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Generation of the damned

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

The Coalition’s recent announcement of cuts to the Benefit system, coupled with perceived cuts to the public sector and welfare state in the October Spending Review has damned an entire generation to relative poverty and poor prospects.

It is a well known principle that investment in the welfare state and education can enable individuals to remove themselves from the poverty cycle. As has been discussed in a previous post: you are only as rich as your poorest citizen. The cuts seek to trap our poorest citizens in the poverty cycle without any means to remove themselves.

The Conservatives, especially Cameron, hark on about Broken Britain. Britain is not broken, but it soon will be. It is also well known that anti-social behaviour and general social ills are created and fuelled by poverty, bear in mind that there are always exceptions to the rule. So to ‘fix’ broken Britain what is needed is investment in education, as the great liberator, and welfare to work schemes as well as maintaining the welfare and universal benefit system – means testing might be a better option than an arbitrary reduction.

The ‘Free’ schools are another name for Grammar Schools but free from state control and therefore able to select pupils thus further damning children from poor areas. I, separate from Oldfield-Pike, advocate a fully comprehensive education system so that there is not two-tiers within the education system.

The perceived result of the Browne Review, set to announce tuition fees to £10,000, coupled with the governments reduction in funding for Higher Education will inhibit the majority from applying to go to University and will reduce the calibre of the institutions for those that do. Now, more than ever, do we, as a country, need to push for greater investment in education or we risk falling behind the rest of the world in teaching and research.

The Coalition government wants to get people into work and off the benefit system but the way they are approaching it can only spell disaster. The welfare to work programmes have been scrapped which means relying on the voluntary sector to provide the programmes through the ‘Big Society’, but, because public spending is being cut across the board, there is not any money for charities etc. to provide for these welfare to work schemes thus trapping them in the poverty cycle with their children and their children’s children ad infinitum.

Single sex education: Singularly divisive?

A report in The Guardian this week has revealed a surge in popularity of single sex education, especially for boys. Up until this year, there had been a five year trend towards co-educational schools (schools in which boys and girls are taught together). New figures show this has been bucked by a high proportion of parents opting for private education for their male children. The statistics show that 61% of the boys-only schools had taken more pupils this year, compared with 39% of the girls-only schools and 42% of the co-educational – or mixed-sex – schools. There are several political, social and legal concerns being raised as a result of this research – is single sex education a step in the right direction, or taking us back to the dark days of gender discrimination?

One of the strongest arguments in favour of educating boys and girls separately is the discovery of the fact that there are considerable biological differences in the ways that male and female brains function and therefore learn.

 It seems obvious, but even something as basic as the classroom environment can have a profound effect on learning. Research has indicated that something as simple as climate can have an impact; girls learn better when classroom temperature is warm, while boys perform better in cooler classrooms. If that’s true, then the temperature in a single-sex classroom could be set to optimize the learning of either male or female students. Similarly, the type of resources we use to teach can be gender specific. From an academic perspective, co-educational schools give students the opportunity to experience and adjust to different learning styles. Boys and girls can learn from each other’s approaches and learn to collaborate, each bringing their style to bear in working for common goals. This is claimed as an important learning opportunity by advocates of coeducation. For years we have been trying to reduce the inequality between men and women in terms of career choice. In co-educational schools, I think we have a better chance of achieving this.

Boys generally prefer to learn kinaesthetically, preferring physical lessons rather than sitting at a desk. On the other hand, many girls prefer the more traditional visual and oral learning methods, both of which are easier to deliver in our state education system. This can often mean we are better serving our female pupils to the detriment of boys who, parents could easily feel, are having certain learning needs neglected.

In the same vein, there is an argument that single-sex education can broaden the educational prospects for both girls and boys. This is based on the assumption that co-ed schools may have a tendency to reinforce gender stereotypes whilst single sex schools can take steps to break them down. From a curriculum point of view, this may reduce the inequalities between male and female achievement in certain areas, for example, if girls no longer need to compete with boys in a male-dominated subject such as maths, they may find it less off-putting. Equally, boys may be more comfortable with the traditionally feminine subjects like English. Indeed, there is evidence that boys and girls who have been educated in single-sex environments have a stronger preference for subjects that are stereotypically aligned with the opposite sex. We, as teachers, are often as guilty of stereotyping as anyone; we somehow automatically expect girls to like writing and boys like doing sums. It’s not uncommon to find teachers who treat girls differently from boys in maths, science, and practically-based subjects, giving them less attention and fewer learning opportunities. This kind of favouritism is impossible in a single-sex classroom, but how can we increase interest and motivation if this is the case?

