Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Interview #3: A Parent and Teacher’s Perspective

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

In order to gain greater perspective on how a teacher and parent perceived the privatization of state education in the 21st century, I sought out an interview with a woman studying at UEA for her Master’s degree. She had taught (and remained employed part-time) at a local state secondary school in Norwich. Because of her ties to the state education system and pointed views on the subject, I have decided to maintain her anonymity.

Our meeting took place in two sessions. The first focused primarily on defining privatization (it remains in many ways elusive even to those who have been researching it for several months now) and the second addressed her personal feelings toward the subject as it has affected her profession as a teacher and intentions as a parent.

Privatization, as it applies to the merging of private companies/organization with state schools, can have one of many definitions. The variations mainly arise when considering the intentions of the private sponsor of the school. For example, a failing school could close and then be taken over by a faith-based organization. Given the basic definition of privatization and the establishment of academies, this faith-based organization would have absolute control over the financial allocations, curriculum, and general function of the school. Some, like the woman I interviewed, could find this potentially harmful, as it may directly and indiscreetly undermine a balanced cultivation of student opinion (having been inculcated with the very specific agenda of the school). Certainly, there are useful and relevant traits within this type of schooling (e.g. a vocational school preparing students for the workforce), but it still generates some unease about the intentions of the school and impact it has on students. (This issue would come up again in my interview with Richard Hewitt, who pointed out the issue many take with specialist schools and the limits they place on what a student learns in school.) In general, she emphasized the need for academies to consider what is sacrificed at the expense of propagating a biased curriculum.

Her thoughts to the fears of privatization and city academies led her to discuss her friend, D. Bookless and her relatively positive experience teaching at an oversubscribed and popular academy. Certainly, many question the “glossy cover” of academies and are right in doing so. Their assessment may not fully account for the positive experiences in academies, though.

To summarize her feelings on the fears and general sentiments shown by critics of privatization, she told me that “reputations last longer than realities.” In other words, people (parents, students, teachers) will likely stay attached to a school because of its general reception in the public and not because of its real intricacies (which may prove to be less than adequate). How does this relate to the subject of academies? Their introduction into the state education system creates a “consumer economy” in which many choose schools based on their charm, “glitz,” and general reception in the local community. (Of course, this is not always a proper way to gauge the success of a school.) Academies, in this way, provide a “quick fix” to the inadequacies of the state education system without creating lasting change.

Her less professional impression of privatization gave some sense of how a parent perceives the academy system. Certainly, academies can improve state education by boosting available resources (e.g. improved access of technology) and by refreshing a once-failing school. Still, there remains some hesitation. My interviewee said she would ultimately choose a standard school over an academy, for the latter can have a faith-based curriculum/instruction. Even if no strictly faith-based instruction is employed, academies and other specialist schools can still be less diverse and mixed than standard state schools.

Of course, this prioritization of diversity in state schools does not apply for all parents. In general, she noted that most parents would look for to the head teacher as a reflection of the school’s fit with the student’s personality. More immediately, a school’s academic calendar can influence a parent’s decision to send their child to a certain school (Academies often have a different schedule than other state schools, simply because they have the power dictate when school is in session.)

One of the interesting points she made regarding the supposed panacea of privatization and academies was its alternatives. She mentioned the simultaneous effort to encourage incredibly effective headteachers to move around from school to school in order to fix all the failures and boost results. While the program of “superheads” did not become mainstream or lasting, its success in Norwich schools (e.g. Hewitt School) shows how sometimes a school needs individualized attention, including those focused on leadership.

For having a bias against academies, my interviewee was able to acknowledge the recent successes of the academy program. The program makes many promises that, at least in the opinion of one teacher and parent, may be fulfilled immediately but will not last as funding and other issues begin to erode the purported “glossy cover” of academies.

Tags: Brandon

Interview #2: Mr. David Brunton

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Interview with David Brunton, headteacher of City Academy Norwich

Soon after my interview with Dr. Leaton Gray, I scheduled an interview with Mr. David Brunton, headteacher at City Academy Norwich. Before I go into the details of the interview and other observations I made, I felt it necessary to give some background on the “city academy” program (now commonly referred to “academies”).

In 2000, the New Labour government continued seek out ways to fulfil its initial campaign focus on “Education, education, education” by announcing the city academy program. The program seemed to imitate in many ways preceding programs to encourage the private sector (i.e. private companies, businesses) to invest in state education. According to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary at the time, the program was “a radical approach to promote greater diversity and break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities,” [Francis Becket, The Great City Academy Fraud (London: Continuum, 2007), 10] Each school (deemed failing or in “special measures” by Ofsted, the national school assessment organization) would be taken over and/or merged with a sponsor. This sponsor would be required to put forward two million pounds in capital invested in the academy and the government would fund the rest of the school (These public costs were expected to be about ten million pounds, but it often went well beyond this amount. Meanwhile, the private sector was only required to invest two million pounds – no more.). These sponsors could control many, if not all, aspects of the school including the hire of teachers, admission of students, use of the buildings/campus, and design of the curriculum.

Given the heated controversy of academies (mainly the issue taken with the heavy reliance of public funds in the privately-controlled institutions), I went into the interview with Mr. Brunton seeking to gain some perspective on how academies can positively rejuvenate and improve state education, for I hardly expected him to criticize academies as the headteacher of one.

