Like it or not, schools are being converted into academies – that’s anti-democratic

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

As children head back to class this week, another school will be opening its doors for the autumn term as an academy – in spite of opposition from parents and the community. From early September the Hewett School, a secondary school in Norwich, will form part of The Inspiration Trust, a not-for-profit charity which runs a chain of academies. In yet another blow for democratic governance the school is the latest in a long line to be converted against the wishes of many of its parents and the governing body, raising renewed questions about the democratic governance of the English education system.

As in the case of a number of other schools graded inadequate and subsequently turned into academies, it is only a short time ago that the Hewett School was judged to be “good” by schools inspectorate Ofsted. In May 2013 it received a “good” report in all areas – an improvement on its previous grade of satisfactory – with teaching graded as good and sometimes outstanding. But in November 2014 the school was placed in special measures after a follow up Ofsted inspection.

A monitoring visit paid to the school in February 2015 showed that although there were still outstanding issues, progress was being made. A follow up visit in May 2015 confirmed that the school was making reasonable progress towards the removal of special measures. But in March 2015 the Department of Education (DfE) had already informed the school that it was to constitute the governing body as an Interim Executive Board (IEB) and that it was possible that the school would become an academy. The final decision, that the school would be academised and taken over by The Inspiration Trust, was made in August 2015.

Of the parents that participated in the consultation, 4:1 were against it. In some cases respondents to the questionnaire accepted conversion to academy but questioned the process, the lack of choice of sponsor and a failure to communicate effectively why such a decision had been made.

A pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the choice of sponsor was a key reason why many were so against it being turned into an academy. The reasons given for this in the consultation were: “perception of the ethos of schools in the trust, political links of the trustees, the governance arrangements of the trust and lack of accountability.”

The Inspiration Trust has been linked to controversy. The trust, headed by Dame Rachel de Souza, ran one of three schools that were the subject of an investigation by Ofsted following allegations in 2014 that they had received prior notification of inspection dates due to De Souza’s position as both a “superhead” of the three schools and as a part-time school inspector. This raised questions about the detrimental effects of employing practising headteachers as inspectors. In January 2015, the schools were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent review of Ofsted’s original investigation.

Convert or close

The government’s academisation project took another leap forward earlier this year when the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced her intention to address the problem of “coasting schools”. The government plans to convert these schools – who fail to ensure that 60% of pupils gain five A* to C grades and don’t have a “credible” improvement plan – to academy status. This is in spite of the fact that to date there is no convincing evidence that the current system of academies improve performance.

Morgan and Cameron continue the academy drive.
Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

As the education and adoption bill – the legislation seeking to implement Morgan’s proposals – makes its way through parliament after the summer recess, the outlook for coasting schools that resist conversion looks decidedly bleak.

Resistance against “forced” conversion is not a new phenomenon. The Anti Academies Alliance contains a catalogue of conversions of local authority-run schools into academies that were bitterly opposed by governors and parents. Many within education and outside of it are opposed to the highly politicised nature of conversions and the lack of evidence that these conversions are in the best interests of the students.

Holding school commissioners to account

Tensions surrounding the whole area of forced academisation are also reflected in the new system of local accountability, set up by the government in response to the public and political outcry surrounding the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in 2014, and fears over an Islamic extremism agenda in Birmingham schools. The affair exposed the dearth of local accountability that prevails in many regions of England, caused by an erosion in funding and consisted media attacks undermining public trust in local education authorities.

Under the new system, eight regional school commissioners (RSCs), appointed by the DfE are advised by a headteachers board made up of four elected academy heads and “experienced professional leaders” to provide sector expertise and “local knowledge”.

The scheme immediately provoked questions following the announcement that one of the key performance measures for RSCs was the number of academy conversions they had each achieved within a given period. Although this may yet be reversed, the whole area of school commissioners, how they are held to account and how they manage the vast areas that fall within their remit, is still not clear.

The relationship between regional commissioners and headteacher boards is also fairly vague and is contained in a single line on the DfE website which states that:

Each RSC gets support from a headteachers board (HTB). HTBs are made up of experienced academy headteachers who advise and challenge RSCs on the decisions they make.

