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New Ways of Learning

The 21st century has seen a revolution in the way that people learn but, surprisingly, it has not been led by educationalists but by economic necessity. In the collaborative workplace people work in teams, information travels quickly and freely, employees are networked within and without the organisation and people solve challenges and manage projects together; this is already with us in many companies and organisations. Meetings take place on the hoof and as required and are frequently virtual while knowledge management and information transfer is critical to success.

We’re not just talking about Google here. This is the kind of model you would find employed in successful retail and insurance companies and in manufacturing management across the globe. Education has constantly struggled to keep up. Worse still, the education system has a long history of rejecting and even vilifying new media and technologies.

“That’s enough talking!”

Sometimes we have to make what educators do problematic in order to see that there are alternatives. How bizarre is it nowadays to think that people have to be quiet in order to learn? The monastic model of education (silent, repetitious, learning through copying) and the military model (drilling, healthy bodies, timetables, note making) has imposed a considerable burden on schools over the years. We still talk about disciplines in subject knowledge, knowing that the word is also a verb and learning is – apparently – hard work, self-controlled and uncomfortable.

Well it works doesn’t it?

Yes, it worked for you or you wouldn’t be reading this. You are a successful product of this kind of educational model and in your educational career you have probably, if you’re honest, conveyed the same messages to your able students supported by a testing and examination system which is rooted in the same models.

The problem is that this model serves its own followers, reflects class stratifications and the notion of a persisting educated elite and fails far too many people. In a world where China trains more doctors in a year than the UK does in a decade, a Japanese company is the UK’s biggest car manufacturer and most of our energy supplies are foreign-owned, we have to recognise the need to change.

At this point, as an educated professional, you start to feel cynical, complacent and self-satisfied. You know none of this would work in your school or institution and you turn out lots of students who go on to university and you know their parents didn’t so, therefore, the school system must be successful. Of course, it’s nonsense. Over half of these graduates go on to unemployment and when they find work it is not in an area related to their education.

So, what has to be different?

What is emerging is a new paradigm for education – one that is significantly different. Educators are going to have to start by learning more about blended or hybrid learning, the flipped classroom and the notion that knowledge management is no longer about acquisition and memory but about accessibility and deployment. YouTube, Google and Wikipedia can tell Year 12 more about an historical event, set texts, scientific principle, a mathematical conundrum, or the geography of a country, and do it far more effectively than a teacher can. They can tell a key stage 2 cohort more about pirates, Stonehenge and report writing as well. The teacher’s role in the 21st-century is in managing, selecting from, and evaluating that stream of knowledge.

Next, society is going to have to recognise that learning is a social activity – and that will run counter to much that you know intuitively about being an expert. It is simply obvious when you think about it that people learn together, by working collaboratively to explore issues and solve problems. The role of the teacher is to present the right issues, to pose the right challenges and to steer the learning.

If learning is a three-legged stool, with knowledge management and collaboration as the first two legs, then the third is technology and its capacity not simply to break down the door of the classroom or to open a few windows but to dispense with them altogether. In the future, and often in the present, people learn in focus groups related to specific tasks not in the same group. They constantly look outward and draw in additional sources of expertise and knowledge. They are driven by the process and the product not by some kind of assessment goal.

Technology enables all of this and those who do not make use of it will be left behind.

Blended learning

Blended learning is an umbrella term for the kind of social learning, using online and off-line collaborative tools, now emerging across the globe. Instruction consists of short, tightly-focused sessions supported by extensive discussion and activities directed towards achieving process and product goals. Learning is both formal and informal emphasising collaboration, knowledge management and sharing, social networking, coaching and mentoring. Teleconferencing, virtual classrooms, web casts, video and animation all contribute to this kind of new learning. 

Learning is no longer synchronous (a group of people in the same place at the same time learning the same thing) but asynchronous at times which are appropriate to the needs of learners and their personal development. Support is increasingly personalised and based in questioning and challenge rather than telling. People are their own experts. 

Some people would like to pooh-pooh this approach. They think it means that anyone can learn anything about anything and that knowledge is treated as a kind of relativist soup where anyone can stick in a spoon and pull out what they like and where nothing has more value than anything else.

