Farewell to the Upper Sixth

“When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go”. The words of Nanny McPhee, but sentiments that also apply to the Upper Sixth. Today will be a bittersweet occasion in sixth forms across the country as A level students go on examination leave and effectively say farewell to their peers, teachers and schools. If schools and colleges have done their jobs properly there will be much sadness at leaving staff, friends and familiar environments behind, but there should also be a readiness to move on because students have been given the skills and knowledge needed to “fly the school nest”.

My advice to the Class of 2015 – with thanks to Baz Luhrmann:

Wear sunscreen
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth
Believe in yourself
Do one thing every day that challenges you
Eat well
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts
Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours
Don’t waste time on jealousy
The race of life is long and in the end it’s only with yourself
Some days are good and some days are bad
Storms pass and the sun will shine again
Be kind to your knees
Remember in life your successes are part chance
So don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either
Fail and learn from failure
Love your parents; you never know when they will be gone
Be nice to siblings – they are your best link to your past
And the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go
But cherish those who remain
Live in London once but leave before it makes you hard
Live in rural Worcestershire once but leave before it makes you soft
Don’t mess too much with your skin
Or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85
Be careful whose advice you follow
Respect your elders – intellect matters but experience counts
Remember certain inalienable truths
Prices will rise, politicians will philander
And you, too, will get old
And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young
Prices were reasonable, politicians were noble
And children respected their elders
Keep a sense of perspective
Do not read beauty magazines they will only make you feel ugly
Stand up for yourself
But if in doubt say nought
Help others for in doing so you will help yourself
Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults
Air your problems and discuss your worries
Never suffer in silence
Plan for the future but expect to be surprised
Follow your head and your heart
Life is a balancing act
So make sure yours is balanced

….and trust me on the sunscreen.

Mr E

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Exam excess

May brings the start of public exams, and my annual GCSE, AS and A level exam regulation rundowns have featured prominently in recent assemblies.  Rather like pre-flight safety announcements, these briefings are important no matter how seasoned the exam-taker (and by the time of A level, many students could be considered ‘frequent fliers’).  I give them under the watchful ‘eye’ of former Perse Head Dr W.H.D. Rouse, whose portrait hangs in the hall gallery.

A century ago Rouse fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful rear guard action to keep public exams out of The Perse.  He maintained that they were ‘quite misleading as a guide to comparative merit’ and reduced learning to ‘mere test preparation’.  Fast forward a hundred years and I’m sure the good doctor would be horrified by the proliferation of public exams that currently dominate the last three years of school and the months of May and June.

The public exam system has four main purposes: it enables pupils to measure their attainment by means of marks and grades; it helps pupils develop by identifying strengths and weaknesses in understanding and ability; it provides a way of measuring teacher and school effectiveness; and, through the results of standardised tests, it allows higher education providers and employers to select applicants on the basis of objective comparative data. The first three purposes can all be achieved by alternative means.

Exam halls with rows of students sitting in silence may prevent cheating, but they are not the best environments for assessing key skills such as teamwork, communication and creativity.  Standard exam questions sat by all candidates allow comparisons to be drawn, but they are blunt measures of pupil understanding, which is better assessed in dynamic, responsive situations where questioning adjusts to the abilities of candidates.  Teacher and school effectiveness are most accurately measured by direct means for example by observing lessons and requesting feedback from pupils and parents. Public exam results where bright and conscientious pupils can mask teacher or school weaknesses are not always a reliable guide.

That just leaves the role for public exams to facilitate access to higher education and employment. Why not require pupils to sit just one set of public exams, and make the results available to them when they most need them? Those heading for university could sit intellectually challenging public exams at 18.  Under this system, students would still follow a broad curriculum to 16, but external assessment could be limited to only English and maths to meet university matriculation and employer requirements.  In other subjects learning could be for learning’s sake rather than to pass prescriptive public exams, resulting in more stimulating programmes of study.

If the time saved by not sitting public exams in Year 11 and the Lower Sixth was re-directed into additional teaching and learning, it would be realistic for the Upper Sixth to sit A levels in February, receive results in March and apply to university in April.  Applying post A level would allow students and tutors to make more informed university selection decisions. Students would also benefit from a long summer between school and university for reading, travel, volunteering, work experience and employment.

