AQA English Language GCSE: Defeating the Beast Part 3 – Writing

In my last two blog posts, I have concentrated solely on the reading section of the AQA English Language paper, with the vague promise of more on the writing section. Since the last blog post, I have been frantically marking mock exams and vacillating between joy and despair. Joy because there have been significant improvements on Q4 and despair at the handful that still have far to go before they can effectively demonstrate their skills in this paper.

This time last year, I requested a copy of every marked script from the exam board after the January sitting. This was done to check that a) the consistency of marking was accurate across the papers as I had heard from conversation with other HoDs that they had found it wasn’t and b) to provide detailed feedback to students and the team on what needed to be done better.

What we discovered as a department was that the marking on the writing section was stunningly harsh, meaning we had to rapidly adjust what we considered to be quality work from students. In essence, we found that unless the written work was nearly flawless and ticked the necessary boxes, it didn’t get above a Band 2. Pedestrian work that was technically accurate scored higher; students who didn’t necessarily show a great deal of flair or originality were rewarded. As a department, we objected to what had been awarded marks and what hadn’t, but knew that we had to adjust our teaching.

So this year, I have been trying to maximise the impact of feedback to students when it comes to their writing and to steer them in their content in a much more focused way.

Stimulus Material – The Blackfish Effect

The AQA English Language writing section is always broadly thematically linked to the reading section. As the content is required to be uncontroversial and accessible to teenagers, picking stimulus material is incredibly important. I made a list of the possibilities: environment and ecology, food and health, sports, travel, technology, family life – the list goes on. It is almost impossible to anticipate and cover every topic that may come up in an unseen exam, but I wanted to give my students exposure to the best range of themes that I could. And who would have thought that the best work we produced would come from a whale? More specifically, a violent, possibly psychopathic orca called Tilikum…

As a class, we watched ‘Blackfish’, quite honestly one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen and students sat, entranced, through it. It concerns the treatment of orcas at Seaworld. When we were done, we orally rehearsed argument about keeping these beautiful creatures in captivity – and built up to writing Q6 type arguments on the issue. I found articles related to Seaworld and orcas and planned reading responses – Q1 and Q4 covered in one go.

Since the ‘Blackfish’ revelation, we have also watched ‘MissRepresentation’ about representations of women in the media and I have scheduled in ‘Vegucated’, a documentary on veganism. How many of us have complained that Literature is brilliant because the students enjoy and are stimulated by the content, but that Language is dullsville? The point is that the right stimulus material has made a difference to what can otherwise be quite dry and led to better, more focused writing.

Live Marking and the iPad

I may be late to the party on this one, but the biggest movement in marks in the writing section happened after this sequence of lessons. I wanted to show that the examiners were exacting in their marking of the writing section – that technical accuracy was of utmost importance and that they did not have all the time or space in the world to demonstrate their skills. After a piece of writing had been completed, I took a snapshot with the iPad – just a couple of paragraphs of work – of four different pieces of writing, across the ability range. No names were placed on the work (but students could identify their own – and we’re told not to say anything if it was theirs) and then printed off. Students had to rank the work according to the mark scheme before I ‘live-marked’ their work as if I was an examiner, on the board. The key to the ‘live-marking’ was the commentary. In the spirit of making the implicit explicit, I narrated the examiner’s thought process as I marked work, attached marks from the mark schemes and commented on band/grade equivalency.

The net result was clear. Students recognised that in their paragraphs, even a snapshot could determine a level and they could demonstrate a range of skills in that short a space on the page. It increased the density of skills demonstrated in their work. Single sentence for effect, use of semi-colon, rhetorical question, exclamation mark, use of embedded clause. Most of all, I was able to use this phrase from then on: “If I took a snapshot of those two paragraphs, what would you be demonstrating?”

