Rescue Our Schools

How is Covid-19 affecting education?

A fifteen-year-old’s Take on Exam Chaos

One of our regular bloggers, Aimee Collins, on her hopes and fears for the year ahead.

No one really knows how this year should have been handled. It began with few tragedies and a light of hope for those who needed a fresh start. However, this quickly turned into a worldwide tragedy with the human race needing to work together by staying apart, in order to fight the virus we were faced with.

Most people have written off this year without a second thought. They are just plowing on with their lives to make it through to the next year. But for some, it wasn’t that easy. Those still in education are faced with an exam situation that no one has ever experienced and a results day more feared than ever before. Students are worried about what their futures hold, while also having to worry about staying apart from those friends they love dearly. 

On the 20th of August, the GCSE students of 2020 were able to hold in their hands the results they got for their GCSEs, that they didn’t even take. They will look at the sheet of paper that tells them whether they made it where they want to go, or not, and think that they really had very little power in writing those numbers. 

The same feelings apply for those who got their A-level results just a few days before. A lot of those who received their A-level results were not happy with what they saw. A friend of mine told me that her brother was gutted when he found out that he wasn’t able to go to the university he had been dreaming of attending. The results he was given were not the results he needed and as a consequence he has had to accept a place somewhere he did not want to go. He believed that if he had been able to take the exams as normal then he would have been able to get the results he needed. 

Because of this, I did not like the way the government initially decided to source this year’s exam results. Many were left disappointed, upset and annoyed. Lots of those hopeful for good results were left in the dust and stranded with an option they didn’t want to take. A lot of those in this situation took that option and accepted their loss.

However, recently the government changed their minds. They allowed the results that teachers wanted to give their students, but, for most, it was already too late. So, the opportunity was lost and they were still stuck. 

This whole situation has made me fear my next year of school. When I return to school in September I will be year 11 with exams awaiting me. Currently, there are no permanent ideas for how the year will look and that thought worries not only me but many students across the country; from year 11’s to sixth form to university students.

As well as there being no certain exams, the world we will return to will be nothing like the one we knew before. The people we have been missing most and the side of school students crave will be extremely difficult to access. Those in lower years will most likely be stuck with seeing the same people in school for a long time.

 On the other hand, I completely understand that the government is doing their best to keep the country and all of those we love safe. Keeping away from one another as much as possible is extremely important, but we cannot forget to see those we love and to keep our hearts light with our heads held high. Make sure to keep your body and your mind safe from the virus. 

Left to Last

Rescue Our Schools’ David Taylor on why we need to value vocational education again

There is something very symbolic in the BTEC results being left to the end of this quite exceptional educational summer. Despite the fact they have the advantage of coursework and modular exams to draw on to justify the awarding of grades, their announcement trails their A-Level and GCSE cousins, disadvantaging the candidates as they chase courses at universities and sixth form colleges. It is a travesty that they and other vocational qualifications remain very much second in the pecking order.

I recall attending an event in London a few years ago when I was a secondary school headteacher. I don’t remember the specific purpose or the location, but it was a very plush propaganda-type affair. Both Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, and Michael Gove, unaware of his impending reshuffle from Education Secretary after been deemed a toxic liability by David Cameron, were present. They both spoke. Nothing Johnson said remains in my memory; however, I can resurrect the gist of a couple of sentences at the start of Gove’s utterances. In them he highlighted the opulent surroundings (ornate staircase, gold leaf on the ceiling, classical art masterpieces on the wall – you get the picture), the fine wine we were drinking and the haute cuisine canapes waiting staff were offering as they circulated with silver trays.

Under his breath, but perfectly audible to us situated at the back of the proceedings, one wag amongst the invitees stated wryly: “And I bet none of the people who created them studied your bloody EBacc”. Whilst it is quite possible that they did, the point was well-crafted.

Gove and his advisor, Dominic Cummings, were of course the architects of the EBacc, which has coerced schools into funneling all students, irrespective of their talents or interests, into subjects that they consider to be more ‘academic’. This has restricted choice and led to a significantly reduced number of students undertaking other subjects, particularly those deemed ‘creative’, such as art and music. They also demanded more rigorous assessment, and a move away from coursework, modular exams, speaking and listening and practical work to almost total reliance on terminal exams.

BTECs and many other ‘vocational’ qualifications were caught in the crossfire. Many were binned because they were considered to be of little value. Some, like BTEC Horticulture, lost their equivalence with GCSEs and/or A Levels, whilst others such as BTEC Construction and the Built Environment, retained it. However, both these and many others suffered a considerable shift from practical work to theory in the name of rigour. In practice, it became more important to write about building a brick wall than building the flaming thing, one of the very skills Gove had lavished with praise in his speech.

This year’s examination results were a fiasco waiting to happen. It cannot happen again. We must not return to forcing all students into a narrow range of predetermined subjects, solely assessed by terminal exams at set times on set days in May and June. To do so will be to deny many from showing their ability and true sense of worth.

