Birmingham University seeks free school innovation

University of Birmingham School

Inside, the University of Birmingham School is a startling laboratory white.

An appropriate background, you might think, for an experiment.

It is the first secondary school to be opened by a university in the controversial free school programme.

A similar primary school has just opened under the control of the University of Cambridge.

What sets these schools apart is their scale and ambition, and perhaps their potential for innovation.

Showing me round the school in Birmingham, head teacher Michael Roden says they are working with the Jubilee Centre at the university to embed the nurturing of character into every lesson.

This turns out to be a tricky concept to pin down, as I ask him how a parent or child would notice the difference.

“We’re trying to get the children to think, to use what the Greeks called phronesis, or good sense – making, as my mum would say, common-sense decisions.”

There is also an open ethos, with every classroom wired so lessons can be streamed for teacher training and research.

Diversity

For the staff it seems there is no place to hide. The glass walls of their common room overlook the main hall and dining area.

It allows for passive monitoring, Mr Roden tells me.

That, of course, can work both ways.

In the classrooms it becomes apparent that the diversity of pupils is one of the most distinctive features.

University of Birmingham School

They are drawn from more than 60 primary schools in Birmingham.

That includes some from the leafy suburbs around the building, but also three inner city areas which are considerably more deprived.

It’s a bold gesture in a city where there has been a concern about communities looking inwards rather than towards each other.

As well as the sciences, there is a commitment to music and art.

The hours are slightly longer than in many schools, from 08:30 to 16:30, to allow extra activities to be built into the school day.


Free schools in England

340 free schools are open or preparing to open

136 had had inspection reports published by August

34 were outstanding

72 were good

24 require improvement

Six were judged inadequate, with a seventh added in September


For Mr Roden, the chance to start afresh in a new building with staff he has chosen is obviously appealing.

For the University of Birmingham the risks are substantial and the potential gains less immediately obvious.

It has invested more than £2m in cash on a site worth several million more, and it has also invested its reputation.

Vice Chancellor Prof Sir David Eastwood says the plan is for the school to work with the university’s School of Education to innovate in the way children are taught.

They would not have considered taking the risk outside the free school programme, he says.

“It was only the free school model which would give us the kind of flexibilities we needed as a university – to shape the curriculum, to work in partnership with the school, to have the focus on teacher education, to have a focus on building character in children in the school.”

‘Free thinking’

The University of Cambridge primary free school also says it intends to innovate and be “bold, free-thinking and rigorous”.

Backed by elite universities, these schools may, in time, produce interesting ideas.

Like all free schools, they will also have to navigate the expectations of parents and Ofsted – influences which may make it harder to do something radically different.

The Department for Education in England published its own analysis last year on innovation in free schools.

School principal Michael Roden
Image captionSchool principal Michael Roden lays the final brick in the front wall

It said that 62% were teaching an alternative to the national curriculum in some or all subjects and more than half had a longer school day.

But Prof Francis Green at the Institute of Education is sceptical about how much real experimentation there has been.

He is researching innovation in free schools and says the initial evidence is that changes have been modest.

“They lengthened the working day a bit, they had a slight variation from the national pay norm, they may have instituted some after-school childcare. [These are] things which actually take place quite often in state schools.”

The free school programme has been a high-stakes political move, bypassing local councils and their role in planning for school places.

It was a deliberate disruption of the school system in England, with the intention of allowing new ideas to flourish.

Prof Green says as free schools mature, demonstrating that they are truly innovative will become more important.

“Few countries have gone through such a revolution in school systems over the last five to 10 years as we have – and it’s very important that we see some dividends from this.”

Experimental

Such dividends must more than compensate for the failures. Four free schools have closed and seven have been judged to be failing since 2013.

So far, Ofsted has resisted making any firm judgement on free schools overall, but as more reach the point of being inspected, that may change.

Birmingham University
Image captionThe University of Birmingham is putting its own reputation on the line with the new school

By 2020 another 500 free schools are promised. The reality is that every new school opening in England will be called a free school.

Many are likely to be opened by existing academy chains, some in response to requests by local authorities desperate for more school places.

The most experimental part of the free schools could well turn out to be the first five years.

And the most ambitious versions could be those that involve the resources and research capacity of universities.

How Germany abolished tuition fees

Students in Berlin

More than a million young people will be enrolling in universities in England and Germany this autumn.

But in financial terms their experience couldn’t be more different.

In Germany tuition fees have been abolished, while England has the most expensive fees in Europe, with every indication that they are likely to be allowed to nudge even higher.

But what difference does it make to their universities?

The Higher Education Policy Institute’s director, Nick Hillman, has published an analysis – “Keeping up with the Germans?” – which looks at the impact of these contrasting funding systems.

The biggest difference is that a much smaller proportion of young people go to university in Germany.

In Germany, about 27% of young people gain higher education qualifications. In the UK, the comparable figure is 48%. The expansion in university entry in the UK has been one of those changes that has been so big that no one really notices.

