Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

Flu Jabs do not give you flu !

In my Facebook feed this morning was a link to this “News” story :Piers Morgan receives flu vaccine injection from Dr. Oz, then gets sick

The article relates that celebrity UK journalist Piers Morgan, appeared in US television having a flu jab, live, in an apparent attempt to convince the public of the safety and efficacy of flu vaccines; but that after the jab, he then came down with influenza – and concludes :

Millions of Americans now know that flu shots can make them sick, thanks to Piers Morgan

The author adds : It is difficult not to chuckle at the whole ridiculous charade. What was meant to further pull the wool over the eyes of gullible Americans literally blew up in the face of those that perpetrated it, as millions of Americans have now had their eyes opened to the fact that flu shots are dangerous and can, indeed, cause flu-like symptoms and other health damage.

Well excuse me if I don’t chuckle – excuse me if I go away and weep in despair at the sheer bloody ignorance of people who frankly don’t know shit from shinola.

When you get a flu jab you’ll get a leaflet tel you what it can do, and what it can’t do.

Typically a flu jab helps prevent infection from around three different strains of flu. It won’t prevent you from catching it – but it will dramatically reduce the chances. In the unlikely event that you do catch one of those strains of flu it’s likely that the effects will be less severe than if you were not vaccinated.

If you catch a strain not covered by the vaccination – of which there are many  – you will not be covered at all – and stand more or less the same chance of catching flu as you did before – however the strains in the vaccination represent the ones most likely to be caught at that time, and the ones most likely to cause a severe illness.

You can not contract flu from the vaccination – it’s not a live virus – this can not happen.

You can suffer from side effects from the virus – the most likely is a mild fever in the hours following the jab. From personally experience I can say that your arm’s a bit stiff for a day or two as well.

You could suffer an allergic reaction to the jab – the likelihood is tiny – far less than the likelihood of catching flu.

You could just conceivably contract Guillain-Barré syndrome – however the risk of this happening is no greater – and probably lower than the risk of contracting the same condition via catching flu – as a calculated risk it makes sense to vaccinate.

This information is well researched – it’s out there in Doctors’ surgeries, clinics, Health department websites – it’s very easy to find – It’s been researched properly and scientifically.

So what does Piers Morgan’s flu jab and subsequent illness show us ?

Well it shows he has a flu jab. It shows he lost his voice 11 days later.

And that’s it basically. It doesn’t show that he had flu, it doesn’t show that it was caused by the virus, it doesn’t show that the virus was ineffective.

All of the information we have from this report is absolutely consistent with the information that is routinely given out to people taking the vaccination

It would be as sensible to say :

Piers Morgan drank a cup of coffee on January 11th, and on January 23rd complained of losing his voice


Millions of Americans now know that coffee can make them sick thanks to Piers Morgan

And of course people will say – well how can you trust all that research and Government information ?

Right – Well maybe I’m a sucker for authority but I’d sooner trust the global research community and the US & UK Governments than “The NaturalNews Network”  which  “is owned and operated by Truth Publishing International, Ltd., a Taiwan corporation. It is not recognized as a 501(c)3 non-profit in the United States, but it operates without a profit incentive, and its key writer, Mike Adams, receives absolutely no payment for his time, articles or books other than reimbursement for items purchased in order to conduct product reviews.”

There are two sad aspects to this story, the first is that there will be people who will read this article and as a result will not be vaccinated against flu, and will die this year – because they catch flu.

The other is that yet again it becomes more difficult to argue coherently and sensibly about any subject, when large numbers of people around the world are either incapable of, or unwilling to critically analyse news information, to tell the difference between fact and opinion, and to carry out even the most cursory checks on the accuracy of information that they pass on. These are skills that are taught in primary schools – why can’t intelligent adults apply the skills they have been educated in ?

Most articles that come my way via Facebook are generally misleading or in some cases entirely untrue  – it’s seems sad that we’ve developed our technology to the extent that we can now use it to go back to the ignorance of the dark ages

What 'S' is it traditionally quite easy to tell from Shinola ? - well for most people anyway !

What ‘S’ is it traditionally quite easy to tell from Shinola ? – well for most people anyway !

January 30, 2013 Posted by | education | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reversal of Fortunes

Any regular readers, or my followers on Twitter, or Facebook, may well have noticed that I’ve not been entirely active of late.

Hardly published anything – or tweeted- or anything else for that matter.

You may be wondering why.

Well here goes …

The school which I’m Head of – a special school for children with severe learning difficulties – was alerted that we were about to receive an OFSTED inspection. Not unexpected – a little earlier than we would have liked – but nothing we shouldn’t have been able to handle.

