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The Open University – A History by Daniel Weinbren- Reviewed by Jacqueline Baxter

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The Open University
A History
By Daniel Weinbren 2015
Manchester University Press

Review by Jacqueline Baxter
Lecturer in Social Policy – the Open University UK
Jacqueline.baxter@open.ac.uk

It is not the first time that someone has documented the exponential growth and development of The Open University UK (OU) – but this volume stands out as unique for a number of reasons. Dan Weinbren- the author not only has a long personal history with the OU but still works there. His perspective is unique drawing as it does not only from his own knowledge of the institution as it touched his family – but also from the unique and particular perspective of an insider- a member of staff who has, over the course of their career, taken a variety of roles within it.

These roles, alongside Weinbren’s Open University (OU) studies and extensive interviews with individuals whose involvement with the university- in some cases goes back to its inception – lend an incisive and energising quality to the account. In a volume which successfully combines the intense political intrigue which characterised the evolution of the OU alongside the myriad voices of staff and students in a vibrant medley, the book invites the reader to share the joys and frustrations that went into making up the OU experience.

Beginning with an account of the university’s early beginnings, based as they were on a corporate industrial model which reflected in many ways the national zeitgeist, the volume tracks the cultural and economic markers which so profoundly shaped its evolution. A particularly effective way that it does this is in drawing attention to the language which characterised the ways in which early staff referred to the university’s early educational offerings. Through terms such as ‘production of units’ of teaching materials and ‘lines of study’, we gain an insight of how ‘academic enquiry was combined with assembly line’ manufacturing techniques in order to create education for the masses, the like of which had not been seen up until this time.

This takes place against the backdrop of an era when internationally governments were manifesting a growing interest in the ways in which education could be employed to extend their global reach. An era during which the post war consensus on the state as moral agent was rapidly being replaced by neoliberal ideals of education as a market.

The Open University as it is today has become such an integral part of the national and international Higher Education (HE) landscape that it is difficult for us to imagine the extent of the political opposition that it encountered as the first ‘University of the Air.’ A university that fulfilled its unique promise in eradicating the entry requirements that characterised conventional universities, allowing universal access for all. But this account drives home the fact that these innovations proved to be so profoundly disturbing and troubling for politicians of both left and right wing persuasion. Many of whom considered the very idea of education for the masses to be bridge to far – a potential public and political disaster; far too radical an idea to be accepted by the British public. The idea of using television as a medium for teaching proved particularly aberrant for those on the political right who dismissed it as an election gimmick of little real substance.

The vivid description of Harrold Wilson – Leader of HM Loyal Opposition – and his boundless enthusiasm for a university that would promote social justice, aid elimination of social inequalities and drive both economic regeneration and productivity, animates the passionate idealism that drove the institution’s early development: A development combining ideals of social justice with an ambitious and innovative aim to make TV a central means by which to widen access. The creation of a university which aimed to banish the pedagogically pedestrian in its quest to seek out new ways to engage students formerly deprived of the opportunity to enter the hallowed halls of a conventional institution.
One of the most interesting threads running throughout the book is the way that the OU influenced the lives of women, infusing their lives in numerous and often unexpected ways. The volume offers a lively and engaging account of how one of the university’s most enthusiastic supporters – Jenny Lee, a coal miner’s daughter turned MP- was instrumental in bringing the dream into fruition. A woman whose determination that the OU would offer educational standards on a par with the best universities in the world and whose fortitude standing firm in the face of substantial and vituperative opposition finally won through, leading to the creation of a university characterised by high quality teaching, innovative pedagogies and a contentious reputation for left wing thinking which characterised some of its curriculum.

Drawing on interviews with early students, the account offers the reader some fascinating insights into the ways in which education influenced and often completely changed the ways in which they saw themselves and their roles. Particularly vivid accounts from female students on their experiences of residential school- full week study opportunities spent away from family and children in order to spend a week discussing and learning with OU lecturers and fellow students – illustrate to what extent OU study was indeed a life changing experience. Despite media descriptions of the university acting as a ‘haven for housebound Guardian reading housewives‘ (246).

Quotes such as, ‘it messes up your whole life but it’s worth it,’ help to illustrate the ways in which OU study challenged household structures and conventions whilst bringing hitherto unimaginable possibilities and opportunities into the lives of those it touched. The book also gives some sense of the degree to which the OU impacted on other marginalised groups – such as prisoners and the disabled- groups who would otherwise have been stellenboshed by beliefs and assumptions that HE was not for them.

