A timeless education for life

Today we marked our Founder’s Day. This annual event presents us with a valuable moment in our busy school calendar to pause and reflect on our history.

In an institution where the day-to-day focus is to all intents and purposes on the future, it is easy to take our history for granted. The Perse has moved several times, and as I walk around the Upper campus, on Hills Road since the 60s, there are no cobbled courtyards to signal our four hundred year old foundations.

My meetings with other SAGE members, the group of leading world schools to which The Perse belongs, provide a good wake-up call. There was genuine admiration when I explained to fellow heads that we would be celebrating our 400th birthday in the academic year 2015-16. The general response was that the test of time is a rigorous one that few institutions pass. The SAGE heads have a point – a quick analysis of longevity reveals that, excluding Oxbridge colleges, many of today’s leading companies and institutions have, by Perse terms, relatively short histories. The pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline began life in 1908, whilst a year later British Petroleum (now BP) was founded. The Korean multinational Samsung first traded in 1938; Starbucks opened its first coffee shop in 1971; and Microsoft came into being in 1975 with Apple following a year later in 1976. Some of the companies most used by teenagers today have even shorter histories – Google started in 1998, Jack Wills in 1999 and Facebook in 2004.

We live in a world characterised by pockets of history and tradition surrounded by a sea of modernity and change. In Cambridge the pockets of history are a little larger, whereas in SAGE schools in Singapore, the United States and Australia 100 years of existence is a major achievement.

Pride is an uncomfortable word for many British people, and pride in your school is something that other countries often do much better than us. The SAGE heads remind me that our history merits proper pride, in the School itself and in the individuals who have made it great.

Our history does in fact shape the educational present more than might be evident at first glance. Pupils often equate education with exams, and government ministers frequently make the same mistake. It is an understandable error – pupils are very focused on achieving the grades to meet their university offers. Ministers struggling to quantify education so they can judge the performance of schools and teachers reduce the educational journey to a series of baseline and value added measures all linked to key stage tests and public exams. This approach to measuring education is very narrow and could easily lead to ministers knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

In contrast The Perse has generations of alumni who can reflect on the education they received with the benefit of hindsight. By talking to alumni about their adult lives it is possible to gauge the true value of a Perse education above and beyond grades achieved and degrees awarded. This perspective is important. Time and again Old Perseans tell me that long after they forgot what they had learned for public exams, other qualities of a Perse education underpinned their successful careers. These timeless skills and attributes include the ability to communicate clearly and concisely both orally and in writing; intellectual curiosity; confidence constructing and deconstructing arguments; an eye for detail but also an understanding of the bigger picture; the ability to work effectively as a part of team; resilience and resourcefulness; creativity; calmness under pressure….the list could go on. In short, an education for life.

Reflecting on the lives and careers of our alumni, and in particular the achievements of those who are now deceased, helps us consider the legacy that we ourselves will leave behind for the coming generations. Four hundred years ago academic, physician and philanthropist Dr Perse left a legacy to change lives through education. Today’s students share the earliest Perse scholars’ chance to improve their own and others’ lives, and the duty to make the most of that opportunity. The Perse must continue to be a force for good, be that in the local community or the field of education more broadly.

Four hundred years of history affords a perspective on what is important in education. It also assists us in perfecting the educational process. The attrition of time smooths the rough edges of school; cumulative experience informs improvements. Educational fads come and go but our understanding of what makes an excellent teacher and an outstanding lesson are shaped by years of experience.

Of course, there is a flip side. An over-reliance on experience can lead to arrogance and staleness, so it must be tempered with a commitment to continuous improvement and open reflection. In this way we develop the wisdom that yields considered improvements born out of thorough research and thoughtful discussion – real advancement.

