and weaving through anything apart from brand taglines, hefty blazers, and data. In fact, I won’t be skipping.

Exam Factories: I don’t judge my child by set criteria and targets. Should I let anyone else?

‘Miss, don’t worry. I’ve already been told I won’t get English or Maths so I don’t have a future.’

These words were said to me two years ago. This was a year 11 boy who had ADHD. I had taught him in year 7 and made him my project for that year. He had failed a spelling test early in the year after which he proceeded to burst into tears, which I found devastating. I researched ADHD and the obstacles this could present for students. I attended training, tailored my teaching appropriately, gave him personalised target sheets for each lesson and extra lunchtime sessions on how to use mnemonics and other strategies for spellings. He had a good year. But by year 11, when he was back in my English GCSE group, he had given up. He is the reason I stand by the closing sentiment of my leaving speech that year: no child is the challenge, the system is.

His words stopped me in my tracks. I had for years been working with target grades and aspirational grades, and seeking ways to ensure students achieved them. But these should not be defining young people and, as we await this year’s GCSE results, it truly concerns me that this is exactly how they view their success or failure. This boy is a creative soul, a wonderful artist, witty and unique. He absolutely has a future – he’d be a joy to work with – but he has no GCSEs of note. The pieces of paper he takes with him from school say he has nothing to offer. This couldn’t be further from the truth, so something is very wrong with the system, definitely not with the child.

Now, in my opinion, there should be no national assessments at the age of 16 years. I reflect on my own experience as a GCSE student and how I was very lucky that I came from a family of books and ideas. Sunday lunchtime in my house was a time of debate or ‘higher order thinking’ as it would be termed today. I fought to get a word in edgeways as the youngest – don’t worry, I’ve made up for it since – but I had so much cultural capital to bank by the age of sixteen, I sailed through exams I had barely revised for. I really wasn’t interested. As a teacher, I reflect on the number of students I have had to drag to the finish line. I was about to write ‘kicking and screaming’, but at the age of 16, it was more of a sloping and grumbling. I have literally taken table tennis bats out of students’ hands to lead them into the classroom and sit them in front of a piece of incomplete work. I have observed teenage boys trying to work out how to sit their gangling physiques at desks and place their growing limbs comfortably for the duration of a sixty or ninety-minute lesson. And they just have the sound of stressed teachers’ warnings in their ears. I recall as a lead teacher, standing in front of a year 11 assembly and saying, ‘If you don’t have English, doors are closing.’ I feel so guilty for these words. It’s not true. I know from my own experience and from observing the transformation that takes place between sixteen and eighteen years of age, that national assessments at eighteen actually serve a purpose. Those gangly boys have filled out and have physically become men, and with that their maturity has developed. They take themselves seriously and have a vision of their future.

I was the same. Though there are so many problems with the current approach to national assessments which create problems for these GCSE students. Why on earth are children choosing their options in year 8? My son turns nine in a couple of weeks and bubbles with curiosity and questions. The idea that in just four short years, he will be selecting subjects which will shape his career path is ridiculous. Puberty will only just be kicking in and he’ll be making crucial life decisions. I know, for one, I chose all the sciences based on the idea that the doctors on ER looked pretty fabulous. I soon realised science wasn’t really my thing and I didn’t actually want to be a doctor, I wanted to be an actor so my engagement with ER wasn’t completely misguided, but my ability to make wrong and limiting choices based on a popular TV series was, and I had to be dragged through two stressful years.

Today, issues abound with regards to options. The highly academic Ebacc dominates choices. As one means of measuring school performance, students will be sent down this route for the needs of the school, not their own. Arts do not feature in this. Something I have never understood. This distinction is false. In conversation with the Executive Head of a local MAT, she commented on how their schools do Ebacc in the morning and creative subjects in the afternoon. The idea that Maths and English are not creative is so unhealthy, and the idea the Arts do not require high level thinking is ridiculous. I taught A level Theatre Studies for one year. Not one of the four boys on the course had achieved grade C in GCSE English and so had been placed on the ‘less academic’ Theatre Studies course. It is therefore not surprising that when I asked what they were doing with the other teacher, the answer I got was, ‘We’re looking at Berbatov’s adaptation of Kankov’s ‘The Trial’.’ I believe Berbatov was a striker for Manchester United, whereas Stephen Berkoff had had a go at adapting Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.  They struggled with the subject throughout due to this misguided perception that the Arts do not demand some of the highest-level thinking and skills.

