Archives for September 2010

Are free schools really the answer?

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 13:04 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010


In Acton, the west London home of journalist and author Toby Young, the choice of secondary school is very limited.  With the eldest of his four children nearing the end of primary school, his solution to this problem has been to gather a group of concerned local parents to set up their own free school. Their progress is tracked in the BBC Two programme Start your own School.

If I was at the point of sending my child to secondary school and could choose between a failing comprehensive and a free school along the proposed lines of the West London Free School, then I would, almost certainly go with the free school.  If it were your child’s education at stake, wouldn’t you?

In principle, however, I am very unsure about the academies and free schools being set up to ‘solve’ an education system in crisis.  I believe that every child, regardless of background, deserves an excellent education. Surely the local authorities rather than private enterprise should deal with lack of provision and failing schools? Couldn’t the academies and free schools budget, be better used to invest in state-funded building programmes and bringing in crisis management, in order to turn around existing schools in trouble?

Toby Young with his family, credit BBC/Renegade Pictures

Toby Young with his family

Free schools are essentially independent schools with state funding, and won’t be accountable in the same way as local authority schools.  When problems occur, it won’t be democratically elected politicians who will be under scrutiny, so how will complaints against these schools be registered and dealt with?  And if the existing free schools are anything to go by, it’s not going to be plain sailing.

The American model for free schools, the charter system, has ostensibly led to more division in local communities rather than providing equal opportunities.  The Swedish system is constantly cited as being exemplary, but there is data to suggest that attainment has dropped year on year since the free school scheme was widely adopted.  This could be, amongst other reasons, due to employing unqualified, or under-qualified staff

Michael Gove wants poorer students to get a better education, and be first in line for the new schools. However it’s in no doubt those who David Cameron has dubbed the ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle classes, will find a way to work the new system to their advantage, as they seem to have done with the more successful academies, leaving less resourceful families worse off.   

As John Humphrys beautifully illustrated in Unequal Opportunities, there are state schools out there that are working for local communities;  schools that were failing and have been turned around by inspirational heads and teaching staff.  If we want all children, not just our own, to have equal educational opportunities, there must be a better way to do this than half-hearted free school and academy schemes.  It will cost money, and involve real commitment on the part of the government – but are they willing to do it?

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC parent panel.

Find out more about the programme the Start your own School  part of BBC Two School Season.


New (and not so new) ways of teaching

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 10:28 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010


As a primary school teacher and mother of two small children, I watched The Classroom Experiment with some trepidation. Secondary school is quite a way off for my own children, but the thought of the transition from their small and cosy primary school to a big and scary secondary already fills me with dread. 

And if Year 8 at Hertswood School is anything to go by, then not much has changed since I started studying for my GCSEs twenty years ago. Pupils sat in relative silence and put their hands up to answer questions. It seems the classroom is still a hallowed place where teachers impart their wisdom with little opportunity for discussion or questioning from the students. The more able students dominate, leaving the less able to stare blankly out of the window, falling behind in their learning but afraid to ask for help.

In the programme, Professor Dylan Wiliam is trying to change the atmosphere of the classroom to enable all children to have an opportunity to improve in all subjects. His starting point is the mantra 'smart is not something you are, smart is something you get', that leads to changes in the teachers’ lesson delivery.  Overall his methods seem to work very well, with the initially resistant staff and students gradually seeing real benefits.

Dylan Wiliam at Hertswood School

Professor Dylan Wiliam at Hertswood School

As a fourth generation teacher, I do have a problem with the way that the techniques are portrayed as new – I know that there are very few new teaching methods, just new packaging! Most of the methods in the show are common in primary schools – the ‘no hands up’ rule, where children are chosen to answer a question at random; dry wipe boards so the whole class can show their answers at the same time; a traffic light system to show if you are understanding a topic, need some help, or are genuinely stuck; early morning exercise to improve concentration, just like 'wake and shake'.

