February 2021. Summer term plans, If music be the food of love…

Friday February 12th, 2021

It’s been a challenging start to the New Year with all the knock-on effects of lockdown on our children’s education and mental wellbeing. Learning will remain online until at least 8th March, and new variants of the virus are making restrictions around international travel even tighter. There is light at the end of the tunnel with more than 12 million people in the UK having now received their first dose of the vaccine.

In this issue we’ll be looking at how UK independent schools are taking a proactive, innovative approach to managing the summer term safely, maximising learning opportunities in person and planning robust alternatives for this year’s exams. We’ll also take a break from Covid updates and consequences to explore some wider areas of educational interest such as how failure can breed success and why music plays a crucial part in development. We’ll briefly revisit the age-old debate about co-ed versus single sex schools alongside a lighter-hearted look at the Toffee dating app, exclusive to independent school alumni. It is Valentine’s Day this month after all!

Summer term plans

Later this month the Prime Minister is due to set out his ‘road map’ for England to emerge from lockdown. Pupils returning to schools is a priority, with other areas of the economy to follow, but the earliest that schools could re-open is 8 March. Since the focus is on vaccinating the priority groups of people at most risk, and teachers are not part of these cohorts, there is ongoing debate about whether 8 March is really feasible. Sector experts suggest that a staggered start is likely and that primary schools will probably be the first to return.

But it is not all doom and gloom for secondary school pupils! As well as the positive news and accelerating pace of the vaccine programme, the UK’s independent schools are making plans based on a more cautious, conservative outlook. Schools are adjusting their term dates so that the spring term ends a week early and the summer term starts a week sooner than planned. So, in the case of some schools, that’s 11th April instead of 18th April.  Their rationale is as follows:

All schools will be scenario planning and making adjustments, with term start dates and quarantine arrangements likely to vary from school to school. Your child’s school will keep you up to date on plans, but if you have any questions or concerns about any of the coronavirus planning, please do get in touch and we’d be very happy to talk it through with you.

Plans for exams this summer

The Ofqual consultation for GCSE and A Level exams 2021 closed at the end of January. At the start of February, exam board Pearson confirmed that:

The details will vary depending which exam board(s) your child’s school uses for their teaching syllabus in each subject, but we feel it’s likely that other exam boards will follow suit, given there is still so much uncertainty.

Schools will now be firming up their plans for the most robust system for making an accurate, fair, teacher assessment. Again, this will vary from school to school. For example, some schools plan to hold online assessments for Year 11 and 13 pupils w/c 22nd March (assuming schools will not be fully re-open at this point) and on-site mock exams for these year groups in the second half of April (assuming schools can re-open again by this point).

Since pupils in Years 10 and 12 are also impacted by the pandemic, schools are arranging for these pupils to sit exams off-site during a two-week period towards the very end of the summer term. This is because they’re planning ahead to pre-empt the possible repercussions of another winter spike in cases towards the end of 2021. Their plan is to gather as much data as possible in these exams, in case further teacher assessments are required in the academic year 21/22.

I realise this can seem confusing and could make you feel concerned about the future, but I would urge you to take comfort from the fact that UK independent schools have the foresight and the wherewithal to undertake robust scenario planning well into the next academic year. As always, if you have any questions or concerns about your child’s education, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

If music be the food of love…

This well-known line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night famously links music to love. Although Valentine’s Day is upon us, in the independent education sector we’re more interested in the links between music and success, academic or otherwise! And it’s interesting that in the last few months, several articles reporting on the benefits of music have been published in the UK press.

The Guardian reported on the sad demise of music, especially in state secondary schools, a situation only exacerbated by the pandemic. Educators agree that music supports academic achievement and improves outcomes. The self-discipline and focus it demands complements the skills needed for learning in most other areas, while the neurological pathways it promotes have been found to improve speech and literacy skills. OCR exam board company Cambridge Assessment recently carried out research that showed a direct correlation between the level at which pupils learn and play music and their GCSE grades.

Researcher Tim Gill said: “The results show that a comprehensive school student who typically takes nine GCSEs would expect to get a higher grade in one or two of their other subjects if they studied GCSE music, or a higher grade in at least three subjects if they achieved a graded music qualification at grade 4 or above.”

Whether the music itself is providing the cognitive benefit resulting in higher grades – or whether students inspired to work hard and achieve academically tend to be willing to put in the practice to play an instrument – isn’t entirely clear from these findings. But they do support the general view that music accompanies academic success.