Schools are faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. Children have to become data. Students choose options from boxes so if their two favourite subjects are in the same box, but don’t appear in another, they have to forgo one of them. They are then placed into those subjects which need filling up. Those with artistic talents will be redirected to Computer Science as it’s worth more to the school – especially if the school has shut down its Art, Music and Drama departments. It is therefore not surprising that along with the issues highlighted about the more rigorous and old-fashioned assessment structure, students are also shutting down to learning and feeling the pressure of education, rather than the joy. It’s not going their way, they are not empowered in the process. I remember, as a Head of Year 11, leading a student down to his Graphics teacher to discuss his poor-quality folder. Flicking through the pages of the portfolio, it was evident he had been placed in this subject to make up numbers. The teacher was telling him what more he had to do but it was highly obvious the poor lad couldn’t draw! This subject was a burden – he’d never wanted to do it – but potentially one he was going to have to carry through life with a terrible grade. He dropped the subject at the last minute, when you were eventually allowed to let students do so, but he is now one subject down due to a series of decisions made by others. And this occurrence can only become more frequent in the Ebacc era.

One of my funniest GCSE memories was waiting outside the hall at the end of the old English language exam. The door burst open and the crowd was led by Pooja (grade D target), arms waving through the air, screaming ‘I did it! I passed! I passed!’ You would have thought she had won the lottery. This response always sparks a sinking feeling in teachers’ stomachs, so glances were shared amongst us. You know those who have done well tend to be more pessimistic or unsure. The ‘It was easy!’ response tends to mean they have totally missed out whole sections and sat cockily for an hour doing nothing, wondering why everyone else is taking so long. But thinking even more cynically about this, it also highlights how we train students to pass exams. It becomes a tick box activity and a question of highly scaffolded paragraphs to ensure the key words are there and can be ticked. I think Pooja had done this and so felt chuffed that it was in the bag. It wasn’t. She got a D.

Michael Gove did state that he wanted a more rigorous exam which led to a depth of learning and an avoidance of teaching to the test. I don’t think he’s achieved this. Another major concern which impacts greatly on students’ well-being is the fact that from year 7 they are being primed for their GCSE exams. I challenge Mr Gove, if he’s interested in the impact of his reforms, to visit the year 7 English classrooms of his prized MAT in my borough and tell me these students aren’t being taught to the test. Pages of highly structured paragraphs, target sheets and green pen marking alternate. There’s no visualisation, there’s no exploring the character voice, there’s no creative exploration of the author’s craft. Now, as I understand it, you can’t get those top bands if you don’t present originality in your answer and suggest a depth of learning, but if students are choosing their options in year 8, and school measurement is still heavily on academic performance in the form of the Ebacc, GCSE teaching to test has to be well underway in year 7. High stakes examination and accountability reduces experimentation in the classroom and leads only to the safe, exam focused model so evident today. I would have loved, as a teacher in a school with high levels of  EAL and Pupil Premium, to have spent key stage 3 really building my students’ cultural capital that I was so lucky to have built into my socio-economic status.

I, for one, welcome Amanda Spielman’s call to address exam factories, but it will be a challenge in this climate. The reforms were all about international tables of success and where we were placed. Nothing in these reforms was about personal development and the rounded individual. It is therefore not surprising that the Department for Education is standing by the importance of exam performance. The parental voice is required in this debate – it isn’t welcomed, that’s for sure, by our policy makers which makes it even more imperative we shout out to save our children from these factories. No child should be calling themselves a failure at the age of sixteen, no child should be stopped from visualising a desired future, but every child should be engaged with as an individual to ensure their future happiness through freedom to explore and discuss their vision of their personal success.

I send all those receiving exam results the best of luck and want them to know that it’s not everything. Do not be defined by a piece of paper; you will determine how you want to define yourself. You have years ahead in which to do so.

Have you, or your child, just done GCSEs?

Dear Rescue Our Schools supporters, we are anticipating some media interest this Thursday – when GCSE results come out – in talking to parents, teachers and students (either openly or anonymously). If you are interested in doing an interview about your experience of them, please email us at Thank you!

A welcome shift: as students get their GCSE results this week, Rescue Our Schools ruminates on Ofsted’s apparent change of heart

