Edition 31

7 April 2006






The present system of school funding must be dismantled. Governors, parents and teachers should be outraged that its inequities are allowed to continue.

Take a notional school with 500 pupils. In Chelsea and Kensington such a school has hit the jackpot. It receives a staggering £1 million more than its equivalent in Leicestershire - a bonanza which buys many more teachers and much more equipment. Less extreme, but still wholly unacceptable, is the fact that a school with 500 pupils in Slough has £230,000 more to spend than a comparable school in Barnsley, and that a school in Durham has £123,000 more than a school in Devon.

We all know that money is not the magic ingredient which transforms the education of our young people. But it must be right that wherever they happen to live they make their educational journey with an equitable allocation of resources to support them.




Please read the headline PARITY OF FUNDING and register your view on the proposed solution by contacting Alan Kerr. It would be helpful if you could please indicate your involvement with education: headteacher, teacher, parent, governor, councillor, etc, or simply, taxpayer. Thank you in anticipation of your response.




This headline has been carried over from the previous edition.

It is regrettable that the government has missed the opportunity presented by the Education Bill to address the issue of school funding. The funding of Trust Schools directly from central government, as happened with Grant Maintained Schools, would remove the unfair and cumbersome system which still operates. It is a national disgrace that spending per pupil remains the biggest postcode lottery in our public services and it is a sad reflection on all our politicians that this receives so little attention. The phrase “parity of funding”, used on the DFES website to describe funding within a local authority, should be the underlying principle for schools throughout the country.

To secure this parity all schools should be funded directly from central government. A simple formula, largely based on pupil numbers, special needs and academic attainment, would ensure that every school in the country had an equitable share of the global sum available for education. To continue to pretend that education is a local service and should incorporate an element of locally raised revenue defies common sense. There is nothing local about education and there never has been. We want and expect all our pupils to be educated to the highest standard whichever city or county they happen to live in.

National funding from national taxation would reinforce the sense that education is a resource for the whole country – something in which we should all take pride and from which every pupil should benefit. It would enable us to monitor precisely how much is being spent and it would save a huge amount of money by eliminating a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy. As a welcome by-product it would also reduce council tax bills to acceptable levels.

The time for reform is long overdue. Politicians from all parties should use the setting up of Trust Schools to deliver a sensible system of funding.

Note: Age Weighted Funding per pupil may not present the whole picture in a Local Authority’s Education budget but it may tell us something. CIPFA’s Education Statistics 2005-06 Estimates show the age weighted allocations for each Local Authority. For example, Worcestershire allocates £1837 for each Year 6 pupil, while Dorset allocates £1394. Southend-on-Sea is able to allocate £3385 for each Year 11 pupil, while Blackpool allocates £2306.




“The religious significance of the great Christian festival of Easter is now little understood and largely ignored …one wonders how many young children actually know the sequence of events which took place during the last week of Jesus’ life.”

This edition’s essay looks at the message of Easter.






I was recently looking at some hazel catkins whilst walking in nearby woodland. My companion, who was observing them more closely, drew my attention to a tiny crimson tassel protruding from what looked like a bud.

“That’s the female flower,” she explained. “I remember my teacher explaining about it when I was at primary school.” We found some more hazel and searched for the tassels which a casual glance would not have picked out. They were unusual and rather exquisite and, for me, a new discovery. At home we looked them up. “The female flowers are bud-like with only their styles exposed” stated my Collins Book of Trees. My companion looked in her Observer’s book which she had treasured since she was a child.

At this time of year I invariably took my classes outside to look at the trees and hedges and the classroom filled with twigs and blossom. The children were fascinated by what was happening in the plant and animal world and kept their eyes open for the seasonal activity which was all around them.

Young children are close to nature. They have an affinity with it and respond to it. They need to be taken outside regularly to see it and touch it. By doing this they will build up their knowledge and develop an appreciation of the natural world which will last them a lifetime. Let’s hope that lots of people will be visiting the countryside this spring, looking at the hedgerows and saying “I remember my teacher explaining about this when I was at primary school.”

