littlemavis

Little_Mavis' rants and musings


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Privilege and Oxbridge

This may not be a well written blog because I’m trying to write it quickly and I’m trying to put over an idea that I think is quite simple but others find more complicated.

It’s to do with access to Oxbridge and other forms of success and privilege and how many people still don’t understand how it works. I’ll illustrate this with my own story. It’s from quite a while ago – I took A levels in 1972 but I’ve taught in an inner city sixth form in the naughties so I do know that many of the issues still exist.

First, background.

I come from a working class community. My dad was a train driver (started as a cleaner, as you did back then, and worked his way up through fireman etc as the older drivers retired). My grandads were both miners and my mum worked in a factory until she left work to bring us up – women did that then). Nobody, even in my extended family had ever gone to university, A couple of cousins a few years older than me had gone to teacher training college (before teaching was all graduate), my parents had both left school at 14, this was during the war.

I passed my 11+ and went to the local grammar school. I was in the top set of the top mgsstream. I didn’t work particularly hard. I wasn’t nagged at home because my parents had no real idea what these exams were and certainly no idea what university even was. O level results (1970) were good but not spectacular (9 with a range of grades from 1 to 5 (passes were then 1-6) in today’s money I think they’d translate as 1 A*, 4A, 2B, 2C. I took 4 took A levels in Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Maths, also sat General Studies. My mock results were truly dreadful and I realised – in the January of the year I was taking my exams – that I wouldn’t be able to get by on native wit. Another issue, worth mentioning at this point, is that the teachers’ careers didn’t hinge on our results. They taught us. They told us what we needed to do to get the results we should but after that it was on our own heads. When I got reports that said things like

“Capable of a much better mark. Has not worked as hard as is necessary this year relying far too much on her natural ability” 

My parents expressed disappointment but honestly, not much else.

Anyway, the results scared me enough to work much harder in the remaining 4 months, but it turns out that you can’t catch up on 2 years work in that time, especially in Maths.

Meanwhile, I had applied to university. I had decided that I wanted to take Chemistry and I was particularly keen on modular courses that allowed a broader range of topics. I applied mostly to what were then new universities and the most common offer I got, even from the only established uni (Newcastle), was CD. Yes, you read that right CD.

The combination of working to improve my grade from appalling to meeting requirements but only having to reach CD meant that the panic receded. I ended up with 3 Cs, an A in General Studies and an E in Maths (An improvement from the 25% I achieved in my mock) and got the place at Warwick.grad 2

I did not even think of applying to Oxbridge. I have no idea if I’d have got in if I had. But the clumsy point I’m making here is that it wasn’t even on the horizon.

If I’d had middle-class, graduate parents would it have made a difference? They would have had higher expectations for a start. The best I managed was that my parents didn’t stop me from carrying on into 6th form and applying to university (That may sound odd but there were 2 girls in my class, top stream at a grammar school remember, who were made to leave after they passed O levels because their parents didn’t feel it was worth continuing). They would have known their way around the system and given encouragement and advice rather than the hands-off slightly bewildered approach my parents had. The school tried, obviously, and there was an expectation that we would all apply to and go to university but, honestly, that was mostly it.

Maybe I wasn’t clever enough anyway? I certainly didn’t work hard enough which I suppose is my fault. There were people in my year who went. One friend who did had a father who was a manager, did that make a difference? We don’t know. BUT the knowledge, encouragement, space and opportunity to work are definitely different in middle class families.

I’m sure the middle class kids who go to Oxbridge are clever and work hard. There is only an issue when they claim that that is the sole reason they made it. There are many, many other kids who are just as clever, many of them will have worked just as hard. The reason they haven’t made it isn’t because they are less clever or less hardworking, it’s because they don’t have the specific knowledge and contacts that would have made the difference.

What some people are missing here is what Rumsfeld was talking about

Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Working class students, their parents and, to some extent, their teachers have a problem  unknown unknowns. They lack the knowledge that would enable them to succeed but they don’t know what it is they lack or even that there is something they lack.

Middle class success stories (JHB for instance) have a different blind spot. They have unknown knowns. They know stuff that those working class families don’t but it is such second nature to them that they don’t realise that not everyone knows it.

