Going to University – the No-Win, No-Fee system

Over the past few months, what with the tightening of belts because of inflation, and the growing skills gap that cannot be filled from the labour market, there has been a growing call for our 18 year olds leaving school to consider going to work as opposed to going on to study. Indeed the student loans landscape is to change – spoiler alert, but that doesn’t change the core essence of what follows… read on.

For mature adults considering career changes, it’s clearly better to look for salaried conversion courses than it is unpaid university, because the maintenance loans available are not that generous – you can read off the details here – https://www.gov.uk/student-finance/new-fulltime-students/

But for every young person (and parent) considering post 18+ study at University, this Martin Lewis talk on Student Loans Decoded is a ‘much watch video’. In it, he explains completely that student loans are not loans for students, that University fees per se for UK students are paid by the government loans company so invisible to the student, and that the monies to be paid in due course come from a graduate tax of 9% when earning more than £25,750 per annum a year past graduation (currently (£27,295).

Martin makes it quite clear why even if the post graduation adult gains a windfall, they should not pay off the student loan company, until they have considered the 30 year life span of the account, and the possibilities the luck adult might wish to consider for their windfall. In short, the graduate debt is not a millstone, but a convenient way our society has made the extraordinary benefits of higher education available to its citizens.

Some will argue that the European system works better (though none the US system), and I would certainly agree the Scottish system is best value as tuition fees are covered by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS), though their maintenance loans are less generous and Scots usually have to spend 4 years to graduate rather than 3. Martin does not cover this element, though Which? journalist Gareth Shaw covers it well in an article published earlier this year.

So… click on the Youtube link, crank the playback speed on the cog up to 1.5 and be thoroughly entertained – it’s a really worthwhile watch, than you

Alternatively, you can read Martin’s updated article of June 2022 here – https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/students/student-loans-tuition-fees-changes/, though it does rather send you back to the video above, which includes that essential learning scenario of Martin teaching and making sense of the mire!

Spoiler alert postscript. As the Higher Education Community post here makes clear, the changes afoot see starter payback drop to £25k from , period for payback to extend to 40 years (from 30), but rate of interest to be pegged back to RPI, not RPI plus 3%.

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“The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions”

This old English proverb seems to have evolved over the centuries, and remains as fresh today as a millennia or more ago. English Education is looked after by its own ministry, the Department for Education, since it was recreated as such by David Cameron’s government in 2010 – the conservative appointments since are shown below.

UK Parliament sources, courtesy of Wikipedia

Regular readers of my column will not imagine I am a fan of the DfE nor of its many Secretaries of State over the years. The headline quote on ‘Good Intentions’ is directly pointed at SoS, promising so much and delivering so little and often moving education in the wrong direction. As the timeline above indicates, the main issue with Education’s SoS is that their period of tenure is pretty short, ambitious younger members of parliament seeking to make their name quickly by delivering some easy to achieve outcomes before moving on. Famously, only one SoS has declared they were not good enough for the job, that being Estelle Morris back in 2002. Ms Morris had planned to raise standards of both numeracy and literacy when she moved up into the hot seat in 2001, from her role as school’s minister, and when there had been no progress in raising standards in the meantime, she resigned; In an interview with BBC News Ms Morris said she had “been honest with herself” and thought she had not been as good at the cabinet post as in her old job as schools standards minister.

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Since Michael Gove to Nadhim Zahawi, they have done their best to alienate those they profess they wish to lead, namely schools & universities, by setting out their stall at complete odds to those professionals with whom they are seeking to build relationships. Gove put our hackles up right at the outset by referring to the establishment in education as ‘The Blob’, seeking to stand in the way of his incisive introductions, including performance related pay and free schools, re-formalising examinations (reducing/removing controlled assessments/coursework) and above all, objecting to child-centred learning. Not 9 months ago, Zahawi was warned of the urgent need to provide more money to assist with the recovery of children who had been lost to education in the pandemic; whilst he found £6 million for that job, what on earth made him seek to deflect a further £5 million away to assist with the re-establishment of Latin, for goodness sake? Those within education have always sought to evolve practice steadily over time, and certainly over the past 12 years I have seen huge progress in terms of raising awareness within the profession on matters as diverse as safeguarding, children’s well-being and pupil voice. What I have not seen is a willingness of the Secretaries of State is actually understand our ‘landscape’. Back in March 2021, Gavin Williamson called for children to be ‘silent on their return to schools’ so that their learning could be more successful. The most important of all the skills children need to learn in school is ‘oracy’, so keeping them silent simply is not an option. Obviously, when GW was knighted this March by the Prime Minister for his services to education, despite being sacked from the cabinet for failing in that brief. I am with the Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson when she said: “Gavin Williamson let children to go hungry, created two years of complete chaos over exams and failed to get laptops out to kids struggling to learn during #lockdowns. His record is astonishing and disgraceful.”

It’s difficult to report on the conduct of Zahawi over the past 9 months, but I reckon Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England. will have a few things to say about his legacy, now we have almost 2 million children missing education and a growing scandal around the DfE’s imposition of Relatinship and Sex Education and the lack of scrutiny over the actual resources being deployed in school. My school is very unusual in that we have employed school nurses who are particularly well placed to work with our teachers to provide RSE that actually meet regulatory requirements yet delivered by well qualified adults who know the children they are teaching and any issues of background and identity that might need to be handled sympathetically. Speaking to the Parliamentary Education committee last week, de Souza was clear that outsourcing the solution to independent providers was exacerbating the problem in state schools, who do not in the main have access to the resources yet are inspected against this standard.

So as our country has to sit and wait to learn who is to be our next prime minister, so we will have to sit and wait to see if James Cleverly remains in post longer than the 3 days currently served, before we know the direction of DfE travel for the next year or so. Here is the brief he has currently has as SoS, responsible for the work of the Department for Education, including:

  • early years
  • children’s social care
  • teacher recruitment and retention
  • the school curriculum
  • school improvement
  • academies and free schools
  • further education
  • apprenticeships and skills, l
  • higher education
  • oversight of the departmental coronavirus (COVID-19) response

By any measure, the Education brief is a big one, and the department’s performance in all 10 areas has been pretty patchy at best. Education sits in a partnership with Health & Care, subject to the whims of another Department (Health) and to an utter ‘horlicks’ of provision, state, private and voluntary whose services cannot be guaranteed even under the flashing ‘blue light’. So here’s the rub, what on earth can we ask of a Secretary of State and how can we measure their performance in role.

