Peter Tait Education

Peter Tait Education

Education and Ethics

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Mon, August 27, 2018 12:27:12

What sort of world do we want for our children?

- An introduction to a New Framework

“Strange that the qualities we value in friends--thoughtfulness, sympathy, intelligence, a sense of humor, fair-mindedness, civility - seem hardly to matter in contemporary politics. & children are supposed not to cheat, steal, plagiarize. How to explain such profound dissonance?” Joyce Carol Oates

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.’ – Margaret Thatcher Interview 23 September 1987

Recently a story that has been doing the rounds in social media of three men who left a restaurant without paying. A few days later the restaurant owners received a letter containing the money due and a little extra with an explanation that they had left to find an ATM machine and then realised the last train was about to leave so were unable to do so.

What is remarkable about this story is that it is ‘remarkable,’ as if such behaviours, such actions, don’t fit with what we now perceive to be normal. As such it highlights the place where society is at, that when ethical behaviour occurs, it is seen as extraordinary.

When looking at writing a new framework for education, it is evident that this is a good place to start, not with content, but with values and behaviours. Change, when it happens, needs to start with the foundations rather than merely adding to or reconfiguring an already bloated curriculum which has been ravaged by educational change for a decade or more. We need, instead, to start from a new vantage point altogether, to establish a philosophy which includes and embeds different attitudes and behaviours, one that puts ethics at the core of our learning and teaching. Some of this process will be in making schools and the curriculum more relevant, accessible and open-ended; the greater challenge, however, is persuading society of the importance of seeing education as a part of the whole, a continuum that involves everyone for their life-times, and grounded in the very ethics and behaviours we want our children to grow up with and our society to reflect.

The absence of any ethical framework, and the dearth of societal values, is evident in every walk of life. We can pick any profession: law, accountancy, the pharmaceutical industry, industrial farming, property development, sport, the Church - the list is almost as long as is the list of jobs. Stripped down, we don’t take long to find examples of worker exploitation, cost fixing, drug taking, sexual abuse or putting profit above people by ‘using’ tax loopholes. There is no moral imperative at work. We saw it when the boil was exposed (if not properly lanced), with the behaviour of politicians, bankers, fund managers and venture capitalists, whose criminal actions and self-interest were exposed through the expenses scandal and the banking crisis. The fact that so few were held to account merely reinforces the impression that we are living in an ethical wild west, a view that hasn’t changed since. Recently, the founder of the SLC group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, Nigel Oakes called for more regulation admitting that he operated for years ‘without much of an ethical radar’, before going on to defend his decision by saying ‘It’s above my pay scale to decide the ethics of this.’ Not so. Ethics are beyond the weight of the purse and should apply to all of us at every level of society.

But the faultlines go much deeper than this. The behaviour of the big four accountancy firms who earlier this year were accused by MPs of “feasting on what was soon to become a carcass” as it emerged they banked £72m for work linked to collapsed government contractor Carillion in the years leading up to its financial failure highlight the rotten underbelly in which everything was alright as long as it turned a profit. One time-tested way of doing so is to strip and ravage the environment and natural resources, preferably off-shore, by over-fishing, by the ruthless destruction of forests for palm oil industry to shore up UK pension funds, by dumping of waste, the proliferation of off-shore tax havens and an unelected House, many of whose members pocket their daily expenses and contribute nothing. When Artemis, (self-titled as The Profit Hunters) boasted that their ‘global hunters’ spend their lives carving through the atlas for opportunities for profit, we need to understand that such companies are the product of our economic model and that any subsiduary interests or concerns, environmental or moral, are subsumed by the goal to maximize profits.

Self-interest rules and it can come as no surprise then if you ask children what they want to be when they grow up that the most popular answer is rich and famous for that is the model they see every day. And where are ethics in all of this? Worse, where is it leading us?

We need, somehow, to move the Titanic. The obsession of governments with GDP as a measure of economic well-being is deeply flawed as is well-known, measuring both good and bad economic activity, from farming to drugs and gun running, but taking no account of voluntary work or raising a family, implicitly favouring quantity over quality and having no truck with such green-tinged schemes as recycling. Having a philosophy that relies on endless growth with no ethical boundaries continue to undo us unless we educate the next generation about sustainability and the ethical use of our planet and each other. Simon Kuznets, Nobel Prize winner who developed the measure before the war, had quite different aspirations, intending GDP to measure economic welfare and well-being, (but being ignored in the post-war US-UK plans), mitigating against the unequal distribution of gains and ensuring we were not growing at the expense of our environment.

With the spread of fake news, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, ethics takes on more importance than ever before.

The need to be able to make decisions that are not rooted in economic or personal self-interest are compelling. Waste, such as the amount of foodstuffs thrown out by supermarkets (over 200 000 tonnes each year) is simply unacceptable on a planet with so much poverty. Recently, the big food chains have made an effort to reduce waste, increase donations of food to foodbanks and cooperatives by building up partnerships with local charities, but it is the tip of an iceberg that is founded on waste and obsolescence. Nor should we excuse the fashion label, Burberry who destroyed more than £28m worth of its fashion and cosmetic products over the past year to guard against counterfeiting. No waste is acceptable and even planned obsolesence, deemed good for economic activity, is short-sighted and harmful. We simply cannot afford to treat our planet and our society in this way any longer or allow government, acting in our name, to behave unethically (selling our waste to Thailand, investing in dodgy enrionmental areas, importing teachers, doctors, nurses and selling arms to Saudi Arabia which are then used to bomb civilians in the Yemen are current examples).

We need to keep asking the question: what are our ethics and are we, and those who represent us, acting in accordance with the principles we believe in?

Nor is education ‘clean.’ Sharp practice in school recruitment, using overseas students as cash cows, setting up campuses abroad, to bring money back to the UK (neo-colonialism at work?), stopping students moving into the 6th form or from sitting exams for fear that they will negatively affect league tables results, (more than 20% of teachers were aware of ‘off-rolling’ in schools they had taught in), are all unethical practices that are not uncommon in schools. Plagarism is at a level where schools routinely now feel compelled to purchase software to identify it; while cheating, by students and teachers, has risen fuelled by the drip-down pressure of league tables. Essay mills, a business reputed to earn billions of pounds worldwide has resulted in some 50,000 students being caught cheating in the last three years alone while in the last year, exclusions have increased by about 15% and now number around 40 per day. The recent de-valuing of academic places even raises the question as to whether it is be ‘ethical’ to keep students on who will perform significantly below the level of their conditional offers, but will get places due to the rapacity of universities fighting for survival (and who themselves may be acting unethically?) For that matter, we should ask just how ethical is selection which takes so little account of readiness and produces winners and losers with all the consequent baggage and dulled expectations? It should concern us, all of it. For when schools lose their moral compass and their understanding of what schools are for, then we are in a moral mire.

But the problem is even deeper than that. It is embedded in selfies, in the narcissism and insecurity they engender, in selfishness and loneliness, in the closing down of communities, the loss of collegiality, the disintegration of a society that prizes acquisition above welfare, of the yawning gap between haves and have-nots and gaping social and educational inequality. The reasons are manifold, and any list of reasons would offer the breakup of the traditional nuclear family and the void left by the disappearing systems of social cohesion that included the church and the extended family. The gap is implicit in the debate between the self-esteem and self-respect, between self-awareness and empathy, between self and community. Too often we are left with a society that is focused on looking after yourself and taking what you can get away with, with self-interest and avarice its drivers.

