Posts Tagged Education

An Education – our Primary Focus (Part 4)

Feeling almost hopeful today after reading The Guardian piece on Frank Field (former Labour minister, now the Coalition’s “Poverty Advisor”)) preparing review on ‘how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults’.

Apparently, Field said he said he was disturbed by research showing how accurate a prediction can be made as to where a child will be in their 20s, by looking at their ability at 22 months and just before five years. Narrowing divisions in children’s readiness for school at five was central to tackling divisions in later life, he said.

He is right to be disturbed. But he shouldn’t be surprised.

Certainly this has been known to the wonderful Sutton Trust Charity for some time and even an uninformed observer such as myself has been bemoaning the lack of interest in and commitment to progress interventions aimed at supporting the development of disadvantaged children in their most formative years. My three previous posts over the past year on the subject: herehere and here.

This has been a particular concern of mine in Northern Ireland where most of last year was spent arguing on post Primary education when the real prize is – as the Sutton Trust continually point out – closing the cognitive and associated aspirational gap among children way way before we start to concern ourselves with means of post primary selection.

Anyway, maybe Field is starting to listen and will follow through on the plans outlined in the article. If so that’s commendable but I also hope this is only the start.

In Northern Ireland I hope @conallmcd and NI Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane take notice. Closer to home I hope that @cllrstevereed and @chukaumunna pick this up and recognise it is for this very reason that local residents are so concerned about plans for an extension of the Ofsted rated Outstanding Sudbourne Road Primary School (and nursery).

What I wrote in March of this year seems still to be relevant today. Shame. But saves me re-typing:

“Consistently on this blog I have maintained that while some form of streaming or selection is a must in any mature and inclusive education system, our real focus should be on primary education; on ensuring our administration of that education is innovative and inclusive enough to support pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging an ethos of and commitment to  ”concerted cultivation” of our young children among parents and local communities.  We are currently failing our young people during their most formative years”.

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An Education – for the 21st Century

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I went on a bit of a “rant” today in response to some worryingly narrow responses to an excellent piece the wonderful Euan Semple had posted on his blog The Obvious, criticising a school (which the son of his friend attends) for withdrawing/banning the use of Facebook in school time.

I’ve copied the relevant exchanges/pieces below. I hope I didn’t upset Helen or Christian but sometimes you have to say what needs to be said. There is little more important than progressive education….we should continue to encourage a progressive discussion.

This seemed somehow apt today as I went along to the local Primary School to hear about the possibilities for becoming a Governor. I’ll be checking they harness social media in the classroom before I sign up to anything!

I’m glad to say that most of the posts that preceded and followed mine agreed with Euan’s original sentiment. So all hope is not lost….I was really touched by his kind words following my post. That, for those of you who don’t know the influence of the man, is praise indeed.

Anyway, here it is (was?) albeit a spell checked version (old habits..) starting with Euan’s original post. You can find the full exchange with all comments at his excellent blog which I’ve linked above.

Some thoughts on schools banning Facebook


Banning Facebook is like banning the telephone. What people in authority don’t realise is that it is just a tool. Any tool can be used or misused. What they should be focused on is harnessing its potential not being paranoid about what people do with it.

Facebook, like so many social tools, is actually primarily about learning. Yes learning what people had for breakfast – but also learning news, learning what works, learning what books are best to read, learning where to find the right bit of information.

It is particularly ironic when schools ban Facebook as they are the very ones who should be teaching effective use of this technology – not keeping their pupils stuck in some industrial, factory model of learning.

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When you’re at school, you are there for learning. Learning the important stuff – and the even more important stuff about being social in the first place, by talking to friends, face to face.

Social sites don’t help with this, which is why this ban (to which I can relate very well) is so interesting:

September 22, 2010 | Christian Guthier

Guns are just things.

Porn is just pictures.
Crack is just a substance.

“Facebook, like so many social tools, is actually primarily about learning. ”
This statment strikes me as absurd and untrue.
Absorbing random bits of information piecemeal is actually the opposite of learning and is, as we are finding out, having a very negative impact on young minds ability to function in reality.

