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Blog Archive 2016-2017

November 2017

For a number of years the Holocaust Educational Trust has sponsored students and staff to visit the former Nazi concentration and death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The visits are based on the premise that 'hearing is not like seeing'. The visits aim to increase knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust for young people and to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable. The details of the latest visit by Oaklands students and staff can be found in the next edition of the Oaklands News.

'Hearing is not like seeing' underscores the importance of witness. To witness means to give a testimony that is based on personal knowledge. The evidence is not based upon supposition or hearsay, but from personal experience. I am sure many of you can remember the power of the personal testimony from the students we sent to Kenya a few years ago. One of the great and deeply significant names given to Christians is the name ‘witness’. I do not profess to be a biblical scholar, however, I am aware that the word appears many times in the Bible, particularly in the Book of Acts. Paul’s personal encounter with Jesus Christ empowered him to speak about truth and love. Paul’s wholehearted defence came from a firm conviction that he was speaking out of a true relationship with God who desired all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Why are some testimonies able to influence positive changes while others statements are met with disbelief? We live in a world where there are many personal testimonies that obviously lack credibility, power or authority.

I am sure all of you are aware of the work we are currently undertaking through the Romero Award. The Award started though a vision (idea rather than apparition) I had in 2013. Whilst working with the Romero Trust an opportunity arose for a trip to El Salvador, the spiritual home of Oscar Romero.  

Mr Sumba returned from Central America last week end whilst away he wrote to me, and I quote “…I know that having seen and heard the reality of the people here, something has moved in me. I have seen a side of El Salvador that I was not aware of. I had come to know about Monsignor Romero but now I have placed him in his people. Hearing the people who worked with him describe him, talk about him and seeing his picture painted everywhere has been a truly moving experience. I don't think I have ever experienced something like this in my life… The side of things which has really thrown me is the violence during the civil war- the brutality of it is numbing!”

Those few words from Mr Sumba underscore the importance, power and authenticity of true witness. We look forward to him sharing his experience over the coming months.

 

October 2017

I have been writing this blog on and off for the last fortnight.  Every time I think I am able to draw it to a close something happens and I have to rewrite it.  Therefore, I apologise if this feels a little staccato, but please read on.

Like me, I would imagine most of us are creatures of habit and routine.  For most of this term, I have been cycling to work about three or four times a week.  In fact, it is slightly more than cycling to work as I have woven this into my exercise routine. It involves being in the saddle by about 5:30am and then clocking up about 30 miles around Gosport, Portsmouth and Hayling Island; arriving in school by about 7:45am.  Habits and routines are powerful things. Once in motion they seem to have a life of their own; each morning I cycle past the same people at around the same time. At 6:30am, I board the Gosport ferry, stand in the same place and my fellow passengers generally do the same. Research shows that on average, 40% of what we do every day is habit and routine, either by necessity or by design.  Both beneficial and destructive, everyone deals with habits and routine daily.

I am sure most of us have heard the saying, “you are what you eat”.  This can be extended to the habits and routines that dominate our lives. It is an almost excruciatingly obvious statement when we stop to consider it, and yet its truth often escapes our awareness. Character is not an individual choice. Our character, like our faith, is formed through repeated, habitual acts of kindness, generosity, love and compassion.

Like most teenagers, when I was growing up, I had a dislike to a number of rules and expectations that governed family life.  Now as a parent, I realise it is partially a means of survival, but more importantly, it helps form character. My parents cared about when I came home, what I ate, or who I ran with because they loved me; and because they loved me, how I lived mattered to them. Knowing that we are creatures of habit, they took seriously their role in guiding the habits and routines that would form not only my character but that of my brother and sister as well.

Like going to church, praying or learning to play an instrument, the impact of any habit is cumulative — it grows and develops over time.  And so, we have to commit to it, we have to overcome those initial anxieties and sometimes we have to put our heads down and plough through a barrier.  This is particularly pertinent when as a parent you hear the mantra, ‘church is boring’.

It hardly seems possible that by the time we return after half term, October will be virtually over. For Year 7, this is the first half term in secondary school and the students have settled in really well, enjoying all that the school has to offer. It has been exceptionally busy with open evenings and open mornings; thank you to all the parents who commented so favourably on these events - it is always gratifying to hear comments which are supportive of the Oaklands community and its ethos.

A considerable amount of work has been completed in the classroom and we have seen large numbers of students also taking part in the extra-curricular life of the school. A small number of students have visited Italy as part of the Erasmus programme - well done to all involved!  You may have heard that our school production this year is going to be Beauty and the Beast.  This has generated a huge amount of excitement amongst the students and I know that lots of them are attending the auditions that are currently taking place.  Best of luck to all those involved.  The show will be staged in the Spring term and further information will follow.

