Tuesday, 17 May 2016

What you need to know about Academy Schools

Under immense public pressure, the government has rowed back from its threat to force all schools to become academies, but it has made it clear that it will still force many other to do so and it still wants all schools to be academies by 2020.  

It can seem like a dry and difficult issue, but it really matters if your school becomes an academy. In this blog we try to explain why.  

There is no evidence that Academy Schools are better schools 

 As various studies have shown and a committee of MPs reviewing the evidence concluded, there is no proof that becoming an academy does anything to improve a school. In fact there is evidence that academies that are part of chains may well deteriorate and perform worse than state schools. ecent studies have indicated that state schools overall are outperforming academies. One things you can definitely say about the drive to force schools to become academies is that it’s not based on evidence. 

Academy schools are more likely to undermine teachers working conditions and try to employ less qualifies staff. 

Teachers matter. You want the best teachers, respected and supported to teach our children. Academies run themselves like businesses, because they have to make a surplus every year and they often have to pay big senior staff salaries. The only way they can do this is by cutting staff costs. This can mean trying to squeeze more teaching out of hard-working staff or cutting access to other conditions of service. In an NUT survey, 43% of teachers at academies reported coming under pressure to move onto worse contracts with rising workloads.  

Academy Schools tend to exclude children they think may damage their results 

All schools are under pressure to deliver results in tests. But community schools have strict rules that say they have to provide education to everyone, equally. Academies have more freedom to change their admissions policies and when combined with the obsession with results, this can have terrible consequences. Studies have found that academies are manipulating their admissions criteria to skew their intake away from children they think will damage their Ofsted results. Academies are also resorting to permanently excluding children they see as a ‘poor quality’. How can you be sure that your child will not fall victim to academies attempting to ‘game’ their admissions or disciplinary policies in pursuit of results? And what would you do if you thought that was happening? Which leads us to… 

Academy schools are less accountable to parents 

If you have a problem with your school, as things stand, you have several ways of getting something done about it. You can raise it with the Local Authority or its elected representatives, who have a responsibility to ensure that the schools are delivering on their core mission for the borough. There are also parent governors who are currently elected to school governing bodies. Academies on the other hand are essentially private companies who have a legal contract with the government in Whitehall to provide education in your area. They have no other responsibility except to remain solvent. Who will you complain to if you have a problem? The government?
Academy schools become more like businesses   

Once a school becomes an academy, the people running it may remain the same for a while but the evidence shows that governors and staff can quickly turn over in academy schools. Academies typically look to make their governing bodies smaller and increase the power of ‘super-heads’ so that they become more like the directors of multi-company enterprises. And power is concentrated in fewer hands, the evidence suggests that academies are more vulnerable to financial mismanagement, cronyism and nepotism. Academies have been plagued by a succession of stories based on investigations by the Education Funding Agency, such as the Perry Beeches scandal. A school’s ethos simply won’t survive the changes that academy status brings.  

This is not about education – but turning our schools into sources of profit 

In summary, there’s little evidence that academisation is about standards and while the government has shied away from forcing all schools to become academies, it’s now clear that it was never really about giving parents more choice. In reality, this is part of a longer term project to break up state schools and turn them into private companies. This will make it easier to ultimately turn them into schools that can be run for profit, as in parts of the USA, Sweden and Latin America. It also provides huge opportunities for companies to sell education technology to companies to reduce their ‘costs’ (teachers) and for private equity funds to exploit schools’ land assets. A small number of people stand to make a lot of money out of our schools and our children’s education. That’s what is driving the government’s push to force schools to become academies. It brings their dream a little closer. Unfortunately the record of for-profit schools in the US and Sweden shows that while shareholders turn nice profits, it is children and communities that suffer.   

What can we do? 

The government’s recent actions show that it knows that the tide is turning against academies and free schools and they may be running out of time to force their vision on us. We need to build support for a more positive vision and more positive policies for our schools. That's one reason why  OCOS developed our Charter. But in the meantime, it is possible to stop some schools becoming academies and it’s possible to mitigate some of the worst effects of academisation. But this requires parents and teachers to unite to campaign and show that they are not prepared to sit back and watch their schools being taken away from them.  
  • Talk to other parents – set yourself a target to talk to three other parents and direct them to this blogsite where they can get more information. 
  • Let us know if you’re happy to be a local contact for your school – we need people to tell us what’s happening in our local schools and to give information out to other parents.  
  • Write to your local MP – Use the points in this post to write to your MP setting out your concerns about academisation and asking them to support our local schools. 
  • Write to your local Councillor – we need the Local Authority to hear the same message… 
  • Share this blog widely on social media. 
Help us turn this build an active community that unites parents and teachers alike in campaigning for better schools for all our children. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Parents explain why their children are not in school today

