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25 Jun 2012

Talk the Talk

The news is full of the failure of us Brits to use language. tells us that our children don’t read; tells us that we are bottom in whole of Europe when it comes to learning and being able to use a foreign language and in Wales, it seems to be even worse than elsewhere

Apparently, just 9% of 14 to 15-year-olds in England can use a foreign language independently compared with 82% in Sweden. A European Commission study of 14 EU countries found on average 42% of children could deal with “straightforward” matters in another language. But not ours.

So why do our children lag behind in this way? And is the failure to read linked to our failure to learn foreign languages? There are no easy answers to this and you may well feel that it is far more important for young people to be articulate and coherent in their own language than to get by in another. Initiatives like Youth Speaks Out and Model United Nations encourage debating skills and the use of clear persuasive spoken English – hooray! But the development of language as an tool and a skill is not something our educators – for the most part – understand. Witness the tragic inability of so many youngsters taking A levels who know what they want to say but lack – even at this age – the vocabulary, the sense of language structure and, crucially, the confidence, to say it.

We don’t want to become like America where opining for opining’s sake seems to be built into the curriculum. But a pride in communicating clearly, a pleasure in employing the power of language – at all levels – is something we all need and should be helped to acquire. Get it in English – then enjoy discovering it in whichever language you like!

07 Jun 2012

A levels – What Do We want?

The A level debate is revving up again. There is no point in harking back to what they once were. We live in today’s world and now that most people stay in education until they are 18, A levels can not do the job they did when only 10% of the population took them. So – what are they for? I offer some alternatives and invite comment and further suggestions:

  • to enable universities to select students who will benefit from their courses
  • to allow students to work on a narrow range of academic subjects to challenge them and deepen their knowledge
  • to prepare them for the world of work
  • to prepare them for life
  • to give them the opportunity to study a range of academic and vocational subjects
  • to delay their appearance in the job market

Do you feel that an A level in maths or English should be worth the same number of points as one in leisure and tourism or film studies?

Do you feel that A level should be taken in ‘academic’ subjects while vocational subjects should have a qualification of their own?

Or what do you feel?

20 May 2012

Mobiles in classrooms

An interesting one, this. The Schools Commissioner, Elizabeth Sidwell, says: “Mobile phones should never… be used at school… I would let them have them in their bags to use on the way home but ban them during the day.”

And no teacher who suspects that texting or tweeting is going on in her classroom would disagree.

But mobiles are no longer just vehicles for instant social intercourse. Alice Phillips, head of St Catherine’s School, Bramley – one of the most successful independent girls’ schools in the country – “positively encourages” the use of hand held computers in the classrooms. “They are fantastic for learning vocabulary,” she enthuses and, of course, iphones and smart phones are remarkable resources for finding out info at the press of a button. You may be working on a geological project and need to check the age that came between the Jurassic and Paleogene eras – click on the mobile! Or, what were the six aims of The Chartists? Take a quick look at Wikipedia on your phone!

So – should schools encourage their use during lessons? Or ban them completely? Or just trust to the common sense and good behaviour of their pupils? This is one of those questions that will not go away…

15 May 2012

Special Needs Revolution – But Can We Trust Them?

On the face of it, the government’s proposed changes to the way children with special needs are assessed and supported look encouraging . Few parents whose child has special needs – whether severe or moderate – report anything other than frustration and delay in their efforts to get the help and support their children need. A system of buck passing between local authority, school, medics and parents means that many children lose essential schooling and socialising time – time which can never be recovered.

‘Special needs’ can mean anything from severe physical and/or mental impairment to problems in behaviour – with everything from speech and language difficulties to temporary mild hearing loss in between. Rapid and professional assessment is vital. Provision of secure, individually-targeted resources is essential. And parents should no longer have a battle to get the support their children need and deserve.

The proposal involves giving parents control over their child’s educational budget and there is much wisdom in this. But how will the level of funding be measured? How will it be maintained? What guarantees will there be that children will not have to be expensively and lengthily assessed and reassessed over and again to ensure that their disability or impairment still merits support?