Memrise the Vocabulary

No, folks, not a typo in my subheading. I was introduced to memrise.com by a colleague and I think it is brilliant, even if it just shows students that their range of vocabulary is limited and needs expanding. The website, free to all with an email sign up, provides a range of courses (across subjects) in which the content is fed to students in small, memorisable chunks. The concept is simple: memories can be planted and need watering. I got the laptops out with Year 11 and got them signed up. After a few minutes of “wow, I can learn Elvish/Yoruba/Russian!”, students settled into the English vocabulary courses on offer. Because it has social networking functions – students can ‘follow’ each other’s progress – they were soon competing in collecting points and learning the definition and spelling of new words. It’s not something that makes a huge difference immediately, but if you want to stretch the ‘vocabulazy’, it can act as a good starting point.

There isn’t long to go now before that English exam is upon us. Before then, I imagine that you have controlled assessment moderation and administration to complete. Tiredness is kicking in – but we are nearly there! It has just occurred to me that I ought to have some sort of catchphrase to sign off these AQA posts, but at this point on a Monday night, I have neither the wit, will or wisdom to create one. Keeeeeeep AQA-ing?

Just as lame as I thought it would be…

AQA English Language GCSE: Defeating the Beast Part 2

Time is ticking away and I am sure, like me, that some of you are getting heads down to make that final push towards the English Language GCSE.  Every time I speak to the students, I am reminding them that timing is essential and that if they are to succeed, they must finish the exam.  Ergo, they must look like this at the end:

Blog image 1

So, with timing messages going in, I’m turning my attention back to teaching activities that work in engaging and supporting students to make at least three levels of progress. This blog post could just as easily be subtitled: How to Move On From The Bleeding Obvious.  But it’s not, so without further fuss…

Question 2: The ‘I just don’t get it’ Question

Thank you AQA, for creating a question that is on first appearance, a question about the presentation of a text.  Looking at the marking criteria and the listening to the advice of AQA examiners, I know that this low-down, sneaky, good-for-nothing question is in disguise.  It is, at heart, a language question.  Understandable student instincts kick in when they see the words ‘headline’, ‘caption’, ‘picture’ – steering our wards away from obvious interpretations can be like shifting a tectonic plate with a pinky finger.  Students want to tell us, and the examiner, that the purpose of the headline is to stand out as it is big and bold.  I have started off by explaining that this is not a GCSE in the bleeding obvious.  Students have responded well to the information that the examiner already knows that the headline is big and bold and that its purpose is to introduce the article.  I spent a lesson allowing students to make all of the generic statements they could about the features of an article until they were clean worn out and could hear just how boring a response could be.  A Bleeding Obvious Statement Purge, if you like.  We then stopped.

I grouped students into news teams.  Their task was to create an article on a sheet of A3.  One person in the team was responsible for creating the headline using a range of devices, another wrote the text of the article, another created the picture and the caption.  You might think, at this point, that I had gone mad, allowing my GCSE students to draw (!) this close to the exam; however, my friend, you are somewhat missing the point.  They had to re-enact the process of connecting the headline, the text and the picture.  So, a case in point: one team came up with the idea of Miley Cyrus visiting the school and students being very disapproving of her.  The headline was created: “It’s Not Twerking!” and it was accompanied by a text that included details of Madamemoiselle Cyrus’s antics on stage.  The (rather amusing) picture matched the text.  Each group followed suit.

Another lesson was then  dedicated to evaluating how the specific headlines matched the article and why; students responded to questions on how individual words and devices in the headline linked to specific sentences in the main text.  They did the same for the caption.

You might think that the analysis of the picture is nowhere near language analysis, but it is.  It asks the student to analyse the ‘language techniques’ of the visual image: size, shape, position, choice of focus and composition.  But the biggest mistake students make in analysing the picture is not linking its component parts with the words of the text.  We ironed out this problem by looking at each finished article in turn and orally rehearsing responses before committing anything to paper. The result?  The average mark for this question when I did the question by question analysis the first time they did a mock was around the 3.5 mark  After spending some time unpicking the question by creating articles and analysing how they are put together, the average mark was around 6 out of the possible 8.

