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The long school summer holiday is under scrutiny again with renewed interest in reform sparked by the news that individual maintained sector schools will be free to set their own term dates.  It is unclear how many schools will actually take advantage of this freedom given the undesirable consequence of parents finding that siblings in different schools have different holidays.  Some pioneers have pressed ahead, however, reducing the summer holiday to 4 weeks and extending the half terms to give more regular bursts of school and holiday throughout the year.  The schools concerned are enthusiastic about the reform declaring that students forget what they have learned during a long break and that shorter terms ensure that they are fresher and more motivated to learn without the cumulative exhaustion that can affect students and teachers at the end of a long term.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-23145179

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Pass or Fail

The debate over how to overhaul the GCSE examination has produced a marvellously large number of new proposals.  The outline seems clear enough with harder tests sat at the end of the courses featuring longer essay questions and an abolition of or at least a reduction in coursework.  The strangest feature of the debate is that far more pixels have been spilled (wasted? blackened? addressed?) upon the nature of the examinations than on the curriculum (the skills and knowledge to be taught before the exam is taken) or the teaching methods to be used.  (This is not true for History where a lively and entertainingly ill-tempered argument over how and what to teach is flourishing http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21600298 .  This may partly be a function of the nature of the historical community which is characterised by healthy and impassioned debate).  It is curious, however, that the measurement of progress has become of greater significance than the progress itself. 

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Subsidiaries and Supplements

Until 2001 most Sixth Form students took 3 or 4 (for the ambitious or brilliant) A levels.  Advanced Supplementary (AS) levels were available in most subjects but were largely ignored by students, schools and universities.  The AS qualification first appeared in the 1980s, consisted of half the syllabus of an A level, was marked to full A level standard and was a typically half-hearted attempt to respond to the customary and ritualised criticism of UK Sixth Form education that it promoted specialisation at too early an age.  ‘If only our young people had a broader education until 18 as in the USA or Europe all our economic and social problems would be at an end’ intoned a strand of educational opinion.  (The International Baccalaureate, a European system and therefore fashionable at that time, requires the study of 6 subjects, an extended essay and some elementary philosophy of knowledge, addressing the breadth issue, but brings its own distinctive set of problems at least for some students).

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School Trips

For most adults, school trips to museums, theatres or outdoor camps make up a positive and important part of their school memories.  Nationally, however, school trips appear still to be in long-term decline http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14000093.  This is both surprising and unfortunate given the considerable benefits to the students.

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Birthdays, Examinations and Fairness

‘The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.  They weren’t only equal before God and the law.  They were equal every which way.  Nobody was smarter than anybody else.  Nobody was better looking than anybody else.  Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.  All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.’
This is the opening section of a short science fiction story called ‘Harrison Bergeron’ published in 1961 by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut.  (The whole story can be read in 10 minutes or so and the text is readily available on the internet.)  For Vonnegut, the potential negative impact of attempts to achieve equality on individuality and human achievement was a defining and abiding concern.

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Bigger is Better

I came across a (relatively) interesting set of educational statistics recently comparing the size, cost and performance of UK schools in 1900, 1950 and 2010 www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn04252.pdf .  These are just the sort of statistics needed to settle arguments that begin ‘When I was at school …’  One striking set of figures is that the average secondary school had 179 pupils in 1900, 342 in 1950 and 943 in 2010.  Average primary schools grew at a more modest rate from 154 pupils in 1900 to 171 in 1950 and 231 in 2010.  The largest secondary schools in the UK in 2010 had more than 2000 pupils.

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Studying on-line

When I started teaching Physics (some time ago) I would occasionally make use of an Open University video clip to illustrate some particular point at A level. The characteristic brass fanfare http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rrakl3MOQx8 still summons up visions of blurry pictures of OU lecturers with unusual facial hair and a curious dress sense.  This was the cutting edge of on-line learning in the 1970s with free television transmissions broadcast, in the days before video recorders, at unsocial hours in the early morning.

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Skills and Content

'Bitzer,' said Thomas Gradgrind. 'Your definition of a horse.'
'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'
Many people will recognise this famous scene from ’Hard Times’, one of my favourite Dickens tales, featuring Thomas Gradgrind, a caricature of some strands of Victorian thought.

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All Change!

The Department of Education is currently consulting on changes to GCSE.  You can have your say by using the following link; interestingly, many of the more important changes are simply announced as a background to the consultation on the finer details. http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/a00213902/reforming-key-stage-4-qualifications .  A consultation on changes to A level has closed recently with the welcome announcement of an end to January modules the first step in reform and more radical changes likely to be announced soon.  The overall shape of the secondary curriculum is still being reviewed with drafts now being leaked http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20268844 to critical howls.  The primary curriculum is similarly under review.

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Twice a week the entire Birkdale community squeezes into the Heeley Hall for 20 minutes of shared experience.  As I hover, be-gowned, at the hall entrance, greeting students, gesticulating at boys with ties at half-mast and waiting for my cue to commence proceedings, I often reflect upon the benefits of assemblies or Prayers as Birkdale calls them. 
Cynics may question whether it is possible to communicate anything meaningful to such a wide age-range, whether the students do more than doze fitfully, awaiting the start of period 1, and whether the time could be better used in the classroom given the pressure of public examinations.  I disagree and offer the following insight into assembly life.

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At the recent HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference rather than the Honda Motor Company for those who have googled HMC!) conference I found myself feeling sympathy for university admissions tutors, not an emotion I have previously experienced in this context.

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