Hats off to hard working volunteers

One of the privileges of being a parliamentary candidate is the opportunity to meet some amazing groups of people. Shortly after writing the previous post I went to meet a group of parents of children on the autistic spectrum or in the process of being diagnosed. The testimony of each and every one really reinforced the views I expressed in the previous post.

Here are a group of parents battling a dysfunctional education system that is lacking in resources and where many of the primary schools face cuts in funding under the new national funding formula. Light years ago, when common sense prevailed, local authorities had teams of SNASTs working with schools on special needs issues and training. After all, a new teacher cannot learn everything in a 39 week postgraduate course or a three year degree. Indeed, school-based training for teachers may make the exclusion of this type of special need from discussion during training even more likely.

The lack of a training syllabus for leadership also now means it is hit and miss whether new school leaders are properly prepared for their role and helped to understand the place of EHCPs and how to liaise with the health service. Local authority services are also under strain and the government’s policy towards the creation of new special schools seems lacking in definition and awareness of need.

The growing visibility of mental health issues and a greater understanding of autism has helped in some cases, but I am sure hindered in others as head teachers decide the challenges are too great and seek to offload pupils to special schools where with a little extra support and training they could be educated in community schools.

I know that charities such as MIND provide general training for teachers on the whole spectrum of mental health issues, and also that many issues don’t become apparent until pupils are in secondary school. Autism and its associated conditions need early detection and this is helped where class teachers and the other members of the classroom team, especially of the youngest children, are alert to any signs of a lack of development not fully within the normal parameters. Eyesight and hearing issues need monitoring, but so does the signs of a lack of social interaction and sensory issues that may act as pointers.

For all these reasons, special needs is an area that needs careful coordination and sensible use of resources. Government has decided that adoption services are too important to be left to single local authorities and has regionalised the service. I would argue that special needs is too important to leave to individual schools and MATs and is another function where a democratically elected local authority has a real and effective role to play in creating an excellent service. If a local authority fails, take it out of their hands, but also understand why it has failed and create the support for future success. Measuring failure without creating the opportunity for success is no way forward.

So, my best wishes to the parents I met and all other facing challenges they didn’t expect and the system doesn’t want to know about.


Bad news for life-long learning?

As a Liberal Democrat I have always been an advocate of life-long learning. As a result, the data published by UCAS earlier today on applications for higher education undergraduate programmes in 2017 makes disappointing reading. While the percentage of eighteen year olds applying to university for 2017 entry has reached record levels, the trend amongst older applicants is firmly downwards. This is very disappointing.

According to UCAS, in England, the rates in 2017 fell for all age groups aged 20 and older. The magnitude of these decreases in application rates is comparable to the large fall in 2012 for all of these age groups. The largest proportional decrease was for the 30 to 39 age group (-24.6 per cent proportionally), and the smallest decrease in application rates was for 20 year olds, who decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 3.3 per cent (-10.4 per cent proportionally). The one piece of good news is that despite these falls, the application rates in 2017 for these age groups were between 32 and 83 per cent higher than in 2006.

Elsewhere in the UCAS report it appears that applications from pupils living in disadvantaged areas in England continues to increase, especially applications from women. In England, the ratio between application rates from advantaged and disadvantaged areas was 2.3 in 2017, down from 2.4 in 2016 and appreciably smaller than the 3.8 recorded in 2006. Whether a return to selective education would reverse this positive trend is an issue worth debating. It would seem a likely outcome if the staffing of our secondary schools was affected by any reversal of the non-selective secondary school policy.

The other important feature of the UCAS data that is, perhaps, not unexpected relates to applications from EU domiciled applicants, where there was a fall of 3,000 in the total. However, it was still some 2,000 above the number recorded in 2014. Applicants from elsewhere in the world remained steady at around 52,000.

The ending of the bursary system for nursing degrees, originally negotiated by Frank Dobson as Health Secretary,  when Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced tuition fees for the first time has resulted in a drop of about 10,000 in the number of applicants for these degrees to around 33,000. It would have been helpful to know what effect this decline will have had on the ratio of applicants to places. Could it leave places unfilled or was the competition such that most courses will just find themselves with fewer applicants to consider? Much depends upon the quality of the applicants. If the government uses the cash saved from the bursaries to increase the number of training places on offer, as it suggested it might do at one stage, it is possible that fewer applicants could produce more nurses but less choice for providers. At that stage the issue of quality really does matter. We won’t know the final outcome until after ‘clearing’ in the summer when it should become obvious whether all the places available have been filled.

Breakfast Clubs good: but not for all?

A coterie of key research organisations have collaborated in a small scale study of the effects of breakfast clubs in schools. The results of their research have been published today. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8714

The headline on the IFS press release is ‘Breakfast clubs work their magic in disadvantaged English schools’. However, embedded in the text of the press summary is the observation that: “while relatively disadvantaged students (those eligible for free school meals) were more likely to attend the breakfast clubs, the intervention was more effective at raising the attainment of pupils from less disadvantaged backgrounds (those not eligible for free school meals). This suggests that support for school breakfast clubs might not reduce socio-economic gaps in pupil attainment.” For many this will be a disappointing outcome as it is always hoped that the breakfast will have benefits on learning: perhaps the results take time to trickle down or the sample of these pupils in the study produced this finding.

However, this finding raises the issue of cost effectiveness of this type of intervention. The report states that “gains in pupil achievement were delivered at relatively low cost. Dividing the costs by all pupils in the school, the intervention cost just £11.86 per eligible pupil over the course of the academic year. It also required 2.6 hours of staff time per eligible pupil per year. It should be noted, however, that the breakfast club take-up rates were relatively low – the average school’s take-up rate was between 13% and 52%. An increase in take-up would lead to higher costs, but also potentially higher impact on attainment.” There are, of course, other benefits, two of which are detailed below.

