Tag Archives: education

Rooted in pragmatism: a Liberal Democrat approach to school accountability

At the 2023 Autumn Liberal Democrat conference, we changed our position on school accountability in England away from the “abolish OFSTED” line, to a more pragmatic viewpoint of reforming our system of school accountability. I have taken the time to set out what reform should actually look like.

2023 was, I think it is fair to say, a fairly tumultuous year for the schools inspectorate, OFSTED. From the tragic death of Ruth Perry to increasing disquiet about the blunt-tool of single gradings.

However, whilst disquiet has been on the rise, 2023 has also seen an increase in high-quality research about what the future of school inspection should look like. From the IPPR’s review led by Loic Menzies, to Sam Freedman and the Institute for Government’s report. Another notable report was that of Public First, the consultancy firm who undertook a highly rigorous consultation on the future of school accountability.

All of these reports chimed into what appears to be a general theme and feeling now, that more of the same is not an option. Nevertheless, where opponents of OFSTED have traditionally been limited in their success is that the phraseology of “abolish” leaves the receiver of the message of the opinion that school accountability and improvement is not a priority.

The same criticism cannot be levelled at the work undertaken by Menzies and Freedman which both provide comprehensive analysis of the problems with school inspection whilst crucially providing recommendations for reforms that are rooted in pragmatism. Whilst the phrasing “reforms rooted in pragmatism” may not set the world alight, they do understand what is, to most people’s minds what is needed.

We should start, by recognising the problems that do exist within the schools inspectorate at the moment. 

These chiefly fall around three categories, workload leading up to inspections, the manner of inspections (inclusive of outcome from) and the subsequent support needed by each school to improve. However, where these issues come together is the overarching question “what is the purpose of school accountability”?

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New qualification to replace A levels and T levels?

So Rishi Sunak wants to replace A and T levels with a new qualification at 18. My first reaction was one of cautious approval – I have long argued that the post 16 curriculum needs to be broadened for all students. I also welcome any move to integrate so-called “academic” and “vocational” studies. Having taught, and written text books for, a subject that crosses those boundaries (Computing) I know how artificial that binary approach is.

There has been some opposition – allegedly – to broader studies from the Universities, who, it is claimed, expect students to have already reached a certain level of proficiency in their chosen subject before starting on a degree course. They claim that they can offer shorter degrees than in other countries because schools will have already provided foundation degree teaching.

That argument rather falls down in many subjects when looked at in detail. For example, a student starting on a history degree will not be expected to have studied every period of British and world history at A level – they will have studied specific periods and themes in detail. Instead they should arrive with an understanding of historical research and perspectives.

Even in my own subject, Computing, there were quite wide variations between the syllabuses of the A Level Exam Boards, and in any case, students are not required to have studied it before embarking on a degree. In fact, many degrees have no specific requirements but are looking for generic competences such as problem solving, research skills and creativity, which are exactly what a broader curriculum should equip them with.

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We are crying out for a fairer Pupil Premium deal

On the Sunday morning of conference, the Liberal Democrats will present our plan for education, ahead of the next General Election, with an exciting array of new announcements, today, I want to focus on the most important one, reducing inequality of outcome in education, a policy problem that has only been exacerbated by covid.

Since the 1800’s, people have been tirelessly campaigning for a fair education settlement, for liberals this comes down to our core principles that no one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Nothing encapsulates this more than our very real change we achieved in government, the Pupil Premium, a system of targeted funding to disadvantaged pupils.

Alongside the expansion of Free School Meals, the introduction of Pupil Premium worked as an effective incubator for social mobility. When introduced by the Liberal Democrats in the 2010-15 government, figures showed that attainment between advantaged and disadvantaged students narrowed by 4%, with the Sutton Trust calling for Pupil Premium to be the key lever in narrowing the attainment gap.

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Do not walk away from accountability, reform OFSTED, do not abolish it.

