"...It is a very difficult time to be a parent in a world that is changing so quickly. The tools of technology are now held by your children, who can manage things with your mobile, your laptop, your remote control at which you can only marvel. Peer pressure, the recession and competition can become an inordinate pressure for parents and children when they should be enjoying their formative years at school. Thank goodness that The Prep, with all its foibles and idiosyncracies remains an island of calm and good sense in an uncertain world."...
Since 2004 Peter Tait has been capturing his thoughts on the joys and frustrations of running a school and of educating and raising children in the 21st century. If you would like to read his musings please download here 'And What's More ...'.
'Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.' Confucius
'Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough.' Charles Warner
'Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.'
G. K. Chesterton
It seems no time ago that life seemed very straightforward: that the job you had, had always existed and was for life; that people worked during weekdays and relaxed on weekends; a time when all cars were fuelled by petrol, you could only buy two sorts of cheese, banks looked after your money and if people wanted to communicate with you, they wrote you a letter. Yet here we are in an age when technology has transformed our lives, when we can do our shopping from home, when we have more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before and the result is that everyone appears more frazzled and stressed than ever as evident in the soaring rates of depression. More choice has often just meant more anxiety, more information has just meant more time required in sifting what is actually important. Everything we attempt, from opening a bank account to setting up a mobile phone contract, usually through a ubiquitous call centre, seems fraught with difficulty.
Sadly, nowhere is this loss of simplicity more evident than in education where, for some years now, schools have been faced with the need for greater compliance, rafts of new policies and government initiatives, changes to inspections, exams and curricula, new methodologies, new standards, more experts hawking their theories, all of which distract teachers from their primary job of educating children. At the same time, children's lives have become compromised by greater academic demands, by peer pressure, often exacerbated by social networking, an increasingly difficult job market and rising tuition fees, as well as the social consequences of marriage breakdowns which have resulted only half of children still living with both of their birth parents by the time they reach the age of fifteen.
Why, then, do we not look after our children better by trying to make it simpler for them? Why do we keep tinkering with things that don't actually improve our schools instead of focusing on the simple things that actually make a difference to the performance and education of children, namely improving teacher-pupil interaction, encouraging parental engagement and raising expectations amongst our children and then striving to meet them?
We all know that life works best when it is straightforward and manageable, especially for the young. Too often children are asked to make decisions about what school they would like to go to, what food they would like to eat or such uncomfortable questions such as how they feel about their peers or teachers when they would rather just get on with life without interrogation. Just as 'no smoking' signs have the opposite effect to that intended, so too, attempts at prematurely informing children about the perils of life only serve to make them anxious and depressed. Life should be simple, and children's lives especially so. We should be ensuring that they have time and space to grow up without having to carry the woes and difficulties of the world on their shoulders, for there are many things they just don't need to know until the time is right. Underneath it all, I suspect that children want adults to behave like adults and stop blurring the lines between childhood and adulthood, even if they may protest otherwise.
With the pressures of modern life, schools strive to be all things to all children. Where once upon a time there may have been one method for teaching reading, handwriting, or mathematics, now there are several theories and methods, each of which may be valid in its own right, but which cumulatively only serve to confuse. So, as we set about complicating our education system by changing models of assessment, examinations or school inspections, thereby demanding more and more of our children and teachers, we should ask how much of this is necessary and how is it benefitting our children?
We cannot turn back the clock, and our children do have to engage with the age that is upon us with all its trappings and technology. However, we should not complicate their lives by making them grow up too soon, by pushing them into choices before they are ready, by making them complicit in decisions adults should make, by complicating life's pathways. Instead, we need to give them security and reassurance and endeavour to keep their lives simple. Childhood is precious, and the rising numbers of young children suffering from eating and mental health disorders should tell us that we should protect our young children from the woes and worries of the world until they are ready to cope with them.
'It is the quality of our work and not the quantity which will please God' Mahatma Ghandi
"Australia must prioritise education spending. It is not a question of whether or not we have the money, it is a question of how we choose to spend it."
Bob Brown, Former Australian Politician
'I will work harder' Boxer in 'Animal Farm"
After he was appointed Head of Basildon Academies in September 2011, Rory Fox set about raising standards and lifting the school's academic performance, as he had been charged to do. His first initiative was to reduce teaching hours from 30 hours to 27½ hours a week which was so successful that results improved by one third in his first year. The response of his governors was, therefore, not what he expected; rather than endorsing his professional judgement and congratulating him on the school's success, they instructed him to restore the teaching hours to their previous levels. The inevitable result was that he resigned, disillusioned at the interference of a board whose targets, whose definition of what makes successful learners, were at variance to his own.
As this debate was raging, a report was released in Australia based on exhaustive research asserting that homework does not improve the performance of children in primary schools and even up until the age of fifteen has a negligible effect on achievement - a view supported by President Hollande who recently proposed banning homework as part of a series of policies designed to reform the French educational system.
