Monthly Archives: September 2013

Headteachers critical of new rules on exam entries

New rules to prevent schools from “gaming” the exam system to improve their league table ranking will force secondary schools across England to quickly redraw plans for their pupils’ GCSE entries, according to headteachers.

Citing concern at the rising number of pupils taking the same exam papers a year or more earlier than normal – which Michael Gove branded as cheating by schools – the Department for Education has announced that pupils resitting the same GCSE paper will only have the grade of their first attempt counted in calculating school league tables.
Secondary schools across England will have to hurriedly alter their plans for GCSE entries after the abrupt change in policy was outlined by Gove in an interview with the Sunday Times.

Gove said: “The school is in effect gaming the system by not thinking what is in the best interests of the student but using the student as a means of gathering points so the school itself can look better, and that is, in a word, cheating.”

The education department said in its announcement: “The change will mean schools will only enter students for an exam when they are confident the student has the best opportunity to succeed.”

For schools preparing to enter pupils in GCSE exams in November, Gove’s announcement may mean an about-turn that will see many schools withdraw pupils who have not previously taken GCSEs, and re-enter them again for summer exams when they may be better prepared.

The change will not apply to pupils who have previously completed GCSE exams, whose best grades will continue to count towards a school’s pass rate.

According to the DfE, only the first GCSE grade awarded would count towards league table rankings for schools. But by entering pupils in different series of exams – such as those administered by different examination boards – the previous policy of a pupil’s best grade in the same subject would be used. In that scenario, a pupil sitting GCSE English could take papers with different boards such as AQA or OCR in a series, and have multiple attempts to gain a pass mark that counts in school league tables.

“They’re going to create a crazy cluster entry at the end of year 11 with different boards if they aren’t careful,” said one headteacher, who did not want to be named.

A DfE spokesman said the policy was aimed at stopping schools entering pupils a year or more early for GCSEs, in the hope of getting a pass mark.

Gove said on Sunday: “The evidence shows that candidates who enter early perform worse overall than those who do not, even after resits are taken into account. It seems likely that candidates are being entered before they are ready, and ‘banking’ a C grade.”

School leaders said there were legitimate reasons for entering pupils early, and that this could cause schools to hold back bright students whom they would otherwise have entered a year early. “Most schools that use early entry are acting in the best interests of students. Many use early entry and then move students on to higher level papers or higher level qualifications,” a school leader from Yorkshire said.

Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the change would pile “pressure and stress” on to students. He said: “We have repeatedly warned about the damaging effects of piecemeal changes to the qualifications system. It is grossly unfair to make changes like this when courses are already under way. This is adding pressure and stress to students in the most important year of their education. Whatever the rights and wrongs of early entry, students, teachers, parents and employers just do not know where they are in the context of constant tinkering with examinations.”

A diary of a music teacher! One woman’s desire to change music in schools!

Twitter has come up trumps again. I had a quick look and found an article about a music teacher, Anna Gower, who took part in a pilot scheme which turned everything she thought she knew about music learning and teaching upside down and inside out. This is a transcript of the article;

I got my first job as an NQT at Sele School, Hertford. I was actually the only teacher in the music department which is quite common for even NQT music teachers.

I was locally involved in the Hertfordshire county music service and became an advanced skills teacher (AST) around 15 years ago. After a maternity leave I went to work at Monk’s Walk, Welywn Garden City, and I was employed as full-time head of music rather than an AST. After another maternity leave I went back to work three days a week, that’s when the county music service (now part of a hub) came back to me and asked to buy my time to do some AST work in the county.

That’s was when I became involved in Musical Futures and my whole music teaching life changed. It’s the reason I’m still a teacher today.

Musical Futures started as a pilot programme to re-engage kids in year 9 with music in schools. If you asked a year 9 kid what their hobby was, music was high on their list, so many of them were passionate about it, but there was a big gap. The same students didn’t like music at school, they found it boring. So this pilot scheme was designed by to find a way to close the gap. It looked at how pop musicians with no formal musical education learn music.