Particularly within Secondary education, one of the major issues many parents have is a worry about levels of discipline and inappropriate behaviour. Supporters of single sex schools put forward the idea that we may at least be able to put the emphasis back on learning in single sex schools – that better results are facilitated as a direct consequence. Single-sex settings effectively ‘cash in’ here, as they are commonly believed to improve classroom behaviour. Hard evidence to support this view is hard to find, and it may just as easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than fact-based reality. Since girls mature earlier than boys, in a class by themselves they are relieved of the consequences of the acting out that boys of the same age may engage in. Of course this is a problem that needs to be addressed, but is the solution really to remove all contact? Surely the way to overcome it is with stimulating lessons and effective teaching which is inclusive of all pupils, irrespective of gender? Advocates of single sex education claim that, to a greater or lesser extent, behaviours around sexual maturity – such as showing off in lesson time – may be reduced in a single-sex environment. At an age when hormones become prevalent, it does seem that perhaps girls and boys would both benefit from having the worry of conforming to expectation removed, but removing the opportunities for them to work alongside each other may just as easily store up problems for the future. Eventually, they will have to not only work together but also live alongside each other as part of society. How can we say we are educating the adults of tomorrow if as children we don’t provide the opportunities to develop cohesion and acceptance.  

From the proponents of single sex schools, we often hear how high the levels of achievements are within single sex education. Well, yes, often this is true. But it is very doubtful that this is the reason for their results; in England, the vast, vast majority of single sex schools are independent and private. This automatically means lower class sizes, specialist teachers and stringent admissions policies which are often selective. These factors virtually guarantee higher levels of success, and it is therefore not attributable to gender.

As a teacher, I feel strongly that one of the major aspects of my job is to prepare my children for the world into which they will become citizens who make a purposeful contribution. My issue with single sex schools, is that this is made virtually impossible because by definition they create an artificial environment. In the ‘real world’, children will never again experience anything so restrictive, and heterogenous.  In a world where we all, thankfully, promote equal opportunities and do everything we can to eradicate discrimination, how can we justify bringing children up to believe that associating purely with others who are just the same as us is the right thing to do? How can we expect children to become understanding, compassionate human beings who recognise the importance of integration if we restrict their opportunities to develop these very skills? The overriding benefit of co-educational schools is that they are microcosms of society. Since men and women are certain to interact in the workplace and in society in general, say proponents of coeducational schools, school can be an environment in which gender differences come to be understood, preparing students for life after formal education.

I fear we are spending too much time being distracted from the burning issue, that of raising achievement for all. Instead of querying the pros and cons of single sex education, what we really need to do is ensure that we raise the standard of teacher training in this country. Guarantee that no matter which school a child is being educated in, parents can be assured they are being taught the knowledge, skills and qualities needed to become a fully-functioning member of our society. To quote Guardian journalist Oli de Botton, ‘It sounds obvious, but boys (and girls) will do better if they are taught better by teachers who understand their individual needs. That means skilled practitioners using the curriculum creatively to engage and excite every single child in front of them – regardless of their gender.’

 

 

 

Quangos: Cut the red tape, don’t jeopardise success.

September 27, 2010 2 comments

In a series of measures to slash the deficit, a leaked government document has revealed fresh plans to scrap dozens of quangos ( non- governmental agencies funded by the state) including many with responsibility for education and families. This was almost inevitable, and of course, the theory behind it is logical. Most people would surely accept that taking steps such as cutting the salaries of chief executives and doing away with huge advertising bills is a step in the right direction, an area within which we can save government funds, without having a direct effect on public services.

The problem with quangos is that they all seem to be tarred with the same brush. We hear the name and assume they’re all bureaucratic associations which in all likelihood promise much and deliver little. Of course there will be several such agencies in existence, but when you look a little closer at the potential quangos up for being scrapped, it is worrying to see so many agencies which are known to have made a contribution to thousands of children being made to prove their value, yet again in financial terms, rather than personal progress. Take Becta, or to give it its Sunday name, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. It was created in 1998 to promote the effective use of ICT in schools. From personal experience, the service provided by Becta has had a real and direct impact on schools. Since 2001, their influence has helped thousands of schools teach ICT as part of the curriculum, and helped ensure that it is used to aid develop literacy and numeracy skills. Their Home Access programme gave laptops and broadband capability to over 20,000 of the UK’s poorest homes, ensuring that no matter what resources parents have, all children have equal access to the Internet. This is a means by which to reduce inequalities in access to learning and I know several families who took full advantage of this scheme. The organisation employs 240 staff and 120 contractors, people who would, through no fault of their own, be at least temporarily dependent in state benefit should these quangos be closed down.  On its site, Becta admits to significant spending; £1.5bn has been spent through its procurement agreements since 2002, but they also claim that this has saved the education system £223m – which would be an average of about £28m per year. It also says it has made cost savings of £55m for educational institutions and providers including schools, local authorities and the skills sector in the past year alone. Becta has clearly proven itself to be successful, and it now has several business sponsors, meaning the government has to provide fewer funds itself. We need to look at the long-term view; is saving a few million pounds now really worth putting ICT competency for thousands of children at risk when technology is so crucial to our economy?

