Dear madam: letters to the editor 17/6/19

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss qualifications and skills, data and curriculum

Tes Editorial

Tes letters to the editor

The case for replacing GCSEs and A levels

Magnus Bashaarat is right that GCSEs, particularly as skewed by the EBacc school performance measure, are no longer fit for purpose (“The schools minister’s defence of the new GCSEs? Fail”, 4 June). 

Since its introduction in 2010, the EBacc has narrowed pupils’ learning experiences, significantly reducing the number of GCSE entries for creative, vocational and technical subjects. Business leaders have been alarmed by this trend, aware that the economy is being deprived of many of the skills it desperately needs to grow and be more productive. 

More generally, GCSEs need to be replaced with curriculum and qualifications that better meet the needs of the contemporary and future world. First, the government obviously needs convincing. Research, including that by the World Economic Forum, suggests that the skills that will be most valuable in the future will combine cognitive ability, technical aptitudes, creativity, innovation and emotional intelligence; strongly indicating that learning should be broadened and not narrowed.

Such breadth will not be achieved in any meaningful way unless we tackle head-on the long-standing cultural bias against vocational and technical education, which contributes substantially to the country’s growing skill shortages. At the same time, no other European country requires its teenagers to take national examinations at both 16 and 18, and virtually all young people today stay on in full-time education or training until they are aged 18. 

Serious consideration then needs to be given to replacing GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications with an integrated curriculum and set of qualifications for all 14- to 19-year-olds. This was something proposed in great practical detail by the Tomlinson review 15 years ago, but rejected by the then government.    

Chris Pratt
Author of Building a Learning Nation

Schools need flexibility to teach the right skills

As a former head of a state school and current governor of two state schools, I write in support of Magnus Bashaarat’s article arguing for a change to public examinations at 16.

Since students have been required to stay in education until 18/19, there has been an urgent need to review the educational experience (and testing) of young people without being constrained by a system designed for a school leaving age at 16. It may be possible for independent schools to offer a varied and exciting curriculum by opting out of certain GCSEs but, sadly, this option is rarely available to state schools, which are measured by public examination outcomes rather than by the quality of education they provide.

The public, influenced by government (EBacc, etc), is inculcated into this system. Schools need flexibility to provide the challenges and develop the skills among young people relevant to a happy and successful life. In a busy school day with a curriculum crammed with GCSE (or similar) courses, it is extremely difficult to deliver this solely within the content and context of lessons. For most schools, there is very little time beyond this. The final assessment, in whatever appropriate form, should be at 18. The argument has been around for many years – perhaps one day the Government will look into it?

Stephen Nokes
Via email

GDPR: Schools are in a data minefield

I read Nick Morrison and Martin George’s “Investigation: Schools heading for pupil data scandal” (31 May) with great interest.

Professor Ross Anderson is quite right to advise that schools should understand what personal data they keep and for what purpose. For each and every instance of personal data-processing, schools need to be able to state, and justify, a separate lawful basis from those available under GDPR. Consent as a lawful basis should be treated as a last resort.

This information is usually communicated to data subjects via a privacy notice, and should include pupils, staff and parents. Sadly, the privacy notice template published by the Department for Education, which most schools appear to be using, is deficient when it comes to detailing, and justifying, a separate lawful basis for each instance of personal data-processing.

Professor Anderson reasonably asserts that the average school would fail a GDPR audit “by a mile”. For those schools that disagree, how about processing separate subject access requests from a pupil, parent and staff member and assessing if you met your GDPR obligations? Don’t forget this includes all data held externally on your behalf by data processors, and you don’t get extra time to respond during school holidays.

Duncan Baldwin of the Association of School and College Leaders argues that “there are so many benefits that outweigh concerns about where the data is held and so on”. As both a parent and data-processing professional, it is precisely this standpoint that I find most concerning.

Unfortunately for Mr Baldwin, data security is not the primary concern. The GDPR is quite clear that personal data processing should not take place unless it can be demonstrated to be “necessary” for a specific purpose, and a lawful basis must be communicated and justified. To quote the Information Commissioner’s Office: “If you can reasonably achieve the same purpose without the processing, you won’t have a lawful basis.”

Under GDPR, schools as data controllers and their data-processing partners have joint liability. The biggest threat to both schools and their data-processing suppliers comes not from ICO fines but from the lawyers who will no doubt figure out how to monetise GDPR non-compliance.

To avoid ICO fines, a Daily Mail outcry, as suggested by Professor Anderson, and the fee-chasing lawyers, schools really need to take a long, hard look at their current data-processing landscape and retain only those applications that can be truly defended as “essential” – a test that may have to ultimately be defended in court.

Paul Johnson
Via email

Take your curriculum outdoors

We’re now entering the warmer summer months when teachers may be faced with their pupils’ pleas of, “It’s hot, so can we please do this lesson outside?” So Marc Smith (“Are outdoor lessons just a distraction?” 5 June) offers a timely and well-evidenced reminder of the value of outdoor learning.

Far from being an optional extra, such experiences are central to many subjects. For example, within geography there are clear requirements for fieldwork as part of the national curriculum and exam specifications. Given Ofsted’s new inspection framework, schools are now bringing a renewed focus to their curriculum area of work. It is, therefore, an opportune time for them to also consider how their curriculum might extend beyond the classroom walls, and into the outdoors. 

As Smith identifies, outdoor learning not only benefits young people's academic performance but also their overall wellbeing. 

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

A curriculum for every child?

Curriculum is important, very important, but so is resisting hyperbole when discussing it. Take the title on the front cover of Tes (31 May): "How schools are building curricula that work for every child". Every child? Every single child? With no exceptions? After 50-odd years in education and visiting countless schools, I have yet to find one that worked for every child.

Then there is the claim that in a school that has embraced a “knowledge-rich” curriculum “any child in a given class can talk authoritatively and enthusiastically about their topic”. Really? Every single one without exception? I could go on citing other overblown claims both in Tes and in social media

It’s great that curricula are at long last being subject to development and scrutiny after 30 years in the Ofsted-and Department for Education-sponsored “wilderness”, but let us be modest and realistic in our claims. Lawrence Stenhouse got it right more than 40 years ago: developing a curriculum “is not in practice very sophisticated or efficient”. It was true in 1975; it will be true in 2025.

Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria




Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Tes Editorial

Latest stories

Geoff Barton

Omicron, nativities and the DfE: Another fine mess

Schools are being told what to do by those with no concept of the reality of running a school - and it's only making an already tough situation a lot harder, explains Geoff Barton
Geoff Barton 3 Dec 2021
New headteachers - here are 9 things you need to know

Headteacher wellbeing and sources of 'streth'

Former headteacher Chris McDermott set out to find out the true causes of leader stress and support – and in doing so coined a whole new term, as he explains here
Chris McDermott 2 Dec 2021
Transdisciplinary learning: how to embed it in your school

Why you need a transdisciplinary curriculum

At the Aspirations Academies, six hours a week are dedicated to applied transdisciplinary learning - but how does it work? And should you apply something similar at your school?
Steve Kenning 2 Dec 2021