How Can We Increase Social Mobility?

Clegg: Social mobility ‘vital’ for UK economy

It was announced on 22nd May 2012 that the government is to publish an annual “snapshot” of social mobility, by measuring information such as educational achievement, access to professions and birth weights. In making the announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that being able to advance at work and in learning was a “vital ingredient” of the UK’s economic success. Wasted talent was a “crime” which hurt society, he added.

Labour claim that social mobility is going backwards under the present administration while campaigners claim that social mobility in the UK has reduced since the 1960s. It has reached the stage where the government has commissioned former Labour Health Secretary Alan Milburn to investigate the issue. Mr Clegg said

“I strongly believe that opening up our society is a vital ingredient in our future productivity. Wasted talent is always a moral crime, but it is increasingly an economic crime too. The Sutton Trust’s own work has suggested that boosting poor educational attainment up to the UK average would increase GDP by £140bn by 2050, and increase long-run trend growth by 0.4 percentage points. Social mobility is a long-term growth strategy.”

The government will publish an annual set of 17 indicators which will include the proportion of children under five on free school meals achieving a “good level of development” compared with other children, attainment at age 16 of those eligible for free school meals and higher education enrolment by social background.

Is Social Mobility Declining?

The sad reality is, that for all the government rhetoric about improving social mobility and ensuring that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t matter, they do. And unless there is a seismic shift in the mindset of those who are in a position to make the necessary changes and that of the general population genuine social mobility will never exist. It is unfair therefore, to lay this problem entirely at the door of the coalition government. This problem has been building for many decades if one takes the parliamentary political arena as an example. The first British Prime Minister to be recognised as such was Sir Robert Walpole who served from 1721 to 1742. In the subsequent centuries we have had 55 Premiers and of these 41 or 75% studied at Oxford or Cambridge. In addition 19 or 34% have been old Etonians including David Cameron our current leader. And if that wasn’t of enough concern the recent steps have been backwards even if it did appear for a while, during the latter half of the 20th Century, that we were making positive strides. From 1964 to 1997 all our elected leaders from Harold Wilson to John Major were educated in state schools. This changed with Tony Blair and we have been served by privately educated men for the past 15 years. In addition, within the current administration:

  • 50% of our cabinet were privately educated
  • 2/3rds of the 119 Ministers in the coalition were privately educated
  • There are currently 20 old Etonians in Parliament of whom 8 are in cabinet

Within wider Parliament 33% of all MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons were educated in public schools compared with just 7% of the general population. Furthermore, if we look at the leaders of the three main parties we see the following:

  • David Cameron: Prime Minister – Privately Educated and Oxbridge
  • Nick Clegg: Deputy Prime Minster – Privately Educated and Oxbridge
  • George Osborne: Chancellor of the Exchequer – Privately Educated and Oxbridge
  • Ed Miliband: Leader of the Opposition – State Educated and Oxbridge
  • Ed Balls: Shadow Chancellor – Privately Educated and Oxbridge

Consequently, social mobility has been in decline for some time and this has been exacerbated by the increase in Conservative MPs at the 2010 election as higher proportions of them will have been privately and Oxbridge educated compared with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

How Can We Increase Social Mobility?

There is no easy answer to this as there are almost certainly many factors that prevent it. But the first point of reference would appear to be an examination of the changes in the educational system from the decades immediately preceding Harold Wilson’s Premiership through to Tony Blair taking office. In addition it may be worthwhile looking at each of their family backgrounds and educations for common factors.

Secondly, we need to change our own mind-sets. Whilst it is much harder for state educated men and women to achieve high office it is not impossible. If 33% of MPs are privately educated 67% are not and if 75% of Prime Ministers have been privately educated 25% have been educated in state schools. Furthermore, if Oxford and Cambridge are accepting a disproportionately high number of public school students by rejecting large numbers of equally qualified state school students as we know they are then we must examine what suitable discrimination laws can be brought to bear. Recent figures show that between 2007 and 2009 four public schools sent 946 pupils to Oxbridge compared with 927 pupils being sent by 2,000 state schools. Whilst, it is fair to say that public school pupils are in a position to receive a good standard of education is also certain that there are many thousands of equally talented young people who never achieve their potential in society because their parents cannot afford the public school fees. And that does not allow for a true meritocracy.

Finally, we have, as a result of living in a monarchy for the last 1,000 years (with the exception of the interregnum), come to accept without question that those who rule over us are there because they are the best people to do so when the reality is that they rule by birth right regardless of merit. This point is raised not to discuss the controversial topic surrounding the pros and cons of the monarchy but merely to highlight an element of the British and in particular English psyche. That is an inherent unflinching belief, albeit subconscious, that there is a ruling class in this nation who are born to oversee things and the rest of us cannot possibly hope to aspire to political power even if we don’t agree that they always know best. And it does seem that there are two parts to this ruling class, the aristocracy whose power seems to be diminishing and the financial elite who can afford to educate their sons and daughters in the right schools. This results in an elite few who continue to hold the reins of power because they have the money to maintain their authority.

We must therefore, teach our children that all men and women are equal, regardless of financial status and inspire them to reach their goal in life no-matter how impossible it may be. If we don’t it will be bad for the economy but not in the way envisaged by Nick Clegg. It will be because the real talent who can bring our great country out of recession and create a fairer society for all will remain outside Westminster looking in and never have the opportunity to play their part in making things better.

In the meantime we must hope beyond hope that this government really does wish to improve social mobility and await the outcome of the report with interest.

Are the Changes To SEN Provision A Good Idea

 

Parents to control special education needs budgets

On Monday 14th May 2012 the government announced major changes to the provision of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision in England. From 2014 parents will be given control over the budgets for their children’s support.  Children will be provided with a Learning Difficulties Assessment (LDA) by the Local Authority either on request or if they are regarded as requiring an LDA. The local authority is then required to put together a robust support programme which will remain in place as long the child remains in education and has learning difficulties until they are 25. In addition parents will be given the option of managing the budget for their child’s support programme.

