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The ScoutsLast Monday I attended the launch of the Demos report ‘Learning by Doing’, hosted jointly with The Scouts Association, in the majestic surroundings of the State Rooms within the Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster. This was an event on ‘non-formal learning’ and the role it can play in character development. Alongside Dweck’s growth-mindset, character traits such as ‘grit’ (see Paul Tough or Angela Duckworth) or the ‘Big Five’ (see James Heckman) are the key buzzwords currently preoccupying the education commentariat. This focus stems from the top of Government where Nicky Morgan has pledged to make Britain a “global leader” in teaching character, resilience and grit to pupils.

This is a notable shift in priority from Morgan’s predecessor, Michael Gove, though this isn’t to say that Gove did not value character education. Instead he (rightly) focused on addressing the woeful state of academic education that many British school children were receiving prior to 2010. Indeed, the Demos report acknowledges this in a speech Gove made in 2014 where he stated that he had “never visited a school that excelled academically which didn’t also excel in extra-curricular activities”. Gove believed that, given the space and freedom to innovate, academies and free-schools would provide the broad and balanced education that more privileged children in the independent sector currently enjoy. Many schools already do this really brilliantly, though there are also others that don’t due to misguided priorities and a lack of vision. Demos’ research shows that just one third of students on free-school meals (FSM) reported taking part in outdoor activities, compared with (an equally unimpressive) 43% of non-FSM students. 
This is a disgraceful predicament and one that should make the blood boil of all who believe in equality of opportunity.

The Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, in the first budget by a Conservative government for 19 years, to spend “£50 million to expand the number of cadet units in our state schools to 500, prioritising less affluent areas” is a wonderful first step to begin to rectify this. Yet alongside Nicky Morgan’s intentions come a huge array of challenges:

  • How to recognise, capture, share and assess current (good) practice without introducing a new wave of form-filling and bureaucracy. Having organised over a dozen informal and non-formal learning activities over the past three years I know the hours needed to make these things happen in the first place . We don’t want to fall into creating a systematic trap, as occurs in some schools currently, where every trip has to be analysed and reviewed for its impact on pupil achievement and character development, sometimes only a week(!) later.
  • How to assess the activities that truly develop a child’s character. For instance, Morgan praised the fact that King Solomon Academy produces unabridged Shakespeare plays from year 7 onwards, but despite its sheer impressiveness, does this really instill a greater degree of character traits than say, performing in an abridged school production of Grease or Les Miserables? We should have high aspirations for all pupils but we should not make claims that are unsubstantiated.
  • How to encourage a broader focus on educating the whole child without taking the foot off the gas on the need to raise academic standards. The only way to achieve this would be with a change to the league tables to incorporate a character element (though good luck to the poor soul who is responsible for devising this measure) and substantial reform of Ofsted to adjust the focus away from snapshots of individual lessons to holistic understanding of the school’s direction, ethos and successes/failures. The ever forthright Katharine Birbalsingh has some interesting ideas on this here.
  • How to present schools with the time to run such activities. Demos’ research suggests that 90% of teachers cite a lack of time as the greatest barrier to running non-formal learning activities. I fully sympathise with this and know full-well the time spent on meeting unproven and unreachable marking criteria and chasing up of students/students’ parents in light of yet another behaviour incident in class. This issue is part of a greater Workload Challenge the Government is looking at, and the Secretary of State could do worse than look at the words of the ever wise Joe Kirby on this matter.

Despite these clear obstacles to getting character education right, I believe that there is little the Secretary of State can do through diktat from the centre; as with almost every major issue facing schools today this requires strong, visionary school leadership. Schools need head teachers who understand that these non-formal learning activities are an essential part of a broad and balanced (and yes, academic) curriculum. The organisations already exist – The Scouts, the Army Cadet Force, Step Up To Serve, Debate Mate, National Citizen Service – just to name a few. The cash already exists – with pupil premium students attracting an additional £935 – £1320 from the State. Yet, despite this some argue that this is not possible in the current environment where exam results and success in league tables are seen as essential. They might say that schools churning out students with poor literacy and numeracy skills, alongside weak GCSEs grades, need to focus all of their efforts on academic, classroom teaching.

