Yes, year 11 exams are challenging; that’s the idea

Tom Sherrington on the need for balance and pragmatism when considering school exams.

GCSE Exams: Keeping a proportionate positive perspective.
Despite the fact that we’ve been running Y11 exams in one form or another for decades, there is always a fairly strong undercurrent in the discourse around the annual exam season characterised by a sense of injustice and unreasonableness. […]

This recent article by Simon Jenkins is a classic example of this kind of anti-exam hysteria. It’s so way over the top, it’s hard to take any of the arguments seriously.

Let me restore some balance.

My son’s just about finished his year 11 exams, and I’ve been very proud of his attitude towards them. He’s really taken to heart the maxim, ‘you get out what you put in’.

In my view there is a healthy pressure and work ethic that endpoint assessments generate. As a parent I’ve been quite happy to see my kids work really hard – super hard – for several months, motivated by the desire to succeed; to be ready to do their best. I totally reject the idea that this is intrinsically unfair or unhealthy or that the kind of exam revision required to get top GCSE grades is superficial and temporary. Would our kids know more in five years’ time if they hadn’t sat their exams – no! They’d know much less. They have much greater chance of remembering knowledge having had to revise extensively. This is particularly true, for both of my children and countless students I’ve taught, because the exam revision process had yielded multiple lightbulb moments. The intensity of study suddenly brings things together that were only half understood before.

Artists (and everyone else) against Ebacc

Surely everyone can agree the success of the UK’s Creative Industries is something we can all be proud of. The government themselves published figures in 2016 that show they are worth £84.1 billion per year to the UK economy. And yet the foundation of that success is being put at risk.

This open letter in the Guardian from a wide range of artists — including Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Mona Hatoum and Anish Kapoor — is just the latest in a long line of complaints people have about the narrowness of the Ebacc curriculum.

British artists: Ebacc will damage creativity and self-expression
We are writing to express our grave concern about the exclusion of arts and creative subjects from the new English baccalaureate, or Ebacc, for secondary school children, which we believe will seriously damage the future of many young people in this country. There is compelling evidence that the study of creative subjects is in decline in state schools and that entries to arts and creative subjects have fallen to their lowest level in a decade. Young people are being deprived of opportunities for personal development in the fields of self-expression, sociability, imagination and creativity.

The introduction of these performance measures and targets that concentrate on core subjects is having an undeniable effect on the range of subjects across our schools.

The disappearing subjects
The change for non-EBacc subjects is clear, depressing and substantial. Whilst some ministers have been in denial about the impact of the EBacc the old, gnarled ex-Deputy Heads with responsibility for the curriculum, options or timetables, of which I am one, knew this data was coming.

Here, the presumptions around some subjects being easier than others are challenged.

EBac: ‘With what authority is it being argued that art, social sciences, D&T, and the rest, are not “stretching”?’
The idea of core academic subjects is an example of lazy thinking. It seems unconnected to the conversations being had in other educationally high-performing countries about what it is to be educated today. In England, we need high-quality options that are broad, rich and deep for all children, not the five restricting pillars that we are being offered.

There are concerns at primary school level, too. In another Guardian open letter, past winners of the BBC Young Musician competition are seeking improvements in music education.

Letters: restore music to our children’s lives
However, despite some brilliant schemes, we are all deeply concerned that instrumental music learning is being left to decay in many British schools to the point that it could seriously damage the future of music here and jeopardise British music’s hard won worldwide reputation.

Today, we are launching a campaign for every primary school child to be taught to play an instrument, at no cost to them or their families. It is crucial to restore music’s rightful place in children’s lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music. We are especially concerned that this should be a universal right. This is an opportunity to show the world that we care about music’s future and its beneficial impact on our children.

And here’s a call for a focus on creativity at university level.

The UK’s #1 skill should be creativity
If the review is serious about the skills the country needs then a focus on creativity is essential. Skills developed in art, design, the performing arts, and humanities courses should be given the same value as those found in other disciplines – with creativity the boundary spanning concept for all subjects and disciplines.

