Val Hindmarsh and Helen Morris
If the Conservatives form the next government, Nicky Morgan proposes to make 11-year-olds who don’t reach the expected standard in the Key Stage 2 SATs re-sit the tests in Year 7 in a bid for 100% success. The Conservative manifesto pledge says 100,000 students would be affected.
This ignores the age-old adage that measuring the goose doesn’t fatten it. While no one would wish to argue with the Tory leadership’s wish for every child to get ‘the best start in life’, simply following a regime of test and re-test offers no guarantee of increased attainment. In fact it may turn out to be harmful to young students already under pressure from having spent the last (more…)
Val Hindmarsh and Helen Morris
Nicky Morgan has just rejected ASCL’s call for ‘a broad nationally defined core curriculum framework’ to be set by a curriculum commission at arm’s length from politicians.
This will review the framework every five years and include representatives from school leaders, teachers, parents, industry, and politicians. Schools are encouraged to build a culture of curriculum design and development including but going beyond this core. (more…)
The Department for Education has just invited schools and other bodies to bid for money to support projects in character education. Since her appointment last July, Nicky Morgan has shown an especial interest in this area. In a recent talk at Birmingham University, she spoke of “ensuring that young people not only grow academically, but also build character, resilience and grit”.
She went on: “We want to ensure that young people leave school with the perseverance to strive to win…. We want pupils to revel in the achievement of victory, but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lessons of defeat with acceptance and humility.” These values are reflected in the bidding invitation. Pride of place is given to perseverance, resilience, grit, confidence, (more…)
There is a political consensus about setting by ability: that politicians believe they know what is best for schools. Michael Gove, as opposition spokesman on education, said that “Each pupil should be given the opportunity to learn in accordance with their particular aptitude and ability…we believe that setting by ability is the only solution to achieving this ambition”. David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, said that “I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.” The Labour White Paper in 2005 was strongly in favour of it and Jacqui Smith, as Schools Minister, said that “Labour has encouraged setting, and there is now more setting than in 1997”.
The issue arose again this week when The Guardian reported that the new Education Secretary was about to mandate setting by ability in secondary schools – a story she quickly denied. It now appears that Nicky Morgan has seen off what would have been a heavy handed centralisation of educational decision-making.
The research evidence is nuanced. As long ago as 1998, my predecessor as Director of the IOE, Peter Mortimore, reported his research conclusion that “setting in mathematics, accompanied by curriculum differentiation, may be a means of raising the attainment of the more able pupils. The effect is not great, however, and there are some costs in terms of the progress of pupils whose attainment is low at the end of primary school. The impact on pupils’ self-concept may be important in the longer term, influencing later attainment in the subject and decisions about choice of subjects after the age of 16. These factors must also be taken into account when formulating policy on ability grouping in schools”. It’s a measured, balanced conclusion – there are benefits, but most especially for higher attaining students.
This conclusion is largely endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit, which notes that “ability grouping appears to benefit higher-attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower-attaining learners. On average, ability grouping does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups. Summer-born pupils and students from ethnic minority backgrounds are also likely to be adversely affected by ability grouping.” Like most complex professional issues, there are balances to be struck between the needs of different pupils, between short-term and long-term goals and between different curriculum areas.
The overall picture on practice in schools is complex. Almost all secondary schools use setting in parts of the curriculum: almost all mathematics is taught to groups arranged on the basis of some measure of attainment; analysis of cohort evidence suggests that the practice in widespread in primary schools but the organisational and curricular issues are complex, and that the long-term academic attainment of summer born children may be hampered by their tendency to be allocated to lower sets.
Other evidence suggests schools’ practice in setting is cut across by other issues: the tendency to allocate less experienced teachers to lower sets, despite the American evidence suggesting that the reverse is what is needed; the tendency of teaching in lower sets to lack sufficient challenge; and the observed tendency for pupils from deprived socio-economic backgrounds to be over-represented in lower sets; the often weak and inconsistent nature of the attainment evidence used to allocate pupils to sets; the frequency (or otherwise) at which pupils are moved between sets. It would be extremely difficult – and very costly of resource – for all but very, very large schools to set in all subjects: block timetabling means compromises have to be made. For both good educational and hard resource reasons, most schools adopt different grouping strategies for different parts of the curriculum at different age stages.