There did seem to be a positive gain in terms of attendance with “absence rates falling by almost one half-day per year. The effect was particularly strong for authorised absences, which are primarily due to ill health. This suggests that the breakfast club might have improved pupil health, although we did not find strong evidence to support this when looking at the average Body Mass Index of students in Year 6.” Sadly, late arrivals were not significantly encouraged by the offer of a before-school breakfast club to seemingly improve their arrival times. This is a disappointment, as it might have been hoped that the breakfast club would have helped encourage both attendance and an improvement in time-keeping. Perhaps the research didn’t cover a long enough period or the marketing to parents didn’t reach the groups that might benefit the most.

The other finding that teachers will welcome and that might be enough to encourage more schools down the road of breakfast clubs was that “Behaviour and concentration in the classroom improved substantially as a result of the breakfast club provision, suggesting that a better classroom learning environment is an important mechanism through which the intervention might improve attainment. The improvement in teachers’ assessments of their classroom learning environment was equivalent to moving a classroom from average ratings of behaviour and concentration to ratings in the top quarter of the schools in our sample.” Food aids learning, improves concentration and reduces bad behaviour. Great news for teachers.





Ebacc and ‘well-being’

Country Life isn’t a magazine that receives many mentions in this blog, indeed, this may be the first time it has appeared here. However, I did note that it has increased its sales over the past four years and that their Christmas 2015 issue recorded bumper sales. The BBC are also running a three part series about the editor and life in the countryside. Last week’s episode had a moving story of the farmer facing bovine TB in his herd of milking cows.

Anyway, this blog isn’t here to sell magazines, but to note that Country Life recently ran an interview with the newly appointed head teacher of one of the country’s private schools; Wellington College. In the course of that interview the new head teacher talked about what are coming to be known as ‘well-being’ lessons. He clearly saw them as an important part of a rounded curriculum. I also recently heard a presentation by a head of department at Dulwich College – another private school – with responsibility for well-being in the curriculum. At that school they also regard well-being as important for the staff members as well as their students.

This set me to wondering whether the DfE sees well-being as an important part of the curriculum in schools funded by the government. My guess is, with the current emphasis on the EBacc subjects, Ministers haven’t really grasped the wider responsibilities of schools in helping young people take key steps along life’s increasingly complicated journey. You cannot train to be a teacher of ‘well-being’, and government has steadfastly refused to make PSHE a compulsory part of the curriculum.

Now, it may be that government thinks this is entirely the role of parents and, while those either with enough cash to pay for private education or able to win scholarships can ask for this as part of the package they are paying for, it isn’t the duty of the State to provide it as part of their education offering. Such a position flies in the face of an education system where pastoral care has always been seen as an important part of education, at least for as long as I have been involved with education.

If government isn’t interested in the well-being of those it educates, it should be interested and involved in the well-being of those that deliver education. Among the many statistics the government doesn’t collect is, I suspect, is one about the trends in occupational health of the school workforce and especially of trends in mental health referrals, as opposed to just days lost through absence. Surely, any good employer ought to know what is happening, at least in the academies and free schools it directly funds.

The obvious starting place for action is the teachers’ workload and especially the twin areas of marking and preparation. An understanding of what is necessary and what is just fear of Ofsted might be a useful place for Ministers to start, rather than concentrating civil servant time and energy on deciding when and where it is appropriate to use an exclamation mark.

Gradgrind was wrong

The peak period for diagnosis of metal health problems is between the ages of about ten and thirty. For the first third of that time schools play an import part in the life of young people. However, whether they are as responsive to mental health issues as to physical health matters is worthy of scrutiny as the Fooks lecture I attended recently in Oxford made clear.

Dr Ian Goodyer from Cambridge suggested in the lecture that we all have a checklist of what to do if we encounter a cut finger; stop the bleeding, prevent infection and find a sticking plaster. But, there isn’t the same level of immediate in-house steps to dealing with mental health matters. Of course, if the cut is deep or otherwise problematic, you seek expert help. The same is true for diseases of the mind. But, how much do we offer simple suggestions to teachers and others to look for signs of an unwell mind? Thirty years ago Sir Keith Joseph as Secretary of State for Education started the assault on universities rather than schools preparing teachers with an attack on the study of the ‘ologies. I think he especially disliked sociology, but psychology became caught up in the general attack along with philosophy and the history and governance of education. He may have had a point. However, taken to extreme the cure is sometimes perhaps worse than the disease.

As we now teach children in classes, not just the class as a whole, there is a need to know pupils as individuals and not just en-masse. This is challenging for secondary school teachers with many different groups to teach each week. I am sure that trying to do the best for every child has added to stress levels of teachers, as it is much more demanding than teaching to the average of the class.

Teachers are the only group in society working day in and day out with young people going through profound physical, emotional and psychological changes, especially during their teenage years, yet how well do we prepare them for this task?

It would be interesting to see how the different routes into the profession deal with these challenges at the present time? How far do trainees meet with school nurses and counsellors to discuss the challenges young people face during adolescence and how they respond to them. Do we tell teachers to look for self-harming, for eating disorders, and for isolation and failure to engage in class? These are arguably as important as other child safety issues, but while these receive headline attention Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have languished as the poor relation of an under-funded part of the National Health Service. Fortunately, the Health Select Committee at Westminster has recently illuminated this dark space and Ministers in the Health Department, if not yet in education, have taken some notice.

As a man interested in numbers, I could look at the loss of productivity or the absence figures cited by Ian Goodyer in his lecture, but as a human being I see the tragedy behind the numbers and some of the effects on individuals and their families. If restoring the ‘ologies to teacher preparation saved one young person from self-harm, an eating disorder or a suicide it will have been well worth doing.