Edition 36

16 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 title of this week's notebook




This week's essay.




It may not be every schoolboy's dream to score the winning goal in the final of the World Cup but this harmless fantasy must recently have crossed the minds of a significant number of energetic young males - maybe even in the middle of a maths lesson.

Great tournaments are always a good occasion to consider the sporting health of our schools even if this is something we should do all the time. So how healthy is the present state of school sport and what actually should it be achieving? One of its aims should certainly be to develop the talents of those who have natural ability and specialist schools, particularly, are able to give added support to these pupils. If this leads to more success in international competition then we can all bask in the glow. If it doesn't we can take the view that there are other more important things in life.

Of greater significance than honing the ability of a few super stars is the aim of nurturing all pupils' physical and sporting potential. Sport for all must remain the focus of what takes place in school. Participating in sport has so much to offer that it must be given the high status it merits. It is enjoyable, exciting and relaxing and provides useful respite from cerebral exertion. It contributes to fitness and overall health, builds character and self-esteem and acts as an outlet for surplus energy and even aggression. For those who like to be competitive it provides the ideal arena and for those who like teamwork it has a lot to teach. Add to this the contribution it makes to future leisure pursuits, and, for some, future employment, then sport should arguably be part of the core curriculum.

Physical education is essential for our young people's overall development. It is fair to say, however, that as a subject it is not in peak condition. Although many women teachers would not admit to the deficiency there are not enough men in primary schools who are able to give boys the breadth and depth of sporting activities they need. At both primary and secondary level the decline in inter-school fixtures has not only reduced the time spent playing games in a fully committed, competitive way it has also reduced the need for training sessions. Fewer meetings, less paperwork and more flexible pay arrangements would easily overcome this problem.

Then there is the whole question of the crowded curriculum. Of course other subjects are important but, as has just been argued, physical education has so much to contribute it should be near the top of the table when it comes to priorities. Finally, among the shortcomings of the present situation, there is the continuing, woeful failure to use school playing fields, playgrounds and facilities outside school hours. That thousand of acres of recreational facilities all over the country are not being used for kicking a ball around after four o'clock in the afternoon is a national disgrace.

Sport for all is about participating in sporting activities. However much enjoyment we get from cheering on our teams in front of televisions and big screens nothing beats taking part in some sort of physical pursuit. Schools need to raise their game considerably if they are to meet the challenge of inspiring all their pupils to enjoy their sport and do lots of it.







Not number crunching, number chunking. A beautifully evocative expression. Solid, fit for purpose. Long may it pass the lips of all those involved in education. If you teach in a primary school you know what it means. If you don't it is just another of those mysterious mathematical terms which bemuses onlookers every so often.

I haven't done a lot of chunking personally but enough to know what it involves. On the whole I like the idea - and for those in the know I'm including "partitioning" in the overall definition - which will probably upset the purists. Essentially it is a means of calculating with numbers, doing sums if you prefer, by breaking them down into their component parts to find meaningful ways to arrive at the answers. So 58 + 36 becomes 50 +30 to which is then added 8+6. The process can be done mentally or with jottings on paper. There is no putting one number above the other and adding first the units and then the tens in the traditional way. Numbers can be partitioned for adding, subtraction, multiplication and even long multiplication. When you partition for long multiplication you end up with what is known as the grid method rather than the long vertical calculations which were once common fare in the upper reaches of our primary schools.

This new approach to calculating, which came in with the national numeracy strategy but is now being reconsidered, gives children an understanding of what is happening when numbers are being manipulated. Any method which helps children understand how numbers work has to be good. If they instantly know that the number 475 is made up of 400 + 70 + 5 they will have a much firmer grasp of what 3-digit numbers mean and what can be done with them. We all want that for our pupils.

