Schools should be genuinely child-centred – Part 2: Why this is always threatened by marketisation

Roger Titcombe's picture
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This is essentially an issue typical of historical interactions between the private and public sectors. It is currently topical in the English education system because the DfE’s marketisation and Academisation policy is now the mainstream educational ideology based on the notion that it is only free market competition that can provide the incentives necessary to raise standards. Unfortunately the incentives in question always include a number that are seriously perverse, such that the result is the lowering rather than raising of education standards.

I am not arguing that public/private partnerships necessarily result in bad outcomes, just that they usually do. The existence of the odd successful example does not therefore invalidate this proposition. The most risky scenario is always where the funding of the ‘enterprise’ is provided entirely by the taxpayer. The negative outcomes (for the taxpayer) do not have to take the form of siphoning off public money into private bank accounts, although this is common enough. In education, the taxpayer provides the ‘magic money tree’ used to fund the ‘executivisation’ of managers that is used to justify grossly inflated ‘performance-based’ salaries. In the NHS the parallel development to Academisation was the creation of ‘Foundation Trusts’. In schools the downside is falling education standards. In the NHS it is the huge and expensive proliferation of quangos and recurrent patient safety scandals resulting in serious harm and deaths. The common factor is the perverse incentives that inevitably arise from marketisation and the executivisation of management that it generates.

Before addressing the specifics of education, I will relate a personal experience of private sector malpractice in relation to public contracts. In the summer of 1964 I was half way through my A Levels. Back then, 16 year-old school leavers could easily find adult jobs paying adult wages. This was to generate the huge ‘youth market’ with lots of spending power that came to characterise the 1960s.

A number of us signed on for a summer holiday job as building site labourers with the construction firm Bryant on the new Druid’s Heath estate near where I lived in south Birmingham. This was crazy. None of us had any experience in the building industry and we were completely useless. The last few thirteen story blocks of council flats were under construction. Every day was the same. We arrived at work in the morning, ate a bacon butty from the canteen and were then directed by the foreman to ‘get lost’ on the upper floors of  a tower block until it was time to ‘knock off’ and go home at the end of the day. These tower blocks were constructed on a rapid build system based on pre-cast concrete walls and floors bolted together. Most have now been demolished. We took no part in their construction, being directed to ‘hide’ in otherwise complete blocks that were being fitted out by carpenters and electricians. This was not without risk, as the very scary lift shafts were without lifts or doors. After a couple of weeks I was recruited into the site office to colour in ‘progress charts’. This was marginally less boring. So what was going on here? It seems unlikely that Bryant would be wasting the company’s money on employing us. Whatever the explanation, this was small beer compared to recent major scandals relating to the role of private companies in the misuse and lack of accountability in the spending of public money. The Grenfell Tower fire is probably the most shocking on account of the scale of the loss of life, but there have been any number of others. The Carillion collapse comes to mind.

So what is my point? Is it that the public sector, unlike the private sector, is never corrupt? No, but the nature of private business provides more perverse incentives, especially when the funding of the business comes from the public purse. In my 32 years as a teacher in five LEA state schools the only improper financial behaviour I ever witnessed was teachers paying for educational resources for their pupils out of their own pockets, which was and remains common.

My example is of a private company with a publicly funded contract, employing school age minors in a dangerous workplace with no regard for their health and safety.

My argument is that, because they can, many Academies and Free Schools fund their excessive management salaries and administrative costs by exploiting their freedoms over admissions and exclusions to recruit children of high ability and reject and/or ‘get rid’ of lower ability children and those with costly Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

Then there are the contracts with ‘Educational Supply and Services Companies’ that appear to have connections with Academy executives. All of this is only possible because of government failure to monitor and properly regulate state funded, but commercially independent Academy private companies, at the same time as persistently inflating their achievements while denigrating LA schools, which are attended by the majority of English children. See this report in Schools Week in April 2016. But more was to follow.

Then there is the shocking and escalating cost of ‘re-brokering’ Academies as the tally of failures discarded by Multi-Academy Trusts continues to rise. Here in Cumbria ‘Bright Tribe‘ comes to mind.

