Wednesday, 19 September 2012

GCSE reforms - Ebacc to the future?

Earlier this week Michael Gove announced a proposed reform of GCSEs to a new English Baccalaureate Certificate or EBacc for short.  At its heart is the concern that standards have slipped and grades inflated since the inception of GCSEs in 1985.

I welcome the move towards a more rigorous approach and would like to see an increased emphasis on pupils having to think independently and apply their learning.  One concern about GCSEs is that they can be a memory test and, as a result, do not require deeper thinking skills.  The nature of the exam has a direct influence on how pupils are taught.  Good teachers have always required their classes to engage with the material and think for themselves so there is an opportunity here to create a system which promotes this style of learning.  This has several benefits; it is a more interesting way to learn, pupils learn better when they have to personally engage and it is a better preparation for the skills they will need in their careers.

I hope the government will engage collaboratively with schools in developing new exams.  Sadly, Michael Gove has developed the reputation of the all-seeing eye who hands down pronouncements for others to follow.  He will find there is a great deal to be gained from working with schools and professional associations and for this to be a success it must be achieved with schools, not done to them.

My main concern though is that he is not being bold enough.  The first exams in the EBacc will be sat in 2017 (by those currently in Year 7) in English, Maths and the Sciences.  They will be joined later by History, Geography and Modern Languages.  If the new exams are to be considered as a gold standard then this means a situation where there will be some subjects seen as 'proper' and others as 'lesser'.  If the new approach is right, then it must be right for all subjects.  The list of proposed subjects for the EBacc represents a limited curriculum and one subject in particular is missing in my view.  Religious Studies - by its very nature - encourages and requires critical thinking, a philosophical perspective and engagement with the material.  Perhaps it might provide an interesting starting point for this brave new world.

Monday, 17 September 2012

English GCSE - an update

Looking over our GCSE English results this summer and comparing them with previous years we can see a drop against our expected grades.  Our reasonable conclusion is that our pupils have been disadvantaged by the exam board's decision to move the grade boundaries.  We are certainly not alone in this view and have written to the parents of those affected explaining that we will support those who wish to take advantage of the 'free' re-take in November.  I put 'free' in inverted commas deliberately because there is a cost to the pupils and their teachers in giving up time to prepare when they should be concentrating on AS work.

HMC will shortly be releasing evidence of concerns stretching back over several years of exam board errors.  Click here for a link.  The timing is particularly appropriate as Michael Gove announced in Parliament today his plans for an overhaul of GCSE exams.  I welcome his intentions and say again that I am fully in favour of a more rigorous system - part of which is ensuring accurate and effective marking by exam boards.  If I have a criticism it is that he seems to be going for a limited reform based around a small number of subjects in the first instance.  If we are to move to a better system I would prefer to see it across the board otherwise we risk having a mixed economy with some subjects seen as 'proper' and others having less value.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Paralympics 2012 – inspiring a generation

After the frustrations of exam board marking it is great to have something hugely positive to report.  This Thursday almost a hundred of our Pre-Prep pupils made the journey to the Olympic Park to watch the Paralympic athletics in the main stadium.  Thanks to the speedy rail connections I was able to go up and join them for part of the time and it was an experience which I, and they, will never forget. 

We were fortunate in having seats right down by the start line of the 100 metres and saw discus, shot put, 800m and 1,500m wheelchair racing.  Several medal ceremonies took place and we got to cheer athletes from Team GB and the blade runner himself, Oscar Pistorious.  It was a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with our younger pupils and they were great company.

The entire Paralympics movement is incredibly inspiring and there was a huge atmosphere of empowerment and positivity all round the venue.  The event which made the greatest impact on me was the triple jump for blind and visually impaired athletes.  The stadium was full to capacity and the cheers and clapping they received was deafening.  As they came onto the run-up their guide orientated them to face straight down the track and when they were ready 80,000 people fell totally silent to allow them to concentrate.  I tried to recreate the process in the garden at home and it is just incredible to imagine how they set off at speed with no visual information, counting their strides before leaping into the air and eventually landing in the sand.  Quite remarkable and a great example of trust, inner confidence and commitment.  I will be speaking in Chapel to the Prep School soon and think I know the theme I will be pursuing.

English GCSE - D minus to the exam boards

In a previous post I wrote about the difficulties created by moving the goal posts on A Level exam marking at the end of the course.  I said then that it would be interesting to see what would happen with English GCSE results this year and it seems even worse than I had feared. 

A brief summary of the situation so far – there was a noticeable slump in grades at GCSE English this summer and it rapidly became apparent that the grade boundaries had been changed so that most results went down by a grade from where they had previously been set.  This seemed particularly unfair, not just because of the unannounced nature of the change but also because if students had set the paper earlier in the year they had been graded under the previous boundaries.  In real terms this meant that the same work written in an exam would have received an A in November but a B in August.  Work worthy of a B grade earlier in the year would only gain a C in the summer exam of the same academic year and so on down the grades.  Common sense suggests that this is both unfair and capricious. 

