Campaign for State Education

BACK TO THE FUTURE?

ISSUE No 89

IN THIS ISSUE
Back to the Future - part 1; Back to the Future - part 2; Britain's Strictest Headmistress; Early Years: new approach wanted; Comment

COMMENT

Education remains at the forefront of the government’s agenda because by ensuring every child receives an excellent standard of teaching in a high-performing setting, they will be given the opportunity to fulfil their future potential and secure the jobs needed to support our economy.

Leaving aside its distant relation to the actual truth, this introduction to the government's latest Education Bill suggests that the DfE no longer employs people who have a command of basic English.  In just one sentence, the DfE manages to perpetrate the following errors:

Readers may enjoy working out the various possibilities.  Translated into English, the whole sentence could mean, “By pressuring schools to join multi-academy trusts the Government will ensure that there are enough (health professionals, teachers, IT experts, construction workers, train drivers...ad infinitum)”. Pigs might fly.

EARLY YEARS: NEW APPROACH WANTED

Research has consistently shown that government investment in Early Years care and education has long term social and economic benefits. Such investment benefits children, the economy the taxpayer and the Treasury.  These benefits, however, will only accrue if government addresses the on-going issues identified by those with expert knowledge.

During the last two years, these issues have been repeatedly identified by members of the Early Years Forum, an organisation that brings together a number of professional associations whose members work in the field of Early Years education, which covers the first seven years of a child's life.  

Structural problems in England include the premature shortening of the Early Years phase of children's lives by the introduction of formal learning at age 4. This contrasts with the policy adopted in the vast majority of developed countries, where 7 is recognised as the appropriate age at which to begin formal learning.  

Public funding of Early Years provision is seriously inadequate, which leads to the workforce being under-qualified and underpaid, which in turn leads to problems of recruitment and retention. Lack of funding also inhibits the ability of the sector to deal properly – or at all – with children who exhibit complex physical and/or emotional needs.

Curriculum related problems include an over reliance on phonics as a method of teaching reading. Phonics is especially inappropriate for children with special educational needs.  Another problem is the use of a single baseline assessment, which is educationally unsound and inhibits the process of “settling in”.  Thirdly, OFSTED fails to offer constructive advice and support, and acts instead as an enforcer of government policy.

Problems related to health and well-being include inadequate provision for the needs of children during their first two years of life.  There is a serious shortage of health visitors, which results in support not being available for families who really need it. Failing children at this stage results in far more costly interventions being required later on. Children's nutritional needs are not properly attended to and poor diet is now a major cause of poor oral health in children: 23.5% of five year olds now suffer or have suffered from tooth decay.

Many children now arrive hungry at nursery and other settings because of poverty.  Thirdly, there is insufficient co-ordination among multi-agency teams for these problems to be properly addressed.  

To address these and other problems the following are essential:

Particular attention should be given to Articles 2, 3, 12 - 14, 23, 29, 30-31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This would lead to the provision of a universal service with a national strategy that focuses on the care and education of children and their parents from the early stages of pregnancy to age 7.

Early Years education should be delivered by confident, well-qualified professionals who enjoy appropriate remuneration within a developed career structure.

The chronic under-funding of the sector must be addressed.

Early Years should be seen as a discrete phase of a child's life, rather than as a process of “becoming”.  

The pressure to prepare children for formal schooling should be abandoned and the Early Years curriculum should be based upon play, which is essential for children's emotional and social development.

Assessment should be based upon skilled observation carried out by confident professionals and it should not form part of any “accountability” system.

Children's centres should be reintroduced so that families in difficulty can access early support.

The shortage of Health Visitors should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

BACK TO THE FUTURE – PART 1

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has recently declared that Britain should be “very proud” of its private schools and that Oxford and Cambridge universities should not “tilt the system” to admit more pupils from state schools.  Admissions to Oxbridge should be “based on merit alone” and people should put aside their “tribalism” over private schools.  This was in response to a statement by Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, that private schools should expect to see fewer of their pupils gaining Oxbridge places in the future as both universities strive to widen access.

If Zahawi can produce any evidence that students from state schools are not admitted on merit, he should publish it forthwith.  The proportion of Oxbridge students admitted from private schools has steadily declined over many years – from over 70% in 1962 to under 30% now - without the kind of damage to the academic standing of those universities  that we would expect to see if the admissions system were really being “tilted”.  