Experience does not encourage us to be confident that the government will get this right. But the intention is good. Let us hope that the tragi-farce over the NHS reforms have taught the administration something about joined up thinking and, above all, about listening to the experts – in this case, the parents.

14 May 2012

Porn Again – How to Police the Internet

The internet – can’t live with it/can’t live without it – even my 87 year old mother wonders how she ever managed before it was there, inviting her to look up Latin phrases, capital cities and obscure French philosophers at the press of a button. But pornography? Seemingly, the nation’s children are both aware that it’s there and, unlike my mother, likely to search for it at the drop of a pyjama.

Given that word gets around, this may well be true. But does that mean they’d go looking? And what does it do to them if they do?

Yes – you can find, with little difficulty, coitus of every kind in close up and action packed. Even extreme sex – the kind most people don’t do – is available once you turn off your safe search button. Believe me, I’ve looked.

It’s a pity if this is children’s introduction to sex. We’d all wish them something gentler, more respectful of their own and others’ bodies and, more importantly, vulnerabilities. But does seeing this kind of furious genital gymnastics actually damage them?

And is it more damaging than the violence which no-one seems concerned about and which is constantly on our TVs, our games consoles, our telephones, our cinema screens? Why the hysteria about sex which kills no-one when the evidence of ubiquitous, dehumanised and dehumanising violence as entertainment is evident on our streets on a regular basis? makes the point that the internet shows you how to make bombs and commit suicide and there are countless sites which challenge all our civilised values. A lawyer I know who has given his life to championing the underprivileged at huge personal cost is vilified on several internet sites by people who avowedly like hating in public – no other reason.

What do we want of the internet? Complete freedom to say and see what we like? Or do we want it policed so that we do not need to exercise our own judgement and do not need to teach our children to do so? It belongs to us and we – adults – have to discuss it and decide.

07 May 2012

Mind Your Grammars!

So the bashed and battered Tory right are proposing legislating to allow grammar schools once more to spring up in our shires and suburbs. This, it is felt, will strike to the heart of every deep down Tory and bring them scampering back to the polling stations eager to plonk their cross in the box marked Conservative.

There is, of course, an undeniable need for schools which teach to a high academic standard, which teach rigorous subjects rigorously and which imbue their pupils with high aspirations. The fact that top grammar schools currently experience applications which outnumber places by 12 or more to one is evidence of the popularity of these schools and of the ambitions of parents. If one has a bright, motivated child who loves to learn and craves academic challenges, then one has a right to expect that child to be stretched, stimulated and enthralled by the education provided by the state.

So – grammar schools for all then? Of course not! Grammar schools for all who meet the standards set at 11+? Of course! They will be able to derive the greatest benefit from what is on offer.

But – what of the rest? What of those who do not have the academic aptitude to pass these tests? What of those whose parents cannot subscribe to selection by such means? What of those whose bent is technical, artistic, sporting, musical, nurturing, expressive etc etc? What of those for whom the mastery of reading and writing represents an immense achievement?

The clamour of the traditionalists for the renaissance of grammar schools sounds hollowly to those of us who recall the poverty of education meted out in the secondary schools of the 1960s and 1970s and the poverty of expectation accorded to the children thus educated.

If we are to invest in yet more new educational initiatives, why not begin with those whose talents are not academic and for whom achievement – especially now with high unemployment – will be all the more difficult? As the recent PISA report clearly shows, the bright and those with support from home will get there anyway.

03 May 2012

A levels are easier? Yawn!

So Ofqual have made it official – A levels and GCSEs are now easier than they were ten years ago: . This is news to no-one and if today’s A level students were to take a peek at what their parents or grandparents were expected to do they would have fits of the vapours. But we are not comparing like with like! Even ten years ago, fewer pupils took public exams than now. The aim has long been to make the subjects ‘accessible’, top grades achievable and to prove that our schools and teachers are getting ever better. This is a con and few teachers who’ve been at it a while would dispute the fact.

