On 11 February the Education Scrutiny Committee held a one hour discussion on the achievement of white British boys on FSM, based on a report of Birmingham data1 and two presentations from headteachers.
This is one of the most important issues facing Birmingham schools, and probably the only time that Education Scrutiny will discuss it this year. But the opportunity was wasted: there was no critical appraisal of current policies in Birmingham, the discussion was not informed by research evidence and experiences of effective strategies from outside Birmingham, and there were no proposals for action. It raises fundamental questions about whether the current Education Scrutiny process is fit for purpose.
There was no reference either in the report or in the entire Scrutiny discussion to research evidence.
It is absolutely extraordinary that the extensive research evidence available, including examples of and recommendations for effective practice, should be ignored. Yet not a single reference to it was made by any of the participants – officers, members or headteachers. It conveys the message that the solution to Birmingham’s problems can be found solely within Birmingham itself and it has no need to learn anything from anyone else.
The most obvious reference would have been to the House of Commons Education Committee report on ‘Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children’, published only last year, which has a wealth of information and recommendations. There are other relevant sources too which Birmingham could learn from, such as Lambeth Council’s 2010 report on ‘Raising the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils’2 and Gorard and See’s overview of evidence in their 2011 book Overcoming disadvantage in education. (They were speakers at a Birmingham CASE public meeting.)
It meant that while the presentations by the two headteachers contained many excellent examples of effective practice, many crucial issues were simply not mentioned either by them or in the comments and questions of members, perhaps because they weren’t aware of their significance. Crucial issues include:
- The effect of social mix
- The effect of various forms of pupil grouping
- The impact of selection
- The relation to and use of other support services such as early years, social services, and the youth service.
- Whether a longer school day is effective
- The relationship between the curriculum and the culture of the home and community
- The role of pupil voice 3
Another notable omission was recent work on Children’s Zones. Alan Dyson, co-author of the 2014 book ‘Education, Disadvantage and Place: Making the local matter’, was the speaker at a Birmingham CASE public meeting this January (which none of the Scrutiny meeting participants attended).
How can good practice be shared and developed?
Sally Taylor, the Service Director, Education & Commissioning, who was the officer answering members’ questions, ended the meeting by saying “everybody can benefit from the really good practice that is evident in these schools”. That is true, and in many other schools too, but the question is, how? What structures and procedures enable knowledge, experience and effective practices to be shared among schools in Birmingham?
The obvious answers are the Birmingham Education Partnership and the Teaching School Alliances, but there was no mention of either of these in the discussion. Yet how effective they are in arranging collaboration between schools to share practice that is specifically effective with white boys on FSM is unknown. The House of Commons report warns that ‘It is really important that there are more opportunities for schools to share their good practice. In recent fieldwork that we did looking at successful strategies, a common theme amongst those very successful schools was they had had very limited opportunity to work with other schools to disseminate the things that they were doing so well’ (p49). How true is this of Birmingham?
How effective is Education Scrutiny?
The shortcomings of this Scrutiny session on white British boys on FSM reveal fundamental problems with the whole Scrutiny system itself in Birmingham, and two in particular.
First, it appeared that none of the councillors present had sufficient expertise in the issue being discussed to raise the sorts of points we have made above or ask probing questions, and neither the two presenters nor the senior officer present chose to raise them either. Thus the discussion took place entirely within the limited framework of the presenters’ reports, however valuable they were in themselves, of practice in their schools. There was no actual scrutiny.
The second problem is related to the first. The council’s Constitution says that one function of Scrutiny committees is ‘to provide “critical friend” challenge to executive policy-makers and decision-makers’ and ‘to hold the Executive to account for their actions’. This Scrutiny discussion did not do this, partly because, as we have said, there was no critical challenge, but also because there was no engagement with the relevant Executive policy-maker, i.e. the Cabinet member for education. She was not present, and the Committee’s engagement was with Sally Taylor, an officer, who is not responsible for Executive policy decisions and cannot engage in debate that is critical of them. This is often the case, and it means that the Executive itself is not being held to account. Nor in fact was there any reference at all in the meeting to Executive policy on the issue in question, so again the Executive wasn’t held to account.
But the future of the education scrutiny process itself is now in doubt. If the Kerslake Review proposal to reduce the existing 12 Overview and Scrutiny Committees to just 3 is implemented then any chance of informed, critical and productive Scrutiny of the range of key issues in education will disappear.
Two proposals from BCASE
The under-achievement of white boys on FSM, and of children and young people from poorer backgrounds, is one of the crucial issues that we face in our school system. Education Scrutiny has a responsibility to address the issue in an informed and critical way, to evaluate current policy and practice and to develop and advocate ways of moving forward. This Scrutiny session did none of these things. It let down the boys, and their parents, whose interests it was responsible for defending and promoting.
In our view there are two immediate measures that Education Scrutiny and the LA should now take.
Collaboration among teachers across schools to share and develop excellent practice
Existing collaboration through the BEP and other networks almost always means support by headteachers and other leadership team members. Classroom teachers themselves rarely have the opportunity to work together across schools, yet this is where the teaching (as against leadership and management) expertise lies that can make a real difference. This is what Michael Fielding and his colleagues call Joint Practice Development (in the excellent DfE report ‘Factors Influencing the Transfer of Good Practice’ 4).
We propose that the BEP and/or the LA set up a working group of teachers involved in tackling the under-achievement of white British boys on FSM – or perhaps boys in general. The teachers should be enabled to meet together for perhaps an afternoon and twilight workshop once every half-term, with email contact in between. Its aim should be to identify, share and develop effective practice and disseminate it to Birmingham schools. The BEP and/or LA should also plan for similar working groups of teachers on other themes.
Restore school union representatives to Education Scrutiny
The argument for opening up the Scrutiny process to a wider range of participants is compelling. If there had been representatives of the teachers unions present, with speaking rights, as was the custom under the previous administration, then the issues we are raising now would have been raised in the meeting, resulting in a much deeper and more productive discussion. We propose that the Scrutiny Committee is opened up to school union representatives and also to elected representatives of the BEP, with voice but without vote, in order to enable more informed discussions.
1. The title of the report is misleading in two respects. First, the report is titled ‘Outcomes for White Working Class Boys’, but thereafter all the content refers to white British boys, not white boys in general. Second, the report’s content refers to boys eligible for FSM, not working class boys in general. Since the report says that 10% of white British boys in Birmingham are on FSM, the title implies that 90% are middle class, which is clearly not the case. See House of Commons Education Committee report on ‘Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children’, 2014, p10.
2. Demie, F. and Lewis, K. (2010) White Working Class Achievement: A study of barriers to learning in schools. London: Lambeth Council. Demie, F. and Lewis, K. (2010) Raising the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils: Barriers to learning. London: Lambeth Council.
3. ‘Research: Pupil power boosts results in disadvantaged schools’. 15 February.
4. Fielding et al (2005) ‘Factors Influencing the Transfer of Good Practice’.