Monthly Archives: January 2012


Education Review Group

Campaigning group fails its first test


At the recent judicial hearing on public benefit and schools, independent schools were  widely seen to have  scored a victory.  But  one  lobby group at the hearings  was  left frustrated.  The Education Review Group whose  membership is from the broad left   including such luminaries as Fiona Millar, Margaret Tulloch and Melissa Benn, failed to persuade the court that independent schools did not merit their charitable status.   When not campaigning against Academies and Free schools,   these campaigners manage to  now find time to attack independent schools  and their charity status.Their  energy and reach , if not their effectiveness, has to be admired.

The group wants  charity law and the guidance that goes with it  tightened up . They believe that granting charity status to most independent schools is plain wrong because, in their view, much of what they do serves no charitable purpose.  The court  wasn’t  terribly sympathetic. Nor did the  court give the  power to the charity commission to determine what  public  benefit is.Politicians  had passed the baton on public benefit to the commission. But their guidance has been opaque and,  in short ,they made a hash of it.  Which is pretty much what the court judgement implied. The truth is that the commission  couldn’t  define what public benefit means in practice or  give a clear steer to schools . Indeed , if anything, they  signalled  support for bursaries (although by definition they benefit the few rather than the many)   while giving little weight to schools  other charitable activities.  Now charity trustees will make the decision on what constitutes public benefit   but, and this is important, they  must make more than de  minimis or token provision for the poor. The ERG believes this is a missed opportunity to give real weight to the public benefit requirement for charities ie a chance to hammer what they see as elitist schools who don’t deserve charity status.

“This is a missed opportunity” intoned a spokesman for the group at the end of proceedings “ to address  fundamental problems with so called charitable schools. When even the Prime  Minister is calling for an end to educational apartheid between state and private  schools it is regrettable that the court has not done more to ensure this happens.  There are indications within the judgement that the lavish ‘gold plated’ provision  within schools without any thought for poor pupils cannot continue but unless the  charity commission can go in and check this will mean little in practice”

The ERG though seem to be out of touch with what has been happening over the last few years. Most independent schools have extensive outreach programmes, share facilities and teaching resources with state schools and increasingly are becoming involved with academies. There are currently 30 independent schools actively involved in the academies programme working with existing underperforming schools to deliver  ‘ sustainable transformation’. This includes seven schools acting as lead sponsor, nine as co-sponsor and a further 14 as educational partners.

Despite the best  efforts of  the ERG   independent schools will retain their charitable status for the foreseeable future.



Very few struck off for incompetence


Many more teachers have been struck off by the GTC for misconduct than incompetence. From 2001 to the present day, the General Teaching Council for England, which currently administers the regulatory system for teachers, has prohibited a total of 228 teachers—211 teachers have been prohibited for misconduct and just 17 for professional incompetence. In 2011/2 68 were struck off for misconduct and just one for incompetence

If teachers are struggling, self evidently they should receive support and be given a chance to raise their game. If they are incapable or unwilling to improve it is equally clear that  they should be removed  from the profession . As these figures confirm incompetent teachers are simply recycled from school to school often with the collusion of Heads, governors and unions. Given the damage incompetent teachers do to the life chances of children in their care-this is nothing short of a scandal.

To make matters worse, according to the  TES,  no cases referred to the GTC since the end of August last year will lead to completed hearings before the council is closed in March because of time constraints.

Teacher leaders  understandably want to raise the status of their  profession . But it is hard to see how this will ever happen if those teachers  who dont meet the highest professional standards are  protected and kept in the profession.



Little impact on performance

Need to rethink their use


A 2011 Sutton Trust publication ‘A Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning’  with regard to  Teaching Assistants found  that “Most studies have consistently found very small or no effects on attainment.”  A new book ‘Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Changes Practice and Policy, by Peter Blatchford, Anthony Russell and Rob Webster,’ finds that pupils who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support.

Over the past decade the number of Teaching Assistants hired in schools has trebled, with 213,900 employed  in  2011  alone.

Teaching assistants may be useful in providing administrative support to teachers, freeing up much needed time  but they are not essential it appears, to raising pupil performance. Indeed pupils who get more attention from TAs, for example those  who are low attaining  or with special needs, get less attention from the qualified teacher which may well  not be in their interests.

