Sixth form resolutions for 2017

2017Like its predecessor, this year will no doubt be full of challenges and opportunities for colleges and sixth forms. 16-19 year-olds remain the worst funded full-time students in England while rapid qualification and assessment reform continues to affect almost every course we offer.

On the positive side, the work of the area reviews is coming to a close and both our membership organisations, AoC and SFCA, have confident new voices to advocate for our sector.

A year ago, I made 4 New Year’s wishes. In this age of austerity it seems appropriate to reduce the number to 3, but also to upgrade the wishes to resolutions because we can all play a part in shaping our future.

So here are my sixth form resolutions for 2017:

This year, let’s…

  1. …ask ourselves what we mean by an educated adult and try to describe our educational aspirations for all 16-19 year-olds, rather than allowing ourselves to be limited by the ‘skills’ agenda and our students to be characterised as either ‘vocational or ‘academic’.
  2.  …try to find common ground between all 16-19 providers on funding and curriculum issues and make a strong case for the properly resourced, high quality sixth form education that all young people deserve and which is essential to our country’s future.
  3.  …build on the area reviews, working with school sixth forms, local and regional authorities and commissioners to start to plan provision and share good practice across their areas. This could lay the groundwork for a coherent, comprehensive 16-19 system capable of providing every young person in every part of the country with choice and entitlement to a broad and challenging education.

See also:

Going beyond (December 2016)

Education: what’s it all for? ( January 2016)

Imagining a better future is the first step (August 2015)

What’s at stake in the new post-16 Area-based reviews? (July 2015)

No austerity of the imagination (July 2015)

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A 2016 guide to this blog.

2016I’ve continued to blog in 2016 and this eclectic collection of posts now numbers around 300; not all of which will interest everyone. To remain useful, such a resource needs to be well catalogued so I’ve tried to use categories and tags which help readers find what might interest them and I usually add a ‘see also’ section at the bottom of each post to provide some guidance. Here are a few strands, each of which offers a way in to a number of posts:

1. Most popular posts of 2016 (based on views after they move off the home page): Only one of the top 5 was actually published in 2016. It seems the vintage material is the most popular. Starting with the most read:

(i) What is powerful knowledge? (from 2015) about Michael Young’s book Knowledge and the Future School.

(ii) 20 questions to ask about a book you’ve read (from 2015) a resource for teachers and students.

(iii) Lessons without words: 10 things music teaches us about life (from 2014) a philosophical enquiry into the ineffable…

(iv) Let us be midwives! Sadako Kurihara (from 2015) a deeply affecting poem from the famous Hiroshima survivor.

(v) W.E.B. DuBois, black liberation and liberal education for all. The only post from 2016 to make the top 5.

2. Post-16 education: As a resource for the area review process, I published several posts on the uneven availability of ‘minority’ courses in our current sixth form environment, particularly in London: Dance, music, drama, philosophy, languages, the IB, research projects and classical studies. I also produced a sixth form profile for our East London sub-region and London as a whole. I have continued to argue for area collaboration and an adequate level of investment in our phase of education. I believe we should offer all students a broad, inclusive and challenging curriculum which values knowledge, skill and student research and it seems to me that the proposed National Bacc is a positive step in this direction. Other curriculum posts can be found here including Going beyond and Citizenship education and British values.

3. Education policyFollowing the Market Madness series of 7 posts critiquing market approaches to education, I have also argued against selection here and here. I am encouraged by the idea of a National Education Service and have suggested how to flesh it out and make it popular.

4. Challenging assumptions: I’ve tried to do this in an informed way: Is vocational education in England really ‘inadequate’? (January) The limits of social mobility (March) and Life in the qualification market (May) join previous posts such as: Do qualifications create wealth? Russell group university progression: dispelling the myths, Russell group numbers soar in Newham, and Is social mobility enough?

5. Philosophy: Amongst other things, I’ve been interested in levels of analysis, emergence, reductionism and the social origins of human thinking. I’ve continued with the series called the Economy of Ideas with posts such as  Capital as methaphorWhat is Social capital?  and The global economy of care. I’ve also shared ideas from: Gina Rippon, Theodore Zeldin and Jean Jaures.