Below is a seasonal story – a child’s account of the first Palm Sunday. It’s the sort of writing which has been squeezed out of the curriculum in recent years which is a pity as it engages young children’s imagination and is particularly useful in subjects like RE.




I was tied up in a lovely field with plenty to eat. My home was in a little peaceful village called Bethany just outside the town of Jerusalem. One day two men arrived and that’s when it all started. They came walking towards me and began to untie my rope.

“What are they doing,” I thought. They led me out but my master called out to them and said:
“Where are you going with my donkey?”
“The Lord needs it,” one of the men replied. I knew then that I must be on my best behaviour. The men led me to the gates of Jerusalem where I saw a large figure in front of me.
“Here you are, Jesus, your donkey.”
“Thank you disciples,” said Jesus.
I had heard my master saying something about this man called Jesus. He was supposed to be a great leader. I felt the disciples put their coats on me and the next thing I knew Jesus was on my back. I thought I must have been dreaming. Why had I been chosen? Why did he want to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey? There were so many questions running around in my head. On the way I overheard a man called Judas say:
“None of the people would know you were a king. They would expect a king to ride a white horse, not a shaggy old donkey like this.”
That made me go wild inside and I was going to buck up and fling Jesus off but I decided not to. When we got inside Jerusalem there were people crowding round and I wondered what was happening. Then Jesus started to stroke me and I felt very special. Down in front of me were coats and palm leaves. The crowd was getting bigger and bigger.
“Hosanna, praise the Lord,” the people were saying, and they kept on repeating it. Jesus left me outside a temple and he went in. Jut as I was going to have a drink I heard him shouting and the sound of tables going over. I think he was very cross. After he had calmed down we made our way back to Bethany.
I was home to my master and my lovely field and I felt I would like to see Jesus more often. For weeks afterwards I chatted to the other donkeys about the wonderful day which was my big surprise.




This essay appeared in the first run of School Report. It remains as relevant today as it was five years ago.




With a few exceptions all will be quiet on the spiritual front again this Easter, just as it has been for many years. Hosannas and hallelujahs will undoubtedly be sung with great spirit in churches of many denominations throughout the western world but the resonance of Christian worship will, for the most part, remain inside the buildings.

There will, of course, be the usual alternative forms of worship on offer over the Easter, associated with the twin deities of pleasure and possessions, and they will have their own distinctive sounds. This worship will be seen and heard over the long bank-holiday weekend in any place where money is too freely spent or pleasure too freely sought: in the shopping malls, at the airport terminals, on the roads to resorts and theme parks, and even in the bare living-room awaiting some new and fashionable piece of DIY.

The religious significance of the great Christian festival of Easter is now probably little understood and largely ignored by most people. Even the hot cross buns which used to be eaten only on Good Friday until quite recently, have lost their symbolic function. Similarly, on this day set aside to remember Christ’s crucifixion, a mood of quiet solemnity was often observed for some of the time at least, leaving Easter Sunday as the occasion for joy and celebration helped along by the consumption of excessive quantities of chocolate egg. It is a small irony that nowadays Good Friday is the noisiest day of Easter, and Easter Sunday is the quietest, simply because on this day the shops are not permitted to open.

Just as society has become secular so too have our schools, even our Church schools. The Easter story will undoubtedly get a mention in an assembly or an RE lesson in the week before the holidays and a popular hymn will be sung, but many schools, I suspect, will not do much more. If this is the case one wonders how many young children actually know the sequence of events which took place during the last week of Jesus’ life and how many older pupils have considered in any depth the significance of these events.

The story which begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and ends with the empty tomb is not the easiest to understand. I find a lot of it difficult myself, but such is its power, so compelling is its blend of the human and divine and so enthralling is its drama that it does not matter if we do not understand or believe it. We can just allow ourselves to be entranced by the events as the narrative unfolds and leave the theological wrestling about what is truth for another occasion.

