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NEWS FOCUS SecEd: On Your Side

The real purpose of education?

I WENT to supper with a crowd of 6th-formers, students and recent graduates last week – and was struck, though hardly surprised, by the depth of their disillusion with our education system, and their anxiety for their own futures. What’s the point of sweating over exams, if going to university is going to leave you with serious debts – and not necessarily with a career to justify that? What’s the point in working hard when there are far too few jobs, graduate or otherwise? Their worries are real. The current situation genuinely

Dr Stephanie Thornton Guest


does raise serious questions, not just for this generation or for individuals, but for education as a whole. Recent changes in university fees will radically

change the situation for many. Some from the poorest of families will simply be priced out of the game: the notion that the universities will provide bursaries on any realistic scale for such individuals is at best disingenuous. Our universities have been deprived of 80 per cent of

their government allowance for teaching, and are already stretched to the point of near bankruptcy, and are reducing staff in unprecedented ways. Far from having largesse to distribute, they are likely

to go for the highest level of fees just to survive. Is the implied debt for the individual justifiable? Government figures suggest that, paying £9,000 a year in fees, a loan of £38,000 should see a student through. By my figures, that allows a laughable £3,666.67 a year for accommodation, food, books, etc. Without substantial parental support, realistically, the average student is more likely to leave university with a debt of £50,000 or more. Repayment will be far from painless, as government rhetoric implies: it cuts in way before a graduate matches even the average wage, and will hamper the individual for years or even decades – affecting the ability to take mortgages, set up homes and new families, etc. Only at age 50 will the slate be wiped clean for those who can’t repay. Debt at this level is a heavy burden to lay on the

young. The justification is allegedly that taking a degree opens doors to a better career and higher income, and that those receiving this benefit should pay for it. But 20 per cent of last year’s graduates are unemployed. And that bleak figure hides a still more bitter truth: many of those now in employment are in low-paid jobs for which they are massively over-qualified. And many of those graduates are never going to make it into careers commensurate with their qualifications: not only are there already too many chasing too few jobs – but each year, the competition is renewed by newer, fresher graduates. However the system is supposed to work, the reality

is that we over-produce graduates relative to the job opportunities, pick the best and discard the rest – having lumbered them with debt on a premise that is, at best, dubious: for it is not, in reality, the individual who benefits from university education, it is society as a whole. Where would we be, for example, without graduate teachers for our secondary schools? Where would the science and technology that contributes to our economy be, if there was no pool of graduates from whom to select the few who will fuel the future? So what to say to the worried young? What’s the aim of

education in today’s world? In my view it’s time to debunk the myth that going to university will get you a better job, and the pernicious notion that a debt of £50,000 (or even £30,000) is nothing to worry about. Aiming for university should no longer be the default value of our school system, but a careful personal choice in the light of the realities. Even our brightest and best might well do better to take another route – and the school system should surely be presenting that as an equally respectable option.

• Dr Stephanie Thornton, a chartered psychologist, is a former lecturer in psychology and child development. Pete Henshaw is publisher and editor of SecEd. Email or visit Follow us on Twitter at

Asbestos alert

On March 9, the Supreme Court upheld earlier judgements that Dianne Willmore had been negligently exposed to asbestos while a pupil at her secondary school in the 1970s. Asbestos campaigner Michael Lees explains the implications of the ruling

DIANNE WILLMORE died aged 49 of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma on October 15, 2009, the day after she heard that the Appeal Court had upheld an earlier High Court judgement that she had been negligently exposed to asbestos while a pupil at her secondary school in the 1970s. Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council’s subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed earlier this month. This case has profound

implications as it is the first of a pupil being exposed to asbestos at school that has successfully been fought through the courts. It has implications for all schools that contain asbestos. It just takes a lapse in asbestos management where asbestos is disturbed and the deadly fibres are released. In Dianne’s case, workmen

removed asbestos insulating board ceiling tiles and stacked them in a busy corridor used by staff and pupils, and also stored damaged tiles in the toilets where vandalism took place. Further exposure was possible when bullies hid satchels

and coats above the ceiling tiles, although it was uncertain in which classrooms that occurred. This judgement reinforces the

need for all schools to maintain rigorous systems of asbestos management, and to ensure that all governors and staff have undergone asbestos awareness training. The Supreme Court heard two

cases concurrently, Dianne’s and that of Enid Costello who had been exposed to asbestos as an office worker in a factory. The court focuses on cases that raise points of law or are of general public importance, and in these cases it was both. Both cases were low-level