Is information synthesised on facebook or twitter? Are worthwhile discussions ever had?

September 22, 2010 | helen clattenberg

Huge assumptions being made there Helen and Christian. I wonder how much experience you have actually had of these tools or of the way people and kids use them?

Yes those things are just things and can be used for good or ill. Demonising the things without dealing with our issues ducks the issues.

Social tools enable millions of us to meet, build relationships, and have better informed and enriching conversations about all sorts of things.

Otherwise what are we doing now and why did you leave a comment?

September 22, 2010 | Euan

Am not assuming anything, just reporting my direct experience (I work part-time with teenagers – outside the US) and I see that constant distraction and inundation with trivia from electronic impairs cognition (not just while the devices are being used).

Depth of consciousness and patience are learned attributes. Most of us older folk grew up in environments where that was instilled and valued.

The social environment has changed vastly and our teenagers now, will reap the whirlwind.

Of course Social Networks “enable” many positive things, but just because something is “enabled” it does not follow that it actually happens.

Like schools, nightclubs also “enable millions of us to meet, build relationships, and have better informed and enriching conversations about all sorts of things”.

Should schools be converted to nightclubs so that the kids may enrich their minds. communicate, network, bond and “learn” dance moves, chat up routines etc etc?

You first assertion that social tools are about learning, gives a very skewed idea of what learning is.
(Assuming he is adolescent) its natural, that your son is more interested in learning social / romantic skills etc etc, rather than other skills that might be of value later on, but we as parents, I think would serve his generation better, by demonstrating that not all learning has the same value no matter how cool and groovy.

September 22, 2010 | helen clattenberg

Great debate Euan. I do want to also pick up on some points raised by Helen and Christian (thanks for stoking this conversation both).

“The social environment has changed rapidly”. Agreed and if we don’t help to equip our children to learn and thrive in that environment then both we and our schools are abdicating all responsibility as educators for their future well-being. If we don’t teach our children how to use all available resources safely and efficiently – for their own good and the good of wider society – then we set them and society up to fail in what is becoming a true knowledge intensive “attention economy”.

“Depth of consciousness and patience are learned attributes. Most of us older folk grew up in environments where that was instilled and valued”. These are still learned and valued attributes. If ever we needed to help our children learn the power of mindful attention and patience then this is the age. But we must teach them within, not without, the social environment in which they will live otherwise it just won’t stick.  It is interesting to me that some of the most powerful and joyous advocates of “social technology” are those who are already deeply conscious and mindful.  Simply because it provides opportunity for a growing awareness of our infinite and inherent “interdependence” as Ethan Nichtern calls it. Check out Bhuddist Geeks or 21Awake or The Here and Now Project for what is a much more mature and evolved consideration on this:  it is a necessary invitation and opportunity to explore what it means to be conscious and patient within (not outside of) the 21st Century. The aspiration is still the same but our children are growing up in a different time so it must a slightly different question.

“All learning is not equal” but why do we persist in suggesting that we – any of us – know what learning is most relevant and to whom? Even the way we study is being challenged as we learn for example that (as musicians already know) repetition of a single discipline/area of study in discrete chunks does not work well for sustaining retention and cognitive development. Rather, regular short bursts of a range of subjects/tasks/disciplines in one sitting yields much more. Even the recognition that so much of our best learning is social is underpinned by science.  But back to my original point – not all learning is equal/as important as other learning. Agreed, but who is best placed to decide that? We continue to prepare so many of our students for a world we appear not to have noticed is changing in front of our very eyes. The capability to source, discern, synthesise and connect to both information and people (in a mindful and patient manner) are among the key skills we will need for the future. As Steven Berlin Johnson says: “chance favours the connected world”. But it also favours the connected (and skilled) person therein.

If that’s not among the “important stuff” then I worry for our young minds. The Battle of Hastings and long division will only get us so far.

I’m fully behind Euan on this. How we learn/teach should reflect how we understand our young people to live. Without that much learning can (and will) feel redundant and stifling. Like everything else, Facebook isn’t bad, but there are bad users of Facebook. Apparently some of our schools are among them.

