Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Response to Consultation about conversion to Academy

All schools in Richmond which are not yet academies are consulting about converting to academies. Here's my response:

I can no longer find details about the academy consultation on the school website. I think there was an FAQ issued after the single open meeting which I was unfortunately unable to attend but cannot locate it or the questionnaire. Although you put a link to the DoE website for the information in support of academies you have put no links to organisations who are against academies  or even just trying to ascertain the facts ( like Local Schools Network, the Anti Academies Alliance or the NUT). The law requires that "Adequate information should be given to enable consultees properly to respond" (Lord Justice Stephen Sedley QC, in the Court of Appeal) and this has not happened and is not happening.

Will  the collated results of the consultation be made public, i.e. numbers for and against, with arguments and comments made public. If stakeholders cannot be made aware of other people's arguments during the consultation period, how can they decide whether they are important or not. There is no way back as the conversion is irrevocable so governors, staff, parents and children must be sure and how can they be sure when the facts aren't made available to all the stakeholders.

Again, I cannot refer back to the website, but who is considered a stakeholder, who is being consulted? It's not just the current parents but also the existing staff and parents of primary school children as well as the local community and council.

The principle argument for conversion seems to be increased finance but it is unclear, once all the changes in provision of services have been sourced and budgeted, whether any financial benefit is either real or long lasting. As a parent I cannot judge this and so cannot make a reasoned decision. The NUT says "The government has confirmed that academy status should not give schools a financial advantage".

What is the evidence for any claim that the school will be better funded as an academy?
Does any such claim take into account the fact that we will be unable to achieve the economies of scale possible for the local authority? If so, how has this been assessed?
How do we know the school will be better funded when we don’t know details of the future academy funding changes planned by the Government?
Is there a business plan that has been put together by the head and governing body, to show how our finances will be affected in the short, medium and long term?

I note that all the secondary schools in Richmond are either converting to academies or consulting on converting.
What changes will be made to the services offered by the borough if all schools convert?
What is the long term impact?
What happens to those specialist services like SEN needs and all the other support services for vulnerable children?
In the long term, funding is shifting towards academies rather than local government support services. This is quite simply unfair and amoral.

How will we ensure that the school is able to access support services of a similar quality to those provided by the local authority, given that the private market for such services is undeveloped?
How can we be sure that, in an undeveloped market with few providers locally, we won’t be tied in to a poor deal with one provider?
How long will any fixed price contracts with a service supplier last and what guarantee will there be against future price rises after any loss-leading period is over?
What plans have been put in place to ensure that we can replicate the services we currently receive from the local authority?
Has a needs assessment been made of services that we will require in the future, including details of how we can access such services outside the local authority family of schools?

The facts, as they are to date, speak of academies quietly getting rid of, or not admitting those children with statements of special need; academies are no longer representative of the community. How will they be protected and what recourse will parents have?

Does the governing body have the technical expertise or the time it will need to take on its new responsibilities to protect the school in areas such as finance, the law, personnel and other technical areas?

Who will pay for training of the governing body once conversion has happened. What will be the constitutional change; how will the role and responsibilities of the governors change?

If parents are not satisfied with the governors after conversion, what recourse do they have as the council is no longer able to step in?

While the school guarantee not increasing costs of items like school meals once it has the power to do so? What other hidden costs may rise?

There is no evidence that academies deliver higher standards of education.

With the council no longer acting as back up in case of emergencies, what happens in case of major fire for example, how would the school cope.

What information is there about the insurance costs we will face as an academy to cover the significant risks posed by potential emergencies such as fire, flood, pupil accidents, major crimes etc?

Won’t our insurance costs be higher, either in the short or longer term, once we move out of collective insurance arrangements for the local authority family of schools?

What start-up costs will the school face on transfer to academy status?

Teachers will no longer be protected by national collective bargaining and will not have the same rights in terms of working hours, maternity and leaves of absence. New staff joining the school will have different contracts to that of existing staff. How does conversion affect their pensions? Will you guarantee to maintain the same rights and rates of pay as stated nationally? How will this affect your ability to recruit and keep experienced staff?

How will academy status affect our ability to mentor and support NQTs? Will the school take on fewer such staff?

In addition to all these practical queries, I think the further stratifying of the school system does nothing to improve English education as a whole or community cohesion. There has not yet been time to show useful data about the impact of academies on non-academy schools. There is already a total lack of choice re secondary schools, even in London with its greater density of schools. Furthermore if I had know this consultation was planned I would have thought harder about sending my children to [my schoool] .The short of it is that I am against the principles of academies and would rather not convert.

