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Westlake Legal Group > free schools

John Bald: There is no reason why other schools should not apply Michaela’s principles

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Now that the euphoria over Michaela Community School’s results has calmed down, we can consider their wider implications.

First, the facts. Four times the national average of the new top grade of Level 9 – 18 per cent of all entries, with two pupils (from 850 or so nationally) this grade in all subjects. Two and a half times the national average at L7+, equivalent to the former A grade, and 58 per cent Ebacc passes, compared to a national average over recent years in the low twenties. I’ve questioned the validity of the “progress 8” measure, which sees everything in terms of scores in English and maths at 11, but this is still an astonishing 1.5.

The Guardian, no friend of Michaela, said these results placed Michaela among the best state schools in the country, an understatement. They represent the latest milestone in a long journey that has extended the idea of who can succeed academically from the 25 per cent of pupils in the grammar school era, via 50 per cent in the Newsom “Half our Future” report of the early 60s, to the over 80 per cent achieved by Mossbourne nine years ago. Over 90 per cent of Michaela’s passes were at Level 4 (old C) and above, and there are grammar schiools not far away.

Michaela has not merely broken the mould but, as Katharine Birbalsingh put it, “smashed it”. Discussions with teachers at the school’s celebration evening on Friday added to what I’d learned on my visit two years ago. First, the low-level disruption that plagues education in many schools, including some rated outstanding – pupils only do it when inspectors are there if they really hate their teachers – is eliminated during the induction “boot camp”. Pupils who have been used to setting their own behaviour patterns have to change their ways – a smirk across the table when a teacher is talking brings an immediate 25 minute detention, and teachers do not back down in the face of a tantrum.

Second, pupils are grouped according to their abilities and learning needs. Unlike almost all other schools that do this, however, the same attention to detail is paid to the teaching of lower-attaining pupils as to top sets. The one valid objection to ability grouping, that lower sets do not get their share of the best teaching, does not apply, and Deputy Head Katy Ashford, who doubles as special needs co-ordinator, is a key figure in making this happen. No stigma is attached to lower sets, and visitors mentioning setting in front of pupils may be asked to leave.

Third, Michaela’s teaching is consistently thoughtful and systematic. Maths in the first year is arithmetic, based on the computer programme Times Tables Rockstars. Mr Bullock, Head of Year 7, does not comment when I say that this should have been done in primary school, but it ensures that nothing is left out by the time algebra is introduced in the second year. Pupils then work on the programme Hegarty Maths, which tracks individual progress, and do so every day. Detention is there if they don’t, but the constant positive feedback makes them want to. This is another key feature at Michaela – everyone, including nearly all visitors, comes to want to buy into the system.

Despite the obstacles and abuse she faced while setting up the school, Birbalsingh, like Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne. started with one advantage – a new staff who shared her values, commitment and determination. The young teachers joining the school this year, including some from the private sector, and a physics teacher straight from the Higgs boson project, have this experience to learn from, as well as making their own contribution. Former deputy Barry Smith, who has applied Michaela principles at Great Yarmouth, has had to overcome opposition from established staff, and deal with a group of seriously, and at times violently, disruptive pupils and hostile parents. Birbalsingh gives credit to nearby Ark Wembley Park school for adopting Michaela principles, with similarly positive results, showing that the approach works beyond her own school.

There were no politicians at the celebration evening, leaving the field to the people who have done the work – the staff, and pupils who have joined the new sixth form – entry level 7 passes at Grade 7 or above, aiming for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the social mobility that these bring. It was a pity that Michael Gove could not be present at what is, in my view, his greatest achievement. But if the Conservative Conference in 2010 was Katharine Birbalsingh’s day, this was her night. And Michaela’s.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Free schools must be set free

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has pledged that free schools will be at the heart of education policy. In terms of the numbers, the growth of free schools has been strong. There are now 444 of them. There are hundreds more in the pipeline.

But the mission to provide innovation and wider choice is not just about numbers. Do free schools have enough freedom? A recent report from the New Schools Network suggests they could and should have more:

“The free schools programme must now return to its original purpose and mission. Recent narrow restrictions on the types of schools that can be approved and the bureaucracy of the application process have hampered the growth of the programme. Innovation and community led schools, which were the driver behind the free schools concept, are completely absent in recent waves. Where highly successful free schools already exist, they are struggling to expand and spread excellence. There is a risk the system is becoming dominated by a few big regional players, creating barriers to unleashing the next wave of innovation in education. In recent years, the policy has continued to see success in niche areas, such as the approval of four new university sponsored 16-19 maths schools and the growth in the number of special school places. Yet the original vision of the mainstream programme, which brought so many benefits to the thousands of children, has disappeared.”

