Could the Middle Tier look like THIS?

By Laura McInerney (Policy Development Partner) and Matt Hood (guest writer).

Yesterday Laura and I outlined the differences between Labour’s Director of School Standards and the Coalition’s Regional School Commissioners – both of which are solutions to The Big Middle Tier Problem (or “who should watch over schools to make sure they aren’t rubbish?”). Today we promised to reveal what we had been trying to persuade people ought to be the middle.

Sadly, the solutions presented by both sides so far fudge the real issues of a missing middle tier because they are based on beliefs about each side thinks ought solve the problem, rather than based on the actual problems.  Hence, the Coalition’s approach reflects its dislike of local authorities, with RSCs basically ignoring them and local authorities frozen out of running schools, place planning, etc.  Labour’s vision shows their preference for bringing local authorities but then blurs some lines of independence and what a Director of School Standards is (are they just local authorities over bigger areas?!).

So let’s step back why do we need commissioners in the first place?

We need because someone needs to:

  • Decide if new schools should open or existing ones expand
  • Broker support if a school is in need of intervention (because of financial, teaching, leadership problems, etc).
  • Change the management of a school if its performance has taken a turn for the worse
  • Close a school where there are performance or falling roll issues

Local authorities could do this but if you are both the person responsible for a school, and its improvement, and calling it quits – that’s a conflict of interest. Also, not every local authority needs to do these things. Some have only a few schools and are quite limited in what they can do. And, finally, academies have an agreement that says they don’t need to listen to local authorities.

However, there are some things local authorities can do really well:

  • Run schools. Some LAs are brilliant at this. They offer helpful services at a reasonable price and support their schools as well as even the top academy chains.
  • Know the demography of the area – what is the likely place demand, what are the available areas of land for building on, etc.
  • Co-ordinate provision from other parts of the authority, e.g. transport, health services, etc.

Hence, after Laura sent me her picture (genuinely scribbled on paper) we spent a few more weeks hammering it out until we got to this diagram. I get that it looks a bit mad and is hard to see on here, but if you’re interested it’s worth downloading to look at further. Otherwise, skip down to read “the essential outline”

The Essentials

1.Local authorities would continue running their schools as arms-length ‘local authority trusts’. Labour also seem to agree with this and call them Community Trusts. But under our model, however, it wouldn’t be optional. If the LA wants to carry on running schools it would create the trust (much like happened with social housing trusts in the past) and be done with it. If they don’t want to be a trust, they need to find someone else to take the schools.

2. Regional School Commissioners would be appointed by the Department for Education and be responsible for the opening, monitoring and closing/transferring of all schools. We are sticking with a DfE appointment as we think independence is vital. We would get rid of HTBs because they compromise the independence.

3. RSCs would take annual submissions from the LEA on place-planning need in the area. This which then be used to grant academy extensions and/or new schools.

4. RSCs will use Ofsted, performance data and annual accounts to monitor schools. RSCs can issue pre-warning notices.

5. If a school is in trouble, a six-month target is given for improvement by the RSC with a range of options for support offered by other chains/schools etc (remember: LA ‘trusts’ can offer services too).

6. After six months, if improvement is unacceptable the RSC brokers a chain transfer. The new chain is given two years to improve the school.

7. After two years if the school has not sufficiently improved then steps will be taken to merge the school with a more successful one, or to wind down its operations by no longer accepting new pupils into the school. A new school provider will be found to operate a school for the new intake.

8. Local authorities retain ‘strategic’ oversight and can feed information to RSCs for opening, monitoring and closing. On admissions, transport and other social services the LA has a leading role.

On ‘democratic accountability’

When discussing this with people a common then is that there needs to be local ‘democratic accountability’ for schools. I.e. if schools are bad in a place then someone should be ‘vote-outable’. We are sceptical that this is really how local politics works and we also don’t think parents want to wait up to four years to vote someone out when their child is not getting a good enough education.

