Ofsted’s annual report, the free speech debate at universities and the resurrection of History of Art A Level!
After a loud and angry response to AQA’s announcement in October that History of Art would be scrapped at A level, another exam board have stepped in to fill the void. Pearson have announced that they will be offering A levels in history of Art – and statistics – from September 2017, schools standards minister Nick Gibb confirmed this week. Rod Bristow, president of Pearson in the UK, announced: ‘We’re pleased to be able to secure the future of A levels in history of art and statistics, subject to final accreditation by Ofqual. The response from the public, from teachers and from young people shows many people have a real passion for these subjects. We’re happy to help make sure they remain available’.
Outgoing Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw used his final annual report to stress the need for greater emphasis on teacher recruitment, as opposed to restructuring the education system. Sir Michael said: “My advice to the government now is to worry less about structures and to worry more about capacity. No structure will be effective if the leadership is poor or there are not enough good people in the classroom.” This year, only 82% of secondary school training places were filled, with 15 out of 18 secondary subjects having unfilled places, and the number of vacancies and temporarily filled positions in schools has doubled since 2011. Worryingly, these numbers are even starker for challenging schools in areas with a high proportion of challenging of disadvantaged students – they are nearly twice as likely to have teachers leaving, or be employing unqualified teachers due to a shortage of applicants.
Wilshaw also warned that the geographical divide between English schools is widening, with high-achieving pupils in the South and East increasingly likely to achieve good GCSE results, compared to those in the Midlands or North. This year, there are 13 local authority areas – all in London or the South East – where every secondary school inspected was rated either good or outstanding. However, of the 10 areas with 40% or more of pupils who are in secondary schools that are less than good, and where attainment and progress is below the national level in key areas, all but 3 are in the North and Midlands.
Wilshaw identified the students most likely students to from this geographical divide as those on free school meals, the most able, and those with special educational needs. He also warned of a growing skills and knowledge gap in England, that he believes will affect the country’s international competitiveness in the wake of the Brexit vote, claiming schools need to focus more on the importance of technical knowledge and skills. However, he was keen to praise significant improvements in nursery and primary schools across the country (around 91% of which stand at good or outstanding), the fact that 1.8 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010, and how he believes English schools are beneficial for cultural integration and social cohesion.
Despite the obvious improvements in primary education, the recent greater emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar risks narrowing the curriculum, and harming students’ development in other subjects. The underlying importance of literacy, and time spent on it, means other subjects, in particular modern languages, which the majority of primary schools spend less than an hour a week teaching, stand to suffer as a result.
UK students have improved their position in the TIMSS (Trends in international maths and science studies) rankings, though are still lagging behind the East Asian countries that have led the way in for 20 years now. Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Chinese Taipei still dominate the long-running table, which separately ranks 9-10 year olds and 13-14 year olds on their performance across maths and the sciences. From the first table in 1995 to the most recent in 2015, England has improved by 12.8% in the younger age group, and 4% in the older group.
Brexit could cost the British universities sector nearly £2 billion a year, with student recruitment, staff employment and research funding all likely to feel the effects. The income of British universities this year was around the £30 billion mark, according to the Association of University Directors of Estates’ annual report, which claimed that Brexit’s impact is currently ‘impossible to predict’, while possibly also presenting new opportunities. The recruitment of EU nationals as staff and students was identified as a major risk, along with rising construction costs and changes to EU funding. AUDE said: “EU research funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK and £1.86bn for the UK economy. This equates to 14% of all UK income from research grants.”
The free speech debate in universities is becoming more acute, with some universities choosing to ban certain tabloid newspapers from being sold, on the basis that they promote hatred, and ‘attack the weakest and poorest members of society.’ This, it could be said, is about the value of diversity and safe spaces over free speech, where the hardline maintenance of the latter threatens the integrity of the former. Michael Roth, head of Wesleyan University, wrote that in the past, campuses were ‘far less diverse places than they are today’ and consequently ‘there were many voices that none of us got to hear’. The implication of Roth’s statement is that the exercise of free speech in the past was in some sense responsible for silencing the voices of minority groups. This leads universities to a tricky balancing act, of being inclusive and accommodating minority groups, and allowing them to identify in a certain way, while still allowing open and frank discussions about free expression and free speech – while ensuring it does not encroach on the rights of other students.
Samworth Church Academy, a school in Nottinghamshire, has decided to dispense with the tradition of pupils raising their hands to answer a question, believing it to be outdated. This has drawn criticism from parents, teachers and members of the NUT, who see the move as ‘strange’, ‘gimmicky’ and likely to suppress student enthusiasm in the classroom.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about creative writing and everything that’s trending in education.