It’s class size, stupid


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Attacking teachers in state schools and repeatedly telling us how inferior we are to our counterparts in the independent sector is becoming something of a national sport, particularly among the upper echelons of politics and journalism.

The Grey Man enters the fray

The latest grandee to add his tuppence worth to this salvo is John Major.  In a widely reported speech to the Norfolk Conservative Association, Major bemoaned the preponderance of the privately educated in the upper ranks of society.   Most of the press reported this as Major attacking Cameron’s Government of the Posh, a version of events that is however somewhat misleading.

As Tim Black, deputy editor of Spiked Magazine points out:

“The speech Major gave on Friday is not the speech that his new-found cheerleaders think he gave. In fact, the text itself suggests that Major wasn’t attacking private schools for fuelling so-called inequality (this remember is the man who, as prime minister, maintained a state subsidy for private schools, indeed, the man who sent his own kids to private schools). No, Major was in fact attacking (among other things) existing state education.” (1)

So Old Mr Grey of Traffic Cone Hotline fame wasn’t having a go at the posh at all.  In fact he was putting the boot into state schools.  What’s more, Black agrees with him:

“But there is something to Major’s attack. Kids being educated at state schools vastly outnumber the seven per cent of pupils who attend private schools. And yet, as everyone surely now knows, that seven per cent do indeed seem to dominate the upper echelons of society. For instance, 54 per cent of Tory MPs, 40 per cent of Lib Dem MPs and 15 per cent of Labour MPs were privately schooled. Similar ratios prevail across law, finance and journalism.

“Yet the problem is not the existence of private schools, where the expectations and demands are as high as the educational attainment. The problem is the existence of too many state schools, where the expectations and demands are as low as the educational attainment is massaged.”

So there we have it.  Independent schools are vastly superior to state schools because those of us who teach in state schools have such low expectations of our pupils. (Perhaps on reflection ‘teach’ is putting it too strongly.  In Mr Black’s view of the world we must spend all day sitting in the staffroom with our feet on the desks smoking our pipes and massaging our figures.)

The Public Schools Disagree

Strange therefore that the Head Masters’ Conference (HMC), the body which promotes and markets independent schools to prospective parents, puts such little emphasis on the supposed gulf in expectations between independent and state schools.  So how does HMC explain the difference in attainment?

“Our schools have some of the lowest student-staff ratios in UK schools, one teacher for every 9 pupils compared with one teacher for every 22 pupils in the state sector. 

Significantly smaller class sizes are proven to improve academic achievement as the ability to spend more time with each child allows teachers to get to know their personal strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, ensuring that their individual needs are met.”  (2)

HMC is absolutely right of course.  They identify what works and they explain clearly why it works.  It is a little surprising therefore that the political leaders who worship the independent sector don’t play a blind bit of notice to what they have to say about how they achieve their academic success.

We all know why the politicians do that of course.  Huffing and puffing about “expectations” costs a damn site less than reducing class sizes in state schools! (Although Tim Black has no such excuse for his sloppy journalism.)

The figures don’t just speak for themselves – they scream at us

The raw figures are so stark as to be actually quite shocking and worth emphasizing.  These from the OECD:

Average class size in UK state primaries 25.7

Average class size in UK private primaries 13     (3)

So class sizes in state primaries ARE DOUBLE those in private primaries.  Not one or two more pupils.  Double.  We should be screaming this from the rooftops and whipping up a sense of national outrage.  Therein lies the true horror of our class ridden education system, not in any baloney about expectations.

The situation in secondaries is similarly outrageous.  HMC suggests average PTR in its schools is 9.  The UK Government figures suggest that the average class size in state secondaries fluctuated between 20 and 22, between 1979 and 2011, while average PTR in state secondaries varied between 16 and 18 over the same period. (4)

Parentdish makes no bones about class size when it argues that parents should be prepared to fork out upward of £12 000 to £20 000 a year (for day pupils) to send the little dears to independent schools.  No mention of ‘expectations’ though. (5)

(Then again, perhaps Gove, Major and their loyal followers have got it right and the independent school headmasters and the independent school parents have got it completely wrong.  Mr Gove needs to have a little word with those mischievous headmasters and get them on message!)

