Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Education Bill: You can have any school you like as long as it's an Academy

So, the new Conservative government has unveiled its vision for education reform and it seems to be to settle accounts with comprehensive community education once and for all.

Nicky Morgan may not have Michael Gove’s gift for generating universal animosity but her actions since the Tories won their majority remind us that politics is not just personalities. Morgan’s Education Bill, published last week represents a nakedly partisan attack, not just on comprehensive community schools but on democracy and, ironically, parental choice.

What the Education Bill will do:

The Education Bill creates a new category of ‘coasting schools’, which the Secretary of State will define later in regulations and that will bring a whole new raft of community schools within her existing power to make an academy order by making them Eligible for Intervention. Intervention will include replacing headteachers (operating with a
questionable assumption that there is an endless supply of ‘superheads’ ready to take their places), replacing governing bodies or making an academy order.

In the case of community schools rated by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’, the Secretary of State will have a new statutory duty to order them to become academies. This will make it effectively impossible to argue that the use of an academy order is a disproportionate response to inadequacy. Instead, academy status will become a necessary legal consequence of Ofsted’s rating. (*The legal implications of the Bill are usefully
summarised here.). It also rests on the assumption that making them an academy is in itself a solution to this problem. Inadequate academies (surely a logical impossibility in this world view?) will simply be transferred to another academy sponsor.

The Bill seeks to close other so-called loopholes in existing legislation. By ‘loopholes’, Morgan means the statutory duty to consult on any academy order. This was already a weak bit of legislation that gave communities little real say, but nonetheless the Conservatives seem to have found it embarrassing that communities have used the rhetoric of parental choice and the mechanism of consultation to launch some remarkably effective challenges to the academy-producing machinery set up in Whitehall. So that has to go too.

Finally, the bill places a legal duty on governors to promote and facilitate the transition to academy status. So once the machinery swings into action, a school’s governors will have a statutory duty to help the process along the way. Again, it seems that situations like that at Thomas Gamuel in our own borough, where a governing body had to be replaced to remove democratic, community opposition, were proving embarrassing and irksome.

Running throughout the Education Bill is a barely concealed contempt for democracy and community voice. The law that allows the government to create academies was already undemocratic as it removed schools from democratic oversight with minimal process. Now the last democratic spaces are to be shut down and parental choice is revealed as a useful fiction. Nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the academisation steamroller.

Faith-based policy:

The government will argue that choice and democracy are ultimately trumped by the interests of your child. All this is being done for the children, right? But of course we know that’s not true. As
Henry Stewart from the Local Schools Network and others have argued, there is no evidence to support the idea that academy status is automatically beneficial for schools and there is some evidence that academy chains are doing worse than their community school equivalents.

This is remarkable because it shows that what’s happening here is faith-based politics. The government knows that academy status is not a magic bullet but it doesn’t care. It believes, on a fundamental level that community comprehensive school status is inherently wrong and appeals to evidence merely cloud the clarity of that insight. Its faith is based on the idea that the comprehensive experiment, like the welfare state and the NHS, are historic errors that need to be reversed and represent impurities in its emerging education market. And it is reinforced in this faith by the CEO’s of the academy chains who are queuing up to praise this bill the rafters. Just have a read of the
quotes on the government’s press release, including from Waltham Forest’s own home-grown Reach2.

What can we do?

In the immediate term, the bill will face opposition, although with the government commanding a working majority and a woefully weak education opposition from Tristram Hunt, it’s difficult to see it being substantially amended. Nonetheless OCOS will be looking to support any attempts to weaken the bill, so watch this space.

However, with such a profound attack on democracy and our community schools, we have to do more. One answer to attempts to close down democracy and exclude people from the school system is to create more democratic pressure. That means that locally, we need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that even where formal mechanisms don’t exist, the voices of parents, teachers and communities can find expression through mass meetings, polls, surveys, protests.

Similarly, if the government and academy chains don’t want us to be involved in our local schools, then we should be getting even more stuck in, using every opportunity to make it clear that we don’t accept their vision and we don’t accept a passive role in our school system.

Finally, we need to continue to build organisations, policies and a vision for an alternative school system. Locally, we have tried to contribute toward this a borough-wide campaign oriented around a positive vision for our local schools, in the form of our Charter for Education and we’ll continue to develop this initiative. But there’s much more to do. Watch this space for more soon.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Baseline testing - what it is and why you should be worried

We're pleased to host a guest blog from Katie Lindenburg, Primary school teacher, NUT member and mother, about the new Baseline tests for 4 year olds...
What are the Baseline Tests for 4 year olds?