  1. Adopt the demeanour of an Estelle Morris, recognising that the profession has great expertise, listen to the sector and make decisions that keep power distributed across the educational estate. Do not seek to establish a series of commandments that work across the sector, because each slice operates very differently (nursery, primary, secondary, tertiary) and above all don’t let DfE employ any more – its headcount has ballooned since 2010 (+2500), but that is now largely because it is actively managing so many more schools and areas within, and that’s a growing recipe for disaster (+10,000) .
  2. With care evolve the public examination system so that it brings in to play once more locally assessed coursework as part of the level 2 (GCSE) or level 3 (A level), and value that local dimension too, permitting schools to be proud of those elements it develops that enable citizenship, employment skills and public service.
  3. Adjust the balance of University Education v Apprenticeship so that the overall population of the country required to go to University for 3/4 years before being qualified is reduced downwards from 50 to 40%, i.e. reduce the Uni population by 100,000 per year group and offer those alternative pathways that permit them to go to work directly, gain skills, add to the workforce and reduce waiting lists across so many areas of public activity. This means moving student debt from Uni to Further Education, not increasing public expenditure per se.
  4. Reinforce above all the early years – the best way of levelling up is to to ensure the under 5 age range are well looked after, fed, washed, loved and learning by play.
  5. And finally, please stop blaming the Private sector for what we do well and when we do it. The latest blame we have received is for managing so well on-line learning during the pandemic and maintaining academic standards when the state sector could not. These effects did not happen because we cheated, but because we tackled the challenge and rowed through it, despite #covid-19 and #quarantines. Maintaining the ‘rowing metaphor’, we still had all the hours of practice needed to be put in, the failures and breakdowns to manage and the darkness to face before the dawn. Of course, great victories can follow, as witnessed at Henley Royal Regatta by our Girls Quad winning the Diamond Jubilee cup, but we also witness near misses to, with the boys losing to Windsor Boys in the Fawley semi-final. And Windsor Boys is of course a state school, with a great rowing tradition as we have, and yet one of so many state schools that can also show how ‘good intentions’ can be realised.

My personal good intentions for the Summer include having a break from work and from the pressure of school. The one lovely thing though about education is that its life cycle always includes these ‘breaks’, public exam results are not out for a month so ‘rest’ is assured. And then… well, that’s another story!!!

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When Silence sometimes is not Golden…

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed that I have become less prolific over the past year or so, as a consequence by implication that I have had less on my mind and less to say. Whilst my work on internal communications within school has remained pretty vibrant, I have had to be much more focused on a range of targeted audiences, and so I am taking this half-term post to draw some threads together and give some publicity to that range of work.

Ticking to the same Tock – Awakening school life after Covid – Entrainment

I am deeply indebted to the range of psychologists and researchers who have made it abundantly clear that organisations simply can’t just emerge from catastrophe and carry on as if nothing had happened. Operational fatigue, relationship stress and conflicting pressures have meant that as schools have come back to life and recovered that wide range of learning activities in addition to classroom work, we’ve had to check those operations that used to run like clockwork, and make sure that that the various working parts are still aligned and engaged. Both at the end of last term and the start of this, our professional work as colleagues has involved coming together, many meeting colleagues for the very first time after 2 years of forced separation because of requirements for isolation and disease control. The term “entrainment” was coined by noted physicist, Christian Huygens, in 1666 when he noticed that a pair of pendulum clocks, left to their own devices, would eventually synchronize to each other. I have an image conjured up from my university days of entering a Swizz cuckoo clock shop, and noticing that all the time machines would be ticking to the same tock, in synchonous harmony with each other. The clocks as a consequence would be accurate tellers of time, yet once removed from the same building, each clock would steadily drift out of synchrony, and need correction in ways they never would have done if they had not been sold to a customer!

Most living things are entrained, to the earth turning on its axis, to the rise and fall of the sun & moon, and to each other living organism around. The schooling of fish, swarming of bees and murmuration of starlings are all examples ‘flocking’ caused by their biology being in very close concert with each other. Breaking the symphony so to speak, as #lockdown has done, has affected us all, and certainly disrupted many of the feedback loops that kept us unconsciously sane and connected to the wider societal activities giving purpose to our employment and lives. For communities, be they families or workplaces, we have all noticed the drop in some individuals’ well-being and mental health, made much more obvious as we have come back to life and noticed that some are off the pace or disengaged. In so many ways, as a school leader, I’ve had to spend so much more time with my colleagues, consciously ‘clicking’ so the tick of the tock could be heard and entrained. Meetings have had to be more frequent, checking the pulse and giving the praise, both ways of ‘oiling & spinning the wheels’ so to speak. It’s only now, having seen the exam hall with A level and GCSE candidates in full flow, watching the boys in years 5 and 6 perform together on the stage, seeing the CCF in the fields training Year 7 and of course seeing our many and diverse sports activities participating in national competition that I begin to see we are operationally back in full flow. It’s taken its time, and we’ve reflected on keeping those #covidbenfits of ‘slowing down the rat race’, using technology ‘to save time and effort’ and ‘being kind to others’ and making them even more overt.

Equality, Diversity, Gender and Challenge

I remember one of the greatest lessons from my own childhood was that ‘Life is not fair, get used to it’. I won’t be the only child that resented being sent to bed at a time I considered too early, or unable to play with the bow and arrow recently acquired, or even more obviously when a coveted toy would not be bought from the shop. When the boot moved to the other foot, when I became a father, I found myself mouthing the same words of my own parents on the lack of equity between adults and children. Fundamentally though, as I have worked as both a professional and private person, I have always aimed to my best for others, to ensure fairness was visible and people were treated well and fairly.

In 2022, it is so very clear we don’t have the equitable society we need, that in some way, we’ve managed to stretch the links between supply and demand so greatly that event the calls to our emergency services no longer summon the immediate response of those front line workers we’d expect. When a call for an ambulance can’t be met at all, when most crimes are not brought to justice and when social care can’t actually help, we know immediately those services simply don’t have the staffing and experience they need to carry out their front line duties. For education providers this massively increases our work load, and for my school that means we are now indeed doing much more, providing not just education, but health & social care advice and support in full measure. That in turn impacts upon training, upskilling, time for professional development and quality assurance measures we’ve needed to grow at pace. Currently we have 6 Early Career Teachers in post, completing their first year post qualification induction as part of the new national framework to provide for their support and development. We attract new talent from all walks of life to train to be teachers, because if we don’t we be part of the cause of the shortage problem of suitable professionals by stripping workers from other schools that can scarcely afford to lose them.

We’ve just received the quality assurance report from ISTIP following their visit to meet with our 6 new colleagues, and the report concludes with this peaen of praise:“The professional, patient, unstinting support of the SM/ITs is a great strength of induction at Claires Court and their confidence in their role, despite the fact that most of them are inexperienced, is a great tribute to the proactivity and efficiency of the Induction Lead. The quality of the relationships within the induction team and the genuine commitment to ensuring a positive experience for the ECTs are of inestimable value in fostering professional progress. The Headmaster’s personal knowledge of the ECTs and awareness of the process was demonstrable and again reflects the seriousness with which the school takes ECT induction.” (The Induction Lead mentioned is Caroline Butterfield, and I the Headmaster, not a title I often use.)

Matters of diversity, gender and challenge are with us every day, facing the multiple parodoxes our society throws at us. I wait with some trepidation the guidance DfE are working on for schools on the management of gender fluidity in schools; for those under the age of 18 their rights to express their gender are not supported in our legal framework, though it is quite clear that we have to give very good sight of such developments. DfE are also conducting a full review of the Special Education Needs framework, so clearly utterly broken in terms of funding needs for the state sector. The trouble is, DfE is so wedded to the public examination framework that it will always ignore those in schools or wider parties in receipt of our ‘products’ that know the assessment framework is utterly out of date and irrelevant to our modern needs. Let’s face it, after 2 years without exams, schools are very aware we can both assess accurately and develop learners for their next stage of learning, and the last thing Universities and Employers want us to do is to turnout young adult who know stuff but can’t join it up to be competent human beings.

