Tag Archives: education

Mrs Morgan – how sad that we have come to this.

When Michael Gove had the baton of the education portfolio wrenched from his reluctant hands last year, I had some optimism that his successor, Mrs Nicky Morgan, would be more than Gove-lite. The new Secretary of State for Education has certainly made emollient noises about teachers and has even invited the teaching profession to share their concerns about workload. So I was somewhat dismayed when our Secretary of State whipped off her benign mask and showed her true colours. In an interview with the Sunday Times Nicky Morgan proclaimed: “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel.” And how will she ensure this is achieved?

“The new tests for 11-year-olds we are introducing next year will be strengthened to ensure that every young person is meeting the mark.” Not so much Gove-lite but pure unadulterated Gove with the threat of dismissal for Heads who fail to ensure their pupils come up to the mark.

Where does one begin to respond to a Secretary of State who announces policy cloaked in threats? Accountability has become so much part of education that there is some perverted logic to extending it to sacking a Head Teacher for failing to “meet the mark” set by the Secretary of State for Education. After all in the push for academies there has already been collateral damage with Head Teachers’ careers coming to an abrupt end – all in the name of standards.

How utterly dismal and depressing it is that hard-working professionals can be viewed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the undulating waters of education policy. We have come a long way if a Head Teacher’s raison d’être is purely results with no regard for the broader educational imperative facing our young learners who are growing up in a world of exponential change. Of course youngsters need to learn the basics but if testing of basics to ensure children “come up to the mark” becomes the school’s major focus (because otherwise the Head Teacher will be presented with a P45), how far can a school’s function be truly educational?

Only recently the Department of Education published league tables which presented an extraordinary examination scenario where my school (where 93% of GCSE grades were A*/A last year), was awarded ‘0’ in the table because we offered a mix of GCSEs and IGCSEs. And we were not alone. We had examination league tables which were demonstrably cast straight from “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with high performing schools propping up the bottom of the table. Fortunately for me my job is not on the line. As an independent school we have the educational luxury of choosing the best qualification for our learners – we are not regulated by the latest diktat about league tables. Yet I am acutely conscious that this brutalist approach to measuring our schools is the iron-hand weighing on the shoulders of our school leaders across the country. Of course there are schools that can do better – indeed all schools should believe this is the case. Yet the battle-lines (and I use this term advisedly) which have been carved between the government and educators, means that the education of our young people, which is the most rewarding of challenges, has become a war of attrition, as evidenced by Mrs Morgan’s most recent announcement.

Most tragic of all, to me, is the underlying assumption presented by the Secretary of State for Education that Head Teachers and teaching staff don’t really care enough about how the children in their schools’ progress and it takes the cracking of a whip by Mrs Morgan to ensure each child performs. How sad that we have come to this.

Students deserve a better vision for education

Are schools able to set the priorities that they know are fitting for students for now, rather than they might have been for 25 years ago? Teachers are in perhaps the most powerful position in the world. They personally shape the life experiences of the next generation. Students and teachers deserve a vision. Actually, it is more – the change our young people are facing demands a coherent vision for education – and not one that is dominated by some form of assessment metric.

For those of us subsumed in the everyday life of a school it is all too easy to become caught up with the mechanics of education. The curriculum, timetable and qualifications are often how school life is triangulated. It was ever thus – certainly my schooling fitted neatly into this particular educational hierarchy.

Curriculum and qualifications are currently the meat and drink of our national debate. Much blogging and tweeting captures the lively discussions taking place in this very familiar fulcrum. Very familiar indeed. Canon of knowledge, standards, employability litter the discourse on education. Yet, what we hear less about is arguably most important – how are we preparing our young people as learners for a future which will have a landscape marked at least as much by the unknown as the known?

As we see the technological revolution unfold around us, we lack a road map for this future. The old verities which have traditionally dominated school life are not enough to prepare our young. Their lives will be characterised by change driven on remorselessly by innovation and invention. Surely learning must be about the development of the whole child to ensure they are properly prepared for their world and not just prepped for a set of examinations? After all, life itself is not a set of exam papers where you pass or fail.

As the century progresses, the pace of change is, if anything, increasing exponentially. The capacity to think and more importantly to think differently is critical. Education must be about learning in a way which transcends the conventional metrics : it must also aim to encourage a range of literacies which can otherwise be lost in the melee of schemes of work and specifications. To the twin metrics of English literacy and numeracy should be added amongst others scientific, digital, cultural and visual literacy. In this way an individual is well placed to interact with and interrogate their world in a meaningful way and ensures a young person is properly equipped for their life journey.

The challenge for today’s educators is to lift their focus from the inevitable granular character of our national obsession with measurement, to the future which is broad brushed and uncertain. I do not underestimate this challenge but surely to constrain our debate as we habitually do is failing to educate the next generation in a way which is right for them and their lives in tomorrow’s world.

To find out more about what this vision means, the full animation is available here.