Janet Downs has for years been researching and reporting on DfE misinformation in relation to Academies. This is one of her latest summaries. OfSTED too has been complicit in failing to call Academies to account for abusive treatment of pupils, whic is unsurprising given that  OfSTED chief Amanda Spielman does not seem to understand the fundamental nature and structure of Academy governance in  stating “Given the power and influence of multi-academy trusts, it’s important that they are properly accountable to parents.” Educational journalist Warwick Mansell corrected this in his tweetThey are not accountable at all to parents.

So what would be the characteristics of a child-centred school? The answer is the same as what comes naturally in a child-centred family – all the kids are treated equally and they come first. For example, the developmental progress of all the school’s students must be equally important. In terms of (old) GCSE grades, boosting G to F, F to E to E, E to D, C to B and B to A must be demanding of the same share of the school’s resources and the time of the best teachers as D to C. Instead of aiming to distort the GCSE attainment bell curve distribution by boosting C grades at the expense of all the others, the curriculum policy of my headship school was to move the whole bell curve distribution to the right. This does raise issues of maximising the chances of students progressing to further or higher education, but it does not help students or society if they are crammed to jump exam hurdles without any semblance of deep understanding. On 29 January 2014 I posted an article on the Local Schools Network website with the provocative title, Is school improvement a good thing? This was one of the responses.

Roger – many thanks for your post – it contains so much of importance. I completely agree with you about the false concept of ‘school improvement’. I can give an example from my own experience. To get the percent of maths C+’s up the school employed a range of strategies including the following.

Pupils began studying the GCSE curriculum in Y7 and as soon as they were able to get a C they sat the exam (many of them in Y8). There were many, many resits until the magic C was achieved.

From Y9 the C/D borderline pupils were taught in small groups with multiple teachers – all other groups were larger with just one teacher (and the groups got bigger through the year after each round of exams).

Maths was given more time on the timetable at the expense of everything else. Maths teachers were ‘encouraged’ to provide daily ‘maths intervention’ classes in the morning before school and at the end of the day.

Pupils were rewarded for attendance with free take-away food. C/D borderline pupils were ‘paid’ with shopping centre vouchers if they got their C in Y10 instead of Y11.

Pupils were withdrawn from other lessons to do extra maths in the fortnight leading up to the exam.

Pupils were entered for multiple exam boards.

Pupils were entered for multiple routes (linear and modular) at the same time.

Private tutors were bought in by the school to work one-to-one with individual C/D borderline pupils.

The overall effect was to increase the percent getting C in maths but at the expense of higher and lower achievers in maths. It also impacts on the results in all other subjects because of loss of timetable allocation and withdrawal of students from classes on an ad hoc basis. The pressure on pupils to achieve the pass was immense, destructive and led to lower levels of commitment and motivation in other subjects. Regarding the relationship between use of equivalents and lower attainment in GCSE’s – your point about less skilled teaching staff being employed is correct, but a more important point is that once pupils get used to a much lower level of demand in the ‘equivalents’ lessons they often find it very difficult to raise their game to the level needed to perform in a more demanding subject. ‘Cut and paste’ assignments and poorly structured, low-level brush-stroke analysis is often sufficient in BTECs but is no good in academic subjects like history, English literature or physics.

When it comes to A Levels there should be no question of ‘pruning out’ the lower attaining student cohort at the end of Y12 in order to improve the school’s A Level performance figures. Lots of teenagers are ‘late developers’ in physical, emotional and cognitive terms. I was one such. I found Y12 of the two year A Level physics course almost impossibly difficult, but lots of ‘eureka’ moments occurred during Y13. I only really understood much of the A Level syllabus at a deep level when I came to teach it. One of my great heroes is Michael Faraday. He began his scientific career as a mere lab technician to Humphry Davy, but without his work the achievements of Maxwell and Einstein would have been impossible.

To maximise the development of all pupils the schools needs to have a ‘growth mindset‘ in its true meaning, not a perverted version now used to make the lives of lower attaining pupils miserable. It is also necessary to believe in ‘plastic intelligence‘.

In the late 1990s the English education system was hit by a devastating epidemic of bad education spawned by Tony Blair’s meetings with a small number of heads that believed they had discovered the holy grail of spectacular school improvement, now referred to as the Vocational Equivalent Scam, which was comprehensively debunked by the Wolf Report of 2011. About the only good thing Michael Gove did as Education Secretary was to implement the findings of this report. This sad and shocking era in our educational history is described in fully evidenced detail in Part 3, ‘Spectacular School Improvement’ of  my book.

