Saturday, 27 October 2012

Views about schools

Several different perspectives on schools this week. I spent 19th October at the Schools North East Summit with headteachers from all over the region. It started with a quiz, I noted these facts:
  • The North East has the lowest class sizes and best teacher/pupil ratios in the country
  • Our region has the second highest per pupil funding for 5 to 19 year olds - £5,140 a year (though there are big variations between different Local Authority areas)
  • 24.4% of north east primary school children claim free school meals, compared to 19.2% nationally
  • 19.5% of north east secondary school pupils claim free school meals, compared to 15.9% nationally
  • On fifth of all north east children live in families where the parent(s) are currently out of work
  • There are 21 Academies in the North East and another 74 schools seeking academy status
  • In 1914 35% of the population of England lived in the north, today it is just 25%
A picture of significant disadvantage but also hopeful signs. The Coalition Government introduced the 'Pupil Premium' of £600 a year for each pupil claiming free school meals, paid direct to schools. That's £80 million across the whole region which will rise to £120 million when the Pupil Premium goes up to £900 per pupil in 2014.

In his address to the summit, Lord Andrew Adonis said schools not only need good leaders (Headteachers) but also good governance (Governing Bodies) to hold the headteacher and senior team to account. Headteachers come and go, the Governing Body is the continuity of the school, it's most important task is to appoint the Headteacher.

He spoke about improving the calibre of teachers by attracting better people into the profession. He said at present there are on average just 2 applicants for each teacher training place, many countries average 10 applicants per place.

On school exams Lord Adonis said of the 40% of pupils who do not achieve 5 A-C grade GCSEs (including English and Maths) only 4% obtain an equivalent to a GCSE qualification by the time they are age 19. He wants to see as many apprenticeship places for those young people as there are now university places, adding government and local councils should take the lead. He felt that abundant apprenticeships opportunities would transform the expectations of disadvantaged young people.

During the week I read his recent book, 'Education, Education, Education' which explains the Academy programme. It starts with a review of the dire state of many comprehensive schools in the 1980s when schools were micro-managed by the Local Education Authority. Gradually power and responsibility has been handed to Headteachers, Academy status takes the logical next step by making the school independent. The concept is inspired by schools established by Guilds or endowed by wealthy individuals and still thriving today.

Other speakers called for parents and communities to get behind schools, there was criticism of parents leaving young people to their own devices and taking no interest in homework or progress in secondary school. The best attended session of the day was Professor Steve Higgins presenting his research about what works and is most cost effective for teaching and learning. The top three recommendations are:
  • Feedback - telling the learner and/or teacher about the learner's performance compared to their goals
  • Meta-cognition - 'learning to learn' by the learner reflecting on their learning
  • Peer tutoring - learners help each other either in small groups or pairing an older with a younger learner
On Tuesday I chaired the Governing Body termly meeting at a large Primary School. It is a very good school, well supported by parents and serves a mixed community (12.5% of the children claim free school meals). We got into a discussion about the cost of extra activities provided by the school; one of the parent governors with 3 children in the school said so far this term she has paid £55 towards schools trips (which are already subsidised by the PTA), charity collections (e.g. non-school uniform days), harvest festival, book club and so on. She made the point that parents regard school trips as essential to learning, everything else is a choice but no parent wants their child to feel left out and everyone is feeling the pinch.

On 26th October I was invited to a seminar in Newcastle University School of Education lead by Professor Michael Fielding from the Institute of Education in London. This was about how the body of young people and adults in a school collaborate to create learning. There was discussion about the nature of democracy in school, human nature and the purpose of education.

Everyone has something to say about schools and education but what was missing was the children's point of view. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child* (to which the UK is a signatory) has 3 articles about education:
  • Article 28 - Children have a right to an education. Discipline in school should respect children's human dignity. Primary education should be free and wealthy countries should help poorer countries to achieve this.
  • Article 29 - Education should develop each child's personality and talents to the full. It should encourage children to respect their parents and their own and other cultures.
  • Article 30 - Children have a right to learn and use the language and customs of their families, whether these are shared by the majority of people in the country or not.
In addition:
  • Article 3 - All organisations concerned with children should work towards what is best for each child.
  • Article 12 - Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them, and to have their opinions taken into account.
*The wording of the Articles here come from a booklet published by 'Unicef Youth Voice UK' for children and young people.
I have written about Children North East's current school project in previous blogs, our aim is simply that disadvantaged children should feel as much part of their school as all the other children. We think no child is going to do well in a school they don't feel a part of; and we believe that the way to achieve that is by asking the pupils what are the things about school that make it hard to feel that you belong.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Is homework elitist?