Hence, we feel local democracy would be better served by:

1. Having councillors act as ‘advocates’ for parent. As they will no longer need to ‘defend local schools’ they can operate on behalf of their constituents, rather than on behalf of the school. They could then fairly help parents with admissions, accessing any required additional resources and – where parents are unhappy – help guide them them through a national ‘complaints pathway’ which leads from academy headteacher, to governing body, to regional commissioner, to national school commissioner. This could be an online system with an ombudsman with annual reports published of complaints against trusts and their outcomes. If councillors do not fulfil this role, then it would be fair for people to vote them out!

2. Allow parents to ‘trigger’ academy trust reviews at which the trigger group can put forward evidence as to why the school ought to move trusts. This allows for greater flexibility in the system (and is similar to a recommendation in the Blunkett review).

3. Completely transparent processes for opening and closing schools, and the selection of academy trusts to run a school. This includes proper consultation, local hearings (as with planning laws), and all decisions made in public with full explanation of how evidence has been accounted for and decided.

Why do we think this model would work work?

It ensures the best provider operates schools. We don’t care who  runs schools, just that they run them well and to the law. Excellent local authorities ought to be allowed back in the game, this helps that happen.

It gives local authorities a role in strategy and local councillors a vital role as advocates, but relieves these groups from defending bad schools. Local councillors cannot easily support closing a school even when it is the right thing to do. It is sometimes equally difficult for local authorities if they are the ones leading turnaround efforts. Hence, schools have too often limped on. Our model plays to local authority strengths of contextual knowledge and gives councillors back the ability to truly represent their constituents.   

It makes sense in a data and information-rich era to share information and have commissioners operate across broader areas. At one time, it was difficult even watching all the schools in one small area. But we are now in a situation where commissioners can access good data about schools, quickly email or call relevant individuals, hold group meetings with people from different parts of the country via skype. In that context having 100-odd education ‘bureaus’ managing schools in umpteen different ways is a, when you think about it, quite chaotic. There still needs to be human interaction, local knowledge, etc, but our model enables that while also herding parts of the system gone awry.

The Really Big Question

The one thing we haven’t said is how many Commissioners there should be! Being honest, Laura wanted one (based in a big department in Coventry with underlings managing each of the 8 commissioner regions). I initially agreed with the Blunkett review on having ‘sub-regional’ commissioners but Laura kept pointing out that few areas have someone with the capacity to manage this job – and many simply won’t need someone to do it that often.

As a compromise, sticking with 8 RSCs at first seems sensible. They’re already hired, and if LA trusts were created they would automatically fit into their remit anyway. Also, it’s easier to start with fewer then recruit more if needed than disbanding ones if it turns out you’ve overshot.

Hence, we would stick with the RSC job description as is, but blend in local authorities via Community Trusts and be very clear about who was responsible for what parts of the school system as described above.


Coalition Regional Commissioners vs. Labour School Directors – Who Wins?

This post is by Laura McInerney. It will become obvious why. Tomorrow’s post will be in my voice!

Today the Labour Party announced their vision for ‘Directors of School Standards’. This is hot on the heels of the Coalition’s ‘Regional Schools Commissioners’. And both are allegedly answers to The Big Middle Tier Problem (aka “who should watch over schools to make sure they aren’t rubbish?”)

I’ve been asked to write about Middle-Tier-Problem umpteen times but declined because I found it too boring to commit to paper until I was involved in a heated email exchange with my genius friend, Matt Hood. Exasperated, I drew the model on paper and sent it to him with a narrative of its benefits. Having (mostly) convinced him, we refined the model and began trying to convince politicians, thinktanks, and advisers of its merits

Today this blog compares the Labour Directors with Coalition Commissioners. Then tomorrow, we’ll reveal our own model.

But first, why is everyone so het up about a ‘middle tier’ anyway?

Well, it’s because having ‘freed’ many schools from local oversight through the process of ‘academisation’, the government suddenly realised it had caused some problems.