First, some observations I noted while sitting in the lobby and in an assembly Mr. Brunton held with students (The assembly interrupted our meeting, but it actually helped a great deal). Coming from a public high school, I did not expect the lobby to feel like an office. Some large print on the wall (a quote from Mr. Brunton) read “We will always work with you to achieve the best outcome for your child in every situation. This is the key driving force behind all of our work.” On another door a sign stated “Ties and Blazers on beyond this point.” I also found it odd that two representatives from Tropicana walked in for their appointment with another administrator a few minutes after I sat down in the lobby (I am sure state schools do meet with private companies for contracts – e.g. a Pepsi vending machine – but it came across as less like a school and, again, more like an office).

This was especially evident in the assembly held in the middle of our meeting. Seated in the back of the auditorium, I saw Mr. Brunton and several other administrators ask students to submit through hand-held keypads answers to questions ranging from “Would you use the canteen if different food was offered?” to “Do you feel safe at school?” to “Should there be a ‘Rewards Room’ to contrast the ‘Discipline Room’?” These questions, among others, were clearly meant to evaluate the status of the Academy in its first few months in existence. On the other hand, another perspective could see the assembly as a meeting among employees who are asked to evaluate their level of satisfaction with the company.

My interview with Mr. Brunton began with a history of the City Academy and its recent transition from Earlham High School in August 2009. The traumatic four years prior to August 2009 set Earlham HS down the route to an evaluation of “Special Measures,” or failing. One of the main questions we focused on addressed the motivations for private companies to sponsor an academy. Sponsoring an academy “tick boxes for” organizations by presenting tax breaks and a way to increase their presence in the local community. (I would also later learn that sponsors often gain an actual profit from sponsoring academies after renting out parts of the building when school is not in session.)

City Academy Norwich has improved, in the few months prior to my interview, many of the ills that once plagued Earlham HS. Besides generally offering a “fresh start” and a “clean slate” to the same student population, the Academy saw the following changes:

Ø    Attendance:  5% increase

Ø    Disciplined Students: Great decreases in all stages of discipline used

Ø    Students estimate to pass GCSE: was 19%, now 38%

Ø    Teacher days lost: was 598 days, now 61 days

Certainly these are marked improvements, but Mr. Brunton appreciates that there is much work to be done.

When asked about whether the privatization and the city academy is the only solution to the issues facing state education (e.g. inequality in admissions, parental discontent, relevant curriculum, effective management, etc.), Mr. Brunton rightly stated that something had to change. One of the most difficult things for some to accept is the concept of “change” and its many different forms. So far, the City Academy was doing its best to change the school to fit the needs of its students.

The controversy surrounding the city academy program seemed muted to some extent against the relative gains made by the new administration and programs instituted by the City Academy and Mr. Brunton. It will most likely take some time before their true impact takes form, but I would say they are off to a generally positive start.

Tags: Brandon

Wednesday Club: Art, Bingo and Disco

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

In this blog I want to describe my experience at Wednesday Club, a weekly space provided by BUILD for over 60 adults with learning difficulties for social, learning and leisure activities. For two hours each Wednesday, I, along with other volunteers and clients with learning disabilities participated in bingo nights, arts and crafts, disco, and life-skills learning activities.

For my first visit to the Wednesday Club I arrived early in order to get acquainted with the staff who set up the space every Wednesday. Upon meeting the director of the Wednesday Club, who was both friendly and suave, I felt at ease. Being introduced to the rest of the staff, I quickly learned that many of them had learning disabilities but by being involved with the program for years they ‘climbed the ladder’ from being clients to earning staff positions. Seeing a new comer, some of them were hesitant and shy, maybe because I was holding a black folder with the research questions or I sat in the middle of the room observing their set up process. However, others quickly approached me, introduced themselves, and proudly shared what their responsibilities are and how long they’ve been involved with BUILD. They assured me that although it was calm at 6, by 7 PM the room will be filled with people and it gets quite hectic. As volunteers began arriving, I would introduce myself explaining why I was there and my goal for the research project and if I could interview them at one point in the evening. The first evening, the rooms were used for Disco, from which the songs of the 70’s and 80’s were blasting from the speakers, Art workshop, which walls were decorated in very impressive art of the clients, and a general room where volunteers and the clients could interact, drink a cup of tea or coffee, play a game or two. By 7 PM, the first floor and the three rooms of the Princes Street United Reformed Church filled with people, checking in, purchasing Bingo tickets, pouring themselves drinks and making decisions as to what room they would retreat to. The music lovers and dancers quickly retreated to the Disco room, singing to Jackson 5 songs, while the artists retreated to the painting room, showing me the drawings they previously completed and the current projects they were working on.

Although I was able to complete a few interviews with the volunteers that night, which was my reason for being there , I quickly became interested and infatuated with the atmosphere at the Wednesday Club. The excitement and the fulfillment that all of the individuals gained from being involved seemed unattainable anywhere else. The space provided an opportunity for both groups involved to break down social stigmas and relax, and enjoy themselves by furthering their social and artistic skills. From the interviews completed, it is clear that people keep coming back for years for multiple reasons. Whether it is to continue their involvement in the community, gain more experiences working with adults with learning disabilities, or just have fun, both volunteers and clients had several gifts to share and certain goals to fulfill. The Wednesday Club has been a perfect example of what local organizations offer to individuals with learning disabilities that the government and public organizations can not. The focus on relationships and activities that can promote several improvements in parties involved are successful which explains the passion from the staff and the volunteers. Wednesday Club which has been active for the past 43 years is a true success.

Tags: Jeyla