This is not a call to scrap A levels or other assessments at 18+, as across the globe including all the most successful education pathway providers, University course providers claim they need to be able to select the best from the rest, and clearly, those seeking to embark upon a Named subject degree need to have the effective baseline of skills and knowledge to pursue that channel of study. It turns out you only need 2 years for such refining activities (the Sixth Form years in England), so it’s the GCSE examination requirements that attract all the opprobrium, and not just from me. Every GCSE subject has its own exam requirements, lengths, assessment objectives etc. and that’s before as an Exams Centre lead, I have to provide for those who need additional time, keyboard, scribe, speaking out loud, rest breaks and such like. The sheer cost of enterprise to provide an independent assessment process for 16 year old is astonishing in terms of employment and resources (a total of 10 weeks in a 35 week academic year), locking up sports halls and building from their many other purposes. You can read here the summary in this from the Times Education Summit earlier this month – link – but even Sir Michael Wilshaw, once Head of Ofsted and scourge of failings schools has this to say “Children should be assessed at 14 or 15 not only on core subjects but also on their ability to be courteous, punctual, work in a team and show leadership qualities. This would focus attention on the first few years of secondary school and address the slide in standards after primary that is seen in many areas, he said.“.

How Integrity above all was forged

When I chose to move the school from a faith-based values system to one that those of all faiths and none could adhere to, it struck me then as it does now that of all the values we should hold dear, Integrity was the most important of all. Without doubt my own value system was developed under the careful stewardship of my teachers whilst at school, and I consider myself fortunate that amongst the best I count my father and mother. Dad taught me History and Latin, in those days the former covered a romp through the entire history of the British peoples, from Ethelred to George VI, the latter not just Wilding’s books 1, 2 and 3 (no relation) but also the ancient history of the Greeks and the Romans. Mum taught me English, largely creative writing it must be said, and we covered a range of great books, from Shakespeare’s comedies & tragedies, Dickens (all the biggies) through to the then modern classics, including Animal Farm and 1984, both dystopian novels by George Orwell.

Through my history and Latin studies, I formed some pretty strong impressions, of the civilising power of the ancient civilisations, the power of their controlling philosophies and the quality of their leaderships. I revelled as much in Emperor Nero’s fiddling whilst Rome burned as much as any of the successes of the Caesars. I was as intrigued that we only knew what Socrates said because Plato wrote it down (Socrates despised writing, blaming it for the failure of memory) as I was by the many evidently wise sayings of theirs we had to commit to memory. From Socrates “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is a habit”. From Plato “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.”

History managed to cover it all. From William the Conqueror through almost all reigns through to Edward VIII’s abdication, the struggle between monarch and the people was always to the fore, with a clear understanding that the king or queen could and would be held to account eventually. Doomsday book, Simon de Montfort, the scheming Wolsey and Cecil behind Henry and Elizabeth Tudor’s power, Oliver Cromwell’s dour legacy of Protectorate & Commonwealth, the heroics of Marlborough and Wellington in conquering the French across the ages, Victoria’s star rise with Disraeli and Gladstone as her prime ministers through to the decline of the British Empire and the optimistic emergence of the new Commonwealth after 2 catastrophic World Wars.

Whilst Shakespeare and Dickens romped through every emotion, frankly it was the bleakness of both Orwell’s novels that struck home to the emerging adolescent shortly to leave prep school for boarding public school at Douai, and prepare me pretty well for an educational experience that was both exciting in the freedoms offered and emotionally draining because of the callous stewardship of the times of the boarding provision. As with Winston Smith, star of 1984, I saw myself slowly slip into the thought control of my peer group, and having to confront my greatest fears (not being eaten alive by rats it must be said) of personal failure. However, it was in Animal Farm I found the greatest parallels to the real world I occupied, always imagining there was a Snowball or Boxer somewhere nearby to trust and rely on, to be deeply suspicious of self-appointed Napoleons, associated Squealers and of course their nearby attack dogs. I hadn’t really understood propaganda until I learned of its power in controlling the animals under the pigs’ leadership, and to this day I check headlines on chalkboards with great care, remembering how “4 Legs Good, 2 Legs Bad” morphed to “4 Legs Good, 2 Legs Better”, and the stark realisation of the animals outside when they saw the pigs inside the farmhouse cavorting on hind legs, drinking with the very humans whom they had deposed.

The Present DayAnimal Farm once more

I won’t be the only commentator that finds the conduct of our current Prime Minister ‘beyond the pale’. Andrew Marr is one of many journalists that have felt they have had to leave the BBC in order to surface their own opinions rather than remain neutral: “For politics is also an animal business and Johnson is a big and bloody-minded beast, a kind of hairy, obstinate, and endlessly energetic mastodon. It seems there is simply nobody else in the party big enough to push him over – no prowling Michael Heseltine figure, as he was the last days of Margaret Thatcher. Yet it is also true that much of the party has fallen out of love with the mastodon. And so, on the great tussle goes, day after day, week after week.” When the Sue Gray report was published last week, Marr blew his top “There has never been anything remotely like this.” Marr attacked what he saw as “egregious, stinking behaviour at the heart of government”, which leaves the Prime Minister with serious questions to answer. He went on to say that the most damning conclusion from the report is the line that these events, in the view of Sue Gray “were not in line with covid guidance at the time. We have it in black and white from Sue Gray herself. Rules were broken again, again and again.”

So Boris is currently under investigation by the privileges committee over whether he knowingly misled parliament when he repeatedly told MPs there were no parties in Downing Street during lockdown – which the police and the Sue Gray inquiry have proved otherwise.How on earth is he going to wriggle out of this, I hear you ask? None of us could have possible guessed that he would authorise the rewriting the said Minesterial code, now making it clear that “Ministers who are found to have breached the ministerial code will no longer have to resign or face the sack.” Revisions to the ministerial code, which sets out standards of conduct for government ministers, were published last Friday, changes arising from a review arising from the loss of previous ministers for mistakes they have made whilst serving in his administration, and look set to permit ministers merely to apologise for their conduct and ‘not do it again’.

When Johnston first stepped into the murky depths of rewriting the Ministerial code rules, he wrote this in the foreward: “We must uphold the very highest standards of propriety — and this code sets out how we must do so. There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest,” it said, and a breach of the code was meant to be followed by resignation or dismissal from post.

But in his most recent foreword, Johnson merely notes that “thirty years after it was first published, the Ministerial Code continues to fulfil its purpose, guiding my Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs” and removes any reference to propriety at all. And what punishment may now take the place of resignation? Options such as public apologies and loss of ministerial salary are now stated in addition in the code. Could it get worse? of course.

Johnson’s reference to “my Ministers” is placing himself in place of the person previously reserved to use the phrase, ‘My Ministers’ notably the Queen. Whilst the minor changes to the Code relate to new terms of reference for Johnson’s independent advisor on ministers’ standards, Lord Geidt, it turns out Johnston is not to give Geidt the power to carry out such investigations. No, difficult to believe but it’s true, Johnson has given himself the power to mandate investigations or not as he thinks fit – in short, a request by others for an investigation can be denied if the prime minister sees fit.

As I write, Conservative Members of Parliament are having to consider their positions very carefully. In the light of the never ending set of scandals that emerge from Johnston’s coterie, I do hope they do the right thing and ‘bring him down’. Headteachers are always expected to be loyal servants of the Crown, leading their pupils down a pathway to honest and diligent citizenship, and at the time of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, I can say I’ve done my best, what with a ‘Green Canopy’ and Tiny Forest to boot to commemorate her service. But in all honesty, I cannot serve this Prime Minister or the country by remaining silent on the matter “Egregious stinking behaviour at the heart of government’ sums it up!