6. Culture: Reviews of the work of: Joyce Carol Oates, Primo Levi and poetry by Rabindranath Tagore and Abdellatif Laabi. The specific challenges and joys of London, including its history, inequality, educational needs and achievements remains a regular theme. There are now also quite a few posts with historical themes.

7. France, Corsica and posts in French: I’ve drawn on the work of French educators such as Philippe Meirieu (often via the excellent Café Pedagogique) to show how our colleagues in a very different system are addressing some of the challenges we also face. I continue to write the occasional post in French in a vain attempt to remain functional in my ‘mother’ tongue.

8. Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc): I can’t resist some promotion of the work we do and the success and progression of NewVIc students, for example Young people debate free speech in the House of Lords. Some of our wonderful alumni continue to contribute to the ‘My NewVIc story’ series and there is a series of parent guides to post-16 progression.

9. Politics: My general commitment is to policies which promote equality, democracy, solidarity, peace and sustainability and I have commented occasionally on issues such as the EU referendum,  xenophobia and the refugee crisis.

10. More personal pieces: such as Remembering John Playfair (April) and Four young men and one war (December).

I do hope you find something here that provokes or delights you. My overview of posts from 2015 can be read here and delving further back, this is what I blogged about in 2014.

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Abdellatif Laâbi: attesting against barbarism.

abdellatif-labi_285x0_264_290_90The brilliant Moroccan poet, novelist and playwright Abdellatif Laâbi is the epitome of the engaged writer. Born in Fez in 1942, he studied at the University of Rabat and was one of the founders of the literary magazine Souffles in 1966 which advocated social and political renewal in Morocco as well as cultural commentary and was banned in 1972. His political activity brought him into conflict with the authoritarian regime under King Hassan II in the so-called ‘years of lead’ and from 1972 to 1980 he was imprisoned and subjected to torture for ‘crimes of opinion’.

He has lived in France since 1985 and was awarded the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2009 and the Académie Française’s Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 2011. His work is a lifelong confrontation with the barbarism humans are capable of:

“I think I know well miseries and luminosities, pettinesses and grandeurs, barbarism and refinement.” Le livre imprévu (2010)

Selections of Laâbi’s poems have been translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely, the latest is Beyond the Barbed Wire, published by Carcanet with support from English PEN.

In his 2013 interview with Christopher Schaefer he offers a critique of the divided Moroccan education system and says:

“School is where we form citizens, where we form democrats, individuals attached to democracy, to human rights, to humanist values that guard them against intolerance and extremism. That’s what I propose. But for me today, the political class as it exists is no longer capable of leading the fight for genuine democracy…We need the youth of today to take on that responsibility…”

In January 2015, in the wake of the terrorist killings in Paris, Abdellatif Laâbi offered the following poem as a “humble prayer that barbarism may not kill even hope”. This reminder of the necessity to draw a clear line between humanity and barbarism was taken up by many in France and across the world as a resource for hope and solidarity (this translation is mine).

I attest

I attest there that there is no human being

other than one whose heart trembles with love

for all their fellows in humanity

One who ardently desires

more for others than for themselves

freedom, peace, dignity

One who considers life

even more sacred

than their beliefs and deities

I attest there is no human being

other than one who struggles unrelentingly

against the hatred within themselves and all around

One who,

on opening their eyes in the morning

asks themselves

what will I do today

to not lose my quality and my pride

in being human ?

Abdellatif Laâbi, January 10th 2015

See also:

Early poems in The Rule of Barbarism (translated by André Naffis-Sahely)

Abdellatif Laâbi’s website – with a section in English.

Educating after the November 13th attacks (December 2015)

Giving peace a voice (August 2016)

Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism – Philippe Meirieu (April 2015)

Nazim Hikmet: Hiroshima and Strontium 90 (April 2015)

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Four young men and one war.

This is a very brief account of the lives of 4 young men from around a century ago; all members of the same Scottish family. The accounts are neither special nor representative and they form a tiny fraction of the story of what we call the First World War. They come from browsing a family history book which concentrates on family members who share the same surname and is therefore patrilineal by design; following the male line. While tracing such individual stories a different way would have provided a different selection, the meta-narrative they contribute to is the same.