It’s usual practice in primary schools to give feedback orally as well as on paper, with practical guidance on how to improve a pupil’s work. The obsession with grades at Hertswood (and most other schools) means that competition is fierce within the class, and ‘level driven’. Professor William’s idea of giving a comment means the students are given concrete ways as to how to perfect their work which they are more likely to take notice of in the absence of a grade.  

I’m guessing the reason that old-fashioned ways of teaching still exist is that it makes it easier to control the behaviour of the class. If you allow children’s input in a more natural way, with discussion and questioning, the lesson can be disrupted and may not follow the teacher’s plan.  With the National Curriculum and constant testing and pressure to perform in league tables, it’s no surprise that many teachers opt to deliver the lesson to a more passive crowd of students. 

I’m sure that there are plenty of secondary schools that employ more child-friendly techniques – I hope my kids will go to one!  But if these methods do prevail amongst secondary teachers, after all one in five students now leave school without basic Maths or English, then primary schools could definitely teach them a lesson in how to boost young people’s achievement. 

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC parent panel.

Find out more about the programme  The Classroom Experiment,  part of BBC Two School Season.



Creativity - the key to boys' progress in literacy

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 12:36 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010


I think it’s fair to say that the UK has a problem with boys' literacy skills – at GCSE only 57.9% of boys achieved a C grade or above (considered to be a pass) in English this year, compared with 71.9% of girls, according to a report in The Guardian.

As seen in Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys the disparity in literacy skills starts in primary schools, and radical steps need to be taken in order to close the attainment gap.  The concluding episode showed that Malone was able to make a real difference to the literacy levels of a group of ‘average’ year 5 and year 6 boys.  

His techniques really engaged the students, with exercise, a taste of outdoor living, various role-playing and other less formal teaching tools providing real life context for his pupils’ literary efforts. The school production, written by the students, was a testament to the fact that when boys are engaged with a task they are able to read and write as well as the girls.

Gareth Malone with boys from a primary school in Essex
 Gareth Malone with boys from a primary school in Essex, rehearsing
for their end-of-year school  play which they wrote themselves

However, if you took any good primary school teacher and asked them what they would do to help students struggling with the literacy curriculum, their solutions wouldn’t be far from Malone’s. The reason why this kind of thing doesn’t happen in all classrooms is not in fact poor teaching, but curriculum restrictions and the fact that most year 6 (and often year 5) lessons will be taught ‘to the test’ rather than being guided by individual teachers’ creativity. 

Most teachers will tell you that the primary literacy curriculum is often delivered in a way that is boring for both girls and boys. At risk of extreme over-generalising I think that the main gender difference is that girls have been taught to be more compliant and hardworking, so will succeed despite being bored witless, whereas boys will tend to switch off more quickly if something doesn’t interest them.

By the book, uninspiring teaching does not happen in all schools and it’s easy to forget, when watching a programme of this kind, how diverse teachers (and their classes) are in reality.  

I was fortunate to train in some excellent primary schools in Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in London. The intake of pupils was mixed in ability and background, but the results achieved by variously talented teachers were often remarkable. 

During that time, one teacher stood out as really engaging his pupils, not just in literacy. He didn’t really conform to the national curriculum, but took themes (the old-fashioned project based teaching which most of us enjoyed) and used them to teach different subjects. The students explored themes that interested them which they were allowed to examine in depth, often taking their own initiative and direction.

This teacher had the full support of the head and the rest of the teaching staff, and was able to ‘get away’ with his unconventional approach by virtue of his excellent results. This kind of teaching is already happening all over the country and needs the support of schools and government policy, as demonstrated in this article in the TES

So while it may be mildly insulting to teachers that a choirmaster, with no formal training, is allowed free rein for 8 weeks and ‘miraculously’ is seen to turn the boys’ fortunes around, we can take something very valuable from this series. If you allow teachers creative freedom to make lessons fun and interesting, then the pupils might actually show some interest and harness their own creativity (and it’s not just the boys who will benefit).  