The government has described it as the” biggest reform of SEN for 30 years” and the changes being implemented will legally force education, health and social care services to plan provision together. In making the announcement Sarah Teather, minister for children and families said:

“Thousands of families have had to battle for months, even years, with different agencies to get the specialist care their children need. It is unacceptable they are forced to go from pillar to post – facing agonising delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment.”

Under the scheme a number of approaches will be trialed including giving parents the funds directly or leaving them with the local authority.

Alison Ryan, a policy adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, welcomed the new requirement for agencies to plan services together. She did however, raise concerns over the level of redundancies amongst education psychologists and speech and language therapists. She noted that the plans were being implemented during a period of cuts which have:

“eaten into many of the specialist services teachers rely on to help them support children with special educational needs…”

Ryan also said there were worries over the potential impact on forward planning and the ability to co-ordinate as a result of putting budgets in the hands of lots of individuals and families.

“Many parents can be the best advocates for their children’s needs, but you cannot say that for every parent. Sometimes it may be a matter of their own ability to decide on the best type of expert assistance for their children,”

 

Are the Changes To SEN Provision A Good Idea?

Broadly speaking, the proposals appear to be sound. Any parents or teachers who have tried to get a child in their care statemented in order to obtain support will tell you that Sarah Teather is right. The assessment system is currently fragmented and extremely difficult to understand and negotiate. A parent of a girl with Asperger’s who was interviewed on BBC television witnessed that it took three years to get her daughter diagnosed and for appropriate support to be put in place by which time a bright student who needed help had fallen far behind her peers educationally. With set timescales for the assessment process enshrined in law and easy to understand guidelines for parents and support providers the potential will exist for such cases to become the minority rather than the norm and that has to be welcomed as an improvement.

We would however, echo the concerns raised by others. With the levels of cutbacks already taking place in the support networks for children with special educational needs will there be enough specialists to support  all those who need it? If not, then the potential benefits of such a major overhaul to the SEN system will be lost.  Some parties have asked how they will define SEN as there is no official definition.  But, according the DfE’s own guidance notes they are using the terms as defined in the Education Act 1996.  Furthermore, Section 7.2 of the guidance covering the definition of learning difficulties states:

Learning difficulty is the term used in legislation while ‘learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities’ is a deliberately wide definition in common usage in the FE system, and includes people with mental health difficulties, autistic spectrum conditions, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioural emotional or social disorders, physical, sensory and cognitive impairments and other identified and non-identified difficulties in learning.  All of these conditions could fall within the definition of learning difficulties for the purpose of a Learning Difficulties Assessment.

According to some news reports on this announcement the government is seeking to remove the majority, some 1.5 million children, from the SEN register because they have been misdiagnosed and their conditions are social or emotional. It has been suggested that these children need pastoral rather than SEN support. Firstly, we would question the accuracy of such a sweeping statement. How is it possible to accurately ascertain the numbers who have been incorrectly labeled without reassessing every child already classed as SEN?  Secondly, by the government’s own terms children with emotional or social disorders could still fall under the definition of learning difficulties. Finally, there will inevitably be a large number of children who will have much valued and needed support removed despite having special needs. So we would recommend that robust plans are put in place to ensure that these vulnerable children don’t fall behind. There has been no such announcement made regarding this.

The guidance for local authorities is in effect until the next review in 2013 while the full changes will come into effect in 2014. We would therefore, look forward to seeing clearer plans on how children currently diagnosed as SEN will be re-assessed and a comprehensive framework of support for those with other needs, who will be removed from the SEN register, put in place before we can give the policy our wholehearted support.

Should Schools Become Academies?

Headteachers claim forced academy status is unjustified

 

A worrying article was published in the Guardian on 7th May 2012 that highlights an increasing trend in schools being forced into converting to academy status against their will and unnecessarily. Under the Academy Act 2010 schools can be forced down this route if their exam results or Ofsted inspections show that they are failing. But the cases examined in the Guardian report do not fall under any of the categories that would warrant compulsory conversion.  Worse still a growing number of head teachers and school governors are reporting that threatening tactics are being used by DfE officials to scare them into changing the status of their schools.

Anna Jones (whose name has been changed) is a headteacher with a proven track record in school improvement having brought a school out of special measures. She was appointed to run a Birmingham primary school and tasked with repeating her achievements. Through solid management, extensive monitoring of teacher performance and pupils’ achievements and attainments the hard work is paying off. The school is out of special measures having been assessed as satisfactory after the last Ofsted visit and is oversubscribed in some year groups. Furthermore, pupil achievement and attainment is increasing rapidly and according to internal tracking of progress more than 60% of their 11 year olds will pass English and Maths SATs this summer.  The 60% figure is the new floor target for schools recently set by Ofsted.  According to Jones:

“This is a large school in an area of multiple deprivation.”

Jones also pays tribute to her deputies, who, she says, have:

“worked really hard to pull it up”. Now “we have quality and improved teaching and learning. We have very robust self-evaluation and our improvement plan is led by that”.

However, despite all these improvements she has been informed that her school will be forced into academy status if she and her governors do not vote to apply to become an academy as it will be evidence of “weak leadership”. Existing governors would be removed and a section 60 notice to improve issued, a new governing body put in place and a sponsor imposed.

Should Schools Become Academies?

The short answer to this is NO because there are several major concerns over the academies programme.

