A Manifesto (Agenda) for Progressive Public Education: Part 1

Public Education: Social Justice Project or Job Training, Panel Discussion

At the end of September this year, just when teachers were recovering from the exhausting first month of school, Educators for Social Justice held a Friday night panel discussion and Saturday workshop session dedicated to exploring the forces affecting public education in this province and coming up with a positive agenda for ensuring the future of progressive public education. Co-sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (NS), the NS Parents for Public Education and the SMU Department of Social Justice and Community Studies, the event was held at Saint Mary’s University, and attracted teachers, parents and community members.

The Friday evening panel was kicked off by the reading of a message from Paul Wozney, President of the NSTU, who congratulated the group and succinctly stated the constraints facing public education in NS today – a government in thrall to profit-driven interests that seem to want to monetize learning, while eroding the constitutional bargaining rights of teachers. Eliminating school boards was an example of change being rammed through, while positive changes requested by teachers have been stalled. He finished by expressing the desire for an education system designed so that every student will be able to experience a fulfilling future.

Larry Haiven, the moderator of the panel and one of the organizers of NS Parents for Public Education, talked about the battle that has been going on across Canada for the hearts and minds of parents and how the labour disputes of the past 2 years in NS have crystalized the need for an independent voice for parents. Those disputes had the positive side effect of mobilizing the public and raising awareness of teacher concerns – the surprising growth of the Facebook page to over 20,000 participants is a testament to this. The motivation for the conference was to zero in on what do we actually want for public education – a vehicle for transforming lives or a “utilitarian treadmill delivering employment and consumerism”, thus the title of the panel, “Public Education: Social Justice Project or Job Training”.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 7.01.20 PMPanel: On screen, Pamela Rogers,  L-R: Rachel Brickner, Erika Shaker, Tina Roberts-Jeffers

The first speaker was Erika Shaker, Senior Education Researcher and Editor of Our Schools/Ourselves at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She began with her realization that the “institutional left” had been too comfortable in their belief that they stand for social justice and warned us that what’s happening in Ontario with the new Ford majority government should be a wakeup call for everyone interested in good public education. She hopes that “massive sustained popular education and mobilizing” will help curb the regressive instincts of the Ford government. Educators will be on the front lines, as they are already affected by being a target for union disruption, losing sick days, and being subject to a “snitch line” designed to prevent them from teaching the updated sex ed curriculum. However, they are ideally placed to affect change because they interact daily with the public. It will be important that all involved invest in the work of outreach and listening, especially to marginalized and underserved communities, and that they work to make alliances and support these agents of change. It will be important to suspend defensiveness, particularly when working with these groups. There is a huge role to be played countering the conservative narrative of the lazy public servant wasting taxpayers’ money, exploding myths and “alternative facts” like “Ontario’s math scores are the lowest in the country” and constantly making the connection between taxes and social programs. She talked about the present situation in NS being an opportunity to build community, to build trust from the ground up and to help bring all communities into the discussion. In particular we need to listen to the deeply unequal ways in which kids experience school (streaming, funding formulas, and poverty are good places to start) and find ways of holding those in power to account.

The second speaker, Pamela Rogers, currently working for the Canadian Teachers Federation, joined us from Ottawa. She had entitled her presentation, “I think about leaving every day”, which was a quote from one of the 300 NS teachers surveyed last year by the Educators for Social Justice – and contrasted this with a quote about education from the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), “Our bias is the market”. She began with a brief history of neo-liberal education policy in NS, which reflects capitalism in the second half of the 20thcentury. In this prevailing view, school is a pipeline to the workplace, so emphasis needs to be on math and sciences as this is what advanced societies need. Accountability for teachers results in increased surveillance, testing and standardization and this ensures “efficiency” so that governments can implement “austerity” and save taxpayers’ money. This efficiency is helped along by privatised entities (Powerschool, charter schools) and the reduction of democratic institutions (reducing the number of school boards in the early 90’s). With this logic, the concept of “value” is seen in terms of the market value – for example, more money and energy is put towards STEM subjects at the expense of the arts and social studies, because they are seen as having more value for job training. Teachers’ are valued for how efficient they are at achieving the desired results, BUT this system does not account for all the unpaid labour that teachers put in – in fact she quotes Moore as saying “most (capitalist) systems would collapse without the unpaid work of its labourers”.

pamrogers slide 2018-11-19 at 1.19.48 PM

Pamela talked about how manufactured crises have been used to invoke reform in education – in particular how results from international tests such as PISA have been conflated with economic prosperity. So-called deficiencies in these test results have been used to force changes, such as a concentration on educational basics that are supposed to improve test results that are in turn believed to ensure our economic prosperity. The response to the “achievement gaps” between marginalized groups and the mainstream are a way of showing that social justice is not important – only getting test scores up is valued.

Finally, Pamela shared some responses from the 2018 Teacher Voices survey, wherein over one third of the respondents said they would not be able to continue. She concludes that teachers, as well as administrators and students are the ones paying for this “bias for the market” and that the system is unsustainable. She asks the group to look at the question, what is our collective bias for education, and how do we advocate for change? With teacher shortages coming up, I wonder if the “market” will force the government to value teachers more – or do they have something else in mind?

Tina Roberts-Jeffersdescribes herself as a mum, and a computer science student with a history of activism for African Nova Scotian education. She is also chair of her children’s school’s SAC and was a school counsellor in the Chicago public schools. She framed her discussion around the idea of “voice” – the idea that everyone should be able to participate fully in our democracy, but that some voices are still not being heard. She reminded us that when common schools were established in NS, African Nova Scotian children were not allowed to attend and one way that racism is perpetuated is by burying the voices of marginalized groups. She describes a 3 volume report that was compiled by the Black Learners Advisory Committee, containing history, results of research done by the committee and a framework for action – a report that has rarely been referenced in any of the succeeding educational reports.

She got involved in educational activism in NS around the time of the labour disruption. She spoke at the first press conference as a parent, saying that she trusted the teachers more than the government, and pointing out the hypocrisy of a government that expects parents to trust teachers with their children’s future, but not in their ability to negotiate what is best for them. She also took part in the second press conference where many regular parents had space to express themselves. That and the Facebook group NS Parents for Teachers, which she helped set up, were important for parents who look for responsivity when deciding how to use their precious time.

Tina described taking her children to play at their school during the summer, and finding racist graffiti sprayed all over the doors and other parts of the building – something she had never experienced before even though she grew up in the States. Having to shield her children from this hate pushed her into sharing the story with the media, something she was reluctant to do initially. However, now she is glad she did it and feels that her voice was heard. But this doesn’t negate the daily indignities that racialized children face at school, and there is still lots to be done. She hopes that real educational reform will be accessible, inclusive and that all involved will listen to the lived experiences of the marginalized communities whose voice hasn’t been taken into account.

