Posts filed under ‘Schools’

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

Stranded in Lanzarote – JCQ response a disgrace

When people first heard that we were stranded in Lanzarote as a result of Eyjafjallajoekull a first reaction was to comment how lucky we were. However, the truth belies that.

We were psychologically prepared initially for a one week holiday in a villa on the island. We were not psychologically prepared for our stay to be extended indefinitely, in the event for an additional week.

A great deal of the extra time was spent trying to find a flight home, feeling lost in limbo up to the time we did eventually manage to find one.

There were additional living expenses, which in theory we should be able to claim back from our airline, but in truth are expecting a mighty battle over.

Whilst you might think our kids would have relished this additional time off school there reactions were in fact very different.

Our 15 year old daughter got very upset at the prospect, realising that she would miss key lessons as preparation for GCSE’s, in particular missing a mock GCSE in PE the proper exam of which she is taking next week. She is a high achiever, very motivated, and until this happened on track for some great results. What upset her was the prospect of this being put at risk, through no fault of her own.

To help with this we got the school to email the mock GCSE paper which she then took in our hotel room, emailing the results back to school for marking. Up to the point of taking this mock she had been quite worried and miserable, but it was remarkable how she perked up immediately after having sat the mock.

Our 12 year old son reacted very differently. He is in Year 8, not yet on the GCSE treadmill, apart from in fast track French. For him the extra time off school was a bonus, more time in the pool and in the sea.

They did both miss their friends, Mum and Dad being poor substitutes, despite my efforts to regress which served only to embarrass. They were able to have some Facebook contact but despite all you can’t beat good old face to face stuff.

In response to our email to them explaining the situation the school did manage to inform ‘most’ of their subject teachers. I highlight ‘most’ because I do feel that missing the odd teacher was sloppy. One of my daughters’ subject teachers had no idea of the situation and was completely unprepared for remedial action on her return.

In order to reassure my daughter that she would not miss out as a result of our enforced stay I told her that her circumstances would be taken into account, and if it was adjudged that due to the prevailing circumstances she was put at a disadvantage in her preparation she would be able to take, say her PE GCSE, at a later date. She said this would not be the case. I swore it was. She was right.

It seems that whilst the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) has said that some oral exams and practical tests would be re-arranged they also insist that no written A level or GCSE exams would be rescheduled. Why? I’ll tell you in a minute.

And where does that leave my daughter. She has done absolutely everything that has been asked of her, she is an asset to her school, she is on track, through her own efforts, for some fantastic results in her exams. When some of this is put at risk, through no fault of her own, can she depend on the ‘system’ to be sufficiently flexible to support her appropriately? No she can’t. Why not? Simply because they can’t be arsed – it would require a certain about of reorganisation and I can only assume that it is to avoid the necessity for this that the JCQ have decided, ahead of time, not to offer any flexibility for written exams.

I think this is appalling, and yet another nail in the coffin for an education system that thinks more of itself than it does of its pupils.

April 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm Leave a comment

Dad’s beaming

basketball_net small

More on the ‘finding oneself’ theme following my post In the element about Eric who is now playing the Artful Dodger in the West end production of Oliver.

Happily this one concerns my own daughter, Charlotte. Last week she captained the school basketball team that won the under 14’s national championships at the Nottingham Wildcats Arena. She was also ‘mentioned in dispatches’ with four of her team mates for superb commitment leading up to the finals and outstanding performance on the day.

Naturally I have immense pride in her for this achievement but hand on heart I would have to say that she achieved this despite us, her parents, not because of us. Her pursuance of basketball clearly gives her immense pleasure on many levels and although we have supported her in it (largely through ferrying her around) we have not been driving her in it.

The drive and determination to succeed has come wholly from her. Her school, which is a specialist sports school, led by coach Matt Kelly (a charismatic character who commands great respect from those he coaches), also has supported and encouraged her and the whole team. The boys team who he coaches as well also won, an outstanding achievement.

