Is it to be “virtual” or “real” or “virtual reality”?

20 Dec

It is confession time.   Until recently, I have been terrified of technology. Now I am just tech non-savvy. 

Members of my immediate family, my partner and our son and daughter look upon me with considerable pity. My grandson, Sami (who is eight years old), knows more about accessing various platforms, especially during the lockdowns (because his school lessons are now on-line) than I will ever know.  When he talks about platforms, I think of train stations.  Say the word, virtual, and I think of nearly and almost.

In the not-so-distant past, when the governors with whom I interacted talked about having meetings virtually, I was stumped – virtually.   Did they mean nearly or almost having the meetings?   In short, family and friends described me as a thoroughbred Luddite, displaying technophobic leanings.

Servicing the meetings of two governing boards since March 2020 has been a sharp learning curve for me.  However, thanks to the sympathetic and painstaking teachings of the headteachers of the two schools I serve – Enid Lewis of Park Lane Primary School in Wembley, and David Syed of Northview Primary School in Neasden, Northwest London – I have (at last) become “comfortable” in using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to interact and support the governors with whom I am contracted to interact and support.   And about time! At any rate, the headteachers and governors have breathed a sigh of relief to learn that the clerk is (at last) up to speed on limited technology.

Heaven knows when it will be safe for governors to meet in person.  But, whenever that time does arrive, what with the advances the scientists are making vis-à-vis the myriad vaccines currently being tried and rolled out around the world, would members of governing boards wish to meet in person? 

By then, governors may well be disinclined to do so for a host of reasons.   First, there is the business of travelling to and from the school/academy.   Attending and participating in meetings take time, organisation and energy.   If governors are parents, they have to arrange childcare.   Where governors live fair distances away from their schools/academies travel could be a problem, especially during winter when (as recently) we have been “holed in” with snow and ice.   Where governors hold demanding jobs, arrangements have to be made to leave work early, instead of at 7.00 p.m. when they are generally at their desks. 

Consequently, holding meetings “virtually” is definitely a huge advantage and, when the lockdown is over, the positives may be lost at a cost.    

However, there is a downside to governors not convening in the same room to discharge their functions.   To start with, many older governors, apart from viewing their images on-line with negativity, have yet to come to terms with the speed with which technology has moved forward.  Just ask Jackie Weaver, who hosted a meeting of Handforth parish council on 10 December 2020. She became an internet sensation of political drama.  Weaver starred in her role as the “clerk” to a meeting attempting to keep a handful of superannuated male councillors in order.  She simply muted those who were “misbehaving”.  However, despite her best efforts, it made for a chaotic virtual meeting, which was recorded and went viral. 

Many governors who are generally vocal in person, tend to go silent on Zoom/Microsoft Teams and those who would hesitate to demur in person, become quite stroppy on the internet.  

There is also something about body language when governors meet at their schools and academies.   While it is possible to signal that one wants to speak on a platform, the fact of the matter is that governors (meeting virtually) lose track of what they should “click” to signal this intention.  Sometimes, the chair loses her/his way too, in picking up such signals.  It so much easier to do so in person.  

Further, something is lost in translation by governors not convening in person.  To start with, many governing boards look forward to refreshing themselves with tea, cakes, sandwiches and sympathy before launching into the meetings.   They engage in the informal chat and gossip before meetings and frequently linger after them to do so.   This is conspicuous by its absence when convening on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.  

While it appears that we have a long, long way to go before governors may be able to convene in person, it is well worth thinking about whether there will be merit it doing so.   May be, governors can compromise and do a mix-and-match – with some meetings held “bodily” and others “virtually”.  However, I would suggest that they don’t waste time having a huge debate about whether they should do so. They would be in danger of emulating the behaviour of the councillor in Handforth, Cheshire and need a meeting or two to decide on how to meet.    