Pedagogy

One of the most interesting insights for educationalists -particularly those involved in distance learning in some form – is undoubtedly the way in which the book details the developing pedagogies of open and distance learning at the OU. The insights the book offers into the ways in which the transmission mode of teaching was challenged by new collaborative ways of working, are accompanied by case studies illustrating the development of pedagogies which placed as much emphasis on the processes engendered within the learning , as the learning itself. Using illustrative modules such as, ‘Art and environment’ Weinbren describes how, ‘the aims of the course were attitudinal, sensory and subjective rather than cognitive, relating to feeling rather than knowledge,’ – a radical departure from previous approaches to the subject. The chapter continues with an account of how from the outset the university encouraged group learning premised largely on a social cultural approach to education. An idea that had its genesis in the constructivist theories that were infusing and permeating pedagogies more generally and emerging largely in response to new technologies.
According to its history the university has always placed great emphasis on group learning which often led students to form their own support groups during or after their studies. Describing how one student initiated group known affectionately as ‘the Tadpole Society,’ named for the course code – TAD292 continued to meet long after their module was over. This in many ways exemplifies the constructivist socio cultural approach to learning which characterises not only present day OU pedagogies but much of the thinking within current day thinking around teaching and learning in the realm of distance and blended learning more generally.
In light of the rest of the book this particular chapter is rather unique in its approach – whereas other chapters detail the growth of the OU against the political and social backdrop of the times, this chapter is rather more insular in its approach; tending to focus on the pedagogies within the OU rather than placing these developments in the broader context of educational innovations internationally. It is however, perfectly understandable that Weinbren avoided this in the interests of brevity- however fascinating such an approach may be, it would probably necessitate another volume in order to do it justice.
The relationship between the OU, politicians and the media which characterised the university’s early days has continued to be a leitmotif within its evolution. As the book illustrates – the very content of the OU product was attacked for its alleged hostility to capitalism and the market economy- a fact acknowledged by David Harris writing in The British Journal of Educational Technology, quoted as stating that ‘the OU teaching system was as much shaped by political and administrative pressures as by any particular educational goals ‘(123).

The Media

Continuing in this vein the book details the often stormy and uncomfortable relationship that the OU has had with the media- particularly during the Thatcher era when the creation of such an institution was regularly portrayed as being an aberrant departure from the norm. Rich examples from a range of publications demonstrate how the media questioned the value of the university’s offering, often using the residential school experience as an eponym for an OU education’ The Times referring to it as ‘the university where a lecture begins with a beer,’ and the BBC describing the ‘Bizarre games and happenings,’ that took place as part of the learning experience (254).
Although the media proved mercurial in their descriptions of the OU experience- vacillating from the condemnatory to the conciliatory -the fact remained that particularly in its early days, media coverage of the university, its staff and students ensured that the institution was enshrined in the British consciousness as a particularly British product :quirky; a little off beat but fundamentally sound.
The principal strength of this account lies in the intimate way in which we are presented with not only the institution but the people to whom it meant so much. Stories and anecdotes from staff, students, media personal and government combine to give a sense of how the institution later became known as something of a national treasure. The fact that it is in essence an insider account offers a unique perspective of the ways in which this ‘machine’ like structure with its mechanistic forms of production and delivery developed the capacity to offer students a uniquely personal learning experience.

This history of the OU, located as it is against a changing social, economic and political backdrop, furnishes the reader with a sense of the changes that characterised the institution from inception to the present day. The challenges and opportunities that infuse its rich and chequered history not only offering an account of the past but also in many ways portending the challenges and changes that lie ahead in order for this unique institution to remain true to its original mission- to remain open to people, places and ideas- in the challenging and protean context of higher education today.

Parents at Durham Free School are paying a high price for the ideology of school choice

Parents at Durham Free School are paying a high price for the ideology of school choice

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

The Durham Free School is to have its government funding removed in a snap decision made by Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education. The move comes after a damning Ofsted report which found the school inadequate in all four categories, and raises some key questions about faith-based schools, parental choice and the future of the free school project in England.

Set up in 2012 and based around a Christian ethos, Durham Free School had been struggling since November 2014 when Ofsted declared it inadequate in all areas. The regulator stated that the school’s leaders, including its governors, placed too much emphasis on religious credentials when recruiting key staff, and not enough on excellent candidates with good leadership and teaching skills. They also declared that the leaders were failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain and that some students held discriminatory views of other people who have different beliefs or values from themselves.

This is a far cry from where the school began. Its first head, Peter Cantley, speaking in an interview with the Northern Echo in December 2012, declared it would: “bring extra investment to the area and increase parental choice “ and would categorically not draw funding from nearby schools. He went on to describe it as having the potential to: “empower local communities, responding to their educational aspirations.”

Politically inconvenient?

The decision to close the school was taken very quickly, with Morgan speaking in parliament just an hour after the school had received a letter warning it had two weeks to notification of an intention to terminate its government funding.

The abrupt closure of the Durham Free School is already being seen by some parents as a politically motivated move that dismisses the needs of parents and pupils. One parent at the school told me:

I can only conclude that the bad publicity that has been generated of late regarding this school is causing embarrassment to the government at a time when they are considering the future governance of the UK following the elections, and will seek to dismiss this as a failed school in order to save the others and save their face. Education should NEVER be used for political gain by any party member in this manner, but because of this I have to find a new school place for my daughter.

The school’s headteacher has said he will appeal against the government’s decision.

It was far from easy to set up the school in the first place. Press reports dating back to 2012 give some indication of the levels of resistance that the school faced before finally opening its doors. Its critics, among them, a senior education officer at Durham County Council, voiced concerns that there was no need for another secondary school in the city. Dave Ford, then head of achievement services at Durham County Council voiced considerable concerns over what he described as, “the fragmentation of funding.” Funding, that in the opinions of those opposing establishment of the new school, would have been better spent on existing schools.

No sticking plaster

Free school leaders meet Nicky Morgan and David Cameron in October .
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The idea of borrowing policies from one country and applying them like a sticking plaster to another is very common in education. In the case of free schools, the English policy was largely developed from the Swedish free school model, with little heed paid to problems revealed by research.