It offers the following recommendations:

  • Open 100 new free schools each year, concentrated in areas that have been left behind
  • Expand the policy to ensure there is a free school in every local authority
  • Encourage new providers to enter the schools system by allowing new single academy trusts to be established, and placing innovation at the heart of the free school assessment process
  • Legislate to compel local authorities to set aside land for new free schools and remove the barriers to opening new schools
  • A new sponsorship model which brings the benefits of a track record of improvement, new leadership and capital funding to schools which have been stuck in a pattern of underperformance
  • Support for small, highly successful free schools to grow their academy trust, sharing their Outstanding practice
  • A new, dedicated, AP free school wave to deliver places for vulnerable pupils at risk of gang violence.

It is undeniable that community-led academy trusts have provided some of the most successful free schools. One of them is Michaela, the secondary school in Brent. The founder and headmistress is Katharine Birbalsingh who is an inspirational figure. Boris Johnson is among the visitors who were impressed.

So it is very welcome that the latest batch of approvals, which was for 22 new free schools, included the following:

“Michaela Community School Stevenage- a mixed, non-faith secondary providing 1260 school places for 11-18 year old pupils and will be part of a newly formed multi-academy trust, including Michaela Community School in Brent, judged Outstanding by Ofsted in 2017.”

Other new schools that were announced included Edgar Wood Academy in Rochdale, one of the most deprived areas of the country. The school will be part of the Altus Education Partnership. Its founding school, Rochdale Sixth Form College, has been named as the highest ranked college for value added performance in the country for the past five years.

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne will have the Callerton Academy. This will be led by Gosforth Federated Academies trust, which since 2010 has run the popular and over-subscribed Gosforth Academy, rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

BOA Stage and Screen Production will be a new 16-19 specialist college in central Birmingham. An offshoot of the successful Birmingham Ormiston Academy, it will offer a highly specialised education in the technical and production side of the performing arts for pupils in the West Midlands.

Looking down the full list we can see that other ones will be opening in Barnsley, Doncaster, Oldham, Liverpool, Salford and St Helens. This is where the greater opportunity is needed the most. These are the areas where all too often parents are not happy with the choices currently available. For many children, these new schools will be transformational for their life chances. Will the local MPs welcome their arrival? Or demand they be closed down?

Boosting free schools is not the only answer. Just as important is to speed along with the forced takeovers of failing schools which are then reborn under new management as “sponsored academies.” The challenges are great in turning round a school.  Reputations takes time to recover even if the name is changed and a new head and governing body brought in. On the other hand, at least the building is already there. Finding premises for new schools is the hardest part, which is why the recommendation noted above to force councils to release sites is very sensible. I would also like to see independent schools give a bigger role. The Assisted Places Scheme should be revived. It should also be made easier for new independent schools to start up, which would result in downward pressure on school fees.

The moral and political imperative is to be bold with school reform. Labour, the “enemies of promise”, threatens church schools, free schools, academies, grammar schools and independent schools. The Conservative reply should be to back all these schools. They should be given more freedom and more chance to expand. Then Jeremy Corbyn will find there are plenty of parents, teachers and pupils willing to defend their schools from his attack.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Luke Tryl: The next Prime Minister must complete the education revolution

Lule Tryl is Director of the New Schools Network. He is a former Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and former Special Adviser.

While his forthcoming book will, no doubt, try and set the record straight, David Cameron must by now be resigned to the fact that he will largely be remembered for Brexit. More charitable types will cite the introduction of equal marriage, the commitment to 0.7 per cent of GDP to foreign aid, or his work tackling the budget deficit, but when it comes to Cameron’s legacy, most will likely miss the most important area of reform during his administration – education.

True, the Coalition Government’s education reforms are more closely associated with Michael Gove than David Cameron, and it’s undoubtedly true that both the policy innovation and determination to drive through reform came from Gove, Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan’s leadership at the Department for Education (DfE). But the simple fact is, they were given the license to operate because they had a Prime Minister who, having been a Shadow Education Secretary himself, was a passionate believer in the cause of improving education.

I remember a meeting in 2015 as Nicky Morgan’s Special Adviser during the spending review negotiations in which George Osborne, then Chancellor, remarked “I don’t know whether it makes you lucky or unlucky, but education spending is one of the areas the Prime Minister will take most interest in”. It was a level of interest I saw throughout my time at the DfE. Fundamentally, Cameron, perhaps conscious of his own life advantages, recognised that there was no point in trumpeting the traditional Conservative mantra of meritocracy while we had a school system that simply didn’t offer equality of opportunity.