Except we didn’t – we fell foul of what in OFSTED speak is called a limiting judgement – certain areas of the inspection don’t just impact on that particular section – but on lots of other areas too – and to cut a long story short we ended up being served with “A notice to improve” – basically this means that you have 8 months in which to sort things out in.

Trouble is, this is not a good thing for a school, or for a Headteacher. It’s not good either for a local authority – and my particular local authority have quite a tough stance – if a school enters a “category” – then they generally expect a change of leadership. A bit like a football team missing out on a trophy really.

So a few weeks on, and here I sit, having resigned my position, and having had my life turned upside down.

Devastated ? It doesn’t even come close.

Now I could wax lyrical about the unfairness of the OFSTED system, about how I’ve been mistreated by my authority. I won’t though – I was sure that I wouldn’t make mileage out of my position in school before this happened – and I’m not going to start now. Suffice to say I feel at a very low ebb, and more than a little embarrassed at having to tell people what’s happened.

It’s been a year of incredible ups down for me – a year in which I met the Prime Minister, in which I had cabinet ministers reading my blog, a year in which only a few weeks ago I chatted with Education Secretary Ed Balls at a reception for successful Headteachers on the House of  Commons terrace. Now he’s not Education secretary – and I’m not, for the moment, a successful Headteacher.

So what for the future ?

Well I start again – I look for another job. I have no  millions to fall back on like David Laws, nor have I reached any substantial pay off agreement like Rafa Benitez.

I do have optimism though, and I’m not downhearted about the future. I know that I’ve delivered some excellence to my schools, and my pupils in the past, and I know that I’ll achieve good things in the future.

Perhaps this might be the opportunity for me to make that change of career that I never would have made – maybe I’ll get into politics after all – who knows ?

In the mean time if anyone knows of any jobs that need doing – I’m your man !

June 17, 2010 Posted by | education, Family | | 20 Comments

Back to bonkers ?

A little over a week ago I was present to hear Conservative MP & Shadow Minister for Schools Nick Gibb address an invited audience – largely made up of Head teachers, Chairs of Governors, and others with an involvement in schools, at Glaziers Hall, in London, courtesty of solicitors Winckworth Sherwood Winckworth Sherwood – Tories aim to boost ‘prestige and esteem’ of teaching

He presented a short outline of future plans for “Schools under the Conservatives”.

His talk focussed on structure and standards, with some of the key points arising being:

  • the introduction of new “not-for-profit” providers who will establish schools using the academy model; plans are already under way under the New Schools Network;
  • the extension of academy status to other schools who wish to obtain it;
  • planning laws are to be altered to facilitate the establishment of new schools;
  • school heads are to be given more freedom, with powers being devolved to them; the right to appeal against exclusions to the local independent appeal panel is to be abolished;
  • there will be no “voucher” system and there are no plans to curtail the admissions  current code;
  • BSF schemes which have reached financial close will be guaranteed but there could be no guarantee for other schemes given the current national budget situation.

(abstract e-mailed to me by Winckworth Sherwood)

Now I’m no Tory – and it’s perhaps to be expected that I wasn’t overly  impressed, but having mulled this over for a while, I started to come round to thinking that what was lacking from these proposals was not so much content, as a little bit of enthusiasm. There is actually plenty in there to make voters sit up and think – if only it was presented more enticingly.

It’s not about chucking out the progress that Labour has made; and it does promise a fairly radical expansion of the academies scheme – which although many on the left oppose, is seen by a large number of voters as a positive development.

It also puts paid to the voucher system – thus demonstrating that there’s no lurch to the right, and that if independent providers want to educate pupils from the state sector then they’ll need to run state schools – again a fair bit of “progressive” thinking- especially considering that this is the Conservative Party

Whether you like those ideas or not, there should be plenty there to sell to the electorate.

I do think the abandonment of BSF would be a disaster – and feel that this could possibly be challenged in law – but to be fair, I’m not exactly part of the Tories’ core vote strategy – and this policy is in line with their plans for radical spending cuts sooner rather than later. No matter how I disagree with them, there’s clearly a consistency with their wider aims there.

Of course since then there have been all kinds of hiccups for the Conservatives – criticism of the campaign, narrowing poll leads, the furore over Lord Ashcroft’s tax status etc.

I was nevertheless shocked to read Michael Gove’s proposals for education on the Times website today Gove unveils Tory plan for return to ‘traditional’ school lessons – Times Online – coming a mere 10 days after I’d heard Nick Gibb spell out a very different picture.

