The English Baccalaureate – and the prospect of Building a Better Bac

At school leaders’ conferences I have been struck by the extent to which the EBac is dominating planning, both long and short term. The message from Michael Gove about greater curriculum freedom has been swamped by the fears of the EBac and how it might be used in future. Some year 11 students are even being put through history GCSE after school in order to give them a chance of an EBac certificate. Some freedom!

Apart from the obvious worry about the school’s position in an EBac league table, leaders are concerned that individual students may be disadvantaged by not having an EBac when they apply for university in four or five years’ time.

The fact that selective universities have no track record of asking for composite qualifications, such as the EBac, and are interested in the student’s performance in individual subjects, does not seem to allay the fears. Even when selective universities ask for a certain number of points from students doing the International Baccalaureate (IB), they still demand specific requirements in individual subjects.

Fear is all – and is destined to dominate curriculum planning at the very time when government ministers have repeatedly stated that they will offer more curriculum freedom and school leaders were looking forward to becoming curriculum planners again.

At least the IB is a proper baccalaureate, as is the successful Welsh Bac, whereas the EBac is nothing more than an accountability measure and, as such, should be ignored by universities, which have their eye on higher matters, such as intellectual quality.

It is disappointing to see the SSAT offering courses on how to jump through the EBac hoop – how to get better results in history and geography, how to get more students studying languages, etc. A sad compliance to a measure that ought to be opposed tooth and nail.

As chair of Whole Education, I am personally delighted that WE is working with ASCL, the Curriculum Foundation and the Independent Academies Association to Build a Better Bac, as our campaign is called.

We shall be giving evidence to the Select Committee’s brief inquiry on the EBac.

Watch this space.

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John Dunford’s election blog, 12 May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL

For my final election blog, I am re-publishing the open letter that I wrote on 6 May to the new secretary of state, which I shall be delivering to Michael Gove today:

Dear Michael,

Congratulations on your appointment as secretary of state for education. You have just started the best job in government, with the future of the country literally in your hands and a workforce with the strongest possible commitment to maximising the life chances of every young person.

Writing on behalf of the leaders of that workforce, I ask you to work with us. We would particularly ask you to remember the following ten things:

1. Pass fewer education laws. Do not over-regulate schools and colleges. Put in place just enough regulation to ensure that one school’s success is not at the expense of another.

2. Maintain the direction of change from the culture of competition that existed in the 1980s and 1990s to the culture of collaboration and partnership between institutions that has developed strength in recent years. Create more incentives for schools to work in partnership.

3. Continue to increase in real terms the proportion of the national budget spent on schools and colleges. The next generation of young people should not have their education jeopardised as a result of an economic crisis not of their making.

4. Over time, improve the distribution of that funding so that young people are not disadvantaged by their postcode.

5. Continue to build schools for the future and prioritise the renewal of the schools with the worst buildings.

6. Strengthen post-14 qualifications by introducing a general diploma with a broad core of knowledge and skills.

7. Strengthen assessment by building a cohort of chartered assessors – senior professionals externally accredited to carry out in-course assessment to external standards – and use these assessments as a proportion of final grades in all external qualifications.

8. Engage parents more strongly in the education of their children – and recognise that they don’t want to run schools.

9. Introduce intelligent accountability for schools and colleges. Make it robust, fair and proportionate. Make quality assurance and self-evaluation the centrepiece of the accountability system.

10. Only through our work at school and college level can your policies become successful, so make sure that all these policies are rooted in the reality of implementation.

With every good wish for your tenure as secretary of state. May it be longer, more effective and less interventionist than the average of your predecessors,

Yours sincerely

John Dunford

John Dunford’s election blog, Tuesday 11 May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL

With talks now taking place between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, independent commentators are reflecting on the greater similarities between their main policies. On education policy, however, that is not the case.

