2017 sees further increase in sixth form student research.

The steady rise in Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entries in England’s sixth forms suggests that student research is increasingly valued. 8% of all advanced sixth form completers in publicly funded sixth forms are entered for it, however many are studying in sixth forms where it isn’t available with 37% of all sixth forms not offering the EPQ at all.

The 39,080 EPQ entries in 2017 represent a 3% increase over the previous year and this continues the upward trend of the past 8 years. Nationally, 63% of EPQ entries come from over 1,400 school sixth forms, 24% of entries come from 175 colleges (with 81 sixth form colleges accounting for the great majority of college entries: 19% of the total) and 376 private fee-charging schools account for around 13% of entries.

The average number of EPQ entries per sixth form college is 94 which is well above the average for any other provider type (17 for state funded schools and 14 for private schools). 14 of the top 20 centres by size are sixth form colleges with the same ‘top 5’ as last year. For the fourth year running the list is headed by Hills Road Sixth Form College with 1,085 EPQ entries. Esher is 2nd with 473 entries, 3rd is Peter Symonds with 355, Barton Peveril is 4th with 350 and 5th is Bilborough with 346.

The EPQ is not the only way to accredit student research but it does offer UCAS points and is valued by universities as a sign of students’ academic curiosity as well as their research and presentation skills. A good EPQ allows a young person to investigate a question which interests them critically, analytically and in some depth. Their topic might be a deeper exploration of a theme being studied in one of their subjects, it may arise from the interaction of their subjects or the spaces between them, or it may be something entirely personal and unrelated. At its best, it can be an original contribution which involves some primary research and offers a genuinely new insight. The EPQ is an opportunity for students to produce their version of an apprentice’s ‘masterpiece’ which demonstrates their commitment and their promise and makes a tangible contribution to their community. It should be something they can proudly present to a wide audience and which provokes discussion and reflection.

At a time of continuing squeeze on public funding for sixth form education which makes a 4 A level programme unaffordable for most, an EPQ can be a good way to broaden students’ programmes and build on their wider academic interests. However, it attracts no additional funding for a 3 A level student and many providers will feel they cannot afford resource this additionality.

At its best, the product of student research projects provides evidence of initiative and skill which can hold its own in the wider world. Aiming for this should form part of everyone’s sixth form experience. For today’s visual or performing arts students, this evidence could build on their current portfolios, artefacts or student devised productions. For students of other disciplines, it might be a student-led community project, social enterprise, publication or the more traditional written essay. Digital platforms offer a great opportunity to share and discuss these products widely and sixth form teachers, university academics, professionals, employers and local residents could all play a part in supporting, assessing and celebrating student research. Universities could extend and deepen their support for developing a research culture – particularly where EPQ entries are low or non-existent. Regional partnerships could provide training and resources for sixth form staff and students across a wide area.

The London picture:

Looking at London in more detail, it is evident that despite growth overall, the availability of EPQ provision is patchy with a student in Barking nearly 5 times more likely to do an EPQ than one in Hackney. On average, 6% of the eligible second year advanced cohort across London is entered for an EPQ although this proportin varies from borough to borough (see table below).

2017 EPQ entries by London borough – publicly funded sixth forms only

No. of entries / entries as a proportion of eligible cohort

London borough 2017 %  of cohort
Lambeth 164 14%
Barking 206 14%
Sutton 269 13%
Southwark 130 12%
Croydon 242 10%
Tower Hamlets 145 9%
Newham 166 8%
Hammersmith & Fulham 106 8%
Bromley 260 8%
Ealing 144 8%
Kingston 145 7%
Lewisham 151 7%
Wandsworth 163 7%
Greenwich 90 7%
Barnet 254 7%
Hillingdon 176 6%
Harrow 136 6%
Westminster 115 6%
Merton 37 5%
Brent 88 5%
Waltham Forest 131 5%
Enfield 85 5%
Bexley 78 4%
Kensington & Chelsea 40 4%
Redbridge 120 4%
Islington 67 4%
Richmond 55 4%
Havering 81 3%
Hounslow 62 3%
Camden 100 3%
Hackney 49 3%
Haringey 32 3%
City of London 0
London total 4,087 6%

Data drawn from the underlying data in the 2017 performance tables.

Health warnings:

  • There is a margin of error in the national and London data due to the suppression of data for centres with 1-5 candidates (new this year). For centres where this occurs, their entries have been assumed to be 3 entries per centre – leading to a potential error for publicly funded providers of + or – 844 nationally and + or – 180 in London.
  • London data is for the borough where providers are based, not the borough where students live. If a borough is served by a large provider whose main campus is actually in a neighbouring borough that is where the data appears.

A few suggestions:

  • The possibilities and the benefits of expanding student research are evident but there aren’t enough incentives for more sixth forms to promote this important work: the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) should consider incentivising the EPQ in the same way that high achieving students on larger programmes attract more funding with a longer term aim of including research skills as part of national programmes of study.
  • Providers themselves should aim to increase EPQ take up overall: A target of at least 5% moving towards 10% of the cohort in every sixth form would be an achievable goal.
  • EPQ delivery lends itself to an area partnership approach and universities and employers are well placed to support this as it is very much in their interest to develop young people’s independent research skills. Local networks covering each area could be tasked with promoting and supporting EPQ provision across their patch.
  • EPQ entries shouldn’t only be targeted at A-level students who have already demonstrated good research skills and initiative: we should aim for a more inclusive and ambitious approach where the EPQ is seen as a way of developing those skills in all students including those for whom this is a steeper learning curve. The high cohort participation in some colleges are partly a reflection of the very high prior achievement of their students as well as of a strong research culture (eg: Hills Road at 98% of the cohort), but some more comprehensive providers also manage participation well above average (eg: Regent College in Leicester at 19%).
  • Promoting and expanding the use of the Foundation (level 1) and Higher (GCSE level) Project Qualifications in schools and colleges would help to build skills and confidence and put in place the stepping stones many students need to help them work their way up to a fully fledged EPQ. Sixth form providers could offer to help Year 11 students achieve a Higher Project (GCSE level standard) in order to develop their research skills and prepare for progression. [There doesn’t seem to be any data on HPQ entries in the Key Stage 4 Performance Table underlying data – I’d be grateful if anyone knows where this can be found]

See also:

Sixth Form student research continues to grow 2016 data (June 2017)

More sixth formers doing research projects 2015 data (February 2016)

Promoting a sixth form student research culture (September 2014)

EPQ chief examiner John Taylor wrote an excellent piece in the TES with 8 top success tips for teachers, 4 of which are here

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Pathologically wrong: Humours and Miasma.

Humours and Miasma: Science in Society 8.

Humoral theory and miasma theory: two long-lasting medical paradigms now consigned to the history of human error but which shaped our ideas about health and disease and the development of medical practice and public health for many centuries.

Humoral theory

The theory of humours was one of the main paradigms for understanding health and disease for many centuries going back to ancient Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic traditions but it didn’t survive the scientific and experimental approach to medicine which became dominant the 19th century.

The theory takes its name from the word ‘humours’ meaning fluids. Health was thought to come from the proper balance of four ‘humours’ or fluids in the body; black bile (also known as melancholy), yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Anything that upset the equilibrium between these humours, such as a change in the weather, could lead to disease.

The theory was formalised by Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 BCE) and built on by Arabic doctors such as Ibn-Sinna (‘Avicenna’) and  al-Razi (‘Rhazes’) in the 9th century. It was also used to explain human temperament through four main personality types connected to the humours and caused by an excess of one or another: melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic.

Each humour was associated with properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and wetness as well as one of the four seasons.

Blood: Sanguine temperament (active, energetic, robust), associated with Air and Spring.

Yellow bile: Choleric temperament (decisive, ambitious, quick to anger), associated with Fire and Summer.

Black bile: Melancholic temperament (thoughtful, reserved, suspicious), associated with Earth Autumn.

Phlegm: Phlegmatic temperament (peaceful, lazy, quiet) associated with Water and Winter.

Each individual’s humoral balance was connected with other phenomena—such as climate, diet, occupation, location, planetary alignment, sex, age, and social class. The combined holistic effect of these might differ between individuals. Humoral treatments, or regimens, were designed to restore the proper humoral balance through bloodletting, enemas or purges, diet and lifestyle changes and by individualised medications. Doctors relied on personal knowledge of their patient and the inspection of blood, urine, and other fluids produced by the body; and on the patient’s description of their symptoms.

The appeal of the humoralism which dominated medicine and formed its heritage lay in its comprehensive explanatory scheme, which drew upon bold archetypal contrasts (hot/cold, wet/dry etc.) and embraced the natural and the human, the physical and the mental, the healthy and the pathological. While reassuringly intelligible to the layman, it was a supple tool in the hands of the watchful bedside physician and open to further theoretical elaboration.

From chapter 2 ‘Doctors’ from ‘Blood and Guts’ by Roy Porter (2002).

