Rona Mackenzie: The grammar school debate causes me grave concern

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I met with friends last weekend and their two young sons were fascinated by the YouTube videos entitled, ‘People are Awesome’.

The videos are made annually and show ordinary people doing some amazing physical stunts and feats. I use them for college assemblies as I love to see the awe and wonder in the faces of our students and then remind them that these people are just like us – we are all capable of being awesome in our own special way if we practise and work hard.

I also use TED talks for my assembly inspiration and one such talk that interested me was the ‘Power Pose’ talk by Amy Cuddy.

Amy is a remarkable woman; early in her university career she was involved in a car accident and suffered a severe head injury. Doctors believed she would struggle to complete her degree but Amy thought otherwise. Not only did she fully recover, she trained as a classical dancer and is now a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School.

She hit the headlines with her ‘Power Pose’ TED talk; how your body position can influence your brain and the brains of others. She believes that how you stand communicates to others how confident and powerful you are; by standing like a superhero before you go into an important meeting or event, it can make you feel more confident and therefore affect how others view you.

Amy’s research took the world by storm with over 25 million views on YouTube, but in the last two years it has been discredited. Amy’s research used only 42 participants, and when further research was conducted with 200 participants they found that the power pose made no significant difference to hormones or behaviour. I’m glad that I didn’t encourage my students to power pose after all!

The beauty of the internet is that new advances in research can be quickly shared and interested parties can develop their work, taking it to a new level to see what more can be learnt. In the UK we have conducted outstanding research in the field of science and technology, developing treatments for serious illnesses and surgical procedures which have changed the lives of many people.

I wish that we placed the same importance on completing rigorous research in the field of education. The government makes changes to our curriculum, qualifications, assessment methods and types of schools on a too frequent basis.

These decisions appear to me to be made based on the whim of the latest party leader, their experiences in education and what they think is ‘right’ for the next generation of young people.

Many young people have had their option choices at 14 reduced because of the government’s introduction of Progress 8. The arts and technology subjects have been reduced in many schools due to the pressure placed on them to achieve highly in Progress 8.

Brave leaders ignore this pressure and ensure every student is studying the subjects which are most suited to them as an individual. Whilst this could result in lower performance data (and subsequent pressure from Ofsted and parents who may deem the school to be underperforming) each student fulfils their potential in a way that matches their skills.

Whilst some research is cited as underpinning government decisions, the level of rigour is unimpressive. We have opened hundreds of free schools but I am yet to see research which was conducted from day one of the project and which identifies how they were set up, what has led to their success or the factors that resulted in their demise.

The government continues to open new schools and colleges without stopping to learn from evidence-based research.

The grammar school debate currently raging causes me grave concern; no one should be made to feel a failure at 11. Education is a complex place and I hope Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, will seek the counsel of researchers and school leaders before the government disrupts the learning of our students again.