Author Archives: Tricia Kelleher

About Tricia Kelleher

Principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation schools, Cambridge, UK

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.

“Driving Up Standards” ? What About Well-being

Just imagine if the government’s “driving up standards” agenda was about encouraging the well-being of students and teachers. How would that look?

Focussing on the students, the school would prioritise their mental health. The most important question facing the teachers each day is whether each of their students were emotionally in a good place. If this were the case, the school would be confident that the young people, whom they are charged to educate, would make good academic progress. Supported by a robust support team including school counsellors and nurses with ready access to expertise externally, the teaching staff would be well-placed to recommend interventions where appropriate. Time would be made available for mindfulness coaching, encouraging students and teachers to let go the stresses of the everyday.

Unfortunately, the well-being of students and teachers appears to me to be quite far down the government’s agenda for schools. Whilst students are exhorted to pass ever harder tests throughout their school life, teachers have become the whipping boy for every social ill, tasked with remedying the problems of everyday life, and, of course, ensuring students achieve ever higher “standards”. Education should be a joy – no longer. Education today appears to me to be about a morbid focus on qualifications and chasing ever higher places in the PISA league tables.

Ironically our school has been visited by representatives from the Singaporean government, the much vaunted country in PISA for Mathematics, who are eager to learn about how academic success can be combined with an enriched school curriculum where creativity and digital learning are flourishing. So whilst Singapore is looking to learn from us, our government is looking to the east to “drive up standards”. Singapore understands that there is more to life than attainment; our government is motoring up this particular “cul de sac” with eyes firmly on the prize. PISA success. And to hell with an education which encourages critical thinking, creativity and well-being.

The direction of travel for education is about testing, testing, testing – a constant “weighing of the pig”. What about the learning? As the leader of a school which offers an education which is globally minded, I think the approach to education in this country is a disgrace. The government is letting down a generation of young people, sacrificed on the altar of standards.

My jaundiced view appears to be supported by the Global Teacher Prize winner, Nancie Attwell, an American who, in a recent visit to London, expressed her concerns about a comparable approach to education in America. The “world’s best teacher” says that a culture of excessive testing can damage standards and “decimate morale” among teachers. And I think she is right. I urge the policy makers in education to think again about what learning is for. If it is only about testing, then we have missed the point. As teenage mental health becomes a genuine cause for concern, shame on us if we neglect the core duty of education – to encourage a child to be the extraordinary person they can be. Not just a set of data in a league table.

If we go back to first principles, an icon of our age, Nelson Mandela, summed up what education should be about:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

If only…

Tough on education, tough on the causes of education – Mrs Morgan’s legacy

Just imagine the scene. Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, and her denizens, gathered together to discuss how to improve the education of our children. “So,” she ponders “what will make a real difference to learning in the classroom?”

“Ensuring we recruit and retain the best quality teachers in all our schools?” says someone helpfully.

“Ah … Interesting point. Recruitment and retention of teachers is critical. To ensure they are doing the job we need we must hold these teachers fully accountable” Mrs Morgan ripostes. “We can’t have coasting teachers in coastal towns…” A smile quivers on her lips as her denizens chuckle just as if they had never heard this quip before. “We also need to be wary of young teachers who are being trained by education faculties – Michael warned me about the dangers of the blob…”

“Would it help improve things ” mutters one side kick warily “if we valued teachers in schools more?”

“I do value those teachers who ensure their schools are deemed excellent by Ofsted. But how can I value teachers who let down our children in schools found wanting? You only have to listen to Sir Michael on this. He is incandescent that so many schools require improvement! What we need are more academies and Free Schools to free schools from the shackles of local authorities so they focus on teaching and learning.”

“But Minister” – he hesitates – “there is little if any evidence that academies and Free Schools improve outcomes…” Courage failing, the side kick decides to end his challenge.

“Would it not be beneficial to have a coherent curriculum and assessment framework which runs from age 3-18, Minister, to ensure progression in learning?”

“Well, Michael has looked at this. Look what happened to him – got a kicking from the History blob!”
responds the Minister testily. “What I need,” she pauses for effect, “is an eye catching educational policy which will make me headline news. A policy which will make my name as a tough Education Secretary – tough on education, tough on the causes of education.”

“What about,” – the side kick hesitates- “what about introducing more testing of children so we can truly hold the teachers and the schools accountable?”

There was silence as the assembled denizens waited for their Minister’s response.

“Brilliant, absolutely brilliant!” Mrs Morgan cries truly overwhelmed by the idea of creating her legacy. “Testing,testing, testing – the younger the better.”

As the room relaxed, Mrs Morgan asked what was next on the day’s agenda.

“The mental well-being of our children – deemed a growing problem in our schools.”

“Ah! And what are schools doing to ensure our children are supported?” declares the Minister without a hint of irony.