Thorpe Hall School

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Head's Blog (Archive)

Changes to GCSE

20th November 2015

Many parents and grandparents throughout Southend will be aware that some major changes are coming soon to the way GCSEs are graded. This will affect all the 16 year olds leaving school before 6th Form in the summer of 2017.

Goodbye coursework
This follows changes that have already been made – namely that most coursework has now been outlawed, meaning that nearly all subjects are examined in the summer term. Most Headteachers see the dropping of coursework as a good thing because pupils and schools alike were getting very bogged down with the competing needs of all the coursework, usually squeezed into the spring term. Of course, relaxing the pressure on the spring term just means that pupils have a very intense summer with multiple exams to sit within just a few weeks. End-of-course exams definitely suit some pupils more than others and the new system it is a bit unfair, but it is probably better than the overwhelming pressure of coursework.

New grading system
The new changes come in two forms. First of all the grading system is changing from the familiar A*, A, B, C etc - to ‘9’, being the top score and ‘1’ being the bottom score. I think we can all see the immediate benefit here of being able to add the scores up and come up with a easily calculable average score per subject. However, the government have deliberately moved the goalposts here by creating a new scale with 9 grades (9 to 1) whereas the old scale only had 8 grades (A* to G). This means that we cannot make a direct connection between the old scale and the new one. So what is the new equivalent of a C grade, I hear you ask? And it is a good question; nobody is entirely sure yet but it is looking likely that a grade 5 will be considered a ‘pass’ rather like the C grade is now. In effect, that means that the ‘pass’ grade for GCSEs just got a little bit harder.

GCSEs just got harder
Many would argue that making GCSEs harder is good thing – it raises the bar and means young people have to work even harder to achieve an acceptable standard. It also combats (at last) the issue of ‘grade inflation’ which has dogged education for the last 20 years. I think the new 9 to 1 grading system will go along way to halting grade inflation along with the system now being applied by the government by which only a fixed percentage of pupils get each grade in each subject each year – adjusted slightly to allow for ‘good’ years and ‘bad’ years. However, if I was 16 and just approaching my exams I would no doubt have a different view!

Being told what to study
The other major change to GCSEs is the attempt by the government to effectively force pupils to study some subjects in preference to others. The way in which the overall GCSE performance of each pupil is calculated – and it is complicated – means that pupils are being forced to study subjects like French, Spanish, History, Geography and Religious Studies in favour of subjects like Art, Music, Drama, Media Studies. I think this is a shame because I do not like to see any subject given preference over another one – with the possible exception of English and Maths (though that is whole other debate in itself).

There is still quite a lot of uncertainty about the changes which will come into effect next summer – and whether parents, friends and family will ever get to fully understand the new system remains to be seen. Some people still refer to age 16 exams as ‘O’ Levels and they went out near 30 years ago! It is probably fair to say that the general public takes around ten years to catch up with changes in the country’s exam system - in the meantime our young people face gaining scores that no one really understands.

Reasons to be proud (part 2)

24th May 2014

Part of the job of every Headteacher is to monitor constantly
the school’s performance as a whole and plan for continuous
improvement. So it is extremely useful when, every 6 years,
a team of objective, experienced peers – often serving
Headteachers from other independent schools, visit to inspect
the school. The framework used by the Independent Schools
Inspectorate to make judgements about schools runs parallel
with Ofsted and is approved by the Department for Education.
This document summarises a very encouraging and glowing
inspection report that genuinely recognises the strengths
of Thorpe Hall and our many achievements since the last
inspection in 2008.
If I was to pick out three extracts from the report that most capture the spirit of the school they would be these:
1. Pupils are polite and courteous at all times. They clearly show great respect
toward other pupils and adults and they display confidence
without arrogance. Behaviour around the school is exemplary
at all ages and allows pupils to feel secure and flourish.
2. The curriculum is highly imaginative and flexible
and suits each pupils’ needs. It is teeming with
opportunities that enable the school to fulfil its aims.
3. Staff provide highly effective guidance and support
for pupils. Excellent communication and a clear
structure ensure that the pupils’ concerns can be
quickly dealt with.

You can find a link to a summary of the report on the front page of this website.

Reasons to be proud (part 1)

27th April 2014

It is easy, both as a fee-paying parent and as teacher working in an Independent School to feel a mild sense of guilt. The media rarely miss a chance to vilify the sector and those who work in and support it.
Yet, for all the international studies that show UK education in general as second rate, we know for sure that the independent education sector in the UK has never been stronger or more successful. This is shown by the countless statistics that show our sector’s schools as outperforming schools throughout the world and by the thousands of pupils from overseas who choose to attend our boarding schools.
Recently, the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents 1250 established independent schools in the UK including Thorpe Hall, commissioned Oxford Economics to research the economic benefits of the independent school sector to the economy as a whole. This exhaustive study found that the exchequer benefits to the tune of £3 billion due to the independent sector removing the burden of educating over 500,000 children. In addition, the sector as a whole has an economic impact the same size as the BBC.
ISC has produced a spreadsheet tool which allows headteachers to calculate the local and regional impact of each individual school. I can tell you that as a result of Thorpe Hall’s economic activity 10 people are employed in Southend in addition to the 63 we employ ourselves. The school’s direct and supply-chain employees contribute £658,000 in tax every year and the school saves the exchequer a cool £2,820,000 by educating the 320 pupils in the school at parents’ expense rather than the tax payer.
ISC also surveys the independent sector every year and I can report that Thorpe Hall fees currently stand some 16% lower than the East Anglian average and 21.5% lower than the national average for fees charged by day schools.
If those aren’t reasons to be proud then I don’t know what are.