18th century depiction of the 4 temperaments

Miasma theory

Miasma theory was the principal paradigm of the spread of disease across many parts of the world for thousands of years. Miasma was the name given to poisonous and foul-smelling ‘bad air’ or ‘night air’ arising from decomposed matter and containing ‘miasmata’ coming from soil and other non-human sources. Disease was assumed to arise from this foul air rather than passing between individuals. This belief gave priority to ventilation and exposure to ‘fresh air’ as preventative measures. For example, the war nurse, Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) based her efforts to make hospitals sanitary and fresh-smelling on miasma theory.

In the early nineteenth century, belief in miasma theory led people to fear fog which was thought to indicate the presence of miasma. Some people regarded miasma as being able to completely alter the properties of the air.

By the 19th century the medical community was split on the question of how disease was spread. Believers in miasma theory thought that disease could proliferate without physical contact while ‘contagionists’ believed that disease was transmitted through physical contact. At this time, the living conditions of Britain’s crowded cities in were very unsanitary and there were regular outbreaks of fatal diseases such as cholera. Miasma seemed to explain the spread of cholera and other diseases in places where the water was undrained and very foul-smelling, such as the banks of the river Thames with its presumed concentration of deadly miasmata.

The wide acceptance of miasma theory during the cholera outbreaks overshadowed the findings of London doctor, John Snow (1813-1858) who made the connection between cholera and typhoid epidemics and contaminated water sources, suggesting that there was some means by which the disease was spread from person to person via what he called a ‘morbid material’ in the water supply. During the cholera epidemic of 1854, Snow traced high mortality rates among the citizens of Soho to a water pump in Broad Street. Snow convinced the local authorities to remove the pump handle and this led to a marked decrease in cholera cases in the area.

Sanitary reformers wanted to reduce the spread of disease and improve public health and proposed reform on the basis of miasma theory. Their proposals contributed to major improvements in drainage and sewage systems which did lead to a reduced incidence of cholera and actually helped to support miasma theory for a while. Miasma theory was consistent with the observations that disease was associated with poor sanitation and the associated foul smells. However, it was not consistent with the findings of experimental microbiology which were to lead to the germ theory of disease.

By the late 19th century, there was enough scientific evidence to support a germ theory of disease transmission which accounts for disease proliferation by both direct and indirect physical contact. In 1876 the German microbiologist Robert Koch (1843-1910) proved beyond doubt that anthrax was caused by a bacterium and in 1884, working in Bombay (Mumbai), he was able to isolate the bacterium which causes cholera. These discoveries brought a decisive end to miasma theory.

Even though miasma theory was comprehensively disproved by the discovery of pathogenic bacteria, and later viruses, it did help to make the connection between poor sanitation and disease and led to public health reforms and encouraged good sanitation measures.

A cholera epidemic depicted as miasma


1. Why do you think these paradigms remained dominant for so long?

2. Humoral theory is no longer the basis for our understanding of health and disease. Are there any aspects of its application which can be related to modern medical practice?

3. ‘Miasma’ theory is no longer used as an explanation for the spread of infectious disease and was overtaken by the germ theory in the late 19th century. Are there any cases of the two theories being compatible with each other?

4. Choose one of these statements to explain:

(a) Despite being wrong, miasma theory helped to promote public health.

(b) In science, every incorrect theory contains the seeds of a more accurate one.

See also:

How we do science – Science in Society 3: developing and testing scientific explanations.

Introduces the idea of paradigms or scientific belief systems and includes the story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

The germ theory of disease – Science in Society 6: Pasteur, Koch and the microbe hunters.

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My islands – by Line Mariani Playfair

I have always had a strong affinity for atlases and islands. Whether a single volcanic rock or one likely to fragment or disappear underwater, each one seems to be calling me, speaking to my imagination. I was fascinated by Thor Heyerdahl’s book on Easter Island and I was very excited when I first saw the powerful head of Hoa Hakanani’a in the British Museum.

I have lived for 60 years on one island and I was born on another; one which I think of every day and which I still feel viscerally bound to. I praise its beauty with all the pride of ownership; its sea, its mountains, its wilderness, its springs and its torrents. Corsica can charm me, annoy me, amuse me, disturb me and delight me.

I’ve travelled widely with my husband, a research immunologist. I’ve given lectures in schools and to French Circles in the United Kingdom. From Mexico to Norway, Corsica has been one of my favourite topics, with the result that many of the people I’ve met end up finding their way to my little village to look up my friend Francette Orsoni and tell her how much they love her illustrated Corsican tales. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always received a warm welcome and have made many lasting friends. The enthusiasm others have shown for my island story has spurred my own wish to delve deeper into Corsican culture; to know more in order to share more.

I learnt all the most important things while staying in our village as a child; the language and traditions, cooking, the rituals of arrival and departure. Gifts in a basket covered by a white napkin – the basket always returned with other gifts: three fresh eggs, a bottle of wine or the first figs of the season wrapped in a large leaf. My mother and grandmother drained tomatoes in a white bag hanging over a bucket to prepare a conserve. We put the figs and prunes out to dry. We did the laundry in the river using big bars of soap. Trout would sometimes show themselves and my mother would catch them with a basin or even with her bare hands. There was also the ritual of the strapunta; restuffing a mattress by removing all the wool, washing and re-carding it. Another major event in the village was the slaughter of a pig, or for the less well-off the sharing out of wild boar meat after the hunt.

We would pick herbs for soup, made with a dash of olive oil and cubes of dry broccio cream cheese. On summer afternoons one of my uncles would take me swimming in the river with my friends and in the evenings we would play loto.

As my mother often stayed in town with my father, my grandmother would look after me. My radius was limited, I was allowed to fetch water at the village fountain for neighbours and I also helped to thread needles for those with fading eyesight. At siesta time, my grandmother expected me to do school work; I remember lots of questions about taps filling baths. This was also my opportunity to read. As it was wartime, books were in short supply and there were some very fallow times when I had to resort to the novels of Zenaide Fleuriot or back copies of the periodical Les Veillées des Chaumières.

In winter, it was roast chestnuts by the fire, beignets and polenta and lots of gossip and storytelling. Comic tales of Grossu Minutu or apocryphal stories about the ‘priest’s son’. One Christmas in the village, a neighbour who was a maga, gave me the power of signadora – to dispel the evil eye – something I still occasionally need to use.

Living in the village taught me the importance of gardens and terraces, alternate watering, good manners and never to call on people at meal times. When one did visit, there were often new dogs, cats or donkeys to make friends with and the goats would always take my chestnuts but seemed unimpressed by my efforts at milking them. I observed the power and discretion of the women in the community and learnt the value of listening, of speaking as little as possible and of keeping secrets.

When I arrived in London I was immediately fascinated by the city; its river, museums, buses and parks. No one seemed to know anything about Corsica. My host family showed some interest in it as a tourist destination and we had a fruitful exchange of Jewish and Corsican traditions. As my English improved, I started to go out more, including to the Proms at the Albert Hall where I was able to listen to some of the best orchestras in the world for a modest 2/6. One summer evening, in a Prom queue, some Italian friends introduced me to a young medical student who loved music and France and he introduced me to his mother. She had visited Corsica and had met the famous lawyer Moro ‘the lion’ Giafferi.

‘Ma’ was Jocelyn Playfair, nee Malan, a writer of Huguenot descent and ‘pa’ was a Major General, who had worked with field-marshal Montgomery, there was also a younger brother who was completing his studies at Cambridge. I was immediately adopted by this very British and somewhat eccentric family. Through Jocelyn I met writers and artists as well as people who lived outside London, giving me the opportunity to discover the English countryside. The General was writing a very weighty military history and had contributed humorous pieces to Punch about army life. He also composed military marches, waltzes and foxtrots which he performed with gusto on the piano. I married John, the medical student, and somehow fitted in very well. The contents of our parcels from Corsica were shared widely and elicited much comment. Back home, my parents started to welcome a succession of keen and sometimes very odd travellers, never sure whether to expect a diving enthusiast, an orchestral conductor, a NASA engineer or a former Russian spy. These visitors were all fascinated by the island but knew little of it beyond Napoleon. They hadn’t heard of Pasquale Paoli or the fact that Corsica had been part of Britain for a few years in the 18th century.

Later, I gained greater confidence in myself and in my origins and I was able to take pride in writing in my mother tongue. I met Dorothy Carrington (Lady Frédérica Rose) who wrote about Corsica in Granite Island. Carrington was particularly interested in the condition of women and it was she who realised the importance of the prehistoric site at Filitosa in the South West of the island. She was an inspiration.

Finding myself in a foreign country, I had to learn and understand the culture I was going to live and work in while also blending it with my own. I wanted to share the music, literature and gastronomy of my native island. We waited impatiently for my mother’s parcels and our friends learnt to appreciate Corsican honey and cheese, chestnut flour, orange wine, charcuterie and eau de vie. Before moving to England, I had never worn my national costume but, having been asked, I produced a variation which was more cheerful than the rather drab post first world war version.

