Category Archives: Education

Martin Francis recently invited me to critique The Green Party’s ideas on education

As you’d expect it’s a fairly wide-ranging paper and in places proposes a radical departure from the contorted, stratified, needlessly overcomplicated mess we have at the moment, but I found that I’d already come to a lot of the same conclusions.

Areas of agreement

First things first: children learn an incredible amount in the first few years of their lives, and yet pre and KS1 ‘education’ has been inchoate and somewhat ad hoc. Parents and the community have an enormous role and responsibility to give the child the best start possible.  Similarly, children are going to be ‘ready’ for more formal education at different ages. The Green Party are suggesting the age of 6 – personally, I’d rather it be when they’ve been deemed to’ve reached the concrete operational stage of cognitive development. Of course  we never stop learning either – and Education really needs to set us up for that, and set up to support that too.  Furthermore Education is most effective when all the stakeholders (horrible term) are actively involved. In other words, it’s a community project.

I’ve blogged before that I think that scholars simply ought to go to their local school.  I completely support the Green Party’s agenda to move towards state-funded, standard, local, non-selective community schools*.  I think class sizes of 20 are perfect.  I generally favour fairly – but not too widely – mixed ability classes, and inclusivity. I too would do away with compulsory daily acts of worship, though there is something important about coming together for formal assemblies which oughtn’t to be abandoned.

I absolutely agree with getting rid of SATs and league tables, neither of which serve the natural process of learning.  The ONLY factor that matters, is that students make progress (but that’s not the same as ‘value added‘). In accounting for this, Ofsted should provide a barometer for the school’s management, rather than beating the profession with a stick.

Something I haven’t written about, but often thought important, is food.  I totally agree that students ought to be given a healthy, hearty lunch. Cooked on site. It’s a sad state of affairs that children are arriving at school hungry.  They really can’t be expected to learn on an empty stomach. For many, a breakfast club is vital.

However, some of these things ought to be left to the profession to decide, and this is

Where we part company

For parity, education has to be a national thing, rather than regional or local.  It just really can’t be the political pawn it’s become. Education needs to be devolved to an independent body of experts, who oversee all matters of teaching & learning, and the development and support of teachers.  As I’ve written before, I think ALL teachers ought to be fellows of this institution, and have a say in how it’s managed.

For the same reason, there needs to be a National Curriculum too (in the sense of agreed, shared, level-appropriate content).  It should be developed by subject specialist teachers from all phases, and it should be malleable enough to meet individual student’s abilities and interests. Assessments (various) ought to be absolutely bound to it, rather than the situation we have at the moment, where exam boards dictate what is taught, and how and when students are examined (at least at KS4&5). I do agree though that more attention ought to be given to Life Skills, that academic and vocational studies ought to be integrated and have complete parity, and that apprenticeships have to be part of the educational landscape in order to meet the needs of all students (and employers). And I agree that the leaving age should be left at 16.

But I think the Local Authority does have two important roles to play in education.  Firstly, to ensure that there is a school place for every child.  This seems so obvious, and yet the focus of intense debate.  Its other function is to maintain the fabric of the school. However, the Local Authority must not be allowed to use education as a tool of social engineering.

* Specialist schools could be part of a mix for twilight, weekend or even day release.

Getting rid of bad teachers

Labour haven’t learnt anything then!

How many “bad teachers” have been “got rid of”, Mr. Hunt? It turns out to be very few.  Why?  Because if a teacher is struggling, if they’re not getting the support and encouragement they need, if they’ve realised that Teaching isn’t the profession for them, then, guess what?  They’ve probably walked already.  And what percentage of teachers give up within the first five years?

The antagonism of the negative spiral!

Wouldn’t it be a much more sensible approach to protect and build upon the investment already made in bright,  willing,  young things?

On a par with Doctors and Lawyers you say?  CPD you say?  Well!  Give us the status (and the pay) of Doctors and Lawyers then, rather than treating us like political pawns!  I’ve oft said it here that teachers are constantly trying to improve their practice:  reviewing their work,  discussing ideas with colleagues, trying new things.  It doesn’t always have to be going on a course or observing someone else, you know!

Christine Blower was spot-on on BBCRadio 4’s Today programme, to point out the hurdles that teachers already face. They:

  • need a degree (and quite rightly so) and in my opinion, should also have or be working towards, Qualified Teacher Status;
  • have to pass their probationary year;
  • have Ofsted breathing down their neck;
  • have classroom observation.