The leaked document (provided by ‘a Whitehall source’) revealed that the Schools Food Trust was another potential victim of the proposed cuts. According to its website, the SFT ‘is an independent body with the unique remit of transforming school food and food skills.’ It was initially created in response to chef Jamie Oliver’s TV documentary, ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’, which discovered that the food served to prison inmates had more nutritional value than many school dinners served across England’s local education authorities. The remit of the SFT was to ‘ensure all schools met the food based and nutrient based standards for lunch and non-lunch food and increase the take-up of school meals.’

So, just how effective has this agency been? In 2006, the Institute for Social and Economic Research (the ISER) commissioned a report into the effect of Oliver’s campaign. The research findings indicate an improvement in results for 11-year-olds leaving primary education between 2005 and 2007, during the initial stages of the SFT’s work. In English there was an increase of 3-6 percentage points in pupils reaching Level 4, the expected national average. In science there was an increase of 3-8 percentage points in pupils reaching Level 5. Considering the push for improvement in this area, this is surely a hugely positive result. There was also a 15% reduction in absences associated with sickness. The report found that “children seem to rely more on food provided at school now than they did three decades ago”, in which case there is no justification for bringing such a scheme to an end. It’s true that it has taken a long time to persuade some children to try the new menus on offer, but for those of less well-off parents who are given free school meals, the positive effect, both in terms of achievement and behaviour has been noticeable.

Beyond the statistics, it is clear to anyone who has spent time in schools over the last five years what a positive impact the new school meals have had. Alongside the improvement in lunches, all primary-age pupils are now given free fruit every day of the school week and bottled water, both of which help concentration. The majority of infant- age pupils are also provided with milk every morning. As a package, these measures have led to an improvement in behaviour, and ensure that for the children who may be nutritionally deficient or experience a lack of good food at home, there is at least one meal a day of which they can be guaranteed.

Cutting non-essential government spending is one of the cornerstones of reducing the deficit. The debate, however, needs to be focused on where these cuts will occur, and who can most easily afford to shoulder the burden. We have a duty as a society to ensure that children are not being made to suffer for the overspending of government departments. Yes, there are quangos we can and should do away with. What we can’t allow to happen is to let vulnerable members of our society be held to account for the mistakes of others.

Unequal opportunities: How do we redress the balance?

September 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Last Monday, as part of its ‘Schools’ season, BBC2 screened a documentary by ‘Today’ presenter John Humphrys which aimed to answer one simple question with a complex approach. That question, quite bluntly, was just why do ‘rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children’? This isn’t merely another example of ‘dumbing down’ the language of politics, indeed these labels are those of the Conservative Minister for Education himself, Michael Gove, in a statement to the Commons Select Committee in July.

Despite decades of huge levels of spending on education, we have just as high a level of striking inequality between the poor and the rich than at any other time in the last fifty years. So, where are we going wrong?

