Sunday, November 21, 2010

sir ken robinson+education

It was fascinating listening to Sir Ken Robinson talking about education on yesterday’s Radio 4’s “Saturday Live” programme. I’d come across him for the first time last year (I blogged about him in July 2009). Really interesting, thought-provoking bloke and I think you should watch/listen to his two “Ted Talks” (they’re only 18 minutes long and very worthwhile!). I particularly love his reference to WB Yeates’s poem “Cloths of Heaven” at the very end of his second talk:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
It’s not very often that I yearn to have followed a different “career” route but, if I had come across him when I was in my twenties or thirties, I think I might have been encouraged, in my own naive inadequate way, to make waves in the world of education!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

aung san suu kyi

What an amazing lady.
Seeing her being set free by the military authorities from her latest period of house arrest, it felt very much like watching Nelson Mandela being released from Robben Island twenty years.
Such integrity, such dignity.
She has made it absolutely clear that she’s fully prepared to take the consequences if the military government decided to lock her up again for what she said or did… and, given what she’s gone through over the past 21 years, it would have seemed perfectly reasonable for her to call for the downfall of the military rulers.
But no, instead, she simply says: "I think it's quite obvious what the people want; the people just want better lives based on security and on freedom… I don't want to see the military falling. I want to see the military rising to dignified heights of professionalism and true patriotism".
If the military had any sense, they should seize the moment and accept at this opportunity she’s handing them…. but they almost certainly won’t.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

£120 billion tax avoidance?

Came across a fascinating article in Monday’s Guardian (thanks to good friend Iain) by George Monbiot (I’ve previously read his excellent book “HEAT – how can we stop the planet burning”). He reckons it’s arguable that the UK government does NOT have a spending crisis; it has a tax avoidance crisis!
Official accounts suggest that the tax gap amounts to £42bn.
Richard Murphy of Tax Research has demonstrated that this figure cannot be correct, as it contradicts other government statistics. He estimates that avoidance now amounts to £25bn a year, evasion to £70bn, and outstanding debts to the tax service to £28bn: a total of more than £120bn. That's roughly three-quarters of the budget deficit!
Just remember this when Public Sector redundancy figures hit the roof over the coming months!
Photo: nothing to do with tax avoidance – just a pic I took on the Windmill Arts Trail that I thought looked vaguely appropriate.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

another year

Mike Leigh is a genius.
Alan, Gareth, Eilidh, Merry-Carol, Gerry, Moira+I went to see his latest film “Another Year” yesterday at the Watershed. It explores a year in the life of a happily married, middle-aged couple (brilliantly portrayed by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), content and fulfilled with their lives (and their allotment!), and their interaction with a small community of family (grown-up son and Broadbent’s older brother and his adult son) and needy friends desperately trying to make sense of their lives (sad, insecure Mary – played by Lesley Manville – and overweight divorcee Ken). Lesley Manville is simply outstanding.
A really beautiful, gentle, sad, funny film about the passing of time (and old age) - and made even more poignant as Moira+I find ourselves entering our own twilight years!
You simply must see this film.
Photo: Ruth Sheen (Gerri) and Jim Broadbent (Tom).
PS: Just wonderful to be able to spend some time with our old Ithaca friends again – and to round off the day with an excellent Canadian supper of maple syrup, pancakes, bacon, sausages and fruit.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