A wee bit colourful? Perhaps. But if we are to change society, and to equip the next generation to make the ethical decisions that will be required of us on technology and environmental issues and to counter the atomisation of society through social media, rising incidences of loneliness and an epidemic of mental health, we need to act. And where better than at the very start of our education system?

So how to change? How do we try to instil the importance of making good ethical decisions from a young age. How do we make children think of themselves as part of a whole? How do we embed kindness and empathy, appropiate behaviours, manners and attitudes conducive to making good citizens?

How do we move away from measurement to the immeasurable? We could start by delaying collecting the data to put children into boxes, respect readiness and hold back formal learning until they have an appetite for it and see it as a joy and a privilege rather than an entitlement and an unwelcome one at that. The answers start with early education and developing the right attitudes to learning, about placing children in a larger community and by encouraging them to look outwards, not inwards and by teaching them to understand and look after their environment and those who inhabit it, human, animal and plant.

Later, we should re-visit subjects such as history to stop navel gazing and get our children to look outwards as a nation that has had a large footprint in the world and needs to live up to it. Or economics where we should be making changes to incorporate the doughnut of planetary boundaries, to look at environmental impact, to address such pressing problems like the 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated from our leading supermarkets each year by putting environmental considerations and sustainability to the fore – no easy task when big business and government is determined to marginalise green issues as just an impediment to economic growth and the endless pursuit of an ever higher GDP. It is teaching children to think ethically, to make decisions based on values and to change behaviours and attitudes – that is the challenge.

We need to teach the ethics of career choices that are not predicated on power and money and give reward to those who perform the more difficult, mundane and useful jobs in our society such as nurses and carers. We need a paradigm shift to understand that society and communities and countries only work well if there is some common ethos. At present, we are bitterly divided and rootless; the time is to take heed of the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that we need to change our schools and our curriculum at their foundations, to engage with children in a way that is going to make them think and act more responsibly. After all, if we don’t teach children to think differently and act ethically, heaven help us - because the earth will no longer be able to sustain us.

‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all .....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ – John Donne Meditation XVII

Why we need a new curriculum - a discussion with those in the know

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Sun, August 05, 2018 09:12:52


‘The test of a successful education is not the amount of knowledge that a pupil takes away from a school, but his appetite to know and his capacity to learn. If the school sends out children with the desire for knowledge and some idea of how to acquire and use it, it will have done its work. Too many leave school with the appetite killed and the mind loaded with undigested lumps of information.’

- The Future in Education, 1941 Sir Richard Livingstone

The new curriculum framework will need to be open-ended and multi-headed to allow for either traditional subject areas or for new subject bands – or both - as well as the increasingly diverse ways of delivering curriculum. Testing and exams of knowledge and skills will have their place in the future, but with new technologies available, notably the use of AI for assessment, resourcing and teaching, the emphasis will be on making best use of new technologies, creating ethical approaches to the idea of community, business and politics and the environment; and establishing new pathways at 6th form and tertiary level. There is an argument that we need to fix school structures first (one put forward again recently by Laura McInerney), and there is sense in that, but the two can, and probably should, go hand in hand in a review of the whole education paradigm.

Below is a discussion thread interspersed with commentary which covers a wide range of topical opinions from a number of leading educationists and a variety of different sources to try to tease out what should be considered in writing new curriculum. The quotations and extracts are loosely aligned in a narrative that drives the discussion.

‘The word “curriculum” has no generally agreed meaning’ Dylan Wiliam

- great place to start – looks like an open book then?

‘Curriculum is a timetable; an aggregation of learning objectives (knowledge, skills and understanding); programme of planned activities’

- agreed, but already worried about the jargon creeping in. Perhaps we

should produce the draft curriculum, then define it.

We can ask whether our curriculum should be a ‘present’ to our children in the form of nice package of prescribed knowledge and skills or merely the means for them to find them for themselves:

‘We can't introduce children to the best that has been thought and said. We can, however, introduce them to the conversation in which they can join with others, living and dead, to decide what 'the best' might be. A good curriculum serves as an invitation into this conversation.’ Martin Robinson

If we want a breakdown on how the curriculum could be discussed, how about Steve Chalk’s four part definition:

Explicit Curriculum: Subjects that will be taught, the identified “mission” of the school and the knowledge and skills that the school expects successful students to acquire.

Implicit Curriculum: Lessons that arise form the culture of the school and the behaviour, attitudes and expectations that characterise their culture.

Null Curriculum: Topics or perspectives that are specifically excluded from the curriculum

Extra Curriculum: School-sponsored programmes that are intended to supplement the academic aspect of the school experience

Mind you we are starting with a national curriculum that is thirty years old and has been subject to endless tinkering and is now, for all intents and purposes, done for:

‘So it is that, on its 30th birthday, the bloated corpse of the national curriculum came to be found at the bottom of a river of teacher sweat, questionable statistics, political counter-accusations, entrepreneurial snake oil and thinktank dark money. The river burst its banks and, weighted down by accountability, the curriculum was unable to swim to safety.’

Worse, as J L Dutaut warms to his task and is at pains to point out, what we have been left with is

‘a Frankenstein curriculum of parts pilfered from high-performing systems according to Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, stapled together with teachers’ self-purchased stationery supplies, and electrified by political rhetoric. A zombie curriculum. A monster.’

With that compelling denunciation of the National Curriculum, we can move on. The question now is what to put in its place. What are the rules for building a new curriculum – or is the argument that there should be no rules, no boundaries. But start replacing it we must, even if what is produced is a loose confederation of ideas. As ever, it is important that reform starts from the bottom up and is not dictated from above. After all as Jill Berry points out

"The best qualification & curriculum reforms start at the level of those most directly affected: teachers in schools & colleges, working in tandem with exam boards; higher education and employers, shaping a vision for a new approach that is based on first-hand experience."

How to achieve this? There are plenty of suggestions out there to consider, some drawing on history

‘We should start with a conversation, one which begins at the level of those most affected. Look at the really successful curriculum innovations and a pattern emerges: change begins from below, when a group coalesces around a new idea about the curriculum. This group will involve teachers, academics, employers; it will be open to input from students, too. Out of such a group grows a body of practitioners who share an educational vision. This group drives forward the innovation. The specification comes later, and later still, the qualification and assessment matrix. John Taylor

All sounds pretty straight forward, but perhaps our education vision needs to address the question of a whole new paradigm, not just innovations to the same curriculum we have been using for the past thirty years. Let’s start looking at what we identify as needing change and some of the philosophical and practical reasons for it. Possibly, Helen Clark is getting close to what I believe should be a starting place:

‘In designing a curriculum, start with human values + a common moral code. Stress the importance of ethics, empathy + dangers of self-interest. If we look at what's wrong with our society, it's in our failure to replace traditional codes of family / church with anything meaningful.’

And, of course ....

“When educating the minds of our youths, we must not forget to educate their hearts” Dhali Lama

-so easily dismissed, but the moral vacuum and disintegration of communities and families lies at the heart of the unease in our society. If only we could instill the third world hunger for education into our satiated first world schools.

Then there is the wider question of what education should include at a time when teachers have become primary care givers out of class and schools have taken on more and more responsibility for feeding and providing all-day care for children. It is a problem not so apparent in other European countries, as Professor Geraint Johnes points out:

"Here in the UK, if any difference is to be made to school performance, it is clear that social policy rather than educational policy needs the most attention."

