What’s not to like?

When this question is asked by a politician, an unsolicited social media post, or someone selling you something, it is always wise to think about it very carefully. Here are some examples with answers in italics.

Selling council houses to their tenants at huge discounts.

Loss of public housing stock leading to unaffordable rents and no security of tenure.

Record levels of employment.

But also record levels of in-work family poverty.

Record numbers of children in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools.

But are these schools really good at anything other than attracting the bright children of affluent parents and keeping less able and Special Needs kids out?

Taking back control of our national affairs from the European Union.

That didn’t go so well did it?

Here is an ‘educational success’ story from our local newspaper with a quote in italics.

Latest data from the Market Intelligence Data Exchange Service shows Furness College is in the top 15 per cent of further education colleges nationally for GCSEs in English and maths. Almost 40 per cent of learners at the college achieve higher grades in maths – exceeding the national average of 17 per cent – while English pass rates are at 45 per cent, bucking the national trend of 26 per cent. Principal and chief executive Andrew Wren said: “The improvements that have been made have helped far more students to achieve the higher grades in English and maths, which they need to progress”. “More than 80 per cent of our students at the Channelside campus do not have English and/or Maths GCSE grade 4 or more when they join us. “The fact that so many go on to secure the all-important subjects is a testament to the quality of teaching here and our experienced team who are relentlessly focused on helping students achieve.”

What’s not to like?

In 1989, when I was interviewed for the headship of a Barrow secondary school, this took place at Barrow-in-Furness College of Further Education, which was then funded and regulated by Cumbria County Council. However, this was not to last. See this celebratory article from the April 2013 edition of ‘FE Week’.

Twenty years ago radical change took place as colleges were freed from local authority control. The revolution had started five years earlier when the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced market forces into state schools. After the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 and the resultant Incorporation the following year, however, colleges rapidly overtook schools and could now teach them a lesson or two — no wonder [Labour] government officials were imploring college leaders to sponsor a new generation of academies at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in Birmingham last November.

In fact Furness College, as it is now called, was much faster off the mark than that, taking the lead sponsor role in a major Academisation re-organisation resulting in the closure of three secondary schools in Barrow-in-Furness and the transfer of their 2,500 pupils to other schools and the new Furness Academy. That this was not a success is a massive understatement. The town is yet to recover.

Of the four remaining Barrow secondary schools the 2018 top performer at Grade 5+ in English and maths with 46% was the only remaining non-Academy school. The other (all Academy) schools came in at 41%, 28% with Furness Academy (the new school sponsored by Furness College) lowest at 26%. And this a full nine years after its opening in 2009.

Thorncliffe and Parkview schools, with catchments serving the most affluent and highest Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) scores postcodes of Barrow, were closed as part of the Academy plan and their sites sold for executive private housing. However their former catchment parents have largely rejected the Academy such that hundreds of Barrow pupils now travel every day by bus or train to the highly regarded LA schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston, forcing Furness Academy to recruit from the lower CATs score postcodes of Barrow.

After repeated OfSTED failure Furness College was removed from sponsorship by the DfE in 2015 to be replaced by nuclear submarine manufacturer BAE Systems. This is how it was reported by ‘Schools Week’.

BAE Systems – Europe’s biggest arms company, turning over £15.4bn last year – is set to take over Furness Academy in Barrow, Cumbria, in September. It has set up a trust to run the school under its submarine-building arm, which is based in the town. The company will build new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, should the UK’s Trident programme get the go-ahead next year. BAE Systems Marine Submarines Academy Trust will be tasked with turning around the troubled school that has been in special measures since March 2012. Despite a subsequent Ofsted inspection in May 2013 and five monitoring visits, inspectors say it is still not improving enough. Tony Johns, the managing director of BAE Systems Submarines, said in a statement: “We have for a long time supported local education at primary, secondary and college level, and see this positive step as an extension to our commitment in helping Furness Academy provide its students with the best possible education.”

I couldn’t find data on 2018 Grade 4+ pass rates in Barrow but, given that 80% of its students do not have these qualifications on entry, it seems to suggest that the involvement of Furness College in the Barrow secondary education system since 2009 has been successful in ensuring plenty of business for its 16+ English and maths GCSE re-take courses. Loath as I am to provide excuses for the failed Academisation of the town’s education system, this is not entirely fair. Local Labour councillors didn’t like the poorer, Labour voting, parts of the town being ‘stigmatised’ by the Cumbria wide CATs testing policy, so it was withdrawn, so removing the key valid evidence that the alleged GCSE ‘under-performance’ was actually consistent with the very low catchment CATs scores, which were and remain the real, unaddressed educational issue.

This is the ‘attainment gap’ fallacy described here and in subsequent articles informed by evidence obtained by my colleague John Mountford.

But what’s not to like about the success achieved by Furness College in halving the proportion of its students without a ‘good’ GCSE grade in English and maths?

But is GCSE Grade 4  ‘a good grade’ in any meaningful sense as a sound foundation for credible BSc degree courses in Nursing and Midwifery, or any other science-based profession? Let us turn the clock back fifty years to the 1960s when nursing and midwifery were not ‘graduate entry’ professions. State Registered Nurse (SRN) was the equivalent of today’s  Registered Nurse status. Entry to SRN training was in non-university training institutions requiring five or more GCE passes at grade C or above. In those days only grammar school pupils that had passed the 11 plus exam took GCE exams. The 11 plus was and remains a Cognitive Ability test passed by the top 20-25% of the local population depending on the number of grammar school places in the Local Education Authority area. Given that not all grammar school pupils achieved five or more GCEs at C grade or above, SRN training then drew from at most the top 20% of the population.

I am not an expert on nursing and midwifery training and I have no doubt that massive changes for the better have taken place since the 1960s. However, the arguments about ‘graduate training’ remain and are set out in this article.

When the GCSE was created in 1988, grade C was the third tier down on the seven point A – G pass scale. The date is significant as the 1988 Education Reform Act marked the creation of the artificially devised and imposed marketisation of the English education system, which has resulted in extreme grade inflation as the privatised exam boards have competed with each other to offer ‘accessible’ GCSE syllabuses to schools that have been forced to compete and be judged by OfSTED on the basis of their %5+ A*-C including English and maths GCSE performance.

The current Grade 4 is the sixth tier down on a nine point scale and is now the ‘expected minimum’ attainment for the whole school population incorporated into the seriously flawed ‘Progress 8’ measure.

Of even more concern is the widespread ‘success’ that schools have achieved in hitting the key high stakes ‘good GCSE’ Grade C (now Grade 4) threshold. A well-established ‘formula’ for such ‘success’ is to only teach the easiest topics on the syllabus needed to exceed the (low) Grade C raw mark threshold, concentrating on these through intense regimes of rote learning, repetition, revision and cramming. This is a major factor in the continuing decline in the uptake of A Levels in maths and the STEM subjects for which maths understanding is the essential foundation.

So while the success of Furness College in getting its 16+ students over the GCSE Grade 4 hurdles in English and maths may be good for Furness College, for filling places on University of Cumbria degree courses and (possibly) for the students themselves, the ‘What’s not to like’ list is rather long.

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