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys is part of BBC Two's School Season.

You may be interested in this article from BBC Nottingham about a new literacy scheme just launched in Nottinghamshire.




Boarding school at eight years old?

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 12:12 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


Is eight years old too young to be sent to boarding school?

Having a child who is nearly eight myself made me really empathise with the parents and children in Britain’s Youngest Boarders.

It really struck me how young they were and watching Luke choosing what soft toy to bring to school with him made him look very young and vulnerable.

The parents of these young boys all think they are giving their children the best opportunity they can in life and that being self reliant and away from home is character forming. They believe the experience will make their children confident, academically successful and give them a good chance of getting in to Britain’s top public schools, like Eton and Harrow.

As a parent, I personally could not send my child away to school at such a young age and if you asked my husband and father, they would agree. My husband went to boarding school at the age of 11 and found it very tough and my father’s experience of boarding school was incredibly traumatic. 

However, my husband’s parents were faced with a difficult dilemma. Like the family of one of the boys featured in the programme, his father was in the forces and he had been to eight different schools by the age of 11. His parents felt his education was suffering and sent him to board, so he would have some continuity in his education. This was illustrated by the mother interviewed, whose husband was also in the forces -  they had moved house seven times in 12 years.

Britain's Youngest Boarders

Luke, Louis and Dominic starting their first term at Sunningdale Prep School in Berkshire

In the Daily Mail review of this programme, they cite Nick Duffell, author of The Making of Them and founder of the organisation, Boarding School Survivors. He says boarders develop a “strategic survival” personality. Outside they are competent and confident. Inside they are private and insecure and are unable to bond or form full relationships with others. They are always on guard and grow to despise weakness in others because they were never allowed to show it themselves”.

Whilst  this cannot be said of everyone who is sent away to school, I believe it must affect the children psychologically in some way.

As the lovely bright and gifted Dominic said on his first night away from home, “I figure I shouldn’t cry, to make my Dad proud”.

Is bottling up feelings at the age of 11 or indeed eight a good idea? Surely having to survive without your parents at such a young age will have an effect on a child’s emotional development?

The fact still remains though that even today, for some families boarding school is the only option: for instance, if the parents are working abroad or in remote places, moving house frequently or for the child of divorced parents where there are strains with the stepfamily.

There are no easy answers to this situation, being sent to boarding school, is still considered a great privilege and as long as people’s ideas about what is best for their children stay the same, not much is going to change.

But if you asked two of the most important men in my life whether they would send their own children to school their answer would be categorically “no” and they have experienced boarding school first hand.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Find out more about the programme Britain’s Youngest Boarders, part of the BBC Two’s School Season

For information about state funded boarding schools, go to the website of the State Boarding Schools' Association.


Do girls and boys really need to be taught separately?

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 15:18 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010


Whilst I did find watching the second episode of Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys really interesting and some of his ideas inspirational, I have to also say that I was a little disappointed because the general premise of the whole programme was based on the ‘difference’ between boys and girls.

Statistically boys don’t lag very far behind the girls when it comes to A Level results and it is well documented that men still get paid more than women.

Clearly in primary school there is a problem engaging boys and I wonder is this because kids are having  ideas about gender imposed  on them or do they really have different needs?

Gareth Malone teaching in a primary school in Essex

Choirmaster Gareth Malone teaches in a primary school in Essex for one term. This time he faces a new mission: to get the boys reading.

A recent study reported in the Guardian says that girls as young as four, believe they are smarter than boys.  The academics in the study believed that gender stereotyping was a major factor in formulating their beliefs.

It  also doesn’t help that primary school education is dominated by female teachers and that many people believe that the work set has a female bias, as indicated in this article in BBC News Education & Family.  Getting more male teachers, seems a good starting point but maybe they're put off by lower salaries.

