Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Song for Mentoring

Today was my last day of working as a mentor for a talented young woman in a secondary school. So I wanted to post a song, dedicated to not only her, but all the children I have taught or mentored over the last few years. So this is James Taylor singing You’ve Got a Friend.


‘Invisible’ children let down by schools – the humongous achievement gap

In the news today, Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw reports that many of the poor children being left in schools now are in suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts as opposed to the bigger cities.

In a speech, Sir Michael Wilshaw said such pupils were often an “invisible minority” in schools rated good or outstanding in quite affluent areas.

He added, “Today, many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts. Often they are spread thinly, as an ‘invisible minority’ across areas that are relatively affluent. These poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching. They coast through education until, at the earliest opportunity, they sever their ties with it.”

Last year, statistics show that amongst all pupils, 59% of children achieved 5 ‘good’ GCSEs including Maths and English. Of the 1.2 million children who are on Free School Meals (FSM), only 36% achieve the same results.

Sir Michael has proposed some recommendations aimed at closing this achievement gap between these two particular groups of children. “National Service Teachers”, he says, should be employed by central government to teach in “schools in parts of the country that are currently failing their most disadvantaged pupils”. And he is calling for smaller, “sub-regional” versions of the London Challenge, the initiative which ran in the capital in the 2000s and is credited with turning around many schools. Under this Labour policy, schools were encouraged to help each other, with successful schools, heads and teachers working with those in less successful schools with similar intakes and circumstances.

The chief inspector also:

Confirmed that schools will not be rated as outstanding by inspectors if pupils on free school meals fall significantly behind others
Warned that schools will be inspected earlier than planned if poorer children there are not doing well.
Called for data to be published on progress made in primary schools by children between reception and age seven.
Recommended ways of closing the achievement gap in further education or on apprenticeships.

The government has also attempted to close this achievement gap by introducing a system known as the pupil premium, where schools were given money for each pupil who is on Free School Meals. This premium currently stands at around £600, but the good news for schools is that this premium is on the up from September. The government has announced that the premium will rise to £900. A Department for Education spokesman said: “Closing the unacceptable attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is at the heart of our reforms. That is why we introduced the pupil premium, worth £2.5bn per year by 2015, to target additional funding for disadvantaged pupils. Ofsted itself has increased its focus on how schools use the pupil premium to narrow gaps in their inspections.”

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg is unsurprisingly critical of the government’s policies. He said his party’s plans were to increase collaboration between schools to improve standards, as Sir Michael recommended, but those of the government encouraged schools to “go it alone”. “This gap narrowed under Labour and Michael Wilshaw is right to say that our policies, such as London Challenge in which successful schools helped struggling ones, were key to this,” he said. “Labour will ensure all schools work together to raise standards for every child.”

The idea of isolated communities is not a new problem. The underachievement of poor rural children has been around for years, according to the head of the teachers’ union ATL, Mary Bousted.

It had been highlighted in a 2008 report but had not been the focus of government attention “for too long”, she told BBC’s Breakfast programme.

One of the main factors was the isolation of schools and communities, particularly in coastal areas, where there were low wages, high worklessness, children not prepared for learning and children being moved in and out of schools, she said.

Such schools needed extra help and interventions, she added.

She also spoke of the “hidden” poor who were being taught in leafy suburbs among mostly children from affluent homes.

These schools often lacked the expertise or experience of inner-city schools of working with deprived children, she said.

Head teachers’ association ASCL, said “parachuting teachers in to short-term placements” would be a “sticking plaster” and what was needed was a co-ordinated national strategy and the long-term support and assistance inner city schools had had.

This is not to say that all schools are failing our disadvantaged children. Schools can and have turned things around. For example, Platanos College in Stockwell, South London, where around 60% of their children are on Free School Meals, has gone from around 11% of all pupils achieving 5 GCSEs at Grade C or above in 2000, to 80% of all children achieving 5 good GCSEs, with teenagers on Free School Meals only achieving a couple of percentage points less at 77%, according to Deputy Head Michael Rush.

Mr Rush adds: “If you look at our intake, we don’t have an option not to target the disadvantaged kids as they make up a high proportion of our students. We have had to look seriously at how to close the gap and raise the achievement of all children.”

He said the school’s strategies included having good information about children’s abilities through regular testing and then targeting them with the right support. Children are grouped by ability and there is an emphasis on getting the basics of English and maths right, plus extra classes at weekends and in the holidays – especially for the GCSE years. Mr Rush said data was important – with the school educating children and parents about the various levels – and that all pupils were set “very challenging targets”.