The authors say that that schools and policy-makers need to make radical changes in the way teaching assistants are deployed in classrooms. The book reports on a five-year study of 8,200 pupils. Results from this study – the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project – found that pupils who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support.  Numbers of TAs have more than trebled since 1997, now making up a quarter of the school workforce. These results demonstrate that “the fault is not with TAs, but with decisions made — often with the best of intentions – about how they are used and prepared for their work,” the authors argue.  They say: “There has been a drift toward TAs becoming, in effect, the primary educators of lower-attaining pupils and those with special educational needs. Teachers like this arrangement because they can then teach the rest of the class, in the knowledge that the children in most need get more individual attention. “But the more support pupils get from TAs, the less they get from teachers. Supported pupils therefore become separated from the teacher and the curriculum. It is perhaps unsurprising then that these pupils make less progress.”  These results are now widely recognised and have fed into the Lamb Enquiry on SEN, new Ofsted guidance and the Government’s SEN green paper. The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project is the biggest study of TAs and other school support staff worldwide.

In Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants the authors recommend:

•        TAs should not routinely support lower attaining pupils and those with SEN

•        Teachers should deploy TAs in ways that allow them to ‘add value’ to their own teaching

•        Initial teacher training should include how to work with and manage TAs

•        Schools have a formal induction process for TAs

•        More joint planning and feedback time for teachers and TAs.

The authors say that change is essential, but the answer is not to do away with TAs. “Budget cuts and the pupil premium can provide the impetus for school leaders to seriously consider the value they want to derive from expenditure on TAs, and find creative ways of making this happen,” they say. But keeping the status quo is not an option. “The present default position, in which pupils get alternative – not additional – support by TAs, lets down the most disadvantaged children.”



Sensible debate required -remembering its politicians who created the system enforced by amenable regulators


The recent expose by the Daily Telegraph of apparently dodgy practice by at least some examiners and exam boards has kick started a debate about testing, assessment and examinations. Arent some exam boards easier than others? Why do our children have to sit so many tests? Isnt political pressure leading to year on year grade inflation,? How come, having sat through at least  ten years of education, so many young people with qualifications   still lack the abilities and skills to thrive in the jobs market and are ill prepared for higher education too?

Some critics are calling for radical change in assessment and examinations, the cost of which has spiralled in recent years so that the exam budget is now the second largest item in secondary school budgets, after staffing. What happens in the classroom is  driven mainly  by the demands and requirements  of the assessment and accountability frameworks. So, if we want the education landscape to change, shouldn’t more attention be paid to how the assessment and accountability frameworks work  in practice and  how they relate to each other and the resulting  impact they have on the  teaching and the learning environment?  If this is the case then a curriculum review should surely,  logically work in tandem with an assessment review. Schools  decisions are strongly driven by the incentive framework in which  they are placed. So,  the national exam system and the central importance to schools of the performance tables  tend to  over-ride everything else that happens in schools.

Critics such as Anthony Seldon and Professor Ken Robinson have long complained that schools have pretty much lost any idea of what education is for, driving out creativity and independent thought while  becoming, instead, exam factories encouraging rote learning  and teaching to the test.  The chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, has just  called for greater use of sophisticated multiple-choice questions and teacher assessment in A-levels and GCSEs and advocates the introduction of qualified chartered assessors, with every school having at least one chartered assessor to act as a guarantor of standards of teacher assessment. (the debate over multiple choice questioning polarises opinion)

Professor Mick Waters believes that the exam system undoes so much of the good work teachers and others do in exciting in children a passion for the respective subjects. Waters wrote in Secondary Education (5 Jan) ‘ Too many exams, though, are examples of a “spit out all you can remember” experience so that you can pass the exam and then forget it all. As a society, we persist with the rite of passage experience for young people, archaic in nature, a sort of trial by ordeal. When else in life would we enter a room, sit a metre away from everyone and work in silence for two hours? In real life, presented with a problem at work, most people immediately contact others, ask opinion, test solutions, seek information, pool knowledge and construct solutions that others critique.’ Waters , of course,  used to be a  senior regulator  with the now somewhat discredited QCA, so  he was  very much part of helping to uphold and sustain  the  system he   now  so  readily condemns.

John Dunford says that we now need to put more trust in the professional judgment of teachers to mark students’ work through the course and use those marks to award a grade, or at least a substantial part of it, say 50%. Alongside this, a system is needed to give validity, and thus all-important public credibility, to the grades awarded by teacher assessment. Dunford writes in the Guardian ‘With a network of chartered assessors across the country, accredited by the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, which I chair, to carry out in-course assessment to external standards and to act as guarantors of the assessment judgements of other teachers in their schools or colleges, we would have a system that would have greater validity than existing grades and be fairer to students. Instead of harking back to a golden era of assessment that never really existed, the government should set in place a thorough review of assessment and examinations and look at how teacher assessment could be used more effectively. The Chartered Institute stands ready to play its part in delivering an assessment system that would set the world-class standards to which politicians frequently ask educators to aspire’

Dunford believes that the Government, as a matter of urgency, should  set in motion a  major review of assessment and examinations from which the previous government also shrank, but which is sorely needed and that it makes sense to do this alongside the review of the curriculum, the timescale of which has been extended.