Whilst I applaud Gareth for trying to engage these disinterested kids, I have to ask, what were the girls doing whilst the boys played in the woods? 

Are boys and girls really so different? Wouldn’t the whole class have benefited from outdoor activities and competition? Perhaps if they had worked together in the World Cup reading teams, perhaps the imposed gender differences on the children could have been dissipated, rather than enforced.

Surely we need to move away from such cultural determinism and find teaching methods that encourage all children to engage with books and literacy.  Books are for everyone not just ‘girls’ or ‘boys’.

One of the other elements of the programme I found most interesting were his efforts to engage the parents, clearly, it is their input that can make the biggest difference of all.

Teachers can do all they can in school but if parents allow their children’s love affair with computer games to prevent them from doing their homework, then there is not much the educators can do. 

A recent survey reported on BBC News said that kids were spending six hours a day in front of screens, half of this time was in front of a computer or a games console. Perhaps we as parents need to be re-educated on how to engage our children and not to use the television, games and computers as virtual babysitters?

Whilst Gareth only had a short period of time to improve the children’s academic performance he certainly showed that our teachers have their work cut out.

They sadly do not have the freedom that the Gareth was given to try and engage and cajole our kids into understanding the importance of literacy.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Find out more about the final episode of Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys, part of. BBC Two’s School Season


Listen to the Woman's Hour podcast  - Raising Boys about how to get  boys  back on track.


It's cold up North... but less complicated?

Flora Napier Flora Napier | 12:29 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010



Watching The Big School Lottery, it was the children that my heart went out to. Following the families as they puzzle, debate, hope and nail-bitingly wait I wondered if every parent across England involved their child to the same degree as the parents featured. Although most of the children in the programme seemed unfazed, I could only imagine my 11-year-old self feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.  

I‘m more than happy that, for my family here in Ayrshire, Scotland, the path through education will be more straightforward. If and when there is a choice to be made it will be a question of “here’s the school we’ve been allocated - not bad, but that one over there looks good too”. No entrance exams, no weighing up of a myriad of complicated factors and no sleepless nights for myself or my weans. Our boys will get a say in which secondary they go to, but it will be a simple choice governed by ’factors’ along the lines of where their pals are going.

For the majority of families in Scotland the secondary school enrolment system will be equally straightforward. It was the same for me growing up in the 70s and 80s. I went to the one-and-only wee local primary then transferred to the nearby secondary school. I well remember my first nerve-racking day at ‘the big school’ …half believing in the hinted-at ordeals awaiting new S1 pupils. The anxiety of my first day was definitely tempered by the familiarity of classmates’ faces and the closeness to home. 

Roughly speaking, in Scotland each secondary school is paired to one specific catchment area and also linked to several feeder primary schools. Choice does exist; parents can submit a placement request to an alternative state school. There are independent schools, denominational schools and niche choices such as GME - (Gaelic Medium Education) and Centres of excellence for Music, Sport and Dance.

There is no denying there are educational black spots in Scotland where there is an uphill battle, against issues of poverty and deprivation, to provide children with a good education. Outwith these black spots however, it seems to me, as a parent, that the Scottish system works reasonably fairly. It’s doubtful any catchment-based system could be perfect but certainly in my local area the social mix across schools is fairly well balanced. This can be attributed partly to careful planning on the council’s part, but also to the positive attitudes of parents towards local schools.

There are some issues with the system in Scotland. House-prices can be inflated close to popular schools. There have been a number of high profile catchment disputes over the past few years. In my own community I have heard parents discuss a highly praised secondary which is over 10 miles away despite there being a host of good local options. 

So, does this reflect a shift in attitude amongst parents? I hope not. If parents who are empowered enough to make a choice choose to stay and support good local schools hopefully we won't end up going down the same route as that portrayed in the programme.

The 'Big School Lottery' is part of BBC Two's School Season.

Take a look at the BBC Learning Scotland blog entry 'A Highland Education' by Bruce Munro and Claire O'Gallagher's blog 'A Scottish Lottery?'.