Those students not aiming for university could sit more vocational exams designed by teachers and employers – exams which prepared them more effectively for the apprenticeships, traineeships and jobs to which they aspire. Of course students change their minds and develop at different stages of the educational journey.  There would therefore need to be periods of reflection and ways of moving between the different examination streams.

A level reform is a step in the right direction in this regard, as students freed from lower sixth AS level exams can use the time to develop more breadth or depth in their interests. Yet Britain still has one of the most exam heavy education systems in the world.  The GCSE and A level treadmill takes up a lot of curriculum time, pupil and teacher energy and school resources. Reduced to only one exam series, there would be more time and money to invest in the quality of the remaining assessment process.   It would also take some stress out of the teenage years and give students more time for enriching and rewarding extra-curricular activities such as music, sport and drama which are important in providing a balanced and holistic education.

I would not go as far as Doctor Rouse in opposing all public exams. But this is a case where less really could be more.

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Subject saharas – the new postcode lottery?

According to a study by the Open Public Services Network, pupils in some parts of England are unlikely to secure qualifications in subjects that could be vital to their job prospects, such as science and languages, as they find themselves living in a “subject desert”.  They may well discover their opportunities are curtailed, because every school within a neighbourhood has decided not to offer certain key subjects.

Roger Taylor, Chair of OPSN and RSA Fellow explained “These data show that children’s educational opportunities are defined by where they live. We can see that the curriculum taught to children in poorer parts of England is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas.”  The data reveal that children in Knowsley, Merseyside are half as likely to study separate GCSEs in biology, chemistry and physics as children in Buckinghamshire.  While in the London Borough of Kensington, children are four times more likely to study a modern foreign language GCSE than children in Middlesbrough.

Curriculum inequalities such as these have long lasting effects.  One of the key reasons talented pupils from less affluent areas do not progress to top universities is because they haven’t studied the right subjects at school and therefore do not meet entry requirements. They find the door was locked long before they arrived to knock at it.

So why are there such geographic variations in subject availability?  The OPSN concludes that it reflects decisions made by schools motivated by league table position. But as a Head and geographer, I fear the cause of these ‘deserts’ may have more to do with the scarcity of resources, in this case teachers.

Every year heads compete for a diminishing number of specialist maths and physics teachers – those with a subject-specific degree.  The pool of this talent is drying up. The Education and Training Foundation calculated that only 10% of maths teachers under 34 have a maths or maths-related degree.  Maths and physics teacher training posts are going unfilled, while graduates in these disciplines are snapped up by other sectors. The Institute of Physics estimates that 1000 new physics teachers are needed each year, but recent data suggest only 600 are being trained and not all will stay in the teaching profession.

It is a seller’s market. With more vacancies than teachers, in some schools positions will inevitably go unfilled. Classes can’t be left untaught, so enter the geographer turned mathematician, the PE teacher turned physicist.  Good classroom skills and a reasonable intellect will get non subject specialists so far, but as the syllabus becomes more complex, ‘generalist’ teachers – through no fault of their own – begin to struggle. Schools have little choice but to look for softer curriculum options, such as teaching ‘dual award’ science rather than separate biology, chemistry and physics.

We must address this issue, but it takes time and money to make deserts bloom.  The current debate about teacher qualifications must move on from the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) alone, or whether nuns and ex-soldiers make good teachers.  We must recognise the real problem and admit the need for both pedagogic training and subject expertise.

The government is making a start in offering golden hellos to teacher training recruits and relaxing immigration requirements for teachers in shortage subjects. These are welcome moves, but alone they will not resolve the deficit.

The education profession is brimming with creativity, and there may well be more inventive solutions to the current problem, given the freedom to think outside the box.  Could classes – in different schools, counties or even continents, but assembled via technology – share a teacher? Could a great teacher take a ‘virtual’ lesson? This might work particularly well for A level classes where maturity and self-discipline are greatest and where specialist teachers are in shortest supply.  In a world where remote interaction is becoming the norm for a range of services, it may be that an excellent virtual lesson is better than an unsatisfactory actual lesson or indeed no lesson at all.

