16 August 2009

League Tables need to reflect employers views

I really like Michael Gove's thinking over School League tables.

There is no doubt that some schools have changed their systems solely to improve where they stand in the league tables, and a strong suspicion that this is often against the best interests of some of their students.

The question we need to ask is; which system is most likely to get a school to encourage a student to take a course that stretches them and tests their ability? Certainly not one where a Media Studies degree rates the same as Maths, History or English, even though an employer rates the latter more strongly

When I visited Cambridge earlier this year, I heard an admissions tutor say that they wouldn't look seriously at certain A Levels and that they would give more weight to others. When it comes down to it, our league tables and how we weight exams must be based around how Universities and employers rate them, not on a piece of wishful thinking from the Government.

Does that make some exams second rate. Only if people portray it that way. It is just a case of the right exams for the right students. The same argument has been made about FE. There is nothing second rate about FE colleges - they are just as vital as Universities, just different. We need plumbers just as much as we need teachers and barristers (arguably more than we need barristers).

That is the point of education - it is about developing young people and getting them on the stepping stone to the right career. Part of that is about stretching them and encouraging them to do better. Weighting exams is more likely to ensure that this stretch is in the system.

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15 June 2009

Ed balls says he wants an honest debate, but then....

I have just watched Ed Balls on Sky News, agreeing that an honest debate is needed on taxes. He then went on to talk about the desire to continue raising schools' funding.

I am sure this will be of interest to the growing number of schools who have had to make cuts this year to prevent them setting deficit budgets.

The biggest issue with education funding is that too much is managed and controlled from the centre. Labour want every school to belong to a category of some sort so that they can then dictate how to improve, effectively bypassing the LEAs and the people that know those schools best. All of this eats money which could and should be passed directly to schools. The right leaders in those schools will be able to use that funding to improve in a way that suits their culture and ethos, not the one dictated by Government.

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14 June 2009

Education Reforms - The Conservatives are Right

I have jsut watched Michael Gove on Andrew Marr and was, as ever, quite impressed with what I saw. The idea he is proposing to end KS2 SATs and to test when children enter secondary school is really well thought out. He quite rightly points out that many good secondary schools already test when children arrive and also that it would free up time at hte end of KS2 for teaching rather than preparing for SATs.

There is anotehr advantage as well. There is some concern that the knowledge gained from preparing for SATs is often temporary - that it is soon forgotten, because it is about the test rather than in the best interests of the student. Testing at the start of Autumn term will make sure that it is a test of embedded knowledge. Surely that is a useful benefit.

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17 August 2008

The way forward after the SATs crisis

The Government were absolutely right to cancel the contract for ETS, who have overseen an absolute fiasco in the marking of this year's Key Stage 2 and 3 SATs tests. There is no way that schools would ever have had confidence in these tests with ETS in control of marking. Much of the media emphasis has been on late marking, but the problems are far more systemic with errors being reported in delivery and collection of papers, bad marking, late marking and administrative nightmares. Coupled with this ETS never managed to put a decent system in place to liaise with schools over their problems.

The Government must now explain why they chose to use ETS, despite concerns about their performance when marking similar tests overseas.

It is also time for a radical rethink of SATs as a whole. When SATs were introduced it was absolutely the right thing to do - it has led to a revolution in the use of data within schools, to the point where any school worth its salt has a real understanding of the progress every single one of its students is making. But, if this is now the case, why on earth do we then need to go through the palaver of months and months of test preparation to confirm evidence that everyone needs is already there?

My own view is that schools own assessments should now be used as the measure of standard, including replacing league tables, with a refurbished OfSted system used to moderate and confirm that schools are getting their measurement right.

It would mean more proper learning for our children, instead of teaching towards tests; it would mean schools are still accountable and parents are still able to make comparisons, but it would take away a great deal of stress and wasted effort.

But it would also lead to a much needed review of the OfStEd system,which remains (inevitably) unpopular amongst teachers, but is now increasingly having its own standards questioned. In the past at least OfStEd used to get its inspections right; the right schools were selected for Special Measures and the right schools got Outstanding reports. But there is increasing evidence that OfStEd are getting the outcomes of some of its inspections wrong.

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09 December 2007

More interference in schools is not the answer

Ed Balls has announced a major review of primary education, it seems with a view to loosening up the curriculum to focus on core subjects.

I don't disagree with the principles here, but the best way of delivering the desired result is to reduce interference not to do more. Why not give schools the freedom to set their own curriculum and make them accountable for delivering the right outcomes, then focus on those that fail to deliver?

Change after change after change is demoralising for teachers, confusing for parents and destabilises education.

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14 November 2007

Class Sizes

Apparently there is, once again, a drive to reduce class sizes as a supposed healer of all our educational ills.