We are all aware of our origins and our inheritance. We all have a family history, a cultural, linguistic and political heritage. The Corsican people have a distinctive cultural identity and Corsicans are proud of this distinctiveness. When we leave Corsica, we have to learn to think and act more freely without such strong anchors. We can define being Corsican in cultural terms but it’s also a recognition of the importance of culture to others. To be Corsican is precisely to take into account the world beyond Corsica and to benefit from what the rest of Europe and the world has to offer us.

Corsicans have character and they generally know how to express it. They have little trouble transcending their minority status, affirming their identity or making their way in the world and Pasquale Paoli demonstrated this very effectively in the Enlightenment period. They have learnt to observe with irony and humour and to cultivate the ability to listen and to know when to be silent.

Pasquale Paoli is commemorated in London annually, both at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death and at St. Pancras Church on the first Sunday in February. After mass at St. Pancras, a few Corsicans and local parishioners share a traditional Corsican feast, whose recipes are included in the parish recipe book. We have planted an olive tree at the end of Paoli avenue and dedicated a park bench to mark his time at St. Pancras. There is also a plaque on the house at 77 South Audley street where he spent 3 months. These are memorial sites which serve to remind us of the link between our two islands and to document our diaspora.

My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all born on this island, will always have part of their inheritance on that other island where the sky is vast, the stars numerous and the mountains rich in tales to share.

Line Mariani Playfair, 2017

See also:Boswell in Corsica,  Paoli in London

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Sixth form hopes for 2018.

I’ve been posting new year’s wishes for sixth form education since January 2015. This started with 5 ‘modest, realistic and realisable’ hopes. By 2016 the list had been cut to 4 and was then further reduced to 3 a year later.

In summary, the ‘resolutions’ for 2017 were:

1. To describe our educational aspirations for 16-19 year olds and try not to be limited by narrow conceptions of ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ education.

If anything, 2017 has seen us go backwards nationally in this respect, with a widening gulf between ‘skills’ and technical education policies and the ‘academic’ route consisting of reformed linear A-levels.

2. To try to find common ground between all 16-19 providers and make a strong case for the properly resourced high quality sixth form education that all young people deserve.

As a sector, we did this effectively this year, thanks to our representative organisations, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) who worked to build new alliances and lobbied hard for an immediate and modest injection of £200 per full-time student pending the promised review of post-16 funding. MPs from all parties seem to accept the case that 16-19 education is now seriously underfunded. However, this political support did not translate into any significant spending commitment in the Autumn Spending Review and we will continue to fall further behind schools and universities in terms of the resources we invest in our students at this important stage. The development of T-levels is just beginning and may lead to some additional resource – but only for some learners. The new funding for additional in levels 3 Maths students announced by the chancellor in November has yet to be explained and it is by no means clear that it will actually result in the desired outcome.

3. To start planning for a coherent, comprehensive 16-19 system capable of offering choice and entitlement to a broad and challenging education for all young people.

The area reviews are a fading memory and although many colleges have merged, local coherence remains a distant prospect while rampant market madness continues. The lack of any local area planning or co-ordination means that ‘choice and diversity’ often means ‘fewer options and greater selection’ in practice.

So, what can we reasonably work for in 2018?

This year I am whittling my own resolutions down to just two:

1. Continue to make the case for investment in 16-19 education and a review of post-16 funding.

It’s disappointing that post-16 education has not yet found its place at the heart of social policy and it seems unlikely that the current government will start reinvesting in Further Education despite its evident economic benefits and transformative power. The best we can hope for may be some targeted new investment via T-levels and this comes at the price of a deeper academic/vocational divide and will do little to advance broad general educational aims for this age group.

In the short term, even £100 per learner on the national £4,000 rate would be welcome. Such a sum would amount to less than the annual Departmental underspend on 16-19 education, effectively loose change down the back of the sofa, but it would make a real difference to colleges which are having to make impossible choices between different cuts, all of which would be damaging to students.

In the medium term, we might hope that a genuine and objective review of post-16 funding could lead to some rebalancing of resources between learners in different phases and on different programmes. However, government FE and HE policy seems to point in the opposite direction, with more differential funding driven by economic imperatives rather than a universal educational entitlement.

In the longer term, we can take some comfort from the fact that changed priorities at the national level often follow a few years after the grassroots campaigning making the case for such change. We have no choice but to fight our corner and we owe it to our future students to keep making the case.

This rather gloomy prognosis leads me to my second resolution, which also requires planning for the future without any expectation of short term gain:

2. Start developing plans for 16-19 education as part of a National Education Service.

The idea of a National Education Service (NES) is to mobilise all our publicly funded educational resources to provide the best possible opportunities for all our people. It represents a departure from the marketised, education-as-a-commodity which we have learned to live with. It’s what many European countries take for granted and is a perfectly realistic aspiration. It has emerged from the Labour Party but has the potential to attract cross-party support in the way the NHS has and to become the common-sense of a new generation.

So far, the NES concept has mainly been linked with spending commitments such as free university tuition and more investment in early years education. Clearly, identifying and prioritising resources is essential but a successful NES will also require new ideas for allocating existing resources, new structures and new ways of doing things to support the development of a new kind of education service.

We need to take this idea seriously and help flesh out the detail and articulate what form post-16 education might take in a new NES. This work needs to begin now and it might not bear fruit until 2022.

In conclusion:

My prediction for 2018 is that the funding context for our work will not improve and we will all have some very difficult decisions to make. Our full-time students will continue to be the worst funded in the whole system and to receive fewer hours of teaching and a narrower curriculum than their peers in most developed countries. We need to continue to hold to our educational values, provide the best service we can and collaborate more where this is possible. I think our promotional, campaigning and policy development work needs to be focused on the type of medium and longer-term goals outlined above and I wouldn’t expect any quick wins in 2018.

However, with the right kind of work in the next year or two we could lay the foundations for a renaissance in public service post-16 and adult education and that is a prize worth working for.

Post-16 funding:

Life in the sixth form funding canyon (October 2017)

Previous New Year hopes:

Sixth form resolutions for 2017 (January 2017)

New Year wishes for sixth form education in 2016 (January 2016)

5 New Year wishes for post-16 education (January 2015)

A National Education Service:

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)

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Top posts of 2017.

Most popular posts of 2017

Of the posts I published on this site in 2017, the most read were:

Sixth form resolutions for 2017: 3 modest resolutions to make 2017 better than its predecessor.

10 things which could improve education: the outline of a charter for an education system based on equality and social and personal transformation.

Reconstruction in an age of demolition: post-16 education in England today is characterised by selection, marketisation, low expectations and inadequate investment. We need to develop an alternative building on the best of our capacities.

The GCSE retake challenge: we should be aiming for high standards of literacy and numeracy but the ‘comparative outcomes’ approach is hindering progress.

Education and the French presidential election: evaluating the education policies of the 5 main contenders for the French presidency.

NewVIc results 2017 and NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university: summaries of our best ever results at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc).

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’: How the Daily Mail could have described our achievements, but didn’t.

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation: a more general celebration of our borough’s long-standing track record of university progression despite being a ‘deprived’ area.

Design for leaning: how we set about creating a wonderful new building for our college.

The best of things: what the opening of our new building means for young people in Newham.

My NewVIc story – Kabir Jagwani: the latest in this alumni series, featuring a former NewVIc student who is now a senior leader in our neighbouring secondary school.

2. Also worth reading from 2017

A few of the other posts published last year:

From Toynbee to TELCO via Chicago and From ‘slumming’ to solidarity: a brief history of responses to urban poverty and inequality from the late 19th century university settlements to today’s community organising and social activism.

Education is a human right: a reminder that we are a long way from fulfilling the global promise of education for all and article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A global crisis requires a global politics: conflict threatens the survival of 20 million of our fellow human beings. A challenge on this scale cannot be addressed by the politics of national interest.

Citizens of somewhere, citizens of anywhere: rejecting the false choice between inward-looking parochialism and outward facing internationalism.

Oxbridge admissions – time for action: highly selective universities cannot absolve themselves from widening participation, this post offers 4 practical proposals for immediate action.

The narrative of the ‘poor bright child’: challenging a model of social mobility which fails to address structural inequality.

Equality at the heart of our values: we need to emphasize the egalitarianism at the core of the British values which we promote.

Giving young people a stake in their future: making the case for a truly universal citizens’ service as part of a richer and more challenging education including free higher education.

Easing student debt won’t cut it: minor mitigation of the impact of university fees does nothing to challenge the harm being done by marketization of Higher Education. We need to reconsider the financialization of education.

Shaping an alternative education policy: the egalitarian vision underlying Labour’s education proposals and the need for a system.

Education 2022 Market or system? What will education in England look like in 2022? Two very different possible futures.

Learning through conflict: conflict and disagreement are essential for human progress and learning. We need to value understanding, complexity and deliberation and help our students reach beyond who they are and what they know.

The Habits of democracy: education’s role in developing the practice of democracy and the understanding and experience which support it.

Challenging IQ: questions the usefulness of ‘general intelligence’ and behavioural genetics and urges caution about behavioural, social or political claims derived from genetic data.