Yesterday the BBC Radio 4 PM news programme spoke to the former French Minister for Education who wants to ban 'homework', instead he suggests the last 30 minutes of each school day should be set aside for children to complete 'homework'. His reasons were that homework 'is a source of inequality between children' because it is unfair that some children get extra help with homework from their parents or tutors employed by parents, but other children have no assistance. He also said 'children are children, the school day is very long, it is better for children to be free after school so they grow up better.' Astonishing, imagine Michael Gove expressing the sentiment that children need time to just be children!

The programme discussed the idea with a teacher of English in Paris who spoke for one of the French teaching unions and also the Master of Wellington College. In general the French teaching unions are in favour of the proposal, they see homework as a factor widening the divide between children from poorer families compared to those from more affluent ones. They also think homework can potentially be divisive to the relationship between parents and school, for example if the parent cannot help the child with the homework it may make the parent feel inadequate and more difficult for them to have an 'equal' relationship with the teachers. The Master of Wellington College said homework ought to be enjoyable, give children the chance to practice working alone and encourage curiosity, wonder and enquiry.

It is not for me to comment on the merits of otherwise of homework, I want to point out that the French appear to be aware that aspects of education can worsen inequality. By contrast in the UK the debate is about how excellence in educational achievement is a route out of poverty (viz another news story yesterday about top universities encouraging applications from school pupils in more disadvantaged places).

By talking to children and young people about school, Children North East has discovered lots of ways in which schools unwittingly discriminate against poorer children - obvious things like the cost of school uniform and school trips but more subtle ones like administration of free school meals, assumptions made by teachers about shared life experience of the class (e.g. that everyone has been on holiday, everyone has been to a museum or has access to the internet at home) and prejudices about children's families, 'what do you expect, just look at the parents.' We have spoken to a few schools about this and they have been shocked, having never considered it. We have a small grant this year from the VONNE Policy and Representation Partnership to develop and pilot a toolkit for schools to audit themselves and hopefully make changes for the better.

Tomorrow I will be a panel guest at the Schools North East Summit and have a short opportunity to speak briefly about child poverty to a great many headteachers in our region.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Muddled opinions about keeping children from harm

As a society our views about safeguarding children from harm are very muddled - take some recent examples:

On the one hand there was an international hunt for 15 year old Megan Stammers when she disappeared to France with her teacher Jeremy Forrest. He now faces charges of abduction even though there is no suggestion that Megan was taken against her will and her parents have emphasised they do not believe she was in danger in Forrest's company. On the other hand in Rochdale are girls of a similar age to Megan coerced and sexually exploited by a gang of men, however neither police nor social workers took action because they were deemed to have made a 'lifestyle choice'.

In Machynlleth Wales, April Jones was abducted launching a massive hunt by concerned volunteers. Mark Bridger has been charged with her murder though her body has yet to be found. Every parent fears the loss of a child, for generations we have warned children not to talk to strangers but yesterday it emerged that Bridger is the uncle of April's half sisters, so she undoubtedly knew him, he was not a 'stranger'.

The NSPCC says on average every week in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of someone else, the majority of deaths are babies under one year old. There is no central government register so the exact number is not known however estimates vary from 50 to 200 children a year. Whatever the actual number, very few get the publicity that April has had. [By comparison the Department of Transport keeps statistics about children involved in road accidents - 2,412 children (age 0 - 15) were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2011.]

Children are more often abused and sometimes murdered at the hands of their parents, carers and other people who know them than they are by strangers, but again few hit the headlines. An extreme exception was Jade Philpott, 10, and brothers John, nine, Jack, seven, Jessie, six, Jayden, five, and 13-year-old Duwayne, who all perished when a blaze ripped through their home in Allenton, Derby, last May. The parents were eventually charged with arson and their murders having originally presented themselves to the police and media as distraught victims.

Currently TV soap EastEnders is running parallel stories about the care of two babies. Lexi is the daughter of teenage mother and young offender Lola who is under very close scrutiny by social workers. Viewers can see Lexi is loved and thriving, Lola has bonded with her and she has family help and support. This is contrasted with the story of baby Scarlett/Patricia whose mother well-off Janine has left in the care of her husband Michael Moon. Viewers can see this baby is rarely held or cuddled, Michael is depicted as cold towards her and frequently leaves her in the care of a variety of other characters for long periods at very short notice. We are left asking which baby should the authorities be more concerned about?

