NEWSLETTER

No 67, Spring 2009

 

THE TWITTERING CURRICULUM

 

Each year, 1 in 5 children moves up from primary to secondary school without having mastered the basics. And good teachers say the subject-based curriculum provides structure for important content that can easily be lost. Yet, Sir Jim Rose's proposal to subsume the subjects into 6 'areas of learning' is now likely to be approved. The 'areas' are: 

 

• Understanding  English, communication and languages

• Mathematical understanding

• Scientific and technological understanding

Historical, geographical and social understanding

• Understanding physical development, health and wellbeing

• Understanding the arts

 

The Rose proposals mean more lesson-time will be spent on computers and small children will be taught to become 'critical readers' of Wikipedia (the online encyclopaedia whose accuracy is often questioned), Twitter and other social networking sites.   

 

Maths may be improved by more mental arithmetic, but geography will move further away from physical geography in favour of lessons on climate change and sustainability. History seems to be largely based on skills, rather than knowledge.

 

In theory, teachers will have more control over what they teach – but see Richmond-on-Thames, page 3. These changes are also supposed to 'slim down' the curriculum. But Ed Balls, the education secretary, intends to make Personal, Social and Health Education (including sex education) compulsory in primary schools. And small children will be taught to make their own 'informed decisions' on the use of alcohol or drugs.

 

FURTHER EDUCATION IN CHAOS     

 

Further Education (FE) providers have been left in chaos after the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the quango responsible for funding and managing 16 to 19 education,  ran out of cash.

 

The LSC has been ordering colleges to press ahead with over-ambitious rebuilding programmes without ensuring the funds were available. It is reported that 79 colleges have already been forced to halt building plans and another 65 may follow.  

 

This was graphically illustrated by pictures of Barnsley College, much of which is now a heap of rubble. So far, the College has borrowed £9m and spent another £2m on fees and demolition costs. It is now technically insolvent.

 

With £70m already spent on new buildings, South Thames College has borrowed £46m in total. It, too, may have to halt building work. 

After the LSC's £2.3bn capital budget was spent, it continued to push ahead with projects costing another £2.6bn. Projects worth another £3bn were said to be lined up. (Less than a decade ago, before the LSC took over, the FE budget was £3.5bn a year. Now, it is over £11bn.)

 

Meanwhile, unless ministers act quickly, thousands of youngsters expecting FE places in September may face disappointment. Having been promised extra funding to cater for more students, schools and colleges then learnt the cash wasn't there. Over-expanded school sixth forms were particularly embarrassed.  

 

The LSC's £200,000 a year boss, Mark Haysom, has resigned and an inquiry set up by the government under Sir Andrew Foster, the former chief executive of the Audit Commission, reported on 1 April.  Sir Andrew noted that there were  unheeded 'warnings of overheating as early as February 2008' and that 'the crisis was predictable and probably avoidable.'  

 

All this is very disturbing, but fascinating to us, because of the frequency with which LSC influence crops up when we are helping parents to fight  disruptive changes to the organisation of their  local schools. The government's new diplomas and its questionable '14 to 19 agenda' seem to dominate everything.   

 

Disgruntled parents are delighted to see the bullying LSC in trouble. And ministers have decided to give responsibility for FE funding back to local authorities. But will that improve the situation, when local authorities can't even manage (or fairly fund) the schools they already control? 

 

IGCSE WINS APPROVAL

 

Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, has approved International GCSEs for use in UK state schools. IGCSEs include little or no coursework and offer better preparation for A-levels than ordinary GCSEs.  They are almost as rigorous as O-levels, which are still produced, but only for overseas candidates.

 

Up to now, IGCSEs have been available only to  independent schools, partly because they were not credited in school league tables. But Cambridge Assessment has now had 15 IGCSEs approved for general use including English literature, French, maths, physics, geography and history.

 

NEW MODEL SCHOOLS TAKE OFF

 

Maple Walk School in north London, which was set up by Civitas's New Model School (NMS) Company, is now well established and very popular. In September, NMS will open a similar school in Docklands. With fees at just over £5,000 a year, Faraday School will offer a high quality, low cost independent education for primary pupils. Further information at www.faradayschool.co.uk. Or  telephone 0207 799 6677.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY STILL IN DOUBT

 

With objective national tests for 7-year-olds replaced by teacher assessment and tests for 14-year-olds no longer mandatory, the establishment is now threatening objective tests for 11-year-olds. If these go too, there will be no public accountability left in the primary sector.