Both of these measures reflect the state of the current debate on how to improve academic standards: whether the way to improvement is to work harder, or to work smarter.
There should be no issue. We don't measure a life by the number of years lived; nor do we measure the importance of time spent with our families by hours alone. Similarly, we do not measure books by the number of words they contain, but by the order in which they are arranged.
In the same way, we should not measure education by the number of hours children spend at their desks, or how much of their time is given over to learning. Rather, it should be the quality of the time, of the engagement, of the effectiveness of the learning that should be of paramount importance.
Children may appear to have endless amounts of energy at times, but school and learning is exhausting, especially if it is challenging children to think and engage with their learning - and that is the only worthwhile education. Too often, lessons are both tedious for pupils and teachers, lacking the necessary spark and edge for the very reason that they become a test of stamina. That is not the way to extract the best work, the best thinking from our children.
Children's time is precious and they need to devote a good proportion of it for free-wheeling, learning to steer and propel themselves. They don't want every minute spoken for, nor to feel that life is measured by hours spent and words written. If we can challenge them in each lesson, that should be enough. There is, of course, an almost infinite amount that children can be taught, and they can be pushed to achieve above their chronological age, but to what end? We see it in the shameful way that schools carry on in London, where demand for school places determines the way children are taught and, worse, how young lives are shaped by adherence to that one goal of getting into the best school they can. This should not be confused with education, which involves learning a much greater range of skills, attitudes and attributes than can be simply passed from a tutor sitting in a room to a child, trying to eke out every possible mark from a test paper. As a teacher I don't want to see children taken to the edge of exhaustion in their work and play. I want to see Governments making responsible choices hope to spend the education funding. I want to see some thought going into what makes successful, well-rounded adults rather than some knee-jerk reaction to yet another slide down the PISA rankings. I want to see children engaged and thinking, not ground down by working all hours. After all, children do best if they are excited about learning, but not swamped by it. We should stop trying to fill up their days by force of habit and show them a little respect.
'It is quality rather than quantity that matters' Lucius Annaeus Seneca
* "It Ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)" is a calypso song written by jazz musicians Melvin "Sy" Oliver and James "Trummy" Young and first recorded in 1939 by Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James, and Ella Fitzgerald."
"All children should think of themselves as everyone's equal, but no-one's superior." Shami Chakrabarti
"Judge people by what they are rather than what they have." Gavin Ellis
"All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent."
John F. Kennedy
The recent debate about university entry fuelled by the High Master of Manchester Grammar, Dr Christopher Ray raises some interesting points about how we define fairness in terms of access and opportunity, especially to our universities. As Head of the largest independent day school in the country, Dr Ray railed at the perceived discrimination against independent school pupils by some universities determined to widen participation. His argument that many children from selective state schools, or who have been privately tutored, have had the same advantages as those from highly selective independent schools, may have some validity, but it did not address the greater question as to how we get the brightest children (as distinct from those who have benefitted from the 'best' education) into our universities, in order to minimise the waste of natural talent. Many selective schools interview pupils for their academic potential as much as a clutch of good marks on the day, likewise, as a country, we want our universities populated not only with those who have the best marks on entry, but those who will achieve the best marks on exit and sometimes, these will not be those who have benefitted from an exceptional secondary education.
Which brings into question the whole issue of early selection, something that the present Government appear to be fixated on. Recently I attended a conference in which one of the speakers, a very successful Army doctor spoke about his rather ordinary school career at a grammar school in Norfolk. When he was in his final year, several of his teachers complimented him that at last he was starting to work. His reply was telling: 'No', he said, 'I've always worked this hard. The difference is I've only just got it.'
We all 'get it' at different ages. For some, whose school careers are like shooting starts, they are ablaze at 12, but burnt out by twenty. Others have a longer fuse and their trajectory is of greater duration, but only if they haven't been placed away in a box of duds somewhere for failing to ignite when required. We need to be patient; we need to keep doors open; and we need to re-assess the criteria we use to determine potential and place more stead on such attributes as attitude, curiosity and a decent work ethic.
A range of ability can be perfectly well catered for through setting, although the professed inability of some teachers to be able to teach to a wider range of abilities is not something we should countenance. Nor should education be defined in academic terms alone and we are mistaken if we think we can teach very able children in separate schools from children with different (not lesser) abilities without some social cost.