They are, of course, wrong. Social learning is self-managing so that the community of learners determines what learning is appropriate, accredited and valuable. This is an extremely powerful aspect of knowledge management which many people overlook.

Learning in this way requires new skills. In particular, it makes the role of the facilitator much more important. Teachers are going to have to stop imagining that they are transmitters of societal knowledge and are, instead, going to have to see themselves as the enablers and negotiators of other people’s interactions with an unimaginable expanse of information.

There’s nothing to be frightened of in this. The transmission model with all of its clumsy cultural assumptions and its one-way traffic can be happily consigned to history. Mentoring also still looks like a way of holding the cards and controlling their distribution. It can’t go on like this.

Of course, there are risks. Educational censorship is going to have to end and some people will argue that we will miss our experts. Who knows? A Conservative MP, elected for his views, allegedly intelligent and a leader, described the London Olympic Games opening ceremony as left-wing multicultural waffle. A few years ago, a lot of newspaper readers would have taken that view seriously but the same opening ceremony saw an opposing message from nine million tweets. That is a lot of evidence and accumulated expertise which society should embrace.

 

Jim Sweetman is a writer and commentator on education.

Jimsweetman.jsa@gmail.com

 

©Jim Sweetman 2012: you are free to share, copy, distribute and transmit this document with attribution and without alteration for educational and non-commercial purposes.

 

 

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The Examination Debate

There is a large can of worms opening up around educational assessment and examinations in this country with a variety of competing pressures vying for attention. We have just had the latest figures on the amount schools spend annually on examinations and assessment, and now we have Pearson, or rather ExExcel, looking to cash in on the debate over standards as if they are the safety net not the problem!

It all starts with Michael Gove and the notion, shared by his cronies, grandparents, Daily Mail and Telegraph readers, Toby Young, Melanie Phillips and the heir to the throne that examinations have somehow ‘got easier’ than they were in their day and are testing silly things which lack the obvious applicability of, say, Ancient Greek. It’s a good argument to put forward in the pub, the golf club or, unfortunately, in the Cabinet room as it makes the proponent look clever and, of course, everyone can be an expert in education and assessment because they went through it sometime and somewhere.

Although these arguments – wherever they take place – go around in circles, there are two key elements which constantly resurface. The first is that examinations must be easier because more students succeed at them. The second is that you can now sit examinations in insufficiently academic subjects and be rewarded with spurious academic qualifications.

The first argument is easy to counter. Unless education is a complete waste of money, we must, as a society, be getting cleverer. People must be more literate and numerate than they were one or two generations ago and more knowledgeable. Examination passes, in a commonsense way, show this to be true. More people take examinations, more people succeed at them but that doesn’t mean that the examinations are easier. Golf club man, or even Cabinet table man, will think that norm referenced assessment worked in his day although he won’t state it like that. He probably cannot see the absurdity in any endeavour of doing more to increase success while limiting it to the same percentage of the population. He cannot tell the difference between a prize for being top and an accreditation for recognising achievement. However, he thinks he can tell what grade creep is and remains surprised that standards are rising as he thought a standard was always static. There is some wobbly language here because it is the standard of performance which is, of course, rising not some peculiar gold standard which is being overthrown.

Another complication which the he forgets is that the whole notion of school improvement supported by external inspection is predicated on rising standards of performance. OFSTED, if it has any worthwhile quality at all, must be committed to school improvement and that is dependent on improvements at school level examination in performance. If there was no grade creep or performance advance – choose your words – the OFSTED endeavour would be a waste of time as would the national investment in education.

Incidentally, if you are teacher you can identify clear evidence of raised standards simply by reading the absence notes sent in by the parents of the pupils in your class. With the odd exception, the overall trend will be to note that your pupils are better at expressing themselves than their parents. Do a project involving the grandparents, and the differences are even starker. Of course, this won’t be apparent if Daddy read classics at Cambridge after being flogged at Harrow but over our society as a whole the evidence is clear.

