Educational press-reports-2009 Jan-Jun: Trusting Teachers Still Not on Agenda
ARCHIVED on 11 November 2015

“This is the Year to Let Schools Go Free Range” (TES)

Anyone who dismisses the press reports on this website as yesterday’s problems should regularly click onto this page. SATs, Ofsted and the national curriculum continue to bedevil the school experience of the nation’s children, as do ministerial attempts to micromanage the education system.


Looking back on 2 January at the previous year, the TES editorial pilloried the government’s designation of National Challenge schools. The creation of that label for “underperforming” secondaries was the Government’s worst act of meddling in education during 2008. It epitomised ministers’ perceptions that test statistics mattered more than the work schools do with pupils in their own contexts. In a single, heavy-handed move, ministers publicly labelled 638 secondaries as failures. They later attempted to back-track. The column ended with a familiar plea: This is the year to let schools go free range.

But it was Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who put it most strongly in a TES article: Mr Balls, throw away your big stick. She said of his attack on the “excuses” culture, It’s not an excuse to say that schools in socially deprived areas face bigger challenges.

She continued: It’s the time of year again for the ritual, and public humiliation of schools unfortunate enough to be sited in deprived areas. League tables demean these schools, everyone who works in them and, most shamingly, the pupils, who believe they belong at the bottom of the pile because their school is bottom of the table…

The case is clear; the research has been done. Children in poor, inner-city areas do not fail because of the school they go to, but because of their social class. … Schools do what they can to counter the impact of deprivation and social exclusion. Staff wrestle daily with the problems poverty brings. They care for children scarred by family breakdown, poor parenting, material and emotional poverty and neglect. In addition to the enormous pressures all school staff face, those working in deprived areas double up as social workers, counsellors and child advocates. This is their everyday reality, and it is exhausting.

She went on to say that these staff need neither performance league tables nor the army of advisers and inspectors who turn up, destroy their confidence and morale, tell them to do things differently, and then disappear, leaving them bruised and battered to carry on teaching.


In the second week of June the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education was published. The final report, of 238 pages, took six years to complete and cost nearly £1 million. The team was lead by Professor Richard Pring, of Oxford University. As reported by William Stewart in the TES these are some of its powerful conclusions:

Teachers should have a greater say in policy and curriculum, especially at a local level, to counter damaging central government micro-management. • “Orwellian” language of policymakers and their advisers undermines education. • Government’s vision of learning is too narrow and does not recognise the practical, social development and moral commitment. • Resulting targets and inspection criteria focus on the easily measurable and encourage teaching to the test. Assessment must recognise all achievement.



News of Ofsted started the year with a TES report of the allegation from a senior official that teaching is often boring and fails to inspire pupils. I look back at the data and see that one third of schools have teaching that is only satisfactory. Those are going to be the lessons where children have not been stimulated, where they were bored and where teaching was dull.

Dr Bernard Trafford, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, responded angrily. If lessons are dull, it’s Ofsted we need to thank. … Who drilled inflexible, predictable approaches into the profession? Ofsted. The three-part lesson, with objectives made explicit at the start and revisited at the end, has taken root in classrooms throughout the land. The insistence that all pupils know at the start of the lesson what they are supposed to learn in it negates any sense of discovery or consequent “wow” factor that characterises truly memorable learning. Yet safe outcomes have become holy writ.

He goes on to ask why schools are focused obsessively on exams. Could it be the pressure of league tables, naming and shaming, and of Ofsted coming to call? … The Government wants school leaders who keep noses to grindstones and punish non-conformity. It’s a style of leadership I would generally call “bullying”.

School intake the main determinant of school outcomes

Professor Stephen Gorard, of Birmingham University took issue in March with Ofsted because of the claim of Christine Gilbert (chief inspector) that schools in poor areas had been transformed by introducing traditional discipline. She had cited 12 schools that had improved their GCSE results markedly. Gorard pointed out that her analysis took no account of changes in school intake, which has been found in study after study to be the main determinant of school outcomes’.

