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David Miliband

Are Schools Improving?

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After seven years of Labour government, people often say their experience of public services is good, but worry that they are "the lucky ones". Growing personal satisfaction is not yet linked to confidence in the system. As the NUT gathers in Harrogate this weekend, delegates can be ambassadors for the truth - that schools are getting better, that teachers deserve credit, and that if we carry on for the next seven years as we have for the last, then the Blair generation will be the best educated in our nation's history.

Government and public servants have a shared goal: to build a public realm where security and opportunity are available on the basis of need, not ability to pay. It must engage citizens, giving them choice and voice in service delivery. It must bring together the best innovation from public, private and voluntary sectors. It must use the public service ethos as a spur to modern working practices. And it needs secure funding. This is the social democratic settlement we seek.

Three key challenges stand in our way. First, tuning universal services to individual need. In education we can achieve this through personalised learning: financial and legal flexibility at the front line, curriculum choice for the learner, and incentives for innovation are key.

The second challenge concerns the relationship between excellence and fairness. We must tackle failure - and we have massively reduced the number of schools judged seriously weak. But we need also to use excellence as a battering ram against inequality. This is why we now pay schools to spread their expertise.

But it is the third challenge that causes most controversy. It is how we combine flexibility with accountability - the debates about tests, tables and workforce reform. After 40 years of no change in standards, teachers and pupils have achieved real gains at age 11. Tests have set national benchmarks and thus help combat the inequality that comes from poverty of aspiration. And the answer to the limitations of "raw" scores is to publish more information, not less. That is why we now also show "value-added" measures.

A further area of controversy is the changing role of teachers. Radical reform of teachers' contracts to reduce workload and focus on teaching is not about substituting support staff for teachers. It is about recognising the contribution that trained support staff can make.

The Agreement on Workforce Reform, opposed by the NUT but signed by every other head teacher, teacher and support staff union, as well as the TUC, is an example of real social partnership: it involves working across traditional workplace divides; thinking about how to improve things, not just defend them.

The right will always talk down the education system. Those committed to public service need to speak up for what is really happening.

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As the NUT gathers in Harrogate this weekend, delegates can be ambassadors for the truth - that schools are getting better, that teachers deserve credit, and that if we carry on for the next seven years as we have for the last, then the Blair generation will be the best educated in our nation's history.

If you rely on the evidence of Ofsted reports and Sats results it might appear that the education system has improved. However, it is also possible to argue that all that has happened is that schools have got better at satisfying Ofsted inspectors and at getting good Sats results.

It is true that there has been a significant increase in educational spending. But are our children better educated and more socially skilled than they were before Tony Blair came to power? Difficult to say, but I doubt it.

The government boasts about the improvements in school buildings. This has been mainly achieved by PFI (Private Finance Initiative). However, this is a financial time bomb and will absorb an increasingly large proportion of LEA resources in years to come. Privatisation has nothing to do with improving educational standards. It is just a way for your government to hand out taxpayers money to companies that donate large sums of money to the Labour Party.

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I'm way out of the UK educational system - I still have a DES number, but it's more than 20 years since I taught in the UK.

What strikes me as an outsider is the degree to which teachers in the UK seem to be frustrated by their own lack of influence over their professional situation. I see this stemming from the whole way the National Curriculum was established - and the only solution would be to enter 'cloud cuckoo land' and scrap, or so radically redesign that you might as well call it scrap, many of the aspects of the modern school system.

The problem is that, believe it or not, spending money, devising examination systems, appointing governing bodies, etc is the *easy* part of improving schools! The hard bit is changing attitudes amongst teachers, pupils, politicians, parents, local newspaper editors … to name but a few.

The problem then is that if your professionals are feeling so disillusioned and disempowered, you've lost the main body of people who have the power to act positively for change. The nature of the teaching profession is such that it all ultimately depends on the personal relationship between the people in the classroom - the kids, the administrators and the governors can all have an enormous influence, but unless you harness the creative powers of the teachers, you're very unlikely to achieve anything.

But … perhaps I'm wrong. I feel that I'd certainly have been sacked around 1985 if I'd stayed in the UK, since I trained and was appointed at the time when teaching was more of a vocation than a job. Perhaps UK teachers who have grown up professionally with the present system can see benefits where I can't.

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I'm inclined to agree John Simkin and with David Richardson:

John:

If you rely on the evidence of Ofsted reports and Sats results it might appear that the education system has improved. However, it is also possible to argue that all that has happened is that schools have got better at satisfying Ofsted inspectors and at getting good Sats results.

David:

What strikes me as an outsider is the degree to which teachers in the UK seem to be frustrated by their own lack of influence over their professional situation. I see this stemming from the whole way the National Curriculum was established.

I do not think standards have improved in my subject area, Modern Foreign Languages. My subjective assessment of tongue-tied kids from the UK whom I have observed while working and holidaying abroad is that the current generation is far less competent than my generation of 40 years ago. As I have often argued, we need to align ourselves more closely with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Attempts are being made, but I think we overestimate the value of our national qualifications. See the Languages Ladder at http://www.dfes.gov.uk/languages/DSP_languagesladder.cfm

I very much doubt that a youngster with Higher GCSE would pass a CEF B1 examination.

