Last reviewed 14 September 2015

Denise Moulton looks at some of the education issues that have made headlines recently.

School skirt ban highlights sexualisation of female pupils

When a school banned skirts because they were considered “distracting” to male teachers and pupils, this triggered a Radio 4’s Women’s Hour debate in which Jessica Ringrose, Professor of Gender and Education at the Institute of Education took part.

The debate highlighted that girls’ bodies are “being sexualised in school, which is supposed to be safe”.

Professor Ringrose pointed out that the ban makes girls somehow responsible for male behaviour and suggested that “no one is worrying about whether the way boys dress is distracting to girls”.

She wants to see compulsory schooling about sexism, sexual harassment and gender inequality.

Heads worry about pupils’ mental health

When it comes to wellbeing, two-thirds of Heads are most concerned about their pupils’ mental health, followed by worries about domestic violence (58%) and cyberbullying (55%).

Despite the increase in the number of pupils experiencing mental health problems, it is difficult to access support from local child mental health services owing to budget cuts. Many schools have been forced to employ their own counsellor or to rely on the voluntary sector.

The Government plans to introduce peer-to-peer mental health support in schools and continues to work with the PSHE Association to develop guidance on how mental health issues are taught in schools.

Future solutions may include digital mental health software applications.

“Vaping” more common than smoking among pupils

Official data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre indicates that more pupils between the ages of 11 and 15 have tried electronic cigarettes than real ones.

The figures also reveal the lowest recorded levels of smoking, drinking and drug use.

While 22% of pupils have tried e-cigarettes, the percentage trying cigarettes has fallen from 42% in 2003 to 18% today. However, 89% of smokers have tried vaping, compared to only 11% of non-smokers.

Councils want powers to help struggling schools

The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for central Government to remove the “bureaucratic barriers” that prevent councils intervening in underperforming schools.

Currently, only academy schools can sponsor struggling schools to help them improve but the LGA thinks there are insufficient academy sponsors to carry out this role.

Emphasising that councils are “education improvement partners and not a barrier to change”, David Simmonds of the LGA, highlighted that parents still turn to the council for advice and support but, unfortunately, their current powers to intervene are “strictly limited”.

Post-qualifications university applications called for

Bill Rammell, Vice Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire and former Labour Higher Education Minister, believes university applications should be made after pupils know their exam results. He says this would be fairer and more efficient than the current system of relying on predicted grades in mid-January.

Research from the admissions service UCAS has shown that about half the A-level grades predicted by teachers are incorrect.

Apparently, there is already a push towards post-qualifications applications, as demonstrated by a growing trend for pupils to apply for the first time during clearing, once they have their exam results.

Careers guidance “patchy”

Careers England, the trade association for careers advisers, claims that current careers guidance provision is both “patchy and fragmented” and so requires radical reformation and a national strategy to make it a fairer, more coherent and cost-effective system.

Its policy position paper calls on the Government to conduct a review of all the activities and funding that impact on careers education.

“Existing funds need to be rationalised, managed in smarter ways, more creatively, and with more forensic targeting to secure the desired outcomes.”

Needs of deaf children overlooked at school

Research by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) found that 47% of parents believe the progress of their children with mild or moderate deafness is behind their peers.

Poor acoustics, background noise, and difficulty understanding speech were cited by 69% as challenges for their child at school, while 33% blamed a lack of staff awareness about hearing loss.

An estimated 20,000 school-aged children suffer from mild to moderate hearing difficulties. More than half of these children fail to achieve five good GCSEs compared to 30% of other children.

Saying this attainment gap is “simply unacceptable” and that hearing loss is often “overlooked” as children appear to be coping, the NDCS is calling for deaf children to be given more information about available support, more training for teachers, and sufficient local authority resources.

Character-building programmes

As part of its mission for “real social justice”, the Government is making awards from its £3.5 million character grants scheme.

The Scout Association has received £302,299 for Scouting by Doing, to provide schools with an online toolkit to deliver school-based scouting activities to children aged 8 to 10.

The Challenge Network is getting £475,000 for its programme to develop positive character traits and work readiness. Young people must commit 16 volunteering hours in return for skills workshops and a guaranteed interview for a part-time job with major businesses such as Lloyds.