Three big ones include:

1.       Trying to run the world from London – Academies are laws unto themselves, with only the Secretary of State able to intervene. After so many schools converted, the DfE appointed Lord Nash as grand over-seer. But this means he must now desperately monitor and manage 3000+ academies from his London office without any clear rule book. It’s unsustainable, inconsistent and remote. The job needed breaking up.

2.       The freezing out of good local authorities from managing schools – Local authorities can no longer open new schools or take-over failing ones (except in extreme circumstances). This is silly. There are some brilliant authorities, often in places with few quality academy trusts. We need the best provider regardless of who they are.

3.       Local ‘accountability’. Neither Matt nor I buy the idea that because local councillors are elected they are the right people to oversee schools. But the other extreme of having a Conservative-donor appointed into the Lords and then overseeing 3000+ schools is not great either. There needs to be room for local people’s views in the system but also a recognition that elected officials, looking to curry favour, might not always want to take tough decisions – e.g. closing a school – even when it is the right thing to do.

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of ‘school improvement’. Gove has always claimed academisation is a ‘self-improving’ system. But how does freedom mean people will suddenly get better? And who is helping the weaker schools do well?

The Coalition Plan: Regional School Commissioners

Earlier this month the Coalition revealed its new Regional School Commissioners (RSCs). Appointed by the DfE, the Commissioners operate as ‘devolved’ Secretaries of State – able to review school performance, decide on providers for new schools, and intervene or close failing ones.

But, crucially, they only do this for academies. Which is enormously divisive.

They will work across 8 geographically weird areas (who has ever put Cromer and West Ham in the same region before?). And – in an odd twist – each Commissioner has selected their own office and staffing structure, somewhat forgetting that RSCs will move on and that knowing who to contact in each place for information is going to be tough if they are all very different.

The 8 commissioners will likely struggle to implement their devolved powers consistently given the lack of processes for opening, monitoring and closing schools. A good cover for this inconsistency will be the ‘HeadTeachers Boards’ (HTBs) set to advise each Commissioner. HTBs are mostly elected – (love that mostly!) – with four of the six elected by local academy heads. The other two are appointed. We don’t know if they are fixed term or disbanded when an RSC leaves.

The HTBs are expected to give ½ to 1 whole days per week on their RSC-guidance role. It’s not entirely clear what that will involve, but probably going into struggling schools. *cough*(and probably snaffling them for their own academy chains) *cough*.

Does this solve ‘academisation’ problems?

Some of them. It makes opening, monitoring and closing schools more manageable. Academies, ultimately, are ‘schools-by-contract’. People hate hearing that, but it’s true, and it’s probably sensible. It means schools are run by entities independent from those who oversee them, and if there are problems with quality it is much easier for a Commissioner to quickly step in than it is for local authorities who often want to defend the turnaround work they have been doing (even if it isn’t working).

RSCs don’t help the good local authorities thrive, nor does it aim to do much about mediocre local authority schools. They are simply ignored. Which feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s also no influence for local people in the RSC system. It doesn’t sound as if place planning will be strategically looked at, and no requirement for consultation with local people.  The cosiness of the Commissioner and their two-mates-plus-four team also smacks of favourtism.

he Labour Plan: Directors of School Standards

Today Labour announced plans for Directors of School Standards, which sound  like Regional School Commissioners but with a worse acronym (DoSS).

A big difference to the Coalition plan is that there will be loads of them. The presumed area is a ‘local authority’ (of which there are over a hundred), though Labour has stated they want the number to be about 40-80 because authorities will work together in appointing someone.

I am deeply skeptical of this approach. My hometown became a unitary council largely because it wanted to separate its education services. Why would it undo that? Yet it’s not big enough to warrant the expense of a DSS (who will bear the cost of DSS’ is an interesting and unclear point).

Still, assuming 40-80 are appointed, in contrast to RSCs Labour wants them selected by the local authority from a list approved by the DfE – melding ‘local accountability’ with central government, but leaves academies out in the cold. Directors will have fixed 5 year terms, unlike the ambiguous RSCs, and because of this Labour says they are ‘independent’ from the local authority (even though appointed by them).