OFSTED, the schools inspectorate has received flack for its inspection methods in the aftermath of the tragic death of Ruth Perry earlier this year. Following a period of silence, OFSTED Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman appeared on BBC Laura Kuenssberg this morning to face questions over the OFSTED’s approach to inspections.

The Liberal Democrat policy on OFSTED is to abolish it and replace it with a new body for school accountability. This is flawed for a number of reasons, not least because the hiatus period between abolition and refounding could lead to serious failures in uncovering failing establishments, hurting the life chances of the thousands of pupils in the communities that those schools serve. However, reform is a more appropriate method to secure the faith of the profession in their regulator.

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Willie Rennie gets commitment from Sturgeon on tackling violence in schools

Following on from his article calling for action on violence in schools, Willie Rennie asked the First Minister for action this week. In her positive response, she paid tribute not once but twice to the work Willie has done on this issue and on mental health.

The text is below:

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Willie Rennie calls for action to end violence in schools

Willie Rennie has called on the Scottish Government and Scotland’s education leaders to do more to tackle the increasing problem of violence in schools.

He wrote in the Daily Record that images shown to him by a constituent of a young girl being kicked in the face by another will stay with him forever.

He said that there was a “conspiracy of silence” as those responsible didn’t admit to the extent of the problem, which led to staff at sone school taking industrial action because they didn’t feel their pleas for intervention were being heard.

He wants action to tackle a problem which has become much more severe since the pandemic closed schools for extended periods. Not only that, but there are fewer experienced staff around to help:

There has been a fall in specialist teachers, long waits for mental health treatment, a reduction in classroom assistants, insufficient educational psychologists and not enough staffed spaces to provide appropriate support to pupils. The list goes on. That needs to change.

But, he says, intervention has to be inclusive:

I am a liberal and I believe in tackling the root causes of behaviour rather than simply punishing the symptoms, so I support inclusion and the restorative approach adopted in Scottish education.

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Right diagnoses, wrong solution: why we should be a critical friend of maths until 18

On 4th January, Rishi Sunak announced plans to enforce the study of mathematics until students turned 18. This would be a major departure from current education policy of free subject choice for post-16 students in England.

This was immediately met with criticism from a range of groups, from education professionals who argue that the teacher shortage of maths professionals is just too great to cope with the additional demand, to people who had a bad experience in school with maths. The former problem is one I have substantial sympathy for, the latter is not a credible argument.

If we go beyond the headline and the immediate hyperbolic reaction, the proposal makes sense. Numeric illiteracy rates are costing the United Kingdom around £20 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP according to research by the National Audit Office.

The Prime Minister’s proposal is an attempt to address the knowledge gap large parts of our population have. In this sense it is an exceptionally good idea. We must also combat the policy on what it is. Rishi Sunak has not proposed making students take an additional A Level in Mathematics. Nor has he proposed that it takes the same weighting as any other qualification 16-19 year olds are taking.

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Lunchtime debate: What do you think about Maths to 18?

Rishi Sunak is setting out plans to force everyone in England to study Maths until they are 18.

The BBC quotes the PM:

In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before,” he will say.

And letting our children out into the world without those skills, is letting our children down.

Just half of 16 to 19-year-olds study maths, according to Mr Sunak – but this figure includes pupils doing science courses and those who are already doing compulsory GCSE resits in college.

Apparently no new qualifications are planned, and students will not be forced to do the A Level, so this seems at the moment to be more soundbite than policy. It’s designed to appeal to older Conservative voters who think that education has gone to the dogs since they stopped making you recite your times tables every morning.

I was thrilled to be able to ditch Maths for my final year at school, but I had to do the Scottish Higher in 5th year (when I was 17). I managed to scrape a B for my Higher, but it was pure hell. While I was always good at arithmetic, I really struggled with Calculus and anything other fairly basic Trigonometry and Geometry. Forcing me to take Maths for an extra year, when I was going to be studying languages and social sciences would have been completely counter-productive.