Life in the sixth form funding canyon: far from being ‘flat cash’, what we have experienced is a massive funding cut per student in recent years; a serious threat to what we can offer our students.

The Mathematics of survival: poems for difficult times by NewVIc students working with English PEN.

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The narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. Jane Addams.

Earlier this month the government announced a £23m ‘future talent fund’ targeted at ‘bright’ students from poorer backgrounds. New investment in education can only be welcome and the new fund may do some good. However, without wishing to reject any gift horses, in the context of under-investment overall it seems to be taking a highly selective approach to which young people are worth investing in, based as it is on the narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

Much of the thinking behind the rhetoric of social mobility is based on implied hierarchies. The assumption seems to be that social inequalities are inevitable and that in order to make society fairer we need to ensure that those who ‘deserve’ to move up the hierarchy get a chance. Their merit is generally established through some kind of educational proxy; ‘potential’, ‘talent’, ‘intelligence’ etc. Once we have the measure and the label, we simply need to search for those who fit the bill and help them up rather than questioning the root causes of the prior inequality.

The preferred subject of such policies is therefore the ‘poor, bright child’ as the best symbol of the possibility of meritocratic upward social mobility. They need to be identified, sought out and lifted up in a particular way as their needs are clearly different from those of the irredeemably poor and ‘not bright’. This approach acknowledges that being economically disadvantaged does have a negative impact on likely educational success. By adding the adjective ‘bright’, advocates are distinguishing between children based on some ill-defined innate property of bring ‘bright’ or intelligent, something not accessible to all and with a limited distribution. Being ‘bright’ equates to being worthy of particular interventions to overcome the obstacle of socio-economic disadvantage.

The measures used to categorise children as ‘bright’ or otherwise are very limited and very limiting. Age-related achievement in standardised tests or exams are used to categorise children from an early age and we should not be surprised when success in early assessments is the strongest predictor in continuing success with increasingly wider gaps opening up between children at different levels.

But what of the ‘not bright’ poor? If being ‘bright’ equates to being worthy, then ‘less bright’ must be less worthy. But if there are social determinants to educational achievement surely these must affect all poor children, not just ‘bright’ ones. If we can acknowledge that money and social capital can buy educational advantage for the ‘not bright’ rich, is there not a possibility that the ‘not bright’ poor could also benefit from such investment?

Educational achievement is not perfectly linear or age-defined. Inclusive, comprehensive post-16 colleges have many students who were written off as academic ‘no-hopers’ at 16 based on their GCSE results and have gone on to achieve well in conventional terms and to progress on to Higher Education. In our sixth form college in Newham for instance, around 200 of our 661 university progressors this year had worked their way up from lower level programmes, having come to us at 16 with mostly D or E grades or below at GCSE (grade 3 or below) – hardly meeting the threshold for being described as ‘bright’. Their journey may be against the expectations but on this scale it shouldn’t be seen as unlikely or against the odds.

The problem is that not everyone who advocates greater social mobility actually wants a more equal society. It is quite possible to be in favour of giving poor, ‘bright’ children a step up while also being wedded to a very unequal society with a high gradient between the poorest and the richest and all the negative implications that has for social cohesion and wellbeing.

This is why the social mobility agenda is essentially regressive and inegalitarian. It conceals its commitment to reproducing existing social inequalities and injustices in a rhetorical cloak of aspiration and fairness. By defining who is deserving of a particular focus, it sets limits on the aspirations of the majority and reinforces a structural, systemic unfairness.

The truth is that such categories as ‘bright’ or ‘not bright’ are far too crude a basis for making educational judgements. We need to understand the complex factors which contribute to educational achievement while keeping faith with the idea that all people are capable of achieving much more than they already have and that all people are worthy of the best education we can offer.

Based on our experience so far, we have some idea of the potential of education, which has already enhanced human capacities beyond anything that was thought possible just a few generations ago. We have barely started to develop the potential of what humans can achieve, individually and collectively. To limit our ambition by using categories such as ‘bright’ is to deny this potential and to reinforce the structural inequalities which hold us all back.

Let’s hope that the new Future Talent Fund can go beyond the narrative of the poor ‘bright’ child and dig more deeply into the causes of social and educational inequality across society.

See also:

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’ (November 2017)

NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university (October 2017)

Overlooked and left behind? (April 2016)

The limits of social mobility (March 2016)

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

Is social mobility enough? (April 2015)

How can we reduce educational inequality? (September 2014)

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Education is a human right

We mark Human Rights Day on December 10th and this year it is 69 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in Paris at a United Nations (UN) General Assembly in a post-conflict spirit of international solidarity and optimism. In the UK, it was the year of the founding of the National Health Service. 6 years earlier, ignorance was one of the Beveridge report’s 5 ‘giants’ afflicting British society and which needed to be tackled, together with disease, want, squalor and idleness. Scanning the current state of our planet and global trends it’s easy to be sceptical about any notion of global universal rights being realised anytime soon. Inequality, injustice, powerlessness, conflict and division seem to be in the ascendant.

Education has to be at the heart of any project to ensure human rights and promote human flourishing. If we recognise this, we cannot accept the gross disparities and injustices which still exist across the world and also within many states.

Of the 30 UDHR articles, the one which relates to education is:

Article 26. The right to education

  1. Everyone has a right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages, Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

It’s clear that we are furthest from achieving even these modest aims in parts the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the UN is right to focus its attention where the gap between aspiration and reality is widest.

However, even in a rich country like the UK, we are entitled to test the limits of Article 26 by asking:

  • Why would education not be free at all ages and stages?
  • Who decides who has enough ‘merit’ to progress to Higher Education?
  • Does our curriculum and assessment system promote the full development of the human personality?
  • Do we really value citizenship, human rights, and peace education in our system?

At the moment, the answers to these questions do not suggest that we are moving in the right direction.

Although progress has been made, we are still a long way from achieving the United Nations global aim of ‘Education for All’. Over 250 million children are not in school worldwide and around half of primary aged children who are not in education live in areas affected by conflict. 103 million young people lack basic literacy skills and over 60% of these are women.

The UN has 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Of these, goal 4 is

Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.

Among the specific targets are:

  • Access to all levels of education
  • Early childhood development and pre-primary education,
  • Publicly funded primary and secondary education for all,
  • Literacy and numeracy skills for all,
  • Learning to live together and protect the environment,
  • Safe and inclusive learning environments,
  • Skills for work,
  • Gender equality and inclusion of marginalised groups
  • Well-trained teachers who are valued.

Until we increase our global effort to achieve these aims, and make the systemic changes which can allow them to succeed, we will not truly be honouring the promise made to future generations in 1948. This has to be one of our top priorities: globally, nationally and locally.

See also:

Education: the universal human right (May 2015)

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‘What if?’ – dystopias in fiction.

Fictional dystopias use the power of ‘what if?’ to change something or extrapolate particular social or technological trends and imagine the impact on people’s lives. The best ones are also good stories, well told, about people; their hopes, fears, feelings and relationships. They help us to imagine ourselves in a different society with different possibilities. They also remind us that change is possible, indeed inevitable; a different world is possible and things as they are can be challenged.

Dystopias can serve as a warning about our current direction of travel or the consolidation of things as they are. They can shine a light on our present reality and make us look at things with fresh eyes. Far from being purely escapism or fantasy, they make us think and discuss things which affect us in the real world. So, for instance:

What if… we lived in a society where:

  • People have survived a massively destructive event or war; a post-apocalyptic setting (Who Fears Death, Parable of the Sower, Divergent, The Handmaid’s Tale…)
  • People are bred to occupy distinct social roles or strictly categorised along racial lines (Brave New World, Never Let Me Go, Who Fears Death, The Parable of the Sower)
  • People are sharply divided on economic lines and the poor are treated as subhuman (Utopia).
  • Women have no rights and are routinely raped to provide children for the ruling class (The Handmaid’s Tale)
  • Religion is used to justify injustice and persecution (The Handmaid’s Tale)
  • Culture and heritage are deliberately destroyed and forgotten (Fahrenheit 451)
  • People are kept in a constant state of fear, hysteria and preparation for war (1984)
  • Propaganda is more important than truth (1984)
  • People are encouraged to take drugs and have casual sex (Brave New World)
  • People have no individuality or identity (We)

There are many other possible ‘what if’s’ or combinations of these and this is the raw material of dystopian fiction. Previous posts have recommended 8 great dystopian novels:

Reading Dystopias: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro,

More fictional dystopias: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

Here are 4 more to add to these:

Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik (2008) [176 pages]

In one hour, I’ve done everything, and there’s nothing left in life that interests me or that I want…This was my land and this was my world. I was born here. If my father stole these rights, then they had become my birthright, and I wouldn’t give them up to beggars and street whores.

It’s 2023. Welcome to Utopia, the US-protected colony on the north Egyptian coast to which the wealthy retreated in the first decade of the 21st century. The Others, outside Utopia have sunk into hunger, disease and violence. In this vision of an alternative future, written in Arabic, Utopia’s youth are spoiled, devoid of feeling for others. Only one thrill remains to the young who are inured to appreciation by a lifetime of instant gratification – and it lies beyond the barbed wire and security fences of Utopia. The narrator and his girlfriend are on a mission to find a suitable Other to kill, and then hack off a limb to bring back as a trophy of their hunt.