Now Michael Gove – Shadow Secretary of State for Children – says they’re going to :

  • Instruct children to learn poetry by heart , in a return to a “traditionalist” education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, and modern foreign languages.
  • Rewrite the national curriculum to restore past methods of teaching history, English, maths and science
  • Teach History “in order” – as a narrative
  • Put more emphasis on the classics in English classes

Mr Gove says that Teachers entering the profession “don’t love abstract thinking skills”, but that “what draws people into teaching is that they love history or physics, and they want to communicate that love

He goes on “A lot of the ‘great tradition’ is locked in a cupboard marked ‘too difficult’ and that’s quite wrong. I’ve been talking to the RSC about bringing Shakespeare into primary schools,”

Mr Gove asserts that “Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England”

I don’t know how he knows this – certainly it’s not what I want as a parent, not that anyone’s ever asked me.

It does all rather remind me though of another chapter in Conservative education. A period between 1992 and 1994 in which the then Education Secretary John Patten wrote to all teachers in state schools extolling the virtues of formal “traditional” teaching – sitting in rows, as researched by one Neville Bennett in his work ” Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress blissfully unaware that most if not all qualified teachers had studied Bennett’s work – and also knew of his later work in which he cast doubt over his original findings.

It was a difficult time for the Conservatives – the approach to education being part of the wider “Back to Basics” campaign. There’s lots of stuff out there on the Internet to read about it –  make a start with the Wikipedia entry Back to Basics – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia which commences thus :

“Back to Basics was an ill-fated attempt to relaunch the government of British Prime Minister John Major in 1993…

…  the initiative was intended to focus on issues of law and order, education and public probity (especially single mothers)  …  was widely interpreted as a moral campaign, and hence was ridiculed by political opponents”

So – when the going gets tough, it would appear that the Tories lurch to the right, and go back to the tried and tested. Except that when it was tested – it failed miserably and disastrously.

If this is Michael Gove’s honest approach to Education policy, then it is sadly misguided, and frankly more than a little stupid.

The Tories election campaign is rapidly becoming a train wreck

March 6, 2010 Posted by | education, politics | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Education, Education, & Private Schools

I came across this “News” on the Conservative Party’s own website : Widening education gap between the many and the few

There are so many things about this post that niggle me that it’s difficult to know where to start – but I’ll try !

OK – first up – the language is lifted straight from Gordon Brown’s speech yesterday – fine, that’s politics. It is clear however that they seem pretty pleased that a privileged few are apparently making greater educational achievements than the rest of the school population – that’s not a GOOD thing in my book – Oh but wait – I’m missing the Tory point (not the first time that points have been missed with Tories though)  – they’re blaming this on Labour.

Right, now I see. Actually – no I don’t – the figures that they quote (which incidentally have been in the public domain since August 2009 – so why any of this is “news” I do not know) – do show some significant differences between A level performance in independent schools and state schools. They also show some similarities – state school performance at 3 A’s has roughly doubled since 1998 – (I wonder why they chose that date – and not 1996 – the year before Labour came to Government ?) – whilst performance at independent schools using the same measure has – hey ! roughly doubled. Which does make it even less newsworthy.

So really the gap hasn’t widened – it’s the same gap – except that all students are far more likely than they were in the dark days before Labour took office, of gaining 3 A’s.

So murky are the Conservatives’  figures though that it’s really difficult to work out exactly what is going on here. Now I thought that there were around 300,000 A level students last year ( A-level results: One in four A-levels passed at grade A | Education | ) but it seems the Conservative party think otherwise – If 32.6 % of students in private schools gained the 11,500 three straight A’s they claim, then that gives us, by my calculations, 35,276 A level students in private schools – so that leaves 264,724 or so in the state sector.  A little bit more than just three times as many that the Tories claim.

That of course would make the paltry figure of 9,725  students with three A’s from the state sector even worse – but hang on – 9,725 isn’t 8.1% of 264,724 – it’s only 3.6%.  8.1% would represent 21,442.

But which is it ? Something’s wrong here isn’t it ?

Well maybe they’ve got their sums wrong again.

Look closely though, I suspect that may not be it  – they’re not really doing what I’m doing – I’m comparing independent sector with state sector. Isn’t that what they’re doing ? No – they’re (deliberately ?) creating confusion by saying “comprehensive” – which of course leaves out all manner of different types of state schools. It doesn’t include grammar schools and other selective schools (obviously not important to Conservatives !) – it doesn’t presumably involve Voluntary Aided & faith schools – it may not include Foundation Schools or Academies – Who is to say what it does include ? Not the Tories that’s for sure.