Not everyone will agree with Dunfords approach. Indeed if you look at how pupils coursework modules have been assessed and the weaknesses and pitfalls inherent in that system, the system Dunford suggests looks likely to share many of its in-built weaknesses.  Indeed, not everyone shares Dunfords confidence that teachers, under  huge pressure will, more often than not,   exercise  disinterested professional  judgement when it comes to rating their own pupils work.

It would be a mistake to heap the lions share of the   blame for all this on  the exam boards .Yes, they have made mistakes, working within a pressure cooker of a system,  and what the Daily Telegraph exposed is unacceptable but it’s the politicians and regulators who have established the enabling environment ,both in terms of assessment and accountability ,  in which this can  happen, along with the  perverse incentives that go with it . The Boards have to react and respond quickly to the shifting priorities and  agendas set by politicians.  Cambridge Assessment called a couple of years ago for an adult debate about assessment, testing and the perception of grade inflation-and the silence from politicians was at the time, and indeed until very recently, deafening.

There is a strong case for a  review of the way we assess our pupils and the impact this has on the education of our children. Politicians tend to focus though on structures because that is ,in a certain sense, the easy  bit  of the equation. The more difficult bits are teacher quality and effectiveness, the curriculum , accountability and assessment.The Government is making an effort to address some of these elements but progress is  painfully slow, and when it comes to assessment.. hard to identify.

Note-The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, Chaired by John  Dunford  who  was general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (formerly the Secondary Heads Association) from 1998 to 2010,  is a professional body dedicated to supporting the needs of everyone involved in educational assessment.

Its members include everyone involved in assessment, from senior examiners, moderators and markers to individuals with an interest in or responsibility for assessment in primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, universities, training centres and other educational organisations. Dr Neill Day a senior examiner said  “We have a teaching profession and we have examiners. Each has a role in maintaining standards, yet one has a formal identity while the other exists in its shadow. With the formation of the Institute, we have the chance to recognise and encourage examining and examiners for their important role”



No clear relationship between a country’s average class size and attainment


A new report on Class size found that it has some positive impact on attainment and behaviour, but this effect is often small and diminishes after a few years. The value for money of class size reduction policies therefore needs to be assessed relative to other potential options, such as improving teacher effectiveness. ( Evidence clearly suggests that Teacher effectiveness is a very significant driver of pupil performance). Hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes is a very expensive option and so reformers need to work out whether a policy of reducing class size is really the most cost effective option to secure   the outcomes they seek to achieve(ie improved performance/attainment)

The increasing birth rate has led pupil numbers in England to start increasing in  primary schools from 2009, and is projected to do so later on in secondary schools from  2015.

Average class size varies amongst the OECD countries. The UK is ranked as having large average class sizes for primary schools and has smaller average class sizes for secondary schools in comparison to other OECD countries. However, there is no clear relationship between a country’s average class size and attainment.


In another study ‘Class Size Debate’  2002  Professor Eric  Hanushek  concluded ‘Despite the political popularity of overall class size reduction, the scientific support of such policies is weak to non-existent. The existing evidence suggests that any effects of overall class size reduction policies will be small and very expensive. A number of investigations appear to show some effect of class size on achievement for specific groups or circumstances, but the estimated effects are invariably small and insufficient to support any broad reduction policies’





But whats in for League tables and accountability?


The use of Contextual Value added in league tables has been dropped by the government  with  the official reason given  that  it is too complex for parents to really understand.  Possibly true, but there is also an unresolved debate about how  best to measure value added. It has long been used by the SSAT to measure schools performance  but there are grave doubts about the accuracy of value added measures and academics  still cant agree on the best methodology . The debate is at its most acute in the United States where  much effort is focused on measuring the amount of value teachers add   in schools  as part of the education reforms  there. But it remains  hard to identify  consensus about how fair and effective such measurements are, and how one can accurately take in to account  and factor in other variables  affecting pupil performance.

But if contextual value added has been rejected as too complex, here in the UK what might be   a better  measure? Mike Baker in the Guardian recently reminds us of the work of the CMPO Bristol.  Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess published a paper for the IFS last year entitled Can School League Tables Help Parents Choose Schools?. Allen and Burgess devised a measure that gives parents the “expected GCSE performance for a child of similar ability to theirs” for all schools in the local area. Because it is reported in terms of average GCSE grades, rather than points, they argue that it is “relatively simple” for parents to interpret.

An important advantage of their proposed measure is that it militates against schools focusing their efforts on pupils at the C/D threshold. It is based on the best eight GCSE subject grades for pupils at three different points in the ability distribution: those who scored at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles in their key stage 2 tests at the end of primary school.