This logic ignores the growing evidence base that participation in non-formal education activities boosts performance in academic subjects (I aim to write more on this another time). Moreover, it fails to understand some of the challenges that exist in developing a child’s intrinsic motivations to be in school. Teaching in a challenging school for two years taught me that behaviour can sometimes be difficult to manage in schools because young people believe they have nothing to lose from missing out in class. This is a sad indictment of a school system that has developed whereby teachers are unable to discipline pupils effectively, where school leaders undermine teachers with their own moral weaknesses, and where teachers are unable to inspire children to want to learn and to value learning. Disaffected young people can have complex array psychological reasons for not wanting to work.

One of the main duties a school can provide young people with is a sense of self-worth and purpose at school and, for children who are struggling at school, non-formal learning might well be the way to get these children to value school. Some children can be encouraged to behave in class due to the consequences of missing out on formal learning. For other children, this won’t work; in fact, the opportunity to miss out on learning might actually be an incentive! For these children, the challenge to get them to value learning is difficult but a starting point must be to give them something to value in order to acknowledge what they have to lose from misbehaving at school. One needs only to look at the inspiring work going on at schools like The Boxing Academy to see how powerful this can be.

Demos’ suggestions in both Character Nation and Learning by Doing appear sensible, but Nicky Morgan faces some significant challenges if she is to succeed in her worthy mission of making effective character education available for all.

Smart new teachers flock to coasting schools for an easier lifeLast Saturday I witnessed my first speech day at Wellington (watch this trailer by the student-run TV station, WTV, for a glimpse of what the day had in store). Singing, dancing, poetry, speeches and prizes, made up a breath-taking 3 hour(!) spectacular in a ‘big-top’ hired out specially for the event. One could only marvel at the sheer scale of the event and talent of the pupils. It was superbly over the top and a welcome contrast to the stuffy formality that many public school speech days involve.

The following day I came across an article on Schools Week which halted my end-of-year jubilation in its tracks. Entitled ‘Smart new teachers flock to coasting schools for an easier life‘, the article focuses on the recent work of John Brown from the IoE which sought to analyse the recruitment of new teachers to establish whether there was a link between degree outcome and the socio-economic make-up of the schools that appointed them to their first post. Although I cannot find this research paper online, the article reliably informs me that:

“higher qualified teachers were most attracted to schools with high achievement. After that they headed to those achieving greater progress and then to schools with more affluent pupils. Last came the schools that achieved greater progress accounting for pupils’ socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Whilst the focus on these factors as the key drivers of teacher recruitment is flawed – with other factors inevitably influencing a teachers’ choice of employer, such as proximity to the family home, whole-school ethos and the necessary teaching subject being offered – this article did make me think about the challenges the sector still faces in terms of ensuring the best teachers are attracted to teach in the schools most in need.

Whilst it’s true that some highly qualified graduates would choose to work in ‘coasting schools, the rise of Teach First – which places such graduates into schools with a higher than average proportion of disadvantaged pupils – has been meteoric. It recruited over 1,500 new teachers last year, resulting in current position as the top graduate recruiter in the country in 2014. However it is also manifest that new ideas are needed in order to keep excellent teachers in the schools in which they’re needed. Teach First’s own statistics show that 46% of teachers who have completed the Teach First programme have since left the profession. Thus, rather than the quandary of how to get ‘smart new teachers’ into the classroom, I believe the more complex question is how to get more teachers to stay in the classroom after teaching for two years in a challenging state school.


To understand how to achieve this, one must understand why many good teachers (either via Teach First or other entry routes) are leaving the profession. Whilst the NCTL doesn’t produce qualitative data on this (something they should aim to do in the future), I believe that the reasoning behind the majority of leavers is common: they are worn out and frustrated. Worn out after the daily battle to engage students with learning and the gruelling workload. Frustrated at school leaders who micro-manage rather than lead and at the politicians who posture but, to be frank, have no idea what they’re talking about. Even though the genuine reasoning behind poor teacher retention may be more nuanced than this, there is undoubtedly an issue if high quality teachers are not kept where they’re needed. It is not sustainable to have teachers come in for two years to be replaced by the next pair of of bright eyes, like a kind of post-university national service for teachers. As the OECD’s special adviser on education wrote in a report published in 2012 “people who see themselves as knowledge workers are not attracted by schools organised like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets”.