Degrees of ‘free’

But it would be wrong to think that the absence of fees means that the German system is starved of funding.

Germany spends a slightly higher proportion of GDP on higher education, there are more academic staff in German universities and Germany is significantly ahead in spending on research and development, both from public and private sources, investing 3% of GDP compared with 1.7% in the UK.

Tuition fees protestImage 

Students muttering about what had happened to their £9,000 might be relieved that spending per student is about 20% higher in the UK than in Germany.

In terms of quality, there are more UK universities at the top end of international league tables. But this is because league tables do not always include research institutes which do not teach or award degrees – and Germany has a much more distinct separation between teaching and research universities.

Report author Mr Hillman says that if the elite German science institute, the Max Planck Society, were included in global rankings it would overtake both Oxford and Cambridge.

The biggest difference seems to be not the outcome but the political decision about who pays. In Germany it’s the taxpayer, in England the individual student gets the bill.

And that poses different types of question for what happens next.

Can the German university system afford to expand and produce more graduates under the current taxpayer-funded “free” model?

Value for money?

For the English system, the questions are for the students who have to pay. How much is too much? Even with a system of loans and deferred repayment, when do the costs outweigh the benefits?

University graduates

Questions about value for money – and warnings about debts – have been recurrent since fees were introduced in the 1990s. They’ve risen in volume as fees have risen rapidly from about £1,000 to £3,000 and then £9,000.

While tuition fees have stolen the headlines, the biggest financial challenge for families might often be the low level of maintenance loans for living costs.

Adding to these money worries are stories about graduates who cannot get graduate jobs or who are unemployed.

A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development last month claimed that more than half of graduates were overqualified for their jobs. In contrast, the institute said that only 10% of German graduates were in non-graduate jobs.

But such anxieties about the cost of going to university tend to overlook the the cost of not going to university or getting high-level vocational skills.

Figures last week from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed unemployment for graduates had fallen back to pre-recession levels, with 2.6% of graduates unemployed. Rising numbers of graduates did not mean more graduates without jobs.

There is no breakdown of graduate and non-graduate jobs, but 86% of graduates were satisfied with their careers.

The international evidence from organisations such as the OECD has remained steadfastly in favour of the financial benefits of higher education.

The economic think tank has argued that an increasing proportion of jobs will require high levels of skills and qualifications – and it rejects the idea that there is an over-production of graduates.

‘Precariat’

The OECD has warned that the biggest risk is not to disgruntled graduates, but to young people with few qualifications competing for an evaporating pool of unskilled work.

In the US, the Pew research group highlighted that while graduates might have had a tougher time during the recession, the real losers were those with few qualifications.

The so-called “precariat” – those trapped in low-skilled, low-pay, insecure jobs – might not get the same attention as under-employed graduates, but they are the other side of this polarisation of the workforce.

While such economic viewpoints tend to take an overview of the labour market, for individuals it’s about personal ambitions and family aspiration, rather than percentages.

And in the UK there has been a seemingly irresistible rise in demand for university.

Despite the surge in tuition fees in England, this week’s figures on higher education participation show no sign of a reduction in demand.

These latest figures show 47% of people entering higher education in England, up from 43% the year before. Among young women, the proportion is 51%. It’s now an expectation for a majority of young women.

Don’t expect the arguments about value for money to go away, but don’t expect any fall in demand for places.

A head teachers’ view on school open days

Jules White

Families looking for secondary school places will be visiting open days. Jules White gives the inside track from the perspective of the head teacher.

The daylight hours are fading and another damp summer departs. Strictly’s back for a new season and Jamie’s got another recipe book out.

Schools follow a similar pattern too. New uniform and equipment are bought, the morning run starts again.

And an event that is also becoming firmly embedded in our educational autumn calendar is the secondary school open day.

Such events give schools the opportunity to throw open their doors and inquisitive parents and children can see prospective establishments first hand.

The vast majority of schools – including my own – look forward to open evenings. It allows us to connect with families and show off just a little as well. It’s also really important that schools get the opportunity to set out their expectations and vision.

Budget pressure

There are nerves too. School budgets depend heavily on high student numbers and unfilled places can make the spectre of budget shortfalls and even redundancy become uncomfortably real.

Sometimes there are additional concerns; especially if results have not gone to plan or if public perceptions of a school are not particularly good.

Pupils

The advent of much greater public scrutiny has probably helped to drive up standards and increase competition amongst local schools.

But it makes it incredibly challenging to overcome entrenched preconceptions about a school, particularly if it is viewed negatively by the community and local media.

The difficulty is doubled if “the school down the road” is perceived as being the best around. Trying to challenge the status quo without appearing too defensive is a tricky task.

Against this background, heads and their colleagues understand that parents prize one thing above all else – their child must be happy and safe at school.

The most sensible head teachers also know that they should not “overplay their hand” and that their school – in fact any school – is often an imperfect place.

