Thursday, 22 December 2011

National Curriculum Review: A Teachers Opinion

The Department for Education's recent review includes a number of recommendations for big changes to England's National Curriculum, which will have a massive effect on the shape of education in this country for many years to come. Here are some of my thoughts on something that will effect me and thousands of teachers like me in the delivery of our subjects.

Was a review necessary?
Yes, absolutely. It's always good to check you're doing the right thing and personally, I'm not sure we were. The government has delayed any changes until 2014 so we have time to debate the ideas put forward, which is also a good thing.

What are they key recommendations?
There are quite a few, but the ones that are most interesting to me are;
  1. The restructuring of key stages
  2. The moving about of subjects between national and basic curricula
  3. The removal of 'levels' for assessment
The restructuring of key stages
Currently as a secondary school teacher, I notice that in year 8/9 students become somewhat demotivated as what they are doing doesn't seem to be going anywhere or worth anything and this 'KS3 Dip' is well reported phenomenon. Some schools have already started their students on GCSE courses in year 9 to help combat this. One of the recommendations is that KS2 is split into an upper KS2 and lower KS2 - whilst this sounds sensible (if not particularly revolutionary) I can't really comment on this as I don't teach primary students, however they've also proposed two different models for KS3/4.
  1. 7/8 as KS3 and 9/10/11 as KS4 (2 year - 3 year approach)
  2. 7 as secondary reception, 8/9 as KS3, 10/11 as KS4 9 (1 year - 2 year - 2 year approach)
At our school, we currently have a different curriculum for year 7, based on 'learning to learn' where students learn skills rather than knowledge. It's something that's worked well at times and it's been tried and tested in many other schools. The problem is that students coming into year 8 can have a big gap in their knowledge in some areas and students (particularly those who already have those skills) may see it as a bit of a pointless year.

The second option proposed simply moves year 9 into KS4. This would help with motivating students in year 9 as they'd be working towards something, however you may still see a dip in year 10, if there is only a final assessment at the end of the course (which is what has been proposed). I'd also be very concerned that students at the end of year 8 would have a hard time picking the right subjects for themselves.

Of the two options above, and the existing system, I'm still not sure which one is best. I very much like the idea of starting students on a more meaningful course in year 9 however, and if they had the chance to specialise further in year 10 within schools this might be a good option.

Regardless of the structure at KS4 (2 or 3 year), how about GCSEs becoming more like degrees and A levels, where each year counts for a percentage of the final GCSE?

The death of ICT and D&T?
The National Curriculum defines what subjects should be taught and what content within those subjects is compulsory, through the Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets. The Basic Curriculum defines what other subjects are compulsory, but the content is not prescribed. The proposals are that Design and Technology, ICT and Citizenship move from the National Curriculum to the Basic Curriculum. 
Taken from the National Curriculum Review

Citizenship is something that many students and teachers don't really value - every teacher would say that students should learn about citizenship in some form, but personally I'm not worried about it being moved into the 'basic' curriculum, where it could be taught within other subjects.

Design and Technology is quite a big thing to be moving however - which includes food tech, resistant materials, electronics, textiles etc. Most schools have a large D&T department and this could be a very worrying development for those teachers. Personally, I think every child should be able to do some basic DIY, cook and sew and whilst I might happy teach my own son or daughter these things, some parents wouldn't.

I'm an ICT teacher, so for me the biggest worry is the moving of ICT to the basic curriculum. This runs a real risk of ICT teaching being moved to other subjects and ICT teachers losing their jobs. As I discussed in a previous post, many non-specialist teachers will not be able to teach ICT to the same depth as subject specific teachers so students could really loose out here. The only 'but' here is that the review does mention that computer science should be considered;
  • "We have also noted the arguments, made by some respondents to the Call for Evidence, that there should be more widespread teaching of computer science in secondary schools. We recommend that this proposition is properly considered."
This is also against a background of a lot of noise about the subject, including comments from Michael Gove, Google and Microsoft. I can only hope that the idea is to change ICT, rather than remove it.

No more levelling
Some teachers love them, some hate them. I'm more with the latter - I think it's absolutely right that students should know where they are and how to improve, I just think that to any kid, getting a level 5 actually means very little. I also think that because in many subjects (like ICT) assessment is solely teacher based, they are very inconsistent across schools anyway. The review recommends that they should be abolished, and replaced with a 'mastery' system that refers back to the content of the curriculum more. 

Reading the report, the proposals seem to relate to APP a bit, where the curriculum into specific elements to assess. The crucial thing here is that there is no overall general level for a subject - no more saying Jimmy is a level 5 student, but rather Jimmy has mastered Programming (for example) but needs to work on his Spreadsheets and Modelling.

