Learning is for life

This Christmas I was lucky enough to join my son and daughter-in-law for a skiing holiday in Austria. Well the plan was for them it was skiing and for me time to ponder, relax, drink coffee and enjoy the wonderful views.
However, I did in fact forgo the coffee for some of the time and venture into the relative unknown. I tried cross country skiing. Many years ago I had, like so many young teachers, led ski trips but those were downhill. I had only once briefly dallied with cross country. But not to be outdone in learning new skills (as advocated in many an assembly) I hired boots and skis and had a go. I couldn’t have been more pleased nor rewarded.
It wasn’t easy. In learning this new skill I had to first master such elementary things it was almost like being back at primary school such as tying the boot laces, clipping on the skies and putting my hands the right way through the pole loops lest the latter fly away should one fall. Well this small achievement could well have been enough, after all I could stand there on the piste looking the part and feeling at one with the throng. However I did proceed onto the tracks. There I was reminded of the benefit of personal tuition: “it’s just like walking,” she said. Strangely I had to rack my brains to recall that simple skill. “Think and concentrate” I muttered repeatedly holding any number of bits of advice in my head: balance, relax, look up, look down, lean forward, bend your knees… So hard yet so wonderful when for a moment it goes right. Watching those ahead of me was important too: “watch and learn” such a good way to improve. Practice makes perfect or at least competent, I remembered, and so back and forth I went on the practice run. Never mind others were out on more interesting terrain.
Eventually I was ready to challenge myself further going uphill with skis V-shaped; then downhill in a snow plough. It’s hard but simple. I was learning and improving.
In those few days I learnt so much more than just a new skill, wonderful as that was. I was reminded of all the variety of techniques and personal commitment needed to do just that as well as the importance of help from others. “How to learn” – as teachers we must keep on learning if we are to retain our understanding of this complex and vital process and pass it on to our charges.
Learning is most certainly for life in so many ways. Glad I’ve been reminded in the best possible way. What next…

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Six months on…

30 years employed full time, then on May 1st 2013 it was all down to me. I was an education consultant and director of my own company.  How would it be?  Well 6 months on and I’m enjoying the new challenge, the variety and dare I say it the responsibility of managing my time.  My respect for PAs now knows no bounds.
Ignoring friends who ask why I am not on a world cruise,  I am getting the hang of this new life.  I can find time to swim (good for the dodgy knee!)  and leave later in the mornings.  Shopping on weekdays is a real liberation.  Saturdays are not now filled with jobs.  There is time.  However,  I am still working and loving it;  balancing voluntary activities,  largely governing boards,  with paid days, necessary to enjoy life’s little  luxuries.
It is true I can’t say no as opportunities that come my way are fascinating and so much part of what interests me still.  So I am busy and still passionate about education.
Parental engagement is still a challenge both for our reception children who need parents to read with them at home and for our KS4 youngsters who need parents to understand the pathways now open to them.    Governance must be good in every school.  This is a real challenge dependent as it is on volunteers in their hundreds.  New structures are emerging.  Federations are here to stay. Support for governors is a priority.  Primary education is critical and I am keen to bang on about that endlessly.  If we ensure a good start for every child then catch up classes will become a thing of the past.  I personally endorse all- through schools so primary and secondary can support each other for a seamless education for our children.  Vocational education is just emerging with strength and opportunity through recognition that practical,  high quality technical skills are needed.  Hence I am committed to my work with the growing number of UTCs.
Children can’t wait nor can I for the next opportunity to work with them and their schools to ensure they have the very best chance in life.

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Girls and opportunities

Last Friday I went to see ‘Blue Stockings’ at the Globe.  It served as a reminder that we owe much to those first women who committed themselves to scholarship and gave up the accepted life of a wife and mother.  I was shocked however at how recent was this change.  We glimpsed the experience of the first women at Girton College, Cambridge and saw their disappointment and fortitude in the face of male hostility and a failed vote to allow them to graduate.
What shocked me was that it was not until 20 years later,  1948, that women were granted the right to graduate.  Only a lifetime ago, a year before I was born.
Much has changed, thankfully, in my lifetime and women have equal rights now as a matter of course in all things.  However there are still challenges.  We still have perceptions to change and some feel girls need educating separately to give them confidence.  There is talk of glass ceilings and unequal pay.  We debate maternity leave and promotion.
My particular focus of the moment is girls and engineering.  I am working with UTCs and we want more girls to apply.  Girls are as good as boys at engineering, after all every single thing we use in everyday life has to be engineered.  So all power to the elbow of those at WISE and well done Women’s Hour last Tuesday morning for highlighting the issue through the experience of the JCB Academy.  Julie White, CEO of her own concrete cutting company,  is an inspiration.  She deserves  a following of girls and the UK needs them actively engaged in high tech skills too.
Parental engagement in education  has long been a priority for me particularly for our youngest children who need reading practise at home for a good start.  Now I see parents of teenagers who should not have to ask of a UTC as one did only last week: “Can girls apply?” So parents need to be engaged 5-18.
Girls and boys together make great teams,  they have different skills and approaches,  jointly they succeed.