If you did grow up in a middle class family, think of those times when you’ve spoken to a friend or colleague and been surprised that there was something you took for granted that they didn’t seem to be aware of. Privilege is that. Writ large.

I especially salute all those who have succeeded from a working class background. I’m pleased you had the drive to succeed anyway (Look at Diane Abbott for a brilliant example of this and imagine how much harder it was for her to get to where she is than it was for, say, George Osborne)

Anyway, I’m rambling and I’ve told you all far more about myself than I’m really comfortable with. But my point is this. Just because you have worked hard and succeeded, it doesn’t mean that people with fewer advantages than you could have been just as successful if only they had been as clever as you and worked as hard. They will have had to be cleverer, worked harder or been much luckier.

And finally, as an aside, we shouldn’t be valuing only people who are clever or work hard anyway. We should value people for what & who they are. The kind people, the empathic people, the diligent people, the plumber, the cheerful barman, the taxi driver, the Englishman, the immigrant. We can’t all be academically clever, we can’t all go to Oxbridge. That doesn’t mean we aren’t deserving of respect.

 

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Things I Don’t Understand #4

There are a couple of huge leaps of logic in the type of education espoused by those who label themselves “Trads”.  If these are actually explained anywhere, I have missed them.

Firstly “In order to be creative, you must first have a thorough knowledge of a subject”

Why? I can see that if you don’t know that someone has already done something you might unknowingly reinvent it. I once accidentally “composed” the opening bars of the Blue Danube, though, in all honesty, I may have done that precisely because I had heard it before. I suppose this is kind of my point. If you have knowledge of a subject, and I don’t mean scientific or mathematical facts here but things like Art or Literature, aren’t you more likely to, maybe subconsciously, reproduce that rather than produce something original?

Please understand. This isn’t an argument against knowledge itself. I’m a big fan. I’ve devoured “knowledge” for as long as I can remember, starting with Arthur Mee’s encyclopediaChildren’s Encyclopaedia when I was very young. I’m just not convinced by the assertion that knowledge must precede creativity.

Secondly, in what way does following rigid instructions to the letter produce self-disciplined young adults?  I was reminded of this after reading this which I found through a tweet from @doxtdatorb. It’s a long read, but worth it.

The part that really struck me was this

Capture

Somehow, the children are expected to transition from complete obedience and habituation to a particular regime to self discipline and questioning at some, unspecified, point. When does this happen? How does this happen. I confess, I’ve always taken exactly the opposite approach when bringing up my own children. They have behaved well because I have explained the need to behave well. I’ve been open to negotiation about rules, though I have always had a few non-negotiables, which means that we understand each other and they understand how to be reasonable and how to check their own behaviour.

There are other things I dislike about this approach, but these two really stand out, mainly because of the logic gap. They assert both of these as facts.

Knowledge must precede creativity

Complete obedience will produce freedom/self-discipline

Without any explanation or logic.

Am I missing something? Am I giving up on reading the articles and blogs too soon? Or are they just committing a sleight of hand and hoping we won’t notice.


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Conformity or Variety?

A very quick two penn’orth on the issue of criticising/praising schools.

For what it’s worth, and feel free to ignore me but, in my personal (& humble) opinion, it’s good to have schools with different ethos(es?). I doubt there is a single way that works for every child (assuming we could define what we mean by “working” for every child). And even if it did there will be teachers and parents who would find it morally uncomfortable to follow some practices whether they be strict discipline or too much freedom. Maybe we could just accept that different provision should exist for different requirements.

Some fortunate children will thrive in any circumstances because they are adaptable and have an enriching and knowledgeable home environment. These are the children that teachers describe as “a joy to teach”. Some will also thrive in any circumstances through sheer grit and force of will. On the whole, these are less well liked by teachers because they can make life uncomfortable but they are valuable because they can teach us something about ourselves and how we relate to those who do not fit our image of what a good student should be like.

Sadly there are others who need something different. Yes, the quiet children who might suffer because the classroom is too rowdy (by the way, if we are being really keen on developing “grit” shouldn’t we apply it to this group? – Not advocating this, just pointing out an odd inconsistency in some current ideas) but also the misfits who struggle to conform or to concentrate. They may need something different.

