Sunday, 15 October 2017

What IS an All-Round Education?

I’m not often stopped in my tracks by a question, so when I was recently asked if an ‘all round’ education was a way of saying ‘not-very-ambitious’ in any one area, I recognised a healthy and helpful challenge.

The work that James Heckman has done (see here) to demonstrate that what you learn at school which really gives you an advantage from an economic perspective are not the skills that are tested in an exam hall. Of course performance in an exam hall is important - it helps students (who want to) to go on to selective further education courses where they will acquire a wide range of useful skills. But Heckman also found that ‘non-cognitive’ skills, some of which pay off in the exam hall, like perseverance, play a much bigger role in the post school experience, fulfilment and ‘success’ of students.

So what does this have to do with ‘all-round’. In an all-round education, excellence matters, but not only in academic pursuits. That doesn’t mean academic excellence isn’t important - it is. But it means students are encouraged to pursue excellence in all things - academic (ie cognitive), athletic, aesthetic, affiliative.

The key here is that many of these pursuits are explicitly collaborative - and interdependent activity (rare, and not approved of, in the exam hall!) - prepares us for most of what we will do after school which will provide us with our fulfilment, success, and the other things our education is preparing us for.

Education which is all-round is no less ambitious - but it’s an ambition that manages the trade-offs between time spent in many different areas without simply allowing students to prioritise one simplistically above all others. It’s ambitious for outcome, and for process. And it’s ambitious for team, and not just for one’s own outcomes.

So, while the monocular judgement of schools’ success is merely the academic outcome, it fails to pick up so many important aspects of a school’s work, in developing confidence, a secure sense of identity, a breadth of thought, a capacity for leadership and teamwork, and an ability to be more thoughtful than a merely reflexive achievement-junkie.  The all-round education prepares young people not just to get into university, but to use their place, not just for their first job offer, but their first promotion, and not just for their economic effectiveness but also their personal fulfilment.

Term Dates: Time to Start Again

“I wouldn’t start from here if I were you” - the classic cliche of unhelpful advice often seems applicable where a system has been built up in degrees from a historic model which is no longer applicable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our term dates.

The term dates of any modern school in the British educational system borrow heavily on a Victorian model of full boarding - long terms; long holidays. The two reasons for this were the relatively large (and initially, pre-railway, slow) journeys required to get to (mainly rural) boarding schools in the early nineteenth century, and the need for young people to be able to join the harvest back at home. Neither of these factors apply any more, but they remain the reason we work our young people, and our teachers, so hard for so few weeks of the year.

Maintained sector schools work 38 5-day weeks - or 190 days - give or take the odd inset day. One of the results of this is that newly qualified teachers, fresh out of university find that for 38 weeks a year, they are working too hard to maintain a social life with their (non teaching) friends. And then, when they get a holiday, they get lots of it, unlike their friends, who probably want to take their holiday when travel is cheaper anyway. This social pressure, arising from teachers’ need to spend term-time evenings and weekends poring over their marking, their preparation and their reporting, is driving young teachers out of the profession - another weekend, another anecdote to this effect.

The alternative - simples, as the meerkat marketer would say. How about 45 weeks of four days per week. We might have to work out what to do with Bank Holiday Mondays, but this would allow teachers 7 weeks holiday (more than the average - but with a very few preparation or inset days thrown in). And it would allow a whole day a week for preparation, planning and assessment, perhaps Wednesdays. Bringing teachers’ weekly workload down, by increasing the number of weeks per year would go a long way to solving the retention crisis in our schools.

A 20% reduction in teachers’ weekly working hours might have other effects too. By reducing stress among teachers, it might help reduce stress levels among teenagers. In giving teachers real-time quality time to prepare their teaching, it could increase the quality of teaching they are able to deliver. By giving children learning spread out over the year, it would help those children most likely to lose ground against their peers during the holidays.

45 4-day weeks is actually 10 fewer days per year in school. I’m willing to bet that it would raise educational attainment, though. Smarter - not harder - working, from which everyone gains.

Finally, many European countries stagger when holidays take place so that the effect of school holidays on road traffic, the cost of travel, and leaving some workplaces deserted while parents are looking after their children are all evened out. If we have a fresh look at term dates, let’s also stagger them in a sensible way.

Footnote: there are other things we can do about workload. Where I work, an email curfew from 7pm to 7am (including 7pm Friday to 7am Monday) encourages staff not to be permanently ‘on call’. Regular social events promote belonging.  Teacher wellbeing should be a priority for schools - and there are easy ways of making a start on it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Ofqual: 7/10. Could do better.

Last week, we read that Ofqual  intervened with the exam boards to ensure grade boundaries tkept roughly the same proportion of pupils get the top grades this year at A level as in previous years. As a result, they were lambasted by representatives of the educational establishment. But this time, Ofqual was right.

Whatever one thinks of the Govian changes to A levels, this year promised to be a difficult year for exam comparability: some subjects are 'reformed', new, harder A levels, and some aren't. If Ofqual had allowed these new reformed courses to be significantly harder in terms of their grading than a last round of unreformed courses in subjects whose courses took longer to be approved by the regulator, this year's results would have been influenced significantly by the roulette wheel of A level subject choice, rather than by ability as we might hope. Identical candidates who chose three unreformed courses might get AAA, where those who chose three reformed courses might get BBB. (And this ignores potential variations arising from markers not being given extra time to get up to speed on the demands of the new exams). The difference might not have been one grade in each subject; it could have been even wider. Thankfully, this particular roulette wheel has been stopped before the ball came to rest on black or red, favouring half the subjects' candidates with an easier high grade than the other half. Pupils deserve better than this level of randomness. As it is, we read that while over 30% of  unreformed exams were graded A* or A, only 24.3% of reformed exams were.

The news isn't entirely good however. As I pointed out in a blog in 2013 (, grade deflation is as pernicious as grade inflation. Are employers in the future going to understand that an A grade in A level English Literature differs in value depending on the year in which the exam was taken? 2017 = relatively easy, but 2018 = much harder? Of course not. 

Interestingly, when I last wrote about grade deflation, pointing out that the switch to numbered for GCSE obviated this confusion, the chief regulator at Ofqual got in touch directly to thank me (and to make a minor factual amendment to my blog - amounting to my homework being returned with "7/10. Could do better" scrawled on it in red ink). I was flattered by the attention.

I don't think Ofqual will get in touch with me this time, even if this time  I am effectively marking their homework.