Friday, August 31, 2012

Candidate Fail.

Far be it from me to advise the Tory candidate in the Corby by-election, but it is usually good form to demonstrate a little local knowledge. At least as far as knowing the name of the seat. Or even some basic geography.

Andrew Strauss would never have made that mistake.

(HT for spotting this to James Forsyth - @JGForsyth)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Gove - Statistics GCSE - Ungraded

Like parents across the country, I was waiting for yesterday with a mix of hope and fear as my eldest child was collecting her GCSE results.

Gove has been tinkering with the future of schools and the future of students and what he has done is unforgiveable, as it has been done to fuel an ideological agenda, not with any real sense of improving outcomes. Geoff Barton, a head teacher with almost three decades of teaching experience behind him, wrote that
from 10 am yesterday I started to get messages from fellow headteachers across England to say that their English results were 10% or more below what they expected. They were asking whether I knew anything about problems with the marking. I didn’t. English results more than 10% below where we would expect them, and yet the same experienced team (including me) had been teaching GCSE English, with a series of tests, checks and mock exams through the year to monitor students’ progress - and all this in the same school that last week had achieved some of the best A-level results in the County.
Pupils are carefully monitored throughout their school life now, with masses of data collected on their progress from a very young age. Teachers have become experts in estimating outcomes and, barring the odd few outliers, have a pretty good handle throughout the year on where they expect their pupils to finish. Any shift within the system therefore becomes obvious and this one is glaring. The key change has been in the boundary in marking controlled assessments to achieve a C grade in English, the commonest subject and one that is vital to the future of virtually all students.

Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders said: "The grade boundaries in English have been moved up, on the C/D borderline, and they've been moved up very substantially." 
This does bring into question the statement from Glenys Stacey, the head of OfQual, this morning, where she said
What we have done this year and indeed last year actually is to hold the line on standards steady so that if the qualification and the type of student taking the exam are broadly the same the results will be broadly the same. Any differences in results in English or in other subjects will reflect the differences in the make-up of the group taking the exam in terms of the number of their abilities or indeed, this year, differences in the qualification system.... We are applying the approach we have been for the last two years ... but it is just the case that because qualifications last over two years ... it takes a little while for these changes to work through the system.
If that is the case, then why have the boundaries changed this year? In an insightful piece, Paul Cotterill notes. informed commenter at TES Online says: 
Why is nobody just admitting that it is only grade boundary changes that have made the difference? For the first year our CA [controlled assessment] marks are worse than exams – like others, if we had submitted in January we would be around 8% better off due to CA grade boundary shift of 6 marks. Exam boards need to find adequate answer – as it is same task, just different submission date. I should have realised that just like holidays, UMS points are more expensive in the peak season! 
And as Chris Cook reports, there seems there is an emerging pattern: 
Schools also said that the fall in results was concentrated on children taking exams in the summer, rather than the winter. The exam boards acknowledged that grade boundaries in English qualifications had risen between January and July. Brian Crosby, head of the Manor Church of England Academy in York, told the BBC that in his city, “every school where they had taken the summer examination had had a 10 to 12 per cent drop in performance”. Those that took exams in the winter “were either happy or had an increase in performance”.

These changes clearly haven't "worked through" - they've been dumped on the system in the past few months. The difference is this stark - if the controlled assessments, which are done in class under tight supervision - were submitted back at the start of the year, then they would get better marks than ones submitted later in the year. 

Michael Gove and the boss of Ofqual have both been at pains to point out that there has been no instruction to Ofqual to get tough on students. 

There doesn't need to be.

In the world of government contracts, it makes sense to keep an eye on the direction of travel of those who pay your invoices - reading the runes is quite key to securing your future and I've done this myself in a different environment. Paul Cotterill reminds us that Gove has dangled the idea of a single examination board to replace the current six and it is hardly surprising that these boards have all followed his desire to deflate grades. It is also apparent that this deflation has occurred very late in the process - after the schools have finished teaching to the syllabus. 
This, I suggest, may well explain the mid-year change of grade boundaries.  The fact that Gove went public on the single exam body idea in the Spring (though the Select Committee knew his views in December 2011) and that the grade boundaries were changed immediately afterwards is not quite the smoking gun we’re looking for, but I’d bet good money that it’s no coincidence.