Monk’s Walk became a pilot school in the project. Before the project a typical year 9 music lesson would go like this – the students would be sat at keyboards. They’d be given a sheet to play something like Ode to Joy and many of them couldn’t actually read the notation. The Musical Futures pilot asked us to forget that. We were to ask the kids what they want to play, find and play a recording of it, give them the instruments (we were given a large set of bass guitars, electric guitars and drums) and then to see what happens.

It was truly mind blowing what happened to the first group that went through this. The atmosphere was electric. The students were totally engaged. They realised they needed some skills and wanted us to help them. As teachers we had to change how we worked, we were told to stand back and let the kids find their own objectives and then to help them facilitate it, to help them get where they want to be.

The impact was huge. I was asked to come on roadshows and to stand up and tell other teachers about my experiences and challenges of this new approach. What was left was not a project but a whole approach to music teaching which has been spreading out across the country and internationally.

I’m so passionate about this new way of teaching music that I’ve stayed part of the core voice Musical Futures while continuing to work three days a week at Monk’s Walk. For our last pilot we needed 15 schools but we had 105 applications so we started a co-pilot scheme, putting out the whole project and all the training using social media. Teachers stay in touch on Twitter especially using #mfpilot2013.

It became apparent I couldn’t carry on being head of music three days a week. So my headteacher created a new role for me and I became head of community music. It’s an incredible role and I work closely with many of our 30 feeder primary schools. I was given a blank slate to go in and do whatever I wanted so I’ve brought Musical Futures into every school I work in. I’ve learnt so much about experiencing what children can do. I’ve also set up a reporting network where teams of reporters blog and report on music activities in their school.

My advice to music teachers is to look at yourself as a musician, and most secondary school teachers are musicians. Sometimes you may find that in some ways the pedagogy, the theory of teaching, has actually got in the way of the way you teach. It’s a tough thing to strip away and it’s scary but I want music teachers to remember they are a musician at heart and that’s how they can work as musicians to help their students become musical players.

If you want to see more of this, as well as look at Anna’s resources, follow this link: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/sep/29/why-i-became-a-music-teacher

Is your school the next Educating Yorkshire star?

For those of you who may not know about this or haven’t watched it, firstly why not? And secondly, watch it! It’s on channel 4 on Thursday nights I believe. The show is based on Thornhill Secondary School in Dewsbury, Yorkshire (as if you couldn’t guess), and it’s a documentary about a challenging school with a revolutionary head teacher and how they tackle all the trials and tribulations of a wide range of pupils from the youngest year 7 finding their feet through to those taking GCSEs and A levels. I’m sure most of you reading this can probably think of those good (or bad) old days.

Well now the producers of the show, TwoFour are on the hunt for another school willing to let the cameras roll in and reveal their secrets, tips and tricks to the nation, having had so much success with millions of views with Educating Essex (2011) and the current Educating Yorkshire (2013).

“We want to capture the experiences of both staff and a diverse range of pupils,” said the show’s assistant producer Rebecca Symons. “From the new Year 7s finding their feet at ‘big school’ to older students negotiating the ups and downs of being a teenager. Once again we will be looking to use the technique of fixing cameras to the walls, which allows us to film very unobtrusively, without the need for production staff in the room. We know the strength and impact of this series relies on us finding an enthusiastic school with a forward-thinking headteacher who will be excited at the prospect of working in close collaboration with us.”

If you are a teacher/headteacher and want more information, the production company have an email address you can contact: educating@twofour.co.uk

I certainly love these series and am definitely looking forward to the next one, no matter where the school is. I’m thinking about trying to persuade my old school to do it 😄

Record levels of adoptive families!

Michael Gove’s drive to speed up the adoption process has sent the number of children in care placed with permanent families to record levels.

Almost 4,000 children in care were adopted in England in the year from April 2012 and March 2013 – the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992. The figure is up 15 per cent in a single year.

Although exactly comparable records do not exist beyond the early 1990s, it is thought they are now running at their highest level since the 1960s. It follows separate figures released by the Office for National Statistics last month showing that the total number of adoption orders – which include children being formally adopted by step-parents – also reached record levels.

But they showed that fewer babies were adopted than ever before because of the length of time the process still takes.

The new figures show that 3,980 children were adopted from care in the year to March 2013, up from 3,470 the previous year.

