I met with my MP this morning. A certain Minister for Schools, Mr Nick Gibb MP. He was very good, meeting me slightly earlier than planned and spending a reasonable amount of time in discussion with me. He showed a genuine interest in my role, listened to my views on education, and gladly expressed his own with similar certainty.
Inevitably, we didn’t have the time to discuss everything I’d like – and indeed, in some ways the meeting took a path of his interest first, but overall I thought it quite productive. He will, though, be receiving at least one follow-up email from me with notes from our discussions on both sides.
Rather strangely, part of our meeting was interrupted by his asking whether I was about to report to the newspapers what we’d discussed. Perfectly forgivably, I think his worry was not that I might air his firmly-held views (which are no secret), but that he wanted to discuss mathematical method with me. I’m only too aware that as good as we might be at maths, one simple mistake could make a short-term laughing stock of a schools’ minister. He can be assured that if he did make any mathematical errors, I didn’t spot them!
Groups vs Rows
I started by introducing myself as a middle school teacher. I then explained what this meant for my own teaching in Y7 in a primary school, and my enthusiasm for increased specialisation in Y5/6. Mr Gibb took this his own way. He too would like to see a blurring of boundaries between primary and secondary school: by sitting in rows in Y5/6. In fact, he expressed genuine dislike for sitting in groups. I argued that evidence showed that collaboration was far more effective than solitary work. He disagreed. And eventually we agreed on one point: that actually not that much group work occurs in primary school. He suggested about 5%. And he’s probably right. Of course, where we disagree is in the implications of that. I would argue that we need to return to the research and work out how we improve and increase the use of collaborative teaching & learning. His argument appeared to be to abandon the idea and return to 1950s rows.
The second discussion that I hadn’t intended to have was about the teaching of maths. I happened to mention that I taught it and we got waylaid into a discussion about when long division should be introduced. I acknowledged that I wasn’t a fan of it at all. He wanted to know why it couldn’t be taught to everyone in primary school.
Some debate followed about the place of procedure in mathematics versus the importance of conceptual understanding. I suppose in many ways this is an argument of purpose. I think I’m teaching maths to allow students to improve their understanding of the world around them, to be able to use practical number skills, and to have a broad understanding of problem-solving – all skills which are useful in the real world. I have never had the need to use long division as an adult; I have, often, relied on my good conceptual understanding of division.
Mr Gibb, in his defence, is a chartered accountant by training. I suppose his role requires a lot of mindless calculation with large figures using standard algorithms. Drill & practice teaching would serve this sort of role well. However, he also complained that the issue of the oft-cited teenager who when the till breaks can’t work out change from a £20 note. I argued that a lack of mental mathematics required in Maths GCSEs may contribute to this; he argued that too much mental mathematics was taught!
As we progressed through the discussion, Mr Gibb made it clear that he wanted to see more lists of sums being carried out – even at number bond level. I kept returning to the need for understanding; he kept sticking the proverbial pin in it! (To use a rather American idiom)
The first thing I actually had intended to discuss was the endless move towards academisation. I wanted to know what freedoms exactly were supposed to be achieved in this process. Mr Gibb was quick to point out that poor LAs – including my own – had allowed too many schools to “languish”. He cited the schools in his own constituency with relatively low levels of FSM provision but also low levels of attainment. This was an issue on which we could agree; but as before the solution was not.
I genuinely believe that in the case of low-achieving schools, a change of leadership can often effect good change. I don’t believe that a change of governance structure would make much difference. Notably, one of the local schools is now an academy, and he didn’t speak highly of its progress. Also, an academy in a nearby district has recently been placed in Special Measures. It does appear that academisation doesn’t cure all ills. Mr Gibb’s solution – if things don’t change – is to swap one sponsor for another. He clearly feels that the LAs have had too much say in the appointment of school leaders, and even seemed to accept that academy chains might make similar mistakes. The solution: just keep changing the governance till it works, apparently!
Naturally, Mr Gibb cited schools like Mossbourne. I made no effort to dismiss his claims of success there (although did point out that their high 5A*-C results aren’t quite matched by their EBacc scores in which the government wants to place so much importance!)
But none of this answered the question that I really wanted asking. I don’t approve of academisation, but in the case of failing schools I can see that it could serve a purpose. What I can’t understand is the advantage of moving successful schools away from the LA. The arguments I heard are arguments I’ve heard before, and still carry no weight with me:
- Academies have freedom with pay/conditions, and thus usually pay more
My first issue with this claim is that the apparent increases in pay are largely centred on leadership staff. Teachers tend to see very little difference. Mr Gibb certainly seemed to express to reticence about the massive salaries offered in some places.
My second concern, which I didn’t manage to raise with Mr Gibb unfortunately, is the implications of that statement. If more money is being spent on teachers, doesn’t that inevitably mean less is being spent on resources and students? Now I would be the first to argue that teachers are a school’s most valuable resource. But there is only a limited number of teachers to go around. If the high-achieving academies leave the LA-sector, and take all the good teachers with them, then that just leaves the poor schools remaining in LA-control, who don’t yet have the ability to move to academy status, with a decreasing pool of high quality teachers, condemning them to a life with poorer resources, poorer support, and potentially poorer teachers.
- Academies have freedoms to change the school day, terms, etc.
I did point out to Mr Gibb that LA-maintained schools already have these freedoms. He agreed that while technically this might be true, that practically the constraints of consultation and LA involvement meant that it was much harder for Heads.
It appears that LAs can’t win. They are too slow to intervene apparently, and yet get too involved in the management of their schools!
I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to, to Mr Gibb, and I’m fairly certain that my professional knowledge (or my mathematical knowledge for that matter) hasn’t made a difference to his ideologically-held views, but maybe, just maybe, it might have made him think a little harder about where things are going.
I live in hope!