I wonder if those schools were included whether things would look rather different. Perhaps if they included FE  and Sixth Form Colleges as well they would. (Don’t forget also that the Government also ultimately have a responsibility for monitoring and maintaining standards in Independent schools)

So I’m not convinced by any of this “data”

Even if I were, I would point out that a commercial organisation commanding fees on the basis of a reputation for getting students to 3 straight A’s would be hardly like to select pupils who were unlikely to do so. State schools on the other hand tend to take the students they end up with – and are obliged to adopt an approach which states that “Every Child Matters” – that’s ALL of them – not just the straight A students, not just the ones with money, not just the ones who are likely to go to university. ALL of them.

So I don’t buy the Conservative idea of turning all state schools into private schools. Private schools achieve the success they do (and I could argue extensively about narrow definitions of educational achievement) because they provide only for a moneyed elite. In just the same way as Nicholas Winterton finds that he needs to avoid the different type of people travelling in standard class, parents sending their children to private schools find their oasis of privilege by paying for something which the other ‘type of people’ can not afford (or like me – choose not to).

By making all schools into independent schools, the advantage that independent schools now hold would vanish. It would however quickly be replaced by a hierarchy of provision with the richest people receiving the most prestigious education – and the poor receiving a provision based on the minimum cost to the government, rather than the maximum benefit to the pupil.

I call that a scandalously archaic approach to education in the 21st century – I will do everything I can to oppose that.

UPDATE Comment via twitter from Secretary of State for Children, schools & Families, Ed Balls (@EdBallsMP) You’re right – FE students deliberately excluded RT @northernheckler: my latest blog on Tories & private schools

So encouraging to get feedback from the man who is ultimately my  ‘boss’ in education, on the occasion of my 100th blog !! Thanks Ed !

February 21, 2010 Posted by | education, politics | , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Lamb Report – First reactions

(This article was first published on the Progress website on 17th December 2009 under the title “The government needs to take a more progressive approach in their provision for special educational needs”)
17 December 2009

Yesterday saw the release of the Report of the Lamb Inquiry into Special Educational Needs & Parental Confidence, from the team led by Brian Lamb; and was met with a speedy response from secretary of state Ed Balls outlining what had already been done in response to earlier interim submissions, announcing a number of new initiatives and promising a full implementation plan in the new year.

As head of a special school for children with Severe Learning Difficulties, Autism, and Profound and Multiple learning difficulties this report clearly is of interest to me and my school. This article sets out to describe my initial reactions to the report – please remember that I’m very much concentrating on special school provision – that’s what I do! Don’t forget though that most children with special educational needs will quite rightly be educated in mainstream schools – and the Lamb report’s recommendations are largely about those people as well as special school students.

So what do I think?

Well it seems fairly clear that this report is not – yet- any blue print for massive change in special needs provision in the way that the 1978 Warnock Report prepared the way for the special education system which by and large still stands today. It contains 51 recommendations for improving parental confidence and provision for special educational needs – all of which I’d say, reflect good practice and common sense rather than any radical change of direction. Which is of course in many ways what one would hope – I feel that the England & Wales education system, with respect to children with special educational needs, compares favourably with most other countries. I don’t think anyone would argue that it is perfect though.

The immediate responses that Ed Balls makes are similarly worthy – with headline actions of setting up of a parent helpline, a strengthening of parent partnership arrangements, and funding for the Local Government Ombudsman to take on parental complaints about special educational needs. I’m certain that all these measures, and the others that the secretary of state outlines constitute improvements, and that they are necessary – but they don’t fundamentally challenge the nature of the services that we have now.

To be fair to Mr Lamb, the report does examine ‘alternative national models’ of provision for special educational needs, paying particular emphasis on the system in place in Scotland. However I hope that the government will take a more progressive approach in their implementation plan for this report.

I’d like to see four things:

First let’s re-introduce specialist initial teacher training courses which allow teachers to train to teach children with special educational needs either exclusively or the majority of the time. Teachers in special schools, and special needs teachers in mainstream schools are at the moment generally mainstream teachers – and need a great deal of training to enable them to take on the complexities of special education. There are others – myself included – who trained specifically to teach children with, say, severe learning difficulties – and have never taught in a mainstream school. None of these courses have existed since the late 80s. It would be a relatively quick win to re-introduce them – and have the side effect of ensuring a continued academic base to generate new theory and research in special education.