We are failing in our duty if we do not teach this story. It has a richness far greater than any work of literature and it has meaning on many levels. It has so much wisdom to impart that hearing it each year should never be a comforting ritual but an opportunity to revisit its familiar themes and discover some new ones.

Spiritually, emotionally and intellectually we can be stirred, uplifted and challenged by the dramatic events and human responses which lead up to the death and resurrection of the Son of God. We can respond to what takes place: to the joy of Palm Sunday, to the excruciating agony of Good Friday and to the revelation of Easter Sunday. We can ponder, and react to, the innumerable facets of human behaviour which are so tellingly depicted. Celebration, friendship, compassion, sacrifice, loyalty, betrayal, fear, despair, anguish; these are all here, along with jealousy, intrigue, manipulation, mob rule and much else.

These are the great enduring themes of humanity which children and adults should reflect upon at Easter. But there is more. For those who accept the Christian faith there is the promise of redemption, salvation and eternal life.

And for all of us, believers and non-believers, there is an uplifting of the soul when we share in the triumphant victories of hope over despair, forgiveness over revenge, love over hate, goodness over evil, rebirth over death.

All of which must be cause for celebration. So this year in schools let’s hear it for Easter. Let’s have some timely spiritual renewal and bring the story alive for our pupils. And let’s have some good singing in our assemblies, and loud hosannas everywhere for something truly full of wonder.




Edition 32

21 April 2006 





To follow the debate please read the headline further below and those in Edition 31. If you would like to register your views on the subject please contact Alan Kerr who would be pleased to hear from you. 


It’s SATs time again. A time of worry and stress, for teachers more than pupils, or a useful exercise in assessment?

A strong case can be made that they are a useful exercise at Key Stage 2 but unnecessary at Key Stages 1 and 3. National tests can safely be abandoned at 7 and 14 provided schools ensure that alternative assessment is in place which measures pupils’ progress objectively against national norms. Returning to some of the casual assessment procedures of those halcyon days when schools were, shall we say, more relaxed, should not be an item on anyone’s agenda.

It is reasonable and sensible to continue with SATs at Key Stage 2 although there is clearly scope to improve the tests and also introduce a diagnostic element which would be useful to secondary schools. The writing test need not be strictly timed and the maths test could include a paper on basic number processes which would replace the present mental arithmetic test. This would provide useful diagnostic information.

By the time children have reached the end of the primary phase they have received seven years of full-time education. There can surely be no objection to seeing how much they have learned and how well they have been taught during this time. And actually they have learned a great deal, and generally been well taught, as the results of their SATs prove.

The tests they will take in the second week of May are not easy. They could be more challenging in some respects but on the whole they are demanding and rigorous. Anyone who doubts this should try writing a story in forty-five minutes and tackle some of the harder maths questions.

Pupils should be proud of their SATs results. Many of them will have worked hard over many years to achieve their success. Teachers should be proud, too, and instead of constantly complaining about the tests should see them as a measure of their skill and professionalism. Good luck to everyone involved.


“Just imagine. Eleven year olds refuse to participate in the time-honoured ritual of writing their names on their papers. They stroll nonchalantly out of the exam room, raid the music cupboard for tambourines and maracas, dash off some fancy placards and march on the town hall chanting “Won’t sit sat’s” or something similar.”


Read this week's essay on SATs.


The Labour government has shown a strong commitment to education. It has been too prescriptive and regulatory but its overall record has been good. It has improved funding, maintained the previous government’s drive for higher standards and introduced some much needed diversity into the system. Most recently it has begun to get to grips with the enduring problem of low achievement among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Given this commitment it is deeply puzzling why the government does not resolve, once and for all, the long-running sore of the postcode lottery in school funding whereby geographical location determines the size of a school budget. The new Dedicated Schools Grant introduced this April is a recognition that education is a national entitlement for all our young people and not a local service provided by the council. It follows logically from this that all pupils, whichever part of the country they happen to live in, should have a fair share of taxpayers’ money to support them on their educational journey.

