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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

A Shocking Lack of Priorities

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Regular readers of this blog will know that I take every opportunity to criticise the hypocrisy of the government’s ideological austerity. The kind of austerity that sees services and investment cut to the bone but always seems to make vast amounts of money available for pet projects. After some excellent work by our very own Angela Rayner we’ve recently been given a clear example of the damage this kind of thinking has done to our country’s education system.

Cast your minds back to March of last year, when the then-Cameron government announced plans to force all schools in England to become academies. I wasn’t alone at the time in thinking that the plans were ruinously expensive, massively impractical and unlikely to increase standards. In the face of opposition from Parliament and the teaching profession the government was forced to first shelve and then abandon the plans completely.

“What does that have to do with what’s happening now?” I hear you ask. At the time the policy was announced the Treasury allocated £500 million of funding to support the mass academisation process. Now that it’s not going ahead, the government has clawed back £384 million of that funding (The rest, according the Department for Education, had already been spent on “other education projects”, whatever that means).

Let me say that another way. The government was willing to spend £500 million on making every school in England an academy. When that project was dropped they could have chosen to redirect that freed-up money to other forms of investment in our schools. Investments like smaller class sizes, better equipment and materials, or training for teachers. Investments that, unlike academisation, have solid evidence behind them to show that they lead to improved standards. Instead, they chose to let the money disappear back into the bowels of the Treasury. Probably never to be seen again.

It would be somewhat justifiable if our education system was already swimming in funding. What’s actually happening at the moment is the worst crisis in teacher recruitment in living memory and a warning from the National Audit Office that we’re on course for a £3 billion cut in school spending by 2020. The Grammar School Head’s Association say that their schools may resort to asking parents for hundreds of pounds a year to plug the gaps in funding cuts, and Cheshire East Council have gone as far as to confirm that they are looking at moving to a four day school week to make ends meet.

Tameside’s share of that £384 million would have amounted to almost £70 for every pupil in our schools. We’re probably not going to see increases in funding from any other source either. While on paper the government’s latest reforms to school funding gives Tameside a little extra money, Angela’s work has shown that when you throw in inflation and the impact of further cuts that we know are coming down the pipeline it amounts to slapping a sticking plaster onto a gaping wound.

If you thumbed through a copy of the Prime Minister’s Industrial Strategy you’ll have seen that one of the longest chapters is on “Developing Skills”, or to quote it verbatim “ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy”. The kind of education system that delivers that isn’t something that happens by itself. It needs strong and fair funding. It needs to be run by people who know what works and have the freedom to put their expertise into practice.

What it absolutely doesn’t need are Ministers in Whitehall letting ideology and bias dictate their funding and policy decisions. Britain’s future and our children’s education is too important to be turned into a political football.

Creating the Next Generation of Coders

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Coded on a BBC Micro and released in 1984, space trading simulator “Elite” went on to sell over a million copies and influences the genre to this day.

If you went to school in the 1980s you’ll almost certainly have run into the BBC Micro at some point. Launched in 1982 and designed with an emphasis on education, this unassuming grey box became the gateway for an entire generation of young people to learn about coding, computing and software development. British technology luminaries such as David Braben (who used the BBC Micro to develop “Elite”, one of the most influential and best-selling video games of all time) and David Darling (founder of Warwickshire-based games development company Codemasters) owe their careers to a decision 30 years ago to not just teach young people how to use new technologies, but to provide the resources for them to apply their own creativity as well.

Fast forward to 2017, and we have access to technology whose power and scope is beyond anything that could have been imagined by those 1980s schoolchildren. Now more than ever, it is important to make sure our children have a solid understanding in how these technologies work. We don’t expect them to all become technology and computer entrepreneurs, but we don’t expect everyone who learns English to become a writer or everyone who learns Maths to become a mathematician either. We teach reading, writing and maths because they are essential to understanding the world in which we live. If it isn’t already, knowing how technology works will soon be as important to get on in life as those other basic skills.

With that in mind, the BBC has updated the venerable old Micro for the 21st century. The BBC Micro Bit, inspired by similar devices such as Raspberry Pi, is a far smaller (about half the size of a credit card) but also far more powerful device than its predecessor. Simple programming tasks, like setting its LEDs to light up in a certain pattern, can be done using just the Micro Bit itself. However, it can also be connected up via Bluetooth or USB to other Micro Bits or electronic devices to create and use more complicated programs. The dedicated www.microbit.org website also contains enough software and tools so that the Micro Bit’s possibilities are limited only by the imagination of its user.

