14 December 2020

The Monday Briefing: Christmas time (Is here again)

The Monday Briefing: Christmas time (is here again)

As the last week of term begins, and attention turns to the Christmas break, I must confess to being somewhat of a devotee to the magic of the festive season. This has become particularly prevalent this year since my daughter appears to have gotten over a rather unsettling and teary bout of Clausophobia (it’s a real thing apparently) displayed at her first nursery Christmas Party in 2019. Her delight at seeing the Santas on the rather gaudy jumper I wore for Christmas Jumper Friday triggered an immense sigh of relief. 

For me, it has always represented a chance to spend time with family, partaking in eating rich foods to excess, merrily sipping Mulled Wine and enjoying a rare chance to see my close relatives in Scotland. Alas, the latter tradition will sadly fall by the wayside in 2020 for the first time in my life due to travel restrictions and a heightened sense of confinement. Perhaps it means that I will have to indulge in the other activities all the more to make up for this over the next few weeks.

In terms of my teaching career, the schools in which I’ve taught have faced an age-old conundrum as the last week of term looms, a quandary to be encountered by every educational institution up and down the country: do we give in to popular student demand and just show them videos?

Though it may sound a trivial question, this is actually a very real issue worth debating. Ross Morrison McGill, the prolific educational writer (Teacher Toolkit, Mark. Plan. Teach., Just Great Teaching) who featured in a Guardian article entitled ‘Is this Britain’s most influential teaching guru?’ last year, decided to devote a whole article to it back in December 2015. He formulated a balanced argument, showcasing both sides of the coin for staff and students, coming to the fitting conclusion that such an idea belonged in ‘the bin’. I’m sure that his almost 250,000 Edutwitter acolytes would be quite aghast were they to read otherwise.

Omar Akbar, also a successful educational writer, but possibly more famous now for his viral shuffle dance enacted after the return to work following lockdown, wrote a humorous article on this very theme in the TES a few years back. Entitled ‘How to get away with putting a DVD on’, and despite disclaiming his laudable attempt at justifying such a thing by stating ‘of course, I would never suggest that teachers directly contradict the wishes of their senior leadership team’, his piece generated one scornful response which deemed his views ‘concerning.’ The remarkably feverish discourse has even resulted in one school in Liverpool banning the practise entirely to avoid knock-on effects with parents selectively taking their children out during the last week of term.

Our approach at the College is, to all intents and purposes, almost the complete opposite of the video ‘cop-out’. The last week of any term here acts as an exam week - mocks in December (one paper) and at Easter (a full dress rehearsal for the exam), followed by an end of year exam for those not in Year 13 or Year 11. When the end of term comes for students, they have certainly earned it. 

It’s a demanding and focused week for both staff and students. We expect the very best from our students in terms of behaviour and compliance with examination rules, and staff, in return, go all out to mark their papers thoroughly and in a timely fashion to allow for the distribution of exam results on the last day, authentically delivered to students in a results format similar to that which they will receive for the real thing. The process of opening the envelope in front of their friends, or in some instances, on their own, acts as vital preparation for the summer - and firmly embeds within their minds the feelings they either want to replicate or avoid a few months down the line, depending on how it has all gone. The vast majority of the students here  take the exams extremely seriously. They see it as a chance to achieve something for their efforts before the holidays, and, where they do strive to perform well, they are often rewarded in our end of term assembly.

The assemblies this year will obviously have to be done separately due to Covid restrictions but this will make the rewards given no less prestigious. In previous years, we have, in my opinion, been a little elitist with our prizes. To be recognised in the past, one would have had to achieve excellent grades across the board. I’ve worked hard this term to make some changes to the feel of the College: we’re not an exam factory; we’ve dedicated time and resources to the expansion of student voice and wellbeing; we’re supporting students in their applications to university far more fully than ever before. Therefore rewards at the end of this week will measure more besides academic achievements. I’m looking forward to awarding the first ever College prizes for ‘Dedication to the College Ethos’ measured through a cumulative review of merits, attendance and punctuality and ‘Outstanding Contribution Beyond the Classroom’ which I already know will be difficult to determine a winner for. So many students have shown leadership and a desire to contribute to our charity initiatives, student council priorities or College improvement this term that the selection panel will be spoilt for choice.

I wish everyone a fulfilling last week of term, and an enjoyable festive period when it arrives.

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