Rachel Brickner, the last speaker, is a professor of political science at Acadia University, concerned with workers’ activism and the feminist ethic of care. She described examples of teacher activism from Chicago where the teachers union held a 2 week strike, and tied bargaining to “creating schools that Chicago’s children deserve”. At the time, many children in the public high schools had been rejected from “magnet” and charter schools and felt left out and discouraged. The teachers won many of their demands, but soon after the school board closed 50 public schools in low income areas (mostly Black and Latino) and shifted the money to charter schools. In Michigan, sweeping “reforms” cut education budgets by $1 billion, weakened collective bargaining, and started using test scores to evaluate teachers. One side effect was that teachers were reluctant to teach children with exceptionalities, both gifted and learning disabled, because these students don’t typically “improve” their test scores as much as regular kids.

Rachel warned about the increasing disconnect between educators and the government in NS, with the constantly shifting policy goals, diverse groups of students and fewer resources to support them. With the perceived lack of public trust, this can lead to teacher shortages. Part of the problem is the adversarial nature of collective bargaining that often leaves individuals and the public out of the picture, especially when the government has the upper hand with various anti-union legislations. In the States, a recent Supreme Court decision means that public sector unions will no longer be able to mandate dues. At the same time, an increasing disconnect between educators and their unions, has been found, resulting from a lack of member engagement strategies. In Chicago recently, teachers have started organizing outside their unions with petitions etc. And finally, the biggest disconnect is between all above groups and the public – parents don’t know what is going on in the schools because teachers cover up what’s not working, and non-parents are even more distant. What can be done to remedy the situation? Much better dialogue between the parties will help, with teachers on the frontlines, embracing research and communicating it, and finding ways to raise awareness of the importance of education for a healthy society. Even non-parents should know about the impact of schools on house prices in their neighbourhoods! Everyone should be asking the question, “What kind of schools do our children deserve?” And like in Michigan, more teachers should run for public office – a great way to raise awareness of educational issues.

A lively question and answer session followed. Part 2 will cover the Saturday workshops.


Charter Schools: an idea whose time has gone. Part 2

For some children and their parents in NS, the start of the new school year was a nightmare. Lost bus drivers or buses that never came meant late arrivals, stranded kids and unnecessary hours of anxious waiting for parents. Complaints were loud and vociferous, and Stock Transport, the American multinational contracted to deliver Halifax County’s children to school, was called on the carpet.

When the dust had settled, after a weekend where the routers worked non-stop to clarify routes and iron out the problems, things seemed back on track. But what I found really interesting was that it was only on September 13, more than a week after the start of school, that Stock Transport hosted a “job fair”. As well as bus drivers, they were also looking for a bilingual router and operations specialists – could it be that Stock started the school year short staffed? Is it possible that they were trying to save money by minimizing the staff needed?

The last time I noticed Stock in the news was in February…”In a scathing report published last November , Stock was found to have committed eight violations, including operating a charter service without a licence, resisting or willfully obstructing inspectors, demanding drivers work beyond the driving hours permitted and falsifying records.” They narrowly avoided losing their school bus license, and the CEO publicly blamed a “rogue” regional manager who was fired when the problems came to light.

Part 1 of this post ended with the question “Why are AIMS and its relatives still promoting charter schools in Canada?” I used the example of the privatization of our Halifax school buses to show how corporations have been eying the education system looking for ways they can make a profit. But the push for profits sometimes has a dark side: skimping on hiring, risking safety by forcing drivers to work more hours than permitted, and then obstructing inspectors.

In Nova Scotia, we have seen creeping privatisation in education: P3 schools, imported standardized tests, vouchers to private schools instead of meeting students’ needs in the public system, outsourcing data management and bussing, Powerschool and tutoring agencies to name a few. Charter schools would just be another way to accelerate this transfer of money from the public to the private sphere.

To see how this story ends, one only has to look at what has been happening south of the border.  In some states, such as California, charter schools have starved the public system of funds.  Every time a student leaves the public school for a charter, their previous school loses out because public money follows the student.

Many states in the US pay their teachers poorly, but this can be exacerbated in the charter system where teachers’ salaries can be determined by their students’ standardized test scores, and where unions do not exist. But, while paying teachers less, it is not uncommon to see charter schools paying huge salaries to administrators and Boards of Directors (this also happens in British academies).The president of one California charter chain Altus Institute, Mary Bixby, was paid $371,160 in 2014—”exceeding the total pay plus benefits of the Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District that serves nearly 130,000 students.”time mag cover teachersInvestors in charter schools, like billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, make good money – he is receiving a 10% annual return on his “impact investment” in a charter chain that has recently built 79 schools in poor neighbourhoods. By investing through his charitable foundation, he probably also manages to save on taxes that could support public education.

Nova Scotians have recently lost, through local school board abolition, their ability to question their school board members about education issues.  But there has always been secrecy surrounding charter school administration. In California, wealthy interest groups are lobbying and exerting political pressure “to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity. All of the above are expected of public schools.” – and not necessarily provided by charter schools.

Canada is the mouse sleeping next to the elephant. When the US twitches, we can be crushed. What infects them, often spreads to us. The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that has gripped US education policy for the last 20 years has been advancing the 2-tiered, semi-privatized education system that has resulted in the rise of charter schools (and a widening achievement gap between rich and poor). And now they have an Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was chosen for her long-time support for charter schools.  Her husband, a billionaire former Amway CEO, actually runs a charter school in Michigan, where students can learn to pilot airplanes. This year, the education budget she proposed cut $9 billion (13%) from the federal education budget, while increasing support by $1.4 billion for charter schools and vouchers. Fortunately, Congress rejected it – but she’s not finished yet.

Appearing on CNN in 2017, she endorsed one charter/private school, Acton academy, as “truly a unique model in that it’s totally student directed, there’s no teacher in the classroom…and the school is actually proliferating pretty rapidly through the country.”

Acton Academies are really proliferating – on their website it tells you how you can start your own franchise – there’s even one in Toronto. I have to admit that their methodology  sounds progressive. It had me yearning to plunk down my $10,000 (one time start up fee, other costs “as low as $50,000”) to start up my own academy! But here’s what the school really looks like:  a lot of kids on computers playing educational games, with “guides” (not teachers) monitoring the process. “In an elementary class of 36 to 40 students there currently are two Guides; the middle school has one Guide for 36 students, though the number of Guides is expected to drop as high school students take over these responsibilities. No professional development is done to support technology implementation.” No B.Eds are required – heck, even the high school students can do the job!