Finally, surviving and thriving for 400 years creates a sense of institutional self-confidence. The Perse has seen off the English civil war, bubonic plague, various financial crises, multiple educational reforms, and some direct hits by the Luftwaffe. Our ability to cope with the trials and tribulations of time is proven, and this should give us confidence as we tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century. Our long track record of success should also give us the confidence to stand up in educational debates and articulate our belief in an independent, academically selective education, with an emphasis on all round development and strong pastoral care. The Perse has been in the educational business far longer than the Department of Education, its ministers, the various educational think tanks, and university education departments. We have stood the test of time – and that may be the greatest test of all.




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The route to excellence

Sometimes newspaper stories start in one place before literally and metaphorically ending in another. Last week’s Sunday Times ran a front page story reporting that: “research by the government’s university funding body into 132,000 students over three years found state school pupils were up to 8% more likely to get a 2:1 or first-class degree than their private school counterparts with the same A level results”. This, according to the article, was “a powerful boost” for universities “to discriminate in favour of state school applicants”.

The busy reader may never have made it to page 2 where a key fact lay. Buried deep in the text of the article was the acknowledgement that “among students achieving A*s and As there was no statistical difference in degree attainment according to school type”. This finding is of key importance in a debate about widening access to top universities.

That the research from which the Sunday Times quotes had not been published at the time of the article was rather unhelpful for any educator or indeed parent wanting to verify the rigour of the conclusions drawn by the newspaper. According to the article, any difference in the university performance of state and independent schools is most marked at the ‘BBC’ grade level. Pupils with these grades are unlikely to meet the entry criteria for top universities who are usually looking for ‘ABB’ or better – in line with the government’s definition of a ‘high achiever’. At that grade level school type does not seem to affect undergraduate performance, and therefore there is no statistical case for top universities to begin discriminating on the basis of school background.

Even if such a case existed, discrimination by school type would be a very crude measure and a somewhat retrograde step. Academics who know the demands of their subject and the context of individual applicants need to be free to make admissions decisions on meritocratic rather than quota grounds. Issues such as health, additional tutoring and parental support can all influence achievement, and admissions tutors must be free to continue to weigh up all factors to enable them to determine each candidate’s potential in the context of their achievements thus far.

In focussing on the pros and cons of discrimination in university entry we risk trying to tackle the cause by addressing the symptoms. If at university some state school pupils with ‘BBC’ grades outperform their privately educated counterparts with the same grades because they have underachieved at A level, then should we not consider and address the reasons for the earlier underperformance? Perhaps the problem and solution rest not with university admissions, but with the insufficient funding provided to state schools.

We must not think that by fixing university admissions we can solve years of educational under-attainment. Cash strapped, staff short universities cannot make up in three or four years for deficiencies in fifteen years of primary and secondary schooling. Students from independent schools still outperform those from the state sector at university; 65% of independent school students achieve a 1st or 2:1 compared to 53% of state school students. As those who pay independent school fees know, it takes years of investment to achieve educational excellence.

The debate needs to move on from tinkering with university entrance to increasing educational standards for all. Michael Gove is to be congratulated for raising educational aspirations, but if these aspirations are to become reality education spending will need to rise significantly.

In a world economy where high level skills and knowledge are essential for economic prosperity, it is vital that we improve Britain’s educational performance or we face a future of accelerated decline. As such, politicians must focus on the big picture of increasing educational investment rather than the detail of university admissions. Finding more money for schools is not easy in the current economic climate, and politicians will need to be brave in looking at answers that combine both public and private money.

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World Book Day 2014: why you should read novels

Guest blog by Duncan King, Head of Geography and Director of Digital Learning at The Perse School

World Book Day

This is an excerpt from a whole-school assembly given prior to World Book Day, 2014:

‘Listen you little wise acre: I’m big, you’re little, I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it’

So says the father in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s best-selling story, Matilda. Matilda is one of my favourite books to read to my children and one they love too. Those of you who have read the book will know that Dahl’s Matilida is ‘an extraordinary genius with really stupid parents’. The first chapter of the book is especially good and tells us how Matilda copes with her family: by reading novels from a very young age. Through Dickens, Hardy and Austen, Matilida escapes into a different place. When neglected by her parents these books are the way she learns about the world and they give a comforting message: you are not alone.