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Ukrainian Refugees – a position statement ♦ April 2022

Background

The Principals and staff have been approached by friends, relatives and interested parties, requesting that we make available school places for refugees soon-to-arrive from Ukraine.

Position

For the Summer term 2022, the Principals are willing to offer places freely for such applicants; we wish to make clear that any longer term engagement is subject to review (with an explicit expectation that full fees will be paid in most cases). We will seek via the good offices of our staff, parents, friends, PTA volunteers, school outfitters and/or other sources to find uniform in the PTA vaults but other incidental costs should be met directly e.g. food, trips*.

*Funding

Incidental costs are substantial; from school transport to lunches, trips & activities, we know these will mount up. Claires Court makes no profit on its incidentals even in the best of years. We will look to raise support in these areas from a range of providers, from our own fundraising efforts this term, through our PTA should they wish, and wider charitable and/or commercial/private donations including from the host families to cover incidental costs.

Future placements

Claires Court’s experience with our various local authorities & public service providers is that children placed at Claires Court become invisible to such services. For September 2022, it is expected that any review would first check to see where best the local state sector can place such children, bearing in mind the issues of visibility, service provision, health visitors, welfare and social care. Claires Court has an excellent reputation for its provision, but every specialist service required to be bought in currently costs circa £100 per hour.

Application

The Principals will be open to applications via the Registrar, with fee waiver for this purpose, to join the school from supporting families in the knowledge we will do our best in the short term, and that we are willing to place circa 20 children in total, with the proviso also that we have the available physical capacity to manage such numbers in classrooms (1/2 per year group).

Scrutiny panel
Using independent adults, who have the time to bring, and interest & skills to bear, admissions will be managed by the Scrutiny panel to ensure placements are made in a careful and managed way, to ensure that the refugees’ interests and care are always kept to the fore. 

James Wilding

Academic Principal

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Non-Uniform day at Claires Court Friday 2022

Rarely have I seen a school react quite so immediately than with the onset of the Russian Military invasion of Ukraine, causing so much personal, physical and economic damage to a country and resulting in the largest migration of refugees in Europe since the 1940s.

As an immediate response to the staff, pupils and families’ concerns, we have agreed to hold a Non-Uniform day this Friday to recognise the plight of the Ukraine refugees; whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, these are adults, children and families sundered from their normal lives for reasons beyond their control. Many of our pupils & staff will wish to wear Yellow and Blue, others their own choice of clothes.

The usual tariff of £2 is expected on the day, and we have put a slot on the parent payment portal to help those families who don’t have a piggy bank of coins to draw upon.

All monies raised will be passed to the Disasters Emergency Committee specific Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.  DEC represents 15 well known charities working in this area, and you can find out more info on those charities  here – https://www.dec.org.uk/member-charities.

I do hope this immediate response has our parents and guardians’ support and longer term suggestions will emerge during the class/year group/section discussions on their forthcoming charity week work later this month. 

I do know that ignorance is no defence, but throughout our local schools, such days have been known by the colloquial word MUFTI, used in music hall and concert parties meaning non-uniform. However I see some concerns arising in New Zealand and Australia, with its use; I quote a spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission “The word ‘mufti’ was an Arabic word used to describe a Muslim scholar of high standing but in the course of colonisation, the term was appropriated. That appropriation has a history of degradation and racism.”2 Jun 2021. I do apologise for any inadvertent offence I and my school have caused in the past and we’ll cease its use straight away.

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A question of bias, or is that truth?

Earlier last month, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the DfE (Government department responsible for children’s services and education, including early years, schools, higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and wider skills in England) published a new document entitled Guidance – Political impartiality in schools. It’s a brave government indeed that chooses to step into this minefield, particularly in the light of the incredibly active political scene as it has been in 2022, as short as it has been so far. You can find the whole guidance here.

Now I am accepting that our current Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP
looks likely to be a ‘good’un’. His background seems impeccable for a politician: his family fled Iraq in the early years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and Nadhim commenced his secondary education in the state sector, before moving to a fellow ISA school, Ibstock Place, Sixth Form at KCS, Wimbledon before gaining a BSc in Chemical Engineering at UCL. He made his fortune in business through setting up the YouGov poll organisation and was elected to parliament for Stratford, and in recent times has made a fairly meteoric climb to lead the Education ministry, partly enabled by his successful management of the vaccination programme.

The background to the new guidance in my view is more than a bit murky, but let’s take at face value the statements the reader encounters in the introduction. I am selectively quoting for ease, and for no other reason. There is certainly nothing not to like about the following paragraph (para 2) from his forward : “Teaching about political issues, the different views people have, and the ways pupils can engage in our democratic society is an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum. It is an important way in which schools support pupils to become active citizens who can form their own views, whilst having an understanding and respect for legitimate differences of opinion.

The next paragraph begins to ring some alarm bells: “Over the last few years, there has been much discussion about political impartiality in schools, often in the context of specific political issues and movements. I know that this has at times been difficult for school leaders, teachers, and staff, as they navigate how to handle and teach about these complex issues sensitively and appropriately. That is why I’m pleased this government is publishing clear guidance explaining schools’ existing legal duties on political impartiality.

Since the election of the current administration, we find ourselves in the hands of politicians, of whom some are are at least economical with the truth and at worse just bare faced liars who have betrayed the trust the electorate have placed in them. Whilst these opinions are personal to me as an adult member of our democracy, I hope I do not overstep the mark when as a headteacher and I certainly don’t plan anytime soon to call out individuals in parliament as part of my school duties. I won’t though be the only headteacher appalled to learn this morning that the last Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson has been knighted with immediate effect. The simple statement from Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street could not be simpler: “Knighthood. The Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of Knighthood be conferred upon The Rt. Hon. Gavin Williamson CBE MP“. I will leave it to the reader to make up their own minds about the suitability of such urgent appointments made with little relevance to the international emergencies of the day the country faces.

Back to Zahawi’s foreward: “Legal duties on political impartiality ultimately help schools command the confidence of our whole diverse and multi-opinioned society. Parents and carers want to be sure that their children can learn about political issues and begin to form their own independent opinions, without being influenced by the personal views of those teaching them. I know teachers themselves feel similarly.” (para 5).

Herein lies the ‘rub’. Teachers cover a vast wealth of content in the curriculum, and have to tackle some of the most challenging issues of the day carefully and without too much emotion. Our next parents’ consultation is to cover the raft of materials now expected to be taught in schools, that being on Relationship & Sex Education. To say that this is a challenge when the curriculum is already ‘busy’ is an understatement, though as a school we have prioritised health & care with nurses and counselling being appropriately resourced throughout this century. Our teachers and nurses work together to educate, inform and awaken in our young people the knowledge and understanding they need in a world beset with perils. Children have never been more at risk from sexual exploitation, though the risks (and crimes) have been with us throughout my professional life. This week’s report from the Independent Inquiry Child Sex Abuse (ICSA) is evidence of this, in which it makes the following statement in its executive summary:

“The instances of the sexual abuse of children presented in this report will shock and horrify.
They represent the antithesis of everything that a school should be. For many victims
and survivors, the impacts have been profound and lifelong. Some perpetrators have
been brought to justice, but many have not. Some of those in positions of authority and
responsibility have been held to account for their failures of leadership and governance in
varying degrees, but many have not.