In the 1980s, as curriculum Vice-Principal of a large Leicestershire Community College, I was very involved in the Conservative government’s Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI). Instead of encouraging 14+ students to narrow their curriculum by taking up educationally and vocationally useless 4 GCSE equivalent GNVQ (later BTEC) courses, in order to access the generous TVEI funding then available, it was necessary to do the opposite: require all students, boys and girls, of all abilities to follow the same, large, broad and balanced core curriculum that kept all career options open for as long as possible. In my headship school we used the same TVEI-based approach to provide the inspiration and cognitive challenge needed to develop our students to become not just better educated (with more girls following demanding courses in science and technology), but also cleverer and wiser in the process, by using the teaching methods of Shayer and Adey’s ‘Cognitive Acceleration’.

As a Cumbria head I was part of a working party that devised the LEA approach to the non-statutory SEN formula element of the delegated budget. This was based on the screening of all Y7 pupils using Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). Schools received allowances based on the number of pupils scoring below designated threshold levels. Our school CATs scores were very low with a mean score never greater than 85 (-1SD, 16th percentile), which meant that the average cognitive ability (general intelligence) of our intake was no greater than that of the lowest 16% of the general population. This was by far the lowest of all Cumbria schools by some margin and possibly the lowest of any comprehensive school in the UK. Nevertheless, all pupils followed the same academic curriculum. In KS4 all students studied the same core academic GCSE subjects of English (with most students also taking English literature), maths, double award science, integrated humanities, design & technology and French (with set 1 also taking German). There were just two Option subjects available out of music, drama, art (including pottery), food science and computer science. Non-exam information technology, personal social and health education (PSHE), careers, PE and games were also in the core curriculum, which was taught in mixed ability groups except for maths, science and French/German, which were taught in ability sets. RE was addressed in the integrated humanities course. All of the Options were taught in mixed ability classes. Much pastoral and School Council based work was carried out by form tutors in their mixed ability form groups.

We had a voluntary after-school ‘Study Club’ on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that provided for a number of interest-based ‘clubs’ (eg Scrabble and short game Monopoly, cooking, sports team training and coaching, drama production rehearsals etc) There were also additional GCSE subjects including history, geography and general studies (in addition to core integrated humanities), physics or biology (in addition to core double award science) and GCSE PE. These additional GCSE classes mostly involved very small groups. For example, I taught the GCSE physics group of 4-6 students in my office. Our school also ran LEA supported community adult education classes in GCSE maths and English from 7.00 – 9.00 pm on weekday evenings. Our KS4 students could join these evening classes free of charge.  Our alcohol-free ‘Basement Bar’ leisure venue was open to our students and their friends Monday – Thursday every week. This was run by our School Council students and a part time qualified youth worker ‘Bar Manager’ paid by the school. A small number of adults joined the daytime KS4 art and pottery lessons working alongside the students.

We provided free musical instrument tuition (with loan of instrument) to any pupil with the necessary interest and talent. We also supported sporting talent. For example, although we did not have competitive Rugby League teams, we supported a residential training week with London Broncos for a talented Y11 student. As well as Netball teams, we were pioneers in girl’s Basketball, reaching the national finals in my last year as head. The school financed the coach travel for the team, school staff and parents to ‘away’ fixtures. We maintained a small stock of freshly laundered school uniform items that could be lent to parents.

How could the school finance all of this? By making a virtue of our huge involvement in SEN teaching and support. The very low intake CATs scores resulted in a large boost to the delegated budget, such that we were by far the best funded secondary school in the county. Some Cumbria heads resented this and for a while the LEA allowed representatives from other schools to inspect our CATs testing sessions to quash suggestions that we were deliberately sabotaging the performance of our pupils, which was of course nonsense. We also actively encouraged parents to seek SEN statements, with our SENCO supporting parents at SEN tribunals when necessary. Some of our very large SEN generated income was used to support the mainstream curriculum that included extra provision for our small number of very able students. The LEA was not happy with this, wanting individual pupil-based accountability for the SEN-based sums generated.