  1. Michael Gove appears to be confused about his own policies. Academies were introduced by the last Labour administration as an educational improvement tool to turn around failing schools. When Gove took office he opened up the option of conversion to academy status to outstanding schools. Subsequently, voluntary conversion was widened to other schools. Each school converting to academy status receives initial upfront funding per pupil. This money is removed from Local Authority funding for state maintained schools and public services and is expected to have cost £413 million between 2011 and 2013. However, there appears to have been an underestimate of the costs for 2012-13 so the figures for this year could be as high as £997 million.  That means vital services are being cut back in order to fund academies which in itself would be a cause for concern even if the academy programme was a coherent one. But the academy system was designed to improve failing schools and now hundreds of millions of pounds is being given to schools that don’t need to be converted to academy status.  So if the academy programme is aimed at educational improvement why is so much money being wasted on converting good and outstanding schools?
  2. Secondly, this policy flies in the face of the Government’s overall localism aspirations and the DfE’s claims that academies are providing more choice and control for parents. Academies have smaller proportions of local governors on their boards than maintained schools, are less accountable through the Freedom of Information Act not least in relation to their accounts and any appeals over issues with academies must be made through the DfE and its related Westminster based bodies rather than local authorities. Additionally, overall control of academies rests with the Education Secretary.
  3. Thirdly, as we can see in the case of Jenny Jones’ school the academy programme is now spreading to primary schools.  Many of the nearly 50% of secondary schools that have already converted  were motivated by the financial incentive but the vast majority of primary schools have decided that the academy system is not suitable for them and virtually none have converted. Now it seems that primary schools are being increasingly falsely downgraded in order to justify forcible conversion to academy status to speed up the spread of academies through the primary school sector. One concern is that the DfE is rushing to convert schools such as Jenny Jones’ into academy status by August in an effort to artificially inflate the success rates of academies. This is because the vastly improved SATs results will be credited to the conversion of her school to an academy; something, which the DfE strongly denies.
  4. Fourthly, there is no empirical evidence that academies produce better results than state maintained secondary schools. According to an National Audit Office Report in  2010 academies were a long way from matching the national average for the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* – C grade GCSEs or equivalent particularly when English and Maths were included. They were however, assessed as making good progress against comparable maintained schools, both in absolute attainment and relative to prior attainment. Furthermore it was judged that the overall performance trend masked “wide variation between individual academies with some performing exceptionally well and others making little progress”. In addition, a report produced in February 2012 revealed that while 60% of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C grade GCSEs last year, only 47% did so in the 249 sponsored academies.  As a result nearly a billion pounds is being taken out of hard hit public services during the next year in order to fund an education programme with a questionable success rate.
  5. Finally, much praise has been heaped upon Mossbourne Academy in London and its transformation under the now head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw.  It is proclaimed as a flagship for the academy programme. However, less publicity is given to the fact that Sir Michael turned around a previous secondary school in a similarly spectacular fashion without it becoming an academy thus proving that a whole host of factors are necessary for raising standards in a school but conversion to an academy is not one of them.  

In summary, we are forced to question why such heavy handed tactics are being employed by a Government minister and his representatives in order to forcibly convert unwilling schools into a system of schooling that is both educationally unnecessary and extremely costly to the taxpayer at a time of massive budget cutbacks and austerity measures.

What Do I Do If My Child Has Maths Anxiety?

Maths anxiety: the numbers are mounting

On the 30th April 2012 the Guardian published an article written by a parent whose daughter had spent many years suffering from Maths anxiety. Kate Brian’s daughter Flora was just six years old when she told her parents that she didn’t understand anything that was being taught in her Maths lessons in school. The school regularly reassured her parents that there was nothing wrong but Kate Brian recalls how:

“she sometimes made wildly illogical guesses when attempting basic addition and was easily confused by anything numerical. She was also getting upset about maths at school, but the more her teachers tried to reassure us that she was doing well, the more Flora insisted she didn’t let them see that she spent maths lessons copying other children.”

They took her to a specialist who told them that Flora wasn’t dyscalculic so in desperation they visited an educational psychologist who confirmed that her problems were linked to anxiety rather than a lack of ability. Maths anxiety is thought to affect approximately a quarter of the population which means that around 2 million children are suffering from this mostly unrecognised condition. Maths anxiety was first identified in the 1950s but recent studies involving brain scans show interesting brain functions of children with the condition. These children respond to sums in the same way that those with phobias react to spiders or snakes with an increase in activity in the fear centres of the brain. The consequence of this is a decrease in activity in the problem solving areas which makes it harder to produce the right answer.

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Does My Child Have Maths Anxiety?

If your child is suffering from a variety of symptoms listed by AnxietyATOZ and these are accompanied by them making wildly illogical guesses when attempting basic addition or they are easily confused by anything numerical they may be suffering from Maths anxiety.

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Confusion.
  • Lack of confidence.
  • Panic-Stricken Worry.
  • Negative thoughts.
  • Sudden Memory Loss.

Physiological Symptoms:

  • Rapid heart beat.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Stomach disorders.
  • Headaches.

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What Do I Do If My Child Has Maths Anxiety?

The good news is that Maths anxiety can be overcome because it is confidence based and not linked to a student’s mathematical ability. Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the charity National Numeracy, explains:

“Labelling and categorising children into those who can and can’t do maths isn’t helpful. There’s nothing more certain to be a self-fulfilling prophecy … but given encouragement and the right support, everyone can meet a functional level of numeracy.”

Additionally, the various websites that discuss how to overcome the condition recommend extra tuition in Maths. They all concur with Peter Lacey, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics who says teachers:

“are often constrained by a system focused on targets and attainment levels. “If you say slow down, ministers get concerned, but if you want to build a tall and secure house, you make sure your foundations are right. Sometimes there’s a rush in the earlier years of teaching that interferes with children gaining real confidence – once it goes wrong at that stage, everything afterwards is insecure. The pressure to get children to a particular level in tests at 11 can mean teaching them tricks to get good outcomes rather than making sure they are confident in their understanding.”