From September 2016, all schools in England will be required to use standardised baseline tests to assess children in their first few weeks of Reception.  (Many schools will be piloting the tests from September 2015.) This is despite considerable expert opposition and the recommendations of the Government’s own consultation process.  Baseline Testing was introduced in 1997 and withdrawn in 2002 as it proved unworkable and a similar scheme was found to be ineffective and scrapped in Wales in 2012.

Schools have been given six different options for the test, all provided by private companies.  The assessments are carried out 1:1 between teacher and child with most options requiring children to answer questions on a computer screen.  Most tests have right and wrong answers, with no room for teacher intervention.  If a child gets a question wrong, the teacher must move on.  Each child’s attainment will be measured against a ‘pre-determined content domain’, resulting in them getting a raw score which will be used the ‘baseline’ against which all future attainment will be measured.  So, the score a child a child receives in his or her first weeks of Reception are supposed to indicate their attainment in end of Key Stage 2 SATs tests 7 years later!

Why should we oppose the baseline tests?

-          The tests are going to be extremely disruptive.  Entering Reception is a huge transition for children.   In order for this transition to be as smooth as possible, teachers should be building supportive relationships with their pupils, not focussing on tests. 

-          The tests will be statistically misleading.  The assessments are based on a very narrow checklist of basic skills and knowledge and take absolutely no account of the different ways and rates at which children develop.  No account will be taken of a child’s age.  As every parent and teacher knows, there can be a huge difference between a child who has just turned four and one who is about to turn 5. 

-          The tests will place pressure on schools to ‘teach to the test’.  The curriculum will inevitably be squeezed and distorted as result of this pressure, detracting from the rich, playful, exploratory and creative environment we should be fostering in the Early Years.  It will add to the current downgrading of play and is likely to prioritise measurable academic achievement in literacy and numeracy over physical, social and emotional, and intellectual development

-          The tests will be harmful to parent – school partnerships.  If schools decide to share the results of the assessments with parents, then they could potentially be told that their child is a ‘failure’ in their first weeks of school.  It also opens up limitless opportunities for private companies to cash in on parental worries with preparatory materials, practice tests and tutoring.

-          The tests are not based on the needs of children.  The results of the tests are not going to provide meaningful or useful information to teachers of parents and carers in terms of progress or attainment.  They are driven by accountability measures and will be another stick to beat schools with.  Undoubtedly, the baseline results will also be used to determine teachers’ pay.

What can you do?
Members of the local NUT will be out campaigning regularly and asking parents, teachers and those who care about children to join us.

·         Join our Facebook page – Scrap Baseline Test for 4 Year Olds (Waltham Forest)

·         Sign a postcard and send it in to your school to let them know you are unhappy with the tests (these will be available at our events)

·         Join us at events in the local area to let parents know why we are opposed to these tests.  We will be in Lloyd Park on Sunday 17th May for a picnic, play and information session, with very special guest Michael Rosen.

If you want to get involved please contact us via Facebook or email

Monday, 30 March 2015

Waltham Forest needs a new secondary school… but not this one.

Readers of the Waltham Forest Guardian will have seen the news that the borough is to have a new secondary school. Thanks to the Tory led Coalition’s legislation, it has to be a Free School. And thanks to the Department for Education it will be sponsored by the Lion Academy Trust, which already runs three primary academies in the borough.

Wrong school, wrong time, wrong place

There is no doubt that Waltham Forest needs a new secondary school. Figures produced by the local authority indicate that the bulge in primary places will work its way through to create a need for one new secondary school by September 2017 and another by 2019. But with funding following pupils, timing and positioning are important. It matters a lot to other schools in the borough where the new school is built and when it opens. If it opens too early and in the wrong place it will harm other schools. Yet the government’s insane legislation and its ideological fixation with Free Schools means that the Lion Academy Trust have been given preapproval to open a new school in September 2016. If it ever opens, it is likely to be built at taxpayer expense, wherever the Education Funding Agency can find some land it can buy.

And then there’s the question of the approved sponsor. The Lion Academy Trust currently run three primary schools in the borough, including Thomas Gamuel, which they took over in the face of massive local opposition. But they don’t run any secondary schools. We’ll be looking at the Lion Academy Trust in more detail in later posts, but for now, the summary is that this school is likely to be built at the wrong time, in the wrong place by the wrong people. Perhaps that’s why the indications are that this proposal is not being welcomed by the local authority, other headteachers or teaching unions.

Alternative plan?

