This is a continuation of my previous report on The Festival of Education at Wellington College. You can read part one about Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech here and part two about mainly Steve Munby on Leadership of the Future here.
Session 4 was David Laws talking on ‘Aspirations for English education in 2020’.
Laws said a number of things that Wilshaw had started with, a number of things that were inarguable, and a number of things that were fairly dull in character. He also promoted the Liberal Democrats role in promoting education policy that benefits the poorest.
Laws started by expressing that the UK is not going to be able to compete without the development of competitive skills. People who fail to attain these skills are unlikely to be employed – or will be in temporary employment or low paid employment. He said therefore, that improvements in education are “absolutely crucial”.
I suppose so, I thought – it’s hard to disagree with any of that.
The challenges Laws wants to address were those that most exercise Michael Wilshaw – the gap in outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged. He pointed out that “poverty literally halves your chances in education”.
I could be pedantic and try to point out that this is at one measure only, but once again, it’s hard to disagree.
Laws: “Too few of all pupils reach acceptable levels. 85-90% are capable of 5 GCSE inc Eng/ Maths. 85-90% by 2020.”
This made me think of a number of blogs on whether it is really possible (without dumbing down) for all students to achieve that benchmark. I don’t think it is unless we go to criteria referenced marking of examinations.
Laws: “At the DFE we should stop setting low bars based on our capacity to intervene – instead we should challenge schools to get to where they can. Too many schools deliver grindingly satisfactory results – The question is how can we make some of these improvements.”
Laws continued: “There are three areas – school accountability, pupil premium and school leadership.”
Having set out the three areas, he continued: “School accountability – the decade long struggle to meet narrow targets distorted the curriculum and encourages neglect of students not on the borderline. Many other students are neglected because the school is confident they will get 5 GCSE grades come what may.”
I have experience of this. It’s true, so fair enough. I don’t know anyone that likes it but many of us are guilty of it.
“The last government gave schools no incentive to get these grades up. Tragically there are children who are all but written off my schools. That tragedy is compounded by this group being disproportionately represented by students in poverty – and leads to a further cycle of poverty.”
Laws said that Government has to accept the blame when the system distorts what happens in schools. He said they have already announced proposals regarding secondary accountability and there are new accountability proposals for primary to be announced – which sounds ominous for primary colleagues.
He then said that there will be an 8 best GCSE measure.
Since we already knew that, I was pretty bored. He said it like it was a bombshell announcement. It really wasn’t.
Laws went on to say that there is going to be much more emphasis on progress. A few might not get 8 good GCSEs but schools will be expected to do what they can. At this point I thought of the things that we are currently inspected on – progress first (usually just English and Maths) and attainment second (according to various sources, but mainly schools that have just gone through OFSTED. So no huge change here, except with the scrapping of levels, I wonder how they are going to ensure secondary schools don’t cheat their reporting of progress. No levels, no Key Stage 2 levels, right? So where do the progress measures come from?
Laws continued: Schools will also be expected to get students A grades at the top end. Some schools in “easier” catchments are currently coasting.
Again, nothing new.
Laws said that students who can’t read at some age are almost certain to fail at GCSE at the moment. He did say what age, but I really can’t remember what it was. It seemed obvious though.
He also pointed out that only a minority of students who secure a 4C at 11 will get Cs at GCSE. Again, I thought that’s a pretty obvious point.
He continued by saying that the government was raising the expectation of the proportion of students who reach the bar at primary, but also raise the bar itself. The best schools are already setting targets this high.
By now I realised we were definitely hearing nothing new, though he had an accomplished way of saying nothing new. I thought to myself that this sounded like a long set up on how brilliant the Pupil Premium was. After all, it’s pretty much accepted to be a Liberal Democrat idea.
I hadn’t really finished the thought when Laws said he accepts raising expectations and raising the bar simultaneously is difficult, particularly for schools in challenging areas. For this reason the government has introduced the Pupil Premium. He indicated that measuring deprivation by the proportion of students who receive Free School Meals is not a perfect proxy, but the best current easily-usable proxy we have.
Laws continued “Schools are explicitly held accountable for pupil premium children. The chief inspector has been clear – schools can’t be expected to be graded well without closing that (between the PP children and the non PP children) attainment gap.”
Laws said that the correct method was: Money, autonomy and accountability – and said that according to OCD educational division these are the surest way of improving.
While he was eager to praise the Pupil Premium, he was not quick to discuss its impact. Laws reminded us that Pupil Premium only came in during 2011 (and has gone up in value every year of the current parliament). In some schools this will mean £750k extra in their budget. So we should wait and see, but according to him in the period up to 2020, we expect a major reduction in the gap.
Even when students have lacked support from home, schools have these students for 7500 hours of education – Laws says “we’ve given you the tools; we expect you to achieve successful results for the many”
At some point during this part of the speech Laws was heckled. The heckler wanted it to be clear that “this is not new money” – an apt point given Laws repeatedly taking credit for the money. Laws dealt with the heckler very well, waited until the questions, and then asked the heckler to repeat his question. He didn’t look flustered at all and this was the most impressive part of his speech.
Laws then said something that I interpreted as a threat. It was like a parent who says “wait until your Dad gets home” or a work colleague who tries to persuade you to do something not via argument, but by saying “well I don’t agree, but the boss insists on it”.
Laws said that if the Pupil Premium doesn’t have effect, it will go.
As I said, this seemed desperate to me. Like “please make it have impact, otherwise we’re taking it away – and the Liberal Democrats will have nothing to show for our efforts”
Laws didn’t even say that he would take it. He just said that “the Treasury” would. To be frank this was a bit spineless. Like he wasn’t sure it is going to have impact.
He then said the government was fully supportive of the pupil premium and I typed “contradicts himself” on my iPad.
Anyway, we were on to questions.
Q) A question identified the attainment gap and then asked about the funding gap in the shires and on the coast in comparison with (for example) London – and whether this is fair.
Laws says they are looking at this, but accepts the principle in the question.
Because I live in London I don’t get animated about this, but I should probably work out what I think.
Q) Sir Cyril Taylor asked a question – this was the second I heard him ask today – “I’m still concerned we don’t teach technology as well as we should” he said, and then he referred to NEETs. His question was “Would you support a technological curriculum at 14? There are 100000 shortage of IT workers and compares this with the number of NEETs”
I guess I don’t need to read Sir Cyril’s book that he plugged repeatedly over the weekend as he had enough time in various sessions to outline its central argument.
Anyway, Laws answer was a long winded Yes and he repeated the stuff about quality being central.
Q) Laws encouraged a question from the Heckler who then promoted Guy Claxton and gets some applause. Laws says he’ll take Claxton’s name. Incidentally I think the single worst thing the government could do is listen to Guy Claxton (but I also don’t think Claxton would be interested).
There were some other questions, but I got the idea. Laws had little to say, but his style was very good and he said it very well. And he is great with hecklers.