Sunday, November 28, 2010

Layer 388 . . . Education, the White Paper, and the Alexander Review

Schools and the teaching profession in England stand accused of cowardice, complacency, confusion, disunity, lack of professionalism and lack of vision. Not by Michael Gove. By me.

Through failing to resist the assault on its professionalism by successive governments the teaching profession has forfeited its right to be seen as a profession, and appears to be a divided bunch of self-interested functionaries who simply do as they're told, even when the people doing the telling are plainly idiots and cretins who have NO clue as to the needs of learners and teachers.

Who are all these 'superheads', for instance, who have allegedly 'turned schools around'? To face in which direction? The 'Standards Agenda'? Teaching to the tests? 'Driving up standards? Uncritical adoption of governmental 'reforms'? Creating factory schools that constantly drill and coach pupils with league tables their sole concern? Yes you bastards - you know who you are.

Of course the best of the best have managed to achieve government targets without sacrificing concern for individual children and without letting go of a determination to provide schools that offer a broad and balanced and creative curriculum. All of which is much easier to achieve if you have a proper comprehensive intake of pupils and a stable staff.

But it's been a dog eat dog world, and it's likely to get even worse. Thanks to Gove and co.

Schools' sole concern from now on ought to be for the pupils and their families. That's to say, for the total wellbeing of their pupils, and not just their test scores.

Unless schools are enabling children to grow up loving school and learning to love learning for its own sake, and feeling that every day is enjoyable and creative, then they are failing in their duty. Schools are NOT businesses, and they have no business behaving as though test and exam scores are all that matter.

Take Primary schools. Why have they not joined together and said we're going to adopt wholesale the recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review? For the answer to this question, see paragraph 1 - above.

The headline on the front page of the Times Educational Supplement - no hotbed of revolution - on Friday October 16th 2009 said,

Alexander Review: Give us back our schools

by Helen Ward

Biggest investigation since Plowden demands end to era of centralised control

The biggest investigation into primary education in a generation has demanded that England’s schools are reclaimed from politicians who have imposed a “state theory of learning” on teachers.

The final report of the independent Cambridge Primary Review, published today, calls for the depoliticisation of the classroom, with central control slashed to a minimum and funding pumped into schools.

The study, which has taken three years and draws on the work of more than 3,000 researchers, begins: “Ours is a public system of education which belongs to the people and is not the personal fiefdom of ministers and their unelected advisors.”

Its recommendations include that formal primary education should not start until the age of six, and that the current system of league tables and national tests be scrapped and replaced with a new system of accountability in which teacher assessment plays a stronger role.

Professor Robin Alexander, who led the inquiry, said he was irritated that the debate over education had been presented as a simple battle between “the trendy” and “back to basics” factions.

“The whole discourse has been hijacked by the mythmakers,” he told The TES. “This is about reclaiming the debate, it is about resetting the agenda for professionals.”

The final report, Children, Their World, Their Education, is being sent to every school in the UK, including secondaries and special schools.

It is the largest inquiry of its kind since Lady Plowden’s in 1967, but is more independent than its predecessor. The Alexander Review was funded by the Esmee Fairbain charitable foundation while the Plowden report was commissioned by the government of the day.

Many of its findings have been revealed over the last year and half in a series of interim reports, including an assertion that childhood is not in crisis, and that primary schools provide a safe haven for young children in a changing world.

John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said teachers would applaud many of the review’s conclusions, including the change in official primary starting age. “Professor Alexander is spot on that education is too important for the factionalisation of party politics,” he said.

As the report notes, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as well as Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary have criticised the interim reports for containing “a collection of recycled, partial or out of date research”.

However, both the anti-centralisation and the subject specialist recommendations will appeal to the Conservatives, which have pledged to move funding from agencies to the frontline.

David Laws, Liberal democrat spokesman for education, said: “The strength of the report is that it’s not been commissioned by the Government and its terms of reference haven’t been unnecessarily restricted. It is able to recognize some of the achievements of primary education and progress made in the last decade while also being willing to be critical about those things that have gone wrong. We feel very strongly that the degree of micromanagement and interference is on a scale that would never have been tolerated and would have been seen as shockingly totalitarian 30 years ago.”


