Last Friday young people across England joined climate change protests. A small delegation from Willink joined the protest march in London. Meanwhile a contingent of our Sixth Form were at the Oxford Union engaged in the European Youth Parliament competition. On Saturday a group of year 8 and 9 were at Reading Magistrates Court competing in the Berkshire “mock trials” competition. So, the question then is how far should our students be engaged in the political and justice systems? At Willink the development of political literacy seeps through the curriculum: for example, citizenship is taught directly through PSRE, environmental issues in geography and science and then there is the enactment of the trial of King Charles1, and a study of the suffragette movement in history. It is not just a body of knowledge or understanding, our students learn the deep-thinking skills of dealing with bias – or “fake news”. We would, of course, not be true to our school motto “village school, global outlook”, particularly at a time when the global outlook is rather bleak, if students did not learn to critically think through information, discuss, debate, participate and, yes maybe, protest within the law. As parents we will no doubt remember the anti-apartheid protests or the pressure to ban CFCs and call off the destruction of the ozone layer. Building a better future through active participation and working together be it on Europe or climate change may be our young people’s calling.
Changing the subject entirely, this week we hold our year 7 parent consultation. In a change to previous editions we have split the year group – TUVW on Tuesday and XYZ on Thursday. This is in recognition of the larger year 7 cohort but also a response to parents who in some year groups last year were unable to make appointments. Although we have considered online booking for parents, the feedback we have received on our current system (some describe it like “speed-dating”) is very positive. If you are a parent of a year 7 pupil please let us know what you think, particularly if you have been unable to make appointments.
It was concerning this week to hear via the BBC news report that modern foreign language (MFL) learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most. The BBC analysis shows drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the number of secondary schools dropping at least one language from their GCSE options. Although only 4% of schools are Grammar schools, they account for 8% of state school GCSE entries. Part of the explanation is the drop in the numbers training to become MFL teachers - the pool of talented recruits is smaller at a time when pupil numbers are increasing. I firmly believe if the teaching is inspirational, all students whatever their ability can achieve well in languages. The other reason is that languages are now seen as a high-risk choice by schools, parents and pupils, as many believe it is harder to get a high grade in exams. It is true that MFL exams are harder with the new specs and that pupils on average in state schools achieve one grade less in GCSE languages than they do in their other GCSEs – at Willink we are no different. Incidentally, independent schools have an advantage when it comes to exams in that they can enter students for the relatively easier iGCSE. The more challenging MFL exams affects A level too. However, schools are promised a more level playing field with regard to exam results by 2020 when the outcome of an Ofqual report will result in a re-alignment in grades.
While German and French - the languages of two of the UK's closest trading partners - have really dropped away at GCSE level across England, there has been a noticeable surge in some others, such as Spanish and Mandarin. We shall be adding Mandarin formally to our suite of languages in September.
Business organisations have expressed concern at the lack of language skills in the UK just at a time when they will be in even greater demand post BREXIT. Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director for business group the CBI, said last week: "Employer demand for French, German and Spanish skills have significantly increased over the last few years. The decline in language learning in schools must be reversed, or the UK will be less competitive globally and young people less prepared for the modern world. As well as speaking a foreign language, increasing young people's cultural awareness and their ability to work with people from around the world is just as important." This is a pertinent statement - made just as our trip to Barcelona leaves – a trip that underscores our commitment to bolstering language learning. We also know learning a foreign language strengthens our students’ credentials for future careers, to become more competitive when applying for apprenticeships or university places.
So, should The Willink join many other schools and reduce the importance of languages? Every year we review our curriculum to consider if it still is right for our students and meets the criteria we set out in our policy (see website). Our conclusion? We think the vast majority of our students should experience languages and take at least one to GCSE level within a broad and balanced curriculum.
What to do with smartphones was a lead story this week. Nick Gibb the minister for school standards in England said that schools should ban their pupils from bringing in smartphones. Meanwhile the UK’s chief medical officers said parents should ban smartphones from the dinner table and bedtimes. At Willink we have said for many years now that whilst we accept that students have phones with them (and many parent want this), they are not (with the exception of the Sixth Form) to be used around the school site during the school day. We do remove devices if they are used without permission during school time. That said there are excellent revision apps we use - ask your Y10 or Y11 children about the PiXL apps ……… but not over dinner time! We recommend the ClassCharts app too! If you are concerned about your child’s use of social media please refer to our information letter first issued last January .
In other news we, of course, held our “Snow Day” last Friday. We had a couple of enquiries about why the snow led to the school closure. Snow does, of course, cause a health and safety risk on site – but assuming snow falls overnight and there is no further snow forecast we can clear the site, perhaps delaying the start of the school day. However, the biggest issue is staffing. We have staff coming in from as far away as Hungerford, Slough, Didcot and Winchester. If we cannot secure sufficient levels of staffing then we cannot open. In addition there is the issue of welfare of staff driving such distances in adverse weather conditions. The decision to close is never taken without due deliberation. On this occasion, given the later blockages to the M3, A34, gridlock in Basingstoke, and treacherous local roads, we believe the decision to close was the right one.
Finally, have you noticed how smart Y11s are? This week we held our Mock Results Day and Sixth Form Interviews. Over 70 interviews were completed in two days with a further day and interviews for external candidates to come. Students were asked to wear appropriate attire for an interview. The Sixth Form team who conducted the interviews reported students’ prepared, positive and punctual!
Two items of news stood out to me last week. The first was The Queen’s message referring to and encouraging simple recipes such as “speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture”. The second was the very worrying report that five per cent of UK adults do not believe the Holocaust took place and one in 12 believe its scale has been exaggerated. At Willink we do take seriously our role in educating about the past and projecting values of respect, tolerance and equality. Last week we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with Year 9 participating in a streamed national presentation on the Holocaust. We also, building our international credentials, hosted all week a group of students from the Admiral Farragut Academy, Tianjin, China. Students and staff together learnt about each other’s customs, language and cuisine. Our present plan is to visit China again at Easter 2020.
In all the Brexit news you may have missed last week’s publication of school performance tables. You can access this information direct from the Department of Education website or via our website – please look up DfE Performance Tables (you can look up any school from this link). Of course, this information tells you only part of the picture of a school. The annual parent survey carried out during Learning Review Day, with a sample of 625 parental responses tells us a great deal (see attached document). Pupils’ enjoyment of school, school-home communication and quality of co-curricular activities have improved, whilst parents’ understanding of our assessment and reporting has dropped a little to the mid 90% satisfaction. Overall satisfaction levels are in the high 90% and we thank you for the trust and support you have in us. The school’s promotion of a healthy lifestyle remains greatest concern – something we are working on through our re-focused tutor programme.