Both the LibDem and Labour parties have been specific about maintaining funding increases for schools, although the LibDems have been more generous. Both argue for improved professional development and a stronger role for local authorities – for the LibDems, this is for all schools; for Labour, this is only for schools that are not academies. And that’s about it.

In addition, all three parties favour some sort of pupil premium, want to expand Teach First and the graduate teacher programme, tackle bullying and improve discipline.

The LibDems have been particularly critical of Labour’s centralised approach to education policy and could hardly expect Labour to introduce the kind of Education Freedom Act proposed in the LibDem manifesto.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are more common areas between the Labour and Tory manifestos. Both would increase the number of academies, free from local authority influence. Both would start 14-19 technical academies. They would also strengthen home-school agreements, help successful schools to take over schools in difficulty, retain key stage 2 tests and implement the recommendations of Lord Browne’s review of university fees. This last point is a critical difference with the LibDems since it has enormous financial implications, both for the Treasury and for the higher education sector.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, whereas the education portfolio used to be a Cabinet post for politicians on the way down the greasy pole, it is now firmly established as a job for those on the way up. The three leading candidates for the Labour leadership – Ed Balls, Alan Johnson and David Miliband – have all been education ministers. Michael Gove is a close confidant of David Cameron and David Laws is a key member of the LibDem negotiating team. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that David Laws could become secretary for state for education in either a LibCon or a LibLab coalition.

John Dunford’s Election Blog, Monday 10 May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL

Like the election, this blog is lasting longer than expected but, with Conservative-Liberal Democrat talks continuing into a third day, I looked again at their respective education policies.

They agree on the need for a pupil premium (although the Conservatives haven’t said how they will pay for it, so the two parties may disagree about that), the need to reform league tables and Ofsted (although their recipes are very different), expansion of Teach First and the graduate teacher programme, tackling bullying and improving discipline (but the specific policies are different). They are also agreed on not adopting Labour’s ideas of a school report card, pupil and parent guarantees and the licence to practise.

They disagree on the future of key stage 2 tests and the way in which the national curriculum should be reformed, although they agree on the need for reform. They disagree on the future of diplomas. Most fundamentally, they agree on the idea of having new providers of schools, but whereas the Tories would set these schools free, the LibDems would bring them under local authority control. This contrast on the role of local authorities is also evident in their respective policies on academies.

There is a simple way to resolve the bargaining between the two potential political partners on which education policies to adopt. A LibCon government, or a minority Tory administration supported by the LibDems, should restrict new policy making to the areas on which they agree. In that way, schools and colleges could concentrate on the core job of raising standards and the government could take the credit for it.

The government can hardly claim credit for the 2010 results (although that might not stop them doing so) and there might be another election before the next set of results. So let’s have some policies to cheer us all up in the meantime. As well as ‘Troops to Teachers’, let’s make the most of a new group of recently unemployed and have ‘ex-MPs to teachers’. They could even set up their own small schools in duckhouses, surrounded by a moat to keep the attendance figures high.

Or the new government could implement my favourite manifesto commitment – the Monster Raving Loony Party’s pledge to fit all bright children with dimmer switches.

John Dunford’s Election Blog, Friday 7 May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

So it’s to be a hung parliament – but will that mean a coalition or a minority administration? Which parties will co-operate and who will be prime minister? And, of particular importance to ASCL, who will be secretary of state for education, children, families, or whatever the department will be called?

First, though, on a personal note, I am particularly sorry to see that so many former education ministers with whom I have enjoyed working have lost their seats – Jim Knight, Charles Clarke, Jacqui Smith, Phil Hope and Bill Rammell – and at least two of the most dedicated members of the select committee over the years, Jonathan Shaw and Paul Holmes.

All the talk last night and this morning on the television and radio emphasised the negatives of the new political arithmetic but, ever the optimist, I want to mention three of the positives of the current situation.

First, there has been stronger engagement with the political process in this election than in any previous election in my memory. ASCL members report that this has particularly been the case with the young people in schools and colleges.