Flora Napier works for BBC Learning Scotland.


Where next for our children's education?

David Shaw David Shaw | 15:02 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Yesterday I attended a lively evening  - a debate at the RSA, organised as part of the BBC Two School Season, in which a panel of four experts fielded questions from a packed audience of teachers, educationalists and the odd parent. 

The one word I did not understand from the experts was scalable. 

The educationalists seemed to be trying to use the word to mean that an experimental system found to be successful in one school should be scaled to a large number of schools and institutions.

I can see the attraction of that, but it did not seem - to me at least - to fit in with the rest of the debate.  

The rest of the debate seemed to agree that not all children respond in the same way to the same educational approach.  Furthermore, the panel agreed that the best teachers are those with a passion for their subject and who can transmit that enthusiasm to  their pupils.

So even the experts seemed to be calling for an education system in which we have passionate, inspirational teachers, each of whom tackles a range of topics in ways that work for that teacher and the students in the classroom at the time.

Not much to argue with there. 

To me, a system which recruits, trains and retains passionate, inspirational teachers is a kind of utopia. But I don't see how it is scalable. Those teachers are individuals teaching in their own individual way.

Sir William Atkinson, one of the country's leading super-heads, amid a vast number of insightful and perceptive comments on the practicalities of engaging children and their parents, said he was looking for scalable solutions which will help to engage the 30 - 40 percent of children who currently do not get a good deal out of the existing school system.

The main thrust of educational thinking, it seems, is on those children whose parents had a bad time at school and who have transmitted that bad impression of school and education on to their children.

Quite right too. Those of us who are intensely interested in the education our children receive won't have too many problems within the school system. On the contrary, our input, energy and efforts will bolster the schools which our own children attend.

Prof Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, offered some astonishing statistics. 

Take two children aged 22 months; one in the top 10 percent of cognitive ability and one in the bottom ten percent. According to Prof Wiliam, if the second child comes from a family where the parents are interested while the first child does not,  then the less intelligent child will be out-performing the more intelligent one by the age of 7.

Sir William Atkinson used this and his own vast experience to say the answer to engaging those 40 percent of students who currently get a raw deal from the education system, is to engage the families. 

Bring in the families, help them learn to read and write; help them get some qualifications and try to reverse the bad experiences of school they suffered during their own formative years. 

Prof Wiliam said it all: Unskilled jobs are disappearing at a rate of 400 jobs every day. Employment opportunities for the unskilled and unqualified are drying up, and fast. 

So the panel welcomed experiments in education, including Free Schools and other radical ideas. The one note of caution was that the consequences of failed educational experiments can be very high for the children involved. 

Prof Wiliam warned that the barriers to entry for potential new heads should be high and that only those with a  record of successful innovation should be allowed to set up their own school.

So, to summarise, the debate concluded that a good education system needs to have support from parents; teachers need to be passionate, inspirational and adapt their teaching approach to each individual pupil and the training and on-going professional development should emphasise the process of teaching and conveying understanding, rather than specific techniques for achieving that. 

Not really rocket science, but fantastically difficult to achieve in an under-resourced nationally-planned education system.

To find out more about the debate, take a look at the RSA website.

David Shaw is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Gareth Malone - from choir master to school teacher

David Shaw David Shaw | 12:49 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


While watching Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys last night, one question popped into my mind: Is it enough to be inspirational?

Let me say first, I think Gareth Malone is wonderful. He is a slight figure, looking much younger than his 35 years. Gareth is a choir master, who has made it on the small screen thanks to his inspirational ways of dealing with underprivileged children and helping them to overcome their own fears of singing in public.

This time around he is extending his repertoire from singing to literacy by aiming to inspire 30 lads in years 5 and 6 to read, write and articulate their thoughts.


Gareth Malone BBC copyright

Gareth turns educator for one term. His mission is to re-engage boys who aren't fulfilling their potential at school and who, like many across Britain, lag behind their female peers.