In the year the war broke out, cousins Lyon, Lambert, Ian and Patrick were aged 26, 21, 20 and 21 respectively. Lyon, Lambert and Ian were more closely related, sharing a common great-great-grandfather, James (b. 1738) who had been Principal of the United Colleges of St. Andrews University from 1799 until his death in 1819. Lyon and Lambert’s great-grandfather was Surgeon-General George, Ian’s great-grandfather was George’s brother Hugh; provost of St.Andrews in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Patrick shared with the other 3 a more distant common ancestor, Robert (b. 1610) a tenant farmer from Coupar Grange in Angus, and the great-great-grandfather of Principal James.

Lyon George Henry Lyon Playfair (b.1888) was a captain in the Royal Field Artillery who went to France at the start of the war and served in the retreat from Mons and the battles of the Aisne and the Marne.

Lambert Playfair (b. 1893) was a Lieutenant in the Royal Scots who returned from India with his battalion at the start of the war. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and was sent to France. On 6th July 1915 he was signalling the positions for enemy batteries near Ypres when his aeroplane was attacked by 2 enemy planes. He and his pilot fought back, despite having only 5 rounds of ammunition left.

Ian Stanley Ord Playfair (b. 1894) saw continuous service at the front as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He took part in the battles of the Aisne and Flanders (1914), Ypres salient and Hooge (1915), Somme and Ancre (1916), Arras, Monchy-le-Preux and Ypres (1917), Arras and Bethune, Le Cateau and Landrecies (1918). He was wounded twice and mentioned in Despatches 4 times. He was awarded the Military Cross in June 1916, the Bar in September 1917 and the D.S.O. in January 1918.

Patrick Lyon Playfair (b. 1893) was at university in Cambridge when the war broke out and took up military duties as a captain in the Black Watch. He was in France in January 1917 and fought at Vimy Ridge and the battle of Arras where he was wounded in two places. He returned to France in March 1918 where he was again wounded on 11th April while holding a forward position close to Lestrem against frontal and flank attack until nearly all his men had fallen and he had fired his last cartridge.

Only one of these four young men remained alive by the end of the war. Lyon was killed in action on April 20th 1915. Lambert was shot through the heart and died in the aerial dogfight over Ypres in July 1915 and Patrick died in a German dressing station in April 1918.

Ian, who lived until 1972, was my paternal grandfather and is therefore the great-great-grandfather of my 3 year-old grandson, John. His survival around a century ago has allowed a further line of descent; from Ian to John, following that from Robert to James and from James to Ian.

Like countless other young people of their generation, however, Lyon, Lambert and Patrick didn’t get the opportunity to live long lives or to be parents. They were destined to be remembered only as young men.

This terrible conflict blasted a gaping hole through the family histories of millions of people across the world. The long legacy of war, mass murder or genocide is always one of lives unlived, opportunities unrealised and human suffering extending far beyond the broken branches of a family tree.

These individual human tragedies are the minuscule particles of a great tragedy; tiny tears in the ripped fabric of a world. To understand a war, we need to understand the social and political forces which brought it about; to translate from the motives and actions of millions of individuals to the motives and actions of their states, societies and armies. The individual and the social are different levels but they are connected. So, where we can, we should also ‘translate back’ and remember some of the individual victims and the human stories which contribute to the meta-narrative of a war. This remembering is a necessary pre-requisite for analysing and understanding – and then, perhaps, of imagining better ways to deal with conflict.

img_5801 img_5800img_5802





Lambert, Lyon and Patrick Playfair


Notes on the Scottish Family of Playfair by Rev. A.G. Playfair (1932).

See also:

London’s francophone refugees (September 2016)


Battle of Mons: 6,000 casualties.

First battle of the Aisne: 13,500 casualties.

First battle of the Marne: 500,000 casualties.

First battle of Ypres: 100,000 casualties.

Second battle of Ypres: 120,000 casualties.

Battle of the Somme: over 1,000,000 casualties.

Battle of Arras: 280,000 casualties.

Battle of Vimy Ridge: 10,000 casualties.

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What future for Sixth Form Colleges?

I was asked to give a personal view on the future of sixth form colleges at the 2016 FE Staff Governors Conference on 2nd December, organised by a group of education unions: UNISON, ATL/AMIE, UCU and NAS/UWT together with the Association of Colleges and the Education and Training Foundation. This post is based on the presentation I gave.