Ahmed Khaled Towfik (born in 1962) is an Egyptian medical professor and the Arab world’s best-selling author of horror and fantasy genres and has written over 500 books.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010) [304 pages]

The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic future version of Sudan, where the light-skinned Nuru oppress the dark-skinned Okeke. The protagonist, Onyesonwu (Igbo for ‘who fears death’), is an Ewu, the child of an Okeke woman raped by a Nuru man. On reaching maturity, she goes on a quest to defeat her sorcerous father Daib using her magical powers.

The novel was partly inspired by an article about the ‘weaponization’ of rape by militias in the Darfur conflict. The novel includes a graphic scene in which Onyesonwu is subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), which significantly impairs her ability to use her magical powers. When she was challenged about her criticism of FGM in the book, Okorafor commented that she is proud of her Igbo identity, but that:

“culture is alive and it is fluid. It is not made of stone nor is it absolute. Some traditions/practices will be discarded and some will be added, but the culture still remains what it is…Just because I believe that aspects of my culture are problematic does not mean I am ‘betraying’ my people by pointing out those problems…What [cutting] all boils down to … is the control and suppression of women.”

Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to Nigerian parents. She has a PhD in English and is a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. She has won many awards for her short stories and young adult books. Who Fears Death was awarded the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and Okorafor wrote a prequel, The Book of Phoenix which was published in 2015.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler (1993) [299 pages]

Set in a future where society has fallen apart as a result of climate change, massive inequalities and corporate exploitation, this is the story of the ‘hyperempathic’ young woman, Lauren Oya Olamina, who has a unique ability to feel the emotions and pain of others. As a teenager growing up in a gated community she begins to develop a new belief system which she calls Earthseed. After her family are murdered, she travels north with other survivors. The world is in chaos, ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted and inter-racial relationships are discouraged. Lauren believes that humankind’s future is to travel beyond Earth and live on other planets, forcing a new kind of maturity, with Earthseed as part of the preparation…

The American author Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006) described herself as “a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive.” She consistently resisted the threat of ‘hierarchical’ thinking which she saw leading to intolerance and violence between people. In A World without Racism she wrote:

“Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behaviour that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other ‘isms’ that cause so much suffering in the world.”

Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011) [487 pages]

In a future society, people are divided into five factions based on their dispositions. Abnegation: the selfless, Amity: the peaceful, Candour: the honest, Dauntless: the brave and Erudite: the intellectual. All 16-year-olds undergo extreme initiation tests to decide which faction they belong in, with devastating consequences, while the ‘factionless’ live in poverty. The ruthless order of this society is threatened by growing conflict.

The American writer Veronica Roth was born in 1988 and Divergent is the first of a trilogy which includes Insurgent and Allegiant. Divergent was the Goodreads Favourite Book of 2011 and the of the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction award in 2012.

Assignment: Try to come up with some original ‘what if’s’ of your own and write a brief description of the dystopian society they would generate as a setting for a story. What new dramatic possibilities does the situation offer.

See also:

Reading Dystopias (July 2015)

More Fictional Dystopias (March 2017)

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Learning through conflict.

Education, like all human endeavour, requires conflict, struggle, challenge, disagreement, argument, difference, dialectic, dialogue. If we want to learn or make anything new, we need to reach towards what we don’t know, to seek out the unknown. Education, and life itself, can be thought of as a constant struggle at the frontiers of our ignorance; a struggle to sharpen our understanding of the world in the hope of making some impact on it.

But conflict can be frightening, threatening. Many people have good reason to fear conflict because to them it is associated with real hardship, danger and even violence. A new unknown is not welcome if past unknowns have been connected with danger. So, to be a place of ‘learning risk’, the educational space has to be free of actual personal risk.

Human civilisation has been at least partly about mastering conflict and making it less threatening and more creative. As the possibilities of human action become greater and societies become more complex, it becomes more and more vital to describe, manage and codify conflict. Communication, discussion, rationality, debate, government, politics, treaties and agreements, legal systems, ideas about respect, human rights and equality can all be seen as means to contain conflict and allow human potential to flourish in ways which do not constantly jeopardise our personal safety. Even the processes of war, which are essentially about mass violence, have be subject to rules and conventions.

We have a duty of care and a responsibility to keep our students safe from violence, abuse, harassment, discrimination, physical harm or exploitation. We need to protect them and nurture them as they learn about the world, but we also have a duty to tell them the truth about the world. This is not about encouraging a sense of victimhood, grievance or fragility but caring for them as they gain the confidence and strength of mind to take on the dangers which they will undoubtedly face.

We also have a duty to explain and promote values of democracy, freedom and rights, the rule of law, respect for others and to develop the practice of those values. In other words, we need an education for full citizenship and I think that in England we’re still a long way from doing that effectively.

I think what we need is a social pedagogy of agency, a pedagogy of possibility and empowerment. I don’t think this should be a ‘you can do anything if you try hard enough’ positivity and it’s not quite the same as the promotion of ‘character’ or ‘grit’. It needs to do more than promote a resilience which means being good at dealing with what life throws at you, or a wellbeing which means being happy or satisfied with life. When faced with injustice, discrimination or inequality our students need to know that things could be better and to be able to do something about those things that something can be done about.

Everything we do in our education settings should aim to promote students’ greater autonomy and agency and their critical understanding of the world as it is, recognising its complexity and the interdependence and inter-relationship of self and others. We want our students to think and act well. We should assume that our students will be more than subjects – but that will want to be agents – out there in the world, doing things and aiming to making a difference.

Just as young children need to learn to master their raw emotions and see the world through others’ eyes in order to learn to live and work with others, we all need to learn how to be critical, sceptical, how to respectfully disagree and engage constructively with others in society. This learning has to be taken step by step with the challenge and risk of failure managed.

Where does this place us as educators in what we all agree is a time of polarisation and division in our society? I think we need to develop our students’ understanding and skill well beyond what is currently expected. Our schools and colleges need to be places where students can take a step back from the world in order to study it better and prepare to step up to a role in that world. We need to think of our education system as the workshop where people hone their rational, critical faculties and ask all the questions they have about the world and start to explore the answers.

What does this mean when we are confronted with divisive and controversial topics such as Brexit and Trump? Like any other aspect of the real world, these are legitimate subjects of study and cannot be sidestepped. They need to be understood and our approach should be to use them as an opportunity to be analytical and rational and to consider the world from different perspectives rather than pressing students to have an opinion.

We have a duty to challenge fake news and irrational beliefs and superstitions. We cannot shy away from controversy but face it head on. Our objectivity has to be reasoned and well-informed; not an ‘equal value to every opinion’ neutrality. We need to be radical rationalists and rigorous explainers, partisans of enlightenment, which of course sometimes means ‘taking sides’ when core values are challenged or threatened. We shouldn’t aim to propagandize but starting from a set of beliefs and values which we know to be necessary for society to function, we should aim to ‘activate’ our students so they can build their own agency.

Of course we cannot pretend that it’s possible to achieve absolute objectivity or academic detachment. We also need to recognize that both students and teachers bring a wide range of experiences and identities, and prejudices, to the learning process. Our identities, our histories and our feelings are important elements which will shape our approach to our studies. Nevertheless, I do think the task of educators is primarily to help learners develop a particular distinctive identity as students of the world. This need not replace their existing identities but it is what will help them reach out beyond what they know to what they could know; from what they are to what they could be.

Should we teach conflict resolution? Can conflict ever be fully resolved? We can understand it, explain it, come to terms with it and practice ways to manage it and move things forward without resorting to violence or pretending it doesn’t exist. But we absolutely need it; it is a prerequisite of human progress and learning. And so, we should value understanding, use increasingly complex analyses and model the skills needed for robust debate, productive dialogue and deliberative democracy. This is what will help us embrace and channel conflict.

Hannah Arendt’s statement that “education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it” reminds us that the education is a social project which starts with  people who care about something worth caring about and want to be in a position to do something about it.

This is an extended version of my contribution to the Embracing Controversy Panel discussion at the Conflict Matters Conference in London on November 8th-10th 2017 organised by the Evens Foundation. Other members of the panel included Claudia Ruitenberg of the University of British Columbia, Raheel Mohammed of Maslaha and Justin Schlosberg of Birkbeck, University of London. It was chaired by Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas)

See also:

Giving young people a stake in their future (July 2017)

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

Crick reloaded: citizenship education and British values (September 2016)

Colleges and violent extremism (January 2015)

Post-16 citizenship in tough times (May 2014)

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The East End’s ‘engine of progression’.

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’.

In September, the Mail Online and others published articles extolling the achievements of the ‘Eton of the East End’, one of the highly selective sixth forms in Newham which have opened in recent years. In the interests of balance, here is the story of their comprehensive neighbour’s results told in a similar style:

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’.

