Posts filed under ‘Kids’

Birbalsingh, Adonis, and Plan B

On Newsnight last night, musician Ben Drew (aka Plan B) talked about his disillusionment with politicians – “no politicians have ever represented me because they have not come from the environment I have.” His relative success as a musician, with some acting, and now directing, thrown in, has occurred, he says, despite, and not because of, politicians or indeed the education system, both of which he considers failed him. His education happened outside the formal education system, because there was no place for him, or for the likes of him within it.

Continuing the piece answering questions from Jeremy Paxman were Katherine Birbalsingh, ex deputy head teacher and proponent of a return to the old ‘traditional’ ways of teaching Latin and of stronger discipline in schools, and ex labour Schools Minister Lord Adonis.

Birbalsingh’s argument for greater discipline is that ‘working class boys are the most vunerable’ when it comes to education and often lack the structure, order and discipline in their home lives that their middle and upper class peers benefit from. It is, therefore, up to the schools, she argues, to provide this. Drew, she explains, “wasn’t inspired in schools because his teachers weren’t free enough to be able to inspire him”. Her solution to this is to “instill structures and systems  to make sure the children are disciplined enough to sit tight so that their teachers are free enough to be able to inspire”.

This conjures up images for me of rows of children dutifully ‘sitting tight’ whilst their teachers strut their inspirational stuff until the period ends and the next cohort are wheeled in to be inspired in turn. We just need some security staff to deal with behaviour issues ensuring the children do indeed ‘sit tight’ and hey presto the teachers are freed up to get on with it. Simple enough!

Problem is children aren’t very good at ‘sitting tight’, goddam them. They are naturally vivacious, full of energy with lively enquiring minds, relishing experience, craving diversity. In fact children are probably the least suited to ‘sitting tight’  of all humankind.

They do love to be inspired, though. My teenage kids can tell me precisely who the good teachers (the ones who inspire) are and the bad teachers (the ones who don’t inspire) are. We all of us have tales about subjects we enjoyed because of the teacher, and subjects we didn’t for the same reason. The teacher in all this is massively important, and can have a real influence on the whole of a childs life. That is why, in my view, we should recognise bad teachers and bad teaching and outlaw both, for the sake of our children. Seriously.

What I found more disturbing about the Newsnight item was Birbalsinghs assertion that “we need absolute order and structure, school uniforms need to be perfect in school”. This honestly sends a chill down my spine. And this made worse by the fact that Lord Adonis (labour) in his own words, completely agreed with her.

I know the boundaries between conservative, labour and indeed, now liberal democrat, governments are very blurred. I would have hoped though, perhaps naively, that the extreme right wing rhetoric of Birbalsingh would at least have been somewhat tempered by Adonis. But not to be, it seems.

Lord Adonis celebrates the ‘success’ of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney whose headmaster values ‘discipline’ and talks about a ‘no excuses’ society (no excuses meaning toe the line, or else). Of course the school is regarded as being successful on their GCSE A – C results and such measures. No account is taken, as far as I can see of the ‘achieving personal potential’ , or ‘happiness’, or ‘fulfilment’ measures, largely because such matters are not measured at all, as though irrelevant.

It would be easy to become depressed by such unenlightened thinking across the political spectrum, but despite all this I remain optimistic about our education system. This is because I know the kids are texting underneath their desks despite mobiles being banned, that they are networked and connected, that there is an unstoppable force that will out regardless.

February 16, 2011 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

Lembit, SAT’s and picnics pot pourri

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Lembit Opik who so unexpectedly lost his seat in the election. But only a bit. Whilst I am sure it is no picnic for him, I have no doubt that when he has finished crying on a Cheeky Girls shoulder he will pick up some tasty work, Portillo like, in the media. He is quite high profile already, as though preparing for just this moment. He has already been on ‘Have I got news for you’ just hours after his fall and this morning on breakfast TV, not just once, but on two different slots.

Michael Portillo’s political demise all those years ago has, it seems, been voted as peoples’ third favourite moment of the 20th century. By his own admission his notoriety at the time has enabled him to reinvent himself and carve out a very nice, and no doubt lucrative, career in the media. If we’re not very careful we are in danger of even calling him a ‘national treasure’ (although on reflection perhaps a step too far).

Lembit does not have the same level of notoriety although his high profile womanising will do him no harm. He is sufficiently known, though, I think to be a prime candidate for picking up some very nice media jobbies, thank you very much, not to mention the autobiography, the diaries!!)