The best way to do this is to have a national formula which takes factors such as special needs and academic attainment into account and then distributes funding directly to schools on a per capita basis. Such a system would be fair, simple and transparent and could be phased in over a five year transitional period.

Before Gordon Brown puts any new money into education he must end the present postcode lottery and use taxpayers’ money in the way they would wish it to be used. He will not need any his legendary political acumen to work out that they wish it to be used fairly.


East Sussex is allocated £3598 per pupil from the Dedicated Schools Grant while Poole is allocated £3349. Both authorities receive the same percentage for deprivation. For a notional school of 500 pupils this is a difference of almost £125,000.

Greenwich is allocated £4745 per pupil from the DSG, Redbridge £3757. Again both authorities receive the same percentage for deprivation. For a notional school of 500 pupils this is a difference of almost £500,000.

For the full list of grant allocations visit: www.f40.org.uk





Let’s have a linear relationship. Everyone should have one now and again. Synthetic phonics to SATs to the DFES teachernet website.

The synthetic phonics debate chugs along – chugs has some good sounds to practise. Newsnight covered the subject three times last year and it’s still in the news – which is good news in itself.

As for SATs I’ve been doing my bit again. Only Key Stage 2 this year, with one pupil. The reading booklets used in the English tests are always impressive and I use them at this time of year. I have the one used in 2002 in front of me now. Its title is “Fire, Friend or Foe?” and it contains a poem, a short story, a newspaper report and some factual information, with photographs, about the effects of forest fires. A shame really that children had to spend 45 minutes sitting in silence answering comprehension questions about it.

Rather a shame, too, that I’ve had to spend much longer than 45 minutes comprehending an assortment of documents about school funding on the teachernet website. On the whole they are fairly readable but less use of abbreviations and more summaries would be helpful.

What’s the linear relationship between these three hot topics? You’ve already spotted it. Learn your phonics, do well with your reading in SATs and, one day, in the fullness of time, you too will be able to spend many happy hours studying documents on the DFES website and discovering a whole new world of truth and beauty.

And where did the title of this notebook come from? Well, it wasn’t from the Jolly Phonics handbook and it wasn’t from a past SATs paper.




This essay first appeared in the Western Daily Press, 2003.


Will it be all quiet on the classroom front this week? So quiet that only the familiar sounds of silence disturb the stillness of the exam room – sighs, ticking clocks, rustling paper, scribbling pens.

It’s SATs week again for hundreds of thousands of eleven year olds. First introduced to suspicious teachers and unsuspecting children in the early 1990’s they are now as regular in the life-cycle of the primary school as the nativity play and harvest festival. Admittedly they’ve never had the comforting appeal of angels and shepherds, nor the mellow fragrance of the harvest display, but up until recently they have at least generated an air of excitement and a break from the normal school routine.

Not now though. The drum beats of war against SATs are louder and more menacing than any time since they were first introduced. National tests are a tyranny to be toppled. They amount to nothing less than state-sponsored cruelty to children, a form of child abuse according to one delegate at a teachers’ conference. In the interests of both child protection and the provision of enlightened education, these tests must be abolished.

So how quiet will it be in primary schools this week? In the arid bush lands of education just a few sparks could ignite the fires of insurrection.

Just imagine. Eleven year olds refuse to participate in the time-honoured ritual of writing their names on their papers. They stroll nonchalantly out of the exam room, raid the music cupboard for tambourines and maracas, dash off some fancy placards and march on the town hall chanting “Won’t sit sats” or something similar. The latest in cool. Another protest march. And what an educational experience it is for them: child-centred, active citizenship beyond our wildest dreams.

They are joined by the nation’s seven year olds clutching their cuddly toys and holding hands with their mums. These little souls also have to endure nasty tests which those naughty politicians decided were good for them. As do our fourteen year olds who, complete with mobiles and skateboards, swell the throng, eager to show their solidarity.

And I’ll be there too. Just to say a few words on the town hall steps. Infants, good luck to you, I’ll say. I’m not persuaded that you’re as distressed as the surveys suggest but we certainly don’t need national tests for seven year olds. Teenagers, I’ll take your side for once. Schools can set their own tests for you and before long you’ll be into your GCSEs which should keep you busy enough.