Stalinesque data

On 13 March the TES carried a letter from Eve Gillmon, a former inspector under the heading Stalinesque data. She said: When the Section 10 inspection framework was revised, seasoned inspectors had to re-apply for their jobs. Using a dubious online process, and questionable material, they had to show an ability to make pre-judgements about a school, purely on the basis of data and against a stopwatch. Those who were not fast number-crunchers were lost from the system; those who were, went on to the Section 5 framework, based on assumptions about the school from a complex self-evaluation form and data.

The data has become king. Heads are faced with explaining downturns in attainment to inspectors who are on the premises for fewer hours than it would take to carry out a decent MOT on a car.

When you consider the number of schools where leadership, previously graded as “very good”, is suddenly downgraded to “satisfactory” on the grounds that if exam results fall the leadership must be at fault, it is not difficult to conclude that the process is not only flawed, but harmful.

Dawn raids begin

OfSTED has carried out its first ‘dawn raid’ on a school as the watchdog pushes ahead with no-notice inspections, despite fierce opposition from teachers’ leaders. This was the TES front page story on 20 March. The primary school involved was judged to be good with outstanding features and the head said she supported the idea of such no-notice inspections. But John Dunsford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said It will be a sad day for education if Ofsted moves to no-notice inspections. They come from the school of thought that inspection is something that should be done to schools because they are doing something wrong.

The TES editor commented on this issue, saying We need to ask what the resulting hullabaloo says about the contested and unsettled role of Ofsted itself. What is it for? Is it there to act as a watchdog for parents and politicians or as a pastor to the profession. … To be truly successful, Ofsted has to reassure the public without undermining the teachers.

Mike Kent, a primary head who has a regular column of school humour and educational common sense on the back page of the TES put it simply on 24 April, So, should Ofsted carry out no-notice inspections? In my view, this lumbering quango shouldn't be carrying out inspections, period.

Front page headline in TES on 12 June: Dawn raids out but raw results in at Ofsted. Heads’ unions warn that life could become tougher for struggling schools

Inspection should be local - ATL

The TES reported in early April that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers is calling for an end to Ofsted inspections, on the grounds that all inspections should be carried out at local level to integrate inspectors and improve schools by working more closely with them. At the same time in the TES an officer of the National Association of Head Teachers, Tony Roberts, reported that incoming accounts of the unannounced pilot inspections by Ofsted only add to the catalogue of misery that is inflicted on schools.

Ofsted to use staff questionnaires

In April Ofsted announced a new tool to be used in its inspections – questionnaires for staff on the performance and management of their school. The TES reported concerns among heads as to how this might unfairly reflect on their leadership.

Ofsted to change again – harder to get top grades, easier to slip into special measures

On 26 June William Stewart of the TES reported on the latest framework for inspections, starting next term. Some of the points are:

• End of light-touch inspections: all visits will last two days; • Most schools will be given shorter notice of visits – between 0 and 2 days; • Greater emphasis on raw results and National Challenge targets. • Doubling of time spent observing lessons and heads to take part with inspectors in some observations;

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, expressed concern that the new Ofsted guidance to inspectors tells them to record the accuracy of head’s views in such observations and that evidence can then be used to help form judgements on the quality of leadership of the school.


Could 2009 be the last year for SAT testing?

In January, William Stewart of the TES reported that : Exam regulators will not be able to guarantee the quality of marking of this year’s key stage 2 SATs because of the rush to find a new company to run the tests following last year’s shambles. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has told the Government that the system provided by the new contractor, Edexcel, will limit its ability to respond to any marker mistakes.

On 6 February the TES reported on a poll carried out by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) of 10,465 parents which found that 85 per cent wanted to see SATs replaced by teacher assessment and league tables abolished. The NAHT and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) are stepping up their campaign for a complete end to SAT testing. Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the NUT said, This ought to be the last year of the SATs. There is a tide of opinion among teachers, parents and experts saying that key stage 2 testing should go.

A week later the TES quoted Sir Tim Brighouse: SATs are too crude an assessment. As a member of the five-person team led by Sir Jim Rose to advise the Government on reforming the primary curriculum, he wants teacher assessment to replace national tests as a way of achieving accountability in primary schools and for more trust to be put in teachers. He also expressed opposition to the Government’s proposal of grading schools with a single letter or number. Similar concerns to the single grade proposal were expressed by teacher unions.

