Raising standards – hopefully for everyone.


Will all children receive a seal of approval?

Will all children receive a seal of approval?

Over the weekend I received an email from a colleague who teaches in a school in a county in the north of England. A few months ago this teacher, who I have never met, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to run a one day workshop in the primary school where she works. The focus of the workshop was to be on enabling pupils with special educational needs to be involved in planning for their individual education plans. Having negotiated a suitable date I was very happy to agree to this request and had begun a little planning for how I would organised the day.

I was somewhat surprised and a little disappointed on Sunday morning to find a message in my inbox from the teacher who had negotiated these arrangements, informing me that the event would have to be cancelled. In one sense, this is not a problem, it relieves a little time in my diary, but I was none the less somewhat disturbed by a part of this colleague’s message. Having made a number of apologetic opening remarks, hoping that I had not been inconvenienced and that I would understand that the decision was not her own, this obviously stressed lady went on to explain:-

“At a staff meeting on Thursday the head teacher informed us that special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda, and that all of our focused training for the next year would be on raising standards, particularly in mathematics where we need more children reaching the highest grades. Therefore any work involving SEN would have to be shelved until a future date”

I could feel this teacher’s frustration and anxiety leaping at me from this email, and have the feeling that she felt somewhat embarrassed to have to cancel the event. Naturally I wrote back to her telling her not to worry and that I was in no way inconvenienced. Trying to reassure this colleague I emphasised that I recognised the situation and explained that I fully understand the situation. But do I?

What does the expression “special educational needs was no longer on the priority agenda” mean? More particularly, is the implication here that raising standards in mathematics does not have implications for children with special educational needs? Is it possible to raise standards in a school without considering this section of the population? Can standards across the board be raised by looking at the performance of one section of the school population whilst ignoring others?

I have no difficulty with the notion of raising standards in mathematics in a school. The teaching of the subject is obviously important, and we would hope that all children are enabled to achieve mathematical competence according to their need. But surely this is the point, we should be enabling all children to achieve. It is essential that all teachers feel competent and confident in teaching mathematics and that they should therefore receive professional development in this area. However, I would hope that somewhere in this training there might be an emphasis upon supporting those children who have particular difficulties with learning mathematical concepts and applying these in a range of situations.

I have long held the belief that if teachers learn the skills of planning and differentiating to ensure that pupils of all needs and abilities can be included in lesson, this is a major step towards raising standards for all children. Teachers who think carefully about how they can provide effective access for those who have difficulties with learning, usually develop strategies that benefit all learners.

I hope that in reading the email received on Sunday, something was lost in translation. Perhaps the head teacher meant to say that the focus of training for the coming period will be on raising mathematical standards for all children, including those who find the subject particularly difficult. Some of these children are probably not destined to reach “the highest grades”, but yet may make significant progress if provided with the right kind of teaching and support.

I would like to think that this time next year the achievements of all children in this school in mathematics are significant, and that the performance of both the most gifted mathematicians and those who have made progress with more basic concepts, is recognised and acknowledged. I would also hope that my colleague who has clearly been made to feel uncomfortable by the decisions made in her school, is fully involved in speaking on behalf on the pupils for whom she clearly feels responsible.



Broadening the learning horizon could well have benefits.

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

How important might the learning opportunities being provide here be?

In recent years it seems that everywhere I travel education has been reduced to a set of attainment targets. Furthermore the focus of education often appears to have been confined to a narrow and predictable channel around mathematics and science. The social sciences and arts appear less significant in the minds of many politicians and policy makers and achievements by children in these areas can easily pass unnoticed. But maybe now I am beginning to detect a small amount of challenge to this narrow view of the curriculum.

Yesterday was a day of contrasts in terms of the education related media reports that I accessed. On the morning Radio 4 Today Programme the BBC,  in one of those items that always seem to appear as “fillers” between more weighty debate, once again cited a politician (so many have done this that they all blur into one) who wishes that our schools in the UK could be more like those in Shanghai, Singapore or Korea. Leaving aside the fact that these learned politicos appear to have failed to recognise that the cultures of these countries are significantly different from our own, it is clear that the obsession with the education system in these nations is based solely upon educational attainment in mathematics and science. There is no doubt that any scrutiny of academic outcomes in these subjects reveals that China, Korea and Singapore are performing at a high level, but at what cost?

