Monday, January 18, 2010 

The Tory education class war.

At the weekend Peter Oborne treated us to a treatise on how the Conservatives have put together the most radical program for government since Oliver Cromwell, or words similar to that effect. Cameron is far more prepared for government than Blair ever was, and he'd make Margaret Thatcher look like an, err, Conservative by comparison.

Back here in the real world, when you can put a cigarette paper between Labour and the Conservatives, it's invariably the Tories that have the more stomach-turning ideas, as well as those which are simply wrong-headed, or indeed those that are openly reactionary, somewhat strange for a party that claims to now espouse liberal conservatism, whatever that is. Hence we have the pledge to openly redistribute from the single, engaged and everyone else to the married, those who are truly the most in need. Or as today's launch of the party's education policies showed, somehow managing to be even worse than Labour at reforming our benighted education system.

After all, it really ought to be an open goal. Even after almost 13 years under New Labour, still barely 50% manage to get 5 "good GCSEs", a record so appalling that it can't be stressed often enough. There have been improvements made, although considering the amount of money pumped in it would be incredible if there hadn't been, and diplomas as introduced by Ed Balls with the mixture of vocational and academic work contained within is one of the few reforms which has been a step in the right direction, but on the whole Labour has been too focused on the league tables, the incessant examination of students and the continued reforming of schools purely it's seemed at times for the sake of it, with academies being the obvious example, which in equal measure have failed to raise standards while at the same time imposing the kind of discipline and rigidity which seems to actively sexually arouse certain individuals pining for the corporal punishment and being seen and not heard of their own childhood. Oh, and the lessons in working in call-centres, the kind of aspirational teaching that the Conservatives seemingly want to build on.

When Cameron then immediately decides that the most important thing which will decide whether or not a child succeeds is not their background, the curricula, the type of school or the amount of funding it receives but the person who teaches them, he's on the verge of talking nonsense on stilts, with Chris linking to some research which is in disagreement with that which Cameron quotes. Ignore that for a second though, and just consider Cameron's thought process: because the teacher is so important, only the very finest should be funded. How are we judging whether the teacher will be any good or not? On the basis of err, the university which they received their degree from and on the grade on the paper they received at their graduation. Surely if the type of school isn't important from the start, it also shouldn't matter which university the degree came from? Obviously not.

For a party which has been crying about Labour's piss-poor supposed class war, the thinking behind the proposed education policy is openly elitist, and also openly discriminatory in favour of the middle and upper classes: when only the top 20 colleges are likely to be considered good enough for those applying for the funding scheme and for their student loan to be paid off, colleges which are overwhelmingly populated by former private school students and which most state school applicants are actively discouraged from applying to for that very reason, this is the Tories' very own class war, their prejudices writ large in the same way as they claim Labour's to be. Even then it's contradictory: only a few months back Michael Gove wanted ex-service personnel to be fast-tracked into schools; now only the "best professionals with the best qualifications" need apply.

Others have pointed out that there is no correlation between the degree you get and the ability you have to teach. In fact, as Chris again suggests, the most academically gifted can potentially make things worse for those with lesser ability. I'd go as far to suggest that there are three groups of teachers out there: those that know what they're doing, those that can connect with those they're teaching, and that far rarer group, those that can do both. The exam results you get in your early twenties are no indication of how good you'll be at either of those things.

Not that the contradictions stop there: on discipline the Tories want to hand all the power over to the teachers themselves, ensuring that they can't be overruled by independent panels on exclusions, while at the same time wanting to ensure that schools can be held to account. Except on the former presumably? Alongside this, we have all the usual promises on cutting bureaucracy, on defeating waste, empowering everyone and all, as is likely, under the constraints imposed by cutting the deficit. Missing, as always, is the realisation that the number one thing parents want is a good local school which they can just send their offspring to in the knowledge that they will receive a good education, not the option to set-up a new one if it isn't good enough or they decide it isn't good enough. This however simply won't float when you can instead introduce your own pet projects, or prove to the newspapers that you're going to do something through even further shake-ups. Just letting the current system settle isn't an option when you've got to put your own imprint onto it, and if anything is likely to make things worse, Cameron's prescription is likely to be it.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009 

Dumbing down Michael Gove style.

