NEWSLETTER

No 60, Winter 2006

 

LEVELLING DOWN IN LINCOLNSHIRE?

 

It took a Parliamentary Question from Mark Hoban MP to reveal that pupils in only 164 grammar schools achieve half as many top grade A-levels in maths, chemistry, physics, French, German and Spanish as do all the pupils in 3,000 or so comprehensive schools (10 March 2005). So why should Conservative councillors, their advisers, 2 headteachers and 2 chairmen of governors conspire to reduce two grammar schools to one smaller one, which would operate from a single site with fewer pupils?    

 

At the end of last summer term, Boston Grammar School for boys (BGS) and Boston High School for girls (BHS) announced plans to merge into a single, co-educational grammar school, which would operate from a single site.

 

BGS has 650 pupils and BHS has 730, so both schools are viable.  Both have 97% of their pupils achieving at least 5 grade A*-C GCSEs and both produce excellent A-level results. Yet if these plans go ahead, the number of grammar school places in  Boston could be halved. Merging the two grammar schools was initially portrayed as the only solution to falling rolls. But this argument is highly questionable. Numbers taking the voluntary 11-plus test for places in BGS and BHS rose in 2004, the last year for which figures have been released.

 

Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) is Conservative controlled and the County's exam results are generally good. But LCC does have some under-performing schools, despite paying CfBT Education Trust £2m a year to run its School Improvement Service. Primary test results are worse than those in Tower Hamlets and some secondary schools are well below standard.   

 

During the summer holidays, LCC decided that merging the two grammar schools would be illegal. So it arranged for the schools to 'federate', on the same basis as before. It claimed that this proposal came from the schools, not LCC. But confidential documents and emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Save Our Schools, the local parents' group defending the grammar schools, show this is untrue.    

 

On 22 May 2006, Andy Breckon (head of the CfBT/LCC School Improvement Service), emailed Peter Duxbury (LCC) with copies to Cllr Talbot (LCC education portfolio holder) and Sue Baxter (also CfBT): 'This evening I attended a CONFIDENTIAL meeting with the 2 chairs of governors of the Boston Grammar Schools and 2 heads...We have now agreed that we should move towards a single grammar school for Boston with an intake of between 120 and 150 pupils as its PAN [Planned Admission Number]. Current PAN is 264...They are producing a set of 4 principles – which I gave them – and are sending to me... At present only the Heads and Chairs know discussions are taking place. We MUST let them manage this phase because it will be difficult at the Boys' school with its 400 year history. A good night's work, I think.'

 

On 6 June 2006, John Neal (head of BGS) emailed Andy Breckon with a copy to Helen McEvoy (head of BHS): 'I attach the proposals [written by Andy Breckon] which both Governors will discuss at simultaneous meetings on July 6...will issue a press release immediately afterwards in order to seize the initiative.' 

 

On 8 June 2006, Andy Breckon emailed Cllr Talbot with a copy to Peter Duxbury: 'I attach a highly confidential note [the proposals which he himself had written] received from John Neal. Could you confirm your support...then I can draft a reply. The audience for this information is 4 people in Boston and 2 people at HQ.' 

 

On 9 June 2006, Cllr Talbot replied with copies to Peter Duxbury and Cllr Martin Hill (leader of LCC): 'I am happy for you to draft a response but I shall need to see it before it goes out...I will now need a short briefing paper that can be circulated within the [Conservative] Group...Hopefully at this rate we should be where we want to be before we cause any heartache.'

 

The governing bodies of the schools were told nothing until the simultaneous meetings on 6 July. Presented with a letter of support for the merger from Cllr Talbot, the governors were then given perhaps 30 minutes to agree that CfBT/LCC should do a 'feasibility study'. Only then were parents, staff and the media informed. The feasibility study, if it was ever done, has never appeared. Parents   are being consulted – over the Christmas holidays! 

No alternatives, such as improving standards in ineffective primary (or secondary) schools, or encouraging more entries for the 11-plus, were considered. And perhaps the most worrying element of this disturbing tale is that none of those concerned seems to think that what they are doing may be wrong or anti-choice. If their plans are popular and well-founded,  why the secrecy?  

 

Meanwhile, a shadow hangs over both schools – not least because, if the plans go ahead, Boston children choosing a grammar school may face  years of disruptive building work. Destabilised teachers are already moving elsewhere.

 

GOOD PRIMARY PRACTICE?

 

A survey of 1,000 children for National Geographic Kids magazine has found that 1 in 5 cannot identify the UK on a map of the world. One in ten was unable to name a single continent and 4 out of 10 could not locate the United States (Sunday Telegraph,  22 October).      