But Year 6’s, you eleven year olds, hang on a minute. Let’s have a think. You’ve worked hard all year and you’ve relished being at the top of the school. On the whole you’ve enjoyed your English, Maths and Science, the subjects you will be tested on. Many of you are perhaps better educated than your parents were at this stage in their schooling and in the next few days you will be doing things that your parents, and your teachers, would find a struggle. Writing a top quality story in forty-five minutes, for example, or puzzling over some abstruse number problems.

You’re intelligent enough to know that these tests are not perfect measurements of what you have learned and have many limitations. But you also know they can be a useful guide to how you are getting on with your studies. If you can’t do the question on percentages you may need some more practice – useful things, percentages, when you have a mortgage and a walletful of credit cards.

You know that SATs are not the sole purpose of human existence. Admit it you usually forget about them as soon as you hit the playground. But you also know that your education is important both for the opportunities it will give you and for the benefit of society as a whole. Lots of things in life require a bit of effort and discipline and learning at school is the same. You understand this and invariably you enjoy the challenge.

You’ve spent seven years in your primary school, a long time, and you’ve learned a lot. It’s reasonable, you must agree, to spend just one week taking a few tests so that all of us, yourselves included, can see how you’ve done.

So back to your exam rooms, please, folks. Pick up your pens and do your best. And, one last point, your teachers have been working hard as well. Give them a break. Allow them to supervise your exams and have a few blissful minutes listening to some familiar sounds of silence.




Edition 33

5 May 2006 




The chief inspector of schools is correct to say that doing well at school requires some effort. He rightly acknowledges that schools should be exciting and engaging places but affirms that ultimately it is hard work which delivers success at GCSE.


Most pupils do work hard, from their time in the infants through to sixteen. Those Year 6 pupils who are now doing their SATs would not make much sense of their tests unless they had been well taught and had covered a lot of ground.


The formula for successful learning is exquisitely simple. There is nothing elaborate about its alchemy. It is this: good learning is achieved through a mix of interest, understanding and effort. We motivate our pupils to learn by making the subject matter interesting. We teach them well so they understand what they are doing. We ensure they put in the necessary effort to consolidate what they are studying.


There are some pupils who don’t want to put in the effort and some whose circumstances prevent them from doing so. These are the pupils who underachieve and we need to find ways to support them.


Schools should not be factories which mass-produce commodities called knowledge and learning. They should be places which create opportunities for learning in a variety of ways one of which should be to allow time for working at a more gentle pace and exploring ideas in a leisurely way. But when the time comes for a real effort to be made, it must remain the duty of schools to ensure their pupils knuckle down and put in the hard work that is needed.  



The two finalists in The Apprentice clearly didn’t knuckle down to their work at school. They only have five GCSEs between them and they’re proud of the fact. This they showed as they congratulated each other on becoming the final two in the contest to become Sir Alan Sugar’s apprentice. Good luck to both of them. They are intelligent, capable, highly motivated, hard-working, fiercely ambitious, supremely confident young women. They are living proof that there is more to life than GCSEs.   


Please look at editions 31 and 32 in Archives to follow the ongoing debate and contact Alan Kerr to register your support for a change to the system.




Here’s an anniversary for devotees of such occasions. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 900th anniversary of …remember your history – 1086 and all that, if you’ll excuse the slight adjustment. That was the year of the Domesday Book – an impressive display of central government intervention if ever there was one. Even the present administration could learn a thing or two about centralisation from good King William.


To mark the anniversary schools were invited to conduct a modern Domesday survey which like its predecessor would cover the whole country. Each participating school would collect data for a nearby area of land measuring 4km by 3km, a block, as it was called, which could easily be identified on an ordnance survey map. The data included information about the landscape and man-made features, together with anything at all which contributed to what would be a national snapshot of life in the mid 1980s. A number of photographs were required and everything was to be stored on disc ready to be transferred to the overall database.