In 2014, however, it appears that the act of reading, especially fiction, may be in long-term decline. Physical book sales as a whole in the UK are falling and this is only being compensated in part by the growth of the sales of ebooks.

In terms of the types of books sold, novels seem to be losing out to non-fiction. The best-selling book in the UK in 2013 was Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘My Autobiography’ which sold over 800,000 copies, comfortably outselling the best-selling novel of 2013 – Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Perhaps underlying this is the observation made by author Philip Hensher that ‘people are no longer ashamed to say they don’t read fiction’. In fact some almost see it as a badge of honour to say ‘I don’t read novels’. To me this fixed mindset view of reading is at least as damaging to people and society as those who say ‘I’m no good at maths’.

The other side to this is that though many people are still buying books, it appears that actual book reading may be in decline. A recent survey indicated that many people lie about the books they claim to have read in order to impress their peers, the most read/unread book being 1984 by George Orwell.

On this theme of the decline of reading, the author Ruth Rendell recently said something that would likely strike a chord with anyone who has travelled on London Underground recently: “The thing that makes me think that it is on the decline is that it is quite common now to get on public transport in the evening and not see anybody reading a book and probably 20 years ago half of the people in the carriage might have been.”

Among children the trends are also not looking good: A national literacy trust survey in 2012 found that just 3 in 10 youngsters read daily in their own time, down from 4 in 10 in 2005. Alarmingly, 17% of the 21,000 children surveyed said they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book.

So what would cause a decline in reading books, especially fiction? Well it is hard to ignore the rapid, perhaps exponential, growth in the range of activities competing for a share of our leisure time. With time-shifted television, You Tube clips, WhatsApp and Flappy Bird all available on mobile devices it is easy to lose hours, weeks, months of free time without picking up a humble novel.

With so many distractions that are designed specifically to hold our attention we need some strong arguments to motivate ourselves and others to value spending time reading novels.

Fortunately there are some very compelling arguments to encourage us to do so. I divide these arguments into two groups. Firstly we have the pragmatic, practical arguments. These are based on the premise: ‘if you do this, you get this’. In a way they present a transactional view of reading which may sound a little grubby but the truth is that these points are well worth considering:

Firstly, National Literacy Trust research indicates that reading outside of lessons is closely linked to strong academic achievement and that those who do this on a daily basis are thirteen times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

Furthermore, in September 2013 a study by the Institute of Education examined the reading patterns and academic performance of 6,000 students over time. It found that reading for pleasure between the ages of 10 and 16 had a very large impact on performance in spelling, vocabulary and, remarkably, maths test results. The impact of reading for pleasure on academic achievement at this age was four times greater than the impact of having a university educated parents.

Finally, in this vein, a favourite Cambridge-based writer of mine, Robert MacFarlane said: “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”.

In a world where the ability to communicate is increasingly valued by employers, you should not miss out on an opportunity to develop your writing skills.

The second set of arguments takes a different approach. They seek to encourage you to see the intrinsic merit in reading fiction and therefore might encourage you to begin or perhaps rekindle a long-term love of reading. These arguments are perhaps best articulated by writers themselves:

Author Neil Gaiman said:
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

And Alan Bennett, through his creation Hector in the play, the History boys said:
‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’

I can’t be sure if these pragmatic and emotional arguments will encourage you to read more fiction but I hope you will consider it. When I was a teenager at school I, like some of you, didn’t read any fiction at all and it wasn’t until I shared a corridor at university with an English undergraduate that I was persuaded and I discovered what I had been missing out on. It was like a new world opening up for me.

My experience was described beautifully in Stoner by John Williams, a formerly undiscovered 1960s novel which became a surprise best seller last year. The writer, Julian Barnes, said the following about it:

“The key moment in the book is in the first chapter when Stoner, who has come from a rural background and is studying agriculture, has to take an English class and he is given Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet to read.

“And he is asked what it means and he can’t answer: he can only say ‘it means – it means’ and yet something has happened within him.