The Micro Bit has already made its way to our country’s schools, but here in Tameside we want to go above and beyond in the name of teaching our children about technology. Our commitment was enshrined at the start of last year in our “Every Child a Coder” 16 for 2016 Pledge, and after the success of our Tameside Hack in the summer we’re in the process of finalising our plans to hold a second Hackathon over the February half-term. We’re also putting on free starter sessions for young people in Years 6, 7 and 8 at Hyde Library to help them find their way around the BBC Micro Bit and program some great projects. The first session took place this Monday, but spaces are still available at the time of writing for the second session on the 30th January. The event is completely free and you can book your place on the dedicated webpage here.

I’ve always had the view that education is not just a means to get a job and build a future, although those are undoubtedly important. It is a valuable thing in and of itself. Maybe one of the children at our Hackathon or Micro Bit sessions will go on to create the next great video game or computer program in 20 or so years, but I won’t consider our work a failure if that doesn’t happen. If we can open our young people’s minds to the possibilities and opportunities that technology can offer them to understand not just the world, but themselves, then that is an excellent return on investment in my book.

The Teaching Crisis Cannot Be Ignored

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Ask me what part of the public sector has undergone the most radical change in the last decade or so and my answer will always be “education”. From the (thankfully) dropped lunacy of making every school an academy, to the newer but equally hare-brained policy to reintroduce grammar schools, barely a day goes by where the government doesn’t have a new kick at the political football that our education system has become. The people affected by this the most are, of course, the pupils themselves and the teachers who work with them. For teachers in particular, their job is a hard enough one at the best of times, but over the last six years they’ve had to put up with their roles changing beneath their feet as well.

Is it really surprising that so many of our current and potential future teachers have decided that they’ve had enough? Two recent events have pulled the crisis we face in recruiting and retraining teachers into the public eye.

The first is a report by Sir Michael Wilshaw, which concludes that constant structural changes to the education system have meant that staffing concerns have taken a back seat, with disastrous results. In the year 2015-16, 15 of 18 secondary subjects had unfilled teaching places and 43,000 qualified teachers (or one in ten out of the entire workforce) left the state education sector entirely. These shortages have not been felt evenly. While ¾ of physics teaching vacancies have been filled, that goes down to less than ½ with design and technology places. Schools that face more challenging circumstances are also feeling the impact, with the percentage of unqualified teachers in schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils close to double that of schools with few disadvantaged pupils.

The second warning sign is the spectacular failure of the government’s plans to get more people into the teaching profession. The National Teacher Service (NTS) announced by the-then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, aimed to recruit 1,500 teachers to schools with the highest need. The initial pilot ran here in the North West and aimed to find places for 100 applicants. A Freedom of Information request by the Times Education Supplement has revealed that only 116 people applied to the scheme in total, of which only 54 were recruited. The entire scheme has now been closed down, and what was supposed to be a flagship policy has been shown up as a waste of time, effort and money in the face of growing crisis.

I have a personal grievance with this as well. For the past few years the Council and our partners have been fighting tooth and nail to raise exam results and give our pupils and teachers the best possible environment to excel and achieve. We invested over £250 million in state of the art facilities and supporting the setting up the A+ Trust to share expertise and best practice. Our percentage of pupils receiving at least 5 A*-C grades has gone up for three years straight, putting us above the English national average. We’ve done this in spite of and not because of many of the actions of this government.

Having enough teachers is important. Having enough good teachers is even more important. When people look back to their school days they think about the teachers that really knew their stuff and made them care about the subjects they taught. The right teacher in the right place with the right resources can make an incredible difference to the lives of so many people. The damage that the government’s self-inflicted teaching crisis is doing to school standards and the life chances of our young people is incalculable. We cannot let them endanger our children’s education any further.

Goodbye to the education bill

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
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Droylsden Academy, one example of the investment in Tameside schools

There was once a time when an education bill was a landmark piece of legislation. The 1944 Education Act, commonly known as ‘The Butler Act’, made clearer the distinction between primary and secondary education that still exists today. The 1976 Education Act formally abolished the 11+ and selectionby ability. The 2000 Learning and Skills Act established academies. How times have changed.

There is no better illustration of the political football that education has now become than the dropping of the most recent education bill. The bill, originally announced in March, set out plans to force all schools to academise by 2022, abolished parent governors and removed the school improvement role of local authorities. Little more than 6 months later, a written statement to parliament, quietly published on Thursday evening, has shelved all of these proposals for good.

As you would expect I have a view about the initial proposals themselves. I also have a view about whether a written statement to parliament is a respectful way to announce the abandonment of plans for such an important area of government responsibility. I even have a view about whether this government has a mandate for the changes it plans to undertake. However, these views are not for this blog today.

What I want to talk about in this blog are the implications for local authorities of this bungled announcement.

