Forced academisation is as brutal as it sounds

academyThe academy trust taking over my daughter’s school have a slick presentation. A room of parents listen and nod as men in suits explain their plans to transform the school using a mix of firm discipline, rules about exercise books, and other schemes to grind out results and please Ofsted. The school is in trouble and we know a change is needed. This is the only option and everybody wants to be convinced it is the right plan.

The school achieved poor GCSE results and Kent County Council advised the governors to hand the school to this academy chain. In just two weeks this academy trust will move in and run the school as ‘school improvement advisers,’ when the paperwork is done our school becomes their school. This has been decided before parents know anything. A token consultation will take place but we know it can’t change anything.

We try to get a feel for our school’s new owners.

We are told behaviour will be drastically improved. This trust’s schools have a hard line no-excuses policy.  Detentions for infractions, high standards and tough rules. Children will be excluded, those ‘troublemakers spoiling it for the rest’

Exercise books are to become the ‘teacher’s CV.’ Tidy books full of work will show parents how much their children are learning. The learning process involves effective written exercises that lead to satisfactory exam outcomes.

To achieve the high level of discipline and impressively marked exercise books the right kind of teachers are needed. Teachers will be assessed and encouraged to improve. If they don’t wish to improve they will find a school where they are ‘more suited.’

In a troubled non-selective school in Kent this confident pitch from the trust’s principle is welcomed by parents. Our school had a poor reputation and disappointing results. The school has no permanent head and a shortage of quality teaching staff. Something has to happen; it has to be this.

A few days ago the school’s white paper told us every school would become an academy. I wondered if schools throughout the land would organise meetings like this. Meetings where executives who know nothing about a local school pitch their confident improvement plans. Our school needs a change, I accept that.  But what about the schools that are working fine? Maybe some schools don’t need a head office and an improvement plan.

I thought of my son’s primary school with its painted pictures and teachers succeeding with an inspired mix of silliness and learning. I couldn’t imagine a business education leader improving this lovely school. The school worked, all it needed was to be left alone to get on with things.

I don’t think education experts can agree on the magic formula to create a  successful school. So why does every academy trust boast that they have the magic formula? It feels like smoke and mirrors.

The question and answer part of the school meeting was managed carefully. I expected hands raised and a mike passed around, but instead there were printed cards for parent’s questions. It was just as efficient as the seat allocation system.  I was placed at table 6 which meant I couldn’t sit with my friends. It felt like the academy trust takeover  meeting used techniques for conflict avoidance.

Table 6 discussed the questions we should write on the cards. The parents at my table were mostly positive. “They mean business.” “We need discipline.” “It must be hard to get good teachers, all the best teachers want  to teach at the grammar schools.” “Well kids behave in the grammar schools.”

We had been told what to think already. A school governor told us the trust takeover was the best thing. A lady from the council education department told us this academy chain was right for the job.

We were told academies were the way forward, the white paper was mentioned, we were told this was inevitable. Our school was some kind of early adopter of a fine new academy vision. No one cheered this news.

I was confused by the presence of the council officer. Our council‘s education leader was mentioned in the Guardian this week, he said the white paper was unnecessary and academies were not the answer for every school. So did the council want to keep its own schools? They didn’t want our school. Maybe councils only wanted successful schools? Perhaps they only wanted the schools with good Ofsted ratings. I didn’t see any evidence the council cared much, I didn’t know what the council  had done to look out for our school. Maybe academies were the best answer after all.

Pent_Valley_Technology_CollegeI learned something of our council’s work with failing schools in the meeting. Kent County Council gave Chaucer Technology school to Swale Academies Trust when it was in trouble, then a few months later they said the school must close. Pent Valley Technology College was in trouble next, the council hired Swale Academies Trust to improve it, then a few months later told parents the school must close. The parents were hurt by this decision because the council say they will open a new school in a few years. North School in Ashford was troubled too, so the council hired Swale Academies Trust again here, and soon the school will join this academy chain.

My school is in trouble now, so what do the council do? Yes, it’s Swale Academies Trust.

I learned that Swale Academies Trust offer a school improvement service. I know that when they take on a troubled school the trust sometimes hire a school consultation company called Richard Slee Ltd. This consultation company is  owned by one of its directors. I don’t understand the modern business of education,  but I know academy trusts hire their own director’s companies and oddly that’s allowed.

A member of staff visited table 6. This was our a chance to chat with someone on the school’s side.

