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Latest education news, comment and analysis on schools, colleges, universities, further and higher education and teaching from the Guardian, the world's leading liberal voice

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    In Finland children don’t start school until they are seven, but what happens before that is even more important

    It’s a warm September afternoon in the Kallio district of Helsinki. Out in the Franzenia daycare centre playground, groups of four- and five-year-olds roam contentedly. “Would you like an ice-cream?” asks one, having set up her elaborate “stall” on the edge of the sandpit. Kindergarten staff move among the children, chatting, observing and making written notes.

    There is nothing outwardly distinctive about the centre, though with 200 children, it is the city’s largest. It is a tall, somewhat dour former university building, built in the 1930s and converted to its present role last year. Yet it is in places such as this oddly homespun centre with its strange echoes of bureaucracy, walls plastered with children’s art and piles of play paraphernalia, that the Finnish education “miracle” starts to take shape.

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    Readers respond to an interview with the chair of the education select committee

    Robert Halfon’s quaint notion that vocational training should pass the “dinner-party test” is an indicator of how shallow his supposed blue-collar Conservatism is (‘The Tory party should change its name to the Workers’ party. I am 100% serious’, 17 April). How many people bringing children up in poverty are going to dinner parties where they would be looked down on because their child is an apprentice? His concern seems to lie with middle-class children in degree apprenticeships for lucrative, skilled jobs such as coding. The concerns of working-class parents and students are far more pragmatic, and many of them arise from the past eight years of Tory government: reduced access to free school meals, dwindling school budgets, the discriminatory and repressive use of Prevent in education, and higher tuition fees.

    Nor do working-class students want access to university education only on the proviso that they study highly employable subjects like engineering, while their middle-class peers can afford to study medieval history. Subjects like classics and ancient history might be seen as a luxury by some, but it has served Mr Halfon’s colleagues Michael Fallon and Boris Johnson well in their careers. A society serious about democratic representation and equality of opportunity must offer working-class students the option of pursuing the same path to government.

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    Problem exists throughout primary and secondary school, leading to lower self-esteem and negative behaviour

    Teachers are encountering increasing numbers of children with stunted vocabularies – haunting many pupils from primary to secondary school – and they fear “vocabulary deficiency” will hold them back educationally and socially.

    In response some schools said they had adopted approaches such as highlighting pupils’ use of informal words such as “innit” and encouraging them to improve and widen their use of language.

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    The Open University crisis exemplifies the UK’s failure to support adult learning. It’s time to seek inspiration elsewhere

    The current crisis at the Open University illustrates how public support for adult learning has gone so badly wrong in the UK. For nearly half a century, the OU has served a unique role in British educational life, complementing face-to-face learning in place-based institutions with distance education. While the 2012 tuition fees rise increased budgets for most universities, they have been disastrous for the OU, Birkbeck and others serving part-time mature students.

    But the crisis in adult higher education participation is not limited to specialist institutions. Step by step, opportunities for adults to learn have been eroded. First, the 100-year tradition of university extra-mural departments aimed at adults closed one by one. Second, state funding for mature students to study at the same level or below their highest qualification went out of the window. Meanwhile, widening participation strategies were concentrated more and more on school leavers. Then the fees rise devastated mature and part-time study, especially at sub-degree level. And once the student number cap was lifted, most universities opted for the easily administered full-time young entrant over the less tidy part-time adult.

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    The new universities regulator has rattled the elites, who would probably rather operate above the law

    Over the years, I’ve come to know and almost love the hardy perennial higher education news stories: students so broke they’re turning to sex work, student political correctness gone mad (these days reframed as an avalanche of snowflakes), and the prospect of Oxford and Cambridge going private.

    In the latest iteration of the latter story, the crossbench peer Lord Butler, a former master of University College, Oxford, argues that the government should view the idea of Oxford and Cambridge going private with sympathy. It comes amid a likely long-term fees freeze and concerns about the powers of the controversial new universities regulator, the Office for Students. After all, why should England’s oldest and most elite universities be subject to what they see as onerous regulation, and a tuition fee cap of £9,250?

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    Plan suggests MPs are unhappy with way issue has slipped down Downing Street’s agenda

    MPs are in danger of starting a turf war with the Department for Education, after the education select committee announced a wide-ranging inquiry into funding for schools and colleges in England.

    Announcing the inquiry, the committee’s chair, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, said he wanted the the inquiry to promote an ambitious “10-year vision for education investment” supported by the public.

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    Chefs in Schools charity aims to recruit 100 professional chefs for 100 state schools over five years

    The Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith has joined leading restaurateurs Thomasina Miers and Yotam Ottolenghi to help launch a charity that hopes to recruit top chefs to work in school kitchens.

