Tag: England

Why would I send my child to secondary school?

You don’t have to believe in the lazy education is broken meme to think that there’s something wrong with the way we educate young people. As someone who worked for seven years as a teacher and senior leader in schools I’m not just some guy who has a view on education: I’ve seen what it looks and feels like behind the scenes in both ‘outstanding” and ‘failing’ schools.

I want to make it clear that nothing I’m about to say has anything to do with the role, status or professionalism of teachers. As I’ve said many a time, most teachers I’ve ever come across do a fantastic job and are dedicated and hard-working. My target here is, specifically, the English education ‘system’ (if we can even call it that).

It’s also important to bear in mind that I’m not talking about my own choices as a parent here, but rather me qua parent. The question I’m asking isn’t “should I homeschool my child?” but rather, “how should we as a society educate young people?” It’s a symptom of our age that the former is always assumed whenever I bring it up. Individualism and the logic of the market seems to pervade everything these days.

I’m also going to be setting aside the purpose of education for the moment. Going into any depth here would make this into either an inordinately long post, or a series of posts. That’s not my aim and, in any case, I spent a couple of years exploring that question with Purpos/ed.


Secondary school is a huge waste of time. I mean that literally.

Let’s do the maths.

Many secondary schools I’ve taught in divide the day into six 50-minute lessons. Children go to school five days per week so that’s 5 x 6 x 50 = 1500 minutes (or 25 hours) in lessons. However, in terms of learning time, once we’ve factored in changeovers, settling, the costs of task-switching and routine tasks/admin, that’s probably down to 5 x 6 x 30 = 900 minutes (or 15 hours).

The way that people get better at things is through formative feedback. In other words, someone gives you timely advice on a thing you’ve just done and shows you how to improve it. That could be how to write persuasively or how to swing a tennis racquet. In a class of 30+ children formative feedback happens less often that we’d all like.

So, going back to the calculations, the learning that takes place in 15 hours per week with a 1:30 ratio could probably take place a lot more quickly and accurately with a 1:1 or 1:5 ratio. I’m well aware that the research on class sizes shows that numbers have to be cut dramatically to make a difference but with these kinds of ratios Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development starts kicking in on a regular basis. My son’s footballing skills came on a lot more during 16 hours in a small group during half-term than they would have done in 16 one-hour lessons within a large group over four months.

We can, and I believe should, organise learning differently. We could have smaller learning groups for 20 weeks per year and the other 20 weeks could be the equivalent of apprenticeships – putting those knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours into action. Or each week could be divided into two. Or they could do one week on, one week off. There’s many permutations.

I know I’m likely to get some pushback in the form of how important a role schools play in terms of socialisation. I get that. But I think it’s important to realise that, as parents, we seem to have outsourced learning and socialisation and conflated it with reliable babysitting to allow us to go to work. We’re missing the point by tinkering around the edges.

Having worked in schools with extremely poor pupil behaviour, I realise that this, too, is likely to be another objection. But then, behaviour is the responsibility of those who construct the environment as well as the actions of the individual. If we organised learning differently, in re-imagined spaces, then we’d probably get different kinds of behaviours.

In short, instead of asking what we need to do with schools to perpetuate what we’ve already got, perhaps we should be thinking about the society we want to create for our children when they grow up. All I’m asking for is a rethink. There’s no point in adding epicycles. Iteration is all well and good but, to begin with, you have to be heading in the right direction.


If you haven’t already read Will Richardson’s book Why School? I’d recommend it as a short read that fleshes out some of the points I’ve made above. Also, Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate on Changing Education Paradigms is a must-see on just how crazy the system has become. Once that’s whetted your appetite, then dive into Prof. Keri Facer’s marvellous Learning Futures. 🙂

Image CC BY-NC-SA donnamarijne

My response to the ICT Programme of Study consultation

Note that this is my personal view. But I’ve got my Mozilla hat on half-cocked, as it were. 😉

Context

There’s currently a review of the ICT Programme of Study (PoS) underway in England. Tomorrow (Friday 5th October 2012) is the last day to give feedback on the first version of the draft, with a further chance to comment on the full draft in November and then a public consultation in Spring 2013. The review, commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), is being organised by the British Computing Society (BCS) and Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng).

One problem they’re having particular problems with is what to do at Key Stage 4 (KS4) with 14-16 year olds who are doing specialised GCSEs in Computer Science or Information Technology. If that satisfies the statutory requirement then how should the PoS for KS4 be expressed? There’s also the issue of students who don’t take any ICT-related qualifications at KS4 currently being forced to take a token course.

The points around which feedback is currently sought are:

  1.  What to do with KS4 (see above)
  2.  Other strategic issues
  3.  Personal vision for success in 2016 – what would you see in ICT lessons from KS1 (5-7 year olds) through KS2 (8-11), KS3 (11-13) and KS4 (14-6)

One final thing before I dive in: changing the name of the subject from ICT (‘Information and Communications Technologies’) to anything else would require primary legislation. In other words, it’s not going to happen. As a result, three strands have been proposed in the RAEng report from earlier this year. I quote them verbatim:

  • Computer Science (CS) is the subject discipline that studies how computer systems work, how they are constructed and programmed, and the fundamental principles of information and computation, in both artificial and natural information processing systems.
  • Information Technology (IT) covers the use and application of computer systems including the Internet, to develop technological solutions purposefully and creatively.
  • Digital Literacy (DL) provides a critical understanding of technology’s impact on society and the individual, including privacy, responsible use, legal and ethical issues

My response

As someone who worked in English schools for seven years (teaching some ICT), have subsequently worked in Higher Education with JISC and now work for an IT company (Mozilla) I feel qualified to weigh in on this consultation. I also have an interest as a parent to young children whom these reforms will potentially affect. Finally, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the topic of digital literacies.