“Are the teachers happy with this?” a mum asked. I’d heard rumours from teacher friends that this academy trust makes tough demands of its teachers. “The teacher’s want strong leadership at the school,” was her reply.

I could see she was in favour of this change, and how could we argue? We were a school no one wanted. We were a school in trouble, no permanent head, too many supply staff and poor GCSE results. It all made sense. Even the silly exercise book thing and the tough behaviour rules.

It was all so completely sensible that I was at a loss to know why it made me feel so sad. I scribbled a couple of questions. How would we find a new head? Would the governors be allowed to stay?

The questions were taken to the front of the hall where the academy boss scanned the large pile and selected a few.

“Can we keep the uniform?”

I’d read a news story about one of the trust’s schools changing uniform twice in three years. I clearly wasn’t the only one to Google things before the meeting.

“Oh yeah, we change uniform sometimes, but if you like this one that’s no problem.” We felt grateful. It felt like a small victory. They let us keep our uniform!

“Are children allowed to go to the toilets if they need it in a lesson?”

A national newspaper reported on this trust’s policy that children couldn’t leave classrooms if they needed a pee in lessons. We got a jokey reply and, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Someone asked how long it would take to turn the school around. The answer was, “These things take time.”

We were invited to visit the trust’s other schools. I doubted any one would take up this offer. There seems little point. I expect if I do I will see good discipline, and I’m sure someone will show me the exercise books. Perhaps I could check if the toilet doors were locked?

There was a question on the trusts plans to take on other schools. They mentioned their school improvement business, and taking on another school in a neighbouring county.

I suddenly had a question that I wanted to ask. It was too late, but it mattered.

What is your motivation?

Why do you care about our local school?

Pointless questions. The answer was clear as soon as the question came to me.

The motivation was money or business growth, or perhaps economies of scale. They cared about our local school for  reasons to do with these things.

All the parents in that room had a personal reason to care, all the teachers and the governors had a genuine motivation to see the pupils do well. To the men in suits at head office the pupils were numbers on a performance graph. I am sure they have professional pride in the school’s success. I know they want GCSE passes and an Ofsted ‘good’, so maybe it’s irrelevant that the reasons are only financial. My daughter’s GCSE sucesss will make a good business case, but they will never know her name.

This is an organisation with a method that works. If you’re a Kent non-selective you have a tricky kind of school. Your pupils are less likely to get good exam results. Your poor results mean your school is likely to get a ‘requires improvement’  Ofsted rating. Your school has more disadvantaged pupils and pupils with Special Educational Needs. None of this matters to Ofsted who judge the school by the same standards as any school in leafy Islington where an au pair helps with a child’s French homework, and parents pay for after-school maths help. On top of this we are a non-selective school, so we are full of pupils who were told they were bad at exams by a council-run test. Maybe those pupils don’t feel motivated to work hard to get a a C in a GCSE exam?

A method to succeed with this tricky kind of school is probably tough discipline and rote learning. I am sure Ofsted are impressed by homework in books, disciplined pupils and micro-managed teachers following a plan.

I believe my daughter’s new school leaders will do the job. A satisfactory number of pupils will achieve 5 GCSE passes soon, and we will please Ofsted in a couple of years. The children will enjoy a stable education and results to show for it.

The method seems so good.

The classroom troublemakers will be silenced, they will reform their ways, call in sick, move schools,or find themselves excluded.

The teachers will accept the workload demanded, work to the methods set, or move to new schools. I hope our best teachers like this trust’s system.

The exercise books will be full of facts memorised and tested, and it will ensure GCSE pass marks.

Everything is fine, except for the fact that our school has become an exam factory.

tumblr_ns6sebujv91snt1oto1_1280Anyone who believes education should involve enthusiasm, relationships, after school clubs, community, laughter, creativity, individuality, and all the personal, human, emotional bits of life will despair. This academy trust, like many others, farms our children to produce GCSE scores to make neat  graphs in a business report.

We all want pupils achieving 5 GCSE passes, and an Ofsted ‘Good’, but I don’t want that at any price.

I don’t want teachers too tired to run after school clubs. I don’t want children claiming headaches to avoid a place where a forgotten pencil means a mark on a report card. I don’t want to see teenagers on medication because of a pressure to behave, revise, and have perfect exercise books.