The Tories are spinning a line about being more rigorous, but this is merely self-serving drivel. The syllabus hasn't become more challenging, exams haven't been made more difficult and they aren't being marked any more harshly - this is just using a blunt statistical tool to achieve a given aim by deception. The truth is, as is becoming a mark of this government, that this is an ideologically driven change.

Bear in mind that this year, schools have to ensure that 40% of their pupils pass at least 5 GSCEs with A-C grades including English and Maths or they face OFSTED moving in and either closure or forced conversion to academy status - regardless of the view of local authorities, parents, teachers or governors. Gove knows best. If they don't get you by redrawing the boundaries on what constitutes a decent school as part of the regular - and increasingly aggressive - OFSTED inspections, then they will get you on poor exam performance. They don't want to make it too obvious, nor do they want to overload the academy network, so this will be a gradual process, with about 250 extra members of the brave new world of academies. Next year, it rises to 45%. More schools will 'fail', become academies and be fattened up ready for the private sector to take over. James Hargrave came to exactly the same conclusion and the Telegraph even ran the story as a front page headline.  

So, as you are drawn away by pictures of a naked Royal prince, remember that our children are being used by this government to pursue their own aims. Remember also that behind these broad figures lie individual disappointments. Disproportionately, this will affect students in poorer areas who already face particular challenges and this will have a lifelong impact. Chris Edwards, an English teacher writes a moving open letter to Michael Gove, which bears reading in full
I spent the vast majority of the morning consoling students, who worked more than hard enough to achieve a C grade in English, had been predicted a C grade in English and effectively had earned a C grade in English, but had been credited with a D grade, thus scuppering their chances of going to a college which had conditionally accepted them based on their predicted grades. Just to be exceptionally clear, these are not privileged kids who were bright enough to get a high grade, but just couldn’t be bothered to work. These are students who are learning English as a second, sometimes third, language who have attended every revision session provided and still requested more, leading to some of us teachers having to put video lessons on YouTube to quench their never-ending thirst for knowledge.  
The work ethic shown by some of these students to overcome their language barriers was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. When coming to collect their results, they were far too humble to be over-confident, let alone complacent, but deep down they were content with the knowledge that they had given their all. On opening the envelopes and seeing their D grades, each and every one of them covered their faces due to the shame that they felt. They should, of course, have been celebrating. But instead, a combination of devastation, embarrassment and confusion descended upon them and it was left to us teachers to try to explain to them what had gone wrong.
How does Michael Gove sleep at night, knowing that his ideology is ruining young lives?

Next time your local Tory or LibDem MP pops up to share in the reflected glory of the achievements of the students at a local school, remember this and remind them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Rumblings in the ranks

According to the Top of the Cops blog, there is grumbling aplenty after ex-Birmingham councillor Matt Bennett (ejected by the voters this May) beat former police officer and current Solihull councillor Joe Tildesley to the Tory nomination for the person most likely to lose to the Labour candidate in this autumn's West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner elections. I have certainly heard through the grapevine that Joe does feel very unhappy at the outcome. 

Before the election, Matt Bennett crowed about Labour's selection of Bob Jones

The Labour Leader... calls for a high turnout when less than 2500 of his own members bothered to vote in the selection. Hardly a rallying cry!.... Labour's method of selection is in contrast to that of the Conservative Party, which will be holding open primaries around the West Midlands which any member of the public can attend. It is quite clear which party is committed to democracy in local policing, and it is not the Labour Party.
Which is surely a ringing endorsement of his party's chosen selection process - through four meetings in July in Erdington, Walsall, Solihull and Halesowen (not daring to head into Coventry, for some reason). Any registered elector in the force region was supposed to be able to attend these open primaries, review the candidates and then cast their vote for whichever they thought best fit to carry the Tory Torch into defeat. 