There has also been a major increase in the number of children in care placed with foster parents – which is seen as a key step towards adoption under the Government’s reforms. In March this year there were 50,900 children in a foster placement – a 16 per cent increase over the last four years.

The Education Secretary, who was himself adopted as a baby, and the children’s minister Edward Timpson, who grew up in a family which took in scores of foster children, have led a high-profile drive to increase adoption levels.
Mr Gove has spoken of the need to “evacuate” children from neglectful or abusive settings and placed in loving, stable families.

Children and families Minister Edward Timpson said: “It is hugely encouraging that the number of children adopted from care has risen to the highest level yet – but too many children are still waiting too long for stable, loving homes.”

Well this looks all very encouraging for the government, particularly with the extensive reforms to try and push up the speed of the adoption process. My only concern is that there doesn’t appear to be any sign of whether these children are actually satisfied in those homes. We are probably expected to believe that they are, but until any sort of statistic mentioning that is published, I don’t want to be jumping up and down too soon.

Foreign languages not taken seriously enough according to ex-footballer

We hear a lot about political figures and heads of unions criticising the curriculum and other aspects of the curriculum. However, this time, England legend and TV presenter Gary Lineker has spoken out about languages and the school curriculum.

The host of Match of the Day was speaking about the importance of learning languages for young people today, adding that it was more relevant to their every day lives than other subjects such as the sciences.

Himself a fluent Spanish speaker after a successful three-year career playing for Barcelona, Mr Lineker believes students should learn a foreign tongue because it will always be useful in later life. “Personally, I look at what we have to study at school and some subjects like science might help at some point in your life for a percentage of people, but the learning of languages, for me, will always be helpful for the vast majority at some stage in their life,” Mr Lineker said. “Yet it’s not really treated, to my mind, seriously enough on the school curriculum. I think we should do more and encourage people to learn a language.”

Following a glittering career both in England and in Spain, Mr Lineker also picked up some Japanese during a two-year stint playing for Nagoya Grampus Eight, in the country’s J League.

On Wednesday, Mr Lineker had given away free access to Rosetta Stone language courses to 300 students across the UK, and he said being able to speak another language can boost young people’s confidence. “There’s an attitude abroad and sometimes it’s understandable that we’re a bit pompous or arrogant and we think everyone should speak English. I don’t think it really does us any favours in terms of how people see us,” he said. “There is no question in my mind when you speak someone else’s language, certainly in their country, they’re normally pretty appreciative of the fact. That’s my personal experience. Plus, it gives you a lot of self esteem if you can converse with people abroad, which is an important thing and perhaps shows where chemistry and physics may not help the majority of people but learning a language will.”

I can see where Mr Lineker is coming from, although it is becoming more and more clear that English is considerably wide-spoken. It is also clear that with the current economy, only certain incomes can afford to travel abroad year on year, meaning that some people may never travel to a foreign country in their lives. Because of this, some will question why their children would need to learn another language.

Of course the other side of this coin is that we are seeing more and more migrants entering this country, bringing with them their own cultures and language. Being able to converse with them in their language will show that we are prepared to embrace their culture. There is a part of me, however, that believes that if migrants are prepared to enter our country, then they should be prepared to embrace our culture and speak our language to a high standard. If I were ever to travel to a foreign country, I would expect to do the same. Of course it’s a lot harder than that because languages become an option rather than a statutory requirement after GCSEs. With so many subjects trying to be crammed into the primary curriculum, subjects like languages and the arts can just as easily fall by the wayside. This new curriculum to be introduced next year has made reference to MFL, but the detail is vague, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it can be fitted in.

Mental health checks at seven?

An academic from Cambridge has called for children as young as seven years old to be screened for mental health.

In an article for the British Medical Journal, Simon Nicholas Williams argues that screening pupils at that age would mean problems could be diagnosed and treated earlier. Mr Williams, from the university’s Institute of Public Health, said three-quarters of adult mental disorders were “extensions of juvenile disorders”. “If left untreated, these can lead to more serious social and economic problems in adolescence and adulthood, related to crime, unemployment, and suicide, for example,” he wrote.