So twenty-one years ago this term, a year before the anniversary was due, I inaugurated a new club, complete with membership cards, one of which I’m looking at now. Members of the highly prestigious Domesday Club were to carry out the survey of the block we had been allocated and, using, what are now museum pieces, the BBC computers, type up some screen pages of description. As well as the survey we would also look at the original Domesday entries for our area and do a presentation for the whole school.


With the help of colleagues and parents off we set to explore our block of 12 square kilometres. It was, and still is, an area rich in interest, with countryside, sea, sand, woods, a park, a golf course, varied housing, shops, schools, churches, history and plenty of busy roads. As well as looking at physical features the children spoke to local people about what they did, and what they knew about the local area.


I know we didn’t do justice to its physical and social diversity but I think we captured some of its interest and something of its everyday life. The children wrote up their pages about the shops, houses, schools, leisure activities, employment, buses, the sea and a typical family day, along with various other facets of local life. One group chose to look at public houses I notice. We sent off our disc and the information was transferred to the national survey.


It was an inspired concept. One of the best educational activities I’ve ever been involved with, genuinely purposeful cross-curricular work. It captured the imagination of the children who worked on it, as well as their parents, and the whole school was interested in what we were doing. Unfortunately, because of problems with the technology, the children didn’t get to see the product of their labours on the piece of software which was finally put together.


However, the good news is, if any members of the Domesday Club want to remember the 20thanniversary of the modern survey with an act of reminiscence they can now visit www.domesday1986.com/. There they will find, preserved in perpetuity for all to see, what they wrote all those years ago when they were third year juniors. I’ve just looked at what they did and it’s quite a gem.


If those who took part in the project do look back they will see, of course, that much of what they observed at the time is now, too, a part of history.


Here’s an extract from “A typical Family Day”


By then my brother had woken up so my mum got him up. He was in one of his good moods which was a relief. At 11.00 am  my mum put Jake, which is my brother’s name, to bed. Now my mum had peace and quiet. Mum did all the housework while Jake was in bed. This was the washing-up, hoovering, tidying up, cleaning the bathroom and digging the garden.


Mum and Jake – you made a little piece of history.




This edition's essay is All Quiet on the Classroom Front which appeared in Edition 32. 





Edition 34

19 May 2006  






Not everyone will be happy that happiness is back on the curriculum. It is not only at Wellington College where pupils are learning about this elusive commodity. Other schools, too, are including the subject in their programmes for social and emotional development.

The last time happiness hit the headlines was a long time ago. Back in the golden era of child-centred education a survey of primary school teachers showed that the first priority for many of them was to ensure their pupils were happy. Not surprisingly, given some of the anxieties about the direction of primary education at the time, concern was expressed that this was not the true purpose of schools.

No doubt this concern will be raised again along with the argument that happiness is not something which can be taught. Clearly it is not the easiest subject to grapple with, or to put across, but this is not a reason to avoid the challenge. It is, after all, the state of being we spend most of our lives searching for and, if schools are supposed to be preparing us for life, then it must be reasonable to include it on the curriculum.

But what actually is it, this stuff called happiness? This is the million dollar question. If we can get young people to engage in some serious discussion about what it means to be happy, and how there is probably more to this than having a million dollars, we can show them some pathways they may otherwise be unaware of. We can also help them on their journeys by suggesting strategies which lead to happy choices and strategies which help them cope with unhappy circumstances.

What does this amount to in practice? Some teaching of social and emotional awareness, certainly, and rather more philosophy in the classroom, which will be a bonus as there is too little at present. But more than this the whole area of happiness and well-being should be seen as an opportunity for teachers to put over some strong messages as well as initiate some interesting discussions. To do some preaching as well as teaching, and do it without apology.

They should be happy to proclaim some of the great truths about happiness. That it is about loving and being loved, giving as well as receiving, valuing others as well as being valued; that it is about fulfilment, contentment and having a sense of purpose; that it is more than pleasure and instant gratification, and more than accumulating possessions, novel experiences or celebrity status.

