Parking Technology instead of giving up Chocolate for Lent

It’s that time of year in which the Christian season of Lent is due to commence, (Wednesday 1 March), and families consider what ‘treat’ they are going to give up as a sign of their engagement with a 40 day period of abstinence.  It might be chocolate, or other such sweet treats, and for those that have not yet endured a ‘dry’ January, perhaps a few weeks without alcohol provides substitute.

Here in school we have largely ‘given up’ giving things up, and have for many years chosen to do something extra to make other people’s lives a little better. This has morphed into our 3 for 3 week, where the 3 schools seek to identify through their school councils up to 3 local charities they wish to support that enrich the lives of other children. And this work is certainly inspiring for many in our community, causing a vast array of activities spanning from the selling of cakes through to the massed spectacle of the B7 Fancy Dress walk.

So here’s my ‘little bit extra’ challenge for families and friends – I challenge you to ‘Park your Technology’ from bedtime to morning whilst at home. The idea is born of the many and varied tales we have now that adults and children in families are rather too wedded to their technology, their phone/handheld, being unable to be apart for more than a few seconds when at leisure. Now be that as it may, the reality would appear to be more sinister than just possession; indeed it is the very interaction with the device that is causing the development of addiction and symptoms of withdrawal in regular habitual users of such mobile technology.




The deal is this – for no money at all, dear reader, you can claim your sticky ‘tag’ from me. This tag is of the indestructible, showerproof kind, usually used for wristbands. In this band’s case, it is designed to be stuck around the handle of a small basket as in the picture at the top, and used by families for family designed rules. You might choose to have it by the front door, so that all technology is deposited on entry (harsh), or perhaps at the bottom of the staircase so no technology is permitted upstairs (night-time perhaps) or by the side of the room where the family eats, so no technology is taken to the ‘table’ when eating and family time is taking place.

Here’s where you can request a ‘Reminder wristband’.

It’s for individual families to decide what to do – and to vary it as you think fit during the week and at weekend – the basic deal though is to ‘Park the Technology’ for some part of every day and see if that makes a positive difference to household conversation and family life.  I have 200 such wristbands, and I’ll send them to anyone, anywhere in the UK. Start date is 1 March 2017, and end date is when you choose, though hopefully not before Maundy Thursday 13 April.

The writer (that’s me by the way) is going for the ‘bedtime’ basket, and I started a week early just to check I can cope, and… so far, so good. Thanks for reading this far, and I look forward to engaging 200 people in my challenge!

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A broken system. Progress 8, GCSEs and SATs.

Love Learning....

A couple of weeks ago I spent 3 hours with the infinitely patient Lucy Rimmington from Ofqual, trying to get under the skin of Progress 8, the new GCSEs and what it all means for teachers, children and parents. Thanks to her and to several teachers who helped me with questions and queries along that way, I’ve written this blog to try to explain to parents and teachers some of the central issues in our exam system. I should be clear that Lucy was simply explaining processes and language to me and that any opinions or conclusions drawn are mine alone.

My first question centred around what I referred to as “norm referencing” and what is more correctly termed “comparative outcomes.” Is it true, I asked, that the proportion of pupils passing GCSEs is set in advance, regardless of criteria or achievement? The answer is yes, well sort of. Exam…

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Living like a Lord – ISA Whitbread Memorial Prize 2016 – Todd Lindley

As a result of his GCSE performance (8A*, 2 A, 1 B) in his GCSE examinations, his contribution to school life, his performance on the sports and athletic fields and his contribution to the wider community as a sports coach, Todd Lindley was awarded the Whitbread Memorial prize 2016.  It is always lovely to win an Award, and as you can see from our announcement last term, both Todd and the school were pretty pleased.