September 22, 2010 | Shane Carmichael

I love it when comments are way better than my post! :-)

September 22, 2010 | Euan

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An Education – our Primary focus

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I meant to comment on this last month but travel kept me away from the PC:

This was a fascinating article on February’s Sutton Trust Report and I was actually genuinely delighted to see an echo of a  few of my suggestions made back in October 2009 in a article on the long running post Primary School selection process in Northern Ireland:   

(check under “some humble suggestions”)

More and more we are coming to understand that education is a sophisticated and much more social process than any narrow debate in NI about post primary education selection or means of selection would have us believe. Consistently on this blog I have maintained that while some form of streaming or selection is a must in any mature and inclusive education system, our real focus should be on primary education; on ensuring our administration of that education is innovative and inclusive enough to support pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging an ethos of and commitment to  “concerted cultivation” of our young children among parents and local communities.  We are currently failing our young people during their most formative years.

NI has wasted over a year wrangling on the narrow issue of post primary selection. It’s time someone started to address the more formative, fundamental – and root cause – issues associated with Primary Education, otherwise the means of post Primary selection will be entirely a moot point.  There are some easy ‘quick win’ fixes to this challenge as I and the Sutton Report suggest while we understand how to cultivate that wider community and parental ability to contribute to the life-long success of our most precious resources. 

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Outside the school gates…

Larkmead School Main Building
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Been thinking more today about my earlier piece on post Primary school selection here.

Leaving the rights and wrongs of selection itself as a policy aside, I am more and more convinced that the real priority for the NI Government on education should be focused on improving the standards of primary education across the board but perhaps most importantly: improving the relationship between schooling and the local community (including parents). Particularly so in areas of social deprivation which (no surprise) are showing sustained and worrying levels of systemic educational failure.

A thought occurred to me on a bus the other day as a horde (I don’t use that word lightly) of school children rolled on in the mid afternoon.

A rough calculation suggested to me that as a percentage of total waking hours, students will spend 20% – 25%(approximately) of that time in a school environment. Yet we know from social psychologists that the ability/motivation/emotional propensity to achieve while in school is largely determined by the environment (physical, social and emotional) in which those students spend the other 80% of their time.

Selection or not, many of those students who the Government believe will benefit from the abolition of the 11+ selection process will experience nothing of the sort simply because they come from environments where there is not a culture of learning or “concerted cultivation”. Not even the greatest of schools or the best of teachers can ‘undo’ or ‘compete against’ what is learned/conditioned/encouraged by society in the majority of their time – which is spent outside the classroom.

Again – I recognise this idea of learning being as much social as institutional is a much more significant and complex approach to addressing the issues in our educational system – certainly it will win fewer headlines (and possibly votes) than the abolition of the 11+ selection tests. It will necessarily have to recognise and address real issues of social and economic disadvantage but it is, I am convinced, at the very core of what needs to be done for the longer term. Otherwise the scenes of youth violence in Belfast City Centre last week will become more and more commonplace and the dire statistics that show more and more of our young people from deprived NI communities leaving school with no qualifications will grow year on year.

This debate must be about more than just narrow issues of ‘selection’ and ‘schooling’.  This is about wider education and personal development of our young people. Schools have an important role to play but more often than not I feel they simply reflect the prevailing local culture of/attitude to learning/development rather than shape it – and given the 80/20 split pointed out above that seems only fair and to be expected.

But in partnership with community groups, parents and local/central government they can become the hubs of personal development that our small island economy/society will so desperately need if we are to prevail as a modern, inclusive and prosperous democracy in the end.

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Selection (it’s only natural)

I have a confession to make. I’m a socialist, Northern Irish Catholic who was educated at a Secondary school and I believe in academic selection as an entry criteria for post primary education.

There, I’ve said it. Let the first stones be cast, but please be gentle with me – fleshy areas only and not the face, please, not the face….