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Enterprising careers advice

This week the ninth Perse Enterprise Conference saw nearly 250 students drawn from 20 schools and colleges gather in the Cambridge Belfry Hotel in Cambourne to learn about entrepreneurship and practice their networking and communication skills.  Keynote speakers included Old Persean William Reeve who founded  LOVEFiLM , Johnny Luk, CEO of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, Max Grell, co-founder of GivTree – an online platform that uses a chain reaction of donations to raise money for charity and Ed Taylor, an entrepreneur providing marketing solutions to the luxury food and wine industries.

It is essential that students learn about the importance of enterprise to the British economy and the entrepreneurial opportunities open to them.  Careers education in schools has not always received the best press.  Historically it was often a case of school teachers with experience of the classroom but rarely the boardroom conservatively advising pupils to follow well-trodden career paths into “mainstream” occupations and professions.  The emphasis was very much on working for others whether in the state or private sector and securing dependable white or blue collar jobs that might last a lifetime.

The world of work has changed dramatically in the last thirty years.  In the UK, jobs for life are disappearing, the public sector is contracting and more people are working for themselves.  Of the 5.2 million businesses in the UK, 99.3% are classified as small and they in turn employ 47.8% of the UK workforce and generate £3,300 billion of turnover each year.

We need to make young people  aware of the pros and cons of enterprise and entrepreneurship.  There are some students who will always be happier in the structure of a large organisation, but others, some of whom perhaps already find themselves frustrated by the rules of their school or college, will thrive on the freedom and independence of running their own business.

The advice real life entrepreneurs can give the next generation is priceless both in terms of its quality and its authority.  At this week’s Perse Enterprise Conference students learned of the importance of a good secondary and higher education to provide the intellectual skills needed for commercial success.  They discovered that many successful entrepreneurs worked for somebody else, usually a high calibre company, where they learned about business before setting up on their own.  The speakers emphasised the importance of cash flow, networking, passion, discipline and self-belief.  They advised delegates to embrace their “inner geek” and develop businesses in areas they knew well and cared deeply about.

Enterprise is essential to the British economy and we need to encourage our entrepreneurs.  The current political debate on the state of public finances is often portrayed as a simple choice between cutting services or increasing taxes. Yet there is another way, with our entrepreneurs helping to grow the British economy and thus public finances.  Entrepreneurship creates jobs and wealth that  benefits UK plc; it also brings a sense of self-fulfilment for entrepreneurs.  It can do a lasting good.  Over 400 years ago a Cambridge medic turned entrepreneur invested in a series of local businesses.  Many of these businesses prospered and Dr Perse grew wealthy with them.  By the time of his death he had amassed a considerable fortune which he used to help the people of Cambridge by paying for road improvements, a clean water supply, the building of alms-houses and the foundation of The Perse School.

Dr Perse was a venture capitalist turned philanthropist and an early example of a tradition that extends to the current day and the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.  It is an example worth following.

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Listening to the lessons of history

I am passionate about the importance of history in the school curriculum.  Humankind has a depressing tendency to make the same mistakes time after time, so it is crucial that children are exposed to history and given the opportunity to literally learn the lessons of the past.

Each year, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we hold a ‘Josef Behrmann’ lecture – named for a former pupil in the School’s Jewish boarding house who survived 14 concentration camps during World War II. This year’s lecture, entitled Is Holocaust Memorial Day important in the 21st Century?, was given by Ruth Barnett, a Kindertransport refugee from Nazi Germany.

Her moving testimony connected Perse pupils to a time when parents and children had to contend with the horrors of genocide.  Ruth explained how her parents had to decide whether to keep their four year old daughter (Ruth) and seven year old son (Martin) in Germany, or send them on a Kindertransport train to foster families in England.  There can be few more difficult decisions than this, but perhaps one was Ruth’s dilemma ten years later when her mother – of whom she had no real memory – arrived in England to collect her from her foster family.  Should she stay or should she go?  Brought up on a diet of wartime propaganda, Ruth was not keen to leave the familiarity of her foster home to return to Germany; ultimately it required a court order for the repatriation to take place.

Ruth openly shared the deeper issues behind her life story.  She reflected on the importance of identity and her own angst about being classified as a “stateless” person.  Was she German, English or Jewish?  Without a clear sense of identity we lack the roots to weather emotional storms and are prey to doubts and insecurity.

She talked of the importance of love, stability and trust in childhood.  As with many things in war-time Britain, these were rationed in Ruth’s case.  Her parents’ decision to send her away, albeit for her own safety, and her move through three foster families, led to a deep suspicion of adults and a defensive mind-set.  It took her years to recover.

