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Dear madam: letters to the editor 11/10/18

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, readers discuss negative views of education and the demise of PE

Tes letters to the editor

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, readers discuss negative views of education and the demise of PE

We need to change attitudes towards education

Pundits and peasants, who bang on continually about what is wrong with our education system, are two a penny. Those who can suggest prescriptions to cure what is wrong with practice – both researchers and laypeople – are fewer. 

But finding the person who can cure our collective malady is like searching for the Holy Grail. It’s unsurprising then that children bounce around in the middle of the Programme for International Student Assessment league table.

I salute Melissa Benn, founder of the Local Schools Network, for sticking her head over the parapet to diagnose our collective educational disease and prescribe a remedy ("Why we need a National Education Service", Tes, 21 September; subscribers can read the article here).

What has become patently obvious is that new structures just don’t work.

Were Martians to land on these green and pleasant lands, they would be hard-pushed to understand the myriad school types we have in our system – the private and the public sectors. They include community, foundation and free schools and academies answerable to Ofsted, regional schools commissioners, local authorities, multi-academy trusts, the Department for Education, parents and the community.    

Education has been a fertile field for researchers to plough their furrows, analysing what’s wrong with our system. What has been much more difficult is prescribing the panacea. Benn proposes a national service.

During the war, Rab Butler provided precisely that – a tripartite system – with grammar, secondary modern and technical schools. However, while that rationalised provision, it failed to lift the aspirational eyesight of at least 8 per cent of our children who leave school with no qualifications.  

Sir Michael Barber suggested that the key to improving educational provision was improving the quality of teaching, which is not unlike the Clinton campaign “It’s the economy, stupid!”

But it seems that what is missing from these prescriptions are culture and free will. There are many sections of our national community that do not value education. Down the generations, many families have not taken learning seriously. At one time, when we had full employment, the mantra was, “What’s the purpose of school? I am going to get a job  anyway.” When we moved to a period of unemployment, it changed to, “What’s the point of learning? I am not going to get a job anyway.”

Unless we can find a way of changing this mindset – in other words – changing the culture and impacting positively on free will, we will – educationally – continue to languish behind many of our competitors. How we do that, if at all, is another daunting task – more furrows to plough for our researchers.

David Sassoon
Director, Schools Support Services

Building subject knowledge is key 

Megan Mansworth is spot on in her analysis of the importance of teacher subject knowledge (“You’re the expert”, Tes, 28 September; subscribers can read the article here). Colleagues secure in their knowledge, whether a geographer or otherwise, can bring to life and move beyond a scheme of work, provide coherence to their curriculum and impact positively on their pupils’ achievement.  

So, as well as encouraging a head of department to subscribe to a subject journal, teachers should also join their respective subject bodies and associations. It is within these communities that teachers can connect with new developments in their disciplines, share practice with like-minded colleagues and recharge their subject batteries. 

Engaging and effective pedagogy is vital. But without secure subject knowledge, many lessons may be just a stroll along the well-trodden path rather than the more memorable exploration of a subject’s more unexplored territory.

Steve Brace
Head of education and outdoor learning, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

We're all in danger of fetishising research

Although still grieving from the disappearance of my beloved letters page from the new-style magazine, I am very supportive of recent changes to Tes. If it wasn’t already, it is certainly now the country’s (world’s?) largest online education platform supported by a fascinating weekly magazine.

I have two points to make, however. First, to congratulate the publication for attracting so many teachers to articulate and share their practice and thus help to create a long-needed pedagogic conversation. Second, to sound a note of caution about the current emphasis given by so many articles to “research”. Though it can be valuable in raising questions and offering tentative resolutions to issues, no piece of research solves, or dissolves, the value question, “What ought I as a teacher to do in this particular situation?”

We are all in danger of fetishising research – imbuing it with irrational reverence, authority and influence. 

Colin Richards
Retired senior HMI

Five ways to save PE

In the past two years in the UK, I have worked in three Ofsted "outstanding" and "good" schools. I also have relatives who attend three local schools. The experience regarding physical education has left me saddened and perplexed. 

The subject has not improved or moved forward in the name of education for 30 years. It appears we have completely lost touch with the benefits PE brings. Surely, quality core PE that provides positive outcomes for all students must be of the utmost priority. However, too many times I have seen negative experiences, unmotivated students and a created culture that does little to benefit the student now or for the future.  

It appears PE has been sacrificed in the name of Ofsted, exam results, costs and representation of the school name by the talented few.

PE teachers are pressured to focus on promoting the school through PE exam results and the performance of school sports teams.

Thus, the value of core PE as a subject suffers from the teachers’ approach, students and management. The subject is rarely, if ever, inspected. Activities seem to be dominated by a supervision approach that focuses on ball sports, (namely football, rounders, netball, cricket, basketball and rugby) with a little bit of athletics thrown in.

