James Fornara portrait

Written by James Fornara

20 years of experience in teaching and runs Dpat that is engaged in education consultancy, youth work, music, production and DJing.

In the wake of John Swinney, Scotland’s Education Minister announcing that all Scottish A-level and GCSE grades will be marked exclusively from teacher predictions and coursework marks, it is worth examining what “thinking” lies behind this debacle. Sadly once again it is an example of the antagonistic and short-sighted dogma of the DfE. Any objective person would consider the best people to judge the quality of students’ performance to be the teachers that taught them, not some statistical nonsense that artificially manufacturers the data that the department wants. But teachers just can’t be trusted can they? Certainly not to stick to the constructed reality of exam reforms and the data sets created by the Orwellian fantasy of “school improvement” undertaken over the last decade. Of course if we’d stuck with modular examinations and kept significant coursework elements to qualifications we wouldn’t be in this mess would we…

And now the tarantula troubling Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson has announced a “triple lock” – which could boost the replacement grades for exams cancelled in the pandemic. It means pupils getting A-level & GCSE results can accept that estimated grade, or change it for a mark gained in a mock exam. Or they can instead choose to take a written exam in the autumn!? And this guidance comes a day before the results are released, with no consultation with the teaching profession. Furthermore schools minister Nick Gibb has the chutzpah to refuse to apologise for what he describes as “solutions” to a problem he has been instrumental in creating!?

What an absolute disgrace this all is. A perfect example of the misguided and uninformed policy credenda obsessed with a bogus improvement of “standards” and a fundamental mistrust of educators. This systematic denigration of the teaching profession is a dangerous political endeavour that is destroying an education system that used to be seen throughout the world as exemplar.

Links to some of the articles, research etc. that this blog post is based on:

ASCL Coronavirus Briefing 90 11th Aug. 2020

Not entirely sure of the veracity of this study but some interesting reading, did you know the cost of examinations has more than doubled thanks to Gove’s reforms!?Examination Reform: Impact of Linear and Modular Examinations at GCSE

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-53746140

Broad and Balanced

 

There’s some interesting observations in the work of the Accountability Commission group of the NAHT which “sought to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the current accountability system”, but there were three points that caught my eye from the excellent summary provided by Ross Morrison McGill:

 

Where performance is a measure, schools prioritise parts of the curriculum over others (‘teaching to the test’).

 

Where systems focus on “borderline” measures, targeted teaching limit pupils’ experience of the curriculum.

 

I am sad to say that both these observations are entirely accurate based on my experience of over twenty years of working in education in London, and particularly in my area of specialism – performing arts and creative media production. I would point out that this is not because school leaders or teachers want to but the perverse incentives of our current school accountability system force them to do so.

 

I was also struck by the quote below from the text of the report:

National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), September 2018 (page 35)

If Canada, Finland & Singapore do not have school inspection feature in external evaluation (I) and these countries perform better than England in PISA tests; cited as places to visit, we must question OfSTED’s future within the English system.

 

It will be interesting to see how the DfE will respond to the commission’s findings I do hope it will fair better than the good people at The Black Curriculum who were outrageously rebuffed by the tarantula troubling secretary of state for education who declined to meet them to discuss their most excellent work. 

Given the idiocy of the foreign secretary you’d have thought Gavin would want some help in educating his peers let alone the nation’s youth…

Thanks to @TeacherToolkit & @curriculumblack for the tweets this piece is based on.

A vision for the “new normal”

Amidst all of the tragedy of the covid-19 crisis there could be a preverbal silver lining. We have a chance to transform our education system and there is much debate about how we must change and adapt to our new reality. In particular two articles this week caught my eye. The first by Fiona Millar in the Guardian is an excellent examination of the failures of government policy over the last decade. In particular she highlights how the dogmatic promotion of “academic” subjects, academisation (privatisation in plain sight) and the misinformed notion that sees schools only “…as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge…” must change if we are to meet the challenges our education system faces. 

One of my biggest irritations working in education is the erroneous hierarchy of subjects taught in school. I bristle every time someone talks about academic subjects. Firstly, the use of the word academic to describe subjects such as maths, science, English rather than music, PE or drama is a misuse of the word. Academic means being taught in school, therefore any subject taught in school is in fact ACADEMIC! The use of the word academic as a shorthand for subjects that matter is highly revealing of the outdated thinking that has sadly dominated education policy for far too long. It is why we disregard areas of study that the UK is a world leader in. Since the introduction of progress 8 & attainment 8 there has been a reduction in the number of students taking GCSE drama of over 30%. Likewise lack of funding has led to the decimation of music tuition within state schools and despite ever increasing concern about fake news and the need to improve the media literacy of our young people, media studies is still considered a ‘mickey mouse’ subject rather than a key part of any 21st century curriculum. As Rufus Norris (director of the National Theatre) wrote two years ago we need “…an education system fit for the 21st century, one that champions this country’s creativity as the foundation of its economic health.”

The second article in Schools Week by Angela Ransby is a call to arms for schools and local communities to work more closely together. I have to confess to arching an eyebrow at a CEO of a MAT extolling the benefits of local collaboration, rather like how local education authorities used to work!? That said, Angela’s central point that alternative provision is often the crucible of innovation is one that unsurprisingly I wholeheartedly agree with. We must rebuild our current “fractured” system prioritising collaboration and local accountability and reject systems and structures that prevent this. Progress, standards and improvement do not need a marketplace, the commodification of teaching and learning or the curse of managerialism to occur. In fact they thrive when we share, collaborate and respond in a locally co-ordinated and democratically accountable manner to the needs of the communities that our schools serve.

Curriculum and what we teach our children is a thread running through both articles and a friend of mine introduced me to The Black Curriculum this week and I am very grateful. There is a long, long overdue imperative to improve the way in which our entire education system serves ALL students and I would whole-heartedly recommend the writing of Darren ChettyJeffrey Boakye and Akala for those interested in this hugely important work. Reflecting on my own education and in particular the history curriculum I followed, is it any wonder that there is a lack of understanding in the UK around issues of structural racism, intersectionality and white privilege when the history we teach our children is: the Romans, 1066, some stuff about kings and a couple of queens, skip over the savagery of the British Empire and finish off with the two world wars that we supposedly won!? We have to teach the real history of the British empire and examine some of the darker aspects of Enlightenment thinking in order to help create a fairer and more just society.

Some big ideas to transform our education system:

  • Rip up our current curriculum and replace it with a much broader one. Forget about the utterly misplaced notion of academic and vocational subjects. There must not be a hierarchy of knowledge, understanding how the plumbing works is as important as knowing what the periodic table is.
  • Dispense with almost all nationally standardised tests. We could keep something like A-Levels but any new system cannot be solely reliant on terminal examinations and must include coursework/formative assessment activities.
  • Create a national curriculum that takes account of all the cultures and history that make up our country. The diversity of our little island has always been one of our greatest resources and our schools must be the place in which we celebrate and develop our understanding of the multicultural country that we live in.
  • Place control of our school system back into the hands of local education authorities who are clearly best placed to support schools to meet local needs and increase collaboration, which in turn will drive improvement.

 

James Fornara is the recently resigned Principal of Wac Arts College the first alternative provision free school in the country with a specialist curriculum of performing arts & creative media production. 

 

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