Actually receiving the Award takes a huge bound forward in terms of prestige, as Todd, his mother Julia, sister Gabriella and grandparents Alan  and Monica Sibley found out on Tuesday. The family party, accompanied by Headmaster John Rayer and myself were invited to the House of Lords by the President of ISA, the Lord Lexden to receive the award. todd-hs-of-lords-4As it happens, I have known Alastair Cooke for many years, from his previous professional life as the general Secretary of the Independent Schools Council. As soon as he read our submission in nomination of Todd for the award, he recognised the fact that Todd’s sister had received the same award 3 years previously (item 10 on this ISA bulletin), and with extraordinary generosity invited Gabby to the House to enjoy the occasion.

It gets better, because we were invited to witness Question time in the House for 60 minutes or so, when the Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Fowler made his noble statement on the failure of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons to consult with him on the question of Donald Trump being invited to speak to the House. We witnessed real politicking in the making, something which was a main news headline later that day. It gets better still, when shortly after Lord Speaker’s intervention, we witnessed former Claires Court schoolboy, Lord James O’Shaughnessy, now a junior minister in the Department for Health, defend the government’s strategy to ensure we have sufficient nurses in our hospitals for the future. Boy, by even the Lords’ gentle ways, James was given a grilling by home and opposition members. Filled with admiration for the work of the house, we descended from Strangers gallery into the main circulation square of the lords, only to be greeted by Lord O’Shaughnessy, like long lost friends!  Whatever else happened then could only metaphorically put the ‘icing on the cake’, which  actually happened, because Lord Lexden then invited us to tea with him in the Lords Dining Room!  And of course there was the little matter of the presentation itself, which took place in one of the excellent meeting rooms, somewhere in the gods above the chamber.


Other highlights included mixing with many of the most famous Lords of the Land for an afternoon, such as the Lords Neil Kinnock and Michael Howard, sharing the Gents with Lord David Putnam and taking tea with one of the kindest, nicest men you could ever meet, The Lord Lexden OBE. Sadly there are few photographic highlights of our afternoon spent as Lords of the Land, because such technology is left at the door. However, Messrs Lindley, Rayer and Wilding were snapped all at once in our gracious host’s company, a photographic memory that I will treasure for a long time to come.  #CCpride


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ImagineNation – a call to arms

This Wednesday at Senior Girls, a select audience of parents and friends enjoyed an extraordinary showcase of the girls’ singing abilities of both formal and contemporary music. Each performance lasted about 4 minutes, so we are talking full on ‘single’ duration. I’d have bought them all. Director of Music Hester Goodsell and singing teacher, Freyja Barter, supported so well by Vron Foster and accompanist Jean Glenorchy set up an amazing album of delights, all laid out in cabaret style, as my very bad photo shows here.

I spoke at the end of the concert about the absolute importance we place in Claires Court on performance Art, and its sheer longevity as an ambition. Shortly after Freyja left the Sixth Form, her singing group’s short album was selected for free mass distribution by the Daily Mail, the first girl’s ‘hit’ we have had in my memory. Since then the Sixth Form have established a major footprint in original theatre work, concluding this last summer with their own ‘musical’ play around Noel Coward’s Black Dog.  A few year’s ago, we were able to persuade Michael Morpurgo to stage his novel ‘The Kites are flying’ as a stage play at the Edinburgh fringe, and the memory of that work still brings tears to my eyes, set as a love story on the wall that divides Jerusalem.

imaginenationWriting back in 2010, Michael Morpurgo has this to say about the critical need for a robust Arts education in schools:  “I would like to propose that we let the imagination take its place at the heart of learning, and that we create a climate in which it can flourish. We need discovery; making; doing; exploring; creating; critical thinking; seeing; hearing; experiencing. Children have to be introduced to the arts in every form.”  It’s almost the strapline for the Claires Court Learning Essentials, the approach we have developed since then for everything we do at school. Now on Tuesday this week,  we see the publication of the updated report on the Value of a Cultural education in schools by the Cultural Learning Alliance.  The Report is such an easy read, and its key research findings could not be clearer:

1. Participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by 17%.

2. Learning through arts and culture can improve attainment in Maths and English.

3. Learning through arts and culture develops skills and behaviour that lead children to do better in school.

4. Students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree.

5. Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment.

