TES letters

One-sizefits-all rarely leads to improvement

Five words were enough for me to realise that Sir Michael Wilshaw's proposals for school clusters were going to be bad news: "all schools should be forced" (News, 5 September). It is extremely likely that the negative associations of forcing schools to join clusters would lead to half-hearted implementation.

Besides, as headteacher Tony Draper comments, clusters may not be helpful or relevant in all cases, anyway. Far better to encourage and empower schools to make their own decisions about what is in their best interests.

Martyn Steiner
Forest Farm School, Oxford

Stability in a turbulent world

John Bangs' piece "In praise of society's last moral guardians" (Comment, 5 September) reminds us that schools represent a stable moral culture for pupils in an otherwise turbulent world, and that teachers are custodians of justice and hope. As a microcosm of society, every school is an opportunity to ensure a steady culture with explicit, shared values.

None of this is articulated in the new national curriculum. Yet a school's values system is crucially life-enhancing for children as they develop ideas about themselves and the world in which they live.

Julie Robinson
Education and training director, Independent Association of Prep Schools

The only limit is your imagination

Wonder and surprise are key elements of practical work in school science, but were missing from the article "The science fiction that doing is best" (Professional, 5 September).

The challenge for science teachers is to design enquiry-based practical experiences for drier topics. Let's fill conical flasks with carbon dioxide and measure their temperature under a lamp, then discuss the validity of our evidence for global warming. Or shine white light through a custard-powder suspension to answer "Why is the sky blue, Sir?"

Every school prospectus contains a picture of an amazed class beaming at a Van de Graaff generator. Yet every science teacher knows that is simply a hook for explaining electrostatic forces - just like popping hydrogen for covalent bonding, flame tests for star absorption spectra and dissection for blood flow. Yes, it's fun, but that's not why we do it.

Ofsted says we must "maintain curiosity", with students "observing scientific phenomena and conducting experimental investigations for themselves". Getting the stuff to work is hard. Yet when groups collaborate and arrange complex kit for precision and reliability, that is pretty useful learning on its own. Merely telling students what they need to know will limit the wonder of science. To inspire their imaginations we must first apply our own.

Sean Davies
Science teacher, Sheffield

Bullying hurts but well-being can heal

It was interesting to read your recent article about bullying ("Killing with kindness", Feature, 29 August). Many readers will have been alarmed by this account of how devastating bullying can be for children and by the research that shows bullies tend to be more successful in life. But how can schools realistically tackle the problem?

VisionWorks for Schools writes programmes for teaching emotional well-being. Children first learn to like themselves - strengths, weaknesses, warts and all. They learn to recognise feelings and manage them. These are the first steps towards empowering a child, ultimately enabling them to accept responsibility for and take control over their own life. From here they progress to learning empathy - the perfect antidote for a potential bully. The programmes also cover communication, including body language, and much more besides.

In our experience, tolerance, friendships and an acceptance of difference are considerably more evident in schools when students have been taught these skills - we are doing children a disservice if we don't teach them. We look forward to the day when emotional well-being is explicitly taught in all schools.

Sue Allen, Ruthie Alexander-Morgan and Janet Grant
VisionWorks for Schools

`Decoupled' AS-levels may go off the rails

Laurie Smith is right to warn that the new GCSE system will increase the damage done this summer by the return to traditional exams ("Putting some thought into new GCSEs", Letters, 5 September). We can expect the results pattern of the 1950s to return. However, no teaching method can prevent this - the pattern is built into a system of end-of-course exams.

AS-level is the immediate problem, though. Research by Professor Ron Johnston at the University of Bristol argues that decoupling AS-level from A-level could lead to as many as one in five students capable of gaining a good degree not receiving an offer from their university of choice.

This figure is disputed by the government and the debate continues. But, in the meantime, action must be taken to stop the narrowing of students' options: we should make AS-level and A-level co-teachable in the first year of sixth form. Not only would this keep options open for students - they would not have to choose which courses to take to A-level until the middle of the first year - but it would also solve a pressing staffing problem.

If AS-level and A-level are not co-teachable, the school or college has to provide twice as many teachers, and most institutions cannot afford to do so. However, if AS-level and A-level can be taught in the same class, staffing is not a problem. Ofqual must get off the fence and insist that they be co-teachable for all subjects in the first year of sixth form.

Trevor Fisher

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