Blog: Bumping, Prospect and Chinese pedagogy

Blog: Bumping, Prospect and Chinese pedagogy

Post-exam results media coverage is beginning to gather momentum. One feature of this is stories about those unlucky students whose results end up being upgraded following results enquiries, but whose university places have in the meantime been allocated. These situations used to be governed by an informal understanding that universities would hold off re-allocating previously assigned places for up to seven days while students were appealing exam outcomes. That understanding seems now to have broken down as increased competition among HE institutions means that Universities feel they can no longer afford to take the risk of holding open places for students whose grades may still fail to reach the terms of their offer. This is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of efforts to increase capacity in top ranking institutions and, as one head teacher pointed out in the press, reminiscent of airlines unceremoniously ‘bumping’ passengers having overbooked the flight.

This is also the penultimate year in which old style maths GCSEs will be offered. From 2017 the new style of maths GCSE, with an increased emphasis on problem solving, will take its place. This is discussed in an interesting article in Prospect magazine about the tolerance in British culture of poor maths skills. The article illustrates the point with a couple of panels including quotations from various well-known figures purportedly demonstrating their lack of embarrassment at their poor maths skills. Somewhat improbably these include Gordon Brown - he managed one year of university level maths but didn't think he was very good at it - and Ed Balls professing to be glad he hadn't been asked any maths questions during an interview and referring to his mother-in-law, a maths teacher, as the expert in his family, notwithstanding the fact that he has a First in PPE from Oxford. It is perhaps an illustration of a peculiarly British desire to demonstrate anti-elitist credentials that two accomplished proponents of the 'dismal science' of economics, both of whom would have had to demonstrate considerable levels of mathematical competence in their academic and professional lives, should be so ready to disclaim their capabilities.

Finally, I attended an interesting talk last week at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education comparing education in the private and the maintained school sectors. The main speaker was Jon Coles, originally a maths teacher, then senior civil servant and now Chief Executive at United Learning, a not-for-profit organisation that runs both maintained sector academies and private schools. Most illuminating were his comments on cultural differences. He identified in particular a compliance culture in the maintained sector and compared this with the independent sector's indifference to government fiat and capacity to insulate itself from government- imposed control and direction, referring by way of illustration to the independent sector’s almost uniform refusal to respond to the Coalition Government’s urging to set up Academies. He also contrasted the pedagogy-based approach to teaching in the maintained sector with the much more subject-based approach in the independent sector.

Interestingly we saw these two approaches vividly contrasted in the recent BBC series ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School’. In contrast to the child-centred approach shown by Bohunt’s English staff, the method used by the visiting Chinese teachers was highly didactic. Although this was initially resisted by the students, by the end of the experiment a number of them had begun to feel that they were learning more efficiently and, strikingly, they ended up doing better in the exams that were carried out at the end of the series to determine which approach – English or Chinese – was most effective.

Having myself been at school in the early Seventies, I was exposed to both approaches as elements of the Victorian curriculum were still very much in place (from memory I had around eight Latin lessons a week throughout years 9-11) but more individualistic approaches were also beginning to be tried out as a result of the new emphasis on individualism and self-expression that was such a feature of the learning culture of the Sixties. I would hesitate now to say which suited me best but have always been struck by the fact that I can still remember and recite correctly all my Latin verb conjugations forty years later, long after much of the rest of what I learned has left me.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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