Tag Archives: education

A Grammar school system I would buy into

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If we think it makes sense to take the top 25% of pupils at aged 11 and put them into a school just for them so they can reach their potential unhindered by those who learn more slowly, then why don’t we think it makes sense to take the bottom 25% and put them into a school just for them so they can reach their potential unhindered by those who learn more quickly?

If we are to return to a period of educational segregation then let’s make sure all the best teachers and resources are in the schools for the bottom 25%.

If the bottom 25% were given all the advantages of a grammar school with a curriculum tailored to play to their learning strengths such as strong visual memory, creative and practical skills, just think of the impact on crime, employment and mental health.

The IQ test (on which 11+ is based) was designed to identify children who were significantly behind their peers on academic performance (in the bottom 2% of the population) so they could be offered tailored, specific support to enable them to catch up and fulfil their potential. Instead we use it to identify the children who are likely to achieve well in whatever school they attend.

So I say YES! to a grammar school system that gives the bottom 25% the belief that they are special and worth investing in. The other 75% will do just fine in a mixed ability comprehensive. Won’t they?

Of course, if this really were the grammar school system then children would need to be tutored to fail and it would be patently ridiculous to encourage academic failure, yet the grammar school system the Conservative government would like to resurrect does exactly that.

Branding 75% of 11 year olds as failures will hardly encourage success.

Author note: I am firmly for inclusion for all children – schools that value all pupils and adapt the curriculum and setting to accommodate all learners, tend to develop caring and nurturing pupils who understand that everyone has strengths and everyone finds some stuff difficult.

Becoming an Educational Psychologist: Part Two ~ making excuses?

I always believed my inability to take an unwavering position on something was a weakness of my character, something to be a little ashamed of. My compulsion to always see a situation from multiple viewpoints made me insubstantial and ineffective. My need to find ‘excuses’ for a child’s behaviour meant I was deficient in some way as a teacher. That I was too soft. A lefty-liberal responsible for the ‘decline’ in standards both moral and educational in today’s youth. I admired people who, despite persuasive opposition, stuck to their position.

A fence sitter lacking in the conviction of my own thoughts. A FenceSitterchameleon switching sides in an argument. Why couldn’t I just decide on one thing and STOP making excuses!

Take the issue of inclusion; on the one side you have those who believe children with learning disabilities should attend special schools and units, on the other, those who believe all children should be educated together (the environment shaped to the particular needs of the child). While I am unashamedly of the belief that where at all possible children should be educated in the same setting, I can also understand why, in some cases, e.g. challenging behaviour or profound multiple learning needs, a child would be better served in a specialist setting.

Roll forward seven months and term two of my first year as a doctoral student in Child and Educational Psychology. At last, my way of thinking (or naïve idealism as one line manager patronisingly affectionately called it when I was a teacher) has been given not only credibility but a framework in which to develop further. Now I am actively encouraged (expected) to consider as many ‘excuses’ as possible, except ‘excuses’ are not called excuses but problem dimensions – which are developed through testing hypotheses uses various tools (e.g. classroom observation).

A child or young person’s behaviour (however bad) is likely to be a response (albeit maladaptive) to internal and external factors over which they feel they have little control.

Am I weak in character, insubstantial and ineffective, or am I the exact opposite?

When a child presents with behavioural issues and the school and parents are at the end of their tether, locked into an explanation that absolves responsibility and holds the child in a permanent state of dysfunction, my ability to use psychological theory to explore potential reasons for this behaviour, offers a way forward, a route map to a better future. While it may be ‘true’ the child has a diagnosis of autism, dyslexia, or ADHD etc. This ‘diagnosis’ is not the reason for their aggressive/self-harming/distressed/defiant behaviour, rather it is an explanation as to why they may find learning/peer friendships/social situations more difficult to negotiate than other children. The diagnosis which many teachers and parents cling to as if it were the answer is in fact a dead end (unchangeable and consequently disempowering). The role of the EP is not to label to the child, but to focus on the aspects of the situation that can be changed and to empower those around the child to make that change happen. For example a child with autism may have difficulty making friends, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want friends (all human beings desire/seek connections with others). However a child with autism may need explicit and concrete help to make friends and the people/systems around them may need help to provide and deliver the best interventions to close this gap.

Taking the child’s perspective. Seeing the world through their eyes is a skill that educational psychologists must possess in order to be effective practitioners and actually make a difference to the lives of children, young people and their families.

There is nothing quite like finding a career where how you think and what you value fits like a round peg in a round hole. It is like I have come home, and, as it turns out, there was nothing wrong with my thinking in the first place, only my career choice.