At the end of the next week this had reached front-page banner headlines in The Guardian: Tests blamed for blighting children’s lives: Landmark study of primary schools calls for teachers to be freed of targets. The paper was reporting on the Cambridge review by Professor Alexander and his research team.

‘Voodoo science’

At the end of February Professor Gorard of Birmingham University and Professor Harvey Goldstein of the Institute of Education, London, in a detailed academic paper reported on by William Stewart of the TES, described the contextual value added (CVA) system used in government league tables as useless. Gorard said that invalid decisions of real consequence are being made about teacher and school performance on the basis of a ‘voodoo science’, which should be abandoned immediately. Goldstein said that the CVA measure was at best misleading, at worst dishonest, because of the relatively small number of pupils used to calculate the figures.

Wrong grades awarded in SATs

On 20 March the TES reported on a study commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority into national tests in English taken in 2007. For KS2 English, the checks suggested that 22 per cent of writing papers got the wrong grade and 13 per cent for reading.

Boycott in 2010?

On 26 March Polly Curtis, in The Guardian reported that the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) are considering a boycott by their members of the SATs next year. Their annual conferences will vote on this in April. She writes: Both organisations say the tests have damaged primary education and put children under unnecessary stress. Here are further quotes from her report:

Mick Brookes, the NAHT general secretary, said, Testing narrows the curriculum and makes learning shallow, because the tests are simply regurgitative. Then the results are published in league tables, and schools in the toughest areas, where you’ve got hardest-to-teach children, are ridiculed on an annual basis. There is a high stress for children; some will already be spending up to 10 hours a week rehearsing these tests. It’s a complete waste of time. It is unconscionable that we should simply stand by and allow the educational experience of children to be blighted.

Christine Blower, the NUT general secretary, added, Primary schools patience in enduring the damage caused by the tests has been stretched to the limit, and beyond … the government needs to understand that this year’s national curriculum tests will be the last.

Ex-SATs chief speaks out

Ken Boston, who resigned last year as chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said in April that there is high risk of another fiasco over SATs marking this year due to what he described as the 'archaic' marking system which has to be packed into eight weeks and which the Government has chosen not to reform. He also accused Ed Balls, secretary of state, of preventing the Rose Review of primary education and a commissioned study of SATs, of considering the scrapping of the tests.

Debate about the future of Sats hots up ...

On 14 April the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference supported unanimously a resolution calling for a ballot on industrial action to boycott Key Stage 2 Sats testing next year. The National Association of Head Teachers debated the same motion in early May. But contrariwise the NASUWT does not agree. It wants league tables scrapped but is fearful that replacing the external testing by Sats at age 11 by teachers’ assessment would increase teachers’ workload. Its conference voted for industrial action if Sats are scrapped! The other big union – the Association of Teachers and Lecturers – is firmly against Sats testing but draws the line at industrial action. The Government said the move is "irresponsible" and insists that any industrial action would be unlawful.

Undeterred by this, at the National Association of Head Teachers’ conference on 2 May in Brighton 94% of the delegates voted to ballot its members on boycotting the tests. Mick Brookes, the general secretary said, We’re advising that children shouldn’t be prepared for the tests at all. Children will for the first time in 15 years have a final year of education in their primary schools that is not disrupted by Sats.

In the TES just before his conference, Mick Brookes put it stridently: We are accused of being irresponsible – an easy slur and a cheap shot. That was one of the words Ed Balls used to describe the National Association of Head Teachers because of our proposed boycott of Sats tests. …

I have to ask, what is irresponsible about wanting to see an end to a system that has been proven to mar the final year of a child’s primary experience? What is irresponsible about wanting to see an end to the annual humiliation of children, their teachers and their communities in the publication of league tables? What is irresponsible about challenging authority when it subjects its employees to bullying and harassment based on spurious data? What is irresponsible about wanting to reduce bureaucracy and workload for teachers who spend endless hours rehearsing the tests – all of which has to be marked?