Ofqual (the exam board regulator) conducted an enquiry into the slump in grades and concluded that this was what had happened but that there was no reason to change the boundaries.  The fig leaf offered for this decision was that the exam boards had greater insight into the work of the cohort in the later sitting of the exam.

Unsurprisingly this response has been viewed by schools, pupils and parents as completely unsatisfactory.  Michael Gove, newly re-confirmed as Education Secretary in the Cabinet re-shuffle, said on the Today programme on Radio 4, “Everyone who took the exam was treated in a way that wasn’t fair or appropriate.”  He has though refused to intervene which is slightly at odds with his willingness to be the most hands-on and vigorous Minister for Education for years.

This situation seems fundamentally unfair and leads to an enormous sense of injustice for pupils, parents and teachers.  I am delighted that HMC, the professional association of leading independent schools to which I belong, is joining in with other associations and unions to vigorously challenge the situation. 

I am all for increasing rigour in the exam system but the way to do this is to increase the standards required in exam answers, set tougher questions and ensure the syllabus is demanding.  This needs to be done strategically and in collaboration with schools – not imposed in the disorganised and unjust way we have seen this year.

Cathedral Address - 'Be doers not hearers'

Address given to Senior School in Cathedral, Thursday 6th September.
Based on Ecclesiasticus 11

Yesterday I focused on the importance of being, ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.’  I said then that I wanted to pick up on another phrase which said, “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers’, and there is a link between that and today’s reading which is the theme of getting things done rather than just thinking about getting things done. 

I hope that you have set yourself some goals for the coming term and year.  Perhaps it is to get into a particular sports team, pass a music exam, achieve one of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards.  Perhaps it is to work harder, to get your prep finished on time or to read more widely.  Whatever it is, goals and target setting are important ways of pushing ourselves forwards.  But whether you achieve your goals or not will come down to whether you find the motivation to turn thought into action.

Motivation is an interesting area of current research and a few months ago I read a book called ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink.  The central idea he puts forward is that the old approach of carrot and stick is a very limited form of motivation.  This is the pattern of offering rewards for that which is good and punishment for that which is bad.  Pink’s claim is that what makes people tick, the real source of motivation, is not what pulls them forwards from outside but what pushes them forwards from the inside.

In particular he points to three core elements to motivation.  The things which make us want to do something.  I am going to use the Duke of Edinburgh Award to illustrate them but I hope you will apply the same thinking to something you are aiming to achieve and see if you can spot the connection.

The first element is ‘Purpose’ – that there must be some end goal that goes deeper and further than merely completing the task. On the expedition part of DofE you don’t slog up Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons purely to expend some calories and appreciate quite how wet and cold Wales can truly be.  It is the sense of achievement, of going outside your comfort and the camaraderie of being part of a team that pushes you on.

The second element is ‘Autonomy’ – the ability to make your own decisions and ultimately to grab the glory or to carry the can.  To succeed in DofE you need to take responsibility on yourself whether it be planning the expedition route or organizing the service component.  Doing something because you are told to can lead to sense of having fulfilled the task but does not bring with it the sense of inner satisfaction of doing something because you decided you wanted to.

The third element is called ‘Mastery’ and this refers to the drive to be really good at something and to truly challenge yourself.  Some of you will have heard of a book called ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell in which he tries to identify the factors that contribute to high levels of success. To support his thesis, he looks at a variety of examples including how Bill Gates achieved his extreme wealth and how The Beatles became one of the most successful bands in human history. Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  We may struggle to devote ourselves to one activity for that length of time but there is no escaping graft and grind if we want to be really good at something.  In DofE terms this can be seen in the requirement to develop a skill or to complete a period of service with increasing numbers of hours expected at the different levels of the award.

It may be useful when thinking about your personal goals to see where the elements of Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery can be found and harness them to drive you on.  In addition to this it may also be helpful to fit individual goals into the wider context of the life you want to lead.  I am sure that you do not want to go through lurching from one thing to the next like a hamster on a wheel or a train on pre-determined tracks.  I expect that you want to be someone who seizes opportunities and makes things happen.  If that is the case then waiting for things to happen is not going to work.  We only have one life, one walkthrough on the planet and in universal terms, our lives are a cosmic sneeze.  This is not a new idea, the Roman poet Horace is credited with the famous command, Carpe Diem – or 'seize the day'.  The metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell memorably wrote, ‘But at my back I always hear, times winged chariot hurrying near.’  And this brings me back to our Bible reading for today and in particular the final words. 

“At the close of one’s life, one’s deeds are revealed.  By how he ends, a person becomes known.”

Or to put it another way, don’t look back later with regret.  Instead take and create the opportunities to make your life worthwhile and fulfilling and, most importantly, don’t put it off.  Do it now.

Cathedral Address - 'Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.'

Address given to Senior School in Cathedral, Wednesday 5th September. 
Based on James 1: 17-27

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Famous words of advice from the Book of James but what do they mean and why should we listen?  The phrasing is, of course, deliberate – it is often human nature to act in exactly the opposite way.  Think back to the last time you felt angry.  How long ago was it?  Last month?  Or last week? Or in the last 24 hours?  What was it that made you angry?  Not being allowed to do something you wanted?  Feeling that you were not being taken seriously or that someone was being deliberately unkind?  Anger is a very human emotion, and when it is uncontrollable it is the cause of most human suffering from fights between friends to wars between nations.