The programme centred around Humphrys’ experiences meeting key figures in the Education system.  One of these inspirational interviewees was Amanda Phillips, head teacher of a Tower Hamlets primary school, one of the most socially-deprived areas in England. She revealed something that strikes a chord amongst many of us involved at the grass roots of early years education; her teachers go on preliminary home visits to three-year-olds who have never set foot on grass, been taken to the zoo or visited a museum. Part of her philosophy which is rapidly improving the effectiveness of her school is that she made the brave decision to spend a large chunk of her budget on introducing what she terms ‘middle-class experiences’ into the lives of her pupils. This is a relatively radical but hugely impressive idea, and one with which I and most teachers I know would concur. The children of poorer parents (who are more than likely to be growing up in one of the four in ten UK households without anyone bringing in a wage) are at a huge disadvantage before they even start their formal education, a disadvantage which is virtually impossible to overcome without early intervention. There are many parents who are drawn into financial hardship through no fault of their own, and for them there is not necessarily a link between income and ambition. Lots of them will wish nothing but success upon their children, and they will do their utmost to provide as many learning experiences as they can. For some poorer children, whose parents make the lifestyle choice to live on benefits, where is the incentive to work hard and achieve when they have no role model? Our responsibility is to these children, to show them that there is a far greater future ahead than the experience they have so far, that the life of the adults they know is not the one they need to live themselves. Many of these children don’t know what a nursery rhyme is, are never taken to play in the park, even to know what the sea looks like. The standard government response from whichever party is in power at the time is to insist that public spending on education is higher than before. The colossal point they’re missing is that all the money in the world won’t reverse the problem. Yes,  financial hardship is a huge problem we need to overcome, but the real cost to their children is not a lack of means, but the poverty of aspiration.

Very often, school populations will be comprised of children who live together in the same immediate area. If these schools happen to be in an area of high deprivation, a large proportion of these children will never know anything but a life of struggle and lack of opportunities. The disadvantage they have is that unless their parents fight for a place in a good state school they become stuck in the cycle of generations of families who don’t work, and have no desire to. This is when income and wealth really come into play. The luxury afforded to the children of the middle classes is choice, the choice to opt out of the state system and give their children an education which is paid for from their own pocket. No-one can deny the opportunity being offered to these pupils – small class sizes, a vast array of educationally-enriching trips and experiences, being taught alongside the children of equally highly aspirational parents. It sounds like a Utopia. Some of the children attending schools such as Mossbourne, the country’s most successful public school, just don’t have the incentive to take full advantage of attending these schools, whilst there are brighter, poorer children who would take full advantage of such an opportunity. Scholarships are rarely a solution. They generally comprise less than a handful of the places available and only  well-informed parents have a chance of getting their children one of the treasured few. How many families really have the luxury of spending up to 25,000 per year, per child for a public school education? Of course these establishments have an important place in our system and a valid contribution to make, but the benefits of an education within them should not be allowed to supersede the achievements of a poorer child who has had to struggle far more to achieve anything like the same results. It should never be the case that a CV listing one of these schools is a lifetime guarantee of advantage. We have to prize achievement based on personal merit above anything attained through the financial assurance of others. Surely what we really need to do is bring the experiences of the richer children attending public school (enlightening school trips, focused, responsive teaching and smaller pupil to teacher ratio) to the vast majority who will never be lucky enough to receive a place.

As teachers, we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that poorer children are given the best possible start in life. Experience shows us that the children of the middle classes will always achieve in one way or another. Even if their talents are not academic, they are likely to  attend extra- curricular clubs and activities where they are given the chance to develop self-esteem and a sense of worth. The pupils who really need our teaching, care and support are those born to parents who either can’t, won’t or don’t share our ambition for their children. Of course, this is not to say in any way this is a problem attributed to all poorer parents. There are many who through no fault of their own can’t work or have been  made redundant, and still want things for their children that they have never had themselves. Still, experience in classrooms shows that it is very often pupils born to more financially-secure parents who are the ones who have those essential ‘middle-class experiences’ such as bedtime stories,  eating meals together around a table,  learn to count to 5 before they even step foot in nursery.

Another potential solution to help reduce the gap in achievement is the grammar school. This is a controversial subject, and has rather fallen under the radar in recent times as all three main parties have chosen to distance themselves from grammar schools. Whilst in power, Labour banned the building of new ones and in 2007 the Tories announced the withdrawal of their support for them. The official line of the DCSF was ‘we don’t support academic selection’. Rather worrying when we consider that a survey by the National Grammar School Association revealed that 76% of adults support the building of new grammar schools at a time when just 164 schools out of a total of 3, 361 in England are selective. The truth is, life is entirely based on selection. We are doing children no favours bringing them up in a world free of competition. In shielding them from any form of disappointment, we are merely storing up problems for the future. In my view, grammar schools should be at the very heart of the battle to redress the balance of educational inequality. They bring together children, regardless of the income of their parents, where the only thing that counts is their ability. By attending grammar schools, the children who may fall through the cracks of a standard secondary education are afforded the opportunity to break the glass ceiling and achieve success. It also ensures that money can’t buy achievement, as will, sadly, always be the case with fee-paying, independent schools. I would much rather live in a country where the children we educate have had to work hard for their success than had their parents pay for it. We shouldn’t prevent the top 20% from entering selective education because by default the other 80% can’t attend. For the children who don’t make it to grammar school, we have a different responsibility. Formal, academic education may not be the best route for them, so why aren’t we working on alternatives that really do allow these children to succeed. Instead of spending upwards of £25 million on each new academy, why not invest that money in training schemes, apprenticeships and practical skills from the age of 11? There doesn’t have to be a one size fits all approach to education. We have to understand that the needs of poorer and richer children are not the same.