Beyond that it sounds like the Director would, like RSCs, approve plans for new schools and intervene in failing schools (though the language is more ‘collaborationy’ than turnaround, which could translate into ‘endless useless turnaround’ if we’re not careful).

There are a few other exciting points:

  • Good quality local authorities would be encouraged to set up ‘Community Trusts’ which would be arms-length academy trusts, so that there’s no conflict between the local authority being involved in strategic oversight and the management of school. Matt and I have been pushing for this for quite a long time, though we still think too much LA influence on Directors could mean there’s still a conflict.
  • Transparency – a commitment to make the school opening and closing process open to FOI. This would be nice. But politicians always promise transparency when they’re in opposition….
  • There would be a duty on schools to collaborate regardless of their type when it comes to other children’s services. I know the ‘bureaucracy freers’ roll their eyes at this. But health, families, crime, etc, all matter – especially in regions with multiple deprivations. Labour are right to push this.
  • Schools would be able to move from one chain to another. How this will happen needs hammering out more.

Does it solve ‘academisation’ problems?

Some. Last night on Twitter I said it solved none, on reflection that was hasty. (It was based on the news articles not the report).

Like the Coalition plan, Labour have made the job smaller and put clear one person directly in charge of opening, monitoring and closing/intervening schools in an area. It is a huge leap forward.

It gives local authorities an option to manage schools and compete on the same terms as academies. This is good.  On the downside, I’m unconvinced local authorities selecting the Directors really re-introduces a valuable ‘democractic accountability’. A more exciting step is that parents/teachers could force a change of academy trusts. But I still think more should be done on this.

The biggest concern though is sprawl. Forty to eighty directors is the predicted number, but it could be more. That’s unwieldy. It makes for big variations in policies and a headache of implementation, especially for academy chains operating across reasonably small geographic areas that might nevertheless cover several local authorities.

There’s also no clear process for making these decisions about how many Directors there will be or how they will be paid for. I also wonder about capacity. If the Coalition could only fill 6 Commissioner roles after five months of searching and a £140k price tag, are there really 80 Directors of School Standards evenly spread all across the country with the capacity to take this job on? It’s a nail-biter.

What’s our plan? ….

Tomorrow Matt and I shall reveal what we developed at the end of last year and which we think addresses some of the problems not yet addressed. Feel free to leave comments about your Middle-Tier grips and we’ll try and include answers to them tomorrow.



Grammar Schools – what to do, what to do…

Recently I’ve been pushed (in a good way) to confront my nemesis education issue. Grammar Schools.

I have four perspectives when it comes to selective state schools – as a pupil, on free school meals who attended one, as a policy wonk, as a governor of a large secondary school in the catchment area of a state grammar school and as an active member of the Labour Party.

From a personal perspective I know that Grammar Schools can have a significant impact on the life chances of young people – without a doubt the grammar school that I attended transformed my life. However as a policy wonk I know that’s OK for those kids who get in; for those that don’t and for the system as a whole the impact is a negative one. This is backed by my experience as a governor where we not only struggle with recruiting a strong gifted and talented intake at 11 but again at 16 when the top A Level students are ‘creamed off’. That all said, as a politico I’m not sure ‘good for kids’ or ‘bad for kids’ is particularly important. This is such a heated topic in some circles (Labour and Tory). I’m convinced that no party has the combination of desire and political capital needed to close the remaining schools down (my school was established in 1472 – it’s survived just about everything since the dark ages).

The simple conclusion is, that for now at least, we’re stuck with them. Therefore I’d like to add some thoughts to the debate about how to we increase the number of young people from low income backgrounds who get into these highly selective state schools. How do we ensure that grammar schools actually are a vehicle for social mobility for a greater proportion of young people. Because, let’s be honest, claiming that you’re good for young people from low income backgrounds when this group make up 3% of your school population is laughable.