6. Students from low-income families who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer.

7. Students from low-income families who engage in the arts at school are 20% more likely to vote as young adults.

8. Young offenders who take part in arts activities are 18% less likely to re-offend.

9. Children who take part in arts activities in the home during their early years are ahead in reading and Maths at age nine.

10. People who take part in the arts are 38% more likely to report good health.

Read the Key Research Findings in full at:

I’ll conclude with a quote from the recently deposed First Lady of the White House, Michelle Obama:

“Arts education is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s really the air many of these kids breathe. It’s how we get kids excited about getting up and going to school in the morning. It’s how we get them to take ownership of their future.”  

And I say Amen to that!


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And the Good News is…!

It’s Inauguration day, Brexit plan week and NHS month…

good-news-ii1and whilst there may of course be plenty to shout about, not much of the mood music is positive. It’s dry January, nights are long, mornings still dark, weather still wintry and some big banks have announced they are relocating thousands of jobs from London to Europe. With the best will in the world, it is easy to understand why the news media can’t find too much good news to shout about.

Thursday 19 January was DfE’s publication of the GCSE and A level performance tables. compareDear Reader, please believe me when I say that schools in the independent sector have almost no idea about the outcomes of such publications in any given year, other than that we are able to look up our data with 24 hours to go to see ‘what’s what’.  Now the statistics are published, not only can any one go and look up the data, but they can make use of the government’s comparison tool to compare the performance of any schools they might wish.  FYI, you can find that tool here:

24 hours later, and I have been able to study the outcomes of thee ‘new’ form book the government have created. For the Claires Court Sixth Form outcomes in terms of progress measures, we show up really well – here’s the snap-shot:


This performance comfortably places our performance better than any other school with the Royal Borough, significantly better than any of our immediate competitors in both the state grammar, comprehensive of independent sectors.  This places us as school number 100 out of a total of 4,380 schools, otherwise inside the top 3%  (2.28%) of all Sixth Form schools and colleges. In many ways, our challenge is not just to achieve the best with the highest of fliers, but with those of more modest abilities who strive to pursue their Sixth Form studies through to more modest outcomes. The stats to be published in March on students completing their main course of study should be just as exceptional; we are always keen to keep every soul on board, come what may.

GCSE performance tables you’ll see are as opaque as the Sixth Form are clear, because our sector now is almost completely excluded – all the IGCSE using schools (our sector) are misrecorded, and since government has captured no information on the entry cohort we have entering Year 7, they show no progress measures either. In due course, I’ll write more about this, but in the meantime, let’s just enjoy the good news about our Sixth Form.  But you knew that already of course, because you read our Court Report. 


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Going Feral about Education…lessons from South Korea

I am sure I was not the only one who watched the Sunday night programme entitled south-koreathis week. 3 sixth formers from their idyllic welsh valley in Pembrokeshire swapped for three days into two of the best schools in Seoul. Make no bones about it; on the face of what we witnessed, the city pupils in Gangnam had the better deal when it came to school results, but at what cost? School days for most seem to last for up to 18 hours, with only 6 hours for the children to ‘sleep’, no more. before remounting the treadmill for another day in their 44 weeks of school year. You can read a little more here, and the programme is beautifully presented and developed by Sunday Times education editor Sian Griffiths, who had this to say at the start:  “Sixty years ago, nearly 80% of the population here was illiterate, today South Korea is an economic giant. And they did all that through education.”

Make no bones about it, the academic standards between the 2 nations are light years apart, or so it seems, though the pressures on teenagers there are extreme. Suicide is the common cause of early adult death, and one student interviewed had lost 2 friends to suicide at age 16. Standards are higher elsewhere in the UK, and indeed at the individual school level we have state and independent schools here which outperform all of the nation states by published PISA outcomes. But put simply, the UK lags behind academic achievement of South Korea, end of. South Korea is reaching out to understand the better bits of what we do, improvements for example being to force the closure of schools by 10pm, rather then remaining as they do open til midnight.  Yes, rub your eyes – ‘midnight’!

sian_griffiths_2_journalist_sunday_times2Sian Griffiths’ worries are that if the South Koreans grab the best bits from our offer to children, such as our hands-on practical lessons in science or development of creative skills, they’ll not loose the academic advantage in hard maths and languages, and suddenly we’ll be exposed on all fronts as being second-rate and what little international successes we having will disappear completely.  She makes a very valid point here, when she asks “and what lessons are we learning from the South Koreans?”