That is exactly what the reforms introduced by his Government did. On the standards side, changes to the curriculum ensured that all children, not just the privileged few, are exposed to the best that had been thought and said, new gold-standard qualifications genuinely prepare young people for work and further study, and grade inflation has been stopped; on the structures side, turbo-charging the academies programme has given more head teachers the freedom to run their schools in the way they know best and to support other schools. Arguably, most radical of all was the free schools programme which gave teachers, parents and employers who weren’t happy with their local schools the chance to demand something different for their community and open a new school.

Those reforms have worked. We now have 1.9 million more children in Good or Outstanding schools compared to 2010, more children are on course to become better readers thanks to the phonics check, and more will have mastered the 3Rs by the end of primary school. Across the country, free schools have brought in innovative practice, are the top performing schools at GCSE and A-Level, and are 50 per cent more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted than other schools.

Unfortunately, as with so much domestic policy, Brexit sapped the momentum from education reform. This was compounded by the Government’s disastrous attempt to promote grammar schools, which undermined the central premise of earlier reforms – that every child should receive a rigorous academic education up until age 16 – while the surprising impact of school cuts campaigners on the 2017 election has meant that the debate has since been dominated by arguments around funding and workload rather than standards.

But the cause of education reform has never seemed more urgent. Most of us recognise that while much of it was about the EU, the Brexit vote was also about something else: communities that felt left behind, pushing back against a rigged system. A system where because of poor schools and lack of opportunity, parents no longer believe that their children will have better lives than they do. The Sutton Trust’s latest report confirmed what many already assumed – the top echelons of society continue to be dominated by those who were privately educated. And of course, while it is no fault of their own, the fact that both candidates to be the next leader of the Conservative Party were educated at elite public schools is not the greatest advertisement of the Party’s commitment to meritocracy.

That is why the charity I run, the New Schools Network, is urging the two leadership candidates to put education policy back at the heart of their Government.

Both candidates have committed to increasing school funding, and the case for extra resources for our schools is undeniable. But money alone isn’t enough. Simply throwing more investment at schools will not raise standards in and of itself.  The next Prime Minister also needs to complete the reform programme.  That means restoring the incentives for good schools to become academies so that they can share their expertise with underperforming ones. It means reaffirming the commitment to 100 new free schools a year, focused on the areas that need them most, and cutting down the bureaucracy that is stifling the next wave of innovative schools coming through. It means investing in alternative provision free schools for excluded kids, because every child deserves a chance to get their education back on track and to be kept safe from the risk of grooming and gangs.

The Government’s record on education since 2010 is one they can be proud of, but there is still much to do. The Prime Minister who gave a rallying cry against burning injustices may be on her way out of Downing Street, but the biggest injustice of all – the uneven distribution of educational opportunity – remains. Whether it’s Hunt or Johnson, the next Prime Minister should make it their number one priority that when their time comes to leave Downing Street, their legacy has been to finally tackle it.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Robert Halfon: Skills, social justice, standards, and support for teachers. A four-part manifesto for the new Prime Minister.

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Whether it is Boris Johnson’s £4.6 billion earmarked for schools, or his pledge to boost funding for apprenticeships, education has received vital oxygen during this leadership contest.

The Education Select Committee’s upcoming report on school funding, which we will publish later this week, supports the logic of these pledges – in particular, the need to support further education, which has for too long been considered the Cinderella sector.

But we must look beyond this. Education policy is an enormous montage of different worlds. In the months and years ahead, the new Prime Minister should collect these into one ambitious strategy. He can do this by focusing on the following four “S”s: skills, social justice, standards, and support for the profession.

First, skills.

Around nine million working aged adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills. Many end up in low-skill, low-paid jobs – their life prospects dragged into the quicksand. And a third of England’s 16-19-year-olds have low basic skills.

We must urgently address this by building on the fine work of Damian Hinds and Anne Milton.

In particular, the new Conservative Government should build a world-class apprenticeship offer. It is vital to better understand what is driving the dramatic decline in Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships, and increasing FE funding is a necessity. We would be in a remarkable position if we were able to offer an apprenticeship to every single young person in our country who wanted one.

In terms of lifelong learning, we should build an adult community learning centre in every town, restructure existing employer tax reliefs so that they receive more generous relief when investing in low-skilled employees, and introduce a social justice tax credit, which would expand the number of employers who benefit from tax breaks when they invest in training for low-skilled workers in areas of skills needs.