The problem of selection at a young age is two-fold. One is that it closes doors, especially to those who mature late, whose readiness is delayed, who lack the maturity and focus of their peers; the second reason is seldom addressed and that of the social effect of removing children based almost exclusively on their ability to pass exams from their peer group who have other intelligences, others strengths and values. Selection at a young age is damaging and can create elites while reducing opportunity for others with greater potential, but lacking the opportunity, the confidence or the resources to succeed before the doors slam shut. It is how to make better use of our most valuable resource, our children, as a nation, not by competing schools and school systems with which we should be most concerned. Access to the leading universities has sometimes been seen as a birthright, albeit one that has to be worked for. Naturally, having been given that expectation, to face social engineering in the selection process for university may be galling for some, but if it is done in order for universities to enrol students with the greatest potential to succeed, then I would argue, it is no bad thing.
This year is the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. Sixty years is a scarcely conceivable period of time for children to consider, beyond the scope of their parents' lives and therefore their imaginations. Recently, President Obama said of the Queen, that Presidents come and go, (as do Prime Ministers - she's managed to see off ten so far), but that she remains a constant in our post-war history. During that time, the Commonwealth has shrunk and the world has bumped from crisis to crisis and yet she has remained a seemingly unflappable presence, a touchstone in a topsy-turvy world.
This Summer will be a time for celebration, and schools and classrooms up and down the land will be decked in bunting, studying the history of the Monarchy, the Windsor family tree and indulging in a sort of "RoyalFest". Children will make special Jubilee cards and draw portraits for Her Majesty to add to the 139 Official portraits she has sat for, flags will be raised and the mystique of the monarchy will be unravelled and dissected and celebrated. Schools will indulge themselves in street parties and banquets, with music and fine fare before turning their minds to the next pressing engagement on the calendar - the Olympics - taking down one set of pic- tures and posters to prepare for the next extravaganza.
Of course, there will be critics. There are always critics, telling us she has enjoyed the greatest advantage, great wealth and privilege throughout her life. They will dis- miss her as an anachronism, and cite the fact that her life is about state banquets, launching ships or travelling the globe, that she knows a great deal about a great number of grand things, but little of the man in the street. But that would underestimate her, and miss the point.
For she does know. And despite never attending school, she is very well-informed and has a greater grasp of people's realities than most of our politicians. Not to make something of the way she has lived her life would be opportunity lost. For it is just not through the predictable subjects - English, History, Art and their ilk - that we should celebrate the Queen's legacy. Rather we should dig beneath the façade and ask what can we learn from her life of service; her selflessness; her unflagging energy and unwavering standards; her ability to deal with crises in a dignified way; her unflappable manner; her presence as an antidote to the celebratory culture; her subsuming of self; her ability to keep her head when all around her are losing theirs; her sense of family values and the mutual tolerance and understanding of person and country. How can we teach that?
It is possible to absorb and teach the lessons from the throne.
We could highlight this aspect of the Queen's life in our schools as a justification for revisiting the teaching of values, so popular two decades ago. We could pitch her against the celebrity culture which highlights the showy and pretentious, the loud and the trivial, the cult of self, and try to understand why she is different. We could talk of her modesty - a rare trait these days - and how willingly she accepted her birthright as a duty and has not wavered in executing it. She has lived to serve her people. Despite her age, she has not talked of retirement or hardship, nor embraced the opportunity to respond to the hundred and one frustrations and irritations she must labour with day after day. We could present her life as one of unstinting ser- vice, accepting the duties she had placed upon her given to her without a murmur or feeling of imposition and ask whether this is not a life to which we should all aspire.
Wow! How will our children understand that? At a time when people just want their ten minutes of fame, she represents an antidote to the superficial and the trivial. In the selfish world of 21st century Britain, her selflessness stands out like a beacon. Worth a lesson or two in any school I would have thought?
Peter Tait, Headmaster
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Philip Larkin 'The Mower'
This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.
Hearing of another conviction for what the police euphemistically call 'hate crimes', one wonders what has gone wrong with the world. Not only do we seem immune to acts of violence enacted on our streets, but we appear to accept gratuitous violence on our television screens, with scarcely a murmur.
How has it happened that we have been desensitised without realising it, becoming, in the process, isolated and alone, strangers even to our next door neighbours, disparate parts of communities that have no beating heart? Why is there is so little kindness about?
It was a recent re-reading of Philip Larkin that brought me up short. Larkin would compete very well in a challenge to find the most miserable poet ever, imploring us, as he does, not to have children, berating parents for their failings and labelling old people as 'prune faces'. No-one escaped his invective. He was so miserable that he once complained that while he had no enemies, none of his friends liked him. So, with that sort of form, why was he writing such mawkish lines? Surely his moment of epiphany had rather more to it than merely running over a hedgehog with his lawn mower?
I think it was (and this, in spite of his own desire for oblivion), an acknowledgement of the fact that as human beings we actually have a social responsibility towards each other. That in a society in which the unspoken mantra is one of Self, it is important that we still need to strive to give our children something tangible, some moral instruction to hold onto, not something as esoteric as 'follow your dreams' or 'reach for the stars', but something a little more practical, less egocentric and likely to have unseen benefit.
