Sunday, 15 October 2017

What IS an All-Round Education?

I’m not often stopped in my tracks by a question, so when I was recently asked if an ‘all round’ education was a way of saying ‘not-very-ambitious’ in any one area, I recognised a healthy and helpful challenge.

The work that James Heckman has done (see here) to demonstrate that what you learn at school which really gives you an advantage from an economic perspective are not the skills that are tested in an exam hall. Of course performance in an exam hall is important - it helps students (who want to) to go on to selective further education courses where they will acquire a wide range of useful skills. But Heckman also found that ‘non-cognitive’ skills, some of which pay off in the exam hall, like perseverance, play a much bigger role in the post school experience, fulfilment and ‘success’ of students.

So what does this have to do with ‘all-round’. In an all-round education, excellence matters, but not only in academic pursuits. That doesn’t mean academic excellence isn’t important - it is. But it means students are encouraged to pursue excellence in all things - academic (ie cognitive), athletic, aesthetic, affiliative.

The key here is that many of these pursuits are explicitly collaborative - and interdependent activity (rare, and not approved of, in the exam hall!) - prepares us for most of what we will do after school which will provide us with our fulfilment, success, and the other things our education is preparing us for.

Education which is all-round is no less ambitious - but it’s an ambition that manages the trade-offs between time spent in many different areas without simply allowing students to prioritise one simplistically above all others. It’s ambitious for outcome, and for process. And it’s ambitious for team, and not just for one’s own outcomes.

So, while the monocular judgement of schools’ success is merely the academic outcome, it fails to pick up so many important aspects of a school’s work, in developing confidence, a secure sense of identity, a breadth of thought, a capacity for leadership and teamwork, and an ability to be more thoughtful than a merely reflexive achievement-junkie.  The all-round education prepares young people not just to get into university, but to use their place, not just for their first job offer, but their first promotion, and not just for their economic effectiveness but also their personal fulfilment.

Term Dates: Time to Start Again

“I wouldn’t start from here if I were you” - the classic cliche of unhelpful advice often seems applicable where a system has been built up in degrees from a historic model which is no longer applicable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our term dates.

The term dates of any modern school in the British educational system borrow heavily on a Victorian model of full boarding - long terms; long holidays. The two reasons for this were the relatively large (and initially, pre-railway, slow) journeys required to get to (mainly rural) boarding schools in the early nineteenth century, and the need for young people to be able to join the harvest back at home. Neither of these factors apply any more, but they remain the reason we work our young people, and our teachers, so hard for so few weeks of the year.

Maintained sector schools work 38 5-day weeks - or 190 days - give or take the odd inset day. One of the results of this is that newly qualified teachers, fresh out of university find that for 38 weeks a year, they are working too hard to maintain a social life with their (non teaching) friends. And then, when they get a holiday, they get lots of it, unlike their friends, who probably want to take their holiday when travel is cheaper anyway. This social pressure, arising from teachers’ need to spend term-time evenings and weekends poring over their marking, their preparation and their reporting, is driving young teachers out of the profession - another weekend, another anecdote to this effect.

The alternative - simples, as the meerkat marketer would say. How about 45 weeks of four days per week. We might have to work out what to do with Bank Holiday Mondays, but this would allow teachers 7 weeks holiday (more than the average - but with a very few preparation or inset days thrown in). And it would allow a whole day a week for preparation, planning and assessment, perhaps Wednesdays. Bringing teachers’ weekly workload down, by increasing the number of weeks per year would go a long way to solving the retention crisis in our schools.

A 20% reduction in teachers’ weekly working hours might have other effects too. By reducing stress among teachers, it might help reduce stress levels among teenagers. In giving teachers real-time quality time to prepare their teaching, it could increase the quality of teaching they are able to deliver. By giving children learning spread out over the year, it would help those children most likely to lose ground against their peers during the holidays.

45 4-day weeks is actually 10 fewer days per year in school. I’m willing to bet that it would raise educational attainment, though. Smarter - not harder - working, from which everyone gains.

Finally, many European countries stagger when holidays take place so that the effect of school holidays on road traffic, the cost of travel, and leaving some workplaces deserted while parents are looking after their children are all evened out. If we have a fresh look at term dates, let’s also stagger them in a sensible way.

Footnote: there are other things we can do about workload. Where I work, an email curfew from 7pm to 7am (including 7pm Friday to 7am Monday) encourages staff not to be permanently ‘on call’. Regular social events promote belonging.  Teacher wellbeing should be a priority for schools - and there are easy ways of making a start on it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Ofqual: 7/10. Could do better.