We have got to measure education by ALL its outcomes, not just by grades, as Akala points out when he states that

‘24% of all people in the UK prisons were in care as children. 47% were expelled from schools’

These statistics reflect our education system as much as do examination grades with our schools are the frontline where such battles have to be fought and won. The American economist, Bryan Caplan goes one step further in his book ‘The Case against Education’, asking

. . . why we need to stop wasting public funds on education. Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative - education is grossly overrated. . . . The primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity-in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee.

Surely there’s more point to it than that – help! Perhaps an English educationalist can extol the real value of education?

“What is education for?’ My honest answer: ‘storage for children’ with a follow up answer ‘and while they are there we may as well give them a bunch of experiences that we hope will be helpful for them now and in the future” Laura McInerney

Wow! Education is a time filler! But how do we ascertain what are the best experiences?

‘Coherent curriculum defines “standards and curricula as coherent if they are articulated as a sequence of topics and performances that are logical and reflect the sequential or hierarchical nature of the content’ Professor Bill Schmidt in A Coherent Curriculum, 2002

- I think I’m heading towards a largely incoherent model

‘Curriculum matters for without common educational objectives, there is no measure of educational outcomes, no educational research, no pooling of resources to address provision at the systematic level.’

- sensible enough except I wonder if commonality is going to be one of the casualties of change? Thirty years on, are we going to just accept the national curriculum is immutable, too big to tangle with except in a piecemeal fashion. Not if JL Dutaut has anything to do with it:

‘Imagine the education system giving birth to fraternal twins. One we will name after their departed sibling: national curriculum. The other, we will name community curriculum. We will raise them both in a loving, caring environment, and give them both the same opportunity to flourish according to their own distinct personalities. And we will raise them with faith in each other, in the spirit of all "Great Debates" (and all great marriages) – preferring consensus over a sense of victory, legacy over immediacy, and empowerment over accountability. It’s a beautiful dream, isn’t it? JL Dutaut

The trouble with it – you’ve spotted it? - is that it’s a dream. Dreams aren’t much good where we are going. Education has to have relevance to children, but also to parents and communities and the idea of having a community curriculum may be the adoption of common values, aspirations and a sense of being on an educational journey together. At the same time we are beset with difficulties staffing our schools and are off exporting from countries with similar shortages and much greater need. But meanwhile we neither value our teacher properly, in status, support or in monetary terms, nor properly recognise the influence of a teacher. We should listen to Henry Adams who wrote

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops’

Or Terry Pratchett?

“They looked like tinkers, but there wasn’t one amongst them who could mend a kettle. What they did was sell invisible things. And after they sold what they had, they still had it. They sold what everyone needed, but didn’t often want. They sold the key to the universe to people who didn’t know it was locked.’ Terry Patchett’s description of teachers

- but Terry, we’ve been told if we can’t measure it, it has no worth, that it has to be tangible. And how long will they allow us to peddle things they don’t want if they don’t understand their value? But I’m with you!

‘Someday, in the distant future, our grandchildren's grandchildren will develop a new equivalent of our classrooms. They will spend many hours in front of boxes with fires glowing within. May they have the wisdom to know the difference between light and knowledge.’ Plato

-Prophetic – I recognise my apple mac as a box with a fire glowing within. Will it know the difference?

‘Our education system is cracked and broken. We need to let some light in ’ (anon)

- who said this?

‘There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in’ Leonard Cohen

-ah, the muse!

‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ W B Yeats (attrib)

-I bet Yeats wished he’d said it because it makes sense even if it has been hi-jacked by educationalists who do the opposite

‘Give us a light, buddy’ (anon)

-A bridge too far? Well, it’s clear that what we have isn’t working. On this subject, two of my former students wrote the following, describing the secondary school experience as a world removed from what they had experienced:

‘I have vivid memories of beginning secondary school; I was shocked at how my new peers did not seem to have the same independence as me, both inside and outside the classroom. Not only did I ask more questions than them, but if I were to respond to a teacher’s request or statement asking “why?” I was perceived to be both troublesome and a disturbance to the class. This continued until the end of my time at secondary school.’

‘I did not get on with the British Education system. It’s focus on memorization, ticking boxes and ironing out children’s idiosyncracies has left me deeply frustrated and concerned. (A* student / Cambridge)

(nb this followed her primary years which she described as ‘the brightest example of how I believe learning should be. It was the happiest experience I had whilst in school, allowing me to develop both creatively and academically in a pressure-free environment.’

Pretty damning, albeit from a rather small sample. But it is clear that too much front-loading of information without space for discussion just doesn’t work anymore than does shutting out the light of enquiry and investigation.

Worse, there are long-term dangers in all of this that we often see in some very well-educated people whose learning has actually stunted them.

‘Your mind, my dear Mansfield,’ he told her once, ‘is uncluttered. There’s not the usual lumber – religious, political, social.’ They were having lunch together in a restaurant not far from the British Museum.
‘This is the nicest possible way of telling me I’m empty-headed.’
‘I would say unspoiled.’
‘An empty vessel into which you can pour . . . .’
‘No. A rational creature, to whom I can offer . . .’
‘Well . . .’ She smiled her gratitude for a compliment gracefully delivered. ‘I’m not sure it’s true, but if it is, it’s because I’m a citizen of nowhere. I learned very little in New Zealand; but because that’s where I began, what I’m taught here I don’t always accept or believe. Nothing ever seems gospel, you know?’
‘The social imprint is thin.’ His eyes were bright, eager. ‘People of my sort – Ottoline, Brett, Huxley – we have a lot to unlearn. Too much was laid on us too early. We grow up fettered.’
(Katherine Mansfield and Bertrand Russell in conversation from C K Stead’s novel, ‘Mansfield.)

- My underlining. I firmly believe this, that you can learn too much and grow up fettered and lose the ability to think for yourself. It takes a writer of fiction to deliver the truth.

‘What content we teach (& how we teach it) in forward-thinking schools is radically changing, but human kindness & empathy are subjects that will stand the test of time as we look to the curriculum of the future.’ Tara Kinsey

-Agree with this, but hard to teach and harder to measure – this is why we need to teach morals and ethics (NB Get rid of measurement as the measure of everything) -

‘How can we condone a system that focuses on only two types of intelligence and then tells 40% of our kids (mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds) that after eleven years of study that they are the ones that failed?Angela Abraham

- un-condonable! A neologism delivered with force!

‘The "model" of individual teachers doing a million different things all sub-optimally & with systemic inefficiency is a 19th century "cottage industry" approach to a mass product (school education). How many hours are wasted on unnecessary duplication of lessons, worksheets, etc.’ Crispin Weston

- the role of teachers has changed, but in the wrong way, taking them away from children, instead of in the other direction. They need to get back to having more time with children and less time doing bookwork and administration

“The top three skills needed in 2020 are complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity” Carl Robert TES IBCP in an article from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) ‘Educating the Economic Future’ The World Economic Forum

-And all should be an implicit (nb not explicit) part of any curriculum

“New technologies seem to be moving towards a smaller proportion of very well paid jobs, and a long tail of less well-paid and precarious jobs.”

- This is a societal problem, but one that has to be considered in any new curriculum

“Technology will provide the essential tools of the trade that will support teachers, allow them to manage logistical challenges of (inter alia) personalisation at scale & enhance their professional status.” Crispin Weston

- This I need to know more about. Clearly with quantum computers mechanical learning and AI will increase the pace of change.