Notice the way that this passage is looking at a particular cause of anger – when we do not listen, or seek to understand a situation properly, when we are quick to answer back or jump on the offensive – then we become angry in a way that escalates very rapidly and often leaves us looking rather foolish later on.  Think back to a time when you have jumped to the wrong conclusion and jumped off the deep end.  Be honest, we have all done it and we all know how embarrassing it is when we realise our mistake.

Shakespeare describes this sort of anger in his tragedy play ‘King Lear’.

Lear, the aging king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom evenly among his three daughters. First, however, he puts his daughters through a test, asking each to tell him how much she loves him before he will give them their inheritance. Goneril and Regan, Lear’s older daughters, give their father flattering answers. But Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and favourite daughter, remains silent, saying that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father.  All she can say is that she loves him and there is nothing she can add because her love is total.  Lear though is angered by her response.  ‘Nothing will come from nothing’ he warns her and she is exiled to France.
Lear allows himself to be deceived by his eldest daughters who tell him what he wants to hear.  Being too quick to jump to a conclusion he does not understand that Cordelia’s love for him is truer than her sisters and that because her heart is pure she is unable to dress up her feelings in false words just to keep him happy.  Lear flies into a rage and disowns Cordelia but quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Goneril and Regan begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still holds. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes insane. He flees his daughters’ houses to wander on a heath during a great thunderstorm and this is when his madness becomes total.  He shouts at the sky, bemoaning the cruelty of his daughters but is still unable to accept that his vanity and quickness to judge is the root cause of his demise.  Lear is unable at this stage to take responsibility for his own situation.  During the storm he cries out, ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’.  After the storm has subsided, full of self-pity, he moans that,
‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport.’
Meanwhile, Cordelia returns from France with an army she has raised in an effort to save her father’s kingdom for him.  However they are defeated and both Lear and Cordelia are captured. In true Shakespearean style there is a lot of death in the closing acts. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled and he is finally able to appreciate his foolishness and to ask her forgiveness.  Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy but then kills herself when her action is discovered. But in the final scenes, Cordelia is executed in prison and the play reaches it point of deepest tragedy.  Lear is totally broken and dies in despair and grief.
Shakespeare’s point is that the tragedy at the end of the play was inevitable from the moment Lear was ‘slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to anger’. 
There are times when anger is right.  There are things that happen in the world which are unjust and wrong and we are right to be angry about them.  But the Greek philosopher Aristotle was correct when he said:
“Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right amount and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”

So, the next time you feel angry.  Before you jump to any rash conclusions or over-react, take a little time and think thorough the situation.  Ask yourself whether being angry is a productive route forwards.  Avoid being like King Lear and instead:

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Assembly Address - 'Let your light shine before others.'

Address given in Senior School Assembly on Tuesday 4th September. 
Based on Matthew 5: 1-16

The passage we have just heard comes from the start of a lengthy section of Jesus’ teaching often called The Sermon on the Mount and this section contains the Beatitudes, a series of statements detailing groups of people who are called Blessed by Jesus.  For example, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ which in Latin is ‘Beati Mundo Corde’ and hence the name The Beatitudes.

It is a highly comforting passage because it contains a promise that ‘all will be well in the end’.  Those who mourn or are sad will be comforted.  The meek, or quiet people, are told that they will inherit the earth.  It also flags up desirable characteristics and attitudes we should aspire to:  Being merciful.  Being pure in heart.  Being a peacemaker.

The context of all of these is within a community under pressure and under threat.  Jesus’ teaching made him unpopular with the religious and political authorities of the time and the early Christian church was heavily persecuted within the Roman empire.  So the underlying message is one of staying true to your convictions when you are under pressure.

It’s easy to see a connection between this passage and the poem that it doubtless inspired – ‘If' by Rudyard Kipling.  A famous and popular poem which I am sure most of you know and some of you studied last year.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise.

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

In common with a great deal of the Christian gospel, there are some elements of the message which are difficult.  Some believe that Jesus was a pacifist, strictly opposed to violence and warfare and the verse saying ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ would seem to support that idea.  Others argue that war, as a last resort, can be the only way to achieve peace.  You can see this in the way the military has Chaplains who are with the troops right on the front line in Afghanistan.  Soldiers who are warriors can also be seen as peacemakers.

The other paradox, which is a puzzle sitting at the heart of belief in God, is the problem of evil and suffering.  How could an all-powerful, God of love let people suffer?  This passage is all about the message that there is some purpose in suffering but some will question whether it is true that ‘it will all make sense in the end’.

But the key message I want to draw out from this passage is the importance of being true to your convictions.  Being willing to stand up for what you believe in, even if it is unpopular.  Everything is easy when all is going well but it’s how we respond to challenge and pressure that makes a real difference and, much as we may wish for an easy life, we all know that it’s unrealistic to hope for a world with no problems.  As the end of passage says; ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works’.  Take this message forwards and put it into practice this term and the year ahead and you won’t go far wrong.