Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Term-time holidays affecting academic success? Give parents a break'

Missing just seven days schooling per year reportedly has a significant impact on a child's level of success. Teacher, Gillian Harvey, isn't convinced

Remember that annual family holiday to the Cornish coastline in early July? That drizzly week in which you slipped into rock-pools, ate damp fish ‘n’ chips and complained to your parents that they were ‘ruining your life’?

Turns out, you were right. The following year when you opened your GCSE results and discovered that they weren’t quite as good as you’d hoped, little did you know that it was that one miserable week (plus the subsequent two days’ sickness absence brought on by continual damp socks) that wrote you off for life – at least educationally.

The fact that you were faced with a constantly changing barrage of supply teachers in Year 10? Negligible. Your refusal to do your Science homework? This meant nothing. Your parents’ refusal to attend any parents’ evenings? Who cares!

No, it was your parents’ desire to give you a holiday, and the limited budget that necessitated taking you out of school during term time, that sealed your fate.

At least that’s the conclusion of the Department for Education (DfE), who claimed this week that missing just seven days’ schooling per year has a catastrophic impact on a child’s level of success.

They found that just 31 per cent of children who missed more than 14 days of lessons over two years achieved good grades in English, maths, science, a humanity and a language.

As a teacher, I agree that it is not ideal when pupils take holidays during term-time. But simply making spurious connections between statistics in order to support a point you wish to make without looking more closely at the numbers is both misleading and unprofessional.

Most teachers will agree that a holiday taken, say, in the last few days of the academic year, will have little impact on a child’s education. Children are more likely to miss the school show, sports day or lessons spent taking down classroom displays than anything of real note.

Similarly, if a child (or their parent) makes the effort to speak to their teachers, requesting work to do during or after the break, any issues with ‘catching up’ can be minimised.

Even DfE admitted that ‘other factors’ had not been taken into account in their calculations. Surely it is the overall attitude of parents who take their children out of school during more critical times, or who do not see it as their duty to ensure that their child’s education isn’t impacted, that should be investigated further, rather than the act of allowing your child to miss a few days of school?

As usual, the Government are tarring all parents – even the most conscientious – with the same brush. Yes, taking children out during term time might indicate an attitude to education that is less than ideal, but this should be seen as a symptom of an overall malaise, rather than the cause of poor academic performance itself.

There will be plenty of parents who choose to take children out of school for a short while, but who practice due diligence, communicate with the school and ensure that their children catch up on missed work. These are the parents who will no doubt be wracked with guilt on reading this report from the DfE.

The parents who don’t care, and team term-time absence with an overall poor attitude to their children’s education, will probably not worry in the slightest about this latest ‘finding'.

Perhaps if the DfE was more willing to do its own homework, they could produce some meaningful figures to highlight issues in education. Jumping on the parent-bashing bandwagon, and looking at statistics on holidays in isolation is about as useful as that bottle of sun-cream your mum optimistically packed as you headed for the coast.


A thousand years (or more) of lessons

Times change in the world of education. But for three long-established schools the ethos of learning remains the same, says Eleanor Doughty

It is not unusual for a grand English school to have a long and interesting history. Some date to Tudor England and Henry VIII, others Victorian England and a time that can seem black and white to our technicolour lives in 2015.

But a handful of not-so-grand schools are more ancient still – foundations that predate Wolf Hall and the dissolution of the monasteries, and even the Battle of Agincourt. Some were established before the first millennium.

“Brown is good,” is the term that Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School, York, the third oldest school in the country, coined by accident. It has become something of a catchphrase within the school “for whatever it is that we are”.

Brown is in reference to the unusually coloured uniform. “There used to be brown caps and brown blazers. As far as I know it’s always been the uniform. It may go back to monastic browns, monkish sort of browns.”