“There will be as many changes between 2016 and 2022 due to exponential technology growth as between 1900 and 2000.” Peter Diamandis

-how education reacts to this (or chooses not to) is an issue in forward-planning

We don’t live in the age of standardization, we live in the age of customization.” Guatam Khetrapai

-and we have to counter this

Nor must we throw out the baby with the bath water – so much of what we do, in our schools and curriculum, is there because it works. Hard work and high (realistic) expectations should be encouraged.

328 studies over 50 years show that direct instruction (structured guidance for teachers, teaching discrete skills before application, daily checks on learning, regular testing for mastery) has consistent, large positive effects on student achievement’

- Dylan Wiliam quoting Jean Stockard, Timothy W. Wood, Cristy Coughlin et al The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research


“ 2018, there is still a fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles. Taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation.” Alan Finkel Australia’s Chief Scientist

But we mustn’t flog students whose lives are already overfilled. In this I would disagree with Barnaby lenon, Chairman of ISC who advised students studying for GCSE and A Levels to

“Plan to work seven hours a day most of the Easter break”.

That why we call it a break, right? Whatever we do, don’t give students time to think or relax! And let’s keep focus on the subjects that are going to provide employment because that’s what education is about – so they say.

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for." John Keating (Robin Williams) "Dead Poets Society", 1989

-Twee, but a reminder of the importance of the humanities, of music and art that should sit at the heart of education. Yet beware the liberal progressive who has wrought such damage and still holds sway over large tracts of the UK education industry:

“The saddest thing about the progressive movement is that it hurts the very people it wants to help,” Katharine Birbalsingh

But we should not be afraid of change – it just needs to be measured and pertinent. For we must always look forward:

We’re worried that many young learners are being educated for the past instead of the future. We must not risk them being failed by obsolete education systems, leaving them dependent and poor.’
Dr Mmantsetsa Marope, director of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education

One of the prompts from above – so we need to take it seriously!

‘Timely and continuous learning will determine who wins and who loses from the 21century’s industrial revolution.’
Dr Mmantsetsa Marope

-Don’t say we weren’t warned!

‘We must develop people who know how to learn. That’s the most important competency, underpinning a person’s ability and agility to adapt to fast changing contexts of the 21st century.’ Dr Mmantsetsa Marope, director of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education

-Learning is no longer the preserve of schools and universities. It has to become a life-long habit and we have to teach that habit

‘Change will be mainly fuelled by human innovation and ingenuity.’ Dr Mmantsetsa Marope, director of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education

- is our system allowing for the identification and nurturing of innovation and ingenuity? Or does this happen outside of / despite the curriculum?

‘Start designing your own education you can courses from the best universities in the world for free. Start educating yourself. Find your tribe. Deep immersion. Connect with people like us.’ Guatam Khetrapai

- This is now; blended education is already making inroads into traditional schooling and changing the role and function of teachers.

‘It is only when you have determined your objectives (curriculum) that one can start to establish what is the most effective means of achieving them (pedagogy).’ Crispin Weston

- Sensible – we do need to know were we want to end up and prepare for a journey not some destination (to counter that A Levels, degree, now we’ve arrived! But where are we and why can’t we even light a fire?)

Maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were reading writing, arithmetic, empathy.’ Neil deGrasse Tyson

- I think empathy, attitude, purpose, values should underpin any new curriculum, but should be implicit in good teaching, not bespoke

‘We need a different kind of education, one that combines deep thinking (head); growth, character and dialogue (heart); and an ability to solve problems, generate ideas and engage in the world (hand). School should be, above all else, a place of learning in all its expansive complexity: learning how to think, learning how to live, learning how to create.’ Peter Hyman School21 RSA

- and this was some years ago and still resonates. As a rule we should not jettison anything until we are sure we can improve on it and must hold on to aspects of ‘traditional’ teaching, especially process and procedure that are still relevant and work. For all the talk of new schools there are some who disagree:

“In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: “gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate”.

No, what they say to me is: we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.”

- Alan Finkel Australia’s Chief Scientist

Of all the significant issues facing us all, the subject of sustainability of resources, species, habitats, is at the front of the queue for inclusion in a new curriculum. From the start of informal learning, we need to underpin our curriculum in line with Rockstrom’s Planetary boundaries (and Kate Raworth’s doughnut of social and planetary boundaries) the world having having moved on from Rostow's Stages of Economic Growth model used to describe and measure the stages of economic growth. No longer should we teach subjects like Economics and Geography in isolation without consideration of their global impact. So far, we are not doing very well:

"Environmental education has failed because it is not keeping pace with environmental degradation." Charles Saylan, Marine Conservationist

- an awareness of environmental and conservation is crucial from a very young age and must be central to any curriculum.

The question of ethics pervades every part of our life from when venture capitalists get going finding new projects to maximise profits for shareholders to politicians abusing expenses. After all,

‘Selling our waste to Thailand and arms to the Middle east, investing as a country in dodgy political and environmental areas and promoting a programme of importing doctors, teachers and nurses, often from 3rd world countries that can ill-afford to lose them, is just not right.’

The most important messages we need to embed in the young is an understanding of what is ethical behaviour, of the concept of cause and consequence, of being part of a global community, of looking outwards

‘Self-absorption kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems & preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands.’
Dr Michelle Borba

-completely agree. Children need encouragement, to be taught, to think out of themselves, less narcissistic and self-absorbed and develop the idea of community, charity etc. On that, I agree with Theodore Dalrymple’s distinction between self-esteem which can lead to narcissism and self-respect.

The question of who owns your education is key. It certainly works better when the child is the primary stakeholder:

‘Something really great about my upbringing was that my parents were very much of the attitude that you can learn anything better than anyone can teach it to you. In other words, any curriculum that you design is going to be ten times better than what someone will design for you. You don’t have to do that rote, prescriptive thing.’

-Tara Westover, who never attended school until 17 years old now with a PhD from Cambridge

- I love the quote that you can learn anything better on your own than anyone can teach it to you (whether that is always true . . . .) It is at the heart of learning, the love of learning, the desire to learn.

Of course in changing the paradigm of education we need to look at how the workings of the adolescent brain and the changes that are happening and the way techology is changing social interaction

“Today’s students are more social and like to learn in a more unstructured way’

Simon Noakes

At the same time we need to look at assessment critically and see how it impedes, as well as drives, learning

‘Schools could have more opportunity to focus on useful assessment if there were fewer formal assessment points.’ Daisy Christodoulou

Hear, hear to that, although there will still be too many for most. Of course, Artificial Intelligence might just deal to us all. Jess Staufenberg tells us that

‘AI will soon beat pupils taught knowledge-based curriculum’

and Ruth Luckin, Professor of Learner-Centred Design at UCL warns proponents of a knowledge rich curriculum, (and there are plenty) that

‘Pupils will be unable to compete with advanced artificial intelligence systems if they are taught a knowledge-based curriculum.’