Unfortunately number chunking doesn't switch on all the lights in our mathematical caverns and the government is right to revisit the strategy. I remember, a long time ago, doing Fletcher maths in a school where I taught. The approach to number calculations was not dissimilar to the methods now in use but a lot of children found it confusing to have to learn different ways to reach an answer. Sometimes the methods were, and still are, unnecessarily complicated. The grid method of long multiplication, for example, is not an easy process to understand especially for pupils who struggle with their number work. Similarly some of the methods for subtraction and division are over elaborate and liable to cause confusion.

Even the method used to add 58 and 36 is over elaborate. It is much better to partition one of the numbers, not both of them, so that the calculation becomes 58 add 30, then add 6 or, if preferred, 58 add 6, then add 30.

But there is another, serious limitation with partitioning methods if they are relied upon too heavily. They do not fully illuminate the most fundamental feature of our number system, place value, and the miraculous power of the number 0. Without this invention we would still be using tally sticks or Roman numerals. Children need to know what a nought does and how it works, and they need to know about place value. The best way for them to become familiar with the concept is by setting out calculations in columns - hundreds, tens, units and more as necessary. They need to understand that each column has a different value and that the position of a digit in any given number determines the column into which it will be placed.

Our base ten number system is one of the great achievements of humankind. Using vertical columns to do calculations is beautifully logical and efficient. And logic and efficiency, along with truth and beauty, are the essence of mathematics. Children must be shown how and why vertical calculations work and not simply learn them by rote as too often happens. There is no reason at all why the processes behind long multiplication or the decomposition method of subtraction cannot be explained properly (see note below) so that children are not in a haze when they are engaged in these processes.

There is a place, and a value, in number crunching with traditional methods. There is a place, and a value, in number chunking. The two methods are not mutually exclusive. If children are to acquire the fullest possible competence and understanding they should be taught both.



  1. The best way to explain long multiplication is to start with very simple partitioning: show with counters that 6 x 5 is actually the same as 6 x 3 add 6 x 2, or any other combination. This leads on to partitioning numbers such as 13 which becomes 10 and 3. Then all that needs to be explained when doing long multiplication the traditional way is why the "0" is put in when the ten digit is multiplied or two noughts when the hundred digit is multiplied
  2. The logic of the decomposition method of subtraction is easy to demonstrate with hundreds, tens and units made from centimetre squared paper. Children should do lots of examples before they start setting them out as sums. But the best way of doing any subtraction is to use the counting on method and this is what children should be encouraged to use.

3. And let's not forget the one obvious fact about numbers which applies to us all. Outside the classroom we use our calculators rather more often than we use a pencil and paper.




This column first appeared in the Bristol Evening Post.




How exercised should we become about the way sports days are organised in schools? Is this time-honoured occasion a harmless ritual of summer fun or a distressing experience for all the little souls who trail behind the winners? Or is it, perhaps, essential preparation for the great egg and spoon race of life?  

Maybe it’s as well that most teachers are too exhausted at this time of year to give the matter much thought and prefer instead to concentrate their dwindling reserves of energy on checking the supply of bean bags and skipping ropes in readiness for the great event.

But for those who are up to some gentle philosophical jousting there is plenty on offer. The underlying issues about the purpose of sport, and how it should be used in school, merit an airing even if this provokes muttering among parents or an outbreak of teacher bashing in the tabloids.

No one disagrees about two obvious benefits. Sport instils the message of healthy physical exercise in young children and will continue to do so for as long as snooker and darts are kept off the PE syllabus. It also introduces children to forms of recreation which they can go on to enjoy for a lifetime.

But beyond this core of common ground there is an interesting and occasionally impassioned debate. On the one hand there are those who contend that sport not only builds character but offers vital training for modern life. Competing in individual or team sports teaches self-discipline and respect both on off the field. It brings out qualities of determination and endurance and provides invaluable experience for dealing with setbacks, defeats and a few hard knocks. And, some would say, essential in our achievement-oriented culture, it hones our natural instincts to strive, compete and win.

Putting the other side of the argument are those of a gentler spirit who value co-operation above competition and who question the purpose of the great rat race which modern society has become. For those who take this view, participating is more important than winning and achieving personal sporting goals, however limited they may appear, is just as rewarding as being first to cross the line. Everyone’s a winner in this way of thinking.