Whilst Lembit has been replaced as MP for Montgomeryshire, it is also no picnic for many head teachers of primary schools who are facing the ignominy of being replaced, at least temporarily, if they boycott the KS 2 SAT’s that are due to be taken this week. Those heads who are participating in the boycott are doing so for very sound, deeply felt educational reasons. The nub of this as one primary head interviewed this morning put it is that she simply did not feel that a 45 minute exam in any way reflected a child’s achievements over their previous 8 years schooling.

Any child that does not do well in their SAT’s knows it, and starts their secondary schooling with that blot on the landscape. This can’t help but affect that child’s confidence, the position they occupy in secondary school, and the view their new teachers have of them. Where there is setting at a secondary school the SAT’s results contribute to what set a child might be put in.

If they are put in top set they will probably feel quite good about themselves (as will their proud parents) although their can also be pressures on them to maintain that position. If they are put in the set below top set, well they are not quite good enough really, are they? If they are put in bottom set, then that means not up to much really, pretty worthless.

We do not literally believe those judgements, or at least we would not admit to it, but a child does. This leads to hundreds and thousands of school children starting the very scary and life changing journey into secondary education already with a chip on their shoulder, already disadvantaged, already with lowered expectations. No picnic at all.

It is in recognition of this, and of the fact that scrapping SAT’s does not mean scrapping ‘assessment’ as such (there are very many robust means of assessing a child progress) that those heads participating in the boycott are doing so. Rather than analysing the legal position of a boycott, or threatening to replace participating heads, it seems to me that the government would benefit from listening properly to the very cogent arguments being proffered.

One reason, I suspect, that the boycott appears to be somewhat patchy is that there seems to be no real political strength apparent in teachers unions. This is typified by a ‘laugh out loud’ moment when I heard on the news this morning that the NUT was holding a ‘protest picnic’ on the issue of KS2 SAT’s. Well, that will show them, won’t it!!!

So no need to worry Ed Balls, Michael Gove, or David Laws (or whatever combination of the three wins influence over the coming days) when it comes to dealing with the NUT, it is a picnic!

May 10, 2010 at 10:29 am Leave a comment

They’re not all on ASBO’s are they!

I read a post recently that came through the BECTA ICT Research Network from a PhD student in Australia who was looking at  the potential of smartphones to deliver personalised learning, something I believe in.

In fact I believe that education content delivered through this medium will become massively important rather faster than people tend to believe (see Ray Kurzweils ‘Law of accelerating returns‘ about the exponential progress of technology). I also believe that through the use of digital technology there is the opportunity to transform education beyond recognition in a way that finally allows our young people to fly.

However, we do have to be careful that our use of smartphone technology for this purpose does not become intrusive in young peoples lives.

Rather worryingly the Australian PhD student characterises the possibilities of smartphone technology for this purpose thus:

‘As we well know, a mobile device can collect data relating to a student’s interests (gathered from search history, applications and communications), location, surroundings and proximity to others (GPS, Bluetooth).

However, what has been less explored is the opportunity for a mobile device to map the movements and activities of a student from moment to moment and over time. This longitudinal data provides a holistic profile of a student, their state and surroundings.

Analysing this data may allow us to identify patterns that reveal a student’s learning processes; when and where they work best and for how long. Through revealing a student’s state and surroundings outside of schools hour, this longitudinal data may also highlight opportunities to transform a student’s everyday world into an inventory for learning, punctuating their surroundings with learning recommendations. This would in turn lead to new ways to acknowledge and validate and foster informal learning, making it legitimate within a formal curriculum.’

I raise this because it is a part of the wider debate we should be engaged in about the real, often unsaid, implications of digital technology. There is an excellent series on BBC2 in the UK, The virtual revolution , that really does express and expose the reality and the dangers of the web based information society we currently live in. You can’t come away from the programme without the feeling that the question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘if’ the personal data about us being gathered by Google or others will at some point be used for purposes more sinister than sales and marketing, but ‘when’ it will be used in this way (or if, indeed, it is already being used so without our knowledge) and what, if anything, we can do about it.

Our children, the so called ‘digital natives’, tend to approach all this with the innocence of the young, gratefully grasping the myriad freebies that they are presented with. It is the duty of the adults who understand this to forewarn our kids of the dangers and to arm them with strategies of defence, even things as simple making it absolutely clear to them that anything digital that they post to the internet, through whatever forum, is there forever. There is no going back.