If we want to really improved the quality of education given to children we need to improve the resources available, from finance to staff across all different types of schools, not change the type of school.

I appreciate that I have asked a substantial number of questions, but these all need answering before a reasoned decision can be made. I do not have the specific technical expertise, let alone the time, to research all the information and data available. In essence, I feel I'm being asked to buy a product because the box is pretty, and I don't do that.

I am also publishing these questions on my blog to increase awareness of these issues.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Faith by Tick Box

I don't like defining myself by a selection of tickboxes on a form and get annoyed when forms ask me to tick a religious category as I rarely agree with the categories. It is apparent that although it is easy to categorise people by their faith when they have one, everyone else gets lumped together. Terms such as humanist and secularist also get misunderstood.

Firstly we have those who belong to a religion. They are always happy to tick the box that says Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Jain... There might be different subdivisions of these faiths and difference in beliefs but these people know where they belong even if they don't necessarily agree with all the tenets of their faith. And, let's face it, many who tick that they belong to a religion never actually go to their place of worship and participate but nevertheless consider themselves a member, leading to phrases like "cultural Christian" coming into use.You can include adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster within the religious belief category. You may consider it to be a pretend religion, but what's a real religion and how are they different?

Secularists believe, quite simply, in the separation of church and state. This means that any faith group should not hold a position in the state or have their views counted more than anyone else's. In Britain secularists campaign for removing bishops from the House of Lords and for the abolition of faith schools. There are many other campaigns that are run by the National Secular Society, Britain's largest secular society. The NSS has recently decided not to allow faith members in on the basis that although there are many believers who think that faith should stay out of government it should stay a non-faith movement. The Accord Coalition is a truly secular group of people and organisations that includes faiths and non-faiths who are campaigning, amongst other things, that admissions to faith schools should not be based on religious belief, believing that such discrimination is divisive and does nothing for community cohesion.

Humanists are more difficult to define in a clear cut manner. There are many different definitions. Essentially humanism is about a belief in collective responsibility and connection with other humans. For me that means we have a duty to consider how our behaviour affects people on the other side of the world, people whom we will never meet or know but who we can affect indirectly. It's about recognising our common humanity as well as our connection with future generations. Many people of faith could if they choose define themselves as humanists as it doesn't necessarily conflict with their beliefs. The British Humanist Association is the largest group of humanists in Britain and they define 3 main tenets of humanism to be trust in the scientific method rather than the supernatural (thus rejecting faith),  we create our own ethical system based on reason and empathy and that we give our own lives meaning.

So these two groups include people with or without faith, depending on how you define them. Article 9 of The Human Rights Act protects people's "religion or beliefs" and various court cases have determined that humanist views form a belief system which should be considered equal alongside religious faiths.

Agnostics believe that there may be some sort of deity but they're not sure what and don't know. It can be anything from hitherto undefined deity or a universal consciousness, Both religious believers and atheists tend to rudely consider this as fence sitting.

Atheists have made a conscious decision that they do not believe in a god. Some declare that they would change their mind if faced with evidence of a god; others won't. (Others argue that if you're prepared to change your mind then you're agnostic.) Any rational scientist would be happy to change their mind if the evidence suggested the necessity as should atheists and anyone else with a sceptical healthy enquiring mind. There is no sacred book, no deity or set of beliefs that you must sign up to in order to be counted and that freedom is one of the joys of not believing.

Atheists are, by definition, defined by what they don't believe in. It's very difficult to define yourself by a negative (one of the only other groups I could think of is those against a third runway at Heathrow). How then to redefine this as a positive? One of the few places I can put a user-defined entry for religious views is Facebook. I thought about putting sceptic by which I mean someone who questions facts and authorities and who tries to look at the evidence rather than someone else's interpretation. I regard that as a state of mind rather than a belief so I settled on freethinker, a word that has fallen out of vogue but means that I am free to think for myself, that I have no creed  that I must follow; I will try and think rationally to further my understanding rather than follow someone else's beliefs.

Then there are those who have never really thought about it and/or who really don't care. Should they be included with the atheists? Some would argue that people are born atheist and have religion or doubt taught to them, that we are all atheists by default. There are of course many people who class themselves as believers who have simply never really thought about it. I think I'd like to see an “Uncommitted” category for these, to include both believers and non-believers.