I find this quite interesting, because I am not a huge fan of regular testing, as those who have read my post ‘Do we put too much pressure on kids?’ will know, but this example is almost a perfect justification for using it. It does raise the question of should all schools do this, but for me this largely depends on the children, as it is clear that not all children thrive under exam pressures, myself being one of those.

What do you think? Should regular testing be used to support less well off children? What about holiday and weekend classes? Some interesting points to consider.

Malala Yousafzai calls for education to be top priority

The Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai, is to mark her 16th Birthday next month to lead calls for education to become a top priority in failing states around the world.

The teenager added: “Let us work together for the rights of girls and boys. Let us build schools.”

Malala survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in October after being targeted for standing up for her right to go to school in her home country. Surgeons in Pakistan removed a bullet from her head and she was flown to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital for further treatment.

Doctors discharged Malala from hospital in January and she now attends Edgbaston High School for girls in Birmingham. The schoolgirl has also set up her own charity, the Malala Fund, in conjunction with Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie no less. It aims to support the education and empowerment of girls in Pakistan and around the world.

Several events are due to take place on 12 July, which has been dubbed Malala Day, that will be supported by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and charity Plan International.

What do you think? Should states that are deemed to be failing should prioritise education?

No. 10 summit tackles web pornography and images of child abuse

Pornography hits the news again today. Today, internet firms are meeting ministers at No. 10 amid calls for more to be done to block images of child sex abuse and to stop children viewing pornography.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said more can be done to remove illegal material from the web and steer children away from legal adult content. Labour says voluntary controls are not working and parental authority has been undermined by technological change.

Despite this it would seem, web firms have elected to reject calls to impose parental controls as a default setting. Internet provides have been the centre of debate about showing online images showing the sexual abuse of children following two high-profile court cases in which offenders were known to have sought child pornography online.

Mark Bridger, sentenced to life last month for the murder of 5-year-old April Jones in Powys, searched for child abuse and rape images. Also when police searched the Croydon home of Stuart Hazell, jailed for life also last month for murdering 12 year old Tia Sharp, they had found ‘extensive’ pornography featuring young girls. This is not to say though that every child murderer has accessed child pornography, this just happens to be a correlation found within these two cases.

The prime minister has pledged to “put the heat on” companies to make removing obscene material and blocking access to indecent images more of a priority, saying he is not “satisfied” enough is being done.

The meeting in Downing Street, chaired by Culture Secretary Maria Miller, is being attended by Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, BT, Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Vodafone, O2, EE and Three. Mrs Miller said: “Child abuse images are horrific and widespread public concern has made it clear that the industry must take action. Enough is enough. In recent days we have seen these companies rush to do more because of the pressure of an impending summit. Imagine how much more can be done if they seriously turn their minds to tackling the issue. Pressure will be unrelenting.”

The Internet Service Providers Association has argued that filtering tools should be more widely available but it opposes default settings as these can be ‘circumvented’. It also argues that education and empowering parents to make safe choices are also necessary.

The association has said it will use the Downing Street meeting to stress what the industry is already doing to block access to images of child abuse and criminally obscene adult material, and to remove them in conjunction with the police.

Claire Perry, the Conservative MP who advises the prime minister on the issue, said violent online images were still accessible even though they were outlawed and there was a link between them and horrific crimes committed against children. She said progress was being made on a voluntary basis to ensure adult material could not be accessed online in public places, and age-verification mechanisms and “one-click” filters, in place unless parents turned them off, were becoming widely available. “We’ve done it without regulation; we’ve done it by working systematically with the industry,” she said. “At the moment the filtering work is going really well, and no need for legislation.” I’m sorry Mrs Perry, but you’re wrong here. If it is not law, it will still exist. We should be looking to eradicate all access to this from both adults and children if we are to truly solve this problem. In this rare instance, I actually agree with Labour. These voluntary controls have not had the effect for the simple reason that with the advances of technology, these images have become extremely accessible with nothing to prevent it.

Now I’m not saying that if we impose the laws, it will solve the problem. It is unlikely to eradicate it completely, but it will allow the police to deal with websites hosting these atrocious images. Google has said it will help create a database of images to improve collaboration between the police, companies and anti-abuse charities as well as fund developers to improve better tools to block images. With these collaborations we can improve the situation and who knows, we may see a future where our children grow up being able to be safe online.

What do you think? Should we be heavier handed on these internet firms? Should we use parental controls or an alternative? If the latter what alternative?

Schools -To be free or not to be free – Labour’s policy

In the news today, Labour announced there would be no more free schools opened by a future Labour government, but existing free schools could stay open, says the party’s education spokesman, Stephen Twigg. The shadow education secretary also wants all state schools in England to have the rights given to academies. Mr Twigg says he wants to end a “fragmented, divisive” school system.

