Guest Learner at St Catherine’s, Cambridge

Today we headed to Cambridge for our first school visit in England.  We arrive at Parkside Academy, which is a federation academy meaning they run more than one school.  In this case there are two secondary colleges and a Sixth Form college.  They are also about to have another school join their federation.  Federations begin when a successful school takes over the running of a less successful school.  At Parkside their reason for doing this is a feeling of obligation to help out the failing school and also the economies of scale which come with having two schools. This concerns me deeply when the government are no longer responsible for a school but this obligation falls to neighbouring schools.  If governments are no longer responsible for ensuring good quality education for everyone it sends a message that they don’t believe education should be a priority. Don’t get me wrong, Parkside appear to be doing a great job, but governments shouldn’t rely on this as a means to ‘fixing’ failing schools.

A short walk from the main campus of Parkside is their 6th form college (Years 12 & 13 or similar to VCE).  It offers the International Baccalaureate, an internationally renowned programme which encourages students to ask questions, develop their own identity, respect and communicate with others and learn how to learn. I am interested in how a programme like this fits into the rigid English inspection system. Ofsted, the office which carries out regular inspections on schools in England, is often presumed  to be looking for good test results or value added education. Here the focus is on creative learners who learn more than just facts and they believe this fits with the expectation of Ofsted.  It is interesting that some schools see Ofsted in relation to test results, where others look to the more holistic elements of education.

Our afternoon visit is one I have been looking forward to.  A look inside the hallowed halls of Cambridge University.  It really is like another world, not because of the fancy paintings on the walls or the beautifully manicured lawns but because of how few people get the opportunity to be part of the inner workings of Cambridge.  With only 400 students at St Catherine’s, from approximately 9000 undergraduates at the 31 colleges, you can see to get a University of Cambridge degree is a rather privileged affair.

Some of the features of the college include shortened terms where they attend for 3 x 8 week blocks.  It is expected throughout this time to be completely dedicated to college life and schooling.  Trips home for the weekend are discouraged during term time and you are expected to take part in the healthy competition between colleges.  A feature of the Cambridge system is the 1:1 mentor [programme where students spend an hour a week with their mentor teacher receiving guidance.

PicMonkey Collage

But we weren’t actually there to learn about St Catherine’s but rather to attend a seminar on career policy by St Catherine’s Professor, Tony Watts. He spoke of his study into the development of careers guidance in 14 countries and concluded that no one does it very well.  Across the world there is a lack of education based around identity formation, occupational identify, industry connections, funding and curriculum focus.  He looks to Germany as a model most with their dual system, strong career advice, relationships with unions and the respected ideal of vocational learning.

As I leave St Catherine’s, making sure not to stand on the grass (it is only allowed by fellows and frowned upon by commoners!) I realise on the inside, St Catherine’s has many similarities to any university as they look to answer questions and learn what they can.


Education: Use By DD/MM/YY

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

After our first two visits to schools we head back to the cathedral to form our questions and discuss what we have observed.  It doesn’t take long for the board to fill with questions.  As the first 6 are chosen they are quickly replaced by more, which will shape the discussions tomorrow.

Our first discussion questions are;

  • If you could change one thing in Education what would it be?
  • How can we increase the number of females in school?
  • How do you address the total lack of resources?
  • How do we build a bridge to a real career?
  • How do we create a physical learning environment?

All good questions that could be put on the table of any staffroom, in any school, in any country!

As the questions are stuck to the wall, people choose the discussions they wish to be part of, with the freedom to move from their group and join another discussion at any time. Interestingly we all stay put, the conversations flowing and ideas bouncing.

I join the careers discussion and we start to build a conversation around many different ideas, creating more questions than answers.

  • How do we engage students in real world learning?
  • How can we build passions into learning?
  • Could project based learning work in Rwandan schools?
  • Should there be a career subject?
  • Is the curriculum too limited with no variety?
  • How could guided choices support students?
But we did come away with some statements
  • Children need to be confident collaborators in order to prepare themselves for careers.
  • Creativity and innovation should be part of the curriculum
  • We need to use the community connections in schools
  • Using business projects (Eg; Collaborative groups to own a chicken and use to make as much money as possible
  • Career Education should start with identifying likes/dislikes and strengths/weaknesses
  • By understanding ourselves we can identify realistic goals.

We were also able to sum up some of the major obstacles, which we felt were important to identify before we could move forward.

  • Students dreams and aspirations are not realistic and based around society expectations.
  • Students dreams and aspirations are directed by their parents and the needs of the family.
  • Students do not have the skills to think for themselves.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the biggest obstacle of all came through. One of the participants shared a question, which had been playing on her mind for some time.

“One child spends 12 years in Education while another spends this time working in the field with his family.  After 12 years they end up in the same field, digging the same patch of dirt. What is the point of education?’

The obstacle here is not unique to Rwanda.  We see it in many of our schools where standardised testing, content based curriculum and compliance education is the norm.  The obstacle is that education is seen as an end product. It is expected that at some point learning ends and we are delivered a piece of paper like some kind of guarantee.

We can not put an end date on education.  Learning is forever.  But to prove this we need to teach life long learning and show our students that education is something more than a piece of paper.  It is dreams, hopes, aspirations and passion with no end date on opportunity.

There continues to be more questions than answers and the one I can’t shake is, ‘How do we create a society where Education is is part of a journey, not an end product?’