The school dates to 627AD and, in its 1,300-year history, has moved around a few times. It now sits on its ninth site, a half-mile walk from York Minster. Through the school’s rugby posts – fittingly painted with brown stripes – the Minster is in clear view. “There’s an element of joining up [the] historical dots,” Winkley says. “Particularly through the dark ages when the Vikings were in charge. Frankly, education and learning went into a bit of a hole during that time.”

St Peter’s is one of the few northern boarding schools – few, compared to the south’s near-monopoly. Winkley describes it as “a local school with a strong regional identity”, most children being from Yorkshire.

He doesn’t think about school rivalries, though, because “there is a collegiateness about independent schools. We’re all technically competing but there’s a real sense of sharing, and the sector is stronger when we have lots of different kinds of schools.”

York has a handful of independent schools: Queen Margaret’s School is seven miles out of town, and the two Quaker schools, The Mount and Bootham School, are just around the corner. “If you want to get a cheap round of applause at [an old Peterites’ dinner], you tell them that you’ve just beaten Ampleforth,” Winkley grins.

But how does a school so old keep current? “I want the place to be traditional but also have a sense of personality,” Winkley says. “Children are ultra-conservative about change, ultra-reactionary and very protective of their school. Once it happens twice, it’s a tradition. They say, 'Oh you can’t not do that’, so things can become traditions quite quickly and have that sense of ancientness even though they were only invented three years ago. We’re not the sort of place that’s got lots of quirky traditions, but the prefects wear gowns.”

Many aspects of the school are much older than three years. On the lawn outside the front of the building is a large tree on a mound; that mound was used to fire cannon shots at the castle during the Civil War. “You can look out there and think, 'blimey!’ ”

History is all around them, and one notable alumnus made his place in it quite clearly: Guy Fawkes. “We have a certain vested interest in making sure our pupils are politically aware,” Winkley says. “Obviously, we’re using the correct channels for these views to be expressed.”

The pupils themselves are very genuine, their headmaster says, as talk turns to the presentation of public schools in the modern world. “There’s no St Peter’s veneer – there’s a St Peter’s-ness, but it tends to be about people being open-eyed and straight forward. [They’re] keen to get on, and ambitious, but not in a narrow-eyed kind of way.”

Historical evidence is difficult to hold on to, certainly over a millennium. It is a problem that the King’s School, Rochester, has also had. Founded in 604AD, Rochester is another cathedral school. Traditions can be found quite literally as you walk around; the prefects wear boaters and blue and red academic gowns.

Morning “chapel” – for most schools with this facility held in an average-sized space – takes place in Rochester Cathedral. Pupils are Roffensians, and later Old Roffensians, after the school song Carmen Roffense.

At Rochester, traditions are maintained “with ease”, explains the Principal, Jeremy Walker. “It is hard to ignore the impressive past of the school and its surroundings when, every day, we move between lessons in the shadow of the best-preserved Norman keep in Europe and the magnificence of the cathedral.”

In the 21st century, Rochester’s ancient traditions are now high speed and equipped with Wi-Fi – bang up to date.

Just 30 miles away in Canterbury is Kent’s “best-kept secret”, the King’s School. Founded in 597AD, it is, as old boy Michael Morpurgo suggested, “a university for small people”. Unlike most other schools, it has no singular main building, and consequently no corridors. There is no bustling in narrow passageways; instead, pupils walk around an ancient campus from building to building to get to lessons.

Once inside, there are Hogwartsian spiral staircases; the journey to the endearingly lived-in History of Art room winds it way up to a room that, at first glance, appears to be a library. Departments are called faculties, and the boarding houses look like Oxbridge colleges, even down to their varied age-related architectural characteristics and the balance between old and new.

“Pupils go from here to Cambridge and they feel it is absolutely a home from home. It’s exactly the same,” explains Graham Sinclair, the registrar.

Their own chapel “just about” fits all 850 pupils in: on Sundays, they occupy their next-door neighbour Canterbury Cathedral. The prefects – “Purples” – are one for every house. George Booth-Clibborn is head of Linacre house, but is quick to say that there’s no “massive hierarchy”. “I get a really nice room, and that’s essentially it,” he jokes.

