We hold the answers

This week I have been sent a newspaper article and a blog post, both of which resonated strongly with me and probably shows me that people know me well.

The first came as a tweet “@medg56 RT @Kenjaneth13: A 10 year old who sees the world as it is and envisions the way it should be tinyurl.com/la2l644 .. A young @melcashen….” To be honest I wish I was like this when I was 10 but my interest in politics has only come over the last couple of years.

Please take the time to read the post and even leave a comment.  After reading it I noticed I had tears streaming down my face.  Like Maggie, I have an interest in politics. An interest that started through the frustration of not being able to make a difference in education.  I decided I needed to know more about policy to understand what was happening in our education system so am completing my Master of Education Policy International.  I am hopeful that the more I understand, the more voice I will have to fight for education and the more people (politicians) will listen. Like Maggie I have the same why questions.

Maggie is obviously a special young lady who sees the world not only as it is but as it should be. This is the stuff we dream of teaching but instead there is a focus on tests rather than “potential, creativity and kindness.”

Another article was sent to me today by a colleague and definitely rings true. Last week saw the Education Columnist at the Daily Telegraph, Maralyn Parker, use the opportunity of her last day to share some advice with her readers.  Advice I also advocate.

Everything about your profession is politicised. Your classrooms, the facilities and resources available to you, the number and type of students you teach, what you teach, how you are taught to be teachers, what you are paid, the level of support given to you – all of these things are governed by highly politicised processes.” Her advice to this – be political.  And she is right!

We need to talk about politics, we need to talk to politicians.  We need to understand what is happening and ask questions.  We need to be educating our communities about what is happening.  No longer can we think we can’t make a difference.  It is time to make a difference, whether it is taking Maralyn’s advice and joining a union or a professional organisation, responding to discussion paper or even understanding what is happening through reading white papers such as the recent Victorian Government Action Paper. Talk about it at lunch time, in staff meetings and online. We hold the answers.

2615548443_9d1ea02dacImage: ‘In My Place

I agree with Maralyn that we are at such a pivotal time in Australian Education.  Our new Education Minister is set to make a lot of changes to national curriculum, autonomy in schools and privatising HECS debts as a start. Now more than ever we need to focus on politics. Education depends on it.

And I don’t think it is fair to leave it to Maggie to ask the tough questions.

A last tour

Our last day of visits took us to two different places.  Our first was to Donhead Preparatory School, a Jesuit school in Wimbledon that is a stepping stone to some of the exclusive grammar schools in the area and although they focus on academic achievements the Jesuit way is more important for them.  It is not often I step into religious or independent schools but I see many similarities here to the school I taught in during my time in England.  Learning is organised by topics and although lessons are inquiry driven the assessment pieces and learning activities are similar to those I taught 5 years ago.  It is like stepping into a museum of my teaching career.  I am confused by how it makes me feel that teaching in the primary sector hasn’t changed and students are learning the same things as the children 10 years ago, in a world that has changed considerably since then.

The highlight of the visit was having Josh show us around.  He was entertaining, interesting and showed a true care to others around him.  I could see the values of the Jesuit school coming out in the way Josh interacts with us.  The school values the fact that every boy can be their best and that they are privileged so therefore must show generosity to others.  He obviously loved learning and being at school but he also understood that he was lucky to be in his position of privilege.

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It is interesting that the things we hear from this school is not about testing or scores. In fact they try and move away from that.  They don’t want students to be a label, such as other schools when they are labeled according to their academic score.  They recognise that childhood is under threat in the area they live, that test scores are strangling the innocence of kids in this area as they push to get into the best secondary schools.  I see a pattern here of the lower the socio economic area you live the more tests are the focus of your education, whereas the more privileged a student the less emphasis on tests.

Well I thought there was a pattern until I visited LeSoCo, the further education college in Lewisham. Further education colleges are a vocational alternative to 6th form colleges for students in their 12th and 13th year of schooling.   According to the LeSoCo Ofsted report, Lewisham is “ranked as the 31st most deprived of 326 local authorities in England, and is characterised by significant socio-economic and educational disadvantages.”  I was blown away by their approach to students.   Maybe it had something to do with being treated as adults, or at least young adults and this is supported by being at a different location to their lower secondary education.  It could also have to to with the ethos of the college. In all of the presentations at the college the students were referred to as learners.   A nice moment of respect was when a student stopped our guide, Mark, to ask where they needed to go to reset their internet account.  Mark, not quite sure where to send her, asked us politely if it would be OK if he showed her where to go. Even though he had visitors with him, he put the student first.

