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“The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and talents but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend”

Conservative Party Manifesto, 2017

With an expectation that 90 per cent of pupils will take the EBacc by 2025, whilst placing greater demands on elite universities and private schools to support the state sector, and ensuring all schools are fairly funded – with no school having its budget cut – the message from Theresa May couldn’t be clearer: we’re levelling the playing field; it’s time to deliver.

Running through this manifesto is a clear vision for English schooling. All pupils – regardless of geography, ethnicity or their parent’s wealth – should receive a broad, rigorous and well-funded education up until age 16. After this, they have the choice between taking a high-quality apprenticeship or undertaking further academic study, and going on to university. So whilst every child has different interests, strengths and ambitions, our level of expectations for them, and the quality of education they should receive, remains consistently high.

As a society, we have for too long tolerated a system which says that it is acceptable for a privileged child at a top private school in Berkshire to enjoy the rich diet of a traditional liberal education, whilst expecting much less for a poor child from Bradford or Burnley. Reforming primary school assessment will reduce teaching to the test and enable teachers to focus on teaching rich and broad content to their pupils. Furthermore, the aim to have 90 per cent of secondary school pupils taking the EBacc by 2025 will mean that we have the highest expectations for all of our young people.

With Brexit on the horizon, demanding that all our young people are literate, numerate, fluent in science, a humanity and a foreign language, should be the bare minimum we expect for the huge public investment we make in education. But more than this, the EBacc target commits us all to the principle that no matter what our young people decide to do after school, they will have the foundation of knowledge needed to go on and make the most of their talents and lead a fulfilling life. The creation of a curriculum fund to “encourage Britain’s leading cultural and scientific institutions, like the British Museum and others to help develop knowledge-rich materials for our schools” will raise standards, help teachers and introduce our children to some of this nation’s proudest institutions.

Of course, this will mean that a good number of schools will need to adjust their curriculum and staffing to ensure that they are meeting this target, but they have ample time to do so. Indeed, what is striking about this manifesto is the level stability it will provide. There will be no more tinkering with structures and the curriculum. (For all the noise that will be generated by the pledge to “lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools”, this does not impact on a headteacher’s ability to plan for the future, and should not be used as a smokescreen for failure). And this stability will be compounded with stability in school funding, with many schools receiving an increase in budgets – tackling years of unfairness – and not a single school seeing their budget cut, due to an injection of an additional £4 billion until 2022. So no more complaining about funding; let’s focus on what actually goes on inside the classroom.

To help classroom teachers – without whom none of this will ever be possible – there is a pledge to “provide greater support…in the preparation of lessons and marking” and to “bear down on unnecessary paperwork and the burden of Ofsted inspections”. Teachers go into the profession because they are passionate about their subject and want to change lives and pass their knowledge onto the next generation. Ill-thought out school initiatives, poor behaviour and preparing for Ofsted get in the way and ware teachers down. The Conservatives understand this, and will do everything they can to allow them to focus on enhancing their classroom practice.

So, in order to create “the world’s great meritocracy”, the message from the Conservative manifesto is clear: we need to do more for our young people. A Conservative government will offer stability, fairness and financial security, and a better deal for teachers. In turn, it’s time to deliver for every child in every corner of our nation.

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As the bright minds at CCHQ add their final touches to the Conservative election manifesto, media speculation continues to go round in circles, asking questions about the same few policies: will the Tories scrap the ‘triple lock’ on pensions? Will they commit to not increasing VAT and income tax? Will they drop their previous pledge to cut immigrations to the ‘tens of thousands’?

Very little ink, however, is expended writing about policies that will directly benefit young people. As Fraser Nelson pointed out last week, “for some time now, the Tories have pursued a relentless policy of bribing older voters because they are more likely to turn up on polling day. They are offered free TV licenses, free bus passes and lower taxes. And for the young: nothing but platitudes, cuts and tuition fees”. Whilst this might make sense electorally, it’s based on general assumption that once these young people grow up and enter the workforce, a switch will click and they will suddenly vote Conservative. To be fair, this appears to have happened in past decades, as working people saw their incomes and standards of living rise. But strategists should not be so complacent; history is not a proxy for future success.

Our education system is failing to equip thousands of young people with even the most basic of skills, with English teenagers aged 16-19 having the worst literacy levels and the second worst numeracy levels in the OECD for this age group.

Those who do succeed academically and head to university, will graduate with colossal debts and go on to work in jobs that leave them unfulfilled, with the labour market not adapting to make the most of their skills and talents. Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate is more than double the general unemployment rate.

Pay for under-30s is stagnating, with the Resolution Foundation recently raising the prospect that millennials could be the first ever generation to earn less than their predecessors over the course of their working lives.

Home ownership is a distant dream for many, with the average house price costing 7.6 times the average salary – double the figure of 20 years ago, according to the ONS. A quarter of young adults in the UK are still living with their parents, and ‘generation rent’ are paying eye-watering amounts on rent to private landlords, stifling their ability to save for the future.

Indeed, as young people glance over their shoulders at their parents and grandparents, it is understandable why they feel a sense of unfairness. Their elders enjoyed free higher education and more affordable housing in their youth, the benefits of deregulation and popular capitalism in the 1980s, and have now retired at a fairly young age on final-salary pensions and the ‘triple-lock’ state pension. Research suggests that today’s young will be net contributors to the welfare state, whilst the baby boomer generation will be net beneficiaries. These social benefits are increasingly unlikely to be available to today’s young when they finally retire (well into their 70s).