One such study carried out by the Institute of Education’s Susanne Wiborg concluded that in Sweden – one of the world’s most egalitarian societies – free schools increased segregation and impeded social cohesion. Back in 2010, she posed a number of questions aimed at those intending to adopt the Swedish free school model, including whether more school choice is desirable: “if free schools do not reconcile high academic standards and social integration?”

Choice and challenges

Sweeping changes to the education system have brought new school freedoms designed to offer more choice to parents combined with diminishing levels of local accountability. The speed and scope of these changes are without precedent and have led to grave concerns about the quality of education and the capacity of the new system to reduce unacceptable levels of educational inequity: a problem which has dogged the English system for some time now.

In the period since the introduction of the free schools policy there have been substantial challenges for education – not least the political conflation of education and the battle against extremist teaching. This began with the the “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham schools and continued with allegations of links to extremism in Tower Hamlets in London.

These events, set against a background of growing national and international unrest, have resulted in changes to education and school inspection policy that look to combat the rise of extremism. The resultant focus on the policing of British values from pre-school level upwards has brought a whole new dimension to the meaning of school freedom and parental choice.

Where next?

The free schools policy is hanging in the balance, as University of Birmingham doctoral researcher Rebecca Morris has pointed out in a commentary on the future of free schools.

It would seem that, in the case of Durham Free School, its students are paying a very high price for the so-called luxury of parental choice in a market where schools can apparently be there one moment and gone the next.

The seductive market ideology persists, couched in the primacy of supposed parental choice. When schools fail, we blame everyone: the teachers, the governors, the management, the inspectors. The real culprit – the ideological spectre of the market – is forgotten in all of the media frenzy and political posturing that follows.

The Conversation

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Debate over national values is a threat to the education system

The results of seven school inspections in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have brought a fresh wave of allegations that some schools are not providing a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils, who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. A memorandum on the inspections sent by Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw to the education secretary Nicky Morgan has upped the ante in debates that conflate conservative religious values with the risk of radicalisation and extremism.

In six independent schools that were visited in the borough, inspectors found serious concerns over the safeguarding and welfare of pupils, lack of provision of a broad and balanced curriculum and issues around leadership, management and teaching.

Four of the six independent Muslim schools have been judged inadequate, with two failing to meet independent school standards. The only maintained school involved in the recent inspections, Sir John Cass in Stepney, was also downgraded by Ofsted from outstanding to inadequate. This followed concerns about segregation between boys and girls in school areas and insufficient guidance on “the dangers associated with using the internet, particularly in relation to extremist views”.

The ‘British values’ minefield

Kenny Frederick, a former school leader in Tower Hamlets, articulated concerns that resonate with those also voiced in Jewish communities that have been subject to similar inspections. Frederick said that putting a school in special measures “will only be negative” for a school and its community. “People will feel resentful. All we are going to do is alienate. If I was one of the kids, it would not be doing anything for my British values.”

The whole area surrounding “British values”, schools and religion has been thrown into confusion since the Birmingham “Trojan Horse” affair over allegations of a takeover of school board by hardline Muslim governors. The Muslim community is not unique in stating that the subsequent introduction of a responsibility for schools to promote “British values” and the apparent conflation of religious conservatism with extremism by both government and media is riddled with ideological and political complexities.

For example, Nigel Genders, speaking on behalf of the Church of England, raised serious concerns during the recent consultation into the Proposed New Independent Schools Standards in July. His response agreed that: “There is a legitimate exploration to be undertaken of values in the context of our distinctive national culture, literature, legal and political systems.” But he added that “many of those values cannot be defined as uniquely British”. He continued by highlighting the church’s concerns that the “British values should emanate from a broad public conversation,not from the secretary of state”.

Schools and culture

The apparent appropriation of values by the state is a worrying trend. More worrying still is how Ofsted is being used to police these values – particularly as they have yet to be fully defined. A recent Ofsted report following a snap inspection at the St Benedict’s Catholic secondary school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, claimed that younger pupils “show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation”.

The report, which was withdrawn very soon after its publication, went on to question whether the school prepared pupils “for life and work in modern Britain”. It was apparently withdrawn due to concerns around quality – a little too late for those who had already seen the report posted on the schools website.

The new values police

The present guidance given to inspectors on how to spot a “British value” is scant to say the least. The 2014 revised school inspection handbook contains four references to values which link to curriculum and safeguarding, the most specific of which are articulated in terms of the social development of pupils.

School governors are also instrumental in the whole area of values. The extent to which they are expected to define and be conversant with values at every level of school life is outlined in detail on the National Governors Association website. But the question of how all of these areas will be effectively investigated by the inspectorate and then translated into a tangible threat of radicalisation and extremism remains a very grey area indeed.

Again the issue of British values is making life difficult for governors, as Naureen Khalid, school governor and co-founder of @ukgovchat told me. She said: “I personally think in terms of human values. As long as my school promotes these, I’m happy.”

As director of the Universities’ Police Science Institute in Cardiff, Martin Innes points out that there is a distinct lack of knowledge – not only around what works in preventing extremism, but equally how we can effectively identify real triggers. He also brings home the dangers of branding schools and their communities with extremist labels, quoting the steady decline in Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 who feel that police treat them fairly.

