Category Archives: Education

School days, school days, end of the golden rule days

As of this lunchtime I no longer have a child in school. After 15 years of book bags and reading practice and PE kit and lunch money and parents’ evenings and INSET days and school reports and grumbling about the price of uniforms, suddenly it’s all over.  One is off to university this autumn, the other will be heading for sixth form college, unburdened by the need to put his hands on his school tie  ever again.

They’ve changed a lot, of course, in the past 15 years.  Possibly not as much as the school system has. Beneficiaries of New Labour’s “education, education, education” largesse  they went to an excellent local primary school, and have kept one step ahead of the  reformers ever since.

The youngest enjoyed all the sports the local primary sports coordinator introduced him to –  shortly before the school sports partnerships which made it possible were abolished.  They went to an outstanding secondary school which was in the very last group of schools to be refurbished under the generous old Building Schools for the Future programme.  The oldest completed her AS levels in the year before AS’s were changed.  The youngest has just done the last year of old-style GCSEs before syllabuses, course work and the grading system itself are all reformed. They leave the school system while uncertainties about possible forced Academisation swirl around.  I have occasionally pictured their ride through the school system like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark:  we are, collectively playing the part of  Indiana Jones running just ahead of the granite ball representing the Department for Education – or maybe we’re  Bart, they’re Homer:

They’ve done fine, of course, thanks to a series of hard-working, professional,  and downright wonderful teachers  who cajoled, inspired, and enlightened them all the way and who genuinely seemed to care about what happened to them. And not everything has changed since my day.  I asked my son how he felt about leaving.  “Now it’s over I can look back on it and say it was great” he said (remember, he left school about two hours ago) “But at the time, when you’re there and you’re a teenager and you hate everything, it makes you feel like banging your head on the desk.”  I doubt there’s anyone who went to any school, anywhere, who doesn’t know exactly how that feels.

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University open days – five essential things to remember

I was bemused that The Guardian published its guide to university open days today.  Aren’t most of them over?  We’ve spent the summer trailing from hall of residence to library  to lecture theatre up and down the country.  I’m quite good at it now – so here, in no particular order, are things to remember when it’s my son’s turn:

  1.  The course your child wants to study is crucial.  But if he or she has researched this properly (and this is something only they can do)  you will only visit places offering courses they’re happy with. This makes everything else about the university really important.  Final choices are likely to be  made on things as seemingly inconsequential as the width of the corridors in the accommodation blocks.
  2. You need to know what you’re looking for before you go. Think about what’s really important to you before you arrive and cast a beady eye over those particular aspects of the university: Course content and teaching?  Nightlife? Proximity to home? Quality/cost of accommodation? Whatever it is, you need to know you’re choosing somewhere that delivers what you want.
  3. Attention parents!  It’s not our choice.  It’s not our future or our debt.  It’s theirs.  You are a sounding board for their impressions, you shouldn’t try to impose your own.  (It will be to no-one’s surprise that I didn’t always manage this.)
  4. It’s worth visiting the town as well as mooching round the student union.  If your child is used to the rattle and hum of a big city, will they be happy to move to a small, provincial town?  A friend of my niece’s is applying to the university closest to her home so she can visit her family as often as possible (hmm).  My daughter refuses to think about anywhere in London because she wants something different and can’t think of anything worse than living at home (I completely understand and am buttoning my lip about the fact that she’s discounting some of the best colleges in the world.  Note to self, see 3 above and read repeatedly).
  5. Make notes, take photos.  Universities are surprisingly similar. After a while they blur into one.  Oh, and wear comfortable shoes and take bottles of water.  You are going to be walking a LONG way.

The challenge for university communications departments

All five of the universities we’ve visited offer great courses and opportunities to study abroad.  They all have active student unions with more scope to sing/dance/play sport/climb mountains/be political or play tiddlywinks than one person could realistically fit into a lifetime.  They have broadly similar accommodation, costing roughly the same amount per week. What they offered was, frankly, much of a muchness.  Small differences in presentation take on huge significance when that’s what separates one from another.   A cry of “this website is RUBBISH” from my daughter, meant that the university in question had some catching-up to do when we got there.  A good website is essential; apps are de rigueur; maps need to be helpful to people with no sense of direction (ahem).

Enjoy it

More than anything else it’s been a joy to spend uninterrupted time with my daughter and realise again what good company she is.  Some of her friends started their university careers this week.  I’m both looking forward to and dreading her making the move next year.  But at least now I know that, wherever she goes, we’ve researched the hell out of the kitchen arrangements.

Michael Gove and facts, facts, facts

According to this morning’s Guardian, Michael Gove is to make a speech claiming that rote learning is the key to success in education:

Competitive, difficult exams for which pupils must prepare by memorising large amounts of facts and concepts will promote motivation, solidify knowledge and guarantee standards.

Now, you could reach for the Dickens and quote Gradgrind to discuss this.  Or you can go a bit further back in time and let William Hazlitt debunk it for you:

William Hazlitt self portrait 1802

“The things which a boy is set to learn at school and on which his success depends are things which do not require the exercise either of the highest or the most useful faculties of mind.  Memory … is the faculty chiefly called into play, in conning over and over repeated lessons by rote… A lad with a sickly constitution and no very active mind who can just retain what is pointed out to him will generally be at the head of the form. ” (From  On the Ignorance of the Learned, 1820-ish)

And given the subject of the feature article in G2 on Eton and the old boy network, it’s worth remembering that Hazlitt also pointed this out – almost 200 years ago:

 It should not be forgotten that the least respectable character among modern politicians was the cleverest boy at Eton

Are summer schools the answer? Five questions for Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg is to announce that he will be spending £50m to set up summer schools for children on the verge of starting secondary school as a “compassionate response” to last month’s riots.