Try something as little as always 'try to be kind' - regardless of circumstance or company - and see where that takes you.
Kindness is one of those words like 'nice' that has had a lot of its personality drained from it and yet its simplicity belies its strength. Trite-sounding it might be, but under its umbrella comes everything that we value: compassion for others; the sense of charity; tolerance; understanding; empathy and treating people with decency, with respect and with the consideration due to us all. It resonates what, at our most elemental, we strive to be.
Children don't take readily to moral instruction, but they do want to please, and be liked. They enjoy stories of kindness repaid, of actions and words making a difference to someone's life, of the complementary powers of strength and weakness (citing Aesop's fable 'The Lion and the Mouse.') or the mystery of kindness (as Pip discovered to his horror in 'Great Expectations'). They are easily persuaded that old people's faces reflect just how kind (or unkind) they have been in their lives. And one message that haunts them, above all others, is the truism that we always remember those who have been kind (and unkind) to us at school and that such memories are indelible.
Of course, it is much better to learn kindness from those about us than to try to put it across in assemblies and PSHE, but role models are few and far between. However, that should not stop us working with our children to imbue them with the values and attitudes that will serve both them, and their communities well.
Kindness, I've discovered, is everything in life.
Isaac Bashevis Singer
"I get e-mail, therefore I am."
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur C. Clarke
"I don't believe in email. I'm an old-fashioned girl. I prefer calling and hanging up."
Sarah Jessica Parker
It is 40 years since @ was first introduced into e-mail addresses. While it was not until the 90s that e-mail came into public use, since that time it has become a phenomenon, changing the way we communicate with each other. At the last estimate, there were two billion e-mail users world-wide, sending about 300 billion e-mails a day.
In education, as in business, instant communication seemed such a smart idea, dealing with issues and concerns as soon as they arose, without giving any time for gestation. The effect? Well, in my job it has added, very conservatively, six hours a week. Do I feel better informed? Yes, but do I really need to know about missing socks that turn up before I get to my inbox? More in touch? Yes, but often with trivia, dealing with issues that with a little reflective time on the part of the missive firer, would simply not be sent, especially if they were given the letter test (IE if I had to write a letter, post it and wait for three days for an answer....) And I am left trying to work out how I can reclaim those six lost hours and what to do with all the extra megabytes of often meaningless information I have accumulated against my will.
And yet here I am, writing about something that is already old hat, improved and superseded by such messenger tools and social networking sites such as SMS (1993), Hotmail (1996), Blackberry (1999), Skype (2003), Gmail and Face-book (2004), Twitter (2006) Google Wave (2009), and Apple iMessage (2011). Already, Facebook has about 800 million active users, of whom more than half log in daily. Together they send 4 billion internal Facebook messages every day. So how do schools keep up with a generation who are born hard-wired, who learn technology from the cradle
It is the same sobering lesson for those who still gather in the kitchens at parties, bemoaning a future without books and the horrors of bookless homes. Already a generation has begun to grow up with words not on a page, but on a screen and that will be their modus operandi. Even while we mutter and shuffle our feet, personal hand-held computers, ever more sophisticated, are becoming the exercise books, the libraries, possibly even the teachers of the future.
We need to get over it - and quickly. The reality is that the world is moving on apace and teachers and schools have to do likewise. This doesn't mean changing everything we do in our schools, but it does mean that we have to be better informed with regard to technology and know how to use it, not just in order to educate our pupils, but simply so we can keep up with them them. This is not a choice we can defer: we have to understand and manage technology before we all get spammed - and I intend to start the battle by bringing my e-mail to heel.
Peter Tait, Headmaster
"My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors."
"We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."
Karl Fisch - "Did You Know"
"SIR - Our goal as educators is surely to equip children with the necessary skills and capacities that will enable them to thrive in the future and be happy, confident citizens of the world. How does one examine that?"
Letter to The Daily Telegraph, 6th January, 2012 John Brett, Headmaster, Old Buckenham Hall School Brettenham, Suffolk.
With the examination system under public scrutiny, it is timely to ask why we persist in measuring our children in such narrow and limited ways. While acknowledging that the examination remains a very important method of assessing learning, our traditional reliance upon exams as the sole measure of assessment is outdated. When Paul Nurse, director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and winner of the Nobel prize for medicine in 2001, reflected that he was 'never very good at exams, having a poor memory and finding the examination process rather artificial' and that 'there never seemed to be enough time to follow up things that really interested me," he was giving voice to the frustrations in a system that was not only static and retrograde, but which has often stifled the creative gene and denied those students whose work ethic, intelligence and curiosity were never properly assessed.