I am all for encouraging numeracy and analytical skills, especially in girls, but it seems to me that a one size fits all policy wouldn’t work. For some people, forcing them to study Maths all the way through school might be at the expense of a qualification that enhances their career and life chances.

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Lib Dems warn on education funding ahead of this morning’s budget

The i reported that figures obtained by Lib Dems from the Commons Library show that due to inflation eating into Whitehall budgets, schools and hospitals will receive £10.7bn less than they were expecting in 2024-25.

Ed Davey, Munira Wilson and Sarah Olney have written to Jeremy Hunt highlighting how current budgetary pressures are affecting schools in their constituencies.

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The importance of empowerment in an education setting: visiting Poland and my former secondary school

Embed from Getty Images

There are moments in life which often stay with us forever. The return, after 24 years, to the “Biskupiak” secondary school in Lublin, which I attended from 1994 to 1998, was just such a day, to which I will return very often.

I was invited to give a talk about my journey, the work with the Polish community as well as the reasons why I decided to stand in the local elections. My presentation, which took place in the school auditorium, and which was attended by about 200 students, was a truly wonderful experience. There were questions; some easier than others on the role of Monarchy, Polish Saturday School, immigration or the process of becoming a Councillor. I spoke in both Polish and English, which was quite extraordinary. I was impressed by the very good level of English of Polish students.

It was a truly beautiful return to the past, full of emotion and positive energy.

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What next for our GCSE Students

I was actually quite surprised with myself. I thought that I would be nervous and stressed when I went with my eldest daughter to collect her GCSE results. Is it because, as a family of European migrants, we have never experienced before the actual exam period in the UK? Often, not knowing what to expect can actually be quite helpful! Having said that, 5-6 weeks of exams and revision were a true rollercoaster of emotions; tiredness, happiness when the exam went well, encouragement and motivation to continue learning even when the energy levels were low. 

I decided to accompany my daughter to her school to collect her important envelope. After a moment of hesitation, she decided to open it in her library. I was worried a bit that she might be unhappy with her grades, however she wasn’t. In actual fact, she did very well, in particular in the key subjects; Maths and English.

As a History teacher by profession, I found the English educational system interesting and at times, confusing. It has, like any other, advantages and disadvantages. Students are asked, as early as in Y.8 or Y.9, to drop some of the subjects and encouraged to select their GCSE options. Too early? In my view, most definitely. The same scenario applies to young adults, who decide to continue A-Level Education. After completing a few Sixth Form documents, my daughter was asked whether she is planning to go to University. She said yes, however she is still unsure what exactly she wants to do next. For her, making this decision is actually becoming a problem. She enjoys learning at least 5-6 subjects, however she needs to choose 3 topics/ courses. She still hasn’t made up her mind. 

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Exams are getting easier?

The end of August has rolled around and shortly, as every year since I can remember, the usual suspects will likely be complaining that exams have gotten easier because young people all over the country have done what they are supposed to do and passed them.

This is all part of the usual having a go at the ‘youth of today’ that these people always engage in. Whether it’s ‘nobody wants to work’ or ‘takeaway coffee is why you can’t afford a house’ or ‘exams are getting easier’. It’s all part of the same attitude that seeks to either blame young people for not being able to overcome systemic problems in society or trivialise and denigrate the things we succeed at. Everything bad is our fault, everything good was handed to us.

The hate and dismissal hurled at children and teenagers every year over exams results is particularly vile though. Simply because we sent these children to school at 4 or 5, spent years attempting to give them all the information and skills they needed to pass their exams. Then they are attacked for succeeding in the very thing we’ve spent years telling them is the whole point of why we sent them to school in the first place. To get qualifications so they can have the best chance of leading happy successful lives.

If 100% of our Olympians came back with gold medals, would we insist the Olympics had gotten easier?

