Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Michael Gove makes me want to cry.

I know I am always banging on about education, but I am so dreadfully afraid about what will happen to our schools post-general election, whoever ends up getting in. Maybe it comes from being a newly qualified teacher, a friend and seasoned teacher of 15yrs tells me not to worry, as ‘it all comes around and goes around’. I think that’s what I am worried about.

Gove, the Shadow Children’s Secretary says he is ‘unashamedly traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum’ which apparently means a return to teaching discrete subjects (maths, english and history) and

children sitting in rows, learning the Kings and Queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.’

This old school approach runs counter to the more flexible current educational thinking which encourages cross-curricular ‘joined up learning’ via topic or theme-based teaching, as espoused in the thorough Rose Review of primary education published last year.

Writing in the TES last month, John White claims that Gove sees progressives such as Rose as ‘his enemies’ who have denied children the advantages of a traditional education. Gove seems to be one of those narrow minded types who think that because they thrived under a particular system of education then it is appropriate for everyone. What he fails to realise (or maybe he doesn’t care?) is that that same system failed a great many people, and has been soundly rejected for good reason. As White points out, ‘It’s a pity that the schooling on which Mr Gove so dotes did not free him from the fetters of black-and-white thinking.’ Modern education should be developing children’s thinking skills, encouraging them to achieve deep learning by discovering things for themselves rather than to be spoon fed facts to rote learn. Group learning, interacting with peers and managing relationships is vital, not sitting still and staring at a teacher. What good is learning a poem by heart, other than to be able to recite it as a dinner party trick 30 years later?

Gove’s determined traditionalism and wish to return to the restrictive National Curriculum of the late 80s (which in itself harked back to the curriculum set out for new state secondary schools in 1904) also completely ignores how the world has moved on in the past few decades. We now have access to facts at the tap of the keyboard; if we want to know the order of the Kings and Queens of England we can just Google it. A ‘knowledge-led fact based curriculum’ is totally missing the point of the modern age. Children will be better equipped by learning to think for themselves, not the least to navigate through the myriad of (mis)information they receive from advertising, TV and newspapers. They need
to discover and celebrate their true selves to help them to find their place in the world as productive and happy adults. Gove despises these “airy-fairy” goals but then again he believes that children should learn about the ‘glory’ days of the British Empire and that “Guilt about Britain’s colonial past is misplaced.”, a view so outdated it is laughable.

Except that I am not laughing.


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I read the harrowing case of Khyra Ishaq just before I cuddled my own daughter (3) to sleep last night.  As I wrestled my arms out from under her, I held my face next to her podgy cheek.  My thoughts turned to Khyra and, inevitably, food.  My daughter loves breakfast.  In the morning she takes herself off to the sofa and snuggles under a blanket while I make it for her.  She usually has two slices of buttered toast or porridge and a bowl of fruit.  Today she had mango and strawberries (sorry environmentalists) as a treat because it’s Saturday.  If she’s still hungry she’ll ask for a yogurt or maybe an extra slice of toast.

I’m not the perfect mother.  I shout, I tell her ‘in a minute’ too much, sometimes she has beans on toast more than once a week – I am positive that one day I’ll forget to pick her up from nursery.  But my daughter’s life could not be further removed from the life of Khyra who had to share a bowl of food with six siblings and would be caned if she ate too much.  I find the idea of not feeding a child in the western world totally unfathomable.  In fact it’s so unusual that experts had to look back to records of concentration camp victims to get a proper idea of what had happened to her.

Poor Khyra was taken out of school when staff there got concerned about her welfare.  Her parents said that they were home schooling her and both Social Services and the Local Education Authority were happy with the arrangements for her education at the time they visited.  In fact, Khyra was dead within 12 weeks.

While I think anything, anything, should be done to prevent this happening to even one more child, I am so sick of knee jerk reactions (and subsequent legislation) coming out of extreme cases.  Baby P – calls to sack ALL social workers in Haringey (because there are SO many waiting to take their place), Soham murders – calls to CRB check everyone who has to look at a child ever, MPs taking the mickey with their expenses – put them on bread and gruel.  Khyra’s legacy seems to be to make all parents who chose to educate their own children at home come under the spotlight.  What’s wrong with a considered approach, eh?