What I find worrying is the idea that if something works in a specific setting it should be applied everywhere and, if ever this then doesn’t succeed, it’s because people just aren’t doing it right. That may be the case, but it also may be that the idea isn’t universally transferable to elsewhere.

I’ve seen arguments/discussions recently about whether it’s OK to praise or criticise specific settings or people. I’ve seen concerns about obedience and conformity.

Personally, I’m not keen on obedience as a concept, I’d rather instil a knowledge of what is desirable or acceptable in varying circumstances and have children understand why certain behaviour is required and then do that because they want to. I’m also not keen on enforced conformity, which is odd, because I tend to conform. Maybe that’s why I dislike petty rules so much, because I can’t just do the sensible thing and ignore them when they get in the way of common sense. I need to fight them.

BUT

I don’t especially want to stop other people running their schools in a way I dislike. I just don’t want people trying to make all schools work the same way and I would be most unhappy if I had no choice but to send my child to one.

Just stop telling other people they have got it all wrong and you are right regardless.


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Grammar School

My next instalment of school life in olden days.

If you would like to see the earlier posts, they are Infants, Juniors and some background.


Before I start, I want to make it crystal clear that I do not support the reintroduction of grammar schools. This is simply a description of what it was like as a South Yorkshire working class girl attending such a school in the 1960s, It was a good experience. I probably didn’t take quite as much advantage of it as I should have. It may also give some insight as to why some people in power, who would have attended somewhere similar and who gained from it might be nostalgic about them and support them. I also suspect that the intake of this school was more working class than those in leafy suburbs. It was a mining area, solidly Labour then & pretty much so now, apart from UKIP inroads. “Posh” kids were the exception, not the rule so I don’t think I felt the alienation that some in similar positions felt. My brother went to the local secondary modern and did just fine. He got Grade 1 CSEs & a couple of O levels. He did practical subjects that the grammar didn’t offer and got an electrical apprenticeship straight from school.

I came out with 9 O levels and 5 A levels and was the first in my (extended) family to go to university. I can’t say I made the best of a good education, but many of my classmates did. For us, it was a success. I completely understand that it wasn’t the same for everyone, but you can’t ignore the fact that for people like me, it worked.

So. 1965. I passed my 11+, along with a good proportion of my classmates and was sent to the local grammar school. The school I went to was an old fashioned grammar school with a twist. I think I’m going to make this in two parts. First, describing the school itself and then my personal experience of it. I’m not sure how it compares to other schools today. I only attended the one and the school my children went to was a comprehensive that had been built in 1950s as a grammar school but was becoming rather dilapidated.

I haven’t worked in a High School except for short times on supply so have very little idea of what is standard, either for normal high schools or grammar schools.

Our very first visit was on the day we started after the summer holidays. No visits to get to know the place, just “Turn up at 8:30 on Monday”. We were all sent into the hall and were allocated into 6 classes, 30 per class. There were proper cloakrooms to hang your bags and leave your outdoor shoes and we had a classroom with proper desks with lift up lids that we kept our books in. The teachers came to us, except for things like science, art, domestic science & PE.

We did exams twice a year and our report books included our mark & our position in class for each subject.

The school building was very new. It had its first intake in 1964 when we were in year 6 so had, what was then considered to

mgs

Typical 60s built school. Since demolished and replaced.

be state-of-the-art facilities.

For PE we had a boys’ and a girls’ gym with a sports hall between, tennis/netball courts, huge playing fields with multiple pitches for hockey, rugby and football, a rounders pitch, a full size running track and long jump and high jump pits. We also had a swimming pool. Well, to be honest, it was more like an oversized water tank in a greenhouse.

We had dedicated labs for Physics, chemistry and biology, art rooms, domestic science, both cookery and sewing music and woodwork and metalwork rooms.

We also had a kind of tiny farm with rabbits and guinea pigs. I’m honestly not sure what that was for.

After the first year, we were streamed. The top third (no idea how this was done) were put into two classes which comprised the Latin stream and, were taught Latin alongside other subjects. I imagine we were considered those most likely to go to university. Within those two classes we were further set for science only. We did have to choose between (I think) art & domestic science for girls and art & woodwork for boys. There was no thought of girls doing woodwork or boys taking DS.