Schools have been at the heart of the problem, and in the many cases researched by the enquiry, it’s been the headteacher that has been to blame:

“Headteachers need to ensure that there is a positive culture of safeguarding in their
schools and be aware of the heightened vulnerability of children to sexual abuse in specific
educational settings. Too often, however, the Inquiry saw examples of headteachers who
found it inconceivable that staff might abuse their positions of authority to sexually abuse
children, were unaware of current statutory guidance or did not understand their role in
responding to allegations against staff. Some were more focussed upon protecting the
reputation of the school than protecting the interests of the children.”

It’s a problem shared though across the sector, with local authorities and national government also a cause of the problem:

The report identifies many shortcomings and failings in current systems of protection,
regulation and oversight which need to be addressed and it makes recommendations to help
remedy them. The report also highlights more systemic questions concerning the efficacy of
those current systems which will be returned to in the Final Report of this Inquiry.
Regulation of education in England and in Wales is complex, there being a multiplicity of
types of provision and providers, and systems of inspection and oversight. Since the early
1990s, there has been a plethora of statutory and non-statutory guidance concerning how
to keep children safe in education which has changed greatly over time. That guidance is not
always fully understood or adhered to, in part because it is not sufficiently precise and clear.

As the Independent enquiry keeps surfacing, there remains a huge issue with resourcing in schools, which is coupled to the utter fragmentation of the sector, so that it is almost impossible to join the sector up. Where once there was a local authority with the education, health and care resources in its hands to manage its 100 schools and such like, most of those schools have been removed from local authority supervision by the government’s academisation programme which is now set to be for 100% by the end of the decade. As with so many other changes wrought over the last 15 years, these changes have been largely to move schools into the government’s direct care, without having the locally based oversight in place to keep tabs and manage safeguarding.

In summary, the government will d to respond positively to the raft of independent reports that continue to surface the uncomfortable truth that the national estate is not quite in the robust condition their fine words in parliament and for the media suggest. And anecdotally, I sense that most of the health & care sector is on ‘blue light’ only locally, and even then , only if you are lucky!

This Wednesday, one of my pupils banged his head at the end of the day, and so the ambulance was called to attend; 4 hours later and the service had been still unable to locate one! As qualified first aider, I then sat in the family car with the child alongside, with the parents driving to the A&E at the hospital, some 8 miles away. We are into the 3rd year of enduring such poor capacity locally, and no sign yet of any potential signs of improvement.

Today, I was contacted by the local authority with oversight of a child who left us in December, whose personal mental health problems were far too extreme to permit day school attendance. They still have not managed to secure for him either visiting private tutor support or residential care placement, initially identified over 12 months ago.

The government is really worried that, in highlighting that we must teach about citizenship, equality, RSE and manage the reality of living in multi-racial Britain where inward migration remains not just a necessity but a right for so many, that the ‘realpolitik’ of doing so will persuade future voters (current students) that any government other than the present would do better.

So let’s go back to the guidance for teachers on this:

Understanding terminology: School leaders, staff and teachers will need to interpret the terminology in schools’ legal duties on political impartiality using their reasonable judgement. The following descriptions of some key terms from the legislation may be helpful in supporting this.

… forbid the promotion of partisan political views

In relevant case law – Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education and Skills [2007] – the court considered that the best synonym for the term ‘partisan’ is ‘one-sided’ and suggested that ‘political views’ are those expressed with a political purpose, such as to further the interests of a particular partisan group, change the law or change government policy. This could be on a wide range of matters such as economic and social issues at a local, national, or international level. Schools should be aware that ‘partisan political views’ are not limited to just political parties. They may also be held by campaign groups, lobbyists and charitable organisations.

Let’s consider the statement below, which reaches the nub well:

…take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that, where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.’

Within science education at the moment, and a very big issue for our generation, Global Warming is now an agreed scientific fact, not a political issue, so we should be able to use source material and solutions from COP26 as part of the roadmap for our classes. NOT SO FAST, I hear some of you say, because of course the solution to the problem will remain a political decision, and depends upon the actions of the government of the day. We must not use the materials published by Greenpeace for example, because they are partisan.

Within History education, we have to teach in considerable detail about Slavery, its British context, its ‘abolition’ as well as its ‘ongoing presence in the 21st century’, both the past and present, the benefits its practice brought to our economy but many of the obvious sources of material from Amnesty international would be forbidden. Current observers of the government can see just how vexed they became when the perpetrators of violent riot and damage in Bristol were discharged by the judge at their trial. The three men and a woman who helped pull down a monument to the slave trader Edward Colston at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest were found not guilty by a jury after they successfully argued they had a lawful excuse. Here’s a fact, our position in law, and covered by that glorious freedom we have because our judiciary are free of government control. So we should be able to teach that then.

The government is now trying to race through parliament its 2021 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, including new powers addressed at assembly and damage to remove from the public their rights to assemble at protest. I’ve chosen Wikipedia rather than some more colourful source choices to highlight why the bill is now in difficulty:

The bill’s second reading was on 15–16 March 2021, by 359 votes to 263. As of 30 April, the bill had passed to the committee stage for consideration by the public bill committee. The committee was due to report back to Parliament by 24 June. The Big Issue subsequently claimed that this date was delayed, partly due to pressure from protests. The third reading of the bill was agreed to by the House of Commons on 5 July 2021 by 365 votes to 265, a majority of 100. On December 15, 2021, the House of Lords continued the report stage after accepting a number of amendments.

On January 17, 2022, the Bill came up for debate in the House of Lords amid widespread protests. The Lords subsequently rejected many of the bill’s key provisions, with one peer branding the restrictions on protests “repressive” and “nasty”. The bill will now go back to the Commons to be discussed and amended, as it cannot be passed until both houses agree to the changes.

On Monday this week, the government updated the Policy paper: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: protest powers factsheet in order to assuage the second house and thousands of other informed opposition groups that the bill doesn’t really set out to do the things its opponents say it will. Methinks these issues are going to take rather longer to settle, particualrly when the international picture highlights that governments elsewhere can’t be trusted.

I worry that this government cannot stop trying to manage huge change to our ways of working and civic understandings with regulation and law at such a pace. I fear that the pandemic has given 10 Downing Street and the close Civil Service a further taste for powers they might yet acquire, as evidence for which I receive almost daily briefings and direction. Causing us to have yet more regard for how we teach and educate our youngsters may seem an innocent suggestion but it’s far more controlling than that. And the sheer disregard for the professional views of our sector is made even more obvious by the Prime Minister’s valediction of Sir Gavin. I’ll leave it to the Yorkshire Post (not yet a prohibited organ) to spell out those feelings:

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Fake News: When Princes, PMs and the Met Police collide…

During the era of Donald Trump, during his rise to President and his time in office, the world of broadcast and print journalism brought to our eyes and ears that notion of ‘Fake News’, articulated so clearly by ‘The Donald’ as a defence against the many and varied stories his rivals and enemies surfaced against him to bring him ‘to book’ or ‘bring him down’.

False Information has been with us for ever (1), and very much formed part of Charles Dicken’s playbook during the 19th century, with ‘Fake News’ per se emerging in the 1890s, when daily print journalism in the UK, across Europe and the Pond permitted the publication of scurrilous stories and saw the emergence of what we now call the ‘Tabloid press’. Back then, such writing won the sobriquet ‘Yellow Journalism‘, and I quote “as Robert Darnton explained in the NYRB recently, the peddling of public lies for political gain (or simply financial profit) can be found in most periods of history dating back to antiquity, it is in the late 19th-century phenomenon of “Yellow Journalism” that it first seems to reach the widespread outcry and fever pitch of scandal familiar today”.