The ongoing story that is post Primary education selection in Northern Ireland has been keeping me transfixed for over a year now. And it looks like I can look forward to a lengthy Season 2 and maybe even a Season 3 installment (unlike the poor Studio 60 – travesty!) with not a satisfactory end in sight. In fact, I read recently from Mark Simpson that positions have become so entrenched on the matter in that bastion of working democracy – Stormont – that “The Executive” will no longer even discuss the matter cross party.  Wonderful. Maybe if they all just closed their eyes, donned red shoes and twitched their noses they’d be transported to Kansas and someone else (anyone?!) could get on with the business of resolving this. If a day is a long time in Politics then surely a year is too long for something as important as our children’s education to go unresolved.

But its fascinating nonetheless – particularly because its intresting to see our political representatives grappling with actual local Policy issues at last. How this will end is any-one’s guess but here’ my tuppenceworth.  You might also enjoy the excellent pieces from Jeff Peel’s enjoyable blog and of course the omnipotent Slugger O’Toole.


If it’s not broke…..

Northern Ireland’s secondary education system (note: you can consider ‘secondary education system’ in that instance to mean both Grammar and Secondary schooling) generates a (possibly) disproportionate number of high calibre and well rounded students with school leavers achieving GCSE and A Level results well above national averages.  It is an internationally recognised fact and as someone who lives and works in England, I can testify that a Northern Ireland education (in my case at St Patrick’s College, Maghera) is very highly regarded in the marketplace.  That seems a lot to gamble with at a time when we are going to need more – not less – of the very brightest minds we can produce; minds perhaps best described by Seamus Heaney in his poem “From the Canton of Expectation”, as “intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars”.  What a great phrase that is (thanks to President of Eire, Mary McAleese for introducing me to it).

A cursory galnce at the newspapers of today or the recent NI IREP Report will tell you that the coming generation of school leavers need to be perhaps the best of all, in keeping with the scale of the challenges that await them – that we rely on them to address.  Ending selection and exercising what some believe to be a ‘compassionate’ act of egalitarianism is no guarantee of better results/outcomes and ultimately isn’t that what our Government should ultimately be most concerned with – results and outcomes?  That’s not to say that they should not also be concerned with ensuring that all our children have the opportunity of education but what is key here is the idea that the nature of that education should be ‘appropriate’ and more importantly that it should be an issue addressed at Primary, not Secondary level – more on both those points later.

I have very strong personal views on education and how we need to re-define ‘success’ at secondary level but another post, another time…


Ghetto or Grammar?

Current proposals would in effect swap the pressures and associated “trauma” of selection with a postcode selection (not ‘postcode lottery’ as some call it as one can always move home to live closer to a desirable school) from which, few would benefit and potentially least of all those from our communities whose educational development these changes are proported to support. I don’t have the facts to hand but I still suspect that the upper and middle classes, if not already, will be able to (re)-locate themselves much more readily if needed (and I suspect that the current location of many of our best schools will be found in middle/upper class catchment areas anyway) to secure spots at the best schools.  Where’s the social justice in that? My family most definately could not have moved, unless of course my Da had made good on his oft repeated threat to get us onto the streets to rustle up some money!

Related to this is surely the risk of creating, or in some instances, exacerbating a ‘ghetto culture’ where our young people take all their schooling in their local community with no opportunity to move outside that geography/catchment. Hardly something we wish to encourage given our already renowned and damaging psyche of insularity and community entrenchment. For me, passing the 11+ gave me the opportunity to attend any one of three schools in the area but all outside my village. This was a seminal moment in my personal development as it exposed me to others from other communities and backgrounds to a greater extent than possible in my local secondary. It gave me social skills and a confidence in meeting, working and playing with a wider collective of peers that stood me in good stead to this day.  For many the current system provides a unique and timely opportunity for social mobility.


It’s about creating an aspirational culture

This is not about truly about “selection” which to my mind suggests an entirely arbitrary process of picking the rich over the poor, the disadvantaged over the advantaged. This is about achievement. And that is a social challenge, not a secondary schooling challenge first and foremost.