Serious unintended consequences may result in the failure to recognise the value of the arts and humanities, and their promotion of creativity as the core skill the country needs. This goes beyond just purely monetary returns, as this number one skill will also lead to a more engaged, joyful and sustainable society.

This debate around the Ebacc’s effects on the subjects schools should be offering has been going on for years. Here is the former Conservative Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, from 2016.

ebacc-2

Kenneth Baker: ‘We need design, art, music and drama in the heart of a new baccalaureate. The current EBacc doesn’t work’
Secondly, the current EBacc is almost word for word a curriculum that was announced by Robert Morant, secretary to the Board of Education, in 1904. Even Morant saw fit to add one technical subject – drawing! It is clear the EBacc is a classic example of old-fashioned thinking. It hasn’t worked very well for the last 112 years, so in its place we should be looking for a 21st-century approach that equips young people for the age of the digital revolution.

Former Tory education secretary Lord Baker attacks government’s EBacc target
“With hindsight, I now wish I had ended the national curriculum at 14,” Lord Baker said. “This narrow-minded view persists that ‘technical’ and ‘vocational’ forms of education are for those who fail to achieve academically; in reality, the countries with the lowest youth unemployment and the most highly skilled workforce are those where technical subjects are studied side-by-side with academic subjects.”

Bad data protection practices save the day

In reviewing our GDPR readiness at work we’ve been discussing the dangers of leaving important documents laying around our offices. Yes, the offices are locked when we’re not there, but what about the cleaners? They have access to all our rooms and offices.

But there are benefits to having nosey school cleaners, it seems.

Woolwich accountant told to pay back £3m or face 8 years in jail
Judge Nicholas Heathcote Williams said in his new judgment: ‘Over nearly seven years Kayode stole and defrauded over £4million from Haberdashers’ by transferring money from their account to his and his wife Grace’s.’

His boss, chief financial officer Paul Durgan, failed to notice any money was missing. Kayode was caught only when a school cleaner spotted bank account statements in his office.

Stressful, testing times

Haven’t we been here before?

Primary school headteacher quits over government’s curriculum reforms with emotional letter
On the controversial Sats exams, Ms Ahmad told The Independent: “I don’t have an issue at all with assessment but why do we have to put these pressures on children? In Year 6 it is exam conditions. In my opinion it is wrong – these children are 10 or 11.

“I feel that cannot put children’s needs first, and in my opinion that is the most important thing. I would do anything to look after my children but it has become harder and harder to do.” Earlier this month, The Independent revealed that thousands of parents are expected to withdraw their 10- and 11-year-olds from the Sats exams next month over concerns about their wellbeing.

Here’s Michael Rosen’s view on the SATs, from a few years ago now.

Michael Rosen: They say we’ve politicised the children’s stress. No, it’s the stress that’s political.
When you have high stakes*, summative**, norm-referenced*** testing, (e.g. SATs) you have to have enough questions which a given percentage of people will get wrong. That’s because the people who design these tests are told that the results have to come out looking right on a particular kind of graph. This is the so-called ‘normal’ distribution of children or students doing a given exam. If a test is given and ‘too many’ children appear to have done well, then the test will be condemned as being ‘too easy’ and newspaper columnists will say that the country is going to the dogs. So, these kinds of tests must have the ‘right’ proportion of failures. It has to be built-in to the test, and into the lead-up to the tests – in other words into what we call ‘education’ (!).

I guess those issues haven’t gone away. But look the government says it’s all going well, right?

Primary school tests show schools rising to the challenge
The national Key Stage 2 results show that 61% of primary school children in England achieved the expected standard, compared to 53% last year.

More money for schools from the Co-op

The Co-op, what I still think of as that little corner shop on the high street, has announced a multi-million pound plan to expand its Co-op Academies Trust programme, and wants to treble the number of schools it sponsors.

