A very great week for young programmers in the UK

Two important and wonderful things happened this week:

1. Google donated 15,000 Raspberry Pis to schools across the UK

2. Today it was announced that Computer Science will be included in the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc)

Much of this achievement is down to relentless campaigning and education by groups such as Computing at Schools, Next Gen Skills and a large number of dedicated individuals: too many to mention here. We should be proud of these things happening, but let’s not wipe our hands of this problem just yet.

We need to focus our attention on the junior school children, Year 8 is Too Late in my opinion and even with the impetus of the EBacc computer science course we need to introduce ‘computeracy’ in junior schools across the land: let the 7 year olds have fun, break stuff, play and enjoy exploring the potential of computers and the digital renaissance. Bring back the What if? questions, What would happen if I…?

I know that there is a while yet before the decision is taken as to which schools will get the donated RPis, but it would be really wonderful if they were only given to junior schools, bringing an excuse to the classroom to discover the potential and joy of computers, in the same way the BBC Micro gave all us oldies hours of code-y fun in the 80s. I suspect that this would see a far greater take-up of the EBacc as those children move into senior school.

All that aside, what a brilliant week for young people in the UK?

A version of this opinion piece is in the Education section of The Telegraph

Myth-busting State schools vs Private schools

The post I wrote on Friday in response to a number of suicides in recent years by parents unable to keep up with school fees has struck a chord. I wrote it because I wanted parents of the future to have something to read that gave the detail of experience in both private and state schools – hopefully to allay their fears and prevent them feeling death was the only way out. As the blog post spread so I started getting common (mis-held) beliefs flung at me on Facebook and Twitter and so I put together a bit of a list, one that I think needs its own place – please do add to these in the comments:

No sports in state schools – not true

No clubs in state schools – not true and they are often free/low-cost

No exciting school trips in state school – not true, youngest is off skiing next week and eldest is off to Paris fashion week next year

State school children are rude – not true, indeed I find them often more polite than their privately educated peers

They don’t have a varied curriculum in state school – not true, but some of the options are optional and extra to the school hours

Single sex education is important – whilst true that boys and girls learn at different speeds and in different ways, I have found that my own single-sex schooling has left me hugely debilitated in understanding how my male colleagues communicate, learn and operate. In society communication and empathy, team working and collaboration are intrinsically more important than what you know over the life-span of your career. You can learn facts and skills, you cannot “learn” how people work – this is a life-skill picked up through co-education from 0-18

State school is only for the mediocre - not true, there are gifted and talented programmes UK-wide for state-educated kids and tailored learning for those who need help, for free (as documented here in Chris’s fabulous post). In fact tailored learning is better in state schools as private schools tend to focus on the high-achievers, I had to pay for extra tuition in private school for both my ‘average’ children, on top of the school fees

Private school education buys you better jobs - I believe that this is dying out, it is rare now for anyone over the age of 21 to be asked socially or in any context outside of CV discussions what type of school they went to. The Bullingdon Club embarrassment of the current government has meant this is risible rather than socially acceptable

Children moving from private school to state school will be bullied – I have not found this to be true, indeed the state school kids were far more accepting than the private school kids (and teachers) when I moved my children from state to private

Private school teachers are better – not true… indeed, as private schools are charities, (they are and this is a separate post in itself!), they have far more autonomy over who they hire. Teachers in private schools are not required to have teaching qualifications, (which could indeed be viewed as a good thing), but state school teachers are required to go through far more rigorous testing on their methods and standards. State school teachers are also often better supported through National programmes

Individual pupil care is better in private schools – please don’t believe this. In my experience in private schools there is an inescapable monetary value placed on each child. For example, parents of those children with younger siblings in the school or about to join the school receive greater attention than those with one child nearing the end of their time (and no sibling school fees in sight); high-net-worth parents also receive greater attention and privilege.

Smaller classes in private schools - whilst it is true that private schools do have smaller numbers of children per year, gone are the days of massive state school classes. What tends to happen now is smaller classes in lessons and more year groups per year. So on the whole there are more pupils in state schools, this does not affect the actual class sizes for lessons. For example, in my eldest’s school there are eight groups in year 10, within these groups there are 20-30 kids, their lessons are tailored to skills – so in each lesson within their year group, say Maths, there will be on average 15-20 kids in a classroom, with some lessons as small as seven kids. At my youngest’s school there are three year groups in Year 6, in her class though there are 16 kids.

This all looks like I am taking a massive swipe at private schools. I am not, I don’t think they should exist, I agree with Chris that we should be looking to emulate Finland’s model of education with a fully nationalised system – but I have nothing against the teachers, kids or heads currently living the publicly-educated life, but what I am keen to do is debunk the urban legends that damage the state school education reputation, and lead terrified, naive parents to take their own lives rather than send their children to state school.