Inner city college with some of the poorest students in the country dubbed the ‘East End Engine of Progression’ sent 96 students to top Russell Group universities this year.

  • Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) in Newham sent 661 students to university this year and nearly 7,000 over the last 10 years.
  • The college has been getting students into Russell group universities for 25 years including over 400 over the past 5 years.
  • Mughees Hassan is going to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences this year, he is the latest of 13 NewVIc students to go to Oxbridge in the last 10 years.
  • Both NewVIc students who went to Oxford University in 2014 graduated with First Class degrees this year.
  • 3 students: Bibire Baykeens, Fatima Habib and Nadia Jama are going on to study medicine.
  • NewVIc saw 28 of its A-level candidates achieving A* grades this summer and over 70 achieved at least an A grade.
  • On of the college’s A-level Biology candidates achieved the highest mark in the country in one of her papers this year.

A comprehensive inner-city college in one of London’s most deprived areas dubbed the ‘East End Engine of Progression’ sent 96 students to the country’s most prestigious Russell Group universities including one to Cambridge this year. The students all attended Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) and are starting degree courses in Medicine, Maths, Engineering, Law, Accounting, Psychology, English, History, Drama, Politics and Nursing amongst many other subjects.

Principal Eddie Playfair said: ‘NewVIc students have been progressing to university in large numbers for 25 years, including to Oxbridge and other Russell Group institutions. This year’s 98 per cent A-level pass rate is our best result to date and the proportion of high grades is also our highest ever, but, most importantly, it means that students who come to NewVIc make great progress and achieve the grades they need to help them progress to their chosen degree course at university.’

Two thirds of the college’s A-level grades are in the A*-C range.

Many of the students at NewVIc are from the London Borough of Newham, which is one of the most deprived in the city. According to census data, 46.5 per cent of the 330,000 residents describe themselves as either Asian or Asian British. Some 26.5 per cent say they are white, while 18.1 per cent are black or black British.

Clearly both sixth forms have great results to celebrate. One difference is that in a comprehensive college, these ‘top’ results are just a small part of a bigger story of success and progression across the board. And this particular comprehensive college has been doing the heavy lifting to improve the participation, achievement and progression of tens of thousands of Newham students over the last 25 years. Too long to be newsworthy perhaps!

Good luck to those who can persuade the national media to blow their trumpet for them. The rest of us will just have to blow our own!

For the full story of NewVIc’s 2017 results and progression see:

NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university (October 2017)

NewVIc results 2017 (August 2017)

And for the longer term story of success:

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

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Being honoured

I was honoured to attend the 2017 Graduation ceremony for University of East London’s Sir John Cass School of Education and Communities on 1st November 2017. The ceremony granted UEL degrees in Early Childhood Studies, Education Studies, Social Work , Special Education and Youth and Community Work  to over 500 graduates, many of whom were former NewVIc students and some who were parents of NewVIc students. It was a real privilege to share this day with them and to see so many of our alumni complete the next phase of their education and get one step closer to achieving  their goal to work in education – the best job in the world!

I was accepting a UEL honorary doctorate and was particularly excited to be receiving it in the same year as democracy and accountability campaigner Gina Miller and the actor and disability advocate Sally Phillips.

What I said in my acceptance speech:

I need to start by saying that I’m not really that keen on honours. In fact, I didn’t attend my own graduation in 1982. At that time, I thought it was very un-cool. But after attending graduation ceremonies for some of my own children and hosting many awards evenings as a college principal over the years, I think I’ve come to value the symbolic importance of these occasions. And on this occasion, I am deeply honoured to accept this honorary doctorate.

I’m honoured for at least two reasons: first, because of where it’s coming from and second, because of what it’s for.

Firstly, it’s coming from a great East London institution. A university deeply rooted in its community which reflects and celebrates that community while also having national and global impact. A university which aims to put its human, intellectual and cultural resources at the service of the people of our diverse and cosmopolitan city and helps them to achieve wonderful things. A university which has worked in partnership with our college throughout its 25-year history; providing outstanding governors for our corporation, sponsoring our sports teams and helping to mentor our students and develop their skills in challenging hate speech, managing money and undertaking research projects amongst many other things.

So I am very proud of our association with the University of East London and very excited about the new East London Skills and Employment Federation which we are both part of.

Secondly, I think this is a recognition of the work we do and have been doing at NewVIc for 25 years: stretching, challenging, broadening horizons, raising participation, achievement and progression for 16-19 year olds in East London. A full-spectrum college which is designed to offer the full range of courses and refuses to be defined by others as either academic or vocational, either specialist or selective. I see this as a celebration of our democratic and egalitarian vision of the comprehensive college which wants to share the benefits of education as widely as possible.

I think that UEL and NewVIc share the same values and beliefs. One way of putting this is that we want to educate with purpose. At a time when we could easily become more ignorant, more fearful, more selfish more self-absorbed, we need places which build knowledge, skill, understanding, community and wisdom. So I am delighted to be able to honour our shared values and our shared purpose; to develop active, critical, inquisitive citizens rather than passive, silent, acquisitive consumers – people who do rather than simply being done to and who do what they do with a real care and respect for others. We need all our educational institutions to be ‘wisdom’s workshops’ with a common mission to share and prepare, to train and transmit, to renew and re-invent our world and make it fit for human flourishing.

This  is important work and I want to congratulate everyone here who has made a commitment to work in education.

To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, being an educator requires us to ‘love the world enough’ to take responsibility for it. I guess that means that there’s a lot of love in this place today!

You’ll forgive me for closing with something many of you will already have heard me say, because it’s what I say to all our leavers at ceremonies like this:

As you stand on the threshold of the next phase of your life and look back as well as forward –  be proud. Be proud of all you have achieved, be proud of you family, your culture, your language, your beliefs and all your achievements. You are someone and you’ve achieved something. But don’t stop there. Look forward and make sure you become what you are capable of becoming, which is so much more.

It has been a great honour to share this celebration with you. Thank you.

See also: 

NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university (October 2017)

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Investing in East London’s future (December 2014)

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NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university.

The NewVIc class of 2017.

Our class of 2017 was a diverse and ambitious cohort, full of great young people preparing to make a positive contribution by acquiring a range of professional skills and qualifications:

661 students progressed to higher education with an 89% progression rate across all applicants; A-level and vocational. This is well above the national average.

96 students progressed to Russell Group universities – a new record for our college, representing 15% of all students progressing.

Where did they all go?

Over two thirds of NewVIc progressors go to just 7 universities, all in London.

These ‘top 7’ university destinations now account for 69% of students progressing and this group has remained the same for the last 5 years: Middlesex, Greenwich, East London (UEL), Westminster, Queen Mary University of London, City University and London South Bank.

In terms of numbers, the picture is broadly stable with the biggest increases over 2016 at Middlesex (up 22 students), Queen Mary University of London (up 13 students), Greenwich (up 10 students), and City University (up 10 students).

13% of NewVIc students progressed to universities outside the London area which required them to live away from home. This is down from 14% in 2016 with the highest numbers going to De Montfort (9 students), Coventry (8), Anglia Ruskin (8), Bedfordshire (6) and Kent (5).

The Russell Group list remains dominated by Queen Mary University of London, not surprising as it is the nearest Russell Group university to our college. It accounts for 73% of all NewVIc’s Russell Group places. Other key institutions are University College London (UCL) with 9 students and King’s College London (KCL) with 5, with a good spread of students progressing to 9 other Russell Group universities.  It’s also worth noting that, as usual, a good number of our vocational students also progressed to Russell Group universities, demonstrating that good vocational qualifications are valued by selective universities when they understand them well.

What are they all studying?

As usual, our students are progressing to pretty much the full range of degree courses available, with the most popular degrees being very broadly by title: Accounting (70+), Business (70+), Medical and biomedical (60+), Engineering (50 +), Computing (50+), Law (40+), Education (40+), Psychology (20+), Sport / PE (20+).

Their impressive achievements represent just one year’s worth of our investment in the future of the London economy. In the context of a 25-year record of similar annual progression, the college has contributed to enhancing our economy with tens of thousands of skilled professionals, all of whom are still of working age. That’s enough health workers, teachers, engineers and lawyers to power several London boroughs!

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths: 202 students.

Nursing and Midwifery (22), Paramedical Science (20), Biomedical Science or Radiography (10), Mathematics (9), Pharmacy or Pharmacology (8), Science – including Biology or Chemistry (8), Forensic Science (6), Biochemistry (4), Medicine (3), Neuroscience (2), Opthalmic dispensing (1), Animal management (1).

Electrical / Electronic Engineering (12), Civil Engineering (10), Mechanical Engineering (9), Construction and the Built Environment (9), Aeronautical Engineering (5), Engineering (4), Chemical Engineering (2), Automobile Engineering (1), Biomedical Engineering (1).

Computer Science, Software Engineering / Networking (40), Games Design, technology or development (10), Computer Forensics (5).

