Is bureaucracy killing autonomy?


Spare a thought for academies and  multi-academy trusts. The idea behind academies is that they are autonomous, freed from local control  and stifling bureaucracy. They have been given new freedoms, over the curriculum,  over admissions (though limited), over term times , over the day to day running of their schools   and  over how they spend their resources.  Heads and governors could and should be more responsive to the needs of their students, New creative and   innovative approaches to learning would be fomented, along with new and better learning opportunities offered to their students. But the reality turns out to be a bit  different. The head of one of the largest academy chains stopped me mid-sentence the other day when I was talking about academy freedoms. He asked what freedoms?  We don’t have  real freedoms, it’s a myth, he claimed.  The governments recent intervention over the  Ebacc is given as one example of the government preaching one thing,   freedom over the curriculum, and doing another ,telling schools what they should do on the curriculum front. So bureaucratic has the system become, a combination of the accountability framework in the form of Ofsted, and the  new  Regional  School Commissioners  combined with central government continuous  interventions and guidance ,  that  those in charge of academies and MATs spend   much  (even most) of their time managing these relationships rather than being focused enough  on  other vital  matters internal to the  respective schools or chains.

Joe Nutt, a consultant, was engaged as an adviser to one of the country’s largest Academy chains, TKAT, on their planning for expansion from 11 schools in 2012 to a proposed 75 in 2015. In his recent written evidence to the Education Select Committee Nutt  gave some insight into pressures faced by MATs. In the words of a board member,  whom  he  interviewed, the relationship between the trust and the department  (DFE) was “classically dysfunctional”. He estimated that the CEO was spending 7/10 her time managing that relationship. As someone whose career had been outside education, he found the situation “unbelievable” He asked Nutt “What on earth is going on?”

Regional Schools Commissioners were invented because of concerns over unaccountability. Academies are directly responsible to the Secretary of State and there was a need, it was argued, for a middle tier to provide an additional layer of accountability.

However,  Nutt notes real  differences in thinking between business and education, differences which lie at the heart of why efforts at performance managing schools by RSCs remains problematic. Nutt identified an urgent need to improve the quality of the chains relationships with both Ofsted and the respective  RSC.

Nutt  also suggests that the government could consider a new way of thinking about measuring the quality of teaching. He writes  ‘At present many teachers regard such measurements as externally imposed, peripheral to their real work and divorced from the children they teach. I would argue that measuring and understanding the quality of their teaching should be self-imposed, routine, at the heart of their practice and directly linked to children’s learning.’  Part of the problem, of course (now widely acknowledged,) has been Ofsted inspectors inconsistency, and therefore the unpredictability built into the system, putting additional pressures on all schools not just academies (a problem that is hopefully now being addressed).

As for the relationships between MATs, Ofsted, RSCs and DFE there appears to be a growing rather than diminishing problem.  MATS may not be keen to go public on the extent of these problems but they are there  . The local bureaucracy represented by the local authority seems to have been replaced by another multi-layered bureaucracy leaving many MATs feeling under siege, with limited freedoms, fearful of the next intervention, and without being able  to exercise  the real autonomy,  to improve outcomes ,that they were originally  promised. Food for thought.



Strong on sentiment and the need to raise the game on careers guidance  but , weak on detail

The Minister responsible for Careers Advice in schools, Sam Gyimah, in a recent speech ,strongly backed the need for good professional careers advice but chose to focus much attention on the role of employers in giving advice  in schools.

The government   has for a while now  been keen to get employers much more involved in schools, linking student choices to job prospects and the local job market, as well as improving the offer on work experience. The government seems   to equate good careers advice with employers telling pupils about their work and routes into their respective sectors. But this raises a host of practical issues and challenges. First off, how many employers will have the time and inclination to do this? Indeed,  how many will be needed to  traipse into schools  giving  pupils a clear idea of the full range of job opportunities and apprenticeships available to them? How, good will these employers be at presenting their cases, to pupils  and  indeed how   objective can  they be or afford to be ?   Why sell the idea of going into a competitors business or into a different sector altogether? How much of the school day will be allotted to these (many) interactions with, and presentations, from employers? And where exactly are the incentives for employers  to do this?

