Category Archives: Teacher Talk

This is the place for my educational ideas, and discoveries

Getting to work on teacher’s workload – Ministers’ Measures

One of the many factors that has been the caused of incessant and frequent striking by members of the teaching profession as well as other educators leaving the profession for other careers has been the high level of workload. For a long time under Michael Gove, this was seen as ‘excuses’ more than anything else, so the news that this current Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Deputy Leader Nick Clegg are looking at ways to improve it has got to be music to the ears of those who are still left in the profession.

So what are these ‘decisive measures’ that the two politicians announced? Well they include;

  1. Commitments by Ofsted to not change their handbook or framework during the academic year, unless absolutely necessary
  2. Giving schools more notice of significant curriculum changes, and not making any changes to qualifications during the academic year, unless urgently required
  3. Carrying out a large robust survey in 2016 and then every two years in order to track teachers’ workload.

These announcements come after results from a Workload Challenge survey released by the Department of Education, of which around 44,000 (the vast majority of teachers) responded to. They cited excessive amounts of time spent recording data and dealing with bureaucracy as factors which contributed to “unnecessary” or “unproductive” workloads. Other reasons included unrealistic deadlines and excessive marking – with some saying they marked up to 120 books a day.

Ms Morgan said the changes would tackle the root causes of excessive workloads. “It is no secret that we have made some very important changes in schools – changes that we know have increased the pressure on many teachers,” she said. “We know there is no quick fix but we hope the commitments we have outlined today will support and empower the profession, and free up teachers to focus on what matters most in their jobs.”

If only that were true. It is believed by many that this isn’t enough. The National Union of Teachers said teachers would be “bitterly disappointed” by the measures.

“At a time when the number of teachers leaving this proud profession is at a 10-year high, this announcement on workload is simply insufficient,” said general secretary Christine Blower. She said the government should immediately tackle its “out-of-control accountability system”, which had “Ofsted at its centre”.

The dreaded Ofsted again. It is no secret that the very name brings a shudder to many members of our profession, and with that shudder comes the feeling of needing to do extra work to prevent yourself from showing a bad light. I’ve worked in schools where inspections are going on and have seen even experienced teachers in a panic.

HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said Ofsted was working to “dispel some of the myths that may have led to unnecessary workloads”. “It is very important that schools maintain a sense of proportion when preparing for an Ofsted inspection,” he said. “If they are devoting their energies to getting things right for pupils, then an Ofsted inspection will take care of itself.”

I personally welcome the announcement, it’s at least a step in the right direction, but if progress is judged on speed of movement, this is more like a pigeon-toe step than a sprint. Hopefully there are many more to come soon and maybe, just maybe, the profession might be given a bit of a morale boost.

Waging War on Mediocrity – The Education Plans

So, just in case people didn’t know, there’s an election coming up, and all the politicians we’ve all come to love or completely despise (yes looking at you here Mr Gove) all come up with their remarkable promises that pretty much every single time they don’t stick to (take the Lib Dems and university tuition fees).

So what’s been happening this time round? Well Mr Cameron promises that in a Conservative government, there will be no cuts to the schools budget in cash terms. He also promised that he would provide an additional £7bn for places for the rising number of pupils due to the baby boom we’ve had over the past few years. Well on the face of it, that sounds all rather nice, yay no cuts. But wait … hang on a minute. He said ‘in cash terms’, which means that it doesn’t increase in line with inflation, so in ‘real terms’ what he’s actually saying is that he is actually cutting the schools budget.

Another promise that came up concerned schools becoming academies. This was initially a Labour ideal but the Tories have brought it on further. Mr Cameron says he is ‘waging war on the mediocrity of our schools’ and he believes academies are the solution. What I find interesting about this is that Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, who represents the party that started this whole academy process off, suggested that this isn’t the only solution. Say what you like about academies, but for me there is genuinely not enough evidence to suggest that academies have been an effective way to solve our education issues. What Mr Cameron wants to do is make more schools that aren’t rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted become academies in a bid to improve standards. But how reliable are Ofsted’s judgements? We constantly hear them come under fire from all directions from teachers to parents and unions. I personally have been a pupil and taught in several schools rated from what is now ‘requires improvement’ to ‘outstanding’ and in some cases have not seen a difference in ones that require improvement and outstanding schools, so begs the question of why the inconsistency. There are also schools out there, such as schools that specialise in SEN, where the progress targets are not so easy to meet.

Talking of Tristram Hunt and Labour, they also came under fire today with a pledge that has leaked out with regards to the tuition fees. I took a bit of a swipe in my intro at the Lib Dems putting the cost up to £9000 per year, well Labour want to do something about this by reducing the fees down to £6000 per year. Once again this sounds really good and will certainly ease the cost of higher education. However, if you work out the costings of all of that, it works out that over the next Parliament, Labour would have to find somewhere in the region of £12bn to pay for it, so the burning question in my mind is ‘how do you propose to pay for that?’ We all know the common answers: increase taxes, cut spending in other areas, or do a Gordon Brown and go on a borrowing binge. Why not get a loan of £12bn from Wonga? Not like we have a high national debt right?

