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What’s in it for me?

1 Jan

As we stand on the cusp of another US Presidential inaugural address and, with bated breath, wait to hear what the newly elected President-designate, Trump, has to say on 20 January 2017, I cannot help recalling John Kennedy’s speech 56 years ago, in particular, his stirring conclusion: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country……..Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask for you…..”

We have just come out of the festive Christmas season.   In many households, the occasion brought a glut of excess – over-eating, over-sleeping, over-drinking and everything else that could smack of degeneracy.   However, it was also a season of giving. In particular, I am thinking of the thousands, if not millions, of those who gave up their own celebrations to be of comfort and bring happiness, joy and companionship to those that were much less fortunate than themselves.  In particular, I pay tribute to Crisis at Christmas, which established centres all of the country, providing succour to thousands of homeless people – with warmth, food, drink, medical attention and counselling.   This would not have been possible without an army of volunteers.

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Unpacking the dilemmas of promoting British Values

1 Jan

Are we losing our way in promoting British values?  Take two recent test cases.

I        A tale of two incidents

(a)        In early November 2016, British Gymnastics suspended Louis Smith, the UK Olympian, after he appeared in an online video in October 2016 with his friend and former gymnast, Luke Carson.  The video shows him pretending to pray to Allah while laughing.   British Gymnastics issued a statement: “Louis Smith admitted his behaviour was in breach of the Standards of Conduct.  The panel upheld the allegation and, taking into account a previous breach of the Standards of Conduct heard in June this year (where it also was made clear to Louis the consequences of any further breach), the panel determine a cumulative penalty was appropriate and order a two-month period of suspension……”

Twenty-seven-year-old Smith accepted offers to learn more about the Muslim faith after admitting he had been “ignorant to people’s religion”.

(b)        Later in November 2016, a row broke out over free speech following a government ban on 32-year-old Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing journalist, after an invitation extended to him by sixth former pupils at his former secondary school, i.e. Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, Kent.  Yiannopoulos is the editor of the far-right news website, Breitbart.   The Department for Education’s Counter Extremism Unit cancelled the arrangement over safety concerns and the “threat of demonstrations at the school”.

Yiannopoulos, labelled by Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, a “notorious troll and Donald Trump supporter”, is a colourful character, to say the least, who has described feminism as a cancer, called Islam the real culprit of race culture and said women who are offended online should just “log off”.

However, the decision to cancel the journalist’s talk caused a major row over free speech.  More than 200 – 220 to be precise – sixth form students had signed up for the event – with parental permission.

Yiannopoulos wrote: “My old high school has been bullied into cancelling my talk …. by the ‘counter-extremism’ unit at the UK Department of Education.  Who even knew the DoE (sic) had a counter-extremism unit?  And that it wasn’t set up to combat terrorism but rather to punish gays with the wrong opinions.  Perhaps if I’d called the speech ‘Muslims are awesome’ they’d have left us alone. Disgusted.”

A Simon Langton student encapsulated the feelings and thoughts of many of his peers when he said, despite disagreeing with Yiannopoulos’s opinions, he felt the decision to ban his talk was “wrong”. He observed: “I feel the old adage applies: ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

The school, which expelled Yiannopoulos when he was a student, stated that objections to his talk had come almost “entirely from people with no direct connection to Langton”.

“The staff and students of the school were overwhelmingly in favour,” said Dr Matthew Baxter, the Headteacher.  “While disappointed that both, the pastoral care and intellectual preparation we offer to our students, have been called into question, we, at Langton, remain committed to the principle of free speech and open debate, and will resist, where possible, all forms of censorship.”

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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

Preamble

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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Character Education: Is it the Holy Grail to Academic Success?

9 Apr

I           Resilience

One of the recent preoccupations of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has been “character education”.   This is unsurprising, given that Michael Gove, current Justice Secretary and her predecessor, made both, the curriculum and examinations and tests more rigorous causing young people to stress out.  Accordingly, she has been investing time and resources in seeing how children could be made more resilient.

Children in the United Kingdom grow up in a cosseted environment.   Surfaces on which they play must be safe; they are not permitted to go out into the streets to ride their bikes or kick balls in case they are kidnapped and abused by paedophiles or run over by cars.   So outside play is replaced with inside tablets; and I am not talking about pills.   A March 2016 poll revealed that 6-to-11-year-old children spent less time outside than the daily hour allowed to prisoners.

And if they do not know how to look after themselves, children are not developing the character tools they need – such as resilience or buoyancy – to negotiate the hidden dangers on the road of life or to survive failures on the road to success.   They have truly become the “snowflake” generation.  This is why Mrs Morgan is keen to foster resilience and character education.

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Adding Values

13 Apr

Ever since the Education Reform Act received the Royal Assent back in 1988, much energy has been expended in improving the outcomes in education.   This is displayed in a market-driven model.   League tables are the order the day. They are determined on the basis of test and examination results.   Annually and with boring regularity, The Sunday Times informs it readers about the 50 to 100 best state primary and secondary schools.  It carries out a similar exercise with private schools.  These are judged on the basis of – surprise, surprise – test and examination results.

Governors are exhorted to secure value for money in the provision of services. The litmus test is where a school features in the league tables.  If the annual expenditure is steep and the test/exam results poor – heaven help the governing body because Ofsted will come down on the school like a ton of bricks. At an increasing number of schools, governing bodies carry out benchmarking exercises on the purchase of goods and services.   The aim is to achieve more for less, to buy the maximum number of high-quality goods at the cheapest rates.

So, within the education system, everything that can be measured is being measured.  However, the most valuable things in life cannot be measured, cost nothing and are priceless.   The air we breathe is free; love is free; freedom is free.

It may surprise some that a similar situation exists in education.   How can you measure the ethos of a school?  How do you calibrate the satisfaction and feelings of safety that pupils experience in a school?   How can we assess the happiness that pupils and staff experience when work is well done?  What yardstick can we use to determine the depth of positive influence that a teacher may have over a pupil who was once disaffected but is now highly motivated? Continue reading

Making Missions Statements Meaningful

3 Jan

The principal, overarching function of a school governing body is to set a strategy for the school to develop and grow.  Governors do this in myriad ways, many of them right and some less so.   Occasionally, governors decide to go on an away-day once annually or biennially to review how they (and the school) have been doing and set the objectives and strategy for the future.   Others decide to do this with less frequency – i.e. once every three or four years.

A few governing bodies leave the construction of the strategy to their headteachers – who, in conjunction with their staff members – especially the members of the senior management teams – review the school’s strengths and weaknesses, audit the opportunities and threats in their environments and pull together the objectives and the School Development Plans (SDPs) for the following year, two years or three.  These SDPs are then presented to their governing bodies for comment.  Given the constraints of time at meetings, more often than not, they are rubber-stamped and approved with little or no comment.

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