Top of the Cops reports that there were problems with:
  • some people being excluded from the public meetings
  • candidates seeking to fill the meetings with supporters
  • a lack of organisation at the meetings
  • a lack of clarity on whether attendees needed to be registered beforehand
  • a lack of clarity as to whether rules on who could attend and vote were applied consistently
  • the full results not put being put in the public domain straight away (maybe not at all), and consequently there has been a fair element of suspicion and speculation because of this vacuum created by the party.
Despite this Tory commitment to democracy, the actual results have not been released, as they are apparently now an 'internal party matter' - although the process was originally a public one (unlike Labour). The reason may be more to do with embarrassment, as rumour has it that Matt Bennett won by 10 votes with the total votes cast being of the order of 450. I do hope that we won't hear any 'rallying cries' for a high turnout from Mr Bennett, given that his party membership and the public have already shown their opinion of his electoral chances, with a turnout 80% lower than Labour's selection process. 

Thanks to the HT from the Chamberlain Files

Saturday, August 18, 2012

An unwanted legacy

Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but those self same playing fields may also prove to be the downfall of sport for those pupils not sufficiently prepared to have been born to exceptionally wealthy parents.

Last week, Cameron tried to push Boris from the moving bandwagon with a media offensive, but only succeeded in making himself look even more incompetent and out of touch. Aside from the picture, there was his illogical comment that targetting schools to provide two hours of school a week was pointless because some schools were using that time to teach Indian dancing rather than competitive sports. Even if you accept that this isn't a good use of time, quite why that negates the idea of a national target isn't clear. In any case, sport is surely one area which is target focussed.

What I think that does illustrate is both the narrowness of Cameron's life experience, his inability to see beyond that and also the utter confusion in policy at the top of government.

For sixteen days, this country sat at the centre of world sport, showing off just how well we could deliver a magnificent, spectacular and friendly games, an event marked by the level of public sector involvement and private sector failure. This was an event that had at its heart a promise to inspire the next generation, but the government aren't helping to deliver that and Cameron traduced the legacy of Labour in an attempt to justify his government's savaging of our sporting future:

"Every school has to deliver sport. What the last government did, which is not right, is if you just sit there in Whitehall and set a target but don't actually do anything to help schools to meet it, you are not really solving the problem. In fact, by just saying: 'I want you to do this number of hours a week,' some schools think: 'right, as soon as I have met that minimum target, I can tick a box and give up"

The first point I would make is that if you don't have to tick a box, you give up a lot sooner. With tightening budgets, organisations are focussing on what they have to deliver, not what they want to do. The other point is that Labour did do a great deal to help schools meet their target and where the help was properly applied, it proved highly effective.Under Labour, the proportion of pupils doing two hours or more of sport a week rose from 25% to 90%, with 55% doing three or more hours a week - no evidence there that schools stopped as soon as the minimum target was reached.

The reality is that the success of Team GB has been built on more than fifteen years of proper funding through the Lottery  which allowed the professionalisation of coaching and support. Labour took the next step by creating School Sports Partnerships at a cost of £162 million a year to fund a proper structure of co-ordinators and organisers, as well as teachers in every school tasked to deliver an improved PE curriculum and one that was joined up to other schools in the partnership across the primary, secondary and special sectors. All this was directly linked to the plans to develop a legacy from the Olympic games. But they weren't just about sport - they had an impact in terms of academic performance and allowed young people to develop into coaches in the community. Don't rely on my word, let's ask OFSTED who surveyed 12 programs shortly before the scheme ended:

  •  In the vast majority of SSPs, pupils participate in an ever-increasing range of PE and sports activities. Better coordination of what pupils are learning in PE lessons and the activities provided for them after school and in local clubs is promoting continuity and reinforcing learning.
  •  SSPs can contribute to improvements made in other subjects and aid pupils’ transition from primary and secondary school. The values of the 2012 Olympics are being used to stimulate pupils’ interest in learning and motivation to boost their academic achievement.
  •  Growing numbers of pupils of all ages train to become young leaders and are helping to run clubs and competitions for others. SSPs provide a wealth of opportunities for young leaders to organise, officiate and support in sport which is having a beneficial impact on their personal organisation, attitudes and behaviour towards others.
  • SSPs strengthen the pathways from school into community sports clubs. Where these do not exist, SSPs help to create them by liaising with personnel from sports clubs on behalf of schools and by providing resources to employ specialist coaches to complement existing provision in schools and to enable more pupils to participate and compete. Activities are designed to include pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities or are at risk of disengaging from PE and sport.

Essentially, the School Sports Partnership worked. If Cameron were serious about the Big Society, rather than just using it as a crutch to help him make cuts, this is a great model - children move through the school system and some will develop into community coaches, able to deliver low cost projects and mentor the next generation, providing diversionary sport which helps to reduce social exclusion, crime and obesity. Frankly, that £162 million a year looks like a bargain. This from West Essex SSP, demonstrating the myth that state schools don't support competitive sport

In the autumn term 2010, sports coaches coordinated by the SSP delivered over 70 projects, mainly 10-week breakfast or after-school clubs in schools. Over 800 hours of coaching in a diverse range of activities, such as basketball, gymnastics, orienteering, tri-golf, tag-rugby, gymnastics, orienteering, table tennis, cheerleading, squash, handball, fencing and kick-boxing, helped to complement the range of established clubs and teams organised by teaching staff, and significantly enhanced opportunities for those pupils not always selected for school teams. 

Don't tell Dave, but even dance had a part to play in the Hamble SSP.

An after-school dance club led by a dance specialist and a local community youth worker combined teaching secondary school pupils about the dangers of smoking, alcohol and drugs with working as a team to choreograph, produce and perform a dance routine. It was popular with pupils and several schools entered their performances in an annual dance event.

Regular participation in dance generated teamwork and pride among pupils and had a positive impact on their attitudes towards health and their well-being.
A group of older girls who did not regularly participate in PE was invited to join a ‘dance into fitness’ after-school club. They were given a work book to record their weight loss, their feelings about themselves and the changes in their lifestyle during the project. This helped to restore their confidence and self-esteem, and increased their participation in PE lessons.

Street dance was used to re-engage a group of boys at risk of underachieving. Regular participation in a weekly after-school dance club improved their self-esteem and gave them the confidence to present their routines in a public performance. This led to improvements in their commitment, attitudes and attendance at school. 

This is where Cameron's lack of vision or wider knowledge of the country he is supposed to lead comes into the mix. He doesn't actually grasp what should be the purpose of school sport - not just about developing future gold medal athletes, but improving the general health of the nation. He doesn't understand what the policies are supposed to deliver, beyond another chance to bask in the golden reflected glory of Olympic champions. We saw athletes win gold this year who did not rely on the private school playing fields, but had their first opportunities in comprehensive schools and the system is probably resilient enough to ensure that 2016 will provide a new crop, but there needs to be a strategy beyond even that. As in so much that this government decides, it is the disadvantaged that suffer the most - Chris Dunne, the head of Langdon Park comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, put it well back in 2010,
It will especially hit children in deprived areas like this, where there aren't middle-class parents taking their kids around after school at weekends to tennis lessons and the like. In this borough, some of our staff drive pupils to cricket, hockey and golf clubs in other parts of London as part of their work, because there aren't any locally. They take the place of parents a lot of the time.
And then there's Gove. There's always Gove. He's still having problems with basic maths, just as he did with the BSF program. Has he approved 25 school playing fields for sell off? 30? 31? Who knows - he apparently doesn't. He scrapped Building Schools for the Future, so forcing an increasing number of crumbling schools to look to realise some value from their assets (not that they will necessarily get best value, given the depressed state of the housing market). In fact, that depressed housing market probably accounts for the number of fields that Gove has decided to release. He's even overruled his independent advisory panel on five occasions - more than Labour did in nine years - and we now find out that academies will be able to sell off their playing fields without scrutiny from the independent panel, just on a ministerial signature. To put the cap on it, he's also decided that another target has to go to help more free schools to pop up as part of the Govian plan to marketise education prior to privatisation for profit - they will no longer have to provide play areas of a certain size, just 'suitable' outdoor space. On past form, that will be extended to existing schools before long.