Economics, Business, Management and Accounting: 172 students

Accounting or Finance (72), Business or Business Management (59), Business Information Technology / Systems (13), Marketing (10), Economics (9), Human Resources Management (6), Advertising (3).

Humanities and Social Sciences: 84 students

Psychology (22), Sociology or Social Science (17), English (14), History (9), Politics (9), Journalism (7), Geography (2), Arabic (1), Creative writing (1), Philosophy (1), Religious Studies (1).

Law and Criminology: 63 students.

Law (49), Criminology (14).

Education and Social Work: 51 students

Education (37), Early childhood studies (9), Social work or youth work (4), Counselling / Psychotherapy (1).

Visual and Performing Arts: 44 students

Film, TV and media production (12), Architecture (9), Design or product design (7), Music or music technology (6), Fashion or textiles (5), Drama (3), Dance (2).

Sport, Travel, Tourism and Event Management: 34 students

Sport or PE (26), Hospitality, tourism, airline or event management (8)

[11 other degree destinations haven’t been categorised.]

Top 30 universities for the NewVIc class of 2017:

University students %
Middlesex 80 12.1
Greenwich 76 11.5
East London 72 10.9
Westminster 71 10.7
Queen Mary University of London 70 10.6
City University 47 7.1
London South Bank 39 5.9
Goldsmiths 20 3.0
Kingston 15 2.3
Hertfordshire 14 2.1
De Montfort 9 1.4
University College London 9 1.4
Brunel 8 1.2
Coventry 8 1.2
London Metropolitan 7 1.1
Bedforshire 6 1.0
Kent 5 0.8
King’s College London 5 0.8
College of Law 5 0.8
West London 5 0.8
Roehampton 4 0.6
St. George’s, University of London 4 0.6
Birkbeck 3 0.5
Bournemouth 3 0.5
Brighton 3 0.5
Central Lancashire 3 0.5
Leicester 3 0.5
Northampton 3 0.5
Portsmouth 3 0.5
Ravensbourne 3 0.5

 Russell group progression for the NewVIc class of 2017:

University students
Queen Mary University of London 70
University College London (UCL) 9
King’s College London (KCL) 5
Birmingham 2
Leeds 2
Southampton 2
Bristol 1
Cambridge 1
Exeter 1
Imperial College 1
London School of Economics 1
Sheffield 1

See also:

NewVIc results 2017 (August 2017)

The NewVIc class of 2016 (August 2017)

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

Let’s celebrate vocational success (January 2016)

University progression for the NewVIc class of 2015 (December 2015)

NewVIc breaks all its university progression records (September 2015)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

From free school meals to university (April 2015)

Where do all our A level students go? (January 2015)

Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January 2015)

Investing in East London’s future (2014 university progression) (December 2014)

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L’innovation pedagogique

Je suis chef d’établissement d’un Sixth Form College polyvalent du Centre-Est de Londres, c’est-à-dire un lycée pour les étudiants de première et de terminale qui préparent l’université. Nous offrons des programmes généraux, professionnels et des classes de rattrapage. Ça fait 16 ans que je suis principal, dont 10 à NewVIc.  Avant tout je suis enseignant ; professeur de Sciences et passionné de l’éducation.

Quelle est l’innovation pédagogique qui vous a le plus marquée dans votre carrière ?

J’enseigne depuis 1982, j’ai donc vécu une période de transformation extraordinaire des technologies pédagogiques. Au début ; manuels scolaires, duplicateurs, réseaux professionnels locaux. Maintenant ; accès illimité aux connaissances, aux moyens de communication personnalisés et aux réseaux professionnels mondiaux.  Nos cerveaux et nos préoccupations ont peu changé mais nous disposons aujourd’hui d’outils immensément plus puissants pour la recherche, la création et le partage de notre matériel pédagogique. L’informatique, l’internet et les médias sociaux nous permettent d’étendre at d’approfondir les possibilités de l’apprentissage humain et du dialogue pédagogique. Donc tout semble avoir changé dans les moyens et les méthodes, mais fondamentalement rien n’a changé. Les éléments de base et notre travail de transmission culturelle et sociale perdurent. Néanmoins, il faut s’adapter et augmenter nos capacités critiques, de recherche et de discernement pour profiter des nouvelles technologies.

Quelles sont les difficultés des professeurs innovants en Grande Bretagne et comment les surmonter ?

L’éducation en Angleterre se différencie des autres systèmes nationaux du Royaume Uni. Depuis plusieurs années, l’Angleterre poursuit un programme de marchandisation de l’éducation publique qui se caractérise par une forte concurrence entre établissements autonomes, De plus en plus, le système public est remplacé par des réseaux d’établissements semi-privés qui ne répondent plus aux collectivités d’une façon démocratique. En même temps, nous subissons un système d’inspection sévère qui punit les établissements qui ont des résultats au-dessous de la moyenne.

L’innovation pédagogique se vit donc dans ce contexte super-concurrentiel dans un environnement ou on préfère ne pas trop expérimenter ou prendre de risques. Le partage entre concurrents est découragé et le rôle de l’enseignant professionnel se définit en fonction du succès de l’établissement vis-à-vis des autres.

Quelle est la place de l’innovation dans la politique éducative Britannique ?

L’innovation existe, mais elle ne suit pas un plan commun d’investissement ou un programme national. Elle est ressentie de façon très différente dans les établissements différents. Le choix d’innover et comment innover sont surtout les décisions de chefs d’établissement quasiment autonomes. On peut donc trouver des pratiques et des philosophies pédagogiques contrastantes dans des établissements voisins.

Quelle est votre représentation de l’innovation ?

Être enseignant c’est être innovant. Il faut constamment se demander comment mieux faire. Nos plus importantes ressources pour rester innovants sont : nos réflexions personnelles sur nos pratiques, notre volonté d’expérimenter, notre ouverture aux idées nouvelles et notre évaluation honnête qui tient compte du dialogue professionnel avec nos collègues et nos étudiants.

La véritable innovation trouve son origine dans cet esprit d’expérimentation et d’auto-critique rigoureuse. Bien entendu, nous devons tenir compte de nouveaux outils qui peuvent nous rendre la vie plus facile. Souvent un nouvel outil peut lui-même suggérer une nouvelle approche. Mais l’adoption d’un nouvel outil n’est pas en soi innovant.

Pour moi, les innovations pédagogiques les plus importantes seront toujours celles qui nous permettent de mieux répondre aux questions fondamentales : comment faire réfléchir, comment stimuler le désir d’apprendre et de s’épanouir ? Comment approfondir et élargir la compréhension et la maitrise ? Que demandons-nous de nos étudiants ? Quelles activités, quelles taches, quel langage parlé et écrit ? Comment mieux faire pour établir les connaissances et les compétences qui leur permettront de réussir leur apprentissage culturel et citoyen ? On peut être certain que parmi les bonnes réponses il y aura toujours une synthèse du vieux et du neuf.

En conclusion, je pense qu’il faut éviter la ‘neomanie’.  Quand on nous propose de nouvelles méthodes et de nouvelles technologies, donnons-nous le temps de les comprendre et les évaluer et adoptons ce qui a de mieux sans trop être ébloui par leur nouveauté.

Eddie Playfair, principal de Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc), Londres.

Interview publié dans la série Ceux qui Innovent sur le site Ecole Innovante

Voir aussi (en Francais):

Les réfugiés francophones de Londres (2016)

Egalité et solidarité dans une société diverse (2016)

Grammaire de Gramsci et dialectique de Dewey (2015)

Leçons sans paroles : comment la musique nous apprend à vivre (2015)

L’autonomie : pourquoi (2015)

Laïcité, égalité, diversité (2015)

Citoyens multilingues, société multiculturelle (2015)

L’inspection en Angleterre (2014)

Le numérique en questions : une perspective anglaise (2014)

Socrate et le numérique (2014)

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Oxbridge admissions – time for action.

Last week’s news that Oxford and Cambridge universities are failing to diversify and broaden their undergraduate intakes to reflect British society was deeply depressing for anyone who believes in university access and participation as a social good.

The story broke in the same week that we hosted the launch of the Wad-Ham programme at NewVIc with a theatre full of sixth formers from schools across Newham and Tower Hamlets. These were mostly Black and Minority (BME) young people from ‘disadvantaged’ post-codes, likely to achieve straight A’s and A*’s at A-level and keen to consider applying to Oxbridge, although this isn’t an explicit aim of the scheme.

This well-established programme, supported by Wadham College, Oxford, gives our students a taste of university level teaching, writing, discussion, research and analysis and fosters an open mind and a broad outlook. It’s a wonderful opportunity which requires considerable additional commitment from participants and also includes a residential at Oxford. The overall theme of the programme: ‘Civilization and Barbarism’, allows for much interdisciplinary work and couldn’t be more appropriate for the times we live in.