The truth is that Employers are neither professional careers advisers ,nor are they necessarily knowledgeable about other sectors, the routes into other sectors, nor local  employment and training  opportunities, nor, indeed, necessarily   the local jobs market and skills gaps .They will also not be qualified or able to look at an individual’s background and needs and give personalized advice. . This can only be provided by a professionally qualified. independent adviser.

However , to be fair, Gyimah did make some good points. For example:

For too long the careers provision in schools has not been taken as seriously as it should be – instead, treated with disdain, as a kind of relic from the days before the internet put the whole world at our fingertips.”

“When you couple that with that the fact that an Ofsted study found that only 1 in 5 schools gives effective guidance and advice to its year 9, 10 and 11 pupils, it’s no wonder that 80% of employers think that young people don’t leave school equipped with the right skills for the workplace.”(This Ofsted finding was from  a 2013 report  yet nothing has changed)

Gyimah also said: “I know that careers advisers are dedicated professionals who genuinely want young people to progress onto the best courses and into the best job.”  (so this begs the question – why not give them more opportunities to do this?)

And : “Imagine trying to study for your GCSEs, A levels or even your degree without having any idea about what your future might hold, and with no idea how the qualifications you’re working towards can shape and influence the rest of your life.

During this tricky phase of life, young people desperately need sensible, practical advice and guidance.” (from whom, exactly-Employers?)


He continued:

“I want a strategic approach that brings all of these people and organisations together so that every single child, no matter where they live or what school they go to, has the same access to top-quality advice.

So if we’re going to get careers advice right, if we’re going to harness the talent of the next generation and help young people make sensible choices about their future education and employment, we all need to raise our game.

Over the coming months, I want to see the Careers and Enterprise Company go from strength to strength, spreading what works to all schools and colleges, filling gaps and making it much, much easier for schools, employers, and careers and enterprise providers to connect.

“Putting the experts in the classrooms, the people that understand business, and careers opportunities in the local area and beyond. ( Ok-Its early days but as things stand  the Careers and Enterprise Company has delivered  thus far no measurable outcomes-so what is this from strength to strength  thing about?)

“In turn, I want to see all of those companies who have said time and time again that school leavers don’t have the right skills for the workplace step up and help to solve that problem.

“Of course, some companies are thinking about this already, but many more can consider offering work experience placements, sending staff into schools, mentoring pupils – there are so many ways to help bridge the gap between education and employment.”


The government really does think that the future of careers advice lies with employers getting into schools and giving advice and mentorship to pupils. Employers are central to their plans.   But, Employers can only ever be, at best, one side of the guidance  coin. The other consists of high quality professionally qualified, independent careers advisers, who if you look at the rhetoric, have a bit part in the current vision , hanging onto employers coat tails. This presents a cause for concern. There is neither evidence that employers want to do this nor, arguably, that they are either   equipped or  able to do it. Worse they could exacerbate the problem by offering poor, self-serving selective advice. The key is -look at the evidence of what works here and internationally. This should be evidence led.  Rather obviously its not. Point me to any system where employers are central to giving effective careers advice to pupils.  The Careers and Enterprise Company at present neither has the resources nor clear joined up vision of how best to ensure that all pupils get easy access to high quality  independent careers  education and guidance and that the most disadvantaged are given the direct face to face support they require. By all accounts Sam Gyimah really wants to make a difference and understands the importance of careers guidance, as reflected in his speech. But he needs to look much more carefully at what options can work best on the ground, what resources are available within this system and across departments to ensure pupils are much better supported in schools both in terms of careers education and guidance.  The system now is no different from  what it was  when Ofsted reported  back in 2013. So it is still letting down far too many young people.


The government’s Careers and Enterprise Company announced this month the roll-out of its piloted system of ‘enterprise advisers’ to go into colleges and schools. The plan, announced in July, is for all 39 local enterprise partnerships (Leps) across the country to employ ‘enterprise co-ordinators’ to work with the advisers — with 28 Leps initially taking part from this month. The advisers will work on the co-ordinators’ behalf with schools and colleges, briefing learners about employment options and any vocational training needed to secure jobs, a careers company spokesperson said.


