Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Remembrance Day with our European partners

Remembrance Day has taken on added significance in recent years as we mark not just the loss of life in the First and Second World Wars but also in more recent conflicts.  On a personal level, during the two minutes silence I remember fathers of childhood friends killed by the IRA, a boy from my school shot by a sniper in Bosnia and another who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Holding these events in our minds once a year is an important way not only of showing our respect but also to think about the precious nature of peace.  Last Sunday our CCF took part in the annual act of remembrance in Rochester and on Monday the Senior School, alumni and parents gathered in Rochester Cathedral for a service of remembrance.

It is always a poignant service and one thing which is different to others I attend is that at the end, the whole school files through the chapel where the names of pupils who died in the First and Second World Wars are inscribed on the walls.  As they do so, every person takes off their own poppy and adds it to the wreaths laid on behalf of the whole school.  It is that personal act of remembrance which I think is so important.

This year we had pupils and teachers from six other European countries with us as part of a exchange programme in which we are involved.  To have representatives from Germany, Italy, Romania and other countries joining in with British pupils in a shared act of remembrance was very special indeed.

Poppies laid by King's pupils in Rochester Cathedral

Sunday, 6 October 2013

In defence of Religious Studies

A recent report by Ofsted says that over half of schools are failing pupils in their provision of Religious Education.  It is a subject which schools have a duty to include in the curriculum and yet six in ten are guilty of low standards in teaching and examinations.

The purpose of Religious Education can be misunderstood with some thinking it exists as Religious Instruction of the young rather than the diverse, dynamic and academically rigorously subject it can be when taught properly.  A good curriculum (often called Religious Studies rather than Religious Education) enables pupils to learn about global culture through a study of different religions - increasingly crucial not just in our multicultural society but also in global politics.  Learning about religions also introduces pupils to some of the greatest literature humankind has ever produced.  The great ethical debates surrounding issues such as euthanasia, abortion, warfare, cloning and genetic engineering are examined - not just the legal structures but also in the context of what it means to be fully human.  Issues of belief and lack of belief in God are addressed - not in a way designed to promote one side or the other but to allow rational insight into matters of faith.  To deny the spiritual dimension of life robs young people of the chance to explore a key element of human existence and even a militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges awe and wonder as a central aspect of being alive.  The great philosophical debates concerning the challenge of evil and suffering to the existence of God, the puzzle of whether the mind is separate from the body and debates between science and religion are all covered in the structure of rigorous academic debate.  Pupils are taught how to structure argument with supporting evidence and how to produce rebuttals and counter-arguments before giving a balanced judgement.  As well as introducing them to the giants of philosophical history such as Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes it is some of the best brain-training they will ever experience and crucial for further study and success in life.

Religious Studies lies at the heart of good education.  At King's Rochester all pupils study it to at least GCSE with a third of the Sixth Form voluntarily including it as one of their A Level choices.  The failings identified by Ofsted paint a sorry picture of what can happen in the state sector with the proliferation of Free Schools and Academies - given independence from local authority control but without the ability to produce a high-quality curriculum for their pupils.  Michael Gove, in a rare moment of humility, acknowledged last summer that the failure to include Religious Education in the narrow range of subjects in his 'English Baccalaureate' had damaged the subject.  It is a sad reflection on Mr Gove that his desire to control education has led to huge numbers of pupils being denied access to a subject which should sit at the heart of education of the highest quality.  It makes me glad to be working in an independent school where we have the freedom, experience and vision to give this cultural and academic birthright to our pupils.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Proposed changes to GCSE and A Levels

King's is a member of HMC, an organisation representing the leading 250 independent schools in the UK, and yesterday I attended the termly meeting of Heads in the South East.  We had an interesting discussion about the changing face of ICT in teaching and learning and the need to adapt to the new technologies our pupils work with and embrace the opportunities they present.  This came at an opportune time as we have appointed two new Heads of ICT for September in our Prep and Senior Schools, one of whom is an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Increasingly, especially for Senior School pupils, the trend is moving away from teaching skills such as using word processing and spreadsheets which are developed at a much younger age and more to using technology to enhance learning.

The main item though was a discussion of proposed educational reforms to A Level and GCSE.  Michael Gove has made it clear that he wants to see an end to the two tier AS and A2 structure and a return to a two year A Level course.  There are advantages of this in terms of reducing the loss of teaching time in the summer term  but the various Heads associations and universities are opposed to this move as it reduces flexibility in teaching programmes and denies universities the chance to assess performance before making offers.

