The annual UJIA conference on Jewish education research is always fascinating. The sheer variety of topics and level of academic research is breathtaking and the opportunity to meet old friends and to share with them is most welcome. Although you might think that the subjects would be theoretical, I felt that they could have a real impact on how school leaders think about curriculum and teaching. Thank you UJIA.
This years’ conference was no less of a treat. You may have read about some of the talks in the Jewish press, so I won’t go over old ground, but there were a couple of lectures by good and valued friends which really resonated with me and I thought that I would take this opportunity to tell you about them.
Over the past few weeks there have been a number of articles in both learned journals and more popular publications, such as The Economist, about the challenge of teaching the teachers. Now, we are told to forget small classes, lavish resources (iPads for all) and perhaps even new school buildings – designed to win awards if not make it easy to teach and learn. Amazingly, the secret to outstanding grades and thriving students is............ teachers!
It seems that we have been slaves to the assumption that good teachers are born, not made. In the recent past, government policies, of all stripes, have sought to raise teaching standards by attracting high-flying graduates to join the profession and by encouraging poor teachers to leave. Teach First, modelled on Teach for America, has certainly done that whilst some others will tell you that if only teachers were set free from a centralised, top down ‘straightjacket’, learning excellence would surely follow.
But there is a problem...
It used to be said that the best way for a government to ‘bury bad news’ was to announce it when the electorate was distracted by other events. So perhaps it was just coincidence that Nicky Morgan announced on the day of the London mayoral and local government elections that HMG was ditching its controversial plans to require all schools, good or bad, to become academies by 2022. Indeed, we have all read and heard the chorus of disquiet and derision since they were somewhat strangely announced in the recent Budget by George Osborne, a man not previously known for his educational expertise. We were all made aware by teachers and heads that they were ‘bemused’ by the idea of forcing change on high-performing schools. "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" they seemed to be saying. But it was when fury exploded from the usually loyal Conservative MPs and councillors, that the education secretary began to look very uncomfortable. With the EU referendum on the horizon, perhaps the Prime Minister felt that he had enough to deal with.
We all recall (well, at least those of us of a certain vintage) the famous Conservative party conference speech by Margaret Thatcher where she said, to an enraptured audience “the lady’s not for turning”. And so, dear reader, it might have stayed, until a few days ago, when it seems that ladies are indeed rotatable. Let me explain.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was something called the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) profile. It worked like this:
Developed in 2007 and overhauled in 2012 by the DfE, reducing the number of Early Learning Goals from 69 to ‘just’ 17, the EYFS Profile and assessment levels were divided into four age bands, called Development Matters Bands at 16-26 months, 22-36 months, 30-50 months and 40-60 months.
Last week, before its announcement ending the world of the VA school as we know it, the DfE launched another consultation exercise. For any of you looking forward to reading the four associated documents, adding up to over 120 pages, which make up the consultation, I can thoroughly recommend it. The language is clear and the arguments well set out. For others, who want to know more, but do not have the time or strength to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, here is a very personal view on it.
The case of the Assistant Rabbi’s egg
As I wrote before, the DfE has launched a new consultation, just Stage 1 mind you, into changes they are seeking to the National Funding Formula for schools in England by 2019-20.In a nutshell, the DfE wants to support the idea of extending opportunity for all pupils through a system which is fair (whatever that means), efficient and gets the funding ‘straight to the schools’ as the DfE says and is transparent, simple and predictable so that schools can plan better for the future. Those of us versed in the ways of governments must be thinking ‘what’s the catch’ but in truth, this broad brush consultation contains little which will raise too many eyebrows: perhaps that is why it has been drafted this way. This was, of course, before the announcement of the end of VA schools by forcing ALL schools to become academies by 2022. Although this will take us into the next parliament, I suppose the Conservatives are banking on another five years. We shall see.
This week I was invited to the Bethnal Green Academy, a superb secondary school, Outstanding in Ofsted terms but from where last year three teenage girls absconded and left secretly for Syria.
So it was no surprise that this was the school at which the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan MP, announced a significant escalation of Ofsted investigations into unregistered, illegal independent schools, following the closure of three unregistered schools in Birmingham in late 2015. She also announced a new tougher approach to prosecuting illegal unregistered schools, including publishing details of when the government will take forward prosecutions and she issued a call to local authorities to identify any settings of concerns that Ofsted can follow through, with a commitment to strengthen closure powers
Over the past few years, Dr Elizabeth Passmore has led the Office of School Adjudicator with care and scrupulous fairness. I have had the opportunity to see her and her dedicated team of part timers at work and no one can say that they have been anything but superb examples of professionalism. Dr Passmore’s annual reports are always awaited with interest as we, in our little corner of the school world, can only ever hope to see a small part of the ‘big picture’. Her final report, as she is retiring shortly, is as ever, well worth a thorough read.
The late Harold Wilson used to say that a week is a long time in politics. Goodness only knows what he would have made of the conniptions going on over the new GCSE in Religious Studies. He would also perhaps been impressed by the alacrity with which the British Humanist Association can fill the media. So let me start at the very beginning – a very good place to start.
The anti faith based school drum beats ever louder and leading the band, as could be expected, is the British Humanist Association (BHA). They offer to the public three nominally separate organisations: themselves, the Accord coalition and the Fair Admission Campaign (FAC), but the suspicion that they are all really pretty much the same group of activists, wearing different hats, is only fuelled by them sharing the same contact address. ‘And’, you might ask, ‘so what?’
By the time you read this, Shabbat UK 2015 will have come and gone, and already the grumbling has started. Of course, we have moaning built into our very DNA, as anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the stories in Chumash about the gratitude of the Israelites in the wilderness will attest. And yet, I just cannot help feeling that Mr and Mrs Grumpy have missed the point.
Let us briefly look at some of their arguments...
It used to be a well worn joke, with more than a grain of truth to it that “those who educate our community neither slumber nor sleep”. So it was that, holidaying in the USA, I found myself discussing Jewish schooling with community leaders there. They simply could not believe that the government funds most of the costs of schools in the English VA and Academy / free school sectors and that parents are only asked to help fund the Jewish Education of their children. They were even more dumbfounded when they learned that the constraints of the National Curriculum meant that many schools could only offer 25% of the school day in Jewish education or could only afford to, as parents were not making the funds available to employ more teachers for longer. When I told them the sums being sought from parents they shook their collective heads, as tuition fees in America and Canada are at least comparable to top schools in the private sector here. Parents here simply do not appreciate how lucky they are and the fact that some parents choose not to pay (won’t pay, rather than can’t pay, which is of course a very different matter) is a matter of shame for them, their children and our community.
In anticipation of the forthcoming early years conference we are please to be publishing an article entitled the Power of Play. Written by Orah Azose this thought provoking piece bases it comments on a collection of essays edited by Sharma Olfman and discusses the importance of play as an educational tool in early years education.
Orah Azose is a recognised early years educator who has been teaching for 12 years in the Chicago Public School System and is currently a tenured preschool teacher at Budlong Elementary School in Chicago, IL.