 

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has voted unanimously to boycott next year's tests for 11-year-olds. Another union, the NAS/UWT doesn't want to replace national testing with teacher assessment, for fear it creates more work for teachers. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) may also boycott the tests, which would mean its members were breaking the law. Yet  school league tables provide essential information on school performance for parents and others. Shouldn't the teachers' unions remember who pays their wages?  

 

HEADS NOT TALKING?

 

It's not always easy persuading parents that they shouldn't automatically trust their child's headteacher. Heads give the impression that their primary interest is that of their school and their pupils – political activity is not for them. Yet a disturbing number are happy to follow the politics of self-interest. And larger schools mean heads get larger salaries.   

 

So faced with unwelcome federations between  good schools and unpopular, ineffective ones (often linked with plans to create massive academies), conscientious parents are in a dilemma. Should they back their child's headteacher, who may be a leading supporter of such plans, or follow their instinct and staunchly defend a good school?

 

Anecdotal reports of free trips for heads to exotic overseas destinations will probably be confirmed eventually, as will the activities of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), which is exempt from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

 

But the truth is creeping out. At the beginning of April, Hank Roberts, a geography teacher at Copland Specialist Science Community College in Brent, revealed that over the last two years, his head had received bonuses of £130,000.

 

It was also reported that some heads are already earning £150,000 a year with an extra 20% on offer, if they manage two or more federated schools. Bonuses and other benefits could bring many into the £200,000 a year bracket.

 

Perhaps from now on, governors and parents should question their headteachers more carefully?   

 

GIRLS DO BETTER WITHOUT BOYS

 

Research by The Good Schools Guide has found that girls taking GCSEs in single-sex state schools all did better than predicted from their results in national tests when they were 11-years-old. By contrast, 1 in 5 girls in co-educational schools did worse than expected.

 

Also interesting was the finding that girls who were struggling academically when they moved up into secondary schools were more likely to get good exam results and carry on into further education, if they attended a single-sex school. Further details at www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk

 

PSEUDO SUBJECTS UNDER FIRE

 

Pseudo subjects have had a bad press recently.

 

Citizenship lessons, in which pupils had to empathise with the July 7 London bombers, were condemned by headteacher Chris McGovern as 'extremely dangerous'. A teaching pack, produced by Calderdale local authority and published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) on its TeacherNet website, told pupils to summarise the reasons for the attacks from the bombers' perspective. Schools in Birmingham, Calderdale, Lancashire and Sandwell local authorities were using the pack, but it has now been withdrawn 

 

When 13-year-old Alfie and Chantelle, his 15-year-old pregnant girlfriend, hit the headlines proudly anticipating parenthood, value-free sex education came under scrutiny, along with adult tolerance of illegal under-age sex. 

 

It also emerged that the government's Teenage Pregnancy Unit, the Department of Health and the DCSF are advising teachers to tell teenage boys about 'the enjoyment of fatherhood' in personal, social, health and citizenship areas of the national curriculum.

 

In Oxfordshire, it was reported, girls as young as 11 will have the facility to text their school nurse to be given the morning-after pill at break or lunch-time. This, it was claimed, would save them embarrassment.

 

A government leaflet, Talking To Your Teenager About Sex and Relationships, distributed by pharmacies, advises parents not to discuss right and wrong, or moral values, for fear their offspring refuse to talk.

 

In the meantime, Waltham Forest Council has threatened more than 30 Christian and Muslim parents with court action for withdrawing their children from lessons on gay and lesbian history at George Tomlinson School.   

 

More hopeful news is that the self-esteem agenda, epitomised by the DCSF's Social and Emotional Literacy (SEAL) programme, has been publicly accused of creating a generation of egotistical young people. Dr Carol Craig, of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing in Glasgow, said failing to criticise children for fear of upsetting them is promoting an 'all about me' mentality.

 

LOCAL NEWS AND UPDATE

 

Doncaster:  Officials have refused places in the same school for two 4-year-old twins next September. This will be the boys' first school and they have never yet been separated. Officials argue that allowing 31 children in the same class would mean the parents' preferred school, Sunnyfields Primary, would need another teacher. So the twins have been offered places in two different schools, two miles apart.            

