How to spend Christmas well

I looked out over a sea of colour when taking my last assembly of the year;  Rudolph, Santa, elves and even the odd Elsa gazed back at me. Students and staff of the Perse Upper were enthusiastically supporting Save the Children’s Christmas Jumper Day, ‘making the world better with a sweater’ as the slogan goes. This simple action – donating £2 to sport a festive knit or improvise with tinsel – was both thoroughly festive and rather poignant. As I asked students to consider giving the gift of a kind act this Christmas, I was struck by the realisation that they had chosen to spend the last day of term doing just that.

It is all too easy to be swept up in the commercial frenzy of the latest must-have item, and to believe that obtaining it – for ourselves or others – will bring happiness. I had not heard of Black Friday until this year. Born in the USA, it is now being adopted here. While I like a bargain as much as the next person, the phenomenon has some serious drawbacks. Black Friday 2014 for example brought ugly scenes of shoppers in supermarkets fighting it out over cut-price TVs.

Is this really how we want to begin our countdown to Christmas?

There is a long history of gift-giving during the festive season that stretches back to the Romans, who gave wax candles during the festival of Saturnalia, perhaps to signify the light returning after the solstice. In the Bible, The Wise Men offered the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, while for Christians the greatest present of all was God’s gift of his son to human kind.

Until recently the gifts we gave each other tended to be of a modest nature. Rising incomes in the late 20th century meant people could afford to spend more at Christmas, and retailers launched advertising campaigns to encourage them to part company with their money.  Thus began the battle of Christmas TV adverts which this year has seen Monty the Penguin from John Lewis take on Ant and Dec for Morrisons, whilst M&S fairies have battled with the Sainsbury’s Christmas truce. Christmas is truly a retail phenomenon. The tonnage shipped by Santa and his elves with assistance from Yodel and Parcelforce has grown significantly.  The average Britain now spends £350 on Christmas presents, with many spending thousands.

Last week I challenged students to re-think what giving means this Christmas. Where might their time and money be invested if not in buying extravagant gifts? What good could that bring others? Why not begin January with a full heart rather than an empty pocket?

Christmas is a time when we salute wise men who paid homage to a lowly child and in doing so gave gifts to the poor.  We remember the importance of inclusivity and how the shepherds, outcast from the Judean world, were brought into the Christmas message and given a central role.  And we sing carols that proclaim the importance of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

We have become rather unimaginative in our gift giving by comparison to these presents. Christmas is about so much more than Black Friday televisions.  Modern society has a tendency to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  This Christmas why not add friendship, kindness, good cheer and warm hearts to lists and choose gifts accordingly.


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Tailoring the exam system

We teachers like to moan, and British teachers arguably do it better than most – gentle moaning is after all a favourite national pastime. At the SAGE Beijing conference I couldn’t resist a little whinge to my peers from other countries about my frustrations with examination reform in England. I launched forth with my critique of the pace of exam reform (too fast), its implementation (piecemeal and confusing), and its substance (a straightjacket that treats all subjects and all pupils as homogeneous, when they are clearly not). The other delegates listened politely, appreciating the cathartic value of my grumble. And then they too began to off-load, such that it became readily apparent that from Scandinavia to Singapore, teachers worry that assessment is out of step with learning. This is not just a UK government issue, it is a global problem.

Schools are trying to prepare students for the twenty-first century, to equip young people with creativity, the ability to work in a team, research skills and resourcefulness. They are increasingly using digital technology to deliver the curriculum in a way that empowers pupils to personalise their learning. A differentiated approach not only ensures that pupils do not get bored by tasks that are too easy or overwhelmed by questions that are too hard, it enables them, for example, to research areas of particular interest and select methods of inquiry that work best for them. Learning is becoming a more bespoke process.

This is right and good. The problem is that advances in assessment tend to lag far behind advances in teaching and learning. Put simply, while the way we teach and learn has moved on from the 1970s, the way we assess has not. Children are examined today in much the same way as their parents and grandparents were, by sitting standard papers in isolation, against a clock and using traditional ‘technology’ (also known as a pen and paper). And while learning has become increasingly bespoke, examinations remain decidedly “off the peg”.

Assessment is understandably risk-averse – so much rides on the outcomes of public exams that the integrity of the system is paramount. It is right that the grades achieved are nationally standardised against set criteria to ensure they have a known and durable value which is not subject to excessive inflation or deflation. Results must be achieved fairly and there must be no scope for malpractice. The emphasis is on stability, security and reliability.