Just as most people who send their children to school are not abusing them, most people who are educating their children at home are not abusing them. From what I can gather, the existing legislation for parents of home educated children was not followed through.  Should two education welfare officers have accepted that they couldn’t see Khyra when they visited – especially bearing in mind that the Deputy Head of her previous school had expressed grave concerns for her welfare?  Similarly, should a social worker carry out an assessment of a child’s welfare on the doorstep of their home?

In the judge’s words: “On the evidence before the court I can only conclude that in all probability, had there been an adequate initial assessment and proper adherence by the educational welfare services to its guidance, Khyra would not have died.”  That doesn’t sound to me like we need new legislation, it sounds like we need the existing legislation to be implemented properly.  Instead of spending time and money on new legislation, attract good social workers and education welfare officers to the professions, make their case loads manageable so that children and vulnerable adults don’t slip through the net like this and then see what tweaks or overhauls need to be made.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all about the Khyra Ishaq case is the fact that the police investigation identified at least 30 witnesses who could have intervened on Khyra’s behalf.  Many people living in her community had concerns for her, but didn’t share them with agencies who were there to protect her.  None of us want to live in a nanny state, so why don’t we look out for each other, and especially for the children living in our communities?  We all know, really, don’t we, when we see children who are happy and well looked after and when we see ones that aren’t being cared for?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I lived in a downstairs flat years ago and above us lived a couple with a baby.  Did I hear the baby screaming for hours at the same time as his mother begged her partner not to hit her?  Yes.  Did I notice that after these episodes there were always piles of empty cans of extra strong cider next to the communal bin?  Yes. Did I worry about it?  Yes.  Did I do anything about it?  No.  Why?  I didn’t want to put extra stress on the poor mother.  Do I worry about how that baby is now?  Yes.

Part of the problem of the individualistic culture that we find ourselves living in now, is that we end up with more state interference and become over-reliant on statutory agencies to do the things we should be doing ourselves.  If we’re not keeping an eye on our own communities, then the state will have to do it for us and they tend to do this by rushing out legislation to cover all eventualities.

Please, let’s try and learn from this case, because how many more can there be before someone spots the bleeding obvious and sorts out morale and workloads for those paid to protect our children?  We need existing legislation to be implemented properly by people who have the time to do their jobs properly and we need (yes, that’s you and me) to keep our eyes open and take some responsibility for the well being of the children around us before it’s too late.

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We had announcements on labours education policy this week, their big idea being parental ability to sack heads. We’ve heard lots about the Tories plans for swedish schools. But what are the big ideas of the lib dems? Although they’re less effective at dominating the headlines, there are actually some really interesting ideas in the lib dems policy. And they’re easy to find from their website, which is always a bonus.
One of the key ideas is a pupil premium. Children on free school lunches, with SEN, in local authority care, or with english as a second language will attract extra funding – up to £1,000 per pupil. this will act as incentive to schools to take these children, and allow the targetting of resources specifically where they are needed. Importantly, schools will be at liberty to spend the money as they will – the pupil premium will not be ringfenced. This money will come from cuts to the tax credit system – which may not be popular with the lower end of middle income families.
The lib dems are the only party talking about increasing funding for schools. Some of this will come from slashing the Department for schools, children & families – they’re going to halve this government department. And they’re going to pass law forbidding government from meddling in the detail of teaching.
Another key element is the abolition of the national curriculum – instead there will be a minumum curriculum.
Overall, the lib dem policy is about reducing educational disadvantage by targetting resources effectively. Its about more freedom for schools, and removing inherant unfairnesses in the current system (why do FE colleges get less funding than school 6th forms?).
There was very little in the policy I didn’t like – its just a shame they’re not doing a better job of shouting about it!