That observation helps to pinpoint the real anxiety behind this argument and that is the concern that the educational elite (to which the supporters of this argument inevitably belong) is being threatened by the inexorable rise of the oik. It was bad enough when oiks were let into secondary schools and started getting GCSEs but now they get A Levels, go to university to do sociology and business stuff, read chicklit on the tube, prefer rock music to opera, monopolise television and don’t wear ties to work – choose your own bugbear!

Once it is understood that this is the bedrock of the arguments about standards it is easy to see how that connects to the other obsession about vocational education. The logic of the argument that education prepares you for life and employment and therefore you should learn and be assessed in areas related to life and employment is self-evident. And, to be fair, in the 19th century a good grounding in Greek and Latin was going to be helpful if you aspired to be a country curate, a botanist or a diplomat. However, things have changed in the 21st-century and the idea that schools should not teach people about technologies, media, other cultures and languages as well as the skills associated with major sectors of employment and aspects of business and manufacturing is simply indefensible. There is simply not some higher knowledge which, once acquired, allows you to dip into any lower status knowledge you need. If you think that, you will constantly be out-googled by everyone.

That hasn’t stopped the educational elite from doing its best to sabotage the vocational curriculum in all of its forms over the past fifty years. In the 1960s, it was the CSE in Motor Vehicle Technology and in the 1970s it was GNVQ. More recently, it has been the diploma programme. Essentially, all the attempts to broaden subject areas and to include practical or work-related activities have been shafted and the English EBacc with its assumption that all you need to get by is English, mathematics, a science and a language is another manifestation of the trend. What is feared is not the study of non-academic subjects but the notion that they should have parity with what Cabinet table man did when he was at school or that their introduction might lead to a more egalitarian society.

Luckily, other pressures away from schools and education are leading to the democratisation of knowledge. As our access to information and knowledge has increased exponentially so we are beginning to understand better that what we know as a society – and perhaps even as a world – is partial and constantly in a state of flux. Even in atomic physics it is evident that there is no absolute knowledge and many of the facts we learned in school in history, science and geography lessons now turn out to be assertions and suppositions or even temporary fashions. The current wrestling over what the school curriculum should look like reflects this societal uncertainty over knowledge and the elite concern that commodified knowledge – possessed and defended by that same elite – is under threat from the wisdom of the crowd.

Of course, it is easier to bury your head in the Daily Mail or to slap each other on the back in the bar than to engage too deeply with these arguments so, at an individual level, it is possible to merely splutter with indignation. The problem is that this spluttering leads to government intervention in education and a froth of sea changes in public examinations. And, funnily enough, these are not as bad for Pearson and the other national awarding bodies as they sometimes seem to suggest.

The fact is that over the past twenty years they have been enabled – and often encouraged – to make examinations and assessment increasingly convoluted, detailed and expensive. Occasionally, they have been thrown into reverse as was the case with vocational qualifications, key skills and examination overload at A Level (GCE). They have dumped coursework, then introduced modularity and then seen that come and go. Chasing the tale of a government which fundamentally doesn’t want more people to succeed in education is a challenge.

However, the chaotic flux based on the chaotic arguments outlined above allows them both to say that they are responding to the requirements of government and the concerns of the public while consistently increasing the reach and cost of assessment. When schools spend more on examinations than on books and on providing students with information then there is something wrong but these diversions tend to obscure the simpler facts.

Things are not going to get better. Haphazard and prejudiced interference where ever it surfaces is not going to improve education and when, or whenever, we have a new national curriculum you can be sure that it is going to require another new series of examinations and more changes, and, of course, a further modest price increase in the examination fees to cover it.

The Assessment Debate

Jim Sweetman @jimbo9848

There is a large can of worms opening up around educational assessment and examinations in this country with a variety of competing pressures vying for attention. We have just had the latest figures on the amount schools spend annually on examinations and assessment, and now we have Pearson, or rather ExExcel, looking to cash in on the debate over standards as if they are the safety net not the problem!