A vision for learning - animation introduction

A vision for learning – full animation

The true value of friendship in a digital age

Friendship. There’s an old fashioned concept. Friends are integral to our personal narrative; they enable us to chart a course through sometimes choppy times in our lives.

Authors and playwrights through the ages have viewed relations between friends as a gift that keeps on giving as the ups and downs of friendship offer a priceless range of dramatic encounters. And let’s not forget the problematic friendships in the myriad of soaps which wall paper our TV viewing throughout the year.

Yet where does friendship, a cornerstone of our lives, rest in the digital world? In the space of a decade, friendship in the real world is facing a challenge from online activities of “friends” in the virtual world. It seems bizarre that someone unknown, in reality, can have such an impact in the world of flesh and blood. The recent press coverage of two teenagers who for varying reasons decided to take their own lives because of their interaction with the virtual world is both tragic and cautionary.

I wonder whether the blurring in young people’s lives of who lies within their circle of friends is becoming an issue which needs to be addressed more robustly in schools? Of course schools are meticulous in offering advice on safe use of the Internet both to pupils and parents. The dangers of engagement with strangers in the online world are stressed “ad nauseum”.

I should like to suggest a parallel strategy which focuses on valuing friendship with people in the real world. The ever present smartphone and ceaseless text messaging inevitably corrodes the value of the personal engagement with the friend you are meant to be spending time with. Friendships arguably are now framed more loosely and perhaps therefore are in danger of being undervalued.

Schools are perfectly placed to offer a counter balance to the shadowy relationships forged in the ether. Young people today require clearer guidance on the importance of maintaining good relationships with real people. The school community is a microcosm of life and is able to offer a moral framework for young people helping them develop in a positive way, believing in themselves whilst being sympathetic to the needs of others. And most importantly understanding the value of an opinion within a context which is rationale. School life is real life with known individuals and accountability for one’s actions.

I know that so much amazing stuff already happens in schools to foster good relationships and encourage a sense of belonging. Of course there is no government metric to measure well-being. However, anyone working in a school appreciates the importance of individuals being at ease with themselves and those around them. Strong friendships are still being made. My concern is that these real life friendships are not tainted by the “like/unlike” world of the Internet and that young people understand the value of the former and the limitations of the latter.

Who better to offer commentary on the value of friendship in the real world than William Shakespeare:

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”

Higher Education – but not as we know it?

Several years ago I participated in an interesting exercise in consultation involving a wide range of representatives associated with Higher Education. In a crowded room in Bloomsbury Square, HQ of Universities UK, Vice Chancellors, representatives from schools, the NUS President, UCAS, JMQ representing the exam boards, and others were tasked by the then Education Minister to transform applications to HE in the interests of social fairness.

The focus of debate was the concept of the “gathered field” or Post Qualifications Application (PQA) where students applied for places after receiving their examination results. This change to the system would set aside the perceived problem of predicted grades where there was a consensus that students from the maintained sector were more likely to have less positive predictions than students from the independent sector.

Everyone in the room wanted the system to work fairly. And everyone in the room had a position to defend in the great “gathered field” debate. Even the frustration of the government minister failed to shift the vested interests of selective v. recruiting universities, school term dates v. public examination timetable, and the genuine concern about the unintended consequences to the HE sector of PQA.

It was therefore with a somewhat jaded eye that I read a BBC report about the concerns of Professor Nick Foskett, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, who fears that the current UCAS system is not fit for purpose:

“We’re working with a model that is more than 50 years old and was created to accommodate a handful of universities, but now processes tens of thousands of student applications each year.”


Interestingly, this was a point well made when the great and the good met around the table of Universities UK to chew over the arguments surrounding university admissions. Yet there was a strong sense then that the whole system should not go through a root and branch change because a small number of students attained better than expected. The idea of “trading up” quickly gained traction as it involved merely tweaking in Clearing – job done!

Professor Foskett however is perturbed by HE admissions. It is clear that the contours of the HE landscape have changed in recent years. Whilst student fee hikes have undoubtedly affected the attitudes of students to HE providers, HE is struggling to engage with the current government’s Widening Participation agenda. Diktats on student grades impacting negatively on last year’s admissions cycles left some selective universities in the bizarre position of not recruiting as they anticipated.

So the world of HE is beginning to experience the unintended consequences it feared. My concern is that the monetarisation of HE and tinkering with grade requirements at a time when the government has declared its intention to reverse grade inflation, is a toxic combination. The HE admissions process, carefully preserved after extensive debate under the previous government, is now challenged in ways which could not have been anticipated. The HE steering group was tasked with the issue of the “gathered field”. Professor Foskett is actually absolutely right to raise this issue again. Only this time the axis of debate has shifted and urgently needs proper joined up thinking to ensure the HE sector, the Jewel in the Crown of this country, maintains its status internationally and is ultimately sustainable and socially inclusive.