Monday, 19 November 2012

Ofqual's 'Breach of Contract' with the Young?

So, Ofqual has decided that next term’s January modules will be the last. I am pleased to see the back of them – and getting rid of them means that all schools who previously used them, ourselves included, will gain a week of teaching time. Fewer exams, more teaching – what’s to argue with?

Well, actually, two things. First, a cohort of students embarked on their A level studies in September (did Ofqual notice? Do they know that students generally study A levels for two years?) on the expectation that – possibly even the promise that – the courses would be structured in a certain way. At about the 1/5th of the way there, the goalposts have been subtly shifted.  Should the decision possibly have been made now for implementation post January 2014?

When we talk to students about the things that matter to them – going to concerts, sporting events and the like – we often say to them that they have to ask our permission to miss things before they book tickets. It doesn’t seem respectful to me when I am told that a pupil is not available for a school event because a subsequent engagement has already been booked. I tend to respond much better when I am asked before the booking.

I wonder therefore how students up and down the country have reacted to the news (have they realized yet? Do they look that far ahead?) that the ‘contract’ relating to the shape and timing of their A levels has been changed, without asking or consulting them, and after the courses had started.

And another thing… (you can always tell when someone is on their soapbox when these three words come in sequence)… has Ofqual sufficient confidence in the marking of A level modules to make university places dependent on only one go at both A2 (or all three A2) modules? Putting 50% of the marks for university in the terminal assessment does raise the bar somewhat on the requirement for accuracy. Our recent experience of the reliability of A2 assessment is not terribly encouraging. Will requirements for accuracy on exam boards rise?

The UK’s public exam system is free market. So, how about introducing the requirement for an exam board to pay a small fine every time a change in mark triggers a change in grade; and a bigger fine if the change in mark only changes the grade at the second or third stage of the appeal? Why don’t we increase the fine if the appeal has to be a priority case because a university place depends on it?

Why don’t we have a standard independent referral if the number of appeals on a certain qualification exceeds a specified percentage of entries? And why don’t we have a standard measure by which a qualification can be ‘de-licenced’ if, in the case of such an independent referral, the proportion of exams which are re-graded is significant.

Of course, if we are to ‘de-licence’ a qualification, we will have to give young people enough notice…

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Remembrance - Balanced, Controversial?

If I am completely honest, there is something about Remembrance Day that I have always found difficult. If I had paid more attention to the news when I was growing up, I would have understood the stance that Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury took at the service to commemorate the end of the Falklands war in 1982. His determination to pray for the dead on both sides of that conflict caused an irreparable rift between him and Lady Thatcher, who had wanted the service to be triumphal. Given that he had won the Military Cross for Bravery forty years earlier, it was hard for the government then to criticise him.

Runcie’s underlying point – that there is loss, bravery, integrity, and heroism (and the lack of three of these) on both sides in a war – was not well understood at the time. It is possible that the way in which remembrance has been cast to school children during that time has contributed to a one-eyed view of conflict in this country.

How many young people in the UK know anything, for example, of The White Rose? This was a group of students, who – in 1942-3 – sought to do what they could to oppose the evil of the Third Reich. The core of the group was composed of just five students, two of whom were siblings - Sophie and Hans Scholl. All were in their very early twenties.

Members of The White Rose believed that their Christian beliefs meant they had to protest against what they saw happening in their country. As a result between June 1942 and February 1943 they prepared and distributed six different leaflets, in which they called for the active opposition of the German people to the Nazi movement and its policies.

In the first leaflet they wrote: ‘It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes ... reach the light of day?’

Understandably, the Third Reich was extremely concerned about the potential effects of these and the Gestapo were instructed to find the publishers.

On February 18 1943, the Scholls took a very large quantity of leaflets to their university. They dropped piles of these leaflets in the empty corridors for students to find when they poured out of lecture rooms. Before leaving, since they had some leaflets still in their suitcase, they returned to the university atrium and went up to the top floor, and there at the top Sophie threw the last remaining leaflets into the air. This was seen by a janitor, who called the police. Soon afterwards, they were taken into Gestapo custody. Then other active members were soon arrested, of whom six were convicted and executed.

