Love thy neighbour – education and immigration

Every year the leaders of HMC independent schools come together to discuss education. We are challenged, rightly, to reflect on practice in our own schools. Are we really offering the best possible experience for our pupils? Are we equipping them to thrive in the world in which they will live?
This year, for the first time, our positive aspirations for our young people seem to jar with the dissonance of anger and xenophobia which colours our national politics. I read the commentary coming out of one party conference and shudder at the values which are being presented as our national destiny. The Stephen Perse Foundation, a family of six schools in and around Cambridge, is unashamedly global in outlook and seeks to understand the complex world we live in rather than fearing it. Living in an international city, inevitably our view of the wider world is coloured by living cheek by jowl with people drawn from across the globe. Whether from the field of biomedicine, technology or academia, we enjoy interactions with the brightest, the best and the simply interesting; our Foundation often enjoys the privilege of educating the children of these families. I defy anyone to say that welcoming children from abroad into our school community does not add significant value to the learning experience of our home grown youngsters.
I do of course understand the genuine concerns felt by people for whom the benefits of globalisation seem less clear. It would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the sentiments of those who voted to leave the EU in the recent referendum because of anxieties around free movement of people into the U.K.. This is clearly not a subject for me to comment on respecting as, as I do, the outcome of a democratic process. However, surely it behoves our government to calibrate this and assess how best to manage immigration to ensure we do not give the message to the world that immigrants are not welcome, full stop. A commentary suggested by the Home Secretary, which almost appears to seek to name and shame “foreigners” is little short of alarming and a throw back to the accepted prejudices of the past.
Mindful of the impact Brexit could have on our school community, with reported increase of incidents of racism nationally, I took an assembly with our sixth form in which I shared the changing social mores in popular cultural during my lifetime regarding prejudice. Remember “Love Thy Neighbour”? The easy racism engendered complicit laughter with the audience. “Till Death Us Do Part” which is regarded as a classic piece of comedy can be difficult to watch now as racism forms a staple of the humour. 
So it was with absolute pride that I reminded our sixth form of an event which inspired us in their life time – the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. The celebration of sport and the multi cultural identity of our sportsmen and women was truly inspiring. We were told the events of that summer were to inspire a generation. Tolerance, inclusion, diversity were as important watch words as “Citius, Altius, Fortius”.
Although only four years ago, the spirit of the Games seems to be overwhelmed by the anxiety around the arrival in our country of people from other parts of the world. A complex narrative, politically the debate around immigration has been debased with the unintended consequence of unfortunately giving permission to those who harbour xenophobic and racist thoughts publicly to share their hatred. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, told a hearing at London’s City Hall in September that hate crime in the city was showing signs of decreasing after a sharp rise in June and July, but it had still not returned to pre-referendum levels. And many of the victims were of Eastern European origin. There have also been reports of racist hate crimes in Cambridgeshire after Brexit.
Our young people are not stupid. They listen to the arguments and they look to educators to help them understand – the posturing and positioning of one politician after another on immigration is far from edifying for them. Suffice it to say, that as a school committed to educating our young people for the world they will live in, we shall continue to celebrate our wonderfully diverse community. We shall encourage mutual understanding and cultural interest; we shall ensure our young people understand that they are global citizens; and, most of all, we shall ensure that our narrative around immigration is founded on valuing and supporting each other as individuals whatever our background.   

The real ticking time bomb in our schools

So where have all the teachers gone? The existential crisis of our times in education is in teacher recruitment and retention. Just as we have lost the familiar conveyor belt of teacher recruits with university education faculties across the country face the challenge of funding PGCE places and Teach First grappling with high drop out rates, there also is the growing disaffection of serving teachers. A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that 23% of teachers are considering quitting teaching compared with just 17% last year with workload identified as a key reason for the increase. It is fair to say that Headteachers across the country are despairing about maintaining staffing levels in their schools.

So what is the first education initiative of the new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, to address this crisis? Bring back grammar schools. It seems to me that in our post Brexit world there is a simplicity about our politics, with politicians offering simple solutions to complex problems unfettered by any evidence to support their view – just a feeling that they are right. And probably an anecdote or two just to add some substance whilst blithely ignoring the ample data on the relatively poor attainment of low income disadvantaged young people in selective areas as opposed to non selective areas. Surely education is too important for the future of our country to be managed in this way. Our young people deserve better than glib sound bites that serve to distract from the true challenges facing the education sector.
What is hugely frustrating is that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis is not unknown to the Department of Education. Only recently Estelle Morris, a former Education Secretary, wrote an impassioned piece in the Guardian ( ) exhorting the Education Department to take responsibility for addressing this crisis. Surely the keystone of any educational system is ensuring we have the right number of qualified and appropriately trained teachers serving in our schools. You can offer a lavish smorgasbord of different schools, including more grammars, but if the teachers are not there to teach our young people in the classroom the whole exercise is somewhat futile.

This headline grabbing announcement can only serve to damage further morale in all our schools across the country. Even the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, not himself averse to criticising teachers, has been quick to condemn the initiative pointing to the sustained improvement overall in the maintained sector in recent decades for all pupils. So who would want to be a teacher when politicians see education as useful tool to further their own personal agenda? And at a time when the teaching profession is not really valued as it should be by the government for the vital work they are engaged in?

