Posts Tagged schools

Printers for schools promotion

Lexmark are offering 100 all-in-one inkjets to schools. Unlike some school promotions, this one does not involve buying lots of soap powder or collecting vouchers, you just need to nominate your chosen school online.

I’ve nominated St Andrew’s Barnsbury where I’m a governor (in fact have been for over 12 years now). In my time at the school we’ve gone from poor to outstanding, thanks to our wonderful former headteacher Michelle Thomas. We’re now about to welcome Dionne Shears as our new head starting in January. So I hope we win one of the printers for her!

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Islington’s Obama aftermath

How much more damning can it be that it takes an American politician to find something so positive and inspiring in a school shunned by its own MP?

That’s the conclusion of a thoughtful piece in the Observer about what Michelle Obama’s visit tells us about the First Lady and about schools like EGA.

I was a governor at EGA for four years, chairing the Finance Committee, and helping appoint the fantastic Head, Jo Dibb. I have always been proud of the school and its bright and beautiful young women. It’s full name – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College – may sound like the sort of place that brings Italian teenagers to Brighton to learn English, but no, it’s the local girls’ comprehensive. As the Observer reports, “its pupils, of whom 20% are the children of refugees or asylum seekers, speak a total of 55 different languages and 92% of whom are from a black or minority background.”

EGA’s part of an innovative e-learning project with other schools in the Kings Cross area. Its annual language festival – where the girls teach each other new languages – is an inspiring event. On my school visits, I was always impressed: the level of teaching, the behaviour of students as good as anything at my old school. The facilities have improved dramatically too. There is new school library, language labs and tennis courts, even before the hoped-for rebuild. Ofsted graded it excellent and now outstanding.

Just last week I spoke to one of my constituents on the neighbouring Barnsbury estate; he was anxious about how his oldest daughter was going to find EGA when she starts there this autumn. Don’t worry, I said, it’s a great school. By now he’ll know the First Lady agrees.

It’s entirely right for parents to want the best for their children. But as Ofsted confirms, EGA is giving the best of educations to its young women. So why are local Labour politicos, including Emily Thornberry, so reluctant to send their own daughters there? I suspect it’s the old elephant in the corner of the English education system: not standards but social class.

Thank God for Michelle Obama, who is, to quote James Kempton, “probably the greatest black female role model today”, seeing the best in EGA: not rough, just diamonds.

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My lunch date with Michelle Obama

If you’d asked me what I planned to do yesterday, lunch with Michelle Obama wouldn’t have been on the menu…

I was working from home, and my only plans for lunch hour were to do a bit of tidying up. Then about noon I got a phone call from a friend, followed by a couple of frantic texts: Michelle Obama was coming to visit EGA, the outstanding girls’ secondary where I used to be a governor.

Outstanding, but not privileged. The millionaire’s row of Richmond Crescent (home to MPs Emily Thornberry and Margaret Hodge and former home of the Blairs) may only be a stone’s throw away. But they don’t send their daughters to EGA. More fool them! It’s a fantastic school, and I can’t think of a better place for Michelle Obama to come and inspire young women – and be inspired by them.

Official guests (including Council leader James Kempton) were invited for 1.30pm. Lucy Watt & I agreed to meet up in our lunch hour and join the fans outside, along with other friends working locally.

It was gloriously warm and sunny as we joined an excited group outside the school entrance near Chapel Market. Twenty girls from each year group, plus the school choir, were inside with the VIPs. The rest had the day off, but so many had stayed on to get a glimpse of MO.

There were journalists mingling with the crowds, including correspondents from the Mail and the Mirror (only a pool media team were allowed inside). They were interviewing some of the girls about Michelle as a role model. (As the Mail later reported, she wowed the girls inside too).
More and more photographers materialised, stacked up on ladders opposite the school. Rita Chakrabati arrived with a camera crew.

The police produced barriers and penned us in, but the spirit was friendly, not confrontational. I chatted to my neighbours in the crowd: a black woman lawyer, and an award-winning graphic designer: very Islington! By this stage no-one was coming in or out. The postman came along with a bag of mail and was politely rebuffed. One of the Labour councillors tried flashing a Town Hall badge to some friendly jeering from the EGA girls. It would take more than that to get inside this event….

We waited and waited. Then suddenly more police materialised, and there came the convoy along Barnsbury Road, motor bikes with blue lights, half a dozen limos, and in the middle the big black Obama-mobile: probably the first and last time you’ll get Islington progressives cheering an SUV. A glimpse of blue, a smile, a wave, and she had swept past into the school.

And minutes later I was hurrying back to work, a sandwich at my keyboard, taking a bit of Obama sunshine with me.

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Harrogate day 2: keeping the faith

Saturday was the day for the schools debate and the controversial topic of faith schools. The daily announcements showed 3 different amendments on faith schools. I put in a card to speak – so had everyone else.

But that was for the afternoon. First I went to hear Simon Hughes on the fight for fairer fuel bills. Then according to my reminders, it was Lorely Burt launching the small business survey on level 4 of the conference centre. Except in my text, she’s Lordly Bust. And level 4 turned out to be on the ground floor. Strange are the ways of conference.