So what can be done about this? I don’t claim to have all of the answers, and every teacher will have a different opinion, but here are some thoughts:

1) Teach First needs a clearly defined ‘phase 2’. The current offer of a (mostly) self-funded Masters, additional workshops and a bit of coaching on the side is not enough to keep talented teachers on the gruelling treadmill. Teach First – or even a new organisation which could also appeal to non-Teach First teachers in the year after their NQT year – needs to offer a pathway for teachers to stay within disadvantaged schools but within a context that motivates them more than the general aim of ‘tackling educational disadvantage’. Teachers need scraping up, shaking down and re-engaging with the ‘mission’. Teaching Leaders already exists for middle leaders, and Future Leaders for aspiring headteachers, but what about ‘normal’ classroom teachers; what options are there for them? Teachers could be placed with another school within the Teach First network which matches their short and mid-term career aims, and which has a particular challenge which appeals to them. Whether this is supporting any one of the alphabet soup of SEN, EAL or G&T pupils, or a particular key-stage (for me it was KS5), individuals could be assured they were working in a school with a focus on that which inspires them. Relevant conversations could be had between Teach First and participants at the end of their first-term of their second year on the programme. At present, there is no formalised way for teachers to find out which schools might match their interests beyond broad searches on TES or word of mouth. This might have some complications and  some might argue that teachers should simply apply for a new job at another school if they are unhappy with their current employer but I believe that the current situation is a wasted opportunity to keep teachers engaged. We should be helping teachers move ship before they end up jumping ship.

2) Quality teachers need a pay-rise. This is perhaps the most challenging to administer, but the government needs to put its money where its mouth is. A recent study by the OECD showed that the potential cost to the UK economy for failing to educate a more highly numerate and literate workforce will be up to £1 trillion by 2095. The incentive to the government is clear; they must invest their resources into securing the proven and best qualified teachers money can offer. This must be comfortably more than they would achieve in less challenging (‘coasting’) schools and in the private sector. Alan Milburn, who chairs the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has already called for a ‘teachers’ pay premium’ under which 2,000 of the best teachers would be given a 25% increase in salary for teaching in tough schools. No doubt this would have its own criticisms and there are obvious challenges with regards to best identifying which teachers have had and will continue to have the best impact in schools.

It is sometimes said that law and accountancy firms in the private sector have to pay their employees significant amounts because no rational individual would work such long hours and in such a mundane environment for the same salary achieved by those working in 9-to-5 jobs in more conventional surroundings. The same argument must follow for the government remunerating teachers working in particularly challenging schools where could have a transformative impact on those children but also on the wider UK economy. This is much an argument about economics as it is about social justice.


Of course there are other ways in which teachers could be persuaded to work and stay working in challenging schools. Long-term and sustainable school reform requires exceptional school leaders and programmes such as Future Leaders will do huge amounts in helping to achieve this goal. However there is a danger that the UK system as it exists will not provide sufficient flow in the number of high calibre candidates needed to take on leadership roles in the future.

We can only ensure that the very best teachers remain as school leaders in challenging contacts if we get the systems right from an early stage before many talented individuals have left the sector entirely. Pay is certainly not everything (and there are many teachers who even with a significant pay rise would still not wish to work for more than two years and very challenging circumstances) it is certainly a compelling policy option, alongside a more clearly defined pathway for classroom teachers working in challenging schools.

“My wish is to create a strong sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.” – Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver is right to be concerned about the health of our children. A recent report by King’s College London showed that one in three children in the UK are now overweight, while one in five are obese. Most striking is the statistic that 37% of 11 to 15-year-olds are now classed as overweight or obese. Without action, this sorry state of affairs will have profound implications on these individuals and their quality of life, but also for the government. A recent report by McKinsey suggested that the current £6bn to £8bn in obesity-related costs to the NHS could increase to between £10bn and £12bn in 2030. The economic argument is clear.

So what is the context here? In 2012 Jamie Oliver campaigned to ensure that national nutritional standards for school food applied to academies as well as maintained schools. Michael Gove rejected this, explaining that school leaders should be free to act in a way they felt best met the needs of their pupils and should not be ordered about by government diktat. If I’m honest, I must admit that I initially felt that this was one of the oversights of the Gove-revolution. Whilst it is true that some academies have risen to the challenge and provide nutritious, varied and affordable meals for their pupils, others have not. However I have since realised that, whilst Mr Oliver’s intentions were well-intentioned, his policy suggestion was too blunt a tool and would not have had the desired impact. What use are universal school food regulations when children can simply opt out of school lunches? Suppose instead, we make it compulsory for children to eat in school – but what is to stop the children eating a bit of lettuce before charging round the corner to demolish a chip butty at the local greasy spoon? Perhaps, therefore, we can lock the school gates and keep students in schools all day so they have no option to eat school food – but what about the sugary cereals at breakfast (or none at all) and double-helping of chips at dinner?