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Lib Dems uncover massive fall in permanent contracts for new teachers

Children in Scotland go back to school this week. You would think that after three hellish years of pandemic related disruption and a widening attainment gap, the SNP Government would want to make sure that there were as many permanent teachers in the classroom as possible.

Every year the Scottish Liberal Democrats at Holyrood look for the number of newly qualified teachers being offered permanent posts rather than fixed term or supply contracts. In the past 5 years, that has fallen from 56%, which was low enough, to just 23%.

On the back of those figures, STV News has spoken to three teachers about the impact that this uncertainty has had on them. Heaven knows we need more girls doing STEM subjects, and here is a woman teacher in those subjects who can’t get a permanent job:

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How Liz Truss emulated Margaret Thatcher as an Education Minister

David Laws’ Coalition memoirs tell  how Liz Truss’s stubbornness as a  junior minister became part of the Tory-Lib Dem mudslinging fest by Michael Gove

I would like to point especially new Lib Dem members to the memoirs of David Laws on his experiences at the heart of the 2010-2015 Tory-Lib Dem Coalition government. Laws  tells us about Liz’s first steps as a junior Education minister, and her characteristics and policymaking attitudes  which shone through.

On Saturday, Andy Boddington reported on a Times article in which Neil Fawcett, now a Federal Board member and  Oxfordshire County councillor, said that Liz in her LDYS days was on the radical wing of our party, promoting both abolishing the monarchy and legalising cannabis. On that last point she made the first of a whole series of Damascene conversions  after joining the Tories in 1996.  During her 2001 Hemsworth parliamentary campaign she said that she now opposed it.

From 1998-2010 she was active in Tory local politics in Greater London and Greenwich, before entering parliament in 2010 from David Cameron’s A-list. So she knew about local politics, in which Education and Childcare (at least in  Dutch local politics) are always a big issue. For all Social Liberals, good childcare and good education from the earliest stages has been a major issue for the past 140 years.

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Child Q’s ordeal – from the perspective on an educator

I am a secondary school teacher in an inner-London school. We have a student body that is overwhelming non-white British.

In the context of the horrifying treatment of Child Q, our students were understandably asking many questions about whether we as teachers, could be trusted by them.

The sheer number of questions necessitated a discussion of the case occurred within a staff briefing, but it also left me devastated that a number of teachers in a different borough had destroyed my relationship with the students.

At this briefing, we were given an update on the facts of the case and how the school will react to this case. The discussion was productive, particularly around suspected drug possession. We were additionally informed that unless it was a dealing level found, the police would not be contacted. A crucial and needed policy. Essentially adopting a decriminalisation policy.

The mere existence of these questions says a lot about the breakdown in relationship between the public services of education and the police. If the school can’t trust the police, then why should the children. If the children have been let down by the teachers and the police, then why should they trust either.

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Ed Davey’s speech to Conference: Lib Dems can defeat this awful Government

A powerful selection on Ukraine, a call for Priti Patel to be sacked, a celebration of Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, a tribute to Lib Dem by-election stalwart Erlend Watson, a decent gag about Dick Turpin, an evisceration of the Tories over sleaze and partygate (including a call for a public enquiry into Boris Johnson’s relationship with Lebvedev) and an attack on Tory MPs for keeping Boris Johnson in power, setting out what the Lib Dems offer for health and education and a look forward to the local government elections in May…all this and more delivered by Ed Davey to Lib Dem members gathered in York.

 

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Powys Lib Dems call for pause in school transformation process

The 21st Century Schools Programme in Powys is a £200 million project to transform schools across the county. Powys County Council’s cabinet considered a report by Estyn on progress which rated the programme amber/green.

The Lib Dem Group, currently the largest party group on the council, is concerned that the consultation process on the transformation strategy was undertaken prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and may be based on outdated assumptions about how closely individual schools are working together within a cluster.

The group is now calling for the transformation process to be reviewed.

