Saturday, 8 February 2014

Meeting the needs of every London child - a report from the London Education Conference

Today's London Education Conference at the Institute of Education was a welcome chance to reflect on the successes of schools in the capital and to discuss the challenges to be met in meeting the needs of every London child. 

First of all, in reviewing the Conference, it's worth starting by saying it provided clear evidence opposing the attempts by the real 'enemies of promise' - Gove and his ilk - to say that London schools are failing our children. It's just not the case. 

Given the constant criticism of teachers and schools, it was uplifting to hear so many speakers praise what we do and to acknowledge the 'magic' weaved by so many dedicated professionals. For example, just last night I had the privilege to watch a comprehensively brilliant production of 'Romeo and Juliet' at Sedgehill School in Lewisham. As the Head said at the end of the play, that performance alone was an answer to the Secretary of State's attempts to portray community schools like his as 'crucibles of medicocrity'.  

In today's Conference, Professor Merryn Hutchings, responsible for the DfE Evaluation of the City Challenge Programme, presented data which showed conclusively that, while schools in all regions have been improving in terms of examination outcomes,  London's schools stand apart from the rest of England in the levels of attainment achieved. This was particularly evident for schools from poorer backgrounds (judged by Free Schools Meals data). 

Professor Hutchings pointed out that London's schools had always had expertise in teaching disadvantaged children but that the progress visible in the data had been pronounced during the eight years of the 'London Challenge' programme.  

What can schools learn from that success? Firstly, she pointed out, it was a sustained programme rather than another attempted 'quick-fix' initiative. The higher pay won by London teachers at that time (thanks to NUT strike action!) may have helped to encourage and retain teachers - although they still had to contend with the high cost of living in the capital. Above all, she stressed how the London Challenge was centred on encouraging schools and teachers  and helping them to develop, and share, good practice - in contrast to the criticism and division so prevalent in present education policy. 

Rather than going to the expense of setting-up sponsored academies, Merryn pointed out that it was much cheaper and more effective to support and encourage schools! (Regrettably, during the afternoon's panel discussion Labour MP Rushanara Ali wouldn't accept that academies had failed to improve education, to which Melissa Benn rightly objected). Of course, as well as the damage inflicted by this privatisation agenda, performance-pay and continued competition through league tables also discourage staff and schools to share ideas and work together, to the detriment of education as a whole.

However, there were other elements of the presentations that were more debatable. Too many 'school improvers' seem to forget the limitations that have to be set in terms of teacher working hours. Having worked in London schools throughout the last 20 years, I know that the undoubted improvements in practice have also come at the  expense of teacher workload and stress. 

As I pointed out in asking a question from the floor, 'London Challenge' showed clearly that 'sharing ideas works' - but coaching, observing colleagues, developing initiatives etc. all take time, a precious resource that is at a premium for teachers. Another colleague also pointed out that many teachers faced an increasingly punitive classroom observation model in their schools. During the coffee break, teachers confirmed with me that, for all the top-table talk of collaboration and encouragement, few of them recognised that supportive approach from their everyday experience in schools.

In reply to our questions, Tim Brighouse acknowledged that there was a big difference between observing colleagues and being 'observed' - suggesting that perhaps some INSET days could be used to provide opportunities for peer observation. He also admitted that too many schools were 'lamentable at providing support for CPD' and that this was a key responsibility that was too often ignored in Ofsted's reports on schools.

Another debatable point from Tim and Merryn was their suggestion that Teach First had played a positive role in encouraging teacher recruitment. One Head of Department  questioned that conclusion, and I think rightly so, pointing out how this poor apprenticeship relied on the input of overworked teaching colleagues. As recent publicity has also demonstrated, praise for Teach First has, unfortunately, also been accompanied by the demoralising attempts to trash the long-standing teachers that London's schools rely upon for stability and experience. Anyone interested in genuine school improvement has to strongly oppose the cheap-rate 'use-up and spit-out' model of teacher recruitment so favoured by the international 'Global Education Reform Movement'.

In the afternoon session Professor Peter Mortimore compared English education systems with other international examples, particularly those in the Nordic countries where he believes smaller class sizes have benefited education (as they also have in the private schools so beloved by our Secretary of State!). 

Peter praised the quality of the teaching in many English schools, but explained how that was being undermined by Gove's neo-liberal, market-led reforms. In contrast, he called for the end of selection and the abolition of league tables - a demand that I have highlighted in my election materials as well.

I also attended an excellent workshop on the 'Year of the Curriculum' - linked to a NUT-sponsored development programme (see Dave Peck from the Curriculum Foundation pointed out how, as schools prepared for the implementation of the new National Curriculum in September, very few teachers had ever been given curriculum development training. Yet, in this short session, classroom teachers were given an opportunity to discuss what they would want to see in a school curriculum. These words will give you an idea of what the teachers - and parents - around my table were looking for: Global, Creative, Relevant, Enjoyable, Self-Esteem.

Of course, while these discussions allowed teachers to discuss what is needed and wanted, Gove's imposed assessment schemes will undermine any attempt to introduce a genuinely-rounded curriculum to meet the needs of every child. For example, Lewisham NUT members in one of our secondary schools have reported that mangement is now consulting over extending its school day in order to provide additional curriculum time. This isn't driven by a genuine discussion of what best meets pupils' needs, just by the school's need to meet the new 'Progress 8' accountability measures which will now be used to judge schools.

These external pressures put pupils under pressure, as well as staff. One of the goals highlighted in the presentation for a curriculum to meet was to encourage students to be 'willing to have a go'. Instead, our imposed testing regime has created a deep 'fear of failure' in too many of our youngsters.

Teachers feel strongly about these curriculum issues. Indeed, one Lewisham primary school teacher rang me just last week straight after a staff meeting to discuss their new curriculum initiatives. However, what had provoked him to call was that, far from involving staff, the meeting had just filled teachers with fear of even more workload, even more pressure.

That's why, in order to achieve our educational goals, we can't divorce curriculum demands from trade union demands for improved pay and conditions for school staff. The best school improvement initiatives will fail if teachers are too exhausted and burnt-out to implement them. That's why, alongside the demand for abolition of league tables and my stated opposition to education being determined by politicians' prejudices instead of children's needs, I believe we have to highlight the need to put an end to the relentless workload that is weighing down on teachers. 

So, to defend teachers and education, I am not only camapaigning for a defence of existing workload protections, but for the right of teachers to have a mimimum 20% of their teaching time set aside for planning, preparation and assessment - and for that right to apply in all school sectors.

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