By promising the world, parents and children are more likely to be sceptical rather than impressed.

Data overload

Academic data, particularly when it shows a student’s progress, is of real importance. It’s the duty of any school to ensure that students in their care flourish and thrive academically.

But this should be balanced against a parent’s belief in the school’s leadership (including governors) and the culture and ethos.

Data on screen

During the open evening itself, I work on the premise that parents have two overriding questions in mind: “Is this the best school for my child?” and “Will we get a place?”.

As such I make my expectations about student behaviour and parental partnership crystal clear.

I also attempt to give straightforward and helpful answers about the complex minefield that is school admissions.

In our case, decisions are made on catchment area, although a statement of special educational needs or having a sibling already at school is almost certain to enable a place to be gained.

Word of mouth

In terms of choice, many parents are more savvy than some people give them credit for. They are prepared to do a lot of homework to make their own assessment of local schools.

In recent times, the Department for Education has become pre-occupied with providing parents with vast amounts of “evidence” about how good a school is. Ofsted has followed suit and parents are able to peruse data dashboards and Ofsted reports.

Inspections

Like many school leaders, however, I have reservations about the rather blunt labels that these bodies apply to schools. There is a danger that judgements such as “requires improvement” or “good” stifle more subtle and meaningful debate about a particular school’s strengths and weaknesses.

Even grading a school as “outstanding” can cause some unintended and unwanted consequences. Outstanding schools and their heads can be seen as the only ones who possess the ideas and answers from which everyone else can benefit. In my experience, this is certainly not always the case.

Parents are capable of making very sensible judgements about schools. Quite rightly, word of mouth, previous experiences and crucially, reputation, count for a great deal.

Along with a visit during the school day, parents could give more credence to such factors than to the views derived from a fleeting visit by Ofsted or a crude set of statistics.

The most confident schools have one final trick up their sleeves; they leave the promotion of their school not to adults but to the children themselves.

Pride, courtesy and genuine happiness amongst the student body will have more power than a thousand flashy items produced by extravagant technology or the slickest marketing teams.

At open evenings it is vital that head teachers assure parents – and their children – that our desire for unremitting school improvement remains at the heart of all that we do.

At times, scrutiny and questioning from parents can feel pressurised and difficult but it is our job to be open, honest and realistic in our views and opinions when helping parents find the right answer to this most important of decisions.

Violin star Nicola Benedetti’s top tips for young players

Nicola with Isabelle

Acclaimed violinist Nicola Benedetti, sold out the Royal Albert Hall in September and at just 28, is probably the performer young classical musicians would most like to meet.

A few days after the concert more than 30 teenage string players got that opportunity through the Albert Hall’s Education and Outreach Programme.

The focus of the session was Ms Benedetti’s approach to Autumn from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a key piece in her current Italy-inspired tour programme.

The difficulty of the piece meant the invited students, aged 13 to 17, had to be grade eight or equivalent, and possibly considering careers as professional musicians.

“The music is a vehicle through which you begin a dialogue on an array of personal, musical and violinistical issues,” explained Nicola

Nicola Benedetti plays with students

Known as a risk-taking musician, she got the students to stand up and stamp their feet in time to the opening bars of the piece, which depicts a hunt.

It was loud.

“These are gunshots… like an explosion, sudden rather than nice, nice.”

She took on the solo of the frightened animal running away from the bangs.

“I am an animal that’s running away and this should be like a chase. You kill me at the end. At the moment it’s really far too polite.

“Be less polite, almost break your strings – but don’t break your strings.”

Nicola + Hugo

These are talented and committed young musicians. Hugo, 13, got grade eight violin two years ago.

“But for me the grades are less important than the musicality,” he said.

In the question-and-answer session he asked about the technique of vibrato.

“I have this weird thing with my hand and she called me up.”

Nicola gave him an exercise to relax the muscles in his hand which she promised would work over time.

“Learning how to do vibrato is kind of mystical. People try to teach it to you. Just do the exercise and be chilled,” she advised.

Nicola Benedetti close up

“It’s really inspirational to see someone who is so amazing, who will take time out of their practice to spend with people who look up to her,” said Isabelle, 16.

She was among those brave enough to perform a solo.

“You are obviously an excellent violinist,” Nicola told her.

“But don’t smile if you think you have made a mistake because your playing is absolutely excellent. Don’t give anything away in your face.”

She admitted being guilty of that mistake herself: “I do it all the time, my boyfriend says.”

She took time to make minute adjustments to the position of Isabelle’s bow hand.

“Sometimes I lift my wrist too high. I am trying to fix it,” the teenager explained afterwards.

adjusting wrist position

Elodie, 16, started learning the violin at five. She also performed solo and is set on a career in music.

“Wow, really lovely. You have such a natural feel for where the melody goes,” was the feedback – plus some tips.