Question 3: The ‘Common Mistakes’ Question

Personally, I love the simplicity of Question 3.  It requires students to track the thoughts and feelings of a narrator, often on some sort of jolly in a far flung land.  It is also the question that provides the most belly-laughs.  My favourite mistake (and one I have used anonymously as an example to other students) is the one where our faithful narrator was on his way to Giza to see the pyramids.  My lovely student pointed out with huge enthusiasm that the narrator must be a trucker, because he kept using the word “Giza” and this is how truckers speak to each other.  And hilarity ensued.

The fundamental thing that I hadn’t taught him at that point (apart from the fact that Giza is a place), is that Question 3 is not a language analysis question and under no circumstances can it be treated as such.  Question 3 is about things that happen – the event, the reaction to an event, or the thought process during events in the text.  Far too often, my students were looking for the language clues and spending precious time providing me with connotations of individual words and phrases.  We did two things to stop this from happening.  We practised tracking the narrator’s thoughts and feelings logically from start to finish.  The reason we did this was so students could learn to spot the ‘pivotal point’ in the text, where thoughts and feelings might change.  The examiner is clear in giving credit to students who can spot subtle changes in narrative, so this was useful.  Again, by using their own work as samples, we eliminated poor technique.  The usual clanger follows this pattern and I wanted to nix it:

Point: The writer feels very nervous at the start of his journey.

Quotation: “I felt very nervous at the start of my journey

Inference: This suggests that the writer felt very nervous at the start of his journey 

Instructing students to use their own word in the Point (apprehensive vs nervous) was a good start.  They then had to use another synonym in their inference but add a ‘because’.  It meant that they were not, again, stating the bleeding obvious and were showing that they could infer successfully.  We practised using an ‘umbrella’ sentence at the start of the response that outlined how thoughts and feelings changed.  Students sang the Rihanna song unprompted and unceasingly.  This irritated me, but I could see how it had happened.

None of the above is rocket science but it has gone some way in refining technique in the howling demon that is the AQA exam.  Any of your suggestions are welcome on things that have worked for your students.  Sharing is caring, people.

 

AQA English Language GCSE: Defeating the Beast

Anyone who knows the AQA English Language exam knows that it’s a monster. Not one of those cute ones in Pokemon, or like the ones in Where the Wild Things Are. Monster like a spitting hydra, or Medusa on steroids, or a zombie Margaret Thatcher. That’s a strong statement, I hear you say, shying away from my clenched fists and slightly manic expression. Yes it is. But I’m not retracting it. This exam sucks and I’m not doing it anymore. For this current Year 10, I have chosen to switch to the far more reasonable OCR English Language exam.

However, my current Year 11s are still sitting this paper. In the spirit of going down fighting, I am throwing everything into defeating this monster. In any great mythical quest tale, the hero is armed with magical tools – invisibility cloaks, golden shields, quirky metal owls, enchanted swords. I have none of those things. Just some very dedicated staff members with a relentless focus on progress and a determination not to be beaten. And three things that have made a big difference.

In a brief Twitter convo with the ever-lovely @Edutronic_Net – also known as Chris Waugh, a fantastic Head of Department, we decided to share some of our strategies to win the battle against the AQA English Language exam. If you have more, join the conversation and comment away!

