Dumb and Dumber.

When I was at school the only people I had ever met who had been to University were my teachers. I was Burnley born and bred. Apart from an in and out trip to Wembley with the first eleven hockey team, the first time I’d ever been to London was when I went for an interview for my degree. I didn’t even make it into Manchester until I was 18. I grew up in a small town, with a small world view, but university opened up that world. It introduced me to people who had lived very different lives to mine, who had different ideas to mine. It gave me time and space to breathe, grow, mature and think. I studied Literature, but I learned so much more about life. It wasn’t all easy. I learned to cope with being skint. I learned to defend myself from attack. I learned to spot and avoid the fraudsters, petty thieves and scammers. I learned not to say yes to everyone, to have some self worth, to be confident enough in what I believed to be right and wrong. Being in a big city, being away from home, mixing with people from vastly different backgrounds to my own were all as valuable to me as my degree.

My teachers, having degrees, were able to help me to visualise that world and to give me the confidence to believe I belonged there. They knew what study was like at degree level, how it differed to A Level, what demands would be made of me. They were able to recommend reading and texts that would ease my transition into undergraduate study. They were able to tell me the benefits of learning to live independently. And of course, for them and for me, that opportunity was debt free. It was considered an entitlement to be able to go to university and improve the quality of your life chances. It was considered an investment to have a highly qualified work force. Times have changed.

Back in the ‘education, education, education’ 90s, the belief was that the more qualified a population, the more wealthy the country. But the mantra came with a price tag. No longer would the state invest in you. You would have to invest in yourself. The benefits would outweigh the costs. And they may well have if house prices had not risen so dramatically. Our young graduates now leave university laden with debt in an increasingly competitive job market, unable to afford their own homes and struggling to afford rents. It’s a terrible betrayal of a generation and it’s been right to start to question whether or not a degree is all it’s cracked up to be.

My Dad trained on the job as an accountant. It took him years, but he eventually passed his chartered accountancy exams and ran his own business with no need for a degree. He consistently took on A Level apprentices even when elsewhere it was considered necessary for accountants to have degrees (interestingly, those ‘elsewhere’ places like Ernst and Young have reverted back to the idea that a degree is not necessary). He’d sign them onto college courses and they took exams to be either certified, or chartered accountants. For young people with no desire to go to University it was a great option to be earning and learning, building a career and future. No-one can knock the opportunities that great apprenticeships can offer. But should there be an apprenticeship route into teaching? I’d strongly argue not.

While in occupations like Engineering and Accountancy, a great deal of professional knowledge has to be gained, the knowledge is fixed – i.e you learn the laws either of taxation or physics and while things change or new discoveries and technologies happen, there is a high level of certainty in what you know. You apply this to practice, usually in an office or factory setting, away from other people. You are introduced to clients slowly and under supervision. You never have to deal with 30 of them at a time. But teacher knowledge is different. While there is a body of ‘fixed’ subject knowledge, there is also the matter of shifting and complex bodies of knowledge which are dependent on a number of personal skills and attributes – pedagogical and cognitive knowledge, praxis, the ability to read, understand, assimilate and communicate material, to critically engage with research, to manage human behaviours and emotions. Teaching is consistently rated as one of the top three most stressful professions and managing that stress is dependent on resilience and emotional intelligence – both of which are strengthened by experience and maturity. To place an 18 year old in such a complex environment, where the stakes are so high in terms of outcomes is, in my opinion, irresponsible.

Who does a child aspiring to go to university ask about what university life is like? How will a teacher who has only ever studied a subject to A level himself, answer questions about the demands a degree would make? How will they offer the most able tasks that will stretch them beyond the syllabus? How will they lift the heads of those who have known nothing other than their local communities and show them what lies beyond a horizon? How will they cope with the demands of parents at parent’s evening? The tantrums of a neglected and abused child? The difficulties of creating a sense of authority with those almost the same age as themselves?

In my career, I’ve dealt with some of these situations:-

A child telling me his greatest fear is that his Dad will escape from prison and kill his Mum.

A child disclosing her pregnancy to me.

A child telling me that her ‘boyfriend’ wants to meet up and that she’s worried he won’t like her in real life. He’s only ever seen her on screen and she’s never seen him at all…

A parent threatening to smack another parent in the face.

A parent threatening to smack me in the face.