In this post, local parents explain why their children are being withdrawn from school as part of the 'Let Kids be Kids' national protest against testing:

"Our son Wilfred, 5, is on strike today because we feel strongly that kids are being pushed too hard too soon. Wilfred attends a school that does all it can to shelter him from the worst of the Conservative government’s approach to education, but there is only so much they can do. Taking part in the Kids’ Strike is a positive way we can express our disagreement with government policy. This day of fun learning is the antithesis of the prescriptive, pressured environment being created for our children by SATs and the acceleration of the National Curriculum. The agenda of forced academisation puts good local community schools, like Wilfred’s, at risk.  We stand together with teachers and other parents to say enough is enough, let our kids be kids." 

Elaine and Matthew Londesborough-van Rooyen, Parents 

"I love language. I’m a journalist, worked for five years as a TEFL teacher, did Latin and English at A level and learnt Spanish as an adult. The best way to learn a language is through exposure and immersion, not through the naming of parts. Being able to identify a subjunctive will not help my child write a better sentence or encourage her love of learning. Testing her repeatedly from a young age will not make her want to go to school. I’m taking part in Tuesday’s protest because I’m strongly opposed to the direction that education in this country is taking. The pressure that is being put on both teachers and children by SATs is unnecessary and unacceptable." 

Courtney Daniel, Journalist and parent

"This government is wrong. It's wrong about standardised testing for primary age children, it's wrong about forcing schools to become academies.  It's wrong about academies full stop. We have 4 primary school aged children and we are lucky, our local primary school is a wonderful place, navigating the choppy seas of education policy whilst still being child-centred and engendering a genuine love of learning in our children. It may then, come as a surprise that we will be taking part in today's strike action by removing our children from school. We are doing so in support if primaries and teachers across the country who find themselves undermined by a government bent on constant testing, grading and guidelines, who wish to push it's own idealistic, non-evidenced based agenda and in doing so are de-professionalising and de-moralising teachers,  who we, as parents, trust to nurture, guide and educate our children. As a parent, and a GP I find myself at critically at odds with the government over education policy and the future of the NHS. Like junior doctors, and the head teachers union, parents need to take a stand to protect our children."

Lynette Mason, GP and Parent 

"As a parent of a child in year one of primary school and a child in nursery, I fear for the future of my children’s education. The current government’s policy of repeated testing of our children at an increasingly young age is destroying this country’s education system and bringing the nation’s amazing teachers to their knees. The new curriculum, the new primary assessment framework and the tougher year two and year six tests are not what our children need to become lifelong learners. This testing is done in the name of educational attainment and of course I want my children to do well in life, but I also want them to be allowed to develop at their own pace. Our two children are enthused, challenged and nurtured on a daily basis by wonderful teachers and teaching assistants who know where they are in terms of their progress. I trust my children’s teachers to recognise when they are struggling and to support them to achieve the best they can. I want my children’s school to have the freedom to teach a broad range of skills and develop creativity, utilising all the teachers’ knowledge of education. I don’t want my children or their school continually judged on meaningless tests at the expense of all else. I trust my children’s school with their education, but I do not trust this government with our education system."

Heddy Korachi-alaoui – Teaching assistant and parent
Kirsten Brown – GP and parent

"I can only imagine how challenging it is to be a teacher in this age.  It is one of the reasons I have held off applying to become a teacher myself.  As someone who studied teaching and learning (as part of my PG Cert in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) I am only too aware of the challenges facing those wishing to enable learning in others.  It is such a shame that instead of using their hard learnt understanding of pedagogy, teachers instead are having to narrow their teaching to make pupils, children, test ready.  It is a waste that instead of using formative assessments as a learning tool, they are having to carry out summative assessments to feed back statistics to a government that seems to know nothing about pedagogy.  They lack any clear understanding of the philosophies of teaching and learning, or the multitude of ways in which individuals can learn and flourish.  So Elspeth is not at school today because I want to challenge the government.  I want to protect her future, and that of her two brothers currently in reception.  I want to stand up for all the other children who are struggling right now, who are stressed out and unhappy at school thanks to these bizarre tests."