Second, we might now have less legislation. That will be a great benefit to schools and colleges still struggling to put in place the huge amount of legislation and regulation of recent years.

Fewer bills also mean that each will get more time in parliament and so we can hope that legislation in this session will be more thoroughly considered than has been the case with recent bills.

Third, single governing parties tend to become legislative juggernauts, pushing their half-formed ideas into law, often before they have been properly tested and therefore with little evidence of whether they will work in practice.

So a Labour-led coalition or Labour minority government would be unlikely to find a parliamentary majority for the licence to practise, the pupil and parent guarantees or the school report card. But they would find sufficient support to continue to build stronger school-to-school collaboration.

A Conservative-led coalition or Tory minority government would benefit from Liberal Democrat support on parent-initiated schools, although only if they remain part of the local authority system, and on broadening the range of qualifications (such as the IGCSE) that can be taken in state schools. The Tories would be unlikely, however, to find sufficient support for their plan to make it easy to become an academy and break away from the local authority.

A coalition of either colour could work to introduce a pupil premium to create a fairer funding system. That won’t be easy at a time of funding difficulty, but a start could at least be made on devising the formula and working out how to achieve it over time.

With a Eurozone financial crisis, stock markets plummeting across the world and a huge hole to repair in the UK public finances, the new government will have more than enough on its plate. On education policy the highest priority of the new secretary of state is likely to be discussing with Treasury ministers how frontline educational services can best be funded in the current financial climate, given the importance to the national economy of having a highly educated and well trained workforce for the 21st century. ASCL’s line in the sand is the 0.7% real-terms increase announced by Ed Balls, which we expect to be honoured by the new government.

So my suggestion for the new government (in addition to those in my open letter in yesterday’s blog) is to forget the idea of a new education bill and instead seek cross-party consensus on supporting schools and colleges to do better those things that don’t need any new laws or regulations. That means concentrating on raising educational standards, supporting the education of the disadvantaged, working out how best to engage parents better in the education of their children, supporting schools on behaviour, improving assessment and testing, improving vocational qualifications and embedding the diploma, reforming Ofsted, attracting the brightest and the best into teaching, and reforming accountability to remove perverse incentives.

If they do that, then I am all for a hung parliament!

John Dunford’s Election Blog, Thursday 6 May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

At last it’s election day and the real poll takes the place of the interminable opinion polls. The time to comment on the three party manifestos is past as we begin to look to the future. So here’s ASCL’s open letter to the new secretary of state:

Dear Sir or Madam (well, anything can happen in politics, so it might not be Balls, Gove or Laws),

Congratulations on your appointment as secretary of state for education. You have just started the best job in government, with the future of the country literally in your hands and a workforce with the strongest possible commitment to maximising the life chances of every young person.

Writing on behalf of the leaders of that workforce, I ask you to work with us. We would particularly ask you to remember the following ten things:

1. Pass fewer education laws. Do not over-regulate schools and colleges. Put in place just enough regulation to ensure that one school’s success is not at the expense of another.

2. Maintain the direction of change from the culture of competition that existed in the 1980s and 1990s to the culture of collaboration and partnership between institutions that has developed strength in recent years. Create more incentives for schools to work in partnership.

3. Continue to increase in real terms the proportion of the national budget spent on schools and colleges. The next generation of young people should not have their education jeopardised as a result of an economic crisis not of their making.

4. Over time, improve the distribution of that funding so that young people are not disadvantaged by their postcode.

John Dunford Election Blog, Tuesday 4 May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

There was a lot more heat than light in the debate between the three main party education spokesmen on yesterday’s Daily Politics Show. With all three talking at once at times, Andrew Neil said “I now know what it’s like to be a teacher. Speak when you are spoken to.”

There were no real answers, so we still don’t know how the Conservatives intend to afford their ‘free’ schools, nor how Labour would reduce the degree of centralisation of policy. We did learn that all three believed in both school uniform and the preservation of A levels, although David Laws, in giving a one-word answer as requested, didn’t make clear that this would be part of the general diploma, as advocated by ASCL.