So what am I? I am above all a person, a human who doesn't like tick box categories. If I have to choose then I am an atheist who is a secularist and a humanist. I define myself differently according to the company I'm with as they all mean slightly different things and if I call myself a freethinker I get looks of incomprehension. Hence the confusion with those who find it easy to tick boxes. What do I believe in? I think that we have to find our own way through the ethical quandaries that will face us in life, by thinking things through for ourselves and making decisions based on the evidence, constantly questioning facts and searching for the truth. I also firmly believe that I must be prepared to change my mind if I'm wrong. I strongly believe in the value of separation of church and state including the abolition of faith schools. I had no sacred books to follow; those authors who I read extensively as a teenager who helped form the way I think include Upton Sinclair, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.

Friday, 4 March 2011

What's the Purpose of Education

In the seemingly permanent ongoing debate about education, with arguments about types of school, admissions, funding, curriculum, subjects there is very little said about the purpose of education which misses the fundamental point.

What's it all for?

Now, I'm not a teacher. But I am an educator. As a parent I educate my children and in so doing, I am forced to think about not only my own values and choices, but also what my thought process is and how I got to those decisions. What is important enough that I need to teach them, that they may not get elsewhere. What do I want them to learn?

I want my children to think for themselves; to question why information is presented one way and not another; where are the facts and do we trust them; can we go to the source of information and work it out for themselves; where's the evidence; what's being omitted from the story?

All these sorts of questions can be applied to all subjects in the classroom, but also to news stories and moral and ethical questions. I want them to act a particular way because they've thought about it and decided it's the right thing, not because I've told them to. And I want them to firmly understand that just because everybody else thinks something is so, doesn't make it true and they should have the courage of their convictions and stand up for what they think, even if they do it alone.

I also want them to be considerate, have empathy for other people and a desire to understands what motivates people to act the way they do, rather than judging them.

I've had more interesting conversations with my children round the kitchen table, prompted by something they heard on the Today programme, or Any Questions than I ever thought possible. An hour after the initial question was raised, we're still talking about 'it', and 'it' can be anything.

The more they question how stuff works in the world, whether it's engines or democracy, the more they think, the more they question, and round and round it goes. Hopefully, they get the zest for learning, when they start wanting to find things out because they're interesting, not because they're directly relevant or necessary to their life and not because it's homework. But because finding stuff out is fascinating, and the more you find out, the more you want to find out and the more it joins together. Learning is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that expands whenever you join pieces together.

Formal education, in schools, should provide them with the basic tools they need to learn: research skills, critical analysis, logical thought, and a broad enough knowledge that they have a foundation on which to build. Education provides children with the knife and fork so that they can go out into the real world as young adults and cut their own learning. And it never stops. Learning goes on until you're dead.

"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it - this is knowledge." Confucius

I'm writing this because a chance tweet in someone else's conversation (in #ukedchat) led to a chance comment and then another one, and before I knew it, it's an hour later and I'm still reading a stranger's blog because, well, because it's good. Read Teaching Science which then led me to purpos/ed with the challenge to write 500 words on the purpose of education.

Friday, 18 February 2011

One Hundred, and a Half, Years of Life

My grandmother died this Wednesday morning, peacefully, after a recent fall and subsequent operation at the grand age of 100.5 years. On the left you can see her beaming at another new great grandchild in 2000.

She was well looked after and relatively happy in the various homes she lived in after she gave up her own but as a fiercely independent woman she didn't like not being able to manage on her own.

She used to come and stay with us for Christmas, and possibly for the occasional holiday but they didn't stay in my mind. The joy of Nan at Christmas was that when I woke up early, at 5 or 6 o'clock (or so my memory tells me) I would go and sit on her bed and have a present from her and a chat. I didn't realise then that her mission was to let my parents sleep and keep me away.

There are many photos of my two sisters looking happy away on holiday staying with both grandparents and I still wish that I'd met my grandfathers, either of them. However I spent a considerable number of holidays on my own with my grandmother which gave me the opportunity for some very long conversations and getting to know her. I used to be scared of her, being absolutely careful to say please and thank you, to not use slang and to use correct English. I also used to wash behind my ears which I don't remember doing much otherwise.

She had two drawers full of loose photos. One of the great conversations was led by just dipping hands into the drawer and bringing out a handful. The date, time and place would usually be written on the back and Nan would sit down and reminisce. I remember so very little of what she told me then other than the enjoyment of sharing. It was also the only times we sat down in the better dressed parlour rather than the more usual sitting room in the back. It was during these times that she would tell me about my father's brother who died as a teenager, and whose existence I would have never have known from my father. We also sat and discussed how she was worried about getting old and her brain going. She did not want to be trapped in a body unable to communicate and I promised her, from a very young age, that if the time came I would smother her with a pillow if necessary. Thankfully it wasn't.