Students have successfully raised almost £2,000 already this term for charity. I was very proud of Oaklands students when I visited them bag backing for charity at Waitrose.  Last week was St John’s Week and students were involved in a number of fundraising activities.  Last Friday students also gave £1 for non-uniform day. It occurred to me that for about the last twenty years the non-uniform charity contribution has been £1; it might be time to review this. The generosity of our students and the community in responding to those in need is heartening.

Our expectations, as you would want them to be, are high.  As part of our drive to provide your child with an outstanding educational experience, we expect them to progress at a level above national expectation across the curriculum.  Our teachers are continuously improving the quality of their teaching and the standard of feedback, together with target setting, to ensure that your child knows what to do to in order to succeed. To this end, we have devised a programme called the ‘Oaklands Way’, which offers teachers excellent ways to be effective and to promote student learning through a consistent approach. It supports teacher planning, motivates students and re-energises classroom activity.

The decision to place on hold the Diocese’s plan for multi academy trust expansion has created a little ‘noise’ amongst parents. It has dominated my thoughts for the last few weeks. The reasons the Diocese gave were political and economic. The statement issued by the CASO Office can be found here:   http://www.portsmouthdiocese.org.uk/enews/academies-update.php

The school, like the Diocese, did commit time and resource to the project over a considerable period of time. The impact of this is currently being assessed. The Diocese Trustees meet later this term, after which we will know a little more.

Finally, the OPA Craft Fayre is being held on Saturday 18th November. To book a table please see the details in the last Oaklands News.  Please do come along and support this event, which provides much needed income to the Parents’ Association, who will then use that money to support projects in school.

 

August 2017

With under 24 hours until the GCSEs results are released, I feel compelled to write again this month. These results will be the first in English language, literature and maths to be marked on the new 9-1 grading scale. At Oaklands we have been preparing for this ever since the reforms were announced, not just because the grading structure changes but also because the exams were tougher.

Interpretation of the results will be difficult; for a while a grade 5 was going to be the gold standard, then in the spring the DfE announced two types of pass; a grade 4 would be a standard pass and a grade 5 a good pass. If you read around the media there are suggestions that to avoid a crash in statistical outcomes, exam boards have had to lower grade boundaries in an attempt to avoid a sharp decline in this year's results. This sounds a little like political interference.  We will not know this for certain until all the detailed grade boundaries have been published. The number of students expected to attain a 9 in the new system, the highest grade, is expected to drop; last year in Maths 5.7% of students achieved an A*.

Every August we hear stories of grade inflation. The statistics are quite revealing; in 1990, 47.7% of entries attained a C or above and by 2016, this had been raised to 66.7%. I would argue that this is a result of a significant improvement in teaching over this period. We have more good and outstanding schools than ever so something must be going well in the classroom.  Alongside this there is evidence that some schools have ‘milked the system’, accruing GCSEs or equivalents by students taking soft options and subjects that give multiple accreditation. By next year all of this will have been flushed out of the system.

All teachers would agree that we need an examination system that measures the ability of students in a fair and comparable manner. Arguably the current GCSE system has reached the end of its sell-by-date.  However, the manner in which the new system has been introduced has caused a great deal of angst and frustration. The first students to take new GCSEs should have been the first cohort who took the new KS2 exams, these youngsters are just about to start Year 8.

With the new GCSEs has come the demise of coursework in many subjects and the return to a single terminal examination, with no re-sits allowed.  On one hand teachers moan, justifiably, about the workload involved in coursework.  On the other they recognise that coursework examines skills that cannot be assessed sitting at an exam desk for two hours.

Whatever the outcome tomorrow all students have worked incredibly hard, probably more so than their 1990 counterparts. We should celebrate the achievements of all students at all ability levels, and make sure that this is their day.

July 2017

If you follow my blog, you will be aware that although we are on a summer break I like to post something over the holiday. Once a staple of science fiction, near-instantaneous global communication isn’t just a reality, it’s an everyday fact for people all over the globe consequently I can complete this whilst enjoying what is left of the summer sunshine.

Today  15th August is the feast of the Assumption. The Gospel story tells of Mary journeying “quickly” to visit her  cousin Elizabeth. For many of us there will be a resonance here as we head out on our holidays. Mary does not have the advantage of a global communication network at her fingure tips, her trip is to share the news that she is to be the Mother of God. This is the beginning of a great Journey for Mary that will end with her final journey to heaven which we celebrate today on the feast of the Assumption.