Last week, we read that Ofqual  intervened with the exam boards to ensure grade boundaries tkept roughly the same proportion of pupils get the top grades this year at A level as in previous years. As a result, they were lambasted by representatives of the educational establishment. But this time, Ofqual was right.

Whatever one thinks of the Govian changes to A levels, this year promised to be a difficult year for exam comparability: some subjects are 'reformed', new, harder A levels, and some aren't. If Ofqual had allowed these new reformed courses to be significantly harder in terms of their grading than a last round of unreformed courses in subjects whose courses took longer to be approved by the regulator, this year's results would have been influenced significantly by the roulette wheel of A level subject choice, rather than by ability as we might hope. Identical candidates who chose three unreformed courses might get AAA, where those who chose three reformed courses might get BBB. (And this ignores potential variations arising from markers not being given extra time to get up to speed on the demands of the new exams). The difference might not have been one grade in each subject; it could have been even wider. Thankfully, this particular roulette wheel has been stopped before the ball came to rest on black or red, favouring half the subjects' candidates with an easier high grade than the other half. Pupils deserve better than this level of randomness. As it is, we read that while over 30% of  unreformed exams were graded A* or A, only 24.3% of reformed exams were.


The news isn't entirely good however. As I pointed out in a blog in 2013 (http://athinkinghead.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/grade-deflation-is-as-pointless-as.html), grade deflation is as pernicious as grade inflation. Are employers in the future going to understand that an A grade in A level English Literature differs in value depending on the year in which the exam was taken? 2017 = relatively easy, but 2018 = much harder? Of course not. 

Interestingly, when I last wrote about grade deflation, pointing out that the switch to numbered for GCSE obviated this confusion, the chief regulator at Ofqual got in touch directly to thank me (and to make a minor factual amendment to my blog - amounting to my homework being returned with "7/10. Could do better" scrawled on it in red ink). I was flattered by the attention.

I don't think Ofqual will get in touch with me this time, even if this time  I am effectively marking their homework.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Remembrance Recast

The recent furore over the potential for the England football team to wear a shirt with a red poppy symbol on it for an international match illustrates all that, in my view, is wrong with Remembrance. If I am completely honest, there has always been something about the way Remembrance Day is 'celebrated' that I have always found difficult. If I had paid more attention to the news when I was growing up, I would have understood the stance that Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, took at the service to commemorate the end of the Falklands war in 1982. His determination to pray for the dead on both sides of that conflict caused an irreparable rift between him and Lady Thatcher, who had wanted the service to be triumphant. Given that he had won the Military Cross for bravery forty years earlier, it was hard for the government then to criticise him.

Runcie’s underlying point – that there is loss, bravery, integrity, and heroism (and the lack of three of these) on both sides in a war – was not well understood at the time. It is possible that the way in which remembrance has been cast to school children during that time has contributed to a one-eyed view of conflict in this country.

How many young people in the UK know anything, for example, of The White Rose? This was a group of students, who – in 1942-3 – sought to do what they could to oppose the evil of the Third Reich. The core of the group was composed of just five students, two of whom were siblings - Sophie and Hans Scholl. All were in their very early twenties. Members of The White Rose believed that their Christian beliefs meant they had to protest against what they saw happening in their country. As a result between June 1942 and February 1943 they prepared and distributed six different leaflets, in which they called for the active opposition of the German people to the Nazi movement and its policies.

In the first leaflet they wrote: ‘It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes ... reach the light of day?’. Understandably, the Third Reich was extremely concerned about the potential effects of these and the Gestapo were instructed to find the publishers. On February 18 1943, the Scholls took a very large quantity of leaflets to their university. They dropped piles of these leaflets in the empty corridors for students to find when they poured out of lecture rooms. Before leaving, since they had some leaflets still in their suitcase, they returned to the university atrium and went up to the top floor, and there at the top Sophie threw the last remaining leaflets into the air. This was seen by a janitor, who called the police. Soon afterwards, they were taken into Gestapo custody. Then other active members were soon arrested, of whom six were convicted and executed.

One copy of their last leaflet was smuggled out of Germany, and it was edited by the allies and millions of copies were dropped from aeroplanes onto Germany.

Nearly six decades later, a German national TV competition chose "the ten greatest Germans of all time". The Scholl siblings – founders and leaders of The White Rose - came fourth, ahead of Bach, Goethe, and Albert Einstein. And readers of a widely circulated German magazine voted Sophie Scholl to be "the greatest woman of the twentieth century".