The arguments no doubt will continue to run and run. Which is, of course, what young children will enjoy doing most when sports day comes along again this term.




Edition 37

30 June 2006






Our attitudes towards disability continue to progress. Society as a whole has moved from a position of supporting needs to the position of recognising rights. In recent years legislation has been introduced to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities and to ensure they are treated in the same way as everyone else. Although there are still too many instances where legal obligations are not being met the overall situation is a great improvement on that which was the norm two or three decades ago. In the areas of care, employment, transport, access to buildings, leisure, sport and, of course, education, there have been notable advances which have improved the quality of life for millions of people. Disabled people themselves, and campaigners for the rights of the disabled, have achieved enormous success in the way they have advanced their cause and made an unassailable argument for equal rights and opportunities.

But even more important than this collective transformation in attitudes is the way our individual attitudes have changed. The great debates on disability issues have challenged us all to question our preconceptions, beliefs and innermost feelings. Equal rights legislation has helped us understand that all members of society must be equally valued and that our common humanity is of equal worth. Families caring for disabled people have, of course, always understood these fundamental principles and have put them into practice through the love and care they have shown.

In the way we see our fellow humans with disabilities, in the way we talk to them, befriend them, help them, our hearts need to change as well as our minds. This is happening and it must continue to happen. In school we do a lot for minds but not enough for hearts. We should be finding ways to open them up so that warm and affectionate feelings develop between healthy pupils and the many members of our human family who have a disability of some sort. The move towards greater inclusion is one way of achieving this but there is scope for much more contact and interaction especially involving people with severe disabilities. If teachers and pupils can find the time to do this, both during and after school, individual perceptions and feelings will become even more positive and this will be to everyone's benefit.




We lock up our young people in crowded, uncomfortable, airless buildings for too many hours in a day, for too many days in a year and for too many years in a life. Can we not give them a little taste of freedom in the summer and let them outside? All age groups - primary, secondary, tertiary.

Of course we can. Lock up the ICT suites, put away the laptops, get some pencils and paper, walk round the streets, visit the countryside and do some sketching. Spend a few days doing this - there are millions of things to draw.

Keep the pencils. Get some notebooks this time, and various guides from the library. Spend a week looking at churches, old buildings, landscapes, trees, flowers, insects, birds. Jot down some observations, do some more sketches, do some identifying, find out some information. Don't let the slightest thought of using the internet enter your head.

Put the notebooks away. Keep your trainers on, get your backpacks, some provisions, a waterproof and a map. Go and do some hiking. Long hikes - in the hills, the woods, the fields, the hills again, and then some more hills.

Let's hit the great outdoors. It's a frightening prospect to let millions of young people loose on the community but think of all the exercise they'll be getting. They'll be exercising their artistic abilities, exercising their curiosity about the world around them, exercising their bodies and, out in the open country, they'll be exercising their right to roam.





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. Thanks to the Western Daily Press for using the article on the subject.




See this week's notebook




This week's essay






What a splendid occasion I recently attended - a thanksgiving service in celebration of 150 years of education, held in the great outdoors on the school playing field. Thank you Wrington Primary School for inviting me, thanks for the lovely singing, dancing and poetry, thanks for the messages which the children and speakers conveyed and thanks for all the hard work which went into the event.

Still at the heart of the community the school continues, very successfully, to nurture and educate its pupils. It is fascinating to consider the sheer volume and diversity of learning which has taken place inside the impressive Victorian building, and it is even more fascinating to think about the pupils who have passed through. What were they like, where did they live, what did their parents do and what did they do after they left school?

I only contributed a year's teaching to the echoes of the past, and a very pleasant year it was. Others have contributed much more and continue to do so. 

I wonder what will be taught a hundred and fifty years from now. I wonder what sort of lives we will be living. I wonder what children will need to learn.




This article appears in Edition 36.






See Edition 36.




