Category Archives: Comment

Social workers reject boarding school plan

My letter to the editor of The Times, below, was published on 7 February 2017:

Sir

Nicola Woolcock reports that social workers have blocked access to boarding schools for vulnerable youngsters, and not for the first time.

On the two previous occasions, in 2006 and 2009, I was National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, which included almost 40 state boarding schools.  The willingness of the schools to make places available for disadvantaged youngsters, offering an excellent education and, for term time at least, a ‘home away from home’, was wholehearted and compelling.

Social workers were downright hostile.  Their resistance  was unshakable and shocking.  Great opportunities? No.  Education as a route out of poverty and disadvantage to better things?  Not interested.  I will never forget explaining the 2009 scheme to  a group of social workers in the North of England.  I was met with sullen silence.

And here we are again: undeterred, the Buttle Trust and the schools have kept going.   They are to be commended. These are life-changing possibilities. Offering them is worth the effort.  But social workers? They say no.  How dare they?

Hilary Moriarty
Monmouth

Our exported education relies on our reputation

TES is right to draw attention to both the economic value of a British education as offered in international schools overseas and the risk to this valuable sector from the constant, noisy washing of allegedly dirty linen – the criticism of British qualifications – in public (“Why the world is buying what we’re rejecting“, 20 July).

But you might also have noted that bad publicity about our examination system will weaken the appeal of a British education to international students, who contribute hugely to our economy by attending British boarding schools, independent and state maintained.

We should be pleased that after years of grumbling about falling standards, the present bad publicity about our qualifications is accompanied by plans to fix them. And about time, too.

Hilary Moriarty, National director, Boarding Schools’ Association.

Published at http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6264970

Exams – are we too open with teachers?

I began examining – English Lang and Lit – in the early days of what became 10 years out of the classroom, raising a family.

I was able to mark when babies slept, and 300 or 400 scripts were actually easier to squeeze into three weeks then than they were when I was back in the classroom.

The experience helped me get back: I’d kept my hand in while officially “out”, I was up to speed on what examiners were looking for. Indeed, when I joined schools doing exams I had not taught before, I examined for the street-cred in the new staffroom.

I believed examining made me really useful to both colleagues and candidates, like a veteran coming back from the trenches. For instance, I had been firmly reprimanded for once saying of a thin last answer on an otherwise very strong paper that this was a good candidate but a poor time-keeper, so he deserved some leniency on this last answer.

Wrong. As the chief examiner pointed out, I knew nothing about the candidate or his knowledge of the books. Maybe he had written all he could recall on the last book, then twiddled his thumbs till time was up. No leniency. Mark what’s on the page. Back in school, we devised a blanket rule for examinees – give each question equal time; but if you slip up, answer the last question with as many bullet points as you can.

You may say such advice was common sense. But you teach in a world where exam boards have for years been telling you exactly what to tell every student, whereas I began my career in a world where exam boards were akin to MI5 in their secrecy. Giving them what they wanted was educated guesswork. In my early – and even middle – career, no-one knew quite what examiners wanted unless they had been an examiner.

In the olden days, most of us trawled the last few years’ papers to try to second-guess examiners. If madness in Macbeth came up last year, it was unlikely this year. Every now and then, you came a cropper, and suspected pure mischief on the part of the exam setter: a GCE O level question asking for a thorough discussion of the Porter’s scene (all of two pages in our text) reduced some of my candidates to tears.

You work in a time when candidates expect you to prepare them very thoroughly not just on your subject, but also on the exam. I saw yesterday a poster in a school which declared that 50 per cent of exam success was in exam technique, only 30 per cent depended on knowledge of subject. What do the examiners want? What points will get the marks? And since exam success has of late become absolutely necessary for everyone in the business, there has been an explosion of information about what to say and how it will be marked.

Candidates, parents and teachers want passes – future lives depend on it. Heads want everyone to pass – the very life of the school can depend on it. Exam boards want successful candidates – their business depends on it. The government wants success so they can brag about standards of education rising – their re-election may depend on it.

So the slide away from teachers saying “they could ask you anything so let’s teach and learn everything”, to examiners saying “let’s tell you what we want, then all you have to do is plate it up” has been demonstrable. And, it appears, dangerous for standards.

The government has woken up to the torrent of information replacing the lofty secrecy, and it appears they hope to stem this tide – no more examiners’ seminars for all and take us back to the golden age of candidates going into the exams armed only with what they know of the subject.

If they succeed, it’s just possible that the only way you will be able to find out what examiners want is to become one yourself. And if you did, would that give your candidates an unfair advantage and actually be classed as cheating?

This guest editorial has been written for Sec Ed by Hilary Moriarty, who taught English for 25 years in comprehensive, grammar and independent schools.  Originally published at http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=92298;type_uid=7

Halifax Alarm

Phones were red-hot in the BSA office on Friday 28 March, with journalists chasing information to fill out the press release from the Halifax Financial Services, about steep rises in boarding fees in the last ten years (articles appeared in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Herald, amongst others).

The Halifax had raided the ISC census material – public record – and done the sums which showed boarding fees had risen 86% since 1997.  And so they had – the numbers were unarguable.

Journalists wanted to know why.  The answers were simple – boarding schools came into the twenty-first century in those years, like everyone else.  Customers are ever more discerning and discriminating: parents want the best for their children.

Yes of course they want the best education; but they also want boarding accommodation they feel comfortable with, and facilities which will give children wonderful opportunities to discover and nurture other skills – state of the art theatres and swimming pools, for instance.

In 1997, the average capital spend per pupil in independent schools was £525.  In 2007, it was £1250 per boarding pupil for new and refurbished boarding accommodation alone.

Investment in accommodation moves schools away from vast freezing dormitories and towards single study bedrooms with en suite facilities.  Inspectors look for personalisation of pupil space – they get that now in spades.

Staffing ratios are also likely to be higher, and boarding staff are likely to be better trained – we know that because a thousand boarding staff have been through the BSA’s professional development courses, accredited by Roehampton University, in the last ten years.

Last year and this, 400 Gap assistants attended BSA induction courses at the start of their year in British schools.  If schools are prepared to strengthen the skills of youngsters who will be with them only a year, how much more will they invest in training their more senior staff so that boarding really is an excellent experience for pupils?

In the event, perhaps journalists realised the story wasn’t really a story at all – particularly when they read paragraphs which said, ‘London is the most expensive, Wales the least expensive,’ for boarding – had they noticed the differences in the prices for just about everything between Wales and London?  So the press release did not get the wide coverage it might have done, and the dreadful news of the plane crash may have shunted the story down the pecking order.

We await the release of the next ISC census on 29 April.  It will be interesting to see what the percentage increase in fees was for this year, and how boarding numbers are faring.  Many schools have spoken informally of numbers rising – let us hope they have, as parents realise the value of a boarding education, whatever its price.