Perspectives on technology and vulnerable young people (2/4)
In this brief series, Terry Waller talks with four leading researchers to gain some personal perspectives on the role of technology in the education of vulnerable young people. The interviews aimed to provide an insight into existing practice, research gaps and potential future areas of investigation, highlighting the challenges and opportunities provided by the internet.
This second article presents the views of Jean Johnson, Chief Executive of the Inclusion Trust.
Despite the money being spent over the past few years by governments, the number of NEETS continues to grow in the UK. The problems are complex and are not simply the product of recession. One contributory element is our exam system. This discriminates against many young people through an assessment system which pigeon holes skills and as a consequence makes judgements based on what they cannot do rather than what they can. Its foundation lies in a pre-technological society. Take teamwork, collaboration and independent working for example – these are often cited as key 21st-century skills. Many young people use these on a daily basis through mobile technologies and social networking. We give them no credit for this. Rather we prefer to recognise what they do through the limitations of a restrictive system based on performance in a written test at a fixed point in time. The nature of this kind of assessment bears no relationship to the real world and is reflected in the way that some schools feel the need to teach exam skills.
The GCSE is not for everyone for a host or reasons, including the focus on supervised coursework and a final exam. If you cannot attend school, will not attend school, then you cannot get the qualifications even though you may be very able. Some would argue that every child should be able to attend school, but what about the rape victim, the gang member under a death threat or the child that has been so badly bullied they have been traumatised? Such children are at one end of the spectrum. The other end is the increasing number young people who simply cannot see the point of our current education system and the relevance to their lives. These go on to become NEETS.
This perception is a stark reality in contrast to the glowing GCSE statistics year on year. Results are improving – so why are there more NEETS with little to show for their years in school? Why are they dropping off the bottom? Our league table system and Ofsted system are problematic for many schools and compound the problem. Heads are accountable to Governors and to Ofsted, and focus on the majority at the expense the marginalised few. You cannot blame them for that. It is difficult for them to spend delegated money on alternative provision for those who are failing in the system when you can target those getting D grades and make them a C and improve attendance for the majority. Those sorts of budget decisions are sensible and well managed, but where does it put the few who fall out of the system? Those few who leave individual schools to become NEETS add up to alarmingly increasing numbers on a national basis. Most Heads are not experienced in commissioning alternative provision and yet in many areas they now have that responsibility. Our experience suggests that rather than focusing on the provision of learning through a personalised, bespoke approach, referrers concentrate on cost, point-carrying qualifications and whether pupils will remain on the school roll. While there are some very good Heads around, this approach is symptomatic of our culture in education. We fail to deal sensibly and quickly with social and emotional problems – but you often need to get that bit right before young people can achieve.
The Wolf Report is not helping either, as there is an emerging chasm between vocational and academic routes. We do need young people with vocational skills following vocational routes, but it is not in Headteachers’ interests to follow that curriculum route under the current regime. This is perhaps the unintended consequence of a well-meant drive to raise standards instead of getting to the root of the problem. We solve effect and not cause.
As for technology, many schools use a content-driven approach to the use of IT in learning, despite research and current educational thinking that says that is not good use of ICT. It is certainly the way of many VLEs which are simply a bolt-on to the curriculum. Thus technology is often not used to engage or explore a range of learning styles or indeed, to personalise learning. Personalisation is often confused with differentiation or with sitting alone at a computer following content-driven software when in fact young people would be better off in front of a teacher. Some Headteachers even tell us that they want excluded young people to work from home doing lessons that are the same as the school scheme of work and lesson plans – failing to ask themselves whether a disengaged young person will sit at home and do that or indeed why they are not prepared to do it in school. These young people are for the most part, those that go on to become NEET.
We also hear about the concerns of employers and their view about what young people need for work and how our exam system and our schools continually fail to deliver. However, we do not use the tools at our disposal to deal with these problems. We turn out kids who are drilled and taught to pass exams, not to be employable. We create a culture of dependency. Young people need hard currency – that means qualifications and soft skills and a value attached to these. Over the past two years the Inclusion Trust has phoned almost all of our leavers of the past four years because we needed to find NEETS. The result? We could find very few at all – less than 10. We believe that is because we are turning out independent, thinking, confident employable young people with a sense of purpose. It is far too easy to blame schools, teachers and headteachers under the guise of raising standards, but the problems are more deeply rooted than that and lie in the very fabric and culture of our education system.
How do we change the system? The starting point has to come at policy level, much of which is well meaning but problematic when it is put in practice. Parental choice when it comes to alternative provision has to happen. Parents want their children in learning, but if they won't attend school for one reason or another, and measures are not put in place to support the child in learning, then one solution appears to be that of taking them off role under the euphemism of home schooling. Another urgent issue is the need to stop the misuse of part-time timetables by some schools when in fact the child needs something different entirely. Controversially perhaps, we should spend less on wall-to-wall technology and more on getting teachers to understand the intrinsic use of technologies as pedagogical tools. We should spend more on using teachers’ skills and less on inspecting them to death. Less on league tables and more on monitoring progression. Less on standardised exams and more on mapping achievements, learning objectives, soft skills, vocational skills and academic outcomes. With current technology this is not hard to do. We need to value our teachers and our education leaders instead of burying them in performance indicators and endless monitoring and rethink what makes a good school and what education is all about. We have much to learn from the Finnish system. We need to put young people absolutely at the centre of what we do. In that way, I think we can start to bring about the change that will reduce NEETS and social exclusion and engage the disengaged in schools.