A parent threatening to smack his child in the face…

I’ve struggled with every one of these, even though I was 24 when I started to teach – the average age, apparently that our executive brain functions mature – the functions that help us deal with controlling our emotions, managing our time, meeting deadlines, making wise and reasoned decisions. The functions that help teachers to deal with the difficulties their jobs entail. I worry about the pressure of expectation we’d be placing on these young apprentices. I worry about the boundaries. And I worry about the ability they’d have to help children to see past their current lives. But I also worry about what it says about the status of our profession.

When the last government commissioned reports into what made education systems successful, summarised in the McKinsey report as “no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers,” it led to the belief that the most highly qualified teachers were the best teachers. Of course, this is flawed. A First class honours degree doesn’t help you with a rowdy class. But subject knowledge matters. It matters a lot according to the report by the Sutton Trust/CEM into what makes great teachers. Chris Husbands, questioning the wisdom of the McKinsey quote amended it to “the quality of its teaching” and subsequent work by Rob Coe and others reinforces the idea that great teaching is very much connected to deep knowledge and an ability to make nuanced decisions about how best to communicate knowledge, recognise misconceptions and amend them. This is highly skilled stuff. Husbands also notes that the common denominator in successful systems is the status that teachers hold in society. It is more difficult to become a teacher in Finland than it is to become a doctor or lawyer. In most successful systems, teachers are expected not only to be educated to degree level, but beyond. Their academic ability is beyond doubt. The rest is delivered by high quality CPD, ongoing peer support and an expectation that planning and assessment are important enough to be given ample time in the timetable. The reason that there are no teacher shortages in these countries is because it is seen to be an honour to be a teacher. There are no shortcuts. You have to work for it.

The advocates of apprenticeships say that it allows poorer students, who may be put off teaching by tuition fees, access to the profession. What in reality it will do is create a two tiered system in which those who could afford to pay to go to University end up in the best schools with the best jobs and more options open to them. International schools, for example would not accept an application from a candidate without a degree and formal, university based teaching qualification. Nor, I expect, would a private or grammar school. Outstanding state schools, keen to protect their results and more likely to recruit high quality candidates, will continue to cream off the best. So we’ll see poorer teachers teaching poorer children while middle class parents continue to demand highly qualified teachers.

Instead we should be seeking to create a level playing field. We should invest in ITT by funding the professional qualification. It should not cost anyone anything to train as a teacher. For primary, we could extend the BEd, which was shown in a recent DataLab report into cost effectiveness of teacher training routes, to be the cheapest as well as one of the best routes into primary teaching. We should recognise that a degree is about way more than a qualification, it is about aspiration and ambition. And if we are truly serious about ensuring that all children have the opportunity to pursue their ambitions, we should be making certain that the people in their lives who will lay down the pathway to their futures, can see possibilities beyond the confines of their current environment. No accountant, engineer or mechanic is responsible for shaping the dreams and ambitions of young people. Teachers are.

 

The Future is Bright (if we get out of the way)

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as despondent as I have over the past few weeks. The uncertainty of Brexit, political chaos, elected representatives acting like furious toddlers fighting over a fire engine, terrorist attacks, racist attacks, personal attacks, coups…Hardly a day has passed without something to feel terrible about. But there are some really positive and lovely things happening too and I was lucky enough to witness one recently that made me think that everything will be well.

Much has been made of the intergenerational conflict arising from Brexit. Claire Fox, a commentator who establishes her role modelling credentials with a profile picture of herself with a fag in one hand, bottle of beer in the other, has berated the young for their “feeble” mindedness, claiming that any problems with mental health are grossly exaggerated and simply a matter of children not being tough enough. She seems to miss the irony in a further, post Brexit article of defensively arguing the case that the young should not generalise about their elders – even as she brands them the ‘snowflake generation’. At the other end, young people took to social media to denounce the generation they think has shafted them through rising property prices, falling pension and work rights and ultimately the chaos of a Brexit vote. Even within the Labour party, the battles for and against Corbyn are being presented as the young and disenfranchised against the older and privileged members of the labour establishment. Again, with no irony. Of course, the truth is much more muddled and complex than the headlines suggest.