“It is not that he has understood, it is almost that he has an epiphany because he hasn’t understood but he knows that if he can understand he will understand literature and if he understands literature he will understand the world.

“That is Stoner’s epiphany and that is an epiphany that many, many readers have.”

Duncan King is Head of Geography and Director of Digital Learning at The Perse School. This blog was originally posted on his blog http://whatwillschoolbelike.wordpress.com/
Follow Duncan on Twitter: @duncansking

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Perfectly imperfect

This week we were honoured and humbled by a visit from holocaust survivor and author Zdenka Fantlova, who shared her harrowing experience of the concentration camps. Her account of surviving six camps, and even finding love in the process, was truly inspirational. Perse lessons were hastily postponed as a packed lecture theatre listened spellbound to the 92 year-old’s story. How did she endure, we asked? By refusing to feel like a victim, she replied.

Quite apart from the obvious lessons her experience teaches us about the atrocities of the past, I was struck by her amazing sense of self, and what we might learn from that. She refused to accept her oppressors’ assessment of her value, simply accepting the situation in which she found herself and dealing with each circumstance as it arose.

At the Upper we have been talking recently about how to help our pupils develop self-esteem. We know that academic and extra-curricular success are dependent on personal happiness and confidence. If children do not feel secure, supported and valued in school and at home they will not realise their potential. Beyond that, it is the child’s own sense of his or her worth that is central, and our challenge is to help pupils develop the ability to value themselves for who they are, regardless of others’ opinions of them or indeed the outcome of their best efforts.

When children have a secure sense of self they believe in themselves, take on new challenges and progress. In contrast lack of self-esteem is pernicious and debilitating; children think they are not good at things, do not deserve love, support or respect, and fear failure. Life constricts.

Self-esteem is not a constant and even the child who is most confident in his or her own skin will have some moments of self-doubt and worry. These can sometimes be triggered by the emotional trauma associated with bereavement, divorce, health problems, relocations, or the physical and chemical changes that characterise adolescence. Schools play a key role in helping pupils learn how to maintain their sense of self when it is challenged by circumstances.

The self-esteem of children is of particular concern in today’s society. There are many possible causes of what is a complex issue, but one is the comparison children make between themselves and ‘perfect’ celebrity role models who appear to be variously so bright, physically fit, attractive, popular and wealthy that they put everybody else to shame. Schools can address the negative effects of such imperfect:perfect comparisons by reminding children that outward appearances are often misleading and beneath the public relations facade celebrity role models struggle with the same doubts and worries that affect us all.

A similar line is needed when children compare themselves unfavourably to their peers in school and can always find someone they consider more bright, successful or popular. Yet even such apparently perfect students will make mistakes, get things wrong and have bad days. In reality the perfect is always imperfect.

Schools can create a culture of openness and honesty, where it is recognised that everybody from the Head down makes mistakes, has doubts, and needs support. None of us is perfect – we are all fallible, and all the better for it. The open discussion of imperfections helps everybody. We need to appreciate ourselves and others for our perceived strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. This should not stop us from striving to be better, or celebrating our successes, but it should console us when we fall short – as we all do on occasion.

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Lessons in curriculum reform

Another week, another curriculum reform proposal. This one comes from an independent committee of business leaders and academics chaired by Sir Roy Anderson, Rector of Imperial College. The Committee has recommended the gradual phasing out of A levels and their replacement with a baccalaureate style qualification examining a broad range of subjects and non cognitive skills such as team working, emotional maturity, and empathy. The driver for the change is a concern that too many sixth formers are leaving school with poor levels of literacy and numeracy and a limited capacity for critical thinking, problem solving, time management and independent work.

Debates about curriculum reform inevitably focus on the reform proposals rather than the process behind them. However, given that we have experienced so many curriculum reforms in recent years with so few apparent benefits, it is sensible to look at the process behind the recommendations to see if they are fit for purpose and stand any chance of generating the desired improvements.