I'm not the biggest fan of Ed Balls, but anything that makes Michael Gove look like an utter tit is fine by me, via John B:

While over at Lib Con we're promised a series of articles on immigration, which look set to be essential reading.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009 

Dyslexia is a myth, says PM Rtringes.

For the most part, members of parliament, regardless of their political views, are not complete idiots or dyed-in-the-wool ideologues convinced of the righteousness of their minority opinions. When they are, such as in the case of Nadine Dorries, they tend to expose themselves, if you'll pardon the expression, and even if not pilloried publicly, tend to become known for the eccentricities.

Few though deign to expose their ignorance quite so forcefully or as weakly as Graham Stringer, who in an article for Manchester Confidential doesn't just suggest that dyslexia is occasionally misdiagnosed or that poor teaching sometimes results in children failing to learn to read or write adequately, but that the entire disorder has in fact been invented by the teaching establishment to cover up for their inability to comprehensively offer Stringer's magic bullet, synthetic phonics, having earlier in the article declared they are no panaceas.

Quite apart from the fact that Stringer should perhaps take up his idea that dyslexia has been created by the "education establishment" with the numerous scientists and doctors that first established its existence and have since, as Unity points out on Lib Con, published somewhere in the region of 6,000 peer reviewed papers and articles on it, it would be nice if he could even begin to compare like with like. Spot the problem with Stringer's argument:

There are two simple reasons for being confident about the false nature of dyslexia. International comparisons and the fact that so called dyslexic children have no more trouble learning to read than other children, if the appropriate teaching methods are used.

If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.

There can be no rational reason why this ‘brain disorder’ is of epidemic proportions in Britain but does not appear in South Korea or Nicaragua (it is also pretty damning that according to Professor Julian Elliot there are 28 different definitions of dyslexia).

What languages are primarily spoken and taught in South Korea and Nicaragua? Ah yes, that would be Korean and Spanish. Especially considering that Korean is a completely different system of writing altogether, and consists almost entirely of a phonetic orthography this is about as absurd a comparison as you could possibly make.

Stringer further doesn't help his cause by conflating dyslexia with illiteracy in general. He opens the article with comments about illiteracy and its connection with crime, claiming that 25% of the population in Manchester is "functionally illiterate". Quite where he gets this statistic from in the beginning is a mystery, the closest probably being a Telegraph article from 2006 which claimed that 1 in 6 adults lack the literacy skills of the average 11-year-old. This is substantially different both from complete illiteracy and from dyslexia itself; dyslexia is not simply not being very good at reading or writing, but can also additionally affect speaking and other functions. Dyslexia prevalence is estimated at between 2% and 15% of the population, wildly off his 25% scale, although not far of the Telegraph's 1 in 6. He then further confuses the issue, after his rant about dyslexia not existing, by introducing his "magic bullet" of phonics, by suggesting that that 25% could all be happily reading and writing effectively if only they had been taught properly in the first place. The trial he quotes in West Dunbartonshire has incidentally not just involved teaching synthetic phonics, but also a 10-strand separate intensive intervention policy.

If, instead of suggesting that "dyslexia is a cruel fiction", Stringer had instead wrote, rather more sympathetically, that the common perception of dyslexia is false, or even described it as a myth, as a Dispatches documentary a few years' back did, he would have been on surer ground, as there is certainly disagreement over its exact diagnosis and how to treat it. Instead he's completely confident that there is no such thing, which puts him in a distinct minority of the usual conspiracy theorists and cranks that also still believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. If Stringer had wrote his rant in the Daily Mail then perhaps you could take it less seriously, considering the space it gives other every day of the week to the latest pseudo-scientific gimmickry. You could also accept it more if Stringer himself wasn't decently educated, but he in fact has a BSc in Chemistry and worked as a chemist before becoming a politician. Consequently, we can rather confidently conclude that Stringer himself is more than something of a cnut.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008 

Improve your English with the super soaraway Sun!

Kudos must go to the schools minister Jim Knight for some top class satire at the Sun's expense:

TENS of thousands of teenage boys are falling behind in English skills – and should read The Sun to improve, a minister said yesterday.

