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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Rounded and grounded; why extra-curricular activities matter

This week students and their parents nervously await A level results and the higher education doors they will unlock. It may well be a week of sleepless nights as families deal with the resulting potent mix of excitement and trepidation. Students whose hard work earns them excellent exam results should be proud of their success, but we must never forget that exams are just one measure of what a young person has achieved.  Those aspects of a good education that are least easy to grade can in fact have the biggest impact on a student’s life

In this rollercoaster of a week, when the difference between an A* and an A can feel like make or break, it is interesting to consider the recent remarks of the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) John Cridland, who argues that in fact ‘character and resilience’ are the crucial ingredients for success in the workplace. Mr Cridland holds that schools are too focused on exam results and  should do more to teach pupils resilience, humility, emotional intelligence, team spirit and how to go the extra mile – a more ‘rounded and grounded’ education in short.

For many educators this is a statement of the obvious; good schools have always adopted a more holistic view of education. They recognise the importance of providing not only a rigorous academic education but also the opportunity for young people to develop personal skills and character – and not just in order to do well in the workplace, as is the CBI’s priority, but in order to live life to the full.

Independent schools invest heavily in extra-curricular programmes, and for good reason. Time and again former Perse students tell me that it was the extra-curricular life of the School that, in shaping their characters, had the biggest impact on their careers. Long after O level knowledge was forgotten, the skills learnt on the pitch, the stage or in expeditions were helping Old Perseans thrive in their careers.

Extra-curricular learning is the perfect complement to classroom study.  Ensuring students have many and varied opportunities to participate in sport, outdoor pursuits, music, drama, debating, charitable fundraising, house competitions and many other out-of-classroom activities helps students develop team work, communication, resourcefulness, resilience, emotional intelligence and considerate self-confidence. Students who take on responsibilities for clubs and societies, whether organising the logistics of a camp or planning a charity fair, become more responsible, growing in confidence and stature.

The education that takes place beyond the classroom allows students to learn in a less structured environment free from model answers, contrived assessment criteria and restrictive syllabuses. In the extra-curricular sphere students do not just provide answers, they set themselves questions in the physical, artistic, and entrepreneurial challenges they take on. These exercises are often open-ended; students have the space to make decisions and own tasks, and many of the activities require genuinely high levels of team work, communication, and leadership.

There are no artificial A* caps on extra-curricular attainment. What is more, students who push themselves can experience the joys that stem from great success and learn how to manage the disappointments that come with failure. And of course extra-curricular activities are often fun; the pure enjoyment of playing a sport, climbing a mountain or performing in a play makes youth and school special.

I welcome Mr Cridland’s call for more emphasis on the development of students’ life skills and qualities, and that this should become a focus for Ofsted inspections. However, I end with a note of caution.  Inspections tend to be associated with minimum standards, national guidance and expected levels of attainment against which schools and pupils are judged. Such prescription could be self-defeating if applied to extra-curricular education, where the value of activities lies in their breadth and unstructured nature, which allows them to flex to the needs, interests and ambitions of the young people involved.

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Time for technology to improve the examination process

GCSE is an exam taken by pupils of all abilities. This poses some assessment challenges, not least in the creation of papers that can stretch and challenge the most able students and accurately differentiate between them, whilst at the same time allowing less able pupils to demonstrate core knowledge and skills. Historically the answer has been to tier some GCSEs into easier foundation and more challenging higher tier papers. Typically schools would decide which students to enter for what tier; those taking foundation papers could attain GCSE grades G to C and no higher, while those sitting higher tier exams could access the E to A* grades.

The proposed reforms to GCSE are set to significantly reduce the amount of tiering, such that it may only survive in mathematics. At one level this is a good thing as students being entered for foundation tier papers had their attainment capped at a C grade. No matter how good their answers on a foundation paper, the result was always the same, a C. Restrictions on attainment rightly sit at odds with the aspirations of pupils, parents and teachers. It is thus understandable that Ofqual has concluded that “In the future, wherever possible, qualifications will be un-tiered, so that all students will take the same exams. This means all students will have the opportunity to be awarded the highest grade if their performance in the assessment merits it.”

However, the removal of tiering will create problems that could reduce the effectiveness and accuracy of the examination process. Un-tiered papers will mean that more candidates will face questions which are too easy or too hard for them. Weaker candidates could become demoralised by ‘challenging’ questions, whilst stronger candidates will not be stretched by easy questions which fail to differentiate at the top of the ability range. The latter is a particular worry with the introduction of a new top grade at GCSE which will divide the current A* into two. How can this be accurately done unless papers contain a sufficient number of demanding top end questions? Yet these demanding questions may well be inaccessible to weaker pupils. The worry is that in a single GCSE top end differentiation will not be by ability but by examination technique. Excellent students will all cluster in the 95-100% range with the only differences being down to minor slips because questions were misread, key words not used, or working not shown in its entirety. As such, top grades may go to the most accurate students and not the most able.

Weaker students may also fall foul of universal papers. Faced by challenging questions, students may become anxious, lose their examination nerve and panic. This could result in significant underachievement.