The Anderson Committee has a good starting point, comprising independent experts who do not have any party political points to score. They are academics and business people who sample the products of UK education on a daily basis. University admissions tutors and graduate recruiters are well placed to judge what skills and knowledge school leavers do and do not possess. Their focus is on improving education rather than gaining column inches, impressing political peers or winning votes.

However, as with many such groups what the Anderson Committee lacks is significant representation from the teaching profession. It seems odd, even negligent, that debates about educational reform should take place in the absence of teachers. Anthony Seldon made this point over the Christmas break when Start the Week on Radio 4 held a lively discussion on the teaching of history in schools with a panel of academic historians and authors; not a history teacher to be heard.

One of the problems of the educational reform process is that too often the views of the teaching profession are ignored or overlooked. True, there are a lot of teachers with different views, and no single union or well established professional body to speak for them, all of which makes listening to the profession challenging.

Yet it is essential that teachers are actively engaged in the reform process. They understand the practicalities of working in schools. They can see the unintended downstream consequences of change. Without their support reforms peter out. Reformers need to involve teachers in the consultation and implementation process; the result will be better thought out and more cohesive changes which stand a greater chance of success.

The Anderson Committee is however spot on in two aspects of the reform process. Firstly it recognises that educational reforms take time. The committee suggest six to eight years to allow for development, trialling, teacher training and implementation of new qualifications. Too many reforms have been compromised because they have been rushed, often to fit electoral cycles. Education is a complex and cumulative process with long lead times; the pace of change must reflect this. Secondly the committee called for an independent body comprising of teachers (hurrah!), employers, universities and political parties to be created with a focus on establishing a long term consensus to protect education from the political cycle and the short termism of Education Secretaries whose mean length of service is just two years.

For the record and almost as a postscript I do not support the central proposal of the Anderson Committee that A levels should be replaced by a baccalaureate. The shortfalls in education identified in the report have their origins in pre-16 education. Basic literacy and numeracy will not be improved by post 16 action, instead we must target the primary and early secondary years. We should be demanding more of students in the years up to 16, so we can take them further thereafter. Students can successfully specialise and follow demanding A level courses in the sixth form provided they have received a rigorous and broad based education up to GCSE.

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Learning how to learn – the 4Rs

Guest blog by Richard Cross, Head of Middle School, The Perse School

Studies have long sought to group together different types of learner, the most common being the ‘VAK’ model of classification which divides learners into the following categories:

1. Visual – those who learn through looking
2. Auditory – those who learn through listening
3. Kinaesthetic – those who learn through physical activities

Proponents of the use of learning styles in the classroom recommend that teachers adapt their teaching methods to best fit each child’s learning style, although there is little evidence to suggest that this generates better learning outcomes. A recent article by Dr Hilary Leevers (head of education and learning at the Wellcome Trust) suggests that categorising learners into rigid groups of ‘learner types’, and thus delivering content to meet these needs, can actually stifle students’ experiences and may in-fact be detrimental to their learning. Pupils are then at risk of developing a narrow view of their own abilities and may be discouraged from trying activities that do not fit with the learning style with which they have been labelled.

Instead of teaching by the maxims of ‘learning styles’, a growing body of research suggests that adopting ‘learning to learn’ strategies helps students perform better and realise their learning potential. Rather than delivering content tailored to specific learning styles, students are instead encouraged to think about learning more explicitly.

Our Year 9 students will be exploring the skills of ‘learning power’ through the ‘4Rs’, described by the cognitive scientist Professor Guy Claxton. As part of their study skills programme in the coming weeks the students will look at: Resilience (the way you deal with yourself); Resourcefulness (the ways you think), Relating (the way you deal with others) and Reflection (the way you improve as a learner).

Several different elements work together to form each of the 4Rs, from perseverance and self-belief within Resilience, reasoning and memory in Resourcefulness, to listening and collaboration in Relating and planning and reviewing in Reflection – all highlighting habits of mind and learning skills.