I want to deal with three of the Sutton Trust recommendations and one of my own.

  • Schools should consider the merits of powers available in the admissions code to attract high achieving students who are entitled to the Pupil Premium.
  • Improve outreach work significantly, actively encouraging high achieving students from low and middle income backgrounds to apply.
  • Build new partnerships with non-selective schools to support their high achieving students.
  • Leadership

Selection and the 11+

One suggestion from the Sutton Trust and others has been positive discrimination in favour of pupils eligible for FSM. I like the principle but as always I think that the devil is in the detail. We must be careful not to assume that grammar schools have the necessary expertise to close the gap at the pace that would be required if FSM pupils were admitted without taking the entrance exam or by, without consideration, being admitted with a lower pass mark than the one generally required.

Those who had the very worst experience at my school were those who were deemed ‘not clever enough to be there’. The pace expected is fast and in many cases unforgiving. Part of this does come from the school (and therefore could and should change) but the other part comes from the pupils and is a direct consequence of selecting by ability. In my case the smartest 11 year-old boys from 50 primary schools all landed in one school – competition, as you can imagine, was fierce.

It’s therefore vitally important that if a kid – FSM or not – goes to a selective school they are able to cope with this (partly) inevitable environment. I think we could see a significant negative effect on outcomes for FSM pupils bumped into selective schools without passing then entrance exam.

There is a slightly more nuanced option which would have a (albeit smaller) positive effect on numbers. I know that my old school selects pupils in the following way:

  1. The kids sit a 11+ test which has a clear pass mark,
  2. The tests are marked and the kids are given a score,
  3. The names are arranged highest score to lowest score,
  4. Those that were below the pass mark are not offered a place,
  5. Places are then awarded to those who pass, starting at the top of the list until all the places are full.
  6. Those in the ‘grey zone’ (i.e. passed but didn’t get a place) are then put onto a waiting list.

One solution, which I like, is to replace 5 with:

5.   Places are then awarded to all FSM pupils to those who pass. Following that allocation the remaining places are allocated to those who pass, starting at the top of the list until all of the places are full.

This would ensure that any FSM pupils who are smart enough to pass the test are offered a place even if they don’t get the very highest pass mark. I doubt this would get us very far but it would compensate for some of the attainment gap that develops over the course of primary education.

Taking this a step further you could also see selective schools to consider how much accelerated progress they could confidently secure over a single year. Once they have a clear idea of this they could then look to a differentiated pass mark for kids on FSM, secure in the knowledge that they would finish the end of their first year in line with the wider population of the year group. The EEF/Sutton Trust toolkit might be a good place to start when looking at what might be possible here.

Widening Access

The next significant piece of work should involve looking to the very best widening participation teams at Universities and adapting their learning to meet the needs of bright KS2 pupils from low income backgrounds. In a recent meeting with my old school I was heartened to hear about a significant widening access project working across over 50 local primary school.

What’s less clear is the impact of these projects – very few have had any kind of significant evaluation. A point echoed by the Sutton Trust report. There is positive anecdotal evidence around the work going on but in order to a) secure the long term future of these projects and b) share  best practice across the grammar school network this evaluative work is, in my view, essential.

Partnerships with non-selective schools

Whilst I’m always keen for collaboration between schools I think this recommendation deserves some very specific scrutiny. I think we need to re-imagine where the partnership benefits are here. The report says:

‘Further partnerships between grammar schools and comprehensives or secondary moderns in their areas could be developed to ensure that high achieving students from low and middle income backgrounds have access to good local teachers in their areas.’

This is a bold and I suspect inaccurate assumption. I haven’t seen evidence to suggest that teachers in grammar schools are better, particularly when it comes to improving outcomes for vulnerable young people, than their peers in the non-selective sector (I’m happy to be corrected if there is any research). For me here, the benefit in partnership comes from the grammar schools looking to other local schools with very high numbers of pupils from low income backgrounds and, coming back to my earlier point, understand how they can accelerate progress in the first year in order to that pupils from low income backgrounds can ‘catch up’.


