Good headlines for once

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As her students settle into the new year, Marion Gibbs is reminded of the many positive things that our young people dedicate themselves too – and is equally cheered when some government announcements continue the theme of positivity.

It has been a really positive start to term. For most staff, school becomes a much more cheerful and interesting place once the students are back and the buildings are again filled with so many lively and stimulating young people. This is so much more engaging than sitting in one’s office, trying vainly to clear up paper, updating documentation for an imminent inspection and answering a backlog of emails!

Many of our students are bursting with enthusiasm and very keen to get involved in making a difference for others. Before the October half-term break, a large proportion will have participated in a Water Aid week, where they are sponsored to drink only water for a week, raising money for water projects in the developing world.

They will also have taken part in the world wide walk for the UN International Day of the Girl. This brings attention to the fact that some 66 million girls worldwide who should be in school are not, and girls all over the UK will be walking to or from school or taking part in other organised walks that day, aiming to reach a combined target of over 40,000 kilometres, the world’s circumference. 

I am sure that throughout the UK, students in almost all our schools will be involved in similar challenging and altruistic activities in aid of a variety of charities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all these efforts achieved as much media coverage as problems with examination results, cyber-bullying and sexting?

However, one girl has managed to maintain media interest and to prove that she is worthy of our respect and attention – she is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who escaped an assassination attempt and, now resident in Birmingham, has continued her campaign for girls education in Pakistan.

She certainly shows a wisdom beyond her years and beyond that of many international leaders. How many of us have students who have potential like this – perhaps not on the same outstanding scale, but certainly those who are capable of moving mountains? Encouraging them to fly and helping them to become independent and to support their ideas with wisdom and common sense is a privilege for a teacher.

It was heartening to learn that the target for numbers entering teacher training was exceeded in many subjects this year, although disappointing to learn that only 57 per cent of the 990 secondary physics teaching places have been filled and 78 per cent of the places allocated for secondary mathematics.

Teaching is a great career, but we are producing too few physics and mathematics graduates to be able to fill our teacher vacancies. It is a “chicken and egg situation”– the lack of well-qualified teachers in these subjects may well lead to fewer students choosing to study them at A level and beyond. Physics and mathematics graduates are also highly sought after by other employers. 

I cannot omit to mention one other piece of excellent news – the minister has agreed to defer the introduction of some of the new GCSE examinations and reformed A level examinations until 2016, giving additional time for proper planning and preparation. Thank you, Mr Gove!

But while the minister is in listening mode, could he also think again about the wisdom of expecting students who have studied for the old-style modular GCSEs to face the new more rigorous A level examinations? Surely, the new style GCSE examinations will lead naturally into the new style A levels, so the latter should be deferred until that cohort comes through? Otherwise, a temporary standard will need to be set for the first two years, as the candidates will not be as well prepared as they might for the more rigorous A levels, coming from an allegedly weaker GCSE base. 

As a teacher, one is only comfortable with a new specification once the first cohorts have been through and real examination papers and mark schemes have been experienced, but the first two cohorts of the new A level will not be coming from the same background as those who follow them, so the questions and standards may have to change. It makes sense to defer; why not have the courage to do it?

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.

 


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