There is a good deal of concern here.  First that Michael Gove is fully aware that all of the associations of Heads and universities are against his proposal but is carrying on regardless.  Secondly, no clear details have yet been published for a change planned for September 2015.  Thirdly, should Labour win the election in May 2015 there is the prospect that they may scrap Gove's plans.  Clearly this is not a strong foundation for change.

Yesterday morning the media leaked even more wide ranging plans that would affect GCSE.  Having, very sensibly, backed down from imposing an English Baccalaureate (EBacc) based on a few core subjects it transpires that Michael Gove's latest plan is to introduce a two tier GCSE system.  There would be a new qualification called 'I Levels' which would be graded on a numerical scale of 8-1 rather than A*-F.  It is surely no coincidence that they would only be in those subjects which Gove had proposed as making up the EBacc (English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History and Geography).  Again this is planned for September 2015 but with no information available on syllabus content or assessment structures.  This was widely reported yesterday - click here for a link to The Daily Telegraph.)

The move from O Levels to GCSEs and the introduction of AS alongside A Level came about as the consequence of careful research and planning (10 years in the case of GCSEs).  Michael Gove is clearly determined to ensure changes which will have a significant impact on the education of our children for years to come, in the face of opposition from educationalists and all in a time frame driven by his fear of not being in office after the May 2015 election.

One of the great strengths of schools like King's is that we have the flexibility to adapt to change and, if we need to, will make sure that our pupils get the possible deal out any reforms.  This week we have several information evenings for parents of children starting in Nursery and Reception.  One of the great joys of having a school which educates pupils from ages 3 to 18 is being able to tailor an education which carries them all the way through to adulthood and such evenings are always enjoyable - full of excitement as to what lies ahead.  I wonder though what exams they might be taking in twelve to fifteen years time.  The education of our children in this country is a sacred duty and those pupils starting Nursery and Reception in September deserve better from a Secretary of State who seems more interested in his own legacy than their education.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Top tips for exam success

The exam season is about to start and, as is usual at this time of year, our pupils are filled with a mixture of apprehension coupled with a desire to get on with the task ahead.  As one of my Sixth Formers said, 'I've done the work and am pretty sure I'm ready.  It's the waiting to get going that I can't stand'.

Our pupils receive plenty of good advice about exam technique and I was interested to read an article in The Guardian covering top tips for university students taking exams.  There is a great deal of overlap and it makes for a good read.  Click here for the link.

Survey season - the gap between state and independent education

It seems to be the season for surveys and some of them indicate an alarming gap between the standards I would expect in my school and that which is available to pupils in the state sector.

We recruit teachers based on the premise that they hold at least a university degree in the subject they teach.  However, the Department for Education census suggests many pupils in the maintained sector are being taught by teachers without that level of knowledge.  

Here are the statistics showing the proportion of state school teachers who do not hold a relevant qualification higher than an A-level in the subject they teach.

  • Almost one in four (23.1%) maths teachers - around 7,500.
  • A fifth (20.1%) of English teachers - around 7,300 in total.  
  • More than a third of physics teachers (around 2,000 teachers).
  • Half of those teaching Spanish (around 3,400).
  • More than two in five religious education teachers (around 6,500).

In Science it is crucial that pupils have the opportunity to carry out practical work in the laboratory.  However a study carried out by the Science Community Representing Education (a coalition of organisations including the Royal Society, Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry) indicates that this is not always possible.

Prof Julia Buckingham, SCORE chairwoman, says: “Taking part in practical work is an integral and essential part of learning the sciences, but our findings indicate that teachers do not feel equipped to give their students the full learning experience that they should be able to.  Practical work is being limited by missing equipment and a lack of access to appropriate facilities such as laboratories and outside space.”  The study also found that in state-funded secondary schools, an average of 28 per cent of the practical science budget was spent on photocopying.

I was recently sent a link to a survey from the Department for Education which I could not complete as it was for state rather than independent schools.  It was asking how much time was allocated to sport and physical exercise and, from the way the questions were phrased and the suggested lengths of time, indicated a worryingly low level of activity in maintained schools.

All this leaves me with two feelings.  First, that I hugely appreciate the opportunities we are able to give our pupils.  Secondly, that there is a great deal of media coverage given to Michael Gove's proposed reforms to exams while underlying issues like these deserve greater scrutiny.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Does Gove get it? It seems he might.