 

Yet primary pupils aged 7 to 9 are taught to pretend to get drunk and imagine they are drug dealers in role-playing lessons. These activities are recommended in teaching materials produced in conjunction with drug advisers employed by Kent County Council.

 

And according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Tony Blair's favourite think-tank, children should be taught about contraception in primary schools. IPPR recommends that Personal Social and Health Education (which includes sex education) should be a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum. It also wants girls to be offered under-the-skin contraceptive implants.

 

We now have the highest proportion of sexually active 15-year-olds of any country in Europe (Daily Mail, 23 October). So instead of current policies, shouldn't primary schools be concentrating on providing children with solid academic foundations before they move up into secondary schools?             

 

MISGUIDED EXPERTS FOLD WHEN CHALLENGED

 

Real education, of course, begins with learning to read effectively, accurately – and early.

 

This is what is advocated in the Rose Report on the teaching of reading, which could, if properly implemented, end years of failure under the misguided National Literacy Strategy.  Jim Rose recommends that the teaching of reading should begin with children learning the phonic code – 26 letters of the alphabet and the 40 or so phonic sounds they represent – as soon as, or before, children start school.

 

Several well-proven commercial schemes are already on offer, but ministers insist that the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) must  produce an official scheme, and an 'approved'  list  of  commercial ones. 

In the meantime, emphasis on synthetic phonics is all too much for the trendies, 100 of whom signed a letter to the TES (1 December) attacking the Rose proposals. Signatories to the letter included 'national experts, academics, advisers, headteachers and practitioners'. 

 

But the experts' effort to confuse people was not well received by teachers. Responses to the letter on the TES website were almost all from people  who could cite the success of private-sector phonics-first schemes such as Jolly Phonics. 

 

Faced with evidence of outstanding success, few signatories to the original letter dared to enter the debate. Those who did were firmly told they were 'wrong' and 'looking very silly', not least for confusing 'empirical anecdote' with serious  research evidence. The reading wars are not over yet. But battles are being won.    

 

EXAM SYSTEM UNFIT FOR PURPOSE

 

Record exam passes this year prompted The Daily Telegraph  to describe the GCSE as 'the exam that's almost impossible to fail'.  It was also reported that almost 6 out of 10 GCSE entries from independent schools were awarded A* or A grades – 3 times the national average (2 September). The Sunday Telegraph has found that new 'functional' literacy and numeracy exams for 16-year-olds are set at the standard normally expected of 11-year-olds.

 

Now a new GCSE science curriculum, which replaces scientific facts with discussions about topical issues such as GM crops and the MMR vaccine, is yet again being questioned. In a report published by the Institute of Ideas, physics teacher David Perks articulates widespread concerns about the teaching of science (see publications, back page). He is backed, among others, by Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College, London, who writes: 'A science curriculum based on encouraging pupils to debate science in the news is taking a back to front approach. Science should inform the news agenda, not the other way round'. 

 

Even within the educational establishment, the exam system is now described as unfit for purpose. Tony Blair has acknowledged this by announcing that A-levels are to be toughened up and that a new A* grade will be introduced. He has also pledged that at least one state school in each local authority will get funding to offer the broader International Baccalaureate (IB) as an alternative to A-levels and the new Cambridge Pre-U exam. However, we hear  that this funding will be dependent on schools having 'trust' status.       

 

Also, with increasing numbers of independent schools rejecting GCSEs in favour of the International GCSE (which provides better preparation for A-levels and rarely includes coursework), ministers have been forced to consider validating the IGCSE for use in state schools. The DfES is running a consultation to which parents, teachers and employers can respond (www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations). Whether those in charge will act sensibly is doubtful. Apparently the consultation was held back until the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority could publish its own report, which claims IGCSEs are unsuitable, because they don't follow the National Curriculum.  So what? Surely, a respected exam system is more important than the sensibilities of the egalitarian trendies at the QCA?     

 

It should also be remembered that rigorous O-levels are still produced each year for overseas candidates. They too are banned for use in UK schools. But why not allow them as another option? 

 

There's dumbing down in Scotland too. A Scottish Sunday Times investigation (10 December) revealed that the number of A-grades awarded in their Higher exams has more than doubled in some subjects over the past decade. In French, 44% of candidates were awarded an A grade this year compared with 20% in 1996. The number of candidates awarded the top grade in geography rose by 73% and in German by 60% over the same period.   

 

NORTHERN IRELAND STILL IN LIMBO

 

The fate of Northern Ireland's 69 grammar schools still hangs in the balance. Under The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, politicians in Westminster had decided to outlaw all selection  in Ulster on the grounds of academic ability. Then ministers decided  that the Order would not take effect if the Northern Ireland Assembly was back in business by 24 November.  That didn't happen, so the deadline has again been put back pending agreement between Ulster politicians.