Forbes Magazine loves this idea: “Sure, this kind of experimental education might be illegal in many liberal states captive to teachers unions, who will defend their taxpayer-supported, substandard product to their last breath. But in places that encourage home schooling, the legal groundwork has already been laid. All the market is waiting for is someone like Jeff (Sandefer, Acton founder) to come along with a replicable model.”

If these Acton schools sound appealing to you, even though they are only for those wealthy enough to pay its fees, think of their poor cousins, the “storefront charters” or “Independent Learning Resource Centres”. These are also proliferating, especially in California, where they target “at risk kids” and have had abysmal graduation and drop-out rates. But they are lucrative because they are so easy to run – the student only has to report in once a week and is responsible for completing work packets and passing the tests based on them. The teacher/student ratio is astronomical so costs are  low.

So it’s no wonder AIMS and its relatives, the Fraser Institute and the CD Howe Institute, funded by wealthy business interests, with their boards stocked with billionaires, are salivating at the thought of the business opportunities promised by the charter school model. They read Forbes, and are well aware of one of the major impediments to full privatization: teachers unions. Hence the orchestrated attack on them, while at the same time they promote charter schools. Soon, if GERM spreads more, they will be touting “independent learning centres”, where teachers’ role is minimized, if not eliminated entirely.

I’m not even in the union, but I will defend our taxpayer-supported, but not substandard, public education system to my last breath. In fact, convincing us that our public education system and our teachers are substandard  has been one of AIMS’ aims for many years – but we know that Canada has one of the best education systems in the world.  Instead of diverting our public money to charters and other privatized schools, why not focus on making our good public schools even better so that the billionaires who fund think tanks like AIMS and the CEOs of companies like Stock Transport would be happy to send their children to them? It can be done.


Charter Schools – an idea whose time has gone. Part 1

Just around the time Nova Scotian kids and their parents were navigating the start of a new school year (a particularly rocky start for the many who take have to take school buses) innocuous seeming opinion pieces appeared in several eastern Canadian newspapers. These articles claimed kids in Atlantic Canada “aren’t getting access to the educational choices they deserve” and touted “an innovative solution right here in Canada: charter schools”. They were written by Paige MacPherson (new Atlantic director of Canadian Taxpayers Federation – an organization devoted to reducing taxes) and her claim is that charter schools will provide more school choice for parents, superior academic results and, on top of it all, save money for taxpayers. All these claims, and more, can be found in a new research paper put out by AIMS, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, coincidentally authored by Macpherson herself.  http://www.aims.ca/books-papers/charter-schools-alberta-untapped-potential-educational-diversity-eastern-canada/

Most of the paper is about Alberta, because it is the only province in Canada where charter schools exist. Despite having been established there for more than 20 years, since 1994, only 1.4 % of the student population attend charter schools in Alberta, and most of those are in the largest cities. Despite this, MacPherson claims that their model has something to offer the rest of Canada. She claims that charter schools enable greater school choice, which will ultimately mean competition between schools. This will supposedly lead to a raising of academic standards across the board.

However, time for a quick reality check. In Alberta, there are almost no charter schools in rural areas. Charter schools and the “school choice” model, are generally an urban phenomenon, because a high population density is required to support competing schools within feasible travel range. In the Nova Scotia, where many school districts face declining enrolments, rural areas often face the problem that their only school may not have enough students to stay open at all. In areas which can only support one school, even when students spend hours every day on a school bus to attend, “school choice” is a ridiculous concept – and more than 50% of students in Nova Scotia live in small towns or rural areas.  Although parts of downtown Halifax and perhaps Sydney, may be able to support several competing schools, these are essentially the only places in Nova Scotia where “school choice” is a practical possibility. Given this reality, locally based school boards have historically been the way in which parents could have input into their children’s schooling. However, Nova Scotia has just eliminated school boards (another AIMS idea). In an era when small rural communities are often losing their schools the idea that charter schools will increase parents’ choice or input into their children’s schooling is laughable.

Even for major metropolitan centres, Macpherson ignores the fact that great diversity is provided within the public systems of large cities like Toronto and Vancouver where parents can choose from a wide variety of alternative schools. If school choice is what she values, why doesn’t she call for Halifax and other large Atlantic cities to adopt a Toronto style system of public alternative schools?

Her second claim, that charter schools will produce superior academic results is also suspect.  Using the Fraser Institute “report card” on schools (whose validity is also highly suspect), MacPherson claims that the 13 Alberta charter schools outperform the over 1000 public schools, and uses this graph:

charter school test results

Apart from the fact that any standardized test scores show only one aspect of a school’s worth, there is no explanation of what test results she is actually using from the past 10 years or why she doesn’t use the handy “mark out of 10” that the Fraser Institute uses to grade schools. She dismisses (without providing evidence) the well-founded objection that charter schools attract children from “an engaged demographic” and that this “may skew standardized test scores”.  She maintains that the Charter Schools handbook states “charter schools cannot turn students away, if they have the capacity to take them on” so therefore they cannot be elitist. This is completely disingenuous as anyone knows who is familiar with the lengths education-savvy parents will go to in getting their kids in to the “best” schools.

And as for saving money for taxpayers, MacPherson speculates that if 50% of Alberta students were in charter schools, the government would save over a billion dollars a year.  What this wishful thinking completely ignores is that private and charter schools  can select the students who will have the least problems and they can rely on the public system to develop curriculum that they can use. The public school per pupil amount covers the cost of the department infrastructure, including all the specialists and curriculum developers that are part of any education system. The major way charter schools could save money is by cutting the largest education expense of all – teachers’ salaries. And that would mean undermining teachers’ unions, which is what Grant Frost, in his excellent article https://frostededucation.com/2018/09/15/the-charter-school-cometh-aims-finds-a-new-champion-in-its-privatization-efforts/ maintains is one of the real motivations behind this push for charter schools.

It’s interesting that MacPherson doesn’t use examples from the US or Britain, where charter schools or their equivalent have been operating on a much larger scale than Alberta for the last few decades – and where there is a large literature evaluating rigorously (and mostly negatively) the claims of the charter school movement.

I have spent some time in Britain recently investigating the “academization” that started there about 20 years ago when “failing” schools (mostly in poor neighbourhoods) were taken over, sometimes by private interests, and made into “academies”, which were basically charter schools with a huge injection of cash. I have written about this in previous blog posts: https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/03/28/standardized-tests-can-lead-to-a-2-tier-system-part-2/

Although the hype at the start was that academization would give disadvantaged students access to the best education, what has actually happened is that 20 years later there is basically no difference in academic standards between academies and schools that have remained in the public system, but lots of evidence that segregation between privileged and disadvantaged students has deepened.  And has all this produced better results across the board? On international comparisons, such as PISA, test scores have only marginally improved.

