Design Matters again

I heard on the Today programme this morning about the initiative by the V&A Museum in London to boost the status of design and technology as a subject in our schools. Looking back over the posts on this blog, it seems several years now since the subject generated a post on its own. Maybe this is because of the overwhelming narrative that the only subjects of worth are those in the EBacc, so beloved of Ministers.

This blog has never accepted the view that the EBAcc represented a broad and balanced curriculum, and has certainly made the point that subjects more related to real life and the working world of many millions of citizens deserves more appreciation in our schools. Can our schools currently help produce the next generation of designers to power future companies that will rise to the heights of Apple?

The recent commemorations of D-Day reminded me both of the part played by Hobart’s funnies in the landings and of the importance of the Bailey bridge, an early example of which can still be found on Port Meadow, just down the road from where I live in Oxford. Both are examples of good design fitting a purpose.

However, there will be a problem teaching design and technology as a subject to everyone in our schools unless there is a real push on recruitment into teacher training.

Design and Technology currently languishes as the subject at the foot of the recruitment table, with the worst record on the percentage of required places on ITT courses being filled. The V&A could help to inspire a scholarship scheme such as for physics, chemistry and some other subjects, as part of the conference it is hosting today. If design and technology is so important, then so are those that teach it.

There is a lot of information around, not least on TeachVac, about where the schools trying to recruit design and technology teachers are located, but it requires more forensic analysis of the School Workforce Census to discover those schools where the subject has either been eliminated from the curriculum or severely curtailed. I also suspect that in some cases art and design and technology have become merged into a single department or faculty with consequent effects on both curriculum areas.

I am sure that toy manufacturers can also play a part in awakening more interest in the subject by creating making toys rather than playing screen-based games. If in order to progress and win a game you needed to demonstrate making skills that might prove an incentive for the learning how to make and mend rather than use and throw that so characterises many areas in our consumer society from fashion to food. If we make our meals, are we less likely to waste the food?

Design and technology needs a series of champions to raise the profile of the subject in our schools. I hope that the conference as the V&A, a wonderful repository and showcase for the applied arts, design and technology will be the start of the revival in the fortunes for the subject in our schools.


Gas cooking?

According to the BBC new this morning, the Prime Minister addressed a gathering of Tory activists in Oxford yesterday, at their National Conservative Convention.

At the same time as the Conservatives were gathering in the City, I was attending the spring meeting of the Liberal Democrat Education Association also being held in Oxford. Now it is worth pointing out that the Lib Dem meeting was attended by the Lib Dem MP for part of the City and some of the county and city councillors elected as Liberal Democrats for wards and divisions across the City. On the other hand, the Conservatives currently only have an elected MEP to represent the City; irony or irony. There are no Conservative MPs, County or city councillors elected anywhere in the City of Oxford, and their lack isn’t due to any defections, recent or otherwise.

Anyway, enough of political facts and on to campaigns. At the Lib Dem education conference, I proposed that we build on the report of the Committee on Climate Change issued last week that stated as an aim that, ‘From 2025 at the latest, no new homes should be connected to the gas grid.’ The same aim should be true for new public buildings, including new schools, of which there are likely to many built in Oxfordshire over the next decade to cope with the 100,000 new homes to be constructed across the county.

However, I would go further than just eradicating gas from the design of new buildings, and I proposed a campaign to start by looking at school and college kitchens in both state and private schools and colleges, as well as our universities and asking, ‘are you cooking with gas?’

There should then be a operation, if necessary backed either with funds culled from excessive school balances or some other source of funding, to replace existing gas cookers with alternatives, such as induction hobs. Once gas cooking has been removed from education establishments, whether used for cooking meals or in food technology (home economics for those of my generation, and domestic science for those with even longer memories) lessons, where they still exist, we can then move on to the bigger task of asking how schools and colleges are heated and what can be done to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by changing from gas heating systems?

I also wonder whether those pupils that went on strike over climate change could start an audit of climate performance in their schools, working along with their School Councils and governing bodies. After all, Strikes demonstrate concern: actions demonstrates commitment to change. From such small acorns in individual schools, might the mighty oak or real change start to grow.

Of course the biggest resource in schools that could help climate change is the playground. As I have pointed out before, playgrounds are used for their intended purpose for a fraction of the year. Could some clever researcher help turn them into a source of power for heating and light as well as where children can gather and play?


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.

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.





Food, glorious food

By sheer happenstance I was being interviewed by a BBC local radio station at 5pm on Tuesday when the story about free school lunches for all 4-7 year olds was released. The news that 16-17 year olds studying in further education will also be eligible for free meals on the same terms as their colleagues in schools was rather lost in the bigger announcement.

As a result of being in the BBC’s Glasgow conference set up I received a full briefing just by listening to those around me reciting their pieces to the different radio channels and stations news bulletins around the country. Consequently, I was able to respond to my interview’s questions with rather more fluency that might otherwise have been the case, and indeed with more fluency than on the story about reading that was the reason I was ‘on air’ in the first place.

But, enough about me: this is a policy that is a game changer. No creating sheep and goats in the primary schools of the future; no worry for those parents who dip in and out of poverty about whether they qualify for free meals if they take a particular job; no rows about packed lunches and what might be in them today, and where to find the time to shop for them and then put them together. And, on the positive side, children will be learning social habit together; children being introduced to new types of food; less exposure to unhealthy food; better concentration in the afternoon; and every child with at least one hot meal a day.

The way the policy is to be paid for is yet to be announced, and local authorities will be asking about the capital costs for kitchens, and the delivery expenses for rural schools where meals are prepared centrally. These are important consideration to be overcome, but small in proportion to the good that the policy can deliver.

There are those who decry the use of universal benefits even when, as  in this case, the benefit is both financially and socially useful to society as a whole, but better off parents can choose to donate the cost of the meals to charities such as Children in Need or their local food bank. For others is is like an annual cash boost of around £500 per child on the wage packet.

Eventually, I hope that the cash can be found to extend the policy to all at the junior stage of education, up to age 11. Habits are reinforced at that stage, and the link between the endless TV programmes on food and the reality of lunches can be made even more apparent as children begin to question what is put before them.

One other question that will inevitably arise is whether teachers will be expected to eat with the pupils or to be allowed a clear break at lunch-time? Many may choose the compromise of eating the actual meal together, but then retiring to the staffroom for a deserved bit of ‘me’ time. So, there may be some extra staffing costs in lunch-time supervision as all children stay on site.

Nevertheless, this to me is one of the best achievement for the whole of our school system in many a long year. I cannot recall the last time I felt so good in front of a BBC microphone. It was a strange feeling.