For our students waiting for ‘A’ level results, this week will be the start of the next part of their journey.  I am anticipating a few surprises when the results are published on Thursday. Many of my colleagues talked about the exam papers this year being significantly more challenging than in previous years. For universities storm clouds are forming around  admissions. This week the Telegraph Newspaper reported that, over 4,000 courses still have vacancies at 15 out of the 24  Russell Group universities. So I suspect there will be some real bargains in clearing this year. Students who have missed by a grade or two may still get into their preferred choice. We saw the beginning of this trend last year.

One side of the problem has been created by the marketisation of university places. In 2015 the lid was lifted off recruitment, consequently universities need to recruit certain numbers to sustain their business model. This has in part led to an unprecedented number of students being offered unconditional places following UCAS application. Oaklands students have benefited from this, holding unconditional offers.

The other side of the problem is evident in the application famine. There are 4 key issues driving this now and in the future.

Population: According to the ONS the UK student population has dipped, in 1998 (These students are entering university this year.) there were 716K births, compare this with 750K births in 1994. (These student are finishing a 4 year degree this year.) The situation will deteriorate  further; in 2000 there were 679K births, these students will start post 16 education this September.  The birth rate did not return to 1994 levels until after 2003.

Apprenticeships: More employers are offering high quality apprenticeships; according to government statistics since 209/10 the number of apprenticeships in the post 18 age bracket has grown by 35% to 154K in 2016. The Apprentice Levy Policy  will continue to encourage growth in this sector.

Complexity of examination: Both GCSE and ‘A’ levels are becoming appreciably more challenging, whilst this is not a bad thing, it will result in some students, who may had previously made a university application, looking at other opportunities particularly post 16 courses that lead to high quality employment. This is understandable particularly if the salary is attractive; for the Civil Service Fast Track Apprentice Scheme the salary is reported to be £19,500.

Brexit: last year universities stated to see a fall in EU applications this has continued again this year.

For students, whatever happens on Thursday 17th August 2017, good bad or indifferent it marks the start of the next phase of their journey.

Whether you have decided on an apprenticeship, off to university, faced with clearing it is important to be proud of your achievements, even if your immediate plans do not quite come to fruition.

June 2017

There is so much I could write about in my blog this month.

Year 11 and Year 13 are just about to finish their exams after working very hard. I am sure many of us can remember that time when the exams were over. For students returning to study in September, this is the longest holiday they will have. Enjoy it!

Then we have the recent tragic events in Manchester and London. A number of students have used the word evil; it is difficult to describe the events as anything else.

Now we have the prospect of a hung parliament.  For schools, how this impact on educational policy will play out over the next few months.  The national funding formula for schools is likely to be the first casualty, followed by the Government’s plans to expand grammar schools. Both of these policies have been the subject of much criticism and debate.  I doubt whether a weak Government will be able to go anywhere near controversial policies such as education. Then there are the policies already in motion, for example, academisation.  It remains to be seen if the Government will now go head-to-head with Local Authorities who have opposed this policy.

Over the last few days I have been taking morning registration, this has provided me with an opportunity to test the political climate. Today I was with 9 St Clare and those I spoke to had informed opinions.  According to the statistics, about 72% of young people turned out to vote in the General Election, whilst this might not appear impressive, The Metro newspaper reported that in the General Elections in 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015, only around 40% of us exercised the right to vote. 

So what has fired up the younger generation? I suspect that there is no single answer to this. Over the last 10 years, all schools have been teaching Citizenship and the democratic process. We have improved our youngsters’ democratic literacy and this has to be a good thing. In addition, there are the policies that have a direct impact on youngsters’ lives.  Our Sixth Formers are concerned about the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the burdensome debt they will inherit at university. Young people are worried about zero hours contracts and the ability to live independently in adult life.  Housing is a pressing problem. They are also concerned about the impact of Brexit. Conversations with older students also suggest a growing resentment from this  generation of the baby boomers and the privilages they currently have or have enjoyed.

So what happens next?  We will have to wait over the coming days and months. There are troubled times ahead and some of this will ripple down into education.

April/May 2017

For many, the National Trust is a great British institution. You could be forgiven for thinking stately homes, cream teas and recreational pursuits for, how shall I put it, coach parties full of a slightly more mature visitor.  Over the Easter break we had a few days out in Cornwall and during this time we visited the National Trust’s South West flagship property 
Lanhydrock, a magnificent late Victorian country house with gardens and a wooded estate.