Presumably, by “tilted” Zahawi is referring to the practice of some colleges of using more admissions criteria than raw A-level scores where a candidate's circumstances justify such an approach. Obviously, in spite of being Education Secretary, Zahawi is unaware that repeated research by the NFER and others has established that, at Russell Group universities, the students least likely to obtain a first class or upper second class degree are the privately educated, while those most likely to achieve these standards have been to comprehensive schools.  

It may be, of course, that students with well-off parents and ready access to a network of the influential and powerful do not see any reason to work hard but universities can hardly be blamed for preferring to admit students who are more likely to take their studies seriously.

As for dismissing opposition to England's suffocatingly powerful system of private schooling as “tribalism”, Zahawi should look at the overwhelming evidence that, whatever the merits of invidual schools, the system as a whole ensures that the children of the rich will continue to form the elite that dominates our society.  This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided by these schools and everything to do with their social exclusivity and the access they provide to elite occupations.   

Meanwhile, the state schools for which Zahawi is responsible are starved of resources and their buildings are increasingly unfit for use.  Zahawi's own officials have recently told him that the state of some school buildings now represents “a threat to life” and that at least £13bn needs to be spent on repairs in order to avert a crisis.  Asked about this on Radio 4's “Today” programme, Zahawi could only mumble that any building that is not safe “will be closed”.  Luckily for him, it was the end of the interview so there was no time to ask him where the children would go.  

CASEnotes readers will recollect that the last time school buildings were in this state was in 1997, after a long period of Conservative rule.  Plus ça change...

BACK TO THE FUTURE – PART 2

The National Theatre is staging a revival of The Corn is Green, a 1938 play by Emlyn Williams.  The story is straightforward: in the late 19th century the strong-minded and determined Miss Moffat opens a school in an impoverished Welsh mining village.  She soon spots that one of her pupils, Morgan Evans, although illiterate, combines high intelligence with creative flair and she sets out to cultivate his talents.  Her persistence, in the face of scepticism, downright opposition and Morgan's desire not to be different, eventually succeeds and Morgan wins a place at Oxford.

The play was a great success when first performed and in 1945 was made into a Hollywood film starring Bette Davis.  This time the part of the life-changing teacher, Miss Moffat, is being played by the outstanding Nicola Walker and the play itself is mostly well written (give or take the threat to Miss Moffat's plans caused by Morgan's romantic entanglement with a two-dimensional local girl) so ticket holders are sure to have an enjoyable evening.  

The play is semi-autobiographical: Williams himself was born into great poverty in a mining village – Mostyn in Fintshire - in 1905 and would normally have expected to take up employment in the local mine at the age of 12.  However, Sarah Grace Cooke, a social worker from London, arrived in Mostyn in 1915 and set up a school.  She soon realised that the barely literate Williams, who could not speak any English until the age of 8, actually had a talent for language and set to work on him.  Over the next few years she taught him to be fluent and literate in English and she obtained a scholarship for him to study in Switzerland in order to improve his command of French.  At the age of 17, Williams won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford, where, however, he found life very difficult and suffered a nervous breakdown.

Luckily for him, Cooke had kept in touch and she encouraged her protegé to write, as a means of recovering.  His first play was produced while he was still an undergraduate and he went on to a successful career as a dramatist.  The Corn is Green was written as a tribute to Cooke and remains his best known work.

It is no criticism of Williams to say that his play affirms a pre-war view of the possibilities and purposes of educating working class children, a view that was repeated in Labour's approach to implementing the 1944 Education Act.  The play takes for granted that, while Morgan, the chosen one, goes to Oxford, the rest of the boys in the class will go down the coal mine.  Miss Moffat believes that her goal as a school teacher is to change lives but she can only change one.  

This kind of thinking underlies all selective secondary education.  The late, great R.F.McKenzie once summed up Scottish education as a search for “the lads o' pairts” - those who by virtue of unusual intelligence or talent are deserving of resources that can only be offered to a minority, who must eventually be removed from their background lest it should “hold them back”.   Watchable as it is and quite moving when well-acted, the subtext of The Corn is Green confirms McKenzie's  judgement and some of the reviews suggest that these old beliefs about education die hard.