Simply teaching students a requisite body of knowledge and dressing this up as education, is no longer enough. We all know people who know a great deal, but cannot use this mountain of knowledge other than to opine. In a novel based on the life of Katherine Mansfield, C. K. Stead wrote in the person of Bertrand Russell, 'people of my sort . . . have a lot to unlearn. Too much is laid on us too early. We grow up fettered." There is much to be said for not cluttering the mind, freeing it from both trivia and dogma, and encouraging it to think and question, rather than to learn and accept.
In a world awash with data we need, therefore, to place more emphasis on thinking creatively and on recognising the other forms of intelligences. We need to change our understanding of how we define and measure our children, and appreciate that there are other intelligences, equally as important. We need to recognise that a skill in passing exams often hides any number of other deficiencies, including social, spatial or kinaesthetic intelligence.
So how do we measure what our students need: the ability to discriminate from a sea of information, available at the touch of a screen; the ability to deduce and develop their critical faculties; the ability to synthesise and analyse; to prioritise and to précis information and to express oneself coherently and accurately with knowledge and argument, in written and spoken form? Sometimes we see the intellect most clearly in debate or discussion, in communication with others and through collaborative learning. How do we measure such things?
Until we arrive at some better way of doing so, our children will continue to be assessed by a flawed and discredited examination system that lacks transparency, but which measures them against a skills-set so narrow as to be of minimal use outside of academia. That needs to change.
Peter Tait, Headmaster MA, FRSA
"Exams are ruining children's time at school"
Professor Mick Waters, former schools adviser, 4th January, 2012
"Students learn to pass, not to know
They do pass, and they don't know"
Thomas Huxley (attrib)
"If we have to have an exam at eleven, let us make it one for humour, sincerity, imagination, character - and where is the examiner who could test such qualities?
A S Neill
As the problems with public exams rumble on, with allegations of collusion between examiners and teachers, it is not surprising that there has been a public loss of confidence in the ways we assess our pupils. The revelations of the seminars held for those who can afford and choose to attend in search of a few meagre pearls of information that examiners cast before paid-up audiences is yet further evidence of the impact league tables have had upon schools, and the inordinate pressures placed upon teachers to deliver results measured solely by examination marks. No system is ever totally fair, of course, being dependent as they are on postcodes, the ability of families to buy advantage indirectly by shifting to areas where there are high-performing schools or directly, by moving to independent schools, employing tutors or accessing whatever help or advice is for sale. Parents, naturally, will go out on a limb to seek advantage for their children, a quest made more singular, more stressful, by the pressure for university places and jobs. But it is in our interests to ensure that any system of assessment is as fair as possible and that any examination tries to do rather more than assess prior learning.
The problem is compounded by the fact that our system of public examinations is run by independent providers, each competing for a share of the market place. Recent errors in the setting and marking of examination papers have not helped public confidence. Inevitably, mark schemes have become increasingly prescriptive, seldom allowing for the type of originality or divergent thinking that universities are crying out for, a trend that would be further exacerbated if the recent suggestion of Barnaby Lenon, former headmaster of Harrow for exam boards to make greater use of multiple choice questions in exams was taken seriously. Too often, one hears of teachers dissuading their students from taking intellectual risk - a throw back to university courses where lecturers often wrote the textbooks and from which you deviated at your peril - only now, it is the examiners who write the course books. The idea of formulaic preparation for exams, and the oft-quoted argument that if it is not likely to be examined, then don't bother learning it, runs through much of our teaching and is a canker in our schools.
There are several steps we could take to improve the status quo. We could, for instance, look at reducing the importance of exams by improving the reliability and integrity of summative assessment; we could consider setting up a National Examinations Board to help improve standards and remove the overt commercial interests that have tainted some of their operations. We could develop mark schemes that encourage initiative and encourage more transparent feedback by returning examination scripts to students, as happens elsewhere in the world. But more important, we could - and should - question the purpose of the exams themselves and whether they are fit for purpose or whether they are measuring students by adhering to criteria that have little relevance outside of academia. Otherwise, we will just keep producing students good at passing examinations, but without the skills and creativity necessary for tomorrow's world and with a dulled appetite for life-long learning - the worst possible outcome for our children.
Headmaster January 2012
For schools to do their job, there needs to exist between teachers and parents an accord based on trust, confidence and the pursuit of a common purpose, usually that of providing the very best education possible for their children.
"British teenagers slumped from 17th to 25th place in an international league table for reading standards." December 2010
"We should be saying that our children should be reading 50 books a year, not just one or two for GCSE." Michael Gove
"Forcing children to plough through a list of "worthy" texts is not the way to instil a passion for reading.' David Hanson IAPS
"You want weapons? We're in a library! Books, the best weapons in the world. This room's the best arsenal we could have." David Tennant as Doctor Who
Michael Gove's announcement in March that he wished to raise the bar of children's reading and that children as young as 11 years should complete the equivalent of one novel a week stimulated a good deal of discussion in the media. A number of columnists applauded the attempt to place reading at the heart of the revival in educational standards and agreed with the need for a more methodical approach to measure reading in our schools; others, however, including The Children's Laureate, Anthony Browne were not convinced that this was the best way of raising reading standards or encouraging children to read:
Streaming: When pupils are put in a selected class for all subjects based on a judgement of their general academic ability and potential.