The curriculum also needs reappraising to make sure our country is ready for the march of the robots. 28 per cent of jobs taken by 16-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s; many low-skilled jobs are at risk and even higher skilled jobs are not immune. Policy makers must consider what it means to develop the skills of the future, and how best to do this. There should be a Royal Commission, with the finest scientists, economists and academics in the land, looking at the effect that AI, automation, and robots will have on society, the economy and our education system, as well as how we should respond to these challenges.

Degree apprenticeships, the crown jewel in higher education, should be at the heart of our higher education offering. The Government must aim to have at least 50 per cent of students doing degree apprenticeships. They allow students to get good quality jobs and earn whilst they learn without a lead weight of £50,000 dragging from their feet.

It is time to reflect on what we consider to be an ‘elite university’. Do they just have good research rankings or are they institutions that deliver high graduate employment outcomes, meet our skills needs and address social disadvantage? We must better recognise the unsung heroes of higher education, like Portsmouth University which came top of The Economist’s “value-added” university rankings (this compares graduates’ wages with what they would have been expected to earn if they had not gone to that university), or Nottingham Trent which has exceptionally high numbers of disadvantaged students and incredibly high destination outcomes.

Second, social justice.

Currently, social injustice inhabits every part of our education system. Almost half of children eligible for free school meals are not ready for primary school. Disadvantaged children are 19 months behind by the time they do their GCSEs. Just 33 per cent of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs. And the most disadvantaged students are almost four times less likely to go to university than the most advantaged students.

Good schools are not just bastions of learning but also places of community. And yet schools in many deprived areas struggle to attract experienced teachers and leaders, who are so instrumental in driving up quality. Teachers in disadvantaged areas are also less likely to teach subjects in which they are qualified, and access to good initial teacher training varies by geography.

So how to dismantle these obstacles to learning? Social justice must be the beating heart of our education policy. A bold, assertive agenda that has compassion and aspiration right at its core.

The DfE should incentivise elite initial teacher training providers to set up shop in disadvantaged areas and support the subsequent development of local teachers. This might involve new funding, but they could also consider making use of existing funds – for example, we spend £72 million on opportunity areas, although we don’t really know exactly what impact they are having.

Disadvantaged pupils should also enjoy the benefits associated with our best private schools, including extensive social capital. I attended a private school and am a huge fan of their transformative potential. But, given the extensive charitable benefits that private schools get, they must do more to open their gates to acutely disadvantaged pupils. This could be done by better incentivising schools through the tax system.

Third, standards.

There is no doubt that education has improved in recent years. I have a great deal of admiration for the work the Government – and in particular, Nick Gibb – has done to improve standards.

The evidence is clear. The Government has furnished our children’s education with more rigour. The proportion of six year olds passing the phonics check increased from 58 per cent in 2012 to 82 per cent in 2018. We are stripping out qualifications that hold no real currency. Our Free Schools Programme continues to produce such gems as King’s College London Mathematics School. Since 2010, 1.8 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools. And we have some of the finest universities in the world.

It is important to build on this and export rigour to every part of our education system and that includes technical education. The Government is starting to do this in its post-16 Skills Plan, which will produce a smaller number of T-Level qualifications that employers recognise and value. The next step is to make sure these new qualifications land safely.

The Free Schools Programme must emphasise community and not get subsumed into larger academies’ broader programmes. And we must apply the logic of high standards to non-mainstream alternative provision, where 1.1 per cent of pupils achieve five good GCSE passes and the supply of good schools is highly variable.

Finally, support for the profession.

It is vital that we support our teachers. We can build the best facilities in the world, but without their most precious element, they are just empty shells.

The education sector needs to continue to attract the brightest individuals. And the Government should support their professional development. We can learn lessons from countries that have a strong record in this area, such as Singapore, which gives classroom teachers more flexibility to hone their trade; places an unusually strong emphasis on peer support (around four fifths are either mentored or a mentor); and has a clearly defined ladder of career progression.

It is also important to make teachers’ lives easier. According to the OECD’s latest international survey, our teachers work more than they used to, and their working week is higher than average. Teachers also spend less time teaching than they did five years ago. Our next Prime Minister must free teachers from unnecessary bureaucracy, and give them more time to do what they do best: teach.

So to sum up.

Skills, social justice, standards, and support for the profession. These should be the four, interlocking foundations of the next Prime Minister’s education programme. Together, they allow those who cannot even see the ladder of opportunity to find it, and they give us all the chance to climb high and build prosperity.

Some of this can only be delivered with wisely targeted resources, but funding alone is not the answer. These four foundations are as much about ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, as they are about hard cash.