Next, let’s sort out the Special Needs Tribunal system – clearly the report finds fault with it. It’s one of the most difficult processes a parent ever goes through; an adversarial legal process which pits beleaguered parents against the schools & authorities that are best placed to offer them help and advice. It’s a scary process for many parents, which could be replaced with a process which emphasises discussion, conciliation, and arbitration between families and local authorities – and where a legal judgement is required, it should be based on an inquisitorial model.

Thirdly the tensions within that system could be eased by moving financial responsibility for meeting ‘high cost’ special needs away from individual authorities and aggregating the costs across regions – or nationally – thus removing the strong financial disincentive for LA’s to make expensive out-borough placements. Such placements can see a hugely disproportionate percentage of local authority SEN budgets being spent on a tiny handful of students. This leaves LA officers in the difficult position of trying to meet pupil need, and parent demand, whilst knowing that certain provisions will take them way, way over budget.

Currently this is a ‘danger zone’ for the most difficult drawn-out cases – with often the most eloquent (and occasionally well off) parents succeeding in securing placements – when less learned parents whose children sometimes have a more valid claim to highly specialist placements, often miss out – I’d say this is particularly true for certain ethnic groups – in my own experience, Bangladeshi families in particular often get rolled-over by the frightening officialdom in Local Authorities.

By removing the financial difficulties for authorities and increasing the pressure to consult with parents it would seem likely that such placements could be made more soundly, based on need rather than financial considerations. This would also lead to an increase in the responsiveness of LA provision to parental views – and indirectly educate parents to the high degree of quality provided by community special schools and mainstream schools – many opinions are not currently based on a full evaluation. In this way I think we’d find a higher demand for Local Authority provision – and a decrease in demand for the more expensive independent sector provision.

Clearly this is an issue which specifically affects the special school end of the spectrum – but the principles for tribunals regarding statements as opposed to placements, which mainstream pupils are far more likely to encounter, are broadly the same.

Finally – in the longer term, and on a more radical note – I’d like to see the government looking at the way in which the independent and non-maintained sector provisions for special educational needs are funded and engaged by the state system. Currently the provisions are rather separate – and funding tends to be on a per pupil ‘bums on seats’ basis. It would make for a far more efficient and effective system if payment mechanisms could be on a ‘per service’ basis – with the independent schools and organisations effectively becoming third party providers within the state system – in a not dissimilar way to many health service provisions.

We are already paying these organisations to do this – but the education authorities have little direct influence over the provision made – it’s a case of just handing over the fees. This would of course pave the way for new modes of governance for both those schools and for existing state specialist provision – which should be explored. Co-operative trusts running special schools perhaps? An Academy for Learning Difficulties? These sound like fertile areas to explore.

The most special of ‘special needs’ are only met by imaginative solutions and lateral thinking. Often the straitjacket imposed by traditional school models actually impede our efforts. Many families for instance dread the long holiday in the summer – and children often regress during that time. We also spend huge amounts providing respite services many of which could be provided by schools with just a slight change in the terms of reference for those establishments.

So I’d urge the government not to think small when considering how to respond to the Lamb report, but to think big, and be imaginative. There really is a great deal to be achieved – if only we have the courage to do it.

[ In writing this (in response to a request for the reaction of a special school head) I’ve been frustrated by the difficulty in keeping the words down – and am aware that there are many aspects of the report (and my response) which may well be very unfamiliar to anyone not already involved in education and in particular special schools – I’d welcome comments on this issue – please let me know if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about ! ]

December 17, 2009 Posted by | education, politics | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Political Views, Private and State schools, and Facebook friends

Having read Hadleigh Roberts blog : Experiment: Private school and Political Views I thought I’d try the same thing out with my own Facebook friends.

That is to say I’m examining which of my Facebook friends own up to which political persuasions (evidenced by their Facebook info), and whether it has anything to do with whether they went to a state school or a private school.

Hadleigh Roberts found an overwhelming majority placed nothing in the field for politics. Whilst the majority of those who did put something described themselves as Conservatives (and most of them went to Independent schools).

Well I also looked at religion to see what cropped up – here’s what I found :

First of all we need to take some things into account.

  • I don’t really keep up to my account – I prefer twitter – many of my “friends” are actually relatives and friends of my children
  • Many of my “friends” are therefore under 18 (as friends of my children) – technically not allowed a Facebook account, and not allowed to vote – but interesting nonetheless.
  • An embarrassingly large number of my ‘friends’ are actually fictitious. Created by my daughter as a means of building up credit in some online game. However she found managing the lives of these people more interesting than the game and has created bizarred public school personas for each of them – however none are interested in religion or politics.

