Tag Archives: qualification

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

Education – it’s all about the economy isn’t it?

What price education? There are of course a range of responses to this question. Currently the approach to education in this country is driven by the demands of the economy – we need young people who have basic literacy and numeracy skills, and those who aspire to Higher Education must pay for the privilege.

It was therefore striking and refreshing to have this view robustly challenged – not in this country but in South Africa. Novelist and academic JM Coetzee’s foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins’s new book, a series of essays on “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa” , captures succinctly a view premised on the public good.

“You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short-sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves… we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis.”

Coetzee’s primary concern is the absolute importance of the humanities which should not require special pleading to maintain their status within the life of a university. Whilst absolutely agreeing with the principle at the heart of this approach, it is not applicable to Higher Education alone. I believe this broader concept of what learning is for should underpin our approach to education in schools.

With a government which appears ever more obsessed with systems and measurement, our national debate on education becomes ever more reductionist. The lives of children are segmented into qualifications with a National Curriculum, itself a subject of some controversy, not mandatory for schools which are Academies or Free Schools. And as yet another government policy proposal is tweeted about ever before any proper consultation has taken place, educators are looking anxiously over their shoulders. For me, the triumph of process over vision in education is actually quite shocking.

The importance of educating a “critically literate citizenry” should be the Lode Star for a government of any political persuasion because our world is changing exponentially. We live in a time where the world is being transformed by the digital revolution, a revolution which has effectively sidestepped the conventional gatekeepers to information. The “anytime, anywhere” character of our lives made possible by digital technology is hugely exciting creating extraordinary opportunities.

But it also has a darker side. Those of us working in schools are very familiar with this. Whilst the press has focused on the perceived dangers of social media, there is also the realisation that the World Wide Web is the Wild West where everyone and anyone has a platform for better or ill. The instinct of adults is to try and protect young people from such unfiltered information. Any responsible school will operate some kind of screening to provide a learning Eco system which is balanced and responsible. However, the web exists outside of school where even the most careful of parents will struggle to police this particular Augean Stables.

As an independent school, we have the space to determine our own education philosophy. For us, in a time of rapid change, we believe absolutely in the concept of educating a “critically literate citizenry”. The vital importance of critical thinking – rarely mentioned in our national debate – is a prerequisite for anyone being educated in the digital age. With the emphasis on league tables and concomitant focus required from schools on this metric, it is quite possible that a young person can leave school with a clutch of good grades but frankly an inability to think independently. Indeed, we have received feedback from HE Admissions’ tutors who despair of candidates from very successful schools with a starry “A” profile yet cannot respond to questioning which takes them out of their specification comfort zone.

This is not an either/or issue. We believe strongly that students can achieve the necessary results to support their life chances but this need not be at the expense of their broader education. In the end, this is about what we value. And our school values a holistic approach to learning which is about the development of the individual. In the sound and fury surrounding education debate in this country, it is timely to remember the importance of educating the individual who must be critically literate in our brave new technological world.

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.

Public exams should be more than a political football

I had my own personal klaxon alert this morning. Hoping to gently ease myself into the Bank Holiday weekend, I thought how better to start my day than a browse through Twitter. A mistake. The BBC Twitter feed caught my eye. It carried a piece which could easily fall under the radar of news worthiness.

The shadow Labour schools minister, Kevin Brennan, had written to Glenys Stacey, chief exams regulator at Ofqual, about Gove’s proposed reforms to ‘A’ Levels: “I understand that the secretary of state’s position on this constitutes a policy direction to you, but in undertaking your work we think that it is important to signal clearly what our position will be following the next general election.” Essentially Mr Brennan is sending a warning shot across the bow of Ofqual that Gove’s mission to decouple ‘AS’ Levels from the two year linear ‘A’ Level qualification could be reversed after the election in 2015. (BBC article here)

I have very mixed feelings about this. On a point of principle I think I agree with the thrust of Mr Brennan’s argument – that the move would “narrow students ‘ A’ level choices, remove a key indicator for assessing university applicants and undermine progress in widening access to higher education.” However, there is another dimension to this debate which we dismiss at our peril. The stability and integrity of the qualifications’ framework.

We had an insight into the shape of things to come last year when a cohort of students were believed to have been let down by the system. The exam boards AQA and Edexcel felt the full force of a backlash against the perceived injustice in the grading of GCSE English. Allegations about political interference motivated by a determination to end grade inflation were noisily refuted by the DfE and Ofqual. However unfortunately damage had been done to the integrity of the examination system.

The extent of the damage is revealed in the results of a poll just published by Ofqual. In its efforts to assess how far confidence in the GCSE qualification had been affected by last year’s debacle, Ofqual carried out a poll of head teachers, teachers, parents and other interested parties. Salutary reading for all concerned, the results show clearly that GCSE has suffered a blow to its credibility. Some 89% of the heads and 77% of the teachers had concerns about the exams. These included unfair grade boundaries, incorrect grades and inaccurate marking.

Given the reforming agenda of the current Secretary of State for Education this poll is music to his ears. His department’s response says it all. A spokesman said Gove had warned that GCSEs suffered from serious weaknesses. “This report shows that these concerns are widespread. The changes we are making will restore confidence in GCSEs … they will be more rigorous, with deeper subject content and match the best equivalent exams in the world.”

Setting aside the view of teachers that Gove has been somehow complicit in exacerbating the problem, the fact remains that our examination framework demands more from us than political posturing. So although I sympathise with Mr Brennan’s desire to counter another strand of the Goveian Revolution at ‘A’ Level, I am deeply concerned that this will create instability in a qualifications’ system which is already creaking under the weight of the change proposed by the DfE. And halting change when planning is already well advanced is just as destabilising as the change itself.

Given the importance of ‘A’ Levels in accessing Higher Education, the possible fall out from getting this wrong is incalculable. GCSE-gate, a cautionary tale, should be warning enough. Politicians must remember that qualifications have a currency beyond the length of a parliament. They are about people’s lives – their hopes, dreams, aspirations. They are therefore too important to become a political football.