 

Tony Blair and Peter Hain, his Northern Ireland minister, have led this cynical political game with children's education.  In September, Mr Hain told a fringe meeting in Manchester that if he became deputy leader of the Labour Party, he would abolish the voluntary 11-plus in England too (Daily Mail, 28 September 2006).

 

DOUBTS REMAIN OVER NEW EDUCATION ACT

 

Parliament's Public Accounts Committee published a report in October, Improving Poorly Performing Schools in England. Committee chairman Edward Leigh MP said it was a tragedy that 1,557 schools, attended by nearly a million children, are underperforming (Yorkshire Post, 17 October).

 

Christine Gilbert, in her first Annual Report as chief inspector of schools, was equally blunt. Based on evidence from 6,000 recent inspections, Ofsted found that almost 4 out of 10 secondary schools and a third of all schools are not performing as well as expected. This suggests that 1.6m children are being let down by their schools. 'Not good enough', according to Christine Gilbert, who said that 'More needs to be done, and swiftly.'

 

Schools minister Jim Knight responded by claiming that the new Education and Inspection Act will bring improvements. But will it?  Or is this just another distraction created by politicians and their officials to divert attention from the real issues?

 

Few would argue against better provision of vocational courses and qualifications. But the DfES intends that the new Act will bring about 'profound change' in all schools, including those that are academically successful. Massive, long-term changes are being implemented, though almost everyone involved warns that no-one, including ministers, knows exactly what they are doing, or how they will do it.

 

The statutory requirement for all secondary schools  to provide compulsory lessons in English, maths, science, information & communication technology, physical education and citizenship, plus numerous options included in 4 'entitlement areas' is pressurising schools to form either 'hard' or 'soft' 'federations'. (Hard federations are formal 'mergers', usually with an 'executive' head. Soft federations are more informal.) Yet, research by the Hay Group shows that combining schools may make things worse, not better. Results at 55% of new 'super-schools' are worse than they were previously (TES, 20 October).

 

The idea of 'super-heads' managing several institutions has been rejected in the independent sector. Dr Brenda Despontin, president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA), told a conference in November that schools 'flourish with an accessible leader'. The GSA likens executive heads running federations of schools to regional supermarket managers, who 'do not know their customers and barely know their staff' (TES, 10 November).

 

Of course, many of these changes are linked to the government's '14 to 19' agenda and its 'Building Schools for the Future' (BSF) programme. But there is a great deal of difference between upgrading dilapidated school buildings and enforcing unnecessary building work, just so  that politicians can boast about how much (taxpayers') money they are spending. BSF money only comes with strings, and strings mean control. If the DfES has its way, all schools, including the 'independent' trust schools promised in the Act, will be more tightly controlled than ever.

 

LOCAL NEWS

 

Kent:  Concerned parents in Maidstone, where 3 secondary schools (Cornwallis, Oldborough and Senacre)  have 'federated' into a conglomerate called 'New Line Learning' under chief executive Dr Chris Gerry, met school leaders in October. The parents had prepared 8 pages of questions about what is happening and why. They were generally satisfied with the answers they received, though a promise of better communication in future may not solve all the problems.

 

Salford: Harrop Fold School is another amalgamation of schools on which millions of pounds are being spent. Harrop Fold now has around 1,100 pupils aged 11 to 16, with more than 200 of them taking GCSEs each year.  Because only 21% of pupils achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs in 2005, better results were expected this year. So the school compelled all candidates to enter for a qualification in Sport and Leisure. Parents were told this was worth 4 grade A*-C GCSEs, but local FE colleges were not impressed. Before they would offer a place, they wanted good grades in English and/or maths. Apparently, only 15% of Harrop Fold pupils managed this.  (See also Snippets, back page.)    

 

Surrey:  Conservative-controlled Surrey County Council seems to think the government's policy of joining underperforming (and other) schools into federations is not radical enough.  On 1 December, the TES reported that all 40 schools in Woking may federate into 'Campus Woking'.  This could create one big school with departments all over town.  Stuart Shepherd, head of Bishop David Brown secondary school, said, "The word 'caution' springs to mind."  Jane Abbott, principal of Woking High, said, 'One of the issues is around school sovereignty, loyalty and choice. There is concern about the way loyalty to individual schools will be affected.'

 

RECOMMENDED PUBLICATIONS  AND NOTICES

 

It's Your Time You're Wasting: A teacher's tales of classroom hell by Frank Chalk can be bought online from   the publishers, Monday Books (www.mondaybooks.com), for £7.99 inc. p & p.  Tel. 01788 555022.