At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we agree wholeheartedly with this assertion. We regularly see students who, for a variety of reasons have been unable to gain a secure understanding of some of the earlier topics and because of this struggle with the more complex areas of Maths. This is because of the way in which early Maths topics lay the foundations for more advanced mathematics. Without a solid grasp of the foundation areas it becomes harder and harder to access later Maths concepts. As a result, these children then become convinced that they can’t do Maths and their confidence and motivation steadily decrease. When concerned parents contact us the first thing we do is carry out a FREE assessment of their child’s Maths abilities in order to discover the gaps in their understanding. We then use the proven Kip McGrath tutoring methods to fill in the gaps by working with the students on each topic until they have a sound knowledge and are ready to move on. All our students make good progress academically and grow in confidence as a result of the work we do with them. Kate Brian herself testifies on the value of this approach:

“For Flora, extra help rediscovering the basics, along with a gentle approach at her new school, began to reap benefits and she gradually caught up. She has been happier and less stressed….”

If you are worried about your child’s Maths don’t worry. Call us today to find out what we can do to help.

Should Packed Lunches Be Banned?

Ban packed lunches, says Katie Price’s ex Alex Reid

On 25th April 2012 Alex Reid, former husband of Katie Price, called for a ban on packed lunches in schools. In a speech before the All-Party Group on School Food he advocated compulsory free, healthy school meals for all children. His concerns are, that by eating chocolate and crisps children are:

“affecting their ability to concentrate in lessons”.

He has proposed that the school meals scheme be funded at a cost of £1 billion by raising money from companies through a scheme called Let’s Do Lunch. This would involve private firms being given the opportunity to invest in the scheme in return for promotional opportunities including direct marketing to parents. He said his proposal would remove the financial burden of providing school meals from the taxpayer and that:

“The important thing is the Let’s Do Lunch marketing would help companies investing in the scheme to generate more revenues. I want to make healthy school meals available to all kids. We will essentially make them compulsory and ban packed lunches.”

The idea was backed by Labour’s shadow education minister for children and families Sharon Hodgson who expressed her fears that under the Universal Credit system more children could lose their entitlement to free school meals. This is in light of the government scrapping a Labour devised scheme in 2010 that would have widened entitlement to free meals to 500,000 more low-income families. She said that:

“We now have to look at other ways of achieving those ambitions. The project that Alex is working on could go some way towards that.”

Should Packed Lunches Be Banned?

In a word No! This is not to say that Alex Reid’s aspiration of seeing every school child receive healthy school meals is not to be applauded. But our concern is the way in which he is attempting to see this fulfilled. The first problem that we perceive is the fact that Mr Reid’s main motivation appears to be the increase in revenues for the companies that invest in the scheme. The primary driving force behind any school meals scheme should be increasing the health and well-being of our children and it must be non-profit making.

Secondly, we would worry about the idea of participating companies being afforded promotional opportunities and direct marketing openings to parents. When we first opened Kip McGrath Education Centre Scunthorpe we contacted all the primary schools in the area to discuss what we did and how we could support their hard work with their pupils. We also asked if they could distribute our flyers in pupils’ book bags. Some schools were happy to allow this but a number stated that their policy meant they couldn’t be seen to recommend a particular business. We accepted each school’s choice on this matter. This suggests that schools are, on the whole, uncomfortable with private companies directly marketing through book bags and newsletters and so on. If they were unhappy at providing information about fellow education providers then we cannot imagine that they would wish to be used as a source of promotion for unrelated profit-making enterprises. If schools wish to recommend an organisation because it shares their values and/or they believe that its products or services would be of value to their families they should be at liberty to do so but this must be on a voluntary basis and not compulsory.

Finally, we feel that to arbitrarily ban packed lunches from schools regardless of how healthy they are is playing nanny state and will only cause resentment. Additionally, it serves no purpose in teaching children and families about healthy eating because you are simply spoon-feeding them healthy food without educating them about the variety of factors involved in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

What Are The Alternatives?

The scheme does have merits but needs some rethinking on how it would work.

  • There should be no direct marketing involved. No participating company should be allowed to profit directly from helping our children to become healthier and fitter. The firms concerned could simply have their name linked to the Let’s Do Lunch logo on school publications and displayed in limited but appropriate locations around the school. In addition, rather than using large multi-million pound corporations it might be possible to set up local Let’s Do Lunch schemes that would involve smaller businesses who wish to support their local schools. This would mean that a wide variety of local businesses would gain equal PR and that no business could profit or gain unfair advantage in their particular market place. It would also establish positive links between schools and the local business community.
  • Under no circumstances should this scheme be compulsory for parents. The merits of free, healthy school meals should be promoted to families and they can decide for themselves whether to participate or not. Encouragement for families to lead healthier lifestyles should come through education, not least the great healthy eating lessons that already take place up and down the country and the support of the School Food Trust. As a result parents can be taught and supported and this will increase the prospects of more children receiving healthy meals at home as well as in school.
  • Finally, the money saved from providing school meals should be ring-fenced for building new schools or expanding existing ones to help alleviate the growing crisis of shortages in primary school places.

Any schemes that attempt to encourage our children to live healthy lifestyles are to be praised but they should be carefully thought out with regard to both motivation and outcome and Let’s Do Lunch should be given careful consideration with regard to these criteria.

Should All Those Who Teach, Lecture or Tutor Have Professional Qualifications?

Lecturers should need a teaching qualification, says NUS president

On 22nd April 2012 the Guardian revealed a call by the NUS (National Union of Students) to make all university lecturers qualified teachers. NUS president Liam Burns was quoted as saying that it was “astonishing” that it wasn’t already a legal obligation for those who teach in higher education to have professional qualifications.  An area of concern is the increasing use of post-graduate students to deliver lectures and seminars by cash strapped universities and colleges.  Their view echoes the recommendation of the university funding review by Lord Browne in 2010 but this proposal was abandoned after objections were raised by the universities because they felt that it would compromise their institutional independence.

Should All Those Who Teach, Lecture or Tutor Have Professional Qualifications?