The environment in which this has occurred is a real example of how education should be. Not driven, but supportive, not prescriptive but collaborative, allowing talent and natural inclinations to shine.

And incidentally, Charlotte has been selected for the Sussex basketball team. She’s in her element, Dad’s beaming.

May 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm Leave a comment

The ‘lottery’ is here to stay

Not the Camelot one, the Brighton and Hove admissions one.

Following my previous post on March 4th about a potential review of the so called school admissions ‘lottery’ system I am pleased that last week it was announced that in Brighton and Hove the system will stay as it currently is at least for the next 3 years, until 2012, when it will be reviewed.

This is exoneration for the two years hard graft and emotional cost by those like me who spent so much of their lives trying to get the best possible (admittedly not perfect) system.

Bearing in mind that at the time of the initial implementation of the current system the conservatives did their very best to ensure that it was not accepted the fact that it is Vanessa Brown, conservative deputy leader of the council, who now extols the virtues of the system is good but somewhat exasperating.

The arguments she now uses for the ‘lottery’ system are the very arguments those of us who developed and supported the system extolled during the review process and the very arguments which her fellow conservatives rejected out of hand.

Unfortunately there is little common sense in this, and a lot of politicking.

I doubt that anything will change in the next three years to render the ‘lottery’ system anything other than the best fit for Brighton and Hove. I can’t see all Brighton schools magically relocated (location being a large part of the original admissions difficulties) in this time.

But given that a change of government is likely before the review date, who would not bet that a battle to retain the system beyond 2012 will have to be fought. Given, also, that the comprehensive two year review that has taken place did look at all feasible alternatives, any system other than the current one will almost certainly be a backwards step for the city.

I am generally an optimist and not particularly prone to doom mongering, but in this instance I feel bad things in my water. I do hope I am wrong.

April 6, 2009 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

19th century education meets 21st century building under BSF

I was having a look at a Teachers TV video about a building completed under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

This is the  Hadley Learning Community building in Telford which was completed in January 2007 and is regarded as a flagship building under the programme.

The building is designed to house facilities for primary, secondary, children with severe and profound learning difficulties, early education and childcare, and a variety of community activities and is something of a behemoth

There were a couple of issues that were raised in the video that I found disturbing and perhaps typical of what goes on under the BSF programme.

Firstly it became clear that when the building opened to secondary students the needs of the students in respect of their settling into this radically different environment (from their older, smaller school) were not properly accounted for.

In fact the centres principal Dr Gill Etough, who guided the whole building project from its beginnings, doesn’t feel that ‘anybody in the whole Building Schools for Future has really [noticed that we need to know how to] deal with the kids to make them more settled’.

This is astounding considering that the secondary school exists to serve the needs of its pupils, or should do. I suspect that the senior management of the centre were blinded by the glory of the building itself.

Secondly when Dr Etough went into one of the classrooms and the children didn’t stand up she said to them, ‘Aren’t you supposed to stand up when I walk into the room’ to which they were all required to stand up and intone ‘Good morning Dr Etough’.

This is astonishing and something from the 19th century, not the 21st.

For me this one of the issues with the whole BSF programme. Apart from the fact that it is attempting to ‘predict the future’ at a time when the future is particularly unpredictable, there is a disconnect between the architects vision of the 21st century school building and the education vision of those who will run it.

As one of the pupils commented when asked what she thought of the new building, ‘It’s ok, but schools, school’.

March 16, 2009 at 1:08 pm Leave a comment

Admissions balls

As those who live in Brighton and have children will know two years ago a change was made to the schools admissions system to a system now known generally as the ‘lotto’ system (I prefer to refer to it as a ballot system which is actually what it is). Having been implemented in Brighton successfully it has since been taken up by many local authorities across the country.

Now I hear that there is a possibility that the system may be scrapped with no suggestion as to what it might be replaced with.

