NEWSLETTER

No 68, Summer 2009

A DESOLATION OF LEARNING

 

Chris Woodhead's new book, A Desolation of Learning: Is This the Education our Children Deserve?, completely demolishes the cosy myth that everything in the educational garden is lovely.  It isn't and the evidence is here.

 

Chapter headings include  – 'Dumbing Down: The Proof '; 'The Myth of the Knowledge Economy and the Death of Liberal Education'; 'The National Curriculum: A Desolation of Learning'; 'The Flight from Knowledge: Sir Jim Rose's Interim Report on the Primary Curriculum'; 'The Thought World'; and 'The Failure to Re-Invent the Comprehensive School'.

 

Every important issue is covered, from the establishment's failure to ensure reading is taught properly, to Labour's massive waste of taxpayers' money on its unproven academies programme. Conservative policies are not ignored either. Along with many others, the author struggles to see much difference between Labour and Conservative educational policies (or practices, especially at a local level).  

 

Ofsted, which has now lost all pretence of political independence, is lambasted. So, of course, is the over-funded Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). Not before time, the spotlight is also turned on the Children's Plan, the Training and Development Agency, the National College of School Leadership, and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

 

The author laments the fact that state schools are failing too many bright children: 'one in seven pupils on the Government's Gifted and Talented programme last year failed to achieve five good GCSE grades.'  He also points out that 'excellence is threatened by politicians who do not understand the difference between social engineering and education.'

 

Those responsible for the National Curriculum 'are more interested in promulgating political views than they are in academic knowledge... 'So the National Curriculum has become inherently 'anti-educational' and those who suffer most are youngsters from under-privileged backgrounds. 

 

Chris Woodhead believes in genuine choice.  Hence his support for grammar schools. And his recommendation that, if the Conservatives are successfully to free-up the system, they must not  impose socialist-inspired  restrictions. So a voucher system like Sweden's should allow 'for-profit' providers, as in Sweden. And top-ups for parents who are able and willing to contribute to the cost of their child's education. (Even Labour's Alan Milburn is now suggesting education vouchers.) 

 

Politicians are extremely unpopular at present. Wouldn't it be marvellous if they (and their advisers) were all to read this book, so every single one understands the dangerous subversion they are allowing to thrive? Then did something about it?

 

A Desolation of Learning is published by Pencil Sharp. It costs £16.99 from bookshops or less at www.amazon.co.uk.  

 

CURRICULUM SINKS AND COSTS SOAR

 

Sir Jim Rose's proposal that the primary curriculum  should  subsume traditional subjects into 6 'areas of learning' has been widely condemned. Yet ministers and the DCSF are still determined to enforce this 'progressive' orthodoxy. On 15 May, the TES (Times Educational Supplement) reported that introducing Sir Jim's new curriculum in 2011 could cost taxpayers £112m, partly because the change would require schools to release staff for up to 22 days of training.

 

A BETTER, SIMPLER SOLUTION?

 

There is a better (and cheaper) solution.  National tests show that 4 out of 10 children are currently moving up into secondary schools without a solid grasp of basic English and maths. Yet firm foundations, built during the primary years, are essential if standards are to rise throughout the system. So, based on advice from experienced   teachers, we are producing and publishing a sample primary curriculum.  This will be set out subject-by-subject on a year-by-year basis. It will mainly concentrate on the content that should be taught and teachers (and parents) may pick and choose, or modify it, as they wish.

 

Recommendations for English and maths are now on our website – www.cre.org.uk/primary_contents.html. These have been produced by Irina Tyk, the head of Holland House School in London, where high standards and high expectations are the norm.  (Mrs Tyk is, of course, the author of The Butterfly Book on how to teach reading and The Butterfly Grammar, both available from Civitas.) Our suggestions for science (biology, chemistry, physics), geography, history and other important subjects will follow soon.   

 

SKULDUGGERY IN HIGH PLACES (Emphasis added throughout) 

 

Plans by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), the Catholic Church and Slough local authority (LA) to merge –  or 'federate' to use official jargon –  St Bernard's Catholic Grammar School and St Joseph's Catholic High School (a secondary modern) to create an academy have been proceeding in secret for some time.