Trust eroding

The announcement by the home secretary, Teresa May, on the intention to include new statutory powers to prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism within the Channel anti-radicalisation programme, looks likely to place increasing levels of pressure on governors, school leaders and inspectors. But they are already working in communities where levels of trust in public bodies appears to be reaching an all time low.

Of course, it is vitally important to prevent terrorism, but the present system risks undermining hard-won community cohesion. It also risks transforming schools from being trusted institutions at the heart of their communities into organisations undermined by suspicion, doubt and a panoptecon-like scrutiny. This is more likely to give rise to the very activities that both government and inspectorate are so eager to expunge.

To avoid this, as the Church of England’s Genders points out, we need a public debate about the human values that form the core of our society. Until this happens, the grey area around these “British values” is open to mis-interpretation, political manipulation and false assumptions. That may well cause repercussions which could fundamentally undermine our system of education.

The Conversation

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Pupils at academy chains being failed by inspection loophole

The Conversation

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

Recent inspections of schools run by academy chains have shown many of these schools to be failing. Yet Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, is still not allowed to regulate the very organisations that are responsible for this.

In a recent sitting of the Education Committee’s inquiry into academies and free schools, its chair, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart, detailed the long list of academy chain failures now occurring with increasing regularity.

Ofsted have said that AET [Academies Enterprise Trust] has low expectations and are leaving schools to founder; that E-ACT provides poor-quality teaching intervention and support and that an overwhelming proportion of pupils in the Kemnal Academy Trust are not receiving a good education.

Since 2012, Ofsted has intensified its focus on the inspection of school governance, insisting that it is integral to the leadership and management function of schools. In spite of this – and the concomitant furore surrounding the state of school governance in the wake of the Trojan Horse extremism affair in Birmingham – the inspectorate still has its hands tied when it comes to inspecting academy chains.

As part of its brief, Ofsted is allowed to inspect individual schools within academy chains but not the trusts that run them. Yet in many cases it is precisely these trusts and their sponsors that are failing the very schools they purport to support.

One area that has proved to be particularly problematic from a regulatory perspective is the lack of effective scrutiny in terms of conflicts of interest within academy chains. This is an area highlighted in a new report by the Institute of Education’s Toby Greany and Jean Scott.

They found that the mechanisms to identify and address conflicts of interest in academy chains are almost non-existent. They outlined a number weaknesses in the system, including that some trust boards are not adhering to national guidance or doing enough to mitigate the risks associated with conflict of interest. They also point out that the skills and capacity of bodies charged with auditing trusts may be weak or insufficient to “get under the skin” of what is going on.

Immune to public scrutiny

It was only a short time ago that the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw called for more stringent inspection of Local Education Authorities following a spate of high-profile school failures of several schools within the same authority. The authorities concerned have been named and shamed for the dereliction of their duties.

Yet organisations at the helm of some of the biggest school chains in the country appear to be accountable to no one. As David Wolfe of law firm Matrix Chambers highlighted during the recent inquiry:

The power is concentrated with the trust and no longer really with local governing bodies unless it is delegated down and then the trusts are not under any great scrutiny. They are not subject to direct observation from Ofsted and they are not subject to the kind of public pressures that come from democratic accountability or a wider public transparency.

Such issues of accountability around chains of schools which expand too quickly are a common feature of the US Charter school system, a system that in many ways mirrors the reform intentions of the academies project. In states in which there are high levels of regulatory accountability such as Massachusetts, charter schools appear to do well, outperforming regular district schools on a number of criteria.

But uncontrolled expansion of charter schools and lack of concomitant accountability has given rise to a number of cases in which schools have been shut down and had their licences revoked.

Governance loophole

Research into school federations in the UK is beginning to unpick the new governance structures that are appearing. Although in its early stages, researchers have stressed the importance of retaining coherence in these multi-level governance structures that mirror so many in the wider not-for-profit sector.

It took some time for Ofsted to bring school leadership and governance into a single judgement, following a long period during which they were considered entirely separately in regulatory terms. Now this is in place, it would make perfect sense to apply it it to academy chains, yet their sponsors and trusts have been conveniently permitted to slip through the net.

This lack of accountability has caused a number of issues. It makes it almost impossible to be able to pinpoint why one or a number of schools in a chain are not performing well.

It also makes it difficult to see how multi-level governance is actually functioning if inspectors are only able to see part of the picture and not the whole. Inspectors look only at individual schools and their performance in isolation, rather than the chain as a whole. It is also almost impossible to evaluate how the strategic direction of the chain is operating through individual schools and evaluate to what extent those schools are working with and through that strategy.

Rudderless in the face of weak leadership

A lack of cohesion in accountability also makes it difficult to see how the goings-on at individual schools relate to overarching principles within the trust. This includes how pupil premium money is spent on children who qualify for it, or the direction of standards for teaching and learning. As trusts continue to grow, it becomes even more pressing to ensure governing trusts are accountable in financial and operational terms.

As researchers in the US point out, the challenges of retaining quality during periods of intensive growth are substantial. It’s not difficult to see how schools in academy chains can be left rudderless and lacking strategic and operational direction and prey to conflicts of interest.

It appears to be somewhat paradoxical that we pay £143m for an inspection system that is prevented from inspecting some of the key organisations behind so many schools in England, particularly in light of the type of failures that have come to light recently. According to the Department for Education, there are currently 1,226 open sponsored academies in the 2014-15 academic year.