We would go on short walks round Wakefield. She could take you on a twenty minute walk and show you every house she had ever lived in, and the primary school where both she and my father had gone, although clearly not at the same time. We might treat ourselves to a slab of real ice cream from Lumbs dairy at the Busy Corner, long since gone. We would also visit Sandal Castle, a wonderful motte and barbican that was excavated when we were very young so it seemingly grew up with us.

Although she never moved further afield, she did travel quite a lot, visiting Russia, China and the United States. These journeys went on until her travelling companion died and she didn't want to continue on her own. I liked this contrast in her though, that she was adventurous and questing, but also incredibly domestic and traditional.

When staying with her I would wake up to the perfect smell of bacon and fresh cobnobs. Nan made her own bread, from scratch, with her own fair hands. She did bake loaves but most of her bread was in the shape of cobnobs, a word I've never found used elswhere, to represent an oblong bun, just perfectly sized for a couple of slices of bacon. Fresh bacon, in a still hot, minutes old cobnob with melting butter is a special treat, never to be repeated. She would make me miniature cobnobs, just a mouthful or two. When she came to visit us she would make us some bread but it was never quite the same.

As I got older she took me to Guernsey on holidays, where she had relatives she was very close to, lovely cousins (or thereabouts) who I would never have got to know if she hadn't taken me. They had two dogs, Pippa and Monty and we used to take them on long walks round the island, a fairly perfect place for holidays with wonderful cliff top walks and bays full of golden sand and cold but blue water. Nan was warmer with these people and at some point in my childhood she transformed from the slightly scary grandmother I initially knew to a warmer loving person with stories to tell and and relatives who could make the younger her come alive again.

Once adult, we drifted apart somewhat. I exchanged letters with her as a child but I don't remember them, nor have I kept any. I eventually moved to Harrogate where I married and had my firstborn. Nan used to walk round the town, pointing at each of the many hotels or former hotels and tell me that she'd danced in them as a young woman. I'm  not sure there was a hotel she hadn't visited for a dance and this was not an image I had of her.

When my first child was born she came to visit in the first few days before anyone else did. I remember well him going to sleep for a few hours before she arrived. Rather than join him, I spent the time having a massive tidy up so that she wouldn't tell me off for the domestic tip. She arrived and proceeded to tell me that when she first had children she thought she had to maintain an immaculate home, keep her housework to her usual high standards as well as look after a baby. She'd since realised that was far too much and it was better to relax, enjoy and get a bit more sleep. She also said that she wouldn't give any advice as raising babies changed from one generation to another. The one thing that we clashed on was that she would regularly say that she liked to hear a baby cry as they needed to 'exercise their lungs', a saying that my sister and I both told her off for.

When we moved away contact was severely diminished and turned into occasional phone calls and even rarer visits. She eventually started to get older and a bit more frail. My parents held their 50th Wedding Anniversary a few years ago in Wakefield as my grandmother refused to travel and we all went up last year for her 100th birthday which is when this photo was taken, with her son, my father. We shared birthdays, something I often resented as a child as it meant those days were not special to me but that I was also incredibly proud of; I felt we had a special relationship that others could not share.

She used to buy herself presents and say they were from Nelly to Ellen. She'd been called Nana by all of us and even when she quietly said she'd prefer Nan, it didn't really catch on with the rest of us.

I'm aware, as I write this, of how much I don't know and how hazy on the details I am but this is about our relationship rather than her life. She had a long one and a good one although she did survive virtually everyone she knew. She got bored the last few years, too frail to do anything much but too stubborn, far too stubborn, to give up. My sisters, my parents would present very different portraits of her but all I can say is that I loved her very much, and that it was a privilege to have known her.

Friday, 28 January 2011

My love affair with public libraries

My mother taught us all to read before we were three. It caused no end of problems at school because teachers couldn't cope with children who didn't fit in. I dimly remember sitting at the back of the class while teacher was waving flashcards at everybody being very bored.

But I read. We had lots of books at home. I remember my first 'proper' book was Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs. It was in a purple cover on the bookcase in the upstairs landing. The colour and the title together caught my eye and I picked it off the shelf to read. I was 6. I went through all her books and to this day cannot pick up an Agatha Christie without remembering the story instantly and being completely unenthused by the idea of reading one of her books yet again.

My mother did take me to the library then, at Golders Green. I can barely remember it but it was a regular ritual.

At the age of 7 we moved to Brussels, which did not have an English library. It only had one English bookshop which charged extortionate rates, and still does to this day. However there was an ex-pat community and they had an English library that was housed in someone's unused double garage. We went round and chose the books and paid a token amount per book. It was all written down laboriously by hand but I devoured the books. As Americans flew home and sold up their possessions they left their books to the library so I grew up with far more Nancy Drew and Hardy boys mysteries than I would have otherwise.