Yet Prof Eric Mazur, of Harvard University, spoke for many of us in The Daily Telegraph when he claimed that traditional methods of assessment create an “artificial environment” that does not readily test twenty-first century skills. It is impossible to show team work while sitting amidst the silent, serried ranks of examination desks. Demonstrating creativity requires time that is not available in most exams where the onus is on the speedy recall of relevant knowledge to answer the question set. Likewise the ability to conduct robust research and draw valid conclusions does not lend itself to assessment in Spartan exam halls. As Prof Mazur points out, we expect students and employees to work together and make use of others’ expertise, yet in our current exam system that would be ‘cheating’.

How might assessments change if those setting them were permitted to be more creative? A good starting point would be to recognise that different students and different subjects have different assessment needs. Uniform papers might be fair in ensuring all candidates answer identical questions, but this homogeneous approach compromises differentiation.

In the humanities, research projects could be externally assessed through rigorous viva-style interviews, testing planning, research, report-writing and presentation skills. Maths and computer science on the other hand lend themselves to computerised adaptive testing, with candidates sitting bespoke tests generated from large question banks. Candidates could be presented with questions appropriate to how they are performing. Results might take the form of a precise number rather than a blunt grade, giving universities and employers a better insight into candidate ability. The costs of these kinds of practical improvements are modest in comparison with expenditure on the current wave of exam reform.

Across the globe teachers – rightly or wrongly – are judged by the exam results their pupils achieve. Fortunately teachers go way beyond the test in preparing students for life; what a shame the exams they sit fail to reflect the full value of what they have learnt.

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‘Nothing’ ventured, ‘nothing’ gained

How is it possible that, as an independent school Head, I prefer the Secretary of State for Education to be State school educated? The reason is because I know that if they are not, the decision made by parents decades ago to send their child to an independent school will be held against him or her by the media, and that minister will feel obliged to bash the independent sector in order to prove his or her politically correct credentials.  It is a hackneyed routine, and one played out with depressing frequency.  More important, it gets in the way of serious progressive educational thinking of the kind Britain needs.

Tristram Hunt may not yet (or indeed ever) be Secretary of State for Education, but in anticipation of the role he has – true to form – turned on the independent sector.  Dr Hunt of course went to the independent University College School, Hampstead; the current Head wrote an excellent response in the Telegraph.

Dr Hunt has called for private schools to be stripped of some of their tax relief because the time when they could “expect something for nothing is over”.  Given that the majority of independent schools in fact do a great deal for the good of the local community, the media is currently awash with people trying to set the record straight. That work includes: the provision of free or subsidised places for children whose families could not otherwise afford the fees; partnerships with State primary and secondary schools where the independent sector provides teachers, resources and expertise for the benefit of State pupils; and free or heavily subsidised facilities for State school use.

Current arrangements are a good deal for the tax payer; they are even better when the £3.9billion saved as the result of parents choosing to educate their children privately rather than at the expense of the State is added into the equation.

Dr Hunt’s proposals do not add up, even leaving aside the fact that current good work evidently does not amount in any sensible calculation to ‘nothing’. Without tax relief, independent schools would be forced to increase their fees, pricing some hard-pressed families out of the independent sector for good. Where will the children go? Into the maintained sector of course, transferring the cost of their education from parental pockets to the State at a time when it is seriously short of money. (On the day that Dr Hunt launched his attack, the Independent was reporting that the majority of State schools will be forced to make budget cuts next year).  The net result of more pupils in the maintained sector may well be per capita funding cuts and falling standards.

Where might the money previously used for school fees go? Possibly into an expensive mortgage for a house in the catchment area of a good State school.  If that results in even higher house prices around good State schools it will be the poorest – arguably those with most to gain from an excellent education – who miss out.  Dr Hunt risks creating a situation whereby families who once paid for independent education are now costing the State money and potentially pricing out the poorest in society from the best State schools.  What remains of the independent sector will finally be the much talked about preserve of the oligarchs or so impoverished that it cannot finance all the existing good works from which society currently benefits.

Investment in education is investment in the future.  If we want the best for our children and our country then we need to spend more on our schools.  This money cannot be found by the State alone; public-private partnerships are needed. If they put their prejudices to one side, there is no reason why politicians and independent school Heads should not work together for the good of future generations.