The Guardian argues, supported by insights from pioneering music educator Joan Koenig’s new book The Musical Child, that the befits of music are even more far-reaching. Koenig’s premise is that music underpins a well-functioning society because it harnesses a sense of belonging and encourages sympathy. We’ll explore the power of sympathy and the importance of teaching empathy in a future blog – but for now, in these times of separation and uncertainty, it feels particularly relevant to embrace anything that fosters a sense of belonging and togetherness.

Music the key to prove failure can be crucial to learning?

Along the same musical theme, Director of Music at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, Martin Leigh, intriguingly links effective learning to failure. In his TES article ‘Rethinking failure as a key part of learning’, he explores how pushing pupils well beyond their comfort zone educationally can have impressive results. Given his area of expertise, his experiment was conducted (pun intended!) in the sphere of music. It’s hard to do his in-depth analysis justice here, but essentially he wanted to test the theory that a success rate of 85% is the ideal one when learning something new (i.e. a small amount of failure is needed to support learning – would too much potential for failure prove catastrophic?)

Intrigued by several factors – including machine learning research, ideas around ‘mastery learning’ (i.e. more time dedicated to each element of learning) versus a limited allocation of time to each unit of learning, and a challenge raised by former Head of Harrow and current Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham, Barnaby Lenon, in his book Much Promise: successful schools in England – Leigh set out to teach his Year 7 pupils something they might not expect to master until an undergraduate, but which is a requirement of the A Level music syllabus and which he would normally teach to his Year 10 students.

I won’t go into the detail of what he taught and how he delivered it – suffice to say the planning that went into it was immense and his methods impressively varied, tailored to each of the 26 boys in the class and designed to encourage peer review and support too.

He says the key thing he discovered was that even for the boys for whom the leap was too great to achieve the 85% success rate, they all learned more than he would have expected. He believes that’s because he planned the lessons sequentially, to cover the component tasks of a complex whole. By aspiring to reach a more difficult target overall, his pupils learned more in each lesson than they would have had those lessons not been linked to that ultimately out-of-reach end goal.

That’s a complicated and long-winded way of saying that being willing to set targets that are not necessarily realistic or achievable could be a crucial part of learning. Also that understanding steps and tasks as part of a bigger picture aids learning – and that being willing to fail could ultimately put you further along the road to success.

Looking for love

After that foray into the complexities of failure breeding success – and against the backdrop of ongoing educational uncertainties because of Covid – it feels like a good time to look at something slightly more light-hearted!

You may have read the press around the slightly controversial Toffee – ‘the world’s first dating app for people who were privately educated’. It launched in Australia initially and has been available in the UK for a couple of years. Users select their school from a list of private and independent educators within the app – and it’s possible to add your school if it’s not yet listed.

The idea behind the app, according to founder Lydia Davis, is that people from similar backgrounds and with shared experiences often prefer to ‘stick together’ (presumably an allusion to at least one of the reasons behind the app’s name!)

In this virtual age, when it’s harder than ever for people to connect right now, I don’t see any harm in another tool among many that helps people make contact safely with other like-minded people. After all, we were only saying a few paragraphs ago just how important a sense of belonging can be! And in some ways, this app is just an extension of the networks we’ve talked about in previous blogs – networks that can help you succeed in all areas of life – not just in love!

Going co-ed?

I read with interest in the Sunday Times that Winchester College, one of the last remaining boys-only independent boarding schools, is considering opening its 600-year-old gates to girls! The Hampshire-based school, which boasts five former chancellors and current incumbent Rishi Sunak among its illustrious alumni, says the discussions have been triggered as part of the wider-ranging changes demanded by the challenges of the past year.

Sector experts agree that this debate will no doubt intensify the pressure on the other three boarding schools still exclusively for boys – Eton, Harrow and Radley – to consider the move too. Of the four, three are led by Heads who previously oversaw co-educational schools.

I’m all for equality – in education and in life generally! – but from my perspective there’s a place for all-boys and all-girls schools. That’s a fact borne out by exam results – and in my experience the pupils at single sex schools rarely seem to miss the presence of the other gender!

It is interesting that Winchester quote the challenges of this past year as the starting point for their discussions about going co-ed. But I wonder whether those challenges are as much about financial pressures as they are to do with accessibility and equality.

If you’d like a no-obligation chat about this or any aspect of your child’s education in the UK, please do get in touch. Our skills lie in matching your child’s needs, abilities and aspirations to the school that can best help them fulfil their potential.

We’ll be back in touch in March to discuss the importance of teaching empathy, to explore how tutoring could help students catch up on lost learning and to share with you a few insights into some of the UK’s most prestigious schools.

In the meantime, I hope you and your families can stay safe and connected.

Subscribe to a monthly Newsletter from Regency Education.