I live in Oldham and have done so for 20 years. And before that, I was born and raised in Burnley. Neither town has a glorious reputation. Race riots, BNP/UKIP support, low levels of achievement in schools…these things are more likely to make the headlines than any successes, leaving football aside. Shortly before the referendum vote, a terrible article appeared in The Spectator – An Elegy for Oldham in which a former resident of the town – one who had been educated in a selective and private grammar school, gone to university and rarely returned before writing this – berates the town for demolishing a pub in order to make way for transport links. He laments the fact that Muslims no longer drink in pubs like they used to. His evidence for this seems to be scant, but he is clear to condemn a place on the basis of the fact that there is a large muslim population, which he links to its downfall. He doesn’t mention the thriving theatre, the new art gallery, the millions of pounds of investment being poured into a new shopping centre, the highly successful and integrated sixth form college, the university satellite college that has allowed people, like parents, who cannot travel away to university, to study nonetheless. He mentioned none of this. And as I spat feathers, an invitation landed on my doormat. It was to the mayor making ceremony of the new youth mayor of Oldham, T-Jay Turner.

T-Jay is a student at Oldham Sixth Form College. He is also the partner of my son, Gabriel. He took Gabriel along as his plus 1, introducing him to the dignitaries present – the Sheriff of Manchester, the adult Mayor, councillors and youth workers. They did not worry that they wouldn’t be accepted. They attended, together, proudly. A symbol of this generation’s refusal to accept that difference should be hidden.

His nomination for youth mayor came from the youth council – a multi ethnic mix of young people from across the borough who want to have a say in the running of the town they live in. And they do have a say. They meet in council chambers. Their thoughts and ideas are treated with seriousness and have impact. They follow due process, learning to debate, to follow constitutional procedures, to be patient. They learn that the town is made up of a diverse mix of people with different needs and that their problems are complex but not insurmountable. The speeches made to nominate T-Jay are moving and deeply intelligent. His response is too:-

I hope to be a Youth Mayor who combines an ear to listen with an empathetic mindset, working with the community at both a grass roots level through to the leaders of our borough. Conversations are important. I hope to engage young people in a conversation, one which ignites a passion to be inquisitive and creates a drive to make a change. We must all look to the future with an optimistic eye, more so now than ever before.”

Speaking with the principal of the college he attends, I find out that the youth council have been involved in the development of a borough wide consultation on educational entitlements for young people which go way beyond simply passing tests. The Oldham Offer seeks to give children the experiences they need to become active and compassionate citizens and articulate and confident adults. It comprised initially of 12 challenges for young people. In return, their schools and colleges pledge to do all they can to provide the facilities and resources for them to successfully meet their goals.

– To attend regular enrichment within your place of learning,
– To attend regular enrichment activities beyond your place of learning,
– To take responsibility for your own health and wellbeing,
– To actively look for and pursue reading opportunities,
– To actively engage in the world of work and to be money wise,
– To actively engage in fundraising events,
– To actively engage in an outward bound activity or residential,
– To take part in a presentation or performance to an audience,
– To attend sporting and creative events,
– To be involved in a volunteering or leadership role in or beyond your place of learning,
– To be involved in a cultural or international experience.
– Contribute to environmental sustainability.

The youth council debated, amended and agreed these, and added two of their own:-

– To be involved in a democratic process,
– To use digital technology to enhance learning

It lifts my spirits to see young people and adults working together in such productive ways. And we need to recognise that this generation, for all the headlines, is becoming the most politically engaged one we have had for a long time. Over 70% of 18-24 year olds are now thought to have voted in the referendum – overwhelmingly to remain. This challenges Sky News’ initial assertion that the turn out was lower than 40%. Young people account for the bulk of new members of the Labour party. And not all are Corbyn supporters – my eldest son most certainly is not. He will not be allowed to vote in the leadership contest, which has disappointed him greatly, but he is planning to campaign for the party, attend meetings and become actively involved in political process. As are many others.

At this time, it is vital we nurture this growing enthusiasm in young people to get involved and to be active. I’m not sure that pricing them out of the voting system for the Labour party is helpful in this respect. But nevertheless, there is an appetite among the young to change the world. They are concerned about climate change, about poverty, about housing and jobs. They have ideas and energy. We should respect it, acknowledge it and feed it. And perhaps, to an extent, we should step aside and let them in with their torches, to cast light on the shadows of our assumptions and habits. Perhaps the future is bright.

No Mental Health Crisis?