I’ll be honest, what I’m getting from all of this is that we’re not going to see anything particularly positive with regards to our beloved education anytime soon no matter who we elect into our next Parliament. All the more reason for me to not really want to vote for anyone because noone is able to make a positive difference.

Mental Health a concern once again

One of the most striking topics to hit the news so far in the beginning of this new year is concerning mental health among our young people. In fact over the past couple of days it has been quite overwhelming.

Yesterday, BBC Newsbeat released an article about the number of children who are self-harming is increasingly significantly, some 20% rise in the number of 10-19 year olds admitted to hospital in the past year alone. The NHS figures show a number in the region of 29,000 admissions.

Teaching Unions have been quick to point to government cuts in spending on local services, which is leaving schools with much less access to expert medical help in comparison to previous years. While this may be true, there is plenty more to this story

Dr Max Davie, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), says feeling pressured at school, or by friends, family and the media can all play their part in why young people self-harm. He states, ‘We have to remember that people self-harm because they’re in psychological distress that’s so severe that they prefer physical harm or physical pain to their psychological state. So the real question is why are more young people experiencing unbearable psychological distress? They are often isolated and if that isolation is extended to their own families that can be very serious and damaging. There aren’t enough services. If they reach out and talk about their problems there is often no-one there who is able to listen who is able to address their issues”

Caroline Kolek, a secondary school teacher and spokesperson for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “My experience in schools and talking to colleagues is that we are seeing a rise in self-harm, predominantly among girls but also among boys as well. My reaction to those figures is disappointment really. We recognise anxiety and depression is on the rise among young people. Unfortunately there is a correlation between the figures and a decrease in funding for mental health services – we’ve lost our emotional wellbeing workers who used to come into schools, we’ve lost youth workers and there is certainly a massive underfunding in mental health services for young people so many aren’t getting the support, and their families, aren’t getting the support they need. We schools really don’t have the support we had four or five years ago.”

One of the factors that I have seen crop up a lot is that of social media. More and more young people are accessing facebook and, despite the legal age to join facebook being 13, increasing numbers of children younger than that are also appearing, in fact, I’ve even heard children as young as 7 saying they have an account there. Now that has it’s own questions attached to it, but that is a massive opportunity for people to abuse behind the comfort of a computer screen, which can cause even more pyschological harm. Should we allow young people to communicate via social media, certainly in the way that they use it? I mean I for example use my Facebook and Twitter predominantly for promoting here or sharing interesting education stuff I find, others choose to use it to post pictures of themselves (these so-called ‘selfies’) or like Katie Hopkins, to stir up controversy for attention.

So what are the government planning on doing? Well Care Minister Normal Lamb had this statement: ‘Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress and it is crucial that young people get the help they need. I’ve brought together a team of specialists to look at how we can improve care – including in our schools – and we are investing £150m over the next five years to help young people deal with issues like self-harm and eating disorders.’

As someone who is not much older than some of these kids, I certainly can vouch for how much stress school can put on. I’ve asked the question of ‘do we put too much pressure on our children?’ a couple of times before, and I generally think we do. I mean look how many tests these children do every year. It seems to be the way we’re moving, and we all know how some children cannot cope with exam pressures. It’s not just exams either, it’s the general school life. I went to a highly rated grammar school and at times it felt like the pressure mounted all the time because of the expectations that were put on us. For those who make it, it’s a great success for the schools, but for those who are struggling, we can see what might happen.

So what is allowed and what isn’t when it comes to ‘authorised absence’?

I’ve written about this before and it evoked quite an interesting discussion both on here, through my colleagues and friends on Facebook and on Twitter about what should and shouldn’t be allowed as an authorised absence and whether people should be paying these fines introduced under the new government regulations.

Well head teachers’ union NAHT have now released some guidelines that have been drawn up over what is and isn’t allowed, which has allegedly received the backing of current Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.

Funerals, weddings and religious events will count as acceptable “exceptional circumstances” but cheaper holidays will not be “a good enough reason”.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the current system had caused confusion among heads. He said the new guidance would also permit time off to see parents returning from duty with the armed forces, and for children with disabilities or special needs who are suffering a family crisis.

Until September 2013, heads in England could grant up to 10 days’ leave a year for family holidays in “special circumstances”. But now head teachers can grant absence outside school holidays only in “exceptional circumstances”. Mr Hobby said: “The trouble is, we have no consistent definition of an ‘exceptional circumstance’. This has led to confusion and a sense of unfairness. Two-thirds of the heads we surveyed found this guidance problematic.”

He said the NAHT guidelines would help identify an “event whose timing cannot be controlled and which are great emotional significance to the families involved”. But Mr Hobby said pupils should not be given “extended leave” either side of an event.

He said there had been 60,000 fines handed out to parents for removing children without approval and not all were holidaymakers.