The final issue is the leadership of this agenda within the remaining grammar schools. Taking these three things together, alongside the other recommendations from the Sutton Trust report (including 11+ test design, tutoring and the role of primary schools) will, I think, make a difference if and only if this agenda is taken seriously by the heads. Without that, we’ll get nowhere.

How Russell Could Help.

My dad (Big Bob), like many dads, loves a good inspirational quote. ‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary’ is one of his classics. He’d roll this out time and again and my teenage self would roll my eyes back at him. He gave my brother a good quote session recently (he’s just had a baby so deserved it) and it struck me how much Russell Brand would benefit from a few hours with Big Bob. ‘Revolution!’ Russell cries. ‘Roll your sleeves up and get on with it then’ Big Bob would reply, ‘my lad is 10 steps ahead of you.’

I’m currently the campaign manager for Amina Lone, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Morecambe and Lunesdale. Amina is a smart, articulate, principled single mum of four, currently living in a housing association property and leading a charity that does social research into the causes of poverty. Like Amina, my parents worked hard to give my brother and me a great start in life, but there wasn’t always enough to make ends meet. I lived in a static home, taking free school meals and playing ‘stuff the envelope’ with my mum to bring in some extra cash each evening. I’d like to think that we’re not your typical team and that we get the issues because we’ve lived them.

In Morecambe doing what Russell advocates and refusing to engage with the current political system will do nothing for those here who so desperately need a government to level the playing field and help them to get on. As a Les Mis fan nothing would please me more to see a colourful barricade erected at the doors of Morecambe Arndale Centre with Jean from Heysham stood proudly at the top waving a Shrimps flag. This however is a fairy-tale; the reality is very different – no glamour, no glitz, just hard graft is going to work.

Activists across the country will recognise the list below – it’s fair to say that it’s only a snapshot of what goes on. We work, unpaid, week in week out as we know that, in the end, this is the only way to move into the positions that allow us to make the changes our communities so desperately need.

1)      Talking to people door by door – This means spending Saturday and Sunday walking the streets, knocking on doors, talking to people about their concerns, telling them of our plans and giving them an opportunity to ask us questions. It also involves the odd bit of fence jumping when a particularly territorial dog tries to take your leg off.

2)      Fixing the little things – we can’t change the way wealth is distributed just yet but we can get the dog waste bin emptied, get a crew out to fill a pot hole or repair some guttering.

3)      Delivering Leaflets – we have 45,000 to do, by hand, 4 times a year.

4)      Writing to the papers – the Visitor doesn’t have celebrity guest editors. If we write something good they’ll publish our letter. We have a go every week.

5)      Fundraising – To fight the Tories and win we need to bring in £20,000. We do raffles, and quiz nights and concerts, film screenings and meals – really we do anything that we raise a few quid for a leaflet.  Val does a mean pie and peas supper (always a favourite) which brings in a few hundred quid.

If Russell is serious about change I’d therefore urge him to do three things:

1)      Use his influence to raise the profile of Amina and the candidates like her – champion them and set out to the world why they are different and why we should support them. The Visitor will definitely publish a letter if he sends one in.  

2)      Use his money to support their campaigns – those hanging on to power will maintain their firm grip as long as money continues to pour into their coffers from private health care companies and those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – we get ours from people willing to pay £10 for raffle tickets to win a bad bottle of wine from Aldi. We cannot win without the cash to fight and so we’ll happily take cheque.

3)      Finally donate his time – we’re out knocking tomorrow next week in Millhead, 11am – 1pm, meeting at Carnforth Station. He should bring a coat and his best running shoes.

Why don’t they knock a quick bruschetta together instead?

Those poor people are at it again. First they build their houses out of widescreen televisions and now they are stupidly wasting money on expensive fast food when they could be bashing out Jamie’s Oliver’s 5 minute meals for their tea instead – nice healthy food at half the price. What are they playing at? Jamie’s expert research claims it’s as many as 7/10 of them who are at it (I’d put a reference to this but he’s pulled this particular statistic out of his rump steak).