Here’s how the make up of my friends looks :


and without the youngsters :


Not many independent schoolers, especially among my kids’ friends – they’ve lost touch already with the ones who are at private schools – hence they’re not on their Facebook list.

And heres what they all think – first with respect to politics :


Well there’s only one blindingly obvious thing there – most people don’t give a stuff – or aren’t telling – Labour and Conservative neck and neck behind the Joke party (people who put supposedly funny comments).

It looks very slightly different taking the under 18s out :


Labour now get a slightly higher rating – and there’s clearly a left wing bias amongst those cat owners who expressed a preference – but more than 8 out of 10 didn’t. Hmm. Interesting also that there are at least 3 Labour party members in there that didn’t put down Labour as their politics. One also that is a well known Labour activist who didn’t either – but I put them down as Labour as their Facebook page is overwhelmingly dominated by Labour politics.

Next we come to religion :


and for the older age group :


and again it’s pretty much apathy rules again – which pleases me to a degree. I’m surprised that Christianity still holds up – especially when including the youngsters, and perhaps not so surprised that quite a few people think of religion as a joke – I included Pastafarians and several Jedi amongst the Joke category.

What does all this tell us then ?

Well sod all I guess – above all it tells us that people are more interested in Farmville than politics and religion, and I suppose that the corollary must be that the election campaign will be pretty much a lottery when it all boils down to it.

So draw your conclusions – in fact try it with your own Facebook friends, and see what you get !

December 13, 2009 Posted by | education, idle banter, politics | , , | 3 Comments

Are you smarter than a 16 year old ?

I loved this video of Ed Balls in parliament haranguing the opposition, and couldn’t resist sharing.

Courtesy of Sky News’s Cheryl Smith and brought to my attention by the man himself @EdBallsMP via Twitter.


(If you can’t see the video could you send a comment please ? – I’ve had trouble embedding in the past)

November 19, 2009 Posted by | education, politics | , , , | Leave a comment

More support for children with Special Educational Needs

I was pleased to see this press release Ed Balls: More support for children with Special Educational Needs from the DCSF which came to me via email from my local authority.

I’ve blogged before on the way that David Cameron seems be cornering the market in the Special Education field (David Cameron’s right to flag up provision for families with disabled children.) and how the Labour party don’t seem to be providing any responses to the suggestions he makes (Still no response to David Cameron on Autism, Disability) .

Ed Balls statement is a welcome reversal of this trend.  The part that caught my attention in particular (as Head of a school for children with severe, profound and multiple disabilities) was this :

To ensure pupils had the highest quality teaching in special schools, Ed Balls announced he was commissioning Toby Salt to lead an independent review into the supply of teachers trained to meet the needs of children with Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD) and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD). He also announced that the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) would be taking forward a £550,000 project to develop special schools as leaders in teaching and learning practice for children with the most complex learning difficulties, meeting a commitment in the 21st century schools system White Paper.

This is welcome news indeed. I wonder how many readers are aware of just how many “special school teachers” for children with learning difficulties have actually received any specialist training to teach children with learning difficulties prior to entering those schools ? Well to give you a clue, there have been no specialist initial teacher training courses since I graduated with a Bachelor of Education in 1989. Many special school teachers have received no award bearing training after qualification either.

(That isn’t all bad news actually – mainstream teachers bring a great deal to special schools – and the shift of emphasis from specialist training of teachers for special schools,  has helped facilitate some of the achievements in promoting inclusive practice in the education of children with special educational needs. Few people teaching in the field of Special Educational Needs would consider the situation ideal however)

It’s also clear to me as well that special schools – catering for the most severe disabilities  – far from being institutions which promote segregated education, are actually the organisations best placed to provide help, advice and support to colleagues across the spectrum of educational provision, to promote the education of children with special needs in all settings.

Although David Cameron does echo the opinions of many parents in prioritising special schools over mainstream provision for children with special educational needs – he perhaps forgets that the overwhelming majority of children with special educational needs are – and should be – educated in mainstream schools. He is right to emphasise the importance of special schools though in meeting the needs of those with the most severe and complex needs – but does not I feel go far enough to recognise the key role of that special schools, and specialist teachers can play as centres of excellence, spreading good practice, and helping to ensure that the rest of the educational system is better equipped to meet all children’s needs in their own schools.

I’m hopeful that the SSAT project which Ed Balls announces in this release will be a move towards doing just that.