“Just when you are playing loud, if you put a large amount of pressure on the strings you should tilt the bow so that you have as much hair as possible – otherwise noise rather than the note can take over.”

Elodie playing

The students attend a wide range of schools, from Hackney’s Mossbourne Academy to elite fee-paying schools like Westminster and Haberdashers’ Aske’s.

Most are Londoners but others travelled from as far away as Lincolnshire.

“It made me play my violin differently,” said Esme, 17.

“I think I was too tense. Now I am feeling the music more, trying to stop being so polite in the way I play.”

She said meeting Nicola was “amazing” as was meeting other students with “different experiences and backgrounds and learning to interact musically with them”.

Cellists

A performance to a small audience of teachers and Albert Hall staff ended the session.

Nicola was pleased: “They just remembered the most unremembrable list of instructions. Well done!

“Not sure there was as much foot-stomping as I would have liked.”

Afterwards came a chance for photographs and autographs, including on violin cases and GCSE music files.

The main message from Nicola for the young musicians was: “Just be as expressive and natural as you can be.

“In classical music you really so much rely on what the music says and what your teacher tells you – but don’t let the teaching you receive squash your intuition.”

Rising numbers of stressed students seek help

Record numbers of students are beginning university this term, making the big emotional step of a new independent life, with many living away from home for the first time.

But there are warnings of rising numbers of students struggling to cope with life on campus, with sharp rises in the demand for counselling.

And there are questions about whether universities are providing enough support for emotional and mental health problems.

Ruth Caleb, chair of Universities UK’s mental well-being working group, says counselling services are facing an annual rise in demand of about 10%.

She estimates the use of counselling usually ranges between 5% and 10% of students, depending on the university, which would suggest at least 115,000 students are seeking help.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of Buckingham University, says this is a “massive problem” and universities have been “negligent” in accepting their pastoral responsibilities.

“Universities are not always honest about admitting the extent of the problems they have. They need to change, they need to take their responsibilities to students far more carefully.”

Anthony Seldon

A report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, using anonymised data, found a rapid increase in demand for counselling, with one institution seeing an annual increase of more than 50%.

This analysis, published before the new term, showed mental health problems on campus had “increased dramatically” in recent years, rising from about 8,000 to 18,000 in the four years to 2012-13.

The study also warned students want help with more serious problems. Instead of homesickness or relationships, they are increasingly suffering from “anxiety, depression or low mood. Additionally, increasing numbers of students are at high risk of harming themselves”.

Anxiety culture

The University of Reading says there has been a 20% year-on-year increase in students wanting help from counsellors.

The university’s head of well-being, Alicia Pena Bizama, says students feel under more pressure.

As well as perennial problems of loneliness and relationships, she says there are worries about the rising cost of studying, fear of failing to live up to expectations and uncertainties about job prospects.

“There is a cultural change in being a student,” says Dr Caleb, who is head of counselling at Brunel University.

Instead of a stereotype of student life being about long lazy days, she says increasing numbers experience anxiety and stress, beyond the “transitional” problems of leaving home.

Student life is also affected by wider social changes. Dr Caleb says there is a pattern of parents splitting up when their child goes to university and sometimes selling the family home, which can leave young people feeling vulnerable and unsupported.

‘It can save people’s lives’

Universities are getting better at responding to mental health problems and making it easier to access counselling services. But Dr Caleb says there needs to be more consistency in the quality of services available.

Marina Della Giusta

She says that at her university, “we will knock on a door at night if there are concerns. It can save people’s lives”.

But what is so different now about young people’s lives? Is there really such a culture of anxiety?

Meredith Leston, a student at St Anne’s College, Oxford, suffered from anorexia and depression in her first year.

“People talk about ‘snapping’ and that is what happened to me. I just couldn’t take the pressure and the whole new realm of expectations.”

She says part of the problem is the ever-present role of social media, fuelling a culture of constant comparison and a sense of inadequacy.

“As well as being a first class student, you have to be a first class person, you have to be performing socially, academically. It’s a nightmare. You’re constantly on.”

‘Suffering in silence’

Ms Leston says she received help from her university, but she is worried about the patchy provision for some students.

“I do worry that a lot of students are suffering in silence at the moment.”

freshers' fair Reading

“I think there is a very strong stigma still surrounding mental health issues, but even in the few years I’ve been at university, I’ve seen a slow change, people are beginning to talk about it.”

Following her own experiences, she is supporting a mental health charity, Student Minds, and has founded her own campaign, Meeting of Minds.

Sir Anthony Seldon recently became a university head after working as a head teacher in the independent school sector.

And he says universities have much catching up to do on student well-being.

Sir Anthony warns some universities might see their status in terms of research and league tables, with the danger they view undergraduates as an “inconvenience”.

But he says they cannot ignore the rising incidence of problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

“Universities, with some exceptions, haven’t been fully owning up to the extent of the malaise among young people. Or understanding what can be done to ameliorate these problems.”