Few things rile me more than these sentiments born out of a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to have to feed your family on a tight budget. Jamie is the latest yuppie to wade in with his basil and rocket infused ignorance, this time waxing lyrical about the cherry tomatoes, mussles and fresh pasta eaten by our European partners. Don’t worry though, he did wander around near some poor people so he does understand.

Here are some things that Jamie needs to know:

  1. It’s not cheaper to buy fresh food – not by a long-shot. Even if you can cost a fresh stew at a lower price than my fish fingers, chips and beans (coming in at an incredible 26p per head) you’ve almost certainly not added the cost of the cook books, equipment and condiments needed to make your culinary masterpiece. A single jar of pesto costs about the same as 100 fish fingers.
  2. It never takes 5 miuntes.  Any family will tell you that tea time is busy. When time is tight people opt for genuinely fast and easy food – particularly if they are a single parent and need to head out for the night shift. My fish fingers, chips and beans takes 18 minutes and requires no prep, no ongoing stirring and only an oven tray and a bowl for the microwave. No blenders, pestle, mortar or skillet necessary.
  3. Comparing food and TV choice is spurious – see this great blog from Laura McInerny which explains why (

But it is possible I hear you say. I don’t disagree. You could do this. That is not my objection. My objection is to the persistent painting of those on a budget as irresponsible folk who deserve their station due to the consistently bad decisions they make. This is offensive at best and fundamentally damaging to our society at worst.

The reality is that buying food, within your budget, that your kids will like, is the rational choice. If we want Jamie’s meals to be that rational choice we should start with increasing employment and wages whilst tackling exploitation through zero hours contracts. If Jamie put his efforts (and £150m fortune) into this he might just see the change he’s looking for.

Managing Risk at Teach First

Following on from @miss_mcinerney’s blog on the myths about Teach First it struck me that many of the conversations in response focused around whether or not Teach First a risk to the education of young people.

In the interests of transparency I thought I’d set out what happens when it goes wrong within a school and what’s done at each stage to mitigate risks and manage issues. I explained the processes below to each head teacher before making a placement – it’s also set out in writing for schools too.

The first mitigation is the recruitment process. Entry criteria, an application form, a full day assessment centre (which include some teaching to assessors) all of which look at collaboration, interaction, commitment, knowledge, resilience, excellence, self-evaluation, planning & organising, integrity, humility, respect & empathy, leadership and problem solving. There is then a subject knowledge audit from university tutor and safeguarding checks. Getting it right starts when the application goes in.

Once through this the second mitigation against poor performance in the classroom is a six week intensive summer school where you’re worked hard and tested further. You teaching, academic ability and the competencies listed above are assessed by Teach First staff, the HE team (drawn from over 14 universities across the country) and the head and staff at your own school. The six weeks is the last part of the recruitment process and if you don’t pass you don’t go into school.

So we’ve tested and tested some more. We now have a group of recruits who understand the basics and are ready to go. The third mitigation is the extensive system of support given to each participant. As a minimum (and many schools go way beyond this) a tutor from the university makes at least 17 visits over the year, a mentor from within the school has time protected on their timetable for 1 to 1 meetings each week and conducts further observations on top of that and Teach First staff (also qualified teachers) made additional pastoral visits. This team around the participant is flexible and responds to the needs of each individual. Is it perfect? No – often one of those support strands doesn’t do what it needs to and so in that case the others flex to pick up the slack until the problem (whatever that might be) can be resolved. It was my job to make sure I knew where these problems were and ensure they were resolved quickly.

