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.

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