The exams shambles: the best of a bad job?

Rescue Our Schools’s David Taylor, a former secondary headteacher, suggests the whole exam system needs rethinking.

Exams and controversy are not uncommon bedfellows in England. Every year brings a degree of cohabitation, most notable in recent times being 2012 when Ofqual’s decision to significantly increase GCSE grade boundaries in English Language caused results to plummet in a large number of schools, particularly those with a high number of students on the old C/D borderline. A judicial review followed.

This year is almost certain to surpass 2012. The recent fall-out from examination results north of the border, and the Scottish government’s belated acceptance of teacher assessments, has rattled Westminster to such an extent that they have created a “triple lock” for students so as to give them  the opportunity, through their schools, to utilise mock results in the hope of bolstering their grades. This quite absurd knee-jerk reaction will exacerbate questions about the fairness of the system and accusations of discrimination against students in disadvantaged communities.

As a start, let us be clear. Examinations, whether they be SATs, GCSEs or A Levels, are not fair even at the best of times. They are fundamentally biased and riddled with inbuilt class and cultural advantages and disadvantages, a fact that is likely to be largely ignored during the inevitable musings about the upcoming debacle.

Ofqual’s response to Covid-19 has exacerbated this unfairness. Asking schools to give a CAG (Centre Assessed Grade) for every student in every GCSE and A Level subject they have studied based on their judgement as to the grades each student would have achieved if they had sat the exams is entirely sensible, particularly as the evidence for these judgements could come from a variety of sources, including classwork and the results in any practice examinations. However, it seems likely that many of these CAGs will be totally ignored by Ofqual.

Some argue that Ofqual’s approach is making the best of a bad job because teachers are not capable of accurately giving grades as they naturally give students the benefit of the doubt. There is nothing wrong with teachers having this attitude, but their optimism is not only born of doing the best for their kids, it is also being driven by a system that – despite the restrictions of comparable outcomes – demands year-on-year improvement to satisfy teacher targets, headteacher targets and school targets, all of which are intrinsically linked with school league tables and Ofsted judgements. Tackle these scourges in the name of “raising standards” and teachers might be more inclined to give an accurate grade.

So, best of a bad job is still a bad job. To remedy it for this year, students could select the best of their grades awarded by their schools or the exam boards. To that you could also now presumably add the results of any mock examinations. Is there really any harm done if this were to happen? Schools could then immediately focus on 2021 and beyond rather than on investing an exorbitant amount of time and money on appeals and possible litigation, when they have significant other pressures associated with planning for a potential full return of students and staff in just over a fortnight.

At a time of coronavirus and associated lockdowns, some are calling for a Plan B in 2021, highlighting the sheer lunacy of nationally assessing students at set times on set days in exam halls throughout May and June. They are right, but will Plan B go far enough? To do so it must eradicate the inbuilt unfairness and social injustice in our examination system, reduce its reliance on terminal examinations and allow all to have the opportunity to show their talents.

This will inevitably mean a shift to an acceptance of a broader definition of what it is to be successful. It will mean greater choice for students regarding the subjects they wish to follow, rather than coercion into those that comprise the EBacc or Progress 8, which remain solely school measures. Crucially, it will also mean a move to more authentic forms of assessment, with portfoilos, presentations and exhibitions sitting alongside practicals and some written examinations.

For this to happen, the government will need to trust teachers and schools. Unfortunately, this seems an increasingly distant prospect. Consequently, it is beyond time that schools, led by their headteachers, say enough is enough. We no longer want to make the best of a bad job.

The Exams Fiasco: there is Another Way

There is Another Way

Words almost fail at the news that mock exams scores for A-Level and GCSEs in England can be used instead of the Ofqual standardised results. Some immediate thoughts come to mind:

The mocks option shows a total disregard for the judgement of teachers. Ministers clearly couldn’t stomach the Scottish decision to rely on their professional verdicts alone. This is part of the thirty-year narrative of teacher bashing, which we have seen rear its ugly head regularly in the last few months, as the teaching unions fought to ensure the safety of their members during the pandemic.

Second, it shows the on-going obsession with grade inflation. This has been a crusading cause for the current edu-political regime, and now looks – how shall we put it? – pretty mean-minded given all the stress that the current crop of A-Level and GCSE students have been through.

Third, it shows total ignorance of the decisions schools had to take in the weeks leading up to lockdown.  For some schools this included cancelling the mocks scheduled for March 2020.  This means that students will now have to be judged presumably on an even earlier set of mocks (such is the endless cycle of exam preparation that most English state school students now have to endure).  Only the most conscientious students will do well out of the government’s new grading option. At the risk of oversimplifying, middle-class girls will do OK. Boys of all backgrounds are less likely to do well, and could see their scores being several grades below what they would have achieved in conventional exam conditions. Private school students are, of course, likely to do better than state school students.