What is not clear is what power headteacher boards have to veto any decisions made by a regional commissioner.

The whole system of accountability in education is worrying to say the least. It is far from clear how the current arrangements are fit to ensure that those in leadership positions are abiding by the seven principles of public life: that they are acting in the public interest with integrity, objectivity, openness and that in their leadership roles they are acting in accordance with these principles.

Parliament’s education select committee is now starting a inquiry into how RSCs will be held to account, and will also explore their relationship to Ofsted, individual schools and local communities. It is hoped that MPs’ findings will do something to provide clarity in the increasingly muddy and obfuscating system of educational accountability in England today.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter is Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at The Open University

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

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School Governor Identities Update

The school governor identities project has now been running for six months. During this time I have carried out over 50 interviews with school governors from all over the country.

The project aims to investigate the influences of various factors on school governor identity at a time of great changes to the education system in England.

The project investigates areas such as : the media influence on governors; how governors become confident in their role; what brought them into the role in the first place; what they imagine to be ‘school strategy’; how they see themselves as leaders; what governors feel about inspection and their role in it.

Some of the data will be published in a forthcoming book : Governors: Policy , politics and practices (Policy press ), I will also be writing a number of articles and blog posts over the next six months.

The survey is still running so if you ‘Picture1

haven’t had a chance to complete it you still can –

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/schoolgovernors.

The responses so far have been fascinating , not least in the area of governor learning and development , governor web use and governor perceptions on strategy and leadership . I will be posting an update soon on these areas.

best wishes

Jacqueline Baxter – Lecturer in Public Policy and Management : The Open University Business School .

School Governor survey Please spare 10 Mins to take part

Please take 10 minutes to take part in a survey on school governing .

School governors can you spare 10 mins for an anonymous survey? I am researching school governor roles and identities

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.

Teaching and Training Experience

After a career in the City of London, I trained as an adult teacher in 1992. For some years I worked as a language teacher, teaching French, Spanish and beginners Russian to GCSE and A Level standards. I also taught a variety of what were termed ‘leisure classes’, for adults with no aim of gaining a qualification,  but rather wanted to learn the language for business and pleasure. During this time I worked with a number of companies, designing and delivering in house language classes.  During I also acted as examiner for GCSE and A level languages.

In early 2000 I became London Regional Coordinator for The Chartered Institute of Linguists; registered as an examiner for the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting for some time, in my new role I assumed responsibility for the training of examiners and coordination of all oral exams within the Greater London area.  This was a challenge indeed ! The Chartered Institute of Linguists provides interpreting and translating examinations over some 40 languages. It fell to me to appoint and train all of the examination teams over the 15 or so examination centres within London.   Delivering training of this nature to a group of highly specialised individuals was both a challenge and a joy ! It was challenging to form teams of examiners comprising both the foreign language and English interlocutors, in order to deliver highly professional and demanding examinations in English law, Scottish Law, Health and Local Government . In this role I also presented and marketed qualifications to new and potentially new examinations centres.

From 2002 onwards I combined this role with one for Cambridge Education Ltd , a company owned by The Pearson Group PLC , in a role as Senior Consultant Team Leader I worked with teachers (primary and secondary) to help them to use IT in their classrooms. This became a full time role up until I began to work for The University of Greenwich as tutor in education on the PGCE and Cert Ed.  It was at this time that I formed my Ltd company and began to work with public service, third sector and private companies on coaching , training and teaching skills for their staff . Some years later my consultancy is still thriving although most of my work during the last 5 years has been with NHS doctors and Consultants.

 

My presentation skills began to develop whilst studying part time at RADA, over the years I have attended many useful learning events and learned a great deal by watching teachers, trainers and presenters at work.  Latterly, I have put these skills to good use as a National Education Speaker for Amnesty International .

You can read more about my Consultancy on the consultancy page of this website. I am very keen on using images in my presentations and talks and as a keen photographer, keep my eyes peeled for anything that I can later use in my work ! This wonderful subway in Newcastle Upon Tyne has served me well on several occasions now !

 

speaking volumes