Monday, 30 March 2020

Covid-19: Homeschooling and what it means for education

We are living through what could be described as the biggest global experiment in education.  The new norm is teaching and learning which are not tied to space.  I have been discussing virtual learning and the application of AI in education before, but it has now become a sudden reality and an unintentional consequence of the current pandemic.  Around the world, schools are responding to this mammoth challenge in various ways and with various degrees of their on-line capabilities.  A huge consideration is the availability of technological resources by individual children as well as the adequate parental supervision, and the provision of the suitable environment for distance leaning in children’s own homes.  While some schools have been able to provide laptops for their students to learn from home, this has not been the case for every child.  Additionally, not every household around the world has access to the Internet from home.  These inequalities will, without doubt, have an impact on widening even further the gap in educational achievement between the disadvantaged and more privileged young people. 

However, I predict that this live experiment in providing education remotely on such a large scale will have some huge long-term benefits, including the rapid development, and implementation, of on-line learning solutions, leading to the expansion of virtual schools and virtual learning environments.   In practice, this has the potential to revolutionise traditional schooling.  Although the social aspect of school education plays a huge part in young people’s development, and learning is essentially a social activity, the potential for future gains cannot be denied.  Greater application of information technology into everyday learning, including virtual schools and AI technology, have the ability to provide a more personalised teaching and learning experience for a truly individualised learning that is well-matched to each student’s individual learning curve.  Thus learning according to age and ability, and modified to meet particular learning needs, could become more of a reality with the greater use of adaptable on-line/virtual learning solutions, including novel ways to tackle homework or to monitor pupils’ progress, or communicating with parents.  Moreover, adaptable on-line learning solutions capable of adjusting instruction accordingly, are conducive to the development of learning mastery, through increased intrinsic motivation, thus leading to greater learning independence.


The modes of curriculum delivery have a direct impact on student assessment, because assessment is an integral part of any curriculum.  This academic year, as the pandemic catastrophe deepens, public examinations, quite rightly, are being suspended.  The overriding factor in decision-making is that the young people due to sit public examinations, starting from early next term, cannot be disadvantaged by the circumstances beyond their control and must be treated fairly.  Although for the assessment professionals and examining bodies this comes as a shock too, the measures to be employed in awarding students’ results will include comprehensive assessment data kept on students by schools.  These data comprise students’ prior attainment, on-going teacher assessment and predicted grades, which, in combination with statistical analyses utilised by the awarding bodies, will determine students’ final results.  Looking ahead, I feel that more benefits may follow with regard to the nature of end assessment/public examinations, leading to a proper reflection on what is important in our assessment systems.  Re-examining situational learning as well as more flexible learning environments –learning not space dependent – should lead to more reflection about what is important in our qualifications and examinations systems and what are the best ways to evaluate young people’s achievements in preparation for their next stages.

Right now, there are some other pressing issues surrounding homeschooling and how to enable young people to make progress with their academic work… Primary school children, understandably, need more direction, encouragement and support with their learning at home.  However, all young people benefit from a set routine – something that schools are great at providing because of the way learning in schools is organised.  Although it would be difficult to emulate rigorous school routines at home, which give young people the security of knowing what to expect next, sticking to some routines is helpful to managing learning and time at home during this crisis.  As all academic learning involves reading, writing and mathematics, these should be seen as the cornerstones of all learning. 

To help with organisation and realistic aims of what is manageable in every household, at least three hours, with short breaks, should be set for the purpose of home learning.  Some parents may have to juggle working from home with looking after their children.  Under the circumstances, it is useful to consider a “week” as seven days, rather than a 5-day working week.  This will provide more flexibility with organising learning for any 5 days of the week.   Depending on the guidance from schools, it may be overwhelming for parents to know where to start.  Where available, guidance from schools should be used in the first instance.  Many quality resources, including curriculum on-line for different key stages in education, provide useful guidance for different ages in education.  Home environments are also conducive to engaging with creative and imaginative work.  A good example of engaging with written and creative work at any age is keeping a daily diary and, as the days in home isolation progress, young people can get more creative and imaginative with describing their feelings, changing moods and using interesting vocabulary in their descriptions.  Younger children can start with single words (nouns) and then adjectives to describe them, leading to some sentences and making illustrations to support their ideas.  Incidental learning at home can provide another dimension to formal academic learning and supplement it through family discussions, private reading, games or interactions with siblings, or friends via video calls; this also adds a social dimension to all the interactions.  Above all, do not succumb to 'death by worksheet' and use playtime or exercise outings with children as opportunities for learning and exploring, and extending different facets of thinking and creativity.  Covid-19 itself can be used as a starting point for learning, for example, with regard to geography, science, mathematics or ethics, where the scarcity of resources can be considered.  Grandparents can be involved with reading stories or singing/performing music via video calling apps.  Successful homeschooling is underpinned with careful planning.  Being able to stick to weekly plans negotiated with children regarding their academic activities and general routines, will assist not only with greater accomplishments, but also with calmer households.


Predicting academic and personal growth of young people by the end of this catastrophe, is difficult.  We are living through the biggest educational experiment of our times, if not ever, and only history will tell…  My personal view is that, if families are serious about the achievement of their children, we may have a reason to celebrate when they eventually return to school.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Monday, 27 August 2018

Changing the Perception of Vocational Education Through the Introduction of T Levels: technical qualifications for young people at 16+

My involvement in developing T Levels in Education and Childcare as an expert panel member

I was excited at the prospect of developing these new technical qualifications.  I believe in greater choice of quality qualifications for young people aimed at equipping them with relevant knowledge and skills valued by employers.   In the UK, unlike in some other countries, for example, Germany, vocational or technical qualifications have been largely undervalued and, up till now, have had a variable record of adequately preparing young people for successful employability.   To remain competitive, all economies require a skilled workforce with the capacity to learn and develop in order to keep up with the changing demands and technological advancements.  It is therefore crucial that young people have the opportunity to pursue different high quality routes leading to secure employment.  Lord Sainsbury, Chairman of the Independent Panel on Technical Education concluded:

For too long the only educational opportunity that many young people have had is to take technical qualifications that fail to equip them with the knowledge and skills that employers value, and that are needed to progress to higher technical education.
           
