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21/5/17: UK Conservative Manifesto (2): support for state schools from Universities and the independent sector

I was struck by this news story about a school in Birmingham put into special measures after pupils had thrown food at inspectors and jostled them in corridors.  Having taught in a school for two years in which I can easily imagine such a thing happening, my thoughts go with the pupils, those not involved in these incidents as well as those who were, their teachers, leaders and governors.

(Parenthetical thought: in the absence of information on this story beyond what's in the newspapers, it would seem to me that there are a number of ways of interpreting what happened here, including that the pupils perceived that their valued school was under attack from the inspectors and that they were coming to the school's defence.  Of course, I can't be sure that this is correct, but it is, I suggest, a possibility.  I well remember when I was teaching in challenging circumstances that I took over a year 11 class (15-16 year olds) which was incredibly hard work.  But one incident sticks in my mind.  I was speaking to the class as a whole when a pupil from another class put his head round the door and asked me if I had a stencil he could borrow.  Before I had time to register the question let alone draw breath to give an answer, one of the pupils close to the door said, "No he hasn't and he's teaching us at the moment, so you can p*** off."  Now, not the level of respect one would hope that one pupil would show another but, I suggest, a high level of respect for me and what I was trying to do.  End of parenthetical thought.)

But the question I would want to ask is this.  Picture the teachers, head teachers and governors trying to figure out how to make progress after this incident.  From where would they be wanting to take advice?  From people who have had broadly similar experiences to their own?  Or from those who come from high achieving independent schools for children who would never dream of behaving in such a way?  Or would they wish to be taking advice from University lecturers with no school teaching experience at all?

Put the question in this form and the answer, I suggest, is a no brainer.  So consider this excerpt from the 2017 Conservative Manifesto (page 50):

We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools....We will work with the Independent Schools Council to ensure that at least 100 leading independent schools become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools in the state system, keeping open the option of changing the tax status of independent schools if progress is not made.

I would say very briefly that I have considerable sympathy with the idea that there is work to be done to justify independent schools' charitable status bringing various tax benefits.  But why on earth should we assume that people working in Universities and independent schools should have any privileged insights in how to work in schools in challenging circumstances?  If it's general management advice that's needed, why not go to management consultants or businesses?  If the proposition is that, if only teachers in challenging schools take on the teaching methods of Eton and Harrow then all will be well, then I would respectfully suggest that this is complete nonsense.

Now, I'm aware of the need to tread carefully here, get the emphasis wrong and one could be perceived as saying that low standards in challenging schools are all right, you can't expect any better.  And there can be very helpful and meaningful collaborations between schools in challenging circumstances and other schools and University departments.

But all of my experience working directly and indirectly with a wide variety of schools tells me that there are not, "One size fits all," solutions, successful strategies in one situation may well not be successful elsewhere.  And if schools and University departments are to collaborate, then I very much hope the University staff involved work in the spirit of having much to learn about the experiences which their future students have before arriving, in addition to being there to contribute.

It is worth noting that the school involved in the food throwing incident was already an academy, albeit not in a chain sponsored by a University or independent school as far as I can see.  We can though, I think reasonably conclude that becoming an academy is not a magic bullet solution for a school in challenging circumstances.  Meanwhile, I note that at least one University sponsored academy chain has had problems as related in this news story, and am pleased that my views are shared by Prof Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who stated in this news story that Oxford was "very good" as a university, but had "no experience" of running schools, and that to become involved in the government's plans for changing schools would be a "distraction from our core mission".

So, does continuing to involve independent schools and Universities in the running of state schools in challenging circumstances, and increasing that role, represent a positive way forward?  I really can't see that it does.  Linking this involvement with financial incentives seems to be quite inappropriate.  It may well be that, in practice, the small print is somewhat different to the headline rhetoric.

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