He said early intervention and prevention of mental health problems should be aimed at young people. “Introducing mental health screening in schools could enable early diagnosis and treatment of childhood mental health problems and therefore reduce many of the costs associated with adolescent and adult mental health problems,” he wrote.

He said mental health problems cost the UK an estimated £105bn a year. “Physical health checks have been done in schools for more than a century, so why not mental health checks?”, he added.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents most primary heads, said the idea was an interesting one. But any such scheme would have to be carefully handled, he said, with the checks carried out by experts. “I think we should be checking children for much more than whether they have mastered phonics,” he said. “The evidence suggests that the earlier we start checking people, the better. But schools themselves are not qualified to do this and health professionals would have to be involved.”

Mr Hobby added: “We would have to be quite careful about any labels and stigma attached to this. It would have to be done in a sensitive fashion.”

In his article, Simon Williams said the “stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis is likely a deterrent, particularly for parents”, as well as the financial costs involved. “However, a programme in which all children are screened, rather than just those who are traditionally deemed at risk, would likely have a de-stigmatising effect,” he said. “Although many mental health disorders are more common among children from lower socio-economic groups, others, such as anxiety disorders, are just as common, if not more common, among children from higher socio-economic groups.”

He said such screening could be carried out in groups “cheaply”, at an estimated cost of £27 per child, amounting to £18.5 million for all of the UK’s seven-year-olds.

Lucie Russell, from the Young Minds charity, said mental health screening was a good idea if there was good support for children “with emerging mental health problems”, but current provision was “patchy”. “Screening as part of early intervention is theoretically a positive step forward, but it must be backed up with comprehensive support and treatment for any identified children and their families,” she said.

I can see what the aim here is, but there is a niggling thought in my mind: what is going to happen to those who are diagnosed with issues, and what if those diagnoses prove to be inaccurate? This could be placing a label on a child which can have a serious effect on both the child and other children around them. Seven years old is the age where children start to understand everything around them, so it is most likely going to be difficult to handle. I do like the theory however. Anything that can resolve issues going into the teenage years or even beyond that before they can take a hold of a child must be a help rather than a hinderance, unless of course I’m missing something.

New curriculum going back to the Victorian age

A professor of education claims that a new National Curriculum introduced by the Coalition will narrow pupils’ horizons by failing to give them the “knowledge, skills and experience” needed in all subjects.

Robin Alexander, fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and professor of education at York University, said that literacy and numeracy provided a vital foundation for children’s future lives.

But speaking in central London, he insisted the revised curriculum for under-11s – to be introduced next year – overemphasised their importance at the expense of other core disciplines, suggesting the arts and humanities were being “left to chance”.

Prof Alexander also criticised the Government’s drive to make young children “secondary ready”, insisting that primary education was an important stage in its own right and should not be seen as a mere stepping stone towards secondary school.

It represents his most high-profile comments since the publication of the landmark Cambridge Primary Review in 2009 – a 600-page report edited by Prof Alexander following a six-year inquiry into the state of primary education in England. A new Cambridge Primary Review Trust – based at York University – has now been established to build on the work of the inquiry and help raise standards in primary schools across the country.

Speaking at the launch on Monday, Prof Alexander said the trust would seek to develop teaching in the face of a “neo-Victorian” National Curriculum. “While primary schools must and do insist on the foundational importance of literacy and numeracy, they should also lay those other foundations – in science, the arts, the humanities, in physical, emotional and moral development and in lived experience – that in their way are no less important for young children’s future learning and lives,” he said.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “It is utterly unacceptable that so many children leave primary school without a firm grounding in the basics of English, Maths and Science. That is why our rigorous new primary curriculum focuses on these vital subjects. Of course we expect primaries to teach beyond just English, maths and science. That is why we are giving teachers more freedom than ever before, allowing them to shape lessons to meet the needs of the pupils they know best.”

In order to really understand what the DfE mean by this, simply look at the new curriculum in comparison to the current one. The first thing you’ll notice is that there is a lot less detail. This implies that there is a lot more freedom for teachers than this current curriculum allows. The next I notice is that Information Communication Technology has been replaced with Computing. The last thing I notice, which must be what Prof Alexander is referring to, is that there seems to be a lot more pages in the curriculum dedicated to maths, english and science. I’m not a huge fan of certain parts of the new curriculum, in particular this central focus on the core subjects, as it further risks the marginalisation of certain subjects such as PE and the Arts, which is already an issue now.

