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Waving Goodbye

The process of waving goodbye to the Upper Sixth students is well underway.

Over the last 3 weeks, I have met with all the students in small groups to chat through their plans for ‘the next stage’. They also seem to enjoy a good reminisce, particularly about the last 2 years, as half of the Sixth Form join Birkdale after GCSEs.  Most are still intent on university next year with just a few planning a Gap Year. 

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Class Sizes

One of the top three questions I am asked by prospective parents is ‘How big are the classes?’. The other two are concerned with university destinations for Sixth Form leavers and with student happiness within the school. 

For Year 7 in September the students at Birkdale will be in groups of 16 or 17 for the core subjects of Mathematics, English, Science and Languages and 20 or 21 for the other subjects. In the Sixth Form the average class size currently is just 7. 

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Practical Work

A recent story about the paucity of practical work in science lessons in schools caught my eye this week.  What struck me was not so much the point of the article, that pupils in poorer areas do less practical science than their peers in richer areas, but the astonishingly low incidence of practical work reported in most schools. 

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The Oxford English Dictionary has decided to make ‘post-truth’ the word of 2016, defining it as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'.

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Potential Fulfilled

It is quite understandable that we hope that children will ‘fulfil their potential’. As a parent, it is a comforting thought that my children will achieve as much as they possibly can, supported in this endeavour by home and by school: none of their human talents will remain dormant or even underdeveloped.  Part of my job as a parent will be complete and I will demonstrably have been successful.  Further reflection, however, leaves me quite uncomfortable with the idea of a prescriptive potential which may (or may not) be fulfilled.

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‘Why do we have to do homework?’ asked one of my more outspoken Year 9 Physics students as I announced the details of the weekly assignment. Impressively, he followed up with the assertion that Finnish pupils do better than UK pupils without doing any homework. Accepting the question at face value, rather than as a ploy to distract from the main part of the lesson, I launched in.

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Aside from an assembly on ‘Learning’ at the start of term, my other assemblies since September have been on the theme of kindness: how it benefits us, how it benefits others and how it benefits relationships within the school community.

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Public Examinations

Aside from a recent social media furore over his facial hair, Michael Gove has vanished from public life following his ill-judged political disloyalty earlier this year. His main legacy, that of reformed GCSE and A level qualifications, however, is now centre stage in the nation’s schools.

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I am often asked by parents about entry to Oxford and Cambridge: interview preparation, the various tests and a candid assessment of the chances of their son or daughter being successful. Given that Birkdale has 12 students currently holding offers from Oxford or Cambridge, and anxiously awaiting their A level results, I feel that I have some experience in answering this question.  Here are my usual responses to parents in 6 bite-size chunks which might make the inevitable statistics a bit more readable. 

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What are schools for?

During 6 years at Birkdale I have interviewed well over 100 candidates for teaching jobs. After exchanging pleasantries I usually ask the victim what they think schools are for.  Few candidates are untroubled by this far-reaching question: this is, of course, partly the idea. 

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Testing and Learning

Spring is in the air and the teacher union conferences dominate the education pages of the press.

A cursory glance reveals the usual concerns about how over-tested UK children are compared to pupils of other nationalities and how useless and stressful it is to test children. This debate has become ritualised to the point of absurdity with both sides entirely convinced of the rightness of their cause and simply unable to comprehend another view. 

Testing is something that teachers think a lot about. What is the purpose of testing?  How often should we test students?  What is the best way to do it?  How much lesson time should be given over to testing when it could be used for teaching?  At Birkdale we test all of the pupils in every subject at the end of each year with many subjects offering more frequent testing.  Whilst this is partly to accustom students to the business of revising and ‘doing exams’ – sitting in a large room, pens clutched in a clear plastic bag, without a phone (or even a watch) in sight, and remaining calm, controversially, I think that it also helps the students to learn.

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