There is a conviction, among some educators, that schools are too preoccupied with academic subjects.  Hardly their fault ,of course, given that  what is taught , in the classroom, is driven by the  respective prescribed  curriculum and   assessment  regimes. Students are rarely given an opportunity to collaborate, undertake  project work or to   give practical effect to the knowledge they have learnt in the classroom.  Given that collaborative work is what you actually do  when you get a real job, this  might seem strange to some.  This is where the Maker Movement has stepped in to the space. Although US based ,its probably safe enough to predict that some of its ideas will resonate in the UK education establishment.. So, what is the Maker Movement?

“Maker classrooms are active classrooms. In active classrooms one will find engaged students, often working on multiple projects simultaneously, and teachers unafraid of relinquishing their authoritarian role. The best way to activate your classroom is for your classroom to make something.”

“The best way to activate your classroom is for your students to make something. This might an amazing high-tech invention or it might take the form of costumes for a historical re-enactment, homemade math manipulatives, a new curtain for the local auditorium, toys, a pet habitat, a messy science experiment, or a zillion other things.”

Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager expand on this approach in their book ‘Invent to Learn‘. Some regard their book as  the Maker Movement’s bible. They are keen to show that children learn best when they collaborate, and engage in practical work, in class.  It is seen as very different to the traditional ,much more academic approach to learning evidenced  in most schools. Vocational or pratical education is often seen as the poor cousin of academic education (though opinion may be shifting on this score). This is about learning by doing.

‘The Maker Movement, they claim, is a technological and creative learning revolution underway around the globe,  which has  ‘exciting and vast implications for the world of education.’  ‘New tools and technology, such as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computing, e-textiles, “smart” materials, and programming languages are being invented at an unprecedented pace.; The Maker Movement creates affordable or even free versions of these inventions, while sharing tools and ideas online ‘to create a vibrant, collaborative community of global problem-solvers.’

There are three big game-changers of the Maker Movement they say that  should be on every school’s radar:

Computer-Controlled Fabrication Devices

Over the past few years, devices that fabricate three-dimensional objects have become an affordable reality. These 3D printers can take a design file and output a physical object. Plastic filament is melted and deposited in intricate patterns that build layer by layer, much like a 2D printer prints lines of dots that line by line create a printed page. With 3D design and printing, students can design and create their own objects.

Physical Computing

New open-source microcontrollers, sensors, and interfaces connect the physical and digital worlds in ways never before possible. Many schools are familiar with robotics, one aspect of physical computing, but a whole new world is opening up. Wearable computing—in which circuits are made with conductive thread—makes textiles smart, flexible, and mobile. Plug-and-play devices that connect small microprocessors to the Internet, to each other, or to any number of sensors mean that low-cost, easy-to-make computational devices can test, monitor, and control your world.


From the Next Generation Science Standards to the White House, there is a new call for schools to teach computer programming. Programming is the key to controlling a new world of computational devices and the range of programming languages has never been greater. Today’s modern languages are designed for every purpose and learners of all ages.

Also see


OECD and others are benefiting financially from PISA –some questions need to be answered.

Just ahead of the publication of the 2013 PISA league tables, India withdrew from the list of countries which featured in the tables. India’s decision was due, some said, to the fact that it would do badly (ie it chickened out) but others claimed that India  had real  doubts  and worries about PISAs methodology. Some  Indian educators claimed that its question papers were culturally biased and its rankings are counterproductive.

The PISA rankings are like  many  education league tables. They have influence, but  for presentation purposes they  present  complex information simplistically and so they are imperfect. Although Andreas Schleicher of OECD  habitually  warns countries to be careful about how they interpret the PISA results, he knows full well that  those countries that perform poorly tend to have post- mortems and adjust their policies and education reforms accordingly, in response to  what is now  termed ‘PISA shock.’

The Rasch model that PISA uses is supposed to iron out the contextual differences between the respective countries. But Professor Jenny Ozga, an expert in the field at the University of Oxford, told the TES , back in 2013 .“People have been struggling for decades to design tests that remove the contextual features that shape and support pupils’ performance. It cannot be done,”. Professor Svend Kreiner, of the University of Copenhagen, says this model can only work if the questions that PISA uses are of the same level of difficulty for each of the participating countries. He believes though that his research proves that this is not the case, and therefore the comparisons that PISA  makes between countries are “useless”. Dr Hugh Morrison ,of Queens University Belfast, said that PISA  and the Rasch model made the “impossible” claim of being able to measure ability independently of the questions that students answer. “I am certain this (problem) cannot be answered,” he told TES.