The two initiatives will certainly be led by people recognisable to education professionals – Toby Salt has worked extensively with the National College for School Leadership, and Professor Barry Carpenter is arguably the best known practitioner in Special Education in the UK today. He is known, liked and respected by many in the profession – including myself.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Ed Balls is in a very different position to David Cameron when it comes to making pronouncements about the future of  education. David Cameron can effectively shoot whatever pitch he likes in order to garner public support and votes.  He may or may not get a chance to implement what he says. He may or may not choose to. Whether he’ll have the funding to do so is also a matter of some conjecture as well.

Mr Balls on the other hand is the incumbent secretary of state. If he makes promises, he’s obliged to carry them out. Yet clearly he may not be in a position to do so – it’s unlikely that any changes requiring government legislation can be implemented before the election – an election which could be lost. Neither can he make rash promises though – it’s an election which could also be won !

So I’m satisfied for the moment with the promises made in this press release, but hope to see the issues surrounding the education of children with special needs, and with disabilities taking a higher priority as we move towards the election. I’m sure David Cameron will do that, but whilst I respect his position regarding these issues, I don’t feel that his party does, and would expect that this would be fertile vote winning ground for the more compassionate, and thoughtful Labour Party.

Only time will tell !

October 4, 2009 Posted by | Disability, education, politics | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Safe & Secure

Headteachers are always REALLY busy right ?

So how am I getting time to blog in the middle of the day ?

Well I shouldn’t have. Today I’ve been catching up with stuff that’s been building up for a while (no change there), and decided that it would be a good idea to visit the OFSTED website to do some updating on our School Self Evaluation Form – or SEF as it’s known to those of us in the trade. For the uninitiated, the SEF is the single most important form that schools ever complete – the quality of the information put in this form to a large extent determines the outcome of the school’s OFSTED inspection.

I have a problem though – we’ve had a new server installed, and my browser’s forgotten my password. No problem it’s on a sticker my wall (digest that snippet – I’ll come back to it).

Yes problem – my wall’s been redecorated. Foiled again. So I ring the enquiries number at OFSTED, and am connected almost instantly with a polite young man who asks me my school’s OFSTED number. I’m prepared and quickly trot out – my school’s DCSF number – wrong !  It’s not that, but he can probably find it from the school name and that number, and taps industriously at a keyboard in the background.

“Oh, I say – is that the number that is our user name ?” (We’re not allowed real “names” as user names – we have nice easy to remember six figure numbers. Which actually I can remember, and relate to the polite young man.

After a few seconds more industrious tapping, the polite young man informs me that I’m correct. That is my username, and my OFSTED Unit reference number.

A brief uneasy silence.

“Well can you email me my password  ?”

“Well you’ll need to email the ‘enquiries’ team  to request it”

“Why ? Can’t you send it to me ?”    “No – I don’t have access to confidential passwords”

“Can you connect me with someone who does ?”   “No – passwords can only be sent out in response to an email”

This does make me wonder why he bothered checking my Unit Reference number on the computer, but I say nothing.

He continues “It’s a security process to make sure no one has access to the sensitive data on your SEF”

Data which is so sensitive that every member of staff has a copy, and the Governing Body, and other key stakeholders in the local authority. That is – it’s not that sensitive really.

Bear in mind also that I’m not asking for him to tell me the password. I’m asking him to email it to the headteacher of the school (me) at the registered address (which is in the standard  format that most UK schools adopt).

Nothing doing, so I go off to send my email, and await my password, which will be a random selection of upper and lower case letters, deliberately made difficult to remember. This is to make it secure – so that no one else can log in on my account. So secure that the only way I can remember it is to write it down, and put it on a Post It somewhere where I’ll remember to look. So no one else could possibly discover it.

Unless they looked on my office wall.

Somewhat frustrated I send my mail, then pop in to our general office. I find our Admin Officer on the phone to the Doctors Surgery. We have a problem. One of our pupils, a patient at the surgery has been taken to hospital and we can’t contact his parents. The hospital need to know medication details. Our Admin officer explains the case, and that we are aware of confidentiality issues – but would there be any way in which the young person’s GP could contact the hospital to discuss his medication.

“Oh no he’s too busy – tell you what I’ll just fax the details across !”  And so she does. Doesn’t ask which school we are. Doesn’t ask for any ID or perform any kind of ring back or authentication procedure. Certainly doesn’t ask for a Unit Reference number or a password. Just faxes the confidential medical data of one of our pupils to the school.

I return to my office, and check my email. There’s no reply from OFSTED. I’m not going to be able to do anything on our SEF today.

I decide to have a lunch break instead. And do a blog.