These aren’t the whinges of an ungrateful generation; it’s a plea for help from a generation who feel the social contract between generations is being cut up. Young people understand that their parents and grandparents worked hard for what they’ve got. They recognise that they enjoy many luxuries not available to previous generations. But they are also worried about getting on in the workplace, keeping their household debts manageable, raising a family in a home of their own, and saving up for the future. These are values that Conservatives holds dear, so the party of giving a ‘hand-up’ must not be seen as pulling up the drawbridge to young people.

After all, it is the older generation who have built a country skewed in their own interests, whilst failing to pay equal attention to the plight of the young. It’s not the young who poured billions of pounds into schools whilst leaving many without the ability to read or write. It’s not the young who decided to create a bloated higher education sector whilst failing to see through any long-term reforms to vocational and technical education. It’s not the young who have shunned difficult decisions on tackling childhood obesity and underfunded mental health services. It’s not the young who have failed to build enough affordable housing. Indeed, it’s not the young who voted for Brexit, with the undeniable short-term uncertainty it now brings.

Appealing to the young is not just vital for the future the country; it’s vital for the future of the Conservative Party, when the average age of the Party’s (dwindling) membership is in its late fifties. Where is the fresh supply of young members who will add energy to campaigning now and become the councillors and parliamentary candidates of the future? I’ve been a member of Tory associations where I was the only activist under the age of 50.

With Theresa May stating in her first conference speech that there is “a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation”, it’s time for those words to be replaced by actions.

The 2017 Conservative manifesto should be the start of a plan to win over a generation of young voters. It needs to outline plans to get fresh leadership into schools to tackle educational underperformance, build a world-leading vocational and technical education pathway, and improve careers advice in schools and colleges. The construction of a million new, affordable homes (as well as more social housing and retirement homes that the elderly actually want to move into), greater regeneration of our regions to offer attractive alternatives to London, and incentives to banks to offer an improved savings and investment vehicle for the under-35s, would all act as a springboard for young people.

Ultimately, the creation of a financially sustainable pensions, healthcare and social care system, would all serve to strengthen the social contract between generations. And to be radical, how about introducing compulsory voting for first-time voters, so that politicians are forced to better balance the needs of the young with the needs of the elderly?

This article was first published on ConservativeHome on 11/05/2017

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With Brexit on the horizon, British businesses are concerned about how they can attract skilled workers going forward, with 69 per cent of businesses not confident there will be enough people available in the future with the skills needed to fill high-skilled jobs (CBI/Pearson 2016). Statistics like this prickle the ears policymakers who are keen to ensure that any potential disruption to the influx of international talent to the UK labour market – as a result of tightened immigration rules – is mitigated through the enhanced education and training of British schoolchildren. This was evident in the recent Budget, where the Government pledged to overhaul technical education, implementing the recommendations of the Sainsbury Review in full. This included the streamlining of an estimated 13,000 technical qualifications down to 15 high quality technical education routes of “equal value” to A Levels, in order to better prepare school and college leavers for the changing job market.

It is clear, however, that policymakers need to work in tandem with businesses and educationists if Britain is to develop the skilled workers needed for future employment. To illustrate the point, let us take the skill of ‘critical thinking’. 89 per cent of employers rate character attributes such as critical thinking (see also: grit, creativity, resilience and confidence) as amongst the three most important factors in recruiting school/college leavers (CBI/Pearson 2016). Few employers would argue against the need for employees with the ability to generate new ways of looking at things and to analyse the best way forward when considering an array of options. Indeed, in an era of ‘fake news’ and the proliferation of news outlets, critical thinking is a desirable skill for all citizens. Yet despite the best efforts of schools over the past two decades to develop critical thinking skills amongst their pupils through a mixture of stand-alone classes and redevelopment of curricula to encourage the use of ‘higher order thinking skills’, the bulk of cognitive research points to a disappointing conclusion: that critical thinking critical thinking without context cannot be taught. As Daniel T. Willingham (2007: 8), professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia states:

“People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)”

In short, critical thinking is something that you can only master in a specific domain. Consider for instance the assertion that ‘Donald Trump is the worst president in US history’. Whilst many of us may believe this to be true – and are able to make a superficial judgement based on the assimilation of various news stories (i.e. the opinions of others) over recent months – consider what knowledge one needs to possess be able to make your own well-considered judgement as to the validity of this statement. First you would need to understand what is meant by ‘worst’. Are we referring to their poll-ratings, ability to legislate, respect for minority rights, influence in the world, whether they won re-election, the rate of GDP growth etc.? Second, once you have come up with some barometers for success, you would need to overlay this with an understanding of the 43 previous holders of the role of president. It is clear, therefore, that the ability to think critically in a meaningful way as an individual requires specific knowledge; it is not a transferable ‘skill’ in itself.