The consequences of a team sport approach in this learning atmosphere are apparent. The most able and strong dominate the team sports and grow in confidence. However, too many students suffer, lose confidence and lack participation, and therefore do not develop a positive mindset towards physical activity. For example, an underdeveloped 14-year-old is unlikely to enjoy rugby in January for many obvious reasons. Team sports do have their place in the curriculum but should be limited and provided with a careful approach.

Preference, should be given to individual activities that encourage the child to take responsibility, offering the chance of clear feedback and progress. If this is delivered right, it will encourage student coaching skills and a culture to do their best for themselves and not “just to be the best”, no matter what their ability. I believe creating this type of learning atmosphere is necessary for all students to gain a positive lesson. Furthermore, It is evident, in my experience, that a mixed-sexed class environment encourages greater participation and fair play, and reduces some of the negative aspects of healthy competitiveness.

I understand that the funding may not always be there, especially for swimming. However, rarely have I seen activities such as dance or gymnastics for boys, and if so, the gymnastics starts with the large trampoline. Where are the gymnastics pedagogical development skills from floor to apparatus? These full body movement and core challenges are essential for students to develop, especially through a physically changing growth period. This essential physical activity seems to be completely neglected at schools. 

Heads of school and governors have no or little idea of the structure and process of a child's mental, social and physical development within PE. School promotion and costs are their priority. I have seen NQTs employed as head of department, just so academies can save a few quid. Any experienced teacher will tell you, it takes three to four years before you can grasp the depth of the subject. 

There is a drastic need for change. PE (core) needs to be valued and respected. That has never been more evident than in today's health position. Compulsory PE should be recognised with a leaving grade. Within this, theory should be limited but focused on health of the individual. Surely, a student with a respectable grade in physical education would be seen positively by employers.  

Ability grading should revolve around a national structured form with clear targets in gymnastic movement, athletic competence, health and fitness, swimming, dance, self-defence and team sport. Less able students would boost their grades through effort, problem-solving, understanding and helping others within these activities.

Grading would be very simple: 1-10 in both effort and ability. It’s about doing your best, not being the best.

Here are my recommendations:

  • GCSE PE should be scrapped, as it devalues core PE;
  • Competitions with other schools should be limited, if there any at all, especially in respect of the traditional sports. Traditional sports should be provided by community clubs;
  • Teachers should be given the time to offer a wider range of activities during and after school that promotes participation for all and not just the talented few:
  • PE should consist of mixed classes. Students can then develop their social skills, work together in a less competitive environment and help each other to develop individually; 
  • Facilities need to be drastically improved, providing, ideally, indoor spaces for the majority of lessons in winter and outdoor spaces for summer. With an eventual target of replicating this across the country in order to get some basic consistency and structure in schools. 

Martin Bryant

Universities are for the community, too

I was not really surprised at David Hughes’ story about graduation ceremonies at universities and colleges (“Get inspired – attend a college graduation”, 24 September). Not because I recognise what he is saying, but more because it was party political conference season and his organisation needed to peddle an argument even if it is spurious and contrived.

Hughes talks about the diversity and lifelong learning opportunities that colleges provide in higher education, and claims that universities don’t give the same opportunity. I don’t know at which university he celebrated his daughter’s graduation, but please let’s have a bit of reality in the debate.

Universities are diverse, they offer a range of provision and thousands seek to take up places. They are one of the UK’s great success stories and are widely cherished across the world. Colleges do a great job and should be congratulated for what they do but to push his anecdotal story just tries to distort reality.

The University of Wolverhampton is part of the West Midlands Combined Universities together with Birmingham City University and Coventry University. Together, we have 80,000 students and every year at our graduation ceremonies there are thousands of local commuter students (in Wolverhampton it's 80 per cent of our student community); thousands of mature students; tens of thousands coming from black and minority ethnic backgrounds; thousands from low socioeconomic groups and being the first in their family to enter higher education; thousands with level 4 and 5 qualifications; thousands of part-time learners; thousands of disabled students; and thousands of mature students. So, please wake up to the diversity that universities have and let’s drop the narrow rhetoric.

All three institutions work closely with colleges locally to provide different pathways and have progression agreements in place to allow students to move on to a degree.

A number of these are second-chance learners who are coming back to education for their second bite. With more experience, confidence, direction and motivation, they have clear aspirations to succeed and change their circumstances. Such pathways open the door to help them to improve their life chances and often guarantee them a place on a university course as part of it. Ultimately, our mission is to provide our communities with an opportunity to succee,d and working with our college partners is a vital part of that process.

We are committed to narrowing the skills gap and being at the heart of economic regeneration. We also are engaged in a broad breadth of academic and vocational study, and have world-class research and strong business engagement. We are known for being of and for our communities and lifelong learning is what we do.

Professor Geoff Layer
Vice-chancellor, University of Wolverhampton

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