What also happened was that Britain went from having 152 Local Education Authorities (school boards) to over 3000 Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) plus the LEAs, all with their administrative structure, their school governors and bureaucratic systems. The cost of education has ballooned, while individual schools have been starved of resources, particularly the Local Authority schools. And where has all that money gone? Much of it has gone to the private interests that support and run these Multi-Academy Trusts.

So, after 20 years of academization in Britain, education costs have soared, the gap between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged has widened and internationally comparable test scores show little change. Academies haven’t worked in England, and they won’t work here. So why are AIMS and its relatives like the Fraser Institute still promoting charter schools in Canada?  Stay tuned for part 2 for what I think are some of the real reasons behind this push.


So good to be back in Nova Scotia!

What the Globe didn’t print

I guess it was too much to expect that the Globe and Mail would print something that was critical of their recent crazy editorials, and they didn’t, so I’m publishing the letter I sent them yesterday here.

To the Editor,

Re the June 4  editorial, “The Ontario NDP is stuck in a groove” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-globe-editorial-the-ontario-ndp-is-stuck-in-a-old-groove/, may I respectfully say the groove is mutual – the dismissal of Andrea Horwath’s reason for scrapping the EQAO because it is “a wish-list item of the teachers’ unions” reinforces the stereotype of the greedy union. Unions are made up of their members, and in this case, when teachers want to reduce standardized testing, it is because they know its negative effects on children and learning, and they know that the most successful education systems have minimal testing. It is not because they have anything to gain materially from it. Horwath is refreshing and fairly unique among politicians in that she has consulted with the experts on education, the teachers, through their unions, and is using evidence to promote good policy.

Yours sincerely,  Molly Hurd

Of course, this letter only tackled one tiny aspect of the article, and there is so much more I could have said. The Globe will always defend the business interests of the elite, even to the point, as in today’s editorial, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-globe-editorial-for-ontario-voters-leadership-and-vision-are-not-on/ of encouraging people to vote for a party led by a “populist chancer”  who is incompetent, a drug dealer (in high school) and a liar. “It defies recent experience to believe that a person like that will be moderated by high office. Mr. Ford has furthermore failed to explain how he will pay for his many promised tax cuts. He is no fiscal conservative.” In spite of that, and in spite of actually giving the NDP platform faint praise yesterday, they now conclude that “if you are lucky enough to have a local candidate who embodies integrity and principle, we encourage you to support him or her”…which is tacitly telling people to vote conservative in spite of Doug Ford. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s just like they did in the last federal election when they endorsed the conservatives, but not Harper.

Fortunately, I doubt many young people read the Globe and Mail, which is making itself more irrelevant by the day. And hopefully, those young ones, the ones under 35, will get out and vote in droves tomorrow.

20180605_131209Photo from Barcelona, where they have amazing separated bike lanes everywhere. Here there is a special lane for bikes, and then taxis and motorcycles, with the main traffic in the middle. Can’t wait to get out on a bike tomorrow!

Dear Kathleen Wynne,

Dear Kathleen Wynne,

You have already conceded defeat in the upcoming Ontario election, a startling and unprecedented event that has left many of your Liberal supporters bewildered and scrambling. In my last blogpost on this topic, (https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/05/10/ford-nation-again-never/) I expressed my admiration for you for what you accomplished in education in Ontario. However, your legacy, in my eyes, will be toast if you continue to exhort your followers to vote Liberal regardless, just to prevent a Conservative or NDP majority. Your argument is that the Liberals will need enough seats to hold the balance of power in a minority government situation, no matter who wins.

To hold that an NDP or Conservative majority are equally bad prospects is to equate their platforms – and it is ridiculous to compare the NDP’s 97 page, detailed and fully costed platform with Ford’s uncosted, fuzzy list of vague promises. The only way Ford claims to be able to pay for billions of dollars’ worth of promises is by cutting “waste” in government, starting with the kinds of paper they use. By being vague about what kind of “waste” he’ll get rid of, he leaves the door open to cut things like libraries, teachers and nurses…and his past priorities indicate that this is his agenda. All the major media outlets in Ontario have pilloried Ford’s platform, and for you to promote this false equivalence between the two parties is dangerous and immoral.

Kathleen Wynne, get out there and start encouraging your supporters to vote NDP in ridings where the Liberals don’t have a chance. It’s the only way to stop a Ford government, and make no bones about it, Ford is no “progressive” conservative. He’s a Trump admirer, a bombastic populist who will gaily make life much worse for minorities, women and the poor in Ontario. He’ll decimate your progressive sex education curriculum and undo years of successful progressive educational policies that have made Ontario a global high flyer in education. Just this morning, for example, an article about arts education in Britain noted: “By contrast, in high-performing jurisdictions around the world, including Singapore and Ontario, Canada, pupils are required to study arts subjects to age 17 or 18” (https://culturallearningalliance.org.uk/arts-in-englands-schools-the-current-picture/) Why mess with this?

Yet Ford’s promotional video about education is introduced with the words, “Ontario’s kids are getting failing grades.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSNF2Ym6UIc Take a look at the video, narrated by a fake “newscaster”, and hear him in his own words promising to bring education “back to basics” – totally ignorant that Ontario children are already among the best performing students in the world.

A Horwath minority government would be a totally different proposition to work with than a Ford one – let’s face it, you are much more philosophically aligned with the NDP than with the Conservatives. Horwath has promised to build on your successes in education, not rip them apart. We’ve seen in the recent BC election that a small number of seats can hold the balance of power, and wield tremendous influence – but would you seriously consider propping up Doug Ford?

I’ve always been dubious about strategic voting, but unfortunately under this flawed first past the post system we have, it is sometimes necessary. And this is one of those times – the NDP could win the popular vote and still lose the seat count because there are ridings where a Liberal/NDP vote split could result in an extra Conservative seat.

So, Kathleen, wield whatever power you have left wisely and help stop the disaster that a “buck a beer” Ford government would be. Ontario voters deserve better.


Cheeky colonial tells Britain what to do

The Observer is the Sunday edition of the Guardian, so I wrote this letter a week ago, and never expected it to see the light of day. Indeed, I had forgotten all about it, so when I opened the newspaper yesterday morning, I was gobsmacked to see it printed as the lead letter!

I expect there will be a lot of people reading this who will dismiss me outright as  naive and presumptuous – who is this person from Canada telling us what to do? What does she know about us?  I’m hoping it’ll get some reaction, but  I’ll have to wait till next Sunday’s Observer to see.