To return to the central point – a problem at present is that corporates and influential business institutions, such as the CBI, publish reports with demands for better skills, such as critical thinking, amongst young people. These, in turn, are often translated into initiatives from Whitehall, requiring schools come up with a plan to address this particular need (though admittedly reform of the National Curriculum in 2013 stripped out much of the past focus on generic skills). This results in a range of school-based practices, such as the provision of standalone classes in critical thinking mentioned above. These interventions might help pupils to understand how to articulate an argument or to structure their method of inquiry, however a genuine ability to think critically requires pupils to be taught a body of knowledge which they can recall and weigh-up against other chunks of knowledge. Despite this truism, business reports fail to recognise this – when is the last time you saw a business calling for schools to implement a knowledge-rich curriculum, or provide funding for research into the teaching methods which best instil facts into a pupil’s long-term memory? Conversely, just 23 per cent of businesses see academic results as amongst the three most important factors in recruiting school/college leavers (CBI/Pearson 2016). This is despite the fact that external testing is the fairest and least discriminatory way to measure and compare a pupil’s ability to recall knowledge and use it in a critical manner (McIntosh 2015).

Policymakers need to work with both businesses and educationists if they are to identify the right policies to develop the skilled workers needed for the future. At the same time, businesses ought to work more closely with educationists to understand the critical path required for skills development amongst young people (their future workforce) to ensure their policy recommendations will truly meet their needs. Finally, educationists – and more specifically, schools – ought not to be swayed by glossy reports published by bodies such as the CBI lamenting a lack of generic skills; rather they ought to get on with their core business of imparting knowledge.

Sources:

Having taught for the past four years, I’ve been asked by a few friends, who are new to teaching, for some tips and advice. With the first half of term out of the way and the gloss of the new job wearing thin (what with the late nights planning, the endless piles of marking and little Jonny continually mucking around), now seems like a good time to offer my pearls of wisdom. So, having taught in both a challenging state school and a top independent school, what advice would I give to new teachers?


Planning and testing

First things first: relax. When you are a new teacher it is very easy to get stressed about planning every single minute of every lesson down to a tee. Partly due to the desire to do a good job and partly due to poor management and training, new teachers spend hours creating endless worksheets and PowerPoint presentations to accompany the lesson (most of which never get used in full). This is compounded by a terrible trait of some teachers (including – bizarrely – heads of department) to not openly share their resources with their colleagues (the inefficiency on display here is staggering, but that’s one for another day).

The answer to effective lesson planning and delivery is to keep it simple; less is more when it comes to activities. Pick two or three activities that work well and simply repeat these. Cast away the group work and banish the advice that you should be moving onto a new activity every 4-7 minutes. Focus on activities that make the students think deeply about what you’re teaching and build on this with effective questioning and low-stakes tests/quizzes. In fact, I’d be as bold as to suggest that, in the early days, you can just pick one activity that works well and repeat this every lesson. It’s seen as a bit passé in the progressive education sphere, but a clear teacher explanation followed by a comprehension (reading and writing) tasks, followed by class discussion/questioning, is in my experience, the best way to convey knowledge and to check understanding. All the time you spend faffing over whether to do a card sort or a ‘diamond 9’ or whether to use lollipop sticks and red/yellow/green cups for a mini-plenary (God help us!) is time you could spend picking out high quality reading material or crafting a better question to stretch your pupils.

My best lessons were very straightforward and nearly always followed the straightforward structure of:

  • Greeting and register
  • Recap prior learning (short quiz, questioning, video clip or teacher explanation)
  • Explanation of what you’re doing today and how this relates to prior learning
  • Activity (reading and questions) followed by class discussion/questioning
  • Recap of lesson (short quiz or teacher explanation)

Textbooks are (mostly) your friends. Some textbooks are, admittedly, terrible, particularly where the case studies go out of date very quickly. But in essence, textbooks are written by experts on their subject in a way which is accessible for the age group that you’re teaching. Whilst this might offend some (it shouldn’t), as a new teacher you aren’t an expert in your subject. Having an undergraduate degree in something doesn’t make you an expert, so don’t waste hours of your time writing up your own notes. Find a good textbook for your subject/topic, and use it. Of course, supplement this with additional notes if needs be, but for now, cut yourself a bit of slack. Instead, focus on making your explanations clear, your delivery and your questions stretching.

To embed knowledge, devise a multiple choice quiz (no more than 15 questions) to use at the end of each lesson, and perhaps at the start of the next lesson. Every few lessons, give pupils the chance to do all of the quizzes covered to date (i.e. all 60 questions covered in the first four lessons). At the end of a topic, get pupils to answer all of the quizzes; over the course of a unit this could run to well over 100 questions. This is a brilliant and time effective way of revisiting topics and this repetitive process will help to embed knowledge.

Marking

If you are not one of the lucky few whose headteachers have decided to end the marking of classwork, then you will be expected to mark your pupils’ books every couple of weeks. If, like I used to, you teach a subject with limited contact time – say one hour per week – you could have anything up to 17 classes as a new teacher. If these classes have an average of 28 pupils in each class, that’s 476 exercise books that you need to be checking, once a fortnight. If each book takes three minutes (this is how long I worked out it takes to check a pupil’s book properly every fortnight – including correcting any errors with spelling and grammar) then marking all 476 book would take 1,428 minutes (or 23.8 hours) every fortnight in order to hit your school’s targets. That is, if you work totally efficiently, without distractions and without dying of boredom on the way! Add an assessment to this, and the time required will double (or triple if you include detailed KS4 or KS5 work). This calculation shows how ludicrous many schools’ marking policies are and how desperately misguided many headteachers are in their interpretation of Ofsted guidance. But moaning and groaning doesn’t get those booked marked, so what can you do to get your books marked without burning out?

