Tag Archives: social responsibility

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.

“Social media and social conscience” by Molly Pugh age 15

Social media allows us to connect in ways we never had before. We have the potential to make links with people you would never normally encounter – of different social standing, race and even living on the other side of the world. However, there is a danger that social media can shut people off from the wider world, instead of helping them embrace it. By using websites like Facebook and Twitter, people surround themselves with their friends, their family and their social circles. Even on Twitter people follow people they have common interests with such as a celebrities. This can lead to young people in the West being surrounded by their predominantly privileged culture.

Young people, without rare proactive interest, don’t see the huge breaches of human rights and the grotesque amounts of suffering going on around the world today. This combined with what I feel is the growing perception that being an activist of any kind has become unfashionable in the west’s middle classes, certainly In Britain, has created a distressing reality that world suffering is becoming increasingly ignored. Whilst it should not go unmentioned that there are of course socially aware young people in our society, I feel strongly that there are not enough. In my school, which has a strong sense of social responsibility, the Prom Committee in year 10 was the most popular committee by far, whilst Amnesty was the least. This is illustrative of a challenge which faces our society. If young people aren’t taught to be socially and globally conscious then surely, in the enclosed world of social media, they are ill prepared for when they reach adulthood. This is further proven by the astounding fact that in 2005 more 18-34 year olds voted in the Big Brother Contest than in the general election.

Social media whilst having huge possibilities, with 552 million daily users on Facebook alone, often lets itself down by surrounding people with their cultures and comfort zones, and not forcing them to see the massive and more important issues that the world is facing. The main issue is how can we use social media to enhance people’s social conscience, instead of hindering it?

Fact about the Big Brother Voting from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4586995.stm.
Fact about the Facebook usage from http://visual.ly/100-social-networking-statistics-facts-2012

Learning service or Service-Learning?

The Duke of Wellington was famously credited with asserting that the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won “on the playing fields of Eton”.  Well, in his own twenty first century way, Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, Old Etonian, and acquaintance of Johnson clan (various), has claimed another famous victory for his Alma Mater. Defending the preponderance of fellow Old Etonians in the government, Mr Norman declared that Eton uniquely promoted an ethos of commitment to public service:
“(Eton) is one of the few schools where the pupils really do run vast chunks of the school themselves. So they don’t defer in quite the same way; they do think there’s the possibility of making change through their own actions.”

Umm. Apart from smacking a little of “Lord of the Flies”, this highly personal view of Mr Norman’s own education does a great disservice to schools in both the maintained and independent sectors. Schools across the land may not all have the playing fields of Eton (probably been sold off), but they do have what matters more – a community. And the best school communities will have what can be simply described as a heart, promoting a sense of social responsibility and service within the school and beyond. Whilst the government metric for success in schools focuses on examination performance and league tables, much of the fantastic work of our young people goes under the radar. Schools value it because teachers working with young people understand that school is not just about examination success.

Interestingly governments in other countries share this belief. In the U.S. for example there is a commitment to what is described as Service-Learning:

“Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

Underpinning this is a range of activities familiar to us yet valued in a way unfamiliar in our system. Service-Learning is not about short term volunteerism or extra curricular bolt ons. It is about integrating this approach into the curriculum:

“If school students collect trash from an urban stream bed, analyse their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in Service-Learning. In addition to providing an important service to the community, students are learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, and practising communications skills. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Both the students and the community have been involved in a transformative experience.” ( http://www.servicelearning.org )

Looking through the prism of this model it is striking that the desired learning outcomes are not subject to assessment in a sense we would understand. Service-Learning strives to promote a greater understanding and awareness of the place of a young person in their world and their own sense of responsibility.

If we insist on only valuing what we can measure in this country, let’s think about measurement in a way which takes account of our own version of Service-Learning. After all, Michael Gove believes teachers should create their own curriculum in the future. Surely this offers an opportunity to build on the excellent practice which already exists in our schools. Who knows? We may find future generations of young people from a range of backgrounds and schools aspiring to serve in government because they know through their experience that they can make a difference through learning  Service-Learning.

The rise and fall of Paris Brown IRL (In Real Life)

Paris Brown, 17 years old, and in many respects a typical teenager. She gave an engaging performance on BBC Breakfast recently as she was unveiled as the country’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. However, the maelstrom which engulfed the unfortunate Paris following this announcement captures well the challenges of growing up in today’s world.

Paris Brown IRL

Paris Brown

Unfortunately for Paris she had committed what appears to be the ultimate sin in our digital age. She had shared with Twitter, when younger, thoughts which were very stupid and for which she was lambasted by the national media and an assorted group of people in public life quick to admonish the teenager. Keith Vaz, no less, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, demanded she stepped down from her post instantly.

Not for a moment do I condone Paris’s Tweets, however, as someone who has observed teenagers in a school setting, dare I say that they can be very, very stupid. The benefit of a school community is that mistakes can be made. And the average teenager will make mistakes. The key is that they learn from it and move on.

The contrition expressed by Paris appeared genuine to me and if she had made her comments in the real world she rightly would have been strongly chastised. To make racist or homophobic comments is unacceptable – end of. Sadly for Paris, Tweets posted when she was younger were deemed to have defined her and were ergo unforgivable.

Is it the unintended consequence of the social media age that the previously ephemeral mistakes of the teenage years, the careless or thoughtless comments which would not bear scrutiny in the adult world, are now indelibly stamped on an individual’s identity forever? If this is indeed the case, we have reached a watershed moment. It is not only the young who need to learn a lesson from the tragic rise and fall of Paris Brown. So too do those of us who did not grow up with social media. It is difficult for me to appreciate the lure of the virtual world which is all too real to young people. Whether it is Twitter or Facebook, their digital life is as important as their life in the real world. Their engagement is total and self-censorship minimal.

In school, we see this played out in the youngsters’ everyday lives. Bad behaviour which in the past was the preserve of the school playground has migrated to the digital world where it takes on a new power. Schools are required now to have a policy on cyberbullying which is designed to address a digital version of sadly predictable behaviour, aimed to support the victim. Yet it is arguable that the perpetrator is creating a digital footprint which could well come back to haunt them in their adult life.

As employers and universities increasingly trawl the web for an insight into the virtual world of individuals, it strikes me that we need to take a view on a life lived in a digital age.

I think we can take it as a given that a typical teenager will at some point post something on social media which is regrettable. Surely in the adult world we should be capable of taking account of context. The uncensored thoughts of someone when growing up may or may not reveal the best about that individual. But given the journey of life, we must allow for maturity and life experiences to act upon and more than likely change an individual’s character.

So let us use the cautionary tale of Paris Brown as a sanity check. For sure, schools are doing their bit to educate young people about the pitfalls of the digital world and the notion of a digital footprint. Yet, youngsters will nonetheless make mistakes which is part of growing up. It behoves adults to understand this – by doing so we are demonstrating a proper understanding of the digital age.

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