Monday, December 28, 2009

'The Reader Gets Angry'

On the Reading Reform Foundation website, Geraldine Carter has posted a link to a piece, 'The Reader Gets Angry: Scenes from a PGCE', by Gabriella Gruder-Poni on her experiences as a PGCE student.
The experiences Gabriella recounts are nothing short of a disgrace and, if her testimony is true, the imbeciles dispensing the advice she was being given throughout her PGCE course should be sacked.
This, unfortunately, is nothing new: the proclivity to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, to regard teachers as facilitators and for them to subscribe to the belief that they have nothing to teach pupils, was already well established by the late eighties/beginning of the nineties.
In a review in the Independent, 'Scenes from a British war on knowledge', Boyd Tonkin appears genuinely shocked by what Gabriela has had to put up with. Nevertheless, he still writes:
Now I, like you, have read too many reactionary rants and glib laments over dumbing-down in class. I know the privileged interests such rhetoric often serves.
Sorry pal, but you're missing the point completely. These are not the 'reactionary rants' - what's reactionary about wanting a better education for your child? - or 'glib laments' of 'privileged interests'; they are howls of rage at what is becoming of a system that used to offer a way out for working class kids whose future would otherwise be down the pit or in the pot bank or steel works. What (Wat!) we need is a parents' revolt!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Above all, do no harm. And, if you are a primary teacher, teach the children to read!

In the year's last issue of the Sunday Times, Minette Marrin has some timely advice for us. Did I say, 'for us'? I meant 'on our behalf'. It addresses a number of important issues – get out of Afghanistan and Iraq - and a variety of people: to Peter Mandelson - 'Stop talking'; to Harriet Harman 'Shut up'; and so on.
But it was her advice to primary school teachers that particularly caught my eye. Amongst her recommendations, she counsels:
Stop worrying about everything except one thing – do you know how to teach children to read? Were you taught how to? Can all the children in your class read (after age seven) and if not, why not? Forget all the other stuff that's imposed on you.

She might also have asked whether or not they could also teach basic numeracy. No matter! The most important job the primary school should do is to teach children to read. If they haven't done that, they've failed.
If you are a teacher or a parent and you want to learn how to teach a child to read, do a course with Sounds-Write, or with Fiona Nevola’s Sound Reading System.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Newsnight review on BBC2: lets hear it for the kidults!

In case you missed the BBC2 Newsnight programme last night (Friday 11th December), the guests were Anthony Horowitz, Michael Bywater, David Schneider and Bidisha (Mukherjee). Newly released films under discussion were Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr Fox, and the adaptation of Terry Pratchett's novel Nation at the National. There were reviews of a colouring-in book Girls Are Not Chicks and Chris Ryan's Battleground. Thomas the Tank Engine, described by one reviewer as 'conservative' and 'anti-feminist', also figured.
There's an interesting, though brief, discussion about infantalisation and crossover fiction. Bidisha said that "many, many stories which are ostensibly for children are really, in the same way that fairy stories are, they're really about everything and we never lose our interest in family, and faith, and love and death and how to prove ourselves." Jack Zipes, editor of The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, would approve, I'm sure.
The programme also touched on the girl/boy divide in children's fiction, which is where the guests fell to talking about the merits (or not) of Girls Are Not Chicks, which promotes the view that girls are 'thinkers, creators, fighters, healers and superheroes', and Chris Ryan's adventure yarn set in Afghanistan Battleground.
The guests - particularly David Schneider - are a lively bunch and it's good knockabout stuff. You can see it at:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Further decline in SATs scores evidence that this government has run out of ideas.

What did yesterday's SATs news tell us that we didn't already know? The results show a decline in performance, with more than 1400 primary schools falling below the government’s so-called 'floor target' for attainment in maths and English.
What's the government's response? According to the BBC's education correspondent, Gary Eason, it wants 'local authorities to pressurise head teachers to improve'. And how, I’d like to ask, are the local authorities going to do that when they haven't made any substantial progress in either of those areas in the past ten years? In fact, we seem to be going backwards.
The truth is that local authorities are full of people giving contradictory or inept advice to teachers in schools. Ever slavish to the edicts of the DCSF, the local advisers press schools into adopting an untried and untested programme for teaching children to read and spell: Letters and Sounds. Not only is this programme incoherently structured but the training (where there is any training at all!) is derisory, delivered in many instances by people who don't understand how the writing system works.
At the time of the Rose Review, we were promised by government officials that schools would be allowed to choose which phonics programme they wanted to use. In practice, we hear all the time of bullying tactics being used on teachers in order to force them to use L&S.
This charade has gone on long enough! Look at the league tables of schools in which huge numbers of children cannot even attain the basic standards set by the government. The blame does not lie with the struggling pupils; it lies squarely with the teacher training institutions and a government obsessed with imposing its half-baked programmes on an education system yearning for change.
The bottom line is that parents need to know that their children are leaving primary school able to read, spell and handle basic arithmetic.
Sounds-Write have just published their six-year study on 1607 pupils who have been taught using Sounds-Write for the first three years of their schooling. Read the Report.