Last week, the Local Government Association said the new rules do not recognise the complexities of family life and head teachers should be allowed to take a “common-sense approach” to term time holidays. Mr Hobby said: “So what about allowing holidays in term time simply because of the cost? I’m afraid these just don’t fit the bill. It’s not a good enough reason to damage an education. You cannot easily make up the lost learning at home, and falling behind in class can put children at a permanent disadvantage. Those who work in schools share your pain. Many are parents themselves and pay these prices, too. We must tackle this. The government should work with the holiday industry to find a way through.”

Local authorities are obliged to instigate fines and enforce legal proceedings on behalf of schools in cases of unauthorised absences. Parents who take children out of school during term-time can receive automatic penalty notices of £60 per child. This rises to £120 if not paid within 21 days. Parents who fail to pay could face prosecution and a maximum fine of £2,500 or a jail sentence of up to three months.

So, it’s clearer now, under family circumstances such as weddings, bereavements and religious events are fine, but taking children out of school just for a cheaper holiday is a no go. So if you want to take your child on holiday, then pay the price for it, like you would for anything else such as food or housing or cars, which don’t just come around for free. Honestly I find it frustrating, people have often said to me ‘oh but look at the experiences they can have in these places and what they can learn.’ My response to that is ‘Yeah, and is that really why they’re going on holiday?’ to which the simple answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t take your children on holiday, but what I’m saying is don’t bargain with your children’s education just to cut the cost down. You might say ‘well i’ll take the risk and refuse to pay the fine’, but look at the consequences of that. You would have to pay probably more than the saving you made compared to going on holiday out of term time, and face a jail sentence and a criminal record. Is it really worth it? For me, no it isn’t. I mean sure, I’m 22 and don’t have children of my own, but I am of the mindset that if you want something, you pay the money for it. If you can’t afford it, well you don’t get it, simple as that.

GCSEs and the Erosion of the Education System

GCSEs, considered some of the most important exams of your life, but are they really inspiring confidence in our education system? In the past few years since this government has taken power, the overall average of those obtaining five ‘good’ GCSEs has been on the decline. In fact this year only 52.6% of those taking their GCSEs got the expected results, which is a significant drop on the 59.2% last year.

Now it’s very easy for the government to make the excuse: ‘Well we’ve changed the way that these results are calculated so that only those taking their first attempt at GCSEs are counting under this statistic.’ OK fine, we’ll work out the statistics using last year’s system and still the results show around 56%, which is still a significant collapse on last year’s results.

As if these results alone aren’t eroding the credibility of these exams. Well guess what guys? That’s not the end of the matter. It recently came out that this time round there have been a record number of successful challenges to marks of GCSE and A level papers. The number of appeals made in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have doubled in the past three years. So not only are results tumbling, but people aren’t even marking these papers correctly? Who’s marking these papers, Joe Bloggs from round the corner? (apologies to anyone called Joe Bloggs who might be reading my blog)

Despite the drop, the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, welcomed this year’s results, saying: “I am delighted to see more and more young people taking the high-quality subjects that will properly prepare them for life in modern Britain. With record numbers taking science at GCSE and maths now the most popular subject at A-level our plan for education has finally reversed the decline in key academic subjects.”

The government introduced the changes after a review by Prof Alison Wolf, who found too many schools were entering pupils for GCSEs multiple times or relying on poor-quality vocational courses to inflate grades.

Schools whose results this year take them below a baseline target of 40% of pupils gaining less than five good grades could be closed or taken over by an academy chain.

At A-level this year, 11.6% of sixth-formers gained three A* or A grades, down from 12.5% last year. Boys did better than girls with 12.3% getting three A*-A grades, compared with 11.1% of girls.

Commenting on the GCSE figures, the ASCL general secretary, Brian Lightman, said: “Our qualifications system must be trusted. This year the opposite is happening. We are seeing a worrying drop in confidence in exams. We know there has been a massive increase in appeals. The statistical manipulation of results has led to a lack of predictability that few can make sense of. Students and teachers are struggling to understand this year’s results. We believe the most disadvantaged students have been hit hardest. This cannot be in anyone’s interest.”

ASCL president Peter Kent, who is head of Lawrence Sheriff school in Rugby, added: “We want a rigorous approach, but change needs to be introduced in a way that does not destabilise the system and unfairly disadvantage young people. We are working with the government to make sure we understand the factors that have contributed to the problems this year. Above all, it must not be allowed to happen again.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “We believe the fall in GCSE English A*-C grades is due to the removal of the speaking and listening element from the grade, and the likelihood that disadvantaged students struggled to get at least a C due to the shift to end of course exams. We have serious concerns about the government’s plans for GCSEs from 2015. Ofqual’s decision to return to an over-reliance on testing through final exams at the end of two years, which will assess only a small part of pupils’ achievements, and its drive to promote a narrow academic curriculum disadvantages young people and ignores the skills and attributes they need to live fulfilled personal and professional lives. Changes to what’s assessed in exams, along with uncertainty about the quality of marking, is turning the exams system into a lottery for young people. It also makes it extremely unfair for schools to fall under the government’s minimum performance standards based on potentially unreliable grades. We know there has been a massive increase in appeals and that this has dented public confidence in the exams system. Government changes to the system in the future will mean that confidence is further eroded.”