I’m happy that the three strands of CS, IT and DL have been proposed, and delighted that the definition of DL proposed involves “a critical understanding of technology’s impact”. I’m also pleased that there’s a specific recognition of the creative use of ICT and a recognition of the value of everyone knowing enough code to be able to tinker.

I do, however, have five specific recommendations:

  1. That the use of ‘Digital Literacy’ be replaced with ‘Digital Literacies’ to recognise the multiple literacies required to be effective in the digital world. For example, web literacies (which I’m currently working on for Mozilla) can be seen as a subset of digital literacies. I go into much more detail on this in my thesis and it also reflects current thinking in the area of New Literacies.
  2. That DL (pluralised) should form the majority of the statutory PoS for ICT at KS4 – and that those who wish to specialise in CS and/or IT be given the chance to do so through discrete GCSEs.
  3. That ICT be linked explicitly to English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects in order to raise the status of the subject as well as suffuse those subjects with the excitement and creativity that ICT can bring.
  4. That specific mention be made of the collaborative and emancipatory power of the web. Learning HTML, CSS and Javascript could fall within the realm of DL (pluralised) and provide a coherent route to CS at KS4. See Mozilla’s Webmaker programme for more information.
  5. That specific mention be made of the burgeoning work around Digital Making by organisations such as Nesta and the Nominet Trust, and that such language (of ‘digital makers’ and ‘digital making’) be included in the ICT PoS from KS1 to KS4.

I’d love any to hear any other ideas you have in the comments!

Image CC BY dgray_xplane

Some thoughts on the Department for Education’s consultation on ‘Parental Internet Controls’.

The Department for Education's consultation on 'Parental Internet Controls'

If you’re in England and a parent, guardian and/or educator you should be responding to the Department for Education’s consultation on Parental Internet Controls.

The assumptions behind it are quite staggering.

It would appear that the government believes that the best way of ‘protecting’ young people is to shield them from ever accessing ‘inappropriate’ material online.

This is wrong for several reasons:

  1. Despite your best efforts, all young people will at some point come across inappropriate things online
  2. Any tool you use to block inappropriate sites will be a fairly blunt instrument leading to false positives
  3. Blocking tools tend to lead to a false sense of security by parents, guardians and educators
  4. Who decides what’s ‘inappropriate’?

The best filter resides in the head, not in a router or office of an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

I don’t want my internet connection to be filtered in ‘the best interests of my children’. I don’t want to be subject to censorship.

I’ve responded to the consultation. I’ve pointed out that their questions are sometimes unfairly worded. For example, I want to respond for one particular question that I don’t think ‘automatic’ parental controls should be in place in any households.

It’s about education, not censorship. Make sure you respond to the consultation, please!

Has England lost its rhythm?

"Still silence"

Amid all of the dogmatic and cocksure explanations following last week’s rioting in English cities was an excellent BBC News magazine article giving an overview of 10 explanations for the protests, violence and looting.* They are presented in the article as ‘competing arguments’ but, as ever with these things, it seems clear that each was a causal element in an bigger problem. Simplistic explanations may be alluring but, historically speaking, are seldom accurate.

What strikes me is that people are quick to blame some kind of decline in morality, discipline or community spirit when what they really mean is that (post)modern life lacks a rhythm. Let me explain. Without getting into whether the following things are objectively right or wrong we have had a complete breakdown of what many have seen as ‘traditional’ ways of life: nuclear families with 2.4 children, church attendance, strict discipline in schools, etc.** What these things did (again, for better or worse) was to provide a rhythm to the everyday life of people in the country. They often came at the price of quashing individuality and diversity but they did provide structure. What we need new non-repressive and inclusive societal rhythms instead of harking back to old ones.

You don’t have to be right-wing, reactionary and authoritarian to want society to have a rhythm. And you don’t have to be a hand-wringing wet liberal to want more toleration and social justice in society. Governments cannot impose morality on a population, nor can the police arrest their way to solving an an endemic problem. What the authorities can (and should) do is legislate in ways that encourage justice and cohesion in society: the answer to a crisis is not to try and turn back time but to look forward together.

Unsurprisingly, not all of the ways in which English society has lost its rhythm are to do with a decline in the moral fibre of young people. Take, as a seemingly-trivial (but actually quite important) example, the changing ways in which we watch television. Some young people watch barely any TV, whilst the rest of the population is able to view not only a multitude of channels and programmes but at a time which suits them. Conversations starting with “did you see X on the TV last night?” are increasingly rare and the chances of people from different generations having the same stimuli these days are few and far-between. What we need, therefore, are social objects, things to talk about that are provided by people other than advertisers. Discussing an advert does not count as positive citizenship.

Rhythm comes through consensus but also through respecting diversity of opinion. It doesn’t come through top-down imposition of ‘values’ or by marginalising and excluding people from society. We need to move away from a blame culture and combative politics towards more consensus-led policies. We need to find new ways of talking about important things. We need, above all, to find new ways of including people in a sustainable debate about identity and nationhood.

Image CC BY GollyGforce-crunch time at work…

* I’ve saved the article as a PDF at archive.org in case it goes missing at the BBC website.

** To a great extent this rose-tinted view of a ‘golden age’ is a myth as any social historian will tell you. Government propaganda and censorship during the Second World War, for example, prevented reports of opportunistic burglaries due to people keeping their doors unlocked. That’s not the story my grandmother will tell you though…

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