1. What makes us distinctive?

For a while, sixth form colleges were defined by our official ‘designation’ as such within the wider family of incorporated Further Education colleges. However, this designation has done little to establish any particular role for our ‘sub-sector’ in government thinking. We only exist in certain parts of the country and policy-makers who know little about our work tend to pigeon-hole us either with schools or with general FE. We have too often felt side-lined and neglected in the national educational debate with most of the energy and enthusiasm being aimed at either the ‘skills agenda’ or the academy and free school agenda. We’re not so much Cinderella as Cinderella’s less-noticed younger sister.

We can rightly point to our higher than average achievement rates within the FE sector and our greater inclusiveness than most school sixth forms. But we must beware of overstating our excellence. The fact that we are ‘somewhere between General FE and school sixth forms’ in terms of raw success and performance table scores needs to be set in the wider context of 16-19 provision where such scores are closely correlated to students’ prior achievement.

At a time when government seems convinced, against all the evidence, that greater academic selection is the recipe for success, I think we should also resist the temptation to present ourselves as post-16 ‘grammar schools’ to attract short-term political favour. To attribute our success to selectivity rather than inclusiveness would be to ignore one of our greatest strengths.

Sixth form colleges vary in size and offer, but what we all have in common is a strong focus on the needs of 16-19 year olds and an ethos of aspiration and success for all. We specialise in the full-time education and development of a specific age group and that’s probably why we do so well across the board at all levels.

2. What challenges do we face?

First, we need to recognise that the challenges we face are not unique to us. There is no doubt that the 16-19 phase is seriously under-resourced but we do have a single national funding system and we have not been singled out for victimhood, although this is how it sometimes feels.

In recent years we have lost most of the funding for tutorial and enrichment as well as 17.5% of the funding for our 18 year old students, Educational Maintenance Allowances were slashed and the rate per learner has been cash-frozen for several years. Funding per student for ‘full-time’ programmes is far lower than in schools or universities and we are barely able to sustain a minimal educational entitlement, let alone an aspirational one.

We are also experiencing an unprecedented volume and pace of curriculum change, with the content and assessment regime of pretty much every course we offer being substantially redesigned, and not always in ways which promote participation or progression.

We also face an explosion of competition as a result of new capacity being opened up all around us, particularly in urban areas. A seemingly endless succession of new academy sixth forms, 16-19 free schools and UTCs have been created with little planning or regard for genuine need or cost-effectiveness. While national criteria for such new provision have been established, these are not always respected and there is no proper mechanism for addressing pre-existing excess capacity or insufficiency.

3. How have we fared in the Area Reviews?

Sixth form colleges have been fully engaged in the area review processes although we have often felt marginal to their agenda. We have embraced the idea of partnership and sub-regional strategic planning and most of us are clearly viable, responsive and successful. But without school sixth forms being in the frame, the reviews have not had the opportunity to look at those parts of the system which most affect us and which most need scrutiny.

Sixth form colleges have seriously considered the option of academy conversion, with its beguiling prospect of ‘joining the mainstream’ and ‘delivering the government’s agenda’. Some are embracing it; often in order to build strong new partnerships with local schools.

However, many of us are opting for the ‘stand-alone’ sixth form college option. ‘Stand alone’ should not be seen as ‘stand-aloof’. It is simply the result of a judgement that in our particular context, neither merger nor academy conversion was necessary to get us to work closely with others in order to benefit young people.

As an autonomous incorporated institution, a ‘stand alone’ college can choose to build on existing relationships and consider a range of collaborative arrangements; with other colleges in its area, with the schools its students come from and also with the universities which they progress to. Such partnerships can offer many benefits, among them greater curriculum coherence, course design for progression, the sharing of expertise and good practice and the possibility of new economies of scale.

Each area has its own local dynamics and each college corporation is best placed to judge how their institution should evolve while preserving what it stands for. What is clear across England is that the sixth form college brand will survive and thrive well beyond the area reviews and any change of status.

4. So what is the future of Sixth Form Colleges?

The environment we work in has many features of a highly competitive market between institutions. Each of us is driven by the need to attract students and to make a distinctive contribution which responds to local needs. While these drivers can have some positive impacts, the market encourages protectionist behaviours and super-selection. The market also discourages area planning around student numbers, minority subjects or specialist provision all of which could enhance the local offer.