Yes!  We wholeheartedly agree with the views expressed by both the NUS and Lord Browne.  It is of great concern that post-graduate students are being used to deliver lectures in colleges and universities. But it is not only in higher and further education where we are seeing this worrying trend in the use of unqualified people delivering lessons. It is also becoming more and more common for primary schools to use teaching assistants to cover lessons during teachers’ absences rather than paying for supply teachers.

Why Are Schools, Colleges and Universities Using Unqualified Staff?

It is understandable, to a certain extent, that they are making use of unqualified personnel and it does appear to make sense on some levels.

  • The argument for universities is that post-graduates have a proven sound knowledge of their subject which they can then pass on to their younger under-graduate colleagues.
  • In primary schools, the use of teaching assistants (TAs) allows for stability for the children because they are being taught by somebody who they already know. And the teaching assistant will already have an understanding of the current curriculum that is being covered and therefore find it easier to step into the breach.
  • It is cheaper to use non-qualified staff  and this cuts down on personnel costs for cash-starved educational establishments.

What Is Wrong With Using Unqualified Staff To Teach?

The main issue with this, is the widely held and incorrect assumption that having a sound knowledge of a subject enables you to teach it.  Knowing your facts and being able to impart them effectively are two different things entirely.  Anyone who has watched E4’s The Big Bang Theory and witnessed the genius Dr Sheldon Cooper’s wholly inadequate efforts to lecture students in his area of expertise will be able to relate to this immediately. Teachers go through 3 to 4 years of study in order to understand the principles of how people learn, how to put together effective lessons and how to assess the progress that has been made by their students.  A good teacher can then tailor their planning and teaching methods to suit the needs of their student/s according to ability, learning styles and how well or otherwise they have understood the topic.

No-one, however great an expert they may be in their field, will have these skills at their fingertips if they haven’t been trained to teach. Therefore, to use unqualified and untrained people in the classroom or lecture theatre means that students are not being taught adequately and are receiving a sub-standard education.  It is worth noting that with many primary schools now using TAs for teaching cover for 2.5 hours of PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time each week a child is, on average, losing a month’s worth of qualified teaching time each year.

A further cause for concern is the fact that under current regulations anyone in the United Kingdom can set up in business as a tutor regardless of their educational training or qualifications.  At Kip McGrath Education Centres we recognise the need for the skills and teaching knowledge that accompany a professional teaching qualification in order to teach children effectively.  We believe that in order to improve education standards and maximise the potential for all children they must be taught by qualified professionals at every stage of their learning career. That is why at Kip McGrath we guarantee that all our students are always taught by qualified teachers.

Are Fines The Best Way To Improve Attendance in Schools?

Truancy fines should be deducted from child benefit, says behaviour adviser

Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour advisor has advocated deducting fines for truancy from families’ child benefit payments. The suggestion forms part of a package of proposals published on 16th April 2012 designed to reduce schools’ truancy levels. The proposals also include increasing the current fines levied to £60 or £120 if they aren’t paid within 28 days. Unpaid fines would be recovered from child benefit. For families not in receipt of child benefit the outstanding sum would be recovered through the county courts. Taylor’s review will also recommend a clampdown on term-time holidays and Ofsted based time targets for reducing truancy in schools where there are exceptionally high levels of absenteeism. As part of his announcement Charlie Taylor will say:

“We know that some parents simply allow their children to miss lessons and then refuse to pay the fine. It means the penalty has no effect and children continue to lose vital days of education they can never recover. Recouping the fines through child benefit … will strengthen and simplify the system. It would give headteachers the backing they need in getting parents to play their part.”

The review is partially based on a report of the effectiveness of fines which included a survey of schools and local authorities. 79% of LAs said that penalty notices were either “very successful” or “fairly successful” in improving school attendance. But schools believed that court action was a long winded process that didn’t achieve much.  Fines for school absences were introduced by the last Labour administration in 2004 and since then 127,000 penalty notices have been issued including 32,600 last year. Of these approximately half have been unpaid or withdrawn. Under the current system penalty notices have to be withdrawn by LAs if they are unpaid after 42 days.

Are Fines The Best Way To Improve Attendance in Schools?

At first glance it would appear to be a simple, common sense response to the issue of non-payment of fines.  In theory it would seem to be a straightforward method of ensuring that unpaid penalties are received.  But, we believe that there is more to this than meets the eye.  Firstly, if 50% of the fines aren’t paid one must consider the reasons behind this high failure rate of the penalty notice. Is it because the families concerned cannot afford to pay the penalties or is it because they are refusing to pay out of a lack of respect for authority? A comparison of the percentage of penalties paid with the response of the LAs on improvement in attendance rates would suggest that in many cases the serving of the fine is enough to encourage increased attendance even if the fine is not actually paid.  It doesn’t take too much analysis to realise that this would be due to the majority of families involved being unable to afford the fines. In these cases therefore, to actually impose the fine would only create further hardship for families who are already at the lower end of the income scale.  This is not to say that a small minority of parents are just abusing the system and more stringent measures are required in those situations.

Furthermore, the proposed measures would also penalise parents wishing to take their children out of school for term-time holidays.  According to an article in the Guardian on 12th February 2012 approximately 4.5m school days are missed due to term-time holidays. In that piece the main reason given for this is the lower cost of out of season holidays. Additionally, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders points out that the 10 days afforded to some families are discretionary and not an actual right but have come to be seen as a cultural expectation.  But even in this area of absenteeism there are at least two types of family involved and matters are not black and white: there are those who cannot afford holidays during the school break and there are families who need to work during the holidays. Some of Kip McGrath Scunthorpe’s parents run businesses that require them to work during the Summer and taking a holiday during July and August would cost them a high proportion of their annual income. At least one school head was unwilling to accept this viewpoint and pressed ahead with fining the parents.