Returning to London aged 13 we were in the borough of Westminster; lots of lovely libraries with lots of lovely books. I used to go regularly and would travel to the other libraries to pick through their bookshelves as it cost to have them transferred whereas the bus fare then was a mere 10p (thanks Ken!) if the library was too far away. I did request books not held within the borough and they used to get them for me, frequently arriving with the stamp of the university they belonged to and interesting labelling.

But the highlight of my very happy relationship with libraries was when I requested the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, the original muckraker. It was not to be found in the library, nor in any university. Eventually I got a letter telling me to present myself at the British Library and I could read it there. It was a routine letter and I thought nothing of it, beyond a certain amount of pleasure at the idea of visiting such a special place. Well the librarians at the British Library were not impressed. The lower age limit for passing through the doors was 21. Occasionally they made exceptions for special young adults but a 15 year old? Not likely. But I waved the letter at them which stated that I could read a book there and probably looked miserable. So they granted me a two week membership of the British Library and luckily I had gone in at the beginning of a holiday.

So for two weeks solid I got up early and was waiting outside when they unlocked the gates and let us library users and staff in ahead of the general public. I read. And I read. Solidly, from 8.30am I think, to 5 o'clock or thereabouts with a quick half hour for lunch. I still have the notes that I made from the books that I read. I started reading the book I originally wanted, then others that I hadn't been able to find. Eventually I just rambled through almost reading books at random, glorying in the idea of being able to order any book I wanted.

I've moved libraries several time since. I have always signed up for the library within a week of moving into the area. I have so many books on my shelves stamped withdrawn from one library or another that I picked up for a paltry sum. When each of my children was born we went and got a library card very early on so they could borrow board books from the library. My 10 year old just recently learned how to order books from the library online all by himself. Now they can visit on their own. At least for the moment.

Libraries are at risk. Philip Pullman has put it far more eloquently than I ever could but books have saved me throughout my life. They've informed me, made me think, taught me facts, explained things, entertained me, made me laugh, cry, sigh and above all made me think. They have posed questions that I was unable to answer as a child or teenager; they've sent me on quests for knowledge and understanding. They've made me dream and escape reality, transformed me to a place where the real world couldn't impinge, where I couldn't even hear it. A library, big or small, is a place of knowledge, of value to be imparted, and stuff and nonsense to be enjoyed. It's part of what makes us civilised and it's certainly part of what make life worth living.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

2010 in Books

I didn't manage to finish the one book I wanted to over the Christmas holidays, but I did manage to finish a few. Brian Greene's book starts off with Newtonian physics and ends up with superstring theory and beyond. It's very readable considering the subject matter, but I can only take so much of it before my brain needs a rest. I started it last July and am now steaming ahead into the final quarter.

One of the delights which upped my total number of books read was reading the graphic series about Stephen King's The Dark Tower, possibly my all time favourite story, if not the most awesome tale ever told. There are probably over 50 comics in the series so that would explain the sharp rise from 191 books in 2009 to 257 in 2010 The graphic novel of Darwin's On the Origin of Species is also a beautifully drawn book that renders a complicated story accessible to children (and adults).

I love the statistic of how many books I've read this year, but would like that summarised as well as how many pages in total. A really geeky widget would analyse each book according to word and sentence length and appoint an intelligence rating as well. That would be far more telling.

Most of what I read is light fiction. I borrow books by the sackful from the library and get about 20 minutes reading in along with my first cup of tea in the morning before getting up for school. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to browse and reserve books online from my library for free but a charge now applies and, like many others, my library is at risk from cutbacks. I try to read something more challenging at the weekends and in the holidays but often fail miserably. Children addle your brain.

I joined LibraryThing over 2 years ago, with the aim of cataloguing every book as I read it, with the secondary aim of entering all the books I possess to show my library. The widget on the sidebar randomly shows all the books I have read since starting this, sometimes to my shame.

I have a lovely book club full of friends and we read (well most of us do) a great variety of books for our regular gatherings.We take it in turns to choose and the choices can be as revealing as the comments afterwards. Partly because of this and the offer of free books from LibraryThing I have started writing reviews. I don't know whether they're any good but they are honest.

I have a pile of books by my bed and regularly resolve to not buy any more until I've finished them. I always crack eventually but hope one day to not possess a book unread. Then I can start on my long list of books I'd like to read but haven't got round to purchasing.