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« Climatefellas | Main | Royal Society policy lab »
Monday
Aug152011

Birbalsingh

Today I was in Edinburgh for a talk by the education reformer Katharine Birbalsingh. This was one very passionate lady - there was an intensity to her that at times verged on the frightening. But there was no doubt that she had the measure of the problems in the education system. I was struck by the point she repeatedly made that good ideas were being rejected by middle class liberals and the education establishment simply because they were ideas being pushed by conservatives. As she seemed to be saying "I hate the Tories" is a slogan that comes with a heavy price tag attached, and it is a price that is largely being borne by poor people in the inner cities.

The solution, in the Birbalsingh view, is free schools - independently run state schools operating free from local government control. She may be right, but I have my doubts as to whether this is going to be enough. 

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Reader Comments (27)

The bigotry of low and dismissive expectations, along with an essentially amoral world view, is catching up with us all over the West.
In the US we have gangs of young thugs targeting specific groups to physically assault in multiple locations around the country.
The similarity to your British tragedy is disturing.

Aug 15, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

I'm not at all convinced that freedom from the LEA's is necessary. LEA's in general should provide the services and expertise that it's not efficient to have within the school itself; estates management, educational support services of various sorts, central planning for capacity and admissions etc etc. In my experience the issue of schools being told what/how to teach etc comes really from Whitehall, and not from the LEA. A weak LEA will just implement what is strongly suggested from Whitehall. [By Whitehall here I mean not the political ministers and entourage, but the civil servants, advisers and consultants that really run the ideological show. These people are practically invisible but have a vice-like grip on the policy].

The problem is not that the LEA's are powerful and running their own agenda, but quite the opposite - the local officers will rarely stick their heads outside a comfortable 'lets do what the 'experts' tell us and we'll be ok for the MBE/CBE or cosy consultancy gravy train when we take early retirement and pocket our six-figure lump sums"

The local politicians have no clue, and if they try to set a policy that goes against the officer interests they are gently taken aside and told all about the legal liabilities they 'might' incur if they adopt 'unusual' policies and are thus gently herded into the 'correct' voting lobby.

Free schools just fragment the system to no obvious benefit. Reseach from the education unit at Durham University (Dr Peter Tymms unit I think) showed pretty clearly that by far the major factor in the quality of the school was the leadership of the head, followed by parental involvement. Other factors were also rans by a long chalk.

My advice, should Michael Gove ever want it, would be slim down the LEA's getting rid of the hugely overpaid 'education advisers'; make sure they are effectively and efficiently run by officers that can think and do, not sit in committees and make policy; wade into the central education bureaucracy and throw out everyone that had consultant or adviser in their title, and concentrate on ensuring all heads of schools are up to the job.

Mucking around with school structures is simply rearranging the deckchairs.

Aug 15, 2011 at 10:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

My advice, should Michael Gove ever want it, would be slim down the LEA's getting rid of the hugely overpaid 'education advisers'; make sure they are effectively and efficiently run by officers that can think and do, not sit in committees and make policy; wade into the central education bureaucracy and throw out everyone that had consultant or adviser in their title, and concentrate on ensuring all heads of schools are up to the job.

Aug 15, 2011 at 10:07 PM | Cumbrian Lad

Good advice maybe CL - but it ain't ever going to happen.

There has never been a case of a public bureaucracy being successfully reformed, wholesale, in the way you suggest.

Turkeys don't vote for Christmas - and it's the turkeys who call the shots in a public sector bureaucracy.

The necessary weeding out of the deadwood is only possible where you have separate autonomous establishments making their own hiring and firing decisions. "Free schools" have worked pretty well in some countries and I think they're worth a try. Well led, successful ones will prosper and poor ones will fail, which is as it should be - and surely an improvement on what we have now.

Like the Bish, I've been very impressed by Ms Birbalsingh and the articles she's written on the recent social problems have been a breath of fresh air compared to the usual "we're all guilty" establishment warbling.

Aug 15, 2011 at 10:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterFoxgoose

I agree Foxgoose, the lady has passion, and that is both rare and valuable. I'd rather have a few passionate people who want to achieve things than a thousand who are there for the ride. I've read some of her work, which is punchy but sometimes lacks direction, but I've only heard her once, on a radio slot, and to be honest I don't think she was at her best.

I just don't see what the Free Schools are likely to achieve that justifies their creation as a new type of school, A Voluntary Aided school has pretty much the necessary autonomy in hiring/firing and other governance matters. I seem to remember that Foundation schools were also of the same kidney, and I don't think they ever really took off or made a huge difference to standards. Alternative governance structures are already there, but as I said above structural alterations are not in themselves going to affect standards.