    The aim is not just to improve the quality of food – which remains patchy despite chef Jamie Oliver’s best efforts – but to teach pupils some fast-disappearing cookery skills to help protect their future health. One in five children leaves primary school obese, with those in deprived areas three times as likely to be obese than their wealthier peers.

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    Immigrant families often have very rigid ideas about what constitutes a respectable career path for their sons and daughters

    "How much do you get paid?" This is the first question I am asked by many of the A-level students I meet as part of a Muslim mentoring programme for schools in underprivileged areas of North London.

    Although they ask with a cheeky smirk, in the eyes of many of the students a satisfactory answer would cement my credibility as a mentor. Most are of Somali, Pakistani and Bengali origin, and the mentoring scheme kicks off in their first year of A-level study with the purpose of helping to motivate the students academically by providing successful examples of the fruits of a good education. If they make enough money, that is.
    Upon closer acquaintance, it appears that most of the students need very little academic motivation. They are second-generation immigrants whose families encourage them to perform and go to university in order to secure a good job and a healthy livelihood. If anything, they need motivation to take up more extra-curricular activities and be more involved with pursuits that would allow them to explore their talents and personal aptitudes. Every single one of the students in the programme was planning to enrol in either a science or maths-based discipline (except one girl, who wanted to study English and asked sheepishly whether an English degree would help her secure a lucrative role in today's job market). This favouring of "proper jobs" and the academic application that facilitates them is not unknown in Arab and Asian communities. Indeed, where I went to high school and university in Egypt and Sudan, academic streams were clearly divided into "science" and "art", (the latter encompassing everything from humanities to social sciences to "soft" sciences such as geology) and never the twain did meet. Under considerable social and familial pressure, most of the gifted students opted for medicine, engineering, business studies and their offshoots, while the rest reluctantly enrolled in what were perceived as less prestigious subjects like politics and languages. Inevitably, this separation has a materialistic goal. The students from North London see a stable job with a title as their ticket out of poverty and into affluence (and I am hardly one to speak, having resisted pressure from my family to study medicine in favour of politics – only to end up in finance). This in turn increases their eligibility for marriage and enhances their position as a respectable member of the community.

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    From sorting out practical arrangements to avoiding faux pas, follow our guide to graduation day

    “At my first graduation I got my boyfriend and best friend to pretend to be my parents,” says doctorate student Lindsay Jordan. “My friend dressed up like Jackie Onassis. It was pretty funny, but I’d rather my real parents had been there.”

    Jordan’s parents didn’t attend either her undergraduate or master’s graduation ceremonies, as “they hate travelling and formal occasions”. While they may not be for everyone, graduation ceremonies are a chance for parents to celebrate their child’s achievements – and mark the end of university life. But they can also be expensive, stressful and the cause of family arguments. Here’s how to make your student child’s graduation day a happy one.

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    From videos in Japanese to news in German, language blogger Lindsay Dow recommends her favourite podcasts to keep you motivated and inspired while improving your skills

    I became a language addict way back in the early noughties thanks to Shakira. Since then I’ve gone on to pursue a degree in French and Spanish with the Open University, and I’ve also studied Mandarin, Italian, German and various other languages along the way. With formal studying never quite being enough, I’m always looking for other methods to engage my language learning brain, podcasts being one of them. Here’s a few of my favourites:

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    Students share their experiences of mental health issues and reveal a common and worrying problem

    Read more: where to get help for your mental health

    When I asked students to share their experiences of mental health at university, I had no idea of the reaction it would receive. Over five days we received over 200 stories. Many entries we weren't able to include, for legal reasons or because the experiences described were too harrowing to publish.

    Originally planned to stay open for two weeks, we decided to close the project early because there wasn't the capacity to moderate the influx of entries. Each morning we were met with more stories – from students who opened up about their anxieties and struggles.

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    After a woman died serving time in jail for her children's truancy fines, the Guardian investigated US truancy data and how states try to enforce laws for keeping kids in class

    Earlier this month, a Berks County, Pennsylvania, mother died in jail while serving a 48-hour sentence, handed down because she couldn’t pay her children’s truancy fines. She owed about $2,000 in fines and other court costs, which had piled up over more than a decade, according to the AP.

    But while the woman’s story took a particularly tragic turn, many more parents across the US face fines or jail time over their children’s unexcused school absences. Just how many is hard to quantify nationally or even at state-levels, but the Berks County school district alone has imprisoned over 1,600 people – mostly women – for failing to pay truancy fines between 2000-2013, according to a local paper, The Reading Eagle.

