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Subjects, subjects, subjects

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Thursday 17 March 2011

Some time has passed since the last posting on this blog – not for lack of ideas or activity, but for want of time in between to put pen to paper.  My days have been heavily dominated in recent weeks by the final stages of Bennett’s change of status, becoming a school independent of local authority control within the Diocese of Rochester (so called ‘academy’ status, although that term will not be part of the school’s name).  The change of status is in the first instance a legal matter, and has involved extensive negotiations and draftings of agreements between the four parties involved: ourselves, the Diocese of Rochester, the Department for Education and the school’s solicitors.  Quite how this kind of operation could have been conducted before the age of email, I am not sure.  Literally hundreds of emails have been exchanged on the details of the agreements between the parties.  It would have taken much longer in earlier times to get the documents drafted to the satisfaction of all.

Alongside this, we have entered the part of the school year where curriculum decisions are being made by large numbers of students, especially in year 9.  As always at Bennett, the briefing evening for parents and students a couple of weeks ago was excellently attended.  That high level of parental participation in key decisions contributes strongly to the success of Bennett students.   This year, changes in national policy are influencing both the way in which the curriculum is structured and the kinds of choices students are making.  As I have commented here before, the subjects of the ‘English Baccalaureate’, English, mathematics, sciences, history or geography and languages, are also the subjects favoured by the most prestigious universities, in particular the Russell Group, at A Level.  Despite our irritation at the retrospective way in which the English Bacc was introduced, actually there is little doubt in my mind that most students should be doing these central subjects as the core of their curriculum, and we are very content to promote this with students.

Developments in the national educational world have been happening in the thick and fast way we have become accustomed to recently.  In particular, the Wolf Report two weeks ago on vocational education said what many of us have known for a long time, namely that many of the so called vocational qualifications taken in schools, especially in years 10 and 11 as alternatives to GCSEs, are not of the value we were told they were by government and exam boards alike.  Indeed, the recommendation of the Wolf Report is that absolutely no more than 20% of any student’s time in years 10 and 11 should be devoted to these vocational qualifications.  I fully endorse this view, and we have not allowed these qualifications, which do serve a useful purpose for some students when kept in balance, to occupy more than a fifth of any student’s time in years 10 and 11 – and in fact at Bennett only a minority have ever taken them.  Another point in the report is that the most useful ‘vocational’ qualifications – in other words those which employers regard as being good predictors of workplace success – are competence inEnglish and maths.  Good GCSE grades in these subjects are more useful in the workplace than any ‘vocational’ courses in any subject.

Last weekend I attended, with some colleagues from school, the main national conference of headteachers and school leaders in Manchester.  One of the really good things about this event, apart of course from the opportunity to socialise, network and let off steam with people doing  similar job, is that you get to meet the politicians in charge of education (and those who would like to be!).  Both Michael Gove and his opposition  counterpart Andy Burnham addressed the conference.  There is no doubting the passion and commitment of either – I was struck by the amazing ability of Michael Gove, in particular, to talk in a coherent way at length without notes and in detailed response to what had been said in the previous speech.  He certainly knows the subject area very well indeed.  It was encouragingto hear Andy Burnham not only talk about the successes of the last government in education, but also admit that not everything was right, and in particular he recognised the tendency the last Labour government had to micro-manage every detail of education and schools from Whitehall.  Comparing education with his last responsibility, health, he talked of the power that micro-management, targets and strategies for every detail can have in lifting performance off the floor to a level which is at least just acceptable, but also how this approach actually militates against getting to the much higher levels, because it tends to make professionals over dependent, and stifle real creativity. You can see this really clearly in the way in which English school performance has remained static over recent years, despite huge investment, in comparison with that in other countries, where progress has been faster, in part at least because they tend to control from the centre less. The Labour Party have started a policy review of education, and I am especially pleased to have been invited to join the panel of advisors on a non-partisan basis to share views from a headteacher perspective on how education policy could be moved on in the future.

As we move into the next phase of educational development we at Bennett are considering what priorities we need to identify for the further development of the school.  An initial working session last night, which we held at Burrswood in Groombridge, highlighted the need both to hold and further consolidate the very, very strong and still improving results on the one hand, and also, on the other, to look at refocusing some aspects of teaching and learning on the solid acquisition of key underlying concepts, emphasising personal attributes and values not as add-ons but as integral dimensions to the learning endeavour; to give greater weight to what we do alongside the ‘taught’ curriculum; and to emphasise continuity with primary education more effectively.  Things never stand still, and there is always room for improvement and refocusing.

Lent started a week ago now, and we are marking this season of preparation for Easter in school in a range of ways.  It makes me realise just how fortunate we are to have our chaplain in school to help be a focus for our Christian life together.  Almsgiving is a traditional feature of Lenten observance, and we will be doing this partly though the non-uniform day next week. 

Happy St Patrick’s Day to any Irish men or women out there!