Creating pupil engagement

10th December 2013

A few months ago I was fortunate to hear Dr. Andrew Curran speak on children and learning. Dr. Curran is a practising paediatric neurologist and neurobiologist, and is fascinating about the advances that have been made in the last ten years in our understanding of how the brain works. In particular, he has been researching how learning takes place and which parts of the brain fire up when certain types of learning are achieved.
His scientific approach to learning blends an understanding of atavistic motivations with a powerful acknowledgement of the role of emotional well-being. He says that, before any lasting learning can take place, a child must be engaged with the material being taught. But a child will always find engagement hard if they are not self-confident. Self-confidence can be an elusive quality to acquire but is often founded on self-esteem. Building self-esteem is the stated aim of many schools – Thorpe Hall included – and Dr. Curran argues that the most powerful tool in promoting self-esteem is to understand a child.
Dr. Curran argues that:
• If you understand a child then they will gain self-esteem
• If they have self-esteem then they quickly build self-confidence
• If they are self-confident then they will engage with their learning

Understanding – Self-esteem – Self confidence – Engagement.

It is a neat model and holds a lot of validity when I try to match it with my own experience as a teacher and Headteacher. But I would add two additional elements:

1. A child needs to feel that they are understood and not just be understood.
2. In order to build self-esteem and self-confidence the school needs to provide a wide range of activities so that the child can achieve. These activities are not limited to academic study but include sporting, social and cultural opportunities.

Thorpe Hall is small enough for every child to be acknowledged and understood, and yet big enough to be able to provide a programme, teeming with opportunities, where every child can find an activity they can achieve at.

In favour of a Royal College of Teaching

18th November 2013

It has become a cliché that politicians interfere with Education too much. Professional educators across the country consistently point to the strange anomaly that puts a complete novice and non-specialist in charge of the Department for Education after each general election.
However, I recently came across an idea that might, over time, start to address the balance of power when it comes to running the UK education system. A Royal College of Teaching would be given the power to design the curriculum and advise on getting the best from pupils at school. Like the Royal College of Surgeons, the new College would be staffed exclusively by experienced professionals – both teachers and Headteachers. Appointments would be made strictly apolitically and evidence from research would back up every initiative and recommendation.
In my view this is a great idea and full credit goes (ironically) to Charlotte Leslie MP for promoting the concept. I say ‘ironically’ because Charlotte herself acknowledges now, after 18 months of campaigning to get this off the ground, that she – as a politician - must step back and let others take it to the next stage. The unions and other professional bodies are now all on board and we wait developments with eager anticipation.
It used to be possible to say that one of the great strengths of the independent sector was that it was relatively free from government interference. That cannot be said any more and I, like my state sector colleagues, long for some stability. I support change where change is needed to improve things, but directives from Government are almost always ill though-through, ideologically driven and too hasty. Worst of all, when directives and initiatives fail, there seems to be no honour any more and those in charge seem not to be accountable.
A Royal College of Teaching, once properly established, would have the credibility and clout to filter innovation and manage change in such a way that teachers and Headteachers felt part of the improvement process and not victims of it. If you have read this and agree then share the link so more people can join the debate and make the College a reality.

Pupil Leadership - meritocratic and democratic

25th October 2013

Thorpe Hall has a long tradition of appointing pupil leaders from amongst its Year 11 group. These leaders are the Head Boy and Head Girl and Prefects; and for the last few years there has also been a Deputy Head Girl and Deputy Head Boy.
This year – looking forward to 2014 – the Governors and staff have agreed that we should dispense with the roles of Deputies as they have become less relevant in recent years. So, from now on we will only appoint a Head Girl and a Head Boy.
As Headteacher I have always been keen to create a link between the pupil leadership and the Chair of School Council, and indeed over the last four years the Chair of School Council has gone on, every year, to be Head Girl or Boy.
The school – staff, Governors and senior leadership – has now decided that the link between the Chair of Council and Head Girl or Boy should be formalised. From now on, the Chair will automatically take on one of those roles. That means that only pupils in Year 10 may put themselves forward for election. If the Chair of Council is a girl then the Head Boy will elected in the usual way and vice versa.
Meritocratic and democratic
It is important that both pupils and their parents understand what criteria are applied in making meritocratic decisions and the process in the democratic election of both the pupil leaders and the prefect body.
The criteria for leadership and prefecthood were agreed with pupils back in 2010. The process for selecting leaders and prefects is designed to be clear, fair and transparent. After voting by pupils and staff the final selection is made by the Senior Leadership Team. Selection is based on the six criteria listed below:
1. A good attitude and respect for the school, peers and teachers
2. Hard working, with a good record of meeting deadlines
3. General appearance including wearing the uniform according to the rules
4. Good behaviour and complete adherence to all the School Rules
5. Making a contribution to school life
6. Other – this may include activities and achievements outside school.