Are you in a career/ lifestyle that chimes with who you really are? Or do you have supress who you really are to fit in? Please share your experiences. I would love to hear from you.

Becoming an Educational Psychologist: Part One

Becoming an Educational Psychologist is incredible and exhausting. No half term holiday for starters. But I am so glad I made the decision to leave teaching if only so I can stop saying:

I have a psychology degree but I am not a psychologist.

This time last year I had just completed the application form after digging out my ancient degree certificate, momentarily panicking that degrees have a shelf life and mine had expired. I’d toyed a few times with applying over the fourteen years I had been teaching, but talked myself out of it because we couldn’t afford to lose my wage. This time round the loss of my wage remained an issue , but at 43 it felt like a now or never moment. On top of that the odds of me actually getting a place first time around were extremely low.

I got a place. It was like winning the lottery, but without the money 🙂

So how are we managing without my wage? Well I do get a relatively substantial bursary (around 1/3 of my previous wage) and a student railcard, student bank account with free overdraft, 25% discount on Council Tax and student discount in Top Shop (although I would prefer M&S).  However to  make ends meet (particularly as our two children are at university and their maintenance loan doesn’t even cover their rent) a house move to something smaller is imminent. I am so lucky to have such a supportive husband, who encourages me all the way despite the pressure it has put on him to bring home the dosh.

I don’t think I will ever take for granted how privileged I am to be able to study full time and not have to juggle a job at the same time. The course is pretty full on with so many strands to get my head around like research methods and statistics, carrying out psychological assessments, placement competencies, RLO’s and SOP’s (don’t ask), as well as the academic stuff – theories, models, frameworks.

This half-term the focus has been on literacy and Wow! I have learnt so much?

WARNING! Nerdy stuff coming up.

Written English is one of the most difficult alphabetic scripts to learn? This makes it much harder for children to learn how to read and write than say for example children in Spain. This is because in Spanish the grapheme to phoneme correspondence is 1:1 – this means ONE letter makes ONE sound. In the English alphabet the ratio is 1 to many – this means the same letter (or letter combinations) can have many different sounds.

For example: “He took a bow.” “She wore a red bow in her hair.”

However, that doesn’t mean we should be trying to teach pre-schoolers to read , rather research has found that developing oral language significantly improves later reading comprehension.

In other words in the early years of a child’s life focusing on developing oral story telling skills is much more important for later reading comprehension than actually learning to read the words in a book.

It makes sense if you think about it.

Learning to decode letters and words on a page and understanding what punctuation marks mean is an example of transcription skills. Everyone needs them, but they alone don’t make someone or something literate. For example there are many computer programmes that can convert text to speech and read a novel, but the computer couldn’t produce a summary of the main plot points of the story (the emotional resonance). The research suggests the more words a child knows (vocabulary) before they begin to read the easier it will be for them to derive meaning from the story. And the more a child understands about story structure and how ideas link to each other the easier it will be for them to pick up what is happening in the book (the main plot points) and make predictions about what might happen next.

These comprehension skills are vital if children are going to move from learning to read, to reading to learn.

That doesn’t mean we can just let children get on with it in terms of ‘transcription’ skills. Learning to make sense of the written version of language is not innate. Alphabetic scripts (or orthographies) are relatively new in human evolution. While a child will pick up oral language without having to be directly taught it (as long as they are exposed to it), they will not spontaneously learn to read and write. For children to learn to read they must be taught the grapheme: phoneme correspondence (letter to sound), hence the evangelical focus on phonics by the government. The research certainly backs this up, but also recognises the English language is eccentric to say the least and many words are not regular and just need to be learnt (whole word recognition).

I know there is a lot of debate amongst teachers and parents about compulsory phonics with some claiming it is hindering progress, but the research does not support this view.

For a reading programme to be effective for the majority of children it must contain both phonetic and whole word recognition components.

Phonics is the tool for deciphering new words and while it can only take you so far in being able to decode unfamiliar words, good comprehension skills will aid in this by allowing the child to access the content and meaning of the sentence. Whereas as if a child has good transcription skills but poor comprehension, they will have to rely on decoding skills alone and this will become frustrating and they are likely to give up because the word won’t ‘sound out’ and make sense.

So my take on this is in terms of advice is that parents of pre-school children should focus on generating stories from pictures so the child can learn how to build a coherent narrative. This will increase their vocabulary as they search for words to express their ideas, which in turn will make comprehension of written English that bit easier once they start school.

And finally…. I now understand the reason for the made up words in phonics assessment (which also creates fierce debate from teachers and parents). It is to test if the child’s grapheme to phoneme knowledge is secure. This is vital for decoding new words. The problem is this assessment has become high stakes politically and therefore rather than schools using it as diagnostic, they are focusing on getting as many children through as possible. It should be viewed as a checkpoint so those children who are still struggling can be helped with specific interventions, not as a measure of how ‘good’ the school is.

If you got this far do you have any views on how literacy is taught in primary schools?

On teaching: Why I am quitting after fourteen years

Dear Mr Gove,

Like many other highly qualified and experienced teachers, I am quitting the profession. I can no longer work in a system which pretends to be inclusive while widening the gap between rich and poor; places no value on the arts subjects; treats its teachers like naughty children who need constant monitoring; makes changes to courses, content and assessments with little regard to evidence; and reduces children to target grades. Although I am leaving to pursue a career in Educational Psychology, the timing of my leaving is no coincidence.

I really don’t get what you are doing? I don’t understand why you believe breaking up the collective strength of Local Authorities and encouraging schools to open in unsuitable buildings with unqualified staff is the right way forward? I don’t understand why certain subjects are being elevated above others? Schools are not training camps for the Corporations. Are they?

Schools should be where minds are opened and critical questions formed. Where literature, art, dance and film are celebrated and our future actors, writers, directors and choreographers are nurtured. That’s what I signed up for. To share my passion for my subject and foster a curiosity and desire to learn that extends well beyond the school years. Teaching is so much more than just knowing your stuff. I have spent fourteen years developing expertise in how we learn.  I am at my peak in terms of experience and mastery, but I must redirect this expertise into a new career in order to regain my autonomy.

The reality is I am impotent in the face of damaging policies that are leaving students stressed and disillusioned. I am sick of having to positively spin changes to assessments and courses to keep the students motivated. I am sickened by the media frenzy every August that grows ever more hateful, fuelled by a government that accuses teachers of cheating and manipulating results and belittles the hard work of our students. I am sick of the constant monitoring and grading of lessons that has crept into every school. I am sick of ever moving goalposts, attacks on my professionalism (and the impact that has on my relationship with parents and students). I am sick of the vitriol.

I never thought I would want to leave teaching. The very first day I entered the classroom I knew I had found my calling, my place, my home. I have loved being a teacher. I am teacher; it runs through my core like a stick of rock.  But I can no longer be a teacher.

My profession, full of dedicated people who go the extra mile, is being trashed on a daily basis. Each morning I hear another news story in which teachers are exam cheats, lazy, militant, uncaring, in it for the holidays, the pay, the pension, unfit to do anything else, whinging tax burdens. The school I was once loved to arrive at each morning has changed. Learning walks, monitoring visits, work sampling, quality assurance observations, performance management observations and mocksted’s are stifling creativity, experimentation and fun.

The constant changes to how we teach and what we teach, to appease a baby boomer electorate (with rose-tinted glasses of a 1950’s idyll that never existed), heap on more and more pressure. The progressive attitudes such as modular exams, which level the playing field and give students a chance to build their knowledge and skills incrementally, as is the case in the real world, are gone. Despite the media hype, more and more young people are leaving school with qualifications and permanent exclusion is at an all-time low. Compare that to the ‘golden era’ of 1950’s education, which you seem so fond of invoking,

[when] the school system did not do particularly well by the great majority of those born in 1958, leaving them with few qualifications and putting them at a considerable disadvantage in earning power.

Unlike your empty rhetoric, the The National Child Development Study, from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which has been following 17,000 people since 1958 provides conclusive evidence that the grammar system was divisive, labelling many (usually working class) children as uneducable.

Only 12% of them moved on from primary schools, via the 11-plus, to a grammar school. Most of the rest attended schools that lacked pupils in the top end of the ability range. A similarly small proportion went on to university. By the age of 33, just 14% of men and 11% of women in this cohort had achieved a degree.

Academies and Free schools are the grammar schools of today, able to apply their own selection criteria, leaving Local Authorities impotent to challenge them. Well done, Mr Gove, for returning the UK to a two tier education system, which only serves the elite. Bravo!

nearly two-thirds of those born in 1958 left school as soon as they could at age 16. By the time they were 33, around 15% still had no educational qualifications and a further 10% were only qualified to a level below O-Levels. A further one-third had O-Levels but no qualifications higher than that.

Today, by contrast, the great majority of young people stay on in education to 18. Some 40% go on to university.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I wasn’t in it for the pay. I wasn’t in it for the holidays, or the pension or because I am lazy. I wasn’t in teaching because I was unable to do anything else. On the contrary I chose to be a teacher. And now I choose not to be a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the education system in the UK doesn’t need improving. We need to invest in high quality teacher training that ensures the profession uses evidence based techniques in pedagogy and doesn’t assume that children – complex, intricate individuals – can be taught with the one dominant method; however compelling it is to present a simple solution to the electorate. We need to invest in science and technology, but not lose sight of the need for a civilised society to contain more than just engineers and mathematicians. We need to respect and trust our teachers, nurture their talents and listen to them. They are the experts not the enemy.

So, I say to you Mr Gove, stop painting us as incapable, inadequate and selfish when we challenge you. Please. Before you lose even more of us. Change and progress can come about with the support of teachers not in spite of them. We are a pretty well educated bunch. We can see what is wrong and what the solutions need to be. Engage with us, don’t alienate us and please stop dragging education backwards into a ‘golden age’ that never existed.

The 1958 generation also had poor basic skills. When they were aged 37, a sample was tested for basic numeracy and literacy: almost half had ‘very poor’ numeracy skills and 6% had difficulty with reading.Those with poor numeracy and literacy were, not surprisingly, much more likely to be unemployed.

So, as we contemplate the almost daily bad news about class sizes, school drop-outs, and the poor basic skills of school-leavers, we should perhaps pause to remember that – while there is certainly still plenty of room for improvement – the answer does not seem to lie in a nostalgic return to a past system which served the few very well and the majority poorly.

And watch out Mr Gove, I may be leaving teaching, but I am not leaving education. Once I have my Doctorate I will make it my mission to support the profession that has given me so much joy and satisfaction. I will fight every policy that is based on nostalgia and flim-flam. I will insist that teachers are trained to teach before they are let anywhere near a classroom.

Long after you’ve moved onto to whatever will promote your political interests further I will still be working to improve the life chances of all children.

 

 

 

On Education: Dear Britain…

Dear Britain,

I’m sorry you think I have let you down. I thought I was doing a good job and that you respected my efforts. I thought you weren’t serious about the holidays, after all my pay reflects this. I thought you understood that a contracted teaching day of five one-hour lessons, only reflects my contact time with students, not my total working hours. I thought you knew that planning lessons takes a lot of time, creativity and ingenuity and that there is a lot of marking to be done at weekends.

I thought you believed I was doing the best for our children; that I was fighting the exam machine with all my might and teaching our children to think for themselves and to enjoy learning for learning’s sake.

I thought we were on the same side and that you realised I can’t fix all the problems in society, only ameliorate the damage. I thought you understood this phony war between us was borne out of political ambition and a need to apportion blame for the effects of deep cuts to provision.

If education is the football then we are the grass, gouged and churned by the players who come and go in a perpetual reshuffle.

I can’t do this job alone. I can’t make our children want to learn all by myself. I need your help. I need you on my side. My job and yours is to hold a steady course, to not be distracted by lurid headlines, to remember we want the same thing.

If you really think about it, I am damned either way. If results improve it is because of grade inflation, and if they don’t it must be my fault.

I don’t do this job for the grades or the holidays or the pension. I do this job because I love teaching and it is something I believe I am good at. I do this job because working with teenagers is exhilarating and challenging and hilarious and I get a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing them succeed. I do this job because I love sharing the passion for my subject and seeing the same passion ignited in my students.

I hope this letter goes someway to repairing our relationship and the next time you read about how inadequate I am, you consider the intent behind the words.

Despite the relentless negative press stories and attacks on my professionalism, pay, pension and conditions of service, I can’t think of any other job I would rather do.

I’m not perfect. I admit I get things wrong. Not every lesson I teach is ‘outstanding’. I have my off days and occasionally I get behind on my marking, but I am in this job for the right reasons and I am trying to do the very best I can.

Yours faithfully,

A secondary school teacher

On education: Free Schools are anything but free!

michael-gove-cartoon1I really don’t get Free Schools – the concept I mean – which is to set up a school in a building that wasn’t built as a school. It is the exact opposite of the Building Schools for the Future concept the previous government introduced, where current schools would be rebuilt to make them fit for purpose in the 21st century. Out of the two ideas, the former will improve education of the few, while the latter would improve education for all.

Current schools (like mine) are in desperate need of refurbishment. We need a new boiler, new windows, new science labs and roof repairs. We need an IT infrastructure fit for the technological revolution that has taken place; Wi Fi, class sets of tablets, many more PC’s and an upgrade of existing machines (some are getting on for 8 years old).

Instead, we are told there is no money for capital investment in the building. No money for IT upgrades. We will have to make do with what we have. There is a deficit. The country is on its knees. Stop whinging, you overpaid, underworked, useless teachers and stop blaming social inequality for the difference in performance of your pupils and accept it is your fault. If only you were a better teacher, then all the problems caused by poverty would go away.

How come then, the Education Funding Agency is able to give over half a million pounds to a new Free School just a mile up the road. A Free School that my current school is opening, mainly in an attempt to survive the savage cuts to 16-18 funding and secure our 6th form provision, rather than through some dire need in the community for places, or educational ideology.

I will be slapped around the face with the real cost of education every day from September as I move between these two schools to teach. In one I will have everything I could possibly need to encourage my students to work independently and collaboratively (Wi Fi, tablets, enough PC’s to go round, heating that works and a roof that keeps out the rain). In the other I will face the same frustrations I am suffering now; having to print out resources from the internet because there aren’t enough computers and the ones we do have, have been booked out for weeks in advance – stopping the class on mass to show them an interactive resource, if the internet doesn’t drop out that is, rather than letting them access resources at their own learning pace (as I should be doing, as Wilshaw insists I should be doing). Drafty, damp classrooms, with poor lighting and a heater so noisy, it has to be switched off so they can hear me.

Despite the fact we are in effect one school operating on two sites, sharing the students and staff, not one penny of the money we have available for the Free School can be spent on our current school. Not a single penny.

How can that be right? How can that improve the educational experience for the majority in our catchment area?

It can’t and it doesn’t. The government isn’t pushing its Free School agenda because it cares about all children. It is pushing the agenda because it wants to score points against the opposition – and appeal to middle class voters, who want private education on the state.

It makes me sick. Opening a Free School does not tackle the issues in current schools, rather it diverts funds away from them and condemns the majority of children (who are likely to be from the poorer sections of society) to a worsening fate as their school literally falls down around them.

“… it’s not just the huge waste of resources that should concern us. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that free schools will not raise standards overall – indeed, they are likely to damage the prospects of the country’s poorest pupils. Gove claimed that free schools would narrow the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children. However, existing free schools admit fewer poor children than the national average, with figures showing that only 9.4% of their pupils are on free school meals – a key indicator of poverty – compared with a national average of 16.7%.”  Source: The Guardian

I will be living this hypocrisy every day from September. Every day I will see the impact of this elitist approach. It will be my reality.

But if I complain, who will listen to me after the hatchet job Gove and Wilshaw have done on teachers’ reputations. I am not respected or valued anymore.  My twelve years in the classroom count for nothing. My voice has been silenced along with any ounce of common sense in educational policy.

Free Schools are like playground bullies, taking away lunch money from those less able to stand up for themselves. When will this madness stop?

We don’t need no education

French Education policy is as barmy as ours. I find that thought strangely comforting.

Last week, the French President  vowed to abolish homework. 

Hollande said school work should “be done at school, rather than at home,” to foster educational equality because some students do not have support at home.

Give me strength, please.

Robust educational research points to homework as one of the best ways to improve educational outcomes for ALL students.

In the Sutton Trust toolkit – an evidence based resource to improve learning – impact data has been collected on a number of educational strategies from streaming to uniform. Homework, particularly for secondary school students, is rated as having a moderate impact, with a potential gain of 5 months (the advantage an average student will gain over a year), at a very low, to no cost. Combine that with homework tasks that encourage meta-cognition (encouraging the learner to consider how they learn: for example, setting a task that involves evaluating the reliability of a Wiki entry), then you have a high impact strategy, accelerating learning by up to 8 months, at no additional cost.

No real surprise there, if you think about it. Homework encourages engagement with the subject outside of the lesson and also prepares the student for the independent skills they will need to revise for the exams. For those who are intending on going to University, it is imperative they are equipped with the ability to study independently, and for those entering the workplace, to learn autonomously.

On the other hand, according to the Sutton School Trust, ‘after school programmes’ and ‘individualised programmes’, have a low impact  (2 months advantage), and are costly to implement. In other words, keeping children in school longer, won’t make them smarter. I wish politicians would just be honest and admit the reason they want schools to open longer is to help working parents with childcare, not because it will raise achievement.

Back in March, there was a national outcry in France, with parents demanding the abolition of homework because it stressed out their children and took up too much time. Call me cynical, but is that why Hollande is calling for this reform? Surely he wouldn’t put votes before the education of his country’s children, would he?

At least we are not alone. Cold comfort, really.