The schools minister Nick Gibb said the figures should “inspire confidence” in the examination system which would provide a more accurate picture of standards. He said: “You might think it odd for an education minister to extol the virtues of a drop in the national pass rate of those achieving the benchmark number of GCSE passes.” But, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gibb added that the country needed “to be sure that the qualifications which young people study are of the highest possible quality, and that they work for young people, not politicians”.

I have to say it depresses me that in the 25 years or so we have had GCSEs we are still having problems with exams not being marked correctly, grades being challenged on a record level basis, and more and more people are failing to meet 5 A*-C grades, including in Maths and English. We are letting young people out of our education system without the basic skills they need to enter the wider world and survive. How this can inspire any confidence in the credibility in our education system goes beyond me. For me this is further proof that education doesn’t belong with the politicians, it belongs with the teachers and other education professionals who commited their lives to educating generations of young people for years to come. I personally think it’s about high time these politicians get in touch with society, and not lining their pockets.

Charge of the Teach Brigade

With elections not too far away now, and important issues and pledges being made thick and fast in a mad rush to persuade voters, it is little surprise to see an education pledge appearing from the Tories, who in many respects are looking to move beyond just talking about Europe and immigration.

Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged that he will create an elite squad of high quality teachers in what he calls a National Teaching Service to go into what are described as ‘failing schools’, of which there are estimated to be around 500. These people will also be given the power to remove the schools’ leadership if it is deemed necessary. In order to do this, Mr Cameron says that he will be consulting a team of of ‘experts’ to help develop such a package.

It is the first initiative Cameron has undertaken with the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, drafted into the cabinet to replace the unpopular Michael Gove. Morgan said that it had become necessary to “go further” and target schools where she said “failure has become ingrained”. She added: “We will not tolerate failure, and where we find it we will use tried and trusted interventions to turn things around in the interests of young people everywhere.”

The regional commissioners were largely developed by Gove as he realised the rapid extension of city academies meant the department for education was directly responsible for the oversight of thousands of academy and free schools in what was rapidly becoming an act of unwieldy centralisation.

Under the new model, the commissioners will be able to order immediate personnel changes to governing bodies, introduce standard punishment tariffs for bad behaviour, and bring in behaviour experts to implement new policies on classroom discipline, school uniform standards and homework. They would also have powers to make “immediate personnel changes to the governing body to improve the calibre of leadership and ensure they have the skills they need to improve”. Ofsted has largely been left to rate schools, but there was no systematic means of improving schools’ performance. It is not yet clear how the new commissioners would work with the under-fire Ofsted under the Conservative plans.

Last week it emerged that Gove had discussed how to remove Sir Michael Wilshaw as chief inspector of schools, but he responded on Friday, vowing to carry on in his position and claiming that he was a victim of “smear campaigns”.

The former education secretary David Blunkett, in a report in May to the current shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, had proposed a new, more democratic, middle-tier body to oversee improvement of local schools led by a new local Directors of School Standards. The proposal was largely modelled on the successful London Challenge responsible for improving school standards in the capital. Hunt, just back from studying the widely praised Singapore education system, added:“Ministers are now trying to play catch-up but the public will see that it is this government’s damaging schools policy that has failed pupils.”

So basically, Cameron’s idea is a Salvation Army of Teaching. Who are these so-called high quality teachers and what makes them stand out? If our education system is supposed to be of high quality, shouldn’t all of our teachers be qualified to be in this particular group? How is it going to feel if you have been consistently praised as an outstanding teacher for years on end, only to not even be considered for such a position? Am I the only one who thinks this has the potential for damaging the already battered and bruised morale of most of the teaching profession? If that happens, then there will be more and more people trying to leave the profession instead of joining it. We have a shortage enough, why make the situation worse? Ofsted are already under fire, so do we really want another mini Ofsted as well? I remain to be convinced of 1) how this is going to work and 2) where it fits into an already awkward system.

Tablets the new TV’s in our children’s bedrooms?

Can anyone else remember the old times when we used to talk about children having TV’s in their rooms and how that could provide a distraction to our children’s learning habits as they would be more inclined to play on a games console or watch their favourite TV shows than do their homework?

Well we have some good news, and some bad news, depending on where you stand on such debates as ‘should a child have a TV or computer in their own room?’ The good news is that the percentage of children who have a TV in their room has dropped 20% from 66% to 46% in the last 5 years. This could be in part due to the recent baby boom we’ve had so there are more children in the world, and maybe even this next statistic, the bad news. Ofcom now suggest that as much as 1 in 3 children now have their own tablet, some of which now watch TV on. Children even as young as 3 or 4 years old have their own tablet (around 11% of them)

So children are getting tablets now. Ok so what are they using for? Well it’s estimated around 6 in 10 of these children use a tablet at home, in which increasing numbers of children are using tablets to access the internet, play games and watch video clips in the years before starting school.