The reality, is that the system does not meet the requirements of 21st Century families. Many parents are unable to afford holidays if they are not taken during term-time and the proposals will do nothing more than penalise hardworking parents for trying to spend quality time with their children by providing them with a family holiday.  If a child is removed from school for a term-time holiday of 10 days every year for their school career up to Year 11 they will miss approximately 5% of their schooling; a figure which falls well below the DfE’s own level of 15% absenteeism as being persistent truanting and a cause for concern. In an ideal world every child would have a 100% attendance record but that is simply not a realistic expectation.  So are we going to fine parents who choose to remove their children for limited periods with positive motivations?

What Is The Solution?

This country is home to a wide variety of families from wide-ranging socio-economic backgrounds and schools seek to educate children with a whole host of educational, emotional and physical needs.  Every family is different to the next one. Therefore, to use a one size fits all approach is narrow minded and misguided.

  • With regard to term-time holidays each family’s circumstances must be taken into account regardless of the school’s overall attendance rates. If a child is meeting their educational targets and their attendance is generally very good there should be no reason to refuse the parents’ request for a term-time absence.  If however, the child’s attendance is poor and they are already behind in their education then it isn’t reasonable for the parents to try to remove them during term-time for a holiday. In these cases it might be possible to look at imposing a compulsory, Summer catch up programme for the student to complete at the parent’s expense through a local tuition centre. At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we run a successful Summer School every August to help prevent children from falling behind during the long Summer holidays.  Rather than levying a fine which probably won’t be paid and does nothing to benefit the child’s education even if is, there will be an educational gain and the parent may feel more motivated to accept the penalty because they will see a postive outcome for their child.
  • General absenteeism is not so easy to solve and each family’s case must be considered on it’s merits. For example, if a parent drops a child off at school on their way to work and the child fails to attend without the parent’s knowledge is it fair to penalise the parent? Any responsibility should fall on the school if they allow the child to leave the premises during the school day or the child if they fail to attend without the parent’s knowledge. Investigations would need to be made to find out why the child is playing truant. If a parent is failing to send their child to school then support mechanisms must be put in place if there are valid reasons why they are unable to cope. An article in the Guardian on 3rd April 2012 on kinder ways to tackle truancy highlighted the work of School Home Support, a charity that provides support workers in schools whose job is to identify children with low attendance and provide support for them and their families.

This does not mean that some kind of financial penalty would never be appropriate but there are too many reasons for absenteesim and too many children who are absent because of unmet needs. Arbitrary fines will simply further disenfranchise those who already mistrust authority, unnecessarily penalise hard-working families who want to spend quality time with their children and drive a percentage of deprived families deeper into poverty when it may well be the effects of poverty that is causing the low attendance in the first place. Taking things all round we would recommend a more creative and flexible approach that shows compassion for the less well off and meets the needs of modern families.

Are The Proposed Changes To A’ Levels A Good Thing?

Michael Gove Calls On Watchdog To Let Universities Set A-Level Examinations

The quality of A ‘Level qualifications has been brought into question again this week after revelations on 2nd April 2012 that Michael Gove the Education Secretary had written to the exams watchdog, Ofqual. In his letter he highlighted his concerns, expressed a need for changes to A ‘Level courses and asked for universities to be allowed to:

“drive the system”.

These proposals will have serious implications for the future of A’ Levels because the Russell Group of top universities will decide both the course content and the exam questions.  The aim of the DfE is to start the new A’ Levels from 2014 with the students sitting their exams in 2016. The changes would apply to Maths, English and Science in England initially and then be extended to other subjects and rolled out across the rest of the UK.  Michael Gove is determined that universities be genuinely committed to the process and have ownership of the exams.  In his letter Mr. Gove wrote:

“I am increasingly concerned that current A-levels, though they have much to commend them, fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see,” ……..“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications. It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”

The concerns expressed in his letter coincide with a recent poll of university lecturers carried out by Cambridge University’s exam board, Cambridge Assessment. Just over half of the 633 academics surveyed believe that:

students did not possess the writing or critical thinking skills needed for their degree courses.

Another recent article on the subject suggests that academics and teachers are broadly in agreement with the need to return to more traditional A’ Levels.  The findings contained in an Ofqual report into A ‘Levels states that:

Despite an increase in A-level grade, and higher numbers gaining first-class degrees, universities were not reporting “a comparative increase in the abilities of first-year undergraduates”,…..

 

The report also suggests that teachers would welcome a more linear approach to A’ Levels, although not necessarily a full two year linear model, and a move away from modular style assessment.

Are The Proposed Changes To A’ Levels A Good Thing?

At Kip McGrath Education Centre Scunthorpe our students are primarily under-graduates and we are happy to accept that universities’ concerns regarding the preparedness of their first-year students are valid. They are after all, the ones who are witnessing the events on the ground as it were. It is right therefore, that some changes to A ‘Levels should be made if under-graduates are not being sufficiently prepared for degree level studies. We do however, have a number of concerns regarding what has been reported in the media recently.

Firstly, we do not believe that a complete removal of all modular assessments would be a positive step. Based upon discussions with colleagues in the teaching profession our conclusion is that there is a place for both modular and linear courses. In our experience there is a tendency for students to coast during the first year of their A’ Levels if the subject does not involve coursework. We would therefore, recommend that the bodies implementing the changes consider retaining modular assessments in those courses in order to encourage students and maintain their study motivation levels.

Our second area of concern is the apparent over emphasis on making A’ Levels more suitable for degree course preparation. A Guardian article from July 2011 highlighted that just 39% of that year’s A ‘Level students were aiming to attend university. Approximately 47% of those polled were intending to enter the workplace whilst a small percentage of students were unsure of their intentions. These figures would suggest that employers have a greater claim to being allowed to “drive the system” than universities. This argument is lent even greater weight when one considers that the driving force will not be universities as a whole but the top twenty selective universities which include Oxford and Cambridge. Given that there is a disproportionate entry rate to these universities from selective schools and that they are attended by such a small minority of students overall there is a real danger that many A’ Level students whilst being prepared for an Oxbridge degree will be insufficiently ready for the workplace. As these proposals stand they would be detrimental to both the students concerned and the wider economy.