But that doesn’t mean that the annual exam hall ritual is some kind of guarantee of impartiality. Far from it. You have the same issues of norm referencing, meaning that around 30 per cent of students will automatically fail. There are claims of erratic marking at both GCSE and A-level. And let’s not forget the students who freak out in exams, and don’t do their best. There’s plenty of them.

But most of all, the narrow, academic exams so beloved of this government tell you so little about what young people are capable of. There is no correlation between your exam scores and how well you do in a particular job. More and more companies are ignoring qualifications and setting their own tests and requirements, geared more specifically to the skills and knowledge they need. Yet such is the manipulative nature of the education system these days – driven by an inspection system still largely about results – that students are constantly told that GCSEs and A-levels will determine their whole lives. As universities face fewer foreign students and many more places to fill, this is an even bigger lie than ever.

It’s time to look at the many alternatives out there: credentialing, for example, being rolled out by some private schools in the US through the ‘mastery transcript’ scheme; the broader qualification at 18 that Sir Mike Tomlinson came up with fifteen years ago, giving a richer picture of what students are capable of, and nurturing the skills and knowledge they will need for the huge challenges that lie ahead; and ditching high stakes exams at 16 because… well, what’s the point of them?  No wonder so many countries don’t have exams at both 16 and 18.

As soon as Gavin Williamson starts talking about the ‘gold standard’ of GCSEs and A-levels, something may need to be thrown at the telly. Open-minded politicians, please actually open your minds to the alternatives to the mind-shrinking education system we are currently stuck with. It’s time to mothball exam factories for good.

A Question for School Leaders: What are you prepared to do?

As schools worry about the downgrading of exam results by Ofqual, Rescue Our School’s David Taylor questions the relentless drive to get good grades.

“Kids have given up their weekends, we’ve had holiday interventions, 7:30am revision sessions, teachers teaching until 7pm”, said one headteacher as he vented his utter frustration at government’s shallow promise that no student will be disadvantaged by the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE examinations.

After taking over as headteacher last February, the school was predicting that its Progress 8 would rise from -0.62 (well below average) to +0.93 (well above average). Such a turnaround in fortunes in a school would see it designated amongst the most improved schools nationally and it would rocket up the league tables. The Regional Schools Commissioner would be satisfied and together with the support of the associated headteachers’ board would deem that the school would not be subject to a loss of independence and a takeover by an academy sponsor. Ofsted would come along in the near relatively near future and, baring some extraordinary circumstances, would give it the customary “Outstanding”. Reputation enhanced; the school would be become more attractive to potential parents. The future would be secure as it could be in the crazy world of our education system.

The head’s frustration that this is unlikely to play out is because new rules this year will mean that the grades allocated to the students will be based on a standardisation model that will consider the expected national outcomes for this year’s cohort, the prior attainment of the students at each school – at cohort not, individual level – and the results of the school in recent years. The fact that the “the kids have really grafted” will potentially count for nothing.

I empathise with him. In 2005 I became headteacher of a struggling school. Results were low – 15% 5+ A-C grades including English and Maths. Improvements needed to be made. We changed the curriculum, making it more responsive, meaningful, and engaging. We improved learning and teaching, and slowly but surely, we got to the lofty heights of 60% in 2016. We became TES Secondary School of the Year. It had taken 11 long years of hard graft by all concerned.

From memory, it is during the early part of my headship that the use of the term ‘intervention’ became the ubiquitous method for quick fixes. What had historically been a few voluntary revision sessions after school, started, in an increasing number of schools, to morph into a data-driven cottage industry of interventions. It was to become like a scene in “The Untouchables” when Jim Malone (Sean Connery) asks Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner): “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” Whilst it is rather extreme to use this metaphor in the context of schools, it does accurately portray the fact that schools are competing more than ever before because of league tables and academisation. This drives schools to increasing levels of interventions to better their peers. “They do before school, you do before school, lunch and after school. They do Saturdays, you do weekends. They do paid for additional tutoring twice a week, you do it three times”. When will it ever end?

Now sees an opportunity to rethink our very purpose. Covid has removed education league tables for 2020. They should not return. They drive competitive practises. They drive aggressive practises. Schools are about collaboration, cooperation, and a sense of community. In the words of Jim Malone: “What are you prepared to do?”

 

 

How is Covid-19 affecting education?

Rescue Our Schools has been asked to submit evidence to the cross-party education committee of MPs on the impact of covid-19. We would love to hear from as many of our followers as possible your answers to the following key questions on primary age children (we will be doing secondary in a few days):

What will be the effect of cancelling formal tests (primarily SATs at KS1 and KS2) on children, teachers and schools?

What alternative methods of assessment should be used? What advantages could other forms of assessment offer?

What are the key reasons Baseline should not be introduced this autumn term?

What do you think the impact of cancelling statutory assessment will be on pupils’ progress to secondary school/KS2?

Please email your comments to info@rescueourschools.org

Thank you in advance!

