Introduction

Sian Griffths, Education Editor of The Sunday Times, tracks the ever-changing educational landscape and offers advice for the wary.

It’s been another year of turmoil in the education world as changes dreamt up by politicians bed down in schools. New tougher GCSE and A level exams are being
rolled out for most subjects this summer, head teachers are grappling with frozen budgets and rising costs and sadly mental illness among youngsters, including high achieving children from aspirational families, continue to make headlines.

All year teaching unions, aided by parent groups such as Rescue Our Schools, have kept up the pressure on ministers to come up with more money for school budgets. Families with children of school age will probably already have been asked to dip into their pockets to pay for everything from school trips to, in some schools, staples such as gluesticks and pens. Parents with children at schools particularly badly hit by the funding squeeze are even grappling with picking up their youngsters early as some head teachers make plans to move to a four and a half day week to find ways of saving money. PTAs have come to the rescue in some cases but it’s certainly not the solution.

School funding has emerged as the most political of education issues in the past 12 months, and the impact on parents and children has been huge. According to a survey for the National Association of Head Teachers earlier this year, nearly 90 schools including several in London are closing or planning to close at lunchtime on Friday to save money. Other schools are also trying to
schedule the two and a half hours of weekly preparation time that teachers are entitled to in a block on Friday afternoons, to save money on cover staff

For parents choosing a school for their child, it’s a new question to add to the list to ask the head teacher about – how healthy is the school budget and what steps are being taken to balance the books? Some schools are combining classes to try to save money on teaching staff. A freedom of information request from The Sunday Times to the Department for Education last year revealed
that the biggest class size in England last year was a staggering 181 after several PE groups in one secondary school were taught by a single teacher to try to save on costs. Head teachers in small schools are personally taking on maintenance and gardening jobs to save on hiring a handyman and music, art and drama lessons have also been casualties of the squeeze.

But the most worrying step for many parents is the quiet drift in some schools to close early for the weekend. Head teachers are reluctant to speak publicly about the trend, fearing that critics may use it to condemn teachers as lazy, “knocking off early on Friday” as one insider put it. Schools Minister Nick Gibb has already stressed that it is not a “direction of travel” the government wants schools to take, but unless the government comes up with more money (ministers insist they have already found an extra £1.3 billion for school funding this year), it’s a direction many more are likely to opt for, despite protests from families.

The implementation of a new national funding formula from this autumn is likely to intensify fnancial pressures, particularly in city schools. The formula will see school funding redistributed from cities like London, where historically schools have received more funding per pupil, to rural counties. Ministers have promised to keep a close eye on the effects but with many state school head
teachers saying they are already struggling with their budgets, parents can expect more demands for them to dig deep to supplement state funding. Some argue that the cuts have widened the gap between private and state sectors more than ever before, with fee paying schools expanding their already wide range of arts subjects as well as many extra curricular activities.

THE NEW 11+
Several competitive London day schools, including Wimbledon High School for Girls and the North London Girls’ Schools’ Consortium have announced sweeping changes to their
entrance requirements for the 2019 11+ test. One major reform is an extended interview along with a more detailed reference from the child’s current head teacher. The interview process is likely to be developed from ‘what books do you like to read?’ and ‘tell me about your family’ to more critical thinking questions – ‘If you believe your lie, is it still a lie?’.

Children should understand there is no right or wrong answer and they just need to work through their ideas and explain how they are thinking. It is really useful to pose questions like this at home in a playful way and have fun thinking through potential answers together. Always stress that the questions are not there to trip them up and the interviewer is just trying
to understand what makes them tick.

Source: London Home Tutors

Suzie Longstaff, Headmistress at the independent Putney High School, who is also a governor at a state secondary school, says she is becoming increasingly aware of the gap opening up between the state and private sectors. “State schools are doing huge amounts for children with increasingly tight funding,” she said. “And my worry is that what is being cut is often things like music,
art and sport, the things that build character and make children resilient to cope with the pressures they face in modern life.

In addition, in some parts of the country, families are facing a squeeze on places at good state schools. Some 750,000 new school places are needed in the next eight years, says the Department for Education; in regions of the country affected by the bulge in the number of pupils coming through the system, existing schools are increasing class sizes and even erecting Portakabins in playgrounds to accommodate the greater numbers.

Luckily for parents in Wandsworth, the demand for state primary school places is static says Adam Wells, Head of Pupil Services for the borough. The boom will come when all of the 10,000 homes are occupied in the Nine Elms housing development, as he believes demand from the 800 new homes planned for the Springfeld Hospital site can be met from existing supply in the area.

“We’ve got the balance right in primary,” he says. “There are no more plans for new primary schools.” The last to open in the borough were Oasis Academy Putney and Floreat Wandsworth.

However, secondary school provision in the borough is a very different picture and there are plans to expand, hopefully without the need for Portakabins. Ark Putney will expand by two forms of entry, Saint Cecilia’s and Chestnut Grove by one form of entry, all by 2020/21. Ashcroft Technology Academy will add an additional form of entry by 2019. Burntwood School is opening an additional form of entry this September. “Those will give 180 extra places per year group,” says Wells.

It is in this straitened financial climate that schools are also being required to shoulder a new responsibility – monitoring and alleviating rising mental health problems among pupils including eating disorders, self-harm, depression and anxiety. Teachers are being sent on courses to spot the signs of mental illness and pupils are being trained in how to mentor each other. 

It’s a worry to Dr Joe Spence, The Master at Dulwich College. “My great concern about the promises the government is making as regards youth mental health is where they’re going to find the really well qualified first aid mental health trainers to bring into every secondary school”.