There are some positive measures outlined within the proposals with which we are in agreement. The main one being an end to the so called “resit culture”. According the news report:

Teachers told researchers that a “resit culture” had been damaging because students approached exams knowing they will always get a second chance at it. Consequently, many academics said first-year university students struggled because they were not able to retake an exam  to boost their grade.

 

We would concur with this viewpoint as it will encourage students to focus on the exam in front of them with greater determination. It will also remove the pressure that many students currently experience whereby they find themselves working towards several re-sits at the same time as studying the next module and preparing for the first attempt at a new exam.  It may therefore, be advisable to look at the feasibility of putting students in for any required modular resits at the end of a course. This would enable them to concentrate more effectively on the rest of the course and increase their chances of passing at the second attempt when they do resit.

 

Summary

Whilst we agree that many students are being left ill-prepared for their degree studies this should not be the primary focus of or driving force behind the changes. When A ‘Levels were introduced in the 1950s their main purpose was for equipping students for higher education. That is no longer the case and this fact was recognised in the Tomlinson Report into A ‘Levels as far back as 2002:

Ever since their introduction, A levels have been associated with entry

to higher education. This remains a valid and useful application. But over

time they have also acquired a broader significance as a precursor to

employment and as one strand in a qualifications framework which is

designed to recognise the full range of advanced achievement of which young

people are capable, ranging from the purely academic and theoretical learning

through to the skills and knowledge associated with specific jobs. This trend

is embodied in the Curriculum 2000 reforms which increased the flexibility of,

and broadened the range of subjects and types of learning within, the A level

strand, for instance by establishing A levels in vocational subjects.

We are concerned therefore, that the education secretary appears to be ignoring employers in his proposals and that his motivation appears to be based on a desire to meet the needs of a small group of elite universities and schools rather than the requirements of the majority of students and wider society for the 21st Century. Any genuinely positive efforts to raise educational standards are always to be welcomed but they must be for the majority and not the minority and, as we have emphasised before, based upon empirical evidence rather than political ideology.

How Much Homework Should My Child Be Getting?

Two Hours’ Homework A Night Linked To Better School Results

How Much Homework Should My Child Be Getting?

The discussion of how much homework is beneficial for children has hit the headlines once again with a Guardian article published on the 28th March 2012.  A study of 3,000 children from pre-school age upwards has been carried out over a 15 year period. The results appear to show that there is a link between doing two hours of homework a night and achieving better results in Maths, Science and English.  The producers of the study claim that any level of regular homework can increase a student’s ability to succeed in their learning. According to the article these findings are at odds with other research which showed a

“relatively modest” link between homework and achievement at secondary school.

Pam Sammons one of the authors of the study who is a professor of education at Oxford University was quoted as saying

“What we’re not saying is that everyone should do large amounts, but if we could shift some of those who spend no time or half an hour into [doing] one to two hours – one of the reasons private schools’ results are better is that there’s more expectation of homework.”

The report also highlighted the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds who do well are those backed by parents who value learning and encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities. According to the report:

“Parents’ own resilience in the face of hardship provided a role model for their children’s efforts,”

How Accurate Are These Findings?

Our initial response, based upon the relatively vague information available, is that some of these results are neither new nor revelatory. It is and has been widely accepted for a long time in education circles that students who have supportive parents achieve more highly because these parents value a good education and will encourage their children and provide as much support as possible. This would therefore, apply as equally to disadvantaged children as it would to middle class and wealthy families.

Our second issue is that there have been many studies carried out on the efficacies of homework on educational achievement. These surveys have produced mixed results and we posted a piece recently in response to the DfE’s announcement that they would be scrapping the homework setting guidelines put in place by the previous Labour administration.  It was our basic contention in that article, which you can read in full here, that homework, even in small amounts, from a young age can be beneficial. But the benefits gained are only possible if the homework is appropriate for the studies in question and targeted according to the age and ability levels of the students concerned. It is therefore, the quality rather than the quantity of homework that makes the difference.

Thirdly, it appears that this report hasn’t even been published yet so it is impossible to produce a fully informed assessment of the study as we have no way of knowing the methodologies applied by the producers, no information on any variables and consequently, no idea how they have drawn their conclusions. We await the publication of the report with interest.

Finally, we note that this study was commissioned by the DfE. So our final question would be – Why did Michael Gove make a policy decision on this matter when the availability of conclusions of an in-depth and expensive departmental survey was imminent. Once again, it appears, rather worryingly, that he is enacting policies based on political ideology rather than on evidence based findings and expert guidance.

Should The Summer Holidays Be Made Shorter?

Third Of Academies Want To Change School Year, Survey Finds

Should The Summer Holidays Be Made Shorter?

On 28th March 2012 the results of a survey of 500 English academies were announced, revealing that as many as a third of them are planning to change the school year from the current standard of three terms with a long Summer break. There has been much discussion not to say controversy over proposed changes to school terms in recent years as this is not the first time that such plans have been raised. But is the current term schedule the fairest for all concerned?