Fifteen-year-old Aimee Collins, a state school student from Somerset, wrote this brilliant speech for the Whole Education conference last month. She has given us permission to share it on Rescue Our Schools.

Someone once said to me…”You need to fail in order to succeed”. Now I don’t think this statement is really believed among young people. Speaking from a child’s point of view, no one truly believes that it is okay to make mistakes. When really, making mistakes is how our lives were formed. Evolution happened by the world making millions of tiny mistakes that eventually formed into a species. So, yes, mistakes happen, yes, it’s okay, and yes, it’s normal. So, don’t be afraid to make those mistakes and learn from them too, because in the end that’s just how the world works. Even though, they may affect your future, it’s still okay. It won’t completely ruin your life and it probably won’t stop the people around you from loving you, of course depending on the mistake, but school wise I think you’ll be okay. 

I always believed that success and failure was portrayed wrongly in schools. In order to ‘succeed’ you have to win, that’s what we get told. We are driven from when we are about the age of 4, that success means becoming a doctor or a lawyer and that having a job like a zoo keeper is interpreted as being unsuccessful. Most schools don’t bring out the engineer in someone, the plumber, the craftsman because teachers have to follow set curriculum that every student learns so that every student has the same paths to follow and the same paths to pick from. When really the world wouldn’t be able to function without people such as cleaners, bus drivers, cashiers and factory workers. So, if you ever become a garbage man don’t think you have failed at life, think, “What would the world do without me?” And you’ll see that it just really wouldn’t run the same.

Success in schools` supposedly means passing a test with high grades. Getting a 9 in your GCSEs is what you should be aiming for, supposedly. Exams can be good but they aren’t everything and they shouldn’t be. But at the moment unfortunately: they are. I heard on the radio the other day that the school administration board was thinking about introducing harder assessments, because too many students achieved high grades. Why are they punishing students for getting high grades, when really they should be praising them? Maybe students are getting good results because their teachers are so good at their jobs, not because the GCSEs are too easy. The exam board complains when results aren’t high enough, so they heighten the ability of teaching and then complain when it works. I honestly don’t understand what they really want, students to do well and thrive or students to struggle and well, fail.

I believe children should stop being pushed to believe all that matters in these next few years are exam results, because why do we even have exams if they can’t determine how empathetic a person is; how caring; how much they value others or respect others; how resilient they are, all of these things that many jobs would want but don’t even look for when hiring. Jobs such as a therapist need people who are understanding and supportive as well as, yes, needing to know how to deal with different situations, which would probably be taught. Or by being a doctor, you need good social skills, but also need to be able to pass a test to say that you know what you are doing as lives are in your hands. Therefore, I’m not saying all tests are bad I’m just saying that schools are sucking the creativity out of children.

I was told the other day it was a privilege that I could choose art, drama, music or DT as a subject to take at GCSE. Why was that ever made a privilege? I’m sorry, but I think it is just ridiculous that you have to have permission to be creative or even have the opportunity to express yourself in school. Isn’t that what being a youngster is for? What has our society turned into if a person cannot even voice their own opinions? 

Exams are overdone because they don’t bring out the hidden skills in children, those desires, those thriving passions just waiting to emerge, because all they are doing is remembering what’s on a sheet of paper. In my tutor time when we were seeing what our best way to learn is, I figured out it wasn’t a way of learning, it was a way of remembering things for a short amount of time, so that you can pass an exam and get to the college, sixth form or the apprenticeship you desire. However, if you talk to any adult of today, I bet you they can barely remember half of their school life and the bits they can remember, are when they rebelled against a teacher or really exceeded at something or just the friends they made. Barely any of them will remember the information they learnt for their GCSEs (or O’Levels as they were called), because half the time, they’re never going to use it again.  

Another thing wrong with the education system, is that doesn’t teach social skills, growing up or individuality anymore. It teaches how to be the same, how to be smart and how to be ‘successful’. When really what you want it to teach, is to let children grow into themselves; to be able to engage with the others around them and just learn who they are; what they are good at, so they can go out into the world and become an architect, a teacher, a journalist, a lawyer or even a world class athlete. 

Children should have the freedom to explore life and there should never be a limit to a person’s learning or what they can achieve. So if you read or hear this speech, please do me one favour. Stop telling people that to ‘succeed’ in life they have to take a certain path, do certain things or be a certain person, because to ‘succeed’ you just need to be you. Also, don’t let people tell you that succeeding is having a specific job or role in life, succeeding is whatever you want it to be, from learning to drive to achieving your dream (whatever that may be). 

So like Harvey Fierstein said ‘Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.’ So, learn from life, live it and move on.

Thank you 

What are your views on re-instating inspections for outstanding schools?

Rescue Our Schools has been approached by the BBC  about Ofsted inspections following this story that they’re being re-instated for outstanding schools. See the article here

Many haven’t been inspected in over 10 years. The BBC journalist would like to hear people’s views as follows:  what do you make of this decision? Do parents rely on Ofsted ratings when choosing their children’s schools? What else do or should they take into account when choosing a school for their children? Do you have any views on inspections in general?  If you would like to send the journalist a comment, please email daniel.wainwright@bbc.co.uk. Thank you in advance!

