Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: June 2017

Exploring what's free about UIFSM

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was pleased to see that the daft pledge to means-test payments for infant school meals hasn't made it into the Queen's Speech.  Unsurprisingly, this was an unpersuasive proposition on the nation's doorsteps.  Voters recognised sweets being snatched away when they saw it.

The Soil Association's excellent Food for Life [FFL] programme (with which I am associated in a vanishingly minor way) wrote this:

Following the Queen’s Speech this morning (Wednesday 21 June 2017), we are delighted to hear that the pledge to discontinue Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) was not included in the announcement.  The removal of UIFSM quickly became the most unpopular pledge in the Conservative manifesto with parents, head teachers, and caterers all expressing their disappointment and disapproval, with our survey finding 80% of schools are ‘very concerned’ about the potential withdrawal.  Joanna Lewis, Strategy & Policy Director of the Soil Association, commented:

“The omission of  the pledge to discontinue UIFSM  from the Queens Speech is great news as we need Universal Infant Free School Meals now more than ever. An investment in school meals are an investment in child health – critical when one in five children is obese by the time they finish primary school. It is also an investment in educational attainment, a financially viable catering service, and a culture of healthy eating.  The Government must now commit to a rigorous long term evaluation of the health, educational, and social benefits resulting from the policy.  It must ensure that schools and caterers are supported to deliver high quality, healthy and sustainable meals.  All children deserve to be raised in an environment in which it is normal, easy and enjoyable to eat well - Universal Infant Free School Meals are an important step towards creating such an environment.”

Together, along with the great campaign led by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation and Leon, we have ensured the voices of schools were heard by Government. They have listened to our dismay at the potential discontinuation of the policy, which would have resulted in job losses, growing inequalities, and a return to the dark days of junk-filled packed lunches and social stigma attached to free school meals for the few.

And here are the children of Charlton Manor school and Washingborough Academy, celebrating.

I think that children should eat good food.  I also think that it would be good were parents and carers to take responsibility for providing this, but I understand why this isn't always possible.  Thus, for young children, there's a convincing argument for the school providing this through tax-payer funding, especially when quality can be assured through the admirable catering mark and FFL schemes.  This might be an argument for older children to get this as well, but that's for another day.

What I object to in all this is the use of the word "free".  None of this is free, just like, for example, the NHS is not free.  Somebody always pays; in fact, everybody pays something or other.  The NHS mantra is "free at the point of delivery" which at least makes the point (somewhat obliquely, mind you) that there are costs to be paid by someone, somewhen.  I'm writing all this because I wonder what children are being taught.  Are they being helped to understand that the costs haven't vanished, but, rather, have been socialised for good reasons, and so are being borne by everyone (including, of course, one way or another, by their parents and carers).  I hope so.  It's never too soon to learn some economics, and there are dangers in not doing so as you risk being in thrall to silver-tongued demagogues.


Oh the joy of being TEF-free

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It's TEF time in universities and colleges.  This is when there are either whoops 'n' hollas of joy (relief more like) or the traditional wailings 'n' gnashings when an institution had been utterly misjudged and hence had its reputation traduced.

Southampton is one such, and its VC was given the run of the THE to express outrage 'n' disgust at the outcome (a bronze medal).  He described the TEF as “fundamentally flawed” with “no value or credibility”, adding “There is no logic in our result at all [and] the benchmarking is fundamentally flawed”.  He added that the “concept of gold, silver and bronze was absolutely meaningless” for students seeking educational excellence, while the TEF’s name was misleading as its metrics were not a robust measures of teaching quality.  Others who did badly complained as well, as did the National Union of Students which called the TEF

“another meaningless university ranking system…[which] fail[s] to capture anything about teaching quality”.

Well, whilst, all this outrage invites something of a Mandy Rice Davies response, there is clearly a contrived quality to the TEF, and nobody (as far as I'm aware) was ever observed actually teaching.  Understandably, there are appeals in process.  Happily, I am TEF-free, being neither required to contribute to it, nor to take much notice of it – actually, any notice of it al all, which renders this post rather gratuitous and voyeuristic.  I'll just add, for what little it's worth, that I rather agree with the NUS.


£780,000 worth of unsustainability

📥  Comment, News and Updates

According to MSN, it cost the Eavis family £780,000 to clean up after the Glastonbury Festival.  This is the biggest, most spectacular clean-up bill yet.  This was despite the involvement of around 1,300 recycling volunteers who came to the farm (that's about half the population of Somerset).  I don't understand how it costs so much.  Mind you, I don't understand why so much rubbish is dropped either, unless littering is part of the essential experience.  Is it?  Judging by the pictures of overflowing rubbish bins, littering is built into the experience.  There's nothing so sustainable as litter, it seems; anyway, it all adds £780,000 to GDP.  Maybe Eavis should partner with Untidy Britain for 2019.

There's no festival next year in order to give the land, village and local wildlife a chance to rest (according to Eavis).  You have to wonder what ageing MPs and geriatric rockers will do next June; not to mention the BBC.  How will it fill its overflowing channels in mid-June?