“Purples” are afforded some traditional liberties that range from skipping the lunch queue to walking across Green Court – a lawn in the centre of the school – at certain times of the year. They also wear purple robes over their uniform; this, for girls, includes a brooch instead of a tie, and usual garb is a wing-collared shirt. “Even though the girls don’t like doing up the brooches, they would hate to be rid of them,” Sinclair explains.

Debating is “big” at Canterbury, too, but almost everything is. At King’s, it is also “cool to be passionate”, Sinclair explains. “If you’re a wonderful chess player, that’s as cool to the captain of rugby as his vice captain, because that’s your talent. There’s a huge respect for people’s passions.”

The school is also hugely high-achieving. Last year King’s racked up 86 per cent A*-B grades at A-level, and casually mentioned in conversation are household-name alumni from Olympic skiers to famous chefs. “It’s very busy here, but you can be as busy as you want to be. You can take on as many activities as you can manage.” explains Tatyana Kalaydjian Serraino, Purple: and head of the sixth form Bailey house.

But is it pushy? “It’s pushy in a good way,” George says. “They want to get the best out of you. They will push you academically and set big targets, but it’s all for you.”

“We don’t wear it on our sleeves that we’re an old school,” Sinclair says. “It is part of them. Maybe the idea of tradition – the age of the school – gives us an ease.”

While some parts of the school have their place in history – Year 9s are “Shells” and Year 10s “Removes”, as at a variety of other public schools – other things happen organically. “Every Christmas we have to watch Love Actually,” George laughs in the common room of Linacre house.

And somehow one feels that, “oh, you can’t not do that”, would be appropriate, if anyone tried to stop it.


Australia: Training dummies as teachers is not the way to get good teaching

I agree with Christopher Bantick below but he fails to ask WHY dummies are being accepted as teachers.  It's because most really capable people have a fair idea, if only from their own education, that teaching in many government schools is not a pleasant experience.  The low standards of discipline that are allowed to prevail these days can even be dangerous to teachers.  So a requirement for high standards in teachers would simply mean that not enough of them would be recruited.  "Child-centered" approaches sound wonderful but can result in bedlam in the classroom. 

I once taught in a "progressive" (no overt discipline) High School (Chiron College) so I saw what happens. The brighter half of the pupils did well enough -- mainly due to parental encouragement to learn, I gather -- and the less bright half learned nothing at all, though their skill at playing cards improved.  Like so many of its ilk, Chiron college is no longer in business.

I note that the "Summer Hill" school founded by A.S. Neill along "progressive" lines is still surviving -- but as a boarding school only.  So the parents would generally be affluent and like the parents of the students who did well at the school where I taught. So the big lesson is that "progressive" education is not suitable as a mass system but rather something that can work for the children of elite families with a strong interest in education. 

So there are two solutions to low standards in government schools:  Return to traditional standards of discipline and traditional ("chalk and talk") teaching methods.  Only then will the teaching experience once again be positive enough to attract brighter teachers.

In the meantime, there is a tried and proven but mightily resisted  strategy that does work:  Large classes.   There are SOME good teachers and large classes would allow them to spread the benefit of their talents more widely.  Small classes are the holy grail of teaching unions but the research shows that they are beneficial  only at the very earliest ages.  See  here and here  and here and here and here.  By contrast, many Australian Catholic schools in the past had class sizes as big as 60 and yet got results that would be envied today.

ANOTHER report into teaching and another missed opportunity. The report by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, tabled last week, repeats the well-worn mantra that teachers are not good enough. The way to improve teaching is to insist on high academic ability on entry. This is not one of the report’s recommendations.

Instead, you have the head of the review into teacher training, Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven, saying the problem is in the university training of teachers. This is disingenuous in the extreme.