A five or seven year MOT does seem a bit redundant (as well as beaurocratic and expensive).

Paraphrasing Mr. Hunt (careful there, James Naughty): “Teachers should be getting out of bed eagerly and racing to school.”  Well hang on a minute!  Why should the teaching profession be any different to any other?  But if teachers do happen to be keen,  it’s despite their goldfish-bowl environment!  Even this old cynic has eager-beaver days – the burning desire to see the best in students; to be astonished by their intelligence, imagination, manipulation of knowledge using their skills in creative ways, and to share in the joy of achievement.  In fact, as things stand,  if it weren’t for the students, I wouldn’t be in education! :/

Back to school for you I think, Mr. Hunt.  Nobody goes into the profession for the short days and long holidays, high pay or the stress-free life!

It seems that Sir John Major has found his voice,

and what he’s saying seems to be causing a stir. Most recently, in a speech to the South Norfolk Conservative Association, he attacked the “truly shocking” privilege of the privately educated elite.

In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

I don’t disagree with Harry Mount’s observation in his Daily Telegraph blog: that the private education sector has enjoyed recent popularity. Nor do I disagree with his analysis of why: the demise of the grammar school. Indeed I’ve said as much myself. But I do find his solution to John Major’s revelation completely perverse: to reinstate grammar schools. How can a stratified society possibly be less unequal with more segregation? Quite frankly if we want a more meritocratic society, then that needs to start in education: a level playing field of no selection and no school fees.

Mr. Mount was keen to extol Mr. Gove’s achievement to reinstate O levels in all but name, and blame the whipping-boy, Mr. Clegg, for reining in plans for the reintroduction of grammar schools.

“Michael Gove is the first Education Secretary in half a century who has tried to turn the tide but it’s a pretty powerful tide to turn. It’s not just the near-abolition of grammar schools that’s led to this tragic decline in social mobility. The dumbing down of exams, the removal of O-Levels, the decline in rigour of what is taught and how exams are marked, the priority of thoughts over facts, the fear of difficulty, the fear of history… The list goes on and on.

“Gove has done his best to turn the clock back in many of these areas. But, on the big question – the return of grammar schools – he has no chance, as long as the government is in coalition with Nick Clegg, who is so determined to pull the ladder up behind him.”

Well do keep up at the back! Mr. Gove’s penchant is for Free Schools, and the wholesale privatisation of state education, Mr. Mount. And judging by Chile’s and Sweden’s experience, if that were to happen here, then we really would see a dramatic decline in education.

Rage against the machine

Once in a while, just for fun, I like to bait the Apple-Zombies in the Twittersphere about their enchantment to the iPad.

From the outset I should admit that I’ve been an Apple-ista since ’86: my first classroom computer was Elsiean LCII; my laptops have all been Macs, and I followed the iPhone’s progress closely through development, and was one of the first to get one. So you’d think I’d be a fan of the iPad, right?  Wrong!

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for technology in the classroom: and students should certainly be using it when it’s appropriate.  The thing is, I don’t think that tablets are a technology fit for the classroom, either in terms of the hardware or software.

The limitation of the iPad’s connectivity:

Connectivity of input

I’ve nothing against a keyboard on a display – except the size of the window you’re inputting to becomes ridiculously small – but the physicality of a real keyboard is better. Best make it a wireless one though, as the iPad doesn’t have any ports. But what if you want to make a stereo recording, using good quality mics?  Or you want to use data logging equipment.  Sorry, an iPad really doesn’t cut it.  Just run a simulation then?  However good a simulation is, it’s an impoverished educational experience compared to actually setting up and doing an experiment yourself. And none of the undoubtedly very good art apps will give you any real sense of how to apply paint to canvas.

Connectivity of Output

Similarly if you want to print a document, you have to transfer the file or use a wifi printer, just because Apple refuses to incorporate any sort of useful port!  And the Heath Robinson lengths one has to go to to be able to use it as a white board. Well, why bother, when a laptop just plugs in?

Use

I guess we’re all supposed to move over to the Cloud – not that proprietary cloud services providers co-operate with one another to make that easy for the user.  But – wifi availability issues aside – why should I trust it to continue to be there, offering apps freely for use? And who else gets access to the information?