Ofcom said: “The popularity of the tablet could be contributing to the declining number of children with a TV set in their bedroom.”

The trends are highlighted in Ofcom’s Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2014. The report reveals that 54% of children aged eight to 11 and three-quarters of 12 to 15-year-olds have three or more digital, media or communications devices of their own.

The survey also shows nearly all parents are taking steps to manage risks when their children use the internet. Popular methods include parents supervising children online (84%), talking to children about the risks and how to manage them (78%) and setting rules about internet use and access (82%). More than half of parents also use technological tools to manage the risks, Ofcom says.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the PR man has done a fantastic job convincing us all that we should embrace all this technology, but call me old fashioned but is there really a need for internet everywhere we go? Do we need to be spending masses of money on getting these technologies for our children? What happened to the days where kids used to do a wonderful thing called ‘exercise’. Kids these days are more interested in their playstations or xboxes or tablets or other handheld consoles. This may be part of the reason why we see children lacking in the fine motor skills to be confident in their own bodies, which we strive to teach during our PE lessons (if you’re in a school where PE isn’t marginalised in the first place). I apologise to all those passionate technology fans out there, but being brutally honest, technology is great, but there is no substitute for getting out there and using your body to learn about the world, rather than telling your ipad or your iphone to look something up on Google. Where I’m sat, technology will make us lazier, rather than better. Having had conversations with kids in both primary and secondary schools in my time in the profession, it is really saddening to me that when you ask a child what they’re doing or have done over the weekend, the response ‘played games on my (insert console here)’ has become all too common.

How Cambridge University almost killed me – The tale of Morwenna Jones

OK so you have done your A levels, got exceptional grades and will be heading off to a top university. Seems like a dream come true to be in with the best the country, and even the world, has to offer. However this is not always the case, in fact you’d be alarmed at what could actually happen. So today we’re going to look at the story of Morwenna Jones, a Cambridge University student. She told this recount in the Guardian:

“I had always been what they call a good student. In 2011, aged 18, I had two A*s and two As at A-level, various sporting successes and plenty of friends. I was president of more clubs and societies than the school needed. I was going to Cambridge University to study English. By most measures, things were going OK.

There was a problem, however – I had also developed an eating disorder. Over the two years before I started university, my body fluctuated and metamorphosed constantly. One week I would be a size zero, and my skeletal form would be found hunched scribbling notes instead of eating lunch. The next, I would look “normal” and hide the seemingly endless piles of food I would consume and then bring up again afterwards. Eventually I told my parents, and after six months I was referred for counselling with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Once a week I sat in a bleak room and explained to a woman called Lucy that my condition was connected to an obsessive desire to be the best. She listened politely, told me to keep a food diary and then discharged me eight weeks before I started university.

Eighteen months later I was in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, the colleges of Cambridge disappearing into the rain behind me. For a year and a half I had felt completely out of my depth, and finally cracked. No longer was I thought “talented” or “gifted” because I could work for eight hours or read an 800-page novel in a day. At Cambridge everyone I knew could do that. I was no longer special.

I know this might not sound like the world’s worst problem. What did I have to complain about? I was at a top university, with support – in theory – everywhere I looked. But misery has a way of finding you in the most unusual places, and for reasons that can seem incomprehensible, not least to oneself. Inside that bubble, where perfection was the norm, falling short of my own expectations tormented me. I wasn’t a size eight. I wasn’t on track for a first. I wasn’t a sporting Blue.

I dropped out in January 2013. When my parents collected me, I hadn’t left my room in two weeks. For two years I had been killing myself in the name of perfection, unable to enjoy being anything less than the best. As a result I had developed depression alongside severe bulimia.

The fact is that I am by no means unique. Suffering from an eating disorder and depression made me hardly more special among the Oxbridge student population than the A-levels that got me there. Last year a survey by student newspaper The Tab revealed that 21% of Cambridge students have been diagnosed with depression, while a further 25% think they may be depressed. At my all-girls’ college, Murray Edwards, 28% of students have experienced eating disorders. The numbers are reflected more widely – the National Union of Students surveyed 1,200 students and found that 20% believe they have a mental health problem, while 1 in 10 experience suicidal thoughts. Welfare teams at Cambridge alone anticipate 50 to 60 suicide attempts per year.

What I have seen in my time at university is an epidemic of students struggling with mental health difficulties. Every term more students “intermit” – the Cambridge term for taking some time out.

Katt Parkins, a fellow English student in her second year at Churchill College, understands the burden of expectation well. “It has been affecting me my whole life,” she says, recounting how she developed an eating disorder when she was just 11 years old. “I’d always either want to do something perfectly or not do it at all.” She intermitted in February this year, no longer able to cope with the prospect of a low grade. “I was obsessed with perfection. I think one of the reasons I intermitted was because I still really wanted to do well and get a high 2:1 or a first,” she says. “If I’d achieved less, my health would probably have become even worse.”