When my own son was in year 6, it seemed that his teacher failed to engage him significantly and he coasted throughout the year, doing just enough to keep out of trouble, but not enough to develop his thinking muscles.

I don't think that is an uncommon experience, and many of the boys in the programme do not appear engaged at any level.

The aim of the new mini-series, part of the BBC School Season, is to redress the balance between the boys and their female counterparts who, according to national statistics, average a lead of between six months and a year over the boys.

It's a big step and a small step.

A small step because Gareth uses the same techniques to engage the boys that we have seen in his previous three projects. He praises; he uses physical activity; he participates; he brings in credible role models. He thinks out of the box.

And that's why it is a big step. Gareth has no formal teaching qualifications.

In the choir business, there is no legal requirement to accomplish certain tasks or to tackle the subject in a prescribed way. Literacy, on the other hand, is at the centre of government policy in schools, and figures strongly in the National Curriculum and all the complex rules that go with that edifice.

In the current project, Gareth has free rein (heath and safety permitting) to take the boys out and chop down trees (a success); play otherwise-forbidden games (not a success) and bring in external role models (another success).

At this stage I don't know whether, at the end of the series, we will be left with the impression that all it takes is a good teacher, or whether we will be left with the feeling that the government is interfering too much in the education system. The signs are toward the latter, as Gareth says teachers are being compelled to teach boring topics in boring ways.

There is no doubt that literacy among boys is an issue and that we as a society need to ensure that boys learn from books just as much as they do from their games consoles.
In that spirit, any positive contribution to the debate is worthwhile. I am sure this will emerge as a positive contribution, if only for the boys at Pear Tree Mead School.

However, the issue is much broader than the relationship between teacher and pupil. It's about parents; government policy and resources, and those have just as much influence over literacy skills as specific teaching techniques and style.

I'll be watching the rest of the series, if only to get some tips on how to deal with unruly 10 year old boys!

David Shaw is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Read Gareth Malone's entry on the BBC TV blog

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys  is part of the BBC Two School Season of programmes.

To find out times of all episodes from this series, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Catchment - is there really a choice?

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 10:46 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Choosing a secondary school for your child is a big decision and my heart went out to the parents in The Big School Lottery programme (Tues 7th September 2010), who all clearly wanted the best for their children. But how can a system that supposedly favours the wealthy really be fair? It is clear that parents who lived in the affluent areas of Birmingham got the choice of the best schools and they also had the income and time to tutor their kids to pass the 11+ plus. As one parent put it:  "We have the ultimate choice - the best grammar schools or an independent school".


girl from The Big School Lottery programme

The Big School Lottery programme offers an insight into one of the most important and stressful decisions a family can make - which secondary school to send their child to.

I must put in the caveat that I most definitely rank among the middle classes and have chosen a house that is in a good catchment area for a secondary school. And being in the catchment area for a good state school would certainly remain at the top of my list when house hunting. I feel extremely fortunate to be in that position and who wouldn't do the same for their children if they could?

But I am also interested in other systems for selecting school places that are fairer and read with interest about the Brighton and Hove lottery system for school places when it was announced two years ago. However, I was disappointed to learn last week that the experiment had not worked. According to the report, it did not help more disadvantaged students; it wasn't really a lottery system and was still predominately based on catchment areas with only spare places being put in a lottery system for students. 

I came from a family that firmly believed in choosing a school that suited each child, which meant that I went to grammar school, my sister to a comprehensive and my youngest sister to an independent school. My sisters were both moved from schools my parents tried and found weren't suitable for them. Sadly that option isn't open to everyone.

Proponents of grammar schools would say that those who are poor but academically gifted would get a chance to go to a good school but it was clear from the programme that where you live can seriously limit your choice and potentially your child's future.

