Author Archives: Tricia Kelleher

About Tricia Kelleher

Principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation schools, Cambridge, UK

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.  

Teachers, your country needs you!

I enjoyed a very civilised working lunch today with members of Year 10 who had come to discuss with me a planned change of uniform for Year 11. The details of our meeting don’t matter. What does matter is the approach of this group of students who had come to persuade me to change our current plans. They had consulted with the wider year group and were keen to work with the leadership of the school to get what they saw as a better outcome for them and, they believed, the school. They were armed with their arguments finely honed by debating the uniform situation in the year group.
My interaction with these students reminded me that life and learning within school is about so much more than the pursuit of qualifications (at whatever cost). These young people were demonstrating impressive powers of persuasion and, indeed, leadership within their year group. I believe their education, with its emphasis on the learner at the heart of all we do, has contributed to our students being the young people they can be.

Why am I musing on this vignette of school life? Mainly because the unrelenting diet of news about schools is negative and uninspiring and commodifies education wrapping it up nicely in a data bow. In such a landscape why would anyone want to join the teaching profession? Indeed, why would you stay? In the spirit of re-energising the debate around teaching and why we should care that the best teachers are working in all our schools, let’s go back to the fundamentals of education.
“Educere” – “to lead out” (Latin) gives us a starting point. In this context I believe teachers are charged with doing something quite extraordinary. They are charged with helping learners discover themselves, their interests and their passions. Laying the foundations for learning with knowledge and skills, teachers are engaged in preparing a new generation for the changes that are to come. As we look to a future where globalisation and the digital revolution are drivers for change, teachers are readying young people to create solutions to problems yet unknown. This requires questioning, thinking, and creating. This means far more than just memorisation and the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, the dimension of education which is most easily measured in examinations. Learning has to be more dynamic and interactive and less passive. 
The teacher is absolutely critical in this. Their skills and expertise are integral to the learning experience of every student. And how exciting it is now for teachers who are often learning with their students. The opportunities for re-thinking pedagogy are huge with digital tools allowing different ways of learning. Instead of textbooks a teacher can create a tech book; digital devices can enable meaningful collaborative ways of learning; and google classroom offers a fantastic feedback loop for students. There are so many ways for teachers to reflect on practice and to think differently about teaching and learning.  
And inspiration remains the core business of schools. A recent Channel 4 series “Born to be Different” focussed on the lives of young people with disabilities and I was greatly struck by the interactions between these young people and their teachers. In one case, the Head Teacher cajoled a student to stand for Head Girl despite the student’s own reservations. The belief and support made all the difference to this young lady and she acquitted herself well in the election being appointed Deputy Head Girl.
Inspiration is important to every student. Ask anyone after they leave school what they remember and invariably it will be the inspirational teacher in Mathematics, History, Music, Classics, Art…. To under estimate the relationships between teachers and students is to miss the point of education. My “cri de coeur” to teachers, aspiring or working in schools, is don’t be deterred by the leviathan of government policy. Once you strip away bureaucracy, the children are still children and they deserve the best we can give then. And what better job is there than to work with young people to help them be the people they can be?  Teachers, your country needs you! (No apologies for using exclamation mark.)

What price academic equity? 

So Cambridge University has responded to the introduction of reformed to ‘A’ Levels. With many potential students no longer required to sit an AS Level with the reformed ‘A’ Levels, Cambridge has decided to introduce its own system of assessment. Nothing really new here because Oxford has been setting pre-selection testing for a number of years. However, I do wonder if this development heralds a change to university entrance at selective universities. What will be the currency of university matriculation in the future?
I feared, as did others, that the changes to ‘A’ Level would create a new admissions’ landscape for Higher Education. I understand the position of Oxbridge. Our oldest universities want to recruit the brightest and the best and are not confident that our national qualification system will enable them to do this. The bar of ‘A’ Levels is to be supplemented by additional university testing.
Yet there are universities who appear to be throwing caution to the wind and making unconditional offers to entice students. In this untrammelled market students are the consumers of Higher Education and all that stands between them and their place is their money. Imagine an U6th student sitting on an unconditional offer. Other than for the most diligent, I suggest that the motivation for hard work will be nil. Why bust a gut when your place depends on nothing? The implication for examination results for schools and the cult of data is interesting.
We have therefore a binary system evolving. Higher education is adding barriers whilst at the same time making it all too easy to secure a place at a top university. How can this be a level playing field for school and sixth form colleges preparing students for a range of destinations? I sense that the direction of travel for HE will become quite fragmented and this can only be to the detriment of students studying in very different settings. Teachers face the challenge of preparing students for Oxbridge entrance whilst being on the case of students who require nothing. This is extreme differentiation.
Why does this matter? I can’t help but feel that different educational settings will struggle to cope with this changing set of expectations. UCAS, the god of university entrance, is no longer the gate keeper to a level playing field. Instead, it is a portal to a wide range of access arrangements where universities call the shots. Rather than focussing on the academic needs of each student, teachers are having to consider the admission arrangements for each university.  
The HE market, in my view, is creating an expectation for sixth formers which will require an Herculean level of support from hard pressed sixth form teachers. The disconnect between sixth form and HE is in danger of causing real disruption in what has been historically a positive pathway between the two. And what does this mean for the future? We are in the realm of unintended consequences. One thing is for sure – academic equity is no longer a priority for sixth formers in the view of HE. It is all about students overcoming whatever barrier is presented to them.