“I don’t think universities mean to be negligent. But if not deliberately, they are being negligent, they are not accepting their responsibility for these young people. And needless avoidable problems are occurring all the way up to suicide.”

‘Sink or swim’

The increase in tuition fees has also changed students’ expectations.

Universities are now competing on the quality of their services as well as academic prowess. And students expect to have support for emotional problems.

Alicia Pena Bizama

Three student protests and occupations this year have called for better counselling services.

At the University of Reading student welfare has been made a priority, including a long-term project to monitor well-being.

Marina Della Giusta, responsible for the research, says students are “definitely feeling more stressed”.

“The factors that really drive it are financial stress, university education has become more expensive. And job prospects are more uncertain, so they’re not sure whether it’s going to pay off.”

The other constant thorn is the expectation to be seen to be having a good time, with social media turning social lives into a place of competition rather than relaxation.

But the increase in using counselling services also reflected a greater willingness to ask for help – and Dr Della Giusta says universities are moving away from a “sink or swim” attitude.

“There’s no point turning out students who have a first if they are going to be unhappy and unable to function as human beings out there in the workplace or in their personal life.”

Universities UK says it issued guidance this year to all universities on how to support students with mental health problems.

“Universities take student mental health very seriously. For some students, an unfamiliar higher education environment can be stressful, particularly for those who already have an underlying illness,” says chief executive Nicola Dandridge.

“Some students are reluctant to disclose their difficulties, which can also present a challenge for universities seeking to support them. However, the development of policies and anti-stigma campaigns is now beginning to address both these issues.”


Your comments:

There was a time (before instant messaging) when you used to sit down with your mates and have a good conversation, and together you’d work things out. It seems that a shrink is the only person you can talk to now! When it was just the academic elite that went to university, the studying was relatively easy for them. Now your average Jo(e) is expected to get a degree they have to work much harder and are under much more stress to achieve. David, Northampton

Thanks for this piece; I really appreciate it. I’ve just finished my degree at university and had to take a year out to deal with anxiety. I wrote about this experience on a short blog, https://henryegar.wordpress.com/2014/04/09/the-reasons-i-worried-part-i-2/. I’m currently writing a follow-up on the experience of positive change, learning to manage these feelings and becoming a much happier person. A team of us are also currently making a film about mental health issues at our university. Henry, London

Judging by the numbers of very stressed sixth form students I teach I am totally unsurprised by this statistic. Most students are terrified of failing, constantly reminded how important it is to get high grades. The culture of obsession with target grades in school leads to a tense atmosphere as both teachers and students are judged against them. Schools also struggle to get enough counsellors and support for their students. Quick referrals are only for the suicidal meaning many students have to wait 33 weeks to a year to get any real help. It is really time to rethink what an education is worth. EJ, Heswall

I was at medical school 1994-2000. We all felt stressed periodically, but it was most unusual (<2% of the whole year) for any of us to seek to postpone. Part of the increase is likely to be due to availability. In my time, the student counselling service was a door with a sign over it, and if you looked all over the union you might just find a few small cards with phone numbers. There has been a massive increase in posters, talks etc about student wellbeing. And asking for such help, even when unbeknownst to others, causes much less internal agitation nowadays. Plus, students are definitely expected to work more these days. “I’m a graduate” doesn’t cut a lot of mustard in the milk-round if you got a 3rd. Medicine and dentistry students, I believe, had less stress because there was a cast-iron guarantee of a job. Max, Yarm

I actually think the figures of those using counselling display something else, much more positive for universities. Since graduating, I was diagnosed with depression and waited a month to be given 6-weeks free CBT therapy. Following this, there was waiting list for months for any free therapy given (for example through the charity MIND) and I was recommended to find my own private counsellor as the wait would be so long. This took time, and also costs money. Ranging from £25-£150 per session. To be struggling mentally and having to take on this task and financial burden shows a huge flaw in the mental health system in the UK.

However, at university, counselling is freely offered. I believe that the figures show what happens when counselling is freely available. At university you receive better care- counselling is made freely available to anyone, and there is a high degree of privacy around the counselling (they tended to be in rooms that I didn’t even know existed before I received counselling), and there is no limit on the amount of sessions you can receive. Lydia, London

Oh dear all these do gooders protecting the little luvvies again and wrapping them in the cotton wool life that they have led until now. When we were young if we wanted to buy things we had pocket money and/or had to get a paper round, weekend job or both which gave us grounding before going to University but these kids get it all given to them on a plate and sulk if they don’t get the latest IPhone etc. so it’s a big shock when they have to learn to wipe their own backsides. David, High Roding

I first received counselling and a diagnosis of depression at university (ten years ago now) but I don’t think that was to do with the stress of university per se. On the contrary, I was so much happier there than at school, and made friends for life. I wonder if some of this increase is because of the well-documented increase in poor mental and emotional health at school age. University is where it all comes to a head, where you have to face it – and where you are more likely to be taken seriously and get help than possibly anywhere else. Katherine, Grimsby