How about some jazz?


UK National Action Plan on ESD adopted

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Great news from UNESCO.

On 20 June 2017, the National Platform on ESD, the UK´s supreme steering body for the implementation of the Global Action Programme on ESD (GAP), has adopted the National Action Plan for GAP implementation.  It defines 130 objectives and 349 measures to scale up ESD in all areas and at all levels of the UK education system.

Based on a two-year participatory multi-stakeholder process, collecting input from expert forums, partner networks and an online consultation for the general public, the action plan targets education plans and curricula as well as pre- and in-service training and education of educators and trainers in formal, non-formal and informal education. Furthermore, the plan focusses on strengthening ESD networks and good practice as well as whole-institution approaches to ESD.

The National Platform on ESD brings together 37 high-level representatives of politics, science, industry and society. It is chaired by a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Education. The ministries for environment, family, and economic cooperation and development are taking part in the Platform, as are representatives of the different parts of the UK responsible for formal education and schooling.

All members of the National Platform serve as advocates of ESD – also within their own organizations and institutions. They have been called upon to propose commitments in order to support the implementation of the National Action Plan. Furthermore, the UK´s big annual ESD conference, the “Agenda Congress”, bringing together 500 stakeholders on 27/28 November 2017 in Manchester will focus on accelerating the implementation of the National Action Plan.


I know that all this sounds too good to be true, but it is – it's just not true in the UK.  Inevitably, perhaps, it's happening in Germany.  Here's more information:

This could never happen in the UK.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.


Glastonbury and the Soil

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"Maybe this year", I said to myself.  "Maybe this is the year I go – before it's too late in every sense."  Well, the nearest I got was the 1436 from Paddington to Castle Cary last Thursday.  It was a Festival Special crammed with rucksacks, bed rolls, guitars, and slim, well-to-do young(ish) people in a positive mood.

I found a seat in the quiet coach which remained so apart from some gentle strumming and vocal murmuration.  It was very good to share the train with such a happy band – even if they were utterly unrepresentative of the youth of the land: there was no austerity on show here.  The hardest part of the journey was getting off (before Castle Cary).  This was not because of some sudden urge to stay to the end; I had, after all, no festival ticket, and I was hardly dressed for the weekend.  Rather it was negotiating the half-abandoned luggage and bodies on the floor in order to get to the door.

I'd been in London for an even more positive occasion: the 70th birthday bash of the Soil Association.  This was a splendid event in every sense celebrating the first 70 years of the revolutionary movement to restore the integrity of the earth.  There were some positive young people here too, and the lunch was fantastic.  I may say more about the party at some later point, but for now, here's how Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall provided words of future encouragement:

Sylvia Plath's MUSHROOMS

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.


NUS to go 100% Fair-trade for cotton

📥  Comment, News and Updates

At the recent NUS Services Convention, its member students’ unions unanimously approved a resolution for NUS to become 100% Fairtrade for the cotton products it sells.  This year, about 18% of the ~£4m of cotton clothing NUS sold to and through students’ unions was Fairtrade.  The new target is that this will be 100% by the time NUS turns 100 years old in 2022.

NUS says that forced labour of students is a real issue in Uzbekistan, as is child labour in Pakistan, and it knows that much of the cotton in its non-Fairtrade products originates from Pakistan, with, possibly, some from Uzbekistan.  It says that Fairtrade is the only guaranteed way to track cotton back to the exact the field in which it was grown, and that this also gives it certainty that people have not been exploited in the growing and harvesting of it.

Inspired leadership.

Voting for cake in Schleswig-Holstein

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Cheering news that a kindergarten in Schleswig-Holstein is giving toddlers a say over things such as what games to play and which food to have for lunch.  The Times quotes Kristin Alheit, the Social Democratic Party social affairs minister of Schleswig-Holstein:

“Young people can and should learn about democracy.  When kids take part and are taken seriously, that shapes them for life.”

Indeed.  In our jargon, this is student voice at work, except that these children don't talk about their preferences.  Rather, glass beads are used for the votes.  When deciding on which flavour of cake to have they are asked to place their bead on a table next to an apple, piece of chocolate or a lemon.  They can also decide on wider school issues such as a new piece of playground equipment by delegating two class representatives who serve on the school kindergarten council.

Heike Schlüter, the deputy head of the school said that the children can differentiate between, and deal with, various situations very well.  But she added that there were clear limits on what the children could decide for themselves and they would not be able to vote against items in the school constitution.  Nor, presumably, in favour of changing the constitution.

The children had taken up their voting rights enthusiastically, Ms Schlüter said.  The main stumbling block to a democratic kindergarten, she said, were the adults who were used to retaining all the power and were reluctant to adapt to the majority view.  As accepting the tyranny of the majority is a key democratic principle, cake seems a good place to start.