While summing up the fuss about examinations with the categorical statement that

'AI will be the death of exams'

After all, despite being told that AI will never capture the child as well as our obsession with test data, we are already past that point:

A wide range of AI-driven teaching technologies are already in schools. These include various ‘autonomous interactive robots’ developed across East Asia. Elsewhere, millions of students now interact with ‘pedagogical agents’ – software designed to provide bespoke advice, support and guidance about an individual’s learning. Also popular are ‘recommender’ platforms, intelligent tutoring systems and other AI-driven adaptive tutoring – all designed to provide students with personalised planning, tracking, feedback and ‘nudges’. Capturing over one million data-points per user, vendors of the Knewton ‘adaptive learning system’ can claim to know more about any student’s learning than their ‘real-life’ teacher ever could.

And a warning from Professor Neil Selwyn of Monash University that

Despite the obvious sense in preparing for an increasingly automated future, education continues to be one of the least future-focussed sectors there is

Clearly, we need to take apart everything we do and ask ‘why’ and accept that with new and more intrusive algorithms, assessment and measurement will change. In turn, education – schools – will need to become more flexible and work out ways to engage students rather than turning education into an endurance test with no worthwhile outcomes

“The problem with a one size fits all school model from a very early age it effectively tells people they are worthless if they cannot conform or do things in a very specific way.”

After all,

“Nobody doesn’t want to learn. They just don’t necessarily want to learn what you want to teach.” Will Shone

Debatable I can hear some teachers muttering, but an admirable sentiment. So where have we got to so far. What little nutmeg of inspiration, what polished crystal of enlightenment can sum up just what a new paradigm might represent and what its primary goal might be

‘Helping other people or a sense of purpose – those are the only things I have personally found that can give me any kind of sustenance’ Russell Brand to John Bishop

- yes, it takes Russell Brand to get to the very point of existence

Key article on Curriculum

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Wed, July 04, 2018 18:06:15

Creating a New Curriculum – Answers on a Postcard

‘All major systems in the world are experiencing disequilibrium. The challenge of the times we live in is being felt everywhere; but education seems to be faring worse than most, and is responding very slowly to the challenges.’ Dr Lesley Murrihy

‘The emergence of the digital age, the growth of artificial intelligence, and the huge social disruption that these entail have had fundamental effects both on our relationship with knowledge and on the world of work. Yet school-based education has hardly acknowledged this disruptive change.’ GlobalNet21

Last October, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, wrote a paper which discussed findings from recent research on the curriculum. In it, she provided her own definition viz ‘at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.’ Later, she alluded to a number of related issues - vocational education; teaching to the test; the narrowing of the curriculum, especially in Key Stage 3; and the importance of the Ebacc before ending with the observation that ‘expertise in and focus on the curriculum had waned.’

The response was not slow in coming and debate has waxed ever since. Initially, her attack on the culture of teaching to the test and encouraging schools to show initiative by interpreting the curriculum was welcomed, but there were soon rumbles. It was noted, for instance, that her definition of the curriculum was not consistent with that given by her deputy, Sean Harford last year with its three stages of intent, implementation and impact / achievement. Crispin

Weston joined the debate with a paper entitled ‘Why Curriculum Matters’ (sub-titled a response to Tim Oates, Dylan William and Daisy Christodoulou) in which he criticised their views of the curriculum while offering his own, a process being undertaken in three articles under the heading of ‘Untangling the Curriculum.’ Apart from wrestling with the definition, Weston was sceptical of the call for teachers to be more involved in helping shape the curriculum stating ‘If the experts cannot sort out what curriculum means, there is not a cat-in-hell’s chance that thousands of isolated schools will be able to succeed.’

All of which is a long-winded way of suggesting that it may be time to introduce some fresh thinking on the curriculum without the risk of being drawn into debates over data and definition in some naval-gazing twitter feed. Perhaps it is time to approach the curriculum anew, even if it involves dismantling and rebuilding the education paradigm we are comfortable with. We have waited long enough for experts to sort out a workable model moving forward, but too much research and data has been focused on improving the current paradigm, rather than looking at ways of reinventing it in a form that may better meet the needs of children here and now. Dr Lesley Murrihy, in advocating such a change, recently wrote ‘It is time for those of us in education to stop simply commenting and to start creating proposals, to test models and to look to hybrid solutions that take account of the complex nature of the 21st century and of education and create positive sum outcomes’ asking the question ‘If we, ourselves, cannot demonstrate this very same creativity by creating solutions, how can we model this for our students?

How indeed? When we follow the education debate on social media, it is hard to escape the view that a great deal of energy is being wasted along the binary spectrum of skills vs. knowledge, growth mindset vs. fixed mindset, STEM subjects vs. the arts or numerous similar debates, or by mining down into cognitive bias, the place of technology in assessment, parenting and so on, each thesis invariably accompanied by a new book for the exhausted teacher to read at their leisure. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to stop dealing in the finer points of interpretation, with nuances of meaning, shifting stances and arguments about what is research and what is opinion sidestep the jargon and hyperbole with such clichés as ‘smashing glass ceilings’ or ‘levelled playing fields’ inhabited by helicopter parents and the snowflake generation. Perhaps it is time for a more imaginative vision.

Does much of the current education debate we find in social media help? In filling in the detail, yes, but in the larger sense, not so much. I am not alone in hearing the fingernails on the chalkboards as teachers scream for something more than endless analysis and proselytising? Something that recognises why our curriculum is not working for too many of our children, why its obsession with data and grades is distorting our teaching and why the numbers of teachers leaving the profession keep increasing for reasons that seem obvious, but for elucidation include ever-expanding workloads; more bureaucracy; more pressure for results and assessment targets; greater social and pastoral roles; the failure of successive governments to offer sufficient separation between education and the state; and the lack of support and status accorded to the profession.

So what am I suggesting? Not another curriculum review, or more think tanks and debate over definition and degree, but a return to the essential question, ‘what is the best education we can give our children’. It should not be an exercise in semantics where we get hung up on debating what is ‘best’ (or ideal), in the first instance, but it should challenge us to risk suspending, even abandoning our views on whether our curriculum works or not. It may be that we need to establish some fresh foundations, thereby embedding a different attitude towards education, towards the environment, towards community, perhaps a whole new ethical framework or paradigm, that identifies the impediments to change (which includes funding, inevitably, as well as vested interests of the sector, inertia and uncertainty brought about by the advances in nanotechology, brain research and technology; social stratification (as pernicious as ever); and political will). We need to address the inequality of opportunity, the shortcomings in teacher training and the adversarial nature and irrelevance of education to too many children. What is needed is not merely a bank of ideas to dip in and out of, but the answer to the question, ‘what values, knowledge, understanding, and skills do we want for our children? ‘ Putting our prejudices about selection and what constitues a good education to one side and uncoupling the carriages of curriculum and assessment may help us see just what works and what doesn’t.

At the risk of sounding philodoxical, in looking for answers to some very elemental questions, it is always better to put something down for others to flay. There are too many raised voices for us to do otherwise. We should rightly be concerned about the decline in the influence of the family and church and commensurate lack of values and ethics exhibited by many of our ‘well-educated’ leaders (it is shameful they can still talk about ‘good schools and bad schools’ without blushing). We should recognise the needs of the increasing number of children for whom school is a holding bay because it isn’t giving them the courses, the skills and knowledge or the future they need. Citizenship, values, attitudes, environmental awareness - what we would broadly see as constituting ethical behaviour should be an implicit part of learning from the first day of school, so that they come to the more formal part of learning better prepared. Instead of the push for longer schools days, we could look at shorter and more targeted teaching time (I often wonder at those who advocate longer school days when so little classroom time we have is used effectively). We need discipline in our classrooms and schools, preferably greater self-discipline and higher expectations, but conversely less pressure and fewer parents and adults over-complicating their world by too much information. Children don’t eschew hard work, but they tend to avoid it when they see it has little relevance to their lives or is done at the behest of the teacher and school rather than in their evident best-interests.