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A sense of perspective

I always enjoy watching episodes of Father Ted. One of my favourites involves the hapless Father Dougal struggling to grasp the size difference between small toy cows and ‘small’, far away cows, grazing in a distant field. It is a moment of simple comic genius, but also a reminder of the importance of perspective.

Today’s teenagers live in a fast paced, complex, and apparently unforgiving world. They feel under pressure to wear the ‘right’ clothes, acquire ‘trendy’ accessories, have lots of friends, appear attractive and perform well in school. It was ever thus. The difference for young people growing up with omnipresent social media is the almost total lack of respite from these pressures. Media reports last week cited research by a Cambridge academic that found 12% of adults surveyed felt they could comfortably go without food for longer than they could go without social media.

Parents and schools have a challenging task in supporting teenagers and helping them differentiate between worthwhile concerns and issues of little real consequence. It can be hard for young people to see the bigger picture when their main frame of reference is peer group chatter on Facebook or Instagram.

On 11 November schools across the land will rightly halt their timetables at eleven o’clock to remember those who died in armed conflict. At The Perse we will remember the 92 former students and staff who lost their lives in World War One, and those who survived but were physically and/or emotionally injured by their experiences. Many of their stories are recorded in the 1914-18 Pelican magazines which contain moving accounts of young lives ended or forever changed in the trenches. Private O.G. Bampton Taylor was “a stretcher bearer, and went about treating and caring for the wounded in the bravest possible manner….he was killed by a shell bursting in a rest-billet”. Private J.W. Whittet was wounded in the leg. “He succumbed to meningitis and died aged 19. He was a favourite in his regiment and absolutely the life and soul of the hospital ward with his theatrical abilities”. Lieutenant E.H.H. Woodward who had captained The Perse 1st XV died on Christmas Eve 1916. He was shot dead by the German lines. “Patrols tried to recover the body, but could not, so they put up The Notice Board, asking that the Germans would bury him which they did”.

Three Perse alumni dead before the age of 20.

One hundred years on, 1914 can seem ‘far away’. But remembering the lives lost, the suffering endured and the horrors experienced brings a valuable sense of perspective. We must give thanks that the teenage concerns of today are not the problems faced by the class of 1914-15. Adolescence can be confusing, but most of its preoccupations pale into insignificance compared to the carnage of one hundred years ago. In remembering the ‘lost generation’ we should reflect on the good fortunes of the current generation, recognising the benefits of twenty first century living and the need to keep twenty first century problems firmly in perspective despite the influence of twenty first century media. 1914 may be ‘far away’ but most of the problems of 2014 are ‘small’ in comparison.

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Is the 21st century teacher a modern day ‘Mr or Mrs Motivator’?

Guest blog by Susannah Covey, Head of Year 10 and teacher of history

Recently The Times reported on new research by academics at Warwick Business School that found students who cut it fine in meeting their deadlines got lower grades. The research analysed marks awarded to more than 750 of its marketing students over a five year period. They found that those who finished their work with more than a day to spare got an average mark of 64.04, which equates to a 2:1. As the deadline loomed closer, average scores fell steadily to reach an average score of 59 for those who pressed the ‘submit’ button with one minute left, enough to push them a whole grade lower to a 2:2.

This research validates the experience of most teachers – the homework and coursework of students who delay completion and submission it is often poorer quality than that of more organised peers with better study habits. While ability to organise oneself to manage one’s time is evidently a crucial life skill, the will to study is also crucial.

One of the most exciting aspects of The Perse is its emphasis on ‘learning’ over ‘teaching’. Helping students cultivate a passion – for a topic, a subject, an interest – is one obvious way motivation takes seed. We know we are getting it right when pupils opt for additional qualifications like the Higher Project Qualification, when they have an appetite in the classroom to go well beyond the curriculum, and when they are active members of clubs and societies. I quite often, and happily, find a lesson deviating from its intended destination: a Year 9 class last term began with the end of World War Two in the Pacific and ended up in a spirited discussion of Just War Theory, via Bush and Blair’s 2003 intervention in Iraq. This past week The Perse has hosted a talk on the Rwandan genocide, a debate on the referendum and a cosmology trip for the Sixth Form – all totally optional and enthusiastically embraced.