The teaching was pretty formal, they told us stuff, we wrote stuff down, we learned things and discipline was, well, not especially strict actually. Some teachers expected you to stand when they came into the room but not all. Some wore gowns, most didn’t. Boys were caned for some misdemeanours, girls weren’t.

Every year we had an “Arts Festival” which was an inter-house arts competition which included creating & performing a small play (multi-year) reciting poetry, playing instruments etc.

great hall

The College hall from a more recent photo found on FB

The school had an annual Gilbert & Sullivan production with both (sixth form) students and teachers performing roles and a school play, again sixth formers. The two I was involved in were The Beaux Stratagem and The Petrified Forest, so it covered a decent range.

Girls played hockey, rounders, netball, boys did rugby, football, cricket. Boys also did cross country. We girls lobbied to be allowed to also, but the head was against it, he didn’t want girls “running round the countryside with bare legs”. He was eventually persuaded that we could run a circuit of the school fields, which is what the junior (years 7 &*) boys did. We soon discovered it wasn’t all that much fun, especially in the mud. We had inter-house sports and played against other schools. Often first and second teams.

The head was rather eccentric. He built an aeroplane in the woodwork block as a school project – I believe it is still flying today and help “High table” on the stage prefectin the college hall where about half a class would have lunch with him while we chatted politely. I remember him as always having food stains on his tie.

The sixth form was in a separate block, though it shared science labs and was not a standard school sixth form. It was, as far as I know, the first sixth form college.

I found this extract in a book which explains it quite well. There was no uniform in the sixth form and although we did not call teachers by their first name we did have a more informal relationship with them. We had a sixth form common room and free periods, at least, you did unless you had foolishly decided to take four full A levels.

mgs sixth form from Education 16-19 In Transition by Eric MacFarlane

From Education 16-19: In Transition Eric McFarlane

I’m sure there are things I have forgotten here but since I’m planning a further post on actual experience this is just meant to be a brief outline. I’m not sure it’s substantially different from many comprehensive schools today. I’ll write again about my personal experiences.

 

 


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Infant School

Infant school was a very different place when I was small.

My first school was Park Road Infants. This seems to be the only building left standing of the schools I attended.

feb8001-2I’m trying to remember what it was like but it’s a long time ago now. I think I would have started school in 1958 and things were different then. You may also need to take my memories for what they are, just memories. I haven’t checked the accuracy of any of these. My parents are dead and I doubt there are any accessible records.

The school was infant only and had 2 classes per year (I think) and possibly a nursery class. My first teacher was Mrs Swan who had long beautiful auburn hair and I remember as being kind. I remember nothing of the lessons we had, though I still have a few of the books my parents kept. If I can track them down, I’ll include photographs.

I’m not going to try to make this chronological, more a stream of consciousness recollection. I’ll note things down as I remember them.

Shape

The school was essentially classrooms off a single corridor. The hall stuck out the other side and the headteacher’s room was in the middle.

This is from memorypark-road-plan-jpg

And this is the school now

park-road-school

Teachers I remember

Rec     Mrs Swan

Yr 1    Mrs Gelder, Mrs Batty

Yr 2    Mrs Seagrave

Head  Miss Fletcher

 

General memories

  • No uniform. I don’t know of any primary schools that had uniform then.
  • The school day was generally 9am to 4pm with 1½ hours for dinner. Lots of children went home for this.
  • We had to put our heads down on our arms on the desk after dinner for a while
  • We sat in rows. At desks. I can’t remember what we kept in the desks. I don’t remember playing. Except at playtime.
  • We were given halibut oil capsules to take with our milk. They tasted vile
  • We had a maypole & learned dances  like these. It had red, blue, yellow & green ribbons. Boys held blue or green, girls held red or yellow.
  • We had a May Queen, though I only remember this in the first year I was there. I have a photo somewhere I’ll dig it out.
  • There were cupboards at the back of the hall with things to play with. I think we only got them out for wet play which was in the hall (maybe). These included wooden stilts like these or others made from Golden Syrup tins with strings through, hula hoops etc.
  • I seemed to spend a lot of time in year 1 standing behind the blackboard as a punishment for something (I really can’t remember the details but I think it was to do with disagreements with another child)
  • The year 2 teacher took a slightly different approach & punished the other child too. I remember being very pleased about this – I suspect, though again cannot actually remember & I’m basing my conclusions on what happened when I was older – I was asked if I hit her & I would have said “yes”. She was asked the same & said “no”. My downfalls over the years have often been because of my ridiculous level of honesty.
  • We learned to read with Janet & John books – no idea if it was phonics. I just learned.janet & John
  • We did an infant nativity. I was Mary. I had to sing a solo. I remember the headdress being hot, itchy and uncomfortable. I kept taking it off then putting it back on again so I’d look like Mary. I cannot remember the song. At all.
  • And at the end of three years, they sent home a report.