So instead of pandering to the urban myths around educational success, Justine Greening, and the  Prime Minister, Theresa May, must focus on the what really needs to be addressed in education. There should be unequivocal support for teachers and a commitment to making the profession a desirable option once again for graduates. A comment from a Mathematics don in Cambridge summed up the situation rather pithily. Whilst in the past, there were always graduates considering entering teaching, his recent experience was that there was little if any interest in the profession. Why be a teacher? Until the government can answer that question we face a very uncertain future with a ticking time bomb about to explode in our schools.

Brexit and the younger generation 

Yesterday afternoon I observed a Year 10 History lesson on the origins of the Cold War. The teacher introduced the lesson with the inclusion of a speech by Winston Churchill given in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Churchill, who had led his country successfully through a devastating war, outlined his vision for the future which put an end to conflict in Europe:
“Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and as happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
Thus this class of young people received an insight into the concept behind the European Union on the day our nation had decided to leave it. These young students of History also knew that they were witnesses to a important moment in History of our nation. And I think it is fair to say that they are troubled.
When I arrived at school yesterday the sense of shock at the decision of the referendum was palpable. Students of different ages were debating what Brexit meant for them. I heard time and time again during the course of the day the strong sense of injustice – that they had no voice in a decision which will affect the rest of their lives. They raised concerns about a range of issues. Being in Cambridge, an international city, our community is diverse with a large number of students’ families coming from different parts of the world. So did the vote mean they were less welcome in our country? Those who were looking to Europe as a university destination wondered what now? More generally the strong sense of identifying with Europe and having a globally connected mindset seemed to them to be at variance with our possible future. As a school, we offer a choice of five modern languages for a reason.
Clearly the younger generation have a fundamentally different outlook to older voters. Indeed, we know that three quarters of 18-24 year olds voted to remain in the EU. Our politicians, in the months and years ahead, must be mindful of this generational divide. And educators need to reflect on what Brexit means for schools. The future is not pre-ordained. There is no reason why we should not remain globally connected and globally minded. And our young people need to be prepared to be active citizens nationally and internationally.  
Educationally the narrow focus on qualifications, the idée fixe of the current government, is not the best preparation for life in this globalised society. The facility to pass a test is entirely different from having the capacity to thrive and prosper, to make a meaningful contribution to society and to respond to the demands of a world where change is, if anything, accelerating. I lead a group of schools which educates young people from the ages of 3-18 and their education for me, as for every school leader, is a solemn responsibility. We have a duty to educate our young people for the world they live in rather than the world their elders grew up in. Yes, we offer a rigorous academic education of which the Education Secretary would be proud. However, we are committed to ensuring the curriculum offers breadth and depth. We value not just the examined life but also the unexamined life. For us, we are about educating individuals not just cohorts because it is individuals who make the difference.  
The reason I am optimistic about the future is because of our young people. I believe in them.  Let’s ensure we equip them educationally to live a life worth living in our globally connected world.  

Testing times for young people’s well-being

As the leader of a school which boasts excellent academic results, I am not averse to young people taking tests. Assessment as part of a broader educational framework offers an invaluable insight for the teacher into the understanding of the student at a given point. It also is the means by which the bar is set for admission to Higher Education. No fair minded person should deny that assessment has its place, an important place, in the education of our young people.

So why are some parents getting so exercised by the latest round of assessments being taken by children in primary schools?  SATS-Gate has drawn the ire of parents fulminating about the negative impact of the test on their child’s well-being. The media is awash with stories of parents’ plans to take their children out on the SATS day to engage with Forest School-type activities or enjoy a more cultural experience related to learning. This is seen as infinitely preferable to sitting the test imposed on them by the Department for Education.
The battle lines between the two sides are clear and have been helpfully articulated by Nick Gibbs, the Education Minister, and Chris Riddell, the Children’s Laureate:
“These tests are vital in helping schools to ensure that young children are learning to read, write and add up well. The truth is, if they don’t master literacy and numeracy early on, they risk being held behind and struggling for the rest of their lives.” Gibbs
“My feeling is there should be more trust in teachers and their ability to assess children at this age, rather than through testing. The children are being put under undue stress and my argument is what is the value of what comes from this testing. I think it is questionable.” Riddell
Both protagonists clearly are keen for children to learn. Their point of difference is around how to ensure this is happening effectively. How do we leverage learning? My view is that we should go back to first principles, and place the learner at the heart of their own learning. Every decision in education should be around the well-being of each child, supporting them in their learning from the age of 3 to 18. Let’s pause for a moment to imagine a world where a young person’s well-being was at the fore of policy making? What would this look like? I would suggest that assessment and data would not be driving judgements about education as currently they are. Absolutely imperative to supporting well-being is employing professional teachers who have the knowledge, understanding and inter-personal skills to ensure each of their students is supported at school. Teachers who care enough to build meaningful relationships with youngsters making them feel valued. Teachers who are passionate about learning in ways which are infectious. Teachers who are allowed to exercise their professional judgement within the classroom about both the delivery of the curriculum and assessment.  

This nirvana is certainly recognisable to me from my early years as a teacher. Teachers are still motivated to want to make a difference to their students. But until the system by which we measure the success of schools and the young people in their care values the well-being agenda, there will remain this struggle for the heart of education. At a time when the mental health of our young people is routinely making national news with handwringing around the impact of the digital world on mental well-being and stress more generally causing real and serious damage to teenagers, surely it is time to challenge the ” cri de coeur” of our age fixated on driving up academic standards at any cost. As any educational professional knows through experience, if a young person’s well-being is in a good place, they will learn.