If teachers can do this effectively they will be giving their pupils the most valuable lessons on the curriculum and no one should be unhappy about that.



Please look at editions 31 and 32 in Archives to follow the ongoing debate and contact Alan Kerr to register your support for a change to the system.






This is the same as that which appeared in Edition 33.  




The following column first appeared in the TES in January 2005.




One of the most enduring and misguided ideas in education is the belief that large groups of pupils can be taught to their full potential by one person. They can be taught, of course, and taught well with all the boxes ticked for holding interest, explaining clearly, motivating, inspiring even. But class teaching is not the same as giving quality support for the learning needs of each individual pupil. This is something different.

However brilliant a teacher’s exposition, or however supportive group learning may be, there will always be pupils who require explanation, discussion and guidance on a one to one basis. With class sizes of twenty-five or thirty, token gestures and very brief encounters between teacher and pupil are the most that can be offered at both primary and secondary level.

The maths is clear: a one hour lesson with thirty pupils offers two minutes per pupil if everyone is working individually for the whole session, one minute per pupil if half the session has involved teaching the class. There is no time for uninterrupted, high quality, individual tuition.

What can be done about the situation? Carry on as normal, do one’s best and keep smiling? Keep those snappy, interactive lessons going, especially for Ofsted, meet the targets for tests and exams, live in hope that IT will come to the rescue and be thankful there aren’t fifty pupils to a class each with their own inkwell?

Do nothing strategies have their merits but by definition fail to advance the status quo. A second option would make the status quo unrecognizable. It’s a very simple solution. All we have to do is arrange for the five thousand pounds of public money, which currently funds each state-educated pupil, to be spent within the classroom and not on the huge, unnecessary bureaucracy outside it. In this way class sizes would be reduced to about six. Six pupils would generate a reasonable salary for their teachers, as well as provide a pleasant working environment with plenty of time for individual support.

One day this will happen, when parents and taxpayers finally wake up to how their hard-earned money is spent.

In the meantime there is a third course of action, one which is on offer right now. Instead of reducing the number of pupils in a class a similar effect can be achieved by simply increasing the number of adults who are able to support them.

These adults already work in our schools and increasing numbers are being taken on. They are, of course, our teaching assistants.

Many of them are used to giving one to one support to pupils with specific needs. They have become essential to the delivery of inclusive education and their commitment and professionalism have been valued by teachers and parents alike.

Many have embraced a much wider role than mixing paints or mounting pictures for classroom displays. Routinely they work with groups and individuals in literacy and numeracy lessons and follow the plans their teachers have given them. Many provide support in other areas of the curriculum such as science, technology, IT and even swimming.

The value of having another adult in the classroom to assist directly in the learning process is now widely recognized but there is more to be done. Expectations of teaching assistants’ skills must be raised still further so there can be no doubt that their deployment in schools brings results from reception through to sixteen.

They must be appropriately qualified and fully trained so they can work with individuals and groups in all areas of learning and social development. They must be able to supervise whole classes in order to free up teachers themselves to give sustained one to one support to their pupils.

Two skilled practitioners with thirty pupils does much more than improve the mathematics of class sizes. It opens the way to provide high quality individual teaching for all pupils so their full learning potential can be achieved. Going down the road of having more teaching assistants in schools is an opportunity not to be missed.





Edition 35

2 June 2006






Please look at editions 31 and 32 in Archives to follow the ongoing debate and contact Alan Kerr to register your support for a change to the system.




The annual summer exam fest is undoubtedly one of the more esoteric rites of modern society. Millions of young people reluctantly, silently, and, for the most part obediently, scribbling answers to devious questions in a hall full of robotic figures doing exactly the same thing. Why do we still inflict this unique form of pain on our children? Why do we continue to ruin the early part of their summer with taking the exams and the late part of summer with the results? Surely they haven't been so badly behaved they require this level of correction.