Finland – an oasis in the educational desert

It doesn’t have to be like this of course.  Consider the OECD figures for Finland:

Finland state primaries 19.8

Finland private primaries 18.4  (3)

There are of course many reasons why Finland appears consistently, year after year, right at the top of the PISA international league tables.  Since 1979 Finland has insisted on Masters level qualifications for all its teachers; teachers are given considerable autonomy and left in peace to get on with the job; there is no high stakes testing below the age of 18; play based learning predominates in the early years; there is no equivalent to Ofsted; there is much less inequality in Finnish society; there are very few private schools and all state schools are local authority comprehensives.  In a word, Finland represents everything Gove hates; yet Finland stubbornly and repeatedly outperforms Govian favourites such as Sweden and the US. (Indeed, so awkward is Finland to Gove’s view of the world, that I wouldn’t be surprised, should Gove ever become prime minister, if our secret service were to suddenly discover weapons of mass destruction in Finland as an excuse to bomb the place into the stone age.)

But of all the reasons for Finland’s amazing success, the reform that Finnish teaching unions insisted upon first and foremost was a dramatic reduction in class sizes.  (6)

My own experience

For all its many faults, the last Labour Government did raise spending in schools, and this did make a noticeable difference.

The biggest impact of that increased spending has in my opinion come from a small reduction in class sizes.  When I started in my present school in 1996 we had six maths sets per year group (of between 150 and 160 students.)  This gave us an average class size of 25.8.  We would usually put around 30 students in the higher sets in order to bring the size of the lower sets down a bit.  A few years later we traded one period per fortnight for an extra set in KS4, bringing the average down to 22.1.  And more recently we have had 8 sets (average 19.3)

While this is nowhere near enough – and nowhere near the figures for the independent sector – it has made a big difference to teaching and learning in my school.  As the HMC says, I can spend more time with each child and I am more able to meet individual needs. I can mark books more thoroughly.  Teaching is more enjoyable and less stressful.  Behaviour and academic outcomes have improved accordingly.

But this is just a taster.

Imagine how much more we could achieve if we enjoyed the same class sizes as the independent sector. 

Can we afford it?

There would of course be financial and economic consequences of such a radical reduction in state school class sizes.

We would need to build new schools.  Good.  Let’s put building workers back to work.

We would need to recruit and train more teachers.  Good.  Let’s reduce graduate unemployment.

How would we pay for it?

If we can find untold billions to bail out the banks, or to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, then we can find the money to properly fund our children’s education.

We could start by removing the subsidy (charitable status) from the independent schools. We could then raise income and wealth taxes on the rich and on the bloated corporations, who have seen their private riches multiply to literally obscene levels in recent years.

We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Shame on us if we can’t redirect that wealth away from individual greed and towards where it’s really needed.

We care

If those of us who teach in the state sector have any self respect whatsoever, we must never accept the patronising nonsense that tries to explain different levels of academic achievement by differences in ‘expectations’.

And if we care for our students – which I believe we do, passionately – then we must fight tooth and nail for our children to enjoy and benefit from class sizes at least as good as those experienced by the children of the rich.

Follow me on Twitter: @royNUT









Save Our School – Part 1


I was planning to write a post about Ofsted this week, but in honour of Marcel Proust , the granddaddy of self publishers, who published In Search of Lost Time exactly one hundred years ago today, I have decided to delve into the past a little.

Eight years ago my school was threatened with closure.  Here is a brief summary of the first part of our story. I would welcome comments from anyone, but particularly from anyone who was involved in the campaign and would doubtless be able to fill in details that have escaped my memory.

My School is an 11 – 16 comprehensive in Bury with around 800 students.  I say it is in Bury, actually it lies pretty much on the border of Bury, Manchester and Salford.  So whereas Bury is a high-flying authority, our intake has always been the other side of the national average in terms of intake.  We benefit from a really good mix of kids, both socially and in terms of ethnicity, with around 40% pupil premium and over 30% EAL (there are over 40 first languages spoken amongst our students.)

Big is Beautiful?

In the Autumn of 2005 Bury LA carried out a ‘strategic review’ of secondary school provision in the borough.  They did this ostensibly because of a dip in the birthrate.  There was also a stated but less emphasized desire to move towards a smaller number of larger secondaries in order to realise economies of scale.