For Christians, the Easter holiday contains a time critical to the faith. The very foundation of Christianity rests on the truthfulness that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead; this we remember over the triduum, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We were fortunate enough to spend Good Friday with the Benedictines at Buckfast Abbey on our return from Cornwall.  Easter Saturday is always a joyous occasion, this year particularly so as a member of the Oaklands staff was received into the Catholic church.  All of the services over the triduum were well attended, apart from the sad but noticeable absence of young people. You could be forgiven for thinking there was a sign outside church that read, ‘young people enter at your peril!’

Over the last 25 years, I have listened to many youngsters voice their opinions on religion and why they leave the church.  Disheartening that those opinions are, even more so is the voice of those still engaged who talk fervently and increasingly about being disenfranchised. It is hardly surprising that youngsters then drop out of church in their late teens, or did they ever really belong in the first place?  Much has been written about the flight of young people from the Church. Living in the parish associated with the school, I too have witnessed this, albeit anecdotally. Some observers deny the flight of young people altogether, citing the big events such as World Youth Day as an example of mass youth engagement.  Fantastic and encouraging though these events are, the statistics, which are alarming, speak volumes; the ONS figures confirm that about 30% of the UK population is under 25. This group appear to be woefully under-represented in our churches.

In my February Blog, I suggested that the church could learn a thing or two from Apple. I would now like to suggest there may be a lesson or two that could be learnt from the National Trust.

When we were first married, there were many National Trust properties that prohibited small children from entry; not so now. I would like to suggest that the Trust understands that its appeal to a particular section of the demographic could also be its Achilles heel. The visitors at Lanhydrock could not have been more of an eclectic mix. The patronage of the restaurant felt a little more ‘Nando’s’ than National Trust.  However, the Trust still keeps many of its traditions, skillfully combining family activities around the old and the new. This has been achieved by integrating not separating pursuits for all ages.

I am beginning to wonder if age segregation in our churches, the antitheses or integration, is causing more harm than good. Typically, we ‘do it’ for chidren’s liturgy and within church youth groups. Segregation also exists in other areas, the UCM, Catholic Women’s league and Knights of Saint Columba. There are also those niche non-official groups, for example the choir, the liturgy group, the social group.

As Head of a Catholic school, you would expect the plight of the young to give me the greatest cause for concern. As a society there is an increasing inclination to outsource the development of our children. Whilst some of this is obligatory, not to engage in it may be illegal, without the necessary checks and balances it may breed segregation. The church has played its part in this, probably not doing enough in reinforcing the point that parents are the primary educators of their children and reinforce the sanctity of the family unit.  As a parent sometimes I struggle with this fact: children listen to their parents more than they are going to listen to anyone else.

Statistics on the British Religion in Numbers website confirm an approximate 50% drop in church attendance across all Christian religions over the last 35 years. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got!  So is time for the church to become more age integrated, although easier to say than to do?  Secondly as adults we must take Christianity seriously; it’s time for parents, particularly Dads (I could write at length on my observations of the impact of absent or emotionally unavailable fathers on children) to take a pivotal role in the spiritual development of their children. By and large our Catechists and Youth leaders do a great job, it’s what occurs during the rest of the week that should draw our attention.

March 2017

For the first time in ten years I have been let out to go on an educational visit. Last year the school was fortunate enough to secure Erasmus funding from the EU and as a result we are able to send a number of students and staff to different European destinations. We have also hosted students and staff at Oaklands. So this week, Monday 20th March, I am in Katowice in Southern Poland with students and staff from Italy, Spain and Turkey. I cannot fault the hospitality of our host nation. The experiences that have been organised for us, including a visit to Auschwitz and Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the "Black Madonna,"  have been both moving and inspiring. Whilst some of the activities have beaten the well-trodden tracks of the tourist trail, the week also exposes students and staff to some of the social issues that transcend international boundaries. Students have been debating issues including bullying, hooliganism and cyber safety.

I have visited lessons, some of which are very traditional in delivery, others less so. I was interviewed and filmed for a school media project, this provided an opportunity to talk to a number of our host students. Similar to UK youngsters, their students  have great aspirations; they talked about travelling, working outside of Poland and despite Brexit finding opportunities in the UK.

For staff, our conversations quickly stray into education and socio-political domains.  These exchanges reveal a pan-European educational problem; the education systems in Europe appear to trail behind the pace of change happening in society. The younger generation, irrespective of whether you are in Italy, Spain, Turkey, Poland or the UK face changes in their social environment that are completely foreign to those their parents faced and certainly those that legislate educational policy.