infant-report

I feel it is important to note that I actually only got one question wrong in Maths (¼ mark) They docked me a whole point because I spelled my name wrong at the top of the paper – I was excited!!

That’s it by the way. That’s all my parents got to inform them of progress.

Is it better now? What was it like when you were in Infant School? Can you even remember?


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Who’s to Blame?

It’s quite interesting really. When I was at school, back in the dark ages, my performance at school was definitely considered to be entirely down to me. And I mean entirely. If i didn’t do as well as the teachers thought I should it was put down to my being lazy, or not listening, or being too chatty. Luckily I mostly did OK so I didn’t get a huge amount of grief until the sixth form. To be fair, at that point, I think they were mostly right. I assumed I’d be able to do A levels easily (as I had O levels) and found I couldn’t. Because we didn’t have fancy stuff like AS levels then I didn’t realise this until I did incredibly poorly in my mocks I’ll try to track down some of my reports and you can see the comments I got. There never seemed to be (to my knowledge) any hint that a teacher hadn’t delivered enough, or that I might be bored because the lessons were boring. They told us stuff, we wrote it down, we learned it, we did exams. No Internet, just notes, textbooks and past papers. My Physics teacher back then didn’t even chase us for homework. He told us, right at the beginning of the course. “I’ll set it, you do it, you hand it in, I mark it. If you don’t, you’re the ones who lose out, not me.” He did warn us, at regular intervals what would happen if we didn’t work “You’ll fail!” (Imagine that said in a Welsh valley’s accent & that’s what Mr Edwards sounded like – I was very fond of Mr Edwards)

Anyway, I went to uni, worked my way through a couple of careers (Information Scientist, Export Sales Admin, General Sales Admin, Programming, software support) and eventually fetched up in teaching, by which time the pendulum had swung and somehow I was responsible for my students’ results. I was a bit resentful of this. Surely the students bore *some* responsibility? Especially when I was teaching post-16. By then we had been mostly expected to just get on with it in preparation for university.

I left teaching a few years ago having most definitely been blamed for some students’ less than stellar results. That’s not a euphemism, they generally passed, the results just weren’t exceptional, just not as high as for some other staff (this was in teacher marked qualifications btw, not exams) but they were honest. I’d have been happy to let any examiner come & moderate the work.

Now, I don’t know when this change happened beyond it being somewhere between when I left school in the early 70s & started teaching in the late 90s but the pendulum does seem to be starting to swing back. The schools with an authoritarian no-excuses ethos, mostly academies? Are definitely trying to put the onus back on the children. They are ranking children again (and yes, I used to know my position in class after every exam or test & when I was in high school in every subject) and they are (from what I’ve read) shaming children for poor performance. Now this is never nice for the kids.If they struggle and are doing the best they can, no amount of shaming will help. Ever.If they are lazy because they don’t care it won’t make any difference and they may well make failure a badge of honour.If they are able, and conscientious or competitive, they may regard anything less than perfection as a failure. Sometimes this is fine. Sometimes it will drive them over the edge. (I’ve seen this happen with very able A level students)

It’s not just about developing resilience. A lot of this is down to your basic personality and some children who would otherwise be healthy, happy and successful will simply not thrive under this type of regime.