Had the Education Bill been passed it would have removed the responsibilities for school improvement from local Councils and placed them in the hands of the regional schools commissioner. In preparation for this, £600 million of cuts to local authorities were pencilled in for next year to reflect the fact that Councils would no longer be delivering this service. However, despite Councils now set to retain their role in school improvement, the cuts are still planned to go ahead. This will leave local authorities woefully under resourced to fulfil their responsibilities to young people.

This isn’t just me as a Labour Council leader sounding off about the cuts. The chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, recently described English schools as ‘mediocre but getting better’. Whilst it’s not language I would have used the acknowledgement that schools are improving is welcome, though how can this improvement be sustainable if the money to support it is cut? In addition, the leaders of Kent, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire County Councils have spoken out about being left ‘in limbo’ over how they are expected to fund their school improvement services.

Across the Country there are 20,000 local authority maintained schools and hundreds more academies which purchase school improvement support from the local Council. In Tameside the Council has used its powers and this money to drive the improvement in both schools and academies that, in 2015, saw our GCSE results improve faster than anywhere else in the North West. The haphazard scrapping of their education bill put this all at risk. The government must clearly stipulate the expectations for education that it has of Councils and, when it has decided what these are, allocate the funding to support them.

Are grammar schools fit for the 21st century?

Friday, September 16th, 2016
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Mossley Hollins, one of many schools across Tameside to benefit from investment

Despite the referendum having taken place almost three months ago, the Brexit debate continues to rumble on in the press and on our TV screens. However, whilst not having gone away, these last few days it has been knocked off the front pages by something new. I’m talking of course about the debate over the merits of grammar schools and the government’s plans to resurrect these institutions in some form following the ban on the opening of any new ones in 1998.

Now, in the interests of transparency, I must begin by saying that I attended a grammar school myself. The school provided an excellent standard of education at the time and gave many of those who attended the tools that they needed to get on in life. However, I was the only child at my primary school to get a place, with the rest attending the local secondary modern where they received a very different type and standard of education. I can recall at the time wondering why I had to catch a bus to get to a school further away whilst my friends all went to one around the corner. For different reasons, I still wonder this now, and wonder even more now the government has announced plans to bring back grammar schools.

My view is quite simple; a grammar school system does not work. How can it be possible to genuinely assess what a child might be capable of in later life by having them take a single exam at age 11? How can it be fair to tell large numbers of 11 year olds that they do not deserve the best possible education on offer and are only worth a lesser standard which will limit their career and employment options for the rest of their life? Surely every child should have the same opportunities to grow and better themselves as much as possible?

Some have chosen to dismiss these views as left wing idealism, but critics of the system come from across the political spectrum. A man you may have heard of once said ‘There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to bring back grammars, an assumption that this country will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few,’ that man was former Prime Minister David Cameron, a man that regular readers will know I do not believe to be any champion of the left!

There is an abundance of evidence that shows that a grammar school system fails huge numbers of children too, particularly bright children from poorer backgrounds. Ahead of writing this blog I made a comparison between Tameside and Kent, a place where grammar schools never went away. In 2015 in Kent, the garden of England and one of the wealthiest counties in the UK, 57.3% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths. Here in Tameside, under the comprehensive system and with our arguably less favourable demographics, we achieved exactly the same proportion. A look at how low the share of children on free school meals attending the remaining grammar schools is sets alarm bells ringing too. The reasons behind this couldn’t have been illustrated better than they were on BBC Breakfast the other morning where every parent interviewed in a grammar school area admitted to paying for tutoring to coach their child for the 11+.

I’m clear that the best way to improve education for our children is to invest in world class facilities and ensure quality teaching for all children. That’s why we invested £250 million in refurbishing or rebuilding our schools and set up the Tameside schools’ self improvement network, the A+ trust. It’s an approach that has delivered the most rapidly improving exam results in the North West in 2015 and further improvements this year. Theresa May says that every child deserves the ‘chance’ of attending a good school, I believe they deserve the guarantee.

GCSE Success Continues in Tameside

Friday, August 26th, 2016

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Tameside Council has always treated education as one of its highest priorities. Our ambition has always been to give our young people the best possible start in life, no matter where they come from or what they want to do in their future. To that end, we made the decision to invest over £250 million in education in Tameside. From rebuilding and refurbishing our secondary schools, to sharing best practice and expertise through organisations like the A+ Trust, our intention was to give our pupils and teacher the best possible environment in which they could excel and achieve.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to say that Tameside secondary schools have seen their third consecutive year of improvement in the GCSE results published yesterday. While the current figures should be treated as provisional, they nevertheless indicate a 2% point increase in the proportion of Tameside pupils achieving five good GCSEs (grades A*-C) including English and Maths compared to the 2015 results. When combined with last year’s increase in GCSE performances – which put Tameside a couple of points ahead of the national average – the trend is of a significant and sustained improvement from an already strong position.

