Posts Tagged ‘school’

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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World Book Day

Are you kids dressing up for World Book Day today? Was it a case of picking a costume and shoehorning some kind of literary reference in somehow? Are you strict about it, or do you think a Toy Story Colouring Book is enough justification for a Buzz Lightyear costume?

My daughter’s school seems to have tried to get round the whole Disney/Ben10/Spiderman issue by stipulating that children must come dressed ‘as a character from their favourite poem’. Yep, thats right. Like many 7-11 year olds even have favourite poems. Cue a stressful weekend trawling library books and websites to find a poem that could then become a ‘favourite’. My daughter, not keen on dressing up (‘its so embarrassing!’) was searching for a poem about a girl in jeans and tshirt. I offered to write one for her which she could then claim as her favourite, but she isnt rebellious enough for that (yet). In the end she choose this, and didnt wear green:

My birthday's on St. Patrick's day.
I wore no green at all,
and got a pinch from every kid
who passed me in the hall.
You get "a pinch to grow an inch"
whenever birthdays fall.
I guess they must have worked
because I'm thirty-nine feet tall.

–Kenn Nesbitt from http://www.poetry4kids.com

I kind of admire her ingenuity. And at least she was exposed to some poetry.

What did your child dress up as today?

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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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Wow. What a whirlwind of accusations and revelations we have been treated to in the last 24 hours. What with Andrew Rawnsley ’s allegations that Gordon Brown is prone to nasty hissy fits, followed by the extraordinary remarks of the boss of the ‘National Bullying Helpline’ indicating that Downing Street staff had called for help and all the attendant twittering and analysis, it is hard to know where to start.

Issues raised:

Character of PM, workplace bullying, breach of confidentiality of callers to helpline, potential dodgy dealings of said helpline, poor journalistic practices by BBC who ‘broke’ helpline story.

My thoughts:

GB’s fiery temper has not been a secret (see Private Eye). Is he a bully or ‘demanding’ and ‘passionate’? Depends if you believe the journo or the spin. At this stage I don’t suppose we will ever get a clear picture. Obviously workplace bullying is vile but there are many vile practices that take place in politics that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere. Witness jeering and sneering of MPs in the House of Commons, hardly ideal workplace practice. It’s also interesting to contrast the attempts of Mandelson on TV yesterday to spin GB’s ‘volcanic’ behaviour into something admirable with attempts to portray him as a romantic family man.

The weighing in of Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline is bizarre and disgraceful, in my opinion. This by the Guardian on Ms Pratt and the NBH makes interesting reading and the twittersphere is full of murky ‘facts’ about the dubious nature of their charitable status and conflicts with for profit services. But even if we disregard all that and take her statement at face value (that she was so angered by Downing Street denials she had to speak up), the shocking betrayal of confidentiality beggars belief. One board member has resigned over it, and Ann Widdecombe (a NBH patron) has criticised her actions, and rightly so. She has damaged the relationship between agencies who seek to address bullying issues and those they seek to help, and for what? You have to kind of consider John Prescott’s theory that ‘lt’s all been a publicity stunt for her company’ since she is all over the news media today and of course now Nick Clegg and David Cameron are weighing in, calling for an enquiry amongst other things. Urgh. And they wonder why the electorate are turned off by politics.

It’s interesting that all this should come up because I was thinking of writing something on bullying after having read this blog post about how we should talk to our children about dealing with bullies. The advice tends to be to ‘talk to a trusted adult’, something that I have said to my own daughter when she tells me soandso doing suchandsuch in the playground. The sticky part is how do they know who to trust? Often simply ‘telling the teacher’ can be seen as telling tales and young children may not always be able to articulate what happened clearly enough that the teacher realises the seriousness of what is going on. As for parents, it seems hard to get a realistic picture of what is happening at school with often only a garbled child’s version of events to go on. This makes it very hard to know when and how to speak up on your child’s behalf.

Obviously, communication is key and I try to regularly talk to my children about playground incidents, good and bad. For the school’s part, one key to combating bullying is for teachers to develop a relationship of trust with their pupils as well as a sense of community in the classroom. In this kind of environment, getting to the truth of potential bullying episodes is going to be an easier task.

Its not like bullying is confined to the younger generation though and it seems dealing with it doesn’t get any easier either. With workplace bullying for example, who can you trust? The betrayal demonstrated by the NBH is hardly going to help the situation, is it? It’s also a shame that the electorate won’t get a realistic picture of what is or was going on in Gordon Brown’s office now the warring parties of journalists and spin doctors are muddying the waters. I suspect that bullying of one kind or another is endemic in politics. It makes me want to send the whole pack of them to the Headteacher’s office.

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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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