Co-op to turbo charge academy schools plan
The Co-op is already the UK’s largest corporate sponsor of Academies, having opened three in the last year to take its current total to 12. Under the existing strategy, the Co-op takes over predominantly weak schools in economically challenged communities in the North, putting in place ambitious turnaround plans.

This announcement has made its rounds across the news websites, including The Sun.

Co-op plans to take over 28 more failing schools after turning around 12 academies
The group, best known for its stores and funeral services, took on its first academy in Manchester in 2010.

This one, from the Yorkshire Post newspaper, adds it on to an article about its announcement of a nationwide scheme to stock local products in its stores.

Co-op announces plans to support local producers
“W​e want these businesses to thrive in our communities and so we don’t seek exclusivity for instance – our ambition is for our stores to be at the heart of local life, connecting communities together and offering great quality products when and where our members and customers need them​,” he added.​

[…]

The ​Co-op ​said its a​cademies have enjoyed huge success, with a strategy designed to empower teachers and young people to work together for a better education and a better community, in line with the Co-op’s own values.

Tes.com emphasises the geographical aspect of the news.

Co-op ‘turbo-charging’ academies sponsorship in bid to boost the North
The announcement comes after a report by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield last month highlighted that children from poorer homes in northern England face an education gap that starts before school and widens over time.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership has also called on businesses in the North to do more to help close the skills gap with the South.

The Telegraph’s account is from a more financial viewpoint.

Co-op returns to profit as it bounces back from bank woes
The Co-operative Group’s boss shrugged off the chaos afflicting Britain’s high streets as the mutual announced it had returned to the black after selling its stake in the troubled Co-operative Bank.

The company, which runs food shops and funeral parlours as well as offering insurance and legal services, made a pre-tax profit of £72m in the year to Jan 6, up from a £132m loss the year before.

[…]

The Co-op also announced plans to sponsor 28 academy schools in the next three years in addition to the 12 it already has. It hopes to hire 250-300 workers from the schools by 2022, but Mr Murrells said the move was based on its aim to “do good in society” rather than for business reasons.

This must be all too much for the Independent. Yes, the Co-op’s doing well at the moment, but it won’t last.

Co-op: Roaring back and in the black but is it just a bit too busy?
That sort of thing is what might make long term watchers of this institution shudder. Just a bit. It has uncomfortable echoes of what the business used to do in the bad old days when it was cursed with executives who, as eventually became clear, were much better at politicking and unveiling grandiose plans with great fanfare than they were at business.

Nudge the parents to nudge the children

Here’s an interesting idea from a school wanting to help parents better engage with their children’s experiences at school.

How nudges can help parents to get more involved in their children’s learning
After hearing Tom Middlehurst speak at an SSAT National Conference 2017 of the effectiveness of sending ‘learning prompt’ messages to parents in schools, we decided to give it a try. We used text messages to generate discussion between our students and their parents/carers, ensuring our nudges were action–focused, with a clear timescale.

[…]

Informal feedback has been very positive. From my discussions with students the day after each text I’d estimate 30% have talked about it at home. A few unintended consequences have emerged:

Parents making their child revise that evening simply because the text nudged them to think about it.

Some students reported having more learning conversations in the weeks following the texts.

Parents feel more equipped to ask follow-up questions on subjects such as the similarities between Banquo and Macbeth.

(I’ve repeated the word ‘nudge’ too many times in my head and now it doesn’t make sense anymore nudge nudge nuj nujj)

Ofsted grades not fit for purpose?

A very interesting read about the need to move away from Ofsted grades.

Five reasons to ditch Ofsted grades
I reckon that in 50 years time, we will look back at the current Ofsted-grading era as one of the big educational blackspots of history. Serious educationalists and policy makers will laugh in knowing horror … at the extraordinary folly of a defunct inspection regime that involved sending a tiny team of people to schools they’d never been to before for a day or two to evaluate them against a massively long list of criteria and give them an overall one-word judgement. All of this while also projecting a national illusion that these judgements made by different people were fair, accurate, reliable and consistent across time and across the nation. And all of that alongside the delusion that this actually made for an ever-improving education system. Ho ho.