There was a long and protracted discussion on twitter yesterday about whether or not it was right to call current problems with children’s mental health a ‘crisis’ or not. Those working at the frontline of mental health services might well shake their heads at teachers  picking over semantic details or attempting to score patronising points over one another on the finer points of research methodologies. They probably would like to bang our heads together. But it threw up some interesting questions. Is there enough data to warrant the claim and is it any worse than before? And crucially, if so, is the education system to blame? For it is this latter point that seems to make those questioning the evidence most hot under the collar. Especially those who strongly support the changes that we’ve seen under this Conservative government.

One of the key points being made by those who wanted to see evidence for this so called crisis was the lack of reliable data – indeed this was a point made by the House of Commons Health Committee in 2014 who pointed to the fact that the last large scale ONS study into children’s mental health was in 2004 and a new study was needed to examine the current situation. The fact that this is still not forthcoming speaks, in my opinion, volumes about the government’s unwillingness to engage in this discussion at any meaningful level – perhaps because they worry it will reflect badly on their policies. There are currently surveys being done and we will have more reliable data emerging, but for now we can make some reasonable claims based on what we already know.

In 2004 1 in 10 children presented with mental health problems and 70% of those did not receive the intervention they needed. At the time, those figures were reported as a crisis – I think fairly. If 1 in 10 of our children were presenting with diabetes, we would certainly use that term. To put that into context, there are currently 500 children in the country diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. There are 11 million children in the country. So let’s call 1 in 10 a crisis. The question we need to ask now is has it improved and therefore we no longer have a crisis, or has it got worse? This is the bone of contention. What do we know?

Well, we know that between 2012 and 2013, Childline reported a 116% increase on the year before on children being counselled about suicidal thoughts. That represented 35,000 children, 5800 of whom had previously attempted and survived suicide.

Last year 201 children between the ages of 10 and 19 committed suicide, an increase of almost 11% on the year before. And there have been increases, year on year since 2007 – coinciding with the onset of the recession. Overall, however, numbers are slightly down on 2004. This might support the idea that things have not got worse since 2004. But that ignores the large increase in reports of suicidal thoughts and attempts. It may well be that fewer children are dying than in 2004, but more are trying. To describe these increases, as one did, as ‘marginal’ is quite shockingly cavalier.

Still, we might argue that there is still little evidence that things are worse. Unless we turn our attention to self harming rates. Between 2012 and 2014 the NHS reported a 70% increase in 10-15 year olds attending A&E for injuries relating to self harm. It is, of course impossible to know the total figure for self harm as most children do not seek medical help and try to hide their injuries from others, but a WHO report in 2015 found that 1 in five children self harmed –  a threefold increase since 2005.

An ATL survey of headteachers reported that 79% of them were seeing increases in children reporting suicidal thoughts. The headteachers are not diagnosing here – they are simply reporting what they and their staff are being told by children. A 2012 Princes Trust survey reported that 30% of children felt depressed “all” or “most” of the time – this would suggest a threefold increase on the data we have from 2004, a figure also supported by Mick Cooper, on the Mental Health task force group. All these figures point to an increase in the numbers of young people suffering with mental health issues since 2004. And I’ve not even started on the reports from those working at the frontline of treating these young people.

Like, for example, the 54% increase in the prescription of anti-depressants to young people in the years between 2005-2013 – at the very same time as it was becoming more widely accepted that counselling treatments were more appropriate for children. The House of Commons Health Committee report (2014) makes it clear that the increased pressure on CAHMS services is not only down to funding cuts, but increased demand. Not only are demands for prescriptive treatments increasing, but also therapeutic ones. It is hard to argue the case then, that the rise of one is compensating for a fall in the other.

While there may not be a comprehensive set of ONS data since 2004, the picture created by combining all these smaller scale pieces of evidence creates a compelling case that there is a significant issue to be tackled. Arguing over whether or not to call this a crisis is immaterial. Making the case, piece by piece against each individual section of data is sophistry. The picture shows that even in 2004 10% of our young people were in crisis. Recent data suggests this may now be as high as 30%. 20% of our young people fail to reach the expected standards in reading – and look at the time, energy and money spent on addressing that figure. Only a fool would not consider this information important and significant. But what of the causes?