Timing

You’d think that 2 hours and 15 minutes would be enough. Most Heads of Department I have spoken to have agreed that the timings are tight on this paper. I hate the idea of sitting the paper tactically; it really shouldn’t have to be done that way. However, if you have students who struggle to complete the paper (and missing a question can mean dropping down two or three grades), I gave some advice to my students that really helped. We discussed the idea of pairing questions to ensure that students have the depth of understanding they need to approach each question – and that they have the chance to read the sources more than once. The method that led to the greatest number of complete Higher papers was:

Scan source texts for inspiration
Question 5
Question 6
Read Source 3 in detail (this is the most important Source)
Question 3 (higher marks for those who can spot a ‘pivotal point’ in the text)
Read Sources 1 and 2
Question 4
Re-read Sources 1 and 2
Question 1
Question 2
Check answers

There are lots of arguments for doing the paper in a linear way – especially as the paper works, in theory, on a building up of skills and if you have students who are speedy writers, go ahead and do it in a linear way. For other students, particularly students struggling to stay above the D mark in the Higher paper, this formula was excellent. We ran a walking-talking mock, where we allowed students to sit the paper with a commentary on timing from the teacher. Students were more confident as they were dealing with pairs of questions and have applied these timings to an actual mock with success.

Fairy cakes vs Fudge cakes

Lost of students write huge answers to the reading questions, don’t score very highly, or knock into the time they should be spending on other questions. To help students understand what a quality answer should be, I used the analogy of fairy cakes vs fudge cakes. Fairy cakes are light, fluffy, full of air. Fudge cakes are dense, thick, rich and delicious. Answers to Questions 1-4 are often more fairy than fudge. In a class this week, I asked students to look at 5 real life responses and rank them fairy to fudge. They then had to identify why the fairy ones were fluffy and airy in comparison to the fudge ones. They looked at phrases that add to the writing workload but don’t add to the marks – for example, in Question 1 phrases like:

- This is a text about…
- From this text by X, the reader is able to understand…
- From this quotation, I can tell…

I taught them the difference between a full essay response structure and an exam response structure. Whichever formula you use for full essays (PEE, PQC etc), this can be condensed into one sentence. By teaching condensing, you can have a greater range of detail. You get fudge, rather than fairy.

The Dreaded Question 4

Considering the national average mark for this question is low, it’s clear that students find it difficult. It requires them to be able to combine several processes at the same time: comparison, word level analysis and whole text comprehension. I’ve been working hard on this one and teaching the component parts of those skills is working. For word/phrase analysis (the exam board makes it clear that simple identification of devices is poor practice), I’ve introduced a 4-part analysis process that needs to be taught before comparison takes place:

- Identify language rich word/phrase
- Connotations of word/phrase
- Link connotations to context of the article, tone, purpose, audience
- Develop by considering links to other parts of the text (lexical grouping, echoing)

The problem my students were having was that they could identify language rich quotations and talk about connotations, but failed to see that language and its effect can only be explored successfully in conjunction with the text’s context. They have to be able to link the function with the point of the text. This week, by looking at real responses and weighing up the differences with examiner reports, they noticed the top marks went to student who showed they ‘got’ the text and the way the language works. Whole text comprehension suffers when students do not have the vocabulary to define tone in a nuanced way. Providing students with a lexicon of words that describe tone to move them on from happy, sad, angry meant that students were making more astute descriptions of tone and effect when looking at the language.

There’s no magic bullet for his and I wish I lived in world where my curriculum at KS3 prepared students for the KS4 exam. I clearly don’t live in that world, and I am looking back at my KS3 curriculum to ensure that it embeds reading skills that can be adapted to a KS4 course of study. In the meantime, though, see if these strategies work for your students in this exam and let me know!

Tough Young Teachers: In Loco Parentis?

On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.

The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.

In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”

How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.

It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”

All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.

So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.

We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.

Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!

First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here

What is The Benefit of Benefits Street?

Channel 4′s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?

Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?

Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.

So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.

Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.

Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.

My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.

It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?

The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?

In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.

No Riots Here: Why Tottenham has Some Hope

It’s not often that you find yourself in the middle of what might turn into a hostile crowd at eight in the evening. It’s not often that you watch press photographers jostling for position, surrounded by angry onlookers and see faces of people who have just been on the news. It’s not often that happens to me and it’s not often that it happens round the corner from my house.