On our tour  of the drama and dance areas with Mark, I couldn’t help but be energised by his enthusiasm for the quality teachers they had at the college.  We visited a drama class with students who were in their second year of college.  I am not sure if it was the nature of a drama class but the teacher was using a dance steps to learn about Iambic Pentameter. It was very hands on.  One thing that was clear was the respect for  the students.  Mark was the quality teaching co-ordinator for the school and was very proud to have such a great teacher working at the school.  With constant feedback and experience based learning she was a teacher he was showcasing to others.

In the dance class it was interesting to see the students working together.  They had to produce  a short dance routine and were having an opportunity to practice, receiving feedback from their teacher.  Not really anything different to what we would expect in a dance class in Australia except I found the students to have a strong mutual respect for other students in the class.  As each of the pairs had their turn, the others in the class would offer their feedback and some students were asking for extra instruction from others. It was very supportive and I wonder how they have been able to create this.

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Aspirations

At today’s visit is to Quintin Kynaston Academy, located just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios, it was wonderful to have students greeting and talking to us as we signed in at the school.  Students sharing their school and being proud of their learning environment is always an exciting way to see a school.  These students were very eager to talk and chat as they showed us around the school.

After the tour we had the opportunity to see some specific areas of the school such as the young carers group.  This group of KS3 & 4 students are carers of parents with mental illnesses who meet weekly to talk about strategies, share frustrations and develop awareness across the school. The self referred group has 8 students today and they are open and articulate about why they are there.  It was lovely to see students who are forgotten by a system such as this getting support not only from their school but their peers too.

I also had an opportunity to see the Aspire unit at the school. This unit is similar to a Pupil Referral Unit but sits within the school.  Students are referred to a PRU if they are excluded or unable to attend mainstream school where they can receive a more tailored and personalised program and some of the students here are referrals such as these from outside schools but can also come from within the school.  What makes this unique is the fact that the referral unit is attached to the school and classes are taught by mainstream teachers.  In Aspire students work in small numbers with teachers and support staff towards 5 GCSEs with two optional subject areas such as construction, hospitality or art.

I could see they were very passionate about offering opportunities for students but I find I am second guessing the school’s motives.  Is it really the students they have in mind when developing these programs or is it about the money. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to appear to be putting down schools and teachers and I don’t for a minute think that teachers are thinking money but that it the effect the policy in this country has.

PicMonkey Collage

Our second visit for the day cements my thinking about the pressures on schools with the push towards marketisation of education and academy schools. At our visit to the Jack Petchey Academy they explain they were one of the original new labor academies set up in 2006 to replace the failing Kingsland School with new buildings.

The idea of closing a school and starting a new one in exactly the same location to improve education intrigues me. I wonder how many of the students who attended the school before the closure of Kingsland school are still enrolled at the school.  I know that as a Labour Academy they would be able to select 10% of the students based on the specialisation of Health, Care and Medical Science as to change the socio economic standing of the school.  It would be interesting to see how long the school was closed for, where the students went in the meantime and how many of the original students returned to the school when it reopened.

PicMonkey Collage

This visit certainly got the conversation going in our group.  Many were upset with the amount of testing that was done.  And it seemed they were very proud of testing their students every three weeks and completing ‘Mocksteds’ whereas to many of us that is not what education is about.  The school seemed to be very strict and rules were enforced tightly. I have always had a belief of education being a better method than adding rule after rule. It appeared here that there were a lot of rules enforcing what they believe students needed for their work life but I would question whether they are learning or  just becoming compliant.

The fact that the sponsor could decide on some rules within the school worried me. It was mentioned that Jack Petchey is a great sponsor and although he is interested in the school he does not enforce them to do anything, except for the rule about no chewing gum.  So although in this instance Jack Petchey doesn’t make the rules the system is set up that it is possible for sponsors to decide on the values, rules and the way the school is run.

A common theme of the academies we visited was their use of language to describe functions within the school.  On speaking to the deputy at Petchey I asked about using principal instead of head teacher.  She said she felt it sounded better and more “businessy.”  It is interesting that they found it was a good thing to be using business speak in their school.  They also used words like line manager, deploy and secure, demonstrating the changing face of schools.

Once again there is no blaming the school for this but this is the repercussion of the system in place.  In listening to the school they are passionate about offering the best possible opportunities for students but they are surrounded by a system which promotes competition and testing.