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    Baseline assessments of all primary school pupils in England face widespread opposition

    Plans to roll out the testing of four-year-olds in their first weeks at school have been unveiled by the government in the face of widespread hostility from many teachers who have vowed to oppose the new assessments.

    Ministers say the controversial new baseline assessments in reception classes will measure the progress a child makes from the start of primary school to the age of 11 and provide a fairer measure of the effectiveness of schools.

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    Experts now say a flexible approach, rather than sticking to a ‘learning style’ may be the key to successful study

    It was once commonly believed if students were made aware of the learning strategies that worked for them, they’d become more efficient and effective learners. As a result, from the 1980s onwards tailored learning styles became popular and theorists such as Honey and Mumford created questionnaires to help pinpoint the four types of adult learners.

    Related: Snackable study: how to break up your master's degree

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  • 04/20/18--10:38: Karen Dawisha obituary
  • Author and academic whose book Putin’s Kleptocracy exposed how the Russian president rose to power

    Karen Dawisha, who has died aged 68 of cancer, was an outstanding and original scholar of Russia who argued that Vladimir Putin had turned his country into a corrupt authoritarian state run by a group of KGB cronies.

    Her 2014 book, Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia?, is a definitive account of how Russia’s president and his friends grabbed and consolidated power. Along the way they became among the richest people on the planet, and the beneficiaries of what Dawisha called “a kleptocratic tribute system”.

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    A part-time job is often just a way to earn extra cash at university, but for some students it can be the route to full-time employment

    Carmel Goldstein, a final-year textile design student at Central St Martins College in London, started working for on-demand babysitting app Bubble 18 months ago. The 21-year-old was looking for a way to earn extra cash while studying in one of the world’s most expensive cities, and the company offered flexible evening work that she could fit around busy university life.

    The Uber-style app works by helping parents find local babysitters who have been recommended by friends or mutual contacts on Facebook. It means Goldstein is able to put in the required hours on campus and go to a job in the evening near her home in East Finchley.

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    These days, it is normal for authors to go to writing workshops – or teach them. So why does the idea they produce derivative writers persist?

    What makes a writer? How do you become one? When I was younger, even asking those questions seemed to disqualify me: a writer isn’t something one becomes, I thought, a writer just is. Despite writing, rewriting and reading all through my 20s, I was no closer to completing, let alone publishing, a novel. I realised I would need help if I was going to succeed, and I applied to several creative writing MAs.

    This was, depending on who you ask, either a decision that condemned my writing to being forever derivative and tired, or, an important step on the path towards the publication of my first book. The debate about the value of a degree in creative writing has been done, one might think, to death – good writing depends on an innate facility that cannot be taught, versus good writing depends on devoted time, support, and elements of craft that can be studied – yet it continues to rage. This week, a much-lauded debut novel was criticised in a review by an author for its “MA creative writing-speak” and “oh so tediously writing workshop description”. For some, “writing workshop” is shorthand for bad. But why?

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    In my first lecturing job, I ignored the low pay and focused on my students. But I never even got a word of thanks


    I took on hourly paid teaching in the English department of a university in the months after finishing my PhD. I did so not primarily for the money – I was paid less than £500 a month – but as part of my commitment to professional development. Yet, like so many others, I was made to feel worthless and disposable by academic staff in management positions.

    Although I was only paid for one hour’s preparation time per seminar, I put my all into teaching. I loved seeing my students improve. In their end-of-module feedback, one student described me as “the most engaging and encouraging tutor” they’d had. I achieved “outstanding” satisfaction scores in excess of 95%.

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    State school system accused of ‘glaring hypocrisy’ after initially saying Barbara Bush criticism ‘beyond free speech’ but racist frat stunt is protected

    When a white student at California State University was caught this month wearing blackface, administrators had a clear message: it was racist, but “protected by free speech”.

    Days later, when a professor tweeted that the late Barbara Bush was a “racist”, the university’s tone was different: the faculty member would be investigated for her remarks, which, a campus president said, went “beyond free speech”.

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    The actor attacks the obsession with grades and attainment as she prepares to star in education drama The Be All and End All

    Star of stage and screen Imogen Stubbs has launched a withering attack on the education system in England, describing it as “this awful treadmill” and a “big con” in which teachers, parents and pupils obsess about exams and grades at the expense of the sheer joy of learning.

    Stubbs is about to star in a play that examines the lengths to which parents will go to ensure their child’s educational success. The Be All and End All is the second in a trilogy of plays called Education, Education, Education – which echoes Tony Blair’s three declared priorities when he came into power, and was written by Stubbs’s partner, Jonathan Guy Lewis. The first, called A Level Playing Field, looked at the pressures teenagers are under to get good grades.

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