Setting: When children are placed in classes for individual subjects depending on their ability in that subject.
Selective School: When a school selects its students by an assessment of their academic ability and / or potential on intake.
Each year, A Level and GCSE results from local schools are published in the Blackmore Vale and Western Gazette to inform the public of how well their schools have done and to celebrate the success of the students. The only problem for members of the public is often trying to make sense of the different criteria used by each school as they try to show themselves to best advantage. With A levels, for instance, some schools use the percentage of A* and A grades, other A* - B grades, others, A* - C grades while a few just give a raw percentage with no reference to grades at all. That is before the idea of IB equivalent grades are included or account taken of schools that are selective to a greater or lesser degree, do selective culling of pupils at GCSE or prefer to follow the lead of Michael Gove by measuring their success by their Oxbridge results.
GCSE results are similarly fraught with schools using different measures of success with some local schools advertising their results based on A* and A while other use A* - B which can (and does) confuse readers. As a rule look for patterns over time and best / worst results to get an idea of range commensurate with intake at each school. More important, always, is knowing your child is meeting their potential. Schools can now measure and provide results relative to their baseline assessments and can therefore show how well the students are meeting or exceeding their academic potential and this is the information that is hugely more valuable (but rarely provided). If judging schools by exam results only, proceed with caution, ensure that you are comparing like with like and remember that all schools will put the best spin they can on how well they have done.
Old Preppers' Results: Each year, we try to gather as many A Level and GCSE results from Old Preppers as possible. If any parents and friends can let me know of impressive achievement by our old preppers, please do let us know. So far, I have heard at A Level of Ben Craw (3 x A, Sherborne School) and Robin Hawkins (3 x A, King's Bruton), at AS, Iram Hasan 4 x A grades and at GCSE Katie Morse (10 x A*), Fleur Morris (7 x A* plus 3 x A), both Sherborne Girls and Emma Tremewan (10 x A*), Siobhan Stewart (7 x A* including full marks in the three single science papers (Leweston)
Peter Tait, Headmaster September 2011
"School trips are an essential part of every child's education and by not finding a way to make them happen we are failing in our duty to prepare them for life." Judith Hackitt, NASUWT Conference, 2011
"It is wrong to wrap children in cotton wool as they grow up. Trips and getting out of the classroom should be part and parcel of school life and always give the most people's most vivid childhood memories." Ed Balls, Conference for Outdoor Learning, Greenwich, 2008
"Health and safety is one of the main issues. It's impossible to take large groups anywhere really interesting, so coursework is limited to local areas and small-scale studies." Comment to an ISI inspector from a 16 year old geography student
"The School takes pupils on many excursions abroad each year, and has recently visited Japan, China, North America, South America, Tanzania, Canada, Germany, Italy, South Korea, South Africa, Tunisia, Malta, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Namibia & Botswana, Kenya, Spain, Brunei, Spain, Australia & New Zealand, and the Himalayas." Leading Independent School Website
A recent report that tells of declining numbers of children visiting some of our major cultural and historical institutions, particularly the great art galleries and museums, makes disturbing reading. Recent figures released this week suggest that thousands of children are missing out on visiting such national institutions as York's National railway Museum, London's Science Museum and the Natural History Museum because of funding cuts. Further, twelve field study centres are about to close because of cuts to local funding with many others under threat.
Until recently, health and safety and the need for exhaustive risk assessments have shouldered most of the blame for deterring teachers from taking children out of school. In making these decisions, teachers were encouraged by teaching unions who advised members against leading trips for fear of being sued should anything go wrong. As the recession has started to dig deeper, however, it is more often financial reasons that are cited. The average cost of residential school trips rose fivefold between 2002 and 2007, and while the rate of increase has slowed, the damage has been done. Schools and families, both under the financial cosh, no longer have the wherewithal to cope with such extras additions to school and family budgets, especially as so many trips are now tendered out. Partly to protect themselves, schools have come to rely on companies to organise their trips and excursions, which in turn has led to fewer students being able to afford the opportunity to see life out of the classroom. As well as the demands of time required to plan such trips, students also have more grandiose views on what a school trip should be. Sadly the days of travelling by coach, of packed lunches and fending for oneself in self-catering hostels with all the commensurate social and practical benefits are no longer, not just because of a lack of imagination and energy, but because of the constraints of bureaucracy and time.