What surprised me about the programme, which showed only the 3 welshmen abroad as yet, not the return ‘fixture’, was that my expectations of a nannying Korean set of parents driving compliant, servile children after school to tutors and then back home for homework was so far off the mark! Of course films may lose the truth in the editing, but what with one of the parents having to work 16 hour shifts as a taxi driver to cover the high costs of at least 2 after school sessions, actumap-south-korea-360x270-cb1352148298ally the story is much more complex. Here goes…

South Korea is about 30% smaller than England, and so is its population, so comparing the
2 countries is quite a neat thing to do. Their industrial revolution has largely happened since the Korean war, at a time when 80% if their population was illiterate. Now 99+% of their population stays into Sixth form, compared to about 60% of ours, though in truth the latter statistic is not comparable since recently we have insisted that all children stay in some form of education until the age of 18. The difference between the 2 Sixth Form educations is stark, as being diverse and spread from elite academics through to full vocational, where in Korean city schools, the push is fundamentally at the high level academic (including the study of English) level. The 2 city schools visited (boys and taught in separate schools) open their doors for study shortly after 7, with lessons running from 8 to 4pm. School is a full community provision, including ‘fine’ dining (well, hearty school meals for all) and after school, we see the students off to their tutors for a 2 hour catch-up session. They then travel home, eat dinner with the family, before setting off using public transport for some more specialist study (we saw English), before the students returned … to their school which was still open to complete their homework. Lights out at school circa midnight so the students travelling home and going immediately to bed, before prepping for school the next day from 6pm.  Honestly, it’s bonkers for children to do this; the scenes in the classroom all day showed children falling a sleep in their books, and the patent exhaustion and stress of it all was visible to all – on the children, on the parents with their long hours and multiple jobs just to keep up the payments on all the extra tuition needed, and on the relationships between all.

Here’s what I learned that was positive from the programme.

  1. It seemed obvious that the students were consenting to their education, because for the vast majority of the day, they were able to live as independent consenting humans, forging friendships and learning what to like and not like without the pervasive stare of a helicopter parent.
  2. The peer group pressure to do well was obvious, and they were suitably harsh to each other to keep people in line, gee-ing each other up too as and when necessary.
  3. No ‘blame culture’ was evident the teachers were all teaching and working really hard, and no-one seemed to lose the plot if a child fell asleep. That ‘nap’ was clearly necessary and the learner came back on board as they regained consciousness, without the teacher making undue fuss.
  4. It’s clearly the student’s job from quite an early age to determine what they need and how much extra support they need, hence the tutors, second tutors and returns to school for homework, rather than study at home*.
  5. And because they seem permanently in the company of friends, they don’t seem to be going up in solitude, nor force-fed a narrower diet of what what the idiot’s lantern has for them.
  6. And because they are not suffocated with their family, family values are very strong, and at examination time, whilst the students are in the exam hall, the mothers are in the temple, praying for good fortune for their children’s results.

*We are talking city landscape here, with 80% of the population living in high rise flats, with excellent connecting public transport and shops open 24/7. Space is at such a premium, that the homes don’t seem large enough to permit a place for homework or private study.