Sixth form colleges, with their specialist experience, sharp focus and good track record, are well placed to do much of the heavy lifting required to build on the best features of their local system. I think the future lies in strengthening that system in order to overcome the worst features of the market.

As we move on from the area reviews, we need to build on the networks and relationships established in the steering groups to deepen the discussion about all the post-16 provision in our areas and to find ways to engage with schools and regional commissioners to review the whole pattern of provision. Taken as a whole, this currently often falls short of meeting the educational needs and aspirations of all the 16-19 year olds in their area.

We need to make common cause with all other 16-19 providers to make a case for sufficient resources and sufficient provision in every area so that the kind of broad curriculum this age group deserves can be offered to all young people regardless of where they live or study.

So, the ambitious, autonomous and community-focused sixth form college has a lot to offer. If we choose to face outwards and work with others we can contribute to strengthening our local sixth form provision by placing ourselves at its heart. There is still a vital role for us; helping to lead the development of a 16-18 system fit for the 21st century.

See also:

Going beyond: What do we expect from the education of 16-19 year-olds in England? (October 2016)

Is collaboration the solution or the problem? (December 2015)

Leadership for partnership  (November 2015)

The problem with England’s post-16 area reviews (September 2015)

Imagining a better future is a first step (August 2015)

Sixth forms working together against the tide (June 2014)


Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)

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Young people debate free speech in the House of Lords

img_5636Free speech is alive and well, judging by a recent debate in the Chamber of the House of Lords involving over 200 young people from across the UK and sponsored by a number of organisations including Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) and English PEN, Migrants Organise, Speakers’ Corner Trust and 38 Degrees. The 10th House of Lords Chamber Event on 25 November 2016, chaired by the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, discussed the motion: ‘Should there be limits to freedom of speech in the UK?’ with speakers in favour of one of 3 propositions:

1. No limits: speech should be as free as possible. The best counter for harmful speech is debate not censorship.

2. Censor it: We should be able to restrict or censor harmful voices or divisive figures from expressing views that aren’t consistent with our nation’s values.

3. Monitor it: Speech shouldn’t be censored but the government should be allowed to monitor closely what people are saying and intervene if they need to for security reasons.

In the initial vote preceding the debate 86 voted for ‘monitor it’, 79 for ‘no limits’ and 20 for ‘censor it’.

The debate can be viewed in full on Parliament TV here:

10 NewVIc students were in the chamber, 4 of whom spoke: Joelinne Wamba (15:45.10) was a principal speaker, Kier Sharp (16:13.40) gave a scheduled supporting speech and Agnes Thiongo (17:14.00) and Mojolajesu ‘JJ’ Bankole (immediately following Agnes at 17:15.25) were also called to speak in the open debate. All 4 made eloquent and well-considered contributions to the debate which was lively, constructive and respectful. A number of us were watching from the visitors’ gallery; proud of the confident, poised and articulate way our students made their cases. They were certainly not intimidated by the setting or the occasion.img_5645

JJ, Keir, Joelinne and Agnes

At a time when public discourse seems to resound with bombastic ‘post-truth’ claims and when marginal voices still have trouble getting through, it was refreshing to hear such a lively, well informed and respectful debate.

Speaker after speaker extolled the benefits of freedom of speech. Many felt that there should be some constraints while sometimes expressing a reluctance to simply handing the constraining power to governments. Joelinne reminded us that: ‘Free speech is a human right, but the growth of hate speech needs to be guarded against’. Agnes said: ‘silencing voices has consequences; when you stop people saying something, you don’t stop them from thinking it’ and ‘whenever freedom of speech has been embraced, change has taken place’ and she finished with a memorable soundbite: ‘we cannot have a diverse Britain without diverse voices’. Another speaker memorably said: ‘we need to run our country with an open mind and not a closed fist’.

One key terrain of the debate was around how we define hate speech and acceptable offense. Keir warned that ‘not monitoring the internet would be as reckless as not having speed limits.’ JJ argued that: ‘free speech should be used responsibly’ and made the case for checks and balances while recognising that censorship can violate human rights.