I was inspired to write it after reading a tweet from the Department for Education wishing high school students “luck” on the GCSE exams that were starting last week. There has been a whole series of articles recently about how stressful these exams are for the 16 year old children who are presently sitting up to 25 1 1/2 hour exams each over a period of a month and a half – how teachers have to manage kids’ anxiety, kids throwing up, threatening suicide (and some succeeding). It’s all made more stressful recently because coursework has been eliminated, and students’ entire grade, and therefore their future prospects, depends on these exams – and they are told that repeatedly. So it seemed rather disingenuous for the people who manufactured this stress to wish the students “luck”.

Here’s the first paragraph that was chopped (rightly so, the letter was way too long):

“What is going on with your education system? Today the DfE is tweeting “good luck” to students writing their GCSEs. Really? What kind of luck is going to help them at this point? Luck that the questions will somehow match what they have revised? Luck that they don’t fall ill in the middle of an exam? If it is that kind of luck that is needed to do well on these exams that determine the course of their lives, then your system has failed them. But I suspect the kind of luck they need has already been doled out at birth – class, socio-economic level, and parents’ education.”

The rest of the letter just seemed to follow.

May 28 2018

And I did get some reaction!  in yesterday’s Observer, this letter: Happy kids, whatever next? from John Filby of Derbyshire.


Can’t have too much happiness! But don’t worry, 30 years of exams, targets, stress, stress, stress – that’s cured it. Thanks John.

Who’s going to fight for arts education?

Last Sunday afternoon, we walked around our neighbourhood in East Oxford, visiting artists in their studios and homes. What a fantastic way to get to know this community, and what a wonderful look into the art world! It is Art Week here, and just like during the studio tours in Nova Scotia, it is a chance to explore the vibrant artistic community we live in. The arts are hugely important to people and to communities.


Arts education is the latest aspect of education threatened in NS since the Glaze report.  McNeil certainly isn’t letting the grass grow under his feet in implementing his neo-liberal agenda for education. Getting rid of elected school boards, traditionally the go-to place for parents with issues, was the first step in a long future of standardization, centralization and cutbacks.  We have already seen the looking glass reality that is the government’s response to the inclusion report – “190 new hires” – which ends up being closer to zero when you count the resource teachers and guidance counsellors being cut at the same time. “The number of learning centre FTEs will go to 221.5 from 197 this year, including 20 that were added in November 2017” – to follow what is going on we’ll need to pay close attention to words like those in italics – note that the 24.5 new FTE’s this year include 20 that were already added last year. http://thechronicleherald.ca/metro/1570559-halifax-regional-centre-for-education-denies-complaint-of-staff-cuts

Much has been written about the importance of arts education – there is overwhelming evidence that it improves academic outcomes, encourages creativity and, like sports, is a way for many children to feel engaged in school. Appreciation of and the ability to create art or music is fundamental to well-being for adults – I know I owe my love of classical music to a Gr. 7 music teacher who had us following along annotated scores of symphonies as we listened (if she had introduced us to opera, it might not have taken me 40 years to appreciate it!).

If you have any doubts about the value of arts education, take a look at the websites of the private schools and see what they offer. By reducing arts education, we are once again widening the gap between those who already have and those who have not. Rich parents will always be able to provide private lessons and classes for their children. Schools in wealthy neighbourhoods will always be able to fundraise for extra artistic opportunities.  Public education, to be truly equitable, needs to provide good arts education for all.

In arts education, as in many other ways, Britain shows us what not to do.  A few years ago, Britain introduced a new qualification, the EBacc, for children finishing the first round of secondary exams, the GCSEs. In order to qualify, students would have to get a passing grade in 5 “core” subjects – English, math, history or geography, a foreign language and science. An arts subject was not a requirement – this narrowing of the curriculum meant that students were less likely to choose an arts course, arts programmes were more likely to be cut when money is tight (as it always is here) and eventually it could disappear altogether from secondary schools. Recently, over 100 artists and another group of musicians wrote an open letter to the government condemning the policy. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/may/08/artists-condemn-exclusion-of-arts-subjects-from-english-baccalaureate

Arts education in primary schools in Britain has also been a casualty of the ever-increasing worry about  standardized test results, which only measure the basic subjects. Interestingly, I read this week that the number of primary-aged children in Britain seeking mental health help had risen by a third in the past year alone to almost 10% of the population. Is this a coincidence, or is this related to the lack of a time within the day when children can focus on self-expression and be creative? There is a link between mental health and arts education, and we may find that expanding the arts in school will do more to improve our children’s mental health than all the psychiatrists in China.  As the scientist Charles Darwin said, “the loss of these tastes (appreciation of the arts) is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” 

I expect that what is happening in Halifax schools is the beginning of the standardization of arts education across the province – because Halifax voters chose to pay for  supplementary funding for the arts, Halifax has traditionally had good art and music programs. Unfortunately, instead of bringing the province up to the level of metro schools, Doug Hadley “CEO” of HRCE says, “the provincial curriculum calls for visual arts to be integrated into classroom instruction, so starting in September, it will be delivered by the classroom teacher in those schools ‘as it is in all other elementary schools in the HRCE and the province.’“ http://thechronicleherald.ca/metro/1570325-arts-being-expanded-not-cut-says-hrce

I’m afraid, indeed I’m sure, that by “integration into classroom instruction” he means overworked classroom teachers, already burdened by the 101 things they need to be teaching, will struggle to fit in a colouring or pasting activity each week. I’m a huge fan of integration of the arts – indeed I have written extensively about it in “Best School”.  However, it needs to be done with the collaboration of a specialist teacher who can pass on ways of seeing, techniques of expression and skill development methodologies that the regular non-artist classroom teacher just does not know. Children need direct contact with these specialists. The new reality in Halifax schools is that the specialists will be assigned to a family of schools, which could include thousands of children. There will be 9 specialists supporting 40 schools – it’s hard to believe that they will be able to provide meaningful arts education.

Nova Scotia has a detailed curriculum full of outcomes and goals. It should be intended as a baseline of what schools can do, a kind of bare minimum. Schools, left to their own initiative, will always aim higher than the minimum that the curriculum dictates – after all children do not stop learning after the outcomes are met. This government seems intent on making sure that all provincial schools will stick to the bare minimum when it comes to arts education. This will be a boon to private schools and after-school arts education providers and a slap in the face to equity for everyone else.  


Ford Nation again? Never!

Even though Nova Scotia has been home for over 40 years, and I’m presently living in the UK, hearing the news that Doug Ford has become the leading contender to be the next premier of Ontario has shaken me to the core. You see, I grew up in Ottawa, and received most of my formal education there. And my children, although mostly born and brought up in NS, have all left for greener pastures, and I now have 3 daughters and 4 grandchildren living in Ontario. One daughter lived through the nightmare of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto, (and I vicariously through her). I shudder with horror at the idea that his brother/sidekick can do to our largest province what the duo did to Toronto. In particular, having Doug oversee the education system that my 4 young grandchildren will be participating in fills me with fear for the future.