exposures and had been appealed by the defendants in an attempt to set a legal threshold so that a person would have to prove that their exposure had doubled the risk of mesothelioma developing – often an impossible hurdle. However, the court dismissed the appeal and ruled that proof was only required that the exposure had “materially increased” the risk. There are a number of cases that have been put on hold as they

awaited this judgement, and these can now go ahead. These include former teachers and at least one former pupil who were exposed to asbestos at their schools and have developed mesothelioma. Around 75 per cent of schools

contain asbestos, with most containing the more dangerous types. Sadly the results of exposure are all too apparent as the number of school teachers’ mesothelioma deaths increases year-on-year. Latest statistics show that in the 10-year period to 2008 more than 140 school teachers died of mesothelioma. Teaching assistants and other school staff have died as well. Three school teachers died a year of mesothelioma in the early 1980s. Now they are dying at a rate of 16 a year. If they are being exposed to

asbestos and dying, then so are the children in their classes, and they are more vulnerable to the effects of asbestos. However, because of the long latency there are no records of the number of children who have subsequently died (their deaths are recorded under their occupation at the time).

It is essential that if proportionate

resources are to be put into solving the asbestos problem in schools an assessment is made of the scale of the problem and the risks, but successive governments have failed to do so. In December, schools minister Nick Gibb said: “The Department has no plans to commission an assessment of the risks from asbestos in schools.” Before the election, the

government established an Asbestos Steering Group to improve the asbestos management in schools. In February it recommended to

the minister that an assessment of the asbestos risks to children is commissioned. For the sake of the children in

our schools one must hope that the government heeds the rising death toll and the judgement of the Supreme Court, and the assessment is now carried out. For Dianne and many others the assessment will be too late.


• Michael Lees campaigns on the issue of asbestos in schools. Visit

Teaching schools

TEACHING SCHOOLS had a prominent place in last autumn’s Education White Paper and since then the proposal has generated a great deal of interest among school leaders. The National College, which has

been given the role of designating, quality assuring and supporting teaching schools, has received more than 900 enquiries from leaders interested in the initiative. Many of these “expressions of

interest” will turn into applications and our plan is to designate 100 teaching schools by September. Our aim is to have 500 teaching schools in place by 2014. The role of teaching schools

spans both school improvement and professional development. Their main role will be to provide strategic leadership and to help a partnership of schools to improve. To be successful, a teaching


school must build relationships that draw on the strengths of the different partners, recognise the key areas for improvement across the area, and focus collective effort on building capacity and addressing these priorities. Teaching school status will be

open to all schools in England – regardless of type or phase – as long as they meet certain criteria: • A significant track record of successful collaborative relationships with partner schools.


The plans for a national network of teaching schools made headlines last year and more then 900 schools have made

enquiries. With the National College leading the development work, SecEd asks chief executive Steve Munby for an update

• An Ofsted rating of outstanding for overall effectiveness, teaching and learning, and leadership and management.

• Consistently high levels of pupil performance or continued improvement.

• Proven capacity within their schools to provide support and development to other schools. The initiative is a continuation

of the school-led approach to leadership development that has grown over the past few years. We know, for example, that two in every five schools are delivering their own leadership and CPD – often in collaboration with one another. These sorts of developments make sure that the influence of great leadership and teaching and learning is filtering further and faster across more schools. Teaching schools will, I believe, amplify and accelerate what we

already have. But if they are going to be successful the concept has to be flexible so that schools can make it work to fit their own particular circumstances. Schools which, for example,

are too small to become teaching schools on their own can achieve that status by drawing on the expertise and capacity of other schools in a partnership. This approach – with the

teaching school responsible for choosing its partners, leading the partnership and ensuring that all member schools meet high teaching school standards – might be particularly attractive to small schools in rural areas. Ultimately, teaching schools

are about building a partnership with the potential for all schools in the group to share and learn from the best examples of teaching and leadership expertise – in

whichever school it may reside. The new role of Specialist Leader of Education (SLE) – also announced in the White Paper – will play an important role in fulfilling this vision. SLEs will be senior or middle

leaders who are outstanding in a particular area, such as subject specialism, performance management, behaviour or school business management, who will be available to share their expertise with schools in the area who request it. These specialists can come from any school within the group. The teaching schools pilot in

London, the Black Country and Greater Manchester gave a glimpse of the real difference they could make across the country, helping many schools access great leadership development and learn from best practice. Primaries in the three regions improved by two-and- a-half times the national average while secondaries improved one- and-a-half times. But to succeed, teaching

schools need to be flexible, as well as informed by the views and experience of schools already working in close partnership. SecEd

• Steve Munby is chief executive of the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services. For more information, visit teachingschools

SecEd • March 24 2011

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