It all starts with Michael Gove and the notion, shared by his cronies, grandparents, Daily Mail and Telegraph readers, Toby Young, Melanie Phillips and the heir to the throne that examinations have somehow ‘got easier’ than they were in their day and are testing silly things which lack the obvious applicability of, say, Ancient Greek. It’s a good argument to put forward in the pub, the golf club or, unfortunately, in the Cabinet room as it makes the proponent look clever and, of course, everyone can be an expert in education and assessment because they went through it sometime and somewhere.

Although these arguments – wherever they take place – go around in circles, there are two key elements which constantly resurface. The first is that examinations must be easier because more students succeed at them. The second is that you can now sit examinations in insufficiently academic subjects and be rewarded with spurious academic qualifications.

The first argument is easy to counter. Unless education is a complete waste of money, we must, as a society, be getting cleverer. People must be more literate and numerate than they were one or two generations ago and more knowledgeable. Examination passes, in a commonsense way, show this to be true. More people take examinations, more people succeed at them but that doesn’t mean that the examinations are easier. Golf club man, or even Cabinet table man, will think that norm referenced assessment worked in his day although he won’t state it like that. He probably cannot see the absurdity in any endeavour of doing more to increase success while limiting it to the same percentage of the population. He cannot tell the difference between a prize for being top and an accreditation for recognising achievement. However, he thinks he can tell what grade creep is and remains surprised that standards are rising as he thought a standard was always static. There is some wobbly language here because it is the standard of performance which is, of course, rising not some peculiar gold standard which is being overthrown.

Another complication which the he forgets is that the whole notion of school improvement supported by external inspection is predicated on rising standards of performance. OFSTED, if it has any worthwhile quality at all, must be committed to school improvement and that is dependent on improvements at school level examination in performance. If there was no grade creep or performance advance – choose your words – the OFSTED endeavour would be a waste of time as would the national investment in education.

Incidentally, if you are teacher you can identify clear evidence of raised standards simply by reading the absence notes sent in by the parents of the pupils in your class. With the odd exception, the overall trend will be to note that your pupils are better at expressing themselves than their parents. Do a project involving the grandparents, and the differences are even starker. Of course, this won’t be apparent if Daddy read classics at Cambridge after being flogged at Harrow but over our society as a whole the evidence is clear.

That observation helps to pinpoint the real anxiety behind this argument and that is the concern that the educational elite (to which the supporters of this argument inevitably belong) is being threatened by the inexorable rise of the oik. It was bad enough when oiks were let into secondary schools and started getting GCSEs but now they get A Levels, go to university to do sociology and business stuff, read chicklit on the tube, prefer rock music to opera, monopolise television and don’t wear ties to work – choose your own bugbear!

Once it is understood that this is the bedrock of the arguments about standards it is easy to see how that connects to the other obsession about vocational education. The logic of the argument that education prepares you for life and employment and therefore you should learn and be assessed in areas related to life and employment is self-evident. And, to be fair, in the 19th century a good grounding in Greek and Latin was going to be helpful if you aspired to be a country curate, a botanist or a diplomat. However, things have changed in the 21st-century and the idea that schools should not teach people about technologies, media, other cultures and languages as well as the skills associated with major sectors of employment and aspects of business and manufacturing is simply indefensible. There is simply not some higher knowledge which, once acquired, allows you to dip into any lower status knowledge you need. If you think that, you will constantly be out-googled by everyone.

That hasn’t stopped the educational elite from doing its best to sabotage the vocational curriculum in all of its forms over the past fifty years. In the 1960s, it was the CSE in Motor Vehicle Technology and in the 1970s it was GNVQ. More recently, it has been the diploma programme. Essentially, all the attempts to broaden subject areas and to include practical or work-related activities have been shafted and the English EBacc with its assumption that all you need to get by is English, mathematics, a science and a language is another manifestation of the trend. What is feared is not the study of non-academic subjects but the notion that they should have parity with what Cabinet table man did when he was at school or that their introduction might lead to a more egalitarian society.