 

As would be expected of a grammar school, St Bernard's produces excellent results: 99% of its pupils achieve 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. St Joseph's, by contrast, only has 36% of its pupils reaching this level. 

 

Opponents of grammar schools may argue that no more can be expected from St Joseph's, when the brightest pupils have been 'creamed off' by grammar schools. But if that were true, why does another Slough secondary modern, The Westgate School, have 53% of its pupils achieving 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths?  This, it should be noted, is above the national average for all types of school.

 

The disgraceful events in Slough are documented in a series of emails obtained by parents under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the most disturbing aspects of these emails is that the names of most of the people involved in the plans have been redacted (ie blacked out) so they can't be identified. Is this a matter of national security? 

 

In May 2008, a meeting between officials, all of whose names are redacted, emphasised the DCSF's ground rules:  'New school buildings'; 'A single school on one site'; 'Priorities for admissions to be based on Catholic children'; and 1,500 pupils with 7 forms of entry.  Someone whose name has been blanked out (presumably the head of one of the schools involved) 'has briefed his governors about a potential future development without being specific about the nature of it.'  The other head (name redacted), 'will brief his governors using the same cautious wording.' Another nameless official 'is waiting for legal advice on the position with both schools and whether there has to be a parental ballot'  to close St Bernard's Grammar School (or to interfere with its admission arrangements).

 

Meanwhile, 'Discussion [is] embargoed until confirmation of statement of intent.'  An update on the legal situation notes: 'My advice from a colleague in the Academies Policy Team is that the Governors can propose to close the School(s) and propose with the Diocese to open a new one...So it looks like no ballot.' However, 'we should double check this'.

 

Other significant emails include –  

On 14 July 2008, from a DCSF official to an LA official (all names redacted):  'We need a proposal from you and the Diocese which we can then take to Andrew Adonis.'  Lord Adonis is obviously fully informed about what his officials are doing and how: 'You will recall how carefully Andrew wanted the proposal to be announced.'

On 31 July 2008, from a DCSF official to numerous other officials (all names redacted): Following 'a meeting with Lord Adonis and the Slough MP Fiona Mactaggart... LA officers have been considering his advice that a 7fe [form entry] 11-18 academy could be established...The clear preference is to use the St Joseph's site but it is necessary to win the support of the Diocese and the Heads, given the emotional attachment to St Bernard's and its history.' (St Bernard's was founded more than a century ago.) There is also a need to help heads 'to understand the vision'.

 

On 27 October 2008, an LA official notifies her colleagues and DCSF officials (all names redacted) that she has 'found out about' a St Bernard's parents' meeting on 19 November. She remarks that 'people think we have all the plans in place and are not showing our hand.' 'This must happen with other academies' and 'there may also be the grammar school factor in this particular situation.'  A DCSF official (name redacted) responds by asking if LA officials will be present at the parents' meeting.

 

By 30 October 2008, emails were being sent directly to PS (Permanent Secretary?), Lord Adonis  and copied to Paul Schofield (DCSF/Office of the Schools Commissioner) and other DCSF officials (names redacted).  

 

On 6 January 2009,  a DCSF official suggests to an LA official (names redacted) that: 'it would be useful  to set up a meeting with the Diocese, LA, schools – Heads and Chairs of Governors in the near future.'   'It would [also] be extremely useful to have someone from the Academies division'.  (The significance of this is that these people are making plans but, by excluding the full governing bodies of the schools from the discussions, they are acting against official governor guidance and may be acting outside the law.)

On 29 January 2009, a DCSF official emailed an LA official (names redacted) to say: '[Schools minister] Jim Knight considered this yesterday and was in favour. He asked whether it could open in 2010, rather than 2011. What do you think?' 

 

On 9 February 2009, DCSF officials were telling LA officials (all names redacted) that they 'want to take it to Jim Knight again' and 'need to be able to justify 2011 or find a way round admissions for 2010.' This is because 'guarantees have already been provided to parents... regarding Grammar school education'. In other words, parents of children at St Bernard's and prospective parents who have chosen the school have chosen a grammar school education for their children – an option that is now to be withdrawn by politicians, their officials, and the Catholic Church. 

 

On 13 February 2009, a DCSF official reassures an LA official (names redacted) that 'colleagues here in the Academies Policy Team... have confirmed for me that we do not publish Statement of Intent letters on any of our websites.