High performing academic schools are trying to cut back on the pressures placed on pupils to achieve ‘perfect’ exam results at GCSE and A level. Instead, many are introducing initiatives designed to try to build children’s resilience so that they can cope with failures and set backs. Mobile phone bans, lessons on how to get eight hours sleep a night and mindfulness classes are among the measures some schools have introduced  as they try to improve their pupils’ mental wellbeing, with many teachers believing that addiction to social media sites and the tendency among teenagers to live their lives online is deeply unhealthy.

Pre-exam time this summer, pupils at thefee-paying Reigate Grammar School spent a week enjoying dodgem rides, open air classes, yoga and cookery in a bid to remind them of the importance of psychological health in the run up to GCSE and A level exams.

Shaun Fenton, Headmaster at Reigate Grammar and the incoming head of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents the leading private schools, said: “Psychological and emotional wellbeing is every bit as important as exam results or university destinations. It is what will sustain them throughout their adult lives.”

Jane Lunnon, Head at Wimbledon High School, is so concerned at the pressures being placed on children that from the autumn she is scrapping the traditional competitive 11+ style entrance tests for admission to the fee-paying girls’ school. Instead, she is bringing in a team-based activity similar to the challenge to escape a locked room in the TV programme Crystal Maze. Ten girls apply for every place at Wimbledon High and Lunnon is worried that instead of climbing trees or playing with friends they are spending weekends being privately tutored to pass entrance tests to competitive private and state grammar schools.

“We’ll be looking at their problem-solving skills, at their curiosity, risk taking, creativity and team work, among other things,” says Lunnon of the new Crystal Maze-type admissions challenge. “It’s really exciting and we think truly innovative.”

Suzie Longstaff, Headmistress at Putney High is also concerned at the pressures being placed on today’s children. She has scrapped exams for 11 year olds at the school.

She says that the new harder GCSEs and A levels, a crop of which were rolled out in summer 2018, has again changed the exam landscape for teenagers. GCSEs will be graded from 9-1 instead of from A*-G, and it will be harder to score a 9 than it was to achieve an A*. “Coursework has been scrapped and children are being largely assessed on end-of-year exams alone. In addition, questions are more difficult this year.

Worryingly, some mental health experts and teachers have warned that some perfectionist pupils could feel like failures if they are awarded a grade 8.

MENTAL HEALTH
Wellbeing should be at the heart of any school or college in helping promote good mental health for its community. Removing the stigma of mental health is crucial and by discussing mental illness regularly, through the curriculum and through PSHE, some of the myths will be dispelled and honest and open dialogue will be encouraged.

Giving young people healthy and safe ways to express themselves through creative outlets, such as sport, music, art and drama will help tackle difficult feelings and build emotional intelligence. Incorporating more physical activity is critical, so engaging students and staff in pursuits such as regular exercise, running, gym classes and yoga will support wellbeing, with the body and brain working in tandem. At DLD, we are developing a Health Charter in conjunction with our Pastoral team and Head of Wellbeing, to ensure the good mental health of the College.

Though not revolutionary, changing attitudes and behaviour in schools, colleges and at home will create an environment conducive to good mental health and have a significant impact on wellbeing.

Source: DLD College London

On the bright side, Longstaff has told girls not to panic if they do not get the grades they hoped for. Universities were scrambling to fill places this year and were likely to drop A level entry requirements, even for popular courses. “It was to a certain extent a buyer’s market for a university place this summer,” she said. “I expect to see many degree courses in Clearing.”

Clearing is the university admissions system that opens after A level results come out in August, which matches unfilled degree places to students who may have missed out on their first choice of degree course because of lower than expected A level grades.

At Putney High School, apps are being developed that encourage girls to map their food intake, sleep quotient and energy levels and use the data to take responsibility for eating, sleeping and exercising sensibly. The school is also encouraging girls to recognise and talk about their emotions. “If they can say, ‘My emotional barometer is not very good today’, then they can begin to manage their feelings,” she said.

Many fee-paying schools did not switch to the new tougher GCSEs this summer, preferring to stick with an older exam, the iGCSE. Some head teachers have argued that simply increasing the amount teenagers have to learn, as has happened with the new GCSEs, does not necessarily mean more of a challenging exam.

Dulwich College’s Dr Spence again: “It remains the case that iGCSEs appear to us a better preparation for A level than national GCSEs…In all forms of examined study what we need is not so much of a sharper concentration on the content of the curriculum, but space for the best students to enjoy their subjects and read around them. The great myth is that to increase the content of a syllabus is proof that it’s becoming more testing. This isn’t necessarily the case. More often than not this just numbs students of all abilities”.

POINTERS FOR PARENTS

Remember you are the adult

• Agree rules and responsibilities around phone use and social media early on.

• Establish clear consequences and be consistent.

• Be generous with appropriate praise and recognition.

• Encourage children to help around the house e.g. making beds, emptying the dishwasher.

• Take an interest in school, their friends and hobbies. Join them to watch some of the YouTube videos they find so funny.

• Treat your child as an individual and have one-to-one time with them to talk or do something they enjoy e.g. cooking or watching sport.

• Model communication: “I really hear that you are angry/upset with me/the school, let’s talk about it.”.

• Listen to them and let them finish:  “What do you want me to know?”.

• Pause when things become too heated: “Let’s talk again when we’ve calmed down”.

• Try some apps to get them (and you) to keep calm eg ThinkPacifca, Breathe, Calm.

• If all else fails ask for help or try mediation (wandsworthmediation.co.uk)

Source: Ernest Bevin College

Twitter: @siangriffths6

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