Friday, 20 February 2009

Online Parental Engagement

This is a specific DCSF target for schools. Secondary schools are required to report the following information online: attendance, behaviour, progress, attainment and special needs. This needs to be in place by September 2010 (2012 for primaries). It is easy when responding to a national dictat like this to focus on meeting the requirement, without thinking more broadly about what it is intended to achieve. The goal of this process is to create an effective and helpful conversation with parents about their child's learning. The conversation shouldn't be one-sided and it should help both sides tailor what they do to support the development of the child as a learner.

With the schools I work with it seemed that we needed to take a couple of steps backwards and look at the whole communication strategy the school employs. In fact it turned out that the schools had never considered communication with parents in this wider sense before. I've just been supporting this by creating a survey that they have used to ask their parents about how and what they want communicated.

The answers the parents gave were in the end not very clear cut. One said "The preferred method of communication would differ in different circumstances. For general purposes I would prefer letter format, but for emergencies, such as illness I would prefer a telephone call." Letter was still (marginally) the preferred method of communication. But I think the point made by this parent probably means another survey of views with a little more sophisticated questioning needs to happen.

The preference for letters might also mean that parents were thinking about messages and not communication in general.

Once a better picture has emerged I think the schools should then be thinking about how the web based communication fits into that bigger landscape. I'll post further developments with this as they arise.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

NAO Report on BSF

You sit around waiting for analysis of BSF for months on end, and then all of a sudden three reports come along in quick succession.

This one is from the National Audit Office and can be downloaded from here. The NAO is concerned with value for money and effective use of money. This is not a report about the learning and teaching in BSF schools. Nevertheless it is worth a look if you have an interest in BSF, at least read the executive summary (only 10 sides).

The opening sections explain the byzantine funding arrangements. They are baffling.

The report contains a number of very instructive graphics, diagrams explaining the funding arrangements, number of new schools built against the targets and so on, and I've tried to copy some into here but without success. If you want the pleasure of these you'll have to look at the original report.

The substance of the report is about value for money and here the NAO are equivocal. They explain that 'projects have been slow to provide data, and PfS has not yet collected enough on their whole life costs to enable us to come to a firm judgement on the projects’ overall value for money. There is also limited data on schools procured through other routes to provide ready benchmarks of all aspects of their costs.' (p24) The report does find that Academies were significantly more expensive to build than BSF schools, BSF £1,850 per square metre average costs compared to £2,240 per square metre for Academies before the programme was integrated into BSF.
'There is no statistical difference between the average price of BSF schools and PFI schools built before BSF was launched. The prices of schools procured through other routes are not collected centrally.' (p24)

The report also finds some benefits from the use of the LEP as well as some shortcomings. The report echoes the findings of PWC when it says 'BSF requires significant time commitment from school leaders, who told us that it creates considerable pressure on their ability to carry out their other duties. Some Local Authorities provide their schools with additional resources to plan and procure BSF, including to cover teaching while leaders (Governors, Heads, Deputies, and other senior staff) commit time to BSF.' But 'School leaders in our focus groups told us they often felt left to manage alone.' (p27) This is unacceptable. I also wondered about the observation, 'The best design of each individual school developed by bidders during the procurement process does not always win, because: the Local Authority scores bids on a variety of factors of which design counts for only 18 per cent...' I understand that LAs can't make a choice solely on design quality, companies selected must have the capacity and the experience necessary to be successful. Yet 18% seems very low.

It is very interesting that the views of LAs and private sector partners differ significantly when asked about if the LEP is a good approach to renewing school estate and equipping it to be capable of improving educational outcomes. It is hard to say exactly as the figures are not given but around 65% of the private sector partners thought that the LEP was either 'effective' or 'highly effective and worthwhile'. Only about 28% of LAs were of the same opinion. Quite why these opinions differed so widely I couldn't explain. The report does not even note this variation. I would be very keen to hear from anyone involved who thought they could explain this.

There is positive judgement about PfS in the report. But the NAO does note that PfS performance targets are all about timeliness and not quality and an implication that this isn't helpful to the main task at hand.

The report includes detailed case studies from Manchester, Bristol, Kent, Lewisham, Solihull, Lancashire and Ealing. There is a great deal of informative material in these and I'd cover this if I had the time. Again I recommend the report to you, but don't go there looking for answers to questions of educational quality.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Building Schools for the Future and Futurelab

Futurelab have just released a document called 'Transforming Schools for the Future?'. Download it from here. Four contributors have written short essays designed to stimulate thinking around the BSF process. Tim Rudd (Senior Researcher at Futurelab) argues that BSF will be more effective at changing learning for the better if young people are given a genuine voice in designing these new schools. His argument is very compelling. Tim recognises that personalisation if it has any meaning must imply student choices and empowerment. So, he argues, BSF should embrace learner empowerment. I find this an attractive proposition. I am a great believer in the idea that the means make the ends. The argument would be stronger if it was not based solely on logic. Unfortunately he doesn't refer the reader to any examples of this working in practice.
Nick Page is next and makes some similarly straightforward proposals to improve BSF. He wants greater preparatory work with schools. He wants more testing and experimenting before schools begin. I particularly appreciate his reference to City Learnining Centres (p 11) as good places to do the experimenting. He says 'Every project should have a link university who can help provide the research methodologies and support'. I'm sure most observers would say these are very sensible ideas. His focus on the human process of thinking through the whole thing makes a lot of sense. It made me think about the PWC report I wrote about a few weeks ago - visible here. Lack of funding to schools to help them prepare is highlighted in the report.
Rosemary Luckin, (Professor of Learner Centered Design, London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education) has, in my opinion, some of the most interesting reflections.
'Teachers have a vitally important role in the realisation of the transformative power of technology, but this role is continually evolving and teachers need support to operate effectively in a ‘perpetual beta’ world.' (p 14) This made me stop and think for a minute. What makes google docs so powerful is their ability to add functionality, or alter the interface on the fly. They can watch the effects and decide whether or not to keep the change or try something else. Teachers should be able to use technology to support a similar process with learners.
She says on page 15 that BSF needs to 'explore how the school can be designed in a manner that enables it to continue to evolve'. A fabulous point I think. Learning is at the centre of this dynamic, and without the ability to change, what point would there be in educationalists and learners finding out what is effective and suboptimal in their buildings?
Bob Harrison of Toshiba Information Systems is the last contributor. I was struck by this question.
'How do we create a climate for the education workforce to innovate and be creative within a system which is “internally consistent and self sustaining”?' (p 20) This is at the heart of much of the weaknesses in BSF at present. I remember PM Tony Blair asserting that standards not structures matter and being sceptical. Very often the former are shaped by the latter. Our present school system creates institutions that are extremely risk averse and defensive. If BSF can be a tool for decoupling some of the engines that create this climate in schools then I'll be delighted.
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