Laura Lea Milling – Parent

"Taking our daughter out of her brilliant school has been an excruciatingly difficult decision to make. Particularly as I am a Parent Governor there. In fact the school navigates the testing landscape so well that students in Yr 2 don’t even know they are doing a test. How ridiculous that her fantastic teachers have to jump through these hoops. We’ve explained to her that although we all love her school, the people in charge of all of the schools in the country are making some very bad choices, and we have to send a message to them. We’ve spoken about how hard it is to make a stand and speak out when we think something is wrong.  If the same trajectory continues, Polly will be going to a secondary school run like a business, populated by unqualified teachers, and attended by increasing numbers of students with mental health issues due to an unforgiving exam-centred culture. The systematic dismantling of the Education system and every other public service by this government is nothing short of terrifying."

Michelle Hendry – Parent

"We feel strongly that initiatives such as constant and early testing and forced academisation are being implemented without due consideration for the implications, and that as a result our children face unnecessary testing and a curriculum that limits enjoyment and real understanding. We want our protest to demonstrate the trust we have in the teaching profession, and our desire that teachers be allowed to teach effectively and without constant constraint in order to embed a life-long love of learning in our children."

Sear Orr – Art Teacher and Parent
Agata Baranowska – Orr – Interpreter and parent

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

OCOS statement on the 3 May day of protest against SAT tests

We are aware that many parents are discussing the forthcoming protest on Tuesday 3 May against the Key Stage 1 and 2 SAT tests and seeking more information or guidance over what they should do.

Who is coordinating the protest?

The protest on 3 May has been coordinated by parents groups, most notably the campaign group Let Kids Be Kids.

What is the protest about?

The action on 3 May is in response to the government’ growing obsession with early and harder testing. OCOS supporters have written on this blog about their anger at the Year 2 SATs, and the new, harder Year 6 SAT tests. Many of these tests will take place during the week beginning 3 May.

What is actually happening on 3 May?

Let Kids Be Kids are encouraging parents to withdraw their children from school on Tuesday 3 May for a day of ‘fun learning’ as a national protest against the SATs. They are quite clear that this is not a boycott as the tests do not all take place on the same day. It is instead a practical protest action that can be taken by parents to register their dissent from the test-driven education being forced on schools and teachers by the government.

Is it just parents of Y2 or Y6 kids who are participating?

The day of action is not confined to just those with children sitting year 2 or Year 6 SATs, it is a day on which parents can use withdrawal from school to show solidarity and register their anger, not at schools or teachers but at the government.

Won’t this hurt the schools?

These protests are intended to support schools and teachers and are supported by teaching unions. The aim is to put pressure on government to stop piling more demands on our children, teachers and schools.

What is the OCOS position on the protest?

OCOS supports this day of action.

We are also aware that this is a campaign at an early stage. As a consequence, many parents are only just becoming aware of it now and many more may not know about the day of action. Working parents may not be able to take the time off work. Some may not yet feel confident to take this action and may have unanswered questions about how their school will respond and whether they will be fined for an unauthorised absence.

In this case, we would ask that those of you who support the aims of the campaign send in a letter of support for the day of action. We have set out suggested text below:


Dear [Headteacher]

I am/We are writing to express support for the national day of protest against the Key Stage 1 and 2 SAT tests. This day of action is not aimed at schools or teachers. We know how hard you work for our children every day. Instead this action is intended to send a message to the government that parents do not support their policy of early and harder testing for children in primary schools.

I am/we are unable to withdraw my child for this day of action so they will be attending today / My child will be attending school today.

However, I/we support the aims of the day of action and reserve the right to withdraw my/our child from school in support of future days of action.

I would request that a copy of this letter is forwarded to the Board of Governors of the school and reported it its next meeting.

Yours sincerely,

I want to support the action by taking my child out of school for the day. How should I notify the school?

Any parents who wish to withdraw their children on that day can find a series of template letters they can use here.



Thursday, 24 March 2016

Year 6 SAT tests: Pity our children – and our schools…

The Department of Education has issued new instructions for the implementation and assessment of Y6 SATs but teachers and schools are struggling to make sense of them. Alice McIntosh, parent of a Year 6 child, shares their alarm.

I've just got home from the briefing on SATS for Y6 parents organised by my daughter's primary school. It wasn't a very reassuring experience. To be fair the staff did as good a job as they could in explaining the new SATS to parents, and tried to answer our questions, but the deputy head used the phrases 'it has been a bit chaotic' and 'I know this sounds completely bonkers' quite a lot.
First thing, our Y6 children are the first to go through the new tougher curriculum, and it was only brought in as they started  Y5, so they haven't had much time to cover material that used to be covered in secondary school like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions and the notorious use of exclamation marks and fronted adverbials.