One copy of their last leaflet was smuggled out of Germany, and it was edited by the allies and millions of copies were dropped from aeroplanes onto Germany.

Nearly six decades later, a German national TV competition chose "the ten greatest Germans of all time". The Scholl siblings – founders and leaders of The White Rose - came fourth, ahead of Bach, Goethe, and Albert Einstein. And readers of a widely circulated German magazine voted Sophie Scholl to be "the greatest woman of the twentieth century".

Why is this heroism not widely known outside Germany? Why, in our Remembrance Day activities, do we not think about the waste of life, the courage, the acts of selflessness on both sides of the conflicts that we remember?

Perhaps if young people were taught not just history-according-to-the-victors, perhaps if they were able to understand the effects of war on both sides of a conflict, perhaps if they could hear the accounts of those whose country was hostile to theirs, they could come to a balanced and thoughtful view of conflict. It’s possible that the internet is making this possible now in a way that it has not been in the past – when conflicts had to end before anybody could hear the views of the population of the country they had been fighting.

Perhaps, if remembrance in schools were to be less patriotic, and more bilateral, young people would grow up into adults who would go to war less often. As decision makers, at the polls or in the government, we might be more careful about entering armed conflict.

In our school, we will be thinking this week about loss, and sacrifice, and courage, and the cost of war – from the point of view of all participants.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

(Early) Puberty Blues

Research recently referred to in the Guardian newspaper ( highlighted that girls are experiencing puberty eight years earlier – on average – than was the case 100 years ago. Some signs of puberty are evident in medical examinations of girls at an average age of less than 9 years, in some ethnic groups.

More is known about the speed and durability of the this trend than the reasons for it. But we do know that it is not limited to girls: further research suggests that boys are maturing physically fast than ever before, too. (See:

Potential causes range from diet to chemical pollution, and include consideration of social as well as biological causes. One research project, which unusually looked at the causes rather than the existence of these changes, found correlation between family instability, and particularly the absence of a father figure, and early puberty in girls ( There is, potentially, an evolutionary explanation here: a herd of grazing animals might reasonably be expected to evolve an earlier arrival at adult capabilities by means of predators thinning out the genetic stock of those who are slow to mature – because the slow maturers would be vulnerable for longer. However, human development has not been marked by the need to survive the attentions of predators – at least in recent times!

There is clearly more work for researchers to do on the causes, but it is worth spending a few moments considering the consequences. One hundred years ago, a young woman had 12 years of cognizant evaluation, communication and assimilation between the age of 4 and 16 to come to terms with their place in the world, before they had to consider the consequences of the sexual maturity. Now girls have an average of 4-6 years, depending on their ethnic group, to do this – for some the time period has halved, for others it is now one third of the time their great grandmothers had. No wonder childhood and teenage mental health is poor.

Consider, too, the frequent assertion that young people are sexualised at a younger age. Is this a cause of these changes, or is it a consequence: do boys and girls become sexually aware of each other at a younger age because of the changes in their bodies rather than wholly because of cultural trends, as is often asserted?

Answers to these questions are likely to take some time to be formulated, tested, and refined. In the meanwhile, perhaps, parents should reflect that the fact that all is not as it was ‘when we were young’ is not entirely the fault of today’s young – who have a harder existence in many respects than their parents did.

Parents, and schools, should give more attention than ever to the fact that children – for that is what they are – are going to reach sexual capability, if not sexual maturity, at an age when culturally, and legally they are expected to be chaste. Enabling young people to navigate the years (for some a decade) between reaching an age of sexual capability and arriving at emotional maturity and legal majority is a major challenge for schools, and parents too, and one they will have to take up if young people are to be well prepared for young adulthood in today’s world. It is hard to see how the long interval this involves for today’s young people will be manageable without parents and schools unfashionably reinstating abstinence to the sex education programme.