Nearby Manchester had gone through a similar exercise some years earlier. In the early 90s I worked at Oakwood High (now Chorlton High), which back then had around 800 students.  It is now an academy with 1600.  My stepdaughter went to Whalley Range High, which had getting on for 2000 students.  I can remember going to the option evening there, when she was in Y9.  The waiting area was like Piccadilly Station at rush hour.  The school is so big most of the teachers don’t know half the other teachers, let alone all the students.

The teachers and parents in my school didn’t care for ‘economies of scale’.  We appreciated (and still do) the human scale of our school, where everyone knows everyone else.

The decision is made

By the end of the Autumn term of 2005, Bury announced that it would definitely be closing two schools and that it had narrowed the field down to a shortlist of six.  We were of course one of the six.  A short consultation period was declared (not an uncommon tactic, to consult over Christmas!)  I hastily put together a petition, which I sent round all the staff on the last day of term and posted to the authority.  I should point out now that I wasn’t a union rep at that time, but I had some experience as a political activist so I knew that if no one took the initiative to mount some sort of self-defense, nothing would get done.

One afternoon in the middle of January 2006 the head sent a message round the school that there would be an emergency staff meeting at the end of the school day.  The mood was somber as we assembled in the hall.  The head announced that a decision had been made, that sadly our school had been earmarked for closure, and there was nothing that could be done about it.  He said that he would try his best to get the best terms he could for staff.

No one else had anything to say about the matter (everyone was in shock I think) so I stood up and said that we shouldn’t just accept this, that we knew ours was a good school that didn’t deserve to be closed, and that we should fight tooth and nail to defend it.  The head responded that he sympathized but the decision had been taken and there was nothing we could do about it.  One of the deputies said, “Don’t put your head above the parapet Roy, you’ll be looking for another job in Bury soon.” After the meeting the same deputy said that it was 99.9% certain that our school would close.  I regarded the 0.1% as a sliver of hope worth pouncing on!

The next morning the head called me into his office.  He said, “Roy, I’ve been thinking about what you said in the meeting yesterday and I think you’re right.  I think we should fight it and that’s what I will be advising the governing body.”  I was over the moon.  With the head teacher on board I knew we were in with a fighting chance.

Mobilising the Community

The head agreed with me that we needed to move quickly.  I suggested calling a public meeting in the school to gauge local opinion and to try and get parents on board.  The head let me put a letter out to all parents that afternoon and we scheduled a public meeting for a few days later.

We had heard about a man called Mikhil who had been campaigning against the strategic review in Bury town centre.  Mikhil had children at another high school in Bury, (one that was no longer under threat,) and he had been collecting signatures on a petition opposing all school closures.  We managed to track Mikhil down and invited him to address the meeting. Mikhil would prove to be a key player in our campaign and an invaluable source of advice to me.

The meeting was held at 4pm a few days later.  Probably not the best time for anyone who was at work, but nevertheless quite a few parents turned up, including parents from local primary schools who didn’t want their local high school to close.

The meeting agreed unanimously that we should campaign against the closure and we set up a Save Our School campaign there and then.  Our first action would be to lobby the Council Executive meeting on 31st January, which was where the final decision would be taken.  The head let us put a letter out to parents calling for support for the lobby.

Direct Action wins round one of the battle

The 31st January was a cold day, but at least the rain held off.  I headed into Bury with my family not sure what to expect.  I knew a few of the teachers and parents were coming, and some of the students too, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I turned the corner at the town hall.  There must have been over 200 people there, with home-made banners and placards.   I had brought a loud hailer with me so I spoke to the assembled crowd and got some chanting going.

The Executive meeting was due to take place in one of the committee rooms.  There was only room for 12 members of the public, and those places were taken by governors of the two schools facing closure.

There were so many protestors outside the Town Hall that there wasn’t enough room for us all on the pavement.  A group of our students stretched their banner across the road, blocking the traffic, and several others joined them.  The head teacher asked if he could borrow my loud hailer.  I assumed that he was going to tell the students to clear the road, but on the contrary, he stepped into the road and expressed his full support for their act of civil disobedience.

Eventually, a message was sent out from the Town Hall that the Executive had agreed to move the meeting into the Elizabethan Suite (an adjunct to the town hall which is the largest function room in the town) so that everyone present could attend.  We all knew that they had moved the meeting to get us out of the road!  The mood in the street was euphoric as we filed with our banners and placards into the Elizabethan Suite.

