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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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I am not a fan of league tables. I don’t object to publishing the students’ public examination results: all the Birkdale results are available on this website, broken down by subject.  I do, however, find it dehumanising that the ambitions, achievements and stories of an entire year group of young people and their school are reduced to one percentage.  I also think that whatever measurements are held to be important will eventually distort educational priorities.  Nevertheless one of the pupils pointed out to me that Birkdale had snuck into the top spot in Sheffield on the recent government league tables (http://www2.sheffieldtoday.net/downloads/School-Tables-2016.pdf) so I tempered my principles with pragmatism and investigated.


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Choosing A Level Subjects


Tis the season to be merry.


Many Year 11 students however, in between revising for GCSE mock examinations, catching up on sleep and refining their list of preferred presents, will be thinking about their A level choices for the next academic year

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Teaching & Technology

Will schools be replaced by on-line learning with students studying from home over the internet? Probably not: at least according to a recent US survey.  A major report found that across 17 different states students showed significantly weaker academic performance in maths and reading in virtual schools compared with the conventional school system. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34671952). 

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I am occasionally asked by prospective parents ‘What are the values of the school?’ I am quite encouraged by this as usually the parents are trying to get past the obvious facts about being good at getting examination results and the number of extra-curricular activities and learn something about the priorities and the everyday life of the institution. 

What are values? I think that they are beliefs and desirable goals which set priorities and guide actions in specific situations.

As it happens Birkdale has 3 long-standing core values which are published on the website and around the school: care and respect for all, commitment to each other and to the school and the pursuit and celebration of excellence. We talk about them with staff and pupils from time to time although their successful adoption across the community probably relies on a slow diffusion through copying behaviours rather than them merely being recalled from memory.

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Degree Classifications Must Change



The percentages of top grades at GCSE and A level are now more or less static from year to year bringing a welcome relief from the annual chorus of ‘it was harder in my day’. In fact it is likely that the percentages will begin to fall over the next few years as the return to exams at the end of two year courses takes its toll. Attention is now increasingly turning to the universities to reform or at least justify the archaic and unsuitable degree classification system.

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Peak Students?

Some eye-catching statistics have come out over the last couple of weeks in connection with university entrance.

  • The number of people signing up for degree courses has risen relentlessly for many years. In 1980 it was around 68 000, rising to 243 000 in the year 2000. This autumn the figure will be in excess of 480 000 (source UCAS https://www.ucas.com/corporate ). The shift from grants in the 1980s to the tuition fees and loans of today becomes easily understandable against this background.

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I greatly enjoyed attending the Prizegiving evening of a Sheffield primary school this week.  The palpable sense of ambition and pride in achievement radiating from pupils, parents and members of staff was wonderfully impressive and identical to the atmosphere at the equivalent Birkdale evening.  Birkdale has established a partnership with the primary school; every Wednesday afternoon, as part of our Community Service programme, 2 taxi-loads of Sixth Form students head off for an afternoon of activity and variety.  The Sixth Formers spend a happy couple of hours assisting with Art and reading and emerge, often as not, covered in paint and glue.  Recently they have set up a Latin club and have seemingly emptied the Birkdale Classics department of ‘spare’ resources and ‘good’ ideas for teaching activities in the service of introducing 10 year olds to the delights of the Classical World.  The whole project is an excellent example of a genuine partnership, not regulated for by government in response to ideological insistence but a spontaneous and mutually beneficial local arrangement.  The primary school receives some willing, enthusiastic and useful volunteers and the Sixth Formers genuinely enjoy working with the children and broadening their horizons.

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I have just bid farewell to the U6 yeargroup. Hopefully the students will spend the next few days in further independent revision before showing their best form in the exam room after half-term.  Year 11 and the L6 are also away on exam leave, albeit for a temporary absence, meaning that an eerie quiet has descended upon the school. 

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I have spent some time marking Extended Projects this week and it has been an absolute pleasure.


The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has been one of the few great examination innovations of the last five years. It allows students to research a subject of their choice and then produce some sort of outcome: this can be a piece of artwork or a model or a performance but is more usually a 5 000 word report on their findings. The students break free from the often predictable treadmill of A level courses, and genuinely follow their own interests, as well as developing research skills as an excellent preparation for university study. This second point should not be overlooked as so many universities complain that first year undergraduates are not able to learn independently, as higher education requires, having been spoon fed through their Sixth Form years. I am not sure that I entirely agree with this criticism but, clearly, anything that champions learning for its own sake and gives an insight into the research process is going to be useful for university application.

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DT stands not for Diphtheria and Tetanus or Delirium Tremens but for Design and Technology.
I was intrigued to read recently that DT is apparently in national decline and threatened by the current wave of curriculum reform http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30484428.  Numbers of students opting for the subject at GCSE and the number of people training to teach the subject are both dropping fast.  At Birkdale the subject is in robust health, is compulsory for Year 7 and Year 8 and is a popular choice in Year 9, at GCSE and at A level.  It teaches problem-solving in a very practical way as well as skills in time management, because of the significant coursework projects, and develops creativity as students must put their own spin on some product.  The design element sets it apart from previous craft skill courses, such as woodwork or metalwork, and 3D printing and laser cutters have brought the curriculum very much up to date.

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