 

Seven Myths About Exams

I don’t know about you, but I have had enough of the hoo-ha about exam results day. When I got my O-level results and one token CSE – for this is how old I am – no one batted an eyelid. The day that everyone opened their envelopes wasn’t on the morning radio bulletins. You wouldn’t get distant relatives suddenly getting in touch to find out how you’d done.

Things now seem to be utterly ridiculous, like so much about British life at the moment. Friends whom I rate are fretting days beforehand. They are taking time off work to be there for their sons and daughters on results day. Everyone seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the government line that these results are the most meaningful thing in a child’s education. I would just like to make the following corrections to this particular bit of often media-assisted state propaganda.

Myth Number 1: the results are a fair assessment of a child’s academic achievements. They absolutely are not. There are far too many random factors that determine how a child does. For example, have they been tutored up to the eyeballs? Are they at a school that is essentially an exam factory rather than still trying to provide a semblance of an interesting education? Does the child have a bedroom or somewhere they can work in – as the columnist Barbara Ellen rightly pointed out the other day, how many of the children who are being housed in one bedroom flats, bed and breakfasts or shipping containers were able to pull in a slew of top grades?

Myth Number 2: they reflect a child’s talents. They do not. As any parent knows, children can have a whole range of capabilities, not just academic. You can be brilliantly empathetic, you can be an amazing orator or salesperson, you can work in a team and bring out the best in everyone, you can create beautiful work for a project you have developed over time, you can build something, you can fix something… and so the list goes on. None of these talents is valued by GCSEs or A-levels now that they are hyper-academic with no course work and minimal speaking and listening. You only have to look at some of our politicians – many of whom have been to Oxbridge – to see how extreme academic prowess is by no means the full toolbox.

Myth Number 3: you need top results to succeed in life. Total rubbish. This year it’s anticipated there will be more university places than students. That trend is likely to increase as foreign students stop applying to British universities. Plus sixth formers are starting to question the argument that university is the be all and end all of educational success. What’s the point forking out £50,000 for average teaching and an uninspiring course? Plus, outside politics, there is not a single bit of evidence that top academic performance ensures success in life – however you define that.

Myth Number 4: you need to put all your results on your CV when you apply for a job. Nonsense. In fact some companies now deliberately don’t ask anything about your schooling, preferring to set you admissions tasks that test the kind of skills and knowledge they are looking for.

Myth Number 5: doing well academically will prepare you for life. This has to be one of the biggest lies out. The kind of skills that our children are going to need are the very ones that are currently sidelined by the high stakes exam system. I mean things like being able to think critically and creatively, to have the deeper skills and resilience that allow you to have more than one career, and to have powerful knowledge to change the world rather than being able to remember and write out chunks of text. Let’s focus on our human skills, not the sort that robots and computers can do a whole lot better than us. If anyone tries to tell me that tests are best because life is a test, I might have to go and finally burn my A- level work (some of which I fear is still languishing in my mum’s loft).

Myth Number 6: results are the best way to measure educational standards. Codswallop. Being good at passing exams doesn’t mean you have had a good education. What about not just the human qualities I have listed above, but a child’s values? Aren’t they just as important? I refer again to some of our best known politicians, who’ve allegedly had a top education. It reminds me of the famous EM Forster quote about those who go into the world with “fairly-developed minds and underdeveloped hearts.”

Some of these chaps in power like to talk about character education. What do they mean by this? I suspect they mean that kids need to toughen up and put up with the mediocrity which defines so much of our current system. But in fact proper character education should surely be about developing courage, compassion, trust, curiosity and the like. It’s a goal really worth striving for, and there are schools that are trying to do this properly (such as XP school in Doncaster and the Relational Schools movement).

Myth Number 7: there is no better system than high stakes exams. Hmmmm. I would suggest taking a look at what’s going on internationally, where there is a good deal of work on how to assess students more broadly. For a start, lots of countries don’t test students at 16 (Finland being the most frequently cited example). Even in America – where again there’s no equivalent of GCSEs – the “Mastery Transcript” concept is being developed by some private schools. When students are ready (so “stage, not age”) they are rigorously assessed in modules which show their mastery of a variety of skills and areas of knowledge. Their competence in these various fields is put together to form a detailed picture of an individual student. Yale and Harvard are supporting the project, which is developing fast.

One thing that is most definitely not a myth is that a third of students are currently being written off by the new GCSEs. The national pass rate for English and maths last year was only 64 %. What future for the 36 % who don’t get these most basic of qualifications – the ones you do actually need for most jobs? Both the National Education Union and the Association of School and College Leaders have spoken out about the forgotten third. ASCL’s own survey had senior leaders reporting that some students were simply refusing to take GCSEs, they were so demoralised.