I’m all in favour of anything being provided for young people, who seem to be at the sharp end of a lot of current cuts.  But I do have some questions:

  1. This money seems to be being taken from the pupil premium fund designed to help schools to support children in most need (ie it doesn’t appear to be new money).  How does making schools spend their money in this particular way support the government’s notions of promoting freedom and school autonomy?
  2. Where’s the evidence that a fortnight’s voluntary summer school at 11 will have any impact on stopping young people “falling through the cracks” ?  Is the government already so clear about the causes of the riots that Ministers are prepared to spend a substantial sum (admittedly of someone else’s money) to put it right?  As Theresa May said earlier this month,  “it [is] not helpful for politicians to “suddenly speculate” over what happened. The causes would only be known once all the evidence had been analysed”.
  3. The summer schools are not, apparently, going to be compulsory.  Being realistic, how many of the target children, those seemingly at risk of falling through the cracks into rioting, criminality and beyond are likely to attend them? How will the impact of the scheme be measured?
  4. Assuming that the target children do turn out for the fortnight.  What is being planned to keep them on the straight and narrow afterwards?  Or is 14 days of the right kind of training going to be enough?
  5. How far would £50m go if it was put back into Connexions or some other form of careers advice for school leavers to “put them in touch with their own future” through  training or employment? (The Guardian reported recently that:  Under proposed reforms to careers guidance, a new national service is due to launch next April, which would see teenagers no longer entitled to any face-to-face careers guidance. Instead they will be pointed to a website or told to call a helpline. The duty to provide face-to-face advice will be transferred to schools, though they are to get none of the £203m central funding that pays for the existing service.)

And here are some more rhetorical questions:  Is this anything more than a media gimmick to give Clegg a soundbite for his conference speech?  What’s the betting that we will hear this wheeled out over the coming months as an example of how the Lib Dems are stamping their belief in fairness all over the Coalition? Is there any wonder that another speedy response to the riots concluded that lack of trust in politicians was a cause?  Could Ministers attend summer schools in practical policy making next year, instead of pandering to their conference audiences?  What do you think?

Foopball, foopball, ra, ra, ra

In the wake of the coverage of Andy Gray/Richard Keys, I had  a blog post floating round my head yesterday about the  crushing ubiquity of football and the culture that surrounds it.    Had I got round to writing it,  it would have made some of the points made by Catherine Bennett  in her piece for today’s Observer Forget getting rid of sexism in sport.  Let’s get rid of sport:  an end to the blokey horror if it all, say I, to the absolute  inescapableness of it, to the obscenity of the money (pretty much any story in the Observer’s Said and Done column most weeks is enough to make you want to ban the game completely), to the new social necessity of following a team.

I blame Rupert Murdoch, for enabling the Topsy-ish growth of the Premier League, and Nick Hornby , whose   Fever Pitch made it socially acceptable for football to spread beyond the back pages, wheedling its way into every part of daily life like honey fungus.

Bennett makes another good point in her piece about the pervasiveness of sports chatter in the media: the low percentage of women and girls who enjoy the competitive nature of team games:

the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation finds that 36% of women “enjoy the competitiveness of sport”, as opposed to 61% of men. Why, then… should the sport-averse be subjected to extended sessions of compulsory sport, as if they were still in class, forced out into the mud to contemplate the skills of the school elite?

Good point.  And why, if this is the case, are the government so keen to promote competitive sport in schools at the same time as they cut School Sports Partnerships to the detriment of sports that girls might actually enjoy?  I played lots of competitive sport at school – netball, hockey, rounders for the school, a county trial for hockey.  All at the point of my PE teacher’s gun.  I hated every minute and gave up sport as soon as I could, only to rediscover the pleasures of exercise years later when – by then pretty unfit – I joined a gym.

Professional sport is entertaining enough to watch,  but it isn’t important.  I do  not feel it will be a national disgrace if “our medal tally” is worse at the London Olympics than it was in Beijing.  I do not care that ‘we’ are unlikely to win the World Cup again in my lifetime.  I was delighted about the Ashes, but no-one would have died if England had lost.  Sport, like most other things in life, is more fun to do yourself than watch someone else do.   Can we get a bit of perspective back please?

The dash to academies

Flickr: Cogdogblog

Pretty obviously, most of the 1,900-odd  schools who “expressed an interest” in becoming an academy when the rules changed only did it to get hold of  information about what was on offer.  Jolly sensible too.  It never meant that they wanted to become academies and I’m astonished that Michael Gove was able to get away for so long with the pretence that there was a tidal wave of enthusiasm for the scheme which justified the  way the Bill was swept through parliament.  The fact that only 153 schools actually want to take up the offer having seen what it entails shows how  far they still have to go to persuade anyone of the value of the approach.

Anecdotal evidence from this part of London suggests that, at  a meeting of school governors from across the borough, no-one spoke in favour of the scheme and there was huge concern about the potential effects on the support offered to all schools by the local authority.   A period of properly managed communication and consultation about this – and about cuts to BSF  – might have explained the thinking, avoided some of what its claimed are misunderstandings about the approach (they’re not stopping all capital spending on schools, although have managed to give the impression that they are),  and, who knows, built a bit of support.  This might have meant that Mr Gove missed his chance to be first off the blocks with big cuts and new legislation in this shiny new government, but perhaps this is a case of more haste less speed?