In February 2022, we see a perfect storm, in which the Prime Minister of the Day is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, whose Commissioner herself has resigned because others have no confidence in her propriety and when the second son of our Monarch has chosen to buy off a ‘sex claim victim’. On the latter, whilst I rarely applaud the Daily Star, today’s front page has it so right:

The problems the Prime Minister has seem rather more than whether he has committed a crime in the eyes of the Law, as a consequence of the findings of ‘Party Gate’, the reports of multiple occasions of drinks events and birthday parties at 10 Downing Street from Summer 2020 to Christmas 2021, all of which seem pretty damning, it must be said. Boris Johnson’s far bigger problem is that the Prime Minister may have lied to Parliament, and if that is the case, he’ll have no choice, as suggested by his deputy Dominic Raab and so many others in his own party last month, and reiterated today in the Times by a formed Conservative attorney-general, Jeremy Wright, MP for Kenilworth.

How does Dame Cressida Dick fit in anyway into this picture, a public servant of scrupulously clean public character? Her problem is that during her 5 years in office so far, she has been charged with clearing up what independent observers cast as the culture of misogyny and racism within Britain’s biggest force. Dame Cressida is on record very recently in suggesting that such behaviour was never sanctioned in the police service and she being personally shocked by the stories of officers sharing images from crime scenes on WhatsApp. The trouble is, as the Mayor of London has highlighted, not only have such crimes occurred before she took charge, but that under her watch, such officers have not only been retained but promoted as well.

I quote from the Guardian article, Feb 10: “Khan had put Dick “on notice” last Wednesday that she had to rapidly reform Scotland Yard or lose his support for her leadership. His confidence in her was shaken to breaking point by a scandal at Charing Cross police station where officers shared racist, sexist, misogynistic and Islamophobic messages. Two of the officers investigated were promoted, while nine were left to serve in the Met.

All three stories are about very public national figures in the limelight. Prince Andrew’s clear lies and departure from any current standard of truth were highlighted in his television interview with Emily Maitlis, some 3 years ago. Writing last month, Mailtis said this about the directness of her questions at the time: “It is more than two years since I sat down with Prince Andrew in a Buckingham Palace ballroom and posed questions that seemed almost too surreal to ask. It is two years since the world heard his defence – about a birthday party in Woking, a trip to Pizza Express, and his inability to sweat – and shook a collective head, trying to work out what any of it meant. At the time, the specifics seemed almost comical. They spawned memes and riffs, quiz-show questions and stand-up routines. But now, suddenly, they feel deadly serious.” To be honest, I don’t think we could find anyone today who feels Prince Andrew has any integrity left, not even in his own family.

Cressida Dick has at least chosen to resign, a route left open to professionals who feel they wish to preserve their dignity in the face of public disquiet. I fear it may be too late, in part because so much will now unravel from the very carefully constructed facade of progress being made constructed under her watch. As Robert Verkaik explains in the Independent last Thursday “But the biggest challenges for her replacement – following her sensational resignation, hours after saying she would not go – may come in reforming or removing the dangerous attitudes that have long been allowed to fester among the junior ranks of Britain’s largest police service. They have been horribly exposed in the last few months.

The situation has many echoes of the bad old days of British policing – and perhaps they never went away, despite the succession of commissioners who made solemn promises to clean up the Met once and for all. But has the force ever known a crisis like this? In addition to claims of racism and corruption, the Met is also facing a charge of institutional misogyny.

Evidence is so widespread that they can no longer be dismissed by the reflex response that the good name of the service is being besmirched by a handful of dodgy cops involved in isolated incidents. The problems run deep.

In recent years, Public Figures across the globe have made it clear that they are subject to the most disgraceful smears, and that ‘Fake News’ and its parent ‘False information’ have been their watchwords as they try to rise above the vast lake of social media posts trying to ‘take them down’.

Sometime soon, both the Met Police and the Cabinet Office will publish their full findings on the ‘Party Gate’ scandal, and it’s a brave commentator that calls those to be yet another set of ‘Fake News’ so that Boris Johnson will survive. To independent observers such as those in Education, for whom truth, respect, responsibility and integrity are by-words for how our school communities are to thrive and grow, I celebrate that certainty we offer our leaders of tomorrow in these core values, and always wish that those in higher authority would bear true witness to them too.

  1. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535/
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“Ticking to the same Tock”: Entrainment – why children need need well-regulated adults close-by [Spoiler alert – please jump to the section on Mirror Neurons if you want to read what’s new]

entrainment

noun

  1. The act of entraining; specifically, the catching up and conveying away by live steam of minute drops of water from a boiler or of particles of sugar from an evaporating-pan or other vessel from which steam is exhausted.
  2. Any of several processes in which a solid or liquid is put into motion by a fluid.
  3. The alignment of an organism’s circadian rhythm to that of an external rhythm in its environment

The Century Dictionary.

Back in 1972, when I was a student studying Psychology (& Biological Sciences) at the University of Leicester, Dr Jim Reason and others introduced me to the concept of ‘entrainment’. It turns out that this phenomenon can be found the world over, as much governed by the rotation of the earth, the daily cycle of the moon and of course the interaction of the living things themselves on planet earth. And not just living things…

It turned out (explained the now Professor Emeritus, The University of Manchester) that this phenomenon was first spotted in Switzerland in Cuckoo clock shops, where all the clocks kept time with each other, but once separated into a multitude of households, each clock went its own way, and their owners needed to adjust their timepieces in ways they never needed to be before they were sold. In short, the miniscule vibrations of each clock nearby kept them all in rhythm. Who knew? Well, I guess the birds and the bees could have let mankind know, but that’s another story.

I’ve certainly written about this before, and frankly (as Prof Reason’s family know as I now have the privilege of educating his grandchildren) entrainment has informed my leadership in school ever since I became a teacher. Fundamentally, schools do best if they create ‘flow’, that sense of purpose, belonging and engagement which permits children to release themselves into their education knowing that they are ‘caught, conveyed in a livestream together, aligned to the natural rhythm of the environment around’.

I received this email today from a parent of a new secondary school child who joined us this term, having been missing education since July. My DH Inclusion had reached out for feedback after 3 weeks, “The weight of the world carried every day is as good as gone. N is willing and able to get up and go in each morning. N brings home little to no angst or anxiety each afternoon. N is a well-regulated, well-supported Autistic child who is in an enriching and accepting school.” There is a whole lot more, yet with 5% of our staff and 1000 children across 3 sites with coronavirus and 2 former staff funerals this week, I guess most would wonder why I write about this just now.

So let’s be clear: my wordpress account alone stretches back a decade, and I don’t think I’ve changed message over that period of time. What I have really enjoyed is that science and specifically human cognitive research keeps catching up with the work that people like me have led for decades, which sits almost in oppositional defiance to what our Department for/of Education and their regulator poodle Ofsted sets out on their oft-restated mission to ‘improve schools’.

Do you know any leader who would choose, whilst a country is in the middle of a pandemic AND the worst period of austerity and family challenge this century, to focus on school attendance statistics? https://schoolsweek.co.uk/dfe-absence-policy-attendance-consultation. Let’s be clear, I am not condoning absence from education, but there really is rather more going on just now than ‘skipping school’.