Coping with the physical and mental damage of Covid-19

27 Aug

The summer term of 2020 will be memorable.  Who would have thought that when the new year broke, we would be on the cusp of experiencing the most gruelling time on this planet testing the leaders of schools and academies to the limit?  This is what precisely happened as we approached the end of the spring term.  Having originated in a market in Wuhan, China, at the tail-end of 2019, Covid-19, the virus, leapt from bats to humans.  Since then, this microscopic predator has wreaked havoc on humankind, laying low many people’s lives, devasting the world’s finances and disrupting civilization as we have known it.  The world’s scientists, at the time of writing, are frantically trying to find a cure to fight the enemy and a vaccine to stop it from entering humans and creating more mayhem.  At the earliest, they will not know if they are successful until the year ends and 2021 dawns.

Education – among most aspects of life – has been clobbered by Covid-19.

Schools and academies have been compelled to shut down during the summer term of 2020 and, at the time of writing, are directed to reopen in September 2020.  However, the government has a fight on its hands with the unions, especially as scientists have now discovered that youngsters from the age of 10 upwards can become infected with the virus and worse still, pass it on to adults – teachers, support staff and, of course, their parents.

School and academy leaders have on the one hand to do everything possible guard their communities – pupils and staff – from the virus and, on the other hand, act as “piggy-in-the-middle” between the government that is determined that institutions will open in September and the unions who justifiably fear for the lives of their members.   Their leadership will be severely tested trying to promote peace between two warring factions.

In the middle of it all are the children, who have suffered greatly, the poor and disadvantaged more than the rest.  In my mind’s eye, I see two bulls at war with each other – the government on the one hand and the unions on the other.  The ground on which they do battle are the schools and academies, and the lives that they imperil the most are the children.  I often wish that if they must fight, they take their feuds elsewhere.  However, they don’t, and they can’t.   The curious feature of this conflict is that both sides aver that they take the stance that they do in the best interests of the children.

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Covid-19: The Continuing Saga

27 Aug

Covid-19 has dominated our lives during the Spring Term 2020 and is likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.     The world-wide pandemic has had a devastating and mainly negative impact.  Post-Covid-19 is likely to see an altogether different landscape from the one we viewed pre-pandemic.  No area of life will be left unaffected, including education.

Most businesses have suffered as also people – vis-à-vis their economic condition.  However, the negative impact was mitigated by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who pumped billions into the British economy.  Who would have thought that this would have happened in December 2019 when Boris Johnson triumphantly trumpeted that we would – come hail or shine – be leaving the European Union by the end of 2020?

The government recognised that it made some serious mistakes.  Boris Johnson – at last – accepted responsibility when Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC interviewed him on 24 July 2020.  He said that in the “first few weeks and months” of the outbreak, his ministers and he “could have done differently” in its handling of the virus.

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Returning to Schools and Academies – Advice to from the NSPCC

27 Aug

Returning to school after over five months is going to be tricky if not daunting – for all – headteachers, teachers, administrative and support staff, parents and most of all, the children.   Following the lengthy lockdown, pupils will be dealing with new school rules, routines, classrooms, classmates, teachers and, in some cases, even new schools.

For many, these changes will inevitably create anxiety, given the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and new school social distancing and hygiene measures. More so again if they, or other family members, have been shielding until recently.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has produced excellent guidance for parents and schools/academies, on the safe resumption of schooling, an edited version of which is set out below.

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Government attempts to ease funding pain for schools and academies to cope with the pandemic

27 Aug

Over the next three years, schools and academies in England will receive an extra £14.4 billion.  In 2022/23 funding will rise by £7.1 billion as compared to 2019/20.  However, once inflation is factored in, this increase will amount to £4.3 billion.  Full Fact, an independent charity, calculated that school and academy funding will be £135 million a week higher by 2022/23.  It works out to £82.7 million a week, when one adds inflation.

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Ofsted’s plans for 2020/21 academic year

27 Aug

I           Looking forwards

On 6 July 2020, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), Amanda Spielman, published the plans for Ofsted from September 2020, when all schools and academies are due to reopen for normal work.  She rued the enormous loss of lives because of the pandemic and remarked on the growing concern of its impact on the education of children.  The closure of institutions has had been detrimental to the education of millions of children and made many vulnerable youngsters invisible to the care services.

