Friday, July 11, 2014

I will send my children private if I can't get them into a grammar

The latest row to embroil the Education Secretary, Michael Gove - whether he did or didn’t want Of Mice and Men taken off the GCSE syllabus - took me juddering back to my schooldays.

That slender volume was a standard text at my comprehensive. I’d always had the suspicion that, being a novella, it was chosen because it was easier to read than, say, a weighty Dickens tome. And far easier to teach, too, when it was common for staff to spend up to two-thirds of a 50-minute lesson performing crowd control.

But reading Steinbeck was a tremendous leap forward from the texts I’d been given in my pre-GCSE year. Aged 14, I was staggered to be handed a brightly-coloured Roald Dahl book. Now I had adored and devoured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - but at the age of seven. At 14, I craved something a little more challenging.

My comp, in rural Suffolk, wasn’t even particularly bog-standard. But it suffered, like so many mixed-ability schools, from the crushing and pervasive air of mediocrity. Poverty of ambition was the norm.

When my mother asked if I could sit an extra GCSE, in music, with the support of that teacher (I played two instruments to Grade VIII level, but had wanted to focus on languages), she was slapped down by the headmistress. “We do nine GCSEs here,” she was told. “There is no reason for anyone to do more.”

At 16 my parents got me into a girls’ grammar, over the border in Essex - one of the 14 local authorities in England that still operates a selective system. It was the biggest shock of my life.

No one did nine GCSEs there — 12, 13, 14, even 15 was not unusual. And the subjects! They studied Latin, Classics, even Mandarin. Shakespeare was on the curriculum from start. At my comp, Macbeth didn’t crop up until the final year.

Suddenly, the world was full of clever girls all gunning for places at top universities. Academic prowess was something to be envied and emulated. Most refreshingly of all, there was no disruption to lessons.

Since then, I’ve watched the attacks on grammar schools over the years with bemusement, frustration and growing anger. Last year Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw declared that they “failed to improve social mobility”. Really, Michael? Grammar schools are - sorry, that should be were - the reason a grocer’s daughter from the Midlands ended up in Number 10. Those who bemoan that the Cabinet is a cabal of ex-public schoolboys would do well to remember that.

The latest attack this week comes in the form of a study by academics from Bristol, Bath and London. They have found that grammar school pupils go on to earn more than their peers at comprehensives. Grammars, they say, create “an unequal society”, the implication being that they are a Bad Thing.

Twenty years on from studying Of Mice and Men, I see that “unequal society” in action all the time. The CVs I receive from young people who’ve attended comprehensives are invariably so badly punctuated that they go straight in the bin. One grammar school-educated friend, a barrister, would dearly love to give the annual pupillage at his chambers to someone from a state school. But when they so often lack the poise, confidence and oratory skills of their public school peers, that just isn’t possible.

The clamour for grammar school places has never been greater. My alma mater, Colchester County High School for Girls, received around six applicants per place when I was a child. Now, it is closer to 20. Last December 2,600 parents in Sevenoaks, Kent signed a petition demanding the creation of a new academically selective school in the town. But the school was blocked because it failed to clear legal obstacles put in place by the last Labour government.

The solution to improving social mobility, which shuddered to a halt some time ago in this country, is not, as the head of Ofsted would have it, to stymie the creation of more grammar schools. Far from it: let us have one in every town. But nor must children be written off at 11 as was so horribly common in the days of secondary moderns; standards must improve throughout the system.

Our neighbours in London have just sold up and moved to a village near Tunbridge Wells. They have no particular links or affinity with that town but, with two young children, they have been lured there by its excellent grammars.

With a new baby, my husband and I may be following them in a few years. Otherwise, we’ve agreed that we will have to pay.

We are extraordinarily fortunate that we are able to do so. That is what a grammar school education does for you.


Defending the freedom to choose an education

All schools promote certain values – parents must be free to choose the school which best reflects theirs

The ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations, in which some English schools were accused of being infiltrated by Islamic extremists who then used the schools to promote religious fundamentalism, have sparked debates about the degree of freedom schools should have to determine their own curriculum and values, and the extent to which parents should be free to choose schools for their children.

Even though the accused schools were supposedly secular, in recent weeks there have been a flurry of arguments against faith schools, which, it is assumed, hoodwink children into a lifetime of worship. Many of the Trojan Horse schools were academies, which meant they attracted particular ire for not being under the direct control of local education authorities. This enables governors to influence the running of the schools and, to a limited extent, the focus of the curriculum. Education secretary Michael Gove’s main project, free schools, which receive state funding but are, in all other respects, independent, have long been attacked by teachers’ unions and crusading journalists alike. Now the government is proposing that private schools should be subjected to Ofsted inspections to bring them in-line with state provision.

The suspicion that, if left to their own devices, schools will abuse their influence over children, and parents will choose the wrong type of school, runs against three decades of national education policy which has trumpeted ‘parental choice’. Successive government ministers have argued that the best way to drive up standards is to create competition between schools, with the best schools attracting the most pupils and the most funding. If the creation of different types of schools made parental choice meaningful, it also served a useful purpose in loosening the grip of the powerful local education authorities. These previously had control over every element of schooling, from creating pedagogical resources and employing teachers to managing pupil admissions.