Research conducted into childhood stress and anxiety levels, published in a number of authoritative journals indicates that Chinese students report some of the highest stress levels in the world, and exhibit acute symptoms that include heightened anxiety, despair and feelings of anger towards their peers. Similar reports from Korea suggest that increased levels of bullying and an appallingly high incidence of child suicides may be directly correlated to pressure to do well in academic subjects. Every parent wants their child to do well in school, and it is right that teachers should have high expectations of their students. But perhaps this can be achieved through methods that don’t simply involve cramming for examinations, and might be better managed if greater credence was given to wider aspects of the curriculum.

Once again I found myself feeling somewhat cross that the BBC had resorted to lazy journalism in presenting an item comparing UK education to that elsewhere in the world. However, by contrast it was a news item from Asia that made me think that perhaps there is the potential for a backlash against this simplistic appraisal of the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik writing in the education supplement of the Deccan Herald from South India begins his article under the title “The need for reviving liberal education”  (Deccan Herald March 5th 2015) by depicting a typical scenario in which an adult asks a child how they are getting on in school. The child answers by giving his grades in maths and science, but says nothing of other subjects and certainly does not mention whether or not he enjoys schools. The adult is satisfied that he has received a reply that indicates satisfactory attainment in these two dominant subjects, therefore all must be well in this child’s education.

I should state before going any further that the use of the term “liberal” in Mr Koushik’s article will have already raised the hackles of at least one reader of this blog, who has had occasion to use this term as a derogation of my articles in his own writing in the past, but I make no apologies and neither should the journalist who within his feature makes a number of acute observations about the purpose of education.

Krishnan Koushik constructs an eloquent argument for giving greater value to the teaching of literature, the social sciences and art. With regards to the teaching of literature he states that:-

“literature is the study of life. By studying literature, we learn what it means to be human. Literature also teaches us about how powerful language can be. By studying the use of language in literature, we learn how to use the subtleties of the language to our advantage. So, literature helps us in shaping and moulding our character”. 

He goes on to advocate a broadening of our approach to the social sciences by saying:-

“When we study the social sciences, we are studying how people put their societies together and we are looking at the impacts of their decisions about how their societies should be run. By studying these things, we are becoming better informed about how societies should be put together and the intricacies involved in them”.

At no point does Krishnan Koushik deny the importance of the sciences and mathematics, but he makes a good case for ensuring that we provide children with a more holistic appreciation of the world in which they live and for which they will soon assume greater responsibility. Referring to previously revered, but sadly now more often ignored, educators of the past, including Johann Pestalozzi, David Thoreau, Francis Parker, John Dewey and Maria Montessori, Koushik makes a case for recognising the individuality of each child and provided them with a broad range of learning opportunities in which they can find their own passions and strengths. One particular phrase in his article stands out:-

 “Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning”.

Krishnan Koushik’s article is one of several that I have noted in the media from several parts of the world recently. It would appear that concerns are being increasingly expressed about the narrowing focus of education and in particular the marginalisation of all but a few curriculum subjects. The issues surrounding this debate are complex and I believe that many of those who advocate a focus upon science and maths, even at a cost to other subjects, often do so with a genuine concern for the needs of children. The majority of teachers with whom I converse have been expressing their concerns about the narrowing of curriculum priorities. Sadly, many of them are fearful of expressing their opinions or participating in the debate.

If you disagree with the sentiments expressed by Krishnan Koushik or the ways in which I have portrayed these in this blog, do feel free to post a reply. Healthy debate can help us all to learn and understand other’s points of view. Alternatively, if you have been incensed by the liberality of the views expressed you could try to relax by reading a good novel, visiting your local art gallery, exploring the nature of your immediate hinterland, going to the theatre or listening to Mozart or Abida Parveen. Whilst doing so you might consider how future generations will be encouraged to value and appreciate these experiences.