Are the school fees worth it?

I have been meaning to write this post for a very long time, mainly because I get asked by so many friends with young children what my opinion is on state schools vs private schools. This is because as my finances have fluctuated and my moves around the country have demanded my children have spent time at both private and state schools in both junior and senior classes, and even a brief spell of being home-educated.

Tonight I am writing it because I read this article. This is the second suicide over school fees in the last year that I have heard of, the first was the mother of one of my daughter’s friends who threw herself under a train – these are not cries for help, these are definitive decisions to end life.

I am writing this post for those with young children looking ahead to their foray into education, rather than those freaking out about how they can continue to afford the fees and whether they should/could/can send their children to state school. (To the latter, I say do it, it is fine – really fine. Please don’t be so worried about how your children will cope, mine have coped with all manner of moves and are better children for it. You do need to take time over the transition and be interested and do your homework on all school availabilities. And if you can only get your child into the school you are least fond of immediately, well the education system splits neatly into chunks of 3-4 years for each important bit, so there will only be a limited period of time before you can make another choice. Also, whatever the school does not provide, you can – and should).

If you are here because you are feeling suicidal or desperate, please do think about seeking support from people like the Samaritans or a doctor – the words here will only calm fears about the future in state education (which really is fine).

The history, why I consider myself in a decent position to offer advice, skip this section if you don’t care and you just want the answer

I went to private school, and I lived in fear of being sent to state school – it was indeed a threat if I misbehaved. I hated school, I was an OK student and I can honestly say that those I met there have had no effect whatsoever on my employment since I left school – no old girl network here.

In my naivety, before I had children, I thought that my ideal scenario was to have my children educated in the state sector in junior school, then privately at senior level when they needed to knuckle down and pass exams – I was a bit concerned as I thought state schools would not have any sports (a myth) but that was OK.

Once I started breeding I worried more, and hell-bent on following my pre-motherhood commitment to my children and state school I did the terrible thing of hunting down the poshest one I could find and begged for them to accept my child. They did for nursery but not for reception, I put her in pretty certain that they would change their mind and let her into reception. They didn’t, so she had to move to a different school, new kids. It wasn’t posh but it was great, the Mums and kids were lovely, the teachers were fab, some a bit meh, but mainly good (same everywhere!). What was I playing at?

I then moved and had a second child and sent them both to the local, local school having learned my lesson. It was fine, they taught the children and both my children thrived. Then some worrying things happened, they stopped teaching maths for two terms – I am not sure why, and I received a letter from the school with photos of the parents who were banned from the playground. Worrying, I thought, and moved them both to another state school, a little further away. They were both supremely happy there and learned well, associated well with other children, loved their teachers and so on and so forth.

Then we moved again – out of London this time and mid-way through the academic year. I could get one child into the local state school but not the other. Bearing in mind I was working in London every day at that time, I couldn’t cope with this, so I found them both a place at the local Private school. A small thing with reasonably low fees – fees in junior school are affordable (if you work a bit extra or take the job you don’t like but has a higher income, or you forego holidays, or whatever). It was very nice, although I was not comfortable in the playground really, as people far more wealthy than me really belonged there and I was a working Mum so not at the gym or coffee mornings – but the children were very happy and the teachers were great. The state school they had been at previously was better, better headmaster, better care for the children – but the education was good and they learned Latin, Rah!

Then senior school loomed for my eldest, and my silly brain still fixated on the importance of private senior school and the headmaster recommended a school for us. We went to see it and fell in love with it. The grounds, the building, the stuff on offer. The tea and champagne. The marketing events the school put on for us prospective parents was impressive. I would do anything to send my child there. Anything! Sell my soul if I had to, starve – nothing mattered more than my daughter being able to experience this education. We signed up, she went.

From the day she stepped into that school all marketing efforts ended abruptly. There was silence. I had to really struggle to find out what she was doing during her lessons, how she was faring at school. Her pals argued over what flooring they had on their respective tennis courts. The japanese lessons turned out to be one a term. The smiling head mistress vanished. She was in some sort of system, one I did not understand and I felt like I had lost her – but I knew she was having the best education ever, so I had to put up with it.

She seemed happy enough and so I was devastated when I lost one of my jobs and I knew I would not be able to boost my income in the current climate in order to pay school fees. These school fees had dominated my life, every single minute of every single day I was worried about school fees – where the next ones were coming from. I spoke to the school who seemed sympathetic and asked me to go and see them just before the beginning of the following academic year where we would work out a good plan.

Two days before school was due to begin I attended the meeting. Gone was the glorious reception, the tea and biscuits, the attentive staff – instead I sat outside the bursar’s office in a cold, drafty area of the school I had never seen. When invited in the conversation was short: full fees by the first day of term (the following Monday) or she would not be allowed on the premises.