We argued that our approach was justified because although there was some limited withdrawal from lessons, the success of our SEN work was based on the recognition of the importance of the social plane for effective learning (Vygotsky). This required participation in the school’s mainstream teaching philosophy of encouraging shared metacognition though peer-teacher and peer-peer interaction. Our School Council played a vital role in establishing this learning culture. This cannot be emphasised enough and is described at length in this article.We trained our own Teaching Assistants on our accredited NVQ3 course. Some of these eventually undertook teacher training and obtained Qualified Teacher status.

In this ongoing pedagogic argument with the LEA, we were supported by a visiting HMI. Note the recent views on this subject by Professor Becky Allen, who asserts that the current Pupil Premium accountability regime is ineffective and needing of reform in accordance with our approach.

Despite our very low mean CATs score intake, the proportion of B, A and A* GCSE grades increased year on year. The results in French and German were the best in the town. In a number of GCSE subjects we often had students in the exam board’s ‘top  five’ in the country. The local Rotary Club ran an annual school ‘debating competition’ and a university challenge type general knowledge quiz. We often won these, such that the judges were accused of ‘working class bias’ by some the schools from the posher parts of the town. Many of our students have gone on to high performing professional careers, but respect for privacy prevents me giving identifiable examples.  In November 2018, I was invited to a school reunion event in a town centre social club. I was amazed at how far some of our ex-students had travelled. There was a Head of Department in a large Scottish School and a senior member of the Royal Household! The local ex-students were very pleasant and positive about their school experiences, as they always are when I meet them in the Barrow Aldi.

I particularly remember when a group of us northern heads were summoned to a meeting with the newly appointed Education Secretary David Blunkett, somewhere in Whitehall. His opening gambit was to ask us ‘what we were doing running schools that were so bad that we would never send our own children to them’. Our son was a pupil in my school at the time and went on to become a national leader in his eventual professional career. That was just the start of New Labour’s disastrous mismanagement of the education system as Thatcher’s flawed marketisation reforms were embraced with more vigour than Keith Joseph and her government ever managed.

Just as parents fight for the interests of their children, a child-centred school should surely fight for the interests of their pupils.

After the Balkan wars in which there was UK military intervention, a number of refugee families from Kosovo were moved into temporary communal accommodation in Ulverston. They were later re-housed in Barrow and the Cumbria LEA appointed an excellent community liaison officer in Barrow to help the families to integrate and enrol their children into local schools. The families organised themselves into a group with a small committee of spokespersons that had some English. They visited all the local primary and secondary schools and then made the group decision to enrol all the children in our school and our nearest primary feeder. The children had limited English learned at school as a second language and were represented in almost all of the year groups in our school. The families were Muslims and along with their children, had suffered varying degrees of trauma during the war. They all rapidly became fully integrated in the school and the local community making no special religious demands. All of the children were delightful, did not self identify through headscarves or in any other way, were well behaved, sociable and generally more able than the school average. They integrated fully, were accepted into friendship groups and made rapid academic progress helped by extra English as a second language tuition provided by the LEA.

After a few months one of the families told us they were relocating to Manchester to join a larger Kosovar community there. A few weeks later they were back, reporting bullying at the new school and hostility from the host community.

Eventually the eldest of our Kosovar students, twin boys, moved up to Y11. I taught them science. They were very popular, hard working, able and forecast to attain good GCSE grades. The family wanted to settle in the UK so that the boys could go to university. However the Home Office had other ideas. The family received a letter threatening to deport them back to Kosovo now that hostilities had ceased. They were eventually required to attend an immigration tribunal in Leeds. I accompanied them to provide character references and support. I was cross examined with some hostility by the Home Office counsel. He accused me of having the ulterior motive of wanting to retain the children in our school for the benefit of the school. I happily concurred, adding that the family were also an asset to Barrow and to the UK in general. They were given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. I am not sure what happened to all the other families and their children, but I hope they too remained and made successful new lives for themselves in the UK.

There is so much more I could write on this subject, but this is already a very long article. I will conclude by returning to the title. I hope I have outlined what can be achieved through ‘child-centred’ comprehensive schooling and that I have explained why these advances in educational attainment can never be achieved in a marketised education system that is always compelled to prioritise the interests of the school before that of its individual pupils. I live in hope that not all of the Alfred Barrow School achievements will be lost for ever and that a genuine child-centred education system will eventually re-emerge.

I write about how this could come about here.

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