Unless these failures are investigated in a holistic way that departs substantially from the fractured and dislocated manner of current regulatory practice, then it is difficult to see how errors can be pinpointed and addressed in the future.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Teaching toddlers British Values

Teaching British values to toddlers will be tough to enforce

 

from The Conversation 

The Conversation

speaking volumes

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

The recent announcement by the new secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan that toddlers must be taught British values is the latest in a chain of events precipitated by the Trojan Horse affair over extremism at some schools in Birmingham.

But awareness of equality and diversity issues has been central to early years education for years now. Many early years teachers already underpin their teaching with these values –values that will now be tagged as “officially British”. The big question is how Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, will interpret and police the way these values are taught to toddlers.

Following on from recent changes to the School Inspection Handbook – largely instigated following the Trojan Horse affair – the government has launched a consultation into changes to the school and early years finance regulations. Crucially, this proposes that funding be withdrawn from providers that do not “actively promote fundamental British values”.

Going over old ground?

But experts argue that the definition of these values – learning right from wrong, to take turns and sharing – are values that have been fundamental to early years provision for a considerable amount of time. This position was emphasised by Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance in a recent interview on the proposed changes.

This view is also supported by Sue Griffin, former national training manager for the National Childminding Association and author of Inclusion, Equality and Diversity in working with children. She told me, “Early years settings have a lot to teach the education sector and right wing politicians about addressing inclusion, equality and diversity, since practitioners with our youngest children have been exploring these issues for decades.”

She went on to emphasise the need for practitioners “to keep their nerve and carry on in the confidence that they are thinking seriously about practical ways of helping children to develop unprejudiced views and learn to respect and value one another, whatever their differences in ethnicity, culture, family background.”

What are British values?

There is little dispute around the actual values being advocated by government, but the insertion of the word British and its apparent annexation of these values is, for many, deeply disturbing.

The term British on its own is difficult to define. There is no single definition of what it means to be British as historian Paul Ward points out in his book on Britishness since 1870. He highlights the fact that Britishness is not innate, static or permanent and has been mediated by many identities, not least race, colour, gender and class.

If we can’t define British, then British values are even more nebulous to pin down as educationalist Gus John describes:

David Cameron and people like me see the world through different eyes. We see our combined history through different lenses and therefore I have a take on the legacy of Empire and what Britain should have been doing about these last 50 years that differs fundamentally from that of Mr Cameron and the roots of his ‘British values’.

It seems bewildering to some professionals in this area that the government should seek to make such a provocative statement about British values. Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years said that the existing early years curriculum “already requires nurseries and child-minders to develop key skills such as teaching children to take turns and challenge negative attitudes”.

She goes on to say that Ofsted already has the power to judge values under the Early Years Foundation Stage and can already, “tackle concerns by judging a setting as requiring improvement”. Bayram calls the innovation “a big reaction to an issue that may not even be there, and that could be tackled by the inspection framework that is already in place”.

Creating policy on this matter is one thing but it is quite another when it comes down to putting it into operation. Asking inspectors to define what a British value is and what is not will add a very tricky element to their training. This is already overloaded with the numerous requirements demanded of practising inspectors, not only in the act of inspection itself but equally in post-inspection reporting to the public. They will need to explain exactly how they came to their judgements on this issue.

The guidance contained in the School Inspection Handbook comes into force this September. It remains to be seen how Ofsted will deal with this latest turn in the complex business of regulating English education, and the early years sector will no doubt look on with interest.

The ConversationJacqueline Baxter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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After Trojan Horse, why paying school governors is not a catch-all solution

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

The Conversation

Read on The Conversation here.

The investigations into the Trojan Horse affair, where a group of schools in Birmingham were accused of failing to protect children from extremism, has provoked a number of criticisms centred on the way schools are governed in England.

During a recent inquiry of the education select committee into extremism in schools, the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, told MPs that schools in England have relied on “amateurish governance to do a professional job”. His words provoked an angry response from the National Governors’ Association (NGA) who insisted that being a volunteer is not synonymous with amateurism. Wilshaw also suggested paying one or two governors in each governing body, a move that the NGA are also opposed to and which reflects the views of their members. In a 2013 survey only 30% of governors believed they should be paid.

The NGA’s policy manager Gillian Ashcroft told me the NGA’s view is “that one can perform a role professionally and in a business-like fashion without being paid”. She also said there was no evidence to suggest that paying governors would improve governance.

The end of excitement?

Given their heavyweight responsibilities, not least in ensuring that the money allocated to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is used to close the enduring gap between rich and poor pupils, governors don’t deserve to be called amateur.

They have been hit pretty hard by the changes in England’s educational landscape. Amid the excitement of creating a new system of autonomous schools while also severely cutting Local Education Authority budgets, the government seemed to assume that the old system of school governance could simply be grafted onto a new system of education. This was without any real thinking behind what this system would entail for school regulation and accountability.

The issue has been compounded by old understandings of governance mingling with a new regulatory framework which places governor performance right up there with head teachers and senior leadership teams. But the fortunes of these leaders are now inextricably intertwined with a volunteer body which was recently described by the former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, as a bunch of “local worthies”.

Until the Trojan Horse affair, school governors had attracted surprisingly little attention in the media. Perhaps they weren’t seen as exciting enough – after all, if the government didn’t give it much thought, why would it attract media attention?