I was diagnosed a year or so before starting university, having been depressed for much longer, and developing quite bad social anxiety too. I struggled through first year before telling the university at the end of the year, when I was told I would be looked out for and checked up on. I got a few free counselling sessions and was referred to an external counsellor, which was all good. The university themselves gave basically no support. I met my personal tutor once, no one commented on my severe lack of attendance/missing of deadlines, and no one ever checked in to see if I was okay. They just handed the problem to an external source and forgot about it. I just felt completely isolated and abandoned. Sophie, Sunbury-on-Thames

I’ve sought counselling during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies for stress, anxiety and acute insomnia. However, in my experience, university counselling services are way over subscribed and under funded and are unable to cope with the rising numbers of students seeking help. Academia has just accepted that students will face mental health problems without addressing the root causes and exploring the reasons behind the challenges and it’s high time that someone explored why so many university students, and staff, are struggling with their mental health. Clare, Leeds

As a private tutor with a long career in teaching, I think the stress starts long before students arrive at university. Many of my students are put under huge pressure even at primary school, by parents, school league tables, 11+ , common entrance, SATs, GCCEs, Bacs, A Levels and so on and so on. By the time students get into uni, stress has already been the default situation for years. Un fact, it you are not stressed, you are not keeping up with the competition and there is something wrong with you(!) Chris, Shepperton

I’m sure that financial pressure and worries about job prospects play a role. But could it be that today’s generation is simply a lot less prepared for this transition – becoming independent …? Sabine, London

I am horrified at the lack of support given to young people at university. My son started at a top London art college last year and probably only survived because he’d done 5 years at boarding school beforehand which gave him the resilience to cope. The halls were expensive but grotty, no decent communal area, five miserable bedsits per ‘flat’ with a bleak shared kitchen. Posters and pictures were forbidden on the walls. A spot check on my son’s room which he had made friendly with flags and pictures incurred dire warning of fines and a demand for everything to be removed. I am not at all surprised at the high incidence of drop out by students from the lowest socio-economic groups. There is no support for them, the existence is lonely, the costs are enormous, the tutors are indifferent and there is the barest minimum of tuition. I was lucky enough to go to Cambridge 30 years ago. Many of the new universities are a complete scam. Caroline, Market Rasen

I went to university in the early 1960s. one of 113,000 that year. It was the London University agricultural faculty and therefore rurally based. We were a relatively small, close knit community, there were no drugs and no discernible mental hangups other than was normal for young people of this age and life was enjoyable and a wonderful experience. We worked hard and played hard. I think young people then were tougher mentally and physically, no pet descriptions were available to describe the odd blip and no havens existed to help those who simply found themselves in an environment in which they could not survive . They just got out and did something else. There were more opportunities for both graduates and people with other skills in those days but you still survived by your own endeavours and parental support almost always disappeared as you approached late teens. You simply became a survivor because there was no description for your perceived weakness, you simply had to tough it out. Bob, King’s Lynn

Conscientious, intelligent, and empathic people (by no means a minority) are the most stressed by formal education because they understand and try to meet complex and contradictory expectations. Both meeting them and not meeting them are equally stressful.

The brightest young people I know, Oxbridge graduates some, are the worst learners; they assimilate and accommodate knowledge, understanding, and skills like out-of-control vacuum cleaners, but the process results in mental illness. Something that is a natural propensity is somehow constrained to take place in a context full of other people’s needs and ambitions and the personal shame of relating to your friends and family through a series of self-evidently meaningless achievements. One cannot derive a secure sense of self from an education system (or a family system) that defines the child’s success in terms of the institution’s own survival needs – this is the very essence of a dysfunctional relationship.

The mental health of young people will continue to worsen as the relentless march of competitive marketisation and corporate managerialism drives both teachers and children to anxiety and depression. Everyone knows this, and everyone says it in private, in staffrooms, head’s offices, dinner tables, and counselling centres. Our failure as educators is that we don’t stop it. Nick, Birmingham

Do children still need to read the classics of English literature?

Nicky Morgan and David Walliams read to primary pupils

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has called for a return to the classics of English literature in schools, but are they still relevant and appropriate for today’s children?

A quick scan of any list of the most read children’s books will reveal that today’s youngsters are growing up in a very different literary landscape to their parents.

Gone from bedroom bookshelves are the Famous Five, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons.

And in their places are the likes of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the complete and ever-growing works of David Walliams and Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates series.

Only the prolific Roald Dahl remains sandwiched between the bookends by these newer arrivals at the top of the literary pops.

And as for the 19th Century classics of English literature, such as Emily Bronte and Charles Dickens, many children simply have not heard of them.

One south London mother, Geri Cox, explained how her daughter’s Year 5 class was to be named this year after the literary giant, Jane Austen.

But the class teacher soon had second thoughts when the suggested name was met with blank stares.