[…]

5. Every School Requires Improvement. Finally, isn’t this just the most obvious thing; all schools require improvement. Wouldn’t it just be so much better if we took all the labels off the reports, forced people to read them and left all schools with a record of their areas of strength and areas for development? Sure, we need a category for ‘below the line’ – and a separate process for dealing with urgent safeguarding failures – but even here I would argue that it should be called something that suggested maximum support was on its way, recognising the challenges at work – not the pejorative Jack Boots of ‘inadequate’ that just kicks everyone in the teeth.

The challenges and rewards of an inner city school

Even though I’ve worked in a school for a couple of years, I still consider myself new to the sector, after working in universities and colleges for almost 20 years. They’re quite different now, from how I remember mine.

A news team visited an inner city school in Leeds, to share the types of difficulties and opportunities some schools face these days.

The school with 72 languages
Every week we hear about the huge challenges for schools up and down the country – from funding cuts, to talk of a recruitment crisis. Calendar was invited into one particular school – where students speak 72 different languages. It provides many challenges for the Co-operative Academy – in Burmantofts – one of the most deprived areas of Leeds. Not least how to teach children – many of whom do not speak any English – the curriculum.

The dedicated teachers at the Co-operative Academy
The Co-operative Academy in Leeds is in one of the poorest and most diverse areas in the city. Here 75% of students don’t speak English as their first language. And more than 60% are eligible for pupil premium funding – for those with low incomes. That’s more than twice the national average. It means teachers here have a very difficult – and sometimes upsetting – job on their hands. Here’s the second of Helen Steel’s special reports.

Raising aspirations in inner-city school
In the final of a three-part series by Calendar reporter Helen Steel, we see how staff at the Co-operative Academy of Leeds – in one of the most deprived inner-city areas of the UK – are determined to raise aspirations.

So it’s not just the students that cheat

The Guardian reporting on a Sunday Times story.

Thousands of teachers caught cheating to improve exam results
Nearly 2,300 malpractice offences were committed by staff in educational institutions offering OCR exams between 2012 and 2016, according to data obtained through a freedom of information request by the Sunday Times. More than half of the teachers committing malpractice offences were accused of providing “improper assistance” to students taking exams. In comparison, there were 3,603 cases of candidates being caught cheating over the same period.

Read more on The Times website (if you’ve bought a subscription).

Thousands of teachers caught cheating in exams
Teachers cheat in exams nearly as often as pupils but escape with far lighter punishment, according to figures that OCR, one of the country’s leading exam boards, tried to suppress. The scandal has come to light after the information commissioner ordered OCR to answer questions from The Sunday Times.

And here’s The Telegraph, not to be outdone, wanting to remind us of its own investigative journalism.

Thousands of teachers caught cheating in tests as MPs demand transparency from exam boards
The disclosures come after an investigation by this newspaper last year uncovered an exam cheating scandal embroiling senior teachers at some of the country’s leading independent schools. The scandal, which resulted in the Government ordering the exam regulator Ofqual to launch an inquiry, saw teachers at Eton and Winchester College dismissed for leaking details of upcoming test papers to their pupils.

No going back to school?

The academisation cliff-edge: ‘You’re handing your school over for adoption and there’s no changing your mind’
So what can you do if you join and it’s not working out? Well, not a lot. The journey from maintained school to academy is a one-way ticket. No pressure, governors, but you’re signing your school over for adoption and there’s no changing your mind, no going back. You sign over your legal rights, your assets and your future to the MAT. Your school is no longer run by 15 enthusiastic local governors and the SLT, it’s overseen by nine people based 40 miles away who have only visited a handful of times.

This article, from a parent governor of a primary school in Derbyshire, makes for alarming reading. He’s certainly very anxious about the “choiceless choice” before him. Is it really as bleak?