So. What’s it like now. I get the feeling that we are moving back towards blaming the kids and/or their parents. (Maybe the teachers who want this aren’t used to being blamed for the lack of success because they weren’t blamed when they were kids) But, I can’t say I’m happy about this. When I was young it was our responsibility but there wasn’t such emphasis then on academic success. It was considered perfectly reasonable to be “practical” or “good with your hands” rather than being academic. This is a big issue just now and one that I know both Sue Cowley and Disappointed Idealist here and here have blogged about.

Surely there is a happy medium somewhere in all this. Isn’t it time we accepted that education is a joint enterprise involving teachers, students, parents and the state. We all have a stake in it and we should all be doing our bit. We need to value all sorts of contributions and maybe trust each other a bit more.

To be honest. I’m not holding out much hope just now. The pendulum may continue on it’s swing. I just hope we don’t damage too many children in the process.


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Competition or Co-operation?

Last night, I had a dream.

Doesn’t that make you shudder at the start of a blog? But don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a detailed description of my weird and wonderful dreams. I don’t really have those. This is just what triggered my current musings.

In this dream I was in a strange place; some kind of academic institution I think. (My dreams often include a return to places like this. I think it signals a not very hidden desire to learn something new.) Still, I digress. The noticeable feature of the dream was that I was welcomed and everybody tried to help me find my way and were supportive of what I was doing. This is a good dream. When I was teaching, and to be fair, in previous jobs though to a lesser extent, my dreams were similar in location but very different in tone. I found situations and people frustrating and obstructive, I had a goal, a destination and I was constantly being prevented from getting there in various ways; thwarted at every turn. I assume this is because it was what was constantly happening in real life. I knew what I wanted to do and what was needed, but was prevented from doing it by circumstance (and to be honest often by individuals) I fought against this, and succeeded to some extent for several years but was eventually beaten into submission when a combination of circumstances at home and at work meant I had no more energy to fight.

I’m generally an optimistic kind of person. I don’t give up easily and although I actually try to expect the worst because that way you’re less likely to be disappointed, in fact I don’t do that. I still have a secret core that believes things will turn out for the best. I can find a positive in bad things that have happened and regard setbacks as an opportunity to develop rather than as an end.

But…

Just now I’m struggling to do that. There have been blogs (such as this from Sue Cowley which caused a flurry of comments both pro & con) and comments (for example this conversation ) again recently about the macho language now being used, especially noticeable in education.  (I’ve also just come across this which is making a similar point.)

But it’s not just the language that’s becoming hard and ultimately competitive. It’s actions. Look at the way exams are now graded “to prevent grade inflation”. We’re heading back to norm referencing. Not only in A levels and GCSEs (as far as I can tell) but also in SATs results. I think the fact that “pass marks” are not being published until papers are in is a hint there. ( I suspect this is what Michael Gove was really talking about when he made the all schools can be above average remark) The actual quote from the education select committee

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

What he wanted was for all schools to compete to be in the right hand side of the bell curve. And Ofsted had already been doing this for years by only classifying schools as *Good* if they were above average. This is all well and good if schools, teachers and pupils are not then castigated for not being good. And, ultimately, it means that you can only improve at someone else’s expense.

Today, this was again illustrated beautifully by our own dear SMW. First he criticised a local authority being the “worst performing region in the country“. Well, if you rank regions, schools, children, some will inevitably be the worst, whatever the overall standard. Next he claimed children are nor making enough progress after primary school (Odd since the government is currently claiming it’s primary schools who aren’t doing well enough and are hiking up the expected levels) and is reasoning that because of this we should re-introduce KS3 tests.

Last year, 68% of non-selective secondary school pupils who achieved a level 5 or above (which is significantly above average) in English and maths at the end of primary school failed to attain either an A* or A in these subjects at GCSE; 27% failed to achieve the minimum expected progress, a grade B.

Now, I don’t know the details of this, but I do know that to avoid grade inflation GCSE grades are pegged Jack Marwood knows much more and if he calls foul, I trust him.

The part that really worries me now it that this is not just in education, or even just in the workplace. It’s everywhere. The far right narrative which is currently in vogue seems to want to rank everything and everybody then specifically praise those who succeed at the expense of others.

Does everything need to be about competition rather than co-operation? Do we have to divide schools, the country, the world into them and us? Does your success have to come at someone else’s expense? Is co-operation a dirty word?