Edition 38

14 July 2006






School's out - or very close to being out. It's holiday time, long holiday time. Warm days and wispy clouds stretching endlessly ahead, all thoughts of classrooms and corridors well and truly erased, let's hope.

Time, then, for some real education, not the artificial stuff that's been clogging your brain for the past ten months.

Time to get a holiday job if you're old enough. Earn a bit of money instead of cadging from your parents. Learn some of the disciplines of paid employment - punctuality, listening to instructions, using your initiative, putting in some effort. Learning, maybe, not to spend all you've earned in the weekend after you've been paid.

Time to do some helping round the home. Some cleaning and tidying, some cooking, baking, a bit of DIY. Why not? It's your home. You should be learning what needs to be done - from about the age of seven onwards.

Time to learn how to use a saw and make some models from some scraps of wood or something of practical use. Time to follow your interests and hobbies, but preferably not by spending too long with the PC, DVD, iPod and all that boring stuff.

Time to go outside to kick or hit a ball, to ride your bike, run around, learn some fancy new tricks on your skateboard, go for some long hikes up some high hills and through some deep forests. And while you're outside practise your sketching and use your digital camera to take some smart shots. And learn to be sensible and safe especially near water.

Time to visit a museum, a castle, a cathedral, any site of historical or scenic interest. Time to look at some trees, some wild flowers, some shells, some fossils and learn about them, whether you're five years old or fifteen.

Time to help other people: neighbours, relatives, the elderly, children with disabilities or disadvantages. Help them in any way you can and learn about the care they require.

Time to read some books and lose yourself in an adventure or fantasy. And time to read a well-known sonnet? You know, the one with the line: 'And summer's lease hath all too short a date.' Perhaps not. It's too much like school, and there are plenty of other things to do and learn.




Read this week's essay on a similar theme to the headline above.






Who uses strawberries as a reward for good behaviour? I've just been to one school which does, but disappointingly, when I enquired, they turned out not to be the real thing but tokens with a picture of a strawberry on them. Nice idea though. Apparently if enough strawberries are collected then a real treat follows - a special meal or a visit somewhere.

Use anything which works, I say. Like most people I've used various forms of bribery over the years including housepoints, stars, commercially produced stickers and, dare I admit to it, even smarties. Best of all, though, were the England football stickers I used one year with a particularly lively bunch. They were not quite a magic wand but they definitely had powers of persuasion. I guess there's an interesting assortment of incentives being used in schools around the country. Perhaps someone has done some research on the subject.




This essay appeared in the first run of School Report.




The rush of heightened pleasure and the fleeting glimpse of heaven. Who else apart from pupils and their teachers have such feelings at the end of a working day? One particular working day that is: the last day of the summer term when the bell goes for the final time, when schoolbags are empty of homework and marking and when fulsome goodbyes and expressions of goodwill trip off the tongue with uncommon profusion.

Not as strong as other passions maybe but the sweet anticipation that comes with the start of the summer holidays and the prospect of a silver sea stretching towards the far horizon still feels good. It could be, of course, that the two impish companions, pain and pleasure, are more responsible for this annual infusion of bliss than just sweet anticipation. Like running marathons, climbing mountains or listening to operas one of the best things about school, sometimes, is when the experience comes to an end and the pain is no longer felt.

So what do pain-free and carefree teachers get up to during these idyllic weeks of cloudless skies and cooling breeze? What mischief can they find to occupy their idle minds? Some of their acquaintances may even be incautious enough to inquire how they manage to fill their time. And there are others, possibly not of their acquaintance, who may still murmur the old mantra that teachers have far too many holidays and ought to try doing some real work. Let those who murmur try a stint on the front line themselves, I say.

As for the pupils how do they cope with the long summer holidays? After all their parents inform us each September that they begin to suffer premature boredom halfway through the holiday and from then on are eagerly awaiting the first day of the new school year. But that is a tale told by parents, remember.

And how do they adjust to this annual interruption of their routine? How do they manage this serious invasion of their daytime space? And what do their children get up to during their long release from captivity and what should they be getting up to?