The mobile phone epitomises this; four years ago a smart phone was out of reach for most youngsters, now they are almost ubiquitous. This situation does exemplify the reality of fast-paced change that requires the development of young people who can constantly adapt and find their way in a “new world”, irrespective of nationality.

This potentially requires a different system of education. In the recent past, education could be seen as a process of equipping students with a particular knowledge, skills or set of attitudes which would equip for life. In effect, they could survive by simply knowing what their parents knew and acquiring this information in more or less the same way. Four years ago this would have been impossible: a youngster can now download an App that can scan a piece of text  and then translate 80% of it into virtually any language. This has to influence how we teach.  This week all the schools in the Erasmus project were required to give a presentation about their school. Nearly all the images were of studious students sitting in rows behind desks. This does not feel like an international response to the fast paced change that our children do and will experience.

A slice of what we knew in the past and how we acquired it is not relevant for the needs of today. The necessity to continually adapt to a changing environment and the importance of actually participating in and directing the changes around us, demands the ability and habit of life-long learning. It also requires creativity, partnership and collaboration among many different people which is why projects like Erasmus are so important.

Conversing with my fellow European educators has been revealing; immersing yourself in a school in another county is enlightening. Government underfunding is never far from the conversations.  Whilst there are some Polish schools that have been rebuilt in recent years, their teachers report that much of the building stock is outdated and in desperate need of refurbishment, a familiar UK story.  Teachers, like a significant proportion of the Polish working class, are undoubtedly very poorly paid earning about 1/3 of the salary of their UK counterparts. This problem is further fuelled by an oversupply of teachers due to falling birth rates and an ageing population. Similar to other European nations, Polish teenagers are inheriting a significant problem. The cost of living in Poland is lower than the UK, but this does not equate to the salary differential. One teacher maintained that the situation related to low pay, ‘cannot go on’.  Throughout Europe, prior to the banking crash, the low paid got their share of the social pie, austerity in many countries alongside non sustainable political policies appears to have put the brakes on this. It is hardly surprising that political parties, some of them  far off centre, offering quick fixes to these issues are gathering traction. Immigration into Poland appears negligible. Walk into any department store in Portsmouth you can be served by assistants from every and any nation, this was noticeably different during our trip to Kraków.  In Poland there is something else that suggests all is not well, this can be found in the volume of the graffiti and the message, often quite offensive, that it contains.

Poland may not be the first country you think of when you consider European history or an educational super power, but it has a rich culture significantly influenced by Catholicism. I discovered a fascinating place whose history through good and bad has several times changed the history of our world and influenced our future. I hope to visit again before long.

Febuary 2017

Well, we survived Ofsted!  It was a positive experience for the school; unfortunately, I am unable to release the details until they are published on the Ofsted website later this term. Thank you for all the positive messages of support at a very stressful time for all staff and Governors.

For Year 11 and Year 13 the countdown has begun. Once we get to half term, there are about fifty schools days remaining until the GCSE examinations.  Year 9 and Year 12 students will soon depart to Italy for the ski trip.  Many staff and students are working particularly hard rehearsing for the school production of ‘Anything Goes’; this brilliant musical comedy will be performed on the 7th, 8th and 9th March.

Last week I ended up embroiled in a discussion with my son and his friend over the merits of one type of mobile phone over another. Most parents will recognise these conversations; teenage boys and technology are synonymous. I find a warmth and familiarity to these discussions; I can remember similar deliberations with my mates as a teenager, but for me it was the ZX Spectrum verses the BBC Micro - that dates me!

Full disclosure here … I have to admit to being an Apple enthusiast (I am not here to sell Apple products).  To the average tech enthusiast, Apple might look like the face of innovation. Apple have pioneered technical development; the company has developed some of the world’s most well-known personal computers. One of its Apps, iTunes, managed to rewrite music industry score.  Before iTunes, buying a music track of choice from an album was unheard of.  Since my last Blog we have passed the tenth anniversary of iPhone’s  incarnation.  Steve Jobs introduced the world to iPhone as three products in one: “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough internet communications device.” 

However, cut through the hype and Apple really isn’t all that innovative.  What it does well is design a fantastic product then continue to make small changes over time, not dissimilar to the development of RJ Mitchell’s Spitfire which totaled twenty-four iterations.  The iPhone has remained remarkably similar.  The screen gets incrementally larger, it is now squarer and flatter, the processor is faster and the camera has a higher resolution. Essentially it does the same ‘stuff’, just a little better every time.

The popularity of its products can teach the church a thing or two.

