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End of term, and educational controversy

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Blog - End of term, and educational controversy

Friday 30 March 2012

We arrive today at the end of term, in glorious sunny weather that has probably fooled us all into thinking it is further in into the spring than it actually is.  It has been wonderful to have our school field available for students to use at lunchtime over the past week, but obviously also alarming at just how dry it is for the time of year.

We have marked the end of this Lent term at school with a number of special events for Holy Week and Easter.  Year 7 and Year 8 students took part in a moving series of mini-plays re-enacting the events of Holy Week, led largely by sixth form students.  They had the chance to interact with the plays, ask questions, and discuss the events.  We have had special assemblies for each of the other groups with the key Holy Week readings, and our digital artists have produced a powerful presentation of images and words for Holy Week and Easter, which has been projected for the past three days in the concourse area outside the small hall.  Holy Week and Easter remind us of the central events of the Christian faith, and it is absolutely right, in my view, that these are re-presented each year in both timeless and innovative ways to our young people.

The role of faith in public life continues to be very much a live issue.  Two aspects of this have been in the media over the past couple of weeks.  Firstly, the controversial debate over the nature of marriage.  The main churches, and, indeed, representatives of non-Christian religions, have clearly articulated the traditional view, and have opposed any legal revision of the law in this area.  The movement for change in the law has been well represented in the media as well.  Whichever way it goes, the only comment I will make on this is that as far as the security and well-being of children is concerned, a stable, loving, two-parent family is a very good basis.

The other faith issue which has caught my eye has not been sold to us as a faith issue.  It has been more in the sporting pages of our newspapers than anywhere else.  I am referring to the Pray4Muamba ‘movement’, if I can call it that.  In lots of ways, in our secular society, behaviour patterns associated with faith and religion have not disappeared, but have re-appeared in other areas of life.  There are many who follow football teams, for example, with the same devotion as our medieval ancestors might have shown towards a favoured saint or shrine. And the instinct of making the site of an accidental or deliberate death into a ‘shrine’ with candles, flowers and pictures is well known to all of us. How interesting, and in many ways heartening, it is, to see young men and women wearing, apparently without any embarrassment, tee shirts bearing the logo Pray4Muamba.  Even if they are not actually formally praying in an accepted strictly religious sense, they are associating themselves with the request made by the footballer’s family to turn to God for help, and perhaps acknowledging that there are things in life which are outside our control. Maybe this is a subtle but powerful way of African Christianity beginning to re-evangelise the old continent.

No-one would expect me to post this blog entry and fail to comment on the most intensive news coverage this area of Kent has had in recent years (since the great Tonbridge robbery, perhaps!). Everyone who knows me will know that I could write at some length on this educational issue, but will try to condense my thoughts into a few concise points.

  • Firstly, I want to highlight the difference in responsibilities between individual parents, and those responsible for making policy.  We have to accept that sometimes there will be tension between the two, and what an individual parent might think is good for their child may not, ultimately, be in the greatest interests of society as a whole.  That is not surprising, and it doesn’t mean the individual parent is wrong in their aspiration for their child, but policy makers do need to take a wider and longer view, and should be aware of the importance of not being swayed by articulate and well organised interest groups.  Above all, they must be aware that the most confident, articulate and educated can represent their views much more easily than those who do not enjoy those advantages.
  • Secondly, it is important in this debate to be aware of the evidence.  There is no evidence whatsoever that educational systems which divide students at age 10 or 11 perform better overall than those who either do not divide at all, or which divide later at 14 or 16.  PISA, the international OECD study on educational outcomes across countries and systems, is clear that early division at age 10 or 11, actually reduces the effectiveness of an education system overall, in comparison with those systems which divide later.  Kent, the only large selective area in England, is on the government’s ‘grave concern’ list.  There are more secondary schools falling below basic targets in Kent than any other local authority, including the most deprived inner cities.  And there are more primary schools with two consecutive  satisfactory Ofsted inspections in Kent than anywhere else, because the divisive effects of the 11+ wash back into the primary phase as well.  Kent has, I would suggest, some very serious educational priorities it should be focussing on.
  • Thirdly, the old argument about grammar schools providing an ‘escape from poverty’ for working class children, as I wrote recently in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, has no basis in fact.  In West Kent (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, TW and Cranbrook) 1.1% of children in grammar schools are on free school meals, whereas 9.4% of children in non-grammar schools, taken together, are on the same benefit.  Grammar schools are clearly not providing an escape route from poverty (I could talk about the expensive and prolonged 11+ tutoring issue, but most people are aware of this already).
  • Not many people are aware of the ideological background to 11+ testing.  I have not written about this before, because it is controversial, but Alexei Sayle mentioned a key name in passing on Question Time last night, so here goes.  When Rab Butler was researching and writing the great 1944 Education Act in the last years of the war (largely in his bedroom at Eltham Palace – not far from here and well worth a visit, incidentally) he was hesitating between designing a post war education service with or without the 11+.  Eventually he opted for the 11+ (which lasted then for about 25 more years in most areas of the country, before being abandoned). A key figure in persuading him to make this choice was an educational researcher called Sir Cyril Birt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyril_Burt). Birt was known in the 1930s for his studies apparently demonstrating that intelligence was a fixed quality and genetically determined or inherited.  He was strongly influenced the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Birt’s view was that, as intelligence was as fixed as physical features of a person, it was justifiable to test for it as early as possible and make educational decisions based on it.  However, and here’s the rub: it was later established that much of the ‘research evidence’ Birt had used he had falsified, and this completely discredited his work and the conclusions he drew.  The overwhelming consensus now is that intelligence is not a fixed property, and can be developed and supported through good teaching, stimulation, emotional security, and so on.  How, then, can it be right to separate out children at age 11 into the supposedly ‘intelligent’ and the supposedly ‘less intelligent’?
  • Whether one agrees or disagrees with the general direction of educational reform since Michael Gove became Secretary of State, one thing is clear, as I heard him say at a conference only last week.  He has a clear understanding both of the potentially transforming power of education, and a clear understanding that an education policy based on fixed intelligence theory is not going to raise the game in this country.  That is why new grammar schools cannot be established, and why all new free schools and academies must have an inclusive admissions policy.
  • This could go on for a long time!  But I will make one final point. I attended the ‘debate’ in the Kent County Council chamber yesterday afternoon.  I am sorry to say that I was gravely disappointed with its quality.  It is perhaps hard to say this, as I profoundly disagree with the outcome, but the interventions were in most cases a series of personal anecdotes and poorly expressed assertions (mostly from councillors who had clearly not been at school for a rather long time!). Absolutely no iota of evidence and absolutely no educational research was mentioned by any of the councillors.  I do believe in democracy, and I guess the argument is that if I don’t like it, I should stand, but …

Anyway, apologies for such a long entry, but there was lots to say.  This Easter break, to return to matters in hand, is a really important one for all our examination students, and I hope they use it both to prepare for their forthcoming examinations and to ensure that they begin the all-important summer term fresh and newly committed to doing as well as they possibly can this summer.