Is it just me ?

September 25, 2009 Posted by | education, idle banter | , , | Leave a comment

Cuts for Schools ?

I was suprised this morning to read of Ed Balls interview with the Sunday Times  Labour’s £2bn cuts for schools in which he apparently calls for around £2bn worth of cuts to the education system, arrived at by – amongst other things, reducing the senior leadership teams of schools, and also making savings by bringing schools together in “Federations” where they would have one head overseeing many schools.

He doesn’t seem to be saying quite the same thing on his web site where he publishes a transcript of a later interview televised on the BBC’s The Politics Show Transcript of interview on The Politics Show . It’s interesting that the BBC in it’s version of the two interviews seems to rely rather more on the edited account of the Time’s interview, than it does on the interview it carried out itself :  ‘Labour ‘could save schools £2bn’ . Perhaps because Ed Balls did say in the BBC interview “I think it’s really important to have a head in every school, that’s my view”, and also (in relation to federation of schools) “I’m not saying  … I’m going to impose from the top down you must do this” – which sort of takes the sting out of it.

He did more than hint though at making savings through a reduction in Senior Managers, and that this could be partly achieved by encouraging Federations of schools.

So what it’s it all about ?

Well I may be a headteacher, but I don’t really know. Ed Balls is not a foolish man, and must have been aware that this would be reported, pretty much in the way it has been – a way in which at first glance few people working in the field of education would immediately clap their hands with glee.

I do know a few things though. I know that forming federations at the moment is a matter which is done at the discretion purely of the Governing Bodies of the schools involved. So it would involve either primary legislation, or an unprecedented co-ordination of Local Authority arm-bending to make sure federations happen in any large numbers.

Not that they don’t happen. In fact one of the reasons why federations do crop up is that many schools find it difficult to recruit suitable headteachers, and quite often end up seconding a head from a nearby school to oversee another one – this has in some cases led to “executive heads” being appointed across several schools. I couldn’t comment on whether it saves money – you’d need to do the sums in a real situation. However,I can’t imagine it would save much. Having an executive head often means having individual heads as well – or at least having ‘super deputies’ paid a similar salary to a head. Once you lose the sitting candidates (who are often the first post holders for “super deputy” jobs) these can be difficult posts to fill. In many ways all the responsibilities of a head (some of them legal responsibilities) – but without autonomy and individual influence on the school that a true headship brings. No head who has enjoyed being a head would ever want to go back to “running someone elses show”.

What I seem to be sensing from Ed Ball’s comments is a hint towards further Government commitment to ways of ‘radicalising’ schools – in current parlance this of course means academies, trust schools, specialist school and federations of schools – all of which have met to some extent with criticism from teachers unions.

I’m not particularly opposed to them though. Here’s why –

Since the Conservatives took power in 1979, and particularly since the Education Reform Act of 1989 there’s been a move towards schools having greater and greater independence in managing their own affairs. The role of a Headteacher has changed dramatically – and is now a multi-faceted business leadership role – but one which requires experience and expertise in education first and foremost as a qualification for the post. There are things that crop up in Headteachers woking lives then that are way outside their realm of experience – and many is the time when I would dearly love to employ – (for example) – an accountant, a computer engineer, an architect, a builder, a fund raiser, another 4 secretaries – I could go on. Why – because they would help me to do the things that I either don’t have time for, or am simply not particularly good at.

Of course I am at liberty to employ those people if I wish – so what stops me ? Two things ! –  first of all it’s very difficult to move from the structure of schools which is well established – it’s hard to think radical, because everything’s set up to keep things the same. Secondly – I’m too small. I can’t afford to do those things.

Now – supposing I was part of a group of 5 schools. Then we might be able to appoint some people who could help us to be more efficient. Suppose that we had more freedom to employ people in roles other than the traditional ones – dare I say it – as an Academy ? Then we could think radical – we could stop trying to do all the same old things better, and start doing new things better. We could forge partnerships with Universities, we could place our teachers on research programmes, sponsored by the people who sponsor university research. We could …  well we could do all sorts really.

This is what I think Ed Balls is after, and I’m not especially disagreeing (I could pick a few holes though). There are plenty who would though – the NUT for one union (and I’m a member) would throw a real wobbly for sure. So I think the Secretary of State is measuring his words, knowing that anything in the press that smacks of a slap in the face for the relatively highly paid will go down well in at least some circles, and knowing that there’ll be time enough to present a radical agenda at some time in the future.

Well that’s my guess anyway.

September 20, 2009 Posted by | education, politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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