Apple understands its audience and speaks their language with passion and confidence, it reaches out. It preaches the word in ways that its current and potential customer base understands.  As a result, most Apple enthusiasts (I am one) speak so confidently about the products that they start to enthuse their friends.  Once you splash out on a new device, although the change is minimal, you show it to your friends, talk about the features, let them witness the qualities.  As Christians we have something infinitely more wonderful than an Apple device yet we downplay the love of Jesus Christ, hide it, and are often apologetic about our faith.

Apple products face the future with confidence without compromising on their core values and tradition.  Equally the company realises that some things have to change, as to follow tradition religiously, for traditions sake, would be to betray the very thing that made them successful in the first place. As Catholics we have a very rich tradition and heritage, but this may be hindering us moving forward.  Youngster will not accept “this is how we have always done it.” Change is necessary to remain focused on the vision and to ensure a synthesis between faith and culture.

Then you have the Apple Store. Occasionally I frequent the Southampton outlet which is always heaving with the faithful.  I suspect across a week the footfall totals tens of thousands. How many of our churches are this full?  I have also always been impressed by the level of customer service. The Store’s personality is defined by its people who ooze hospitality.  On my last visit I was served by a middle aged man, I have also encountered employees blazoned with tattoos. The assistants are a diverse bunch reflecting the diversity of their customers. Apple doesn’t look for someone who fits a mold. What can this teach the church?

Whilst the comparison between the products and activities of one of the most successful companies of all time and the church may not completely fit, there are a few things we can learn.

January 2017

Welcome back and a happy new year to all our readers. Thank you for the positive feedback on my last blog; the nature of vocation clearly resonated with some of you.  

Last term was particularly hectic; my sincere thanks to all staff for their hard work and dedication. This term promises to be equally busy with mock examinations, Options Evening and the school show.

If you keep up with my blog, you will be aware that I have been extensively detailing the changes to the examination system and the new measures used by the DfE to judge schools.  In short, attainment across five subjects including English and maths is out. The new emphasis is on progress across eight subjects, attainment in English and maths and performance in Ebacc subjects.  A focus on the performance of disadvantaged students is also included.  Every year the DfE will tell schools how much progress it believes students should make, based upon their starting points. This will change every year, coupled with the change in the exam system predictions and comparisons year-on-year will be very difficult. Just before Christmas we received our unvalidated school progress score of +0.1.  As a piece of data this is quite meaningless (97% of all schools fall between -1.0 and +0.7).  It is only when you start considering how this figure is calculated, including in-school factors, that some sence and meaning is revealed.

The Christmas holiday period provided me with an opportunity to catch up and talk to colleagues in other schools; the latest DfE progress data was clearly causing some angst. Some of my peers were envious of our positive statistic, whilst I am left wondering how some schools manage to achieve a higher score. These conversations are always quite revealing, suggesting that the playing field is far from level.

One issue with the new Progress 8 measure is that the points awarded to some Level 2 qualifications are more favourable than to others. It has been recognised for some time that the Ebacc suite of qualifications are more challenging than others.  So if schools, as we do, have more students attempting Ebacc then it will have an impact on overall progress. (We do very well with 46% of students achieving this compared to the national average of about 25%)  For example, it is well-established that modern foreign languages (MFL) are graded more severely than other GCSEs and therefore schools that tend to enter large numbers of pupils for MFL, as we do, at the expense of other EBacc options, may be at a disadvantage under Progress 8.  Conversely the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) is graded higher than other subjects, so if large numbers of students take this Progress 8 qualification then the results will have a positive impact.

Students should have the best curriculum providing them with the best chances post-16; playing a game with curriculum design to ensure the best statistical outcome should be avoided at all cost.  We are in the process of designing our curriculum and qualification suite for students starting GCSE in September 2017. Our starting point will not be designing a system to meet a predetermined statistical outcome.

At the beginning of each term I like to take the assemblies. This week I have focussed on God’s plan lived out through the nativity story. Within the Catholic tradition we are still in Christmas time up until the Epiphany on 6th January. I started by showing this video, which I will come back to.

All the evidence suggests that God’s nativity plan was far from conventional. He was not interested in ‘going with the flow’, doing what everyone else would have done, following perceived convention, or allowing Mary or Joseph to be swayed by peer pressure.  His plan was counter cultural. This is how the evidence accumulates:

  1.  Mary and Joseph were not married, certainly not acceptable at the time of Jesus. God opens up the new parents to ridicule and exclusion.
  2. The Chosen One is born in a stable; even at the time of Christ most parents would have organised somewhere more hospitable.
  3. The first visitors were shepherds who were considered to be some of the lowest people in society. How many parents would consider inviting the unknown and unwashed to see their newborn child?
  4. Then finally we have the wise men; unknown to Mary and Joseph and not from the Jewish tradition.
  5. If all this was not enough, rather than settling into family life, the family become refugees.