Luckily, other pressures away from schools and education are leading to the democratisation of knowledge. As our access to information and knowledge has increased exponentially so we are beginning to understand better that what we know as a society – and perhaps even as a world – is partial and constantly in a state of flux. Even in atomic physics it is evident that there is no absolute knowledge and many of the facts we learned in school in history, science and geography lessons now turn out to be assertions and suppositions or even temporary fashions. The current wrestling over what the school curriculum should look like reflects this societal uncertainty over knowledge and the elite concern that commodified knowledge – possessed and defended by that same elite – is under threat from the wisdom of the crowd.

Of course, it is easier to bury your head in the Daily Mail or to slap each other on the back in the bar than to engage too deeply with
these arguments so, at an individual level, it is possible to merely splutter with indignation. The problem is that this spluttering leads to government intervention in education and a froth of sea changes in public examinations. And, funnily enough, these are not as bad for Pearson and the other national awarding bodies as they sometimes seem to suggest.

The fact is that over the past twenty years they have been enabled – and often encouraged – to make examinations and assessment increasingly convoluted, detailed and expensive. Occasionally, they have been thrown into reverse as was the case with vocational qualifications, key skills and examination overload at A Level (GCE). They have dumped coursework, then introduced modularity and then seen that come and go. Chasing the tale of a government which fundamentally doesn’t want more people to succeed in education is a challenge.

However, the chaotic flux based on the chaotic arguments outlined above allows them both to say that they are responding to the requirements of government and the concerns of the public while consistently increasing the reach and cost of assessment. When schools spend more on examinations than on books and on providing students with information then there is something wrong but these diversions tend to obscure the simpler facts.

Things are not going to get better. Haphazard and prejudiced interference where ever it surfaces is not going to improve education and when, or whenever, we have a new national curriculum you can be sure that it is going to require another new series of examinations and more changes, and, of course, a further modest price increase in the examination fees to cover it.

 

With God on the Other Side

Jim Sweetman @jimbo9848

There is a natural affinity between dogmatic religion and top-down politics – both know what is good for you and are happy to dispense the medicine. There has also been a tendency for religions – over the centuries – to manufacture opponents so when Baroness Warsi who is, we have to remember, a government minister talks about the rise of militant secularism she is in much the same category as the Spanish Inquisition.

In fact, secular people take a very relaxed attitude towards religion. We don’t typically get too stressed about the religiosi running schools, sending bibles to all and sundry, organising prayers before meetings, fretting about what people wear or constantly infiltrating sex education and health services. We don’t even mind them organising bands or even doorstepping us. In short, secular people are anything but militant. They lack any organisation and, for the most part, they get on with their lives since they have the unique insight that they are only here once!

However, if the Baroness is going to get on her high horse it is arguably time that the education of our children was divorced from religion. The French education system managed this over two hundred years ago and is the better for it. In opposition to the self-evident perception that schools are about enquiry rather than the delivery of divine information, it is commonly argued that Catholic secondary schools do rather well and they are popular with parents as if that justifies something. The truth, of course, is that Catholic schools are inherently selective and they don’t get involved with the bottom end of the ability range or the social scale while employing informal exclusion procedures and, occasionally, using interviews, churchgoing and the advice of parish priests as part of their selection processes.

Secularists just seem to accept that for the most part and might be inclined to consider miraculous conversion if they are teachers as there is a dire shortage of school leaders who are practising Catholics. However, people ought to be aware that, increasingly, some Catholic schools have governing bodies infiltrated by Opus Dei and extreme fundamentalist views and their policies on sex education border on the bizarre. It is no surprise to find homophobia alive and well in this sector. And, to be fair, the Catholic schools are not alone since we secularists have raised no objections to the idea of evangelicals who know about second-hand cars taking over the education of our children as well.

Also, it would be good if we could de-establish the Church of England along the way and sort out the monarchy but that is probably a step too for most militant secularists who would just like it to be recognised that the majority of people in this country do not practise a religion, whatever they might put on forms and where ever they might get married or buried, and are not in need of conversion.

Changing the status of the Church of England might allow us to take some rational decisions about our political relationships with Islamic states, let alone about Sunday trading or the blasphemy laws, and we might be able to get rid of the recurrent national preoccupation to organise crusades against the Muslims. It is hard to believe that if we lost the head of the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury we would somehow be devoid of moral leadership. You could turn the argument on its head and note that it would be nice to have a president who represented the moral vision and purpose of the nation rather than a family which still has princes and princesses and a hereditary principle which includes an absolute right to govern.