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Parent Power

Have you ever been involved with your children’s school PTA? Have you experienced cliques of parents in the school playground? Have you felt marginalised or even…dare I say it?…bullied by other parents?? I bet the answer in many cases is ‘yes’.

We often experience political machinations amongst parents concerning many issues ranging from whether the school should run a Halloween disco to whether the new drop off arrangements are rubbish. Playground gossip, email campaigns, petitions, the works. Imagine now, if you will, this kind of behaviour extended to also cover the fundamentals of how your child’s school is funded and run. What happens if a group of particularly persuasive parents decide that the new Headteacher is too progressive? Or not progressive enough? Or that their child’s education is being damaged by the inclusion of too many SEN children in the school. You don’t agree with them, but by putting pressure in the playground and other underhand means, they manage to cajole a ‘significant majority’ of parents to back their stance.

In proposals announced by Labour today, such groups of parents would be able to force a vote to decide for a ‘change of school leadership’ with a list of approved organisations that could take over the school. They are all about ‘parent power’, apparently. The theory is that control of ‘failing schools’ (as determined by parents) could be wrested away from Local Authority control and put into the hands of ‘kitemarked’ organisations such as successful state schools, universities and academy sponsors. Or  ‘The tycoon owner of a carpet company’. Right.

While I understand that all political parties are desperately searching for ‘radical’ ideas on how to raise academic standards (this latest seems to be in response to the Tory idea of having new schools opt out of LEA funding altogether), I find this proposal shockingly ill conceived. Yes, if you sent your child to a dreadful school it would be nice to think there was something you could do about it, but are parents really qualified to determine if their child’s school is ‘failing’? And by what criteria? Already unpopular SATS and league tables? Inclusion of too many SEN children?!  As another union representative said: ‘What is the point of having education professionals and volunteer governors trained to manage schools if their expertise and work is to be disregarded? It is right that parents should have a view on the education of their children, but they have neither the knowledge, expertise nor responsibility to organise and deliver it’

It’s all too easy to imagine a scenario where over involved parents who take a dislike to something that is happening to their special snowflake could mount a campaign against a school. I agree with the Teacher’s Union NASWAT who warned of ‘”unintended consequences of parental ballots” – saying they would “create unnecessary turbulence” and that teachers would be “working with the ‘gun’ of a parental ballot at their heads”‘. As both a parent and a teacher, I can’t think of anything worse.

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Sex and Nuns

There is outcry about an amendment to an education bill allowing faith schools to deliver sex and relationships education in a manner that reflects the school’s religious traditions and values. Even with these limitations. I expect sex education has moved on somewhat since I was at my Catholic Secondary school where the nuns tore the pages about contraception out of the biology books and the only instruction given was ‘Don’t do it before you are wed less you burn in Hell’. Fast forward some years to Catholic Marriage class where all but one of the couples were living together, the dire warnings about eternal fiery damnation duly ignored. One couple even brought their offspring, maybe the pages of their textbooks had been similarly defaced?

Although Catholic schools may be somewhat naïve if they believe the majority of their pupils will adhere to these rules and regulations (or maybe we were just a debauched lot?) I don’t personally have a problem with religious schools teaching about sex and relationships according to their own beliefs. Although I may not necessarily agree with their viewpoint I accept that if I was a parent sending my children to be educated in the faith of my choice I would expect that to extend to all aspects of religious belief. Nevertheless these schools have a duty to educate their pupils about basic biology, equality and the relevant facts about relationships and contraception even if it is set within the framework of their own religious belief. Young people need to be suitably equipped for adult life where they can make their own lifestyle and religions choices. Ignorance and prejudice should not be on the school curriculum