I expect for the sake of statistics and comparisons, we'll still work out averages, but I still really like it in principle.

Any review is going to spark debate and this one certainly raises a lot of questions. The reasons for doing the review are absolutely correct - it's not nice to see the this country falling behind others in anything, let alone education. I'm very concerned but the notion of D&T and ICT becoming part of the basic curriculum, however it's definitely time we started talking about changing things significantly to put ourselves amongst the global leaders of education again.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Teachers Pensions: A Teacher's Perspective

Changes to next year's teacher pensions have recently been announced by the government against very strong opposition from teachers unions such as the NUT and NASUWT. As a young teacher with 40+ years of service left, these changes are going to have a big effect on my teaching career - as the unions say, I'm going to have to work longer, pay more and get less at the end of it.

We are living in a difficult economic period, with people losing jobs and facing big pay cuts, including both private and public sector workers. The question is, are these changes fair for all? I'm no expert, but hope that someone may find my thoughts on the topic useful.

How do teacher's pensions work?
As a teacher, I currently pay in 6.4% of my salary every month into a pension. My employer, pays in 14.1%. Assuming I was earning £25,000 - that's £1,600 from me plus £3,525 from my employer, or if I was earning £35,000 it would be £2,240 from me and £4,935 from my employer.

These get put into a pension 'pot' and when I choose to retire, I get a monthly payout. If I had joined the scheme before 1st January 2007, I would get a lump sum when I retired. If I had joined after that date, it would be an option at the expense of a proportion of the monthly income. 

The payouts are based on the final salary of the teacher concerned. Teachers are paid a pension of 1/60 for teachers who joined in or after 2007 or 1/80 for teacher who joined before 2007 for every year of service. 

For example, if i was paid £35,000 in my last year of service and worked for 20 years, I'd get £11,667 per year if I joined in or after 2007, or £8,750 per year with a lump sum of £26,250 if I had joined afterwards.

The new proposals
The government has proposed some major changes to these pensions;
  • Raising the pension age to 68 (from 65 for those who joined in or after 2007 and 60 for those who joined before)
  • Increasing the contributions for teachers by an average of 3.2%
  • A move to a career-average scheme
These proposals have obviously upset teachers and the Government seems willing to make few concessions, although they have agreed to protect the pensions of those workers retiring within 10 years, and keep the accrual rate of 1/60.

The question is, what is the difference between the two?

In terms of money
To really understand this, we need an example. In this, I'll assume that the average salary is 80% of the final salary, so for example a teacher retiring at £35,000 would have a career average salary of £28,000. I'm also assuming the teacher has worked for 20 years and is retiring at 60.

This graph shows that someone retiring at 60 with 20 years service would get around 70% of the pension they would have got under an old scheme. It's only an illustrative example, but it gives you an idea of the difference.

Remember that for this, teachers will be expected to pay an average of 3.2% more into their pension. (Using the £35,000 example, they will be paying £3,600 per year or £280 a month, compared to £2,240 or £186 a month at the moment). £100 less a month is going to be a big concern for most teachers.

Lets say I live to 80 and retired at 60. I've worked for 20 years as a teacher with an average salary of £28,000. I'll have personally paid in £53,760 and my employer will have paid in £78,960 to my pension over this time (total £132,720) and received £125,440 back. I'm not really sure where that £7,280 goes!

The pension age
Of the changes, for me this is the one that's most concerning. I cannot imagine working until 68 as a teacher - it's a scary thought. I also don't think that having lots of older teachers in the profession is a good thing - you need a good balance. New teachers bring in new, innovative and exciting ideas. Without these, education in this country could become very stale indeed.

Deal or no deal
Any teacher is going to argue against these changes - just as any private sector worker would argue against a pay cut, regardless of how long or hard they work. Over 40 years, I'm going to end up paying in an extra £50,000 and getting 70% of the pension I would have had before the changes.

The teacher's pension has never been 'gold plated', however even with the reforms they will still be well worth having. The main issue for me is that this isn't the deal I signed up for in the first place. I don't like the idea that the government can simply change the rules when it wants - there's no guarantee that this is the last change 'for a generation'. Remember, this is against a back drop of years of real-term pay cuts.

Teachers will be be feeling undervalued and underpaid at the moment. We do a very difficult job and I don't feel there's always an understanding of what it involves from people outside of the profession. Everybody has their part to play in society and regardless of whose fault the credit crunch was, that does include us. I'm quite sure if teachers were well supported and well paid, we'd be in a position to accept changes to our pensions, but I really don't feel we are either. Unfortunately, the pension reforms where the last straw for many after years of tough times.

Any calculations and figures above are ignoring inflation. Figures used for calculations are taken from the teacher's pensions website. I found some interesting discussions here.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Is teaching programming that important?