But let’s return to teachers. The first priority for teachers on holiday is to uncoil gently but steadily and switch off from everything to do with work. There is probably more uncoiling to do in teaching than there is in most jobs and for some it takes longer than others. Fortunately there is no shortage of tasks to divert them. A whole year of weekends and evenings marking books, planning lessons, making assessments and reading managerial initiatives means that teachers have lists of domestic tasks to complete as long as school development plans.

And teachers should be grateful for this backlog. Not only do they have the satisfaction of knowing that their sacrificial weekends have shaped yet another cohort of upstanding future citizens, they have also been provided with plenty to keep them occupied in the first few weeks of the summer holiday. Cleaning, weeding, sandpapering, wood treating, hammer drilling, pasting, are all there waiting with their therapies. And if there is a just a little bit of stress involved in any of these tasks, and if occasionally there is heard a whisper of some half-remembered Anglo-Saxon – the "sort of language that will not be tolerated in this school" - as there often is when wrestling with the plumbing, then so much the better.

The backlog cleared teachers can start to be normal again and try connecting with the real world. They can give time to their families, pursue their interests, take a holiday abroad, read some good books, have a day out, entertain friends, watch some television and prepare some interesting meals to eat in a leisurely way.

They should allow themselves to follow the example of many of their pupils and not fill all the unforgiving minutes. They should take time to enjoy the peace of their home and their garden and they should try to find other places of real peace in the town or in the countryside: a park, a church, a canal, a forest. They should take some time to stand and stare - at flowers, birds, insects, landscapes, buildings. All this will lift the soul and put things in perspective.

They should do as little preparation as possible for the new school year, no more than is needed to ensure a smooth start for the first week. But what can and should be done is some wider reading to catch up with debates and developments in their own subject or in the world of education generally. Teachers must endeavour to keep themselves informed so that they can participate usefully in discussions which affect them and holidays provide the opportunity to do this.

And what about parents? What does the summer holiday hold for them? An increase in stress levels, more raised voices and confrontations, weeks to be endured. Or a chance to do interesting things with their children, to enjoy their company, to encourage their developing interests, to teach them new skills, to allow them more freedom and responsibility, to give them a greater feeling for what family life can mean away from the relentless demands of work and school.

Where both parents or adults in the family are working, which is quite normal, holidays should be staggered to enable at least one parent to be at home to supervise the children. They do not need to watch every move, but they need to be there until the age is reached when young people can be left safely on their own.

Parents should let their children wind down in the holiday just as their teachers do. They should let them be idle for some of the time if they choose, which many of them will not. But because there is less pressure of time than there is in a normal school week they should also insist that they help, from an early age, with cooking, cleaning, decorating and anything else which they can manage. And while they are helping, they can be shown various ways of doing things and be given useful information so that in this way they can acquire those important life skills which are too often neglected and which teachers cannot hope to impart.

A good idea is for parents to give their children bigger jobs to do as well; for payment. Cleaning the car, tidying the garage, painting the fence will give them a sense of responsibility and some extra pocket money. And when they are old enough these industrious and entrepreneurial young people can be encouraged to take holiday jobs as shop assistants, waiters or deckchair attendants where they will encounter for the first time the world of work and the assortment of adults who inhabit this forbidding territory.

More leisurely family meals can be taken during the summer holiday where everyone is obliged to gather and where anything and everything can be discussed – from the latest in cool, to the game in the park, to the meaning and unfairness of life. Some energetic hikes can be organised, even with teenagers, which last a whole day and take in steep climbs, streams, moorland and woods with just a few stops for food and drink.

Outings are an essential part of childhood which parents must give to their children. Days out to the countryside, the seaside or the city as well as to theme parks, historic buildings and museums. Never has there been so much imaginative provision to attract children and entertain and enlighten them and full use should be made of what is on offer.