But governors have always done important work. The difference is that now they are far less supported in their role and subject to far more stringent regulation.

This is reflected by reports that schools are being stripped of their “outstanding” status by Ofsted for failing to close the gap between rich and poor pupils.

In order to do this, the pupil premium was introduced by the coalition government from an idea conceived primarily by the Liberal Democrats. It is now increasing from its current £1.875 billion to £2.5 billion in the 2014-15 financial year. In an average sized secondary school with an average number of pupils on free school meals, this translates at around £200,000 – the equivalent of five full-time teachers. It represents one of the most substantive strategies to combat the gap between rich and poor pupils, an area in which England performs poorly compared to many of its peers.

One of the key tasks for governors is to monitor how the premium is spent, as well as the more difficult task of monitoring its impact on pupil performance. Following allegations in mid-2013 that schools were misusing the premium to plug holes in budgets, Ofsted has increased its monitoring of governor performance in this area. In its most recent update, it reported that while school leaders were spending the premium more effectively, “weak leadership and governance is still an obstacle in too many schools.”

Grafting not crafting

It is often quite difficult for people outside of England to understand this form of school governance and how it has come about. An emphasis on recruiting school governors from the business sector during the early nineties – which persists today – has gone a long way to creating the idea that the most effective governors are those with a business background.

This prompted a move to link governors’ professional backgrounds with roles on the governing body: an accountant for the finance committee, an HR professional for staffing. Mirroring practices from other public sector boards, payment of an allowance could be the next step in this type of policy borrowing.

But as in the case of international policy borrowing, taking one policy and grafting it onto another context often provokes unexpected results. Already, in the processs of borrowing ideas from non-profit boards, the government has largely negated to consider the very particular context of school governance.

A recent study showed that polarised thinking about governors’ roles – conceptualising them as either willing volunteers or adept professionals – is causing tensions among inspectors and head teachers that are counterproductive to accountability.

It is therefore not surprising that Wilshaw feels it would be more productive to separate the two: paying a couple of professional governors whose day job is to keep up with the myriad legislative and policy-related documents issued to governors on a weekly basis. The same governors would presumably have greater responsibility for feeding back during inspections – a prospect that must sound pretty seductive to the inspectorate who often struggle to meet with governors at short notice.

But the idea does raise considerable issues – not least in terms of their recruitment and funding. School budgets are already creaking under the prospect of the extension of austerity measures until 2018. Paying governors for their services, as well as mandatory training, would be highly contentious if it looked to be taking from schools’ teaching and learning budgets.

Looking back over the Trojan Horse affair, it is difficult to see how paying governors would have prevented the issue. Paying just one or two on each board – including the chair – may well have the regulatory advantages mentioned earlier, but it would also create a hierarchy within the governing body, which in the longer term could be equally, if not more, counter-productive.

A hierarchy that would undoubtedly change the whole character of school governing and may well erode the goodwill that has for so long supported, sustained and nourished the foundations of education in England.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

School governors how we got here and where we go from here

The recent crisis in English Education, nicknamed Trojangate by bloggers and tweeters,(Phipps, 2014), has brought to light some of the acute issues facing school governance in England today. The affair prompted by a letter which is now thought to be a hoax, has prompted an unprecedented level of school inspections, carried out to investigate the alleged infiltration of hard line Muslim ideology into the curriculum of 25 Birmingham Schools an infiltration which was alleged to have taken place largely due to mismanagement of school governors. As a result, five of the schools were placed in special measures, the lowest school inspection category available, with a further nine schools re-categorised to ‘requires improvement’. The scandal, amongst other factors has brought to light issues with the whole issue of school governor operations and their role in overseeing in what is essentially a new education system in England (Baxter, 2014a).