 

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why commas really do make a difference by Lynne Truss is illustrated by Bonnie Timmons.  Useful for children of all ages, it is published by Profile Books and costs £8.99 from bookshops.

 

What Is Science Education For? begins with an essay by David Perks defending honest science, followed by  responses. £10 inc. p & p from the Institute of Ideas, Signet House, 49-51 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JP.

 

The Outrage of Amoral Sex Education and Christians and the contraception culture, both by Dr E.S. Williams, explain how sex education undermines Christian morality. They cost £4.50 and £1.50 respectively inc. p & p from Belmont House Publishing, 36 The Crescent, Belmont, Sutton, Surrey SM2 6BJ.

 

Sparing the Rod by Neil McNicholas is packed with common sense about rearing children. Available from the author (small donations appreciated) at St Hilda's Parish, 1 Walker Street, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO21 1QT.

 

• Jolly Learning is offering new half-day, full-day or 'twilight' courses for those teaching Jolly Phonics, Jolly Grammar or Special Needs children.  Further details from Johnny@jollylearning.co.uk or Tel. 0208 501 0405.

 

• School Appeals (which helps you to win) is headed by John Chard. It is based at 2 Seaton Close, Wick Littlehampton, BN17 7LQ. Tel. 01903 718741.  Website: www.schoolappeals.org.uk   

 

SNIPPETS

 

Hertfordshire University has found bad English alienated 77% of the 515 companies it spoke to – more than twice the 34% annoyed by CV exaggerations.  BBC News Online, 4 August 2006.

 

A third of the nurses expecting to graduate next month have failed a basic English and maths test set by a hospital as part of a new selection process.  Daily Telegraph,  5 August 2006.

 

One in three employers is having to send staff for remedial training to teach them basic English and maths skills they did not learn at school.  CBI News Release, 21 August 2006.

 

Three-quarters of adults think discipline in schools is getting worse despite repeated Government crackdowns... More than 400 schools now have police officers on site. Daily Mail, 30 October 2006.

 

A teenage schoolgirl [at Harrop Fold School – see Local News] was arrested after refusing to take part in a class discussion because [4 out of  5 of] her...colleagues could not speak English...She was put in a juvenile unit for more than five hours after being body-searched and fingerprinted. Daily Express, 13 October 2006.    

 

In an Islington school of 400, 120 children were on the SEN [Special Educational Needs] register. 115 of these could not read.  The SEN co-ordinator was so busy filling in Individual Education Plans that she had no time to teach them. Comments would be made such as 'He needs to learn his sounds'.  Ruth Miskin's  response was 'Then teach them!'... In two months, Ruth managed to get 80 children off the register. Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter, Autumn 2006 (www.rrf.org.uk).  

 

League tables showing England's primary pupils are among the best readers in the world have been condemned as of dubious validity. Mary Hilton, of Cambridge University, says England's performance in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study has been overstated.  TES, 1 December 2006.

 

Change is completely normal...Define the outcome you are trying to achieve, recognising that targets are not in themselves outcomes. The outcome is the change you want to achieve... Sue Hackman, chief adviser for school standards, DfES. From A Report on the Conference for Lincolnshire Secondary Head Teachers, 9-10 February 2006.

 

Prior Learning – It is helpful if the children have an understanding of where India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are in the world. How and why is the legacy of British rule in the Indian subcontinent interpreted in different ways?   History Unit for Year 9 pupils, QCA, 2006.

 

£29m 'failed bribe' for 3,000 school pupils – Nearly 3,000 young Scots being paid to stay on at school are either failing to turn up for lessons or are not hitting academic targets. The Scotsman, 14 November 2006. 

 

Independent schools should band together and shut out the government inspectors, says Chris Woodhead. Sunday Times, 19 November 2006. 

 

Since the 1990s...Canada has moved away from funding what had been effective drug prevention programs and instead  – with little or no public debate – adopted a policy of  'harm reduction'...to try to protect people from the consequences of their actions. Today's Family News, Canada, 2 August 2006.

 

/Campaign for Real Educatiom, December 2006

 

Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 01435 830109 or 07757 715145.  Email: mcgovernchris@hotmail.com
Vice Chairmen: Jennifer Chew OBE, Jacqui Davies, Katie Ivens
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman, Ashgate, Halland, East Sussex, BN8 6PW.  Tel: 01825 840831.  Email: anthony831freeman@gmail.com
Secretary: Priya Dutta, 75 Truro Road, London N22 8DH.  Tel: 07701 088720.  Email: priyadutta@hotmail.com