Many many students (myself included please note) come/came from families whose incomes would place us in the lower socio economic bands (as one of three children of a self employed widower I received child benefit including free school meals). My success in the 11+ provided the opportunity of entry to a school of my choice and from there — university and a well paid profession. And that was something I was made aware of by parents and grandparents alike – all of whom never had that opportunity themselves. It was something I learned early to aspire to. Something that I felt I need not be ashamed of hoping for.

That suggests to me that this is not a simple case of blanket discrimination against those in the lower socio-economic classes.  Many pupils from these groups have and continue to succeed at 11+ stage testing and their successes should be celebrated. It should also be used to ask more of communities where some fail and others do not in the same grouping. The same could be asked within schools. My school catered from everything from 11+ A grades through to a special learning needs unit with around 1200 pupils in between.  And here’s my experience – if you want to learn, if you seek out the opportunities to learn, if you are motivated to learn and put in the graft then you can and will achieve.  I left school with straight A’s in my A Levels – as good and in some cases better than friends at the local grammar but also less than a few of my Secondary school colleagues.  I just think this is about much more than the Secondary school you attend to than it might be politically convenient to suggest.

NB All this assumes that Grammar Schools treat every applicant of with the same 11+ result on their personal merits and not on socio-economic background. If hey do or provide a weighting that ounts against children from more derived socio-economic communities thenoff with their bl00dy heads.

Behavioral Psychologists tell us that much of a child’s success is determined by the environment in which they spend their formative years – in particular how their parents engage in their personal and cognitive development.  The wonderful “Outliers – The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell cites the work of sociologist Annette Lareau in coining the term “concerted cultivation” to describe a style of parenting which most effectively fosters and assesses a child’s talent’s opinions and skills; this is opposed to a style of “accomplishment of natural growth” where parents see it as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own.  Gladwell highlights that the former approach – while not without its flaws – generates a higher number of ‘aspirational’ children who are better able to reason, engage, participate, influence and succeed in the world around them.  Where Parents are unable or are constrained in adopting a style of concerted cultivation (it takes time and effort undoubtedly) then I believe that local communities should be encouraged to support and create an ‘aspirational’ culture for young children – a culture where success is seen as something to strive for and be proud of.  Many of us in Northern Ireland are familiar with how uncomfortable we and our families can be of “success”.  As someone once said to me, in Northern Ireland you should keep your head down and “aim for something slightly above mediocrity”.  It’s a undeniable shame and a cultural challenge that must be addressed because it is this and not the school of secondary education which will ultimately make the real difference – as I outline below.

Critics of selection tests claim it is cruel and unfair and I agree that selection purely through the use of a single arbitrary test is potentially discriminatory (although perhaps as much an issue for women, ethnic monorities, the elderly and while male athletes than just those in the “lower socio economic classes”). I personally would advocate the use of ongoing Primary School assessments, Annual School Reports and maybe a reduced weighting one-off test as a more balanced and effective approach to selection. But selection is an important aspiration for society, particularly so for a country as small and with such limited resources as Northern Ireland. We need our young people to work hard, to aspire to better things and to recognise that life – and hold onto your seats here – is hard, traumatic and full of tests, each and every day. Those learnings and the instincts they hone are important for society as a whole and we should recognise we cannot and should not protect our children from it ad-infinitum.


Fighting the wrong fight?

I never thought I’d be agreeing with Chris Woodhead in print but in my opinion, the selection process for Secondary education is a moot point if we are really interested in improving the educational lot and associated opportunities of all our young people. Any behavioral psychologist or neuroscientist worth their salt will tell you that by age 11 much of who we are and how we feel about education, achievement, behaviour has been set in motion. That’s not to say we’re the finished article but it is to say that the more important question here – the question Stormont should be concerning itself with first and foremost – is how to improve Primary education for those they believe are currently disadvantaged; its almost too late by secondary school.