This is absolutely extraordinary. I was involved at the leading edge of the campaign that succeeded in getting the new system implemented. It was fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time, but now even the local Tories have admitted that the system has worked well and is certainly far fairer than the system it replaced. This was based on a ‘distance to school’ criterion and excluded large swathes of the city form their nearest schools.

The current system which took into account the new ‘admissions code’ was developed after a two year period of analysis involving much modelling of alternative systems. This also involved a newly formed parents stakeholder group with representation form around the city and which had members on the main working party established by the council to look at the issue.

Over the period of analysis there was considerable public consultation and the resulting system was scrutinised in depth by the schools adjudicator when opponents of the system raised objections with him, all of which he rejected.

After all that effort, and when the new system is just two years old, but giving results in terms of meeting parental choice significantly better than the old system considering scrapping it is not just madness, it is in my view irresponsible.

Ed Balls says the concentration of resources should be on improving schools so that all schools in all areas are equally sought after. So let’s concentrate on that rather than wasting money on the inevitable expensive processes that would be involved if the current admissions system is scrapped.

March 4, 2009 at 5:35 pm Leave a comment

Forget research, let’s look at the evidence

This post is an addendum to my previous tiny post about new research showing that smaller class sizes would help to improve learning’.

I read about that just after having read several articles in Vision, Futurlab’s magazine, littered with all kinds of research projects and findings about how we learn, games in education, informal learning etc. – the list goes on.

All interesting reading, much of it gathering evidence for significant changes in our education system. But one does wonder how many research reports are needed before real fundamental change becomes possible.

In October at the Handheld Learning Conference in London Stephen Heppell said :

“It’s time to be cracking on. Its time for us to say we have done enough confirming what we knew already. It’s time for us to act on what we knew.”

He was talking about implementing radical changes in our education system, many made possible through digital technology, to allow young people greater involvement in their own learning.

The problem is that such change must involve teachers, parents and pupils many of whom are not yet ready for change for a variety of reasons. So, actually to convince more people of the necessity and value of change evidence is still needed.

But I don’t think it is academic research as such that we need. I think we can find all the evidence we need through simple observation of how young people behave in different circumstances, what switches them on, what turns them off, what they are really capable off, what they want to do, trusting them with their own futures.

This week Teachers TV have a focus on education of the future and every morning have a presentation by a different education guru. One of these is by author and educational consultant Tony Buzan, great proponent of mind mapping techniques (

He argues that we should not be teaching young people ‘what’ to learn, but should be teaching them ‘how’ to learn.

I think young people already know ‘how’ to learn, evidenced by all the things they learn before they even get to school. Fundamentals like walking and talking, colours, numbers, different animals etc. Some of these they take on for themselves, some we, the parents and carers,  teach. But nowhere on that journey does anyone teach ‘how’ to learn.

I also think kids want to learn, and will learn best if allowed to do so, if trusted to do so without too much interference.

February 2, 2009 at 4:19 pm 1 comment


I just read this in last weeks TES:

Most teachers think smaller class sizes would help to improve learning according to a new poll’

You don’t say!!

January 26, 2009 at 3:04 pm Leave a comment

Head in the cloud

In my last post I mentioned ‘cloud computing’ as the future for schools, removing the struggles with networks and other technology needs that many schools endure.

A couple of additional things about that:

Firstly a youtube video which shows what cloud computing is:

Secondly, amongst many others, a compelling reason for schools to participate in cloud computing is because of the inevitable increase, as they implement more technology,  in unstructured data. Such things as email, instant messaging, word  processing documents, web page content, audio and video files need classification, storage and retrieval conventions and standards that are difficult to arrive at, implement and manage.

This is just another layer of technical expertise and management that serves to deflect from core activities, in the case of schools, education provision.

The more I consider this the more I believ in this inevitability of schools going the cloud computing route. If I am right about this, all those involved in technology provision in the education system from central and local government to individual schools should be taking it into account in their planning.

January 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm 2 comments

Mick Landmann on education, digital technology, and the 21st century

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