Saturday, 23 February 2013

Back to University at Over 60?

Sat in my Doctor's surgery the other day, I started reading an article in "The Daily Telegraph" (well, there was nothing else to do while waiting). The article, by Tim Ross, "Over -60s are told: go back to University and retrain", outlines the government's latest scheme to reduce the unemployment figures by focussing on that notorious group of slackers and benefit claimants: the pensioners and the retired. I have a special interest in this group, because I am one of them.
As a (semi) retired person, my first thought when looking at this article was to be encouraged. "Great!", I thought, "now I can fulfil my dream of getting a degree in Anthropology and Middle English". I honestly believed (for a moment!)that the government was about to engage in an act of benevolence. Er, no, not quite. It's all about the Tory idee fixe: saving public money. As Ross says:
 "One in four people will be older than 65 by 2033 and economists have warned that the ageing population will place an unsustainable burden on taxpayers unless more people work for longer."
Ah, so that's it, I thought. The Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, does try to put a spin on it:
"Mr Willetts, who is accompanying David Cameron in India, urged workers older than 60 to give further education serious consideration. “There is certainly a pressure for continuing to get retrained and upskilled,” he said. “Higher education has an economic benefit in that if you stay up to date with knowledge and skills you are more employable.”

Mr Willetts said a university course had “wider” benefits, making people more likely to lead healthy lives."
The article goes on to sweeten the pill by saying that the upper age limit for student loans has been raised, making over-60s eligible for financial help. It was then that the whole thing began to unravel for me (I had time to do it - the practice Nurse was a bit late). "Hang on", I wondered (silently)," won't that mean people over 60 will have to work for years after graduation in order to repay their loan, as do their younger counterparts?" Tim Ross has the answer:"However, the average pensioner this year will have an income of £15,300 a year, meaning they are unlikely ever to be required to repay the loan".
In which case, I wondered, how will that benefit the economy? After all , the over-60s graduate will need to get a well-paid enough job to earn a good rate of income tax. Besides this, when the over-60s graduate goes for a job, they are unlikely to be seen as an attractive proposition to employers for various reasons. This is especially true in public sector occupations, where employers have an unspoken drive to rid themselves of older staff (ask any teacher over 50). Nor was it made clear in the article how older graduates were going to find employment when younger graduates could not find work. This point was emphasised elsewhere in the Torygraph by a real-life over 60s graduate, Linda Kelsey:
“Education is such a good thing, it is not reserved for young people,” Willetts went on to say. “There will be people of all ages who will want to study. There is great value in lifelong learning.” Now you’re talking, Mr Willetts, as I have lately discovered. But this has nothing to do with the labour market."
Anyway, the nurse was ready, so off I went to get my blood tested. I can only wonder - how long before someone tests the sanity of the present government? This inept initiative will almost certainly go the way of their much-vaunted (and dismally failed) "back to work scheme", which has signally failed in its efforts to get people off invalidity benefit.
Mind you, I'd still like to go back to "Uni" - but not with the aim of finding a high-powered job (which I'd be very unlikely to get).
Next time I visit the surgery, I'll take a book with me - or the Guardian.

Monday, 18 February 2013

OFSTED and Physical Education

Well, the wide awake club, aka OFSTED, are at it again. As readers of this blog know by now, OFSTED has a habit of making periodic scandalous discoveries about education in the UK. They usually never explain why or how they suddenly unearth these horrendous malpractices, but at least we know how long it has taken them to find out that many children in the state education system are not getting the physical education (PE) they deserve. As Richard Garner observed in last Thursday's Independent:

"PE lessons in more than a quarter of Britain’s schools involve so little physical activity they fail to improve pupils’ fitness at all, a highly critical report has found."

What Mr Garner does not tell his readers is that OFSTED took FOUR YEARS to arrive at this conclusion - still, at least they haven't rushed to make their judgement. Unkinder commentators might point out that OFSTED are supposed to have their podgy fingers on the pulse of education and wonder why it took them so long to alert the public of this disturbing situation. Without these "discoveries", there would be no need for OFSTED, but that is another story.
Now, as it happens, I have more than a passing interest in PE, having been a co-ordinator in this subject in several primary schools over the years. While no fan of OFSTED, I have some sympathy with Richard Garner when he says:

"Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, accused teachers of taking the “physical” out of physical education by talking too much in lessons and not involving children in enough strenuous activity to build up their stamina or strength."

There is an element of truth in this, but it fails to account for the reason why so many teachers feel that they have to teach in such a way. This does not happen because schools and teachers choose to follow this procedure; it happens for several reasons:
1. Teacher training, which, in some teacher training establishments, emphasises the explanatory side of PE rather than the physical.
2. Pressure from above to attain academic targets, which leads some schools (especially primary schools) to neglect PE and other non-core subjects.
3. Dreary and uninspiring PE schemes of work, which are often unrealistic and boring for pupils AND staff.
4. Financial constraints on schools, which have led to many schools selling off their playing fields, and to "prioritise" at the expense of PE. Schools have been castigated by OFSTED for not teaching their children swimming - no mention is made of the fact that some schools simply do not have the money to afford swimming instruction.
 Strangely, Mr Garner and OFSTED do not take these factors into account. This is grossly unfair, as the problems OFSTED highlight are not, in my view, the fault of the schools under discussion. Teachers in schools have to follow their school's PE scheme; the school follows LEA guidelines; the LEA follows DES directives. The blame for the latest OFSTED shock-horror expose lies elsewhere, but OFSTED are not likely to attack their government bosses.
As a practitioner, I have experienced all 4 of these factors, the most significant being the schemes of work. Some Educational Gymnastics schemes require children to contort their bodies in all manner of unnatural shapes and move in bizarre ways that are about as useful for improving children's fitness as giving them doughnuts and coke in the afternoon. When I taught such lessons, I always tried to incorporate a game of some kind. When OFSTED were visiting, however, I followed the plan strictly! I did not realise that the inspectors might be thinking that the children were not getting fitter for following the plan laid down from above - and which they seemed to approve. Having said that, some OFSTED inspectors do not seem to be up to assessing PE anyway, as a Daily Mail article about OFSTED inspectors puts it:
"One PE teacher was reportedly told that their lesson was ‘unsatisfactory’ as there were ‘children doing nothing at some points in the lesson’.
The decision was overturned after it was pointed out that the pupils were fielding in a cricket match."

My personal view is that all PE - gymnastics, dance, games, etc, should be relevant and enjoyable. Yes, children need to get fitter, but the change needs to come from the top down - simply moaning about schools is not the answer, and is extremely unfair. Yet again, I ask: when schools are feeling the financial pinch, why have there been no cuts in the OFSTED budget?