October 2010

The know zone

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    A disciplinary issue involving a school leader highlights important questions about the respective legal responsibilities of governors and local authorities, says Richard Bird. More
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    While no one likes to consider the prospect of redundancy, there are measures you can take to ensure that your finances are in the best possible state should the worst happen. More
  • Recipe for success
    Sam Ellis invites ASCL members to submit their own data and experiences to help provide the coalition government with expert guidance as it cooks up new ideas for education. More
  • Personnel shopper
    After working in transport, retail and local government, Tracy Nash is now personnel manager at Horbury School in Wakefield and a training consultant for ASCL. A food and wine enthusiast, she and her friends recently staged their own version of the TV show Come Dine with Me. More
  • The great call of China
    The British Council is inviting students to enter a Mandarin speaking competition and schools to apply for funding to develop partnerships between China and the UK. More
  • Lost in translation?
    The government is reviewing the teaching of languages in schools following a continued decline in the numbers taking modern foreign languages at GCSE. So what should be the future for languages in schools? More
  • Friends, romans, citizens... lend me your presentation techniques
    LEADERS’ SURGERY: The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • Filing down bureaucracy
    Proposals to reduce bureaucracy were at the centre of debate at ASCL’s September Council meeting, as was ensuring fairness for all in the education system as the academies programme begins to gather steam. More
  • To 'B' or not to 'B'?
    While the Secretary of State’s announcement of an English Baccalaureate could have signalled a move towards a broader, freer curriculum, the current proposal is a performance measure rather than a new qualification, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Band on the Run
    Leaders of schools and colleges have a lot in common with leaders of rock and roll bands, says Ziggy Flop, just not the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from John Fogerty, Robert Yates, Teddy Roosevelt and Rosalyn Carter. More
  • Engaging with all students
    Many teachers have taught year 11 pupils who fail to engage in learning or are consistently disruptive in class. More
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While the Secretary of State’s announcement of an English Baccalaureate could have signalled a move towards a broader, freer curriculum, the current proposal is a performance measure rather than a new qualification, says Brian Lightman.

To ‘B’ or not to ‘B’?

A major theme of the autumn white paper will be the curriculum and qualifications, and two major speeches in September highlighted the Secretary of State’s likely direction of travel.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the coalition government wishes to reduce prescription and is striving towards the worthy aim of narrowing the gap in attainment between the rich and the poor.

Yet as the curriculum review is launched, school and college leaders are trying to understand how the promises of freedom and the removal of prescription correlate with the stated commitment to return to a more traditional form of teaching, the emphasis on transmission of a body of knowledge and very specific preferences, such as synthetic phonics as the preferred method of teaching reading.

I was a headteacher too recently to have forgotten what I wanted our students to achieve. The mission statement at St Cyres School was: ‘Strive together, challenge yourself, everyone can succeed’, and this drove the design and planning of our curriculum.

My definition of curriculum has always included the sum total of all of the experiences offered in and outside the classroom and I could not imagine a good school or college which failed to offer that kind of breadth.

My vision of success was to see confident, well-rounded young people leaving us to progress onto the next stage of their education or employment equipped with a broad range of skills and knowledge.

Unknown future

During the last year, ASCL’s 2020 Future project, led by Robert Hill, has added substantially to our understanding of the changing context in which today’s students will live and work.

The project was inspired by the famous quotation by Karl Fisch: “We are preparing young people for jobs that have not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented to solve problems that we do not yet know will arise.”

It has considered in detail the many implications for our education service of a world in which those skills that are easiest to teach are easiest to outsource and automate and in which developments of our understanding of the brain have far reaching implications for pedagogy.

For all of these reasons, I have great difficulty with the statement by Mike Nicholson, head of admissions at Oxford University, that it is “a myth” that non-academic pursuits could make any difference to pupils’ applications, and that students would be better offdevoting more time to their studies than trying to bolster their personal statements through charity work or Duke of Edinburgh awards.