In short, I have lead my school aligned to a clear set of values and with an even clearer construct of no blame throughout this century. Previous research has confirmed in my mind that in most circumstances teacher/student groups need to be less than 1:20 and that we need to aim always to build individuals the intrinsic motivation to succeed. “Intrinsic motivation is made up of three components: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is having a choice in what you do, and being self-driven. Mastery is wanting to get more skilled and be recognised for competency. Purpose is understanding why you’re doing the work, it is often centred around helping other people.”

Given the selfish gene we see portrayed every day in parliament just now, why on earth would we focus children on ‘helping other people’? Here’s why, and it is all to do with the breaking news of the discovery of Mirror Neurons.

OK, Mirror Neurons turned up in the science literature in the 1990s, when Italian scientists discovered by accident that macaque monkeys brain patterns matched their hand movements normally recorded simply by watching humans reaching for food. I quote from BrainFacts:

“During the ensuing two decades, this serendipitous discovery of mirror neurons—a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement—has radically altered the way we think about our brains and ourselves, particularly our social selves.”

Now here is the crux of the matter, now the science has moved on a lot. Far too little attention has been given to those other organs of the body connected to our cerebral cortex which have almost as many neurons, the heart and the stomach for example. I quote the same BrainFacts:

Before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Now, however, many have come to believe that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. For mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. When you see someone smile, for example, your mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, creating a sensation in your own mind of the feeling associated with smiling. You don’t have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly.

And here in lies the rub. We need teachers to be relaxed, on message and in synch, because if they are working in harmony, then the chances their combined ‘charisma and example’ will be overcome by an individual dysregulated child or adult will be small. Schools can rather too easily be upset by a ‘bull in their china shop’, but the power of ‘Teachers ticking to the same Tock’ cannot be over-amplified. Indeed, as anyone knows if they have attended a huge amphitheatre gathering, the expectation of the crowd is everything, and seldom disappoints!

If you want to read more on this, I highly recommend https://www.wellwithinreach.co.uk/blog/2022/1/19/be-what-you-want-to-see-the-hidden-mirror-explained

“What we know is that the electromagnetic energy field of a human body is extraordinary.
It projects a great distance away from our body, 24/7, without any conscious awareness on our part.
We basically possess a mighty forcefield that the vast majority of us just aren’t ta
pping into.”

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Why schools do best when curriculum plans, ‘flow’ and the science of learning coincide.

I wrote some time back about the importance of Curriculum design, bringing to the fore the example of Singapore who had chosen via 2 steps to ensure that their students made better progress at school. Back in 2014, in a blog entitled The ever-shifting foundations of Good Curriculum design and practice – using PISA/OECD data! I was keen to emphasise as best I could that many advocates were there to highlight that the DfE could learn from such advice, including this report entitled Making Education work – news link here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25881774

My staff are currently attending to a substantial curriculum review at secondary level, in part brought on through the experiences gained in the classroom and through remote learning caused by the covid-19 pandemic and in part brought about by the competing demands for more effective inclusion, relationship, sex and health education in the light of current societal and governmental demands. It’s a heck of a challenge I have given departments, but such reviews are part of our familiar practice, and we have some great ‘steers’ from those in education that point the way both now and in the past1.

Curriculum plans need to cover the piece required, so over the period of secondary education for ages 11 to 16, we have a first section of subject skill, style and content confirmation (the stuff that separates subjects) coupled with a common approach the ways of working required (habits & responsibilities, both real and virtual). It’s pretty obvious that subject specialism at secondary level is both a real requirement to ensure deep learning happens, though what’s not so obvious is the way learning happens varies hugely between subjects. Every child enters secondary school with the expectation they can read, write and do sums, but many may never have come across a modern foreign language or explicit teaching in practical arts and sciences. Each subject leader has a specialist understanding of the ‘work’ their department needs to have in place prior to the start of a GCSE course of study for years 10 and 11, the last 2 years of compulsory education. In England, the government specifies both the content that needs to be covered and the mechanisms used for assessment at the close, to ensure the students’ success is measured, though it remains the school’s choice still to determine the curriculum methodology and wider ‘cultural’ expectations on their school community. The key area secondary schools need help with is the age range 11 to 14, where breadth of subject and activities is an absolute requirement, but the stitching together of diverse subjects does not necessarily join these together. I’ll return to these specific subject demands as well as to the wider importance of school culture once I have introduced the two other elements in the heading, of Flow and Learning Science.

‘Flow states’ were named as such by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though I suspect we all have experienced in our own learning those times of complete absorption when ‘stuff happens and gets done’. I guess over many years of lesson observations I have seen countless times when the class of learners have been completely absorbed in the activities of the moment, lessons I would have marked as successful, and honestly seen quite a few when it was quite clear there was no ‘flow’ evident. Whilst on occasion it was fair to blame the teacher directly (talking too much and wasting children’s time on admonitions etc.), more frequently the cause was the inappropriate choice of task for the lesson content chosen. For ease of writing, I’ve cribbed wholesale from Wikipedia the principles of ‘flow’:

Components

Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow:

Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience. Additionally, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Feeling the potential to succeed
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

Just as with the conditions listed above, these conditions can be independent of one another.

Just reading through those components of ‘Flow’, it becomes pretty obvious why the teacher present in the room can make a huge difference to ensuring that learners become engaged in their studies. A child’s trust in their teacher is paramount, knowing they can ask for help and not be criticised. Getting immediate feedback that they are on track requires the teacher to be vigilant, that broader classroom ‘feel’ of calm and that the activity has a personal ‘value’. Trouble is, we can’t enter Flow states that readily, particularly in new unfamiliar areas – there is the pain of new learning to endure before we have sufficient knowledge, skill and understanding to enter Dan Pink’s confidence of ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. If you’ve tried to learn to ride a bike, skate or ski, you’ll immediately re-feel the bruises of those early attempts!

Learning – now hear’s the thing, until recently, entering teaching as a profession did not give a great deal of focus on the underlying principles of how learning happens. Moreover, it’s a pretty obvious statement that at secondary level, most subject specialists were pretty successful when studying their chosen subject at degree level and beyond, which does not make them necessarily effective teachers for those children who have no natural aptitude for their discipline. All secondary teachers understand the importance of starting afresh with their subject, though that does not mean they’ll ignore the ‘work’ previously covered. In England, children are expected to have studied the following National Curriculum elements of history at primary school, to include a range of monarchs up to Queen Victoria, early British History, Romans, Vikings and Saxons any time soon, plus contrasting civilisations of those periods, ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Maya, Benin and/or Baghdad. Those ‘stories from the past’ help inform children’s more general cultural understanding of the value of different peoples’ contribution to the World as we now see it.

The biology of learning that takes place in the human brain commences with new experiences being directed to the Hippocampus, part of the limbic system a group of brain structures in the cerebral cortex responsible for behavioural and emotional responses. We’ve 2 situated in our cortex, just above the ear line, and they managed all the data coming in so we make sense of it, sort it and either cause an immediate reaction to it (movement etc.) or lay down the longer term memory of same into events and spatial recogntion or into learning and memorizing facts and concepts. Bit by bit, these laying down of memories permit higher order skills to be established; experienced car drivers and musicians do not need to worry about how all the moving parts required for their ‘virtuosity’ are connected, such procedural activities seemingly appearing in the subconscious. These ‘constructs’ and ‘schemata’ are built from birth, permit babies to make sense of the world, and over the years we lay down loads of different memories that link ‘Car schema’ in strange ways, not just how to drive one but travels to and from places and in different vehicles. Understanding Schema theory2 is essential in making learning stick, because if a previously constructed ‘schema’ can be accessed, such as ‘Love’, it makes understanding the behaviour of Romeo & Juliet more readily accessible in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.