In a major policy speech on Monday, Mr Twigg has taken a significant step towards setting out the opposition’s schools policy. Free schools, set up by parents and other groups, would no longer be created under Labour. The more than 80 free schools already open and those in the pipeline would continue to be funded, says Mr Twigg, but beyond that point new schools would have to be created as academies.

Under his blueprint, academies and local authority schools would have similar levels of autonomy. Mr Twigg described the plans using a phrase associated with Tony Blair’s early years in office: “Standards not structures.” Mr Twigg argues against an “incoherent” and “bureaucratic” system in which different types of school have different levels of flexibility.

“We know that giving schools more freedom over how they teach and how they run and organise their schools can help to raise standards,” the shadow education secretary told his audience at the RSA in London.

“So why should we deny those freedoms to thousands of schools? All schools should have them, not just academies and free schools. A school should not have to change its structure just to gain freedoms.”

Since Labour left office in 2010, more than half of secondary schools in England have become self-governing academies, and rather than reversing this tide, Mr Twigg says that all schools should share similar degrees of autonomy. Academies, state-funded schools which operate outside of local authority control, can set their own curriculum and decide their own school terms and the length of school days. They also have greater financial independence and can buy in services such as technology. Rather than turn back from the model of school autonomy, a Labour government would accelerate more schools in that direction.

Pay limits are also referred to in today’s speech. Academies are able to set their own pay and conditions for their teaching staff, a power that has been controversial with the teachers’ unions. Labour is not proposing that this power should be extended to all schools, arguing that the current national pay framework should not be broken up. There would also be a more significant role for local authorities, with Mr Twigg arguing they should be able to intervene in academies and free schools, as well as local authority schools, when there are concerns about standards.

Would you believe who dismisses this idea? Who else but Michael Gove, probably the most hated person in Britain right now. He goes as far to say that, “Labour’s policy on free schools is so tortured they should send in the UN to end the suffering,” I think we can all get a deep sense of hypocritical comment here.

A Department for Education source also dismissed Labour’s policy. It states that, “Labour policy on free schools is still confused. On the one hand Twigg says he will end the free school programme, but on the other he says he would set up ‘parent-led and teacher-led academies’ – free schools under a different name.”
The government source also accused Labour of confusion over what powers should be devolved to schools.

What do you think about these free schools? Are they having a positive impact? Should we have more or less of them?

Flexible school starts for summer-born children

Some of my more regular readers will remember my previous post about summer-born children and whether it affects their ability. Well the news this week has flagged something similar. Ministers are being urged to ensure parents of summer-born children can exercise their right to a later school start without losing a chosen place.

Evidence suggests younger children in a class can do less well than their older peers, and some parents feel delaying the school start can help. But many parents find their children must start reception in September or go on a waiting list for Year 1. In theory, parents can choose when their children start school up to the statutory school starting age – the first term after the fifth birthday. But in practice, Annette Brooke MP says, it is difficult to exercise that right and parents often “cave in”, not wanting to “make a fuss”.

Her Early Day Motion, which is backed by a grassroots campaign group, says: “This House notes with concern the robust and consistent evidence from around the world on birth date effects, which in England shows that summer-born children can suffer long-term disadvantages as a result of England’s inflexible school starting age.” It goes on to say the government should ensure that parents of summer-born children are able to exercise their right to defer their child’s school start until the statutory school start time, if that is their choice. And this has to be “without fear of losing the place at the school of their choice” they have been allocated, it says.

Mrs Brooke adds: “Why should a child born a minute before midnight on August 31 be automatically put into Year 1 aged five? Every child is different, emotionally, socially and in cognitive development, and so it seems reasonable to me that parents should have the choice to ask for their child to be in reception rather than Year 1 when they reach statutory school starting age.”

She warns: “A bad early experience could adversely affect a child throughout their whole education. I want to foster a joy of learning, and that can only be achieved if learning experiences are appropriate to a child’s stage of development. My fear is that parents feel pressured to start their children in September because they fear that their child will get left behind. I just feel that it should be made easier to make that choice.”

This view is supported by Stefan Richter, a father of three summer-born girls, setting up a campaign group calling for more flexibility. He suggests, “Admission authorities present the choice as missing a year, or starting a year earlier than legally required: not a great choice, and the crux of what we’re fighting against.”

Should this be allowed, or do you think this is an overreaction? As I mentioned before I’m a summer-born child, yet I was higher ability than my peers born in September the previous year, so this example isn’t always true for me.

Levels are going bye-bye

In the news this week, the Secretary of State for Education has announced that the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress is to go bye-bye, never to return in any shape or form.

