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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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Grading Exams

Details about the new GCSE and A level courses continue to trickle out (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26955452); most Head Teachers are rather hoping that the syllabuses will be released well before rather than just before their staff have to begin teaching the courses.  At GCSE, where the changes are likely to be more radical, new courses in Mathematics, English Language and English Literature are due to begin in September 2015 with most other subjects (including the Sciences which were originally part of the ‘pioneer’ group)  scheduled to start in September 2016 or even 2017.  The new courses will be graded from 9 to 1 (9 being the best and allowing for the future introduction of a ‘10’ should grade inflation take-off).

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Charitable Giving

Schools have many duties to their students.  One obligation would be to help them understand the lives of other human beings in different places and in different cultures across the world.  Supporting international charities, and highlighting the lifestyles and problems experienced by other people, is one way of achieving this.  There is, however, a danger, familiar to most big charities, of inducing a sense of hopelessness and fatigue in their donors through emphasising the size of the problems and over-active campaigning.  Some days we are bombarded by images of devastated natural environments, starving children and injured people escaping from war zones and challenged by mind-numbing statistics suggesting yet further disasters.  The cumulative effect of all this woe can easily backfire, persuading people that the problems are so huge that there is no point in them even trying to influence the outcome rather than motivating them to action. 

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The echoes from the UK’s rather modest performance in the PISA tests, and in Mathematics in particular, continue to reverberate.
The often excellent Simon Jenkins recently produced one of the wildest articles I have read for some years; the piece is so weak in reasoning terms that I would be embarrassed to show it, even as an exercise in logical criticism, to a group of A level Critical Thinking students.
(Notice the obligatory and misplaced reference to Gradgrind, the supposed architect of education by rote learning – see my December 2012 blog entry for a detailed discussion of the misuse of this particular insult from the Dickensian masterpiece ‘Hard Times’).

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A Good Lesson

A teacher nearing the end of their career at Birkdale will have taught around forty thousand 40 minute periods (many as double lessons), and taught perhaps four thousand different students. 
A typical student joining Birkdale at age 11 and leaving at the end of the U6 will have attended around nine thousand periods and been taught by perhaps forty different teachers.
It occurred to me that it must be possible to mine this huge collective experience for nuggets of good practice; insights that could be shared between teachers to the benefit of all.  Extrapolating this idea further, what studies had been done nationally or even internationally on the success of different approaches to teaching and learning?

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Brains and Learning

It seems an obvious truism that teachers should embrace new insights from neuroscience into how their students learn.  Increasingly sensitive and sophisticated scanning techniques seem destined to uncover how learning occurs at a cellular level.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25627739 .  This should allow different techniques for learning and different learning environments to be compared, even if the unfortunate experimental subject must learn with their head in the confined space and strong magnetic field of the interior of a brain scanner. 

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PISA - Could do better

The end of term has brought me a little more time and with it the opportunity to write some brief comments about the PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) and the global educational league tables produced from them every 3 years.  The news for the UK, it seems, is not good with the nation’s performance largely unchanged from the previous tests in 2006 and 2009 with dynamic Asian nations zooming ahead of the sluggish Western states.  In Maths, Reading and Science the UK stands at 26th, 23rd and 21st respectively out of 65 participating countries although statistical limitations mean that we could easily be 4 places higher or lower in any given list.  The UK’s key findings can be found here http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-UK.pdf

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Predicting Grades

A recent examination board survey found that ‘most A level predicted grades were wrong’ with ‘only’ 48% (pretty much half?) being accurate.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24625972 Delving a little deeper into the research, however, reveals that 90% were either correct or out by one grade and that forecasts of the highest A and A* grades, crucial for competitive university entry were more accurate than the averages presented above (presumably forecasts of the lower grades were less accurate).  The survey found that independent schools were most likely to be accurate, perhaps because the generally smaller environments allow the teachers to know the students extremely well.

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Twice a week I have lunch with a small group of pupils.  One pupil is chosen, largely at random, and is invited to bring some friends to offer support and help sustain conversation.  Once adolescent shyness is overcome these are pleasant and, for me at least, quite informative events.  Unusual facts are unearthed; curious hobbies are celebrated and vigorous opinions are voiced.  I particularly enjoyed my first lunch this term with a group of Year 7 pupils (S1 in Birkdale parlance) as I was able to enquire about their experience of joining the school.  The boys are pleasingly positive about the experience, at least to me, although they were quick to articulate their pre-term fears: getting lost, getting into trouble with the teachers and struggling to make friends.

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Climbing Trees

Last week I had the dubious pleasure of being part of a group of Head Teachers addressed by the formidable Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted. 
My suspicions were aroused by his introductory comments characterising himself as a plain speaking and direct man; whilst familiar with a fair amount of plain speaking through immersion in South Yorkshire culture, I have usually found that people who begin their speeches in this way do so as a pre-emptive justification for outright rudeness.  The BBC journalist described the atmosphere as ‘frosty’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24367150); I would have chosen a more robust adjective.

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Is University Worth It?

A number of parents have asked me recently for a frank answer about whether it is worth their offspring attending university; the eye-watering figures for the total cost quoted in the media are certainly sufficient to give one pause for thought.  For those without the appetite for the financial detail below, the answer is ‘yes’ at least for the majority of students.  If you are in numerate mood and feeling calm then read on …

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