Friday, 28 October 2016

Keeping promises and taking on challenges

Let me make something clear; I’m not a runner. I love my team sports, and I’m a committed and enthusiastic cricket player for my local side, but I’ve never been described as a runner of any sort. 

Despite that, I do stick to my promises, and I made a very important one in 2015, to a very important student. I’ve blogged about Emily Mackay before, so if you don’t know her story, take a look here

Needless to say, for those who knew her, Emily was an inspiration. She was heroic in her fight against cancer, and when I was lucky enough to present her with the Principal’s Award for Excellence at our 2015 Student Awards, I made the promise to her I would run the London Marathon for the charity she cared passionately about, the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Emily on the night I made my promise to her
The charity which Emily cared so much about is truly an excellent one. It actively supports all those aged between 13 and 24-years-old who have been diagnosed with cancer – that’s around seven per day. And it’s the only charity which has been specifically set up to support these young people. I know that the Teenage Cancer Trust helped Emily in her fight against cancer, and now I would like to help them continue to make a difference.
Emily was passionate about supporting the Teenage Cancer Trust
After Emily lost her battle with cancer in June, I resolved to make good on my promise to her. So earlier this year, I applied for a place to run the 2017 marathon on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust. I found out that I had been successful in my application, and would be taking part in 2017’s London Marathon.

And so I come to that initial statement I made; I am no runner but this year, I will be running. I’ve begun my training regime, created my sponsorship page, and have set my goals. And though I’m under no illusions that it’s going to be easy, I’ll be running for Emily, because she – despite her young age – was an absolute inspiration to me, and all of those around our whole College community. It is because I am #inspiredbyEmily, that I know I will make it around the marathon, and despite the fact it’ll be tough, I’ll be spurred on by her memory.

If you’d like to donate, please see my Virgin Money Giving fundraising page here . I’ll be using the hashtag #inspiredbyEmily throughout my journey, and would love it if you can tweet your support using this. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Keeping it local for the best results

We’re going full circle. Before the industrial revolution, the vast majority of the country lived where they had grown up for their whole lives, never moving away from their childhood towns and villages. There was a greater focus on community, with the prevailing ideology of building a life in one place.

But that provincial lifestyle changed dramatically after industrialisation, with jobs drawing people from the shires into larger urban enclaves. Instead of the local farmer, baker, or indeed candlestick maker, being the primary source for produce, society began manufacturing in larger batches. It moved away from artisanal tradecraft, in favour of scaling industries to create efficiencies. This, it must be said, served the country relatively well for a period, with huge advances in technology, as well as rising standards of living for many.

But it was far from a perfect way of doing things, and over the past decade or so, society has begun to beat a retreat from this style of living. Campaigns for locally sourced food are on the rise, with growth in the number of farmers markets, as well as organisations like Produced in Kent promoting smaller producers. And people’s lifestyle habits are also beginning to change to reflect this, with fewer choosing to relocate large distances to find work, preferring instead to get a job in their local communities.

But what exactly does all this have to do with the world of further education? It’s simple really; FE has, to one degree or another, been replicating this newfound desire for local. Our College works in partnership with all of our local councils, and many of the key employers in our campus areas.
We’ve worked hard to build strong partnerships with large economic bodies such as the South East Local Enterprise Partnership and other important groups in order to identify and isolate key skills gaps in the local, and regional economies that we work in. But above all, we’ve worked to ensure we are nimble in our curriculum offering.

We’re constantly striving to provide the right skills for our local communities; the skills which are needed by business in those areas. That work which we do, will enable our students – once they finish their learning – to move more fluidly from the College, and into the wider world of work. It boosts their employability if we’re able to give them the skills needed in their communities. And that in turn boosts our communities, while ensuring the best possible outcomes for all of the College’s students.

We’ve worked hard to tailor our offering in each of our campuses, building close partnerships with employers, councils and a range of other groups. In Dover, we’ve seen work taking place on our engineering and hospitality offerings, as those are key sectors, while in Folkestone we’ve invested significant sums developing our construction trades and creative areas.

Why? Because those trades tally directly with what’s required in the district. Marrying our curriculum with local economic demand drives our students onto better progression, benefits their economy, and also delivers for the community.