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Seaside towns show the need for UTCs

Once again we have a call to arms on behalf of our seaside towns. See a recent report from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) Telegraph 6.8.13.  The disproportionate levels of poverty in terms both of wealth and aspiration in these towns was very clear to me as I visited schools across England during my tenure as Schools Commissioner (2011-2013). Recently HMCI has also called for these areas to receive support from proven school leaders. It is to be hoped this is happening. It worked for the cities, which have seen dramatic improvement through their challenge programmes.

Vulnerable youngsters need job prospects. Our business and industries need skilled technicians and employees. It beggars belief that 41% of adults in Clacton have no qualifications at all.  University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are the newest type of school directly set up to address this need. Providing high quality technical education for 14-18 year olds with businesses and universities integral to the teaching, they can stimulate, enthuse and educate to provide pathways for such youngsters.

This initiative must join together with others. There are no doubt a number of solutions needed concurrently in our seaside towns. What is clear is that waste of talent and failing young people is not an option.

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Letter to the editor: City A.M.

[Re: Open for business: How universities can boost our long-term recovery]

Stephen Caddick is right to call for more active collaboration between business and universities. This is happening already through the University Technical Colleges (UTCs) across the country. These institutions are high quality technical schools for 14 to 19 year olds, bringing some 400 businesses and 40 universities together. To see real benefit we must bridge divides and share expertise, something I have worked for throughout my 30 years in education.

In City A.M.,  6/8/2013

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Letter in Sunday Times, 23/6/13

Re: “Poor white children do worst at school” June 16, 2013, p1 by Sian Griffiths

It is good to see Ofsted highlighting the poor performance of children in coastal areas and most importantly calling for new policies and approaches to close this gap. We can hope that Sir Michael Wilshaw’s intervention will lead to action. The problem was increasingly evident to me during my two years, just ended, as Schools Commissioner visiting 150 schools across England. The solution lies in a focus on primaries, engaging parents and certainly in school to school support, the latter having been so successful in the inner cities. There are green shoots to build upon with both private and state schools taking up the baton including the successful collaboration between Tonbridge School, Folkestone School for Girls and The Marsh Academy. The time has come for the disadvantaged children in rural and coastal areas to take precedence.

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Closing the technical education gap

As Schools Commissioner visiting schools across England for the past 2 years,  my brief was to ‘close the gap’.  As it turns out there are many gaps in education:  the gap in standards achieved by those on free school meals and the rest,  the gap between secondary and primary schools,  the gap between the independent and state sectors,  the gap between academic and vocational education. Continue reading

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Working with volunteers

I have been musing on the fact that schools are dependent on two groups of volunteers to maximise attainment and how schools can work with these people more effectively and show real appreciation. After all one cannot hire and fire governors or parents so it behoves us to collaborate and celebrate. Continue reading

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TechBacc support (letter in City A.M., 25/4/13)

[Re: Firms cheer UK qualification for industry skills, Tuesday]

It was good to read the endorsement of the new TechBacc by Neil Carberry of the Confederation of British Industry in Tuesday’s paper. Including Level Three in maths, a vocational qualification, plus an extended project, it promises to be rigorous and challenging, giving vocational education the high status it deserves. It is for sixth formers and on a par with the A level route. I am convinced that the TechBacc will allow us to compete internationally, and provide our young people with the skills for which our employers are crying out.

Dr Liz Sidwell, Schools Commissioner for England

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Educational failure of Coastal towns makes waves

Letter to the TES 5/4/13:

Congratulations on your excellent cover story: at last an urgent call to action for our coastal towns (“Waiting for a sea change”, 29 March). Having visited schools across England during my term as schools commissioner, I recognise the need for a new focus on our coastal communities, many of which are disconnected from jobs and hope. Those who can, move out.

The future is certainly to attract more investment in training, housing and the arts in order to stimulate growth and make recruitment attractive. Let us not forget, though, the role that parents can play in the education process: we must work hard to restore the belief in education of parents in our coastal towns – themselves often disadvantaged educationally – and encourage them to support it for their children in partnership with local schools. Including parental engagement in initial teacher training would be one way to do this, as would sharing the examples of good practice that I have seen to exist.

We know from work in disadvantaged urban areas that education can be transformed. Our task in coastal areas now is not only to do this but to do it quickly.

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