He then ruins the joke by taking it too far:

He also urged parents to encourage boys to read books by Sun columnists Jeremy Clarkson, who stars on telly’s Top Gear, and ex-SAS soldier Andy McNab.

And if you really want to put them off reading for life, you could suggest Ayn Rand to complete the trifecta.

To be serious for a half a moment, if Knight wasn't trying to be the biggest sycophant to walk on a pair of legs, he could have suggested that there are plenty of things apart from one of the world's worst newspapers and two of its worst columnists to read that may actually help them improve their reading and which won't embarrass them - video game magazines, for example, are on the whole far better written and less poisonous than the Sun or any of the other tabloids. Most schools with a half decent library will have plenty that is designed to appeal to those at that exact age, and also probably, if they're lucky, a couple of broads or ex-broads or at least their sports sections which genuinely would help rather than talk down to the average teenage boy.

Still, it's nice to see that the Sun accepts that its reading level is about that of a 14-year-old - maybe Knight wasn't paying a compliment after all. It also let this comment through:

Well, they'll learn plenty of slang, jive talk and poor English if nothing else by reading the sun.

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Monday, June 30, 2008 

Learning by example.

Churnalism or not, the story of the examiner who gave two marks to a candidate that simply wrote "fuck off" in answer to a question is getting some rather unfair criticism.

I mean, let's be sensible for a second. Are we certain that the person taking the exam isn't a blogger? Who could possibly demure that telling individuals to "fuck off" via posts on the internet cannot at times be incredibly witty? Considering that one of the doyens of the blogging scene has come to much attention via the fact that he consistently comes up with new ways to call someone a fucking cunt, who are we to judge what is and what isn't worthy of marks at the GCSE stage?

Besides which, the examiner and the board are completely right in the view that if some sort of effort has been made to answer a question, regardless of its apparent inadequacy and wrongness, it still deserves to be given consideration. Let's also face it: at least the candidate bothered to turn up for the exam, whilst most of the others with a similar mindset would have done the opposite. In the circumstances, the candidate deserves to be applauded for overcoming the fear of failure for not even attempting a cogent answer, and when the youth of today have such glorious examples to learn from, just why are we so surprised when the first thing they can think of is to fire off an expletive? If he hadn't filled in any response, he most likely would have received a 'U', or ungraded. Instead, he might have achieved a 'G'. Under this glorious New Labour government, I think that's an achievement we can all be proud of.

Update: This post wasn't meant entirely seriously. QT takes issue not so much with me but with Patrick Vessey, whose point I'm more than sympathetic towards. Of all the questions you could be asked, and all the things you could be asked to describe in a GCSE English exam, being asked to tell the examiner what the room you're in looks like has to rank as one of the most unimaginative, banal and downright boring things that could have been raised. It's not just the students you have to feel for, it's also the individuals at the other end, the ones that have to mark them. Being forced to read hundreds if not thousands of descriptions of dank, dismal, suffocating dirt brown gym and PE halls is not something I'd like to do; by comparison, the more pithy response of "fuck off" would come almost as a relief.

The issue isn't so much with the exam board, which was just following things to the letter, but with the process which brought the student to writing "fuck off" instead of going through the motions. Most, as stated, would have simply either written their name on the paper and stopped there, or not even done that. There was a possibly apocraphyl story which went round when I was at school that writing your name on the paper got you a couple of marks, so it isn't just answering with expletives that potentially gets you points. This was a one-off blown out of proportion, but the real question is why so many accept or even celebrate their failure. One of the most fascinating sociological studies into the acceptance of failure was Paul Willis's Learning to Labour, which although conducted in the late 70s is still a seminal and influential text. A modern reanalysis and study of whether the same factors are still at work (from my own experience, I would suggest they most certainly are) would perhaps help with the debate. My own contention has always been that the lack of opportunities for vocational training, or when it is available, is considered by teachers and employers alike as either a "soft option" or as not equivalent to GCSEs or A-Levels has been at the heart of the problem of underachievement amongst some. The hope was that diploma system would do something to alter this, but with the current problems which seem to be plauging their introduction, this seems less likely. Despairing or over emphasising the lack of respect or collapse in standards this case apparently reflects doesn't seem much of an answer to me; understanding why is far more important and essential.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008 

No war but the class war.