The fourth mitigation is the ‘participant support process’. This kicks in when someone is struggling and not making the progress that’s needed. For maybe 10% of participants, at some point, one of the team (or the participants themselves) flag up an issue. This could be anything – they can’t control their class, they can’t differentiate up and down, they can’t keep on top of the workload are most common in my experience. Once flagged the mentor, tutor, participant and I are around a table within 48 hours and, if necessary put together a ‘support plan’. This lasts for six weeks, has targets and additional support, a mid-point review and a final review. It recognises that some people just need a bit of extra help here and there and about 10% of participants in my experience need one. Everyone throws in some additional resources and energy and about 80% of the time we succeed and the participant moves back into the mainstream.

But what happens to the 20%? The fifth mitigation is ‘Cause for Concern’. This is the business end. It’s a final action plan like the one above, usually 4 weeks that says look – this is serious,  you need to make some progress or you’ll fail the course and leave the school immediately. It’s the safety net for schools and means they aren’t stuck with staff who aren’t having the impact they need. Now we’re dealing with smart people here – we’ve recruited them because they are reflective and have empathy. They know it isn’t working and it’s not for their lack of trying. Often when it gets to this stage the school and teacher have an amicable conversation and part ways before it gets anywhere near 10 weeks (6 on support plan and 4 on CFC).

So there you have it – start to finish – but does it work? When I left in 2012 93% of participants gained QTS having started the summer school. 7% either didn’t make it through the six week summer school, reached the end of cause for concern without making the required progress or parted ways with their school before they got there. What was always most interesting is that it was often me kicking myself when it didn’t work (it was by far the worst part of my job) and not the school. Heads are a sensible bunch, they understood the risk, they understood the process and when they sat it alongside their recruitment for any other staff members it measured up. If it didn’t Teach First would have vanished long ago.

Why I Like Paying Tax

In recent weeks I’ve watched with interest the stories about the large multinationals and their relationship (or lack of) with HMRC. The highlight being the good hiding the Public Accounts Committee gave Andrew Cecil, a senior member of the Amazon team as he failed time and time again to answer a very simple question – what should your fair share have been?

During a (pretty overpriced) pub lunch these stories came up with one person telling us about someone they know and their current tax situation. Much like a ‘mini-amazon’ he owns a company that then invoices his ‘employer’ rather than being a direct employee. That means he can then draw a dividend rather than a salary (which attracts a lower tax rate) and can claim expenses allowing him to bring in income that takes him well above the higher threshold whilst paying almost no tax. On top of this his ‘employer’ also avoids any pension or national insurance contributions on his behalf. So it seems that it’s not just Starbucks that’s at this avoidance lark.

His immediate suggestion was that I should look into doing something similar. If my employer would agree to it I’d be quids in he tells me. I politely declined and not wanting to make a scene I paid my fair share of the extortionate bill (you can see where this is going) and made my way home. Needless to say I was a little surprised by his suggestion – I know that what he is doing is perfectly legal but I’m not that guy. I’m not the guy who doesn’t pay what I owe. By taking on his suggestion I’d be like that guy who leaves when it’s his round or worse, like the guy that doesn’t put my money in when the bill goes round so we’re awkwardly £20 short. This (and I hope my friends will concur) just isn’t me and what makes it worse I know this isn’t most people either – if they do set up this arrangement often they just don’t see this as ‘not paying their fair share’.

I like paying tax. I like paying it because I like to know that if my family are ill they can get medical care. More than that I’m in awe of a society that believes that it is right that one person pays in to ensure that a total stranger can get medical care if they need it. I like paying it because I believe that education for everyone is the best way of levelling the playing field and making people happy. I like paying it because I want to be safe in my bed and have firemen come and rescue me if my house is on fire. I also like paying it because I don’t know when I might need a social net to catch me if things go wrong. It’s caught many of the people I know and put them back on their feet. They would not be on their feet today if that net hadn’t caught them. Finally, and most importantly I like paying tax because I like doing the right thing; picking up my share of the bill is the right thing to do.

I’m not the guy that ducks out of it at dinner and I’m not going to be the guy that ducks out of it in society. Why? Because nobody likes it when there isn’t enough money to pay for the amazing meal we all ordered and shared together.