Travelling chimps

Are our kids getting a rounded education?

Sometimes it can seem a particular topic keeps appearing – some work comes your way, you spot an interesting talk or you hear something on the news… suddenly it’s everywhere. For me, the last couple of weeks have been all about education, the school system and whether our kids are learning the skills they need for the 21st Century.

I’m not going to touch on the bigger Government debate over education as it’s a minefield. Suffice to say the current system is flawed. The Guardian has claimed English schools are ‘broken‘; teachers are leaving the profession in droves because of workload and pressure to achieve high results; the number of primary children referred for specialist mental health support has risen by a third in the last 3 years and funding cuts are forcing schools to make difficult choices over how to spend their limited budgets.

Funding cuts in education

When do children start school?
When do children start school?

Recently a mail went out to parents to “Save Our Schools”. It was barely on my radar (so many messages come out of our school,  I can barely keep up!) and so we didn’t wait around after pick-up to be part of the photo and campaign. Funding cuts are never good but it’s a story that is repeated across the arts, youth services, police and fire services, NHS etc.  That’s not a reason not to campaign, I think I just partly felt that if it’s not schools then it will just impact somewhere else. I really should have looked into it a bit more though. Catherine Fisher, a founding member of Save Our Schools Brighton and Hove, quoted in the Brighton & Hove Independent that: “Last year we carried out a survey of 50 schools across Brighton and Hove to find out how they were coping with the cuts. Of those who took part, 88 per cent told us they had been forced to cut staff, two-thirds have cancelled building work and repairs, 94 per cent have cut equipment, 40 per cent have cut mental health support and 78 per cent expect the cuts to lead to poorer results.”

All of those things are going to affect what children learn at school and how ‘life-ready’ they are when they leave.

Under pressure…

It’s not just financial issues that are causing schools to change the way they educate, it’s the pressure to achieve good results. As well as a close focus on exam results, occasionally the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) dragon rears its head at the entrance of a school, scaring the living daylights out of all the teachers as it tramples through the school looking for problems.

Ofsted Inspectors look at four main areas – pupil achievement, quality of teaching, behaviour and safety of pupils and quality of leadership/management.  A school judged as inadequate, and placed in either the ‘special measures’ or ‘serious weaknesses’ category, will be instructed to become an Academy by the Secretary of State for Education.  In the English education system, Academies are independent schools which get their funding directly from the government, rather than their local council. Although the Government try to sell it as a way to get more autonomy for schools, in reality it is just a step towards privatising education.

As an Academy, the head teacher is overseen by a Trust and as there are no restrictions on salaries or staff and you don’t have to follow the curriculum as closely, the Trust can do what they like. In January, the Perry Beeches Academy Trust was found to have paid an additional salary of £120,000 over two years to its former chief executive on top of his £80,000 annual salary. Financial mismanagement seems to crop up a lot in the failure of Trusts: The Wakefield Trust transferred millions of pounds of its schools’ reserves to its own centralised accounts before announcing, days into the new term, that new sponsors would need to be found. There’s not even any real proof they work. The UK fact-finding charity says that results are not really any different and there are plenty of articles from parents complaining about their kids getting a poorer education. It’s a big thumbs down to academies as far as I’m concerned.

What do parents want out of school?

School children
Reach for the skies

I’ve been working on a vision and mission statement for a local primary school. As part of their preparation work they spoke to parents about what they wanted for their kids as well as what they felt the school should be proud of. Unsurprisingly, parents focused on the importance of ‘less pressure’ and a broad curriculum that included the arts. They commented on the school’s great SEND support  and the outdoor space for sports and recreation.  The teachers’ focus group was the same. They wanted school to be a positive place for children and their families, a  fun, inspiring and inclusive space for all kids to engage and develop a passion for life-long learning.

Is it realistic to think they can achieve this?

No money + pressure = can schools achieve the right kind of education?

The Guardian posed a conundrum: ‘How does a school that struggles to pay for textbooks meet the increasing pressure to demonstrate high performance?’. The answer? Well, according to the article, they focus budget and time on key subjects – maths and literacy. Even Ofsted, in another Guardian article, acknowledges that schools feel pressured to gain positive results in end-of-year exams and are so are often forced to limit their curriculum in order to achieve.

