Tag Archives: individuality

Stick or carrot – what matters in education

As the mercury hits 30 degrees, and schools finally breath a collective sigh of relief at the end of term, the government makes its latest summer announcement. And it was hot. Proposed baseline testing for 5 year olds and secondary ready testing at age 11. Wow! Each child, including children with special needs, will be ranked against each other. Clear, straightforward and necessary to ensure pupil progress. Or is it?

I am loath to react to this latest “good” idea and instead would like to respond based on my experience as a teacher and latterly principal. Integral to the learning of a child is engagement with that learning. The best model of education is one where children learn effortlessly because they are immersed in their learning. Teachers are placed on their mettle because this model is without a doubt a pedagogical challenge. There needs to be real inspirational teaching as well as a focus on the needs of individuals.

Our junior school pushed the boundaries of its curriculum at the end of the summer term in a way which was challenging for staff. A collapsed timetable, a visit to the Harry Potter studios, and an entirely new learning environment was created. At one point, after a chemistry lesson on potions, a year 4 girl was overheard to say that she did not realise she was learning. A raptor demonstration was both about the owls at Hogwarts and the life of the owl in real life. And the Howlers produced on the iPads captured the digital skills of the children and their love of “telling off” Harry Potter style. The children were both actively engaged with and enjoying their learning.

Within the fabric of the junior school we believe that we need to create inspirational spaces. Our aim to inspire our pupils to embrace the power of the story is manifest in the reconfiguration of our junior school library. Adjacent to a room which is designed to encourage children to relax and read is a story courtyard with cultural references to classics in children’s literature. We seek to pique the interest of our pupils – incite curiosity. The signature “Lion, the witch and the wardrobe” lamp post acts as a focal point of the courtyard.

And inspiration is crucial. The focus on assessment fails to acknowledge the importance of inspiring children to believe in themselves and to believe they can dream. The proposed benchmark testing leaves little space for encouraging self belief. The child is pigeon holed and marked as a percentile of his/her cohort which I find profoundly depressing.

The debate about standards in education rages around us. Of course, we care that our children achieve their true potential. But the blunt instrument of testing is akin to using a stick without carrot. Assessment is an essential element in education. Yet to use this tool on its own without acknowledging the importance of inspiration in learning in the class room is for the government to fall into its own Gradgrindian trap.

League tables are all well and good but if they don’t measure what we value – the individual – then we need to take a long, hard look at their function. The individual trumps every time for me.


Mr Michael Gove – provocative and wrong

What do the Blob, Mr Men and Guardian education writers have in common? They all appear somewhere in Michael Gove’s pantheon of disapproval. The Education Secretary’s latest speech about the problems besetting education is classic Gove. It is very engaging, thought provoking and entertaining. His view on raising the bar of aspiration for all young people is absolutely right. Yet his method is so wrong.

As principal of an academic school where aspiration is part of our DNA, I really do get Gove’s passion for excellence. However, what mystifies me is his very personal take on what should matter in the pursuit of excellence. Gove referenced George Elliot’s Middlemarch as illustrative of the kind of book a 17 year old should be reading for pleasure. This struck a chord with me. As a 13 year old back in the last century I was so inspired by a BBC mini series of “War and Peace” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alan Dobie that I read the trilogy. Whilst I cannot claim to have truly appreciated this classic piece of literature, I knew I was reading something very special which helped awaken in me a life long love of history. I am sure Gove would approve of such cultural aspiration from a working class daughter of Irish immigrants. Yet I should never have even considered reading such a vast tome without the stimulus of the TV series.

TolstoyAnd this is the point. Just as the medium of television opened up the world of Tolstoy to me, today television is one of just a multitude of possibilities for engaging the young. Their cultural landscape is hugely varied. What interests them? Well, I think sober study of classic literature and dry narrative history do not register highly. Young people need an approach which connects with them and the values in their world.

As such, Gove’s dismissive attitude to cultural references which are decidedly low brow entirely miss the point. Mr Men? Disney? Why not if they contribute to understanding and learning. It is not about denigrating, it is about creating. Why not a rap in Latin? Blind Date in the court of Henry VIII? iPad puppet pals for any number of learning opportunities? All tried and trusted approaches in one academic school in Cambridge.

Rather than looking to the familiar, everyone involved in education should be thinking differently about learning. The digital world is a game changer. And we must change with it. If Angry Birds, the staple digital game of many youngsters, inspires a young person to learn coding surely that is a desirable outcome? If the Garage Band app provides a creative platform for an aspiring young musician isn’t this to be applauded? Both activities can be deemed distractions – but they need not be.

We are on the nursery slopes of digital learning. The potential for transformation of the conventional educational paradigm is extraordinary. Yet none of this registers in the world of the Secretary of State for Education. It strikes me that Gove’s well meaning attempts to promote excellence for all young people is being enacted in a parallel universe. The Aunt
Sallies highlighted in Mr Gove’s recent speech will be as nothing compared to future digital “distractions” – sorry, learning.

Final thought. A delegation of teachers from an academic school in Singapore visited us recently to learn about our experience of iPads. I thought that the principal and her staff would be focused on the use of iPads to improve academic attainment. After all, Singapore is flying high in Gove’s favourite international league table, PISA. I was surprised and encouraged to learn that this particular school was, like us, concerned with the holistic nature of education and how the digital revolution impacted upon young people.

We felt a real connection with the educators who worked in a school on the other side of the world. Therefore it is disappointing that the educational policy in this country feels like we are living in a foreign country.

Lesson in connecting and giving.