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Christine Jardine calls for British Sign Language to be taught in schools

Christine Jardine has called for British Sign Language to be taught in schools.

Writing in the Scotsman, she said:

Surely we could and should have BSL as part of the curriculum in our schools?

How much would it cost to simply teach it along with the alphabet when our children are at their most receptive?

Many years ago, I remember a friend teaching her toddler sign language as he was learning to speak. She explained that it is the point in our lives when we are a blank canvass and learn most easily.

I was embarrassed that I had not been able to do the same, or thought to try.

And it frustrates me that while our children can rightly choose to learn French, Spanish, German, Italian and even Gaelic in their classroom, they do not have access to a language that could improve their ability to communicate with members of their own community, and improve their quality of life.

She described that incredibly powerful and stunningly beautiful moment on Strictly during Rose Ayling-Ellis’s dance when the music stopped and she and her partner Giovanni continued to dance as her stand out moment of 2021.

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Lib Dems stand up against use of facial recognition tech in school dinner halls

This week the Information Commissioner stepped in after 9 schools in North Ayrshire started using facial recognition technology to speed up the payment queue in the dinner hall.

From The Guardian:

The ICO, an independent body set up to uphold information rights in the UK, said it would be contacting North Ayrshire council about the move and urged a “less intrusive” approach where possible.

An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law before, during and after its use, adding: “Data protection law provides additional protections for children, and organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so.

Scottish Lib Dem schools spokesperson Carole Ford went on GB News to say that this was wrong both in practical and privacy terms. Carole would know. As a former headteacher she knows what the issues are in school dinner halls. This is what she had to say:

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Davey announces flagship Catch-Up Voucher policy

Today Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey has announced a new flagship Education policy on the third day of the party’s conference – Catch-Up Vouchers.

The Liberal Democrats are calling for a £15 billion package of education catch-up funding, as recommended by the Government’s former Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins.

As part of this, the party is calling for a £5 billion programme of Catch-Up Vouchers for every school child, putting the money directly into parents’ hands to spend on whatever their children need most: tutoring in reading, writing or maths; music lessons; swimming classes or other physical education.

This idea of a three-year programme of education Catch-Up Vouchers would become the world’s biggest ever parent-listening exercise.

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Daisy Cooper slams “barmy brainwashing” One Britain event

When I heard that some schoolchildren in the UK are going to be asked to sing a song saying how great Britain is on Friday, to be honest, I thought someone was just having a laugh. Surely nobody could be so crass?

I was wrong. As The Independent reports,

The Department for Education this week announced it would encourage schools to celebrate One Britain One Nation Day on 25 June.

Celebrations for the event include singing a song called the “OBON Day Anthem 2021”, which ends with the children repeatedly chanting, “Strong Britain, great nation”.

It also includes the chorus: “We are Britain and we have one dream, to unite all people in one great team.”

I find the whole thing nauseating.

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This issue needs examining, closely


Centre Assessed Grades are almost done.  The bane of every GCSE and A level teacher is almost over, the marking is largely done and standardisation will then occur by the exam boards.

As an economics teacher, I get curious about numbers.  Particularly when teachers, not exam boards were asked to do the marking this year.  The back of the envelope figures look roughly like this:

There are roughly 800,000 A level students in England.

Most do three subjects, so that’s 2.4 million subjects that need marking.  Exam entry fees are around £60 at a minimum.  So that’s roughly £144 million in exam fees.

Marking I’ve done for A level papers.  You tend to have a contract of between £800-£1000 and end up marking over 400.  So around £2 per paper is a rough estimate.

Students usually sit 3 papers per A level.  At 2.4 million subjects sat, that’s 7.2 million papers that need marking at a cost of £14.2 million

The situation is even worse with GCSEs.  GCSEs cost around £40 per subject.  There were 4.7 million GCSE entries in 2020.  So that’s £188 million in income. 