In the meantime then, here's George Monbiot, back and as good as ever, and calling for a sort of class war. It doesn't get much better than that:

The system is protected by silence. Because private schools have been so effective in moulding a child's character, an attack on the school becomes an attack on all those who have passed through it. Its most abject victims become its fiercest defenders. How many times have I heard emotionally stunted people proclaim "it never did me any harm". In the Telegraph last year, Michael Henderson boasted of the delightful eccentricity of his boarding school. "Bad work got you an 'order mark'. One foolish fellow, Brown by name, was given a double order mark for taking too much custard at lunch. How can you not warm to a teacher who awards such punishment?" He continued: "Petty snobbery abounded, but only wets are put off by a bit of snobbery. So long as you pulled your socks up, and didn't let the side down, you wouldn't be for the high jump. Which is as it should be." A ruling class in a persistent state of repression is a very dangerous thing.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007 

Something positive for a change?

It's not often that this blog (or indeed, many others) praise government policy or legislation, so let's break a habit and give Ed Balls' 10 year children's plan a cautious welcome. Some of it, inevitably, is old measures being re-announced and given a lick of new paint, and some of the reviews seem to be happening just for the sake of it, but for the most part the new initiatives proposed for example on money for new playgrounds and youth centres are long overdue.

The SATs testing regime, which over the years has become vastly more important than they really should be, and attracted the ire of teachers as a result, is to be looked into if a pilot of flexible testing that has shown favourable results so far reports in the affirmative. More important, and understandably overlooked has been the development of teaching to the test, which becomes much more of an issue post 14, where almost everything not likely to be on the exam paper is discarded and simply not taught. Far from being based around learning, lessons are being turned into endless repetitions of facts, and in some cases subjects are no longer even resembling what they once were supposed to be teaching. It seems unlikely this will be changed when such ambitious and most likely unachievable targets as 90% of students getting 5 A-Cs at GCSEs by 2020 are still being considered.

More favourable are the well-rehearsed recommendations for schools to become centres of the local community, with social workers, police, libraries and sports hall all being available in one location making good sense. The insistence sadly on the continuation of the academy program, the results from which have so far been less than conclusive, with Lord Rothermere and even BAE Systems considering sponsoring such schools, but not any Oxbridge institutions as the government hoped, undermines it somewhat. Also yet to be explained is how this will function in reality, with the funding necessary for such err, centralisation, yet to be forthcoming.

Also promising are the proposals on parental involvement and on one to one tutoring, which are vital if underachievers are to be focused on and given the help when they need it most. Teachers can no longer be relied upon to do everything - parental attachment and interest into what their children are doing is often stifled simply by how kids hating talking about what they do at school, or at least how some do. The policy on reintroducing foreign languages at an early age, rather than starting them at some point in the middle of schooling is also a sound one. Trying to interest a class of 28 14-year-olds in speaking French or German is a little like attempting to teach a fish to ride a bicycle - pointless and cruel. The whole reason why those in continental Europe have been so successful in teaching English is that they start early, while with our advantage of speaking it in the first place we imagine ourselves to be superior and not needing to bother with other languages when it's a skill that's as vital as ever.

Some of this might be undermined if the government doesn't drop its ideation about schooling being compulsory until 18, or at least until it properly sorts out secondary education from its current woes over the divide between the academic and vocational routes. Tomlinson's recent report might have achieved it, and the introduction of the new diplomas might also, but I'm not holding my breath over that. Of all the things the tabloids decided to pick up upon from the report, the one they did was that "yobs" who said sorry would get off scot free, or something similar to that effect. The report actually suggests "restorative justice" to deal with first-time offenders, getting them to meet with those who they offended against, i.e. supermarket managers or similar if they shoplifted, the owners of the house they damaged if it was vandalism etc, schemes which have already been operating in some areas for a while and which have been on the whole a success. It's not going to apply to those who assault people or otherwise, who'll still get charged. As always, reporting some scandalous new insult to justice comes above the actual reality.