Teachers can find new ways to inspire a thirst for knowledge and an eagerness to study in their students by reflecting on their practice and by innovating. I was struck by Dr Paul Howard Jones’ recent comments on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Educators about the role of computer gaming in enriching learning. Dr Jones suggests that the increased dopamine uptake caused by the effects of reward by ‘luck’ in computer games can help accelerate and focus learning, and increase student incentive and motivation. Introducing an element of chance of reward can make learning addictive. A colleague in the History Department researched the impact of a computer historical strategy game on pupils studying Ancient Rome; the vast majority of the class found it increased their interest, knowledge and engagement with the subject.

We are lucky at The Perse to have students who are typically very engaged. However, we still have an obligation to help pupils maintain the motivation to study effectively, even in the darkest November days when – despite best intentions – energy can be flagging. As a Head of Year, I sometimes find myself trying to direct a small minority of students to do something they are reluctant to, and have to remind myself that this is in fact the wrong approach. It is not enough (and sometimes even counter-productive) to tell students why they will benefit from a particular action; the trick is to help them identify the gains for themselves. This can seem rather counter-intuitive to the concerned teacher, tutor or parent eager to encourage an unwilling adolescent.

We find it helps to encourage students to ask themselves ‘what’s in it for me?’. They will always have favourite subjects, but can inject enthusiasm into studying others by working out how a task meets their wider goals.

Students need to be encouraged to set goals for themselves – ones that meet their own needs and with which they will identify. Crucially, we then need them to develop the confidence to handle the failures that will inevitably come as they push themselves, along with the ability to react well when they do not meet their goals. In this way students avoid a ‘learned helplessness’. Otherwise, motivation will last only as long as success, which is often temporary. Finally, there comes a point at which teachers – having prepared students as best they can – have to take a deep breath and let go.

This means the role of the practitioner in today’s classroom may not be a modern-day Mr Motivator, ebulliently sustaining their will to work. Rather, our role is to encourage passion for learning, help students cultivate the strategies and techniques for motivating themselves, and ultimately be willing and able to allow students to fail in a positive and supported way.



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How to strike a match

The admissions process for September 2015 entry is now in full swing. We are getting ready for the Upper open day on Saturday 27th, and the Prep and Pelican open days on the following weekends. The whirlwind of tours and tasters that characterise the Michaelmas term can make it a testing time for parents, keenly aware of the importance of their impending decision and eager to make the right one.

If you have browsed the website and read the prospectus then attending the school’s open day is the next logical step in getting to know a school. It is a good way to see facilities and get an overall feel for the institution, its staff and pupils, as well as being great fun. Here are my tips to help you get the most out of your visit.

  1. I am often asked at this time of year which is the best school. In fact there is no one ‘best’ school on all measures and for all students; what parents really seek is the school that is the right match for their child. It is a good idea to list the criteria that are important to you and your child, and to use your open day visit to check the school against them.
  2. Listen carefully to what the Head, staff and pupils have to say. In a good school they should all be singing from the same hymn sheet (if not quite the same notes!). Be wary of schools where the head is saying one thing and pupils or staff something different.
  3. Pupil tour guides are an excellent source of information. They tend to be very candid, and both in what they say and how they say it give you a good insight into the pupil experience of the school.
  4. There is more to a school then its league table position. League tables don’t record the quality of pastoral care or the range of extra-curricular activities – both of which are central to a child’s enjoyment of school and the development of essential life skills such as emotional intelligence, resilience, teamwork and leadership.  Ask about extra-curricular provision to ensure that your child’s interests will be met by the school’s clubs and societies, sport, music and drama programmes.
  5. Beware of schools where everything appears perfect – if it appears too good to be true it probably is! Quiz the school on how it deals with problems. Good schools are open about their weaknesses and are committed to continuous improvement.
  6. In choosing a secondary school you are making a five or seven year commitment. You therefore need to ask about the school’s future plans. You should also ask questions of the school’s finances as a number of smaller independent schools have been hit hard by the recession and some have closed.
  7. Excellent teachers are central to a good education, but in some subjects such as maths and the sciences they are in short supply. Ask about teacher recruitment and retention, and check that teachers in shortage subjects are appropriately qualified and have not just been drafted in from another subject to fill gaps in the timetable.
  8. Ask the probing questions that allow you to make your own judgements about the quality of the education. For example, some schools will sell small class sizes as a big plus, arguing that this allows for lots of individual pupil support. Ask about the ability range: a form of 24 pupils of similar ability will progress more quickly than 16 with a wide range of pupil abilities, where the bright children get bored or others struggle to keep up. Interrogate the costs: smaller class sizes cost more to provide.  Be sure that they have not been paid for at the expense of facilities, resources or the extra-curricular programme.
  9. If you like what you see you should always follow up with a visit on a more typical school day. We arrange tours with current pupils during the week followed by a small group Q+A session for this purpose.
  10. Above all involve your child in the open day and school choice process – your son or daughter has an important role to play in determining where he or she will thrive.