The answer, like many challenges in teaching, is down to efficiency. With any assessment, pupils errors made nearly always fall under three categories:

  1. Content – misuse of information/lack of understanding
  2. Technique – poor structure and argumentation
  3. Spelling and grammar

So, rather than identify these in every single pupil’s books, skim read a few books to get an idea of what errors keep reoccurring, and then simply use the code ‘C’ (content), ‘T’ (technique) or ‘Sp’ (spelling)/ ‘Gr’ (grammar’) in the books. No words/comments are needed. This can reduce the amount of time spent on a book down to about 30 seconds (or under 15 minutes for a class of 28). Then at the start of your next lesson, dedicate some time to get pupils to re-read their work and then you can clearly:

  1. Clarify areas of misunderstanding – content
  2. Model good and bad structure and argumentation – technique
  3. Recap on key words that have been misspelt and emphasise which words should have capital letters – spelling and grammar

Give pupils the time to correct or improve their work (your school will probably make you do this in a green/purple pen…). The result of this is that every pupil has revisited and improved their work, whilst you have only spent about 15 minutes flicking through a class worth of books, 15 minutes writing up some specific and high quality feedback (which can be reused with every class that sits this assessment) and spent 5-10 minutes going through the above with the class. Compared to spending upwards of 90 minutes per class, replicating the same feedback over and over, this simple shift in approach will not only save you time (and your sanity) but also have a much greater impact on your pupils.

Behaviour

Unsurprisingly, behaviour will make or break your impact in the classroom. Get it right, and the atmosphere every lesson will be positive, you will feel like you’re making great progress and you will enjoy your job. Get it wrong, and your lessons will be stressful, frustrating and feel like walking through treacle. I passionately believe that

There are endless blog posts and books available on behaviour. This plethora of information, whilst often valuable, can be a little overwhelming. So I’ve boiled down my three top behaviour tips:

1. Never proceed whilst someone is talking. Doug Lemov’s silent technique is the best for grabbing attention. Here you abruptly cut off your sentence half-way through a word, thus creating immediate silence. The guilty student will realise pretty quickly that their voice is audible in the otherwise silent room, and will be quiet pretty quickly. If a pupil simply isn’t listening/focused during a task, then Lemov also champions the ‘minimally invasive correction technique’ to get that pupil on task without disrupting the entire class

2. Focus on the small things. If you let the small things go, the bigger things are harder to control. In one of my first sixth-form classes of the year, I saw that a pupil had coloured in the letters on the work pack that I had painstakingly produced. I gave this pupil a stern word saying that this made his work look sloppy and therefore showed a disregard for his learning. Many would argue that this was just harmless doodling, but I think that if you set expectations high over the little things, then pupils adjust to that and make a bigger effort to maintain standards in there important areas of their work. Once you’ve raised the bar high, it’s more likely to stay high throughout the year. Needless to say, that pupil and his class remembered this stern word even at the very end of the year – these things stick. You just need to make the effort to address them. Related to this – make the effort right from the very start to call home if pupils are mucking around. They will soon learn that you mean business.

3. Establish clear routines. You need to sit down and work out how you want pupils to enter and exit the classroom (e.g. stand behind chair in silence or sit down and get on with a task), how you are going to ask/answer questions (e.g. hands up or hands down ‘cold calling’) and how you are going to explain information/tasks (e.g. pens down, arms folded, tracking the teacher). Once you have worked out how you want pupils to act from the very start to the very end of the lesson, write it down in clear and explicit steps (David Thomas has explained this well). Print these steps out on A3 sheets and have them at the front of the classroom and explain them at the start of the year and then refer to them throughout the year (‘thank you class X for coming in and sitting down in silence and getting on with the task’). Kids need clear rules and routines – anything else is confusing for them and difficult for you.


I hope that these tips are useful. If you get these basic steps right, your life will become easier; you will be less stressed and have more time for friends and family. Happy teachers = better teachers, and a more sustainable teaching profession. Take the pressure off and keep it simple.

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Life as a Politics teacher has been somewhat challenging over the past couple of months, with seemingly everybody you meet asking you for your well-reasoned standpoint on the impending EU referendum. However, despite reading widely, talking to many colleagues and friends, watching endless panel debates online and even teaching an entire year group about the arguments on both sides of the fray, I have been struggling to make up my mind as to which side to back.

The economic arguments for remaining in the single market appear convincing, yet the lack of ability to set up a system of sustainable migration is frustrating. I am by nature an internationalist – I have travelled to 31 countries so far, with two new countries lined up for this summer – yet see international cooperation as very different to being integrated in a pan-European state. The logic behind the ‘pooled’ sovereignty argument makes sense, yet I fear for our parliamentary sovereignty. So which way to go? Does one stick with the status quo or leap into the unknown? After much internal debate and conflict, the conclusion for me is clear: I will be voting to leave on June 23rd. I shall now aim to outline why.