Most GCSE exams have on average 2 papers that need to be marked by examiners.  So that’s 9.4 million+ papers to be marked.  At £2 per paper that would be another £18.8 million.

This means that the exam boards have taken over hundreds of millions in exam fees. Headteachers estimate this to be £440 million with other qualifications added in, and they’d like half back – £220 million (Headteachers in England call for refund of £220m summer exam fees | Exams | The Guardian)

Now exam boards still have a lot to do – alternative question papers this year (although they just used a mix of the past papers in most cases), standardisation, appeals – they do need some money to function.  

But there’s still the money not spent on marking – £33 million!  This £33 million – at a bare minimum should really go to schools and FE colleges (particularly the latter as they receive lower funding than schools).  There is a strong moral case for this when schools and FE colleges are making staff redundant due to a funding crisis for education, as is the case at my college. 

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Assessing GCSEs and A Levels

So, clarity at last about the assessment of GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications in England this summer.

You would have thought that, after the algorithm chaos last summer, consultations about 2021 grading would have begun as soon as we went into the second lockdown at the end of October. By that point it would have been clear that students working towards GCSEs and A Levels in 2021 were going to be seriously affected by the disruptions spread over two school years.

In fact, that is exactly what did happen in Wales, where Lib Dem Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, announced in November that external terminal exams would not be held for the current cohort. Instead teacher assessments would be used, although these could include some assessments which would be externally set and marked. Scotland and Northern Ireland also announced their plans some weeks ago.

Back in England the consultation did not begin until this year, and it is only today that decisions have been unveiled. In the Commons today Gavin Williamson announced that grades will be allocated according to teacher assessments. The assessments will be based on what students have been taught, not by what they missed, and will take a variety of formats.

I welcome this outcome – I have been saying for a long time that the learning of the current students in Years 11 and 13 will be much more severely compromised than those in the year ahead of them, bad as that was. But I do not welcome the timing – the Government has piled further stress on students by leaving this announcement so late. And the stress affects teachers as well; they have been having to revise programmes of learning on the hoof. They now have to rapidly develop assessment procedures at the time when they are fully stretched in preparing for the return of all pupils on 8th March.

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Daisy Cooper: Close primary schools for two weeks to build Covid-safe plan

Lib Dem Deputy Leader and Education spokesperson Daisy Cooper has called on the Government to close all primary schools until 18th January to enable the development and implementation of a Covid safety plan.

We are calling for four things:

  • All primary schools to move to remote learning until Jan 18th, except for vulnerable children and children of key workers.
  • A review of Government plans for Covid testing strategies in schools.
  • A move to single-school transport.
  • A new pupil bubbling strategy to tackle the new Covid strain.

Daisy said:

With the government’s own scientific advisors saying that they cannot provide any analysis on what is required to control the new strain of the virus until mid-January, the Government must think again and adopt a plan to get ahead of the virus.

Time and time again, this Government has squandered opportunities to get ahead of the virus in schools and left pupils, parents and teachers understandably anxious if not terrified about returning next week.

For months, Liberal Democrats have been calling on the Government to come up with a proper plan to keep schools open safely. Instead, this latest botched decision and the Tories top-down attitude has once again led to last minute and inconsistent decisions that are wreaking havoc on people’s lives.

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No, teachers should not be prioritised for Covid 19 vaccinations 

I was surprised yesterday to see a tweet from Layla Moran saying that after talking to local head teachers she thinks teachers should be in the first wave of the vaccine.  Later on I saw that there is a campaign by the NEU
for this and I was surprised when I said on twitter that I disagreed with her, how strong the reaction was.

There are three reasons why I think this is not a good idea.

The first and most important is that I do not believe that the  such a sensitive question as who gets priority for vaccines should be decided by politicians or pressure groups.  The current schedule is the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)an independent group of scientists. We would rightly be outraged if the Government started interfering with their recommendations and this is an area politicians should not get involved with.