Poor kids…
But not to worry, the school is 'playing catch' up, running booster maths classes, sending maths homework every week, and doing extra SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar). Yes I know about that, I spent so long persuading my daughter to finish pages of fractions she didn't want to do that we didn't have time for the next chapter of her bedtime story. The rest of the curriculum has been a bit squeezed, but, don't worry, the kids are still getting PE and doing history, and when the SATS are out of the way they can go back to all those things the children enjoy.

Last year, high achieving children took SATS for their expected level, and extra hard SATS for the higher levels. We learn this year, in what just seems to be wanton cruelty to 10 year olds, that everyone will take the same paper, and it will include the higher level work. So the children are not expected to get this higher level work right, may not even have been taught it, but they will have to struggle with it in exam conditions and feel like a failure when they can't do it.

And they are doing lots of practice tests. ‘But how can they if these are the first tests?’, asks one parent reasonably enough. Ah well, the Department for Education has helpfully published sample maths tests on their web pages, and now commercial publishers are developing practice tests to sell to schools. Of course they are, very entrepreneurial.

What about children with Special Needs? Well, if they have a Statement of Special Educational Needs they can get help in the tests, like help reading instructions in the maths test, but not help with reading the reading test obviously. What about all the children with SEN who don't have a statement? I've read the open letter from the British Dyslexia Association, and it seems like no child with dyslexia is going to meet the expected standard for spelling.

It is vital your child gets an early night and eats a good breakfast during SATs week, and if your child is poorly on the day bring them in to school anyway and they can go home after they have taken the test. If they are so sick they really can't come in then there is an all-new policy that children can take the tests on another day. Did you know all the Y6 children in England take the same tests on the same day? The child will have to be kept in isolation from all the other children when they come back to school, in case they tell them what is on the test, but once they have taken the test they missed while they are sick they can go back to class as normal.

On to reporting SATS results, and, 'levels' familiar to us from Y2 SATS (and every parents evening and report since) are now out, clearly leaving the staff a bit nostalgic. Well, I never found them very useful, so what is replacing them?

Scaled scores apparently, where 100 is the expected standard, above 100 is above the expected standard, below 100 is below the expected standard. Sounds a bit like IQ scores to me, where in any cohort the mean score is always 100, 115 is a standard deviation above the mean, 130 two standard deviations above the mean, 85 a standard deviation below the mean etc. So, will they 'norm reference' or adjust the 'scaled scores' so that 100 is the mean and 50% of children get over a hundred, and 50% get less than 100? Or is it an inflexible 'expected standard' and if 90% of UK children in Y6 fail to meet the expected standard then 90% will get less than 100?

Well, the staff said they actually don't know as the Department for Education haven't told them yet, and they don't know if or when the Department for Education will tell schools, let alone parents. OK, so we will get a raw score and a scaled score for our child, but we won't get any sense of what they mean either in relation to their peers or in relation to concrete statements about what they can and can't do. It really brings it home that this farce is not for the benefit of children or parents, or new teachers in secondary school. This is all about generating data that can be used to produce league tables of schools, so the schools can compete against each other in a fake market in education. I can think of other things to spend the £40.1 million per year on.

I wanted to ask how the SATS results will affect the performance related pay for my daughter's teachers, but I felt too sorry for them.

Alice McIntosh is a pseudonym.

Monday, 21 March 2016

We need a broad coalition to defend our community schools from this latest attack

This was all supposed to be about parent power and choice, wasn’t it? The government has clearly decided that this particular story has run its course. Perhaps there was too much debate about academies’ records, too much resistance from schools, parents, local authorities, a slowing rate of change. So, the government has decided to change the game and take matters into its own hands.

Last week, the government announced that it will be bringing forward legislation to ensure that all maintained schools will now become academies, either as part of multi-academy trusts or, exceptionally, as stand-alone schools, regardless of what anyone else thinks. The requirement for schools to even have parent governors will be removed, meaning that parents will have no formal voice in their schools any more. Schools will be run by trusts on a business model that removes them further from their communities. We as parents, resident in our communities, will have less say than ever in the lives of our schools.

If the government has abandoned its rhetoric of choice, it also seems to have ditched the tiresome burden of evidence-based policy-making. There is simply no evidence that academies in themselves improve performance.
[1] In fact sponsored chain academies in particular tend to perform less well than maintained schools. The number of voices saying this has only been growing in the last few years. Regardless of this, Nicky Morgan has decided that our schools will be academies, one way or another.