The truth about Jimmy Savile is emerging and with good reason people are asking why none of his predatory sexual interest in teenage girls came to light before? We should remember that it was not until 1987 and the Cleveland child sexual abuse scandal that the nature and scale of the sexual abuse of children came to public attention. Prior to that people might have been aware of 'perverts' in their communities, parents would advise their children to stay away from certain adults, school yard and street talk between children in the neighbourhood passed on knowledge about which adults to be wary of too. But talk about sex was largely taboo and 'sexual abuse' was not discussed. It is hardly surprising that teenage girls assaulted by men in the 60's 70's and 80's were reluctant to come forward - would their word be believed against that of a Star? Savile seems to have targeted girls at their most vulnerable, as patients in hospital or away from their parents, he really was a 'stranger' to them yet people may well have felt they 'knew' him because of his TV presence.

So what do I conclude from this brief, and highly selective survey?

  1. Children have rights. The UK is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which includes the right to be protected and also to be heard in their own right,  it should not depend on whether you have parents to stand up for you.
  2. The way child abuse is presented in the media skews both the extent and the reality. We end up with a  kaleidoscope of lurid stories instead of a measured analysis of the whole picture.
  3. Poor parenting occurs in families of all incomes, classes and social circumstances, same as good parenting.
  4. We should judge the quality of parenting from the point of view of the child's experience, not our prejudices about the parents.
  5. Some men (and women) are sexual predators of children and young people. They are extremely devious in pursuit of their goals. We must trust what children tell us about them.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Changing the child poverty narrative

Last Saturday The Journal front page featured children's photographs of poverty in the north east from our project last year, inside was a double page spread about the rising number of children living in poverty highlighting the recent Save the Children campaign. The article included quotes from Sara Bryson, Policy and Development Officer here at Children North East; noted the growth in the number of Trussell Trust food banks in the region; and included this example:
"Father-of-two Steven lives in Newcastle's West End and said living on the breadline is humiliating and embarrassing for his children. The former delivery driver receives housing benefit and survives on £288 a month which he gets from his disability living allowance. After paying for all his bills and buying food, he said his family barely has enough to survive.
"He said: 'I'd say my children live in poverty. Things were tough when I was growing up and I can't say that much has changed. The kid's notice it, of course they do. They know they don't have as much as other people. They don't get the same food they used to. I've got two children and they share a room and that's not right really. The oldest is 10 now so it's not long before she's going to need her own room. I can't imagine how I'm going to find the money for that.
"Steven buys all his clothes in charity shops and gave up smoking to free up more money for the family. 'It's the little things that hit you like when my children's school say they're changing the uniform. They want us to buy an £11 jumper with the logo on and the same one in Asda is £3. For the children there is stigma. You go to school and they come home and ask for packed lunches because the other children have them.'"
You can now see some of the photographs the children took beautifully presented with thoughtful comment on the Poverty and Social Exclusion website which is run by the Open University, 5 other universities and the National Centre for Social Research.

What all these different organisations (and others such as the North East Child Poverty Commission) are trying to do is to bring to people's attention the reality of child poverty today. Children North East's particular contribution is the children and young people's lived experiences through their photographs and commentary. The general public's view is that 'real' poverty either does not exist in this country or that it is not as bad as in previous times; alternatively that people who are poor have only themselves to blame for managing their money badly. It is very difficult to change people's minds, 'shouting' at them certainly does not work, it just polarises attitudes. Those of us that want to change the current mindset about poverty have to find ways to engage in a discussion with the sceptics and gradually win them over.

With that in mind I wrote this letter to The Journal which they printed last Tuesday:

"Dear Sir

Thank you for drawing attention to the scandal of child poverty in our region today. Doubtless some of your readers will think that times were hard when they were young, I am sure they are right, but in some ways it is harder to be poor today because now you know you are poor. You know because of TV. Television shows you constantly how much everyone else has, and reminds you how little you have. That constant reminder is a torment that might make you feel hopeless or angry.

Some readers will blame the parents for mismanaging money; they will point to parents buying fast foods for children instead of cooking proper meals. Of course healthy eating is very important but a Gregg’s sausage roll is 370 calories, one fifth of the recommended daily intake for a primary school child. At 68p it’s very hard to beat on price per calorie, and it’s hot so you save the cost of heating the oven at home.

The UK is the sixth wealthiest nation on earth; it is criminal that children go hungry here. The reason they do is because the wealth is not spread out, the poor don’t have enough and the rich have far too much. The gap between the poorest and wealthiest has widened and widened until now it is as big again as it was in Downton Abbey times, you would have to be in your 90’s to remember what poverty was like then.

Yours Sincerely"