On the whole though it was a decent package which with minor changes would have been a lot better, such as the abandonment of the child database, ContactPoint. It was certainly far more authoritative than anything the Conservatives have come up within years, whose main policy up until Blair left was supporting whatever he did, but then the most annoying MP in the Commons in the form of Michael Gove was never going to say anything that might be considered complimentary. Ed Balls it seems is a lot better at putting policies together than actually advising Brown on what to do in the here and now.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007 

Moving on up.

It comes round every year, as predictable, regular and tedious as Big Brother. It features the same fresh-faced young things, joyful and excited at first, only to later sink into the black pit of misery of realising that your care-free days are almost over. It could only be the perennial argument about whether A-Levels, GCSEs, SATs, etc are getting easier.

It's also something of a schizophrenic argument. While we worry that A-Levels are getting too easy, we also find ourselves questioning whether our 14-year-olds are thick; with a third still failing to reach level 5 in English, Maths and Science. They can't both be right, can they?

Well, no. Neither exam is getting easier, and the reasons for the fast increasing number of A grades collected by 18-year-olds and the failure of 14-year-olds to get to the right key stage level are in fact highly similar.

Firstly, the reason for the increasing amount of awarded top grades at A-Level is mainly down to phenomenon of teaching to the test. Out the window has gone any real attempt at look at the background to the subject in question, or anything else that doesn't actually feature in the exam, and in has came the constant repetition of the "key facts", and the writings of essays around topics and subjects which have previously come up. This is all very well for getting the certificate stating how brilliant you are, but it takes all the joy out of learning, and makes for quick forgetting of everything you thought had been drilled into your brain. The private and grammar schools have got especially good at doing this, hence their hegemony over the A grades their pupils have.

Secondly, by the time most teenagers reach the sixth form, those who have lost interest in learning or who are doing more vocational rather than academic subjects have moved on, leaving behind the more aspirational who actually do want to achieve something. This is why the plans by Alan Johnson to extend the compulsory leaving age to 18 are so wrongheaded: while it may have good intentions, it's unlikely to improve results and may even have an effect on bringing them down. This is also partly the reason why the SATs results still look comparatively poor: the teaching to the test has yet to have been perfected for them yet, and there are far more of those who are disruptive and or simply disinterested to care. This is not to blame them, or suggest they're a lost cause, rather that the system of testing and targets has comprehensively failed.

This is where Tomlinson's report into the reform of the 14-19 system should have came in. It would have brought together the opportunity to take both the vocational and academic route, rather than having to done one or the other as is more or less the case now. It would have also have vastly cut down the numbers of exams, helping to reduce stress while if anything increasing the knowledge that universities and employers would have had about those requesting places or jobs. Labour, naturally, rejected it.

Teenagers then aren't getting dafter or smarter, they're both taking and losing an respective advantage at the same time.

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Monday, January 08, 2007 

The pros and cons of Ruth Kelly's privates.

On the surface, Ruth Kelly's decision to send her son to a private, fee-paying school should be an easy enough one to denounce. It's only been a few months since her own piss-poor reign as education secretary came to an end, where she tried and failed to convince her own party to support Blair's pet trust schools project. That a government minister, one who only recently was in charge of improving school standards nationwide, should decide that her local schools are so poor that she needs to send her own children to a private school, is a smack in the face to all those who pay their taxes to fund their own children's education, not to mention the children themselves who have to suffer the conditions that aren't good enough for a government minister's child.

The issue itself though may not have come to light if the Mirror hadn't made the decision to actually name the minister. The Grauniad this morning reported that a cabinet minister had sent their son to a fee-paying school, but didn't name who we now know to be Ruth Kelly as to "protect the identity of the child". One also has to wonder whether that with Ruth Kelly also being a former Grauniad hack if that came into the equation. Justifying their decision in a leader column for plastering Kelly's decision over the front page, the Mirror makes a pretty compelling case. It might be argued it was a private matter if Kelly hadn't previously occupied the education hot-seat, or if she hadn't made any public pronouncements on state schooling, but this was plainly not the case.