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A level reform and the law of unintended consequences

This week The Perse took part in a local radio debate on exam reform. The politics of the reforms remains a favourite topic of the media, but – given that they are now only months away from implementation – students and their parents must get on with the tough task of working out how to avoid the inevitable associated pitfalls.

Nowhere is this truer than in choice of sixth form. The sixth form is the all-important final stretch of school education, when all the hard work of the previous thirteen years comes to fruition. There is much to accomplish in a relatively short time, and the stakes are high. Good choices, attitude and approach pave the way to opportunity at university and beyond; mistakes invariably lead to missed chances and hard decisions.

Before the days of modules, A levels used to be ‘linear’. The introduction of modular A levels in 2000 was designed to make the qualification more accessible, and to ensure that students who left at the end of Lower Sixth did so with a qualification (AS levels). Modularisation brought myriad unintended consequences, of course – some arguably bad, including grade inflation and reduced time for the extra-curricular activity that is so essential for balance – and some good. In particular, regular exams increased student and teacher accountability and meant that everybody in the classroom worked that bit harder.

The government’s decision to return to exams only at the end of the two year A level course – that is, linear A levels – is driven by a desire to replace piecemeal assessment with a measure of whole subject understanding. There is some debate over whether this is the right approach for all subjects, but broadly it is a noble aspiration; whether or not it is achieved remains to be seen. While we await the results of this latest government educational experiment, the student subjects of it and their parents will need to make very careful decisions about where to study.

Post-reform, there will only be one bite at the examination cherry. Gone are the days when a disappointing grade could be rectified by resitting one module paper. Instead, students will need to take a year out and sit the whole qualification again. The quality of sixth form education has probably never been more important. This puts a premium on the calibre of teachers, and on their ability to meet each student’s needs.  In an ideal world, sixth form classes should be much smaller than their GCSE equivalents so that staff can provide the differentiated teaching and support needed for students to succeed at this more demanding level.

Strong pastoral support at this age strikes a good balance between allowing students to develop the independence needed for study at university and supporting them to ensure they stay sufficiently on-track to get there. Without regular module exams to keep students focused, those who have yet to develop the necessary self-discipline may struggle. This was a common problem with the old linear A levels; some students meandered their way through the first four terms hoping that a late burst of study in the Upper Sixth would put things right. For some, it worked; others found out too late that it led only to disappointing results, missed university offers and a nerve-wracking experience in the clearing process.

We also must not underestimate the pastoral stresses caused by the return to linearity. Generations of students brought up on a diet of modular learning and ‘bite size’ assessment will suddenly have to sit all-or-nothing terminal exams. For some this will be an alien and anxious experience. When we last had linear exams, three Bs would get a student into most good universities. Not so today, when the same universities are asking for A and A* grades. The pressure on students to achieve in the Upper Sixth A level exams will be immense, and this pressure will need careful pastoral management by experienced tutors who really know their tutees and have sufficient quality time to support their needs.

There is considerable evidence of a good correlation between AS modules and eventual degree performance; thus, top universities use AS exam results as a selection tool. Without this data they will need to rely either on GCSE results and A level predicted grades, or introduce new admissions tests to be sat in the autumn of the Upper Sixth. GCSE does not reliably discriminate well at the top end, while a 2013 government study found that only 42% of A level predicted grades were accurate – and that is before the volatility in grades of newly reformed exams. In recent years there has been a growth in the number of admissions tests for competitive courses like medicine and law; this trend seems set to continue. It becomes increasingly important for sixth forms to have well-resourced university advice and preparation programmes.

No doubt reform will be a hot topic at sixth form open evenings this autumn. Students and their parents will be well-advised to ask searching questions of the schools and colleges they are considering.

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