Children

Most education professionals would agree that the long summer holidays result in some students, particularly those from deprived backgrounds regressing to one degree or another in their learning resulting in their need to relearn portions of what they have already been taught. But, is it fair to deprive today’s students of the joys of Summer that we benefited from? Whilst some children do find themselves getting bored towards the end of the holidays others are more than happy to recharge their mental and physical batteries and take a break from the pressures of homework and studies. It is also generally accepted that the reasons children from deprived backgrounds are more likely to slip back educationally during the Summer are a lack of mental stimulation and family quality time that would be provided by their parents. This is something which is not the case with children from middle class and more wealthy families whose parents tend to use the time to introduce them to a wide variety of new experiences. So surely, the answer is for local authorities and charities to step in and provide poorer children with similar life enhancing experiences rather than penalise the majority of children from middle and higher income families by shortening everybody’s holidays. This would appear to be the case judging by the content of a discussion in the Guardian last July between a parent and teacher on this topic. The teacher’s (Francis Gilbert) response to the parent was as follows:

Yes, I concede your point that we know that poorer children can suffer a “dip” in their academic performance over the summer, but this issue is much more complex than it first appears. In some boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets, where I live, the poorest children’s academic performance has actually significantly improved in recent years for a number of reasons, one of which has been the improved provision that the borough has provided during the summer holidays.

Activities such as tennis, canoeing, trips away and film-making are all now offered free of charge during this time. The point is that the activities are voluntary. I firmly believe that giving children this choice about what to do really helps them establish a firmer sense of identity and autonomy. Poorer children have benefited massively. Let’s help all areas provide this wealth of activities that raise aspirations rather than locking children up in school all summer.

At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we run a Summer School during the four weeks of August each year. We provide tuition for students who wish to keep their hand in and their brain active during the Summer. For most students this will result them in attending for just four 80 minute sessions out of the whole holiday period and it has proven extremely beneficial for those who are enrolled with us for catch up tutoring. Therefore, from the perspective of the children, if the right support is in place for deprived students and those who are already falling behind there is no real need to shorten the summer holidays.

Teachers

Teachers are against the proposed changes, but this is not due, as the critics would have you believe, to a stubbornness to maintain the status quo and pure self-interest at the expense of children and parents. As a non-professional (Centre Manager at Kip McGrath Scunthorpe) I have been privileged to witness the state education system from the inside. The number of hours that most teachers work during term time involves either staying at school very late or taking large amounts of paperwork home with them. This high workload is increased even further at report-writing time each year. The majority of teachers work far in excess of their contracted hours on a regular basis without being paid overtime. The long summer break without having to work at all helps to make up for this by allowing them, like the students to mentally and physically recharge. If the holidays are to be shortened then the issue of teachers’ workloads will need to be addressed as part of this process. Figures from September 2010 show that approximately 50% of newly qualified teachers quit teaching within five years of entering the profession. Their feelings are summed up by Gaster, a commenter from a Guardian column in January of 2012:

I teach for 25 hours in a 35 hour week. The ten hours when I’m not actually in the classroom are all filled up with marking online registers (a joke – they were supposed to save time but actually take longer since we still have to complete the same old paper registers as well as the online ones), completing reviews/reports, dealing with other admin duties and, of course, marking. I routinely do about 2 hours of unpaid overtime, finishing my marking and preparing lessons, every night. That is also what I do with my Sundays.

I know I could be a better teacher if I didn’t have to spend so much time on mundane admin duties. From a headteacher’s point of view (in my experience) it is always possible to add yet another layer of unread paperwork, but it is never possible to take one away.

It’s that simple. Give us the time to prepare lessons. Not all teachers are prepared to do all that unpaid work at home, and I can’t say I blame them. It’s no wonder that lessons can be a bit un-inspiring when staff aren’t allowed sufficient time to prepare. The excessive unpaid overtime is one of the major reasons why so many newly qualified teachers quit within a few years of taking up their first teaching posts.

At least one free school is already running for six days a week, fifty-one weeks of the year and any growing trend or policy that burdens teachers with fewer breaks and increased workloads can only serve to exacerbate this appalling situation. In addition, over-tired and stressed professionals who are not functioning at their best will be unable to provide students with the highest standard of education. Furthermore, it will become increasingly difficult to build up a core of high quality, experienced teachers to replace those retiring, thereby reducing education standards further down the line.

Parents

Some parents have perfectly understandable reasons for wishing to see the summer holidays shortened and the school breaks more evenly distributed throughout the year. These include childcare (cost of and logistics of arranging), cost of keeping their children entertained and the difficulties of booking leave at the same time as their partners at a time when so many other people want time off work. The final and perhaps biggest reason is the spike in prices by holiday providers and airlines due to the peak demand for their services. But do all these complaints hold water? Whilst the issues over childcare for such a long period appear to be valid, in most cases there would be no less school holidays across the year so the cost of school holiday childcare would not be reduced, merely spread out across the year. If this made it easier for cash strapped families to budget for child care then that has to be a valid consideration. Equally, if it makes it easier for parents to book their annual leave together this is another sound reason for moving to an increased number of shorter breaks throughout the year. That being said, unless the tourism industry was prepared to remove its peak and off-peak pricing policies in line with the more evenly distributed periods of higher demand then the costs of holidays would not diminish. My worry is that they would take advantage of the smaller peaks in demand created by the newly arranged school holidays and no financial gain would be made for hard-pressed families.

Conclusion

There are gains and losses for all concerned. But if re-arranging the school terms were to improve the economy by more evenly distributing the tourism revenue throughout the year thus creating steadier jobs for those concerned and make it easier for parents and children to spend quality time together then it is worth considering as a realistic option.

There are however, two factors which must be taken into account.

  1. It is not a worthwhile long-term strategy if you do not seek to reduce the administration burden on teachers in return for removing their much-needed summer break. Increasing the length of school days and extending the school week to six days will do nothing to achieve this goal.
  2. The ability of schools to be able to set their own term dates needs to be rethought urgently. Even where neighbouring LEAs operate different holidays to one another problems can occur for families living close the borders of the authorities concerned. If individual schools within the same towns were working to dissimilar schedules chaos could ensue if siblings in different schools were on holiday at separate times.

It may well be that in these straitened times our children will have to sacrifice their halcyon days of Summer for the greater good, but given the limited potential gains economically and educationally is it really a price worth paying?

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