I have written elsewhere about the damage that Mike Harris, the last conservative premier of Ontario, did to education https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/02/21/102/. His neoliberal agenda trampled on the collective bargaining rights of teachers, upset the collegial, collaborative way educators interacted, and radically changed the way children are taught.

One of the most harmful things Harris did was bring in universal, high stakes standardized testing throughout the school years. I have written extensively about how high stakes testing creates a “teaching to the test” system where true learning becomes secondary to test scores. But Doug Ford makes Mike Harris look good – at least Harris had a very short stint as a teacher. Doug Ford’s biggest achievement in education was finishing high school, where he seems to have spent most of his time gaining practical business experience running a profitable hash dealing operation. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/globe-investigation-the-ford-familys-history-with-drug-dealing/article12153014/  His main education platform consists of ditching the progressive and respectful sex education curriculum introduced by the Wynne government.

I have to admit I was in despair, feeling like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion from afar, as the conservatives capitalized on the public’s desire for change. That changed when I read the latest polls and found that the NDP has moved into second place ahead of the Liberals and only 10 points behind the Conservatives. Suddenly there is hope, and when I read the NDP platform on education, I was immensely cheered. One of Andrea Horwath’s promises is to end standardized testing. “Working collaboratively with educators, we’ll determine how random sampling could support spotting early trends and deciding where we should focus on improvement, without driving teachers to “teach to the test.” That way we can leave individual assessment to the teachers’ professional judgement — they know their students best. We estimate this will save $40 million, which we will reinvest in the classroom.” https://www.ontariondp.ca/sites/default/files/Change-for-the-better.pdf Other items in the education section are “continuing the curriculum review currently underway”, capping kindergarten classes at 26, a “moratorium on school closures until the provincial funding formula is fixed”, and increasing affordable childcare spaces.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail reports that Ford has fleshed out his platform a little, adding proposals to scrap “discovery” math and to regulate free speech on campuses – both guaranteed dog-whistle  appeals to his base. “Free speech on campus” is code for the idea that groups looking for platforms to perpetuate misogyny, racism, and other dark elements in society should be able to find them on campus.  The discovery math debate dates from recent controversies about math scores in grade 6. The Wynne government has injected money, training and experts to help teachers improve their math teaching; Ford’s solution would be to drop all the gains in math pedagogy of the last few decades designed to improve children’s understanding and problem-solving abilities, and send math teaching back to the “good old days” – i.e. rote learning. (See Chapter 3, Best School in the World)

He has also promised to “improve” standardized testing – how? By making it more like South Korea’s, where kids have to study all hours of the day, and where the youth suicide rate is the highest in the world? Or perhaps he wants to emulate the dismal results of the USA where the “opt-out of tests” movement is gaining steam, and where teachers are so frustrated that they are staging illegal strikes and walkouts over their poor pay and working conditions (including testing)?

I have a lot of respect for Kathleen Wynne. She inherited a huge mess from the previous Liberal government, and she has spearheaded some excellent educational initiatives, including restoring teachers’ bargaining rights and implementing the aforementioned sex ed curriculum. However, the writing is on the wall: life has become much less affordable under the Liberals’ tenure and Ontarians are ready for a change. Andrea Horwath’s detailed, costed platform includes making childcare and hydro more affordable and converting student loans into grants, as well as addressing the poverty issues that affect children’s ability to do well in school. I see the NDP as the only way to prevent  Doug Ford’s victory and a descent backwards into the kind of nastiness we see emanating from south of the border.

Doug Ford, like Donald Trump, claims while he is campaigning that he will “stand up for the little guy” – and we already know how little that matters for Trump now he is in office. For sure, Doug Ford is not “standing up “ for kids – and the damage he can do to their education will last a lifetime.  Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have a positive message that everyone should listen to.

Standardized tests can lead to a 2 tier education system (Part 3)

Part 3: The Academy Boondoggle

In previous posts, I gave some examples of how the profit motive in education has led to a 2- tiered system in Britain – “good” schools for those with the resources to take advantage of them and then, all the rest. Academies, which were meant to address this disparity, have in many cases increased inequality of opportunity and widened the class divide.  In this post, I will underscore the aspects of Canadian culture on which we can build that can prevent this kind of thing from happening at home.

A few weeks ago, during the Oxford Literary Festival, I went to a talk by the romantically named Lord Adonis. The talk was about his and collaborator Will Hutton’s last ditch attempt to reverse Brexit by convincing MPs to hold a second referendum with a clear choice between Remain and whatever deal is on offer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Andrew Adonis was considered the “architect of academies” – he had been Blair’s Minister of Education right from the beginning of the New Labour government in 1997. I decided to read his book, “Education, Education, Education” (2012). I bitterly regret I didn’t wait around to ask him what he thinks of academies now.


Adonis’ book unapologetically boosts the notion that it was “stark, staringly obvious” that British schools were seriously bad, that Britain would never be able to compete successfully in the world economy, that teachers needed to be held accountable for the state of the nation’s schools, and that there was a “misconceived role of local education authorities as school managers”. He says things like, “weak leadership and discipline, exacerbated in many comprehensives (secondary schools) by a hard Left ideological hostility to ability setting (streaming) or proper systems of rewards and sanctions, reinforced failure with failure.” All this is from a man who has never taught or had any education training.

As an antidote to this unsubstantiated rant I also read a book by the unromantically named Clyde Chitty called Education Policy in Britain (2014). Chitty, a professor of education at University of London, is the author of over 30 books and reports and takes a much more evidence based approach, which demolishes many of the Adonis assertions. As I have written elsewhere, PISA and other studies have shown that education systems that use streaming, or selection based on “ability” do worse academically. “Rewards and sanctions” for teachers (merit pay, firing) have not been proven to improve academic results, but do add to teacher stress, demoralization and, eventually, teacher shortages.

In Part 2 of this series, I talked about “perverse incentives” that have led to unintended consequences. The most perverse incentive of all for an education system is the idea of making a profit from children’s education. In Britain, that motive has led to many unintended consequences such as middle classes navigating the system to their advantage https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/03/28/standardized-tests-can-lead-to-a-2-tier-system-part-2/ .  Their government’s overall goal, and that of GERM was always to remake the education system along a hierarchical, market driven model. Britain has quite explicitly done this and is well on the way to gutting their state education system. If “full academization” is allowed to happen (the present government has declared that every school must be an academy by 2022), they will have a genuinely 2-tiered state system of education – one where the gap between the “good” and “bad” schools is widening, and disadvantaged students are again shut out of opportunities.