It seems likely instead that some sections of the government have grown tired of waiting and want to speed up the process of creating a market of competing trusts and chains with a dose of what used to be called ‘shock therapy’. The endgame for some in the government, as we have known for some years, is the creation of schools owned by shareholder-owned companies and run for profit, as has happened in Florida, Michigan and other areas of the US. Stories about empowering parents and improving schools got the Conservatives this far but not far enough and not fast enough. So, it’s decided to resort to simply dictating to parents, teachers, schools and communities.

What you can do now:

Our Community, Our Schools was set up to defend and promote our community schools and the progressive vision of education that sits behind them. The government’s latest move is a devastating attack on our schools and the idea that they should be embedded in and answerable to communities and the public. The government’s move has prompted widespread outrage and has the potential to mobilise a very wide coalition in protest. But if we are to frighten the government and give full expression to this potential, parents must be actively involved and at the centre of campaigning. We must ensure that we are reaching deep into our communities, raising awareness and involving more people than ever.

OCOS is planning how we can play our part in building a broad campaign now, but in the immediate term, here are some things we can do:
There are two petitions circulating which you can sign. Both have more than 100,000 signatures but we need to make them as big as possible to get attention to the depth and breadth of feeling on this issue. Please sign and share both:
If you can make it, attend the emergency protest called by the NUT in central London, assembling at 6.30pm at Westminster Cathedral:


Thursday, 18 February 2016

Sucking the life out of learning

The Government has just issued new advice on testing for 7 and 11 year olds which is causing serious concern amongst teachers and Headteachers. 
The NUT has called the demands " unachievable" and "chaotic" and is demanding this year's SATs are withdrawn. Several education unions are meeting today to discuss a collective response. 
Jennie Jones, a Year 2 teacher at a London primary school, explains why the government's plans are such a disaster for educators and children alike.


Picture the scene: I am standing in front of my class teaching them how to write a letter. They are being Jack’s mum, from Jack and the Beanstalk, and are rightly getting in the mood. Then comes the reminder; And please remember to put a red dot in front of your statements, blue in front of your questions, green for commands and orange for exclamations. Oh, and I need to see those conjunctions…..and those expanded noun phrases with plenty of adverbials. And please try to use some of these common exception words!  I used to just say make it so interesting I fall off my chair, and the quality writing used to appear. 

It is half term and I have brought all my writing books home along with my writing assessment folder. I had the joy of receiving the exemplification materials for writing a few days before half term. Now I have to reassess all
of my writing samples using the interim assessment standards which we were told not to use to assess the children until the end of the year. The thing is, my data has to be submitted in June so I can’t wait until then to use these standards, especially as a child has to achieve ALL of the standards in one section and I need evidence to prove it. Best fit is out the window. We are now planning special spelling tests to get evidence for the standards on common exception words and suffixes, extra daily SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) test practice, and timing our children reading to provide evidence for the 90 words per minute standard. Not a fun and exciting curriculum but we will try to make it fun if we possibly can. 

one knows what the heck we are doing. We wait for the next missive to arrive from the Department for Education and read it to see what we have to change next. My personal favourite one was the one which said even though the curriculum asks that the children in year 2 learn their 2, 5 and 10 times tables, there will be questions on the 3 times tables in the test to ensure the children are being stretched. Does this mean I need to teach the entire year 3 curriculum on top of the year 2 just to be sure? 

I attended a moderation/standardisation session
run by my local authority which made it clear that they don’t have much of a clue either. One told us that we should use the interim assessments at the end of the year, the other said stick them in books and highlight them as they achieve them. Everyone is confused and reacting with panic to every change.   

The sad thing is I work in a great school with an incredibly supportive
head teacher. He says he will support us whatever our results this year but we all know what will happen if our results plummet, which they will. I know most of my class may scrape through to the expected standards but I don’t think many will get into what is called “deepening”, which is not a true reflection of their sparky characters and intelligence. I suspect that many teachers will leave years 2 and 6 after this year. We know the interim assessments are only in place for this year but the stress levels are so high many teachers will not want to repeat this experience next year with new materials and pressures. 

My class are being used as guinea pigs. As much as I want to say
stuff it lets just have fun and learn interesting things and grow as learners!, I can’t as they need to learn enough of the curriculum to cope with the tests and survive in year 3. If we manage to get the unions to agree to a boycott when the Government does not agree to a suspension, I will be the first one to light a bonfire of all the out of date Department for Education missives, SATS papers, SPaG tests and all the rest of the assessment materials that are filling up two shelves of my cupboard. I will then spend the rest of the year having fun teaching and celebrating the achievements of my amazing class.