“My daughter came back and said they weren’t going to be called Austen class anymore, because not many people had heard of her. Instead the class was to be named Rowling, after the Harry Potter author, and she had to do a project about her instead.

“And she goes to a very high achieving school indeed.”

Ms Morgan argues that children will miss out if they do not have access “to our incredibly rich heritage of world-famous children’s literature”.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 10

But perhaps these more modern books are able to do the job of lighting the literary touch paper just as well.

A spokesman for Penguin Random House Children’s books said: “Millions of children are readers because of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Jeff Kinney’s work is perfect for turning reluctant readers on to books.

“With 50% words and 50% cartoons, the books are 100% hilarious and children agree.”

Titles in the series have won numerous ‘favourite book’ awards and are frequently among the most borrowed children’s books in UK libraries.

Also, interestingly, the first few Wimpy Kid books were made available to download online for free before they came out in book form.

According to Seni Glaister, children’s books specialist and co-founder of The Book People, the mix of type-face and art is a big part of the attraction.

“It means the text does not look daunting and that it will therefore appeal to hesitant, reluctant or timid readers.”

But she adds: “I do think the popularity is actually much more to do with the content, the story, than it is do with a trend for the aesthetic.

“The children in all of these books are often in grave peril and the grown-ups tend to be either absent, evil or weak in comparison to the young protagonists.”

‘Bad villains’

She adds: “You really don’t need to look any further than Dahl to understand that there is nothing new here in taste or style!

new book designs

“Walliams does it particularly well and I have absolutely no doubt that these books would have found their market with or without Walliams’ celebrity status.”

However, the fact that Puffin Books re-issued a series of 20 classics of children literature earlier this year, suggests these books have an enduring appeal – even if it is the parents buying them on behalf of their children.

Publisher Shannon Cullen said: “From Treasure Island and Heidi to the Secret Garden and The Wizard of Oz, these books have been firm favourites of children across the generations and their striking new jackets will ensure they remain popular for many years.”

Cassie Buchanan, head teacher at Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark, which hosted a visit from Walliams and Ms Morgan this week, argues the classics sit easily in the primary school curriculum as long as the approach is right.

“The older children here are reading a range of different classics,” she says.

“We read a version of Crime and Punishment and we have covered Antigone with Year 5 and Year 6 pupils.”

Graphic novels

She adds: “We do a lot of Dickens. He lived on this street and the children learn about him and where he grew up. And after all they are very good stories.

“We need to use a mix of abridged versions that don’t lose the richness of the language, but we are also exposing children to excerpts of Bleak House in class.”

Robinson Crusoe

Fortunately, many skilfully shortened versions of the classics exist, says Miles Stevens-Hoare, managing director of Capstone International Publishers.

His company produces graphic novel versions of such classics as Jules Verne’s 20,000 League Under the Sea and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example.

But Paul Clayton, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, says supplying young people with cheap classics will do little to develop the motivation to read.

“In 2001, all 4,500 secondary schools in Britain, along with 1,400 schools overseas, received 250 hard-backed Everyman Classics totally free of charge.

“However, many of these sets still remain on school library shelves (assuming schools have retained their libraries) unopened and unread.

“There is now so much variety in reading matter and, with the arrival of electronic reading devices, so much choice in how to access material for reading.

“Perhaps Nicky’s efforts might be more effectively deployed encouraging organisations to broaden access both to the widest range of fiction and the technology to read it.”

Guj, Australian varsity ink MoU for exchange programme

Guj, Australian varsity ink MoU for exchange programme

AHMEDABAD: The Gujarat Forensic Science University (GFSU) and Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for students, teachers and technology exchange programme, a statement said.

“In order to strengthen cooperation between GFSU in India and the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) in Australia through friendly discussion, the two sides have come to an agreement and signed this Memorandum of Understanding,” the GFSU statement said.

“The two institutions have agreed to establish a friendly inter-college relationship and promote personnel exchanges, mutual understanding and the development of academic exchanges between the two institutions for students and faculty members,” added the statement.

According to the statement, the two institutions will carry out bilateral academic exchanges in forensic science, which include cyber security, digital forensics and biometrics.

The MoU was signed at GFSU in Gandhinagar in the presence of the Minister of Education Canberra Joy Burch and Australian Trade Commissioner Tom Calder.

“The two institutions agree to arrange exchange visits for institution-level delegations according to the needs and coordinate the details of the exchanges,” said the statement.

“Cost associated with any project will be the responsibility of each institute and agreed upon at the development of each project,” the statement added.

More than 50% of teachers in England ‘plan to quit in next two years’

Stressed teacher

More than half of teachers in England (53%) are thinking of quitting in the next two years, a survey has suggested.

The survey, conducted by the National Union of Teachers, found 61% of those wanting to leave blamed workload and 57% desired a better work/life balance.

Two thirds of the 1,020 primary and secondary school teachers questioned felt morale in the profession had declined over the past five years.