The same malaise is evident in trips abroad. Apart from trips for field work or to our great galleries and museums, many schools make use of the proximity of Europe for such purposes as studying the battlefields of World War One or for studying foreign languages. Such trips should be encouraged and can be done prudently with some careful planning and assistance from companies
By way of contrast, there is an increasing trend for wealthier schools - mainly independent schools - to treat the world as their classroom. Reading prospectuses and magazines from such schools is like reading a fist full of travel brochures, full of the remote and exotic. In a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph (14 May, 2011) one teacher recounted that he had driven a minibus with nine pupils aboard to play matches in Manchester and Wakefield. Of the nine, all had been to Europe, eight had been to South Africa, six had visited Australia or New Zealand and three had visited the Caribbean, all on previous school trips. Only two had been to Lancashire and one to Yorkshire, neither through the school . Sadly, while each trip has its justification, often philanthropic to help communities in the third world, one wonders about the effect of showing children so much of the world before they have learnt to pay their way in it. In the worst instances, some such trips smack of neo-colonialism or paternalism, at best. It is hard to escape the feeling that while students have been privileged so visit exotic parts of the world, and no doubt gained a great deal from the experience, many would benefit from staying at home and seeing a little more of their own country. Such indulgences by schools, and the pressures they place on their parents to fund them need to be considered very carefully indeed. After all when children aged 12 and 13 go on cricket tours to South Africa or New Zealand, you do wonder what is left.
"Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation"
Conference at Wellington College Friday 11 February 2011
What's the Problem: A Prep School Perspective
Where do we start?
The first problem is that here we are, once again, in 2011 still debating the pros and cons of Common Entrance - hence this conference and all the recent articles and meetings dealing with the same old issues: the problems of demand and supply, the problems wrought by schools that are unnecessarily and unreasonably selective, the costs of transfer in time and money, the culture of teaching to the test, the fact that through laziness and convenience, we have turned a syllabus into a curriculum. And so on.
Or perhaps it is a question of inertia, that we have not been bold or adventurous enough to question what we teach and why we teach it. And in this room, during this day, undoubtedly lines will be drawn and sides taken.
Frank Zappa is quoted somewhere as saying that 'people will agree with you only if they already agree with you'. I feel a bit like that every time Common Entrance is debated. Sometimes it is a little like arguing whether the ark was built of gopher wood or cypress - or if they are one and the same. Does it really matter? Isn't there something bigger going on?
Which is actually what I'd rather concentrate on.
Martha Nassbaum, in her forthcoming book 'Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,' writes
"We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance. I do not mean the global economic crisis that began in 2008; I mean a crisis that goes largely unnoticed, but is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government: a world-wide crisis in education
Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies are teaching the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful, docile, technically trained machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition and understand the significance of another person's suffering and achievements"
It is not the problem of how we manage transfer from one part of our sector to another that matters. That is - or should be - a relatively straightforward process.
The problem is that our traditional ways of educating and measuring children needs re-visiting.
Common Entrance should not sidetrack us from the more important issues facing us as a sector. Its original function of being the gateway into senior schools has changed significantly and we all accept that there are better, more reliable measures available. And yet, for many prep and senior schools, it still serves a purpose which may be selection or setting, of giving structure to year 7 and 8 or to provide a raison d'etre for the marketing of schools. All of which are fine. My concern, however, is that with any discussion of Common Entrance, it is too often a matter of the tail wagging the dog whereby the exam is determining how and what we teach. And that is wrong.
The Problem is in part due to a lack of vision, a lack of imagination, an absence of any awareness as to what the future holds. We should be responding to the national curriculum individually as well as collectively - and yet, as of yesterday, there had been no response at all from prep schools to the new curriculum review call for evidence. We should also be protecting the integrity of our subjects. This does not mean working harder, because, frankly, our students cannot compete internationally by that means alone, but we should be, could be, working smarter.
The problem is we are hitting the wrong spots. For instance, my school, like many now, uses midYIS and find that our lowest marks are in the skills assessment. Interestingly a senior school we send a number of pupils to have, likewise, identified skills as a major weakness with children from across all their feeder schools, pupils fine in verbal, non-verbal and comprehension, but weak in this crucial area, the product in part of an exam culture that promotes an ethos of teaching to the test. They have now introduced classes specifically to address the shortcomings - proofreading, perceptual speed and accuracy. Things we should be doing. We've got to get our pupils thinking more, to teach pupils to solve problems and to reason on their own.