Countries are ranked separately in reading, maths and science, according to scores based on their students’ achievements in special PISA  tests. These are representative rather than actual scores because they have been adjusted to fit a common scale – where the OECD average is always 500. So in the previous PISA assessment, for example, Shanghai finished top in reading with 556, the US matched the OECD average with 500 and Kyrgyzstan finished bottom with 314.

As the TES pointed our ‘ You might think that to achieve a fair comparison, and bearing in mind that culturally biased questions have been “weeded out”, that all students participating in Pisa would have been asked to respond to exactly the same questions.But you would be wrong. For example, in Pisa 2006, about half of the participating students were not asked any questions on reading and half were not tested at all on maths, although full PISA rankings were produced for both subjects. Science, the main focus of PISA that year, was the only subject on which all participating students were  all tested.’

Professor Kreiner has looked in detail at the reading results for 2006 and noted that another 40 per cent of participating students were tested on just 14 of the 28 reading questions used in the assessment. So only approximately 10 per cent of the students who took part in PISAS were tested on all 28 reading questions. This in itself is ridiculous,” Kreiner told TES. “Most people don’t know that half of the students taking part in PISA  (2006) do not respond to any reading item at all. Despite that, Pisa assigns reading scores to these children.”

People may also be unaware that the differences in questions don’t just occur between students within the same country. There are also between- country differences in the questions.

For example, eight of the 28 reading questions used in PISA 2006 were deleted from the final analysis in some countries. The OECD says that this is because they were considered “dodgy” and “had poor psychometric properties in a particular country”. However, in other countries the data from these questions did contribute to their Pisa scores.

The main point is, it is not up to the rest of the world to show they [the OECD] are wrong. It is up to PISA to show they are right. They are claiming they are doing something and they are getting a lot of money to do it, and they should support their claims.” said Professor Kriener

Dr Morrison has said “There are very few things you can summarise with a number and yet PISA claims to be able to capture a country’s entire education system in just three of them. It can’t be possible. It is madness.” He goes further, saying that the model PISA uses to calculate the rankings is, on its own terms, “utterly wrong” because it contains a “profound” conceptual error. For this reason, the mathematician claims, “PISA will never work”.  Professor John Jerrim of the IOE, who looked at both PISA and TIMSS surveys , said that there are so many problems associated with these studies concerning missing data, procedures and target populations that it is impossible to draw firm conclusions from them ,and policy makers shouldn’t  even try.

Gabriel Sahlgren ,who heads research at the CMRE think tank, claims that PISA  has  nothing, to say about effective practices and policies for raising performance. This is because it’s a non-academic report that can’t separate causation from correlation. If one is interested in understanding what works in PISA, an understanding of the academic research is key, he says.

As Pearson is developing the 2018 Student Assessment 21st century frameworks for OECD,its probably time for a thorough check of the OECDs  methodology. The frameworks define what will be measured in PISA 2018, how this will be reported and which approach will be chosen for the development of tests and questionnaires.  The main tasks will be to:

Redefine reading literacy, taking into account how young people are taught to approach the digital environment including how to recognise credible websites and online documents.

Review and where necessary adapt the frameworks for mathematics and science.

Develop the student questionnaire framework for the collection of contextual information and the measurement of other education outcomes which may have connections with performance.

Develop a framework for the measurement of global competence which will assess students’ awareness of the interconnected global world we live and work in and their ability to deal effectively with the resulting demands.

There are a lot of sound commercial reasons why both OECD and Pearson want  to  market  PISA and  expand its influence. But what about the education value? OECD is seeking to persuade schools to buy into its agenda and to adjust their curriculum offers to be more in line with what PISA is testing (for which it will benefit financially). PISA claims it is testing students ability to use knowledge to problem solve. This is not an obviously good trend and there are  potential conflicts of interest here. It does seem time to have a more open and transparent debate about whether the methodology used by OECD is sufficiently robust, and whether whole systems should reform based on the latest PISA ratings. England is in a rather strange position in relation to PISA. Out politicians worry greatly about our rankings, but do very little to ensure our students do better in the tests. So almost certainly  England  will either stay where it is in the rankings, next time round, or drop in the tables.