These are the students who most likely don’t have a private tutor, or they don’t have parents who went to university, or they don’t speak English as a first language, or they have additional needs or challenging home circumstances, or multiple combinations of the above. It seems that kids who are already disadvantaged in various ways are far more likely to fail these spuriously high stakes tests.

What happens to these young people? Some clearly remove themselves from the system, as ASCL has uncovered. Others, one suspects, have already been quietly sidelined through off-rolling. Do they just disappear into casual work or no work at all? Others stay at school and repeatedly retake maths and English GCSE to try to pass. Is this really an effective education system in terms of creating citizens who can contribute to both society and the economy?

Let’s not forget where these ideas originate. The reforms were introduced by Michael Gove when he was education secretary. And who was his special adviser? None other than Dominic Cummings.   Anyone who has tried to read his ideas on education will know that he sees intelligence in a highly academic sense. Thus we have a system that aims to motivate and single out the extremely intelligent students (in his terms) – “the diamonds in the rough “ as someone once put it. Hence the new, granular grading system that piles pressure on academic students to get a 9.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Gove and Cummings to find these students in all social backgrounds, because I think their belief in social mobility (as opposed to social justice) is genuine. But the trouble is that it is a deficit model that writes off the majority as having only limited abilities or none whatsoever. Then there’s Cummings’ alleged interest in eugenics. While there is evidence that genes can play a part in intelligence, only the purblind could ignore the effect of personal circumstance on doing well at school. Diane Reay’s book, Miseducation, explores this brilliantly. But of course none of this is taken into account in exam halls.

So we need to start really questioning the aims of our education system. We need a much more forensic approach. Let’s hear the human stories of the students who disengage from education – and the ones who have “succeeded” but can see how little that’s really worth. And let’s hear a whole lot more about different systems which resist summing up an education with a handful of scores. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, puts it, “in the longer term we simply must review the exam system to find a more humane way in which we can assess the abilities of young people and prepare them for the lives.” I am not sure how long many of our students can wait.

 

 

A parent teacher feels strongly about the difference between independent and state education

After 22 years of teaching in the independent sector I have decided to follow my heart, and return to a state school. I start in September, at a wonderful village primary.

Becoming a parent governor at my children’s large non-academy state secondary was hugely influential in making the choice to go; to witness, around that conference table, the passion of the leadership team and teachers who will do everything in their power to support the achievement of every child, no matter what that child will ‘do’ for the ratings, has stopped me in my tracks.

We understand as teachers, that all children are valued. All are important. It is not the child’s ‘fault’ to be the recipient of any set of circumstances, good or bad. I have taught some wonderful children, enjoyed the privilege of amazing times in amazing settings – some scenes worthy of Hogwarts. I have listened to celebrities speaking at prize giving ceremonies, I have had rent and bill free staff accommodation, superb lunches and suppers, extraordinarily long holidays and splendid grounds. But a bell was tolling in my head for years, a bell which, with state governorship, became too loud to ignore.

My own children are in state schools. There is no choice about that. As a single parent on a teacher’s salary (and no, before you wonder, there is no staff discount at some of Britain’s most elite schools) it would be too hard even to cover the cost of the uniforms, sports kits and ‘extras’. Some of the time I feel that they are at a great disadvantage here – the attention to performance in the independent schools I have worked in is massive. The pupils are driven by the staff; they are tested, measured, pushed, mentored and given opportunities beyond my wildest comprehensive school memories. No one really seems to fail. It’s not an option. Something will be done. League tables are very important. They drive the business forward.

And in the school that my children attend? It looks like Grange Hill. It has an electronic barrier rather than deer leaping in the grounds. But the thing that I love, that makes me feel like waving a lighter in governor’s meetings is the difference in ethos. The head refuses to ‘offroll’ any child. If they can support a child with complex issues, to get just one GCSE, they will do that. If it means that the school’s overall score for that year is negatively affected, they will still keep that child within the community. They will send a minibus out to pick kids up who might struggle getting in. They provide breakfast items to some, not because they’re boarders, but because they really might not have any food in the cupboard at home.

High standards are also expected, and they are a national award winning school with many excellent results to celebrate, but the difference that I feel, which made me know I had to go back to state, is that the excellent education is available to you simply because you exist. Not because you can afford it or because you’re so brilliant at one discipline that you will bump up the school’s results.

So, it’s back into the state system for me. The kids I have left behind at the independent school will be completely fine. They already have every chance of success. I start my new job in September, but what of the wonderful village school I am heading to? A school that seemed good to be true? The county has just announced that it is in consultation to close in August 2020. Budget trimming.

It’s a good job I have allowed the deep passion for state education back into my life – time to roll up these sleeves and join the good fight.

Phasing out Private Schools

Our recent parent blog in support of comprehensive education garnered a huge amount of engagement from our followers.

So we thought we would take the debate one step further, and report on growing calls for private schools to be phased out and how to do it. Only this week the Guardian reported that there’s a proposal to get its conference in September to discuss a motion to “nationalise” private schools.