So what about the pedagogy?

Last September the OECD published their findings on the impact of technology on learning or, more specifically, attainment. The results were not good: “School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support C21st century pedagogies and provide children with the C21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills. How this was reported in the media should be filed under “apocalyptic approach to journalism”. The media headlines were like vultures circling their dying prey: “School technology struggles to make an impact” proclaimed the BBC and an Australian newspaper asked : “Are iPads in schools a waste of money? OECD report says yes.”  

The breathless race to damn digital technology ignored a further comment made by Andreas Schleicher: “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.” These words go to the heart of Schleicher’s reservations about the impact of technology in schools. Many countries had conflated the acquisition of technology with positive outcomes in teaching and learning without contemplating how teachers needed support and guidance on how best to use digital technology for learning. The mistake so many schools have made across the world is to believe that investment in technology ‘per se’ is the key to unlocking learning opportunities without any real consideration for pedagogy.  

And let’s be clear. My school made the same error. We rolled out 1:1 iPads to our 11-18 year old learners four years ago believing they would provide teachers and students with a powerful tool for learning. Digital technology appeared to offer the Nirvana of education where differentiation and carefully layered learning were instantly accessible through a device. Learning anytime, anywhere. However, there was one fatal flaw – the requisite confidence and expertise of teachers to adopt the technology in ways which would transform learning outcomes. In the early days, teachers looked to Apps to offer something different: Socrative, iMovie, Explain Everything. And these Apps did offer opportunities for teaching and learning which were not possible in the analogue world. iTunes U, another early digital opportunity, offered a fabulous curation tool where the teacher’s filing cabinet of resources became digitised and consequently hugely enriched with the addition of multi media links. All of this activity was a beginning, and a positive beginning. Schleicher, I am sure, would applaud the strides we have made in using technology as an effective teaching and learning tool. However, the potential to transform the way we think about our pedagogy came with the opportunity to create tech books.

So what is a tech book? Tech books are a digital interactive resource which enables the teacher to create content which is truly differentiated. With the help of Aisling Brown, our Educational Technologist, teachers are encouraged to reflect on their pedagogy and on how best to help their students learn. Unlike many publishers, our content is not just digitised but digital underpinned by skilful instructional design. Aisling Brown explains what this means in practice:
“We base our iBooks Textbooks’ design on cognitive and educational research into digital reading, interactive and multimedia learning, to promote implicit and explicit learning, with extension and support interwoven to make tailored resources for all. From the smallest details of line length, we consider the educational impacts and design to maximise learning. This design process is applied through a constructivist pedagogy, where design, use and research insights are integrated, with each informing the other. So, teachers are consulted and trained in using new tools throughout the design, but are more importantly trained to think differently about how they teach using those tools, to redefine the purposes and processes of learning, and to continue to evaluate, extend and share their experiences. In this way, we centralise and transform the learning experience, ensuring learners always come first.”

So we are indeed engaged in something extraordinary. If you are interested in learning more about our iBooks Textbooks, they are available for free in the iBook store. 
Clearly at the heart of what we do is learning and pedagogy not the technology. This is the change that needs to happen in education globally to enable us to fulfil the potential offered by the digital age. The ability to share means educators everywhere can collaborate to work towards this goal. Pedagogical change should ensure that the next OECD report on the impact of technology on learning will, I hope, make very different reading.