And this is why Jamie Oliver’s latest campaign to support “compulsory practical food education”, in all schools across G20 nations, is much more desirable. A powerful ‘food revolution’ requires pupils to be nurtured from the earliest years. Effective education is about laying down clear routines and cultivating positive habits. Many primary schools do this incredibly well already and model schools need identifying and their best-practice sharing with others. If we can teach children from a young age about how food is grown, processed and consumed, they will then be able to make a much more informed choice about what they eat as they grow-up. We can’t force people to be healthy; but we can open their eyes to the benefits of a wholesome, nutritious diet and the clear, negative consequences of unhealthy eating.

A sustainable ‘food revolution’ could go further than this. It requires an embedded school culture in every school centred on healthy eating. This can only come from schools with strong leaders and staff buy-in. Converse to what Jamie Oliver campaigned on in 2012, school freedom can actually lead to better standards of nutrition than the old, one-size fits all model of state education. It allows for innovative thinking and the opportunity for schools to negotiate with suppliers and meal providers, rather than accept the status quo favoured by local authorities. Take the Michaela Community School in Wembley, for example. Every day it provides a ‘family lunch’ where teachers and students eat wholesome meals together and where pupils are given clear responsibilities with regards to serving and clearing up. This lunch is part of a clear, whole-school ethos which values school lunch as the means to healthier living, as well as to develop ‘soft-skills’ like table manners and polite conversation.

Importantly, an effective ‘food revolution’ requires parental support. This might be achievable in more affluent neighbourhoods where parents can afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables more readily, and (may) have more time to attend school-run cooking classes. However it will be much more difficult in deprived communities where parents are working hard on long shifts on low-pay, and come home exhausted and without the financial means, and perhaps cooking skills, to drastically improve the quality of food they are serving their children. It’s perhaps unsurprising that there is a clear correlation between deprivation and obesity, with 30% of women and 25% of men who are classified as the most deprived in society being obese. These numbers drop to 19% and 22% obesity rates for the least deprived. And herein lays the moral argument for revolutionizing children’s diets through an increase in wages for those parents at the bottom end of the wage spectrum. Indeed, the Government’s plan to help the lowest-paid through raising the starting rate of income tax should free up the vital few pounds a week required to purchase higher quality food. A planned rise in the National Minimum Wage cannot come soon enough.

It also requires education and training for parents to learn how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals for their children. Parents should be given free cooking lessons in schools, possibly alongside their children, to develop their knowledge and skills. Employers could be required to give employee parents time off to do this. Those parents with overweight children who don’t take action to attend classes or improve meal provision at home should expect social services to be involved. Stick is needed along with plenty of carrot; I have seen the damaging effect on children’s learning when they buy a large ‘value’ bar of cheap chocolate to eat on the way to school as they have not been fed breakfast at home. The havoc this can cause to that child’s life deserves tough action on parents who neglect their children’s wellbeing.

A final solution requires a look beyond the school gates. Even with the most supportive schools and well-equipped parents in the world, children will sometimes make the wrong choices. I have witnessed the numbing reality of children being left to their own devices, spending their daily £2 lunch money on a 2 litre bottle of Coca-Cola and a packet of chocolate biscuits. I have experienced the perils of having to teach a class of 30 year 8 pupils, many of whom have just downed a bottle of highly caffeinated energy drink at break time. The Government should review current regulations on the sale of energy drinks to children and needs to work with retailers in close vicinity to schools to ensure that a seemingly harmless packet of sweets after school does not turn into a habit of unhealthy eating. The involvement of teachers or parent volunteers to assist here could be an option.

Jamie Oliver is a great chef. He is also a good man and I believe that he has the best interests of British children at heart as he launched his ‘Food Revolution Day’. People of all political stripes should sign his petition and support him in his aim for “compulsory practical food education” in all schools. Alongside this, greater school freedom, tackling low-pay and fostering greater social responsibility amongst shopkeepers will provide the food revolution that Britain needs.

For more information: http://www.foodrevolutionday.com/