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The Dialogue: Schools policy

Are the Government’s reforms actually improving Britain’s schools? Kevin Brennan and Nick Gibb struggle to agree





Nick Gibb < @parliament.uk                                                  
Sent: 07 December 2012 08:32                                                                                                                                                                                         
Dear Kevin,
Over the last two years difficult decisions have had to be taken to tackle a budget deficit that was pushing Britain to the brink of financial collapse. In terms of percentage of GDP, that deficit has been reduced by a quarter. As a consequence, capital markets have been assured and private sector employment has risen by 1.2m since 2010.
One of the difficult decisions that had to be taken was to end the wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme which consumed hundreds of millions of pounds in consultants’ and lawyers’ fees and millions of pounds on extravagant designs.
Last week’s Autumn Statement will yield further savings, of which £980m (£230m in 2013/14 and £750m in 2014/15) can be used to build new free schools and academies, as well as capital to help good schools expand.
Free schools such as IES Brecklands in Brandon, Suffolk, the Bristol Free School, and the West London Free School are delivering the kind of education parents in those areas want for their children but which their local authorities have failed to provide.
The £980m of capital will mean more such projects can be given the green light. Best wishes, Nick




Kevin Brennan < @parliament.uk                                                  
Sent: 07 December 2012 14:01                                                                                                                                                                                        

Dear Nick,
Britain’s economy was growing again in 2010. Cutting school building spending by 80% was reckless and contributed to the subsequent double dip recession.
£980m is a fraction of the £3.3bn cuts planned for schools and colleges. This money is being spent on pet projects when it should be targeted at the crisis in primary school places. The first duty of the Secretary of State for Education should be to ensure that there are sufficient places.
We know from the National Audit Office that the DfE has already overspent on its Academy programme by £1bn, money that could have used to help tackle the places crisis. We need a policy for all pupils not just the few if we are to tackle underachievement.
Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme worked. A Government report which was disclosed following FOI requests showed that at 62% of the schools sampled, GCSE results were improving at a rate that was above the national average, and attendance improved in 73% of the schools. Standards can be raised, as shown by London Challenge under Labour when stronger performing schools help weaker ones, but not by skewing scarce resources to bolster pet projects. Warm regards, Kevin




Nick Gibb < @parliament.uk                                                  
Sent: 09 December 2012 17:50                                                                                                                                                                                        

Dear Kevin,
I was surprised you raised the issue of primary school places, given that it is widely acknowledged that the last Labour Government ignored warnings about a looming shortage of school places as a result of the rising birth rate. Instead, capital was pumped into the wasteful Building Schools for the Future Programme. By contrast, this Government has substantially increased capital expenditure for new school places. In 2011, this was doubled from £400m to £800m a year. In November 2011 Michael Gove announced an additional £500m for the 2011/12 year. And the Chancellor announced £600m more capital for school places in his 2011 Autumn Statement.
I was also surprised by your dismissal of the Academies and Free Schools programmes as “pet projects”. They’re not pet projects; these programmes are at the very core of the Government’s education reform programme (in addition to phonics, of course). Indeed, Lord Adonis, Labour’s policy adviser and former Schools Minister, has said of Free Schools: “They play a valuable role in meeting parental demand for good new schools and extra school places within the academy system, promoting innovation, diversity and choice in their approaches to teaching ...” Is Andrew wrong?
Best wishes, Nick



Kevin Brennan < @parliament.uk                                                  
Sent: 11 December 2012 11:40                                                                                                                                                                                         
Dear Nick,
I use the term pet projects because the Government is pursuing the programme for ideological reasons. I believe you are genuine in your desire to see standards rise, but the current approach is wrong headed. Michael Gove has introduced a free schools programme and said he wants profit making schools; both are Swedish imports. But Sweden has fallen significantly in the international league tables in the past decade, particularly for reading. By contrast England’s position in league tables for reading has risen, as a result of better teaching, and programmes like Every Child a Reader, which has been cut by the Government.
Would you agree that more important than school structures is the quality of teaching and learning? Since 2010, we have seen 10,000 teachers leave the profession. We are witnessing the introduction of a narrow curriculum and exam system. I wonder if you would also agree with the CBI who have called for a pause in the introduction of EBacc Certificates? They say “there is a risk that the mistakes of the past – both teaching to the test by schools and micro-management of the school system through the means of exams and league tables – may be repeated”.
As ever, Kevin




Nick Gibb < @parliament.uk                                                  
Sent: 11 December 2012 19:58                                                                                                                                                                                         
Dear Kevin,
I agree that we should eschew ideology. What matters is what works. OECD evidence shows that schools perform better with increased autonomy, particularly when combined with the accountability of external exams. If you don’t like the Swedish example, how about the United States? The Knowledge is Power Programme schools are charter schools, akin to free school academies in this country. KIPP schools serve some of the poorest neighbourhoods with 87% of pupils receiving federally-subsidised meals. Nationally, 80% of KIPP school leavers go on to college or university.
I also agree that the quality of teaching is paramount. High performing countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea recruit their teachers from the top quarter of graduates. The Government has raised the entry requirements for teacher training places but has still managed to fill all but two of its recruitment targets (maths is at 95% and physics 97%). Seventy one per cent of trainees have at least a 2:1 degree, up six percentage points on last year.
As for EBacc Certificates, we need to ensure our exams are on a par with the best in the world and we need to remove systemic downward pressures on standards caused by boards competing for market share.
With best wishes, Nick




Kevin Brennan < @parliament.uk                                                  
Sent: 12 December 2012 11:31                                                                                                                                                                                         
Dear Nick,
The Government’s examination board and Ebacc Certificate proposals are unravelling. Ofqual has written to Michael Gove to warn of “significant risks” in his approach. Successful exam reform requires consensus and proper pilots. Gambling for political reasons with young people’s futures in this way is reprehensible.
Michael Gove has been rapped over the knuckles by the Statistics Authority for misusing PISA figures to paint a wholly inaccurate picture of our educational performance internationally, and has promoted a narrower curriculum at a time when the highest performing jurisdictions are following the evidence to move in the opposite direction. Unleashing creativity is the way to raise attainment, not Gradgrindian rote learning.
This week’s TIMMS and PIRLS studies have shown that real progress was made in the late 90s and 2000s and that the image of this country plummeting down the league tables of international performance is a parody of the facts.
If Michael Gove was serious about raising standards further by learning from countries like Finland, he would insist that teachers were properly qualified in all our schools and would not be moving towards a system where taxpayer funded schools will be run for private profit.
Yours, Kevin
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