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.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

University Finances and the Greek Economy

The connection between Government policy on university funding and the European banking crisis provoked by over-spending in Greece and other countries is not an obvious one. But it’s there.

Under new proposals, universities will be penalised for low scores on the quality of their teaching with enforced lower tuition fees, as a further extension of the market into the tertiary education sector. This will be trialled in 2016/17, with limited implementation in 2017/18 and greater impact in 2018/19. The full impact is likely therefore to be felt in the third year of our current Y13 pupils’ university experience. There’s a major problem with the proposal, and the Government is going to need to mitigate this effect, or the consequences for some universities, and for public confidence in universities is going to be acute.

Any university which is unfortunate enough to be penalised in the manner the Government intends will face the prospect of a ‘death spiral’ in which lower fees  (in real terms at least) are imposed because of below-excellent standards of teaching (though we don’t, of course, know exactly what that means). We do know that the highest standards of teaching at universities are generally found at the universities which spend the most on each student, particularly those whose endowments mean that they can spend more than they receive per capita. Given that increased spending results in better teaching, it’s reasonable to suppose that the funding cut associated with an adverse assessment will lead to spending cuts which necessarily reduce the product to students further. And, of course, the university is likely to find applications dip too, so the average ability of their intake will fall. The next assessment of teaching will take place against a series of factors which have made it harder for the university to sustain its previous rating, let alone improve it. Another adverse rating, a further funding cut, fewer (still) applications. We can see where this is going.

In theory of course, this will lead to inadequate universities going out of business. This is fine if your career in politics or the Civil Service has already taken off. But it’s absolutely not fine if you are a student at the university in question. And the developments which will assist a student to transfer from one degree to another at another institution are not yet clear. There’s a risk that an investment of tens of thousands of pounds by students (in the form of unsecured debt) will then be worthless. Other universities may take on such students, but it will be entirely a matter of goodwill, even if credits can be carried with a departing student to their new tertiary education provider. There appears to be no ‘bond’ between universities which ensures that such students will be able to find a place at a similar institution. There should be.

This, in turn, means that students should be extremely cautious about applying to universities which could be in any kind of financial difficulty, lest they end up marooned mid-degree. And therefore schools need to be very careful, as agents in the university choice process, about the advice they give.

Where’s the connection with the European banking crisis? The main problem with the European capital markets is that they are structured in such a way that risk trickles down through the system until all the highest risks end up in the same place. A Greek default risks the solvency of particular banks therefore, rather than being spread across the whole financial sector. This, as we know, is fine, until some what has been merely risk becomes reality. Universities had better hope that, if the Government gets its way, the risks to them don’t become a reality, because they won’t be spread across the sector, they will funnel down to particular institutions.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Why is our public discourse on education so poor?

Am I the only person who finds our national discussion about education frustrating? We seem to spend our time on trivia, when debate is important. Here are seven areas of the way education is portrayed that I find particularly frustrating, and a brief thought on what we can do about it.

It bears little relationship to what is actually happening. The most misused statistic relating to education must surely be the much repeated “...only 7% of children are educated in independent schools”. When examining the number of Oscar winners, or gold medallists, or High Court judges who are former pupils at independent schools, the statistic required is the proportion of school leavers who have had some experience of independent schooling in their childhood. And this number is surprisingly high - at about 14%. Since a large number of independent schools offer scholarships and bursaries, it’s also a sample biased towards those who have shown significant potential. Earlier this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw made bold statements about the number of independent schools which are in partnership with local state schools - and he got his facts spectacularly wrong.

It takes little account of really good academic research, and those who know most seem to be in the public eye least. Mentions of the remarkable work of Professor James Heckman on character education, or Dylan Wiliam on formative assessment, or Guy Claxton on what learning means are all rare. Of these, the first omission is most surprising to me: Heckman, a Nobel Laureate, has produced really good research on what has really helped people to ‘succeed’ in the past - and it isn’t necessarily what we might expect, and it suggests that performance league tables, as they are currently composed, are flawed (and so are the assessment objectives for our exams, but that’s another story).

A handful of anecdotes are produced as ‘research’. As a substitute to painstaking research - the sort the HMC produced on a CIE assessment this week - coverage tends towards absurdly small samples being used as compelling evidence, along the lines of the ‘I once met a person who…’ line. Our children deserve a better methodology of understanding what is good for them than this - we wouldn’t dream of researching health care on this basis, so why do we do so with education?

It rejects the complexity of real life in favour of the confirmation of existing prejudices. Columnists need to summarise an issue quickly, and surprise, worry or enlighten their readers in less than 500 words. Few ‘stories’ therefore fulfil these requirements - or they would already have been written. The result is that what educaiton is really like, because it is both complex and unnewsworthy, is hidden, in order to produce an approximation to it which is saleable. 

It quotes surveys of 30-60 years olds and assumes the lessons are true of those currently being schooled. The long-gone history of our education is raked over by stories which observe that nominations for Oscars are dominated by former students of independent schools. But in most cases it’s more than twenty years since these people  were pupils, during which time drama schools, university entrance, and independent schools have all changed. This tells us what the world was like 20+ years ago - it’s not news, and it’s not true of schools now.