Any student of Politics will tell you that political systems around the world tend to be made of up three branches: the executive (‘the government’), the legislature (parliament/congress) and the judiciary (the supreme court). The European Union is no different with its European Commission, European Parliament and European Court of Justice. It even has its own a flag, anthem and currency (this should end any arguments that the European Union isn’t a form of super-state). The only thing that the European Union is lacking to become a fully-fledged state is a common fiscal policy (tax-raising powers) and a constitution (though the 2007 Lisbon Treaty rescued many aspects of the EU constitution which rejected via referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005). This is no secret or a right-wing fantasy; this is the vision of a federal Europe that is still openly supported amongst European leaders, not least in France and Italy. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, is a devoted federalist. Perhaps the notion of a democratic, federal Europe is not very controversial to many Brits, and I accept this. Many people might support this notion of political harmonisation in the ever more complicated world we live in. However, the fatal flaw at the heart of the European project (and thus the ‘Remain’ campaign) is that we are not voting on whether to be in/out of a democratic Europe; we are voting whether to be in/out of an undemocratic Europe.

Whilst the European Parliament has never attracted an electoral turnout of over 40% (compared with 66.4% in the 2015 UK General Election), and the role of the European Council/Council of Europe is about as clear as mud, my main source of consternation lies with the European Commission – the de-facto government of the European Union, made up of 28 unelected European Commissioners. According to their website, the main roles of the European Commission are to:

  • propose legislation which is then adopted by the co-legislators, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers
  • enforce European law (where necessary with the help of the Court of Justice of the EU)
  • set a objectives and priorities for action, outlined yearly in the Commission Work Programme and work towards delivering them manage and implement EU policies and the budget
  • represent the Union outside Europe (negotiating trade agreements between the EU and other countries, for example.)

(Source: http://ec.europa.eu)

This sounds very much like a European government to me and in many ways this could be wholly justified if it was elected much like other governments around the world. But it isn’t. Each country within the EU nominates its own Commissioner every five years. Worryingly, national appointees to the Commission are often senior politicians who have just lost an election, such as Neil Kinnock who was made Britain’s EU Commissioner in 1995 having lost the 1992 General Election. This isn’t just undemocratic; it’s anti-democratic. As Jeremy Paxman outlines in this video (watch from 15 mins), Britain’s current Commissioner, Lord Hill, has never held elected office.

Of these 28 unelected appointees, one becomes the President of the Commission having been approved by the European Parliament (and proposed by the European Council before that). This role is currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg – the 8th least-populous country in Europe. As such, whilst not directly elected by the people, I suppose Mr Juncker can claim some semblance of democratic legitimacy based on his majority support of MEPs in the European Parliament. However, the other 27 Commissioners are then divvied out amongst the various departments at the behest of the President. In short, political appointees with zero democratic mandate or legitimacy take charge of European Union departments (and billions of euros worth of spending) in areas from Transport to Agriculture & Rural Development. This is hugely problematic. As the leading article in The Times said yesterday: “The institutions that run the world’s biggest trading bloc foster democracy in new member states but are themselves undemocratic, meddling and short-sighted”. This statement is backed up by the Electoral Reform Society who argue that: “a serious democratic deficit at the European level”.

I believe that, amongst the melee and hyperbolic campaigns on both sides of the EU referendum debate, we have lost sight of the wood for the trees. In supporting a federal Europe we have abandoned one of the very principles that we hoped the European Union would foster: democracy. As I write these words I can hear the collective moans and see the eyes rolling in front of me: ‘it’s a price worth paying’…‘we have to take the rough with the smooth’. I must admit that the thing that has shocked me most about the EU referendum campaign has been the total ambivalence towards the notion of democratic legitimacy and accountability. I’ve been struggling to get my head around this, not least because the history of Europe is that of a struggle for self-determination and opposition to unelected elites. Moreover, as Professor John Thorley says, “democracy gives you something to be proud of and defend – democracy gave birth to art, architecture, drama literature and philosophy”. Why then are so many people blasé about voting for Britain to remain part of an institution whose core is so undemocratic? Francis Fukuyama, the former US State Department official, argued in his seminal work The End of History, that the capitalist democracy represents the final and highest stage of the development of human political and economic institutions; arguing that rule by an unelected elite in Europe is ‘a price worth paying’ seems at odds with human progress more widely.

Democracy is a commonly used term in politics and the word itself can be described in various different ways. Common conceptions of democracy may include the notion of ‘free, fair and regular elections’ or ‘government of the people by the people, for the people’ as the great Abraham Lincoln outlined. Nevertheless, at the root of all definitions of democracy, no matter how refined or complex, lies the idea of ‘popular power’ in which power rests with the people. This idea of popular power has been central to democracy since the Greeks invented it in the fifth century BC, as the translation of the word ‘demokratia’ shows – rule (kratos) by the people (demos). To support a seemingly benign unelected elite of European Commissioners who ‘know best’ is to support a line of argument that dates back to the creation of democracy in Ancient Greece. It was Plato, and Thucydides before him, who outlined his disdain for democracy as it put power in the hands of the uneducated masses. Instead, he argued for a ‘guardian class’ – essentially an aristocracy of the intelligent – to rule the feckless masses. Later, Aristotle – a student of Plato’s – in his work The Politics outlined his desire for a government ruled by a meritocratic aristocracy; a regime made up of the best simply on the basis of ‘virtue’, as opposed to the guardianship proposed by his teacher. The dislike of democracy evoked by Plato and Aristotle contrasts with the great Athenian leader, Pericles, who in his famous ‘Funeral Oration’ outlined the his support for this new concept of democracy:

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability, which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty

The emotional attachment Pericles showed towards democracy is not unique to him. During World War Two, excerpts from Pericles’ ‘Funeral Oration’ were displayed on placards in Britain to spur on the Allies to identify with the free Athenians of the ancient democracy and thus fight against the Nazis more effectively.