That’s where I found myself yesterday evening after the verdict from the inquest on the death of Mark Duggan. When you live in Tottenham that verdict – for the rest of the nation something to tweet about or to discuss in the office the next morning – becomes suddenly the source of consternation.

I watched as the crowd grew larger and more agitated; some women shouted in the direction of cameras, some hung back, shaking heads. Groups of men gathered. As the police came out of Tottenham police station, a little part of me despaired. Was that a good idea? That was the moment that it felt unstable, unsafe, like one thrown bottle could domino into something more uncontrolled, a crescendo of discontent manifesting in the kind of disorder I saw in August 2011. Back then, I wrote about the aftermath of the first night of rioting on my doorstep and I said that nothing justified the burning and looting of a community, not even the death of Mark Duggan.

I am not qualified to comment on the verdict of the inquest into Mark Duggan’s death. Nothing I can say is new or original and despite my surprise at the outcome, I have seen enough of the reaction on twitter to know that the verdict is as divisive as they come. I have abhorred the racist comments and the lack of empathy and found myself agreeing with the more considered voices out there. What I think of the verdict doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what happened last night. Fortunately, within a couple of hours, the crowd outside the police station had cleared – with the exception of a few, ill-advised Socialist Workers who turned up late to the party. It took me a while to sleep because I kept ruminating on the situation. What would have happened if the man I saw being held back by his friends had successfully gone after the police walking down the road? What would have happened if more people had arrived?

I am grateful that it rained last night. I am grateful people calmed their friends. I am even more grateful, as a Tottenham resident, that Carole Duggan – Mark Duggan’s aunt – has called for friends, family and the community to seek recourse in the law, not to spill their anger onto the streets as was the case in 2011. Her words could not have come at a better time. A vigil for Mark Duggan will take place this weekend in Tottenham and as much as I would love to see this as the event its organisers intend it to be – a remembrance of someone they loved and lost – I can only anticipate it with dread.

The thought of a vigil for the deceased shouldn’t stir this strange nervousness. I should be able to see this for it might be – a peaceful gathering of sad mourners who want to pay their respects. But I can’t. Seeing the fury last night and remembering the result of that fury 2011, I am just left with a lingering anxiety. I want to be able to trust that it will go well, that police will patrol quietly and the mourners will save their feelings of anger and disappointment for a day when they can be heard by a court, if they so wish. I want to be able to trust that the people of Tottenham will let the day pass with dignity.

There is still work to be done in this community to repair the damage of the August 2011 riots. Businesses have reopened, buildings have sprung up in the gaping sockets left by fire-destroyed shops, money is coming in – the White Hart Lane regeneration, the plans at Seven Sisters for shopping and leisure facilities will change the face of this area. I can see a time when Tottenham is seen as a good place to live. Maybe that is a product of a ridiculous optimism, or just naïveté, but I can see it. And I couldn’t before. With that investment comes opportunity for local people. But the work to be done now is about showing that the people of Tottenham can look after their community and respect every one of its citizens, even when angry and hurt.

That is why this weekend, Tottenham needs to show the world another face – because the world may just be watching. It needs to take off its hoodie and smile, pay its respects and go home when the vigil is done. I saw restraint last night and long may it continue.

Careers Advice – Not Fit For Purpose?

In the middle of my Year 13 tutor group’s UCAS application season, I am reminded of the abject misery of the university application process. The tiresome slog of a personal statement that some say is not worth the paper it is written on, the endless sessions on mock interviews, the reminders that missed homework or lateness to lessons may result in a failure to achieve a university place (as if admissions tutors are strategically positioned at the gates of each Sixth Form, marking down the minutes) – all of these things remind that I’m glad I’m not 17 and applying for university again.

It’s not the paper work that is the problem. The biggest issue that my students have faced is a total lack of awareness of the range of courses and careers that are available to them should they wish to apply to university and I do not blame the students at all; I was exactly the same.