One could go on about this but it would be falling into the trap set by the Baroness who simply cannot wait for lots of militant secularists to rush out of the woodwork burning Bibles and shagging in the streets. In the end, it is easier and more convenient to let our children be taught absurd stories and untruths about divine watchmakers in their school lessons and to let them find their own way in sex education. However, we ought to remember along the way that we do have a lot of disaffection and alienation in young people, an unnecessarily high rate of teenage pregnancy and a lack of national vision and purpose. And, if, eventually, we lose one of these crusades us secularists are going to have to put up with some more crap from someone else!

More Crap on Schools and Education

The sight of Will Hutton morphing into Melanie Phillips is more than anyone should have to put up with on Sunday morning! Teachers don’t put up with second best, the vast majority of schools do an excellent job and an economist with any understanding of socio-economic factors should know that education cannot compensate for society.

 

But Will doesn’t want teachers to be defensive, so here are a few things for him to consider.

 

One, teachers and schools are not accountable for what is taught in schools. They have to deliver the national curriculum which is made up of too much knowledge, too few skills and an essentially Victorian range of subjects. Since 1990, the content of the curriculum has been driven by an ideology which looks back to the past and any attempts to modernise it (ICT, citizenship, vocational skills) have constantly been rubbished by a social elite who look back on their own education and think that because it succeeded for them (University, good job, well paid) that it is appropriate for everyone.

 

Two, schools are measured on bad statistics. Politicians and lazy experts ramble on about GCSE as if it has some kind of special status. It hasn’t. It is a complicated and elaborated test based on the knowledge and skills, but mostly the knowledge, in the national curriculum. Like a lot of tests it has significant weaknesses. These include the facts that it doesn’t measure the performance of people who don’t do very well, it doesn’t differentiate effectively between people who do extremely well, it is mostly based on writing so it is often just a test of that, it rewards memory rather than understanding so you can cram dates and do better and, if you have supportive parents, they can help you with your coursework and give you a 20% start! A very slight annual improvement is built into the system by the awarding organisation’s who run it for commercial purposes but because of the way grades are awarded it is not capable of measuring genuine improvement in the education system.

 

The emphasis on five good passes which is the basis of national school statistics means that, at the age of 16, around 20% of young people have no discernible qualification whatsoever and the next 25% have only a mishmash of credits. This gives a distinct advantage to anyone taught in the selective or independent system because the bottom 45% who are not going to succeed are kept out of the classrooms. None of this is rocket science, Will!

 

Three, no one knows how well schools do. People who visit a lot of schools regularly are generally quite impressed with the state of schools and learning given the problems with curriculum and testing. OFSTED pretends to know about schools but in fact it knows almost nothing. In shorter and shorter inspections, it receives the school’s objectification of itself set against examination data. It fluffs up this data with silly notions like value-added but, really, all it does is play games with the simple GCSE or national testing ‘pass’ rates. The schools that do well in OFSTED inspections are those with good examination results and aspirational parents in reasonably prosperous areas.

 

If this happened all the time it would suggest that school inspection was some kind of procedure designed to defend the status quo and elitist education so OFSTED pretends it can see quality in different areas but it can’t. For years, it took schools in areas like Hackney as being beacons of improvement as if gentrification never happened. If you don’t have the right results, the right parents and the right social and economic context your school cannot improve against the OFSTED criteria. It doesn’t matter whether you call schools satisfactory or in need of improvement when your focus is so narrow and your measures so unreliable.

 

However, OFSTED still pretends to know better and is now moving towards no notice inspections which cause headteachers to lose their jobs on the basis of flimsy statistics and weak observation. This causes the system to try to deliver the kind of education which OFSTED wants to see. In the prosperous, middle-class school this works all right but everywhere else it leads to difficult curriculum compromises, inappropriate teaching and stress.