In fact, a free school was recently rejected by Birmingham planners that included no outdoor space at all - the pupils were expected to walk through a shopping centre, across a large carpark, cross a busy main road to get to public playing fields. The planning committee felt so strongly about the unsuitability of this site - for other reasons as well - that they have rejected the application, although officers consider that an appeal may be successful.

What is true is that this government is squandering the legacy of a decade of investment in school sport, it is wasting the inspiration of the Olympics, an opportunity that will not come again in my lifetime.

Cameron should spend less time lounging in search of photo-opportunities and more time thinking about the future. Sadly, as he is nothing more than a failed spin merchant with no knowledge about the reality of life for most people in this country, he won't. And that's shameful.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Golden balls-up

As you will have seen, No 10 released a shot of Cameron sitting watching Nicola Adams punch her way to Olympic gold in the boxing ring. This photo was quickly parodied and became a brief internet meme.

To my mind, the problem with the picture is that it just doesn't work as a credible story in itself. If Cameron wants to get some of the reflected golden glory or show us that he's as excited by events as the rest of the country, then this utterly failed. The first issue for me is that Cameron can't pull off the 'man of the people' schtick at all. Boris can't do it either, but his buffoonish act (and it is an act, never forget that) carries him through such PR disasters as last week's zipwire malfunction, enabling them to turn them to his political advantage. Actually, as an aside, I think that Jeremy Hunt's bell malfunction the previous week was also well handled - it wasn't a mistake on his part and he immediately apologised to the victim of his bell end, to the point where I think his public image was slightly enhanced. But back to the matter in hand - Cameron isn't like you and me. He never has been and never will be - that's just a fact of life, so trying to be something he isn't comes across immediately as false, because he simply isn't a good enough actor and the public see right through him. Accordingly, he shouldn't try to be something he isn't. The Team GB shirt is just trying too hard - is he at work or isn't he? The informality clashes visually with our received wisdom about the PM's workplace and the formality of his upright chair, his sitting position and the rest of the scene behind him. At a time when the country is sharing the event, he looks lonely.

The picture would have had more effect if he had been seen in shirtsleeves, in the office with a couple of staffers, standing watching the bout. That would have chimed far better with the message that you want to send - here's your Prime Minister, hard at work, but he's as grabbed by the narrative of the Olympics as is the rest of the country and is sharing the excitement with his team.

This might not have stopped the ridicule, but it would have been less discordant and perhaps offered a different narrative opportunity.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A wheelie good idea?

Martin Mullaney - recently rejected as a Lib Dem councillor by the good people of  Moseley and Kings Heath - claims to have got the details of a bid to the Department of Communities and Local Government from Birmingham City Council for a share of Pickles' Bin Giveaway and he's spinning it that every household in Birmingham will be forced to have three bins of particular sizes.

This is a partial view of a proposal about which more will be known during August and that partiality is a problem. Martin clearly hasn't had the full details, so he's scaremongering about what he thinks he knows. Wheeled bins are in there certainly, but that's not the full extent of the bid. There's a very good reason why we're not going into the details at this stage.