I would rather my daughter was in a class of 30 children with a great teacher than in a class of 20 with a rubbish one. Excellent standards of individual teaching and leadership in our schools are the key to children thriving in our education system, it is more important that we put money and effort into this and take the hard decisions to weed out teachers that are not up to it, rather than take a short term decision that might lead to even more inadequate teachers in our schools.


24 October 2007

David Cameron is right about school surpluses

I am absolutely chuffed that David Cameron chose to highlight the issue about clawback of schools surpluses in PMQs today. It is a scandalous policy that discourages responsible financial management.

As an example Sir Harry Smith Community College, where I am a Governor recently built a new library from an accrued surplus, it is a great facility (which also has a great librarian - my wife, Angela) that has come about because of responsible financial management.

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20 October 2007

Learning by Rote - The New Thing

Michael Gove is featured in the Telegraph today, suggesting that we need to copy the practices of top schools, which includes getting back to some of the more regimented methods of teaching - including learning by rote.

A few days ago I posted about how learning can be made fun. The flip side of this is that there are times when you just have to make people learn even if the method isn't popular; doing times tables by rote may be one of them.

My mental maths is quite good, and I am sure this is because of the hundreds upon hundreds of times I spent in Primary school reading out times tables; nearly 40 years later they are still stuck in my head. I know there are many other people that could say the same thing and, like me, could give numerous examples of where it has helped them.

Interestingly, I did an Open University exam last Monday (about the English language) and whilst I was revising I went back to the old tried and tested methods of creating and learning mnemonics and memorising dates by rote, which again can be boring, but certainly paid off in a number of areas (although we wait to see how the exam went overall).

The overall purpose of our education system is about preparing our young people for life. Nothing more, nothing less. If doing something dull but effective contributes to that, then it is worth it.

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15 October 2007

Making Learning Fun - Warwick Davis

One of the joys of having responsibility for Learning as a Cabinet Member, and being a Governor at Sir Harry Smith CC is that I get to see events that help bring learning alive for our students.

This morning, when I should have been doing last minute revision for my OU exam, I went to Sir Harry Smith to see Warwick Davis, who many of you will know as the actor who starred in Willow with Val Kilmer, plays Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter films and played Marvin in the recent Hitch-hikers Guide film (I could go on and on here).

Warwick's presentation was excellent, the children were totally absorbed as he took them through his own personal history, but also covered topics like the complicated make-up process that is involved in many of the characters he has played and a little of the science behind the substances that are used as make-up in his many films. I like this sort of education, where learning is taking place without the student even being aware.

Warwick never charges for his visits, but is often in the press for doing similar trips to schools all around the Peterborough area, he is a credit to his profession. He is also shortly to star in Celebrity Scissorhands as part of Children In Need - a great move.

Vote Warwick.

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29 July 2007

Graham Brady wants the best of both worlds

Graham Brady wants a return to grammar schools, a policy that is an instant turn-off to many of the people David Cameron is trying to attract to the party.

Today he has criticised David Cameron for not appealing to those very voters his grammar school ethos turns off the most.

It disappoints me to see a Conservative MP wanting to have his cake and eat it in this way, we are much, much better than this.

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20 June 2007

The Snail and other inspirational questions

As a Cabinet Member you get involved in some difficult and complex issues - especially in a County like Cambridgeshire which is so poorly funded. But I do sometimes get to do things that are an absolute pleasure. Today was a perfect example. I was invited to give out the prize at the end of the Year 5 Maths Challenge event, the climax of which was at Duxford Air Museum today.

I arrived just at the start and, from the word go I saw enthusiasm and talent - some of the questions really took some thinking about. Such as:

'A snail is trying to climb a 1 meter high wall. He climbs 30cm each day and slips back 20cm at night. How many days does it take for the snail to reach the top?'

Now if, like me, you did a straight 100/(30-20) and came up with 10 you would be wrong. But many of the groups (of 10 year olds remember!!) got it right. The answer is 8 by the way.

All I can say is it was a privilege to play a tiny part in that event and it was heartening to see such clever kids. My congratulations to everyone who took part.

I know this isn't my usual sort of post - but I have decided I want to occasionally be a bit more positive in this blog.

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01 June 2007

A U-Turn or just common sense?

Much is being made of the apparent U-turn by the Conservatives over Grammar schools. Too much in fact. It may be a slight change in policy - but it is a common sense one.

We have unprecedented growth in housing at the moment, infrastructure must come alongside that growth and that includes schools. In a County like Buckinghamshire, Grammar schools are the way things operate - it makes absolutely no sense to create another schools system solely because of a dogmatic need to stick to a policy.

It does suggest that some of the words used early in the debate should have been better thought out, but allowing more Grammar schools to be built in Buckinghamshire does make sense.

My comments about the benefits of Comprehensive education still stand, no U-turns here either.