If I could add one other item to the unsolicited advice I offered to Mr. Gove, it would be to make the terms and conditions of employment for any education officer or policy wonk to have their children educated in the state system and not independently. I suspect then a lot of very innovative and direct thinking would be applied to the problem very quickly :)

Aug 15, 2011 at 11:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Foxgoose & Cumbrian Lad.
Our love affair with bureaucracy must go. In Scotland there is
# The regulatory framework which is labyrinthine.
# Scottish Government setting policy and controlling the pursestrings
# HM Inspectorate of Education which is supposed to inspect but sets policy as well. Its linguistic contortions, as it tries to publish school reports which tick all the politically correct boxes, make them of limited value
# Local Authorities add a layer of bureacracy (and cost)
# Schools and headteachers who try to operate under the above suffocating weight

And the response of my education convener (Edinburgh) to suggestions of free schools or any other innovation reducing bureaucracy is: 'Not on my watch'.

And those who suffer most from this liberal world view are those in the poorest areas of our cities. Our host is right that free schools are only part of the answer. Sorry I missed Katherine.

But when do we get back to climate change here?

Aug 15, 2011 at 11:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterCameron Rose

Sorry O/T

Biog of Jeremy Grantham in NYT

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/magazine/can-jeremy-grantham-profit-from-ecological-mayhem.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all

Aug 15, 2011 at 11:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrederick Bloggsworth

Teaching oddly shares one feature with football management , everyone is an expert in it and who knows how to do better than the people doing it despite having no qualifications or experience in the area. But unlike teaching these people don't normal end up in charge and directing policy .

Aug 15, 2011 at 11:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

Well, well ,well. Tried to view the original Cons Conference Speech on Youtube.

This comes up

Katharine Birbalsingh criti..."
This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated due to multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement from claimants, including:
•British Broadcasting Corporation
•British Broadcasting Corporation
•British Broadcasting Corporation

Aug 16, 2011 at 12:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

But what if the cityzenry are not interested in being educated?

Aug 16, 2011 at 1:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Steiner

The " i hate all tories" line is a common line that seems to be a result of state education , my brother has been indoctrinated with this line.He believes that the tories hate poor people and therefore anything a tory likes is bad. So he dislikes wearing suits , because they are are for posh tories . Silly little things which make his aquaintance hard to bear . As i have seen it permeate through a state education full of teachers whom were available to be outsmarted by a bunch of year 7's , stupid teachers with an agenda twisting the words of esteemed people to support their agenda .( anti-god , pro-homosexuality,) , making students watch Far-left propaganda as a lesson This teacher is presumably still in their job and nobody else will provide educated rebuttal to their bias for their lifetime .Believe me , i had Teaching assistants try to convert me to socialism in state schools , and they were followed by other left-leaning teachers whom i despised.The point has to be made that if right-wing thinking were to come into the Department of education , most of those far-left and hard left teachers would be out of a job.

Aug 16, 2011 at 1:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterDerfe

This will eventually be sorted out by EU bureaucrats at a higher level. Promising students will be sent east for indoctrucation. The others will stay home and be taught to take Soma, obey orders, and avoid dangerous thought.

Aug 16, 2011 at 4:54 AM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

Pharos: try http://www.blinkx.com/watch-video/katharine-birbalsingh-teacher-learning-without-frontiers-london/Qzm_PR57T83y2F5OpIwvAg

Is that the speech?

Aug 16, 2011 at 4:56 AM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

Darn! If you British (or whatever - I can never keep it straght) cannot decide what to do, what are us poor colonists supposed to do!
I am seriuos by the way. You have had centuries to figure this stuff out. I do not know how to feel. Where is the guidance from the old country?

Aug 16, 2011 at 5:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterBill S

I don't know which ex-colony you're in Bill, but if it's the USA I think that you'll find that the Mother country has pretty much taken it' cue from you in the dismantling of our educational establishments.

Aug 16, 2011 at 6:43 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Just watched the Tory conference speech - which is working fine on -

http://katharinebirbalsingh.com/pages/conservative-conference-speech.php

Not sure what to think just yet. If the state sector is like she says down south then it is very dire. Here in north Bishland the academic standards in what were very good rural (state) schools have certainly declined in the last 30 years. My kids are only in the early years, but so far there have been some worrying signs from school management, e.g. subservience/deference to local authority groupthink "we ALL work for the council" (when I suggested to the head that a decision could be taken independently of the P&K education officials). A local journalist has assured that Common Purpose do not have a stranglehold on P&K officials and employees but I now wonder if even a few in the right places is all that they need to run the show. Meanwhile, despite the 1980 Education Act, the Christians have got a good foothold in the school which the teaching staff seem oblivious to (and/or are happy to go along with), and the new "curriculum for excellence" looks in practice to be more like a framework to ensure that mediocrity is the aim within every classroom and throughout every corner the state sector.