Friday, November 27, 2009

'What if Research Really Mattered?'

I've been wondering for ages how to blog something by Diane Ravitch, research professor in New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Well, there is something I've always quite liked, something she wrote on evidence-based research just over ten years ago.
Surrounded by a medical team in an intensive care unit, listening to them discuss her real life-threatening condition, Ravitch fantasises what would happen if educationists rather than doctors were treating her.
Rather than try and summarise it and fail convey the tone of the piece, I'm adding the link and inviting readers to read it for themselves. It's called 'What if Research Really Mattered?' and was published by the Thomas Fordham Institute. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Can't read, can't write - not fit for work!

In the middle of October, Terry Leahy, boss of TESCo, declared standards in education to be 'woefully low'. Now, as reported in today's Telegraph, Sir Stuart Rose, the M&S chief, has added his name to the long list of critics of the suitability of the system to provide business with workers who have the right skills.
Sir Stuart's speech to the CBI yesterday cautioned about the inadequacy of an education system that produces people who are 'not fit for work'. Some school leavers, he said, 'cannot do reading. They cannot do arithmetic. They cannot do writing.'
Improving standards is absolutely vital if UK is to remain competitive in the world. Sadly, it seems as if, as Digby Jones, a former head of the CBI, once put it, India is going to have to have our lunch and China our dinner, before we wake up to the fact that things need to improve. Wait for the DCSF’s rebuttal later today.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Government guarantees - the new "cones hot-line"!

The government's latest edict is beginning to make it sound like a Private Eye parody of itself. Its latest decree is to 'guarantee' children a legal right to a good education. According to last week's Telegraph, John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, 'warned that the proposed laws risked creating one of the most "centrally prescriptive" education systems in the world – stifling innovation.'
After wasting £2 billion over the last ten years in failing to raise literacy standards, Ed Balls' department has decided to issue a guarantee of something they haven't a clue how to deliver: a good education for every child.
As David Laws, the Lib Dem spokesperson for children, put it:
"Only an arch centraliser like Ed Balls could believe that the only way to empower parents and pupils would be to create a vast bureaucratic structure of 'rights' without the means to deliver them.
Instead of giving real freedom and rights to pupils, parents and schools, Ed Balls' proposals are likely to prove a license for litigation and will raise expectations without creating a mechanism to raise standards."

The brouhaha seems now to have died down, though the Economist’s verdict this weekend is damning. It likens this government's public service guarantees to the Major government's "cones hot-line", which, it says, 'came to epitomise … the intellectual exhaustion and shrunken ambition of the Conservative's last term in office'. As with "the citizen’s charter" initiative before it, if this proposed legislation ever reaches the statute book, it is unlikely to make the slightest difference: the government's tactic, it says, is 'an example of left-wing bureaucratic thinking: the delusion that the crooked timber of reality can be straightened by an optimistic statute'.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Creative writing at five years of age!

Yesterday morning I received this letter from a head teacher of a school where all the teaching staff, including the head, have been trained in Sounds-Write:
Dear John,
Please find enclosed a copy of a piece of unaided writing recently carried out by a child at our school. It is a testament to the power of Sounds-Write! The ability of the programme to enable children to have the confidence to write any word they know is clearly reflected here.
The piece was written by a Year 1 girl. She has a February birthday. She is in a class of 28 Year 1 children. She joined us in Reception, where she followed a daily programme of the Initial Code. She has started the Extended Code in Year 1 since September.
The task was a whole-class exercise in extended writing at the end of the half-term for assessment purposes. It was an open task. The children were requested to write about their family. No support was provided.
I hope you enjoy reading it.

Here is the text the child (5 years and 8 months)wrote:

my family
my family is disfunchenel. my Brother is a psiapath
my sister is a imbaseeal and she has a sindrom
my mother is nurotik
my Father is xenfobik and I am a jinias.

The moral of the story? If you teach children - even from an early age - to read and spell, they can write anything they want. And, by the way, the girl's parents appreciated the humour of the account!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Our craven politicians

What we can't seem expect from today's politicians is for them to take anything remotely like a radical or even a necessary decision. Why? Because they are such a pusillanimous lot: they are terrified that if they do anything other than tweak or tinker with the education system as it stands, they'll lose the votes of one or another constituency! Most of them have never done a job in their lives in which hard decisions have had to be made, and certainly nothing one could describe as having tested them.
Now, I was never one of Dennis Healey's greatest fans but I've always admired him for the courage of his convictions. He was with the Royal Engineers in North Africa, and was a Landing Officer at Anzio during the Second World War. Like many of his generation who were tried and tested through their wartime and post-war experiences, he wasn't afraid to make tough and sometimes very unpopular decisions if he thought he was right.
I remember when Labour lost the election to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Healey was recalled to Cabinet on the morning of the defeat. As he walked up Downing Street, he was cat-called by a large group of Tory supporters. It was a bad day for him but he turned, smiled and stuck up two fingers – and it wasn't to indicate victory!
The radical change we need in education today is choice! And the only way we'll get it is when parents find out that it is possible to teach every child to become literate and decide to take matters into their own hands and campaign for it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hasta la vista, Baby!