The going away holiday should be taken as well. Where funds are limited this is not so easy but short holidays at a caravan park or in a tent are inexpensive and more exciting for children than holidays abroad in those vast, white hotels. Give it a go. It will be a memorable experience and one for the whole family to cherish.

Needless to say what parents should not encourage during the long summer holiday is day and night television, video and computer. Nor should they allow excessive mooching, nor moaning, nor unnecessary shopping, nor hanging around on the streets, nor being late home nor pressure from friends to do this that or the other.

But playing with friends at the right time and in the right place is something for which plenty of time should be found. Having abundant time to play is one of the most delicious treats of all for most children in the summer holidays.

Playing with brothers and sisters, with old friends and new, or sometimes quietly by oneself; playing outside in the fresh air and the wider spaces. Playing plenty of sporting, active games which use up physical energy: two-a-side football or cricket, throwing, catching and chasing, roller-blading, skateboarding, biking, scootering, tennis. These are games for children of any age, or, indeed, adults of any age.

Playing imaginative games as well, especially among younger children. Girls dressing up as witches and wizards or on a more practical level as nurses who tend wounds and diagnose ailments; boys in their combat uniforms, firing laser guns and creeping up on each other without being seen. Children making dens, secret meeting places where all manner of schemes and adventures are hatched and where there is laughing and giggling, rude noises, bad language and insults.

And playing just by enjoying the company of friends, chatting about nothing while sitting on a bench or lying on the grass.

Play is one of the great treasures of childhood and there should be an abundance of it in the summer holidays. For children of school age it provides a much needed change from the demands of the classroom and it also contributes vital elements to the whole natural process of growing up.

It is not something which has evolved solely to bring fun and pleasure to the carefree innocence of childhood, although that would be sufficient reason for its existence, nor is its true purpose to provide wistful adults with a fund of nostalgia from which to draw. Its place in the evolution of humankind is to help us all become mature adults and that is why it is important.

No doubt the way we play will change and evolve over time and, who knows, one day if as a species we no longer feel impelled to engage in mass tribal warfare amongst ourselves we may find that the instinct for boys to play with toy weapons becomes genetically modified into something more gentle. Meanwhile, however, play as it exists at present, complete with combat uniform, helps to develop our minds, bodies, emotions and instincts for the challenges and opportunities of adult life.

All of us, children and adults, need play and leisure – to help us develop and to give us time away from work: schoolwork, paid employment, household tasks or anything which duty or conscience demands we do. We now have more time for leisure than ever before in our history but because we are so busy chasing our tails we sometimes barely notice the leisure we have.

Which is why a long summer holiday is good for us and why it should be properly used. It provides the best opportunity that parents and children, along with their teachers, will ever have to bring a balance to their lives, to experiment with a different rhythm of work and leisure and to make judgements about the competing demands of work, home, family, self, ambition and contentment. The long summer holiday can help us assess priorities for children, for families and for all of us.

Clearly, as we have seen, the holiday is more than an expanse of time solely for the purpose of leisure and play. There is plenty of work to be done and that is as it should be. Nor is there any danger in the immediate future that life on our planet will become one long summer holiday for everyone. At present we need to work to survive, both individually and collectively, and since our fall from grace on the first occasion when paradise was put before us we have all been programmed to do this.

Work undoubtedly brings intense personal satisfaction to many people, including most teachers. It pays the bills and buys the kids’ designer clothes but it does a lot more than this. It also brings self-esteem, recognition, respect and a different dimension to our lives and personalities. For many it brings a purpose to living.

But we cannot live by work alone. There is more to experience in life. And the lease we have on life, like summer’s lease, hath all too short a date. So far from shortening the long summer holiday, as some propose, on the dubious grounds that it adversely affects pupil performance, let us retain what we have and extend it to all occupations so that everyone can savour the pleasant glow which children and teachers experience on the last day of the summer term. Let everyone have the opportunity over an extended period of time to become aware of what life has to offer apart from work.

Lessons do not come to an end when the final bell rings in the school corridor. New lessons begin. Teachers, parents, children, all of us - we can learn a lot from our summer holidays. Let’s enjoy them, make the most of them and hope they do not fade too soon.