Why is this heroism not widely known outside Germany? Why, in our Remembrance Day activities, do we not think about the waste of life, the courage, the acts of selflessness on both sides of the conflicts that we remember?

Perhaps if young people were taught not just history-according-to-the-victors, perhaps if they were able to understand the effects of war on both sides of a conflict, perhaps if they could hear the accounts of those whose country was hostile to theirs, they could come to a balanced and thoughtful view of conflict. But instead we have seen remembrance through the monochrome lenses of British-centred view of lives lost. 

Of course, we should remember those who give their health, their physical wholeness, or their lives for peace. We should honour their sacrifice most by working for peace. But we should recognise that war has costs on both sides, that for every British family that grieves a fallen, or injured, serviceman, there is probably one - or more than one - that grieves elsewhere too. The Red Poppy appeal recognises only those who have fought under our own flag. To do so in my view is to teach remembrance in a manner which remains jingoistic. We should lobby to broaden our view: we should learn about the cost of war in other countries, and other conflicts. We should teach our children this too. 

Perhaps, if remembrance in schools were to be less patriotic, and more bilateral, young people would grow up into adults who would go to war less often. As decision makers, at the polls or in the government, we might be more careful about entering armed conflict.

On Friday 11th November this year, I will remember those brave men and women who died defending the UK against aggression in both world wars of the twentieth century, and those who have died since. But I will also remember the Scholls and all those, like them, who have sought to fight evil at great personal risk, of whatever nationality or cause. Getting beyond what divides humankind in our remembrance is surely how we provide for a future which is less defined by war, and the need for remembrance, than the past has been.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Sixth Form Transition: the Ten Key Elements.

It is so often said that a student has, or hasn't, made the 'transition to Sixth form work'.  And yet, it's very rare for a school to spell out exactly what that means to members of Y12 at the start of Sixth form courses. This seems unreasonable to me and I think it should more often be unpacked in clear terms for those embarking on A levels. And this is going to be even more important now that the vast majority of courses will be linear.

For those starting the Sixth form this term, many will be going on to university within 25 months. At university, it will basically be up to them whether they buy in, or drop out; follow up/pastoral care will be far less evident than it is at school. So the process of adjustment that takes place in the Sixth form is not just necessary to prosper at A level, but also to survive at university.

So here are the ten key things Sixth formers need to do:
  1. Offer opinions in class backed up with good reasoning.  At GCSE, pupils can merely recount facts, whereas at A Level students of most subjects are required, for good grades at least, to add to these facts a judgement, and give reasons for this judgement.  Practising this in class is essential for doing it well in an exam. 
  2. Ask questions about areas of confusion.  The onus is on the sixth former to say when they don’t understand and to find help, rather than on the teacher to discover what it is the student doesn’t know and offer help uninvited.  In this way students are expected fully to be collaborators with their teachers.
  3. Think about what they will be studying in lessons before they actually study it.  Sixth formers should be given some guidance as to what they are studying at various times of the year, and should be getting ahead with it.  For some that will mean reading works of literature during the holidays before studying them during lessons, and for others it will mean that looking at areas of study that are coming up and familiarizing themselves with them before encountering them in the classroom.
  4. Revise each teacher's work each week as if having a weekly test, whilst fully knowing that the teacher will not set such a test. Most pupils will have studied with a teacher who gave them a weekly test and may remember those for example in the area of language vocabulary. In the sixth form all students should be learning as if they had a weekly test but shouldn’t actually be using class time or prep time on a weekly test of that sort.
  5. Read things which help work in lessons, although the teacher hasn’t asked pupils to.  This might include reading the newspapers, websites, and magazines.  Doing this is a key way in which a student might be able to show a university Admissions Tutor that they are more worthy of a place than other applicants, and it will provide them with a lot to write about in their personal statement on the UCAS form.
  6. Plan what work to do and when.  Study periods should be being used to do homework no longer set according to a timetable. This organization of the working day and week should be being done explicitly and in writing, and regularly, to make sure the student is allocating appropriate amounts of time to each subject and to work as a whole.
  7. Talk to fellow students about areas of subjects outside lesson time.  I remember walking past two students walking from History to English arguing about some aspects of the Reformation which they had been studying in the lesson that they were coming from.  This kind of discussion sharpens understanding and ability to craft arguments and it develops ability to do all this under time pressure in an exam. 
  8. Show enthusiasm in lessons.  If a student is not speaking up very often and not working outside what teachers have set, how are they showing enthusiasm for their subjects?  After all these are subjects that they have chosen. If they are not showing enthusiasm, what are they expecting their tutor to write on their UCAS form about their work ethic? And actually, enthusiasm comes  from hard work because it is hard work which leads us to enjoy academic study.
  9. Invite a teacher to school lunch occasionally to continue discussions started in lessons.  If a student is never interested enough in what has been studied in a lesson to want to talk to their teacher about it after the lesson, I seriously question whether they have chosen the right A Levels. If a student doesn't feel this enthusiasm, they should get this out into the open with the teacher most directly responsible for their welfare and progress - maybe the subjects need to change. 
  10. Take responsibility for their own learning. In many respects this is a summary of all of the above. If a student is not regarding their work as being primarily their responsibility, secondarily the responsibility of their teachers and thirdly the responsibility of their tutor, Head of House, or year head, then they haven’t yet 'got it'.
Sixth form should be intellectually thrilling. If it isn't, one of these may need more work. It will be worth getting the method right!

