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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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Green Paper: Schools that work for everyone

1 Jan

I        Preamble

On 12 September, the Government published the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone, which the Department for Education (DfE) has taken off the websiteThe deadline for responses was 12 December 2016.   We now have to wait on the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, to give the nation a steer on where she wishes to go from here.

The Green Paper proposed a number of recommendations which, if implemented, will affect four discrete institutions:

  • Independent Schools
  • Universities
  • Selective Schools
  • Free Schools which are faith orientated

The proposals were issued against the background of increasing pressure on school places – especially good ones.  Primary numbers grew by 11% between 2010 and 2016. This will feed into the secondary sector for the rest of the life of this Parliament.   The most recent projections are that the primary school population is estimated to increase by a further 174,000 (3.9%) from the current year to 2020.  The secondary school population will rise by 284,000 (10.3%) over the same period.

While the Green Paper made it abundantly clear that the government would continue to support schools with the Pupil Premium Grant to promote the education of the most socially deprived children in our system – i.e. those entitled to free school meals (FSM) and in care – it expressed government concerns that those children whose families just fail to qualify – i.e. the just about managing (JAM) – were being short-changed.

Children entitled to FSM come from families in one of these classifications. Those in receipt of

  • Income Support
  • Income-Based Jobseekers Allowance
  • Income-Based Employment and Support Allowance
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit

This effectively means that if either parent/carer is earning more than £16,190 annually, the child does not qualify for FSM.  In January 2016, the national average for those entitled to FSM was 14.3%. The government is, however, worried about children in families on modest incomes who do not qualify for such benefits but are, nevertheless struggling financially.

Information on the educational achievements of such children is opaque as it melds with data on those who come from well-heeled backgrounds.  Accordingly, the first two questions that the Green Paper posed for us were as follows.

  • How can we identify such children?
  • How can we better understand the impact of policy on a wider cohort of pupils whose life chances are profoundly affected by school but who may not qualify or apply for free school meals?

So what plans does the government has for the four groups set out above?

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Ofsted Annual Report 2015/16

1 Jan


Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (HMCI), published his fifth and final Ofsted annual report on the education system in England on Thursday, 1 December 2016.  He retired 30 days later.  In presenting the report, Sir Michael said “a world class education system is within our grasp – but only if serious capacity challenges are urgently addressed”.

Sir Michael stressed that a north/south ‘geographical divide’ meant the ablest pupils in the North and Midlands were less likely to reach A/A* at GCSE. He said: “Standards can only truly be considered high if they are high in every part of the country and for all pupils regardless of background or ability.”

However, his report is, in the main, positive.    The country’s schools/academies, he avers, had made progress over the last five years. Educators could be justly proud.  “Young people are getting a better deal than ever before,” he said.  School/academy leaders responded well to the changes in the system.  The decision to replace the “satisfactory” judgement with “requires improvement” led to schools/academies upping their game, making a greater effort ensuring that pupils are offered the very best possible education.     Of the former 4,800 satisfactory primary schools/academies, 79% were now good or outstanding and, of the previous satisfactory secondary ones, 56% were good or better.

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The Battle of Bohunt: a clash of Chinese and Anglo-Saxon cultures

25 Aug

A unique experiment was conducted at Bohunt School in Liphook, Hampsire, in the Summer Term 2015 when five teachers from China were transplanted into Bohunt School to teach 50 year 9 (13- and 14-year-olds) students for a period of four weeks. The rest of the year 9 students continued to receive the curriculum diet from their usual teachers in accordance with the national curriculum and pedagogical methods in this country.  (Ofsted described Bohunt as outstanding.)

At the end of the process, both groups were tested by the Institute of London University College London to see which set of students performed better in mathematics, science and Mandarin.  (At the time of writing, I had viewed only one of the four episodes so am unsure about what the outcome was.  However, there was much that I learnt from the experience of watching the first instalment.)

The five visiting teachers were filmed by the BBC working in conjunction with the Open University (OU) while teaching the Chinese way to see how well English children learnt through those methods.  The first instalment of the series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, was, in a number of ways, a revelation and in other ways unsurprising.  Continue reading

Sir Chris Woodhead bids farewell

25 Aug

Sir Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, died at the age of 68 on 23 June 2015, nine years after being diagnosed with motor neuron disease.

He was the first chief of Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) when it was created in 1994 and reigned supreme until 2000, resigning after a series of rows with Mr David Blunkett, the then education secretary.  Sir Chris was a bluntly spoken, controversial figure, remaining active in the education world as chair of Cognita, which runs schools in seven countries.  He resigned in 2013 because of his deteriorating physical condition.

An ex-student of Wallington Grammar School in Surrey, Sir Chris started his teaching career at Priory School in Shrewsbury, Shropshire (1969-72).   He became deputy head of English at Newent School, Gloucester (1972-74), and then head of English Gordano School, Bristol (1974-76). He switched to training teachers at Oxford University (1976-82) and followed this up by taking an advisory post in Shropshire (1982-88) before being appointed deputy chief education officer in Devon (1988-1990) and then deputy chief officer in Cornwall (1990-91).   When the National Curriculum Council (NCC) was established, he was appointed its deputy chief executive in 1991 and chief executive in 1991 for the next two years.    He continued in the same role when the NCC morphed into the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (1993-94).

Sir Chris had fierce clashes with teaching unions during his tenure as chief inspector. He infuriated them by saying that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. He became renowned for supporting traditional teaching methods and said that he was paid to challenge mediocrity, failure and complacency.

After resigning from Ofsted he said opportunities had been missed because of the focus on the “many initiatives in schools, the vast majority of them in my view untested, often fanciful, at best distracting teachers from their proper job”. He added: “I couldn’t stomach what I saw as a proliferation of untried initiatives, a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

In his post-Ofsted days, he became a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times, where he freely dispensed advice to parents, the most recent of which was published on Sunday.

He wrote two books on education and was appointed visiting professor at the University of Buckingham, the sole private university in the UK, where he helped Anthony O’Hear, editor of the journal, Philosophy, to establish an education department.   His public persona appeared to be in sharp contrast to how he behaved privately.   In public, he tended to get up people’s (especially the educational establishment’s) noses but a friend and colleague said that privately he was warm and generous.

In 2011, Woodhead was knighted, which greatly cheered him at a time when his (motor neurone) disease was advancing.

In 2014, he discovered he had colon cancer which had spread to his liver. A campaigner for a change in the law on assisted dying, he said that when he was diagnosed with cancer he considered starving himself to death, but added: “You get used to it. My reaction when I was told about the motor neurone disease was fatalistic. This is the pack of cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve got to play them as best I can.”

Previously “doctors realised that there could come a point in somebody’s life that somebody who was terminally ill – where the pain and suffering was too great and the thing that the doctor should do would be to ease the passage from life to death”, he commented, speaking before the first reading of Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill.

The motor neurone disease left the former, keen rock climber a quadriplegic in need of constant care from his second wife, Christine. He said that, even then, life had plenty of value and importance for him but that that would end if he lost the power to speak or breathe unaided, both common stages of the disease.

Sir Chris said that he, his wife and daughter would “all recognise the line has been crossed” when his suffering became too great, and know that the time had come for him to end his life.  He would love to be pushed off a cliff in his wheelchair at that point, he hinted.  Later, he considered travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Chris Woodhead started a crucial debate on school standards and reform. Meetings with him were never dull. My thoughts are with his family.”

Former chief inspector of schools: Sir Chris Woodhead had motor neurone disease