In a previous job I worked with one of the top engineers in the country. He told me about the huge drive to engage young people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Some people add an A for arts in the mix too – STEAM. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has suggested the shortfall of STEM workers in the UK is as high as 40,000 each year, and in Brighton specifically demand for high level qualifications is expected to rise by 10% by 2022. So why are they having so much trouble recruiting young people? It seems kids are not given the time at school to indulge in the things that come naturally; when they are small they love nothing more than balancing on stuff, testing their weight, building brick towers – they are natural engineers – we just make them sit down and focus on filling in worksheets instead.

If we can’t afford the time or cost of things like science, arts or technology, will our kids be getting a fully rounded education? Will they be ready for the world? Will we be able to recruit for the jobs of the future?

How do we change education?
West Rise water buffalo

Last week I attended an RSA conference in Brighton called ‘Promoting Life Readiness – A Big Education Conversation’.  It promised an afternoon of discussion about how we get our young  people ready for the world and what we need to change in education so that the focus shifts from exams and paperwork to relevant learning.

There were three speakers. The one that truly stood out for me was Mike Fairclough, Headmaster of West Rise Junior School and author of ‘Playing with Fire: Embracing risk and danger in schools’ (which gives you a good idea of why he was up on the stage!). He told us the story of his school in Eastbourne, where they place an emphasis on resilience, freedom and self-expression.  The school leases 120 acres of wetland, including two lakes,  from the Council and it gives them the space they need to realise these ideas.

3000 years ago this area was the site of the second largest Bronze Age settlement in Europe and the school incorporates this into their learning. They have built replica bronze-age huts and have learnt how people of that time might have lived. Mike believes that if you expose kids to calculated risk and danger they are better able to cope. If they get cuts and splinters whilst foraging for food or building a fire to cook on, it’s put down as one of the ‘knocks of life’. Why should we mollycoddle them? After all, the average age of a Bronze Age man, a time where great leaps were made in civilisation,  was just 14.  That’s just a couple of years older than some of the kids at the junior school.

West Rise deliberately put kids outside of their comfort zone. There are a herd of water buffalo on the Marsh, dangerous creatures that need to be carefully approached; a million honey bees that need looking after in their hives and opportunities to paddle-board in the lake.  They also hold a Countryside Management day every year so children can try clay pigeon shooting, target practice, fly fishing and working with gun dogs. Some people might find the use of guns controversial but Mike feels that if they recognise their uses they normalise them; Great Britain holds the Olympic Gold Medal in this sport after all.

What’s interesting about West Rise is that all this opportunity and access to the outdoors has helped them achieve high standards not only in key subjects but also sport, music and the arts both in and outside school. “Pupils achieve well throughout the school and in a wide variety of subjects, benefiting from a rich and diverse curriculum.”  “Behaviour and safety are outstanding” Ofsted 2013.

Mike believes that one of the key things missing in the education curriculum is the chance to really ‘be’ in nature. To create free thinkers, you need to provide the freedom to think. While classroom studies are quite directive because of the curriculum, the ‘outdoor school’ set-up allows kids to have autonomy and promotes positive psychology. letting the kids build resilience, gratitude, perseverance, team work, self-discipline, self- awareness etc.

Learning from the outside in

Kids at the top of mountain
My first mountain! Outdoors is fun

The RSA event also encouraged us to join smaller debates around the room. Each table had a theme and I joined one hosted by Lucy Collins from Bee In The Woods, the first Ofsted-registered day nursery in Brighton & Hove with no roof and no walls. Lucy’s ‘forest kindergarten’ takes kids up to age 7. Everything is centred around letting children be children; they take their influence from the Forest School movement, Froebel, Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches. Kids lead the learning and the adults just help facilitate.  Just like Mike at West Rise, they give the kids power to make decisions and only get involved if they need to. Too often we jump in and take over then wonder why our kids lack the confidence to try.

I asked Lucy how they tick off all the developmental checklists required for EYFS and she said that it just happens. Without deliberately focussing on areas they naturally seem to cover topics. The hardest thing is writing down what the children say and do – they have to keep notebooks in their pockets and try not to let the recording distract them from the play.

