Another rant bites the dust

I’ve been watching with interest how the media and public handle the news that Michael Gove has cut funding to Building Schools for the Future (BSF)

I was expecting uproar from the schools and unions, of course, and as well from the Labour Government, but Gove is right: it has been a huge disaster from start to finish.

The first problem has always been that schools that get good at bidding for things are usually first past the post in terms of funding. This happened with the Specialist Schools’ Trust, where even if your results were a little wobbly, you could still be awarded ‘Specialist School status, just off the basis of a good bid. One school I worked at was first through the post with Technology College.  This was all well and good, but the head of IT had been off for months with a hip replacement, and there was this rusty old Canadian guy, who, if the truth be told, amused me a great deal just on the basis he once threw his lunch away because the girl at the dining table in front of him was wearing an indecently short skirt. It seemed to be that if you could find an industry to shoulder some of the initial bid, you would get the rest. It seemed to leave a bit of cash for a new IT suite and an emblem on the new ‘Atrium’ floor (read ‘porch’ for Atrium, and you’ll get the idea) which was walked over by 1,000 kids a day. Instead of going for the departments where the work was stunning, like Art or PE, they went for a nondescript subject, because it was the first offered.

Likewise the second school I worked at. They’d spent the money on a room that nobody was allowed to use. I can’t remember an IT suite as such, only a few old machines dotted around the school and then a whole load that were locked up unless someone important came, like the Queen.

Many of the schools in the authority in which I worked had specialist status, especially as it broadened its wings. So… in essence, if you had a crap department, you would use them to get the bid, and then become a ‘Centre of Excellence’ without any results behind it whatsoever. One inner-city school had the poorest science results in the authority and they were the only science specialist school in the area. Nonsense.

So, those first in then got a second bite at the cherry with the ‘joint status’ specialisms, like Humanities and Maths. Fair enough. What always got me was that there was never a specialism for ‘English’ which is ridiculous considering it’s our national language and we all read, write listen and talk every day.

So, ten years in, some schools are awfully good at getting funding. They have people appointed for marketing, called ‘Specialist Schools’ Trust managers’ and they earn a packet by bidding for everything going.

This only works if you’re in a proactive authority. Some nay-saying authorities got caught out here, since BSF initially only went to a few. Likewise funding for other ‘pilot’ projects. So, if you played nice, you got a lot of additional funding. If you knew the right people at the DfE, then you got a lot of funding. If you were good at asking, you got a lot of funding. And the more you asked, the more you got. At one point, I was running three separately funded projects for the DfE, QCDA and the NAA.

This is great if you’re good at stating your piece and holding out your cap, taking people round and showing them how much you’ve achieved. I was. However, it’s not so good for those who are more humble. I was once told to be more humble as a performance target. It was my only target. I ignored it, since it came from a horrible woman, plus, it’s not a SMART target. How would I have known that I was more humble? Would I have started rubbing my hands together in the style of Uriah Heep?

So, some poor schools fall by the wayside, especially in reticent authorities who ‘wait and see’ what everyone else is doing.

Luckily, they, now are the ones who are not suffering from ‘Of Mice and Men’ syndrome as the Con-Lib government whip away their dreams.

Matthew d’Ancona in this week’s Daily Telegraph says it all perfectly:

“It’s easier to promise shiny schools than better teaching.”

And he’s right. Because something got lost behind BSF, which was Sue Hackman’s mission to drive up School Standards. Suddenly, it was all about atriums and shiny rooms and interactive whiteboards. I have to first admit there are some truths in this: comfy chairs do make learning easier. Nice classrooms are nice to teach in. But I never needed anything other than new desks, better quality chairs and a lick of paint. A few nice displays and you have a wonderful learning environment. For about £3000, you can have an entirely revamped classroom. You don’t need millions. All of a sudden, head teachers stopped being bothered about driving up standards and starting being dazzled by shiny atriums.

“So true: it was hardwired into the previous government’s soul that anything new and shiny, “state-of-the art”, and modernist in architectural design was intrinsically good.” he says, and how right he is.

And, like Matthew d’Ancona, I’m also very glad Michael Gove has gone ‘back to basics’ – hopefully, schools will need to rely on good teaching now, not the level that currently exists.

I’m woefully appalled every year by the ‘mis-teaching’ that goes on. Sometimes, it would be better if pupils didn’t have any teaching at all. At least then they might come up with some decent ideas, rather than being taught that every poem’s layout has some kind of meaning, that they must describe using the ‘five senses’  and that they should start every story with a rhetorical question.

I’ll save my rant about Ofsted for another day.

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