Returning to the video, the narrator finally says, “our plan can do without us but we cannot do without her”. The environmental problems our children will inherit are largely as result of ’going with the flow’, doing what everyone else has done, following perceived convention or be swayed by peer pressure.

God teaches us a lesson with His ‘nativity plan’ that it does not have to be this way and that we can be counter cultural.  We are all called to stewardship, guarding the resource that God has given us.

So if you are looking for a new year resolution, why not consider undertaking something that might be counter cultural but will have a positive impact on the planet. Pope Francis calls the Church and the world to acknowledge the urgency of our environmental challenges and to join him in embarking on a new path.

November 2016

It is always sad when schools have to say goodbye to staff and sadly, by the end of this term, we will have said goodbye to Terry Ball, Charlie Macdonald, Ann Davis, Sheila Barrowclough and Helen Richardson.   When a member of staff hands in their notice, the recruitment machine goes into overdrive, unfortunately the pool of potential candidates is often very shallow. Hardly a week goes by without another national story related to the recruitment crisis. The Government statistics suggest that there should be enough teachers to go round; this conceals an uncomfortable truth. Most Headteachers will talk about a chronic shortage in some areas and a surplus in others. Compounding this, the school system will find the pupil population swelling by 800,000 in the next decade. I am unaware of any credible plan to find teachers to meet the demand. Over the last 10 years, there have been numerous schemes attempting to attract individuals into teaching, but still the crisis remains. This does suggest something more fundamental. Undoubtedly there are issues around pay, conditions of service, work life balance and top down interference from many quarters. I would like to suggest that there is something else occurring, that is the absence of vocation.

Sadly, the idea of teaching as a vocation has been eroded over the last twenty years. Teaching tends to be thought of as a job, an occupation, a career path or a refreshing alternative to what can be seen as an unfulfilling life in the business world. It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that there are not late vocations to the profession who have made outstanding teachers. When I speak to new recruits I often ask them if they see themselves as a teacher in 30 years’ time, the answer is rarely yes.  Many graduates recognise that over their working career they will have a number of careers, teaching being one of them; this is supported by research undertaken by the World Economic Forum. Thirty years ago you were a teacher for life; this is less likely for today’s graduates. Teachers in all schools, church and state, once saw teaching as a life choice, it defined their identity.

So maybe one element of the solution for the teacher shortage is to help potential candidates identify and understand the nature of vocation. It is the realisation that they are called by the One who, in a Catholic school, is the heart of what they teach.

The calling of teachers in a Catholic school is to convey to students the love Christ has for them.  Each teacher does so through their own commitment and even self-sacrificial dedication to their students, as well as the teacher’s own love and delight in their subjects or educational disciplines. I have just updated a page on the website called Catholic life. The top entry reads, a Christ-centred curriculum’.  In reality this means the English teacher conveys a love of literature, the chemistry teacher a love of science, because they care enough for their students to impart this love to them. They care for their students because they feel a calling to awaken in them the realisation of Christ’s love for them and the demand of the Gospel that they take their own talents and use them to express their own love for all others.

At Oaklands we are blessed to have many, many teachers who see their positon a vocation born from Christ’s command, ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’  Whether a teacher teaches Technology or PE, the reason for teaching at all, that call, that vocation is to bring students to an awareness of the first part of that command, that they are loved. This inspires in them a commitment to the second, that they are called themselves to live for others.

Christ could have chosen any title for himself, any way of life, but from all the world’s possibilities he chose to be called, “Teacher,” and continues his work by calling teachers to do his work today.

 

September 2016

I have now managed to pause for breath after a very busy start to the term. September is almost at an end and with three weeks until half term, dare I say it, the Joy and Hope of the Christmas Season is already a faint light on the horizon.  For all students, but particularly those in Years 11 and 13, the pressure is already beginning to build as they work towards their public exams in June 2017 – it will come around soon enough.