In case you think I am coming out in favour of the South Korean approach, I’m totally not. I love growing up in our post-industrial world, with a balance available between the academic, the aesthetic, the sporting and creative circles that intertwine in such complex ways. I have never wanted my children to be feral, to grow up without being able to share with each other the closeness of a family life. But watching these brilliantly engaged adolescents, carving their own academic careers in a focussed peer group without intense adult intervention clearly is a reminder to us to move off centre stage a little bit more than we might, because the children are very capable of doing a whole lot more then we might expect. And of course, there are quite a few strategies we have already adopted here at Claires Court to enable the children to become independent and self-reliant, if not feral. We are 8 ’til late (late busses roll at 5.35pm except on fridays and snow days), with full services available at school, universal wi-fi and clubs, activities, study and focus groups for students to join and engage with at their own discretion and interest, and a growing number student-inspired and led.

Think about catching up the programme on iplayer; it’s a harsh society that permits so many of its young children to commit suicide, and the South Korean government is really doing their utmost to learn from why suicide rates are so much lower here in the UK. Yet, as our rates rise, maybe, our society can learn from the South Koreans as well. 100% of their 16 year olds identified our GCSE Maths paper as being suitable for the primary school years – eek!



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Structural change – aren’t you sick of it?

I posted the title to this blog just before Christmas 2016, and then left content until my freedom-economy-future-political-economy-600-420return to ‘thinking’ after Boxing Day. The raw emotion sown in the title arises is me simply because so much has been traduced by a variety of governments over the past decade in the quest for progress for no good reason; and in educational terms that means for so many in schools and colleges, new amounts of work have been created through the imposition of structural change, and not just once or twice, in recent years. Let me give you a couple of examples.

On the curriculum side, much has been substantially changed, and not just in terms of content but levels of difficulty. Making the curriculum more demanding, and raising the degree of challenge to the youngsters concerned is simply not a ‘bright’ thing to do. Consider the Early years. As we learn more about the vital importance on movement and interaction with their environment in the early years, a greater emphasis must be placed on ensuring children physically ready for school, because (guess what?) as our society has become even more sedentary, a higher percentage of children are now arriving at school without the physical development in place to permit them to benefit from ‘class’. Sitting kids_colouring_600x250still, tying shoe laces, managing their own toileting are no longer expectations teachers can have for the new intake at aged 4. As a close friend and expert in children’s development, Professor Pat Preedy has this to say: “Children today are moving less, they’re developing less well, and they’re learning less; we need to do something drastic to make sure children now and in the future get the movement they need to develop properly physically, intellectually and emotionally.”

Moving up the age levels, we see the challenge in Mathematics and Literacy being made more demanding at every age level from primary through secondary. The requirement for oecd-pisa-2016change comes because England is seen to be doing less well in the international PISA tables than over European and Asian nations. But changing the structure for the entire country is completely counter-intuitive, because many of our schools are already matching or outperforming these other nations, as data released by OECD themselves makes clear. But change has happened across all the key stages, and we won’t be able to judge the efficacy of this change for many years to come – one good or bad set of results for the country can’t be used to prove anything, as research needs to be longitudinal and spread over 5 years at least.  And it’s not just the toughening up of the core disciplines that’s the issue, but the narrowing of the curriculum with the loss of so many important supporting disciplines. With subjects such as Art, Design technology, Drama, Music and RS consigned to the perimeter in so many state schools, children won’t find out they have an academic interest in such disciplines in the same planned manner as before.  None of these changes have to make an impact upon the independent sector in which I work; it’s noticeable though that there is an increasing sense of separation from our sector to mainstream, encouraged by government themselves, suggesting that we should be doing far more to influence and support education within the mainstream. David Hanson, CEO of IAPS pointed out recently that poor parents were put off by negative stereotypes of private schools; “The media characterisation of private schools is so extreme and embedded through constant repetition that for ordinary people what they represent is not only unattainable, but also incomprehensible and alien.”