I remember my school with affection. I remember clubs week and learning to invent board games. I remember lending computer magazines to Mr.Green and discussing tips for coding. I remember making upside down cake, a recipe I still make for my family today. I remember my friends giving me the bumps on my birthday. I remember the head teacher’s talk about awareness. I remember the smart way I avoided PE but still stayed within the school rules. I remember selling sweets and making a profit for charity. I remember the day the pupils had a strike.  I remember being nervous in the school play but managing public speaking. I don’t actually remember my results in GCSE geography.

I believe there are many things about education that are not measurable and that will not show in any league table or on any graph.

This academy trust will grow and gather more schools under its belt, because all good businesses like to expand. I believe there is a danger that their method will be rolled out and implemented by people who don’t fully understand the system. It may become less effective. I think there might be cases where a memo passed from head office to many schools might get a bit ‘chinese whispers’ and be interpreted incorrectly. Maybe something about a rules change, and maybe that will lead to a school exclusion that changes a child’s life.

Maybe the academy trust’s methods works fine, but then the Department for Education will change exam methods, and then a one-trick-pony results-focused chain of schools will all fail because they can’t adapt. Maybe this could lead to children failing exams and not reaching university.

I don’t need to worry about wholesale academy changes, but I do worry. I don’t need to think about this academy trust, it’s too late so there’s no point. But this is the only secondary school in my town.  I care about my town and I care about it’s school. I know that something has to be done to fix things. This is it. Here’s hoping.

I don’t think exams results alone make a school. I don’t think proof of work in an exercise book is really proof of learning. I don’t even think a ‘good’ Ofsted  rating always means a good school.

Academy trusts are supposed to spread ‘best practice for education.’ I think some trusts are cloning an education system that isn’t a kind of education I admire.

So our local school now belongs to an education business. Who do I blame?

I don’t blame the school’s governors. They had a non-selective school  with poor results and a head they couldn’t replace. They looked to the council for guidance.

I don’t blame the council. The council have little money for school improvement, so they offload troubled schools to ‘expert’ academy trusts.

I don’t blame the academy trusts. Academy trusts fit the needs of a school system that demands results. The education business needs efficiency and money often drives change.

I don’t blame the money men of education, our school’s exam results are the  KPI target set by our government.

I don’t even blame the government. The government creates policies people want. Parents like exam results and league tables, so the government focuses on these academic targets.

Of course I don’t blame the parents. We want the best for our children. But we certainly don’t want academies everywhere.  I hope the fight against this government white paper will focus parent’s on thinking on the reasons why.

Academy trusts are businesses, but schools are not. The personal, human, laughter, painted pictures, chat with the governors, unstressed teachers, side of education, matters as much as numbers on a spreadsheet. The answer to an exam culture is exam factory academy trusts. We need to say that we don’t want KPI we want relationships with our schools.

It’s too late for my school. The meeting closed. The people went home. The days of a friendly local school are gone. Maybe in a few years we will plug  the children into Swale Academy  Trust learning machines until our children become fully educated products of the system.

If your school is not yet an academy, take your time and choose your new management carefully. Ask your academy trust for their policy on children’s happiness. Ask if they believe in love of learning. If they tell you to sit at table 6, tell them you won’t. Tell them you’re going to sit with your friends because you believe in people not numbers.


David Bowie’s education and the Sevenoaks grammar school annexe

bowie-school_3546112bDavid Bowie died on Sunday and we all mourned a creative genius; while some Twitter fans worried about whether or not he’d passed his 11-plus.

He went to a secondary modern school in Bromley, and much of Twitter claimed he was bright enough to pass the 11-plus test and could have chosen the better grammar school. Others said he’d failed the test and his mum cried when he was forced to go to the lesser school.

It seems bizarre that people care about an intelligence test David Bowie took at ten years old. David Bowie was a genius in so many ways, but this test is often used to judge people. The 11-plus is divisive by nature, a pass = clever, a fail = not smart enough. Most Twitter fans wanted to label their hero with a pass because that makes him a clever rebel who chose the lesser school. A few talked about a fail, but if they did the story was that he proved educational aspirations meaningless.  The truth is that life is never so black and white, but of course the 11-plus has no shades of grey.

The judgements about David Bowie reminded me why I dislike the 11-plus so much. It’s a test that labels our children too soon, often inaccurately, and I believe grammar schools are divisive. I came across the David Bowie debate accidentally when searching for news of the grammar school annexe to be built in Sevenoaks.