 

Sir Michael Wilshaw wants excellent leadership in schools and, funnily enough, he has it in most places. If he went away and let headteachers lead, select and develop their staffs and define their curriculum model in conjunction with the community their leadership would be even better.

 

Four, there is no need for Will Hutton to belittle the unions. They are right to defend their members and even their pensions and to resist the demoralising pressures which drive schools downwards. Occasionally, like any trade union they are slow to accept change but they are not the problem in schools today.

 

Five, Will Hutton seems to think there is a conspiracy to protect inadequate teachers organised by school leaders in conspiracy with gangs of lazy staff members. Has he ever been into a
school or is this based on his watching of ‘Please, Sir’? He shows no understanding of what schools are like today and the levels of accountability at which they operate. Of course, there are some weak teachers just as there are ineffective practitioners in the health service, local government, Westminster, the House of Lords and the civil service. Teachers are simply more exposed but if anyone thinks that school leaders today do not have challenging and difficult conversations with underperforming staff then they are simply not on the right planet. Schools are confronting these issues on a daily basis.

 

If you still think that Will Hutton is right, it is worth considering how – like the health service – schools are vilified by those who don’t use them. The parents of school-age children are overwhelmingly supportive of the schools in which their children are taught. There is not a huge groundswell of parental dissatisfaction except perhaps among the parents who send their children to independent schools or bus them around London in their four-wheel drives.

 

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s carping is wrong on so many counts and his proposed changes will not be effective. Not only should they not be backed by right minded people but people like Will Hutton should not use platforms like The Observer to present such lazy and uninformed opinions in support of them.

The Death of My Mum

It was around lunchtime on Tuesday when it started to become clear that this might be it. Mum had had a serious stroke in the morning and was unconscious. The doctor, the nuns who look after her so well at Maryfield Convent and my sister Debbie all decided that she should stay at the home and not go to hospital. It was an excellent decision.

The family started to gather. Dominic was on his way down from London by train and by the time I ran my sister Barbie she was on the M25. I called my older brother Simon who lives in Felixstowe and luckily got hold of him. He came over to Bury St Edmunds and we travelled down together. Although we knew it was serious at this stage, Mum had had similar incidents before Christmas and pulled round.

We arrived at the convent at around 5 PM. Mum was settled in bed, head slightly raised in and out of sleep. Debbie, Barbie and Dominic were already there along with Barbie’s husband Keith. I was at one side of Mum and took over the holding of her hand as Simon did on the other. She was quite aware at this time and able to squeeze our hands and reply to questions. I think she could also follow the nattered family conversation moving over all sorts of past events and times. I talked about painting the old family bungalow with my dad and travelling down to Highcliffe on the milk train at dawn and I could feel myself filling up with the memory. We all talked and Mum listened, smiled and occasionally responded.

Along the way, my brother Bill called from Washington. He spoke to Mum on Debbie’s phone – a short conversation but an important one for both of them. At the end, Mum said goodbye – just that.

The others had been there for a while and we had logistics to sort. Simon went back with Dominic by train, Barbie and Keith went to stay with their son who lives locally, Debbie and Fraser went home and I said I’d stay, at least, for a while.

It was a quiet time but close, simply holding Mum’s hand and smiling when she opened her eyes and looked around. We agreed how good it had been to see everyone. She was visibly tiring and asked me to call the nurse so she could settle down, for the night she said. One of the sisters came and said she would bring another in a few minutes because it would be easier with two of them. In the meanwhile, Mum said I should go now and she would be fine. When the sisters came back, one of them said how nice it was to see all of the family and asked mum if she had had a good day. ‘Yes’ she said ‘I’ve had a lovely day’. As the nuns prepared to settle her down, she turned to me as I kissed her on the cheek and said ‘Goodbye’. It was the second time I’d heard her say that. Not see you tomorrow but goodbye.

Having seen her recovery during the day, I planned to stay the night with Debbie and Fraser and go and see her in the morning. That plan was upset. At around one o’clock in the morning, the convent phoned and said that Mum had died shortly after midnight.

