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Observing Lessons

Observing lessons is fraught with difficulty.
 
At Birkdale, in common with most schools, we ask anyone being interviewed for a teaching job to teach a lesson.  At first sight this is an obvious choice, allowing us to spot the best teacher.  However, in fact one rarely sees great teaching and instead one is searching for proxies that may indicate that if this person is employed they may indeed be able to teach to a very high standard.  The candidate will be nervous, unfamiliar with the school, the classroom, the IT equipment, the expectations of the pupils and their names and personalities; the chances of teaching well under these circumstances are probably nil.

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What makes great teaching?

At school in the early 1980s one of my favourite teachers was the magnificently named Dr Cattermole who taught Chemistry with spectacular flamboyance.  A man who seemed to have become his own caricature, Dr Cattermole’s battered visage was entirely consistent with a complete disregard for even the most obvious of precautions for his own safety; his clearly planned eccentricities of speech and behaviour invariably secured the interest of his adolescent pupils; his ability to ask exactly the right question at exactly the right moment to uncover a misunderstanding or to develop a thought was extraordinary (and occasionally, at least for my youthful self, somewhat unnerving).  I have largely forgotten the intricacies of aromatic alcohols but the memory of Cattermolic inspiration lingers on.  Was he a great teacher?  He was certainly regarded as such within the school and I fondly remember his enthusiasm for his subject, the clarity and insight of his explanations and, in an age before the internet, his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge.

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True Grit


The Department for Education has launched an award for the best character education in schools (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dfe-character-awards-application-window-now-open). 
 
I am tempted to enter Birkdale just to see what happens.  Despite the well-meaning success criteria set out on the entry page I think that objectively choosing a worthy winner may be tricky.  Perhaps mindful of this the DfE have given organisations only 23 days to enter although a £15000 cheque is not to be sniffed at so if I find an idle few minutes …

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Appeal? Might as well

The revelation that the number of individual enquires about GCSE and A level results rose by 48%, this year compared to 2013, with a 42% rise in the number of grades changed, over the same period, comes as no surprise to me.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30449095

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Full Circle

One of the few benefits of advancing age is that the duration of my teaching experience is now comfortably greater than the time needed for educational reforms to be introduced, reviewed and reversed.  Michael Gove has long since been banished from public view to be replaced by the more appealing and conciliatory Nicky Morgan but the reforms of A level lurch onwards like a lorry stuck in gear.

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Choosing a University

The university application round is in full swing; at Birkdale over half of our Upper Sixth students have now made an application with most of the rest to be completed over the next couple of weeks. 
 
The teaching staff involved with the Sixth Form work incredibly hard to offer individual advice and support, suggesting courses to uncertain students, reading endless drafts of personal statements and synthesising dozens of teacher comments to craft the perfect school reference, cunningly designed to tempt even the most hard-bitten of university admissions tutors into offering a sought-after spot on a competitive course to an aspirational applicant.

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Myth Busting

I talk to a huge number of prospective parents at this time of year as families ponder the choice of secondary schools for their sons and daughters to enter next September.  I usually have the opportunity to dispel at least one myth about Birkdale and perhaps about independent schools in general; below is the complete set of unwarranted misconceptions that recur regularly.

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Numbers and Stories

The usual clichés of the exam season are all too apparent; pictures of smiling, blond female (usually) students, brandishing pieces of paper of uncertain provenance and shrieking with delight at seemingly having gained huge numbers of A* grades, festoon the newspapers and websites.  On the other hand the small reduction in the percentage of top grades awarded this year has dimmed the volume of the ritual chanting of ‘it was much harder in my day’ and the swing towards students taking more traditional, facilitating A level subjects has muted the customary chorus of ‘media studies’ jibes.

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Open Access

A new report by the Social Market Foundation for the Sutton Trust, a well-respected charity with interests in social mobility and education, caught my eye last week (http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/private-school-premium-of-194000-revealed-in-new-report/ ).
 
The report finds that children who attend an independent school will earn £194,000 more on average between the ages of 26 and 42 than their state-educated peers.  Clearly, this premium is also affected by family background and by educational achievement early in life, but after correcting for these factors the study found that the gap in earnings persisted at just under £60,000.

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Confidence

Speaking to parents of students departing from the Upper Sixth is a fascinating experience.  For some of the parents it is quite a reflective and poignant moment as they have been associated with Birkdale for many years; the ending of the annual rituals of the start and end of term, sports matches, concerts, parents’ evenings, grades and reports and the social side of school life produces a real sense of the end of an era.  Parents often comment on the confidence that Birkdale has given their son or daughter as well as on the good academic results, happy community and broad extra-curricular opportunities.

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Creative Subjects

One of the highlights of this stage of the academic cycle is seeing the tangible results of a year’s worth of effort by students in the creative subjects.  Dazzling exhibitions in Art and in Design & Technology, together with public examination performances in Drama and recitals in Music, have reminded the entire school community how much talent and time go into achieving success in these subjects.

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