This comes after a similar initiative launched just a couple of weeks ago. Westminster hosted the first public meeting in decades to consider how best to phase out private schools. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Education Association (SEA) and drew – appropriately enough – a comprehensive crowd made up of experts, politicians and parents.

At the meeting the SEA launched a drive to encourage the Labour Party to embrace a much more radical agenda to sideline private education. This would mean doing more than the party’s current pledge to remove business rate tax relief on independent schools, and use the money to fund free school meals in all primaries.

The most forthright speaker on the panel was Robert Verkaik, the author of the excellent book Posh Boys. He argued that politicians needed to do far more – to abolish private schools’ charitable status, to encourage Oxbridge to make far more contextual offers to state school students (meaning they would be offered lower grades at A level to take account of an education less geared to getting into elite universities) and – most strikingly – positive discrimination towards state school students in key professions.

Fellow panellist Melissa Benn recounted a story about the Conservatives making similar noises a few years ago about people not being allowed to name their school on job applications, only for the former minister and current Provost of Eton, Sir William Waldegrave, to march into Downing Street and demand that the policy was retracted. The anecdote triggered groans from the audience. It tells you everything you need to know about the often privately-educated establishment, and how it maintains its supremacy.

A contrasting policy approach was put forward by Francis Green, author with David Kynaston of Engines of Privilege. They argue that the way to break the ‘pipeline of privilege’ is to ensure that a third of all private school students are from less advantaged backgrounds. It’s not clear how these students would be chosen – but it would not be on the basis of academic ability – nor whether they would enjoy being in a school dominated by students from radically different families. The school fees for this minority group would be paid for by the state. Isn’t there every chance these schools would break down into class war, given entrenched attitudes on both sides? It would make a riveting documentary, but it’s not at all clear how it would solve the private school problem.

All the speakers agreed that there was now a grotesque gap in resources between private and state sectors. Two factors were at play: in the last 20 years independent schools have hiked up their fees – aided by tax cuts for top earners – to fund five star resources. State schools meanwhile have seen a big increase in costs since 2010 with insufficient government funding to match.

One member of the audience questioned whether Theresa May had deliberately starved state schools of funds to build the case for the abolition of private schools. This was a joke question, but the fact remains that lots of politicians of all parties are beginning to see the educational apartheid we reside under in England as a major obstacle to social equity.

So what will Labour actually do? The new MP for Crewe, Laura Smith, pledged “Labour will not shy away from this problem”. Let’s see. Given that they have shied away from a commitment to wind up grammar schools under a National Education Service, one can only hope.

Perhaps the most effective way of emasculating private schools is to make non-selective education irresistible. That means funding comprehensives properly, and celebrating their diversity through a creative curriculum that gives every child the chance to develop their capabiliites. Above all, it encourages empathetic learning – listening to the view points of those different from ourselves.

It was none other than Andreas Schleicher, the inventor of the PISA international tests, who told the Education Select Committee a few months ago that the most important skill for the future would be “understanding other people’s point of view”. He also suggested that we in England are far too preoccupied by the ”top” students, and that the quickest way to improve our education system would be to focus on those who achieve the least. If that is not the death knell for private education, what is?

 

 

“….I can say, without any hesitation, that I would not send my children to private school.”

Having worked as a teacher in London schools for over two decades, the majority of that time in the comprehensive public school system and significant portion of time in the private sector, I can say, without any hesitation, that I would not send my children to private school.

There are three very good reasons why I would not send them but none of them are about money. Admittedly, I do not have a spare £18,000 or so a year to invest in private education (although I wouldn’t need to pay the full cost because, in most cases, as an employee you are entitled to often very substantial staff discounts). However, this would still not entice me. This is not to say that ‘everything is coming up roses’ in state education, far from it. But even if I could afford it, I just wouldn’t want my children to be educated through the private school system.

Firstly, I strongly believe that as a parent, I would be doing my children a huge disservice by sending them to a private school. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity in private schools by their very nature. Some are non-selective (in that pupils may not have to pass an entrance exam to gain admission) but, by and large, a child in a private school will be surrounded by lots of wealthy, privileged, white children.

There may be one or two pupils on a bursary in a private school, which may give a tokenistic nod to ethnic or social diversity but still independent schools just do not reflect the rich tapestry of cultures in our cosmopolitan capital. More and more overseas students are attending private schools in the U.K. (as middle class families feel the austerity pinch and their numbers in private schools are falling) but although these overseas pupils may have a different nationality, their values and attitudes are very similar if not identical to their British peers.

This is not to say that privileged children are unsuitable peers, but a whole school of very similar pupils provides a rather limited scope of experience. Private school pupils are on the whole extraordinarily well-travelled and have been exposed to a wide variety of cultural events but they still, on the whole, have a limited life experience.