But what’s the alternative? With an objective need for a new secondary school by September 2017 something needs to be done now. Interestingly, even the executive head of the Lion Academy Trust recognises that the election may upset his plans. It’s possible that a Labour led government will simply stop proposals that don’t fulfil its criteria of need and may start to relax the constraints on local authorities. But the Local Authority can’t sit back and hope. We hear talk of a possible alternative plan being worked out that combines further expansion of existing secondaries with a new school involving the Co-operative as a sponsor. This would be a Free School, because current legislation means it has to be, but as a Co-Op school it would at least have a democratic governance structure that could involve the community, the local authority and other schools. It would also have a better relationship with teaching unions. It would also enjoy the active support of Walthamstow’s MP who is already on record as actively supporting any proposals from the Co-Op.

It’s not an ideal solution and we believe that it would suffer from weaknesses relative to local authority community schools. Neither should anyone underestimate the difficulties that would be faced in bringing this plan to fruition. However, given the current range of options faced by the local authority and by the local community, we think that any such alternative plan would merit support over the DfE’s choice, the Lion Academy Trust.

More details as soon as we have them…  


Monday, 12 January 2015

Guest Blog: Laura Bates writes for OCOS on the importance of Sex and Relationship Education

The OCOS Charter for Education calls for a rounded education for all children as well as for schools to be safe places where our children are free from bullying and sexual harassment. We at OCOS believe that unbiased, fact based, SRE (sex and relationship education) is crucial if we are to achieve that aim. We believe that SRE shouldn't just be about the mechanics of where babies come from. We believe it should also address issues such as the importance of consent in sexual relationships, what abusive relationships are, and it should challenge sexist and homophobic stereotypes and bullying.

Our Community Our Schools welcomes the Our Bodies, Our Future conference at Frederick Bremer school on 24th January and we would encourage the many local parents who support our campaign to attend. In advance of the conference, we are delighted to welcome the keynote speaker, Laura Bates, as a guest blogger for OCOS on the campaign for compulsory SRE. 

Laura is founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of over 80,000 women and girls' daily experiences of gender inequality. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Independent, Red magazine, Grazia etc. She is Patron of SARSAS (Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support, formerly Bristol Rape Crisis). She works regularly with schools, universities and businesses and collaborated closely with the British Transport Police on Project Guardian, which has increased the reporting of sexual offences on public transport in London by 25% and the detection of offenders by 32%.

When the UK Youth Parliament 
surveyed almost 22,000 young people about SRE, 40% said theirs was either poor or very poor, and 43% said they hadn’t received any at all. When Brook surveyed over 2,000 14-18-year-olds throughout the UK, nearly half said that SRE “doesn’t really cover what they need to know about sex”. An ICM poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) found that 77% of young people feel they do not have enough information or support to deal with physical or sexual violence. And a recent Ofsted report found that schools were failing young people on SRE.

Wherever you look there are ample indications that our current system is not fit for purpose. In a world in which they are bombarded with sexist media, gender stereotypes and online porn (which frequently gives a biased and misogynistic portrayal of sex), young people desperately need support and information about issues such as consent and healthy relationships. And in a world in which 85,000 women are raped annually in England and Wales and 400,000 sexually assaulted, how can we fail to tackle vital issues such as consent and healthy relationships in the classroom? 

Meanwhile, the NSPCC warns that “thousands of teenage girls who are sexually assaulted by boys suffer in silence because they often accept the abuse as part of a relationship or don’t know how to stop it”. Given that many young people also experience or witness abuse at home, (750,000 children witness domestic violence each year), the government has an urgent responsibility to provide information in schools about what constitutes abuse, and to let young people know that help and support is available. 

Perhaps most pertinently of all, we know that these problems are also happening in schools (where 300 rapes have been reported to police in the past three years and almost one in three girls experiences unwanted sexual touching). So education needs to start early and must cover issues surrounding rape and consent, where there is currently a huge amount of myth and misinformation, particularly among young people.
The idea that children should be given guidance and information on these issues seems so sensible that many people are shocked to hear it isn’t already on the curriculum. But it’s currently not compulsory for schools to teach young people about sexual consent, healthy relationships, or issues such as online pornography or abuse.

Nearly 40,000 people have signed a petition from Everyday Sexism and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, calling on party leaders to make sex and relationships compulsory in all schools if they are elected at the General Election, including issues such as consent, healthy relationships and online porn. With the responses in from all the major political parties, all but the Conservatives say they would support such a move.
It’s great that some parents discuss these issues with their children, but we can’t guarantee they all will. Some parents describe feeling unable to discuss them, or find it difficult to know where to start. Schools provide young people with guidance about plenty of other important life lessons, such as healthy eating, so why not give them similar support on the universal topic of human relationships? Giving young people the tools they need to safely and happily navigate relationships is simply essential. It’s too important to leave to chance.