We all accept technology will play an ever greater part in teaching and assessment, and that all courses will soon be available to students on-line and that with more blended education, teaching may be shared between teachers and facilitators or specialist tutors. We

should examine what we mean by a knowledge rich curriculum in subjects such as History where the selection of what history we choose to teach is hugely significant. We should even question the value in dividing learning into subjects at all levels of schooling. We should push for the end of academic selection (nothing is more irritating than those who equate selection with academic rigour) and provide for more opportunities for SEND children by recognising and meeting their specific needs. We should recognise such attributes as a sense of purpose, manners, good communication skills and a good work ethic as trumping the data that sometimes sits on children like a straightjacket. And we should focus on the cause of issues such as the current mental health epidemic and address them at their roots rather than just offering aftercare.

Six years ago, Laura McInerney suggested a rolling curriculum review, an idea which might be worth revisiting, but before we even get that far we need to ensure we have in place a new philosophy of education that can sweep children up and inspire them, that will help them see education as useful and relevant and help make better citizens. We have dumped so much on our children - stress, ambition, guilt, pressure. Now, we need to change the goals which centre around money, jobs and individual achievement to recognise the diversity of human types, qualities and abilities and extol the value of living well in a new world in which ‘every person matters.’

Testing and Examinations

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Tue, June 19, 2018 12:22:50

When did Exams Become so Toxic?

Exam season was never meant to be easy, but reading social media and talking to teachers and students, it feels like the pressures have recently got a whole lot worse. The new GCSEs have increased the pressure on teachers and students alike as has summative assessment for A Levels. In primary schools, likewise, SATS have been criticised for placing undue pressure on younger children, especially in the requirement to learn grammatical terms (do they really need to know about relative pronouns relative clauses cohesion, ambiguity, the active and passive voice, ellipsis etc when an unacceptable number are still struggling to read and write?)

While the various threshold tests and assessments provide for those students who have both the ability and specific instruction on how to pass exams, they offer little to those children who struggle to get their information / thoughts onto the page, those whose abilities are not measured in exams or who are simply not ready for this step. For them, SATS, GCSEs and A Levels must feel like mountains and hardly relevant to their worlds.

Making education relevant to all is crucial to the success of our education system: after all, the outcomes of schools are recorded in knife crime, in mental health statistics as much as in grades. Schools are not just for able, motivated and well-supported children, but also for the deprived, the angry and the abandoned, those children struggling for acceptance because of poverty, race, language or learning and behavioural difficulties.

Yet when we look at what is happening to our youth, most graphically in mental health figures, it is not the just the raised bar that is causing so much angst, but the ways in which tests are presented. For a long time now, our language when talking education and examinations has been little short of scare-mongering One response has been to survey schools to find the best ways of allaying stress (knitting being a popular suggestion) which seems to rather miss the point.

What is not considered often enough from the vantage of middle-age is how the parameters have changed, how tuition fees and a shortage of jobs, extra competition for university places and the fear of debt have ratcheted up the pressure – and once can understand why they have affected students and contributed to such tragedies as youth suicide. In talking of a snowflake generation, (and I believe they are more focused and hard-working than most of the generations who have gone before), too many adults conveniently forget that the pressures are quite unlike those of thirty years ago

Inevitably, while we can tell children that doing their best is all you can ask for, that these tests will mean little in the run of things, each is given disproportionate importance because of the pressure placed on schools and teachers, inevitably drip-fed to students. League tables have been used by governments to measure progress and to hold schools accountable, but what they have done to students is often ignored, as the best interests of children are subsumed by those of the State. The increase in cheating, higher incidence of depression and mental illness in young children are indirect consequences of league tables and their toxic influence continues to have a profound effect on the mental health of students and teachers.

It is not hard work that students fear, but the great beyond, the shame and despair of failing and seeing doors closing, the pigeon-holing, often before childhood is over. That sort of rhetoric has no place in today’s world

New Pathways must reflect new Opportunities and challenges

There is a compelling argument that exams are not about so much about education, but about selection and economic convenience. After all, exams only test part of student’s abilities and cannot be fully cognizant of attitudes, intuition, intelligence, work ethic and purpose, traits that determine success. University is not for everyone, and the expectations of parents and schools regarding university as their end goal needs to be challenged.

The government’s response has been to promote technical education to sit alongside A Levels as happens in many European countries. Sadly, it is just another instance of government arriving too late to the party. While that would have been welcomed some years ago, what is needed are not academic and vocational strands, but university and non-university strands, both ‘academic’, both signalling different pathways, both with similar status and both having their own strands, based on specific career options . BTecs have been gaining favour, even at academic schools, but times are changing and these need to be promoted and enhanced for what they are: pathways for different aptitudes, interests, careers, every bit as academic and demanding, and not the default position. The idea of technical qualifications being essentially mechanical is long past as is the idea of education being fixed in time. Instead of more students being steered into university courses because that is what their school’s DNA provides, often ending up with huge debts, useless degrees and mental health issues, we need a new mind-set that recognises the new world of work and an acknowledgement that we do not yet have the tools to properly measure children and assuming exams on their own are enough, is woefully inadequate.

The Future of Education?

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Tue, June 19, 2018 12:21:11

The New Education

‘What does education do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.’ Henry David Thoreau

At a time when the function and role of schools is under the cosh like never before, it is somewhat sobering to reflect upon those that avoided school, in part or in whole, those self-taught, creative and unfettered thinkers who lacked the benefit of a formal education, and still came good. A list of such autodidacts may include Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Stanley Kubrick, Thomas Edison and Margaret Mead - all highly talented and successful in their respective fields who had the opportunity to work creatively and imaginatively without the shackles of a formal education. And of course, to this list we can add a vast array of women who were both denied a formal education and a credible platform, and who still triumphed, women such as the Bronte sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft and Flora Tristan. And they knew how lucky they were, speaking up against the limitations of formal education, with Bertrand Russell arguing that men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by educationand author and autodidact Helen Beatrix Potter being even more explicit in her criticism noting, ‘Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of my originality.’

It is possible to see similar disdain for traditional education today amongst some parents although usually for quite different reasons. As schools move further to the left, and become narrower in their breadth of curriculum and assessment in an effort to standardize educational outcomes, we see more and more parents who have the means to do so, voting with their feet, to draw on the best resources in themselves, in their communities and off the web, to go it alone.

There are many reasons for choosing to do so. These include concerns about behavior (bullying, disruptive classmates); how technology is being used (or not being used); and the shrinking of the curriculum through the EBacc, in particular, reducing time for the creative subjects. Families also have more personal reasons, founded in religion or culture, (or exclusions), or from a growing number of parents who just want to protect their children from the world and all its horrors, however naïve this may sound. More recently, parental concern has reacted to the changes in the function of education from the pursuit of academic and social outcomes to societal ends, pushing a liberal social agenda which many parents do not want foisted on their children. Nor may they agree with government moves to ‘educate the whole child’ even in matters that deeply concern them such as teaching children about relationships, especially sex and gender, at a young age. While not all reasons are logical or even excusable, they are symptomatic of a growing disillusionment with the current school system and a belief that there are other, better ways of educating children.

