Thursday, 9 October 2014

What sort of person do you want teaching your child?

Why I’m supporting the OCOS charter, by Michelle Hendry 

What sort of person do you want teaching your child? I want my child’s teacher to be happy, motivated and feel valued. That’s because I want my child to be happy, motivated and feel valued.  All the teachers and support staff I’ve come across went into the profession with commitment, passion and enthusiasm.  I know this to be true because I have 10 years of experience of working in inner city London secondary schools.  As a parent, I feel so grateful for this insight because of the faith it has given me that my fellow professionals fully intend to do the absolute best for my child; to instil her with a thirst for learning and support her both emotionally and socially, during the sometimes difficult school years.  

The flip-side of this is that I know many - too many - wonderful teachers who are battered and demoralised by a system that is failing to support them in achieving this. 

Our children learn the importance of ‘group work’ from an early age; that through co-operation and having positive discussions from lots of different viewpoints, all members of the group feel valued and able to share their ideas.  By creating a collaborative environment, all members of the group feel supported and empowered, and so able to bring their own strengths, cultural experiences and differences to the table; and to do this without fear of judgment, criticism and being put down.  Should the same model not apply to teachers then?  Should they not be working together to share good practice and make learning exciting and invigorating for our children? This seemingly simple task is becoming increasingly impossible against an overwhelming backdrop of constant monitoring, assessment and testing.  The balance is all wrong. Teachers now spend so much time documenting evidence for the work done in lessons, and inputting countless data into spreadsheets, that they have precious little time to prioritise the most important part of their job: giving worthwhile feedback and planning high quality lessons.  Yes, I want my child to get good qualifications, but I also want her to have the space to be creative, the ability to socialise and above all else, to have an enjoyment of learning. 

40% of teachers leave within the first five years.  The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw has famously said, ‘if anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right’.  An ethos that condones low staff morale is not a supportive one. If a member of staff challenges a procedure in their workplace, they should feel free to do so not only without fear of recrimination, but because their voice is valued and will be listened to. After all, we know that students learn the most when asking questions, when curiosity is encouraged, and where they are challenged to look at different perspectives. How can we expect teachers to make that vital connection with our children, to encourage higher levels of thinking when their own levels of stress, tension and exhaustion are so overwhelming?

For many teaching is a vocation; for all it is a profession.  By definition, professionals should be accountable. Of course I want to know that all teachers follow a professional code and I certainly want to know that my child’s teacher is fully qualified.  But the problem comes when professionals are accountable to a system that undermines and contradicts the very values we want instilled in our children.  I don’t want the people who spend more time with my child than I do, spending more time proving they’re doing the job than doing the job itself. 
I support the OCOS charter because like our children, teachers and support staff need space for reflection; to try out new ideas that will make the next lesson better than the last; to be nurtured and supported so that they can grow and perform to the best of their ability. Like our children, teachers and support staff need to be respected, valued and listened to and have working conditions that are conducive to a positive learning environment. Like our children, teachers and support staff need to be treated equally regardless of gender, age, race or religion.  Because like our children, we want our teachers and support staff to represent our vibrant and diverse community where everyone has a voice that is equally valued.



Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A roundup of local and national stories on Academies and Free Schools (2): Silver Birches, shiny chairs and conflicts of interest

In April 2014, the Education Funding Agency published a report into a whistleblower’s allegations of financial mismanagement at the Silver Birches Academy Trust, which controls the Chingford Hall and Whittingham primary academies.  The report concluded that the school had awarded a contract for ICT services to a company which the Chair of Governors worked for, in spite of the fact that there were two lower offers. The Agency concluded that there was insufficient documentary evidence supporting the school’s decision. In addition, refurbishment work was undertaken at Whittingham Primary at a value of £56,000, for which there was no tendering process, in breach of the trust’s own contracting policy. Of this total, £25,000 was accounted for by the purchase of a range of items for the Executive Headteacher’s office, including 14 executive armchairs. As the agency rather mildly put it, ‘We have not seen a business case to support the assertion that this represented value for money’.

It would be tempting to say of course that this was an anomaly, or a case of people making mistakes and it’s all better now, but the truth is that the findings of the EFA report into Silver Birches mirror a national problem with academies. That’s pretty much the conclusion of a report commissioned by the Education Select Committee, a powerful committee of MPs who oversee education policy. Their report, published in September highlighted a series of areas where governors of academy trusts were acting in ways that conflicted with the public interest. These included:

  • Connected or related party transactions, in which people on Trust Boards benefited personally, or through their companies from their positions
  • Sponsors providing paid services through arrangements that prevent schools using other services
  • Inappropriate levels of control over school decision making
  • Poor skills or capabilities on trust boards
  • Inattention to or ignoring of rules on conflicts of interests, particularly among ‘young’ or fast growing trusts
  • Over-powerful executives and governing bodies too small to hold them to account
  • Failure to implement competitive tendering or have regard to value for money (pp. 4-6)

Much of this echoes other analysis of the problems of academies, including our own briefing to the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s and our analysis of Free Schools which you can read here.