It seems to me that those most keen to deny that there is a crisis in mental health are those most keen to defend the current education system. But is it the case that these problems are caused by education? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. For example, my husband who counsels young people in distress, says that many of them come to him concerned about exam pressure. But in most of those cases they also report fears of letting their parents down. To what extent is the exam the problem or the parent? It’s impossible to say. What we do know is that there is a growing trend of children referring to school as a significant cause of their stress. We need to be careful here to recognise that while a child may highlight a predominant concern, the likelihood is that there are multiple and complex reasons creating the circumstances under which they may feel depressed. Nevertheless…

  • 29% of teenage suicides can be attributed to examination stress according to a report by The University of Manchester – the second biggest dominant cause. Again this must be reported with the caveat that there will have been other contributory causes.
  • In 2014 Childline reported that for the first time ever, school and exam stress came into the top ten causes of significant stress for children. Way below bullying and family issues, but still a cause. In the 16-18 age group, there was a 30% increase in the number of depressed teenagers citing school/exam stress as the main cause of their distress.

It would be foolish and self serving to claim that education is creating a mental health crisis. But it would be more than fair to say that it is increasingly a contributing factor. And certainly that it’s not helping to reduce the difficulties that young people are having.

So let’s stop arguing about who can make the cleverest argument. Who can win. It’s childish and demeaning. Even one child thinking about killing themselves is a child too many. Let’s instead push harder to demand comprehensive data. Let’s do what we can to help those young people who are presenting with problems and difficulties – pushing for better services, considering whether or not we can employ full time counsellors in our schools, remembering that stressed people don’t learn very well. We all have a role to play in this. And bickering is not part of it.

 

 

Train more teachers than we need?

I just read this in The Telegraph outlining ideas for solving the teacher recruitment crisis by training more teachers than we actually need. “Almost everybody who completes their training who wants a teaching job gets one. And a significant proportion should not. That’s a very blunt statement,” says Mr. Bevan, Headteacher at a selective grammar school who clearly didn’t leave university with £50,000 worth of debt.

The subtext of his statement, which frankly is not just blunt, but stupid, is that we are training teachers who are not up to the job. If this were true, the solution would surely lie in better teacher training – not in creating lots of unemployed people already up to their eyeballs in debt. I’ll come to that thorny issue later.

There is, however, a case to be made for a slight oversupply. Not based on the assumption that trained teachers are not fit to teach, but based on the reality that having done their training, some choose not to teach. Government policy has not helped this one little bit. Take bursaries for example, which came under fire last week in a report into the very poor quality of tracking and monitoring of their effectiveness. At the moment, there is no expectation that having taken your tens of thousands of pounds to train, that you will actually teach. No contract stating that you’ll give even just two years to the classroom. One of my Science trainees in a SCITT – a brilliant young woman who passed with flying colours in every aspect of the course, paid off her student debt with her bursary and flew off to New Zealand to take up a job there. And a young trainee in another SCITT who took part in Northern Rocks this year, wrote in her postcard to the Secretary of State that of the 20 in her group, 5 had chosen not to teach at the end of it. This is the reason we may need some extra places. Not so that we can assign people to a scrap heap.

The article points to Canada as an example of where this works. This is why many of our schools are full of Canadians. I’m not sure how it benefits a country to go to the expense of training young people who then go and pay their taxes abroad. And I’m not sure how ethical it is to tempt people into paying for a vocational course when you have deliberately made it harder for them to work. Add to that the fact that tuition fees for teacher training in Canada are around £3,000 and not £9,000, not to mention lower housing costs and you see this is simply not a fair comparison.

Instead of these simplistic, ill thought out quick fixes, we need a systematic cultural shift in the way we view teacher training and retention. Money needs to be spent on keeping teachers and that means tackling workload seriously. The bottom line is we need to finally create a system in which marking, planning and administration time are properly resourced and accounted for. It’s not cheap, I know. But then neither is turning schools into academies or throwing tens of thousands of pounds at graduates who don’t even teach.

We need to stop expecting recently trained teachers to be perfect, fully formed classroom practitioners and invest heavily in their ongoing training and professional development. And if we really think about what we try to pack into their teaching, we’d move to a two year training model – something like this.B7uICQMIAAAmEug

Whatever we do, making it harder for young graduates to find work, settle down and start paying their taxes is a gross abdication of responsibility and a foolish way to build a future education system that has hope and aspiration at its heart.

Northern Rocks 2016

In the Autumn of 2013, Emma and I were having a twitter chat via direct message.

“Did you go to Southampton today?” she asked

“I couldn’t – it’s so far and I’ve already been to two events in London this year. We should do something in the North.”

“Let’s do it!” she said. And Northern Rocks was born.