It’s exactly that kind of holistic working which will ensure that further education – the engine of our economy – continues to deliver for everyone, far into the future.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Can I change your view on selective schooling?

The world of selective education has been on many people’s minds recently, following the revelation by Prime Minister Theresa May she would be actively looking to expand the system. It’s very much a polarising subject, with an equally long list of advocates and detractors.

And while a previous Labour Government attempted to do away with grammar schools, and the current Conservative Government favours an expansion of the system, it isn’t a purely party political issue. There are those Labour supporters who would favour their children going to a selective school, while there are Conservative voters who are utterly ambivalent about them.
Theresa May and education secretary Justine Greening Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development
Whether or not the expansion of the grammar system is a sensible move or not is undoubtedly a tough nut to crack. As someone who received a secondary modern education, before going to University, you’d expect me to say that there’s fundamentally no need for selective education. But in some senses, you’d be wrong.

There is a strong case to be made for it, which – to one degree or another – hinges heavily on the results accrued by those with that grammar education. There’s no doubt that academic attainment is better in selective schools. With a whopping 94.8 per cent achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, it’s clear there’s significant success. Contrast that with the secondary modern, which only manages a paltry 48.9 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, and you’d think it was open and shut, and that expansion of this system should be pushed forward aggressively.

But then, to every Yin there tends to be a Yang. We are, after all, dealing with statistics – and as a mathematician at my core, I’m all too aware that you can present the same set of numbers in different ways. Obviously selective schools have the odds stacked in their favour for high academic achievement. After all, that’s how they choose their students to begin with; those who have the highest academic potential. But what happens when you look at the value added – performance after controlling for prior attainment – by the selective system?

Key stage 2 to Key Stage 4 students in selective schools managed to achieve a ‘value-added’ score of +24.8 according to a recent Government briefing paper. This means, that on average, these students achieved 0.5 grades higher in each of their eight GCSE subjects, than they otherwise would have.
To contrast that, for pupils at non-selective schools in partially-selective areas progress was slightly below average (- 1.6). That meant they achieved a quarter of a grade lower in one subject. But progress was lowest in non-selective schools in wholly-selective areas, such as the system we have in Kent. In these areas a score of -6.7 has meant pupils achieved on average one grade lower in one subject. This shows that there is indeed a limited amount of value added to those who make their way into a selective school, but, that it comes at a price.

And that price can be a steep one, particularly when you consider where the majority of students who attend comprehensive and secondary modern schools come from.

One of the primary reasons behind the Government’s promotion of the expansion of selective schools is social mobility. The theory is those from deprived backgrounds are able to rise up and achieve as a consequence of their raw natural talent due to the selective system. The problem with this argument is that fewer of those from deprived backgrounds ever actually manage to get to a grammar school.
Selective schools have markedly lower rates of deprived children, with a schools census by the Department for Education showing just 2.6 per cent receiving a free school meal. That contrasted directly with an average from all secondary schools which sat at 14.9 per cent. And it’s not just the free school meal statistics which show the typical grammar school’s pupil base. A report undertaken by the Sutton Trust in 2013 showed a large proportion of those at grammar schools had arrived there from independent preparatory schools. This serves to illustrate if a parent has some cash, they can essentially buy their child a place in a grammar school – not something which is an option for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This all means that currently, those who are deprived remain at a disadvantage to those from more affluent backgrounds.

Another issue to consider when thinking about why selective schools manage to get much better academic achievements are the teachers. Selective schools have the most experienced staff by far, with 54 per cent of teachers at a grammar school boasting more than 10 years’ experience. Contrast that with secondary modern teachers, who have just 41 per cent of staff with that level of experience. It may go some way to explaining additional value which is added to those pupils who find themselves at a selective school.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the selective debate is a matter of perspective, and one which transcends most boundaries. Many favour it, and many others abhor it, but one thing is certain; it is a deeply complex issue, which cannot look at achievement in isolation. There are a wide range of factors which feed into this debate, from deprivation, to teacher experience, and even armed with this knowledge it’s still not a simple decision. But though it isn’t easy, we will nonetheless need to make a decision to ensure the brightest and most positive future for all of our school children. Let’s all just hope the right one is made.