However, the tension in national education policy between liberating schools from local authority control and giving them complete independence has long been apparent. The 1988 Education Reform Act enshrined in law parents’ rights to choose a school place at the same time as it established the national curriculum. Parents could choose which school to send their children to, but all schools would teach children the same state-approved and examined content at the same age.

The 1988 national curriculum, as set out by then education secretary Kenneth Baker, had two main aims: to provide pupils with an entitlement to broad and balanced content, and to set expected standards for pupil attainment. The curriculum specified bodies of knowledge that should be covered through the teaching of traditional academic subjects. It was built on a positive aspiration to discern and pass on the most significant knowledge in each subject area to every child in the country.

The fact that this curriculum was determined and controlled by government ministers, rather than teachers and subject associations, meant it immediately faced charges of political bias. Indeed, while the idea of a national curriculum that provides every child with access to the best that has been thought and said is to be welcomed, the role of the government in determining this curriculum is questionable. Responsibility for the national curriculum should have been left with subject specialists and teachers. From 1988 onwards, ministers came under pressure to reduce the academic content of the curriculum and to use it as a short-cut solution to a range of social, political and economic problems that have little or nothing to do with education.

New subjects such as citizenship have been given a place in the national curriculum, and the knowledge base of other subjects, such as science, geography and English, has been diluted to make room for the promotion of issues such as sustainability, Fairtrade, anti-racism and anti-bullying. The national curriculum has moved away from its founding liberal-humanist values to become an instrumental tool for inculcating state-sanctioned political priorities in children. Just the most recent example of this trend is prime minister David Cameron’s demand that all schools should teach children about the Magna Carta as an explicit means of promoting British values.

While all children should undoubtedly learn about the Magna Carta, it would perhaps be better placed within the broader context of the history curriculum, rather than being treated as a quick and easy means to promote Britishness. This example illustrates the difference between schooling and education. Schools have long since stood accused of having a ‘hidden curriculum’, an implicit agenda to get children to conform to rules and to prepare them to accept their place in society, as determined by their race, class and gender.

Today, there’s nothing remotely hidden about the teaching of values rather than knowledge. Schools are keen to advertise their therapeutic promotion of meditation, mindfulness and yoga, and the Fairtrade fortnights, walk-to-school Wednesdays and healthy eating projects they run. But such campaigns are about schooling children to behave in a particular way rather than teaching them knowledge. Children today receive an excess of schooling when what they really need is to be better educated.

When the content of the national curriculum is explicitly politicised to meet the priorities of politicians, the child-centred fads of teacher trainers and the values of pressure groups and charities, then the power of some schools to opt out of all or part of it, and the right of parents to choose which schools to send their children to, becomes increasingly significant. Many parents chose a school that best reflects their values, rather than those of the state, and one that is going to offer their child the most access to a knowledge-based curriculum.

Unfortunately, for members of the educational establishment, this means that some parents choose faith, grammar, free or independent schools, all of which offer an alternative to the political and value-laden government-approved norm.

When access to a liberal-humanist curriculum determined by subject specialists is not even a theoretical entitlement for all children, there is little to be gained from criticising parents who attempt to secure the best education they can for their child and criticising the schools that promote the values parents hold. Of course, being able to choose a school does not permit parents to interfere in the running of that school or the content of the curriculum. Some things really are best left to teachers.


Australian students score well in PISA financial literacy test

The PISA 2012 Financial Literacy assessment is the first large scale international study to assess the financial literacy, learned in and outside of school, of 15-year-olds nearing the end of compulsory education.  In this study, financial literacy is defined as “…knowledge and understanding of financial concepts and risks, and the skills, motivation and confidence to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make effective decisions across a range of financial contexts, to improve the financial well-being of individuals and society, and to enable participation in economic life”. For a full explanation, see the PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework.

This is the first time that financial literacy has been a part of the OECD’s PISA, a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds.

Eighteen countries and economies participated in the assessment of financial literacy, including 13 OECD countries and economies: Australia, the Flemish Community of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain and the United States; and five partner countries and economies: Colombia, Croatia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Shanghai-China.  A total of 29,000 students participated in the assessment, including approximately 3,300 Australian students from 768 schools.

Some of the study findings relating to Australian students' performance include:

·         16% of Australian students performed at the top level of proficiency (level 5), compared with 10% of students across the OECD;

·         10% of Australian students were low performers in financial literacy (level 1);

·         Male and female students scored at the same level in financial literacy on average;

·         Some 11% of the variation in student performance in financial literacy is associated with socioeconomic status, about the same as the OECD average;

·         Students in metropolitan schools performed significantly better than students with similar socioeconomic status who attend schools in rural areas;

·         82% of students have a bank account and 73% earn money from work, including working outside school hours, working in a family business or performing occasional informal jobs.

As the Australian Government agency responsible for financial literacy, ASIC facilitated Australia’s participation in the PISA 2012 Financial Literacy assessment in partnership with states and territories. The research was conducted by ACER.  The next PISA financial literacy assessment will take place in 2015.


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