Brookes wants to replace Sats with teacher assessment for which, he stated, 80% of 11,000 parents in an NAHT survey had expressed trust in teachers’ judgements. But he is quite clear that an alternative to Sats must not make the stress for teachers and pupils even greater. The best kind of assessment in KS2 will accurately inform parents about their children’s progress, encourage children about the progress they have made and enable [secondary teachers] to help their new Year 7 classes move seamlessly into the secondary phase..

He said that his association wants to work with colleagues in the other unions and with Government to find a way forward. There are many good ideas out there, but it is the application of those ideas that counts, he said.

... but Ed Balls' 'experts' say they stay in maths and English

This long-awaited report recommends the abolition of national key stage 2 science tests and moving Sats from the second week in May to the middle of June - as noted in the TES on 8 May. [A week later the TES pointed out that this will put into limbo the plans of hundreds of primary schools for residential trips near to the end of the school year] The 'expert group' also recommends the replacement of league tables by school report cards. But, the unions ask, how can league tables be abolished if tests remain? Ed Balls, secretary of state, clearly thinks they can for he told the National Association of Head Teachers that it is time to make old style league tables a thing of the past: he added that they are too narrow and fail to reflect schools' good work.

Also the expert group want a new test in the first year of secondary school to check if pupils who leave primaries below national expectations have caught up.

Michael Morpugo, author, poet and former children's laureate, wrote a searing critique of Sats and the Rose report in the TES on 8 May: Break this Sats chain of failure and fear was the heading of an article in which he said how he had been filled with hope on realising that Rose was advocating a loosening of the curriculum and encouraging teachers to think for themselves, but realised he was wrong since the tests were untouched. So actually it was all a mirage. What they were saying was: we want you to be inspirational teachers, and you really can be. But because we don't quite trust you, we're keeping the chains on. You're not going to be shackled by wrists any more, where we can all see it. Instead, it will be ball and chain around the ankle, not so obvious maybe, but still there.

A hopeful headline hidden in the bottom corner of page 13 of The Guardian on 8 May reads: Better teacher assessment can replace Sats, says Balls. It says that Ed Balls, the education secretary, yesterday backed a drive to improve teacher assessment to the point where it is robust enough to replace Sats tests in England. But before we welcome it as a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel we should wonder whether it is actually an oncoming train of further bureaucracy.

The TES carried a powerful letter from Sally Kincaid, a Year 6 parent of Leeds on 29 May about what is happening now.

Your article “Unions do not have support of parents for next year’s Sats boycott, poll show” (May 15) says less than half of parents think it appropriate for teachers to boycott Sats tests. I wonder how many of the parents asked had children in Year 5 or 6. As a Year 6 parent, I have yet to find any parent who thinks last week’s tests were good for children. I have heard only horror stories: children being emotional, not sleeping, falling out with each other. Ed Balls says we need to keep primary Sats so parents can find out how their child is doing. I have a message for him: if I want to know how my daughter is doing, I ask her teacher, who tells me. Year 6 should have been the best of times, but instead the curriculum has been distorted by Sats. Since Sats ended, my daughter says she is now doing fun maths. Shouldn’t all maths be fun when you’re 11? Let’s hope this year will be the last time our children have to go through the mental cruelty of Sats.

Tories to move Sats to year 7 - marked by secondary teachers - and to use them for primary school league tables

On 14 June, Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, announced that the Conservatives would move Sats from primary schools to the first year at secondary schools. As Richard Vaughan reported in TES he said that the Sats would be marked by teachers and the results used to identify poorly performing primary schools. We’d have a better way of knowing how children had done at primary school because we’d free the final year for teaching in the broadest sense, in order to ensure that children had access to the most broad curriculum possible, and then when they arrive at secondary school we find out genuinely how well they have been taught, how effectively they can read, how gifted they are at maths. … And then, using those statistics … we can can work out which primary schools are doing brilliantly and which are doing less well.

In the furore that followed this announcement it became clear that primary school league tables would still be published, based on the simplified, unified system of testing by secondary school teachers. An initial sigh of relief in primary schools gave way to despair when some of the implications became clear. Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, pointed out that since judgments of secondary school performance are based on value-added from primary school Sats results, the impartiality of the markers could be questioned – it would be in a secondary schools’ best interests to mark the children down if in doubt.