Schemes like Wad-Ham and its precursor Pem-Brooke are brilliant ways to enrich the sixth form curriculum and they will also help our students make stronger applications to the most selective universities. We should also celebrate the achievements of initiatives such as the Lady Margaret Hall Foundation Year which reaches out to under-represented groups, and the work of colleges such as Mansfield in Oxford, which manages to recruit around 90% of its undergraduates from publicly funded sixth forms and 16% of BME heritage from the UK. We need more of this, it should be mainstream – commonplace. In fact, these successes serve to highlight the overall lack of movement and the complacency of an institutional response which often seeks to shift the blame onto schools or teachers rather than question its own selection methods.

One Oxford university spokesperson said: “Rectifying this is going to be a long journey that requires huge, joined-up effort across society – including from leading universities like Oxford – to address serious inequalities.” This may be true, but it doesn’t absolve the university itself from improving its own gatekeeping processes.

We know that elitism, discrimination and segregation run deep in British society and the damage they do goes well beyond Oxbridge and beyond education itself. Many of us are sceptical about the assumption that that Oxbridge or Russell Group universities must automatically be ‘top’ or ‘best’ simply because they are very selective. Nevertheless, we work tirelessly to try to ensure that our BME, state-educated and working-class students get their fair share of great publicly-funded educational opportunities. Our experience is that for every qualified student who gets a place, there are several more who were just as promising. When they get their chance, they generally do very well. For instance, both NewVIc students who progressed to Oxford university in 2013 graduated in 2017 with First Class degrees.

At a recent Black History Month reception the Prime Minister said: “No one’s ethnicity should stop them from pursuing their dreams. And as a country we cannot afford to squander the talents and ambitions of our young people. If we remove the barriers that remain, the potential for the future will truly be without limit.” Theresa May has also recently launched the Racial Disparity Audit to ‘shine a light on how our public services treat people from different backgrounds’.

Given the widespread support for the objective that ethnic and social diversity should be reflected in access to educational opportunities it’s deeply dispiriting that the very universities which have the greatest problem have yet to address the problem effectively. It’s quite right that the spotlight should be trained on them. The danger for those who fail to respond effectively to the challenge of becoming more representative, and therefore more diverse, is that they risk being marginalised and ultimately less sought after.

In fact, the ‘Oxbridge problem’ could be seen by other more inclusive universities as an opportunity to move into this territory and challenge the ‘Oxbridge / Russell Group equals quality’ hegemony, for instance by developing Liberal Arts degrees and highlighting the intellectual rigour and other aspects of their undergraduate experience such as small group tutorials which Oxbridge trades on, while also positively celebrating the benefits of diversity.

What can be done?

On our side of the admissions process, as ‘suppliers’ of under-represented students, we’re doing everything we can; raising achievement, giving good subject and application advice, preparing students for tests and interviews and grasping every opportunity to engage with Oxbridge colleges. We’ll do more if asked to. But we also need the giant, well-funded Oxbridge institutional tankers to take this really seriously and start to turn things around.

1. Set targets and work to achieve them: Setting hard targets would require the university to go out and ‘talent spot’ more proactively rather than waiting for applicants to roll in. The idea that there is only one ‘best’ way to select the ‘right’ undergraduates needs to be challenged. One could probably fill both Oxford and Cambridge universities with an entirely different cohort of equally well qualified undergraduate applicants without any impact on standards or rigour. If the university as a whole won’t set targets, the individual colleges could; if Mansfield can recruit 90% of its students from publicly-funded sixth forms, other colleges could also aim to reflect the fact that 93% of students are not privately educated and that 18% of UK 18 year olds are of BME heritage. Change could happen in steps, college by college.

2. Offer ‘reserved’ places: A number of places each year could be guaranteed to all sixth forms in proportion to the number of qualified students they have: A similar proposal was originally made by the journalist Peter Wilby and would give sixth form colleges or groups of sixth forms in the state funded sector the opportunity to select the qualified student(s) they judged to be most deserving of a place. Such a system would guarantee geographical spread, give sixth forms a stake in decisions and remove some of the quirkiness and unpredictability of the process by being based on more informed judgements and deeper background knowledge of candidates.

3. Reach out into areas of under-representation: The Foundation Year model could be taken into communities around the country as part of a new generation of university settlements. The original settlements created by Oxbridge colleges in the 19th and early 20th century brought students and researchers into inner city areas in sustained ways to understand and address pressing social issues and promote social solidarity. Students could combine sixth form and gap year volunteering serving their community with pre-degree preparation nearer to home, making the transition more gradual. One settlement per Oxbridge college, perhaps in partnership with a local university, could provide good national coverage and start to lay the foundations of a deeper relationship between universities and diverse communities.

4. Incentivize more representative recruitment: The Office of Fair Access (offa) expects universities to develop Access Agreements and can fine those which fail to make sufficient progress. But on the positive front, a simple student premium like the Pupil Premium in schools could act as a positive incentive for universities or constituent colleges to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds or under-represented groups.

Rather than choosing from these approaches, I would suggest doing all 4 immediately – plus any others which look like they might work. This issue is too important to wait. We need Oxbridge to act now.

Photo shows Hugh Munro of Wadham College at the Wad-Ham launch last week at NewVIc.

See also:

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

Cracking Oxbridge (November 2015)

London’s engines of mobility (October 2015)

Russell group university progression: dispelling the myths (February 2015)

From free school meals to university (April 2015)

The Oxbridge challenge (July 2014)

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Life in the sixth form funding canyon

The chancellor is currently pondering his priorities for the forthcoming autumn statement on public spending and given the critical state of our public services there are plenty of worthy calls on resources.

Without minimising the case for spending more on health, housing, social care and benefits, it’s also worth reminding the chancellor of the pressing case for investing in the education of the country’s 16-19-year olds. In fact, this is a case which the government itself seems to have accepted by agreeing to review the whole 16-19 funding system.

What is our case in summary? The average sixth form rate per learner is 20% below that for 11-16-year olds in schools and 47% below the average university tuition fee. 16-19 education in England finds itself at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ with better funded school education on one side and Higher Education on the other with no rational explanation of why this vital phase of education should be so poorly resourced

The government will claim that it has held the base 16-18 funding rate at a steady £4,000 for several years, implying ‘flat cash’ for sixth forms in schools and colleges. The value of ‘flat cash’ is of course eroded every year by the rate of inflation because a pound buys you progressively less and less.

But from our position at the bottom of this funding canyon, even this basic ‘flat cash’ story doesn’t correspond to our experience. Whilst it is true that the basic rate for 16 and 17-year olds hasn’t been cut since 2013/14, we have in fact lost much funding in cash terms.

In our college, we have seen:

  • £226 cut per student for disadvantage funding between 2016 and 2018. This was a result of the re-basing of the Index of Multiple Disadvantage which took millions of pounds out of areas like Newham despite our borough having one of the highest level of child poverty in the country.
  • £164 cut per student overall caused by the 17.5% funding cut for all 18-year-old students (the ‘aspiration tax’) this amounted to a cut of £850 per 18-year-old for no justifiable reason. This was an impossible cut to pass on to 18-year olds and penalised us for having lots of students who have done the right thing and worked hard to progress from level 1 and 2 to advanced level. This has created a ‘canyon within a canyon’ for colleges which are comprehensive and have high rates of internal progression.

It’s clear therefore that what we have experienced over the last 4 years is far from ‘flat cash’.

We can add to this:

  • £380 reduction per student for unfunded cost increases over the last 4 years. These arise mainly from staff costs increases: national insurance and pension increases and pay rises as well as general inflation.

This means that over the last 4 years we have suffered a real-terms cut of over 13%. in what we can spend per student, compounding the 27% real terms cut colleges experienced between 2009 and 2015. The canyon just keeps getting deeper.

To add insult to injury, the Department for Education chose to underspend its 16-18 budget nationally 3 years in a row totalling £212 per student between 2014 and 2016.

If we compare ourselves to schools, we also know that we have to spend:

  • Roughly £200 per student on VAT from which schools are exempt.

In our area, we also know that one of our main competitors benefits from an additional annual contribution of around £1,200 per student from HSBC bank and another has enjoyed substantial capital and other in-kind support from our local council.

We are therefore backing the “Support our sixth formers” campaign led by our associations; AoC and SFCA, working with other education bodies to make the case for increased investment in England’s sixth formers.  We are calling for an immediate increase of £200 in the funding per learner pending a review of post-16 funding.

This modest investment clearly wouldn’t restore all the cuts we’ve faced in recent years but it would allow for some increase in teaching time. We would aim to provide ‘something for something’ and would want to take a small step towards the broader and richer curriculum our students deserve. Starting from this move towards parity with either school or university funding, we could then engage in a dialogue with government about the kind of entitlement we want for all our 16-19-year olds.

The £200 uplift per student would cost around £244million – a sum which is smaller than the total government underspend on 16-19 funding (£373million over 3 years). Given the colossal sums which the chancellor is working with and the promises already made to universities and schools, here is one relatively low-cost investment which would make a big difference to a sector which, despite everything, continues to transform lives.

See also:

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

Investing in 16-19 education (February 2015)

Post-16 funding: making the wrong choices (April 2014)

Aspiration tax for the many, jackpot for the few (April 2014)

Drop the aspiration tax (January 2014)

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