Exam stress doubles over past year

Calls to Childline about exam-related stress have doubled in the past year and research by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) on 8000 staff and pupils indicates increases in anxiety, stress and disaffection among pupils.

Pupils develop “stress-related conditions” around SATs/public exams according to 76% of primary and 94% of secondary teachers. Primary pupils are even reported as self-harming and having panic attacks.

The NUT has linked increased stress to exam reform and the accountability framework because England’s pupils “are some of the most tested in the world”.

The Government defines educational success in “fantastically narrow terms” and “data does not equate to learning” says the union. The emphasis on targets has led to fewer opportunities for pupils to participate in creative, investigative and practical activities.

No link between dyslexia and eyesight

Having tested nearly 6000 children, researchers claim that dyslexia is not linked to eyesight problems.

The finding that most dyslexic children have “entirely normal vision” raises doubts about the value of vision-based interventions such as coloured filters or lenses.

However, dyslexia charities still believe that tinted filters can benefit some people.

Children with autism detect movement better than others

New research by the Institute of Education shows that children with autism are better at combining information about moving objects than their non-autistic peers. This may explain why they experience sensory overload as they do not always know which information to use or ignore.

The researchers said it is known that autistic people see the world differently but not why these differences occur. This research suggests that children with autism excel at integrating information but may get distressed as they are unable to apply filters.

Control traffic for safer walk to school

The fear of other people’s driving deters 39% of parents from letting their children walk to school, according to a new survey.

Around 40% of parents said their children were driven to school and, although 56% said they usually walked, only 7% walk alone.

Parents’ biggest fears are speeding traffic (30%), strangers approaching their children (23%) and unsafe parking by other adults (17%).

Almost two-thirds of respondents would like car-free zones outside both primary and secondary schools as well as 20 mph speed limits in surrounding areas.

Discrimination against older teachers

NASUWT is concerned by growing evidence that older teachers, particularly women, are increasingly being singled out for redundancy, threatened unjustly with capability procedures, denied access to professional development, or subjected to excessive monitoring.

Instead, NASUWT says they should be regarded as an “asset” owing to their “wealth of experience and expertise”.

The union believes “too many schools want to create space for younger, cheaper teachers or even unqualified staff who they can place on temporary contracts”.

Teachers experiencing “home invasion”

Teachers are expected to deal with too many work-related emails outside of school hours according to a survey by NASUWT.

A total of 73% of teachers are receiving work-related emails outside school hours, with 88% receiving emails during weekends and 49% during sick leave. Increasing numbers are expected to communicate with parents and pupils via email outside school hours and to respond to work-related emails within a specific timescale.

For 67% of teachers, their job has adversely affected their mental health in the last year: 78% report work-related anxiety, 84% sleeplessness and 33% poor health.

Another 11% say the strain of their job has led to relationship breakdown and 25% report increased use of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine to cope.

Unfair battle for best schools

Civitas argues that, with the growing complexity of admissions processes for secondary schools, educational opportunity is now determined by much more than just academic ability.

Selection, in many different forms, continues to play a role in the education system, with the old divide between comprehensive and grammar schools and selection based on academic ability being largely replaced by a much broader range of admissions criteria including geography, faith and luck.

The authors of The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools suggest that reforms to give schools greater freedom have paved the way for “selection by stealth” and a “two-tier system based on injustice”.

“The few remaining grammar schools are nothing like the motor for social mobility that they used to be. This is partly due to the fact that their rarity has turned them into the preserves of the sharp-elbowed middle classes.”

Cyber-security training

Guildford University Technical College will train up to 720 14- to 19-year-olds in cyber-security, computer science and engineering.

As society increasingly depends on digital services, the need is growing for young people with the skills to protect information online, defend networks from attacks and prevent the loss of valuable data.

The college will work with specialist companies to offer hands-on learning and a technical education alongside core academic GCSEs and A-levels such as English and maths.

British tutors teaching on yachts

British tutors can apparently earn £160 an hour helping foreign students gain a place in top UK schools.

The tutors coach in 11-plus and Common Entrance as well as etiquette and interview techniques.

One tutoring company claimed that international clients want to hire the “quintessential British tutor”.

So, tutors are being flown out to super-yachts and Caribbean islands by foreign millionnaires who are not concerned about the costs of employment or providing perks.