What the government’s basically saying is ‘here ya go teachers, you know best. Here’s the basics, do what you like.’ This is effectively calling the profession’s bluff. Bit of a dangerous game if you ask me. I’m quite fascinated to see how the new curriculum works next year. Of course next year is my NQT year so no pressure!

6k-per-year private school to trigger scramble for places?

Governors at a top private school are weighing up plans whether to scrap charges and instead get funding directly from the government, as part of the ‘academy’ or ‘free school’ programmes. St Ambrose Preparatory School could enter the state sector in a move likely to trigger a massive scramble for places.

The boys-only school in Hale Barns currently teaches around 140 pupils whose families currently pay thousands of pounds for their education. The Catholic prep school, which teaches boys aged 3-11, was part of nearby St Ambrose College until 1990 when it became a separate independent school. However, earlier this year parents received letters asking for their views on a possible change of status, which could potentially include joining forces again with the state-funded grammar school.

But senior staff insist a decision is far from confirmed – and no formal request had yet been made to the Department for Education. Headmaster Frank Driscoll said: “It is just a proposal at this stage and there is no formal consultation at the present moment. The decision will ultimately be made by governors at the school.”

The school currently charges annual fees of up to £6,636.

Is this going to be part of a growing trend? What if more private schools start doing the same thing? Well it sure would be a shift in the way the education system works, particularly as this school is a top school. It would certainly break down the obvious class gap that exists between the extremes of family incomes from the top right through to the bottom end. Nothing frustrates me more than money defining entry into a school. Everyone has the right to top quality education, no matter how much money families have. We’re not in the Victorian era anymore.

She likes short skirts! Fears new rules will mean shorter hemlines

Over the past few years, schoolgirl’s hemlines have been creeping up consistly. So much so that the average skirts end around 6 inches above the knee, a rise of 3 inches from 5 years ago according to a recent study. It is quite easy to see here that with skirts getting shorter, it’s becoming harder and harder to police, and it’s feared that new uniform rules will not make matters any easier.

For those who aren’t aware, Education Minister David Laws announced new guidelines on school uniforms, including guidance to end the practice of using a single uniform supplier in a bid to help the reduction of uniform costs for parents. He said: “The fact, for example, that it is too easy for schools to have these single supplier arrangements where parents can end up paying more than they need to. And there are also things that we feel we should get rid of. For example, it’s possible at the moment to have cash back arrangements where schools can have these arrangements with single suppliers and in return get some of the profit from the business.”

Parents say that they are fighting a losing battle and teachers fear that the Education Secretary’s plans to let parents buy school uniform basics in any shop means that hemlines could rise higher.

Linda Robinson, the headmistress at Merchant Taylors Girls’ School, Crosby, said: “Girls are only reflecting what is now the social norm. People are dressing more casually for business and it has filtered down into schools.”

She fears that new rules on uniforms will make hemlines hard to police. However, she fears that schools will struggle even more to impose reasonable limits on their pupils when new rules on school uniforms are introduced. “The first thing a school can do to keep a grip on skirt length is insist on a specific skirt, so what Michael Gove is suggesting is going to leave us even more exposed to fashion,” she said.

Mr Gove has said that schools must stop using particular suppliers for their uniforms. New guidance will also state that schools should keep compulsory branded items to a minimum, so that parents can shop around for the basics at ordinary clothes retailers. “If pupils can buy a piece of uniform anywhere, they can say that they could not find a knee-length skirt in Topshop or Zara. It will make things much more difficult,” Ms Robinson said.