‘But still’, I hear people protest, ‘they (the Commission) don’t effect our lives’, citing Boris Johnson waffling on about regulations on bananas as evidence of the mundaneness of the issues the Commission deals with. The question then has to be asked: how can we argue that the European Union is so vital if those statutes, directives and regulations which stem from Brussels are so unimportant? Surely if the EU is only concerned with small matters like the straightness bananas then do we really have so much to lose if we leave? Of course, this is nonsense. The EU deals with significant issues and has far-reaching powers. The undemocratic nature of the Commission also raises practical implications. How can the European Commission criticise foreign nations for not adhering to democratic principles when it is itself entirely undemocratic? At least in China and Russia they make efforts to pretend that they have democratically elected leaders!

What we should all want for Europe is peace and prosperity, underpinned by democratic governance. Whether that’s part of a European state or as a looser collection of nations comes down to ideology. Pro-Europeans see the completion of a federal Europe as the answer to the democratic deficit outlined above. As the Electoral Reform Society outline:

It is relatively straightforward to imagine how the structures of the EU could be transformed into those of a federal state, with the Commission becoming a government, the Council of Ministers becoming a Senate and European political parties formalising themselves into genuine transcontinental parties

However, in reality there appears to be little sign of a European identity and little sign of a desire for a federal Europe amongst the European peoples, with antipathy towards the EU at an all time high. This creates a central problem to the European ideal: if European citizens do not want a federal Europe, then a democratic state should not be imposed undemocratically. The most obvious way of making the Commission more accountable is to make the President directly elected by the people of Europe, however, whilst direct election may provide the Commission President with more democratic legitimacy, it would also be likely to produce centralisation of power into one person’s hands. As Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former Director of Strategy, convincingly outlines in his book More Human, we need a radical decentralisation of power in Britain, not further centralisation at a supranational level.

To conclude, I refer to Anthony Arblaster who made the observation that “in the West we have inherited from the Cold War the lazy assumption that if a government is not Communist, or is not that of an identifiable dictator, then it must be a democracy”. I believe that those who argue in favour of Britain being part of the European Union are, often unknowingly, making this same assumption. Perhaps worse, people have forgotten the importance of what Arblaster described as a “cherished political principle”. I fear that we are so preoccupied with short-term economic concerns (genuine as they appear to be) that we have lost sight of the superior principle of democratic governance. British/ European voters neither know nor care who their European Commissioners are or what they stand for. This is profoundly wrong yet the EU has no plans to deal with it. And, if you still aren’t convinced, perhaps ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Does the European Commission exercise real power over the lives of European people?
  2. Can I identify who the European Commissioners are in order to scrutinise their actions?
  3. Can I get rid of a European Commissioner if I don’t feel they are representing Britain’s best interests?

Whilst the importance of democracy should be at the forefront of people’s minds when they vote in the European referendum next week, I’m pretty certain it won’t be. Herein lies the great irony: that in giving people a democratic voice, they are on course to vote for a political union led by an unelected elite.

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The scale of social inequality in Britain impedes social mobility because the poorest in society are so disadvantaged from the outset, whilst the richest are so advantaged. Social inequality is therefore problematic for the current government’s stated vision of a ‘One Nation’ Britain where opportunities “are not dependent on the family you were born into, the place where you live or the school you attend” (The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015).

One policy that was specifically designed and implemented in order to reduce the disadvantage faced by those pupils from lower socio-economic groups was the pupil premium. The Coalition Government introduced the pupil premium in April 2011 with a clear goal of reducing the attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their wealthier peers. The policy’s introduction was widely supported by the education community – a rarity in policy terms. The pupil premium involves giving schools a grant of £1,320 (primary) and £935 (secondary) for all children eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point in the last six years and now covers 27% of the school population. Schools are free to spend the pupil premium as they see fit but are accountable for how they use the additional funding to support pupils.

Whilst total spending on schools is no panacea, research of the relationship between pupil expenditure and attainment supporting the policy is clear (e.g. Levacic et al. 2005; Holmlund, McNally and Viarengo 2009 and 2010). Indeed, the importance of additional funding for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds was echoed by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in 2014:

“I know that some critics will argue my expectations are too high. They will point to the financial advantages many of the top private schools enjoy. And money does matter. Which is why we have protected schools spending; indeed, invested more in the poorest children through the pupil premium.”

So what impact is the policy having?

Primary level

On first inspections, the introduction of the pupil premium correlates with a rise in attainment for pupils eligible for FSM. There has been a continual improvement in the four academic years since 2011, with a growth in the percentage of pupils eligible for FSM achieving a Level 4 or better in reading, writing and mathematics increasing from 59% to 66%. However, there has been a simultaneous increase in attainment for pupils not-eligible for FSM from 74% to 80% in the same period. As such, the total gap in attainment at KS4 remained at 14% in 2015, the same as in 2014 and just 1% improved from 2013 and 2012.

Secondary level

Similar to KS2, the pupil premium does not appear to have made a significant impact to the attainment of pupils on free school meals at KS4. In 2014, just 33.5% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved five good GCSEs (A*-C) including English and Maths compared to the national average of 60.5%. As with KS2, whilst it is important to note that overall attainment for pupils on FSM has increased substantially over the past decade, so too have the attainment levels for all other pupils, meaning that the gap has remained largely unchanged (though Dr Rebecca Allen of the IoE argues that current progress by pupils eligible for FSM might be better than previously thought as the 5 A*-C figures do not provide an accurate barometer for progress as the measure ignores many improvements within the A*-C boundary).