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My son is really really good at maths. He likes us to set maths questions while we’re eating. He notices numbers everywhere. He understands fractions, percentages, division multiplication. And he’s only year 2 (that’s 7 years old to you and me). So I was alarmed by the article in the Guardian showing how poor the maths skills are of many primary school teachers. But I’m also not at all surprised. I’m a school governor, and one of the areas I monitor is Maths, so I have some insight into how maths is taught in schools.
There’s a government run system called the Primary Framework, which is used to set standards and assess student progress against. All mathematics planning is based on this – making it hard, even in a good school, to really advance the truly talented students. Within a school, the maths planning is all checked by the maths co-ordinator. Much of the early mathematical teaching is based on simple counting – using physical counters, beads, and other props to really engage the children. As children become familiar with number, they move on to more conceptual ideas – number bonds (pairs of numbers that add up to 10), and describing how they make calculations. None of these activities require a teacher to be vastly skilled – they don’t need to understand percentages to know that 4 and 6 make 10!
So what is the relevance of the poor maths test results reported today? In the day to day teaching, it probably doesn’t matter a great deal. Where it will make a difference is when bright children, like my son, ask awkward questions. But good teachers will be able to facilitate the bright children in answering the questions themselves, even if they don’t immediately know the answer. More problematic is that poor maths skills allow teachers to be bamboozled by things like brain gym. Without a good understanding of maths, it is very difficult to evaluate evidence concerning best teaching practise. Perhaps rather than lamenting poor maths skills, we should be asking how good teachers’ critical thinking skills are.

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The Lost Generation

“Being unemployed is a very emotional time. You lose your confidence, you don’t think anyone wants you….”

Hearing this kind of thing said about unemployment is not uncommon, but it somehow sounds worse coming from the mouth of Leah who is aged just 19. Leah was part of a Woman’s Hour Special yesterday that looked at youth unemployment and questioned whether we were creating a ‘Lost Generation’ in our 16-24 year olds.

The young people interviewed on Woman’s Hour talked about feeling depressed, de-motivated, getting a hard time from parents and about feeling rejected. Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Princes Trust is reported in The Guardian “But this is just the start of a long and downward spiral, which all too often leads to crime, homelessness or worse. Only by stopping young people falling out of the system can we rescue this lost potential and save the economy billions each year.”

All the major political parties are (rightly) taking this seriously – the Conservatives propose an employee led apprenticeship scheme, Labour last month announced the first bid to create 47,000 jobs and Nick Clegg recently tweeted: “90 day guarantee:if u don’t have job after 3 months, we’ll guarantee training, internship or further study. Boost places at Colleges too”.

What I don’t understand is why do all the projects for unemployed young people start once they have been unemployed for 6 months, or three months or even one month? Why not start this in schools? Is setting young people up with the skills they need to find work not one of the roles of education? It’s all very well having schemes to teach young people both the hard and soft skills involved in finding work, but why wait until they are depressed and de-motivated or worse, turned to crime or become homeless?

Why is it that the focus of education is still about passing exams? Surely, some time could be taken in the last year or two for work based experience – and I don’t mean two weeks messing about, I mean proper work based training one afternoon a week or something. This would not only help school aged children to gain the skills they need in employment, it would also help employers to realise that not all young people are hopeless and unreliable.

Being unemployed at this crucial stage has lifetime effects on earning potential, especially for young people who are leaving school without continuing into Higher Education and it is young women who have no or few qualifications that this is hitting hardest. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the emphasis needs to always be on encouraging young people to continue in education – some people aren’t suited to it, and there will always be jobs that need doing by people who aren’t necessarily qualified to their eyeballs, and these young people need practical experience. Besides, graduate jobs are also being hit hard by recession.

I don’t think this would be useful only to students who are looking for work at 16. With the average student racking up £26,000 worth of debt while they complete their studies, work based training would help them to be able to work during the holidays or have a part time job during term time.

I really can’t see how taking away some of the academic side of schooling and put towards more practical skills – writing a CV, interview techniques, teaching young people the importance of being reliable – and setting them up in a work based environment so they gain experience would be a waste. Young people need these skills in a competitive market, and it’s not fair to blight them with long term unemployment when it affects them for the rest of their lives.

Education should be about so much more than league tables and passing exams, it should be about helping children to grow up and hold their own in an adult world. And it seems a much harder adult world now than ever.

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