Although The Trojan Horse Affair has placed school governance firmly in the eye of the media, the whole area has been under scrutiny for some time now. Recent parliamentary enquiries, reports by the English Inspectorate of Education, Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), have all questioned how a system which has grown organically over the past hundred years, is to be monitored and governed given the many and varied changes to English school structures that began under New Labour and have continued to gain pace under the present Coalition Government from 2010 (Ofsted, 2011; Parliament, 2013b, 2013c).
In order to understand what the current challenges are, it is important to understand how the system of education governance has evolved. Particularly as it is a system which is in many ways unique to England, evolving as it has in response to both educational and political imperatives that are particular to that country (Lawton, 1978; Sallis, 1988b)
School governance actually dates back some 600 years, and were first introduced to ensure financial probity as Joan Sallis describes here:
They [governors] ‘ were charged to scrutinise teaching and progress in school of the scholars and the quality of the food provided for the same…and shall correct or reform anything needing correction or reform.’(Sallis, 1988b:100)
Two major enquiries: The Clarendon Commission in 1861 and the Taunton Commission in 1864, centring on public schools and grammar schools respectively uncovered that many of these schools had drifted from their original purposes and proposed that a new form of accountability be created: the governing body. The proposals were formalised in the form of two Acts, the Public Schools Act and the Endowed Schools Act (Parliament, 1868a, 1868b). Of these reports The Clarendon report went furthest in describing the duties of governing body and head teacher. Outlining the way in which the curriculum was structured the report pointed to the way in which governors were expected to influence:
‘What should be taught, and what importance should be given to each subject are therefore questions for the Governing Body; how to teach is a question for the head master.(Commission, 1864)
The shape and format of governing bodies continued to evolve until the 1944 Education Act laid down the partnership between central and local government and set out in some detail, the roles and responsibilities of governors and the division of responsibilities between the LEA and individual school bodies (Parliament, 1944). The act changed the shape and form of governing boards, increasing their powers and specifically articulating their modus operandi in sections 17 -21. But although the 1944 act demanded that all schools should possess a governing body, in terms of governing schools the act was seen by some to lack substance, as Sallis outlines,
‘The Act’s provisions on school governance were an attempt to graft firmly onto the state system of education a model which has been devised for the public schools and in which the Victorian figure of the ‘local worthy’ loomed large.[…] perhaps was inevitable that managers and governors either became meaningless appendages of the schools or mere tools of providing authority.’(Sallis; 1988:110).
After that the most substantial changes in the form and shape of school governance emerged during the early sixties. Prompted by the changing system of education the parental element of school governing gained pace, spurred on by the rise of parent groups .The National Association of Managers and Governors established in 1970 was established in order to reform outdated systems of school governance established by the 1944 Act. But the pace of change would have been far slower had it not been for the radical and transformative work done in the City of Sheffield in the late sixties. This was largely due to innovative Labour policy initiatives prompted by an extended period out of office. When Labour returned to power in 1970 it returned with a pledge to,
‘Work for a more participatory style of local democracy, with encouragements to tenant’s associations, consultation with these and other non-political support groups and community based individual governing boards for all schools.’ (Sallis:114).
Considerable changes in Sheffield resulted in a far larger more participatory articulation of school governance. Numbers of governors rose dramatically and the impact of the reforms gave rise to the Taylor Inquiry, which instigated the Taylor Report (1977), arguably one of the most influential reforms on school governance since the 1944 Act .
It was felt that although the 1944 Act had articulated certain understandings of governance, that it did not go far enough and had become outdated. The Taylor Report recommended that five main interests should be represented on governing bodies: the LEA, parents, teachers, older pupils and the local community. In addition it recommended that all LEAs provide training and development for governors. The report was well received, not least due to the fact that in sentiment it reflected the far greater focus on participation in education in terms of home support for children and a greater role for the community in supporting local schools. The report focused on the local element of governance in a number of ways, but one of the principal elements of this was the need for. ‘Governors not to be accountable to their transient clientele, but rather act as guardians of the school’s distinctive place in the local system and as participants of a healthy local system’ (Ibid:10). The report was shortly followed by The Education Act 1980 which allowed any governor to stand for Chair (not just LEA governors). The 1986 Education Act (NCC, 2001) concentrated its efforts on partnership between central and local government ensuring the end of the dominance of governing bodies by LEA representatives, strengthening the role of governors reporting to parents and highlighting the role of individual schools. Although this Act seems almost to have been forgotten in the wake of the 1988 Act; for governors it was an important one in terms of highlighting their role in linking school with community: a facet all but negated in the later act. The return of the Conservative Party to power in 1987 combined with the teachers dispute which took place from 1985 -6 , created a great deal of dissatisfaction with the perceived power of the teaching profession, creating a need to control and regulate to a far greater extent than previously.
Following the 1988 Education Reform Act (Parliament., 1988) there was increasing emphasis on school self-management. The principal impact of The Act on governance was the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS). This effectively devolved all responsibility for the budget and the management of school staff into the hands of governors. Some governing bodies opted to take this further, by adopting Grant Maintained status becoming the employers of staff with an extended decision making function. This resulted in a far greater impetus for schools to engage governors from the business community an element described in Thody’s 1994 study on school governors which describes, ‘An advice book for business community governors that, ‘schools need to run like companies with the governing bodies being boards of directors and the headteachers the managing directors (Thody, 1994:22).
The three challenges of a changing system

Today’s school governor is faced with a number of issues, not least of these, the ways in which the education landscape has changed and evolved over the past 20 years. The Academies project, a flagship policy instigated by the New Labour Government under Tony Blair was set up to improve failing schools by offering them financial and a certain degree of curricular independence (Ball, 2009). In 2010 the project was intensified and widened by the Academies Act 2010 (Parliament, 2010).Under the new regulations, outstanding schools too could opt for academy conversion. Since the Conservative Liberal Coalition Government came to power, the Act has been used to progress a neo-liberal belief in the efficiency of the market by using the powers of Ofsted and The Secretary of State for Education- Michael Gove to force academisation on failing schools (Gorard, 2009).Governors in these schools- over 4000 at the last count (DFE, 2014). Within these schools there is currently no middle tier of accountability between volunteer school governors and Gove. The second key issue facing governors is the increasing incursion of groups of schools, either chains or federations which operate very different governance structures to single schools. In some cases governors may be responsible for a number of schools, supported by local governing groups who have consultative but no decision making powers- this has raised questions over what it really means to be a school governor (see for example Baxter & Wise, 2013; Chapman et al 2010). The third major challenge for school governance arises from the increased regulatory emphasis placed upon it by the English School Inspectorate, Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, children, families and skills).

School governing grew organically but in the government’s haste to create a new education system it seems to have been assumed that the governance system could be cut and pasted on without any problems. Trojan Horse if anything positive has come out of it, has proved that this is clearly not the case.