As a school, we adopted the work of the Learning Scientists for our school culture back in October 2017, in order to pull together all the many strands on theory and practice into one ‘handbook of Six learning strategies’. We’ve also tried as hard as possible to stop using the word ‘revision’, because there is so much more to learning to be done before re-learning can happen, and because work needs to be visited a number of times in a number of ways to truly ensure the concepts have been grasped. We’ve also had to take much more notice of forgetting curves, which highlight just how easy it is to forget new matters within hours of having studied it!

Understanding why curricular design needs a spiral approach is pretty obvious, as that plays into both developing robust schemata that make new learning easier and revisits learning making sure that when exam answers are needed, they are available for immediate use. Providing opportunities for ‘Flow’, having lessons long enough and uninterrupted in which more complex skills can be embedded through learning activities will mean field trips for physical geography or ecological sampling will be the best so flow is established. Indeed visiting a superb drama production can make such a difference to the study of a play; whilst it might not make a difference to an exam answer, it might actually inspire a reluctant learner to dance, act, perform or work backstage, re-motivating them in the process. Establishing the right learning experiences to create the more sophisticated moral and cultural codes we need for individual and societal benefit now present educators with our biggest challenge. It is no longer enough to use examples from US history to establish the presence of race in our curriculum, nor to represent humanity by ignoring the contribution made by females, nor to ignore the appalling effect adolescent access to the internet brings to their understanding of sex and consensual behaviour. Given the fragmentation of the lower secondary curriculum I have referred to earlier, I see my job as curriculum leader/designer to pull together this area into a really coherent whole, to ensure for example the Maths department play their part in social instruction (Turing/Lovelace/Williams) whilst ensuring in a school that manages its boys and girls education on separate sites that ‘nil detriment’ arises through such separation (DfE paper 2021).

I’ll close by making reference to some pretty modern understandings now arising about the growing epidemic of attention deficit, anxiety and mental health in children, now at levels 100 times greater than existed when I first entered the profession. Many of the unintended consequences of moving to a digital world included the swapping by children of external play for screen based games. 20 years ago and more, the damaging loss of play areas in communities began to be redressed by the Children’s Play Council and its successor, Play England, where thanks are due to their ‘sustained, effective lobbying by the Children’s Play Council/Play England (amongst others) that such significant sums of public and lottery funding were committed to play’3. The Play England report in the same year caused a media storm with headlines such as “Go OUT and play! One in three children has never climbed a tree and half have never made a daisy chain” in the Daily Mail at the time. Austerity measures of course overtook the generosity of the government of the day, and we see now even more clearly through the #lockdowns of 2020/2021 how damaging to children’s physical and mental health development is the loss of independent play and its associated risk taking/independent learning/schema development.

If you have not listened to Jose Long’s impassioned broadcast for the retention of Adventure playgrounds on Radio 4, do listen here…https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zcf5

Anecdotal experience as well as scientific enquiry has confirmed that learning cannot take place when people are stressed and anxious’. It’s worth noting that flight and fight caused by physical stressors stimulate the body’s production of Adrenaline (hormone producing short term -15 minutes- response) , diverting blood to respiration, sense perception and muscle readiness system so the body can act immediately to make reaction. If the stressors remain, then the adrenal gland also produces Cortisol, which shuts down other systems too, such as reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Whilst you can runaway from a physical threat, the invisible threat caused by stress is not removed by either of these hormonal releases. Under such stresses, short or long term, human IQ crashes, and ceases to be able to reason or problem solve4.

All the above means that a school day must take into account all the physical and mental needs of its community, both adults and children. Many current school schedules do not begin to take these into account, putting a huge premium on academic achievement in English and Maths from an early age in the Junior school setting, reducing at the expense now of many of the other requirements for a healthy education. At secondary level, there has been a dramatic reduction in break-time length, meaning many timetables simply do not permit sufficient down time between lessons for the natural effect of rest to lower stress levels to take place. Moreover, DfE and Education leaders have increasingly advocated silence in corridor requirements, further reducing opportunities for play and conversation. With days at school becoming shorter in length, and parents unwilling or unable to permit children to play unsupervised outside, the ‘caged’ nature of childhood is becoming more obvious, and children themselves unable to manage the social interactions between themselves that they would previously have learned at unsupervised play. I don’t have an answer for other schools in this area, but am keen to highlight that for my school we aim to offer a working day covering 8.30 to 4pm with after school hour long activities in which fun and choice have a chance to ‘flow’. Routine is visible everywhere, where visibly ‘kind’ behaviour is noticed and praised, where tech is universally available for each child and can go home too, but in a safer ‘school cocoon of provided services’. Where possible, this means that our boys and girls can come and go to school, learn safely and enjoy their childhood and as an added bonus, do very well academically indeed.

1. Rosenshine’s 17 Principles of Effective Instruction – Unesco paper 2010 – http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Educational_Practices/EdPractices_21.pdf

2. Evidence for Educators website – https://overpractised.wordpress.com/2022/01/02/catalyse-learning-using-schemas/

3. Urban playground website report 2011 – https://rethinkingchildhood.com/2011/09/28/play-england/

4. Manchester Anxiety Help website explanation – https://manchesteranxietyhelp.co.uk/adrenalin-and-cortisol-in-anxiety-disorders/

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Making plans for life’s journey ahead

If ever there was a time to consider that life is not predictable, ‘now’ in December 2021 is it! My school’s academic term is coming to a close, we have 11 teachers and 11 support staff off currently, which represents circa 10% of our front of class workforce. Just shy of 25% of the children are not able to be in school, partly because they are unwell (7%), partly because their families have been touched by the Omichrom variant, and part because of the need to form a family bubble for the protection of vulnerable family members at home. We’ve been tracking the more general % for the locality, which are rapidly spiking this week, hence the family precautionary measures keeping a larger number at home.
Of course life must go on and the fat that we’ve been able to celebrate Christmas virtually using our pupils ‘on screen’ has in part permitted that drawing together. If you have the time, please check out the spiritual messages that Rev. Sally Lynch (Seniors @St Lukes) and Rev. Jeremy Harris Juniors (@All Saints)

One of our teaching staff in the Outdoor Education unit, James Wragg has chosen to cycle around the coastline of GB, starting in Suffolk some 19 days ago. For our end of term assemblies, James Shared the following video of his ‘making good progress’ and it gives a great take on how life is all about making on course adjustments, rather than assumptions about the pre-laid plans always coming through on song.

James has chosen to cycle anticlockwise around the GB coastline, starting from Suffolk and this is his ‘phone home’ message after day 19. It brought tears to my eyes and pride to my heart.

As James makes clear in his conversation, we all have to check our steps on our journey if not every day, then most days. That’s a great reminder for us for the future, when increasingly industry seeks not to seek new recruits whose amazing qualifications dazzle, but whose pragmatic common sense is non-existent. So long as learning curves still are an excepted understanding of a challenge that the commercial world embraces, in addition to sector knowledge in your industry, you also need bags of experience and common sense at a relatively low level. And you can only get that by putting yourself about a bit – like cycling around GB – go Mr Wragg, GOOOO!

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