At the level of the individual schools, the majority have improved on last year’s figures. However, some of our schools have also delivered huge improvements that deserve to be singled out for particular praise. Copley Academy, Hyde Community College, and West Hill School have all seen GCSE performance increase by 10% or more over last year’s figures.

These improvements in GCSEs across the broad are the best possible validation of our ambitions for education, and we have no intention of stopping there. If we can improve 3 years in row there’s no reason why we can’t improve 4, 5 or 6 years in row, going higher and further every time.

However, none of this would have been possible without our teachers and support staff, the people who, day in and day out, have put in the hard work to help our children realise their full potential. Despite the economic and financial challenges we face, their collective efforts mean that a 16-year old who leave a Tameside high school this summer will have a start to their adult life as good as or even better than 16-year olds from more affluent areas of the country.

If that isn’t worth a celebration then I don’t know what is. My sincerest congratulations to everybody who helped make it happen.

Tameside is Top of the Class

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Earlier in the month I said that educating our children is one of the most basic and vital services that local government and its partners provide. The parents of Tameside’s children expect us to give their children the best possible start in life, and if we fail in that duty it is right that we are held responsible for it. We’ve faced up to that responsibility, and in the last few years we’ve worked together with schools, teachers, parents, children and partners to make a united and a determined effort to deliver on it.

I’m now delighted to tell you that in August this hard work bore fruit. Tameside is now the most improved authority in the North West and the 11th most improved local authority in England for pupils achieving 5+ A*-C grades (including Maths and English). This improvement in results also puts us above the national average.

In terms of individual schools, many of them also achieved outstanding results. Some of the highlights include: St Damian’s RC Science College in Ashton achieving the boroughs highest 5+ A*-C pass rate (including English and Maths) with 79%, Fairfield High School for Girls achieving a 77% success rate (an increase of 6%) and Audenshaw School achieving a 71% success rate (an increase of 8%). Three schools: the aforementioned St Damians, Longdendale, and Copley all improved their pupils successes in exams by over 10% compared to last year.

What makes this especially satisfying is that we’ve reached these goals despite the financial challenges we face. We’ve achieved results that equal or beat affluent boroughs with more funding for schools and lower figures for child poverty and deprivation.

Almost every politician, think tank and charity – regardless of their political leanings – accepts that education is the best route for children to escape poverty, yet for too long the belief (and, unfortunately in some cases, the reality) has been that the quality of your education is dependent on how well-off your family and your local area is. The work that we’ve put in proves that this doesn’t have to be the case, and that we’re gone some way – although by no means all the way yet – to prove that there is another, better path.

We should therefore absolutely celebrate how far we’ve come, but at the same time we must acknowledge that more work remains to be done. I am absolutely certain that the teachers, parents and education professions in Tameside are up to the task. It might be a cliché, but for our children’s future let’s keep going onwards and upwards.

Inspiring our Children to Discover: New Schools in Tameside

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

One of the most basic and vital services that local government and its partners provide is educating our young people. We have a legal and moral responsibility to make sure that every young person in Tameside can reach their full potential.

That’s why I’m delighted to announce that the Autumn Term is now in full swing at the Inspire Academy on Mossley Road in Ashton. While in the past we have knocked down and re-built existing schools, the Inspire Academy is the first brand new school to be built in Tameside since the creation of the borough in 1974. But the Inspire Academy is not the only new school that is being built in Tameside. Work also continues on the Discovery Academy off Porlock Avenue in Hattersley, and its doors are set to open in time for the start of the Autumn Term next year.

Both academies are located in areas where demand for school places is predicted to increase sharply in the next few years. Together, they will offer places for 840 children aged 4-11 and 104 nursery places.  Plans have also been put in place to allow the academies to expand their capacity on a year by year basis.

We would not have been able to build these schools in this tough economic climate without £8 million of grant funding from the government’s Targeted Basic Need Programme. However, this money comes with the condition that the schools are sponsored academies. It’s not what I would have wanted in a perfect world, but given a choice between academies or no new schools at all I make no apologies for taking the decision that’s best for Tameside.

The Carillion Academies Trust will therefore be sponsoring and running both schools.  We’ve worked closely and productively with them while the schools were being planned and built and I’m sure this good relationship will continue in the future.

But in the modern world education is a lot more than what goes on in schools. While we may be hands off with the new academies the council retains important roles in areas such as children’s centres, apprenticeships and youth services. In December we will also be formally launching Tameside’s first Youth Council, ensuring that the voices of our young people are heard in all the decisions we make.  With this, we are doing our bit to make sure that the future for those who come after us is as bright as it can possibly be.

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