Ah yes, David Laws. I remember him well. One of the main movers and shakers in the coalition negotiations, I seem to recall. Foxy little guy. Gove's counterpart in the LibDems.

As Kundera said, politicians rely on our forgetfulness. 


Disadvantage lies at heart of primary review

Robin Alexander praises schools as ‘the centre that holds when things fall apart’, but while rejecting media ‘myths’ of a generation in crisis he argues that more must be done to narrow the gap between vulnerable children and the rest. Helen Ward reports

Forty years ago, the Plowden report declared that at the heart of the educational process lies the child.

Now, the most comprehensive inquiry into primary schooling in Britain since then has laid out its vision of education. And central to its vision is the disadvantaged child.

“For this is our bottom line,” the Cambridge Primary Review states. “The education of young children matters immeasurably - to them both now and in the future and to our society. It matters to all children but especially to those who, in our divided society, lack the massively compensating advantages of financial wealth, emotional harmony and a home life that is linguistically, intellectually, culturally and spiritually rich.”

The review, which set out to examine how primary education can best meet the needs of today’s children, is indignant about the politicisation of education.

In the final report, edited by Professor Robin Alexander, the review’s leader, rails against media myths of failure and politicians’ ill-founded claims of success.

The report’s prevailing mood is underlined by its headline conclusions: reform Sats and scrap league tables, extend the early-years foundation stage to Year 1, rebalance the curriculum, train teachers to become educators not deliverers of ready-made lessons and carry out a full review of special educational needs provision.

The report is more than another shot in one of the many battlegrounds of education. It is deeply serious, foreseeing that “sensationalising headlines will do nothing like justice” to the breadth, weight and authority of the evidence. But it is readable and not without humour (among the 88 historical milestones it lists are 1969’s “back to basics”, 1992’s “back to basics again” and 1998’s “back to basics yet again”).

It is an ambitious attempt to go beyond governments, override spats and appeal directly to “all those interested in primary education”. It concludes with 75 recommendations that the 14 authors believe would provide the education and the childhood that all children deserve.

It begins by exploring the state of childhood, noting one father’s complaints about his son’s alleged truancy and failure to do his homework - comments made in Mesopotamia 3,500 years ago. Is the modern “crisis in childhood” real? What is the evidence?

Start by listening to children, suggests the report; 72 per cent say their peers are “kind and helpful”.

Health, education and respect for children have improved vastly. There are genuine concerns about equity, but the distorted picture of “blighted” childhoods prevents change where it is needed.

The review praises primary schools as “the centre that holds when things fall apart”. It praises the Government’s efforts to narrow gaps in educational attainment.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the review was correct to draw attention to disadvantaged pupils and the inequality in the education system.

The report is independent, but it is responsive to the political landscape in which it finds itself. It advocates change in a system that seems to be constantly changing. This term, the Government is due to announce its final decision on the recommendations of Sir Jim Rose’s review, which was limited to the primary curriculum.

The Rose review recommendations, which have been widely welcomed in the profession, call for the national curriculum to be rearranged into six areas of learning and six essential skills, in an attempt to give teachers more flexibility. The new curriculum is due to be introduced by 2010.

But the Cambridge review calls for the process to be suspended. Sir Jim’s review has fundamentally missed the point, it argues. The problem is not curriculum overload, but a mismatch between what schools have to do and the skills of their staff. Primaries need more teachers and more specialist teachers in addition to generalist class teachers.

But how seriously will politicians treat its proposals?

As the review notes, some of its recommendations have already been taken up - including scrapping National Strategies - though ministers dismissed them when they were made in its earlier interim reports.

Professor Alexander knows only too well the risks that the final report’s calls may be ignored or even attacked as “off message”.

It concludes: “The Cambridge Primary Review is for the longer term, not the next election… its final report is not just for transient architects and agents of policy. It is for all who invest daily, deeply and for life in this vital phase of education, especially children, parents and teachers.”

In other words, it is for you.