When I look at my eldest I wonder if we should we tutor her to try and get in to a grammar school. She is bright but loves dancing, drawing and many other activities. If we stretched her academically to get in to such a school, would she struggle once she got there? Could this damage her self-esteem? Would it not be better to send her to the local comprehensive where she can excel in subjects like dance but also be streamed in subjects she finds challenging. Should she go to the all girls comprehensive in our catchment? Or the mixed co-ed school, to be more balanced socially?

These sorts of questions are being asked by parents across the country but if education is only determined really by where you live, how much money you earn or how bright you are - what are the choices left for all the other children who don't have these privileges?

Education is changing and the government announced 16 free schools on Monday, the question remains how will the places in these new schools be allocated?

According to a recent Daily Telegraph article many top comprehensives are even more selective than grammar schools, also favouring the middle classes. It cites a report by the charity the Sutton Trust that claims the only fair way to select children for new schools is by random ballots to stop them being dominated by children from middle class families.

But also suggests it could be in "conjunction with other criteria, for example ability, faith or location". Isn't this what they tried to do Brighton and Hove?

Perhaps the only true egalitarian thing to do is to try and improve all our existing schools, rather than diverting time, money and attention away from the education system we already have.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.  

The Big School Lottery continues on Wednesday, 8 September at 9pm on BBC Two.


The Big School Lottery and me

Lesley Wilson Lesley Wilson | 12:55 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


"..Just seen the Daily Mail - did you know there's a picture of Harry in it? ... And they've quoted you.. We saw you on TV last night...."

Saturday morning and several texts from friends are a forceful reminder that this week a year in our lives is about to become public property - thanks to Blast Films and The Big School Lottery.

Almost exactly a year ago, enjoying the sunshine at the King Edward's Five Ways School Open Day, I fell into conversation (as I tend to do!) with the woman standing beside me. We chatted, exchanging the usual 'children' small talk, discussing our impressions of the school, its pupils, the Head. "So, which other schools are you considering?" I asked. Small silence. "Oh I'm not here as a parent....we're making a film about the secondary transfer process in Birmingham..." My interest was caught, more discussion..."Would you be interested in taking part?"

How could I resist? As a pupil, parent and teacher, I have experienced almost every aspect of the good and the bad that is British education.  I jump at the chance to be involved in anything that will raise the profile of the issues surrounding our iniquitous system. But it's not about me, it's Harry who the programme will focus on - our youngest son aged 10 - as he begins the process of transferring from primary to secondary school.

I have been through the school application process three times before - each one in a different place, with different issues and different outcomes! For Harry it will be the one and only time in his life he will face this important milestone. How would he feel about having it recorded, being followed by a camera crew, asked to describe his feelings, his thoughts on everything at various significant points? In typical Harry style, he is very laid back about the whole thing - "sounds fun", "why not?"

A week or so later it had begun for real as we found ourselves, complete with radio mics and accompanying camera crew, the object of major curiosity as we squeezed our way along the crowded corridors at the next school's open day. Throughout the year, those camera crews became an intrinsic accompaniment to each important school occasion - open days, the 11+, entrance exams, results days, the decision process. They followed Harry at school, in classes, with his friends, at games and in drama club. Snapshots of our family life were filmed, our opinions, our thoughts recorded, immortalised forever.  Being filmed became a part of our lives until, on Friday 3rd September 2010, after following Harry on his first day at his new school, finally it was finished.

So did we regret getting involved? In typical Harry style, he is still very laid back about the whole thing - "mostly it was fun", "I'm quite sad it's finished - I'll miss them". For me - I'm glad we got involved. I have enjoyed meeting the team, sharing my thoughts and being part of the fascinating process of creating a documentary.

What will the final film say about us, about Birmingham and most importantly about education? I hope above all that it, and the other films in the series, will raise awareness of the fundamental importance of education in our society and the urgent need to address the educational issues facing us in Britain today. I hope that it will inspire a collective desire not just to criticise, accuse or blame as is so often the tendency nowadays, but to seek constructive solutions and to look at positive ways to improve that which lies at the core of our civilisation.

