‘Breathless, headlong change has left education in turmoil’

The Telegraph, 21/11/14, speaking to the Telegraph ahead of his departure, HMC member John Newton, head of Taunton School, says fast change and the focus on grades are raising "Generation Unhappy". 

“My concerns are that we – Generation Comfort Zone – are raising Generation Unhappy," Newton argues. "The current Year 11s have been pulled through the biggest curriculum turmoil that a year group has seen in a generation, if not longer,” he says, citing A/S changes, the UCAS tariff change in 2017, and the recent change from modular GCSEs.

More broadly, he continues, “they will have to work for a lot longer, will have to save up harder to get a pension, will take longer to get a mortgage, will have to repay large university fees, and will have to enter a much more competitive market place.

“Right now,” he says, “it feels like education is used by parties to win votes, it’s not provided

“The cocktail of options at Sixth Form level is more worrying than ever,” Newton says. “Pupils are going to have teachers who haven’t taught linear A-levels before, therefore they are going to get a lesser service from their teachers.

“I would broaden the discussion to say that we don’t mark their exams properly either – we have already seen a huge campaign by HMC who were worried about the quality of oversight on examination boards and the marking process.”

The campaign, noted by Newton, led by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), first published concerns in 2012 about the quality of marking, the inconsistency between exam boards; and a lack of transparency in the appeals process that led to pupils receiving inaccurate grades.

Following this, in 2014, the exams regulator, Ofqual, published a review; making recommendations to improve the quality of marking for GCSEs and A-levels.

Yet, for Newton, the system still has key flaws that are letting down pupils across the country. The problem, he argues, is the lack of a “unifying ethos” of what an educated 18-year-old looks like.

“If [students] are doing A-levels, what we want for university is three grades in three subjects. We don’t think about their spiritual dimension and their physical well-being. We’ve reduced funding for the arts, so the cultural dimension has also been affected.

He adds: “We don’t actually, honestly and seriously believe in the whole being – we just believe in AAB, get yourself into a Russell Group university.

“League tables have created this effect; league tables say something, but not everything, about a school’s education. I’m afraid that schools which are league table focused tend not to focus on well-being – they systematically want pupils to achieve the highest grades and put enormous pressure on them to do so, leaving the rest behind.”

For Newton, the International Baccalaureate (IB) – which is offered at Taunton School alongside traditional A-levels – is one answer to this concern.

The theory of knowledge course, and creative, action and service (CAS) programme – taught as part of the IB – nurture, in Newton’s view, an “all-round education” for young people – very different from the “narrow criteria” of traditional A-levels.

“We are currently returning to the system of education that I had in 1983,” argues Newton. “You did three A-levels at the end of upper-sixth, and then applied to university. However, we need to look at the sorts of competition that, when my children are 40-years-old, they are going to have to face.

Speaking about his departure in December, Newton – who will be succeeded in January by Lee Glaser, current deputy head – added: "I will miss Taunton School immensely, because it is a fresh, vibrant place with terrific teaching staff, a very caring ethos and, at the same time, really modern day ambition and innovation. It’s been a great place to work."

Click here to read the full article © The Telegraph (subscription may be required)