The second reason is that logically if you wish to add half a million teachers to the first wave, you are going to have to not give it to some of those who would otherwise get it (given that supplies are currently limited). Those people are there though because either they are in NHS and care jobs who need to keep the NHS running or because they are at high risk. There is a very clear link between age and  mortality which is why as well of course as vulnerable people, the current recommendations are based on age.  The JCVI state that “taken together, these groups represent around 99% of preventable mortality from COVID-19”.   99% is a  very high % so why would we want to vaccinate as a priority teachers who would cause that percentage to fall?

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Teach Black History every day

When I started teaching, I taught in a vibrant, multi-cultural school with teachers from all ethnic backgrounds. An Irish head, a Pakistani deputy and leading black senior staff, all women. I never thought about it then, but it made a difference on how the curriculum was taught in that school – so much so, that we probably taught “Black History” a lot of the year. I don’t recall it being called “Black History” but we did teach it. This was over 20 years ago. Things have changed since. I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have had that start in my career. The curriculum now has become less flexible, the pressure to meet targets has grown and Black History Month became a tick box in many schools. 

However, this year it’s been different. After the tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter campaign, there’s been a genuine attempt in the media in particular to highlight British Black historical figures. My daughter has come home talking about Benjamin Zephaniah and reading his poetry. I’ve seen Google animating headings with Dr Harold Moody who established the League of Coloured People in Britain.  It’s been wonderful to see this year, the first Black British female headteacher, Yvonne Connoly being honoured with a CBE. 

In Sutton I have been joining the amazing local group Residents Against Racism. We meet on the streets in a small gathering holding placards but most importantly we talk about what we need to do to bring change. I am proud that the Community Action Sutton Group holds regular Fairness Commission Race Equality meetings who are making real strides in making affective change. Recently the discussion led to a determined goal that we improve the training of staff on Black History. 

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Education prospects worsen for UK children in poverty

As most children go back to school this week, fears that disadvantaged children will have fallen behind in their schoolwork in the months of COVID lockdown seem confirmed by interviews conducted with more than 3000 teachers and heads at about 2000 schools in England and Wales by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Their study, reported yesterday, found that, while the average learning lost was reckoned to be about three months for all pupils, teachers expect that more than half of pupils in schools in the most deprived areas have lost four months or more.

But the educational outlook was sadly worsening anyway for around four million children who now, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are living in poverty in the UK (jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2019-20). A new report has found worsening educational inequality already, stating that “there is disturbing new evidence that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in five years.” This report, from the Education Policy Institute (epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/education-in-england-annual-report-2020), finds that disadvantaged pupils in England are 18.1 months of learning in English and Maths behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. This is the same gap as five years ago, and the gap at primary school increased for the first time since 2007.

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Back to school?

Next week, we go back to school in England. My teenagers will return and I will go back to work as a science technician.

Am I happy and confident that this will all work out? No, not really. Will we all be going to school? Yes.

The government says we’ll be safe. They claim that the virus won’t be a problem. They also tell us we don’t need to wear masks, that children won’t need to stay 2m apart. The children will be in “bubbles”. They gloss over the fact that some of these bubbles will include whole year groups, 100s of people. Our household combines 3 schools. I work in one school, my teenagers go to two further schools. We are not the only family with feet in more than one school.

The Guardian tells me that the chief medical officers say they are “confident the evidence showed an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19.”

They do not say children cannot get ill or suffer long-term side effects. They don’t mention staff. Are sixth formers more like 5 year olds than young adults when it comes to this virus?

This Prime Minister thinks that repeating something frequently, will make it true. He does not provide evidence that it is safe, nor will he issue measures to ensure safety. He will not convince everyone. It has been the same with so much during this government’s tenure. Repeating the mantra that our Test & Trace system is “world beating” has not made it so.