Yet Ruth believes she is one of the lucky ones: the ten thousand Kindertransport children who escaped Nazi Germany.  She knows that a million and a half other children were less fortunate and perished in the holocaust.  Ruth has a survivor’s duty to make the most of her life in recognition of those whose time on earth came to a very premature end.

Ruth’s messages for the Perse audience were clear.  We are all different yet equal.  Differences can be discussed and debated but should be respected.  No one group is better than another, and progress occurs when we put aside our differences and work together.  Intolerance of all kinds is wrong; the holocaust was not just an atrocity against the Jews, it was an attack on gypsies, disabled people, homosexuals, political opponents and anybody who threatened the Nazi ideal.

This plea for tolerance, dialogue and understanding remains as relevant and pressing as it was then.  Unfortunately the human race never seems too far from conflict and carnage, and whether in the Ukraine, in the Middle East or here at home, we need to remember the lessons history can teach us about how to build a better future, if we will but listen.

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A vote for education

The smoke from the New Year’s Eve fireworks had barely dispersed before the political pyrotechnics of the 2015 General Election campaign began.  Education, alongside health and the economy, will feature prominently in the political point scoring set to dominate the news in the run up to 7 May. Each party will be keen to persuade voters that it has all the answers to the pressing issues; each seeks the cheer-raising rocket and fears the damp squib. Politics appears to be the solution to the situation, but what if, in fact, it is part of the problem?

Last week Sir David Bell, former Chief Inspector of Schools and previously Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, argued that efforts to improve England’s education system are being undermined by short-term political pressures. I couldn’t agree more. Education needs vision, long-term strategy and freedom from day-to-day, or even election-to-election, politics.

Education is a complex area and changes have very long lead-in times.  Learning is a cumulative process, hence successful reforms can take fifteen years – the duration of a child’s schooling – to come to fruition. Government ministers have had to delay the introduction of new maths A levels, having discovered it is not possible to simply reform A level maths and expect standards to rise.  To make a success of a more challenging A level course, pupils first need to complete a more demanding GCSE which gives them the skills and knowledge needed to tackle the new A level curriculum. In order to do well in a more stretching GCSE course, pupils need to have benefited from a more rigorous primary and early secondary maths education.  You can’t increase the volume and complexity of maths to be taught without increasing the supply of good maths teachers – also a long term business.  And so it goes on.

The patience, perseverance and pluck required for good long-term government are often absent from modern politics. Politicians represent voters, who assess their performance through the prism of the 24/7 media. A source tells me that one new minister in the previous administration, on meeting a team of civil servants, began by asking what she could do in six months – potentially all the time she had to prove herself. It is no wonder that a lot of quick fix tinkering to curry media and voter favour results, and underlying structural problems persist.

It is easy to blame politicians for the short-termism that can make problems worse longer term. While politicians enact the legislation, they often feel compelled to do so by a media that whips up issues in order to sell copies to an often increasingly impatient electorate that wants immediate action and results. Our children’s learning requires a different approach.

All mainstream politicians want children to have ready access to good schools and be educated well. Such universal agreement means the essence of education is not political. However, while politicians can agree on broad educational objectives, they have very different views on how to deliver them. Yet that delivery is an operational matter which should be left to experts from the teaching, university and business communities, who can use evidence and experience to inform their decisions. To do their job properly, such experts need to be given long term objectives and appropriate funding, a remit to recommend difficult solutions and freedom from day-to-day political interference.  Of course, experts can make mistakes and lose their way, so independent bodies overseeing education would need to be subject to political scrutiny.

The success of the independent school sector shows what can be achieved when education experts free from direct political control, but overseen by knowledgeable trustees, run schools in accordance with long term aims and values.  Higher education is another independent success story: British universities punch above their weight in global teaching and research league tables.  And of course there is a successful precedent for independence in government.  On 6 May 1997 Chancellor Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control so that a ‘long term framework for economic prosperity’ could be put in place.  The Bank of England has not got everything right – no organisation ever will – but it is telling that 18 years on an independent Bank of England is an accepted reality.  Tony Blair’s vision of taking (some of the) politics out of economics has been achieved.  Perhaps the time has come to do the same for education?

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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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