Universities can only educate those they accept. If students are admitted with low Australian Tertiary Admission Rank scores to universities, then this is who they educate. Harsh as it may sound, academically, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. You can’t make a great teacher out of someone who is not academically excellent.

Why teachers fail in the classroom is because they are not, bluntly, bright enough to cope with academic subjects and able students. To this end, the universities have not failed in their preparation of teachers, but they have failed spectacularly in permitting teachers to be trained with substandard ATAR scores.

Only NSW has set a benchmark for teacher entry of at least 70 per cent in three subjects including English before they can qualify for registration.

The Australian Education Union, the peak representative body of teachers nationally, has argued sensibly for a clear lifting of entry requirements. The AEU’s criticism of the review’s failure to recommend high ATAR scores is wholly correct.

“An ATAR score is not the only thing that makes a good teacher, but we need to recognise that a teacher’s academic ability is important and that we need some minimum requirements,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says of the review’s shortcomings.

The AEU is not alone in sharing its disquiet. The Australian Primary Principals Association — a long-time critic of low reception academic standards for teachers — says in a submission to the review that the applications for education degrees need to be “in the top 20 per cent of the population” in terms of academic performance. In other words, a minimum ATAR of 80 before admission is considered.

Moreover, the Office of the Chief Scientist, in a submission to the TEMAG review, was explicit, saying — rightly — that “teaching was not an attractive option” for the “top school-leavers”.

The comparison is damning when teacher applicants with ATAR scores of more than 80 are compared to science and engineering. Teaching draws less than a fifth of Year 12 offers to top ATAR achievers. Science and engineering achieve upwards of 70 per cent.

If this was not enough evidence, an Australian Council for Education Research report found the top-performing systems internationally depend on the entry cohort: “All high-performing education systems recruit their teachers from the ablest students.”

It makes no sense that outstanding teachers can be produced if they are academically incompetent. It also makes no sense that the TEMAG review recommends new teachers “pass a national test placing them in the top 30 per cent of the country for literacy and numeracy”.

This is absurd. If ATAR scores were high, then clearly the students accepted into teacher training would already be adequately literate and numerate.

But what worries me as a teacher heading towards four decades in the classroom is the federal government’s persistence in blaming teachers for its own failings in handling teacher education.

Teachers are the easy beats of education policy. It is an emotive argument and a good one — if your main game is to divert attention away from issues such as funding and family breakdown, and a generation that has difficulty reading anything longer than a tweet.

No matter, the TEMAG review has put accountability squarely back at the universities’ door and has threatened closure of substandard courses. It is quite comfortable about substandard students applying.

Craven, palpably avoiding the critical issue of entrance requirements, says: “We are laying down a huge gauntlet here. There is no doubt that some courses are substandard and will have to improve to survive.”

Craven is chairman of the review and vice-chancellor of the ACU, which has one of the lowest entry requirements for teacher education in the country.

This in itself raises a significant concern. Teaching has become a milch cow for commentators and critics who have either never spent time in a school or whose experience of schools is outdated and ossified.

Everyone has a view, but few have actual present classroom experience.

Independent schools, the system where I work, have always looked for the best teachers academically. It is no accident that independent schools dominate university entrance in courses such as law and medicine.

It is an indictment on Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s competence to handle his troubled portfolio that he has endorsed the review’s recommendations and simply ignored the pressing and obvious need for higher ATAR scores for teachers who enter universities.

It beggars belief that Pyne, at the Australian Council for Educational Leaders’ inaugural Hedley Beare Memorial Lecture, said he is demanding “more rigorous selection” to teaching courses but this does not include minimum academic standards. So misguided is the Minister for Education in his ideas on teacher education that he has sullied Hedley Beare’s place in educational thinking, saying standards are “just not good enough” and that some teaching courses “lag way behind in quality”.

The central issue for both the review under the misguided chairmanship of Craven and the recommendations parroted by Pyne is just how they are going to produce not just good teachers but truly great teachers who are dumb bottom feeders on ATAR scores.


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