It mistakes what is happening in London for what is happening in the country as a whole. Really good -and well paid - leadership, higher pay for teachers, closer attention from the DfE, and an increasingly middle class demographic because of our housing crisis have all helped London state schools to become much better in the last twenty years. This is a good thing. Even the Good Schools’ Guide has noticed. The increase in London’s population has also led to overcrowded and successful London private schools. But the story is very different further from London, and much more mixed. London is not the whole story. Few headteachers are quoted whose schools are outside the M25, and even then…

It mistakes self-promotion for serious debate. Pupils, and parents, gain from the competition between schools. But this should never be allowed to reach levels in which important opportunities for young people are guarded like aces in a game of cards. Schools exist for pupils, not pupils for schools. Go-to soundbite-providers are used to comment on types of school of which they have no experience, often to make critical comments. This problem extends as far as apparently independent educational consultants.

Perhaps we are all following too much the recent example of Ofsted’s Chief Inspector in devoting more energy to headlines than the day-to-day work of developing young people. Putting kids first - as the HMC is in its campaigns on CIE English and mental health (and as we are resolutely determined to do at our school) needs re-commitment from all in education.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

What's Wrong With A Levels?

For all the work done by JCQ and QCA, there’s a nasty secret about A levels: they aren’t fit for purpose.

I am not one of those who thinks that current A levels are easy - on the contrary, in a ‘blind’ comparison of coursework from ten years ago and from last year, one of our departments has demonstrated quite clearly that there has been a raising of the bar in at least one subject, even before the new specifications are introduced. Nor do I think that A levels produce a ‘treadmill mentality’ among students - that’s done by teachers teaching to the  test, which is something schools have to avoid through their culture (anyone who says that moving to the IB, or Pre-U, automatically eliminates that might be kidding themselves, but they shouldn’t kid anyone else - all tests can be taught to).

The problem with A levels is more fundamental. We try to come up with the most accurate measurement system we can, on a scale of 0 to 100, and then we divide this into just 7 grades - A* to U. This produces a clumsiness that is unfortunate. It also encourages pupils to appeal, and this is where the system falls down terminally. To understand why, we need to go back and, as Simon Sinek would say, ‘start with why’.

By and large, the purpose of A levels is to grade, sift and divide students so that they are able to attend the higher, further or in-work education course to which they are best suited. Universities base their offers on grades, causing huge pressure at the margin between one grade and another. This means that all students who can afford to do so have an enormous incentive to challenge any mark which places them just below the grade boundary: someone with 318/400 needs two extra marks for an A grade, and is most unlikely to lose the 39 marks that would take them to a C grade. In fact, it’s even possible that this student could go up to an A* with two extra UMS points. So, at the margin, one UMS mark can be worth up to 40 UCAS points, whereas many UMS marks are worth nothing. Any student close to the boundary for a higher grade has an incentive to appeal, whatever their mark, and their original expectation, since all the risk is on the upside.

This year 208 A level exams were sat at the school at which I work. Of these 13 have since been regraded, potentially making or breaking a university place. That’s a failure rate of 6.3 % for the exam boards, just from those which have been reassessed, which is a comparatively small proportion of the 208 A levels taken. The highest revision to one module has been an eye-watering 27 UMS marks. (Actually the average result of a re-mark at our school is an upward move of only +2 UMS*). The grading system creates a huge reward for the candidates’ (schools’?) efforts to ‘game’ the system. And, guess what? Doing so is expensive, and so only those that can afford to do so will.

Not only is the system clumsy and open to gaming, it clearly can select less well qualified candidates. An applicant for Medicine scores 600/600 in Biology and Chemistry, but only 479 in English Literature gets no place, while one who scores 480/600 in all three subjects does. Many such scenarios can be found. Higher education courses need to be for the best qualified for that course; at the moment, A levels will be sending the wrong pupils onto courses.

So what should be done? I suggest A level grades be abolished entirely, and replaced with a UMS scale of, say 400, in every subject. Universities could make offers based on this UMS scale. If all A levels were scored out of 400, Cambridge might insist on 1080 from three A levels (equivalent to A*A*A*), Durham 960 (AAA), Birmingham 840 (BBB), Within these there is scope for greater subtlety - Cambridge might insist on 1200 - a step above 3A*s. The crudeness of the grade’s indivisibility would be overcome.

Best of all, basing offers on UMS points means pupils would have to think carefully before appealing any mark, because any downward revision to their mark could be costly, and we could avoid the use of the appeal mechanism to game the gradings (by those who can afford it).

Then, of course, exam boards would need to make sure that aberrations, like the revision of one paper by 27 UMS points, don’t occur.

*I am reassured it's positive - at least it means my colleagues are appealing where their professional judgement is that the mark should have been higher, and not just because it's close to the boundary for a higher grade.

May 2016 Edit - Ofqual's changes to the criteria for appeals make the appeal of this post even more urgent and important.