The effects of this loss of confidence can be seen in the growth of home schooling. While not the same as being ‘self-taught’, there is no doubt that the freedom home schooling affords, allows children to follow passions and interests. It can cater for the increasing numbers of families taking gap years and wanting education for their children in-transit. While we might question the premises, the reality is that the trend is accelerating and that in the last school year, some 30,000 were home schooled in England and Wales, double the number of six years before.

Undoubtedly, it has also got easier to opt out of formal schooling with the advent of the internet. Technology is a driving force with so many courses and resources available on-line that parents can access almost all they need anywhere in the world. By opting out, they find the extra time to devote to the development of special talents in music, drama, sport, or specialist interests from coding to chess. With whole university courses available on-line and blended education becoming a reality in many countries, the means are there for children to gain a first class academic education without ever attending school. What is not so clear is how the social and cultural education, which is compromised from not being part of a community of peers, is managed and compensated for. Nor is it easy for government to monitor the children who are flying under the radar, largely unmonitored and unchecked, and in danger of becoming isolated from their peers and communities or worse, radicalised.

Allied with the growth in home-schooling is the increase in tutoring. The proportion of pupils who have had a private tutor at some stage in their education went up from 18% in 2005 to 25% in 2016 (42% in London). While there are many firms offering bespoke tutoring services, to the dismay of many head teachers, a survey of more than 1,600 state school teachers found that 43% of them have earned money as private tutors outside school, which considering the pressures currently on teachers, is a substantial ‘extra’ workload, probably indicative of their relatively low pay and the satisfaction derived from one to one tutoring.

Tutors were once seen as anathema by many schools and you do not have to dig deep to find criticism of the industry with schools suggesting that agencies 'trade on insecurity' or worse, that after-school tutoring is a ‘form of child abuse,’ as Gail Larkin, President of the National Association of Head Teachers said in 2014 - an interesting comment when schools still demand entrance tests for children as young as three and who eject students who might damage their performances in league tables. The truth is the world is changing and tutoring for exams is only one part of an industry that is moving into the mainstream of education, where tutors support parents who want a different form of education by working in a more holistic way, assisting learning, by helping developing good study habits, pointing the child in the right direction and engendering the confidence that comes from 1:1 support.

Home schooling is not an ideal alternative to state education in any country, despite its suitability for the few. What we need is a system that caters for a wider range of abilities using a wider range of providers. New Zealand has begun to allow students to construct their own curriculum, which often involves accessing some subjects from home. As blended education proliferates in different forms and guises and the role of the teacher changes from classroom teacher to mentor and facilitator, it is likely we are seeing the future, in which the responsibility of education is shared, when education without walls becomes a reality. We are entering a time when, to paraphrase Yeats, things are falling apart because the centre cannot hold and that is not altogether a bad thing. We should not be frightened of the prospect, but instead prepare for it and embrace it.

Mental Health

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Tue, June 19, 2018 12:17:08

Growing up slowly is good for mental health

Natasha Devon, one-time Children’s Mental Health Tsar, began Mental Health Awareness Week in fine fettle, beginning the week by introducing a petition to get a mental health first aider into every workplace and ending it by launching her new book ‘A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental’. Feisty and straight talking, Natasha has often been a thorn in the government’s side by drawing their attention to what is the greatest crisis facing our young, that of mental health.

We only have to look at the statistics to see how serious this crisis is: the 700 young people who kill themselves every year; the fact that the number with eating disorders and self-harming has doubled in the last three years; the drop of the average age for depression from forty five years in the 1960s to fourteen years today; and this week, the news that the number of children under eleven being referred for specialist support has increased by a third over the past four years. Over the poast decade, when funding for mental health was decreasing, the proportion of GP consultations relating to mental health grew to one third and yet many children suffering with depression and mental illness are still not being offered the help they desperately need.

The Government’s response has been cautious. Their recent announcement of a further £300 million to be added to their mental health budget over the next five years is scant relief to a system that is already straining to cope with the increase in referrals in our schools. What is more, only part of this sum is to be set aside to help schools, specifically by providing mental health leads and support teams, which in the view of its loudest critics, will do little to stop the growing epidemic.

What is being overlooked in the race to get more trained staff into schools and to provide better training and systems of referral are any clear responses to the questions ‘why this is happening?’ What has led to this crisis that is afflicting so many of the young? And, pertinently, what are we doing to addressing the causes of this epidemic?

There are a number of areas where parents and schools can make a significant difference. By way of an answer, Matthew Walker in his best-selling book ‘Why We Sleep’ argues that a significant cause of mental illnesses in our young is the result of a lack of sleep, noting in passing that they are sleeping two hours less than their counterparts of a century ago . By ignoring the fact the all children need at least eight hours of sleep a night and that the circadian rhythm of teenagers means they need to sleep later, he argues we are placing them at considerable risk of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Compounding this, is the desire to start schools earlier and the belief that the most effective learning takes place in the morning. More regular sleep, including insistence on bedtimes for the young and structured routines for teenagers (including a down time for blue screens) would help; as would schools acknowledging what neuroscience tells us, that sleep deprivation is a major causal factor in the onset of mental illness.

Another cause that is in our gift to fix is the number and language of examinations. As SATS begins this week (no coincidence, surely) we read on numerous websites of advice being given to primary children on how to handle the stress of exams, ‘being prepared not scared’ or the ominously named “survival guides” for GCSE. If students weren’t worried beforehand, they certainly couldn’t avoid a degree of concern on hearing a former head telling them that seven hours of revision a day was required over the Easter holidays if they wanted to do well. That primary children are experiencing stress and anxiety because of the 11+ tests is unforgiveable, (and the presence of the guide ‘Five ways to safeguard children's wellbeing during Sats week’ should make us all feel queasy), not simply because the omnipresence of the testing process, which is bad enough, but because we have hyped up the importance of tests, dragged them into the public arena through league tables and then used them to measure schools and teachers according to the performance of the pupils. This generation are not afraid of hard work, but with exam stress listed as one of the leading causes of youth suicide, we need to respond to the impact of too much testing and the aggressive language that promotes the primacy of examinations which is contributing to the increase in mental illness

A third cause is our conversations with children and the encouragement to tell them everything about everything, thinking they have the emotional and intellectual maturity to cope. I don’t know how I would have coped at age eleven with all the information young children have to deal with today, often about grim topics or adult themes. Of course, with the internet the walls are partly down although good parenting can delay and / or modify the impact of social media, but perhaps we just need to make more effort to protect childhood and childish things and not abrogate some of the responsibilities of parenting to the internet. Yes, there are other factors that have a very significant effect on the mental health of the young, including the well-documented impact of technology on mental health and systemic drug use, but many of the causes are to do with lifestyle: lack of routine, lack of sleep, an absence of family nurturing and too much emphasis on exams and the language of testing.

Our schools do need more funding, urgently so, and the provision of trained staff, but as the crisis deepens and children’s mental health continues to deteriorate, perhaps, just perhaps, a closer look at the causes, (and not just the those noted here), may pay dividends - and even save lives.

The Vexed Issue of Testing

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Tue, June 19, 2018 12:13:29

Turning the Tables

The announcement by the Schools Minister, Nick Gibbs, that some 290 schools are about to trial new on-screen tables tests for 7 and 8 year olds is just another example of the State getting involved in areas where it doesn’t belong. The accompanying comment that the tests will “help teachers identify those pupils who require extra support” is patronizing at best and once again shows that the government does not trust teachers to do their job, even in this most fundamental way.