What the makes the issue more complicated, personal and more difficult to comment firmly on is that the child, has "substantial learning difficulties", to quoth the BBC. To say that the quality of teaching and general provision for those with learning difficulties in state schools is controversial would be an understatement on the scale of saying that Iraq is a bit of a blunder. Some continue to call for separate schools for those with special needs, claiming that the policy of one size fits all that occurs in the state sector fails them, while the Labour government has been at the forefront of promoting inclusiveness, partly out of the belief that such schools only promote difference and fail to prepare their pupils for "normal" life as adequately as comprehensive schooling does. Both sides of the argument have merit, and as it falls to local authorities and councils to provide school provision, central government generally keeps out of the decisions that are made.

Yet the decision by Kelly is still by no-means clear cut, whether the child has learning difficulties or not. Even going private on the basis of professional advice, it's still a vote of no confidence in the schooling which he has had up to know. This is remember a government that claimed its first three priorities were "education, education, education", yet only just more than half leave school at 16 with five A-C GCSE grades. Top-up fees were introduced, despite claiming that they would do no such thing. It has been effectively 9 years of meddling; we've had city academies, giving control over the curriculum to evangelical Christians and oleangenious businessmen who've also donated money to Labour, and now trust schools introduced, along with "specialisms", yet there's been few measurable achievements apart from driving down class sizes and increasing the pass-rate a little, but by nowhere near enough.

Kelly's justifications and the coincidences involving the picked school are also far from clean:

She said it was not uncommon for pupils with substantial learning difficulties to spend some time outside the state sector to help them progress.

"Sometimes this is paid for by the local authority. In my case, I have not and will not seek the help of the local authority in meeting these costs," Ms Kelly said.

As much as this is true, most who do spend time outside the state sector tend to rely on tutors, and this is outside of school hours. Her choosing of the following school will also raise questions about whether she's being truthful when she says she intends to send him to a state secondary:

The private school which Ms Kelly is believed to have chosen charges £15,000 a year, and grooms children with a particular, relatively common condition for entry into elite public schools such as Harrow and Winchester.

Even if we dismiss Labour tribalism for a second, listen to the likes of Guido when he says that state schooling is collapsing in the Tower Hamlets area, and recognise that the hypocrisy here doesn't come close to approaching the levels of Diane Abbot sending her son to a private school, the decision is still suspect. It shows the limitations of education under Labour, yet the solution which Kelly and other middle class families choose is doing nothing to help the situation, rather instead demoralising teachers who recognise that not even ministers believe their own rhetoric, damns the proles to schools which the more affluent can avoid, and perpetuates the cycle of defeatism. That there are seven special schools within Tower Hamlets, including one specialist centre, additionally makes her look using it more as an excuse rather than a necessity.

The response from her political opponents has been less than condemnatory. It's more than apparent that the muted reaction is down to the fact that her son has special needs, with David Cameron unlikely to capitalise on something that he may yet have to do himself, not to mention his own privileged education. Sarah Teather, finding time out from her search for sex to comment on her actual position (is this right? Ed.), took much the same approach.

Personally, it's just another stroke against Kelly and her far from dazzling ministerial career. Hopeless at education, moved into a position where she finds herself, a member of Opus Dei, supposedly having to defend outlawing discrimination against homosexuals, and apparently doing the exact opposite, she should do the decent thing and resign.

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Friday, December 01, 2006 

My legacy, my legacy, my legacy!

If there's one thing you can't accuse Tony Blair of, it's giving up. His last few months as Prime Minister are destined to be full of activity. On Monday, he's apparently to announce that we're going to waste billions of pounds on a new nuclear deterrent, for little other reason than to give BAe something to do, and because we couldn't let France be the only EU country with nukes. That would just be too horrible to imagine.

Yesterday however was a return to Blair's stated alleged first, second and third priorities on entering office, other than bombing, banning and bribing. Yes, it was time to go and wind up the teachers with his latest plans for reorganising the school system. As Blair prepares to leave office, the first and foremost thing on his mind, apart from when Inspector Knacker is going to come calling, is his legacy. We know it, he knows it, his advisers know, the media knows it. Every little detail is going to be scrutinised for how it might effect how history judges the 21st century's first prime minister, even though we all know the only thing that he's going to be remembered for is Iraq, unless Knacker steps in and arrests him. In short, unless the situation in Iraq improbably and unprecedentedly turns around, after a few hundred thousand more deaths or so, and Blair's reputation makes the biggest comeback since Lazarus as a result, he's royally screwed.