On balance, I will be sending my teenagers back. They want to go. They need the social interaction. They need to be in their classrooms with a teacher. On balance, the risk to their education is probably greater than the risks to them from coronavirus.

But not everyone will return. Some of our young people will be unable to return due to health issues (their own or in their immediate family). Other families will pivot in favour of keeping their youngsters away for all sorts of other reasons. Some will simply be afraid.

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Coronavirus crisis test for education services

After becoming York’s Executive Member for Children’s Services in 2019, I immediately started on the task of putting together an improvement plan to deliver the best possible services for the future generations in York. But, eight months into the role, we found ourselves unexpectedly having to deal with a national emergency which would see both Children’s Services and Education facing an unprecedented crisis. Our administration’s response in York can be best characterised as converting what had seemed ‘impossible’ into ‘possible’.  Yet the contradictions, confusion and periods of silence from our Government, have turned the challenge of the last few months into something which will shape our services for years to come. 

Since the introduction of ‘lockdown’ in late March, York’s teachers and school staff have gone above and beyond to help young people, parents and carers through this incredibly difficult time.  Whilst our city’s 63 maintained schools, academies and special schools have been taking care of our most vulnerable students and the children of our amazing key workers, the Government has stoked-up the levels of confusion and distress through ever-changing guidance on safety regulations, timescales for re-opening as well as the support available for the most disadvantaged students. 

Like elsewhere in the country, teachers here in York have been doing fantastic work in incredibly difficult and unusual circumstances. I am proud of the support that they have given pupils throughout lockdown by providing stimulating online learning materials across all year groups.  Government was quick to note the importance of providing access to remote learning through initiatives like free laptops and a temporary data charge exemption on sites which provide vital education for children, yet it was months into lockdown before the most disadvantaged children would receive any such help. York’s first delivery of laptops, allocated under arbitrarily strict Government guidance, arrived at the end of June.  And we have yet to receive a response to a letter sent to the School’s Minister warning of the urgency of the provision of this help. 

Similarly, Children’s Social Services, caring for the most vulnerable children in the city, had to adapt quickly to working more remotely.  Because fewer face-to-face meetings could take place due to health guidance, our staff put incredible effort into finding ways to contact all children and families safely. With a growing increase in the demand for such services as lockdown progressed, staff have gone above and beyond in making sure no child in need is left behind at this challenging time. 

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Kirsty Williams, the one competent education secretary in the UK

It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks for exam students. Highers and A level results play a huge role in determining the course of your life. If you don’t get the grades you need to fulfil your aspirations, you have to rethink your whole life. And you will carry those grades around for your whole life.

The question of whether we should have a system that puts so much stress on our young people is up for debate, but that’s for another day.

We know, though, that there are clear differences between the nations of the UK. In Scotland and England, the whole thing has been a disaster. However, in Wales, our Kirsty Williams has presided over a system that she argues has credibility because it guarantees that AS level results from last year will be the minimum grade for this year. That is a system that was scrapped by one Michael Gove in England.

Watch her statement about the way the results have been calculated:

Watch this interview she gave ahead of the announcement of the grades:

Listen to Kirsty talk to Andrew Castle on LBC here. 

Because we have maintained a system whereby AS-levels forms a significant proportion of a final A-level grade, we were able to us that in the moderation process and able to put in a safety net for students so they could not drop below their previous AS Level grade.

“The ability to do that has been very helpful, because those were exams which were set, taken in the same conditions and were externally assessed.

“That can give students, universities and employers real confidence in them”.

She also cast doubt on the validity of giving grades based on mock exams,

“Some schools don’t do mock examinations,” Ms Williams explained.

“Some use mock examinations as a way to boost confidence and deliver them in a way that perhaps they are there to encourage people.

“Other schools use them as a tool of encouragement in the other way, they will mark them really hard so that people don’t get complacent.

“Each school has a different approach which we believe is right for them.”

The Welsh Lib Dems had some clear messaging about results:

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