Students will be asked to adopt a different method of learning for each of their subjects, including teaching someone else in maths, using diagrams and pictures in biology and using mind-maps in history. They will then be asked to assess how effective this method was in helping them learn, so that they can begin to understand how they learn, and develop strategies to adopt so that they can learn better. Students use a variety of different methods to learn on a daily basis, and it is important for us to encourage them to use as many of the methods they have at their disposal, rather than confining them to just one, as per the VAK model.

The 4Rs are based on the concepts of meta-cognition i.e. teaching students strategies to set goals in order to monitor and evaluate their own learning, and self-regulation i.e. managing one’s own motivation towards learning, all of which help our students understand their individual learning strengths and weaknesses, and provide them with strategies to utilise during their learning processes. Such strategies help students take responsibility for their learning and increase their understanding of what it takes to be successful.

By utilising the ideas promoted by the 4Rs, and revisiting the ideas throughout the Middle School, pupils will learn to become motivated, happy learners who are equipped with the tools and strategies to stick with their learning when it gets tough, developing their confidence to ask questions and talk things through. In getting our pupils thinking about learning now, we are helping to develop invaluable skills for their future learning experiences at school, university and ultimately, in the workplace.

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The future for emotional intelligence

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was popularised by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best seller of the same name. The book examined how knowing and managing one’s emotions, motivating oneself, recognising emotions in others and handling relationships skilfully are central to happy and successful lives. Whilst Goleman may have popularised emotional intelligence he did not invent it. Instead, building on a concept that was the subject of a landmark article by psychologists Mayer and Salovey in the 1990s, he found an effective way of describing the age-old human ability to connect and interact.

It is important to recognise that emotional intelligence (EI) or Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) can be used for good or ill. Teachers with strong EI can inspire, calm or re-focus pupils. It is often said that good teachers have a sixth sense which allows them to detect a student’s state of mind; this ‘sixth sense’ is a mixture of experience and EI. Equally, people with a high level of EI have the ability to manipulate and use others to their advantage – this can be tempting for some. EI encompasses self-awareness and self-regulation, empathy, concern and care, but equally cunning and guile.

Good use of emotional intelligence is thus underpinned by positive values, and a wish to share and shape emotions to make things better.

Helping students develop the EI they will need to gain insights into themselves and others, and the moral compass to use it well, helps them develop strong friendships, co-operate effectively, and influence others. Its importance for life should not be underestimated, and there is growing evidence of its importance in education. Goleman reports that a meta analysis of more than 600 studies found ‘social and emotional learning’ programmes in school not only improved student behaviour but also led to a “strong benefit in academic achievement”.

A renewed focus on EI may be necessary in a world where some children have reduced levels of social contact, and therefore less opportunity to develop it. Research suggests that through social contact children observe the emotions of others by picking up on facial expression, physical posture and tone of voice. The more social contact, the more observation that takes place, and the more opportunities there are for the nuances of EI to be acquired.

Concerns about safety and security mean fewer children are playing together in the street, park or fields and the digital revolution has resulted in a greater number of children spending more time in virtual rather than actual environments. Playing computer games tends to be a solitary activity that limits opportunities for the development of EI. Even when children are texting or posting on social media networks, or gaming against known or unknown opponents in a virtual environment, the communication taking place lacks the emotional nuances of face-to-face conversation. This is why children can get it wrong in social media exchanges – they do not see the impact of their ill-judged words on the faces or in the voices of those they affect. Without well-developed EI, future generations may be lacking in the essential human qualities of empathy, concern and care.

What can we do about this? Parents and teachers can help ensure children get plenty of time to interact offline with others, as well as enjoying the very many benefits of digital activities. They can help children spot the nonverbal clues that reveal how others feel, to understand and manage their own emotions and to learn how to motivate themselves. They can also help children stay ‘in the now’, guarding for example against the risk of distraction by mobiles in face-to-face conversations. Ofcom reports that 12-15 year olds send an average of 193 texts every week – more than double the figure of 12 months ago. Semi-detached existences with one eye on real world conversations and one eye waiting for the next text to arrive are not conducive to a rich life experience.

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