At Britain’s universities many students crumble as they realise they are only average-sized fish in a much larger pond. Part of the problem is that while we are used to praising or criticising students, it is unusual to sympathise with them. Even to themselves, the whining sounds like “poor me”. But the reality is that the pressure is putting thousands of bright young people at risk of serious mental illness.

Oxbridge is a close-knit collegiate system. Within this system, small communities of extremely motivated individuals live together in the intimate confines of an environment characterised by centuries of academic achievement. Katt Parkins likens it to an Etch-a-Sketch. “You know when you just have to slide off what’s already there and focus on a new drawing?” she says. “It’s like that. You have to focus on your work, so you suppress personal things that you should actually work through. Eventually it builds and builds.”

Students like her are the reason why Oxford academic Nicola Byrom founded the charity Student Minds five years ago, when she was a graduate student. Having suffered from a mental illness herself as a teenager, she wanted to provide students with support.

“There’s certainly historical data that suggests that there is greater prevalence of mental health difficulties in Oxford and Cambridge,” says Byrom. “Living with a small group of competitive people isn’t easy, and you also then have a competitive environment. I think Oxford and Cambridge are probably happy to admit that they pre-select people at high risk of developing mental health difficulties, because they’re taking high-achieving perfectionist young people, who come to be the best.”

But things could be changing. Judith Carlisle, headteacher of the independent Oxford High School, has started a scheme to combat the rise of “unhelpful perfectionism” among her students. It’s called The Death of Little Miss Perfect. Teaching students that “it’s fine not to get everything right”, the scheme includes tests that get progressively harder within a time limit, preventing pupils from answering all of the questions. Its goal, as Carlisle recently stated, is to teach students that “perfectionism is only captured in a moment” and is “not achievable long term”. As well as encouraging students to embrace phrases such as “Have a go” and “Nobody’s perfect”, she’s urging them to avoid “going for something that, if they don’t get it, will destroy them”, and that includes universities. Her advice? “Don’t aim for Oxford if not getting in will destroy you – or if going will destroy you.”.

The last statement might sound confusing, but it sums up some of the ambivalence I feel about Cambridge. If my school had offered a similar scheme, perhaps I wouldn’t have wound up taking a painful, expensive and disruptive year out from university. The pressures of Cambridge broke me but also gave me a whole new perspective on my academic life. If Carlisle aims to teach pupils that “real failing is failing to have a go”, then she also needs to teach them to “have a go” at Oxbridge, and, if necessary, learn from their mistakes.

Byrom is also unconvinced that schools should be warning pupils off Oxbridge altogether. “Schools ought to be thinking about what environment is going to best support a student to thrive through their degree,” she explains, drawing on her own experience of completing an undergraduate course at Nottingham before starting a postgraduate degree at Oxford. “Even for the ‘bad’ perfectionist, Oxbridge could still be a great environment. It’s very difficult to tell someone that a certain atmosphere isn’t going to be right for him or her.”

Meredith Leston and Elise Morton, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, also identify with the challenges and opportunities provided by Oxbridge. “I knew things were bad when I tried to read my neuroscience textbook and I may as well have been starring at the phonebook,” says Leston, who is about to enter her second year of experimental psychology. “My passion to learn about the brain is what got me into Oxford and it’s what I am dedicating my life to. The things that mattered most to me and defined who I was as a person suddenly barely registered. I felt completely lost.”

Morton agrees. “I remember in the second year just suddenly realising that I was feeling really, really down but without a cause,” she says. “It was when I actually realised just how good my life was that I suddenly went: ‘Hang on, why the hell are you feeling like this?’ I took stock of everything that was good in my life and yet noticed that I was still crying every day. I had to ask myself why I was doing that. I don’t want to say: ‘Oh it was Cambridge’, but I feel like the intense stress of a Cambridge degree has to have an impact upon your mental health.”

Despite all this, however, neither of them has any regrets about their choice of university. Morton graduated this year with a degree in modern and medieval languages. Now studying in Los Angeles, she is also a part-time mental health activist, campaigning for awareness charity Time to Change. She says struggling at university helped her gain perspective. “At first it was difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to be the best. But once I did, I felt able to be more creative and take more risks.”

These issues are problems across all universities, of course. It’s just that they can seem most concentrated where the pressure is greatest. “University is a tough time for a lot of people, whatever university you’re at,” adds Georgina Aisbitt, who works for Student Minds in Oxford. “Your informal support systems, like friends and family, and your formal support systems, like therapists and GPs, are left at home. You add pressure from the university to achieve and you’re putting students in a situation where they are going to be comparing themselves to others. That’s a pretty hefty combination, and it creates quite a tough environment. It’s important that schools try to help their students and promote discussions about mental health.”

When I returned to Cambridge in January I was nervous. I felt that I had tamed some of the anxious, depressed teenager who had struggled before, but would I be able to cope with the isolation? I took a book out of the library and sat in a café on King’s Parade working on my essay for that week. I sat in that café for four hours until long after the sun had set and the bikes had stopped speeding along under King’s College. For the first time since I started Cambridge, I read a book and enjoyed every page.