11694816-largeThe Weald of Kent grammar school annexe is controversial, because although Kent divides children with the 11-plus no new grammar schools are allowed by law. Parents in Sevenoaks wanted a grammar school in their town so they started a campaign. It was a popular campaign because Sevenoaks has many grammar school fans. They hoped to get around the legal problem by asking Tonbridge’s  Weald of Kent grammar school to build an annex 9 miles away in their town. A school annexe is more usually in a field next door to a school,  not in a neighbouring town. Doing it this way is odd, but it’s the only legal way to create a grammar school in Sevenoaks.

Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State for Education had to review the application to accept that this was truly one school split over a distance, not two schools which would break the law. Her predecessor Michael Gove turned down the plan in 2013. The decision was finally approved last October and this week the 3 month deadline for a judicial review passed. It seems the Weald of Kent have won and  it’s likely the annexe will be built. The Comprehensive Future campaign group  claim they had no evidence to use in their case because the DfE and Kent County Council would not provide the school plans.

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, criticised the lack of transparency. I think this information should be public too, I can’t really see why school plans should not be revealed. So I made a request for the plans in the most transparent way possible, on FOI site What Do They Know. This is one of my favourite sites because if I have an interest in something I like to see both sides of it. On this site everything is in the public domain, the questions asked, the replies from public bodies, the the data given. If you have an interest you can create an account and get updates by email when there are responses to requests.

I asked KCC for the plans, I asked the Department for Education for the plans, and I asked the Weald of Kent grammar school too. FOI responses are supposed to be within 20 days so there should be a response of some sort before February 10th. If the plans can’t be given then the reason for the refusal will be interesting.

Last Friday our new Kent education group met for the first time, sadly without one of our founding members.  And we were busy over the weekend. We sent out our first press release, we featured on BBC South East and we had our quotes in many Kent papers.

Our group wanted to present Kent’s side to the Sevenoaks annexe story. Of course I do have some sympathy for the parents in Sevenoaks who want a grammar school, but I see the bigger picture. This sets a legal precedent. Grammar schools are disallowed by law, but if each of the 134 remaining grammar schools opened a school ‘annexe’ ten miles away there would be 268 grammar schools, and then if each of those expanded again… You get the picture! This is a decision that effects everyone in the country because it circumvents a law, and I believe it to be a good law.

The pitch for this school was that children were travelling too far to reach grammar schools. I have sympathy for this point too, my daughter used to travel 10 miles to school each day, and will do so again in September. No one likes this kind of journey, but it was our own decision and we chose her school knowing it meant a bus ride. Such journeys are common in grammar school Kent. And of course Sevenoaks children could go to local secondary schools too, but grammar schools have more appeal to parents.

Grammar schools are popular to a certain kind of parent, and there are many who supported this campaign,  but laws are there for a reason. If you feel that a law is wrong then I think it is better to try to change the law and not attempt to find a route around it. The first lesson this school is teaching children is that it’s okay to try to dodge a very clear point of law.

The 11-plus is often described with mention of sheep and goats, but ducks come into this too! The Sevenoaks annexe fails the Duck Test (maybe Nicky Morgan doesn’t know about the Duck Test?) The Duck Test goes… ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck.’

The Sevenoaks school plan doesn’t look like a school annexe, it doesn’t work like a school annexe, and it wasn’t campaigned for as a school annexe. I’d say it’s probably not a school annexe, but is in fact a new school.

People in Kent don’t often stop to think why the rest of the country bans this type of school. There are a lot of reasons… Most of the country do not think it right to define children aged 10 in a test. The majority of people outside Kent do not feel two types of school, one ‘academic’ one ‘less academic’ are necessary or desirable. Most schools outside Kent are achieving comparable exam and university results without this system of education. Most people believe grammar schools are bad for social equality, including our own council who have just set up a commission to review social mobility in grammar schools. The Sutton Trust place most of Kent’s parliamentary constituencies in the bottom 5% for social mobility in secondary schools, despite the county doing just fine with primary school social mobility. The ‘bring back grammar schools’ campaign is almost as right wing as ‘bring back hanging’ and has only UKIP support. Even when politicians support academic selection they often state reservations about Kent’s 11-plus system, for instance Boris Johnson supports grammar schools but called  our 1950’s style system ‘brutal.’

None of these arguments  have any bearing on parents in Sevenoaks. They just like grammar schools and they want one in their town. They skipped all the debate, and they side stepped  the law.

So their plan worked it would seem… But did it? The school was designed to avoid journeys to schools, this was the whole point of having a Sevenoaks school. But the Weald of Kent grammar school was forced to put together a plan to prove it was really one school with a 9 mile gap between buildings… This plan means there needs to be travel between these buildings.