A further advantage is that it should be more useful in helping parents to choose schools because it works better as a predictor of their own child’s likely exam grades if they attend a particular school. This would help to dispense with the misleading idea that there is somehow a “best school” when it is much more a question of which is the “right school”.

Bakers view is ‘No doubt some will still regard this proposed measure as more complex than the current five A*-C measure. Certainly, it does not lend itself to a simple football-style league table. But maybe it is all the better for that, since the current measure is misleading if parents believe it will tell them what their own child is likely to achieve at a particular school.’


Synthetic Phonics and the screening check

Test rolling out this year         


Despite the best efforts of teachers and parents, last year 15% of  pupils did not reach the expected level in reading at the end of Key  Stage 1. At the end of Key Stage 2, 16% of pupils were below level 4 in reading, and 8% of pupils were below level . The Government says that the evidence shows that systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is the best way to drive up standards in reading.  Nick Gibb, the schools minister, has been a long time advocate of synthetic phonics.

The Rose Review (2006) concluded that: High quality systematic phonics offers the best and most direct route to becoming skilled  readers;  Phonic work is also ‘essential’ for the development of writing, especially spelling. The so called Clackmannanshire research project(2005) aimed to compare the effectiveness of synthetic phonics with  analytic phonics in teaching reading and spelling in around 300 children of Primary age in  Scotland. The much cited research concluded that children who were taught with a synthetic phonics  programme made more progress in reading and spelling than children in the other groups.

Nick Gibbs view is ‘Phonics is the most effective way for children to read words, and parents and the public should  have confidence that children have grasped this crucial skill. Phonics is a prerequisite for  children to become effective readers, but it is not an end in itself. Children should always be taught phonics as part of a language rich curriculum, so that they develop their wider reading  skills at the same time.’

The Government  has developed  a  phonics screening check. It has  been designed to confirm that children are able to decode using phonics to an appropriate  standard by the end of Year 1, and to identify those pupils who need additional support. The  check aims to provide parents and teachers with the reassurance they need that each child has  learnt the basic code of the language. Pupils taking the test must read aloud a list of 20 words and 20 “non-words” to a teacher. The “non-words” ensure that children are decoding and not repeating words they have learnt already


The test is due to be rolled out nationally this year (2012) – the cost of the policy has not been released although the trial is costing £250,000. The screening check  was piloted in a representative sample of approximately 300  schools in  June 2011.

It is expected to take about five to ten minutes per pupil and the results for each pupil will be given to parents. The school’s results will be recorded on RaiseOnline and available to Ofsted for use in inspections but will not be published in performance tables. National and local authority results will be reported.

Guidance on the tests says that the policy is aimed at encouraging schools to pursue a rigorous phonics programme but that this does not mean schools should delay teaching pupils wider literacy and comprehension skills.

The DfE is issuing three pieces of guidance for schools in relation to administering the year 1 phonics screening check. The first is the assessment and reporting arrangements (ARA) which explains the statutory requirements for administering the check in 2012. The second is a check administration guide and the third is a video version of this guide. These guides are more bespoke to the nature of the check and they refer to the responsibility of schools to ensure provision is made to meet the needs of all children with special educational needs. One of the reasons for producing a video version the DFE says is that this medium can most clearly provide advice to teachers administering the check to pupils with speech, language and communication needs.

The Year 1 phonics screening check is ‘ designed to identify children who need help with decoding using phonics at an early stage in their schooling. The Government want as many children as possible to access the assessment, including those with special educational needs.’

The Standards and Testing Agency is currently analysing all of the data from the pilot and will provide a technical evaluation of the Year 1 phonics screening check, including information relating to Ofqual’s common assessment criteria of validity, reliability, minimising bias, comparability and manageability. The technical report will include a dedicated section on the experience of children with special educational needs, including those with speech, language and communication needs. The Department intends the report to be published in spring 2012.

The screening test though has been controversial. The Guardian reported that ‘ For Greg Brooks, emeritus professor of education at the University of Sheffield, and an advocate of phonics whose research is cited by the government, the test is an “abomination”, partly because it would occur too late in year 1 for teachers to identify pupils who need help as problems develop. Much better, he said, would be to get teachers to identify the minority of pupils needing help by the middle of year 1, and direct resources to these children. He says: “This is a huge sledgehammer approach: what’s the point of testing 600,000 six-year-olds in order to identify the 100,000 pupils or fewer who need help, when these pupils should be obvious to their classroom teachers much earlier anyway?”

Brooks says the technical work needed to develop and standardise the test makes it potentially expensive, the UKLA describing it as “enormously costly [and] exceptionally hard to justify in a period of financial restrictions”.

Johnston, R.S. and Watson, J.E. (2005) The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading  and Spelling Attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive.