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Working Together

April 8, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published here, on Labour Teachers 11th April 2016.

The other day I was out with a friend of mine and he was regaling us with stories of when he spent some time in Finland as a teenager. He was there as part of an exchange programme and said his experience meant he was not even the slightest bit surprised when a few years later the world media were hailing the Finnish as the world leaders in all things education.

It was a different part of his story on the Finnish that really got me thinking though, one not explicitly linked to education, but one which may tells us some things about the culture and certainly one which has applications within the education sector.

“I nearly got fined for Jay-walking” he said. “There were no cars visible so we just crossed the road, to the horror of our Finnish hosts.”

“Bit keen on it over there are they?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they explained why and it makes perfect sense. They look at it this way, all it takes is one car to slow down and that can lead to a traffic jam. Most cars slow down because some has run across the road when they shouldn’t have, so if nobody does then the whole system works much better.”

He was right, it does make perfect sense, an d the fact that apparently the whole nation buy into it perhaps gives an insight into why they seem to get other things right, or certainty did in the past.

It made me think about the systems in place within schools – and how they are limited by their weakest link. If you have a strict policy on no headphones in the classroom,  but some teachers allow them, this leads to other teachers losing lesson time because students argue that “Mr Jones in IT let’s me.”

If you have a system that escalates from a warning to being send to a removal room for a lesson,  to spending the rest of the day in isolation if you either refuse or mess about in the removal room, but then the behaviour manager who you call out when someone refuses to go to the removal room don’t place them in isolation it undermines the system and gives those students a perceived free pass.

If you are lenient to a student because they have a tenancy to kick off when challenged the other students will pick up and this and it will cause issues when you aren’t as lenient on them.

If established teachers don’t get on board with a new stricter behaviour system because they feel the old system suits them it causes all sorts of problems for newly qualified teachers who are trying to implement a system. Students pick up on this and argue that “Miss Thornley doesn’t give me a warning for that.”

Systems can work very well, but if they aren’t used properly they won’t work at all. A badly designed system that is used well and consistently will have more impact than a perfect system that is used haphazardly and only by half of the staff.

Perhaps the Finnish faith in their transport system is indicative of a culture that is build on everyone following structures that are aimed to benefit the whole, even at the expense of a short term gain for the individual. And perhaps that shows us a glimpse as to one of the reasons why historically their education system has been successfully.

Even if this isn’t the case, and their is no link between their road awareness and their educational prowess, that doesn’t mean we can’t take these lessons and apply them in our schools. We should be working together to follow the policies and ensure that we implement them as a team.

If you don’t agree with the policy discuss that with those in charge of putting them in place and express your feelings, try to get them changed. Don’t undermine them as that will hurt your less experienced colleagues, and your students,  the most. If you are working somewhere with a policy you feel strongly about and can’t get it changed, then the sensible option is to look for alternative employment, as it’s likely to be an ideological difference between yourself and the senior management and you are never going to happy with the way they run the school.

Whole scale academisation

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published on Labour Teachers here, on 30th March 2016.

A week or so ago I came across this article in the Guardian. Apparently the government are finally ready to own up and set about forcing all remaining English schools into academisation.

I wrote here, last June, about this and how I wished they’d just get on with it and own up to it rather than trying to push little bits of legislation out at a time to achieve their overall “not so” secret aim.

The academisation of all English schools is something that fits well with the Conservative ideology of small state. They are removing local authorities from the picture and placing the money that would have been spent on LEAs into the hands of private companies – some for profit some not so.

The original idea was to get more of the money into schools, by cutting out the middle man, but as MATs have grown we see in many places that actually we’ve just replaced the middle man, only instead of one with public accountability with got ones with hidden agendas.

I’ve worked in various academies, in single school trusts, small MATs and a big MAT. My experiences have been fairly positive. The large MAT were up to something that were unacceptable, but our head was fighting for the school and successfully got us out of the trust and into a much smaller one. In the smaller ones I’ve seen people who care in the driving seat, and so they’ve been working from the right frame of reference to make the right difference.

I do worry, though, about the possibility of abuse that comes from moving the focus from LEAs who are in the public sector and accountable to private companies who can run schools more like businesses, losing the focus on education and people and moving it to the “bottom line”.

Academies, Local Authorities and a Research Based Profession

March 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Today I finally had time to sit and look through the government white paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere”. A catchy title I thought, and I was interested to read what it actually said. I didn’t get chance to read all 150 pages – I will – but I did get to read the first chapter, and I thought I’d frame some initial thoughts.

A fantastic aim

In the foreword Nicky Morgan states that ‘Access to a great education is not a luxury, but a right for everyone.” – Definitely a sentiment I agree with, and certainly ine James Kier Hardie would be proud to hear espoused by a conservative politician, but not one that has always been an obvious policy driver over the last six years.

Academisation and Local Authorities

The white paper continued in this way, setting out an idealistic vision, but in the early stages not much was said about how this would be achieved. There was a lot of talk on the forced academisation of all remaining local authority schools.

There were some qualifying statements about Local Authorities (LAs). The government are hoping to keep the current experience and envision those who run LAs to go and work for academy chains. This fits the Conservative ideology of small state, bigger private sector, and seems to hint that this ideology is the driving force.

They also claim that moving school control from LA control will give greater accountability, as those elected can’t are there to further the interests.pf their constituents and they apparently can’t do this when LAs control schools. This is a nonsensical argument and the reality is in fact the complete opposite. When schools are under local authority control they are run by officers of the local authority who are answerable to elected members. Thus they HAVE to respond swiftly and allay concerns. Academy chains have no such in built accountability to the elected members and hence the electorate.

LAs will focus their role on core functions. These will be – ensuring all have school places, acting as champions for children and families and ensuring the needs of the vulnerable are met. It’s the third one that worries me. Currently local authorities provide a great deal of support to vulnerable children through Ed Psychology, CAMHS, and a whole host of other services and agencies. In the new world of tiny LA budgets, how will they afford to keep up this level and meet this core function?

Teachers, Training and Research

The next section turned it’s attention to teachers. I was a little worried that this white paper seems to ignore the recruitment and retention crisis we are experiencing, and the idea of placing responsibility for accrediting teachers into heads hands worries me. I’m certain that for the vast majority this would be fine, but I have heard some terrible horror stories about bullying from heads, particularly in the primary sector, and to give more power to do this worries me.

There was an extremely positive line on ITT content though:

“We’ll ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers.

So no more VAK pushed on unsuspecting ITT students! This is part of a wider drive to get more teachers to engage with research and development a research based profession. This is an idea I am fully behind, but with the caveat that we need to include training on how to engage with research. Every class in every school is a different context. Just because research shows something works some places doesn’t mean it will work everywhere, there are no magic bullets, no snake oils. We can take ideas from research and try them, but we have to adapt them to our own contexts and be able to see when things are just not working.

There are my initial thoughts on the first chapter. Some positives, some worries, and some signs that we are in the process of full privatising our education system. What are your thoughts on the ideas mentioned here?

Mathematics for all?

March 16, 2016 5 comments

As part of George Osborne’s budget statement today he made some comments about mathematics education. He said that they would look into teaching mathematics to 18 for all pupils. This has caused a lot of discussion on twitter and the treasury have since clarified that by “looking into teaching mathematics to 18 for all” he actually meant “look to improve a level teaching” – why he didn’t just say that is beyond me….

The bigger debate that seems to have opened is whether mathematics should be taught to all. There seems to be people in both camps on this one, and it’s something I’ve thought about many times.

Some of the arguments for it that I read suggest that for non a level students this would be a great time to learn about the life skills. I would argue that that’s not actually mathematics, it’s more numeracy. And I’ve often thought that they should be taught as distinctly different subjects, with numeracy a core subject and mathematics one that is chosen as an option from KS4 onwards. I sometimes think this would be a great idea, strip back the core curriculum entirely to just numeracy,  literacy and citizenship, leaving a wide range of options and a lot of time in the timetable to build truly bespoke schooling. Students could study academic or vocational qualifications and perhaps we could get both right. However I realise this would be a logistical nightmare, and I worry massively that 14 year olds would be picking things that defined the rest of their life, so the other part of me thinks actually we should be prescribing a broad curriculum giving everyone a fair grounding and allow them to choose at 18 what to specialise in.

But what about in our current situation?

Given the situation we have at pre 16, I started to think about the idea of compulsory maths to 18. Clearly making A level maths compulsory won’t work. I’m told that around 50 % of those who attempt it with a grade B fail in Y12, that’s a massive amount of students we would be setting up to fail, and that’s not counting the A grade students who can’t handle the step up or the C grade students who wouldn’t have a strong enough grounding in algebra to succeed.

What about core maths?

I’ve been teaching this as part of the early adopters programme and I am quite impressed by the qualification. We do the AQA version and I’ve found the specification has enough stuff that fits the “life skills” heading to cover that aim of it while also having some more mathematical elements. The optional papers give the option of creating a course that fits the needs of each student best,  and I’m looking forward to continuing teaching it and seeing it develop.

But should it be compulsory?

Again, I’m torn on this,  I can see that the life skills bits would be good for anyone to learn. On top of that the other bits offer help with a vast range of other subjects and future job roles and help build logical thought, all of which I feel would be a good argument for making it compulsory. But it eats into the time they could be spending working on the things that are really important to them and the qualifications that they directly need to move to the next stage of their lives plan.

One thing I find ill thought out about the qualification is the 2.5 hours a week for 2 years suggestion. The idea was that it was to ease the burden and to spread it out, however I found that students were disengaged around exam time as it was the only subject they weren’t examined in. We also lost a lot of candidates after year 1 as they secured apprenticeships and basically had a years working without any sort of credit. We think going forward that it is better suited as a 1 year 5 hours a week course, perhaps students could do core maths in Y12 followed by EPQ in Y13? This would mean, however that the objective of keeping students in maths education to 18 was no longer being met.

I certainly agree with the compulsory resitting of GCSEs up to 18, although the previous comments around Maths and numeracy are certainly highlighted in this issue too.

As you can probably tell, I have conflicting views on a lot of this, and I’m still trying to.make sense of them. I’d love to hear your views on this. Do you thing all students should have to do maths to 18? Do you think they even need to do it to 16 or should we split maths and numeracy? What are your views on the idea of a stripped bare curriculum where students build their own? Would you have the same 3 core subjects as me, or different ones? Or would you prefer my other idea of a broader curriculum where students are a bit older by the time they need to make those massive decisions? Please let me know in the comments, via social media or email.

The core curriculum

January 1, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published here, by Labour Teachers on 29th December 2015

Curriculum, it’s an issue that plays on my mind a fair bit, and I think the reason for that is that I don’t really know what I think is best. I don’t mean the maths curriculum here, I mean the overall curriculum.

I’ve been asked before by students “why do we need to study maths”, and this is really the sort of thing I mean. I can see that some skills are necessary for all. We all need to know how to read, to write, to understand the laws of the land and our democratic model. But the rest of it? I’m not sure I could argue that knowing Hamlet is more or less important than knowing how tectonic plates work, or that knowing how to use trigonometry is more or less important than understanding the difference between a bass clef and a treble clef.

These thoughts lead me to understand an argument for a really slimmed down core curriculum and plenty of option choices to allow students to choose a really unique and bespoke curriculum. The slimmed down core would include numeracy, literacy, digital literacy and citizenship. And everything else would be optional, allowing students to choose their own truly bespoke path.

In many ways I love this idea, but in many ways I hate it too. At what age would we teach a wider core curriculum and at what age would we introduce this wide choice?  Would we start it at KS3? KS4? KS2? The current system sees a choice given at KS4 -typically started by 13 or 14 year olds (depending on whether the school counts Y9 as KS3 or 4). Do 13 year olds have enough knowledge of themselves, the world, the subjects and the future careers they feed to be able to make an informed choice? Do 16 year olds for that matter?

These reasons lead me to see the alternative argument too, perhaps there should be no real choice for education. Perhaps a broad base which covers all subjects is the best option? That way all students would have a fair crack of the whip. They would be able to make a much more informed choice on their future, when the time came, given their broader knowledge base. But who chooses that broader base? Who decides what bits of the curriculum are the most important? We certainly wouldn’t have time to fit all of all the subjects in if there were no opt outs. At what age would we then allow choice? Would it come at A level? Or would we wait until undergraduate study? Would this cover both academic and vocational subjects? Answers either way to that could see some students put at a disadvantage.

Would some sort of middle option be better? Or would that make it worse? I really don’t know, and I’m conflicted massively on this issue. I’d love to hear others thoughts on the topic.

A look back at 2015, and forward to 2016

December 31, 2015 2 comments

New year’s eve, a natural time for reflection, my timehop has shown me my reflections from last year and the year before, and the Cbeebies pantomime is currently on its second consecutive showing on my telly so I thought I’d share some thoughts from this year and some hopes for the next.

My 2015

At home

2015 was an amazing year. I got married and continued to see my daughter grow. It’s amazing what she picks up and learns, and how fast she does it. She’s writing her own name, doing basic sums and even showing an interest in Star Wars.

The blog

This has been a continuing source of enjoyment, reflection and discussion. There has been more hits this year than the last, although not many more. I’ve also gotten involved with some
group blogs, Labour Teachers, One good thing and Better Questions. Do check them out.

Studies and CPD

I’ve been to some good events this year, I enjoyed northern rocks, and have continued to enjoy studying for my masters. This year is the final year for that and I’m currently in the midst of writing a literature review for my dissertation. I’ll be sad when it’s over, but intend to continue to read and research. I may even seek out further study opportunities.

One of my favourite new things this year has been the launch of the twitter “Maths Journal Club“, where teachers read then discuss a journal article on a piece oaths educational research.

Teaching

This year saw me end my first year and start my second at my current school.  I feel more established now and I have a fantastic timetable this year with some excellent classes (including this one and this one). The department was strengthened in the summer transfer window,  although there has been some tough times towards the end of the year. I’ve been mentoring again this year, which is something I missed last year, and I’ve been able to teach some of the new GCSE and more of the core maths qualification.

I was pleased to see some of my Y13 students from last year go on to study mathematics and maths related degrees at uni and it was excellent to hear that a former student is thoroughly enjoying his maths degree.

Maths

I’ve managed to read a few more maths books, although not as many as I had hoped. And the celebration of maths event in February was awesome, I not only got to meet Marcus Du Sautoy in the flesh but also for the see him talk about some of the Maths that excites him. I also got to meet some friends in the flesh who had previously only been twitter avatars.

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff on quaternions, something I enjoyed learning about in my final year at uni, and I hope to investigate them further – if you know any good texts on them then do let me know.

2015 in Education

Gone are the days of Gove,  where education policy was at the forefront of every political discussion and a constant source of front page news. 2015 has seen a further roll out of academies which left me questioning why the government weren’t just honest about the plans to academise all schools.

There’s been a lot of talk of Shanghai,  and an exchange programme. I have slight concerns over the politics behind this but am excited by the prospect of learning from another culture. I’ve not seen much written about this that has been able to give any insight into the outcomes yet, but hopefully this will come. I feel that the amount of non contact time given to teachers in Shanghai to allow for planning, marking and collaboration is key to their success.

There was a general election, it’s was excellent to read the potential new directions in education policy being championed by all parties,  although we did end up with the same party and the same ed sec. I took the opportunity to have a look at the last few years against the aims they set out in 2010.

We have found out more about the new specification for GCSE, A level and core maths, although I still feel that mot enough material has been released by the boards, especially for Core Maths, which will be assessed this summer and the new GCSE which will be assessed in 2017.

What about the future?

I have enjoyed 2015, and I hope 2016 brings more of the same. I hope to be able to find more time to read and more time to play my guitar, as well as continuing to spend time with family. I hope to be able to see friends more often too.

I want to continue to develop as a teacher and a leader at school, by being reflective, evaluative and engaging with the research in a critical manner. I hope to produce and excellent dissertation and to continue to study.

I hoe we continue to gain clarity over the new specifications and that we gain it early enough to ensure our students are prepared. I’d like to see the massive inequalities in our society and our Education system wiped out and I’d really like to see some changes to the regulator.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your own 2015, your take in education in 2015 and your hopes for the future

The Problems with Student Loans

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

This post was originally published on Labour Teachers here. On 22nd December 2015.

I believe that higher education should be free at the point of use, and for this reason I see many flaws with the current system which allows people to access it. I can see the argument that it should be those who benefit from it that fund it, but the current system is drastically flawed. A much better system, in my opinion, would be the much talked of graduate tax. The current student loan really is a graduate tax, it only kicks in when you earn a certain amount and is taken at a proportion of your earnings, but that’s not easily recognisable from the name. Perhaps it’s a rebranding exercise that’s needed. Either way there is a negative view of the loan among many of the population, normally stemming from the word loan being included.

I knew a student a few years back who wanted to go to uni but was against the idea of a student loan as he didn’t want to be indebted to anyone. He was worried about the idea of a loan, but once he investigated it an realised it’s true nature he did go and succeeded at higher education.

Another flaw is how it’s calculated. Mature students are fine, it’s calculated on their household earnings and worked out against what they need. For 18 year olds it’s calculated against parents earnings, which means that some young adults are unable to access university as their parents won’t support this decision. This seems wrong to me, I agree that it’s fine for the majority of cases cut not everyone has parents who are willing to support them. Some parents turf their children out at 18, some even earlier, some refuse to see the value in education, and some use this as leverage to keep control over their children in an unhealthy manner.

I’ve known peoe who didn’t go to uni for these very reasons, or who had their degree choice and uni choice dictated to them, dropping out because they didn’t want to study the subject they ended up in. Some have gone back as mature students, but not all, and this is a shame.

I feel that removal of the monetary value of debt and replacement with grants, that cover tuition and cost of living, would be a far better situation and combat both the issues outlined above. If this is then funded by a graduate tax worked out in a similar manner to loan repayments then the funding should look after itself. Another added benefit would be that it would eliminate the potential marketisation of universities which is something we are likely to see more of over the coming years.

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