Problem is that in Common Entrance we have created a cash-cow. Most schools now make their pre-selections then use Common Entrance to rubber-stamp places. It is recognised that Common Entrance needs a major overhaul and the examination board, ISEB, is responsive to change. But because senior schools don't have to prepare or pay for the exam, supervise it or justify their marking of it, it is too easy for them to just accept what is. When it was mooted to the ISEB Board that senior schools should pay the £100 fee per pupil for the Common Entrance exam, (£10,000 for every 100 pupils) just as they pick up the tab for other entrance exams ranging from scholarships to entry tests from local primary schools, the suggestion was met by a stony silence. Yet I suspect if they did so, they would look at the exams more critically and become more engaged in the debate regarding the vehicles of transfer to ensure they were getting value for money
The problem is one of integrity - we listen to the concerns expressed by HMC about Edexecel being part of the Pearson publishing group and yet are growing a flourishing partnership between ISEB and Galore Park which we need to manage carefully. ISEB needs to represent the best interests of its member schools, its customers as well as its constituent associations. It does not always do so.
We know what many senior schools want - they want us to prepare our pupils in a way that will enable them to get the best results possible at A Levels which will be reflected in the league tables five years on.
In many instances, prep schools are expected to get pupils beyond GCSE standard on arrival so they can go on and get their clutch of Oxbridge places.
Which is fine so long as prep schools are not expected to push pupils beyond their comfort zone or compromise their broader education and well-being.
Some of these highly selective schools, rife as they are with eating disorders, mental and depressive illness and a commensurate fall-off in student performance in their first year at university should come with a health warning. And judging by the widening of access on social grounds announced this week, it may all be for naught when their best chance of a university place might not be the number of A* at all, but where they come from and the opportunities life has afforded them.
Thankfully, though most senior schools, as those gathered here, want prep school children with a good work ethic, curiosity, a sound body of knowledge and skills and a sense of responsibility for their own learning. Sometimes, they just go about selecting them the wrong way.
Actually, we worry too much about what senior schools want. They will tell us they have their own issues dealing with IB, A Levels, modular versus linear, the Cambridge PreU and would like a little more lead from us in the KS3 curriculum.
We need to challenge our assumptions. The fact that we have a common exam is always trumpeted as a strength. Interesting, then, that Helen Wright, president of GSA called this week for universities to have their own entrance tests arguing
'I'm not sure that (A Levels) have ever been good enough for universities and it is quite right for universities to be specific about certain skills that they require and to have their own tests as a result.'
Which begs two questions. The first is the necessity for a common exam at Year 8, especially if a pre-test is adopted by schools; and the second, whether it should be us identifying and developing those 'certain' skills that the universities require?
Instead of allowing the constraints of A levels to be visited upon our children, we should be listening to what employers and universities are saying. Employers will tell you what they want, loud and unequivocally - good communications skills, analytical skills, computer literacy, better inter-personnel skills, an independent work ethic, initiative and ideas.
Likewise, the universities. A year or so ago, I wrote to the Russell group of universities asking what they saw as the major weaknesses of students arriving at their doors and what we, as junior schools, could do about it. Their responses were very illuminating.
Bristol bemoaned the drilling of pupils to pass the test and the fact that students were given highly detailed essay frameworks which required little independent thinking. Literary skills were often taught from extracts and not enough emphasis was given to reading for pleasure and sustained reading
Oxford mentioned a lack of self-discipline and good organisation skills
the absence of intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm
Edinburgh bemoaned the failure of some of their students in being able to write in coherent sentences.
Newcastle had launched various initiatives to develop writing skills to improve accuracy in grammar, spelling and punctuation and develop appropriate vocabulary and style.
Birmingham argued the need to develop active learning skills.
King's College London focused on the difficulties of students moving from schools where learning is planned, closely monitored and evaluated for them by their teachers to environments where they have to plan, monitor and evaluate large portions of learning by themselves.
The Imperial College in London was strongly supportive of 'efforts within schools to improve standards of English including spelling, poor sentence construction and punctuation and to encourage the development of study and thinking skills
And so on.
I would suggest there is plenty for us there for prep schools to get their teeth into, along with the soft skills that employers are screaming out for without compromising the academic standards we all aspire to.
As you will know, ISEB are launching common pre-tests in autumn 2011. These standardised, on-line tests will assess verbal, non-verbal, numeracy and comprehension skills. They will be adaptive and predict grades at 16+ and 18+. They will link to transfer at 13+. It is expected that some senior schools will test Year 6 candidates and others in Year 7.
It will be interesting to see if, armed with this extra information, senior schools will be less insistent on requiring another round of testing at Year 8 or allow prep schools to get on with the task of educating their children. Common Entrance is not the problem. The problem is that we have placed it at the hub of our learning and teaching when it should be on the periphery. In truth, the problem is with us and our failure to identify what is the best education we can give to our children to ensure our pupils can cope with the 40% of jobs that will be available to them, but which don't yet exist in a world that is changing far quicker than our schools. We need to get a move on.
A Week in Education
See what the Headmaster has to say on education this week
"It is with a sense of deja vu that one reads the almost daily pronouncements..."