Katharine Birbalsingh will certainly be one to watch - it is always interesting and good when someone with an independent mind and actual experience speaks out.

Aug 16, 2011 at 7:26 AM | Unregistered Commenterlapogus

I don't know how many of you saw Ms B on Newsnight last Friday, but I thought she was starting to become over-exposed. She had little of substance to say on the topic under discussion and I was left with the impression that she should concentrate on her Free School project and leave the politics to the dickheads.

BTW, if derfe, above, is an example of recent state education, I can see why reform is so badly needed.

Aug 16, 2011 at 7:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan_UK

I want to answer a couple of important points:
Free schools just fragment the system to no obvious benefit. Reseach from the education unit at Durham University (Dr Peter Tymms unit I think) showed pretty clearly that by far the major factor in the quality of the school was the leadership of the head, followed by parental involvement. Other factors were also rans by a long chalk.

I just don't see what the Free Schools are likely to achieve that justifies their creation as a new type of school, A Voluntary Aided school has pretty much the necessary autonomy in hiring/firing and other governance matters.

The real benefit of free schools - as they exist for example in Sweden - is that it sets free the natural social process of optimisation, which over time raises the standards of every school and everyone in school, from the Head to the weakest pupil.

The variation that is possible between schools when they do not all have to abide by the blizzard of policies and circulars coming out of Whitehall - and it is Whitehall which is the worse of the two layers of government involved - means that different approaches will be tried out for real, sometimes very small incremental changes to today´s norms, sometimes major step-changes.

These changes will then be judged, not by academics funded by Whitehall - and one may assume fully bought into the current bureaucracy-controlled status quo - but by the proper judges of education, the parents, who will have the power to punish schools by taking their children away from and bad-mouthing the less successful, and subscribing to and advertising for the more successful. Successful schools will be able to expand to meet the demand they have created, so that success will be reinforced. Of course in addition the less-successful will also reinforce the process by emulating the more successful, for fear of failure, in the sense of catastrophic loss of pupils and bankruptcy.

Incidentally this shows how important it is that free schools can be profit-making companies. The public schools are mostly Trusts, and have completely failed to expand to meet the additional demand created by rising disposable incomes and the deterioration of state controlled education. For a Trust, expansion is hugely troublesome. It requires capital, and it comes with risks attached. It is much more in the nature of a trust to continue doing what it has always done with only modest changes. By contrast, a PLC will not ignore the profit opportunity in excess demand. It can raise capital for the purpose of building capacity. It can replicate a formula which works in one geographical location in another very easily. And if its performance is felt to slip, it will very quickly seek to make corrections.

Note that this process works regardless of how objectively good any school is, they are all spurred to improve all the time, as long as a) they are allowed to be different, b) the sole judges of success and failure are the parents, and c) they are allowed to make profits.

My expectation is that after ten or so years of unfettered free schools, what is now regarded as the best will be regarded as the least good compatible with survival as a school, and the best will be unrecognisable by our current standards.

My other expectation is that the vested interests will fight tooth and nail to fetter the free schools as much as possible, because they fear and hate the outcome I predict.

Aug 16, 2011 at 7:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobbo

Perhaps we could learn something from Wisconsin and the way it has reformed its education (and turned the state finances round) - http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/hey-who-wants-to-talk-about-wisconsins-economic-miracle/

Aug 16, 2011 at 7:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Jones

Fragmenting the system with free schools is a feature, not a bug.

A monolithic system maintains "failing" schools, because there is no alternative. Free schools can provide a way out of being dumped into a sink school. For that reason alone, free schools would be worth having, even if there were significant weaknesses in them.

I do hope that the rules for free schools allow them to fail. The BBC and Guardian will start crowing about that, but actually, it's important that bad schools close. That is the big problem with the current system.

Aug 16, 2011 at 9:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterDead Dog Bounce

Lets be clear private schooling and independent schools has given us a whole collection of eco-nutters.

State pupils however appear to be more resistant to environmental indoctrination, and it is in this group that scepticism over climate change is growing.

There is nothing wrong with state education that cannot be fixed, just make sure you are fixing the things that are actually broken and not simply following a poltical agenda.

Aug 16, 2011 at 10:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

Agree with Mac - the state schools I went to had good teachers and achieved good results academically (just as good as many private schools, who can be more selective about who attends) and also didn't hold back exceptional individuals. The problem is that over the last 20-30 years, interfering politicians and second-rate thinkers have been dictating education policy, aided and abetted by second-rate teachers, who sadly it seems, are no longer such a small minority.