Then it was over to the Holiday Inn with our Euro candidates, to meet up with Vince Cable. Anyone who says Lib Dems don’t do religion should see the queue for Vince.

Then back to the main hall for another cult figure, Howard Dean. Ed Davey reminded us of Howard’s early opposition on Iraq, and his breakthrough use of the internet in campaigning. Every speaker seems to reference Obama this conference, but Howard is entitled. He made the point that Obama deliberately reached out to groups like evangelical Christians on issues of common interest: poverty, climate change, Darfur. And that nothing beats repeated face-to-face contact.

In search of the same, I trotted across town to make it to the candidates’ meeting with Governor Dean (venue turned out to be called the William and Victoria. And there was me asking for the William and Mary). Governor Dean developed his theme of no no-go areas: and he urged us to fill the void left by a failing Labour party, as we filled our void with some lunch.

Back to the hall for Chancellor Vince. And then it was the schools debate. Our schools policy proposes radical action – freeing schools from Whitehall control, cutting class sizes, extra money for the poorest with the pupil premium – which will transform schools and reactivate social mobility. So far so good. But how do we handle faith schools? Often our conference debates are interesting but rarely a genuine conflict. This time there was a real decision to make.

The motion proposed requiring faith schools to phase out any selection by faith within five years. That wasn’t enough for the secularists who wanted no faith schools but too much for others who found it offensive to their Lib Dem faith of localism. Why would we pass a policy that decentralises all education decision making except admissions policy for some schools? And then imposes a single option that local communities might not want. Would a faith school with no members of that faith community within its walls in either staff or pupils be more than a soulless logo? As Jonathan Davies argued, I do not want to impose my faith on you, but do not impose your secularism on me.

We had many Islington voices in the debate. James Kempton proposed the policy, with Farhana Hoque in support (she pointed out that as a Muslim girl in a Catholic school, she had ended up an atheist: so much for the brainwashing power of faith schools). Arnie Gibbons spoke for the secularists, Meral Ece for those who value the faith element in schools. After a nail-biting counted vote – literally too close to call – the amendment allowing councils to decide was passed. I’m happy with that: the real enemy of equity in our schools not faith, but class.

Social mobility has gone into reverse under Labour. And I’m proud that our party is doing something to change that.

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The transforming power of education

Last night we had an inspiring evening debating education and social exclusion.

The other week, my parents reminded me that my first ever political demo was against education cuts – in my pushchair! As the daughter and sister-in-law of teachers; a school governor; a former youth worker; and a scholarship girl at university, I am steeped in a commitment to the transforming power of education and the importance of seeking excellence for all pupils.

But as I’m a Lib Dem you’d expect that. What was special about last night was debating the issues with our guest speaker, Stephen Williams MP. Stephen is not only part of our Education team in Parliament, he embodies what we are campaigning for. Stephen told us of his background: a kid getting free school meals, the son of a road worker and a dinner lady, who became the first in his family to get to university – and now an MP.

And unlike the Labour MPs – who broke Blair’s tainted promise and pulled up the ladder of achievement that helped them, by introducing tuition fees – Stephen and the Lib Dems are still looking at ways to extend opportunity. Like the pupil premium, and cutting class sizes (launched in Islington!) to give the poorest infants the same pupil-teacher ratios as prep schools. And like the truly radical proposals on parental leave.

With the sad death of Ivan Cameron, parents in politics are in the news for tragic reasons. I now believe that the big divide in politics is less between men and women (although it’s still there) and more between people who have caring responsibilities (usually women) and those without.

I’m so proud that Lib Dems have serious plans to address these equity issues and to power up the transforming effect of education. This is just what communities like Islington need.

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More on Lib Dems’ education plans

More coverage of the Lib Dem schools’ policy – launched in Islington – in the Guardian, and the Indy.

At the heart of the plans is cutting primary school class sizes to just 15, to give state school infants the same good start as their peers in private schools: as the Indy points out, a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the gap in class sizes between state and private schools was larger in the UK – at 13 pupils per class – than anywhere else in the world. Internationally, the difference on average is between one and two pupils per class.

Setting low minimum class sizes would particularly benefit boroughs with a high turnover, like Islington. As a school governor myself, I know how the official number of pupils – recorded each January and on which school funding depends – varies dramatically from term to term. A lower number of pupils to start with means schools could handle an influx of pupils mid year much better.

Investing in schools isn’t just about improving education, important though that is. It’s crucial for children’s life chances and those of their whole family. Social class still dictates the education you’ll have and the life you’ll lead, not your intelligence or commitment. That’s wrong, and it’s Labour’s shame that it’s still the case.

I’m proud that my party is proposing something that will really change it.

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Nick visits Islington to launch schools policy

An exciting day yesterday as I spent my lunch hour welcoming party leader Nick Clegg and David Laws MP to Islington, to unveil the party’s new schools policy.