Key recommendations

End the “state theory of learning”. The Government should not tell teachers how to teach.

- Extend the foundation stage to age six. Have a single primary key stage.

- Prioritise narrowing the gap between vulnerable children and the rest.

- Undertake a full review of special educational needs.

- Follow Professor Alexander’s curriculum recommendations, including the creation of 12 aims and eight domains.

- Reform assessment; stop current Sats; scrap league tables; assess all areas of the curriculum and use sampling to monitor national standards.

- Undertake a full review of primary school staffing.

- Reform initial teacher training.

- Protect rural and middle schools.

- Protect and expand school libraries.

- End primary/secondary funding differential.

Q. What is the Cambridge Primary Review?

A. A three-year inquiry into the state and future of English primary education.

Q. Who is Robin Alexander?

A. Director of the review and fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge University. He was one of the “three wise men” who led a government inquiry into primary education in 1991. He has long advocated a more central place for oracy in primary education.

Q. How is this review different from Sir Jim Rose’s?

A. Sir Jim was commissioned and paid by the Government to look at the primary curriculum. Professor Alexander’s review has been funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and looks at the whole of primary education.

Q. What does Professor Alexander think about primary schools?

A. Primary schools appear to be under intense pressure but in good heart. They are highly valued by children and parents and in general are doing a good job. They do not neglect and never have neglected the 3Rs… For many, schools are the centre that holds when things fall apart.

What the report says…

 . . . about teaching staff

England has 198,200 primary teachers and 172,600 primary school support staff - one adult for every 11 primary pupils. This is investment on a remarkable scale.

The class teacher system is taken for granted, but does it best serve primary pupils’ needs?

It arose because it combined cheapness and efficiency in the context of large classes, a basic curriculum and view of teaching as little more than drilling of facts and skills. But subject knowledge is the elephant in the room.

A national review of staffing and funding policy is required. And more specialist teachers are needed, especially in upper primary.

A two-year PGCE should be considered to help to achieve this. Initial teacher training should move away from compliance culture. The Training and Development Agency for Schools’ professional standards need changing as they encourage conformity rather than originality and do not recognise that experienced teachers need autonomy to be effective. Continuing professional development is often patronising.

Headteachers need to be supported so they can focus on leading learning. The current model in which the head is burdened with a proliferating range of responsibilities is no longer tenable for a single person.

Teaching assistants have liberated teachers from tasks that diminish time with children, but the use of TAs as teachers is not acceptable. They need training for working with small groups and children with SEN.

. . . about pupils
Legitimate concerns exist about children’s lives today, but the “crisis” of modern childhood has been grossly overstated.

For most children, perceived risk is much greater than actual risk. But for a significant minority the risks and deprivations are at least as severe as they are portrayed and it is here that attention needs to be focused. Social disadvantage blights the early lives of a larger proportion of children in Britain than in many other countries.

Britain is very diverse - and to an extent which at the time of Plowden would have been unimaginable. The transience and unpredictability of migration and the inadequacy of local information adds to pressure on schools. The review encountered evidence of discrimination against marginalised groups, within the education system as well as in society.

. . . about government
Assumptions and formulas for funding primary education should be reviewed. The staffing of primary schools should be led by the curriculum and the needs of pupils. A new funding formula is needed, preceded by a national staffing review. Excessive funding variation between local authorities and key stages should be eliminated.

The National Strategies have cost £2 billion. Savings arising from terminating them should be shifted from government and local authorities to schools.

Centralised reform has produced important and necessary changes in children’s services, but has gone too far in relation to curriculum and pedagogy. The role of government should revert to providing the administrative and financial framework, setting the goals and scope of the national curriculum and the broad standards primary schools should achieve.

Assessment should be reviewed and league tables stopped. Children’s learning should be assessed formatively throughout the primary phase and summatively before the transfer to secondary school. A separate system should be used to evaluate schools and monitor national standards externally, using sample testing.


What's happened since this report was published? Anyone taken any note of it?
Not really. People like Balls and Gove have done what people like them usually do. And the Primary sector, to its shame, has kept its head down and failed to demand full implementation of the above.

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