Having been involved with developing T Levels in Education and Childcare, I feel that these qualifications will provide a real opportunity for young people at 16+ to pursue technical education specific to their chosen career.   Whilst there is academic value in studying for a higher education degree, this is a costly option and many young people study subjects with little relevance to their future employment.  Equally, many jobs do not require a degree level education, where technical qualifications can offer a more suitable preparation.  In support of T Levels, Sir Gerry Berragan, Chief Executive, Institute for Apprenticeships said: T Levels signal a real change in the qualifications landscape – offering school leavers an alternative to a purely academic route.

This year, we have seen a slight drop in university applications, which signals a greater need for diversification of qualifications at 16+.  I feel that the time is right to introduce new technical qualifications, T Levels, developed by industry experts and focused on extending theoretical knowledge as well as job-specific skills and behaviours.  T Levels in Education and Childcare, alongside two other T Levels, will commence in September 2020.  As an expert in education, I am really happy to see the priority given to developing these technical qualifications in the areas of education and childcare.  To ensure the best start for all children, highly skilled workforce is essential.  We know that the quality of early years education has an enormous impact on later educational outcomes.  It is therefore crucial that appropriately qualified staff work with young children. 


I am optimistic about these new technical qualifications.  They have been developed by industry experts and in consultation with relevant employers.  They will give young people more options at 16+ and provide relevant preparation for a specific career or higher education.  By comparison with other vocational qualifications on offer, these new technical qualifications will involve more classroom-based learning, thus offering a better balance between theory (knowledge base) and practice.  T Levels are modern technical qualifications.  They have been developed as a gold standard in vocational excellence and, whilst preparing for employability, offer an alternative route to further education or purely academic qualifications.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Discussing School Performance

Why do schools fail?

Schools are complex organisations with their own unique cultures and values.  Although they are all concerned with learning and teaching, and preparing students for their next stage in life, their environments and approaches to learning, and how it is organized and managed, often differ.  The school diversity in itself does not necessarily lead to poor outcomes and every school must be assessed on its own merit.  However, the scrutiny of failing schools suggests that, for whatever reasons, they often have some characteristics in common: unstable leadership, ineffective staff performance management, low expectations of students, high teacher turnover and difficulties with recruiting high caliber staff. 

According to the latest official figures, four out of 10 primary schools failed to reach the government 2017 target and one in eight (12%) of secondary schools in England failed to meet a new set of national standards based on 2017 GCSE results.  Among those 365 underperforming secondary schools, six were rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, the school watchdog.  These statistics demonstrate that schools fail thousands of young people in the system that is defined by the students’ end-of-year test results.

High level of school diversity and variety of operational approaches mean that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions for instant improvement.  Additionally, research indicates that schools are so preoccupied with accountability measures and end results that often processes leading to achieving these outcomes are lost along the way.  This can have a negative impact on final achievement because not enough resources are allocated to developing learning cultures and consistent approaches to learning, ultimately leading to improved end outcomes.

At the centre of school inspections, are school improvement and monitoring of quality standards.  Ofsted, responsible for inspecting all maintained schools and some other educational institutions, states that its “goal is to achieve excellence in education and skills for learners of all ages”.  Despite this noble aim, independent research indicates that there is little evidence that the current system of inspections leads to school improvement.  On the contrary, Frank Coffield, UCL, Institute of Education, asserts that alongside some benefits of the national monitoring of the quality of education, there are also some undesirable consequences, which reinforce failure, especially with reference to schools with challenging intakes.  The evidence from an empirical study by the Education Policy Institute suggests that the “most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be down-graded than the least disadvantaged”.   Coffield concludes that: “The very schools that need most help are further harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports that make recruitment and retention even more difficult.”

Recently, Bill Gates expressed his disappointment.  He feels that despite the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation huge investments in public education, “by and large, schools are still falling short on the key metrics of quality education”.

The search for quick common fixes for all failing schools is problematic because their circumstances and cultures are unique.   Unlike successful schools, poor performance schools often lack clear vision, robust strategic planning and rigorous self-evaluation.  Ineffective assessment systems and poor understanding of how assessment and constructive feedback can be used to advance learning can lead to underachievement.  High focus on end outcomes and accountability measures, and poor engagement with processes and strategies leading to achieving these end results, can contribute to underperformance. 

Discussing failing schools raises some uncomfortable questions relating to how we identify a school’s underperformance and what is done about it before generations of students fail to receive proper education or qualifications.  If the current system of school evaluations is flowed and fails to identify poor performance for early intervention, then its fitness for purpose should be examined.   Perhaps a system of truly independent school evaluations with a formative focus combined with validated self-reviews informed by 'pupils'  voice', would support school improvement in a better way and reduce student failure.  Greater engagement with reflective practice, where critical self-assessment is part of day-to-day monitoring and informs future development, can only contribute to school improvement and reduce failure.


References:

Department for Education (DfE) data; 2017 key stage 2 tests and GCSE examination results.
Stein, L et al. (2013). Education Disrupted: Strategies for Saving Our Schools. R&L Education.

Goodman, J. (2011).  The Spirit versus the Letter. King’s College London.