It is also the duty of adults, I believe, to recognise an over intrusive application of technology as characterised above. My own kids who are 12 and 15 would be absolutely appalled at the idea that there location and movements were being tracked through their mobile phones. A huge part of their maturity is gained from the trust they are shown by their parents and other adults. Stripping this away is condemning them to a sort of nether life where they never feel they can completely take full control of their own lives because we are always watching. After all, it’s not as if they’re all on asbo’s.

We really do need to trust our young people more and believe, as I do, that allowing them to fly means trusting them with far greater control of their own learning.

March 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm Leave a comment

League tables, report cards, scrap the lot

So, according to a survey of nearly 1,400 teachers for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) more than a third of all teachers have serious doubts about the introduction of report cards to replace league tables and I’m with them.

The most controversial aspect of this seems to be the proposal to take a variety of criteria about a school as a basis for awarding a single grade.  Presumably some sort of magic formula would be applied, and hey presto, out pops the grade.

In New York they already operate such a system, but are in the process of adjusting things to deal with the ‘problem’ that 97% of New York schools are getting an A or B grade. Presumably this means that 97% of schools in New York are very good (according to the criteria) so what is the ‘problem’.

The problem is that this does not allow them to identify better and worse schools (the A&B’s and the C&D’s) on which the whole warped notion of apparent choice based on suspect criteria depends. This is, of course, is how our league table system also currently works based upon a set of criteria (established by governments by the way, and not by teachers, parents and pupils) to place schools higher or lower in the table.

Essential to its success is the creation, or maintenance, of an underclass, the C’s and D’s purely for the purpose of having some measurement on which to judge, the better and the worse. And how far does this extend – better and worse, winners and losers, good schools and bad schools, good pupils and bad pupils, clever kids and stupid kids, kids with a future and kids with no hope.

This is simply divisive and leads the worse performing schools working very hard to lift the morale of their pupils who know that they are regarded as failures, as the dregs, by the broader society around them.

Come on. Time to recognise that a 21st century education system is about fulfilment and that the ability of a school to deliver an environment where each child can fulfil their individual potential cannot possibly be expressed in a single grade, or indeed on the number of A-C’s achieved.

Personally, I would not change the way report cards may be used, I would scrap the whole bloody nonsense of such measurement altogether.

February 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

andwriting and spelchekin

I had a really interesting discussion with my kids last night about how appropriate the school tasks they are given are to the requirements of the 21st century. The kids are 15 and 12 and the discussion centred round my daughters (15 year old) creative writing homework.

More specifically it centred around the fact that she was not allowed to present this as a printout (or even in an electronic form – a Word document, for example) but it had to be hand written and the quality of handwriting would be subject to a mark, in addition to marks for other attributes of the work. Furthermore, it seems that whilst the mark for other attributes of the work contributed to the general grading for the piece of work, the marks for the handwriting were disregarded in this respect.

My question to the kids was that in a world of word processing and spell checking was the requirement to hand write this piece not a little archaic?

Their view was that, given that the bulk of other written assignments they had to perform were word processed, there was some value in keeping the, let’s face it, dying art of handwriting alive. And I would admit that it does seem appropriate somehow that this should be done in the context of a creative writing piece.

On the question of spell checking they argued that they had to look at their spelling in a different way if they did not have the luxury of a spell checker to utilise. This meant, in their view, that their spelling would improve.

My argument was that even if the good intentions of the school were to keep handwriting alive, assigning a mark to it, which was then for all intents and purposes ignored, was rather pointless. Give feedback, yes, but not mark.

I get the kids point about spellchecking, that somehow without the benefit of this they had to work harder to get their spellings right. Presumably the teacher, when marking the work, will point out misspellings. If so, why not have the misspellings identified by a spell checker prior to the piece of work being handed in. Makes no difference, as far as I can see, how or when misspellings are identified, as long as they are done so at some point. And allowing this to be picked up early could save valuable teacher time.

In the event, my daughter constructed the piece on her laptop, spell checked it, and then transposed it into her own handwriting.  Wouldn’t any half thinking person do the same?