ASCL was mentioned twice – by Michael Gove in support of wider powers of search, and by Ed Balls in opposition to the abolition of appeals panels.

Sweden was mentioned more times than England, with rival reports being quoted about the success or otherwise of the Swedish system, including a piece by the leader of the Social Democratic party in Sweden that had appeared in the Guardian that day, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/02/conservative-education-policy-swedish-failures.

All were agreed that the persistent question of the gap between the educational achievement of the haves and the have-nots is the critical issue to address, but the hustings format does not permit speakers to go into the depth necessary to provide satisfactory answers to such questions.

Nor does it allow time for policy to be articulated with the passion shown by Gordon Brown in his speech yesterday to the Citizens UK Forum at Central Hall Westminster, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BA2Jz7xIXw. Off the leash he is a formidable and passionate speaker and his commitment to social justice shines through. If he had been able to show this side of himself in the televised debates, the election campaign might have been very different.

ASCL members learnt a lot more about the education policies of the three parties by having three separate sessions at its annual conference and not a single hustings session.

John Dunford Election Blog, Monday 3rd May

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

The hustings at NAHT annual conference yesterday told us nothing new and shed no further light on the parties’ views on key stage 2 tests, with no question on the topic being asked to the three main party spokesmen. According to their manifestos, the Conservatives will retain key stage 2 tests and make them ‘more rigorous’. Labour will publicise teacher assessment levels alongside test results in 2011, with a hint that further reform will follow. The LibDems want to ‘scale back’ key stage 2 tests and use teacher assessment with external moderation.

This year’s tests look set to be disrupted by a substantial but uncertain proportion of primary schools, impatient for change and unwilling to wait for Ed Balls’s slower pace of reform. The legality of the union’s action, being carried out in conjunction with the NUT, is not being tested in the courts and primary school governors are being placed by the secretary of state in the difficult position of finding a way ahead. As a primary school governor myself, I am very glad that I shall not have to broker those arrangements, as the head is not boycotting the tests.

If one party has a clear majority in parliament and a secretary of state is appointed on Friday 7 May, his first action could be to go to the courts and ask for the action to be declared illegal. The legality of the action has not been challenged by local authorities, which are the employers in many of the affected schools, so perhaps a new secretary of state would not want to start his term of office with what might be seen as a high-risk assault on two of the unions with which he will subsequently have to work. Of course, if there is a hung parliament and 7 May signals the start of a period of political bargaining, there will effectively be no secretary of state that day and the union action will go ahead unchallenged when the tests start on Monday 10 May.

Secondary schools can only look on at the events and wonder what will happen to their accountability when this year group has no externally verified judgement on their achievement at age 11 and thus no baseline for their progress during their years at secondary school.

Of more lasting importance is the wider question of whether the new government will take the action necessary to improve external assessment in England. The spat about key stage 2 tests in 2010 is only a small part of this issue.

John Dunford’s Election Blog – 30th April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

The third of the leaders’ debates concluded with a good question from Michael Crowhurst, a teacher in a deprived area of Birmingham who wanted to know how the parties would create opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The first debate had included a question from a 17 year old on whether the examination and testing system stifled creativity in schools. Two good questions.

I cannot recall a time when all three major party leaders had young children in state schools, so their commitment to the state system is evident – a contrast from 1979 when Mark Carlisle was secretary of state for education. He later commented that he could not understand why he had been appointed to the post as neither he nor his children had had any experience of state education.

In the time available the party leaders’ answers did little more than scratch the surface of the link between inequality and educational achievement.

Nick Clegg emphasised the LibDem’s pupil premium, targeted at schools with disadvantaged pupils, which would enable schools to reduce class sizes and/or provide one-to-one tuition. He was clear about the priority that needed to be given to support for these children in the early years of education. He also linked his party’s policy on raising the tax threshold to £10,000 to the relieving of poverty.