Arifa Akbar in The Guardian believes that the play reminds us of “how generations of working-class schoolchildren broke through the class barriers, thanks to a grammar-school education” (a gross over-statement, at best) while BBC arts pundit Mark Lawson writes in The Tablet that the play “encourages us glumly to reflect on how UK schooling routinely fails brilliant minds born into the wrong tribe”.   

The timing of this revival coincides with a new effort by a group of Tory MPs to reinstate 11+ selection in those areas of the country where education needs “levelling up”. Levelling up is not the same as promoting a minority of “able” children at the expense of the rest and the most “levelled up” countries do not practice this kind of thing.

Given that the government is already talking about reducing the number of university students, the National Theatre may well be unwittingly feeding another agenda here.

“BRITAIN'S STRICTEST HEADMISTRESS”: ITV Sunday, May 22nd

Ever since her speech to the Conservative Party Conference of 2010, Katharine Birbalsingh -aka “Miss Snuffy” -has rarely lacked for media attention.  She has appeared on various BBC programmes as an “education expert” and her book “To Miss with Love” has been serialised on Radio 4.  This latest TV documentary, filmed in Michaela School, Brent, which she set up in 2014 along with the now Attorney General, Suella Braverman, presents a largely uncritical view of Ms Birbalsingh and of her ideas and tends to endorse her own view of herself as a crusader against “progressive” ideas, which she believes have corrupted state education, to the especial detriment of children born into inner-city poverty.  

Unsurprisingly, given its title, the film focuses heavily upon the strict disciplinary code enforced by the school's system of rewards and punishments.  Sequences of children behaving as if they were in a military camp are intercut with brief explanations of the rationale for this approach, given by Ms Birbalsingh (mostly) and her senior colleagues.  

The latter indeed do see themselves as following their leader into “battle”.  Ms Birbalsingh may have a point when she explains that a rigidly ordered behavioural structure is necessary because many of the children live in a world where the norm is chaos, and many harassed schoolteachers will envy the ability of the school to have children walking in silence in the corridors.  

On the other hand, there are quite surreal moments, especially when the children are required to “appreciate”, in loud, robotic voices, some act by an adult, and the tendency of the teachers to issue commands by numbers is reminiscent of Dad's Army (except that the children respond much better than the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard).

Ms Birbalsingh explains that behind the rigidity of the school's disciplinary code (children can even get detention for not making eye contact with their teacher) is a genuine feeling of love.  Perhaps it was beyond the ability of the director to show this love in action but we do not see it in the film. Many visitors to the school report that Michaela is a place of warmth but the film does not capture this. Activities where we might see less authoritarian relationships between teachers and pupils, such as Drama, Music and Art, are not covered and the studied politeness of the children when speaking to curious visitors comes across as somewhat scripted and lacking in spontaneity.

The children, however, do express appreciation of the security that the school provides.  They also do extremely well in their exams and the first cohort to reach Year 13 has gained an impressive number of admissions to prestigious universities.  Eccentric as it may seem at times, Michaela is obviously getting something right but the film does not look beyond the school's own assertion that its success is due to its “strictness”.  

Indeed, the worst aspect of the documentary is its failure to ask any questions at all. Viewers are repeatedly reminded that Brent is a very deprived area but are not shown how far this is reflected in the intake at Michaela.  Research over many years has conclusively established that 80%-85% of measurable achievement at school is a function of “prior attainment” (itself largely a function of socio-economic background) so it is essential when evaluating a school's results to know a great deal more about the children than this film tells us.  

We do know that almost half of the first cohort of 94 pupils at Michaela were classed in primary school as “high attaining”, with only 5 being classed as “low attaining” and the only parents we get to see are obviously very aware of the importance of good education.  

The film does not ask what happens to children with less supportive parents who might not buy in to Ms Birbalsingh's methods.  Perhaps they do not apply to the school in the first place?  The film also unwittingly gives the impression that being a successful school within the London Borough of Brent makes Michaela unique but the nearby Wembley High Technology College actually has a higher Progress 8 score.  

It is disappointing that what might have been an enlightening exploration of important ideas comes across as little better than a propaganda film.