What happened to Britain? After the second world war, there was a concerted effort by the 1940s Labour government to improve the lot of the working class, to break down class barriers and to create a more egalitarian society. The social safety net was widened, the NHS got its start and education experimented with cooperative, progressive models. The 1970s Labour Government abolished the 11+ exam which decided who could go to the prestigious grammar schools, and there was a will to replace those selective secondary schools with new “comprehensive” schools. But by the end of the 70’s conservative governments started complaining about the lack of standards created by this form of “child-centred” education, and the need for accountability for teachers. Margaret Thatcher set the back to basics movement into motion, and New Labour under Blair and Adonis continued the process.

Adonis was himself a beneficiary of the post war egalitarian ethos. A foster child, his ability to do well on exams secured him a place at an independent boarding school from where he won a place at Oxford. But being the beneficiary of a programme designed to pluck bright students out of the proletariat seemed to reinforce in him a basic belief in social hierarchy, albeit one based on “merit” rather than birth. That belief in hierarchy and the arrogance of the amateur expert on education produced sweeping assertions – when he visited comprehensive schools as Minister, he was adamant that they were so bad that incremental change was not enough – they had to be closed and reinvented. Huge amounts of public money later we have the present academy scheme.

What’s to stop something like this happening in Nova Scotia? The government has taken the first step by dissolving school boards (in Britain, academies are outside local education authority control). It is destroying the collegial interactions between principals and staff by taking principals out of the teachers’ union (this happened long ago in Britain, and has led to huge salary differentials and a teacher shortage).

Canadian society differs in important ways from British society, and that affects our respective education systems. Our class structure is much less ingrained, which has led to less hierarchy and deference to authority than you see in Britain. We are more likely to have democratic models of interaction, and to teach cooperation in schools (in Britain, these are sometimes referred to as “collectivist” attitudes – no doubt to invoke the suggestion of communism). We have a firm, and real commitment to equity in education – doing well in Canadian schools is not as dependent on what strata of society one comes from as it is in many other countries, including Britain.

Our culture also tends to be much less punitive than Britain’s – we are more likely to have an assumption of goodwill on the part of citizens (and children). We still have the idea (sometimes) that we can actually work together to improve our institutions rather than needing top down sanctions and targets to impose it. The ethos of “continuous improvement” as a norm pervades many Nova Scotian schools – without bureaucratic rules and penalties. The British system of League tables that publicise school results, targets that need to be met or else, schools deemed “inadequate”, children excluded from schools because of their difficulties, fines for parents of truants, punishment of teachers for lack of improved standards, etc – all these are the product of a hierarchical society that tends to see its citizens as mostly bad, selfish or lazy (or all three).

Canada’s exam systems have never been as high stakes as Britain’s – we gave up most streaming before secondary school decades ago, and most high school marks tend to be based on some proportion of term work and participation. In provinces where there are mandatory standardized tests, they are less high stakes, and there is a growing awareness that what they are measuring is not always what we want children to learn. In Ontario, a new report, “Leading from the Middle” http://ccsli.ca/downloads/2018-Leading_From_the_Middle_Summary_Final-EN.pdf is calling for the abolishment of EQAO, their testing authority.

Nova Scotia is a relatively equitable, inclusive society. Educators and parents need to embrace their strengths as collaborative partners working for the benefit of children. We all need to uphold the notion that “a good local public school for every child” is a worthwhile aim for an education system, and demand a government that respects this. We need to restore respect and trust to teachers – without it substitute shortages will grow into in serious teacher shortages like they now have in Britain (just yesterday I heard about yet another scheme to recruit more teachers – Troops for Teachers – and yes, it’s just what you might think – https://schoolsweek.co.uk/troops-to-teachers-quarter-of-all-trainees-quit-course-without-qualifying/). Finally, we need to remember that education should have the varied needs of all children at its centre, and there is lots of evidence on how best to do this.

Adonis’ reform manifesto, taken from the back of his book, was “to make teaching the foremost profession in the country and to break down the Berlin Wall between private and state schools”. It has spectacularly failed; the country has spent billions on a reorganization that has led to privatization and all its attendant ills. The conservative government took what Adonis started, and created a monster. Every week brings new horror stories on its failures – a sampling, taken from news items in the last couple of weeks – corruption (https://schoolsweek.co.uk/ministers-urged-to-clamp-down-on-all-powerful-academy-ceos/) , waste, https://schoolsweek.co.uk/government-under-pressure-to-reveal-plans-for-free-teacher-vacancy-service/ , excessive results tracking in the name of “accountability” https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/ofsted-inspectors-accused-creating-unnecessary-workload , vast profits for numerous corporations (including 10 million pounds to a private test developer) https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/apr/11/government-unveils-controversial-plan-testing-four-year-olds-england   https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/dec/06/wakefield-city-academies-trust-west-yorkshire-police , huge teacher shortages https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/apr/10/lesson-battle-why-teachers-lining-up-leave , and increasing inequality of opportunity   https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/dec/14/poor-primary-school-pupils-increasingly-left-behind-peers-free-meals .

Meanwhile the children? Stressed, demoralized, and often bored. And after all that, the government’s own inspection agency, OFSTED, says, “inspection evidence, research and analysis continues to find that, while becoming an academy can be beneficial for some schools, there is not a clear or substantial difference between the performance of academies and schools maintained by local authorities.” https://fullfact.org/education/academies-and-maintained-schools-what-do-we-know/

But, one of the things that all this reading about academies has done is convince me that “incremental” change, change that comes from within or perhaps “leading from the middle”, is what is needed for us in Nova Scotia. It may take a change in government for this to be allowed to happen, but I think the recent struggles have hardened the resolve of teachers and parents. We need to remember what the British seem to have forgotten, that high scores on tests are only a small part of what makes an excellent education system. Here in Britain, I am convinced that when they can let go of their obsession with test results and get rid of high stakes tests, the rest of the structure will come tumbling down and they can get back to focusing on children. I’ve just started reading about a new breed of academy, co-operative schools, which want to do just that; they are leading from the middle and I am hopeful for them.





Standardized tests can lead to a 2 tier education system (Part 2)

Part 2: Unintended consequences and perverse incentives

In this second of a series of three blogs posts, I want to argue that one of the consequences of an increased reliance on standardized tests can be more privatization of education. That is the way it has played itself out in Britain, and has led to a quasi-privatized 2 tier education system. In Nova Scotia, Bill 72 sets the stage for the same process. Although the Glaze recommendation for a separate office for standardized assessment may have been jettisoned after negotiations with the NSTU, other changes have set the stage for more testing in the future – the demise of school boards, the centralization of authority, and making principals managers.