Every year, the staff debate the prefects and leadership roles extensively. It is often the case that a pupil has fulfilled some but not all the criteria and is therefore not given the badge. In particular staff look for positive reasons to appoint rather than appointing because the pupil has done nothing wrong.
This appointment system is a meritocracy in what is otherwise a non-selective and largely non-competitive school. Up until this point an individual pupil is mostly competing with him or herself – making progress from a starting point rather than comparing progress with others. The creation of Head Girl and Head Boy and Prefects can be a shock to those who are not successful but it is a taste of real life – competing for jobs and preferment. By making the criteria transparent and the selection process clear, we aim to give every pupil an equal chance to be appointed as part of the pupil leadership of the school.

Trust Vs Targets

6th September 2013

We live in times when many of us find our lives driven by targets and data. In state sector education in particular, the introduction of league tables to measure the relative merits of schools has distorted the way those schools are run and the way teaching and learning is managed.

The use of targets can, and often does, drive up standards in the short run; but in the medium to long term better performance by pupils, teachers and schools is achieved by something more fundamental and profound – trust.

McGregor’s XY Theory lies at the heart of the way the management of Thorpe Hall seeks to achieve the highest possible standards in teaching and learning.
Theory x ('authoritarian management' style)
• The average person dislikes work/study and will avoid it if he/she can.
• Therefore most people must be forced to work/study with the threat of punishment.
• The average person prefers to be directed, to avoid responsibility and is relatively unambitious.
Theory y ('participative management' style)
• Effort in work/study is as natural as work and play.
• People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of success, without the explicit threat of punishment.
• People see success as a reward in itself.
• People usually accept and often seek responsibility, especially over their own learning and success.
• The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
Being an independent school gives Thorpe Hall the opportunity to be free from the shackles of targets set by central government. We are not driven by the need to impress Ofsted, nor do we need to pay much attention to the ever-changing dictates from the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. Instead, our vision is simple and consistent. Thorpe Hall is a school where the partnership between parents, teachers and pupils is based on mutual trust. We trust that every member of the school community will do their very best to ensure that school is successful and that our pupils flourish.

Motivating Teens

22nd March 2013

I am always on the lookout for ways to engage pupils in education and right now I am working on the problem of motivating 14 – 16 year olds, especially boys.

The most significant reasons for non-engagement I have found recently are:
- Poor personal philosophy – in particular ‘nihilism’ (I just don’t care) is very destructive and hard to argue down
- Poor lifestyle choices – massive amounts of ‘going out’ and ‘gaming’ once home again
- World of Warcraft (yes WOW has it’s own category – just Google “WOW addiction” to get 20,900 results)
- An inability to connect future ambitions with current reality
- An ill-formed sense of personal identity leading to paralysis and deep uncertainty
- Fear of failure

I have disapproved of Effort Grades since reading Working Inside the Black Box and the writings of Carol Dwek, but, whereas I do think you can ask a younger child to ‘work harder’, I think with mid-teens it is counter-productive. That got me to thinking why do we as educators always insist on calling it ‘work’? “To get your GCSEs you will need to work really hard.”

Work is defined as mental or physical effort but for the average 14 – 16 year old boy it has strong connotations of a world that belongs to adults where people ‘go to work’ to earn money and get stressed. They don’t like work and why should they when most adults talk about work as a chore and long for the holidays and weekends.

14 – 16 year olds have choice and they exercise that choice in a way that is fundamentally different from children and most adults. They can choose to do the minimum and what are the consequences? Younger children might be sanctioned and then respond positively to avoid that sanction; adults fail to gain promotion or praise, they might even lose their job. But the mid-teenager doesn’t mind too much about detention and they can’t see the fuss about worrying about the future because it is too far away. As Ian Gilbert says, the ‘What’s In It For Me?’ is missing.

By defining ‘work’ as ‘studying’ for this age group we might shift the nuance from an obligated, mind-numbing activity for which the rewards are at best unclear, to an activity which involves interest, learning and self-generated reward.

The word work is usually accompanied by the word hard. In my view this can also be counter-productive for the mid-teen age group. If you are engaged with your studies – reading, writing, planning, memorising etc. then you can’t actually do any more than that. To work harder is to strain and straining is not good. At GCSE level, the pupil has either engaged and completed the task to their ability or they haven’t. Asking them to work harder is confusing. Do we want them to spend longer? Well, not if the task is done. Do we want them to read round a topic – sure but this not University, and there is only so much they can do before the task is done.

I encourage mid-teens to focus on the task and its completetion and not get hung up about time spent or numbers of words written. 20 minutes focused work is worth any number of hours gazing at a book without engagement.