The summer festival of GCSEs, A-levels, AS-levels and end of years tests follows hard on the SATs jamboree of late spring. Put these events together, and add what is happening in our universities at this time of year, and we can see that the annual preoccupation has become a great educational obsession. We need to know whether this obsession is healthy or unhealthy.

Why do we have exams and what exactly do they achieve? These are very old questions which have been asked by pupils and teachers for a long, long time.They are questions which should be addressed sensibly and rationally even when passions are stirred. The arguments for and against exams need to be assembled and weighed before any conclusions are reached about their purpose and effectiveness.

The disadvantages are familiar and include the following:

  • they encourage cramming and teaching to tests rather than learning which has depth, breadth and scope for original thinking or imagination
  • they asses the ability to take tests more than they assess how much has been learned
  • they can be stressful
  • the way they are graded may not be a fair reflection of ability
  • not doing well in them can be demotivating and result in low self-esteem
  • they take the pleasure out of learning
  • the results appear on CVs throughout our working lives

There are good arguments for exams on the plus side:

  • they assess basic levels of ability in academic subjects and practical skills
  • they are a means of assessing more advanced skills and knowledge required by doctors, engineers, electricians and others
  • they act as a filter for entering certain types of employment or pursuing further studies
  • used properly they can provide useful information on strengths and weaknesses
  • they provide a focus for learning
  • they can be a good means of self-motivation
  • they are objective, standardised measures of achievement

What is the verdict? Are exams an unpleasant and unecesssary distraction from what education is really about or are they a useful means of achieving high standards of learning? At present it is probably safe to say that they have their uses in providing structure and purpose to the curriculum and for measuring achievement with some degree of objectivity. However, it should not be beyond our imagination to devise better, alternative systems of assessment which are rigorous and motivating and more credible than present coursework requirements.

We should be aiming to keep the best of what examinations achieve and removing their obvious limitations. It should not be too testing a project.




Is there any reason why the refrain, 'Kind Hands, Kind Words', which is heard in our infant classes can't also be heard in Year 10 or Year 11? It may just be that reminding older pupils of the simple precepts they were taught when they were very young, and the reasons why they were taught them, could be a more effective behaviour strategy than all the emotional self-analysis which is now required when there are conflicts.






I have often wondered how two of my most inspirational teachers would have fared with Ofsted. Failed probably. They wouldn't have ticked any boxes. They both taught history, one to A-level and one to degree level.

At school Syd, as we called him, had an aura of stern authority about him and voices were lowered in his presence. Folklore advised that he was not to be tangled with under any circumstances, in the classroom, the corridor or anywhere at all. What would have happened if anyone had tried to tangle with him was unknown since nobody had ever dared. In the more congenial atmosphere of the sixth form those of us who were taught by Syd soon realised that his severe reputation was unfounded. He was quiet, friendly and supportive with three notable mannerisms: running a finger inside his ears before every lesson, breathing in with a loud hissing sound and theatrically opening as many classroom windows as he could.

His teaching style was to sit and dictate notes for most of a double lesson with an occasional short interlude for discussion. We learned to listen and to write quickly. We were given tests frequently and wrote regular essays. It was hard going but we respected Syd for his dedication, his thoroughness, his extensive knowledge and the way he would respond to questions and listen to opinions whenever time permitted. Needless to say his classes attained good grades.

In complete contrast Neville was the epitome of an absent minded professor although he was not one. He lectured in modern history specialising in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his tutorials he would simply talk without notes or text books on any issue that arose in connection with the subject being studied. He would leap energetically among different events and historical figures and it was not always easy to grasp the associations he made. His knowledge, enthusiasm and involvement were such that listening to him was always stimulating and often entertaining. While he spoke he tilted back in his chair at a precarious angle and often displayed an odd pair of socks. Time passed quickly with few notes taken.

Syd and Neville are a reminder that inspiring and effective teachers come in many different forms. Long may that continue and long may we remember that this is so.



The column below first appeared in the TES in January 2005. It is particularly relevant in the context of the school funding debate - better funding buys more of what is being advocated.





This essay is the same as that which was written for Edition 34.