If it’s not broken...

Part of the worry is that in his speeches, such as the one at Westminster Academy, Michael Gove describes a service which needs to be ‘fixed’. In spite of statements about the best ever generation of teachers and leaders, there seems to be a deep-rooted belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with our education service.

This is characterised by ‘cup half empty’ statements such as: “We have hundreds and thousands of persistent truants and thousands of pupils... excluded for disruption and assault” and “about four in ten do not meet basic standards by the age of 11 and only half manage at least a C in both English and Maths GCSE.”

These statements might attract headlines but they do not take forward the debate with a profession that has demonstrated beyond any doubt its commitment to the rapid further improvement of our service. Nor do they tackle the big questions about the challenges we face.

As a possible way forward, Michael Gove surprised us by proposing an English Baccalaureate, which would provide an extra certificate for pupils who gained a defined set of GCSEs in the core subjects including a language (ancient or modern) and a humanity, as well as the core of English, maths and science.

Of course, this is not in itself a qualification. It does not address progression, does not carry additional currency to those GCSE points already awarded by the subject grades, nor does it guarantee that students will gain the kind of ‘soft’ skills which employers are clamouring for and which all learners require.

A number of ASCL members have told me that, while they welcome the commitment to languages, this level of prescription could perversely limit choices for some of the most able students, such as those who want to fit in two languages alongside everything else.

Forcing everyone down such a constrained route could undermine levels of motivation. Ironically it would do precisely what has been rightly criticised by the government – introducing another driver of curriculum design into performance tables.

One member of ASCL Council summed up a lively discussion of this proposal by asking: is a baccalaureate a philosophy with all parts contributing to whole, including credit for non-academic activity – or is it a performance measurement?

We will be continuing to develop further our own proposal for an ASCL Bac which is an overarching qualification.

Vocational review

At the same time the Wolf Review of vocational education has been announced. Unlike the curriculum review, we only have a month to submit our evidence to this review which could have far wider-reaching effects on our service than any changes to the National Curriculum.

The call for evidence states: “The review will not consider specific vocational qualifications and their content, but is instead concerned with structure and institutions.” This does not point to a resolution of the academic/vocational divide.

Nevertheless there is hope. In the same speeches Michael Gove said: “In particular we have to move beyond the sterile debate that sees academic knowledge as mutually exclusive to the skills required for employment and rigour as incompatible with the enjoyment of learning.”

He added: “Employers do, for good reason, value a whole range of practical skills and practical experiences which go far beyond the confines of the most demanding A level papers.”

All of this raises the question of what makes a good education – the topic of ASCL’s fringe meetings at the recent party political conferences.

As the government promises evidence-based policy, ASCL will ensure that we contribute to that evidence. ASCL members have a vast range of experience of the curriculum, teaching and learning in just about every kind of secondary school or college that exists in the UK.

We have much to offer. Many of you have already sent me some of your thoughts. As always we would welcome your further contributions to this important debate.

What makes a good education?

What makes a good education was the topic for debate at ASCL’s fringe meetings at the recent party conferences – co-hosted with AoC and Cambridge Assessment – highly topical as the government embarks on its reviews of vocational learning and of the wider curriculum. Brian Lightman stressed that there are no quick fixes and that a good curriculum is based on the following principles:

  • The curriculum must provide challenge, motivation and progression, delivered through excellent teaching, which develops independent learning skills whilst equipping all students with the knowledge they need.
  • Young people must be equipped with new ways of thinking involving creativity, critical analysis, problem solving and decision making; new ways of working including communication and collaboration; and the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies.
  • We need an end to the arid debate which sees skills and knowledge as mutually exclusive.
  • All students need access to a curriculum which contains academic and vocational aspects.
  • All students need preparation to be active citizens in a complex world. Assessment for learning needs to be integrated as a key to differentiation, motivation and independence.
  • We need a set of qualifications which are comprehensible to all users and, above all, which reflect rather than drive the curriculum.