Eight months later, the perfectionist in me is dead and I don’t miss her. I was discharged from mental health services at the end of last year, and I stopped seeing a therapist in June. The eating disorder will probably always be at the back of my mind, but in many ways it has been a full recovery. I still have to be careful – I don’t drink to excess or sleep in, and I try to avoid environments which I know might be tricky. I feel I now have the mental equipment to deal with life. Excellence is fine, but nobody’s perfect.”

I think lessons can be learnt from this. It is very easy to get sucked in to going to the top universities like Oxbridge or other members of the Russell Group for example, but if it is not right for you, scenario’s like Morwenna’s can and probably will happen. So if you are looking to go to university, here is my advice for you:

  1. Think very carefully about the course you want to study before looking at universities. Not all universities offer every single course and sometimes universities may not offer the course at all.
  2. Once you’ve decided on what you would like to study, then start to look at universities. Think carefully about where you would like to go, and have a browse of the league tables, not just for the current year, but previous years gone by so you get an idea of where they are going. Yes I know league tables don’t necessarily reflect every single part of the university but if the university is slipping down the league tables for the course you want to study, then it can be quite off-putting.
  3. This one is probably the most vital. Before you apply to any of the universities, you MUST go on at least one open day at the university to get a feel for what to expect. If you don’t, then you might find yourself winding up at a university and dropping out pretty quickly as it’s not what you wanted. Remember you are going to be committing anywhere between 3 and 5 years of your life to this course, as well as an awful lot of money with tuition fees alone at £9k a year. Don’t blow that sort of money on somewhere that isn’t right for you. Go to the open days, get as much information as you possibly can out of them, including information on support networks and other options should things not work out, because you never know if or when you might need them.
  4. When applying to universities, remember that universities only want the best candidates. Not all courses require an interview, but for education you do. These interviews are either grouped or paired or individual interviews so be prepared for a variety of situations. In my experience, universities tend to like those students who can use their learning from their A levels and apply it effortlessly to the particular field. In my case, I made reference to a lot of psychological theory, particularly developmental psychology, in my interviews to back up my beliefs. Worked for me as I applied for 5 universities, and got 5 interviews and 5 offers.
  5. Don’t be too down if a university doesn’t pick you. Remember that thousands of other people are competing with you for that place, and you are potentially applying for 5 universities. Do your best to stand out from the crowd, but be true to yourself.
  6. When you do go to the university that you have chosen, if you’ve taken thorough enough care of it, you should feel at home, so make sure you build up a social group, maybe join a few societies that the university’s student union offer you, and maximise your time there. Honestly the years will fly by, so make the most of them.

The damaging effects of homework?

It is often a question asked of many teachers and parents alike of what age should a child be given homework. I’m personally one for giving homework if it is necessary to support the child’s particular learning, so if it is just a case of the child needs a bit more practice then set them a bit of homework to give them that. I don’t believe it should be compulsory early on though. Another interesting perspective on this came up in the Telegraph yesterday.

Primary-age pupils should be effectively exempt from homework because it is damaging childhood and creating tensions between families, a private school head has warned.

Teachers should stop setting work until the final few years of primary education to prevent pupils being overloaded at a young age, said Dawn Moore, head of King Alfred School, north London. She said that virtually all schools in the state and independent sector had “firmly embedded” policies on regular homework for children aged five to 11.

Previous guidelines introduced by Labour had suggested an hour of work a week for infants aged up to the age of seven, rising to half an hour a night for those in the final four years of primary education.But Mrs Moore said the practice may be damaging to children’s education and home life.

She said pupils needed “downtime” and the opportunity to play outdoors after school, insisting that homework created too much tension in the between parents and children.

“I really question how beneficial homework is, particularity for the younger primary age children,” she said. “I have been quite concerned about this idea of children doing two or three hours of homework a night at the age of eight or nine.”

The comments were made before a homework conference next weekend at the £15,900-a-year school, which is billed as a progressive and “informal” institution.

Debate surrounding the amount – and type – of homework set for children has intensified in recent years, particularly in primary schools. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has previously called for a ban on compulsory homework for primary-age children, saying that children should be able to explore, experiment and enjoy learning without feeling pressured.

A number of schools have also introduced individual curbs on homework. This includes the Jane Austen College in Norwich – one of the government’s flagship free schools – which expects pupils to do all their work during normal timetabled hours.

It represents a significant shift following pressure from the previous Labour government to ensure children were set up to two and a half hours of homework each night. Under the old guidelines introduced in 1998, primary schools were told to set an hour of homework a week for children aged five to seven, rising to half an hour a night for seven-to-11-year-olds. Secondary schools were told to set 45 to 90 minutes a night for pupils aged 11 to 14, and up to two-and-a-half hours a night for those aged 14 to 16.