Schools minister Nick Gibb pledged to tackle excessive workloads.

The findings of the survey are timely, because last month the five main teaching unions warned of a crisis in recruitment and retention, although the government maintains the vacancy rate has stayed stable at about 1%.

The survey, undertaken with a representative sample of teachers, also suggested many were unhappy with some of the government’s plans.

  • 76% said forcing schools that require improvement to become academies would damage education
  • 62% said the plans for 500 new free schools would also damage education
  • 54% were not confident the new baseline test for four-year-olds would provide valid information about a child’s ability

General secretary of the NUT, Christine Blower, said: “This survey demonstrates the combined, negative impact of the accountability agenda on teacher workload and morale.

“Teachers feel that the Department for Education’s work thus far to tackle workload has been totally inadequate.

“Meanwhile, nearly one million more pupils are coming into the system over the next decade. The government’s solution so far has been to build free schools, often where there are surplus places, and to allow class sizes to grow.

“Add to this a situation where teachers are leaving in droves and teacher recruitment remains low. We now have a perfect storm of crisis upon crisis in the schools system.”

She added that many teachers felt their pay had been eroded over a long period of time, and that many were missing out on the 1% pay rise because of the tightness of school budgets.

Mr Gibb said teaching remained “a hugely popular profession with the highest numbers of people joining since 2008.

“The latest figures show the number of former teachers coming back to the classroom has continued to rise year after year – from 14,720 in 2011 to 17,350 in 2014.

“While the vast majority of teachers stay in their roles for more than five years, we know unnecessary workload can detract from what matters most – teaching.

“That’s why we launched the Workload Challenge and are working with the profession to understand and tackle the top issues that teachers said caused the most bureaucracy, with leading education experts taking action on key areas such as marking and lesson planning.”

India tops Asia in sending scientists and engineers to US

India tops Asia in sending scientists and engineers to US: Report

WASHINGTON: Among Asian countries, India continues to be the top country of birth for scientists and engineers who have made the US their destination for key research and development, latest data has revealed.

With 950,000 out of Asia’s total 2.96 million, India’s 2013 figure represented an 85 per cent increase from 2003, according to a new report from the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES).

From 2003 to 2013, the number of scientists and engineers residing in the US rose from 21.6 million to 29 million.

“An important factor in that increase over the same time period, the number of immigrant scientists and engineers went from 3.4 million to 5.2 million,” the report noted.

Of the immigrant scientists and engineers in the US in 2013, 57 per cent were born in Asia while 20 per cent were born in North America (excluding the US), Central America, the Caribbean or South America.

“While 16 per cent were born in Europe, six percent were born in Africa and less than one percent were born in Oceania.

“Immigrants went from making up 16 percent of the science and engineering workforce to 18 per cent,” the NCSES statement read.

In 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, 63 per cent of US immigrant scientists and engineers were naturalised citizens, while 22 per cent were permanent residents and 15 per cent were temporary visa holders.

Since 2003, the number of scientists and engineers from the Philippines increased 53 per cent and the number from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, increased 34 per cent.

The NCSES report found that immigrant scientists and engineers were more likely to earn post-baccalaureate degrees than their US-born counterparts.
In 2013, 32 percent of immigrant scientists reported their highest degree was a master’s (compared to 29 per cent of US-born counterparts) and 9 per cent reported it was a doctorate (compared to 4 per cent of US-born counterparts).

“The most common broad fields of study for immigrant scientists and engineers in 2013 were engineering, computer and mathematical sciences, and social and related sciences,” the report revealed.

Over 80 per cent of immigrant scientists and engineers were employed in 2013, the same percentage as their US-born counterparts.

Among the immigrants in the science and engineering workforce, the largest share (18 percent) worked in computer and mathematical sciences, while the second-largest share (eight percent) worked in engineering.

IIT-Dharwad to admit 250 students next year

IIT-Dharwad to admit 250 students next year

BENGALURU: IIT-Dharwad, which will have 250 students in its first batch next year, is likely to be handheld by either IIT Bombay or IIT Hyderabad. Initially, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Dharwad will function from a temporary campus, sources in the Union HRD ministry said.

The ministry is fine-tuning the aspects of launching the institution, notwithstanding the demand over shifting it to Raichur. Initially, IIT-Dharwad will offer BTech in computer science and electronics and communication, given the spiralling demand for engineers in these disciplines across the country.

It will function from the Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI) building in Dharwad till a permanent campus is built.

A senior MHRD official told TOI that the intake of students will be increased in later years. “IIT Bombay or IIT Hyderabad will mentor their Dharwad sibling,” he said adding that the board of governors of IITs and the mentor IIT would look after the recruitment of professors.

On the demand for shifting the IIT to Raichur, the official said, “The site selection committee has chosen Dharwad. It has been finalised as Dharwad has the necessary facilities among the three places identified by the state government.”