 

The conspiratorial nature of these activities mirrors almost exactly what happened 3 years ago, when Boston Grammar School and  Boston  High  School in Lincolnshire were 'federated' to reduce their  places for 11-year-olds and hence their budgets – http://www.cre.org.uk/news/newsletter_06_3.html.

 

Elected politicians are ultimately responsible so they should asking: a) If these plans are supported by parents, why the need for secrecy? b) Where is the objective evidence that these changes will raise standards? c) What right have politicians, their officials, headteachers, governors, or indeed the Catholic Church, to undermine good schools? Or to disrupt children's education?

 

Further information at www.savestbernards.co.uk And please sign the parents' petition at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/stbernards/                      

 

THE STATE TIGHTENS ITS GRIP 

 

In yet another move to undermine academic standards and use schools to change attitudes and values, Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is to be re-branded as Personal, Social and Economic Education. Presumably, this is to make it more acceptable to parents. Ministers also seem determined to make sex and relationship education a statutory part of PSHE and to remove from parents their traditional right to withdraw the child from sex education. Consultation on these matters ended on 24 July.

 

The likely outcome of such changes was recently demonstrated at Bromstone Primary School in Broadstairs, Kent. In a school assembly, children as young as 4-years-old were taught about same-sex relationships. Headteacher Nigel Utton said the 'International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia' was part of 'a county-wide initiative encouraged by Kent county council.' 

 

But outraged parents said the experience had left children 'confused' and 'worried'. Gemma Martin, whose 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter attend the school, told The Daily Telegraph (6 June): 'It's meant a number of girls are worried about being friends with each other. Little girls often cuddle each other if one of them is crying or has fallen over, and now they are afraid to do that in case others think they are gay.'

 

For more information on these and similar issues, we recommend Too much, too soon: The government's plans for your child's sex education by Norman Wells. Ideally, it should be purchased along with Education and Culture by Irina Tyk. They cost  £2.50 each from the Family Education Trust, Jubilee House, 19-21 High Street, Twickenham, TW2 7LB. Or visit the website at   www.famyouth.org.uk.

 

WASTE

 

Parliament's public accounts committee has criticised the government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme for wasting taxpayers' money by spending millions of pounds on consultants. One consultant was paid fees of £1.35m, yet auditors estimate the BSF programme is already £10bn over budget.

 

Meanwhile, researchers at the Centre for Economic Performance based at the London School of Economics suggest that when the nation-wide, year-by-year improvement in exam results is taken into account, academy schools have performed no better than ordinary comprehensive schools. 

 

AND MORE WASTE

 

Recent analysis by MPs of the government's further education college rebuilding programme has also highlighted some disturbing waste. 

 

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the quango in charge of further education, will soon be disbanded,  having overspent its budget by £2.7bn. Of the 79 college rebuilding programmes approved by the LSC (and ministers), only 13 are likely to go ahead. £215m has been spent on plans that are now on hold and colleges will need to write off £187m if the projects do not go ahead. £269m will be needed for extra maintenance (Daily Mail, 17 July and see Snippets, back page).

 

Another example of mismanagement was exposed by The Sunday Telegraph on 31 May. London Metropolitan University was overpaid £36m by another quango, the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In 2005-06, London Metropolitan had reported a drop-out rate of only 2-3%. But an audit in 2007 found the true rate was around 30%. Repayment of the £36m excess will take 6 years and it will mean staff reductions.  

 

PARENTS WANT OBJECTIVE TESTING

 

The war of attrition against national testing continues. It should be obvious why: without national testing of 11-year-olds, how could we know that this year 25% of boys and 15% of girls left their primary schools without reaching the expected standard (Level 4) in English, which covers the essential basic skills of reading and writing?  (See Snippets, back page.)

 

Parents should not be fooled into thinking that plans by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Headteachers to boycott next year's tests have parental support. A recent NAHT poll claimed that 85% want national testing and league tables to be scrapped. But the DCSF doubted the poll's validity and carried out its own. This found that 70% of parents believe national tests provide valuable data. Another poll showed 76% agreeing that the exam performance of schools should be publicly available (TES, 15 May 2009).