So what is the answer to the tiering question? Perhaps it lies in technology and computerised adaptive testing (CAT) where computer programmes tailor a test to a candidate’s ability. There is an understandable reluctance to predetermine an examination result before the exam has even started by entering the child for a higher or foundation tier. The one exam approach, which keeps all the GCSE grade doors open for all pupils, is fairer, but it could lead to less accurate assessment and less reliable results (a real problem if university entry is dependent on GCSE grades). The use of CAT could mean that all students begin an online exam answering exactly the same questions in a core section of multiple choice questions, instantly and accurately marked by the computer. The results achieved on the core section could then allow the computer to select harder or easier tiers of questions for a subsequent part 2 exam to ensure candidates are being set work of an appropriate level of difficulty. CAT could thus really stretch and challenge budding Einsteins, allowing them to show the true extent of their intellectual talents whilst also allowing weaker students to demonstrate their core competencies, all within a common format with a universal component.

Technological advances mean we can rethink assessment, and using a basic form of CAT to tailor the level of difficulty of parts of an exam to reflect candidate ability could be the answer. The process of sitting an exam has remained relatively unchanged for decades. With so much at stake on the results we need to use new technologies to produce differentiated exams which more accurately test and record pupil ability.


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Independent schools a safe haven during the exam reform storm

One of the largest programmes of simultaneous examination reforms is about to hit English schools, with both the GCSE and A level poised to undergo an overhaul. Describing the range and pace of the proposed changes as ‘ambitious’ would be an understatement – the GCSE is to become more challenging and to be marked using a new nine-point grade scale, while the A level moves from modular to linear.

The first new qualifications are scheduled for teaching in September 2015. Whatever your opinion about the reforms themselves, the latest indications are that final details about the qualifications will not be available until this autumn, almost immediately after which schools must start publishing details of 2015/16 course structures to would-be entrants. This gives them next to no time to consider their response and advise students (and their parents) what all of this means for curriculum choices and university entry.

History suggests that in the immediate aftermath of changes to the examination system two things happen: pupil attainment falls and assessment becomes less reliable – two significant negatives, neither of which should come as a surprise to anyone seeking to learn from past experience.

Starting with the classroom, when a new qualification is introduced or an existing one significantly changed, teachers need feedback from the exam board on how candidates have performed – something that can only be given after the first exams have been sat and marked – to allow them to refine their teaching. Pupil attainment would therefore naturally be lower for the couple of years following the reforms. This creates a headache for exam boards wanting to ensure grade parity – it would not be fair for those candidates who have the misfortune to be the first to sit the new or revised exams to do worse than their predecessors based purely on timing. Exam boards typically adjust the grade boundaries temporarily to address this artificial decrease in pupil attainment, but if this is to be the case during these reforms it is essential for the short-term fix to be removed at the right moment to avoid the very grade inflation the reforms apparently seek to address.

Moving to assessment, accurate marking and grading depend on clear standards being set, and these standards in turn need to be based on information about how candidates of varying abilities have performed in the past. Such historic comparisons can be accurately made for longstanding qualifications where there are lots of prior data on student attainment. They are less easy for new or reformed exams. Less data can lead to more volatile grading as markers and their team leaders apply new schemes and standards for the first time. We can expect a greater number of seemingly odd performances and disputes about grading as a result.

So the next few years of examination turbulence will not be easy for students, schools and exam boards as the reformed exam system beds in. Nor will they be easy for universities and employers struggling to make sense of the results achieved, both in themselves andrelative to the grades that have gone before. To make matters worse, as these changes will be phased in on a subject-by-subject basis between 2017 and 2019, there are likely to be differences in grading between reformed and yet to be reformed GCSE subjects to contend with too.

Quite scary? Seemingly not scary enough to get Mr Gove to think again. Ministers have set the course, and it seems schools will just need to get on with it. Independent schools will rise to the challenge, and with their high staffing ratios, more planning time and financial strength they are better equipped to participate in comprehensive staff training and provide the additional student support structures to make the best of the difficult transition years.

Independent schools also have another advantage – their very independence. There are no ministerial restrictions on the qualifications that independent schools can select for their students. If Mr Gove’s reforms work wonders for A levels independent schools can adopt them; if they do not we can go with the Pre U, IB, or International A level – all very well-respected and stable alternatives.

Even without the exam system turbulence this choice has strong benefits. As in most things in life, one size rarely fits all, and different subjects and different pupils have varying assessment and learning needs. No one qualification or approach to learning and assessment is best for all students in all subjects. So for example maths is a ‘building block’ subject well-suited to modular assessment, whereas in music and modern foreign languages a linear approach helps students build skill gradually over time. In addition, coursework is not something to be avoided in all subjects – indeed in some disciplines like geography, coursework in the form of fieldwork is fundamental to good learning.

Here at The Perse, free from government control, we can use our pupil-centred independence to create a varied exam menu. Our Heads of Department, as subject leaders, pick the exam qualification that will best enable students to progress as far as possible while with us. We prioritise critical thinking, rigour and challenge in our selection, thus already offer a mix of A level, Pre-U, International A level, International GCSE and GCSE courses. This variety is not only in the best interest of our students’ intellectual development but, by ensuring that all of our exam eggs are not in the one proverbial basket, also provides us with shelter from some of the current exam reform storm. A good place to be.

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