I've read a lot in the news recently about how ICT lessons should be more about programming and less of what we're doing at the moment. There's some very strong arguments for it and I wholeheartedly agree that programming of some sort should be experienced by all, however I don't believe the picture is as clear  as it might seem in some of the articles you might read online. Therefore, I've decided that this might be an interesting topic for my first ever blog.

First off, a bit about me. I'm a 26 year old ICT teacher from Devon.  I first looked at programming when I was about 8 after my dad showed me how to create some shapes on a sinclair spectrum, which I thought was amazing. I went on to modify a few games and create a few basic websites for local traders. In the last few years I've turned my attention to some bigger projects such as the South West Teacher Training Portal ( and a school rewards system called EPraise (

I love teaching; there is nothing more satisfying or fulfilling than being able to help young people learn. I also love solving problems and helping other solve problems, using computers. Teaching ICT is a chance to do both every day and it's great. Something I love about ICT is the pace at which it changes - I'm teaching things now that I never got the chance to do 5 years ago. Most of these changes have been the result of me and my colleagues seeking to keep the content up to date, relevant and interesting, not the result of what the media or politicians have suggested, however I think the fact that the media and the government appear to be more interested in what is happening in ICT lessons across the country has to be a good thing. I also think that sometimes the realities of the situation in classrooms is not always clear to these people, so here are a few of my thoughts on the subject;

The goalposts need moving
I guess this one is really obvious. At the moment, the National Curriculum / Program of Study (from the Department for Education) mentions the word 'programming' once at KS3 and doesn't mention it at all at KS4. This is a reasonably easy fix - take out the bits that add the least value and add in some new bits. There are of course options to study programming at Level 2 (e.g. OCR CCSE computing), but it's important to make something compulsory if every student should be exposed to it.

Teachers need up-skilling
The majority of ICT teachers I know do not have a good knowledge of programming and most don't have an ICT related degree. This has never been a problem before, because we've only been expected to teach the National Curriculum (see above). To retrain thousands of ICT teachers is a big job - however teachers love learning - they just need to right support to do it.

There also needs to be specific guidance about what ICT teachers should be able to do. Should they be able to use Logo? Should they know web programming and SQL? Should they be able to create smart phone apps? Or perhaps guidance in terms of understanding of programming terminology, such as arrays, functions and loops.

Not everybody can teach ICT
I read somewhere today that any teacher could teach ICT and we could move a lot of content from ICT lessons into other subjects. It's an argument I've heard before, once even from a secondary school head teacher, and I certainly agree that most of my colleagues could teach the basics of word, powerpoint and excel. There is also no doubt in my mind that the majority wouldn't have the depth of knowledge that ICT teachers have in those areas and would be lost if it came to graphics, animation or website design. ICT teachers are very skilled people which seem to be taken for granted, which is a real shame.

Should every student really be expected to learn programming?
Yes - to some extent. I'd like to be able to give my students a better understanding of how their computer works, as well as what they can do.

The 'But Sir/Miss I'm never going to need/use this' doesn't convince me - I leaned about electrons, neutrons and protons at school and whilst I don't think I've mentioned those words in about 10 years, I still have a better understanding of the world around me because of it.

It's also worth noting a few facts here - the UK is a world leader is software development. For example, we have the third largest video games industry and in 2010 it generated over £2.8bn. Industry leaders are crying out for high quality graduates, but numbers are falling.

Should every student be exposed to programming - yes. We just need to be careful with how much as many kids would get very, very bored, no matter how skilled the teacher. I can't imagine how I'd teach a terms worth of programming to any of my non-option groups. There is definitely a place for it, but it's not the only thing we should be teaching in ICT lessons. Despite what many say, presentations, word processing and spreadsheets are still of value.

We need to tell kids the big picture
We did a questionnaire at school recently and discovered that a lot of our students don't see when they're going to use ICT in their future jobs. That's a shame. I don't know whether it's the same story in other schools, but I know that I've started to add thing to my lessons that explain how important the skills they learn are and how big the ICT industry is in this country. I wonder if we've got so caught up in the delivery of the subject that we've forgotten to tell our students why they're doing it in the first place. We should also be celebrating our computing heritage, which I'm not sure we do at the moment.

Some cool tools to help
There are some great resources out there to help you teach and learn programming. Once such resource is Code Academy - - which teaches you in a fantastic, interactive way that you may find students love (although it didn't seem to work properly on our schools machines).

A summary
ICT teaching needs to change, although remember we teachers have been changing it every year since the subject was invented. What we need now is something to aim at and some support to get there. We also need to remember that whilst programming is important, there's plenty of other things we teach kids in ICT which are just as important and arguably more useful.