no support for school support staff negotiating body

Somewhat predictably, Education Secretary Michael Gove has abolished the School Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSSNB) set up by the last Government in 2009 to improve pay and conditions for school support staff. The body would have introduced a national pay and career development structure for the 500,000 lowest paid school staff in the country. Mr Gove issued a statement claiming that the SSSNB "does not fit well with the government’s priorities for greater deregulation of the pay and conditions arrangements for the school workforce".
Too right it didn’t!
I wrote to Ed Balls, the then Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools, in September 2008 on the subject of school support staff welcoming his initiative to introduce a statutory independent chair to ensure that teaching assistants and support staff are paid fairly.
Here are some extracts, specifically highlighting my own role:
“I have worked in a comprehensive school in North Somerset since September 2005 (classified at the end of last year as an “outstanding” school by OFSTED) and joined as one of four Assistant House Heads. It was a newly-created role responsible for providing pastoral support to the work of our respective House Heads and Tutors - as well as supporting the pupils themselves in their learning (encouraging positive attitudes and behaviour in and around the school) and their welfare. We are full-time, term-time employees and work closely with an Assistant Head Teacher, responsible for Pupil Support, and are involved with children from Year 7 up to Year 11.
As one might anticipate, the original job specification has developed somewhat since that time! The scope of the role is wide-ranging and carries a high degree of responsibility – we are dealing with staff, pupils, parents and outside agencies as well as liaising with individual teachers, departments and faculties in relation to behaviour and learning for both individuals and groups of pupils. As non-teachers, we represent the key point of contact for parents throughout the school day…. This new role has been very successful - we have been readily welcomed, respected and appreciated by all tutors, teaching staff, pupils and parents alike and are seen as fulfilling a valuable and vital role in the school. One of the key benefits of our role has been its effect on the teaching staff – we have certainly enabled “teachers to teach” rather than to be trying juggle various other pastoral issues.
“Our differing backgrounds and experiences (an English literature graduate; a learning support assistant; a policeman; and an architect!) mean that we have different skills, interests, abilities and ages. We are very good at our job and highly valued by the School’s Leadership Team – even if we are NOT adequately rewarded financially for the work we undertake!....
I believe our type of role in schools is absolutely crucial – and will become increasingly important over the coming years.
“At present, there is no career structure for this or similar positions – all too often (and exactly the same comment can be made about jobs for teaching assistants and other support staff), non-teaching roles in schools are regarded as being for the “secondary earner” in a domestic partnership (even an appalling assumption that it will be mainly mothers taking up such positions “so they can look after their children in the school holidays”!)!”
Support staff are all too often seen as the “cheap option” for many roles in schools. Additional roles (such as those dealing with vitally-important Child Protection matters within schools) are doled out on the basis that “they will look good on your CV” (seriously!) for absolutely nil additional pay or undertaken “voluntarily” on a goodwill basis because staff are conscious of gaps that need to be filled. With no career structure in place, schools seem to rely on “senior” support staff leaving so they can be replaced by new, even-cheaper staff – an awful waste of talented and committed individuals. Despite the fact that roles are constantly being changed and extended in scope, schools and local education authorities continue to hide behind extremely clumsy and outdated grading bands.
There are no national pay rates for support staff employed in the state sector. Most LEA schools use the local government pay scales to pay their support staff in conjunction with National Joint Council (NJC) terms and conditions. However, this can vary between local authorities, which means it is not possible to be prescriptive about the rate of pay support staff will receive – a fact that, in my limited educational experience, employers take full advantage of to suit their own individual circumstances (ie. even if they are apparently financially-independent of any LEA). And, of course, term-time-only contracts means that an employee is only employed when the school is open - in most cases, for 38 or 39 weeks a year.
Individual schools could take the initiative to reward support staff more fairly and to address matters of career development, but this rarely appears to be the case. The SSSNB did seem to be a serious attempt to address national pay and career development structure for the 500,000 lowest paid school staff in the country. The Government clearly doesn’t seem to acknowledge the roles these school workers fulfil (and, frankly, I’ve been pretty appalled by the standard of trade union representatives I’ve come across – none of whom seem to have the necessary knowledge or experience of schools). So, it now seems that school support staff will remain a hugely-undervalued resource and, of course in the present financial climate, those who still have jobs will be reminded just how lucky they are!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

university tuition fees (and stuff)

In what Universities Minister David Willetts described as a “progressive” reform, the Coalition Government has decided that universities will be able to charge annual tuition fees of up to £9,000 (from the current maximum of £3,290 pa). Costs will be transferred from the state to students. Willetts feels that the tuition fee rise is a “good deal for students” (really?) and confirmed that universities charging higher levels of fees will have to show support for widening access to students from economically poorer backgrounds – this would apparently mean the type of outreach programmes that many universities already carry out, such as summer schools and targeted scholarships. Mr Willetts said graduates earning less than £21,000 per year would not pay any real interest on loans, but rates would rise to inflation plus 3% at £41,000 per year and above.
The National Union of Students dubbed the plan, which will mean almost a threefold increase, "an outrage". NUS president, Aaron Porter, said Liberal Democrat MPs who were going to ditch their election pledge to vote against any rise in fees should be "ashamed of themselves" and I have to say, I agree.
In January 2003, I wrote to the then Education and Skills Minister, Charles Clarke, on the subject – and particularly in connection with the education of prospective architects from lower income families. This is just a brief extract:
“….This all leaves me with a real sense of despair for the future and, in particular, the pressures being exerted on this country's young people - both today and in the future…. Life in one's 20s has always been demanding financially, but today's graduates are now facing worrying fresh challenges with potentially-huge student loan repayments on top of high mortgage (or rent) costs - and, of course, the Government is now also demanding that they start to make arrangements for their pension provisions!
Through the actions of successive Governments (and despite the current Government's stated goal that 50% of all children should go on to "enjoy" higher/university education), we are sadly faced with a situation where it is now far more difficult, financially, for someone from a lower income/working class background to look forward to the prospect of university education than it was in my day in the mid-1960s. Despite the Government's latest "tinkering" to avoid top-up fees (I'm against them on principle), I fear that university education will soon only be available for those who have the financial means to afford it (nothing about ability or "education for all" aspirations). What an awful reflection on our society today!
I regularly participate in career conventions for young people (aged 13-16 predominantly) and, whilst I have been impressed their knowledge and enthusiasm, I know just how concerned the vast majority of them are regarding the prospective financial implications of higher education (with prospects of owing well in excess of £20,000 for architectural students, for example, will there be ANY architects in future coming from working class backgrounds?)”.
Unfortunately, this debt figure of “well in excess of £20,000” has now increased to staggering levels (architecture is a seven year course – of which five years are spent at university) – perhaps upwards of £80,000?
I accept that I don’t really have any of the answers, but I do think we’ll be getting back to the depressing prospect of a world of the “haves” and “have nots”.
PS: if you can stand it, check out my blog post on similar issues in November 2006 (click here).