Another bugbear is having to enter the quagmire of iTunes – possibly the worst piece of software Apple’s ever written – ON ANOTHER DEVICE, just to transfer files.  Thank goodness Dropbox came along!

Other practitioners suggest we use web-apps like Padlet, ThingLink and Mural.ly, but there’s actually something to be said for the common experience of looking at (and responding to) the same thing in the same place, rather than the solitude of students peering into individual screens. And anyway, Chromebooks would still be better technology for this.

Apps

It’s true that there are an increasing number of very good educational apps – and it’s a pity they don’t run on desk/laptops. To be really honest though, most of the time all that students use is Office and a web browser. So Ubuntu‘s a better OS choice.

Not that the classroom is all about note-taking, but since we’re on the subject, I think the teacher still has an important role as disseminator, and note-taking is better done by writing rather than typing (or worse still, taking a picture of what’s been written on the board, even with OCR), since research shows that the student is more likely to retain the knowledge through elaborative encoding.

But technology facilitates creativity!

Not in my experience it doesn’t – it gets in the way!  My recent practice has been to separate the creative act from technology altogether – and the results are far more natural.

And anybody that starts talking to you about SAMR, hasn’t realised that the very act of Substitution changes the process, and it’s often the processes that students need to practise.

Too many apps – too many distractions

I’m not prepared to accept the retort that students found playing games, updating their Facebook status, texting or sharing photos when they’re supposed to be working is down to poor classroom management.  They’re only a click away, so the temptation is there, and the best student in the world is going to be distracted.  Look at how teachers behave in staff meetings when they’ve got their iPad out.  Do you think they’re taking notes on what the head’s saying?  No!  They’re playing Sudoku, writing an email, or at best they’re editing some to-do list.  Just how well are they listening?

So what about the tablet competition?

Well, many of the none-Apple tablets appear to come with more connective potential and memory card slots.  I hope Microsoft begins to give Apple a run for their money (actually, I’d like Ubuntu to do that even more, but that’s still a way off.)  And as much as I don’t like supporting Rupert Murdoch, I have to admit that one of his subsidiaries, Amplify, has a ‘skin’ over the Android platform that might be more appropriate for educational use.

BYOD

However, if we’re choosing the best technology for the classroom, my preference would be laptopsideally their own!  Because they’re portable, laptops still have the flexibility of an iPad over a desktop.  They have a keyboard Input (and a separate screen Output). They have numerous, useful, physical ports. They’re equipped with software that doesn’t need the network (which doesn’t always work, work quickly enough, or gets blocked by systems administrators).  And the students keep their work on their own machine (hopefully regularly saved and backed-up). [Plus there’s less capital outlay for the school, and there’s a chance the young person might look after their own property better than they do the school’s.]

Broadening Horizons

I’m on foreign ground here since, like many others, my MFL education was limited to nuts and bolts at Secondary School, and quite frankly, through no fault of dedicated teachers, it was not a great success.

Successive headlines seem to suggest that the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages is in decline: Universities no longer offering courses and perhaps the Labour government making it optional in 2004 revealed its real popularity, with the Coalition now ‘doing a Canute’.

Conventional wisdom has it that bilingual children are academically more able.  Could it be that the connections which are made in the brain by learning another language also help with brain function across the spectrum of subjects?

It’s often mooted that toddlers find it easiest to learn languages.  Again something to do with synapses that are all too soon lost even before the end of childhood.  But the lack of specialist teachers at KS1&2 so often prevents anything other than the very basics being conveyed.

So the following question ought to at least be posed:

for the sake of improving educational standards, shouldn’t Languages education be focussed on pre/playschool?

Progressive attainment

There’s a fairly fundamental flaw in the logic that says:

retaking a module of an exam devalues either the exam or the results.

Surely the opposite is true:  that since a student has unfortunately failed a section of the exam:

a) that section was challenging and

b) having retaken the test, the scholar has met, and hopefully overcome, the challenge.

Indeed,  it could be argued that more and not fewer modules ought to be set:

  • Why not have an exams ladder,  where a student studies at the appropriate level?
  • What’s wrong with having units of work (cross marked between schools) which actually count towards the final result?  &
  • Why not enter students for an exam when they’re ready, rather than them having to wait until they’re 16?

What’s wrong with having a portfolio of grades adding up to an overall record of achievement?

Just wonderin’!