At the point when I had to make my choices, I wanted to study English Literature at university but that was as far as it went. I may have uttered the word ‘journalism’ in a panic to a tutor once, or perhaps to my mother, who was more than a little frustrated at my lack of desire to make a lot of money doing something scientific. “All your friends are going to be pharmacists, or optometrists,” she would remind me, as if I hadn’t noticed that my A-Level choices of English Literature, French and History would not be the perfect stepping stone to a white lab coat.

As usual, I see a metaphor in all of this. My students are able to tell me that they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer (when they’re not saying ‘footballer’ or ‘singer’). They see an entire field of study as their final destination – they see the tree. But they have a limited understanding of the ‘branches’. Have I ever taken the time to sketch out those branches for them? My students know there are careers, but not about the careers within careers. And to be honest, they are sitting at the bottom of those trees, looking up in confusion.

What experiences do students have of specific and personalised careers advice? An article in The Telegraph this afternoon serves as a depressing reminder of the gulf between careers advice in the state sector and careers advice in private schools. That gap is even more stark between schools with high proportions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and private schools, where the connections of a wealthy parent or two makes work experience in Year 10 a stratospherically different learning curve for the differing sets of students.

Personalise the Programmes

To close this gap, work in state schools needs to start early – and the key term for our students is personalisation. Our students have aspirations, but lack the connections and confidence to be able to seek out the branches of the careers they may be interested in. When a child arrives in secondary school, they need to sketch out the branches of those trees for themselves, to learn the range of jobs they could aspire to. This cannot be done in a twenty minute session with a careers adviser they will never meet again. Pastoral teams have to make time for this in tutor time, in assembly and in those one-to-one conversations with their tutees. Using technology as a tool to unlock the world of work is a starting point; one organisation, BigAmbition, specialising in digital careers has proactively sought to work with students to develop a quiz that asks questions about personal working preferences and personality – the Dream Job game is a way to start thinking about the branches of the tree that is ICT.

Think beyond university

Considering the cost of a university education, the figures on drop-out rates in tertiary education in the UK makes for sobering reading, particularly when you examine where the majority of students are dropping out of their degrees. Students at lower-ranking universities are more likely to drop out than at Oxford or Cambridge. One only needs to extrapolate a little to know that some students are being given advice that leads them to the right degree choice and others are not given enough advice that enables them to make education choices that are sensible and sustainable.

The sad implication is that it is unlikely that it is privately-educated students who are either attending the lowest-ranked universities or dropping out of them. So, choices become important – and those choice start with GCSE options in Year 9. I have seen schools hand students a piece of paper with a coloured blocking diagram and tell them to hand the slip back with a parental signature. Who do our students talk to, if their parents aren’t aware of the implications of GCSE choices at 14? Starting on an inappropriate pathway potentially leads to failure – and that failure has financial implications at the age of 18 or 19. There is no point in saying: “all of our students will go on to university” like that is the be-all and end-all of education. It is our responsibility to ensure that if they choose to go, they are going to the right place and studying the right course.

Get work experience right

For some students, Year 10 work experience is two weeks off school, sweeping floors in a supermarket. While learning the value of all fields of work is important, quite often, student feedback shows that students are frustrated by their work experience. It’s not an insight into the field they are interested in – and this is partly because the responsibility for administration and sourcing of placements is handed to external organisations. The work experience placements my students benefit from the most are those they’ve found themselves or those that have been recommended by their tutors. It is clear that state schools need to bring work experience back into the hands of the people who know the students best – their teachers. If that means hiring a full time member of staff to co-ordinate work experience and to source appropriate placements, that is what needs to be done.

It is not difficult to see that the fundamental difference between state and private education is the level of personalised careers advice that students are given. I know the statistics on the effect of parental income and education background on the trajectory of their child, but I cannot help but think that we are able to redress the balance between socio-economic groups if we attempt to see our students as individuals who need guidance earlier on, and in more detail. How hard can that be?