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Guest Adrian Dingle

Allow me to throw something "crazy" out there.

John makes a very good point when he says;

If you rely on the evidence of Ofsted reports and Sats results it might appear that the education system has improved. However, it is also possible to argue that all that has happened is that schools have got better at satisfying Ofsted inspectors and at getting good Sats results.

...but guess what? If one takes the view that Ofsted inspections and SATS are well designed and valid exercises, higher "scores" in these "tests" WOULD mean schools have improved!

I suspect that John would not feel there is any such validity in those means of measuring schools progress.

Edited by Adrian Dingle

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I remember reading a lovely quote from the then Minister of Education in France at the time of the May 68 demonstrations. He was referring to the fact that French universities allowed everyone who wanted to start, and then weeded most of the out at the end of the first year with very tough examinations.

He described the system as "organising a shipwreck in order to see who could swim".

Perhaps Ofsted inspections and the SATs tests could be described like that?

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The problem with our "vigourous testing regime (pah!)" is that it is everyones short term interest for qualifications to be dumbed down.

The children are happy, parents proud, teacher meets his PM targets, schools are seen to "improve", government can say "we have raised standards in our schools."

What we end up with is one great big conspiracy of silence about desperately low standards in teaching and learning actually are, and a wholly dotty commitment to "tests" as a means of achieving "even higher" standards.

One would have to be seriously deluded to claim that for instance a pass at A level today is the equivalent of a pass at A level 5, 10, 20 years ago. Having had some recent experience of marking them it is clear that they are very difficult to fail.

Target setting, and accountability to external test scores in the "performance management" of teachers and schools have deeply distorted educational practice and are destroying teacher professionalism by attrition. :lol:

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Here in Australia we do not have inspections, nor SATS, and we have a brand new curriculum which in fact isn't a curriculum as such, but a framework of values and principles and outcomes, which students have to reach, but teachers can choose how best to reach them. In my state this is currently causing a great deal of angst for teachers who are finding it extremely difficult to let go of a structured, content based curriculum which told them what to teach. Now they have to decide for themselves what content will best achieve the set outcomes. We have been told by our gurus here that we are in the forefront of world change, that "the eyes of the world are upon us" as one of them told me the other day. I don't know if this is true, but it's certainly making for interesting times here. Our union members just passed a whole raft of motions opposing the assessment and reporting process which is being currently thrust upon them and many secondary teachers are strongly opposed to the concepts of scrapping discrete subjects, and not reporting on subject matter at all, but on such concepts as being "Arts Literate" and "Enquiring Thinkers" instead.

But, eventually, will our kids be better educated than yours? And what will be the next "big picture" for education gurus who have to make their money out of some type of reform? I doubt it.

If you can find a copy of last month's Phi Beta Kappan, read the article about the fallacy of systems change being effective. (Can't think of the actual title at the moment, but will tell you later)which says that all research point to the fact that wholesale system reform achieves very little. What does achieve it, is giving groups of practitioners the time to develop changes which they see as beneficial. And it means real teachers in real schools - not lip service to consultation and then top down reform.

I subscribe to the TES staffroom chatline and it is certainly true that there are a great many more stressed, bitter, and fed-up teachers in Britain than I suspect is the case here - as yet, anyway!! Their biggest complaint is not the NC and SATS - it's bad behaviour, lack of desire to learn, inclusion that has gone too far, and parental stupidity.

It seems to me that systems everywhere are trying to address those problem with solutions that can't possibly cure them.

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PS Can anyone on the forum put me in contact with someone who has a handle on what the global edcational trends are at the moment?

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PS Can anyone on the forum put me in contact with someone who has a handle on what the global edcational trends are at the moment?

Dr. Joanna Le Metais at the National Foundation of Research has recently published an international report on national methods of assessment. It appears that only four countries have compulsory standardised assessment tests (England, Australia, Canada, Singapore). Only the UK employs league tables to present this information to the public.

Countries such as New Zealand, Japan, Korea, USA, Spain and France use a sampling system in which a representative group of youngsters – usually around 3% are externally assessed. However, the vast majority rely on teacher assessment.

http://www.nfer.ac.uk/

http://www.nfer.ac.uk/research/project_sum...p.asp?theID=EIR

Like the recent OCED survey of educational performance the NFR points out that there is no link at all between national testing and educational performance. Dr. Joanna Le Metais, as the OCED report, likes what is happening in Finland. She points out that “Finnish schools are expected to evaluate the needs of their children and evaluate themselves. Teachers in Finland are also highly qualified – they have to have masters degrees – which is a key factor in favour of success.”

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in France at the time of the May 68 demonstrations

He described the system as "organising a shipwreck in order to see who could swim".

They are still saying that and 75% of the students go to University :lol: ...(not less than 10% in 68...)

And if David thinks that the degree to which teachers in the UK seem to be frustrated by their own lack of influence over their professional situation, then come in France and enjoy... :D . It's far worst (for my pov I mean)

Jean Philippe

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