Just a few examples of work in this area which bear out this point which happened to be conveniently cited by Matthew Taylor in October’s edition of Prospect:

  1. Elizabeth Gould, a neuroscientist, has shown in her work with monkeys that our brains can generate new neurons in a process she calls ‘neurogenisis”, however she has proven that those who have suffered stress or lack of stimulation (i.e. no concerted cultivation at home/in the community) had lower levels of neurogenisis. Therefore she suggests that the impact of nurture in early years is not simply impactful on our attitudes (which might be overcome) – but on the actual physical capacity of our brains to develop. Her work has been used to make the case for early intervention in deprived and dysfunctional families.
  2. The psychologist, Walter Mischel tested four year olds on their ability to resist eating a marshmallow and showed that childhood inability to defer gratification predicted low achievement and antisocial behaviour well into adult life.

The research on this area is significant and consistent. Primary school is where we learn the basic skills of reading and writing but it is also associated with the period in our lives when we might just be shaped the most and our ability to ‘succeed’ or ‘thrive’ determined. It is there that Government should start and place the emphasis of its schooling strategy before turning their attention to the Secondary schools.


Specialising in specialisation

One slightly more subtle concern I have about this ongoing row is that any removal of ‘selection’ suggests that all children are created alike and therefore should be streamed through the same educational process/institutions. This is a nonsense and in many ways fails to recognise that one of the great achievements of human evolution has been our recognition that to survive as a species/functioning society we have had to become a community of diverse and dependent talents. We recognise implicitly that we are not all created the same and none of us can master all things and so we specialise and diversify, thereby creating a range of services and offerings for one another – doctors, builders, teachers, chef, sportsmen, journalists, carers etc.  Without that implicit recognition in our evolution we may never have survived as individuals or communities. Diversity is at the very heart of our success as a species and so it should be with education. The idea implicit in ending selection is that if you don’t get to Grammar school you’re done for and the only real measure of success is finishing your education. That cannot be healthy. For many, becoming a scholar is neither desirable or necessary. Instead other talents can be fostered, talents required by society – just as valuable as those found in a list of white collar professions in the school careers manual.

Children are not all created equal. And let’s be thankful for that. Stormont should focus on improving the experience and personal options for specialisation of those attending our secondary schools, not treating everyone the same at a cost to many for the sake of an unproven social experiment.


Some humble suggestions

  • Stormont should focus on Primary not secondary as their educational priority
  • Provide state sponsored interventions to Primary Schools in lower socio-economic communities currently showing poor schooling performance, including engaging with local community groups to discuss how to foster a spirit of ‘concerted cultivation’ outside of the school environs
  • Delay structured primary classes until age 5 with year one adopting a Scandinavian model of learning through play
  • Split each Primary school year into two classes so that no child is ‘competing’ in a classroom with a child more than 6 months their elder (see Chapter 1 of Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ for the sound reasoning behind that idea)
  • Extend the Primary school year, shorten holidays and increase the amount of time our children have to learn while shortening the amount of time they have to un-learn – particularly those children who aren’t lucky enough to be subject to ‘concerted cultivation’ on the school breaks
  • Use a combined set of evidence for secondary school selection – including the Annual School Report to support selection
  • Worry less about secondary selection procedures for now and more about the sort of varied but strategic school system we are going to need to underpin and support the recent NI IREP report
  • Reconsider the role of our non Grammar secondary schools and assist them to offer an improved and personalised educational experience linked to a long term NI economic strategy underpinned by targeted skills development
  • Give every minister interested in education for Northern Ireland a copy of this: “Outliers – The Story of Success” as food for thought


These ideas are much less palatable and immediately implementable to a party trying to hold onto power and make early political gains.  And as with so much else in Stormont – not least the crude and irresponsible deferment of Water Charges last year – this is the issue. No one wants to talk or think strategically – no one believes they have the time. Everyone seems too busy bickering for the spoils of our recently found Executive Power that we’ve already forgotten our much longed for and hard fought for right for something more, something better, something appropriately local and something lasting.  But as with the need for a longer term, considered and sustainable economic strategy it’s a hard but true message that these things take time if we want to get them right, real time.

I’m not sure that’s a message that will be heeded sadly.  As I’ve often heard in White’s Tavern over a pint of Guinness…’Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Belfast: maybe”.

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