According to OECD, only around 8% of the variation in student achievement is attributable to the school a child attends. The other 92% is outside the school’s control.  Given the way politicians react to PISA results there is surely cause for concern.  That is not to say that the information and statistics generated by the PISA process isn’t   useful, because a lot of it is . It’s just that the way  it is used to make crude comparisons  and to generate league tables  may well  be counter-productive, over the longer term, and the way ,in particular, that  politicians react to its  headline conclusions rather than   the detailed  information in the PISA reports, can serve to compound the problems.


England participates in three research studies that enable international benchmarking of the performance of our pupils against the performance of their peers in other countries:

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares the mathematics, science and reading competence of 15-year-olds across participating countries. Further information can be found online at:

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which compares the mathematics and science abilities of pupils in year 5 and year 9 in England with their peers in comparable grades in participating countries. More information can be found online at:

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which compares the reading ability of pupils in year 5 in England with their peers in comparable grades in participating countries. This is available online at:

Northern Ireland also participates in each of these three studies, and all four UK countries participate in the OECD’s PISA study.

In England and Wales, schools can also access the OECD’s PISA-based test for schools, which provides schools with a tool to benchmark the performance of their 15-year-old pupils within and beyond local and national borders, and is available online at:

Benchmarking against the best in the world is thought to be good practice.  But there are concerns that data used from these studies are misused (a concern shared by Andreas Schleicher of OECD who presides over  PISA) and are   taken out of context  by politicians who rarely know the difference, it seems,  between causation and correlation.

England performs better than both Wales (a laggard) and Scotland in PISA tables. Interestingly, although much is made of the fact that England performs comparatively poorly in the tables  (the latest showing no real movement up or down) and our politicians use PISA to exhort our schools to do better, there is nothing  obvious in recent education reforms  in England, which have focused mainly on structural reforms,  that will ensure that our students do any  better in the PISA  tests,  next time round. PISA tests aim not so much to test students’  knowledge, as to test students ability to use  retained knowledge to problem solve.



A report by the school support company The Key suggests two thirds of headteachers and school leaders nationally are most worried about mental health, followed by domestic violence, with 58 per cent citing it as a top concern. More than 1,000 leaders were surveyed as part of The Key’s annual State of Education report.

Professor Tanya Byron backed by the Times recently launched “a blueprint” for Mental Health calling for urgent change. Byron said: “When are we going to wake up to the fact that mental health problems in children can be as serious and life changing as physical illnesses? How as a society can we justify the fact that the mental health of children is so low on our list of priorities?” Although politicians have expressed their concerns about childrens mental health and want schools to do more to identify children suffering mental health issues and to seek support for these children,  figures show spending on  mental health services has  actually fallen every year since 2010.

Nonetheless Emotional wellbeing, resilience and good mental health are seen as a priority for the Department foe Education. As the Secretary of State said in an interview with the Times on 4 July 2015, there are lots of new pressures on young people growing up. Ministers want children to do well academically and attainment is supported if they have good mental health character and resilience. They say these are two sides of the same coin.

The National Curriculum framework is clear that all schools should teach Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education – a non-statutory national curriculum subject which supports and extends other subjects in the school curriculum, such as Citizenship and Information Technology. This helps pupils to develop self-esteem, resilience, confidence and their ability to learn, as well as dealing with specific issues such as online and cyberbullying.

In order to support teachers to improve teaching about mental health in PSHE, the government has  funded the PSHE Association to produce guidance and detailed lesson plans for Key Stages 1-4 which are available online here at:

The government says ‘ While teachers are well placed to spot where students have a problem, they are not mental health professionals. It is important that students can get swift access to specialist mental health support where needed. An additional £1.25bn is available for mental health services for children, young people and new mothers over the next 5 years, to ensure timely access to appropriate specialist support is available’


Source Schools Week and Hansard 20 July



In March the Department for Education and the Department of Health published joint statutory guidance on promoting the health and well-being of looked-after children. This emphasises the importance of emotional well-being and mental as well as physical health. Support to vulnerable groups, including looked-after children, was also a focus of the work leading up to the publication of Future in Mind.