David Cameron paid a compliment to teachers who ’perform the most incredibly important work in society’ and said that ‘we should do more to support them’. He wanted to strengthen heads’ powers on discipline by abolishing appeals panels and making searching easier. ASCL disagrees with the abolition of appeals panels on the grounds that heads will then have to waste a lot of time and energy in being taken to judicial review in the high court by litigious parents.

David Cameron also emphasised his policy for a greater variety of schools and more academies, but he didn’t mention the party’s policy on a pupil premium, which the other parties accuse him of not knowing how to pay for. Presumably this would be partly funded by the removal of what he described as ‘a lot of waste’ in quangos and in the thousands of pages of regulations and guidance emerging every year from the government. (NB The contemplation room in the DCSF, to which he referred as an example of waste, is, I think, the Muslim prayer room.)

Gordon Brown spoke about child tax credits, which the other parties would scale down, and emphasised his commitment to social mobility, citing one-to-one tuition, Sure Start and the encouragement to more young people to stay in full-time education. He referred briefly to good schools taking over under-performing ones, but failed to set out the immense achievements of the education service during the last 13 years, many of them trying to break the link between poverty and under-achievement – greatly improved exam results, massive support for schools in challenging areas, many fewer schools with less than 30 per cent achieving five high grade GCSEs including English and maths (or equivalent), a big increase in the numbers staying on beyond 16, the raising of the participation age, schools working closely in partnership to the benefit of all in their area, reformed and updated qualifications, healthy food, more sport, better safeguarding, and so on.

Instead, David Cameron was allowed to get away with the statement that there had been ‘13 years of quite a lot of educational failure’. There is still failure in the system, but the successes have surely outweighed the failures.

I still find it hard to understand why the Conservative party, as David Cameron said again last night, trumpets the advantages of greater freedom for schools in one breath, and in the next breath tells schools to teach reading using synthetic phonics and to set pupils by ability. Apart from the inherent contradiction here, I cannot think of any other public service in which a party leader would be so prescriptive about what professionals should do. Politicians don’t tell surgeons how to hold a scalpel, so why do they think it is ok to tell teachers how to teach or heads how to organise their school?

All three party leaders stated that they would protect the schools’ (but not the colleges’ or universities’) budget and that public sector pay would have to be limited.

I was left feeling that the questions had been better than the answers.

John Dunford’s election blog, 29 April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

The leaders’ debates are compelling and I am greatly looking forward to tonight’s debate. I watched the first debate and, not having Sky, listened to the second debate on Radio4. In some ways, I preferred the radio, which had none of the distraction of watching the facial expressions and being influenced by how the leaders stood and how relaxed they looked. On the radio, the policies seemed to come across more clearly. Nonetheless, I shall be watching tonight to see who wins – and in particular to hear about the effect of spending cuts on public services.

While the debates have engaged more people in the election and have given extra exposure to the Liberal Democrats, thus moving away from the old one-two bang-bash politics, they have personalised the election into a presidential beauty parade to the extent that, for almost the whole of the first half of the election campaign, policies were barely discussed. It was all about Nick, Gordon and David.

So little has been the exposure of other leading politicians that most electors would be hard pressed to name more than a couple of members of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat front benches.

That is the way that the media is reporting the election and it is similar with schools and colleges. The media always focuses on principals and heads (still, alas, ‘headmasters’ in some cases) and shows as little recognition of the team leadership of schools as of the government. Britain’s Got Talent politics is as flawed an image as X-factor school leadership.

Does it matter, provided that the reality has moved away from the autocrat hero-head model to the distributed leadership that exists in schools and colleges? Well, yes it does, because the media is not presenting schools as they really are. The National College is consistent in its message that the leadership of the head or principal is vital, but the school/college can only be successful if the team around the principal works well.

So let’s hear more from the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem leadership teams. It’s vitally important who is the prime minister, but Britain will only have good government if the whole leadership team works well.