For further information see the full article at :
https://www.academia.edu/7701386/School_Governor_regulation_in_Englands_changing_education_landscape_Is_it_a_case_of_MADSchool_Governor_regulation_in_Englands_changing_education_landscape_Is_it_a_case_of_MAD

Changing knowledges; changing frameworks: challenges for inspection as a governing tool, in England, Scotland and Sweden

Challenges

 

Click on the link to see the programme. 

During this seminar I shall be talking about the ways in which inspection frameworks and what counts as knowledge within them, shift and change according to political, technical, institutional and social changes in the societies in which they are placed. 

The changing face of school inspections; theories and practices

 

The symposium will centre stage a number of high profile studies on different inspection models across Europe, and help us learn about the mechanisms of impact of these models.

This symposium will present for discussion the major findings of a large comparative EU-study from a wide range of European countries. In particular, the role of key inspection methodologies which positively impact on schools will be considered. In addition the symposium will include inputs from important stakeholders working in the inspection field across Europe (e.g. the Standing International Conference on Inspectorates of Education, SICI), bringing together researchers and practitioners to exchange research evidence and identify good practice.

The Symposium will focus on the following themes:

  • Models for analysing the impact and effectiveness of school inspection
  • Emerging trends, policies and procedures in European Inspection
  • Key inspection methodologies which are effective in driving change

 

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  • The role of school self evaluation in the inspection processes
  • The danger of unintended, negative consequences of inspection
  • The impact of national context on the development of inspection policies

 

 

The Lecture is dead: long live the lecture

 

If all the students who slept through lectures were laid end to end , they’d all be a lot more comfortable’

anonymous student

An interesting post in The Telegraph this morning on the subject of lecturing. When I posted some tweets on it I was flabbergasted not only at the number of re-tweets that I got , but by the fact that my youngest son felt moved to talk to me publicly on Twitter- thus proving (at least as far as I am concerned) , that folk either love or hate this method of teaching.

 

I’ve been a teacher for some twenty five years now, and I have to say that this form of teaching – if you can call it that- is not one of my favourites. Standing in a lecture theatre, your finger paused over the trusty mouse ready to click on your first PowerPoint, invokes feelings of horror, boredom and inertia in that order.

 

I have, over the years taken public speaking courses, been coached in voice development, and attended sessions on body language and even – how to look a bit thinner on camera. Yet still the lecture holds little joy for me.

I teach, once a month on a course that I developed for teaching clinicians; it’s an interesting course giving NHS doctors a little bit of learning theory alongside the opportunity to practice their teaching skills in a safe place. It isn’t very long but for most of them, it’s the only formal teacher training they’ll get. A little scary given that they are responsible for a great deal of on the job teaching and training. The thing that seems to hold the most fear for them is lecturing- standing up on a podium and speaking to a large audience for half an hour or more.

 

Why is it that this form of teaching holds so much fear for many of us? If you can break bad news, coax reluctant and fearful students into passing their exams, cope with lazy students, hung over students and those treasures that always know better than teacher, then why is it that we feel so much fear about standing up – after a considerable amount of prep- and socking it to them? Even classroom teachers – seasoned vets used to speaking for 30 hours a week to large groups admit to feeling terror at speaking to larger groups of students or adults ?

 

According to the insights I’ve gleaned over the course of working with many professionals in the public and private sectors; one of the main reasons is because they are frightened of boring people – having been bored by so many lecturers in the past. Ironically these are the folk that are least likely to be boring- it tends to be those that love the sound of their own voice that have us nodding off after a few minutes- lulled by the tenor of their voice and the tedious nature of the subject matter.

 

But neither of these should be a barrier to delivering a good lecture – even dry theory can sound interesting if delivered with some sort of passion in the voice and with a reasonable level of energy in delivery. But in order to inject this, many people need some guidance and training in the art of public speaking: guidance and training that is rarely offered in the context of daily practice.

 

It pains me to hear people who know so much about their subject, deliver a lecture that is less interesting than watching paint dry- a lecture that is so filled with unexplained jargon; accompanied by overcrowded and numerous slides. One of the worst sessions I have ever attended was one on ironically titled : How to manage large amounts of information: the lecturer then proceeded to talk to no less than 70 slides cram packed with text all written in 12 point Arial !

 

If we consider the cognitive, situative and affective elements of lecturing – thinking, linking, where the lecture is given and how we feel during lectures –the lecture theatre presentation fails on all counts. Unlike a podcast, you can’t pause it , rewind it or listen again in order to make the link between this new info and what you already know; you have to sit and listen; asking questions is either too nerve racking (due to large numbers) or by the time you are allowed to ask , you’ve forgotten the question. Unlike a tutorial, you can’t explore others perceptions into what is going on – if you don’t understand it, you sit and switch off, or text, or Facebook or tweet to your mates……..

 

If I must listen to a lecture I would rather do it while working off a few pounds in the gym or on a nice walk. If I must give a lecture , I would rather record it and spend more time in tutorials discussing content with students (either online or face to face) so that I can really get some indication of whether students have understood or not, and if not, then address it there and then. I would rather feel the passion for my subject and inject it into my podcast without the fear of talking about it to hundreds of people. As one anonymous student once said:

‘Lecturers should remember that the capacity of the mind to absorb is limited to what the seat can endure……’

 

 

Lecturers should remember that the capacity of the mind to absorb is limited to what the seat can endure……