Nature, Nurture and Environment

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I read an article on parenting the other day as it's never too late to learn.  It only really contains this piece of advice:

“… it should be enough for us to remember that our children are human beings, worthy of the same ethical treatment we give to our friends, other relatives, and even to strangers.  So protect your children, provide for them, be good to them, and make memories with them.  Apart from that, don’t expect to have very much say in how they turn out."

Sound advice, it seems to me, even though the last sentence may well shock many people.  The article’s focus is the age-old issue of nature v nurture;  heredity v environment, and has a lot to say about twin studies – which I intend to ignore in what follows; just as I'm staying away from the vexed question of intelligence.

Reading the article took me back to 197something and a debate at the Cambridge Union where the US genetics & IQ guru, Arthur Jensen, was sub-heroically trying to argue that intelligence was X% inherited and Y% influenced by environment (ie parenting and other socialisation).  I forget the exact figures, although X > Y, of course.  It was a one-sided affair as there were six people opposing Jensen.  One was Stephen Rose; another was a bloke from the USA called Jerry Something.

I had already read enough to know that Jensen's certainties were certainly misleading, as was his spurious precision, but it was Jerry S who made the main point for me.  He said that it was obvious that intelligence was 100% inherited and 100% influenced by environment.  In other words, genetics set a limit, and parenting decided how close you got to it in your life.   This appealed to me at a common sense level.  Looking back on it, however, the very notion of a limit was far too deterministic and, well, limiting.

I held to this 100 – 100 view until a conference that I've already written about where Richard Lewontin's keynote changed this view of human intelligence and inheritance. Lewontin qualified the idea of environment to include not just parental and societal influence, but also all the influences that apply before these can begin.  These are [i] the unpredictable and varying biochemical inundation that a foetus experiences whilst in the womb; and [ii] the random, quantum-level decisions that are made, particularly in the developing brain, during development (both pre- and post-natal).  These are described in the article in this way:

"... the environment matters, but not just the environment that the child experiences in the home.  The environment in this sense is far more nebulous and hard to nail down — behavioural geneticists call it the ‘non-shared’ environment and it includes anything that causes two siblings to be different from each other.  And I really mean anything.  The psychologist Steven Pinker puts it this way: ‘A cosmic ray mutates a stretch of DNA, a neurotransmitter zigs instead of zags, the growth cone of an axon goes left instead of right, and one identical twin’s brain might gel into a slightly different configuration from the other’s.’  In other words, we should not presume that random chance plays a vanishingly small role in making us the people that we are today."

For me, that randomness might explain a lot more than why twins can be different, and is why I like this idea a lot.  It also gives something of the lie to Philip Larkin's pessimism for one thing.

Is this the end of the nature / environment debate?  I doubt it, but it's enough for me for the times being.


Wasting Indian minds


📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Economist, last week, had an editorial on the poor state of India's schools.  It begins:

"In 1931 Mahatma Gandhi ridiculed the idea that India might have universal primary education “inside of a century”.  He was too pessimistic.  Since 1980 the share of Indian teenagers who have had no schooling has fallen from about half to less than one in ten.  That is a big, if belated, success for the country with more school-age children, 260m, than any other.

Yet India has failed these children.  Many learn precious little at school.  India may be famous for its elite doctors and engineers, but half of its nine-year-olds cannot do a sum as simple as eight plus nine.  Half of ten-year-old Indians cannot read a paragraph meant for seven-year-olds.  At 15, pupils in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh are five years behind their (better-off) peers in Shanghai.  The average 15-year-old from these states would be in the bottom 2% of an American class.  With few old people and a falling birth rate, India has a youth bulge: 13% of its inhabitants are teenagers, compared with 8% in China and 7% in Europe.  But if its schools remain lousy, that demographic dividend will be wasted. ..."

If you think these stats are bleak, you probably shouldn't read any more as the story gets worse when teachers are considered.  In fact, there seemed no positive news at all, which probably explains a drift to cheap private schools.  When it comes to a quality education, getting children to school in the first place can be a huge challenge; India shows that deciding what to do once they are there can be equally problematic.


Ofsted's curriculum enquiry

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have heard back from Ofsted's Seam Hartford about its forthcoming curriculum review, and about whether the public could take part.  His letter said:

"The current phase of this work is focused on gathering evidence about the curriculum on the ground.  We are conducting visits around the country to build our understanding of what is happening in primary and secondary schools, and colleges.  We are drawing on research evidence and expertise to help us frame this work.  At this stage, however, our questions are for schools, rather than the public.  This is why we are not yet inviting comment through our website.  Once we have evidence to share, we will be publishing it and inviting comment from anyone who is interested in this area of work."

No timescale was suggested, and so those "interested" will just have to keep looking at the website.  It's worth reminding ourselves that it's not just a question of being interested in the curiosity sense, as we all have an interest, ie, a stake, in what is taught (and not taught) and why.  I suppose I am a bit surprised that special visits have to be made to "build understanding" of curriculum, but I guess that's a reflection of what a neglected area it all is these days.