Dear madam: letters to the editor 1/2/2019

In this week’s postbag of letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss genetics, school leadership and ‘extreme’ haircuts
1st February 2019, 3:51pm


Dear madam: letters to the editor 1/2/2019
Tes Letters To The Editor

Does DNA really make us who we are?

The title of Robert Plomin’s book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, mentioned in the feature (“Teachers matter (but not in the way we might think)”, Tes, 25 January - available free online for subscribers), is disingenuous. For, as he himself writes, heritability is “the extent to which differences we see between people...are down to inherited DNA differences [my emphasis]”. A more accurate title would have been “How DNA Makes Differences to Who We Are”. 

Of course, as Plomin and everyone acknowledges, the environment also accounts for differences between people. So an even more accurate title would have been “How the Environment and DNA Make Differences to Who We Are”. 

As for the tired and misleading metaphor of a genetic “blueprint”, to paraphrase Plomin, are behavioural geneticists still claiming that genes are a blueprint for who we are? Do they still do that?

Terry Sullivan
Author, Genes - Just How Important Are They?

Is there a ‘right’ way to lead a school?

I always thought that glib talk of “moral purpose” was empty rhetoric. Presumably, the Association of School and College Leaders has recognised that vacuity, since it is launching a new ethical code that will show heads “the right way to act”. But its main headings - trust, wisdom(!), kindness, justice and courage -  seem equally rhetorical and almost as vacuous. And however high-powered the authors, what authority or wisdom do they have to pontificate on that “right way to act”? Is there one and only one?

Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria

That’s not an ‘extreme’ haircut

As a parent of a black boy, I can only imagine how the mother of a five-year-old felt earlier this month when his Sandwell-based school asked her to keep her son at home until his fade haircut (basically a short back and sides) grows out.

Of course, parents must ensure that children’s appearance meets the standards expected by schools, especially as guidelines about presentation aim to ensure that pupils are safe as well as smart.

However, here’s some advice for school staff from a fellow practitioner: if you struggle to distinguish between dapper and dangerous or distracting cuts, venture into the community and talk to local barbers who style Afro hair. They will show you which styles are “extreme”, or exhibit gang membership, and which ones are, well, just run-of-the-mill.

Happily, you’ll find that most basic cuts such as low fades and bald fades fall into the last category.

Stigmatising a common, tidy hairstyle seems rather heavy-handed. I trust that the school’s website does not feature any publicity photos of children with long, untied hair because that would flout its rules about presentation.

Allison Carvalho
Via email

How to save music in schools

Minister for education Nick Gibb recently announced the formation of an expert panel to devise a new model music curriculum.

“All pupils at least up to the age of 14 should study music in school,” he said. Well, they won’t unless ministers stop schools from systematically removing creative subjects from their curriculum.

Music is a statutory national curriculum subject and should be taught up until the end of Year 9 (age 14). However, a large proportion of schools start GCSE option subjects after Year 8, so no music for the majority after this point. Also, only local authority schools have to follow the national curriculum, meaning academies are free to do what they wish. Some have removed music from their curriculum altogether.

At key stage 4, no arts subjects have been included as mandatory as part of the coveted English Baccalaureate (a mythical qualification that doesn’t even exist - nothing for the young person, just a measure for the school). This almost incentivises schools not to offer arts subjects at GCSE.

And don’t even think about going on to university to study, as you apparently won’t earn as much as other professionals, which is clearly all that matters (according to thinktanks such as Onward).

So let’s pump more money into music hubs. Will this mean more children truly learning an instrument and benefiting from a greater resourced music department or simply a couple of term’s worth of instrumental tuition in primary school, which has historically led to few young people continuing into secondary (where parents are usually expected to purchase tuition)? How about using the money to further subsidise music tuition in secondary schools, or creating a ring-fenced arts premium (as is the case with PE), paid directly to schools. I don’t question the honourable aims of music hubs, however. Like so many parts of education, funding levels have forced them to become businesses needing to generate large amounts of income (usually via instrumental lessons) just to survive.

Finally, the Department for Education is going to pull together yet another panel of experts to tell the music teachers what to teach. Is this really where the problem with music education lies... the teachers? Have we not been here before?

The majority of these reports call for more music and opportunity for young people in schools. Tell us something we don’t already know!

It is time the government, regional schools commissioners and Ofsted started challenging schools to do the following:

  • Deliver a broad curriculum offer to students of all ages, giving measurable credit to those schools that do. (I am hopeful the new Ofsted inspection framework will make a start on this).
  • Ensure that all statutory subjects under the national curriculum become statutory in ALL schools, including academies.
  • Support school music departments to ensure that funding has a direct impact within the classroom, not just as a taster or specialist tuition for the few.
  • Place value on the arts for all they bring to society (particularly the contribution they could make in combating our mental health crisis in schools and wider society). Don’t simply measure creative arts in terms of contribution to the UK economy (which is considerable anyway).

Without these measures, music will continue to disappear from the reaches of the many and become restricted to the few who can afford it.

Steve Trotter
Education adviser and former secondary head of music, Rotherham, South Yorkshire


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