31 May 2007

Graham Brady and the results are everything approach

Graham Brady has written quite a thought provoking article in the Telegraph today. However, it is yet another education article written solely from the perspective that the only important thing about children's education is results. The article is flawed in another way too - selection is not the only route to excellent results anyway - it is only one.

But, to me, the purpose of children's education is to develop well-rounded individuals and to prepare them for the next stage in their lives. I accept that qualifications are an importnat part of that. But I would argue that surrounding young people with an acedemic elite is less likely to provide the same rounded perspective that can be gained from enabling children to mix with peers of mixed backgrounds, abilities and talents - and that is the advantage that Comprehensives offer.

I would like to say that I feel that the debate within the Conservative Party has been very, very healthy.

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29 May 2007

Graham Brady - A matter of principle?

I agree with most of what Iain Dale has said on his blog about Graham Brady's resignation. I agree with him that Graham Brady will benefit from resigning (more so than if he had waited to be pushed). I also agree that the so-called anonymous briefings do not help. If politicians cannot be up front and have their comments attributed to them they shouldn't bother. What is wrong with someone in the whips office saying "it is expected that Shadow Cabinet members air their grievances in private, Graham Brady has been reminded of this"? I suspect it would have achieved the same outcome, but would have been far more honest and in-tune with how politics should be conducted.

Where I disagree with Iain is where he says:

"By provoking a resignation in this way, the Party hierarchy has shown it will brook no dissent from its MPs (and candidates, I guess)"

To me, forcing Graham Brady's resignation shows that a Shadow Minister is expected to be loyal; it sends no message whatsoever about backbenchers or candidates.

One other aspect of this is the implication that Grammar Schools are the only solution to social mobility. They are one solution and one that works - but good comprehensive education is also a legitimate vehicle for academically capable children - I see it every single day though the example of my own children and others. That is where I disagree with Graham Brady and why it is right that he should not air his views publicly whilst he is on the Conservative Front Bench. His views undermine the great work that is being done through gifted and talented programs to nurture bright children and ensure the social mobility that he implies comprehensive education cannot provide.

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16 May 2007

It's not just about the academically gifted

The Conservative decision to support City Academies and Technology Colleges is partially right. There are loads of balances to be struck over getting the right size and structure of school to make them manageable, yet sufficiently flexible as to offer a true comprehensive education.

David Willets mentions the need to use schools as a vehicle to improve social mobility - he is dead right; schools should be such that anyone with academic talent can thrive. But, once again, the need for schools to inspire and deliver for those without academic talent seems to have been forgotten.

Comprehensive Schools should be about delivering a comprehensive range of education, making sure that those who are less academic can have other talents nurtured. We need a return to more practical based education, taking the theory out of Food Tech, making it about cooking. The same for woodwork and metalwork and why not throw in more practical science and a bit of bricklaying and electrical knowledge. All young adults need to leave education knowing that they can contribute to society and knowing that they have skills - schools are not just about academia. (and please don't tell me that is what vocational GCSEs are about - because, in the main, they are not!!)

Try to imagine how demotivated you would feel if you were a non-academic in today's "GCSEs are everything" education system?


08 January 2007

Ruth Kelly - Hypocrite

Ruth Kelly's feeble attempt to use the sympathy vote to explain why she has chosen to send her child to a public school does nothing to escape the truth. She has made that choice because, in her eyes, the schools of choice are failing and because she can afford it.

I have no issue with Public School, it is a legitimate choice; it offer advantages such as lower staff to pupil ratios and a methodology that engenders self-confidence. We also live in a capitalist society which is driven by aspiration, being able to aspire to earn sufficient money to be able to send your child to public school is a positive thing.

However, this Labour Government believe in none of those things. They are wedded to a Comprehensive system that they claim is succeeding, so for a former Education Secretary to send a child to a public school because State Schools cannot cater for the needs of her child is hypocritical.

I should add that I am Comprehensive School educated and proud of it, so are my two children. Good Comprehensive education also offers significant benefits, such as a real, bottom up perspective on what life is about. Public School is there for those who have worked hard enough and/or smart enough (or been lucky enough) to reach a position where they can afford to make that decision. The role of Government is to make that choice as difficult as possible by beefing up the quality of our State system. Ruth Kelly has just proven that, in this respect, the Government has failed.

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30 November 2006

School Visits

The Government's response to the decline in the number of organised school visits is to throw a very small bucket of money at it. It is a typical New Labour response. It allows them to claim to have done something without actually dealing with the real complexities of the problem.

As a School Governor I have been on quite a few residential trips, in fact I have been on a 5 day trip to York for the last 3 years and it is always one of the highlights of my year. There is no doubt that children get immense amounts out of them and it is always rewarding to see difficult children really start to blossom at the end of the week when they have learned to enjoy themselves working within boundaries.

One of the other things I see is the immense amount of work that goes into them and the obsession with risk assessment -and it is that area than needs to be examined to give teachers confidence to engage in these useful activities.

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