So, in the midst of conference season, it seems the Coalition’s plan is to forge ahead with more academies, at least for this political term. The effectiveness of these institutions is another debate for another time, but we shouldn’t forget that at the heart of the academy plan is devolved power. There will be no unity of thinking or ethos between schools in the community as to how to reduce inequalities, yet surely the only way we can reduce the inequality is to work together on a collaborative basis, to ensure that we meet the needs of all our pupils, irrespective of the community into which they are (un)lucky enough to be born. 

It is an uncomfortable, unfortunate truth that very often financial means go hand in hand with ambition. We need to do everything in our power to show all children how important it is to have a goal and to work hard to achieve it. For those children who come to depend on school as a sanctuary and safety net, we have a duty to raise achievement, regardless of all other factors. What we have to ensure is that our guiding principle going forward is that no matter where children come from, it is where they are going that is by far the more important belief.  We’re unlikely to ever secure an even distribution of wealth in society, but with time and shared commitment, equality of aspiration is something we can achieve.

Free Schools: Is there a hidden cost?

September 23, 2010 2 comments

In the run-up to the general election, education issues were at the heart of political campaigning. All three parties were keen to prove that a vote for them would mean improving results and more freedom for teachers. In reality, every government for the last twenty-five years has promised much and delivered little in the way of real progress. Last year, the Tories announced plans to allow parents, teachers, charities, universities and businesses to create their own schools. According to the Department for Education, “these new schools will be academies, which are publicly funded independent schools, free from local authority control.’ This is the first point of contention for many of us involved in education. Although there is always lively debate between teachers about the amount of power local education authorities have, surely it is an important feature of the education system. In real terms, it ensures that a child in a county such as Surrey, an area of prosperity and financial security has access to the same curriculum as a child born in a deprived former mill town in Lancashire. The goal of the National Curriculum is to deliver a broad and balanced entitlement to learning. Yes, it can be restrictive and it is virtually impossible to fit in its content into a 25 hour week. However, it is a fundamental building block of education upon which we can all deliver a purposeful, accessible curriculum to our pupils. Should free schools become commonplace, my fear is that we will lose our handle on maintaining standards in the name of making schools a business. Children are not commodities, yet why would any business have an interest in funding one were it not in the pursuit of profit? Writing in The Telegraph, Graeme Paton wrote that Conservative supporters of the bill claimed free schools would drive up standards and reduce the gap between achievement. Raising standards should be a priority of any teaching staff, not merely a by-product of competition between local schools. We should be working together for progress, pooling resources and ideas.

My real problem with free schools is it is yet another means by which to dumb down education. Primary education is often seen as inferior to secondary, as though teachers of older children are more skilled and better educated. This is far from accurate – teaching is a graduate profession, and in most cases, only an upper second class degree will get you through the door to interview. We spend years training, and every day of our working lives continuing to adapt to the needs of our pupils. If I were to go on a first aid course, I wouldn’t think I were qualified to perform surgery, so why do parents think that having had a child is sufficient qualification to run a school?

Payment-by-results is not a realistic part of the education system, nor should it be. Achieving targets in terms of levels reached is only one measure of success. Academic success is only one part of a child’s education. The value of the social, emotional and personal skills and attributes we teach our children is by far the bigger component. I’m far prouder of a class who, by the end of the year, have learnt kindness and consideration of other peoples’ feelings than ‘beating’ a colleague by getting better results. If external agencies are allowed to take control of schools, how can we ensure the quality of the education we deliver to our children. What about the children with a statement for special educational needs? They are never likely to reach the national average standard in a year, yet when they eventually learn to write their name after months of trying, they deserve every bit as much praise as a child who reaches the national average.

The theory behind free schools is entirely reasonable and justifiable. We have a duty now to ensure that each application should be considered upon its individual merit, and it should be made explicit that to be given the go-ahead, they have to prove the quality of education can be delivered, with the needs of the pupils at its heart, not the business or university supporting it. Yes, there are several issues with the national curriculum in its current form, yet until we have convincing evidence that free schools can deliver the best possible start in life to our children, I remain to be convinced.