On Saturday evening I wrote a blog post about my concerns over Michael Gove's proposed reforms to GCSE.  I concluded by writing:

"He (Michael Gove) was right to stick to his guns in the early days but now he needs to demonstrate a little more understanding and humility.  He must listen to his critics and engage with their concerns or he risks weakening the very education system he wants to improve."

This morning I woke up to hear on the radio that Mr Gove has decided to scrap his proposal for a new English Baccalaureate.  While I suspect it wasn't my post on Saturday that pushed him over the edge, I am nonetheless delighted that he has had the courage to accept that his plans were wrong.  I hope this marks a new willingness to engage with educationalists.  Our education system does need improvement and there are plenty of good people willing to engage with progress.

Coverage of Mr Gove's decision can be found on the BBC website

The Olympic legacy - don't let pupils down

I wrote recently about our acquisition of a sports centre and how it will benefit not just our pupils but also the local community.  I am particularly keen that local primary schools access the facilities and  make the most of the opportunity to get into sport and a healthy lifestyle at a young age.

Last evening I had a meeting with my Director of Sport and one of my Deputy Heads about increasing the amount of cricket coaching we provide to our pupils and access for local clubs to our indoor nets.  Last Friday, I met with Kent LTA to discuss new coaching programmes at the sports centre (both indoor and outdoor and, again, both for our pupils and others).

All this makes an article in today's Guardian particularly relevant.  The demand for sport is huge and yet there are real concerns over potential cuts to funding for sport in the state sector.  An announcement is expected in the next fortnight and I hope the government does the right thing for young people in our country.

Click here for the article online.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Effective revision - mind maps

When I was revising for exams I used to rely on re-reading my files and occasionally making summary lists.  Since I started teaching though I realised that, while I seemed to have blessed with a naturally retentive memory, this wasn't either the best way to revise or indeed an effective method for many of my pupils.

Repetition of material and finding ways to access the right information lies at the heart of good revision and increasingly I prefer mind maps (often called 'spider diagrams').  Starting in the middle of a page with a core topic, lines come out breaking it down into sub-topics which are then broken into further sub-topics.

It is an incredibly visual way of presenting an area for revision which shows the whole topic and allows you to see the interaction between different areas.  It also relates to how the mind stores information (from the general to the specific) so works with our preferred way of retrieving information.  The best ones I have seen from my pupils have been highly colourful (different colours for different types of information or to show strengths and weaknesses of different ideas).

The prompt for this post was seeing a really good article in today's Daily Telegraph (click here).  Well worth a look, and unlike The Times, no subscription required. As an example, here is a mind map summarising potential impacts of global warming.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

50 great websites to make you smarter

Having just posted concerns about Michael Gove's capacity for considered reform here is a more positive link to The Times online where there is a list of 50 fantastic websites for education.  Some you may know, such as Mathletics which really motivates younger pupils.  Others you may not but they are all worth a look.  (Subscription to The Times is required).,19E5H,7ERWL8,49S6C,1

Does Gove get it?

Is Michael Gove's touch deserting him?  It is not that long ago that, as a new Secretary of State, he was being praised in many quarters for his desire to bring back increased rigour to our education system.  Tackling grade inflation and seeking to ensure that all pupils receive a good academic grounding is certainly something to be welcomed and in his early months in office he was right to stand up to his critics.  Recent weeeks though have seen some well justified criticisms about lack of consultation and an ill-considered haste in the timetable for change.  More troubling though is that the publication last week of Performance Tables for schools has flagged up a real question as to the extent to which Michael Gove actually understands education. 

For the first time they have included as a measure the percentage of pupils gaining 3 A Levels in what are called 'facilitating subjects'.  These are the three sciences, mathematics, classical and modern languages, Geography, History and English.  All of these are traditional, rigorous subjects and presumably this is why Mr Gove wants to use them as a measure.  There are though serious flaws in his logic:
  • The list of subjects comes from a Russell Group document entitled 'Informed Choices' and is a group of subjects most commonly regarded as compulsory for related degree courses. 
  • They are not a complete list of traditional subjects (note that they do not include Economics, Politics, Religious Studies, Ancient History etc). 
  • They do not take into account the necessity of Art or Music for related degree courses. 
  • Or that the Russell Group clearly states that it is not necessary to have only 'traditional subjects'.  They are entirely happy with a mixture of two traditional and one of the more modern / practical / creative subjects.  Indeed, Art or Design Technology are valued for Architecture at Cambridge alongside subjects such as Maths and Physics. 
This is a really worrying sign of Mr Gove's lack of understanding and something I say as Head of a school which comes out well under this measure (8th out of the 37 Grammar Schools in Kent and Medway despite taking in a broader range of pupils and 8th out of 19 independent schools).