We have a unique chance to address the broad restlessness that exists in society. By extending the ladder of opportunity to those who currently lack it, and by nurturing our raw talents more generally, we can ensure the next generation climbs that ladder and gets the jobs, security, and prosperity that they, and our country, need. It is well within our ability to make sure this happens.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: What polling does and doesn’t tell us about voters and the environment

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Conservative Party politicians are prone to temporary policy cause obsessions. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen them obsess briefly about, amongst other issues: free schools, the gender pay gap, social media, childcare, foreign aid and housing. (To list them like this is not to dismiss their relevance).

The enthusiasm which they responded to Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK, their timidity in the face of Extinction Rebellion’s direct action, and their unwillingness, as Natascha Engel described in her resignation as Shale Commissioner, to seriously promote Shale Gas extraction in England, strongly suggests they’re about to become obsessed with policy development on climate change. If so, what does this mean for the Party electorally? What do the polls say about the environment as an issue?

Let’s look at how seriously people take the issue overall.

YouGov’s most recent headline tracker of the public’s top issues puts the environment reasonably low down the list, behind leaving the EU, crime, health, the economy and immigration, but above housing, education, welfare and defence. While it’s still something of a niche issue overall, many will be surprised that it is even this high and, crucially, the issue has risen slowly but consistently over the last couple of years.

A poll for “Stop Climate Chaos” in Scotland also suggested, in a not-perfect exercise, that many people have become more concerned about climate change in recent times. So it’s an issue that’s on the up. (Incidentally, only a tiny number of people had heard, in early March, about “The Green New Deal”, inspired by US environmental activists. Also, incidentally, British adults put “pollution, the environment and climate change” much lower down their list of priorities than adults in other European countries).

But, predictably, the headline numbers mask huge differences of opinion based on politics, class and age. Hanbury Strategy’s recent poll for Onward showed that 18-24 year olds put the environment third in their list of policy priorities, behind Britain leaving the EU and health; on the other hand, over 65s put the environment near the bottom of their list, just above transport and defence. The poll also showed that Conservative voters were much less likely to name the environment as a major issue.

In a separate question in the same report, voters were asked if they would prefer that society or Government focused either on economic growth or prioritising the environment. This question forces too stark a choice in people’s minds, but the gaps between groups’ answers are interesting. Overall, voters narrowly said, by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, economic growth. However, 18-24 year olds chose the environment by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, while over 65s chose the economy by 64 per cent to 36 per cent.

Conservatives chose the economy by a significant margin, while Labour voters chose the environment by a similarly clear margin. (Another incidental finding, which builds this age point out further: a YouGov poll showed that a fifth of the population believe “the threat of climate change is over-exaggerated”. While nine per cent of 18-24 year olds agree with this statement, 32 pe cent of over 55’s agree).

That such differences between ages exist will not come as a surprise to anyone, but we should be wary, on the existing evidence, of either claiming that young people are obsessed about the environment, or that older people are dismissive of it – and careful about recommending very clear actions for campaign strategy.

After all, we haven’t yet seen young people’s commitment to tackling climate change through regulation tested by an economic downturn. After the financial crisis, Ipsos-Mori’s tracker showed that public interest in the environment tailed away significantly (although to be fair, I can’t find a breakdown of younger voters’ attitudes), in much the same way we’re seeing the reputation of “big business” rebound in the aftermath of the EU referendum as voters’ minds are focused on the prospect of large employers leaving Britain. Would things change in the same way if jobs were threatened now? It’s hard to say – but some Conservatives are making a huge leap of faith that young voters have fully embraced green activism.

As for older voters, the evidence suggests that older voters might draw a distinction between different types of environmental issues – taking climate change less seriously than what you might call “the local physical environment”. For example, almost all over 65s say they would support “a law to significantly reduce plastic waste and pollution within 25 years” – a higher figure than 18-24 year olds. And a similarly high number of older people say they view tackling litter as more of a priority than they used to.

My strong impression is also that older voters are also more likely to volunteer that they are concerned about issues surrounding food safety and animal welfare and protecting areas of natural beauty – although this is an impression borne of many years moderating focus groups rather than on any hard data. In a sense, this is the environmentalism that Michael Gove has been pushing from Defra.

What does all this mean? Honestly, I don’t think there’s even nearly enough research data out there to make serious conclusions as to how the electorate will react to the Conservatives embracing the green agenda more seriously. Far more needs to be done. Most will likely support Gove’s Defra reforms. While it is certainly reasonable to suggest that younger voters care more about climate change, there are clearly dangers in jumping into this debate by accepting the terms set out by green activists – who essentially argue that we can only protect the environment by slowing growth and insisting on massive personal austerity. Such a move will irritate the bulk of electorate and likely a massive chunk of younger voters too.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com