 

Essex:  Following a meeting with Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council, six families have been awarded £10,450 by the council towards the cost of home schooling for their 4 boys and 2 girls. The parents had refused to send their children to their allocated school, Bishops Park, where only 8% of pupils achieve 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. There are plans to merge Bishops Park and Colbayns School to form a new academy on the two sites, but how long will that take?  

 

Kent: Figures obtained by the National Grammar Schools' Association show that in 2007, Kent had 1,232 applicants from outside the county to take the voluntary 11-plus test for a place in one of its grammar schools. Two years later, that number had risen to 1,810, an increase of almost 50%. Of those 1,810 out-of-county applicants, 924 demonstrated the required standard for a grammar school place. Numbers are not yet available, but only around 1 in 3 of these is likely to be offered a place in the school of their choice. Why don't the local authorities around Kent offer real choice for their residents too?

 

Northamptonshire: Families living on the Northamptonshire side of the county boundary adjoining Warwickshire have traditionally been allowed to apply for places in Rugby's grammar schools. For some of these families, Rugby is their nearest sizeable town – they shop there, work there and use Rugby hospital if necessary. But pro-comprehensive Northamptonshire's admissions forum has complained to the schools adjudicator, who has pressured Warwickshire grammar schools to deny access to applicants living just across the county border.  Whether such geographical restrictions are within the law remains to be seen. But an active parents' group, Choices for Children, led by Leon Kaufman and Jeremy Harper, collected almost 2,000 signatures opposing the plans.  Further information at www.choicesforchildren.co.uk.

 

Richmond-upon-Thames: Claire Brown's complaint against Christ's School has now been submitted to the headteacher, governors and the local authority, all of whom rejected it. Mrs Brown's complaint centres round the 'progressive' Personalised Alternative Curriculum Experience (PACE) on which her daughter's timetable is based. Of the 25 lessons each week, there are 3 in maths, 3 in French, 2 in science, 2 in food technology and 2 in PE. But there are no identifiable lessons in English, geography, history or RE. Eleven periods each week are devoted to integrated subjects described as 'PACE' – allegedly to improve skills and emotional intelligence.  Neither the head, nor the governors, nor the local inspector/head of learning development, Annette Kelly, properly answered the parent's questions. Or provided any evidence that PACE raises standards. So Mrs Brown officially complained to Ed Balls, the education secretary. The reply, from Anne Burton at Mr Balls's Public Communications Unit, says as the school is acting within the law, the education secretary will not  intervene. Meanwhile, Mrs Brown's daughter, who is classified as 'gifted and talented' has been spending lesson time on activities such as writing letters to puppets. Other work offered on a website for the 'gifted and talented' – which is subject-based – includes 'climate change' (geography); 'World War 2: Home Front or create your own documentary film about life during WW2' (history);  'Computer Games Workshop or Street Art' (art);  'Create Your Own Musical' (music); 'British cinema 1940-1985' (media studies); 'Explore the latest research and technologies shaping the future of our world with eco-builders' (citizenship). Some of these activities may be acceptable for pupils with practical or artistic preferences. But what about those who are more academic? 

 

Slough: Plans by the local authority and the Catholic Diocese of Northampton to merge St Bernard's Grammar School and St Joseph's High School to form a 1,500-pupil academy are still proceeding. Merging a grammar and  a non-selective school without balloting parents may, of course, be illegal. But the formal process has begun with a Statement of Intent (SoI), issued by the DCSF in March without any communication with parents who are totally opposed to the idea.  Fortunately, an active parents' group, Faith and Choice Together (FaCT), led by Tony O'Shea, keeps people informed through its website, www.savestbernards.co.uk. Please register your support by signing the electronic petition opposing the plans at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/stbernards.

 

Stoke-on-Trent:  Better news from Stoke.  Serco, the private company responsible for managing local schools, has withdrawn its proposal to close the excellent Trentham High School. This follows a hard-fought campaign to keep the school open, during which parents placed 'Not for Sale' signs in the school grounds.

 

Suffolk: Parents faced with the closure of Clare Middle School continue to oppose Suffolk County Council's plans. The closure of Clare's high-achieving school will mean children making a 20-mile round trip each day to less successful schools in Haverhill or Sudbury. The parents want to extend Clare Middle School to make it an all-through 11 to 16 school, a proposal that could save taxpayers millions of pounds. So far, the parents' detailed 100-page plans have been rejected, but the financial crisis may yet work in their favour.  