Single level tests in trouble

The Guardian front page on 23 June carried this headline: New Sats tests an expensive failure, secret reports reveal. Two secret reports say that: Pilot tests taken by 100,000 children in the last 18 months have faced severe problems, giving wildly unpredictable results and exposing children to even more high-pressure testing. These tests cost £8.7 million.

These were the “single level tests” which pupils could take at their own pace between age 7 and 14 and designed to replace the Sats taken at 11 and 14. (The abolition of Sats at 14 came later). Warwick Mansell and Polly Curtis set out concerns for The Guardian as follows:

Results were erratic, with 10-year-olds consistently outperforming 14-year-olds in some tests. • The agency conducting the pilots urgently appealed for ministers to clarify their plans for the tests. Their second report, dated last autumn, says the aims of the test – to assess pupils regardless of their age across a broad curriculum – are “very probably impossible” to achieve. • By autumn last year ministers had still not addressed concerns raised in an evaluation nearly a year before that warned of “substantial and fundamental” problems. • The whole programme has been put at risk because the pilots were rushed in too quickly under political pressure.

One report warns that instead of reducing the burden on pupils, as claimed by the government, they could increase it. A second report expresses concern at thousands of pupils taking “high stakes” tests when they had not been properly developed – and ministers then over-ruling official advice and insisting that the marks be given to pupils, in what the report describes as a political/policy level decision.


A generation unable to think

At the beginning of February, the TES carried an article by Professor Tim Birkhead, a biology professor at Sheffield University, entitled We’ve bred a generation unable to think’. He wrote: The most striking thing about some undergraduates is their dependence, their lack of initiative and their reluctance to think for themselves. … It is almost as though the spoon-feeding-and-teaching-to-the-test culture at school has drained them of independent thought. … I believe this dependency to be a consequence of two things. First, the reluctance of many parents to give their children the freedom to find things out for themselves as they are growing up. Second, the national curriculum prescribing exactly what is to be learnt and, in so doing, often eliminating the discovery process from learning. If there is any discovery, it is so sanitised by health and safety that any pedagogical effect is lost.

A week later Matthew Handy, principal of Salinger’s College, Harrogate wrote in the correspondence columns: If you seek confirmation of Professor Tim Birkhead’s thesis … you need look no further than the grotesque story on the previous week’s front page, “GCSEs taught in 60 minutes”. This had described how 48 pupils prepared for a GCSE modular examination in genetic engineering, adaptation and evolution in a quick routine of 20 minutes powerpoint presentation, 10 minutes physical activity, 20 minutes powerpoint, 10 minutes physical exercise, 20 minutes powerpoint - and then took the multiple-choice exam three days later. Since there were four answers to choose from on each question those who had learned nothing should score about 25%. In the event the average score was 58% and the highest 90%.

Alexander and Rose – and the Tories

On 20 February, Helen Ward of the TES described the state of play of the two reviews in progress of the primary curriculum. She explained how the independent Cambridge review, led by Professor Robin Alexander, identifies four main challenges to the present curriculum of primary schools: it is dominated by the core subjects; driven by the key stage 2 tests; overloaded; and there is excessive prescription.

Alexander puts forward twelve aims for primary education and eight "domains" for organising what is taught. Each domain should be of equal importance, and the curriculum as a whole should be overseen by a single body.

By contrast, the government sponsored review (nevertheless described as ‘independent’) led by Sir Jim Rose, accepting similar challenges, puts forward a different framework and is based on different underlying thinking. He puts forward six areas of understanding of which numeracy and literacy must have priority. Alexander agrees on literacy but questions whether numeracy deserves priority. Local flexibility is treated very differently. Alexander wants an explicit and protected allocation of 30 per cent of curriculum time. Rose's interim report calls for the national programmes to be flexible enough for schools to adapt content.