Lucy recommended a book by Greg Bottrill “Can I Go and Play Now?”. The reviews on Amazon back her up – reader after reader thanks Bottrill for reminding them of the importance of play and how to bring it back into teaching. In an interview Greg said

“Education has a history of control, of giving children a curriculum and a narrow band of targets to achieve. Play lies beyond these. It is the ‘language’ of children, one that adults have long forgotten. It is absolutely critical that children are enabled to play. And not just in Early Years. Play has so much potential for creativity, communication, collaboration and well-bring as well as being the one thing that really engages children in periods of deeper level thinking that lies beyond table-based activities and book scrutinies.

We have a choice to my mind. We either crush play into the dirt and press on down the path towards ever increased formalised learning that sees children as empty vessels, or we try and explore ways to incorporate play and playful learning into our school day so that children can truly flourish and grow. As adults we fear play because we don’t understand it and can’t immediately see ‘learning’ – but it’s there in all its richness. We just need to start listening to children.”

Finding opportunities to inspire kids

The most inspiring practitioners are the ones that have the energy and enthusiasm to share something they love.  One of the speakers, Nick Corston, from Steam Co, is a massive advocate for connecting schools with communities and businesses to promote creativity and collaboration.  He believes these are vital skills that are at risk in our schools because of pressure to focus on maths and literacy instead of the arts.  I can well believe it – we had representatives in the room from Glyndebourne, globally recognised as one of the great opera houses, and Charleston, a home and work-space to The Bloomsbury group, and both of them said they had proactively tried to engage with schools but had no return. Back-stage tours were offered, a chance to watch shows – stuff that kids would absolutely love. The problem? We’re back to teachers again – they are too stressed, the curriculum is too restrictive and the pressure to achieve is too high.

How do we support our educators better?

The Independent interviewed a load of teachers. Half of them had been diagnosed with mental health issues and eight in 10 of their respondents (81 per cent) said “poor mental health had a negative impact on the quality of their relationships with their pupils”. If our teachers are not able to connect with children, what hope do they have of engaging them with learning? It’s a situation that has to change and there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. The support is certainly not coming from central Government. In some cases it is not coming from parents either.

Recently there has been some upset in our 8-year old’s class about how the teacher handles them. They are a group of 30 noisy kids, many with special educational needs. Whereas once we might have all just accepted the teachers knew what they were doing and left them to it (our kids aren’t saints after all), the dynamics between teachers and parents have changed. Parents shout louder, they have more demands and they take the side of the child more often.  There is just less deference to professional expertise. This isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right either. Messages fly around social media and before you know it, it’s a parents vs the teacher situation and it’s been escalated to the head – all without the teacher even being able to offer their side of the story.  No wonder it feels a bit stressful for the teacher.

There’s also a question about how much teachers should be responsible for. Ofsted launched an attack on lazy parents via the BBC at the weekend, saying parents need to take more responsibility for the kids and stop expecting schools and teachers to do everything for them. Perhaps we need to follow that thought and stop thinking about school as the answer to everything.

Taking education outside of school

Cities of Learning – soon to hit Brighton

Education isn’t just about school. There are also schemes bubbling away to try to help our young people city-wide and nationally. The RSA event mentioned was an attempt to get people to bring about change, One of the projects they support is Our Future City, who champion efforts to grow creativity in young people, improve well-being, develop digital skilfulness, enable routes into employment and sustain collective action and impact.  One thing they are working on together really inspires me: Cities of Learning. This ‘digital badge scheme’ allows young people to proactively go out and work with businesses to gain experience.  Not only do the badges they accrue from working in certain areas help them apply for work, it helps address the massive gap between school and starting work and teaches kids about the jobs of the future.

Stepping up

One thing we can do is support the schools’ efforts for change. Our primary does a lot to try to create a broad and balanced curriculum. It should be commended for that and supported by the parents. Whilst it takes results seriously and looks for high achievement, it places a lot of focus on creating rounded individuals and a strong parent community; a ‘snap-shot’ taken by Ofsted is not the most important thing.

Parents and carers should also realise school is not the only thing. If the  system is struggling to provide a balanced education because of funding cuts and high expectations, perhaps parents should be / need to be doing more. We should be taking our kids outside more, letting them lead the play and trying to learn from them. We can sign them up for things like Beavers or Brownies, we can take them to the theatre or, if that’s too pricey, take part in free arts events. In Brighton there is a plethora of them. These are our kids. If we want them to become world-ready and don’t believe school is providing a full education, we shouldn’t just sit there complaining about school – their hands are tied – we need to step up and teach them the things they need to learn so they become the people we want them to become.