It’s not often that Ofsted gets the thumbs up from Rescue Our Schools. But credit where credit is due. If the guardians of “high standards” really are going to place less stress on exam results — as the newspapers have reported – then this can only be a good thing.
It has been blindingly obvious for years that if you make high stakes results a crucial factor in inspections – with the risk of league table demotion, academisation and management clear-outs if the results are deemed not good enough – then schools will prioritise scores and grades above everything else.
And although progress measures are now meant to play a key role in inspections, anyone who has experienced a visit from the inspectors will know that it is still extremely unpredictable to what extent the team will give those measures the weight they allegedly deserve.
So let’s hold our breath and hope that when the new framework comes out we see a substantial change in judgements  on the ground.
But let’s hope for much more than that. Firstly, many of the schools that have indulged in the worst excesses of drilling are in the “outstanding”  category. For them to get a more intelligent judgement Ofsted will have to make sure it visits these schools sooner rather than later.
Secondly, let’s hope that schools get the funding they so desperately need to enable them to reopen the moth-balled art departments and bring back the drama teachers. There is no sign of that so far from Mr Hinds.
Finally let’s hope that if Amanda Spielman,the Ofsted chief inspector, wants to ensure everyone gets a “quality education”, we can kickstart a debate among politicians (and Ofsted) about what that really looks like.
It is not enough to argue that stopping schools spending three years prepping for GCSEs will solve the problem. We need to demand – as parents, teachers and students – the freedom to develop approaches that deliver the skills young people need. They need both rich knowledge and rich experiences of education , that encourage critical thinking, problem solving and team work. And they need to develop those skills without obsessive “flight path” targets and punitive inspections which simply make matters worse.
Teaching unions have been asking for a deeper kind of education until they are blue in the face. The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) repeated the call only a few months ago. But it seems that change will only happen if parents – a.k.a millions of voters – make it clear that the current, improved offer that Ofsted is apparently demanding is still not good enough.
If you agree with all this, please talk to friends and family and get them on board with Rescue Our Schools!

Simon Johnson, scottish political editor writes on 15 AUGUST 2018

John Swinney has been presented with an ultimatum of scrapping the SNP’s controversial primary one tests or facing a mass boycott.

Upstart Scotland, a literacy charity, is distributing 30,000 postcards urging parents with children starting P1 this week to sign up to withdrawing from the literacy and numeracy assessments.

Parents whose children are starting primary school this month are being urged to sign the postcards, fill in their child’s name and send them to the head teacher.

The initiative is part of a joint campaign by children’s charities, parents’ groups and teaching unions to force the Education Minister to dump the scheme.

It won support from the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, which have united in demanding that the tests be scrapped.

The Scottish Government vowed to stand by the tests, one of Nicola Sturgeon’s key policies in her plan to drive up educational standards after Scotland tumbled down international league tables.

But SNP ministers are in danger of losing a proposed parliamentary vote on the abolition of the tests when MSPs return from their summer holidays next month.

They have already attracted a wave of criticism over claims five-year-olds have been left distressed and in tears, while schools have been forced to “teach to the test.”

The Liberal Democrats have also claimed that the Scottish Government deceived parents about the right to withdraw their children.

P1 pupils have been left in tears by the new standardised tests, teachers have claimed.

The Upstart Scotland postcards state: “I do not want my child to sit the primary 1 tests of literacy and numeracy.

“I firmly believe that national standardised assessment of this kind is not developmentally appropriate for young children and would, therefore, prefer assessment to be based on teacher observation and professional judgment, in accordance with the Early Level of the Curriculum for Excellence.”

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said she agreed with teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) that the assessments should be scrapped “without delay”.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “Schools across Scotland are returning to an SNP omnishambles – a testing policy descending into chaos as it faces a major campaign by parents and a potential teacher boycott, hundreds of unfilled posts across the country and teachers on the verge of industrial action.

“John Swinney must suspend these tests, he cannot keep defending a discredited policy that is opposed by parents pupils, teachers and the unions”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, said the new campaign was only necessary because SNP ministers had “studiously avoided” telling parents their rights to withdraw their children.

He added: “How many teachers and parents have to boycott these tests before the Education Secretary finally listens?”

Upstart Scotland

The Learning Burden: Why the ‘L’ word has become a thorny issue in our household.

I am a terrible eavesdropper. I have to warn you. Two weeks ago, I referred to an overheard conversation in the queue of JD Sports, and this week I want to start with a conversation my wagging ears found in December, whilst working on my dissertation in one of my local coffee shops. They were sitting next to me, they were early twenty-somethings (so spoke full volume) … it was impossible to ignore. Anyway, they were discussing next steps after their upcoming finals. One suggested to the other that she could do an MA and the immediate response was, ‘Oh no! I’ve had enough of learning!’ Now, this got me thinking, as I was sitting there, aged forty-two years, completing my MA: Is this the feeling we all have when we throw our mortar-boards in the air? Are we all thinking, ‘Thank God that’s over!’? And if we are, doesn’t this suggest something is very wrong with our use of the word ‘learning’?