But the guidance was axed by Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, amid claims head teachers should be given the final say on work outside of school hours.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Mrs Moore said her school did not introduce children to basic homework until Year 5 – when pupils are aged nine-to-10. By the age of 11, they are required to do one hour a week – typically receiving a project on a Friday and handing it in the following week.

“I think children have a very busy day at school and when they get home they’re often quite tired and need some downtime,” she said. “When we were kids we used to go out to play and get a lot of fresh air and there’s a huge amount of value in that.”

She added: “One of the things that worry me most is when families get into situations where the whole evening gets tense because of the amount of homework that needs to get done – trying to squeeze homework in between school and having a bath and going to bed.”

She insisted homework should only be set for older children “if it is worthwhile” and usually linked directly linked to a lesson. “I feel that it can lead to demotivation and finding learning somewhat boring,” she said. “It is not about seeing how it can help them explore their curiosity; it is about ticking boxes. I say to all of my teachers, only set homework if there’s a point to it. Don’t set it for the sake of it.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “A modest amount of homework for older primary age children – Key Stage 2 – is appropriate but it shouldn’t be extensive amounts on a daily basis. It can be helpful particularly for practising spellings and times tables for doing little projects where they can build projects with their family.But you can certainly overdo it on the homework front and there needs to be some space for childhood. There also needs to be some space for children to relax and recover. We find that they learn better in the classroom when that’s enabled.”

I have to say I don’t completely agree with the fact that it’s not appropriate to give homework to younger children. It’s not about giving the homework, it’s about how you use it. As I said earlier, giving homework is a useful tool if the child needs additional help with an objective. I don’t agree with giving any child homework for the sake of giving them homework, no matter what age they are. I have seen homework used as either consolidation for the previous topic, or as a starter point for the next topic. I’m not too convinced by the latter reason as you always end up questioning how much the child actually knew that or how much of it was the parents helping out.

Daily life of a primary school teacher – My take

So here it is, the week where we’re all back to school as teachers and pupils. To mark such occasion, I wanted to talk about what being a teacher is like from my perspective. Of course these opinions are my opinions and may not necessarily represent the views of the general population.

We hear all the time about what being a primary school teacher is about from the perspective of the government, but what we also hear is what the teachers themselves describe as their daily life. Things that the government often mention is that the job starts at 9am and finishes around 3.30pm, the job has a significant amount of holiday time amongst other things. These are often joked about by comedians when it comes to education, but I’m going to offer an insider view as to what the profession is really about. Yes I’m a final year student, but having spent 4 years in the profession already, I have already had a good amount of experience of what it means to be a teacher.

What you see as a parent is that you drop your child off at school around 8.50am for school to start at 9am (obviously I’m aware that times vary from area to area but this is an average) and then pick your child up again around 3pm. In that time you expect a teacher to be teaching lessons of different subjects and broadening the depths of knowledge that the child can take forward. But what you don’t see is the amount of work that goes on in order to make those lessons happen. The hours of planning and resourcing spent both in school and at home, the marking of the kids’ work to inform these hours of planning. I often arrive at school around 7.30am and often leave sometime around 6pm and sometimes even later in order to keep up with the workload. I have to say even with this amount of time, sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough hours in the day to keep up. What does this mean? We need to use our weekends as well. In short, teaching isn’t a 9 till 3.30, 5 days a week job, it’s a lifestyle 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This notion of doing the job for the holidays as well is naïve. Whilst the children get a 6 week holiday or sometimes 7 week holiday in the summer, what are the teachers doing? Well whilst some people believe we all go on holidays in the sun, what the vast majority of us do is spend a lot of time planning lessons for the next batch of children coming through our classroom doors in September. We also have to set our classrooms up (these things don’t appear by magic you know) in the best possible way to promote a love of learning in our classroom. In reality we might be lucky to get a couple of weeks to be able to wind down to ourselves.

Pay and salary is a topic that has come up a lot in the last few years with all these strikes over pensions and conditions. I’ve done a bit of research and the average pay per annum for an NQT (which I will be soon) is around £22k outside of London, around £28k inside London. With the amount of hours put into our work, that equates to around £3 per hour. Doesn’t seem like much does it?

So despite all this, what brought me into the teaching profession? Well Sue Cowley describes education and teaching as one of the most challenging yet most rewarding professions in the world. In the current circumstances you’d find it hard to disagree with that. I went into the profession because the thought of having an impact on the future of our children’s lives, from being able to put a smile on their face today, to seeing them graduate into long and successful lives in the days of tomorrow fills me with a great sense of pride and honour that you do not get from a desk job. Sure the job has it’s stresses, whether it’s caused by the government constantly on our backs, or the child who just decided they didn’t want to do the work you put so much effort into planning in that one day. But do you know what? For me the rewards outweigh the stresses. You pour all your emotion into teaching, and I have all sorts of cards and drawings that the kids have made for me, and there is no greater thing than a memory of every class you teach. I will look back on my journey when I eventually retire (who knows how old will I be when that happens) and will look back on all those young people I’ve had an impact on and be proud of what I’ve achieved.