schools-that-work-for-everyoneAnd therein lies the rub. State and Independent school curricula and provision are moving in very different directions indeed, driven by the turmoil of structural change in the state sector. The best state schools will attract and retain the highest quality staff, and be able to offer great breadth and diversity of choice, subject and extra-curricular activity. But those schools that are not able to cope with these demands of structural change, exacerbated by continuing and dramatic budget cuts each year, are having their governing bodies excised and school leaders dismissed at an ever increasing frequency. The net effect is high staff turnover, low aspiration in achieving anything outside of the explicit demands of the ‘test’ and a general lack of confidence that the school more generally can meet all of its pupils’ needs. Suggesting now, as the Government’s Green Paper (November 2016) does, that the way forward involves further dramatic structural change, leading to the expansion of grammar schools at the expense of the other existing schools losing their most able pupils in the process will clearly exacerbate the decline in confidence and breadth of success in such schools. It’s worth noting that in a previous structural change, government insisted Universities were better placed to run schools than local governing bodies. The experiment is only a few years old, but all the evidence indicates the experiment is not going well. Moreover, as Professor Louise Richardson Vice Chancellor of Oxford University has made clear; asking universities to set up free schools is “insulting” to teachers and heads. Speaking to the Today programme on 22 September 2016, Professor Louise Richardson said forcing her institution to establish schools would be a “distraction from our core mission”, and said universities already helped the schools community in many ways, but running them was “not what we do”.

I’ve grabbed the picture to illustrate the paragraph above from, because the government’s proposals on ‘schools that work for everyone’ completely ignores the provision for those with disabilities – that’s circa 20% of the school population.  As their journalist John Pring writes; But there is not a single mention of disabled pupils in the consultation paper, and the Department for Education (DfE) has failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of its proposals. Inclusive education campaigners say that expanding grammar schools – secondary schools which select pupils via an entrance test – will discriminate against disabled children and lead to more segregated education in special schools.  And they say the plans are a clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with new UN guidance making it clear that all segregated education should end and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.  Now forgive me, dear reader; is it really permissible for one of the government’s great departments (DfE) to ignore the 2010 Equalities act, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society in quite such a flagrant manner?

The Government closed its Green Paper consultation on 12 December, and you can read my submission here – For me the biggest structural change impacting upon the school is the hollowing out of local authority services to an alarming degree. Those employees within RBWM with whom I have contact continue to offer professional services, but only where a statutory obligation to provide exists.  Alan Bennett, author, playwright alan-bennettand diarist has this to say on the 11 September 2015 (we received his latest book for Christmas): David Cameron has been in Leeds preaching to businessmen the virtues of what he calls ‘the smart state’. This seems to be a state that gets away with doing as little as possible for its citizens and shuffling as many responsibilities as it can onto anyone who thinks they can make a profit out of them.  I am glad there wasn’t a smart state when I was being brought up in Leeds, a state that was unsmart enough to see me and others like me educated free of charge and send on at the city’s expense to univeristy, provided with splendid libraries, cheap transport and a terrif art gallery, not of course to mention the city’s hospitals.  Smart to Mr Cameron seems to mean doing as little as one can get away with and calling it enterprise. Smart as in smart alec, smart of the smart answer, which I’m sure Mr Cameron has to hand. Dead smart.”

And there is the worry about structural change imposed upon communities, be they local or national, without sufficient due consideration given to the enormity of the changes needed to implement them, and the vast timescales that then ensue. The effect of the Education changes recently wrought with the changes to GCSEs and A levels won’t be seen for at least a decade; these whole scale changes were made in spite of the education community’s carefully considered opposition to them, so what’s worse is that those charged with their implementation are ‘pressed men’ not willing advocates. Do those of us in the independent sector see these changes as a good thing for the nation? You’ll know my view, and as the 2500 independent schools are precisely that, we can’t speak with ‘one’ voice. But you can judge us by our actions:

  • we are not reducing the breadth of our offer,
  • we are keeping up our very broad focus on the co-curricular,
  • teachers have the autonomy to teach, and encouraged to develop the mastery to match,
  • class sizes remain of human scale,
  • we’ll continue to provide for children from a very broad range of abilities,
  • we are using the very best of all approaches to  teaching and learning, blending traditional with modern, old technology with new, and above all,
  • we are keeping change for changes sake to the absolute minimum.
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