It was an eye-opening conversation with my eldest lad last week that sparked my memory of this eavesdropping. He laid down his 15-year plan: ‘I want to be a Youtuber, but only in my late teens as I plan to become a footballer for my proper job.’ He asked me to record him discussing his top seven Youtubers. He’d improvised a flip chart with his scrapbook and finished the recording with, ‘Thanks for listening!’ He was good; very eloquent and charming. But, of course, I have a problem with this aspiration. My 15-year plan for my obviously highly able child would be to finish school and head to a good quality university. But these expectations mean nothing if, for him, going to university is simply to tick a box. But he will be university material, I am sure, and should crave such an environment, so I am bothered that these Youtubers seem to offer my son something that maybe is being switched off in the school context.

Billy and Jezza (number one on my son’s Top Seven Youtubers), otherwise known as ‘F2 Freestylers’, have started to grow on me. When my son discovered them, I would be preparing dinner to what I considered the most obnoxious soundtrack: music with beats heavier than lead weights being swung against my head and squeals equivalent to those of nails down a blackboard, compounded by the sounds of their ‘lad laughter’ cutting through this cacophony every few seconds, it was like a drill slowly driving through my ear drum and into my sanity! However, my son started to demonstrate what he had learnt from these two highly-skilled footballers through mimicking them in the garden; he describes in detail the challenges they set one another and with great hilarity explains how they messed things up and had to go again. He watches these videos with wonder and giggles with glee. There is, I would argue, a learning interaction which truly engages and inspires him.

Referring this back to the coffee shop conversation about reaching the end of ‘The Learning Burden’, my son made a very interesting statement about this too. We were comparing his feelings in the classroom with those he experiences at his football training: ‘I think I’m happier at training because Mike and Louis know my personality and my potential, whereas my teacher only knows me as a learner.’ Already, there is a clear distinction in his mind: you are ‘a learner’ at school but elsewhere you are … you. His tone clearly suggested a thorny relationship with the word. Mistakes at training are dealt with as a ‘these things happen’ scenario and an opportunity for demonstration and practice, whereas in the classroom he feels nervous about making mistakes as he fears he will be perceived as a ‘bad learner’, unable to record full marks and therefore not performing ‘up-to-standard’ (a phrase he has heard this year). Already, there are hints that learning, as he understands it, is becoming a burden.

It seems as though his school has taken ownership of the title ‘learner’. In all correspondence, the children are referred to as ‘our learners’. Of course this is meant to be a positive acknowledgement of their hours within the school walls, but I do see problems with this phrase. Firstly, my son has linked learning with assessment and performance – a dangerous limitation on the meaning of the word. And secondly, I actually would prefer my son to tell me that his school teacher, with whom he spends many hours, sees his personality and his potential, recognises his quirks and character traits just as his football coaches do. My concern is that, although he is demonstrably learning from his coaches and has made incredible progress this year with his football, he believes that school is where he is a learner, nowhere else. And, sadly, learning in the current primary curriculum is associated with achieving set criteria via the writing of targets in your books and reviewing these with ticked boxes. For example, I had the most frustrating, if a tad entertaining, post-school chat with him a few months back which highlighted this. It was something along the lines of:

Child: We did suspense today.
Me: Oooh, excellent! So, you had to create mood.
Child: What do you mean? We did suspense.
Me: Yes, I know. Suspense is about building the mood, isn’t it? Making the reader feel tense in preparation for something frightening or unexpected to happen.
Child: What are you going on about? We just had to write suspense.
Me: Okay, so what did you have to do?
Child: We used empty words and short sentences.

Boom! There it is! Two boxes ticked but no understanding of what the purpose of the task was. Does he understand that short sentences and empty words can be used when writing with a different purpose? More importantly, does my child, along with his peers, understand why we write…apart from ticking the set criteria? However, on the football pitch, my son can explain what skill he has used, how he did it and why he has used it, plus, he can apply it to a number of different moments in a game. Now, in which scenario has he really fulfilled the role of ‘learner’? He thinks it’s in the first and if he continues to think this, he will undoubtedly be sitting in a coffee shop at the age of twenty-one, counting down the days until he can remove ‘The Learning Burden’. I think it is in the second, and I have great respect for Louis and Mike, and a level of affection for Billy and Jezza, for inspiring the joy of learning my son experiences on the football pitch. I do really worry that it’s not the same within those school walls.

John Steinbeck, one of my literary heroes, once said, ‘Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.’ What a truly wonderful way to see the profession. The idea that it is an art. Something which you are always seeking to improve, to reflect upon; where there is no sense of perfection, but a wonderful journey based on human interaction and connection, crafted to inspire students’ minds and spirits to learn. To become true learners. Lifelong learners. So exciting! But I feel this is far from the experience our children are entering into today. Teachers are being sold the profession on a promise of a quick promotion. How sad that we are not selling it on Steinbeck’s definition where teachers are the valued impetus for learning, and true learning remains a treasured expectation for all.