As Grant Frost says in his latest article, https://frost18.com/a-voice-3/, the privatisation wolves are in the door, and are curled up on the carpet. The passage of Bill 72 has set us on the road to adopting a neoliberal agenda for education which has been in think tank AIMS’ sights for years, and has been implemented in countries all around the world. AIMS promotes market based thinking, just like the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) which foists a business model on education. The policy proposals include competition (both between schools and among teachers), choice, test based accountability, performance related rewards and the weakening of teacher unions. The claim is that a smaller role for government will produce “efficiencies” and “innovation” – but the British experience is very different. All of these are invitations for private enterprise to jump in to claim a slice of the pie.

Britain has for a long time had a system of high stakes examinations that decided which children would do academic work in high school (the 11+), which children would have to leave school at 15, O (Ordinary) levels), and which would qualify for higher education A (Advanced) levels). In the 1990s, education reforms resulted in adding a new set of exams for age 7, standardizing them across the country, all the while publishing results in League Tables. Once exam results were available for public view, tests went from being high stakes to stratospheric as parents in larger centres became like consumers, choosing the “best” schools for their children. And because of their traditional reliance on exam results, few outside the education system in Britain questioned their merits.

Once Britain had achieved “test based accountability”, the next step was intended to raise standards, particularly for those children considered “disadvantaged”. A Labour government was in charge, and there was a lot of rhetoric around making sure that every child had “equality of opportunity”.  The poorest performing secondary schools were to be closed and then reopened under the management of “trusts” which would inject new money into them. Sponsors who could invest at least 2 million pounds ($4m) were sought,  and these new “academies” were given autonomy over finances, staffing and admissions. Public funding would continue to flow, but otherwise, these academies were like private schools within the public system, outside the authority of the Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Successful academies were encouraged to expand and take over more schools, thus becoming Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). When the Conservative coalition took over in 2010, their education policy included expanding MATs to any secondary school that wanted to convert, with special provisions for those schools deemed “outstanding” who could convert without oversight (now called Converter academies). The Labour government had previously given up the idea of requiring sponsors to invest money, as there was a shortage of people willing to do that, and all trusts were now officially charities.

As the population rose, new schools were needed, and in order to continue to supply more choice to parents, the Conservatives borrowed the idea of “free schools” from Sweden. These were basically charter schools, set up by groups of community members and were publicly funded, but with full autonomy, just like academies. They were also free to implement their own curricula, often religiously based.

By 2017, there were over 3000 MATs including some primary schools. The government has decreed that all schools will be academies by 2022.

Julian Astle, researcher with the Royal Society of the Arts, has described the British education system as a game of “whack-a-mole… Our school system, with its focus on tests, targets, league tables and inspections, is full of unintended consequences and perverse incentives. It has become such a game that it is forcing teachers and school leaders to choose between helping pupils and helping themselves.” https://www.teachingtimes.com/articles/cheatingteachersslt84.htm

He was referring to the phenomenon of teachers “cheating” on tests to help their students – something that becomes more and more prevalent as standardized tests become more high stakes. It could, however, refer to the British system as a whole, because every day’s newspaper brings new headlines about scandals in the operation of these “trusts”.

Have the intended consequences have been achieved? Have there been unintended disasters? The key issue is what is the opportunity for profit – “OP” for short:

Have standards been raised? Although results on internal British exams have been steadily rising, with a greater percentage across the board achieving “proficiency” in the core subjects, PISA (international comparisons) results have improved only slightly. See previous post: https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.wordpress.com/2018/02/22/joy-in-learning-good-for-students-and-teachers/ And because of the government’s decision to limit the subjects that will be listed in the League Tables, schools don’t have any incentive to offer a wide range of subjects that will not be “counted”. Thus, the narrowing of the curriculum within subject areas (teaching to the test) that I have referred to elsewhere has now grown to include whole subject areas, especially the arts and foreign languages. (OP – private arts classes, independent schools with enriched arts programs serving affluent families)

Several recent studies have shown no difference in equity between schools managed by Local Education Authorities and those managed by MATs. Other studies show that there is more segregation between advantaged and disadvantaged students in areas with a prevalence of academies, “and this is especially true of the more recent Converter Academies. Converter Academies, on average, take far less than their fair share of disadvantaged pupils.” Gorard,2014  http://dro.dur.ac.uk/12119/

Has “academization” made the U.K. education system more efficient? When there were 152 LEAs, there were 152 leaders, making the top salaries. Now with 3000 MATs, there need to be 3000 leaders, making the cost per pupil for Mats leadership almost 10 times as for LEA leadership. In addition, by leaving it up to MATs to pay head-teachers what they want, head-teacher salaries can also be astronomical. (OP – headhunters employed to find CEOs, “super heads”). “Efficiencies” are instead made at the classroom level, with less money for resources and teachers (recent budget cuts have had enormous impacts on the classroom).  Although there is a recommended salary scale, performance pay (based on pupil scores – again standardized tests) can be used to depress teacher salaries. Just today, the Guardian reported that some of the worst gender pay gap offenders are MATs, with their large proportion of female workers. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/25/gender-pay-gaps-in-academy-school-chains-among-the-worst-in-uk.  In addition, because each trust is responsible for its own financial accounting, contracts and legal work, there is lots of new work for accountants and lawyers. One trust was reported as paying over $100,000 for 6 months accounting work. (OP – legal, accounting firms, “information management” firms eg SIMS)

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Britain’s firmly entrenched culture of test–based accountability certainly does set up a competitive dynamic between schools, and the reforms have created lots of “choice” to fuel it, but this has led to the “whack-a-mole” problem of the unintended consequences. Because parents want their children to go to the best secondary schools, they apply for the ones with best average test scores. The new academies are allowed to manage their own “oversubscription” policies, ie choose children most likely to boost their ranking on League Tables. In order to get their children into the “best” secondary schools, parents who can afford it engage tutoring agencies to boost their marks (OP – tutoring agencies, private tutors – perhaps teachers leaving the system?). When the government bans the use of marks and interviews for admissions, academies can become “specialist” schools i.e. claim to focus on STEM subjects, the arts or foreign languages, so they can then devise ways to test for aptitude in those areas.  This leads to the question – what’s the difference between aptitude and parents with money for private lessons? Another quality that schools might look for is well off parents who will be able to contribute to school fundraising…so they start having “parties” for prospective families (thus killing 2 birds with one stone, since they can suss out the students at the same time). So the government bans parties. Sometimes schools even resort to changing the boundaries of their catchment areas to cut out less advantaged neighbourhoods. And so it goes…


To be continued…. Next post: the sorry, 2 tier state of British education today – winners and losers. And what NS can do to prevent a similar fate.

20180322_113912The large number of rough sleepers amidst all the wealth of the colleges is a testament to the inequality which plagues Britain (and its school system) today. This doorway is someone’s home.