It all comes down to the stupidity of expecting everyone to be good at the same things. The Grand National is a good race and a testing trial of racehorses. But you wouldn’t assess a cheetah, a squirrel or a buffalo on their effective jumping of those fences. And you wouldn’t keep on lowering the fences to give them a better chance either.

Are we not yet a sufficiently sophisticated and developed society to realise that people’s strengths differ? Surely we can develop courses, systems and methods of appraisal which challenge our young according to their aptitudes and strengths and which do not, any longer, attempt to squash them into an ever more distorted mould that doesn’t fit?

29 Apr 2012

Catholic pupils must not be lobby fodder

It emerged this week that the CES Catholic Education Service (CES) wrote to nearly 400 state-funded Roman Catholic schools inviting them to back a petition against gay civil marriage. Taking a stand for or against any political view is forbidden to schools and teachers but the CES claims that its views on this matter are religious rather than political.

We deplore this action. It is not the business of schools of any persuasion to involve their pupils in lobbying. Rather, if they believe that marriage is of such a nature that it cannot be extended to couples without destroying its actual essence then, surely, they can teach this in an appropriate setting – the RE lesson. But they must be very clear that their instruction is against changing the nature of marriage as a religious rite and not in any way to stigmatise or denigrate gay people of either sex. Roman Catholic classrooms will have the same percentage of pupils who will grow up gay as any other classrooms and nothing should be done to confuse or isolate them nor to encourage discrimination against them in the secular world they must share with the rest of us.

27 Apr 2012

Ukraine If You Want To

Here it is folks! We spent the best part of an hour being interviewed by the delightful Olena and here is around 15 secs of what remained plus a sad Ukrainian family who can’t get a place at a good London school: . Good practice for your rusty Russian!

In the meantime, we at The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants can’t answer our phones quick enough to deal with all the people who want British education – the state and the independent varieties. We’re clearly doing something right – we’re just not doing it enough!

23 Apr 2012

A Trip Too Far?

Extraordinary piece headed Young people have got to stand up and take notice of climate change in Indie blogs. Story is of young man who has gone three times to the North Pole – an extravagant and unnecessary exploit if ever there was one and he makes a case for young people standing up against climate change. More and more schools lure pupils to take part in eg rugby trips to New Zealand or South Africa when Wales is on the doorstep, skiiing in Aspen rather than the Alps or even Scotland, history of art to Florence when we have the National Gallery in London and Spanish practice in South America when Spain is a tad nearer. And then they expect them to understand about recycling and turning off lights! Could we have an adult and honest look at this please? And could schools stop being hypocritical, inconsistent and plain irresponsible?

18 Apr 2012

Poetry in Slow Motion

Why do prep school teachers leave teaching poetry until five minutes before Common Entrance? We are saddened by the annual parental panic in early spring when Junior confides that Mr Smith still hasn’t got round to doing poetry and he (Junior) has no idea how to write about a poem. Could it be that poetry makes more demands on the gym teacher/IT teacher who is frequently entrusted with teaching English to Year 8? Is there a lack of resources? Come on prep school heads – come clean!

18 Apr 2012

Ukraine called

Well – that was interesting! Earnest young news anchor, Olena – clearly done her research – plus monosyllabic (well, in English anyway – I caught the odd Russian exchange but understood only an occasional ‘da!’ and ‘spasiba!’ ) – cameraman who set up an instant studio in our sumptuous accommodation, stared me in the eye and pounded me with actually quite interesting questions. They had already interviewed two Ukrainian families, resident in London, who had problems getting into schools – one in Hackney, one moving to Richmond. I presented, of course, over 30 minutes, a balanced and wise view of the state of UK education and of school admissions in London, in particular – the main focus of their concern. But the most touching moment for me was after the camera light went out and Ivan was packing up his equipment. ‘Why on earth,’ I asked, genuinely curious, ‘are people in the Ukraine interested in education in England?’

‘Oh, she said, ‘we in the Ukraine have always thought that England is good in all things and is the country we admire.’

For anyone interested, the programme – all 90 seconds of it – goes out on Ukrainian TV on Friday – we can see it online and I will post the link on this site.



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