The fund only amounts to £250 million nationally - well below the £500 million estimated to reintroduce weekly collections across the country - and this pot is to be shared out amongst competitive bids. To this end, given that other large authorities are watching Birmingham closely, the details of it need to be kept confidential until the bid submission process closes in just over a fortnight. After that point, despite what Martin says, the City Council will consult on the details of the proposal with the people of Birmingham, in advance of any decision by the DCLG. Once Comrade Eric announces his decision, expected coincidentally around the time of the Tory conference in Birmingham, then the proposal will come back to Cabinet.

In the interests of the people that I represent, I have no wish to compromise Birmingham's bid for some extra money to improve our services, although Martin seems less reticent and has concluded - with only partial information at his disposal - that

There was an outline bid prepared by the previous administration, which had food waste collection at the centre. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, the bid documents only mention food waste in conjunction with fortnightly collections (p8-9) - which Birmingham doesn't have.
"Set out the collection pattern(s) that the bid is proposing to commit to over the future (minimum) five year period, whether this is retaining or reinstating a weekly collection of residual household waste, adding a recycling element to a weekly residual collection, or adding a weekly food waste (or organic) collection to an existing fortnightly collection of weekly residual household waste." [emphasis added]
So already, the LibDem/Tory proposal was outside the parameters set by DCLG. That isn't to say it couldn't have been submitted, but we know that Eric Pickles is not a fan of adding further recycling containers and also that he will be taking a personal interest in these bids. You would reasonably expect that a bid from Birmingham - the largest local authority in the country - would receive attention from the Secretary of State and I would suggest that the bid as proposed by the last administration would not have succeeded.

Further, while the bid documentation does not require pre-bid consultation generally, according to the frequently asked questions document (p13),  proposals to introduce a food waste collection scheme would need to
"evidence “credible local support” where they plan to introduce a weekly food waste collection"
If the Liberal Democrats or Tories had bothered with a manifesto for the local elections that included a food waste collection - and had retained control - then that would have been sufficient for the purposes of the application. But neither did.

As it happens, I support food waste collection, but that has to go hand in hand with the infrastructure - probably an anaerobic digestion plant, given the size of Birmingham's expected volumes. Currently, we don't have that, so the waste would have to be transported elsewhere, reducing likely carbon savings and increasing costs. Incidentally, Martin holds up Somerset County Council as an example of what can be achieved - although he neglects to point out that the district councils in Somerset, who collect the 'residual' waste (stuff that isn't recycled) do so in wheelie bins.

We'll be able to discuss our plans in a fortnight or so, so watch out for more information then.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Public hanging restored in London

Readers, this could be your next Prime Minister.

Pretty much as I've been forecasting for ages, Tories want Boris as the next leader of the party and he has apparently got Murdoch's backing (although that might not be a vote-winner these days).

Most worrying for the current PM is Benedict Brogan's report that the money is on Boris now.
Conservative donors have had enough, and are lining up behind the London Mayor. In City terms, the money men are shorting the Tory leadership. This has happened before; it’s what helped finish Iain Duncan Smith.
A Tory recovery is inextricably linked to an economic one and the absence of any signs of revival spell political defeat for Cameron, with Osborne then ruled out of the leadership because of his incompetence as Chancellor. The growing level of support for Boris will worry Cameron, but it should also trouble Labour. 

Boris has shown a unique capacity in modern British politics - Brand Boris and his trademark buffoonery obscure any detailed consideration of some of his questionable policy and personnel appointments. For a while in his first administration, there seemed to be a revolving door of deputy mayors forced out over one issue or another. However, the Olympics now seem to be running more or less to plan, especially now the professionals are involved in security operations and Boris looks suitably mayoral. 

Boris is perhaps the only leader with any hope of saving the Tory party from defeat at the next election. Behind the image of a genial village idiot lurks a shrewd political brain and Boris knows where he's going. Despite his promises that he would serve his term, what if the Tory Party came to him 'in the national interest?' 

I think we know the answer, especially as Boris plans on having some free time on his hands after the Olympics and leaving running London up to his deputy mayors while he goes part-time.