Earlier this term, we had our Open Evening for prospective parents into Year 7.  A rather discerning parent who was attempting to gauge whether Oaklands was the right school, asked me, “what did I believe was really important about a good school and please, Mr Quinn, do not say great exam results?”  The question hinted at the watershed between the aspects of education that the Government considers important, often measured in performance tables, and what parents want from a school.  Exams are important; good passes in challenging qualifications open doors to higher study and great employment opportunities.  At Oaklands, we have always backed rigorous qualifications with the vast majority of students having access to Ebacc qualifications and RE, long before the government pursued this idea; some lead others follow!  Sometimes this has been at the expense of league table rankings. Some of my peers tell me. "why don't you do this or that qualification, it counts in the statistic and will lever up your value added?" You have to question the motives behind this and if it is in the best interest of the child.

The relentless focus on exams, important though they are, is in danger of damaging the very thing that schools are supposed to provide - a high quality broad based education that prepares people for life. When I speak to students and parents of Year 6 students they often say, ‘all they have done this year is prepare for the SATs’.  I suspect students in KS4 would say something similar about GCSEs.  Many commentators talk about a ‘pressure cooker exams environment’.  The number of students finding it difficult to cope with exceptional levels of stress around exam time appears to increase every year.  As a parent and teacher I have to be guarded not to add to this at home.

For youngsters, at the time of the qualification whether GCSE or ‘A’ level, the significance of the examination appears monumental.  The reality is that qualifications are just a small part of what defines us as human beings and should never be anything more.  Many youngsters go on to lead fulfilling lives in careers and jobs that have nothing to do with their GCSE, ’A’ Level or even degree qualifications. This suggests that the process of education, the journey through school, the opportunities we take, how we develop as a result of studying certain subjects is more important than the subject itself.

If I think back over my career both in and out of education, the best people I have worked with or employed have been defined by their personality, emotional intelligence, moral compass, religious conviction, resilience, ability to form positive relationships and work effectively within teams.  None of these attributes are easily examined by a qualification.  These attributes formed the basis of my answer to the discerning parent during Open Evening.

 

August 2016

 

I always try and keep away from school for a couple of weeks over the summer.  Like any job, you can’t completely park it.  A week or so before the ‘A’ Level results, the tension begins to build; I begin to find myself modelling various scenarios and outcomes about these exams and the GCSEs.  Will Ofsted come knocking?  Have we met performance targets?  After eleven years of Headship in two schools, it does not get any easier.  Distraction therapy is a good antidote; this summer I cut down a few trees in the garden, nuked the hedge on the drive, built some decking, took my son and his friend out cycling and made sure we regularly visited the gym.  Despite this, the blood pressure is finally pushed stratospheric by leaked information from the exam boards, DfE or Ofqual a day or so before result publication. This year it was the Twitter storm caused by GCSE grade boundaries.

With the territory of Headship comes accountability.  If a youngster has not performed as well as expected, what went wrong?  Occasionally there are issues with the examiners. An article in the Guardian newspaper on 20th August 2015 reported, “It doesn’t matter whether you teach economics with XXX board or further maths with YYY, they are as rotten as each other. My board ask for two qualifications from their examiners: they are alive and they need the cash.” I do not believe it is as bad as this but occasionally mistakes are made. For whatever reason, students can have a bad day or make an uncharacteristic mistake. I asked one disappointed parent, “did you see him revise?”; the reply that came back, “Well XXX was in his bedroom for hours on end”.  Being squirreled away ‘insta-face-snap-apping’ is not the same as completing practice examination questions. Whilst there clearly are some exceptions, the correlation between a student reaching or exceeding potential and the volume of work put in over time is evident.

Once the results are published the forensic analysis commences. One thing is certain, headlines will make comparison between one year and the next and between schools, often with a scant disregard to context; no two schools are the same, no two cohorts of children are either.  Despite this, it won't stop people drawing conclusions about students and schools.

Nationally the number of A*-C results appears to have fallen.  Commentators talk this year about the negative impact of retakes by post-16 students.  However, if I remember correctly, post-16 students were completing retakes last year. I am told that it is statistically possible to remove all post-16 entries and this still leaves a national drop compared with 2015.  So at Oaklands we did well to sustain overall performance and in many subjects, show an improvement.

This year the government will publish new progress measures based upon eight subjects with different subjects weighted according to importance. Next year the standard 5+ A*-C including English and Maths is out as both English and Maths will be measured 1-9. The following year, the vast majority of subjects will also be measured this way. All schools will begin to feel the full weight of tougher more rigorous qualifications. I am mindful of the complexity of these changes but unfortunately we are not even close to the end of the process, the changes to come are more monumental than what we have already experienced.

With all this turmoil we must not lose sight of the fact that at Oaklands, the vast majority of students have exceeded potential both at GCSE and ‘A’ Level and the season belongs to them. Youngsters must take time to celebrate their achievement before rushing headlong into the next stage of their education.