A similar blind spot is in his planned reforms at GCSEs which will see a new English Baccalaureate comprised of five compulsory subjects (English, Maths, History or Geography, Science and a Language).  There is nothing wrong with those subjects per se but it does not include any of the creative subjects such as Art or Music and has no place for Religious Studies and there is a concern that, nationally, many schools will not devote resources to subjects which don't count in league tables.  While that will not be the case at my school, or others like it, it causes me concern for education across our nation.

In recent days, Michael Gove has come under fire from universities, Heads and MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee.  He was right to stick to his guns in the early days but now he needs to demonstrate a little more understanding and humility.  He must listen to his critics and engage with their concerns or he risks weakening the very education system he wants to improve.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Careers advice - at school and beyond

There was plenty of coverage last week about MP's concerns over the decline of Careers advice in schools (click here for BBC coverage).  Having an education which not only gives young people the skills to thrive in the workplace but also an insight into different career paths is absolutely crucial - especially in a time of economic uncertainty.

I cannot help wondering if the decline in Careers advice is linked in with the increasing emphasis on measuring schools by a narrow range (e.g. the limited number of subjects in the English Baccalaureate and how many pupils study 'facilitating subjects' at A Level).

Once again, I feel very fortunate to be working in the independent sector where there is greater freedom to select the right balance and ensure our pupils have a proper, rounded education.  Last term we launched a web-based Careers site for our current and former pupils called 'The Jobs Network'.  It draws on the expertise of current parents and former pupils (Mentors) who are willing to offer advice on their chosen career practical help with work experience, CV writing and interview skills.

For our current pupils, this has already led to CV writing clinics, workshops on preparing for interviews and introductions to different careers.  Later on this term we are setting up mock job interviews for our Upper Sixth pupils.  There is a graduate entry job specification for which they will submit a letter of application and their CV and they will then have an interview with one of our Mentors and receive feedback on the process.  Far better to make mistakes and learn from them at school than later on in life.

This sort of opportunity is invaluable.  Especially with very few universities interviewing for entry, often the first such experience comes towards the end of university when a job is at stake.  It is not difficult to build this into education.  For example, we are currently interviewing pupils for Sports Scholarships and have deliberately used the format of a job interview so that they have an experience which develops those skills.

For our former pupils, this sort of Careers advice is particularly important and points out another problem nationally in seeing Careers advice as something done in schools.  We can do a huge amount with our pupils while they are with us but we fundamentally see our association with pupils and parents as being a lifelong process.  A real education not only prepares you to leave school but also sustains you beyond the school gate.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Partnership through sport

Recently at King's we completed a deal with the local Council which is an interesting model of partnership and one worth sharing and explaining.  A short distance from our school is a sports centre which was built for the town by the Council.  It offered a great range of facilities including the sports hall, gym and several tennis courts but over time it had become dilapidated, public use declined and due to lack of demand it was often closed.  We have two sports halls at King's but were using the sports centre to broaden what we could offer to our pupils and out of this came the idea of how the school and council could work together for mutual benefit.

Last term we signed an agreement with the Council whereby we acquired what is now called 'King's Rochester Sports Centre'.  We are now running the Centre and putting in half a million pounds of investment to dramatically improve the facilities.  Our pupils will have use of excellent sporting opportunities which is great for them and supports our programme of development.  Crucially we are also running it as a public Sports Centre which means our local community gains a huge benefit as well.  With excellent bar and catering facilties it can become a social as well as sporting hub; indeed the childrens' parties and roller skating sessions are particularly popular which as a parent makes me very happy!

One aspect which has got real potential to transform sport locally is our plan for tennis at the Centre.  Curiously, there are not many courts in the area but we have several at the Centre, although currently only three are even halfway playable.  The LTA have been fantastic in offering their support and expertise and we are shortly going out to tender to totally resurface the area to LTA specifications. 

In two weeks time we are holding assessments for five new sports scholarships at King's to celebrate the acquistion of the Sports Centre and later in the year the refurbishment will be complete.  It is a genuinely exciting project and one which I am gaining a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment from.  This is the sort of venture which shows how an independent school and local Council can work together to great effect and provides a platform for the legacy from the Olympics which we all want to see.
King's Rochester Sports Centre - artist's impression