What will come of either of these reports is uncertain since Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, says the planned changes to the primary curriculum will lead to an erosion of standards and moving away from traditional subjects to broader areas of learning would lead to children learning less not more. He said: The experiment with this kind of ideology - moving away from facts, knowledge and rigour - failed forty years ago and will fail again. This is not a step forward, it is a blast from the past.

Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT brought arguments about the curriculum back to concerns about government control, in a letter to the TES: The curriculum is narrowed and distorted by the high-stakes school accountability regime based on Ofsted inspections and performance league tables. The fixation of that regime on English and mathematics has meant that teachers, headteachers and schools face severe potential consequences if they are perceived to have “failed” by the narrow standards used. Is it therefore any surprise that teachers teach to the tests? :

At he beginning of April the Commons’ select committee on schools called for the scrapping of the national curriculum as it stands and an end to ministerial meddling in what schools teach. While the Labour and Lib-Dem members of the committee called for all schools to be given the same freedom as academies over what to teach, the Conservative members said all schools should have the freedom to opt out completely. The chair, Barry Shearman, told the TES, Now is the time to act. We have one of the best generations of teachers. This is an opportunity to train them better and trust them to deliver in their own way.

These comments were echoed by Julian Chapman, president of the NASUWT, as The Guardian reported on 14 April. Teachers are under pressure to follow the national curriculum so rigidly that they can no longer react to what their pupils are learning. Schools fear inspectors will criticise them if they do not obey the national curriculum to the letter.


A neat demonstration of bureaucratic pressure came in early January from The Daily Telegraph in a report that the collective documentation sent annually to headteachers from government and its agencies is more than twice as long as The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Perhaps it was no surprise to learn that the Implementation Review Unit, set up by Government to cut the volume of school regulations from Whitehall, complained that its advice was being ignored!

On 6 March, the front-page headline of the TES was Five-fold leap in number of heads sacked: 150 secondary school leaders fired in single year, new figures reveal. Low exam results and adverse Ofsted reports accounted for most of these dismissals. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said that heads jobs in primary schools were also becoming fragile. The TES editor, Gerard Kelly, wrote, Unsurprisingly, the high casualty rate is causing potential recruits to think twice about headship. National College for School Leadership research indicates that 43 per cent of deputies and 70 per cent of middle leaders have no desire to progress further. And who can blame them when the average secondary school head spends more than 65 hours a week on the job?


The front page headline in the TES on 26 June was Personality test set to weed out weak teachers: psychometric assessments will determine trainees’ suitability for chalkface. The chair of the Association for Teaching of Psychology, Deb Gajic, said One of the major problems with the tests is that people see what they want to, and the tests are hard to anwer honestly if you want to give a certain impression. No doubt the company appointed by the Training and Development Agency for Schools to devise the tests (fee undisclosed) would disagree.

On 3 July, the TES revealed Ed Balls surprise announcement in a White Paper that All teachers and heads will need a “licence to teach” based on recent practice and professional development, to be renewed every five years. Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, said it was another huge bureaucratic measre that will cost a fortune and cause all sorts of problems – we don’t support it.


A powerful letter was published in the TES on 24 April from Lynne Potter, a former primary teacher, Ofsted inspector and primary LEA adviser.

In the 30 plus years I have spent in education, I have been required to jump on every bandwagon devised by meddling politicians who've neither had the learning nor the experience to consider their strategies. I have known excellent teachers overburdened and criticised for failing to implement strategies and who have left the profession. I have seen enthusiastic primary pupils sickened by hours of literacy and numeracy, knowing that next year and the next will be just the same. ...

The revolt led by the unions against Sats is the tip of the iceberg. This is just one of many indefensible ideas that could be discarded. Because of government interference, we are breeding a generation of disaffected pupils who have never known the sheer joy of learning because the "fun" has been effectively quashed by a too rigid timetable geared towards passing tests.

I think the time has come for politicians to leave education to the professionals.

Support for this broadside attack on political interference came in a TES article on 15 May from an erstwhile teachers' bete noire - Chris Woodhead.

State school staff are expected to be puppets for ministers' latest agendas - even if they are nonsense.

I don't understand. Why has there not been widespread rebellion? Riots in teacher training institutions? Expressions of disgust in staffrooms?