The DfE states that, “We believe this system is complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents. It also encourages teachers to focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do. Prescribing a single detailed approach to assessment does not fit with the curriculum freedoms we are giving schools.”

This latest move has given schools a dilemma, possibly not a bad one though. This will allow schools the freedom to devise their own system of assessment. But is this necessarily a good thing? With no recognised form of assessment, it can be difficult for children to progress from primary to secondary with a clear record of their capabilities.

Plymouth University Lecturer Oliver Quinlan offers his take on his blog. He offers these opinions;

I would hope we are going to see schools examining in depth what is important in terms of assessing children’s learning, and finding ways to make this work for accountability and for ensuring progress. I would hope we see diversity; different settings looking at their intake and decided what assessment has impact on them. Children with low starting points in language might need assessing more intensively in this area, schools with other challenges may need to concentrate their assessment on addressing these.

We might see schools deciding that all assessment should be formative, and developing projects like Rosendale school’s ‘tagging learning’ project where children are given responsibility for documenting their learning.

We might see mainstream schools exploring the potential of truly ipsative assessment; tracking children’s progress based on their own previous performance rather than national standards, and something more well known in the education of children with significant special educational needs.
More of his ideas can be found here:

There is of course always the possibility that despite this eradication of levels, schools may decide to stick with the current system of assessment. With the use of sublevels, schools are able to constantly assess and track their children’s progress. Schools may not particularly enjoy the freedom of choice, although we should be the profession who knows what we’re doing, not the profession where we do as we’re told.

What ideas would you love to see implemented? Would you use a different system, or stick to what we have now?

Talent Shoutout: My mentee Hannah

It’s been a while since my last talent shoutout of Ferdk and his music, but today is someone who is very special to me.

In the past couple of months I’ve been working with a girl in a secondary school as a mentor. Her name is Hannah I’ve seen her grow from a slight slump in confidence to a very bubbly mature young woman. Recently she linked me a story that she has written, and I have to say that it is things like this that make me proud that I’m working with children. So I wanted to share and promote her story with you. She’s published it online and would benefit from reviews and comments to help her talent grow even stronger. She spares no detail in her imagery and her storyline, in a similar style to Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (only better for me 😉 ), is exceptional for someone who is still at school.

Link to her story:

Please take the time to read it, review it, and share it with your friends, followers or whoever’s attention you can grab. Help her grow, as there are more stories in the pipeline, and I’ll bring them to you as soon as I get them 🙂

Introducing basic algebra at 7 years old

In the news today, Prof David Burghes of Plymouth University’s Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching, has argued that the draft primary mathematics curriculum for England should be more demanding. He claims that all children should know their tables up to 10 and be introduced to basic algebra. One other claims Prof Burghes made is that primary teachers need better maths skills and more should be taking AS and A level mathematics. The story can be found here:

While I would hate to criticise someone who works for my own university, I feel that there are some important factors not being considered here.

One of the things that I think Prof Burghes has missed is that algebra can and has been taught in primary schools relatively young already. In fact last year, I taught a class of Year 1 children. While I was teaching addition and subtraction, I used questions with numbers missing, for example: 1 + ( ) = 11. While I did not explicitly mention that this is algebra, we can all see that it is.

Prof Burghes said that the government’s maths curriculum was “on the right track” but said that learning multiplication tables earlier, along with an early introduction of the concepts behind algebra and probability, would help put pupils in England on a par with countries such as Finland, Japan and Singapore, where standards are higher. At the moment these concepts are introduced by the time they leave primary school, which is allowing children to learn other concepts. The abstract nature of algebra will be confusing to younger children who are still developing their understanding of basic mathematics.

I feel that this proposal is pushing too much onto children too early. Not everyone is a higher ability child in maths at that age. It also has the potential to make the gap between the lower ability and higher ability even wider than it can be in a classroom. This could completely demotivate children, which would mean the children’s attitudes towards mathematics will largely be negative. In a time where maths is seen as ‘the elephant in the classroom’ for some children, this is not going to help.

The last claim was that Primary teachers should be taking AS and A level maths. This slightly annoys me, as not a lot of the current A level mathematics is relevant to primary school teaching. I personally only found Statistics to be any real relevance to any primary mathematics I have seen or taught in the past, and seen as Statistics is a small part of the primary curriculum, getting a load of teachers taking it will make very little difference. Also the subject knowledge of maths is taught as part of the teaching degree. It also appears in the QTS skills test, so what difference realistically is doing an A level going to achieve? I don’t see much there.

What do you think? Has Prof Burghes got a point, or has he missed the point? Comment your thoughts.