She praised teachers and headteachers for the tenacity they exhibited to work hard and sustain education during the lockdown. She also had warm words for the schools and academies that remained open for the vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

However, she remarked that it was a sad fact that children would have had unequal experiences in their homes.  “Not every child will have had a quiet place to work, a supportive adult on hand to help or access to technology.”  A number would have become demotivated and others find it hard to catch up.

Notwithstanding, she acknowledged that many children and school and academy staff were resilient and observed “that with clear guidance and careful planning, schools will get pupils where they need to be”.

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Battle of the Bulge

27 Aug

We have been going through a sharp learning curve over the pandemic.   Personally, I have become much better at navigating the internet, for instance.  Also, much as I like people, I have had assiduously to practise physical/social distancing.  Further, with the lockdown, my wife/partner and I have been growing old together, and it is turning out to be a very pleasant exercise.

However, one of the down sides of the pandemic is that people are easily bored and when they are bored, they eat.  When they eat mindlessly, they become overweight if not obese.   This plays into the hands of the Covid-19 virus, for if there is one thing the virus loves it is overweight people.

A victim has been Prime Minister Boris Johnson who had a wake-up call when he was felled by the virus and rescued by the medics at St Thomas’s Hospital who placed him in intensive care.

“I’ve changed my mind on this,” said Johnson when referring to the issue of obesity, in a conversation with some of his most senior ministers and advisers towards the end of July 2020.  “We need to be much more interventionist.  He is now leading the country in the Battle of the Bulge, which is antithetical to the stance he had been taking not so long ago when he objected to “nanny state” interventions.  We can recall the time when at David Cameron’s first conference as Tory leader, Johnson was supporting mothers who pushed pies through school railings while protesting about the promotion of healthy lunches.

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Creating a more equal society to make black lives matter

27 Aug

The summer of 2020 saw the spread of two pandemics.   The first, was that of Covid-19 that originated in a marketplace in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.  By 20 August 2020, there had been over 22 million cases worldwide and nearly 800,000 deaths.

The second pandemic began outside a shop in Minneapolis on 25 May when footage of an arrest showing a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an African American, while he was pinned to the floor.  Floyd said more than 20 times: “I can’t breathe!” while being restrained by Chauvin.   Chauvin’s three white colleagues stood by and watched.  Floyd was suffocated to death.

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London institutions leading the charge to elite universities

27 Aug

Three academies in London – wrongly dubbed by the press as schools – and Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, a selective state ‘school’ in a deprived part of London, are leading the charge in securing places for their pupils at Oxbridge and top-flight US universities.

Brampton Manor Academy in Newham – the second largest secondary institution in Newham and one of the poorest local authorities in the country – opened its sixth form in September 2012 with a view to increasing the rate of deprived pupils entering Oxbridge and other elite Russell Group universities.  It is doing this with great aplomb.   In 2014, one pupil received an offer to Oxbridge.  In 2018, the number increased to 25.  About 67% are the first in their families to attend university and 50% have been in receipt of free school meals. In 2019, 41 pupils progressed from the sixth form to Oxbridge.

In 2020, 51 pupils (for pupils from 11 to 18 years old) were offered places at Oxford and Cambridge for September 2020.  Over the last three years, 100 Brampton pupils mainly from minority ethnic and socially deprived backgrounds received offers of places from these two universities.

The sixth form at Brampton is selective.   In the last academic year, 2,000 to 3,000 applications were made to the lower sixth form.  All candidates were interviewed, and several turned away.

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Survey discovers numerous pupils are involved with knife and drug gangs

27 Aug

I           Survey Findings

In Spring Term 2020 (shortly before the lockdown), The Times carried out a survey of nearly 1,300 mainly secondary schools and academies covering 500,000 (circa) pupils in England and discovered that staff believed that many of them were being “groomed by gangs and exploited by drug dealers”.   They added that a number of these young people were bringing zombie knives, hammers and knuckle-dusters into the classrooms.

About three in five secondaries searched the children at least once weekly with “metal wands and sniffer dogs”. Altogether, 52% of these searches resulted in staff finding pupils carrying weapons. In an academy in Middleborough, teachers searched pupils 60 times in 2018/19 and found six weapons. About 24% of these institutions referred pupils to the police and/or social services in the 2018/19 academic year and 33% believed that the pupils were involved with gangs.

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