This was her second year of senior school, I had less than a week to get her into a school and to explain to her that she was not going back.

Fretting and actually shaking I drove to the nearest school and begged them. They have no control over applications, the council do that and so I began the process of getting her into a local school to me – easier when I was not trying to find a place for two, but impossible at the very end of the Summer holidays, days before terms were due to begin in schools across the country.

I had no choice but to keep her at home. My Mum is a teacher and she tutored her for a while, keeping her at her house, I did my best to ensure she was happy and healthy – she was absolutely delirious with happiness. Had really hated her private senior school but not said anything as I was so delighted with it, and as a result being freed was the best thing that could have happened to her.

Eventually she got a place in a school quite far away from us, but I took her there most days until a place came up more locally. Two terms later she was offered a place in another school much closer to us, we moved her and she is unspeakably happy. The school is absolutely brilliant. A couple of dodgy teachers but that is OK, I help her with those subject areas. Communication between me and them is open and perfect. She has great friends, is hugely comfortable and self-assured having been to SO many schools, with SO many people! And she is doing well. The best she can in subjects she loves, and that is good enough for me.

My youngest meanwhile stayed in the other junior private school, with affordable fees (still wincey but there was little reason to move her) until she started being bullied – badly. The school’s attitude was not awesome and I hated dropping her at school, feeling like I was delivering her into the hands of hell – and paying for the privilege. So I took her out and put her into the local school that has many children who will be going to her sister’s school (and where she is registered to go, fingers crossed she gets in!). Again, same thing, she transitioned beautifully, the state school welcomed her so fully, communication is constant and they even ran an assembly and awareness session for the children on bullying. She has been there for just over 1/2 a term now, this is her second and she moved half way through last term, and you would not know the difference. Except that she is smiling, bouncy, happy and relaxed. The homework has eased up and she adores her teachers and new friends.

Why did I do it? All those years… all that money – because I believed a myth.

Skip to here if you just want the answer

PS My eldest is also often asked by worried parents of young babies. She says this (ish, this is me summarising her words): Going to private junior school for a bit taught me how to work hard, we had so much homework, lessons and the day was crammed. But definitely not at senior school. For her? She would never send her children to private school, ever. The second one feels the same.

Myth busting:

No sports in state schools – not true

No clubs in state schools – not true and they are often free/low cost

No exciting school trips in state school – not true, youngest is off skiing next week and eldest is off to Paris fashion week next year

State school children are rude – not true, indeed I find them often more polite than their privately educated peers

They don’t have a varied curriculum in state school – not true, but some of the options are optional and extra to the school hours

For more myth-busting, see my recent post that expands on this list

Paedophiles: WMD

I get asked a lot: What is the greatest challenge facing schools? I get asked this because I lobby a bit to bring programming into schools, and that in itself invites great discussion

I want to say the following, but I never do as the publications I get asked to quote for would never publish this but my answer is…

Paedophiles

Parents are terrified of them

Kids don’t know who they are

Teachers live in fear of being accused (fairly or unfairly) of being one

Nothing I or anyone else can do or say will ever beat the Stranger Danger fear, a successful campaign of the 20th Century that echoes through the decades of the 21st Century.

In a world of fear no Spring can overcome, analogue schools will fail in a digital world.

The school solution to the digital renaissance is to close, protect and hide pupils and educators from the digital unknown. Stranger danger fear from the 70s and 80s affect the approach to the Internet being imposed on children and parents. Those very parents who more often than not have little knowledge of what digital skills are being taught in schools vs the savviness required to avoid dangerous situations in real or digital worlds.

There are so many levels to this, but there are two obvious splits right now:

  • how do you protect your child in a digital world? Answer: the same as you do offline, inform them of danger, give them the equivalent of the Green Cross Code for online – most kids will spot a fake profile or paedophile before any adult could, definitely – but it takes guts and a horrible step that has to be taken too early, to ruin the blush of innocence that before your 7 year old daughter can play Stardoll, for example, you must mention paedophiles
  • How do you allow your child the freedom to learn online? Perhaps the only place they can pick up some of the digital skills necessary for them to practice basic or advanced programming (should they so desire) and at the same time protect them from paedophiles? (Who now come in all forms: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-girl-who-became-three-boys)

That’s the real challenge.

This blog post is intentionally ill-thought-through. I do not have the answers, but I would like you to ask yourselves the questions and think about this.

I run Young Rewired State and we have to, rightly so, run ourselves in circles to ensure that no-one gets near these kids without our knowledge of who they are and their provenance. As we grow we need to address this at scale – a problem we will certainly be facing in 2013.

We are a single and relatively small organisation, currently the size of a very small private school. What happens at scale? Something has to because analogue schools in a digital world don’t work, and running scared is bullshit.

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