Friday, 26 August 2016

Teenagers – Out of Control?


Someone at the Department for Education has a sense of humour - it is surely ironic that the latest edition of its research into the wellbeing of young people (“LYSPE2”) was published in the short gap between A level results last week and GCSE results this week. One might think that little can have done more to promote ill-health in teenagers than changes in exam qualifications, and yet actually the picture painted is both more complex and more encouraging than this.

Let’s celebrate, first, the good news. Young people are more likely to equate hard work with success, they are less likely to be engaged in risky behaviours (such as alcohol, drugs, and anti-social behaviour) and they are less likely to be bullied. All of these are welcome, and deserve celebration. On average this is a more serious, and more positive, generation.

However, below the surface there might be less to celebrate. Teenagers feel less in control of their lives, and more under pressure. Where pressure (especially from parents, it seems) overlaps with their feeling unable to influence outcomes for themselves, there is rising psychological distress. Very unusually, this ill-health is more pronounced among those whose life chances are better, either because they are more affluent or because their parents have greater educational qualifications. And it’s very unusual for better life chances to be associated with poorer health.

Tantalisingly, the report hints that teenagers are engaged in fewer risky behaviours because life itself seems like a bigger risk. The financial crisis, the increase in youth unemployment, and the rise in student debt all weigh heavily on this generation. They take life more seriously because it demands it – their world seems a riskier place than those of us who grew up in the last millennium at least.

In addition, they face hazards which are outside their locus of control, like unemployment – and possibly even Brexit, which the youngest overwhelmingly voted against, where they could vote at all.

Surprisingly, this study does not examine the effect of social media and the smartphone on these 14-15 year olds, but it does note teenagers have acquired smartphones during the 11 years since the last major study.

The big picture is that the young are not degenerate, or feckless, or wilfully idle. They are coping with the problems their parents have left them, as previous generations have had to. They deserve our sympathy, and our help. That help should include more research on how technology is helping, or hindering, them.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

School Prizes And Real Books

Schools have always had Speech Days or Prize Days at the end of the year, at which a lucky few are given prizes. But why? Is it simply a Victorian tradition continued unthinkingly into the present age.

What is the educational reason for giving out prizes? The initial answer is that it makes those who have been successful into role models. The procession of pupils across a stage to receive their awards holds them up as examples the school wishes other pupils to follow. It is designed to show those who haven’t won prizes the qualities, attributes and outcomes which the school believes all pupils should emulate. It’s an exercise in lauding what the school values to seek to get the community values. It’s a secular ritual or liturgy which takes what we know in our thinking brain, and embeds it in that powerful, more primitive part of our brain that deals with impressions and emotions. We begin to make school success emotionally equivalent to feelings of being valued, or celebration. Simon Sinek has written about the ‘happy hormones’ that are released by such public and tangible demonstrations of praise.

At the same time, however, the physical prize, has a special significance. Many prizewinners these days win a token, which they are able to change into a book or a gift. I am told that it’s common practice for teenagers to ‘sell’ these to their parents for cash, which can be spent more widely. Whilst understandable, I think this is a shame. The purpose of the physical prize is to remind the prizewinner of the achievements. As it sits on the bedroom shelves (or floor!) it acts as an ongoing reminder of the value of industry and perseverance through the next winter of intellectual training. The power of physical reminders of success is a sort of scholastic iconography - and it works, but not when the prizewinner turns their book token into a takeaway pizza. So here’s my campaign for young people to turn this summer’s prizes into real, actual physical, paper and card books. Not because I am a Luddite, but because the enduring visual symbol of success is, I believe, has a small, but real, value in promoting the prizewinning dispositions in the future.