For now, I must climb off the soapbox.... eagerly to await the outcome of the last year's adventure in the world of television!

Lesley Wilson and her son Harry appear in The Big School Lottery programme.

Read Julie Newbold's BBC TV blog entry about her job as head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council.

The Big School Lottery starts on Tuesday, 7 September at 9pm on BBC Two.

To find out all future episodes of The Big School Lottery please visit the show's upcoming episode page.

The new school year kicks off

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 17:14 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


It's that time of year again. The school holidays that seemed to stretch into the distance just a month or so back, have evaporated surprisingly quickly. There's a freshness in the air, the days seem to be getting shorter and it's time to get the school uniform out again, if your child can still fit into it!

Chances are though, that your child will have shot up over the last six months so that during summer you will have had to invest in some new school uniform. Internet shopping has never been so useful especially if the thought of traipsing down the high street fills you and your child with horror.  

Perhaps your child is moving up a year still at the same school, so the new term is a chance to catch up with friends after the holidays and find out what their new teacher is really like and get used to their new classroom.

One autumn my daughter told me she'd heard there was a ghost in her new classroom, which was right at the top of a Victorian school building so that made the start of term a little more edgy.   

For some families this new academic year will bring huge changes. If you have a child starting in Infants this is a big transition to make for both them and you. At reception level though, it will mainly be learning through play, in a completely different setting from nursery and they will be encouraged to become more independent.

I remember feeling very emotional when my eldest first started at Infants and desperately trying to hide it from him so he would not feel worried. It's worth being honest about it and talking to a friend you trust. 

For others, it might be that you have a son or daughter moving on to secondary school. Your child will probably be both excited and a little fearful about their new start. It's a bit like snakes and ladders, having been the oldest at primary, they will revert to being the youngest again, being jostled in the corridors by teenagers who are almost fully grown adults. 

On the plus side they will be given new opportunities to do subjects in greater depth such as Food Technology, Music, Art, Languages as well as a range of extra curricular activities. I remember my son making lasagne and bringing it home for us to sample. Even though it had been a bit mangled in his bag, it was a big moment.

Having had four children start at primary and now moving on through secondary, I have noticed that each one has reacted differently to the transfer to a new school. It seems like there's no way of predicting how things will be for them. That's why I try to make time in the first week or so for a special outing or activity with each child to mark the new start, even though getting back into the school routine is probably harder for me than it is for them!

It's School Season

Jemma Summerfield Jemma Summerfield | 15:42 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010


Welcome to the new BBC Parents Blog. Here you will find advice, experiences and opinions about the latest educational trends and issues written by parents for parents. It's also your chance to raise concerns and debate issues that are important to you and your child. Also, keep an eye out for our guest experts who will be on hand to discuss topical issues and keep you informed!

We've launched our blog at an exciting time just as the BBC Two School Season kicks off. It's set to be a thought-provoking season and may spark up a debate about how we can improve our education system. Throughout September there will be programmes about education and the tough decisions parents have to make. The Big School Lottery is the first programme and follows several children and their parents as they apply for secondary school places. Gareth Malone spends a term in a primary school trying to re-engage boys with learning in his Extraordinary School for Boys.

Our Parent Panel will be on hand ready to blog about the issues raised in the programmes so if you'd like to continue the conversation, do check in with us! We'd love you to share your thoughts and experiences on these issues.

To accompany the School Season, the RSA and BBC Learning have organised a debate to explore the issues further and to ask - where next for our children's education? If you have a question you'd like to submit to the panel, you can do so by emailing Find out more including how to apply for audience tickets on the School Season info page on our website. We will be reporting back on the discussion here on the blog shortly after the debate takes place on 13th September 2010.

In the meantime watch the School Season preview featuring a classic track by David Bowie!

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Jemma Summerfield is the senior producer of BBC Parents

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