Swinging back towards the ‘no limits’ case, Robert Sharp (16:52.13) from English PEN, a global literary network working to defend and promote freedom of expression said: ‘Free speech is a dialogue and no-one gets to have the last word.’

In her contribution, Vicky Seddon (17:18.40) from Speakers’ Corner Trust brilliantly summarized the central challenge: how do we balance the right of free speech with the right to be safe from abuse and harassment. As she pointed out, these rights can’t both be absolute at the same time.

After a 2 hour debate, the final vote was taken and this showed a clear shift towards the ‘no limits’ case which won with 98 votes, followed by ‘monitor it’ with 75 votes and ‘censor it’ down to 16 votes. Lord Fowler commended the participants for their fine speeches, some of which he described as ‘exceptional’, as well as for their ability to stick to the time limits.

This is one of many creative spoken and written word opportunities which have come from our unique partnership with English PEN and we are very grateful for their continuing support for this work. The whole experience of preparing for and contributing to such an activity was truly educational for those who took part and we will build on this with wider discussions of free speech back at college.

See also:

Young poets ‘write the wrong’ (with English PEN) June 2015

Young people discuss the future of London  March 2016

Young people and the election April 2015


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Going beyond.

Going beyond what is expected.

What do we expect from the education of 16-19 year olds in England? Judging from the funding available, the qualifications on offer and the accountability measures which inevitably steer our work, our national aspirations for this phase of education are fairly low.

Any outside observer seeking to understand how the English system prepares its older teenagers for life, citizenship, higher education and work would find it hard to explain. The lack of any common system or curriculum aims and the meagre resources available to fund 16 and 17 year olds compared to other phases of education do not suggest that the English value the education of this age group very much. And yet, this is the point in most people’s educational journey where things should really come together and make sense, where the knowledge and skills we have acquired start to connect with the big decisions we need to make about our lives and our engagement with the world.

Let’s be grateful that this age group are expected to participate in education or training at all and that we also have ‘programmes of study’ which define a full-time educational experience. But our 16-19 curriculum has no requirement of breadth or balance, no requirement to continue studying the national language beyond GCSE or any other language for that matter, no requirement to develop a basic understanding of political systems, institutions or history or to be introduced to key aspects of human culture.

Instead we have an incoherent patchwork of providers who can choose their own students by being as selective or as specialist as they want and no requirement to have a sufficiently broad offer in every part of the country. Better qualified 16 year-olds can choose between a 3 or 4 subject programme or a more specialist advanced applied general or technical course. The less successful generally have fewer options and the single biggest policy push for this age group has been to promote the technical, pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship route which is essentially work-based. While work-based learning is of great value, this does feel like giving up on general education for those young people.

We need to be more ambitious. We should be aiming to do more than the minimum. We should be making the case for the kind of education which all young people deserve, which prepares them for cultural, social and economic participation as full members of society. An education which doesn’t require binary choices at 16 between breadth and depth or general and vocational. An education which promotes the ability to question, to challenge, to disagree, to argue and persuade, to reflect, to evaluate and to change one’s mind as well as to participate actively and productively in society and at work.

In short, we need something like a National Baccalaureate for all. Sadly, many of the tools to help us construct this are being withdrawn. AS subjects such as Citizenship, Humanities and Science in Society which could help broaden students’ programmes are going. We still have the Higher and Extended Project qualifications which can help to promote depth of study and research skills. Broad and balanced programmes like the International Baccalaureate do exist but they are prohibitively expensive to run under our current funding regime.

While we need to make the case for adequate funding for this age group, we also need to be convinced of the case for the kind of expansive general education which this better funding would allow. In the meantime, we may need to be creative in developing the content which can enrich our students’ education, working beyond the minimal programmes of study and with the support of universities, schools and employers who have such a large stake in young people’s success.

One thing is certain, if we base our ambitions merely on what is expected of us we will achieve just that. And that’s really not enough.

See also:

Life in the qualification market (May 2016)

Accessing the IB diploma (February 2016)

More sixth formers doing research projects (February 2016)

Education: what’s it all for? (January 2016)

No austerity of the imagination (July 2015)

Glasto-Bacc (June 2015)

W. Kandinsky: Black and violet (1923)


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