Here are some of the current issues that appear to be hampering the pupil premium policy in reducing the attainment gap:

  • Comparable outcomes – The current Ofqual policy  of ‘comparable outcomes’, designed to “align standards between exam boards in each subject and over time” means that that the distribution of grades – how many pupils achieve each grade – might not change dramatically from one year to the next. Whilst this policy is understandable in terms of ‘maintaining standards’ it is clear that for the gap in attainment to narrow then disadvantaged pupils not only have to achieve higher grades than they did in the past, but also that an equivalent proportion of non-eligible pupils simultaneously need to achieve lower grades than they did in the past.
  • Regional disparities – Attainment at KS2 for pupils eligible for free school meals was highest in London (69%) and lowest in the East of England (54%) in 2013. At KS4, schools based in predominantly rural and coastal areas – also predominantly white working class areas – have achieved disappointing results for their pupils, with just one in four eligible pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-C (including English and Maths) in 2013, compared to the national average of 33.5%.
  • FSM eligibility requirements – A significant proportion of economically disadvantaged children are not registered for FSM. A government report published in 2012 found that around 14% of the 1.4 million children aged 4-15 in England entitled to receive FSM were not claiming them. This means that they do not attract the pupil premium funding they deserve. There are also concerns that the current mechanism used to allocate the pupil premium, free school meals (FSM), creates steep eligibility cut-off points.
  • Use of fundingWhilst there has been a growing willingness by senior leaders to use research in deciding which approaches to use in improving pupil learning, over a third of senior leaders claim to not base their actions on proven methods. This is perplexing when an evidence-based toolkit of effective interventions is provided by the Sutton Trust and the EEF.  This leads to a risk that schools are able to waste money on ineffective activities for many years without effective challenge. Even more concerning is the notion that a significant number of schools use the pupil premium to fund gaps left by reductions in the schools budget caused by national austerity measures.
  • Level of funding attributed to the pupil premiumAn average sized secondary school with average numbers of pupils eligible for FSM receive an additional level of funding in the region of £200,000. However, there are concerns that the additional funding from the pupil premium is insufficient in order to effectively ‘close the gap’. Indeed, the OECD observes that the premium is relatively low in international standards
  • Overall school performance – There is a clear correlation between overall school performance, and the level of progress for pupils eligible for the pupil premium. As such, overall school performance – or lack of performance – is a major hindrance for the pupil premium policy to be effective.We need schools with strong leadership and governance that use interventions designed to have a long-lasting impact and not just to boost short-term achievement.
  • Wider social issues – Whilst better schools are vital – and schools such as KSA show that social background need not determine a child’s success –  policies directed at strengthening families and communities are also needed in attempts to equalise educational opportunities; policymakers cannot rely solely on interventions funded by the pupil premium to deliver the sheer scale of improvements that are required to break the link between poverty and educational attainment.

To summarise, whilst teachers, academics, politicians and Ofsted all appear to support the policy, it is clear that despite the best of intentions, this policy is not having the desired impact of reducing inequality in attainment. Yes, pupils eligible for FSM are achieving better results at KS2 and KS4, but so are non-eligible pupils. Whilst this might be praise for the sector as a whole, progress to date must be seen as a failure for social mobility campaigners. At best, research has shown that targeted interventions used effectively could close the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils by a half, though even this is not enough to redress the fundamental inequality that exists. The challenge for policy makers is to maintain a relentless focus on continual reform of our schools and wider reforms of social policy. Without this, England’s education system appears destined to remain deeply unequal.

There is a pernicious dogma in our schools, largely thanks to the 2005 Steer Report and poorly trained Ofsted inspectors, that lessons should contain ‘jazzy’ and ‘whizzy’ exercises designed to engage students in their learning. A failure to do so, the conventional wisdom suggests, will inevitably lead to poor behaviour amongst pupils (and this is entirely your fault as a teacher). Silent written work is out, whilst noisy group work is in. (Somewhat paradoxically, there is also a mantra that the time spent on planning a lesson should not be longer than the length of the lesson itself – I wonder how many teachers abide by this.)

In response to this desire for the perfect ‘fun’ lesson, school CPD sessions often revolve around ‘sharing resources’, with departmental meetings and inter-school links set up to facilitate this. Log into tes.com and there are pages and pages of lesson resources that teachers, across all subjects and key-stages, have uploaded. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken part in a ‘USB dump’ where I drop my schemes of work onto somebody else’s computer, and vice-versa. Teachers then spend many an hour scouring these resources for snippets that they can use in their lessons (though often the activities or content don’t quite fit with their specific lesson objectives).

Having previously been indoctrinated by this mantra (and Teach First is guilty here) I’ve come to believe that this focus on lesson activities is all a massive waste of time. We have sacrificed scholarship amongst our pupils in favour of card-sort induced submission. This is draining our teachers and depriving our children.

So what is the alternative? High-quality textbooks.

