The Perse School

The Simple Things in Life are Free

Something for nothing, or not much for a lot?

Politicians want to do good. They also like making big waves as this gets their careers noticed.  The experts who advise politicians can be influenced by those who make money from change.  The consequence is that governments’ are drawn towards headline grabbing reforms born out of a genuine desire to improve matters but often with an expensive price tag.

So how do we get something for nothing? Firstly we should realise that doing nothing can sometimes give you something.  London South Bank University’s Professor Stephen Barber argued ‘The Case for Doing Nothing’ in a recent broadcast on BBC Radio 4.  His research looked at what governments do but also what they choose not to do, and the simple notion that, sometimes doing nothing can produce better results. The obvious example in education is exam reform.  If qualifications remain stable, teachers can perfect the resources and pedagogy that underpin the qualifications, leading to improved learning and higher levels of pupil attainment.

The jury is still out on Michael Gove’s (MP) reform of public exams.  However, if history is anything to go by they too may represent a poor return on investment. Typically, new qualifications with which teachers are unfamiliar, are taught less well.  New qualifications designed to improve standards thus lead to a decline in student attainment in the early years of the new qualification. Too often just when teachers have mastered new qualifications with a consequent rise in teaching effectiveness and student attainment, the qualifications are reformed again.  Moreover the costs of reforming qualifications are considerable and eat into exam board margins.  The result is that cash strapped exam boards close down small entry subjects to save money – the latest to go is A-level Archaeology, Electronics, Classical Civilisation and History of Art. What began as a genuine attempt by Michael Gove to raise standards may end up being something very different.

Regrettably many of these reforms fail to deliver real improvements resulting in a lot of time and money being spent for little educational return.  The examples in schools are numerous and range from misplaced IT expenditure, in many subjects electronic white boards have done little for learning, to the current debate about school structures (grammar, free school, academy etc.) which will soak up huge amounts of management and governance time while costing a vast amount in legal fees.

Something for nothing, or not much for a lot?  It may seem like a “no-brainer” but the history of educational reform is littered with too many examples of the latter and not enough of the former.

Doing nothing is not what politicians are elected to do, so they will understandably want to do something to improve things.  As such the best forms of action are those that yield significant benefits for little expenditure – effectively something for nothing.

One example would be to look again at school term dates.  The current pattern of terms and holidays is a largely Victorian construct based around the labour demands of factories and farms rather than educational effectiveness.  Long terms lead to tired staff and children and this compromises teaching, learning, behaviour and well-being.  A national move towards shorter terms which are interspersed with shorter breaks could be beneficial. If these terms were staggered on a regional basis, holiday times could be spaced, leisure facilities more effectively used and the cost of peak time family holidays reduced.

Another example of achieving something for nothing would be to bring British Summer Time forward from the end of March to late February – the equivalent spring debate to the one that swirls each year around the October clock change. If British Summer Time began after February half term rather than at the end of March, children would benefit from another hour of daylight in which to play and exercise outdoors.  An extra five weeks of light evenings and fresh air would greatly benefit child health and well-being.

My final piece of something for nothing advice is for parents.  As children get older their demands for a mobile phone increase.  There comes a point where for good logistical reasons parents give in and buy their children phones.  However, with the acquired phone should come a rule – the phone curfew.  Ideally about an hour before bedtime a child’s phone should be surrendered for re-charging; in the perfect world it would be exchanged for a book and some bedtime reading.  It should become an established rule that phones stay downstairs at night, so that they don’t interfere with sleep and increase the risk of inappropriate social media activity and addictive gaming.  Fatigue caused by late night phone activity compromises learning and behaviour.  In a study of 10,000 16 to 19-year-olds, conducted by the Norwegian Research Centre,  researchers  found that the longer a young person spent looking at an electronic screen before going to bed, the worse quality sleep they were likely to have. Indeed, Eustace de Sousa, the National Lead for Children, Young People and Families at Public Health England said that the more screen time children have, the more likely they are to experience attention difficulties, anxiety and depression.

The fallout from inappropriate late night social media sessions is a significant source of teenage unhappiness.  Much of this could be avoided if the phone stayed downstairs when children went to bed.  Sometimes small measures can deliver big benefits…..

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