Making his speech at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference, this was Tony in full Pollyanna mode. Parents are just dying to get in the new academies, according to him, which instantly means that they're a huge success. This ignores how nearly all the new academies either have new buildings or have been extensively refurbished, not to mention how the first load have mainly replaced formerly failing comprehensives, which is going to magnetise parents towards them in the first place. As with the schools being sponsored, the buildings themselves are typically, if not always built under the private finance initiative, meaning that the money for the contractors is off Gordon Brown's books, but leaves the next generation of kids paying for the current generation's brand spanking new halls and computers.

The actual evidence on whether the new academies have improved standards or not is decidedly mixed. A study by Terry Wrigley, a senior academic at Edinburgh university suggested that the number of pupils gaining 5 A-C grades at GCSE compared with the schools the academies replaced had gone up by a whopping 0.2%, equivalent to three pupils per school, which seems like an outstandingly good result from the amount of money put in. By contrast, one academy in Brent in London was given a glowing review by Ofsted. All is also not well with the money given to the academies by the sponsors in exchange for having a major part in setting the curriculum and school ethos. A Guardian investigation showed that of those up and running, only four academies have actually received the full £2 million meant to be handed over. One suspects that business and other benefactors may also be put off by the loans for peerages scandal - any sort of donation which appears to help Labour and leads to an honour of some kind is now likely to be heavily scrutinised.

Then there's the fact that these academies are predictably attracting the attention of religious crazies laying down their own values and rules as part of their control over the school. The Trinity academy at Thorne near Doncaster, part of car dealer, friend of Blair and evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy's empire, suspended 148 students within its first six months - leaving parents suspecting that covert selection was taking place with free-thinking being cracked down upon. While Blair in his speech lauded the idea of giving pupils choice, that doesn't seem to extend to pupils challenging authority or deciding whether or not they should be taught creationism alongside evolution.

It's little surprise that Blair sees academies as reflecting his own image. They're new, shiny and pleasing to look at, but underneath they're still suffering with the same problems as before, except with new groups of governors running the show. Despite Blair's claims that 200 will be up and running by 2010, it's a promise that like the existence of God, should be believed when it's seen. Just to make it even more unreachable, at some point in the future Blair wants there to be 400. Where all the sponsors are going to come from isn't explained.

After rejecting Mike Tomlinson's call for GCSEs and A-Levels to be replaced with a diploma, Blair's new wheeze is to expand the International Baccalaureate from being available at a few elite schools to err, being available at a few more elite schools. While some have suggested that academies and trust schools will lead to a two-tier school system, the availability of IB could do something very similar. With universities increasingly having to select from students with a whole ream of A grades in the required A-level subjects, the elite are bound to be more than receptive to those who get the opportunity to take the IB instead. Those privately educated and who are either lucky enough to be near a high performing school, or whom have moved in order to be so, will undoubtedly once again be crowding out the riff raff from the bog-standard comprehensives.

Concerns over A-levels though is perhaps missing the big picture. The proportion of students getting 5 A-C grades at GCSE is stubbornly remaining below 60%, meaning that 40% are still effectively failing. The sad fact of the matter is that by 14 it may already be too late; faced with carrying on in academic lessons that they wish they weren't in, that 40% may well have been better served by Tomlinson's diploma, which would have also have taken voluntary qualifications into considerations. Instead, Blair's new idea is to have an entirely separate diploma at 14, tied in with apprenticeships. It may turn out to be a good start, but it's probably too little. There's also increasing evidence that those at 14 who aren't performing "adequately" in academic subjects are being forced into GNVQs instead of GCSEs, which despite the government's claims aren't anywhere close to being as challenging, purely to help the school's place in the government league tables. The option of being either all academic or all vocational is far too stifling.

Still, what does it matter to Blair? He's tried, he's most likely failed, but at least he'll be remembered for starting off academies and the Tory-loved trust schools which they're itching to get their hands on. Won't he?

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