Debbie I got up and dressed and made our way back. Mum was just as we had left her but her head was inclined to the left as if she was deeply asleep. When I kissed her cheek and stroked her hair, she was still slightly warm as if she had not quite left. Debbie and I sat there for a few minutes with our own thoughts. After, we talked to the nurse who had been on duty and who had been with mum when she died. She said that she had simply slipped away and that was what we saw as well.

After the formalities, we went back to Debbie’s. I didn’t expect to sleep but I did with all sorts of odd early memories playing in my head. The taste of scraping the last remnants of cake mix from the bowl, Mum in her red coat and done up in her little black dress as she called it. Mum and Dad dancing the foxtrot in the church hall. Saturday mornings and Mum and Dad up late, a bit of friskiness in the air and smiling, with The Love of Three Oranges booming from the gramophone. They were a good team and now they are both gone and a chapter in my life has closed.

It was the best of passings and I’m happy to believe that she was glad to be reunited with Dad without my thinking too long or too hard but enjoying the moment with them. I think we would all wish to go as easily.

Can Twigg Light Some Fires?

Jim Sweetman @jimbo9848

Although he is not universally popular with party members and has already said some inappropriate things about free schools, it is good to see Stephen Twigg back to shadow the education portfolio. He was a popular minister with teachers who thought that he knew his stuff. You can’t help feeling as well that Andy Burnham will be much happier back with Health.

When Andy Burnham was looking after education the message often was that there wasn’t much to say. The headline was that university fees would drop under the next Labour administration or, perhaps, go back to a little more than they used to be in the pre-coalition days. Well, that was fine, and hunky-dory for those who wanted their children to be lumbered with a ??30,000 debt instead of ??40,000 plus but maybe there was an overlooked bit of space for some kind of vision about what higher education and degrees were all about when Chinese and Indian universities apparently had the capacity to turn out fifteen fully-trained city slicker graduates every minute.

Of course, every step was difficult. Labour did a lot to education apart from massively investing in it and it wasn’t all good, which left Andy Burnham sometimes defending the indefensible. So, he said things which suggested he was in favour of things which didn’t work in the past. He hinted at the value of centralised policy making as if telling schools that they have to have a literacy hour and a numeracy hour for every child and every day could still be helpful, and as if that might make teachers feel valued and the lessons more appropriate to the needs of individuals. He was always on the back foot in defending the overcomplicated, and now unlamented, diplomas as he was in attacking the extension of the academies programme or the underpinning ideology of the English Baccalaureate.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove had, and continues to have an easy ride, considering the huge cutbacks he is implementing. He is the man who stopped all those expensive Schools for the Future being built, who introduced Free Schools in new premises which still have to be paid for, and is turning lots of failing schools into academies. He continues to avoid, by the skin of his teeth, being named for anything to do with News International which once gave him a lot of money for doing very little.

However, parents, even if they are uncomfortable with the reduced role of the local authorities and the increasing lack of local accountability sense that, in their backyard, an intolerance of underperformance and more school to school support might pay off. Gove’s insistence on basic skills in reading and writing, raising standards, fostering excellence, supporting the traditional curriculum and examinations, pooh-poohing innovation and vocational courses, and emphasising choice has a superficial appeal to many parents and is not a million miles away from what Tony Blair might have said during one of his regular forays into education.

Someone now has to challenge the ideology which lies behind this. There is an intention in the Gove agenda to fragment maintained education into routes and pathways which benefit elites and foster backdoor selection. The emphasis on excellence hides a belief that some people are simply better than others and should go to better schools. The requirement for a variety of education providers is just one small step away from allowing education for profit in the maintained system.

So, what we really need from Stephen Twigg is a new vision based on the 21st-century rather than the 19th, a system which is not preoccupied with testing but focuses on learning, and teachers who are trained to know a lot about their subjects and to communicate that knowledge with enthusiasm.

We also need him to rubbish the teaching of Latin, be critical of the limited reach of the EBacc and expose the snobby reality of the Acton Free School for four wheel drive parents. In between, we need him to challenge Michael Gove at every opportunity over whether he is still a headline seeking journalist or simply the mouthpiece of right-wing unreformed elitism. The need for education, education, education – and for everyone – is as real and compelling as ever.