Two further points I'll throw in:

I have always argued that politicians should not be allowed to vote on any education policy decision unless they send their kids to the local state school. To me this is a logical spin-off from the West Lothian question).

If everyone had to send their kids to the local school (as I think is the case in France) then there would be a damn good incentive for everyone to make sure their local school was as good as the next.

Aug 16, 2011 at 10:30 AM | Unregistered Commenterlapogus

@Lapogus

Classic unintended consequences fail. You implement that "all kids must go to the local school" and house prices near good schools will go up even higher, plus a significant number of people will simiply not have kids, or leave the country, JUST BECAUSE OF THIS POLICY.

It makes sense based on the hypocrisy of the likes of Harman, Abbott and Blair are pro-comprehensives, yet didn't send their kids to them. But for someone who thinks the British education system is a national scandal, you simply suppress their dissenting voice.

Aug 16, 2011 at 10:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterDead Dog Bounce

Mac points indirectly to an important fact. The state school sector (in the UK) is not a total wilderness with the private system the only source of quality education. There are a very large number of good and excellent state schools up and down the country. There are some non-stellar independents. Having said that I would not want to send my children to some of the inner city schools that get the headlines.

Robbo suggests that free schools would allow variation, but there is plenty of variation now - I can think of two secondary schools in the county, one with blazers, strict behavioural standards, very mixed intakes that does well, and one with a more relaxed dress code, with 'students' rather than pupils that does equally well, perhaps better in the pure academic subjects. There is also a limit to what geography allows in terms of choice. Outside the large cities your community is likely only to support one fully functional secondary with any practicality.

I had been chairman of governors of a secondary school for a number of years until recently, so can attest to Robbo's description of the 'blizzard of policies and circulars'. As a businessman I was extraordinarily impressed by the head who had to deal with this on a day to day basis, but was also a first class teacher and leader. Certainly we need to get the central control out of the system, and the community must own the problem: it is their children that are at risk. The question is what is the appropriate size of community, and from a practical point of view the county structure would appear to me to be optimal. Do it school by school with limited companies and you're more or less back to the pre 1944 state of play when it was every man for themselves, or you were dependedent on the church schools. You need to be able to plan capacity and manage changing populations in step with demographic shifts and the local needs of the whole population.

I said above that it is the quality of leadership that is key, not the structure. Freedom to try new approaches is already built into the existing structures as long as you remove the serious 'leaning upon' that is done by Ofsted and the central bureaucracy.

Aug 16, 2011 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Having taught specialist subjects in state secondary schools in NZ and the UK, I found UK schools to suffer frequent, unwarranted, untested and sometimes quite mad interference from politicians. Despite the UK governent thinking it is running education, state secondary schools here are very selective about the things they consider important. Of the four comprehensives I taught, all of them were as different as chalk and cheese and the only common factor was the significant minority of pupils who were utterly unmanageable.
Sadly, the NZ state system is being pushed in the 'English' direction as our Prime Minister sees the English regime of incessant testing as an ideal to strive for. The PM was successful in his career in the UK, too - as a merchant banker!

Aug 16, 2011 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

For those who cannot get enough of KB, here she is again:

http://tinyurl.com/3rlgdja

Aug 16, 2011 at 1:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

I have mixed views on free schools, supporting the concept in principle but wondering if, overall, it will prove to be a case of rearranging the deckchairs as per Cumbrian Lad's earlier comment. The experience with 'academies' (I use quotes because I find the 'academy' tag so pompous) has been mixed - some have done very well, others haven't (there is nothing to distinguish the 'academy' nearest to me from the other comprehensives in the area, as far as I can see) and it's difficult to know how much of the success (where it's happened) can be attributed to 'academy' status and how much to the head teacher (i.e. could the same head teacher have achieved similar improvement in an LEA maintained school?). Nevertheless, I wish these free schools well - the venom of those who oppose them, not least some teachers' unions, increases my support for them.

But, in my opinion, more important than changing how schools are run is raising expectations of pupils (referring to schoolchildren, in the UK context, as 'students' is another pet hate). The exam system has been debased, the outcome of the introduction of the GCSE - one of several major blunders in the area of education made by the Tory governments of Heath, Thatcher and Major (Labour governments have been even worse, on average, but the point is that governments of both hues have contributed to the current mess). I view the QCA as having been one of the most incompetent quangos there's ever been (against stiff opposition), and have little faith in the bodies spun out of it. It's hardly surprising to read that British teenagers are two years behind in maths compares to someother nationalities when you compare GCSE maths papers with O level papers (tha same applies to sciences).

Aug 16, 2011 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

http://blog.oecdfactblog.org/?p=339

Aug 24, 2011 at 5:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterRM

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