 

Without doubt, the current testing regime is too bureaucratic, long-winded and expensive. But it should be improved, not abolished altogether. When children get nervous about testing, it's usually the fault of their teachers or their parents. And surely, everyone needs to know exactly how many children can read and write by the time they are 7? And which primary schools are failing to prepare their pupils for more advanced study when they move up into secondary schools?

 

LOCAL UPDATE

Bedford: Plans by Bedford local authority to close around a dozen middle schools in order to change from a 3-tier to a 2-tier system are causing uproar among parents. The impetus is coming from the offer of over £300m from the government's BSF programme. But there have already been hints of a possible 3.6% council tax increase to help with the funding. The result will be years of disruption and much larger secondary schools, which parents don't want. On 24 July, the Save Middle Schools group presented the authority with an 8,000-signature petition against the plans and another 2,000 signatures have been collected since then. As usual in these situations, the authority has presented one-sided information in support of its plans, all of which has been demolished by the parents. Bedford's 'change-agents' are in deep trouble and they know it. Further information at http://savemiddleschools.wordpress.com/summary/

Harrow: Harrow local authority's decision to prosecute a mother for giving false information when choosing a secondary school for her son will have frightened many parents – as, of course, it was meant to. Instead of giving her own address on the form, Mrs Mrinal Patel gave her mother's address, which was inside the required catchment area. It is wrong not to tell the truth. But prosecution for fraud with a possible jail sentence or a fine of up to £5,000? Isn't this another example of the arrogance shown by local councillors and their officials whose determination to control every aspect of people's lives is growing by the day?  Since when were they so honest?   

RECOMMENDED PUBLICATIONS

 

A new level by Dale Bassett, Thomas Cawston, Laurie Thraves and Elizabeth Truss finds that A-levels no longer properly prepare students for university. A detailed study of English, maths, chemistry and history concludes that responsibility for A-levels should be restored to universities in order to guarantee the required rigour. £20.00 from Reform, 45 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3LT.  Or free at www.reform.co.uk. 

 

Teachers Matter edited by Sheila Lawlor finds that teacher training is in crisis and calls for urgent reform. Qualifications required to teach are lower than in other countries and 30-50% of new teachers leave the profession within five years of starting. Download it free at www.politeia.co.uk.

 

School quangos: An agenda for abolition and reform by Tom Burkard and Sam Talbot Rice considers the costs and benefits of 11 quangos concerned with schools. By abolishing some and reducing the unnecessary duties of others, around £633m could be saved out of their annual costs of £1,183m.  £10.00 from the Centre for Policy Studies, 57 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL. Or download it free at www.cps.org.uk.

 

SNIPPETS

 

The best way for independent schools to maintain their charitable status may not be to take disadvantaged pupils out of the state system but to help them succeed in it.  Sponsoring a child in a nearby [state] primary school to become literate or numerate through the Every Child a Reader or Every Child Counts programmes costs £2,600 and will set that child on course for success in life...Interested independent schools are invited to get in touch!  Jean Goss, director, Every Child a Chance Trust, TES letters, 24 July 2009. 

 

The innovation, universities, science and skills select committee's review...of the crisis also found the most dramatic example yet of the LSC inflating a college's building plans. John Blake, principal of Sussex Downs College, said regional officials had encouraged his £8 million refurbishment to become a £175 million rebuild, arguing it was a 'once in a lifetime opportunity'.  TES, FE Focus, 22 May 2009.  

 

Should the responses to your consultation be in favour of your proposal...reassurance will need to be given by yourselves to new parents with very young children and all parents with children already in schools about the continuity of high quality education and proper transition between existing school phases so that confidence in the system is maintained. Letter from Cllr Mrs Anita Lewis, Portfolio Holder, Children’s Services, Bedford Borough Council to Ms Joan Wheeler, BSF Projects Manager, 14 July 2009.

 

A-level history students are campaigning to alter their examination marks after they failed to understand a question. They say the phraseology in an exam paper describing Hitler as 'a despotic tyrant' confused them and meant they did not know how to answer. More than 1,150 complaints have been posted on an internet chat room and a campaign, Despotic Tyranny Ruined My Life, has been launched to try to get the papers marked more leniently.  Sunday Express, 21 June 2009.

 

 

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