Yesterday, for the third year running, we had 500 teachers coming from every corner of the United Kingdom, to celebrate what it is to teach. And for the third year running, I sit here overawed by the passion, commitment and sheer generosity of spirit that characterises this very special event.

We never have to beg anyone to come to speak. They offer in their droves. And this year, taking on board constructive feedback from last year, we ensured that we had a 50/50 gender split. In fact, in the end, we had slightly more women than men if truth be told, but I won’t apologise for tipping the scales the other way. And we made sure we had BME representation from amazing speakers who completely disprove that it’s somehow difficult to create more inclusive events. But true inclusion is so much more than counting colour or gender. It’s about giving voices to those who might not normally have the opportunity to speak. And so this year, we opened our conference not with a big name, but with a big message. Chris Kilkenny spoke for the first 15 minutes to a silent hall of open mouthed delegates, some of whom were weeping, of the experiences he had growing up in abject poverty with a mother who was a heroin addict in Edinburgh. He spoke of the need for someone to have lifted his head up and given him experiences that would have made him look beyond his community. He pleaded with us to remember that every time we ask for trip money, ingredients money, equipment money, we ensure that the very children who need it the most, are excluded from activities. He told us how he would have loved to take Food Technology at GCSE; how useful it would have been to him. But that he couldn’t because he knew he’d be asked to buy ingredients. He reminded us that those most keen to hide the reality of their poverty, will hide in plain sight, masking truth with clowning or disruptive behaviour. Later he tells me that his overriding memory of childhood was hunger. These days, Chris works with young people like him, doing his best to try to keep them in school and on track. He is paid £14,000 per year. His biggest challenge in life is keeping a roof over the head of his two year old child and making sure he doesn’t go hungry.

Next to him on the panel was Kier Mather – a Year 13 pupil from Hull who spoke with such passion and articulacy about the exam factory experience of school that he felt was ripping creativity out of his life. He told us of a teacher he likes and admires, collapsing in tears with stress in front of her class some weeks ago and how he struggles to understand how any politician can find the workload and pressures teachers face acceptable. I sat next to these two brilliant young men, whose life experiences could not be more different, but who were united in a sense of social justice and I felt such a sense of hope and optimism for the future that it was hard to answer my own questions on the panel.

Natalie Scott, in her lovely blog on NRocks spoke of the “sparkle” that seems to characterise this event over others. That sparkle is in the eyes and smiles of the people who attend. People like Kieran Judge and his dad. I spent Friday morning with Kieran and his cohort of SCITT trainees who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past year. At the end of our final session, Kieran came over to me and asked if it would be ok if he brought his dad to Northern Rocks. “He retired a few years ago,” he said, “but he loved teaching.”

Throughout the day, as a I walked between sessions, I saw this dad and his lad sitting together in workshops and debates, soaking up the day and a lump came to my throat. Here was a man, four years retired, but still so passionate about education that he’d come to a conference, and it was beautiful to see him sitting with his son, just setting out on his career. They were so full of joy at the end of the day when they came to thank me, that it seemed to me to epitomise what we’ve tried to achieve. Northern Rocks is not just CPD. You don’t need CPD when you’re retired. It’s that and more. It’s a reminder of what we do and why we do it. It’s a reminder that teaching is first and foremost, an altruistic profession, full to the brim of people trying to build a better world. It’s a profession that will never be motivated by targets and performance related pay, but by recognition of the heart and soul work we do and a simple thank you would go a long way. If we really want to keep teachers in the profession, we would do well to remember that.

Thank you to all who came, spoke, attended, played, laughed, cried, danced and thought. Thanks for throwing money into our buckets and making a refugee’s dream of attending university a reality. Thank you for tweeting your excitement and enthusiasm before, during and after the event. I’m sorry the wi-fi wasn’t good, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need trending affirmation. Your joy was visible from space

.

 

Back to Nonsense.

My friend’s little boy was born in July. Soon he will do his phonics check along with the children who are almost a year older than him. He likes books a lot but he has less time to read at the moment because he’s spending a lot of time doing his Phonics Check homework. For example, last night he had a sheet of 40 words. Forgive me, not words. I’m not quite sure what to call them because most of them aren’t real words. Anyway, having sounded them out, he had to then underline all those he thought were not real words. He was mostly successful. His Mum, not familiar with the processes of primary education, asks me “what is the point of this?” I open a bottle of wine…

There are thousands of words in the English language that would be unfamiliar to most six year olds. Imagine how much more fruitful it would be to tell them that all the words on the list are real. To ask them to identify instead which were familiar and unfamiliar? To then go on to choose five or more, find out their definitions and try to use them in conversation? One of the biggest barriers for children educationally is vocabulary. An unfamiliar word on an exam question can throw a student into panic. And it was well documented this year how familiarity with words like ancestor became synonymous with success on the reading test.