The fact is that there is growing recognition that the academies and free schools policies are broken and are in urgent need of fixing. Yet regardless of this, groups of governors, with the connivance and active support of the government, are continuing to remove our schools from our communities and place them in the hands of small groups of people who are not being properly held to account for their actions. This is a recipe for more and more problems in our schools.

It’s time for a change. Some of this is about technical fixes in the law or the school system to mend gaping holes that encourage bad practice. But it’s also about more than that. We need to move the debate on and rebuild our school system around a new mass consensus about what it is that our schools are for and how they should be run. Competition and consumer choice have been tried and are failing, day in, day out.

That’s one reason why we’ve launched our Charter for Education - to start a debate that we can all get involved in that can shape the behaviour of our schools locally now and that can play a part in shaping the ideas of the future. Get involved in the debate!

Academies and Free Schools in Waltham Forest – a roundup of local and national news (1)

Our Community Our Schools was set up in part to oppose moves to establish Free Schools and to convert our community maintained schools into academies. We were pleased when it became clear back in March this year that one of the proposed Free Schools was not going to happen, but the truth is that it’s very difficult for communities or even for teachers to defend their schools. The legislation has been drafted in such a way that small groups of people in Whitehall can collude with sponsors to set up Free Schools or convert schools to academy status almost at will. There continue to be great successes for communities, such as the recent campaign in Hove, but the fact is that the dice are heavily loaded against local communities and democracy.

Tauheedul Free School opens and St Mary’s/St Saviour’s convert

In Waltham Forest, we’ve seen Tauheedul Free Schools Trust open their new ‘Eden School for Girls’ at the Silver Birches site, in spite of considerable opposition and what we said was a disastrously flawed consultation process. It remains to be seen how it will fare in its current premises and how it is able to fulfil its aspiration to recruit 50% non-Muslim pupils.

In addition, St Mary’s and St Saviour’s primary schools announced in September that following consultation they were proceeding with academy conversion. The decision to convert followed meetings at which a total of 28 people were present and a consultation to which 14 people responded. Even assuming that there was no duplication among these people (not a particularly sound assumption), that’s a total response rate of around 9% of the potential parent body. Hardly a rousing episode in our democratic history and certainly it looks appalling when compared with the turnout in a parent ballot to resist the academisation of Thomas Gamuel primary for example. Yet the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s appear content with their mandate and as a result, yet another community school is being removed from our community to become part of an academy trust. And of course it’s worth remembering that the rest of the community had no say in this whatsoever, in spite of the impact it will have on the rest of the borough.


Meanwhile the academy chain that started in Walthamstow, Reach2 aims to extend its rapidly growing empire of schools by opening a new primary Free School in Leyton. Reach2 has only existed since 2012 when it was established by Steve Lancashire, the head of Hillyfield school following its conversion to academy status. The chain had two schools by the end of 2012 and 27 by 2014, including Chapel End and Woodside in Waltham Forest. Reach2 has powerful friends in the Department for Education, who have seconded a member of their staff to the academy chain and written a glowing report on their unique model (full of praise for their mission and core values embodied in the concepts of ‘touchstone’ and ‘cornerstone’, etc etc etc). Teaching unions seem less keen. The NUT and NASUWT have been convening Trust level talks to try to get acceptable pay and appraisal schemes across the trust’s schools, but so far without success. Reach2 are also currently refusing to pay into borough-wide schemes that pay for union reps to have facilities time.


Reach2 appear to operate by taking over ‘struggling’ schools, often as a result of forced conversions and then grouping them within a regional Multi-Academy Trust. This is seen as a way of negotiating the problems that arise when a chain grows fast and takes over individual schools across huge geographic distances (someone really ought to invent some local borough-based way of organising schools, some sort of accountable local body….).

Even the DfE’s glowing account of the rise of Reach2 includes an admission that growing fast and covering huge distances has caused problems for the management of the chain. And this should ring alarm bells for Reach2 as the fast growth of academy chains was criticised in 2013 by the Academies Commission and earlier this year by Ofsted. Basically, it is widely recognised now that there is a real problem providing public oversight of unaccountable academy chains and it’s proving almost impossible to monitor what’s going on.

One result of this is the emergence of scandalous situations such as were seen with the chain AET which had to have schools removed because they were performing so badly.