The merits of textbooks are extensively researched and outlined in the 2014 paper ‘Why textbooks count’ by Tim Oates, Group director of assessment research and development for Cambridge Assessment. Other high-performing education systems such as Singapore and Finland use textbooks extensively in the classroom. Despite the merits of textbooks, however, there is a culture in our schools which vehemently opposes their use. As Nick Gibb MP, Minister for Schools, stated in November 2014:

“Ideological hostility to the use of textbooks, particularly in primary schools, developed in the 1970s. Their replacement with work sheets and hundreds of thousands of bespoke written lesson plans has added to teacher workload, detracted from coherence and impacted on standards.”

This lack of demand has had a detrimental impact on both the quantity and quality of textbooks on offer. As Oates outlines:

“Our analysis of the market in England suggests that there is chronic market failure. In KS4, teachers have been conditioned by performance tables into highly instrumental approaches to learning, oriented towards obtaining specific examination grades.”

Taking my own subject, Government & Politics, as an example, there are three main textbooks available at AS Level. All three are of a fairly high quality in terms of content (Andrew Heywood’s being my favourite) however they are severely limited in terms of advising teachers on how best to utilise this content. Unlike effective Maths textbooks which might explain how to tackle a problem followed by a large number of practice questions and exercises in an attempt to work towards mastery of the subject, none of the textbooks on offer in my subject – and indeed, across most arts and humanities subjects – attempt to provide an effective learning schema. A lack of chronology in History and Philosophy & Religion textbooks is also evident. As such, the textbook is often treated as a reference book rather than an extensive source of knowledge.

Again, taking my own subject as an example, market failure at A Level is highlighted by the fact there is a solitary UK published textbook on US Politics. Whilst areas of this textbook are good, it is far too limited to stretch pupils of all abilities. For instance, when covering the Supreme Court topic, there is no mention of the recent phenomenon of conservative activism, yet the examination requires them to have a substantial understanding of this. To makeup for this shortfall in quality, I have scoured university level textbooks on Government & Politics, including several from the US, and compiled my own alternative ‘workbooks’. This, as you can imagine, is incredibly time consuming and almost definitely breaches copyright laws (please don’t report me!).

The Minister for Schools has begun to tackle this lack of quality and quantity of textbooks by trialling English adaptations of Singaporean mathematics textbooks in 35 primary maths hubs established by the DfE, as well as cajoling publishers into producing higher quality textbooks for other key-stages. Despite this, there is much progress to be made and we won’t see the fundamental shift towards using textbooks until headteachers and classroom teachers are convinced of the benefits of doing so, thus creating a greater demand for them. As such, I shall now outline what I see as the four clear benefits to schools, teachers and pupils for using high-quality textbooks:

1) It allows for better teaching 

Most teachers went into teaching to teach, not to spend hours cutting up card sorts or printing activities out on different bits of coloured paper. The truth is, and this might be controversial to some, having an undergraduate degree in a subject does not make you an expert in that field, so why do teachers spend so much time producing academic materials? Let academics and advanced teachers focus on creating high quality materials and stretching lesson activities – codified in a single, authoritative textbook – and let teachers focus on their subject knowledge and honing their teaching craft. High-quality textbooks demand a more knowledgeable workforce whilst simultaneously freeing teachers up to meet this objective. Teachers don’t need more planning and preparation (PP) time; they need to plan and prepare less.

2) It is much more rigorous 

In his seminal paper, Oates (2014) identified that the highest quality materials manifest a series of vital features:

  • underpinning by well-grounded learning theory and theory regarding subject-specific content
  • clear delineation of content – a precise focus on key concepts and knowledge coherent learning progressions within the subject
  • stimulation and support of learner reflection
  • varied application of concepts and principles – ‘expansive application’
  • control of surface and structural features of texts to ensure consistency with underpinning learning theory

As Oates states:

“High quality textbooks are not antithetical to high quality pedagogy – they are supportive of sensitive and effective approaches to high attainment, high equity and high enjoyment of learning.” (Oates 2014)

The focus on context as well as key terms and concepts helps to avoid a sometimes dramatic dumbing down of complex topics. See below for an example of an activity I found on tes.com related to political parties in the UK:

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Enough said.

3) It is much more efficient 

It is crazy that teachers of the same subject, teaching the same topics, spend hours and hours every week, planning ‘engaging’ and ‘stretching’ lessons in siloed classrooms and staffrooms. This is an incredibly inefficient use of resources by the State and by schools, and embodies an economic outlook that would not be out of place in pre-industrial Britain. The division of labour –  popularised by the economist Adam Smith – was the great innovation responsible for catapulting Britain to global economic supremacy, yet our schools are missing a trick by expecting our teachers to be ‘all rounders’. The use of common schemes of work and teaching materials is already commonplace in academy chains and there is no shame in this.

4) It saves schools money 

Many schools spend tens of thousands of pounds per year on different types of paper, laminating and photocopying (and the related costs of servicing photocopiers when they inevitably break down). For instance, my Teach First placement school printed an incredible 1.2 million sheets of paper in 2012 (see this video they produced for their 2013 Waste Week, including a short cameo from yours truly). There is incredible waste in the system; over-printing or unused worksheets starves schools of vital pennies. The environmental impact is clear too.

Of course, there are some subjects where this might be more difficult, however, I believe that the shift towards using high-quality textbooks in classrooms can’t come soon enough. It would be cheaper for schools, more rigorous for pupils and would free up teachers to focus on their teaching. Who can argue with that?