His comments have already received a predictable response from teaching unions and from the Minister’s acolytes. Mark Lehain, a strong advocate for regular national testing, has already given his support, labeling anyone who might deign to disagree as ‘the usual suspects’ who previously ‘have decried the introduction of what they see as another infringement on childhood innocence and teachers’ freedom’.

Apart from the sneer, the issue is not one of freedoms or raising standards or the value of teaching times tables; it is about the role of the state in education as is clear when he goes on to note that the test ‘should also be stress-free for kids: it won’t be used to judge them or their school, and will provide information that will be really powerful for all those who are involved in education.’

Really? Try telling that to teachers who for too long now have been held to account by such data accumulation, even when the process is patently flawed. How long before it is used to pass judgment? Who is taking bets?

The question is not about learning tables. Most, (I hope all) teachers believe children should learn their tables, as the benefits are undisputed. It should be an implicit part of mathematics. Tables charts, table trains were always the norm in primary schools, most using stars on a chart to signify progress with children supporting each other through the journey. Schools were given the responsibility to ensure children learned their tables and took their progress charts with them, year on year, so that in time, depending on their level of readiness, almost all children acquired the requisite knowledge.

The joy of learning tables and having teachers who introduced the ideas of number or even, as in my case, simple things, like the sum of any numbers multiplied by 9 always equal nine (9x3 -= 27, 2+9 etc). Some of us were lucky in got to test the methods the Jewish Mathematician Jakow Trachtenberg devised while he was in a German concentration camp. Of all the rote learning that goes on in school, nothing is more useful in life, or more regularly used, as tables, and the ability to be able to make quick and accurate computations is something almost every child is capable of.

However, I believe every school does so already. Moreover the teachers would argue that they already know who needs support and don’t need another measure that can in the future, be used against them. By gathering data the nature of the test is changed, for the teachers and schools, and becomes yet another pressure point.

The issue is with the belief that national benchmarking is the way forward or is merely a giant political straitjacket that ties teachers down to yet another measure. As Mark Lehain wrote in an earlier article defending the 11+,

‘ . . . If we took SATs away there would be no formal testing between Year Two and Year Eleven – so how could we reliably ensure that children are actually on track and which schools are effective?

How indeed. Possibly by the same methods we used before the introduction of centralized testing. After all, teachers have always been expected to teach tables and were accountable in their own schools for doing so. We should trust the professionalism of our teachers and stop interfering. The dependence of national data gathering is what really undermines the morale of teachers and the belief that ‘having a national check means every single child will be assessed in the same way’ is a good thing when in reality, it is anything but! In many countries, governments are now devolving more power to teachers, learning to trust their judgment and realizing the accumulation of screeds of national data may be useful for turning children into algorithms, but actually just distract from learning. To do that, of course, we need to raise the standard of teaching and invest more in recruiting the most committed and able people into the profession. Sadly, that, as the Minister knows, costs rather more money.

Ethics and Values

CurriculumPosted by Peter Tait Tue, June 19, 2018 12:03:47

Morals and Ethics in our Schools

“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Pope Paul II

As the Government continues its crusade to enforce the teaching of British values and character in our schools, there is a much more urgent issue that needs to be addressed. Daily, we read of actions and behaviours that show an absence of self-regulation and a lack of integrity, morality or any sense of social responsibility.

As the old social groupings of nuclear families, extended families, church and local communities are replaced by imagined communities and the State, we have a generation that includes many who are rudderless, isolated and lonely, drifting without any moral anchor or structure to their lives.

Laudable as it may be to promote the values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, faced with an endemic focus on self and the self-made, both in our society and in our schools, there is an urgent need to dig deeper, to ensure that children first grow up with a proper understanding of right and wrong through a study of morals and ethics.

While we celebrate the freedom embodied in the Magna Carta, the consequence of rapid social change over several decades has resulted in a society where many children and adults are struggling to cope. Inevitably, it is not about freedom, but about the exercise of free will and the absence of a moral construct.

If we are looking for examples, we need go no further than the recent press about tax evasion and tax avoidance – one illegal, one not, although both raise moral issues, especially when laws are manipulated by large companies and the very rich for their own ends.

Yet while the wealthy may have recourse to financial advisers and use tax havens because they can afford to, they are not alone in making choices without moral recourse, for we can all be guilty of it to some lesser degree, even if just by supporting those multinationals engaged in large- scale tax avoidance. In such instances, there is rarely any consideration of community or other people’s welfare, or any expectation to make decisions on any other basis other than ‘what’s in it for me?’

If we expect our children to grow up with a respect for the rule of law, (which needs to be seen as fair and equitable for all), then we need to teach them about making moral choices and having a value system as a basis for their decision-making.

Part of this requires a change in the mindset that is prevalent in society, one that says ‘if it is legal and if you can get away with it, then it is acceptable.’

In order to make this change requires us to make time in our curriculum, through assemblies and other school activities in order to teach our children to consider issues and behaviour by a moral yardstick rather than more usual measures of success. For without proper ethical considerations, we are in danger of society becoming increasingly fragmented and unstable as self-interest overshadows the public good.

The other, powerful change in our society that adds to the ethical imperative is the unprecedented and largely unregulated advances in science and technology that are happening across the globe.

Many of the projects may appear inconceivable – as did mapping the human genome a decade ago – and as implausible as the Gilgamesh Project seems today. The pace of change and innovation is bewildering. Instead of going hand in hand with ethical considerations, scientists working in the fields of nanotechnology, intelligent design, cyborg engineering or engineering of inorganic life are largely operating outside of any moral construct.

The dangers of unregulated technology, of not grounding decision- making on futures in ethics are potentially catastrophic. In order for adults to begin to make the appropriate political and ethical decisions on using new technologies, we need first to start training our children to ask salient and responsible questions, based on a resolute moral and ethical framework. We need to train them to think differently.

In the first instance, it is up to those leaders in society, the wealthy, the leaders of industry and public figures to lead the way. And yet, our experience is that their example is often a poor one, highlighted recently by yet another chapter in the cash for access scandal.

It was Teddy Roosevelt who said: "A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad." What he didn’t add was "and get away with it". Sadly, that is the popular perception of many of our financial traders and politicians. If we look at the banking crisis and expenses scandals, those guilty came predominantly from the well-educated, from leading schools and universities.

When we talk of someone in such terms of ‘well-educated’, we are defining the term in a very narrow and inadequate way, usually measured by their performance in tests. Clearly, there is something missing in their education, call it humility, empathy, honesty or some similar values. Too often they leave school compromised, half-cooked, despite their academic achievements. Somehow, their otherwise excellent education has let them – and society, down.

We live in an age of everyone for themselves to lesser or greater degree and we’re not going to change that while the public conscience is unregulated, at least not without a significant moral shift.

The current focus on mindfulness on happiness, on well-being and on character is all very well, but there is a more fundamental challenge for our schools. British values aside, we don’t seem to be challenging our children enough with the really fundamental questions about how they should live their lives.

We cannot put everyone in a single moral universe but we can teach them about cause and consequence, about the value of charity and community and about having values that are not able to be measured in material terms alone.

Before talking of developing grit and resilience, we should be offering the children in our schools an education in morals and values for that would underpin their lives like nothing else.

Next »