Some schools have banned skirts altogether, which makes this whole situation so much easier to handle. The problem is the role models that teenage schoolgirls have in today’s world thanks to the media and music industries. You wouldn’t ever see Beyonce or Tulisa wearing knee-length skirts as it’s ‘not in fashion’, not that I’m an expert in this particular industry …

That being said, it is unbelievably annoying to me to see schoolkids wearing ridiculously short skirts. School is not a fashion show or a catwalk, it’s a learning centre so the focus isn’t on what you look like, more how to bring out the talents that you possess. I personally wouldn’t allow overly casual dress in any classroom I teach in, as I expect my children to dress as smart as I do (which is normally a suit). I think parents have a responsibility to ensure their children are dressed appropriately, meaning that they should buy appropriate uniform from proper uniform shops. I am aware that this makes buying uniform more expensive but the only other option is to ban skirts from school uniform altogether, which won’t be popular by teenage girls in the summer term that’s for sure.

New term, an age old battle returns …

Yep, it’s the dreaded H word: Homework. Some like it, some hate it, some wishes it never existed and whoever decided we needed homework should be shot. For some families it can be a flashpoint for tears, tantrums and arguments.

Of course, some parents see homework as a reassuring sign that a school is taking pupils’ academic progress seriously and even base their choice of schools on the amount of homework set. But for others it is another task to stage-manage in the already fraught and busy cycle of family life – and all the more so for primary-age children who are not old enough to take responsibility for completing it unaided.

Prof Sue Hallam, of the Institute of Education at London University, has researched the subject of homework extensively. She believes much of the friction for families is down to increased amounts of formal written school work making its way onto the family kitchen table. “In the past children would be sent home with a spelling list of 10 words and be expected to learn their times tables,” said Prof Hallam. “What is happening now is that children are given written work and that’s where the problem starts – Mum and Dad try to help and of course teaching methods have changed and that can confuse them. Parents get upset and the child gets upset. It is often when homework is formal school work that the problems start at primary level. It’s the kind of homework being set that is some of the problem, I think. You have to put this in a social context – a lot of parents are working and the last thing they want to do after the stress of a day’s work is supervise homework. They want the time they have with their children to be quality ‘nice’ time.”

The current trend for formal primary school homework began in 1998, when the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett, put out voluntary recommendations for schools in England and Wales and offered support for the introduction of homework clubs.

The guidelines suggested pupils in Years 1 and 2 (ages five to seven) should do 10 minutes of homework a night, stretching to 30 minutes a day for pupils in Years 5 and 6 (ages nine to 11).

They recommended pupils in the first year of secondary should be doing up to 90 minutes a night, increasing to up to two and a half hours a night for those studying for their GCSEs (Years 10 and 11).

In her book, Homework: The Evidence, Prof Hallam says that in 1997, 64% of primaries had a homework policy, but just two years later, 90% had policies, including 100% of junior and 75% of infant schools.

Mr Blunkett’s homework guidelines were scrapped in England in March last year by the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove. This does not mean Mr Gove does not believe in homework, rather that head teachers should decide the best approach for their pupils, free from “unnecessary bureaucratic guidance”.

But while this government takes a hands-off approach to homework, the pressure is still on, as Prof Hallam points out. “Primary schools are under pressure to get high levels for pupils at Key Stage 2 (age 11). This government has ratcheted up the number of children that must get these levels or the school can be forced to become an academy,” she says. “Schools will do everything they can to avoid that. Homework therefore is a means of getting children to do more and more work, which will help them achieve the levels they need.”

So as the scrutiny of Ofsted inspections, league tables and forced academisation continues, at least in England, homework is unlikely to be scrapped.

Indeed, for many schools it is an essential way of ensuring pupils achieve their full potential. For example, for the Ark chain of academies, homework is seen as a vital means of raising standards. Amy Baird, head teacher at Ark John Keats Academy primary school in Enfield, London, says: “Even when they are young, children benefit from the chance to practise and embed what they’ve learnt at school. For the youngest children that might be practising phonic sounds with their parents and, as they move up primary school, it’s really valuable to ensure children really understand the mathematics and English that they’ve learnt during the day.”

TIPS FOR PARENTS (Offered by charity Family Lives)

Keep a designated homework area at home
Help keep a routine for your child when it comes to homework
Praise and encourage your child to help boost their confidence
Refrain from completing your child’s homework for them
Allow yourself enough time to help your child with their homework
Use the library
Use after-school homework clubs
Encourage your child by offering a small reward if they complete their homework
Don’t get stressed out by homework – if you are, your child will be too