Saturday 22 September 2012

Time for a Brent campaign for accountable and equal education?

'At the heart of every a unique genius and personality. What we should be doing is to allow the spark of that genius to catch fire, to burn brightly and shine'
Michael Morpugo          
'Though this (Exam and Test) cult pretends that it can discern differences between people and makes judgements on their worth, this has little relation to real people's real worth in the real world, where all kinds of other capabilities are needed which the cult can't and doesn't test. eg ability to contribute to and learn from others in the process of performing a task; being flexible when confronted by the unexpected; knowing what to do and how to do it if required to research, investigate or enquire - particularly if the enquiry is going to involve more than one person; being able to motivate oneself (or a group of people) without an outside authority demanding that you do so' 
Michael Rosen        

Getting carried away at the Brent Education Debate
I cannot offer a comprehensive summary of the speeches made at the Brent Education debate this week by Cllr Mary Arnold (lead member for children and families), Jon O'Connor (Cooperative College), Melissa Benn (local parent and author) and Hank Roberts (President ATL). This was because I was due to speak further down the list and constantly updating what I was going to say as other speakers raised the issues that I had planned to cover.  Always a problem with a list of speakers. I hope to publish something more from an attendee later.

What I can do, however,  is outline some of the key themes that emerged.

Melissa Benn spoke about the introduction of the market into education and the way the state sector was being opened up to profit makers. She spoke about the continuities of approach of both Conservatives and Labour but also expressed hopes about Labour's current policy review. I broadened the analysis to suggest that the destruction of the post-war settlement which created the welfare state was an attack on the alternative, communitarian values of the public sector because of the threat they posed to the market values of competition and profit making.  The bottom up innovations by teachers in the 1970s and 80s and their broad and progressive definitions of the nature and purposes of education had been attacked through the abolition of the ILEA, removal of teachers' wage bargaining, the national curriculum,  testing, league tables and centralised systems such as the Numeracy and Literacy strategies. There has also been changes in teaching training which served the new agenda. Teachers, as well as pupils, were being disciplined into the market.

The threat of fragmentation of the school system through  academies and free schools was also a recurring theme.  The lack of democratic accountability, limited parental representation and the  limited powers of the LA to intervene could not bring about just fragmentation and limit the ability to plan school places, but could also create segregation and limit access for children with disabilities or special needs. I pointed out that although we didn't talk about it there was already segregation in Brent schools. I mentioned two cases of places in Brent where a community school and a faith school were next to each other. When children left at the end of the day, one school's pupils would be mainly white and Afro-Caribbean and the other mainly Somalian and Middle Eastern. (Clearly here religion and ethnicity overlap).

Cllr Mary Arnold said that in order to provide school places, and because all new schools had to be either free schools or academies, the council were trying to find an acceptable free school partner. This was better than having a less acceptable one turn up in the borough. The council had devised criteria LINK that the partner would have to meet.  I expressed doubt that a partner would come forward that would meet these criteria as justification for creating free schools and academies was not to be bound by such demands. I expressed concern about council's policy of increasing the size of primary schools to meet the school places shortage. Primary schools of more than 1,000 4-11 year old pupils would be the result and I questioned whether this was a suitable size of institution for young children. I said that the Green Party favourd small schools where the staff knew all the children and their families and where special needs and vulnerable children could be catered for. I was especially concerned about safeguarding in large schools.

Jon O'Connor, who has been involved in talks in Brent about setting up Cooperative Schools and Cooperative Trusts, stressed that such schools still followed LA admissions guidelines, were financed through the LA, did not take funds away from other schools and had a positive democratic ethos. He did not go into detail about Cooperative Academies which are a different kettle of fish. Melissa Benn, who is a parent at Queens Park Community School which has become an academy despite parental opposition, joined O'Connor in pleading that schools making very difficult decisions in the present climate, particularly in terms of the financial benefits of academy status, should not be harshly judged by others.  Hank Roberts said that he against academies and would carry on fighting even if only one survived, said that there was a hierarchy of preferences starting with the community school, through cooperative trusts and federations, cooperative academies to free schools and sponsored academies. O'Connor said that becoming a cooperative trust could protect schools from being 'enforced' academies but Roberts retorted that Gove would quickly close that loophole if it proved effective. He praised the staff and parents of Downshill  Primary in Haringey who had fought Gove's decision to enforce academy conversion. Cllr Mary Arnold said that the formation of a federation between Furness Primary and Oakington Manor Primary had prevented the possibility of the former being forced to become an academy.

The two Michaels quoted above introduce the next theme which is that of the impact of all these  'reforms' on childhood, the role of education, the nature of teaching and learning and much else beside. It is significant that they are both children's writers in regular contact with children and schools. The narrowing of the curriculum, exam and test driven teaching, the target culture (an audience member said that in one primary school children responded to their name being called in the register with their targets rather than 'Yes Miss') and packed timetables all impact on children. With the pressure of testing, even now extended to phonic testing of infants, the abolition of the EMA, introduction of  tuition fees and prop[sects of unemployment our children are under pressure as never before. I described how when I was a headteacher, a parent accused the school of putting so much pressure on her daughter regarding SATs that she was being robbed of her childhood. I urged that children,  rather than the needs of industry and international PISA comparisons, be put at the centre of education. We needed to reclaim the right to childhood as well as reclaim our schools. 

The last theme, proposed by Pete Firmin of Brent TUC, was that of resistance to what was going in education just as there is resistance to the destruction of the health service. A parent voiced, to loud applause her determination to resist the increasingly political role of Ofsted by promoting a parent strike when Ofsted visited, with children being kept off school. Cllr Mary Arnold spoke about demands that were being formulated through  London Councils that would mean a united strategy across London and cooperation between boroughs.  I suggested that with the demise of the local Campaign for the Advancement of State Education (CASE) and the Brent Federation of School Governors that from the meeting we should build a broad-based campaign involving parents, teachers, governors and students  on the basis of the  basic principles emerging from the meeting.

Jon O'Connor had been been busy with pen and pad as I was speaking and suggested a campaign called Building the Right Education Now Together (BRENT).

A little clumsy perhaps?

More than 70 people attended the debate which was very ably chaired by Gill Wood a local parent and governor. The audience included students, parents, teachers, governors and the headteachers of Copland, Kingsbury and Preston Manor High Schools. Unfortunately, although I don't know them all by sight, I could see no primary headteachers at the meeting.

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