All the politicians quoted at the beginning of this blog post have committed themselves to school autonomy. After extensive critique, Ofsted has abandoned any sense that inspectors should look for particular teaching approaches: schools should be judged on how well they perform, not how they organise themselves. There is good, if complex, research evidence on grouping approaches, and excellent, developing practice on flexible grouping strategies. If schools are to be operationally autonomous, then that’s what they need to be. The spat within government over setting suggests that there will always be politicians who find school autonomy challenging. Morgan’s commitment to work with the profession is, however, encouraging.
There are two sorts of politician. There are those who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they are doing that they think that everyone essentially agrees with them, and enthusiastically build a large coalition to get things done. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not against me is for me. And there are politicians who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they believe that they will fight anyone and everyone who disagrees, however insignificantly. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not for me is against me.
Michael Gove was passionate about education, and looked for enemies who did not share his fundamental beliefs. Over four years, he took on major policy area after major policy area: school governance, school accountability, teacher education and development, curriculum, assessment, school funding, and so on and so on. The complaint of headteacher unions was frequently that he should slow the pace, introduce no more change, allow things to bed down. But this was to miss the point: for Michael Gove, energetic and rapid change was the essence of what he wanted to achieve, and a diminishing band of enthusiastic supporters egged him on.
My guess is that the instruction from the Prime Minister to Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s successor, is indeed to calm things down. One in ten female voters – a key demographic for the Conservative party – work in education. News stories of confusion and demoralisation play badly for any workforce and the stakes are too high. So the premium over the next year will be not on policy change but on messaging – on seeking to manage and administer a radically changed education system.
One of the great ironies of Michael Gove’s time as secretary of state is that over substantial tranches of policy he introduced changes for which there was, or could have been, professional support: most teachers have been trained to teach reasonably traditional school subjects; most teachers want to work in classrooms where their own classroom management is unquestioned; most teachers want to take responsibility for innovation and development. But a secretary of state who slimmed down the national curriculum to a more tightly defined academic core, who placed the EBacc at the core of the accountability system, who strengthened guidance on behaviour management and who believed in school autonomy ends as perhaps the most unpopular and derided secretary of state in modern times. Research on system reform is explicit: ultimately, school systems can only be improved by consent, by engaging and supporting teachers in change.
So the key tasks for Nicky Morgan are clear: first, to take the heat out of contentious policy implementation by building bridges to the profession. Of course, Michael Gove was always lavish in his praise of successful school leaders. But the suspicion was always there that these successful school leaders were being singled out because he believed they were the exceptions, not because they were typical of the majority. Ultimately, any chief executive has to believe in the workforce and its capacity to deliver. Nicky Morgan needs to look for allies, not enemies.
Secondly, she will need to use the resources of the Department for Education quietly and inconspicuously to defuse some of the policy confusions that have arisen as (to mix a metaphor) the tectonic plates of education have been tossed into the air. The accountability of free schools; the relationships between academies and local authorities (who retain over two hundred statutory powers in respect of education); the tenuous hold the DfE now has on teacher supply; the difficulties about school place planning in a world where free-school ‘demand’ has replaced local authority supply planning; uncertainties about teaching as a profession given the deregulatory approach of the last four years.
Thirdly, she needs to look outward. The Gove rhetoric was of a failing school system with some bright lights; the OFSTED evidence is of a largely effective school system, in which the great majority of schools are at least good. The big challenges are about the capacity of schools to grapple with huge changes: the long-term impact of technology on education; the role of schools in community and social cohesion; the role of the school in an increasingly unequal society; the challenge of securing both high levels of excellence and high equity; the role of education as a preparation for work at a time of phenomenal change in labour markets; the continuing challenge of literacy and numeracy amongst the lowest attaining 20 per cent of young people.
These challenges are not confined to England – they face education systems across the world. Some are doing better and more effectively in respect of some of the challenges, but none – as any academic or policy researcher will confirm – are meeting all of them. Almost all of those involved in education think about them, and there are creative contributions from dissenting voices – they can all be listened to.
Nicky Morgan has two huge advantages. The first is that almost whatever the secretary of state does, children arrive at school and teachers teach them: the system goes on working irrespective of government changes. This means that her own interventions can be judicious and thoughtful rather than impulsive. The second is that, curiously enough for someone starting a new job, she has arrived just as most of the workers and clients disappear for their summer break, so she has time to read, talk and think before the new school year.
But then she faces an enormous challenge, because from the first day back in September – everyone will be watching.