Children who have everything handed to them on a plate and have all adversity removed from their childhood will often lack resilience and emotional robustness. Generally speaking, private school pupils have had very little to overcome in their lives and have experienced little hardship. Consequently, many often have a huge sense of entitlement and fragile personalities.

As a teacher for over 20 years it is not in my nature to speak ill of any child. And that is not what I’m doing here. I’m generalising. In the same way we could also say that children from challenging socio-economic backgrounds often present with challenging behaviours. It’s not rocket science but it isn’t a rule for all children. My children have friends with names, religions, cultures, nationalities and social backgrounds which are sadly absent from private schools. These friends will go on to be my children’s neighbours, colleagues and partners, and learning about each other and how to get on with each other as children is a crucial foundation for what goes on in adult life.

Secondly, I feel the attitudes to learning/ learners and teaching/teachers in the different education sectors is vastly different. In the independent sector, the curriculum is pumped with subject knowledge and specialist teaching. Children from as early as reception receive specialist teachers for French, Mandarin, music or Latin for example.

In the main, the curriculum is ridiculously compartmentalised and disjointed and this makes for disparate learning. On the whole, in public sector schools the ethos is different; topic learning is still prevalent. For example, pupils will learn about the Tudors in history, write imaginative diaries of Elizabeth I in Literacy lessons, whilst learning to play Greensleeves in music and about the impact of Henry VIII’s break with Rome on religion in Britain, whilst painting a Holbein portrait. The learning is within a firm context, is meaningful and cross-curricula. The thinking is joined up, holistic and fun.

Additionally, I do not want to speak negatively or disparagingly of private school teachers (many of whom are my very good friends) but I will say that in the private sector there is a much greater emphasis on the teachers’ subject knowledge and not their skills as practitioners. Sadly, as I know from experience on open mornings, when prospective parents go around, quite often one of the questions being asked is “so where did you get your degree?”. (Although parents need not ask, as this information is often made available on school literature.)

This prevalent attitude is based on an out of date and largely debunked philosophy. I’d like to believe that ‘gone are the days’ when we think of teaching as little more than seeing children as empty vessels to be filled with facts and knowledge. In the private sector, I’ve encountered many teachers with first class degrees from Russell Group universities who are ‘old Downe House girls’ or ‘old Paulinas’ (educated at St Paul’s Girls School) who are very knowledgeable in their specialist subject but haven’t got a clue about pedagogy, let alone children. These teachers are often completely confounded by pupils who may have special educational needs, have English as an additional language or have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Even in deliciously small class sizes, private school teachers struggle with pupils with difficulties as they themselves have probably encountered few pupils with learning difficulties in their own education.

Just as well private school teachers rarely encounter such children in their teaching career, and if they do, the school will often simply request the parents pay additional fees for the child to have one-to-one tuition with SEN or EAL specialists. Excluding pupils with challenging needs is rarely an issue because a quiet informal meeting with the head teacher usually leads to the pupil leaving to go to a more ‘suitable’ setting with little fuss.

Regularly, I tell my pupils and my own children: ‘Mistakes are golden!’. It is when we make mistakes that we really have an opportunity to reflect, develop and grow. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake as long as you learn from it. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that, if you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not learning. The real tragedy is when we make the same mistake over and over again without learning, or, as is so often the case with particularly pupils in private schools, we hide or run from a mistake and see it as a source of embarrassment, or worse, shame.

If so much of your life in a private school is building up towards passing an 11+ exam and getting into a seemingly elite independent secondary school, the cost of making mistakes is high. Children focus on finding the right answer. Therefore understanding the process of learning, metacognition and creativity is stifled if not crushed. It may sound alarmist but many private schools are breeding judgmental, jaded and narrowly-focused pupils who are terrified of making mistakes.

Finally, children’s mental health across-the-board, (regardless of socio-economic, racial or cultural backgrounds), is an overwhelming concern for any educationalist, regardless of where or who they teach. In many private schools (and increasingly more public sector schools) the culture of competition is at best problematic but in many cases, disturbingly rampant. Consequently children are frightened of making mistakes.

When your parents have met substantial financial costs for your education, mistakes take on even greater implications. Children become automatons fearing mistakes and seeking only to score the top marks. Their awareness of themselves as learners or as creative thinkers is repressed as their prime focus becomes getting 130+ in standardised scores and looking like a candidate for a ‘top’ independent secondary school.

I have known many children who, after a very heavy day at a private school (learning six different subjects and having clubs for sports or science before and after school) then go home and have another hour or two of tuition. It is worryingly commonplace the number of children who regularly look exhausted, fraught and on the brink of emotional collapse. I knew of one girl preparing for 15 separate entrance exams, which probably cost her parents over £1,500 to just sit them and nearly cost the girl her sanity.

As a teacher and parent, my fundamental principle is this; what I want for my own children, I want for all children. I want children to grow into happy, successful, creative, well-rounded and caring adults. Without a shadow of doubt, I believe the best chance of my own children, and arguably any child, becoming such an individual is by going through the comprehensive school system.