This is the odd contradiction, to prove that this really is one school the Weald of Kent has to use both sets of buildings every day. This means that children and parents will need to be ferried between these far away buildings, or else half the children will be taught in the Tonbridge building, and half in the Sevenoaks school building. So then half the Tonbridge children will have to travel to Sevenoaks, and half the Sevenoaks children will have to travel to Tonbridge… The expressed purpose of the school was to avoid children travelling, but this school is clearly causing children to travel. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. In fact the travelling may be worse and may be in lesson time.

Of course we can’t see the plans yet and say this, because they were not made public with those Freedom of Information requests. It will be interesting to see the plans when they are finally revealed.

Our new Kent education group has many members already and features heads, senior teachers, governors, former school inspectors and education researchers, and I’m the token parent! We decided to call ourselves a ‘think tank’ and use a research and evidence based focus. We agreed on the aims of the group, though the name was a different matter! We are Kent Education Network for now, but it’s possible this name will change.

I don’t know whether David Bowie passed or failed his 11-plus, or whether his mum really did cry because he didn’t attend an aspirational grammar school. Do you think he passed or failed?

Do you notice how your story of him changes a little when you consider each option? Each child who takes the 11-plus has their story changed by a test result. I told my daughter’s story in an article for Schools Week here.

Bromley, where David Bowie grew up, is still a grammar school area. The children in his old school made a tribute video, called ‘he is one of us.’ I like their style. To me it seems our children’s educational path should not lead to different stories with a test at 10. I think Kent needs to realise that the rest of the world has moved on from the 11-plus, and for very good reasons.

Richard Stainton – A tribute to a Whitstable campaigner who cared to make a difference

CYCrsR0WsAI_e-jRichard Stainton was found dead on Monday January 4th, and many in Whitstable will miss him. He was someone who chose to take an active part in all the things that mattered to him. It’s such a cliché to say ‘he tried to make a difference,’ I’m sure he would never have phrased it quite that way! It seemed more like a passionate caring for things, and that overspilled into action.

And he cared about so many things things!  Kent education, libraries and museums, Palestine, politics, peace, literature festivals, local issues, and anything big or small that improved our town. His actions involved letters to the paper, tweets to spread information, petitions, council meetings, organising events and demonstrations, and simply engaging people with his enthusiasm for any cause. I know his actions had impact, and he influenced many people who crossed his path.

There are many campaigners for causes, but it was his dignified style of his campaigning that I most respect. Many people who feel passionately about an issue get so wound up they think ‘I must be right’ and that tunnel vision alienates people. Richard and I disagreed on a few things, but I always felt he listened.  His style of debating was a patient presentation of facts, intelligent points, and a respect for the opposing view.

Our politics were poles apart but he did not write me off as ‘the enemy’ instead we got on with working on something we both felt needed attention. In recent weeks we were working on a new group to highlight issues with Kent’s eleven plus and grammar school selection.

Up until the day he died he was helping with our group’s first meeting. He sent an email to suggest a change in the agenda. It was a good point, and I changed the agenda. Now when that item comes up I will need to be strong and get on with things..! It feels awful that we meet tomorrow without him.

Our last email exchange was about the purpose of the group and the name to call it. I wish he’d answered my last email, I think we would have called the group anything he suggested! I know that he cared passionately about this cause, had a good mind, and a skill for getting attention for things. We will miss his campaigning skills enormously.

Richard’s take on education was certainly more ideological than mine, he wanted a grand plan, where perhaps I might accept practical improvements. However I will not forget his wishes and ideology, and I hope our group will turn into something he would be proud of.

He was a great one for letters to the paper, and often sent me scans of education debates in Kent papers. Yesterday I was given a quick deadline to write something about Kent education in influential magazine Schools Week. I got up at 6am, worked like crazy, and hit send at 9am on the hastily written, heartfelt, article. It was such a strange day, it started with pride and ended with sadness. Just a few hours later I heard Richard had died. He would have loved to know we got Kent education in that paper! I think he would have enjoyed scanning that one for his clippings collection.

I will do my best to do good work for this cause we both believe in. If anyone else has an interest in helping do get in touch. Though I think a better message is to  simply say if you care about something take one small action to do with it. Richard took many small actions, and that led to a fine life of acting on beliefs and getting things done. Our town will be a lesser place without his presence, and the Whitstable Gazette won’t be the same without his letters.

I’ll miss you Richard.