Schools Week reported in February that no data on young people’s mental health had been collected by the government since 2004.


The general prohibition against academic selection in state schools prevents the establishment of any new Grammar schools. However, existing Grammar schools can expand, providing that any expansion onto a new site is a change to an existing school and not a new school. Which is why the anti-grammar school lobby is getting  animated about developments in Sevenoaks, Kent, where an existing Grammar school is seeking to open a satellite,  some distance away.

The Antis  are watching this closely.  It could be the tip of  an iceberg.  A decision is awaited from the Education Secretary.  Yes, they know that the law doesn’t allow for the expansion of grammar schools, and for this to happen there needs to be new legislation-which will need a majority in Parliament. That, of course,  will not happen. But they suspect that the pro-grammar lobby will  seek to use the satellite route to expand the programme elsewhere.

Grammar schools, secondary modern schools and technical schools formed what was known as the tripartite system, which arose from the interpretation of the Education Act 1944  .Grammar schools provided admission to children on the basis of their ability and offered an academic education. Selection was usually made at the end of primary school in the form of the ‘11 plus’ examination. Secondary moderns provided a more general education with an emphasis on more practical subjects. Technical schools provided a more general education but with a focus on technical subjects.

There are currently 163 grammar schools in England with a total number of 163,000 pupils. This comprises around  5% of the total number of pupils in England. Ten local authorities are classified by the Department for Education as having a wholly selective system and a further 26 have at least one grammar school in their area.

Not all Tories, by any means, support selection ,or the expansion of Grammar schools. But it is significant that two influential Tories,  Graham Brady and Boris Johnson, simultaneously, are making the case for more Grammars.  It looks to be orchestrated.

Opponents of Grammar schools are against selection in the state system. They believe that they may offer social mobility to a few, but its only the few. They may be fine institutions for those  fortunate  enough to attend them. But the real problem is the provision for those who fail to gain a place. And a majority of pupils  who enter fail the selection exam.

What about the selection process?. Although the 11 plus exam is supposed to measure potential, there are plenty of private tutors  who boast that they can get just about anyone to pass the 11 plus  providing they put in or ‘invest’  the extra hours. So this means, in practice, that middle class parents, with a decent income, are more likely to get their child into a grammar school than parents from a disadvantaged community. Hence the charge that Grammars are colonized by the middle classes.

If you can tutor for the exam, it rather suggests that it is not simply about measuring potential. And there appears to be no reliable evidence to suggest, in any case ,that 11 is the best age to measure a child’s potential.

But one of the most compelling arguments against grammar schools is that successive governments have seen the holy grail of education in improving the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils and narrowing the achievement gap between them and their peers. So this should be the benchmark against which Grammars are measured. Disadvantaged pupils are broadly those defined as eligible for free school meals. But in 2014, the proportion of grammar school pupils eligible for free school meals was 2.7% but 15.7% across all types of schools.

Minister Lord Nash, in the last government, (he is still in post) served a warning to grammar schools, on 1 July 2014 ,when he stated:

“The Government is committed to closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Grammar schools and the highest performing non-selective schools currently have some of the lowest representations of children eligible for free school meals in England. We want to encourage all high performing schools, including grammar schools to do more to attract and support disadvantaged children.”

When Chris Cook, a former Tory ministerial adviser (now with the BBC), was the FTs education correspondent he did some number crunching to find out how poor children fared in areas that had selective education. His verdict  was clear -poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas. He wrote on 28 January 2013 ‘If you plot how well children do on average by household deprivation for selective areas and for the rest of the country, you can see that the net effect of grammar schools is to disadvantage poor children and help the rich.’

So, if this is the case, are Ministers really going to agree that the expansion of  Grammar schools  is the best way to further social mobility and  narrow the achievement gap? I think not.

That doesn’t mean that  some satellites won’t be approved. Nor does it mean that Grammar schools that exist are not safe. They are. It just means that it is highly unlikely that we will see a significant expansion of Grammar schools, any time soon.