Teaching is a profession. By definition, professionals determine their own beliefs and practice. They don't twitch mindlessly when politicians pull the strings. But this is exactly what teachers in state schools are expected to do.

He goes onto attack the way in which government quangoes fail to challenge government policies, but wrap them up in obscure terminology, for example the 'personalisation agenda'. From this he turns on the outfit which was once his kingdom: Ofsted inspectors are, moreover, lurking about to check whether the curriculum has been "personalised". Every inspection report I have read in recent years makes reference to "personalisation" and "active" learning. Woe betide the school that thinks the teacher's job is to teach subject knowledge in a traditional way. As chief inspector, I fought hard to ensure inspection was an activity that held a mirror up to the school's performance. I did not think inspectors should drag the Government's beliefs into the classrooms they visited. When they do, inspection becomes an instrument of state control. That is what it is now.

Missed opportunities and mad ideas: the government’s legacy was how Peter Mortimore, former director of the Institute of Education, London, headed his Opinion column in EducationGuardian on 7 July.

Much needed to be done when this government came into office in 1997. And many teachers wanted to help improve schools and make our society more equal. But, instead of the formulation of a long-term improvement plan based on two big questions – what sort of education system is suitable for a modern society, and how can excellence and equity be made to work together – schools got top-down diktat. Successive ministers, and especially their advisers, thought they know “what works”. They cherry-picked research, suppressed evaluations that gave them answers they did not want, and compounded the mess. Trusting teachers – which is what ministers do in the best-performing countries – was not on the agenda.

Now, with leadership in tatters, huge debt hanging over the future and the overpaid bankers still celebrating their ill-gotten bonuses, Ed Balls has announced a crop of aggressive reforms. These include the five-year licence to teach, tougher home-school agreements, school report cards, the right to individual tuition, and the encouragement to create chains of “branded” schools.

When someone like Professor Mortimer, with enormous experience and commitment to education, a strong research background, extensive knowledge of education systems in other countries, and no political ambitions uses in one short article the epithets “mad”, “misguided”, “barmy” and “daft” to describe the new educational policies of government and when the opposition offer equally problematic ideas, is it not time, as many others are saying, to free the education system from the power fantasies of politicians?


Gordon Brown

The prime minister, Gordon Brown, made a key speech on 5 May. He said that he wanted to liberate the talents, creativity, enterprise and ingenuity of [the] people, and forge a common national purpose from the values, beliefs, aspirations and ambitions of our people. He went on to say that neither a free market … nor top-down centralised control, can provide the innovation and leadership needed to take the next steps on the road to world class schools for our children. In his view, schools must promote a culture of innovation and excellence, supporting the unique abilities of children to reach their potential, and defending not just the right of the struggling to catch up with support, but also the right of the very able to travel as far and as fast as their talents will take them. And by talents, I do not just mean academic talents, the core skills, essential as they are to the education of every child. Talent takes many forms: practical, creative, communicative, enterprising abilities, as well as analytical intelligence. We must step up our commitment to recognise and discover where they are in all our children and young people.

In order to do this he aims for system leadership with executive heads running groups of schools which he reckons will mean more freedom for the professionals working in our schools - although he did not explain how this would be the case. Apparently it will also mean more involvement for parents in their children’s education, with the responsibilities that brings for parents too, and also the need to ensure that our system responds to parental views on the quality of education and the availability of good places.

To these ends, however central government must continue to intervene to enforce minimum standards and every parent must have the ability to influence and shape these services because the government wants to maximise parent power.. He added that from 2010, all secondary schools, and from 2012, all primary schools, will report online to parents and the proposed school-report card will give comprehensive but clear information for parents on the performance of the school that their child attends.

For primary schools he announced a new primary school improvement strategy [which] will ensure that the best leadership in primary schools is also engaged to drive up standards across the board. and then said that he made no apology for continuing external assessment of pupil attainment at the end of primary school.

The speech certainly sounds like high aspirations to be achieved by more top-down, centralised control, with parents encouraged to complain about their children’s schools. The Guardian invited comments from readers on what would be their ‘big idea’. These are two of the comments made on 12 May:

Shirley Williams (former education secretary) The curriculum is what needs addressing: it’s peculiarly dry and manages to do all the choosing for children, rather than allowing them to choose for themselves. It’s far too narrow and rigorous … a lot of bright children, especially, get really bored. The best teachers are creative people who want to enthuse children with subjects they themselves are enthusiastic about, and so often the curriculum irons that out. We have to loosen up the system and change the curriculum so that teachers are given a lot more room for manouvre.

Christine Blower (general secretary of the National Union of Teachers) Trusting teachers more is the central thing the government has to do, and has to incorporate into its policy and its attitude. Ministers tell us all the time that we’ve got the best trained generation of teachers we’ve ever had, so we’ve got to learn to trust them and to trust their judgment. Trusting their judgment means getting rid of Sats and consulting those in the profession about new ways of assessing teachers. It also means abolishing Ofsted and putting in place a system of schools’ self-evaluation in which teachers’ judgments are properly valued.


On 2 June Warwick Mansell in EducationGuardian reported on the House of Lords second reading of the latest education bill: the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. He had counted 153 new powers that this bill will give to the two education secretaries of state. The powers vary from the sweeping to the bizarrely detailed, embracing aspects of education policy from the creation of a nationalised system for the administration of apprenticeships to the establishment of a new exams watchdog, Ofqual, and local authorities taking over responsibility for the education of 16-to-19-year-olds from the Learning and Skills Council.

Mansell notes that teachers’ unions are particularly concerned about new powers the [secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families] will have to intervene where he believes schools are underperforming. He will be able to direct local authorities to issue “warning notices” if he believes standards are unacceptably low, to replace governing bodies and even to intervene when local authorities are deemed unlikely to be effective in improving schools “which may in the future be low performing”.

In the House of Lords debate on the bill, Baroness Walmsley (a former teacher), speaking for the Liberal Democrats said we believe that large sections are totally unnecessary in primary legislation. … This portmanteau Bill has neither theme nor vision and appears to us to be from a Government on their last legs, trying to convince the country that they still have good ideas and are very, very busy. There are a number of missed opportunities …

The stance of this website agrees that there are lost opportunities. The new bill should (1) empower schools to work collegially , (2) abolish Ofsted and replace it with school self-evaluation, (3) replace Sats in primary schools with teachers’ assessments , (4) abolish league tables, (5) make the national curriculum non-obligatory, (6) replace weak national accountability with strong local accountability , and (7) establish a Central Advisory Council for Education


In the Cabinet reshuffle, Ed Balls remains as secretary of state, but Vernon Coaker replaces Jim Knight as minister of state for schools and learning, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Beverley Hughes and Delyth Morgan leave education and Dawn Primarolo, Kevin Brennan, Iain Wright and Diana Johnson become ministers with various responsibilities in the Department. On his first day Vernon Coaker (who was once a deputy head) said, The Children’s Plan is committed to making sure that the right professionals are in the right jobs and working with the right schools to support and nurture the talent of every single child. I want to pay tribute to our teachers and to make sure that together we make this vision a reality.

In an interview with The Guardian Gordon Brown said he might move to teaching after he leaves office. And the same paper revealed that Ed Balls had claimed £1.05p for peanuts on his parliamentary expenses!

Did you watch the sci-fi horror series TORCHWOOD on BBC1 on 9 July?

(It offers an explanation for the government’s insistence on retaining league tables!)

In around 2030 in its underground bunker (the Government emergency control room) COBRA is facing up to an alien threat to destroy the human race unless 10% of the world’s children are handed over to the aliens. How could Britain choose 10% of its children to say ‘goodbye’ to?

Having decided that none of their own children should go, the idea of a random selection is abandoned. An emotional speech is made by a woman (Home Secretary?) who argues that the country needs its most able children to become future scientists, engineers and national leaders. It is obvious, she says, that they should choose the least able children. How? She knows: “If we can’t identify the schools that our bottom 10% of children are at then what the hell are league tables for?”

For press reports from July 2009 click on press-reports-2009 Jul-Dec

This page last amended on 4 August