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.


All regional schools commissioners are employed under a contract of employment with the Department for Education.

The Regional Schools Commissioners carry out the following functions on behalf of the Secretary of State:

Monitoring the performance of academies and free schools in their area;

Taking action when an academy or free school is underperforming;

Taking decisions on local authority maintained schools wishing to convert to academy status;

Approving changes to open academies, including age range changes, mergers between academies, and changes to multi-academy trust arrangements;

Managing the regional sponsor market for academies, including approving applications to become an academy sponsor;

Making recommendations to ministers about free school applications;

And from this month (July):

Decision-making on tackling underperformance in maintained schools through sponsored academy arrangements.

The Secretary of State continues to be accountable for these areas and for all decision-making on her behalf.

Regional School Commissioners are clearly  now an important part of the accountability framework. They are being asked to do quite a lot in holding  many schools to account, across local authority boundaries. It will be interesting to see how their relationship with Ofsted develops. But am I alone in thinking that  this is all a bit of a gamble ? RSCs are untested and look  to me to  be very short  indeed on the capacity front,  given the scope of their remit, even taking into account the support they will receive   from the 32 headteachers (who already  have a day job) who have been voted by their peers to sit on the boards of the eight RSCs.

The staffing complement in each regional schools commissioner’s office is listed in the table below:

Office and regional schools commissioner Total staff Grade 6 Grade 7 SEO HEO EO AO
East Midlands and the Humber – Jennifer Bexon-Smith 6 1 2 1 2
Lancashire and West Yorkshire – Paul Smith 7 1 2 1 2 1
North of England – Janet Renou 6 1 2 2 1
East of England and North East London – Dr Tim Coulson 7 1 1 1 1 3
South Central England and North West London – Martin Post 6 1 2 1 2
South East England and South London – Dominic Herrington 7 1 2 4
West Midlands – Pank Patel 6 1 2 1 1 1
South West England – Sir David Carter 7 1 2 1 1 2



Groundhog Day?

The government has promised to accelerate academisation, but the impact on standards may be negligible,

Nicky Morgan’s big post-election theme is that schools are engines of social justice, so ‘academisation’ must be accelerated. The education secretary’s ambition, if not her logic, can hardly be faulted. The Education & Adoption Bill removes barriers that can delay the conversion process, including local objections, new powers will be given to regional school commissioners, experts will be brought in to run failing schools, and coasting schools will be targeted. What could possibly go wrong?

Setting aside the possible threat of judicial reviews (focused on the lack of local consultation), the first big challenge  was always going to be in defining coasting schools. It was clearly risky putting the term ‘Coasting’ on the face of the Bill , without  any agreement on what that  actually meant . A consultation process , aimed at identifying consensus,   was duly  launched,   but  given how unsettled Heads were , Morgan was pressured  into offering an early  definition of  ‘Coasting’  at the  start of the Commons Committee stage. In the event, this was less to do with Ofsted ratings,  and more to do with  exam scores , over the last three years. The reaction to the proposals was mixed  ,but it still left  many Heads, of well rated schools, perplexed and worried, not least because they actually thought there would be a consultation process, rather than a ‘ fait accompli.’

The next issue is Morgan’s political positioning. In the last parliament she had adroitly distanced herself from the Goveian legacy. No longer. It’s not those who are opposed to academisation, on ideological grounds, that she needs to worry about. They can be managed. It is those leaders, almost certainly the majority, who  absolutely  get the merits of structural reforms, and that this is part of the reform equation, but who are also aware  of what the evidence says on the other part. Leadership and raising the quality of classroom teaching matters the most in terms of improving outcomes. And it’s an area that received too little attention in the last administration, a problem that looks likely to continue. It must feel to them like groundhog day, and a lost opportunity. But, make no mistake, she needs their support.

Ministers’ faith in academies remains undiminished. Undoubtedly, there are many outstanding academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs), but if you look at the evidence it is pretty clear that giving a school academy status is no panacea for success.

Ofsted figures show that, of  the schools rated as ‘inadequate’ just before becoming academies, 60% subsequently, in their next inspection, received either a ‘requires improvement’ or an ‘inadequate’ rating, while just 38% received an ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ rating. This is hardly compelling evidence in support of the transformative effects of academy status.

A London School of Economics report suggested that while the first one hundred, well-resourced academies brought about a transformation in attitudes and standards, latterly the evidence is much less clear and nuanced. It is a fact that academies, because there are so many now and school spending is tight, are no longer accessing the significant extra funding and other support services they once did. It is also the case that there are as many failing academy trusts as there are local authorities (150 in each case nationally). Some trusts are even off-loading schools, either because they have been forced to, or because they realise they have expanded too quickly. At any given time, there are around fifteen MATs forbidden from expanding by DfE, due to concerns over quality.

Both the National Audit Office and all-party Education Select Committee found that although standards have risen, it is still too early to determine the impact of academies. The MPs specifically warned there is “no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools”.

The overarching threat to academisation remains a shortage of capacity. With too many MATs underperforming, with some of the best wary about expanding, and with a shortage of school heads, it’s difficult to see from where these ‘experts’ will appear, to support these new schools. Transformative change will have to happen, it seems, with less capacity, funding and a reduced support network than was the case when the programme started. Now that’s a big ask.