While I don’t support the notion of a core knowledge curriculum as such, I do very much believe that children should have access in school to a rich range of knowledge and vocabulary in order to build up their cultural capital. The nonsense words on the phonics check distract teachers, parents and pupils away from this much greater and more important goal. It’s time we moved away from single minded, silver bullet thinking, and consider instead how a pedagogical process can achieve multiple aims which ultimately benefit the child and not, as Nick Gibb admitted recently, simply hold a school to account.

 

Ofqual: Shameful and Shambolic.

So we hear from Ofqual today that in future it will be more difficult for young people to have their marks changed on appeal after sitting an exam. It’s one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of an organisation moving to protect its interests at the expense of the purpose for which it was set up. Ofqual was established to ensure the fairness and consistency of the exam system. In today’s decision, it shows itself to be simply a protector of the interests of the examination boards.

At a point in time where a student’s ability to show resilience by re-sitting examinations and demonstrating improvement has not only been shut down by the Secretary of State, but positively hailed as a triumph, Ofqual put the boot in to say that even if you have been unfairly marked, there will be little course for redress. It’s a pincer movement which removes hope from the lives of young people who are increasingly being written off by a flawed and failing system.

As long ago as 1996, Wilmot et al showed in their research that marking even from the same examiner was inconsistent and flawed. Ofqual claim that if the marking criteria has been applied more harshly by one examiner than another, then the student should not have their mark altered. Under this rule, my son’s mark for an English Literature paper would have been left as a D. Yet when we appealed it, it went up to a B, giving him an A overall. It should not be even possible for the marking criteria to be so vague that one marker can see a D where another sees a B. Yet as any of us who have ever attended a standardisation meeting will attest, it is. This is not a fault of the student or their teacher, but of the examination criteria. Yet, it would seem that Ofqual are more interested in protecting this flawed system than ensuring that it works. Had these new rules applied, he would have missed out on his place at Oxford, where he went on to thrive and achieve a high 2:1. How many students under this new ruling will find their lives ruined as a result?

None of this even takes into consideration the extreme range of capability and experience of the examiners themselves. Last year, the major examination boards were recruiting markers who were not teachers and had no experience of the syllabus at all. Some were undergraduates. A chief examiner told me that she had been sent papers to mark on RESULTS DAY as a result of examiner shortages and that the students had been sent preliminary results instead based on predicted grades. When the quality of markers is as disparate as this and when the exam boards are so desperate for markers that they are offering already overloaded examiners double money plus bonuses for taking on extra, it is no wonder that mistakes are made. Yet instead of tackling this problem head on, Ofqual chooses instead to throw a shabby blanket over the mess and to make it harder for anyone to lift it up and see what’s underneath.

It has long been the principle of remarking that papers will be viewed by someone with experience within the board. This means that even if your paper was marked by a hungover second year student, in the event of a remark, it would be seen by a team leader with many years of experience of marking. This right has now been removed under the assumption that all examiners are equal. They are not.

Let’s not forget that the GCSE is in an ongoing state of flux, that AS levels are newly decapitated from A Level and no-one knows how that’s all going to work in terms of marking. Even the most seasoned examiners are in new territory so this decision seems even more insane. Surely in a period of unprecedented change across the whole system, it’s better to keep an open mind on re-marks?

If we had a strong body of examiners, well trained, well paid and who were given time to mark with careful consideration, things might be different. But we don’t. If we had a balance between examination and coursework, it might be different, but that’s gone. If we built in opportunities for children to resit exams (as many times as it takes to get to the standard expected – isn’t that the very definition of resilience?), it might be different. But we took that away too.

If there was ever an example of how rotten our reliance on exams has become, it is this. Last year saw the highest number of requests for remarks ever. A student was more likely to have their mark altered if they got their request in early – within a few weeks, the boards were moving to protect themselves. And now they’re shielded from all responsibility. It is a sham. And a whole generation of young people will pay the price for the rest of their lives.