Council leader James Kempton chaired the group that produced the proposals, so it was great to have the launch in our borough. You can watch a section on the BBC Six O’Clock news here – it is about 20 minutes into the programme.

We toured New North Community School, hearing from pupils and teachers the difference that high levels of staff attention can make for all children; appropriate as reinvesting the money squandered on Gordon Brown’s baby bonds to cut primary school class sizes is at the heart of the proposals.

Mind you, it nearly didn’t happen. At the start of the week, with snow blocking the streets and local schools closed, hosting a VIP visit was the last thing on everyone’s mind. But by Thursday, New North was open and the unflappable head Mary McStay was delighted to welcome us to her school.

It’s an amazing place; a transforming school (the children’s performance scores have doubled in the time there), winner of the London Schools Environment Award, and with a strong civic sense. School governor Barbara Smith showed the photos from the school election. The children are fired up about democracy and looking forward to visiting Westminster this month (‘that’ll put them off’ said Nick drily).

New North is full of unexpected delights from the minature orchard to the roof garden to the Tracy Emin quilt.

And it’s as much a community centre as a school; there’s a children’s centre next door, plus New North run groups for parents, sewing groups for Somali women, parent and child maths lessons in Turkish, an outreach project on the Packington estate.

It was a really heartwarming visit on a cold day.

Talking of the cold, Nick also launched my fairer fuel bills petition (you can sign up here). Nick used his first ever Prime Minister’s Question Time to press Gordon Brown on the injustice of the poorest paying more for their fuel; and it’s great pleasure to have his backing on this campaign.

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“Social mobility a dead duck” in Islington?

A thoughtful piece by Nick Cohen in the Evening Standard.

He talks of the need to “challenge a school system that goes out of its way to stop bright children from modest backgrounds enjoying the advantages of the children of the professional classes.”

That’s the thinking behind the pupil premium advocated by David Laws MP on his visit to Islington before Christmas. Giving extra money to schools taking poorer pupils to bring them closer to private school funding levels would meet Cohen’s challenge, without the divisive impact of the old grammar/secondary modern divide.

It’s impossible to stop middle-class parents – Labour MPs included – working the system. Every parent will want to do the best for their kids, after all. But the genius of the pupil premium idea is that money doesn’t just follow the pupil, but the most impoverished ones, irrespective of what their richer neighbours do.

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EGA does it again

Congratulations to EGA for an outstanding Ofsted report.

More evidence that you don’t need to be an Academy to be a great school.

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Do Academies make a difference?

Congratulations to Jo Dibb and all at EGA (where I used to be a governor) on their GCSE results: 55% of pupils have got 5 or more passes at A to C, up from last year.

Across Islington, there are improved exam results this year. For the first time, all the secondaries got at least 50% of pupils achieving 5 or more passes at A to C. And overall they are up by 7% to 56%, while the national improvement rate is 2.4%. Good news given that Islington’s best-connected parents still tend to send their kids out of the borough (our local Labour MP and her former neighbours the Blairs included).

Meanwhile, according to the Sunday Times, Lord Adonis, (Islington resident and unrepentant Blairite), is calling for a massive expansion of the Academies programme. Islington has one academy up and running (St Mary Magdalene) and another about to open at Islington Green (currently 50% on GCSE performance).

Under Blair it was made very clear to councils that Academies were an offer they couldn’t refuse. Now it looks as if that will continue under Brown.

But hang on a moment. EGA’s not an academy. With 65% on the GCSE scale, Central Foundation boys school has outperformed the national average; but it’s not an Academy either. Nor is City & Islington Sixth Form College, which continues to get stunning results at A level. So do Academies really make a difference?

Islington has worked hard to manage the Government-imposed academy approach. Instead of mad millionaires, the sponsors are known quantities – the CofE for St Mary Mags and the City Corporation plus City Uni for Islington Green. St Mary Mags is a new school, its pupils too young to be sitting GCSEs yet. But it has made a difference in one respect; having a 10th secondary in the borough has made more places available at other schools. One mum of five is delighted that her youngest daughter has now got into the popular Highbury Fields school, something her older sisters never had the chance to do.

Schools will always do better -academies or not – if they can cherry-pick the best pupils or benefit from the high base of a well-educated, well-funded community.

What about inner city Islington? The End Child Poverty campaign makes the point that poverty is no excuse for poor performance. What makes a good school is having motivated staff, pupils and parents; a good quality school environment and teaching resources; and an ethos that’s about learning and achievement for all.

Academies have new buildings, staff and pupils who’ve chosen to be there, and extra money – so no surprise if they outperform schools in shabbier surroundings with a captive catchment. Attitude is as important as money, but that doesn’t necessarily come from the Academy model. Especially since the Building Schools for the Future programme means secondaries don’t have to become academies to get better buildings.

If the Government really believes its own rhetoric on localism, and believes that local communities should have choices around schools, that must include the choice to reject the Academy model. Schools and LEAs should be left alone to concentrate on continuing to deliver improvements for local chidren and families – as they are doing in Islington.

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