Erica Denton, 5, helping sell Comic Relief merchandise outside Oxfam in Saffron Walden.

Erica Denton, 5, helping sell Comic Relief merchandise outside Oxfam in Saffron Walden.

Comic Relief raised a record breaking £75 million on the 25th Red Nose Day when an assortment of celebrities and the great British public did something funny for money. At one stage during the evening 10,000 volunteers at BT were taking 200 calls per second and, over the course of the evening, nearly half a million calls were answered. This at a time when the economy is sluggish and belts are being tightened.

Events such as this provide us with an opportunity to hold a mirror up to our nation. Just as the Olympics and Paralympics beamed back at us and made us feel huge levels of collective pride, Comic Relief warms our hearts as we rejoice in levels of compassion which are staggering.

So why are occasions like Red Nose Day successful in connecting with so many of us? To understand this it is important to reflect on what motivates individuals. In this context, I was reminded of the presentation on Mindfulness given by Professor Felicia Huppert at our recent “What is learning for?” conference. There is a growing body of science espoused by Professor Huppert, among others, which essentially focuses on the importance of positivity in promoting wellbeing, an integral factor in our mental health. Two key elements in the path to wellbeing are ‘connecting with those around you’ and ‘giving to others’. Comic Relief absolutely captures both of these elements.

So what happens in our daily lives to promote positivity? This is clearly an important consideration in the life of a school community where young people are developing emotionally. Gone are the days when Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” resonates as real life experience. Schools’ pastoral investment in young people today is huge. Those of us lucky enough to watch “Educating Essex”, a series about students and teachers at the Passmore Academy, witnessed the level of care and dedication of staff supporting their charges during really challenging times.

Yet, according to the theory behind wellbeing, the emphasis should be on the individual adopting a positive approach. Building on connection with others and the act of giving, a school community is well placed to foster positivity. Many schools, ours included, pride themselves on their sense of social responsibility. We view ourselves as part of the community in Cambridge and are keen for our students to play an active role in our city. Illustrative of this for us is the success of our outreach programme this year. What has been particularly striking to me is the value our students place on this engagement with the lives of others. A recent assembly presented by sixth formers involved in this year’s Shine project (part of our outreach programme), was a heart-warming account of the relationships established with the 10 year olds involved in the project from other schools. The learning outcome of the project was as much the trust created between sixth formers and their young charges, as the creative arts project which had united them at the beginning.

Positivity therefore is a mind-set which can be nurtured. A sense of service and making a difference is not pure altruism; to encourage and facilitate constructive interaction with others for no material reward is arguably the most important activity for an individual’s wellbeing. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of people who did something funny for money on Red Nose Day.

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What is learning for?

The announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is to step down as Roman Catholic Pontiff was delivered to the world in Latin.  The reporter who had knowledge of this classical language was therefore granted a huge scoop pre-empting a global rush to cover this historically significant event.

Indeed, it was striking that this aspect of such an important news story ‘had legs’ as the Pope’s story receded.  That staple of morning news, BBC Breakfast, deemed the use of Latin so newsworthy as to present it as a major studio piece.  Context? What is the point of learning Latin.

I think it is fair to say that the language of the Romans enjoys a twenty first century fan base. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, is famously an Oxford Classicist and is not averse to using Latin aphorisms to score political points.  Journalist Toby Young, who was instrumental in founding a Free School in West London, regards Latin as an integral part of the school curriculum and an entitlement for students.  And of course, Cambridge University’s most famous Classical Scholar, Professor Mary Beard, has become something of a media darling, appearing in a host of programmes not all related to the ancient world.

Latin was once a hallmark of civilised life and was hugely important in the evolution of English.  Speaking as someone who studied Latin in the sixth form, the apparent vagaries of English grammar only revealed themselves to me through Kennedy’s Latin Primer.  The infamous split infinitive, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, was clearly a grammatical monstrosity – once I understood the infinitive.  Yet the vox pop interviews on BBC Breakfast illustrated well how we struggle with justifying teaching space for Latin today.   The vast majority of people interviewed clearly viewed Latin in a functional way. Why learn a “dead” language?

Yet interestingly the present Secretary of State for Education has a view on this which runs counter to popular opinion.  Last year his department released a consultative document on the primary years’ curriculum which listed Latin as one of a suite of languages which could be studied in schools.  This is, of course, part of Michael Gove’s educational agenda about restoring academic rigour to our schools.  Latin fits this bill very well.

I have no difficulty at all in accepting the importance of Latin in the school curriculum.  In our school it enjoys huge popularity.  But this is because it is offered within an enriched curriculum where every subject is valued as part of the broader learning experience. To view our curriculum as a menu of elite academic subjects leavened by creative arts or sport is missing the point – the Stephen Perse curriculum is focused on each student’s individual learning journey.  The trans-disciplinary approach to learning, as opposed to a focus on individual subjects, offers an education preparing our young people for a future less certain than our past, where the capacity to think, make connections and innovate are essential.  The approach to learning rather than the political focus on a portmanteau of subjects is what really matters.

Such is our engagement with educational debate, we have organised a conference called “What is learning for?”, where speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds will share their views on this hugely topical issue (http://stephenperse.com/futurelearning).  We are delighted that Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge, will open the conference and look forward to a full and frank exchange of views involving speakers and delegates (follow on twitter @_futurelearning).

And does the famously dead language have a contribution to make to this debate? Well, for me, the challenge for today’s educators is encapsulated in this Latin tag:

mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis  – all things change, and we change with them. Quite.

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