Overall I can see the sense on insisting that kids do some handwriting, particularly if it does at least delay the complete demise of the noble art. But the issue around spell checking does, it seem to me, highlight the confusion that exists as we see the much greater use of technology in our schools. It is a transitory time. It is important that we embrace the changes that we are presented with, and not let them confuse the issues.

January 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm Leave a comment

Adding layers of discontent

disaffected youth small

So all unemployed young people are going to be offered training, a work placement, or a job. If they refuse they will have their benefit cut.

Great stuff eh! This will help with the rising problems of youth unemployment – a growing number of disaffected youth forced into doing jobs, training or work placements they don’t want to do.

30 years ago I ran a similar government scheme (shows my age), intended to deal with the problems of rising youth unemployment, called the ‘Youth Opportunities Scheme’ or YOP.

The scheme I ran was in the Black Country and with 2 other colleagues we ran three coordinated schemes in creative writing, photography and magazine design and production. Each scheme fed the others and resulted in the publication of a monthly young people’s topical magazine called ‘The first real headache’.

The content of the magazine included topical articles, interviews with famous people and others in the community, cartoons, photographs, competitions, reviews etc. and was produced wholly by the young people themselves with guidance from us.

These were 16 year olds and in order to gather the materials for the magazine they had to go out into community to conduct interviews, get photographs etc. for the publication. We trusted them to do this responsibly and allowed them to undertake these activities without supervision. Without exception they returned our trust and did a fantastic job. It was a really good magazine.

Then the day arrived when the men in suits arrived to make a spot inspection. It happened that a number of the young people were out in the community undertaking various tasks for the magazine. The suits were appalled that we allowed them to go out there without close and constant supervision.

They were not in the least bit interested in the quality of the magazine the young people were producing, or that they had always shown themselves to be wholly responsible. All they were interested in was that the kids should be ‘contained’.

(In 1983 the Youth Opportunities Schemes were renamed Youth Training Schemes presumably in recognition of the fact that they offered no opportunities at all).

And it’s happening again. This is a containment policy, a pretence that something real is being done for young people. Actually the opposite is happening. By requiring young people to do things that they may not want to at all they are they are ensuring that these kids move further away from their own natural inclinations and aspirations the development of which the education system is supposed to deliver.

Michelangelo said that his statue of David was not created by him, but already existed in the stone. His task was merely to remove those parts of the stone that were not David. This awful containment policy being introduced will simply have the effect of adding more layers of discontent leaving young people further from their essence than ever. It’s a disgrace.

July 2, 2009 at 12:20 pm 1 comment

Try leading by example!

leading-people small

To a question I raised on Twitter, ‘Can we persuade parents to be radical with their kids education?’ I received the reply, ‘Try leading by example’. The question arose from my previous blog item, ‘Education. It’s a risky business’ in which I raise the issue of the innate conservatism us parents tend towards when it comes to our kids education.

Yet we have an education system that is out of step with the times, an education system that was made for the needs of industrialism, not for the current needs of information based digital society.

And we do, right now, have a unique opportunity to change that, by invoking digital technology to allow truly personalised learning. However, for this to happen, radical changes to the current system will be required.

For example, we must move away from a classroom model to a more fluid model, we must move away from a 9-3, 3 term, September to September model to one that recognises that learning can and does take place 24/7, we must find ways of  replacing exams with other means of assessment (ideally self assessment), we must value creativity as a lynchpin for all learning and most important of all we must value and trust our young people and give them control of their own learning.

These are radical changes which depend for their implementation on winning the hearts and souls of governments, teachers, parents, and pupils alike.

There is no panacea. I cannot do something with my kids that somehow ‘leads by example’. This would be a misunderstanding of the issue. What I want to see changed is the system itself such that my kids and everybody’s kids can satisfy their natural curiosities and become self fulfilled. I want to see a system that delivers on the promise of the 1967 Plowden report that:

The school sets out … to devise the right environment for children, to allow them to be themselves and to develop in the way and at the pace appropriate to them……… It lays special stress on individual discovery, on first-hand experience and on opportunities for creative work. It insists that knowledge does not fall into neatly separate compartments and that work and play are not opposite but complementary.

The example I can lead with is one of raising the issues, producing evidence, working with the players towards the desired end just as I did in my campaigning efforts that led to a fairer admissions system in Brighton and Hove.

I can also, of course, lead by example by myself being kind, giving, caring, compassionate, all the virtues we would like of our children. In this I do my best.

June 4, 2009 at 12:08 pm 1 comment

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