The students have their say

All the public seats soon filled up and protestors lined the sides and back of the hall.  The Executive took their seats on the stage.  A microphone had been set up in front of the stage and facing it so that members of the public could express their concerns.  The leader of the council explained the reasoning behind the proposal to close the two schools but he assured us that he would listen carefully to our views.

Governors and other senior people from the two schools then took the microphone to deliver prepared speeches on why their own school should be kept open.  I found this part a bit downbeat and decided to up the ante a bit.  I went up to the microphone and let rip at the councilors.  I asked them why they had chosen to close the two schools with the highest levels of social deprivation.  I told them that if they persisted with this decision they would face the biggest campaign the town had ever seen.  My raw anger went down well with the protestors, and with the students in particular, who leapt to their feet clapping and cheering.  (The next morning I overheard a Year 9 student gleefully telling another child that Mr W had “gone sick” at the councilors.)

When I returned to the back of the hall I was surrounded by students.  I tried to persuade them to go to the microphone and put across their point of view.  I eventually convinced one or two to do so.

When the other students saw their peers speaking at the microphone they gained the confidence to follow them, and soon the aisle in the center of the hall was filled with a long line of school students, who went up to the microphone one after the other and politely told the councilors why the school they loved should be kept open.  It was one of the proudest and most moving experiences of my life.  Thinking about it now still brings a lump to my throat.

There is no doubt that it was the young people who swung the balance in our favour that evening.  The leader of the council announced that the executive would withdraw to consider their decision.  20 minutes later they filed back in.  The leader announced that the public meeting had given them pause for thought and that they would defer the decision for another week to give them time to think about it more carefully.

We thought at that point that we had won.  How could the council go ahead with the closure after such a display of opposition?  Our celebrations proved premature however, and it turned out that we were just at the beginning of what would prove to be a long and often bitter campaign.

To be continued…

Follow me on twitter @royNUT

What is our vision of education?


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The Establishment (and I include within that heading not just Gove, the Tories and the Lib Dems, but also the Labour front bench) have developed and are implementing a vision of education that is utterly miserable. It is an education system based on fear, in which children fear adults, in which adults fear their bosses, and in which everyone fears the league tables and the dreaded OFSTED inspectors.

It is an education system in which all of our schools are privatised and run by corporations hell bent on cutting costs and maximising profits.

It is an education system in which the curriculum is paired down to rote learning of facts, which can be easily and cheaply tested by profit hungry exam boards. It is an education system in which children are tested almost to destruction, to be sorted and sifted and graded, like so many components on a conveyor belt, so they can be prepared by low paid demoralised teachers for a low paid demoralised future as cogs in the corporate machine. They want a history curriculum for example in which Britain’s imperial, racist and warmongering past is glorified, all the better to secure Britain’s imperial, racist and warmongering future.

The establishment vision of education is a truly miserable, rotten, alienated vision rooted in the competition of each against all.

But it isn’t enough for us simply to condemn the future that Gove and his allies are forcing upon us. We teachers must also inspire people to believe that a better world is possible, by developing our own alternative vision of the future. Here are a few tentative suggestions as to what such a vision might include:

We want an education system in which the goal of education is human development, not examination results and league tables.

We want well-funded schools that are publicly owned, democratically controlled and genuinely at the heart of every community.

Where students are motivated not by the fear of failure but by the love of learning and the adventure of discovery.

Where children are encouraged to value mutual support and solidarity above mutual hostility; to value equality above the pursuit of individual riches, to value cooperation above competitiveness.

Where children are taught to live in harmony with nature, instead of being driven, in the interest of corporate profit, into the mindless consumerism that is destroying nature.

Where children are encouraged to question and confront power and authority, including the power of wealth and the authority of celebrity, instead of being bullied into bowing down to power and authority, and cajoled into worshipping celebrity.

Where children and adults alike are treated with respect and dignity.

But of course, it isn’t enough to dream of a better future, important though that is. We must also be prepared to fight for one.

I have started this blog in order to share ideas on how we can develop a positive, humane vision of education.  And also how we, as teachers, parents, students and workers generally, can build a movement capable of realising such a vision.