 

PUBLICATIONS AND NOTICES

 

What we can learn from Swedish schools by Corin Taylor examines the benefits of competition in education.  As part of the Institute of Directors 'Big Picture' policy analysis, it includes many useful educational statistics. For an electronic copy, which we have permission to distribute, please email cred@cre.org.uk.

 

The strange death of history teaching (fully explained in seven easy-to-follow lessons) by Derek Matthews is packed with references. A professor of economic history, the author was puzzled by how little history his undergraduates seemed to know. Now he explains why. Further information from sbsdrm@cf.ac.uk.

 

The University of Buckingham's M. Ed. in Educational Leadership emphasises intellectual honesty and independence of thought, rather than blind obedience to systems and fashionable nostra. This year's closing date   for applications is 10 July and further information is available from nicola.mugford@buckingham.ac.org.

 

This year's Schools Bible Project is open to pupils aged 11 to 16 who are required to write an essay based on an incident in the New Testament. Prizes for schools of £500, £250 and £100 are on offer and entries are required by 30 June 2009.  Further information on this popular competition is at  www.christianprojects.org.uk.

 

The government's new ContactPoint database is intended to record intrusive details of every child. It will be accessible to thousands of state-sector employees such as teachers, health and social workers. Independent schools have refused to co-operate and the children of MPs and other public figures will be exempt. We therefore recommend that all parents should email or write to the chief executive of their local authority claiming exemption too. If enough parents do this, ContactPoint will be abandoned. Act now before it's too late.

 

SNIPPETS

 

The pass mark in SATs tests has fallen sharply since Labour came to power...In 1999, pupils needed 48 per cent in English to pass. Yet in each of the last three years the threshold has been 43 per cent. In maths, 52 per cent was required in 1999 compared with 46 per cent in 2006 and 2007, and 45 per cent in 2008.  Daily Mail, 7 January 2009

 

The Government is throwing away more than £1.3billion on consultants for its flagship school  rebuilding programme. Thousands of 'experts' are being paid to advise on colour schemes, organise building teams and say which companies should get construction contracts. Sunday Express, 25 January 2009.

 

Lord May of Oxford, president-elect of the British Science Association, said efforts to make science subjects more attractive and accessible for pupils have resulted in a curriculum which contains too much 'waffle' and exams which have replaced key mathematical skills and problem solving with less demanding questions. Sunday Telegraph, 22 February 2009

 

[In Sweden], independent schools are required to abide by the 'character', 'general objectives',  'fundamental values'  and 'knowledge and skills' of state schools. Which means they have similar approaches to the curriculum and pedagogy in both types of school. Times Educational Supplement, 3 April 2009.

 

Tens of thousands of pupils are being falsely diagnosed with dyslexia because parents and schools failed to teach them to read properly, according to a leading academic. Professor Joe Elliott, of Durham University, said parents whose children have trouble with reading often push for the dyslexic 'label' simply to secure extra help for them. Daily Mail, 8 April 2009.  

 

Pupil numbers should be limited at each school to halt the increase in 'massive' comprehensives, which has led to a breakdown in discipline...  [Teachers at the ATL conference] said pupils often missed out on assemblies and sports days at super-sized secondary schools, and claimed children were being taught in 'factories'Daily Telegraph, 10 April 2009. 

 

[The aims of the subject-based curriculum] were often inward-looking and specialist to train pupils in the ways of thinking required of geographers, mathematicians, visual artists and so on – so as to equip them, if they wished, for more advanced learning in the same field...[But the new aims are meant to foster] someone who values personal relationships, is a responsible and caring citizen, is entrepreneurial, able to manage risk and committed to sustainable development...The 'successful life' justification is often as much a turn-off as the pursuit of knowledge. Towards an aims-led curriculum by Professor John White, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (www.qca.org.uk/futures).  

 

Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 01435 830109 or 07757 715145.  Email: mcgovernchris@hotmail.com
Vice Chairmen: Jennifer Chew OBE, Jacqui Davies, Katie Ivens
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman, Ashgate, Halland, East Sussex, BN8 6PW.  Tel: 01825 840831.  Email: anthony831freeman@gmail.com
Secretary: Priya Dutta, 75 Truro Road, London N22 8DH.  Tel: 07701 088720.  Email: priyadutta@hotmail.com