Edition 39

28 July 2006




A School Report takes a break for the summer but wishes the best of holidays to those who have long ones and to the many more who have short ones.




Try these:


RESPECT - Issue 26

SCHOOL FUNDING (2) - Issue 32

HAPPY DAYS - Issue 34




Try these:







Try these:







Edition 40

1 September 2006






Let's wish each other a happy new year. For everyone involved in education, and that is a huge percentage of the population, the start of the new school year is much more significant than anything that happens on January 1st. There is a welcome sense of familiarity as teachers meet up with colleagues and pupils meet up with friends but there is also a sense that something new and different is about to happen. For pupils it will be starting a new school, having new teachers or taking new courses; for teachers it will be new classes and possibly new responsibilities. With all this, and with the smell of polish lingering in the hall and the sound of building work still in progress, there is a heady mix of enthusiasm and nervous tension in the air.


New school years usually get off to a good start after the long summer break. Pupils are keen and teachers are refreshed which makes September a good month to be in the classroom. But there is no reason why the whole year shouldn't be good. Schools are places of learning and all-year round they should be filled with the interest, excitement, challenge and sheer pleasure which learning brings. Pupils of all ages should experience these feelings every day, even when they need to make an effort with their work and it becomes a bit of a grind. It is not always easy for teachers to inspire this interest and excitement when they have to cope with large classes, disruptive behaviour and the pressure of exams but it is their job to do so and it is the most rewarding part of the job. I have no doubt that the more they inspire their pupils the happier the school year will be.




Most students will have worked hard to gain their exam successes. Those who gained an A or an A star in their GCSEs will have put in a lot of effort as, too, will plenty of students who gained a B or a C. Young people understand that they live in a society where qualifications are necessary to go on to higher education and for many this strengthens their motivation.

Teachers will have worked hard to get good results. They also understand the importance of qualifications for their students and have the additional incentive of league tables to spur them on.

Are exams getting easier? Probably not from year to year, although setting grade boundaries remains one of the dark arts which understandably arouses suspicion. But GCSEs do seem easier than O-levels which, as I well recall, required an enormous amount of knowledge to be crammed into us which was then taken into the exam where it was regurgitated with not too much original thought. It was remembering everything which was the difficult part. The same was true of A-levels and we certainly weren't permitted to use annotated texts in our English Literature papers as happens today; we had to know the texts thoroughly and be able to recall specific passages to support our arguments.

Do we need exams? It seems reasonable to have assessments of some sort. By the time they are sixteen young people will have spent an enormous amount of their lives in school and taxpayers will have spent a lot of money providing their education. It seems sensible to assess how much they have actually learned during this time but whether exams in their present form are the best way to do this is open to debate.

National exams are certainly a useful means of concentrating the mind and reinforcing what has been learned. I am not so sure that they are necessarily the best way of helping pupils assimilate and retain a body of knowledge and set of skills that will last a lifetime - which is what we should be aiming for. It may be that more regular and less formal testing is a better way to absorb what we learn, along with plenty of practical work and short, well-focused assignments. This method identifies weaknesses which can be remedied and strengths which can be built on.

Over the years we seem to have become more and more obsessed with exams. We need to be a bit more relaxed about them and become a little less exercised about getting a grade B in history when we are sixteen or a grade C in philosophy when we are 18.






So who else has put masonry paint on four walls of rough render in the summer holidays? And erected scaffolding for the purpose? And climbed a fully extended ladder on the top platform to reach the highest point on the north face of the property?

That's been the main achievement of the holiday. But I've also had a day at the seaside, a day in the country, and a week of doing some local hikes. And I've started on the hedge - giving the long, tall, and very thick escallonia some drastic treatment which it doesn't really deserve.

As for thoughts about education I've spent a lot of time collecting some together. If I can find someone to take them, great. If not I might just have to let them drift into cyberspace on the back of this very journal.




No essay this week.