After training teachers and marking large quantities of undergraduate essays, I resurface! And it is with glee that I read Roland White's speculation in this week's Sunday Times that Ed Balls may be the next victim of the Portillo moment. According to White, Mike Smithson of Political has 'punted quite heavily at good odds that Balls will get ousted' (at the general election).
How I long to be able to bawl 'Oh bliss! Oh joy! Hasta la vista, baby!'

Friday, November 06, 2009

Of school standards, swindlers and Soviet style education policies.

The issue of school places has stirred up a passionate row in the press this week. There’s a piece in the Telegraph by an infuriated Judith Woods, titled 'Ed Balls's insane education policies make school gate cheats of us all: The lack of decent schools has driven parents to desperate lengths'. In it, she lays into government policy and Ed Balls for failing to provide a decent level of schooling for the children of all parents.

For trying to get their children places in schools that provide a proper level of education, parents are being accused of being, in the words of the schools adjudicator Ian Craig, 'thieves' whose ploys to get their children into oversubscribed state schools are alleged to deprive more deserving cases of places of their own.

With only 1,100 confirmed cases of questionable applications out of somewhere around two million children taking up a school place last year, it doesn't seem to justify the demand by some to criminalise parents, or to waste tax payers money: one head teacher appeared on television last week to boast openly that he had used private detectives to snoop on suspected parents!

But as Woods points out, in circumstances in which, according to the OECD,
our 15-year-olds’ reading ability has fallen from seventh in 2000 to 17th in 2007, behind Estonia and Liechtenstein. In maths, our pupils languish 24th, below the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and in science they have dropped from fourth to 14th. [And] the reason, the OECD mooted, was poor teaching.

it's not surprising that parents are prepared to resort to desperate measures.

So, what's the answer? This week on Radio 4 on Monday morning, Dr Sheila Lawlor of the think tank Politeia was trenchant in her criticism of government policy. She (and Labour Party policy advisor Matthew Taylor) were being interviewed by Jim Naughtie. I've not included Taylor's comments or Naughtie's questions.
Sheila Lawlor:
We have to look at the school admission system and whether it's working. We have a very top-heavy government regulated school admissions system, which doesn't satisfy. I think it was 30,600 parents appealed the last time round. And there's something wrong if a parent can't even get their child into a local primary school of their choice.
In my view, what you’ve got to do is you've got to open up the system so there are more school places. Now in theory this should be easy to do. Good schools should be able to expand ... But the local authority, the body that gives permission for freeing up the system, doesn't want any competition to the existing schools in its area and that is precisely the problem. So, I'm in favour of the Conservative policy of opening up and having more schools opening up to meet parents' choice.
Parents have to have information about a school. Now how you provide that is a matter for discussion but it is very important that a parent should follow his or her hunch… If you've ever talked to parents at a school evening or in the playground, they really are up to speed. They see their children. They know the damage a bad school can do … because a bad school has a very bad impact on a child, not just academically, but also pastorally and socially. And don't give it to me that the school doesn't make any difference. If that's the case, let the government just get up and get out of schooling and in fact I think that would be much the best way if we had less government interference in schools.
We have tens of thousands of surplus administrative and bureaucratic positions like the school adjudicator and this whole paraphernalia of school appeal admissions procedures. This is a very top heavy system based on endless bureaucracy, appeals and enquiries. It is not unlike a Soviet system. Now where you allow 32,000 parents to appeal against an arbitrary decision by an official as to where their child goes to school, of those 0.5 succeed. And I think it is a deceitful system we're operating now and I think the government should say let the schools and the parents work it out for themselves and in that way you will encourage more movement. Just let more places open up. They need not be big, heavy, expensive places. Primary schools are not expensive to run. What is expensive is the overhead.

Woods ends her article by denying that Michael Gove's promise to 'bust open the state monopoly on education' if the Tories come to power next year is the answer. I think she's wrong! 'A Guide to School Choice Reforms', a report published in March this year by Policy Exchange, suggests otherwise.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The dictatorship of the Ball-etariat

Once again the Labour government has displayed its true bureaucratic colours and decided to refuse to recognise IGCSEs, exams which many schools, independent and state, have insisted are more rigorous than GCSEs and more suited to the needs and abilities of their pupils.
In today's Independent, Dr Kevin Stannard, director of education at Cambridge International examinations, is reported as asking how the "decision is 'securing choice for young people' by not funding provision recognised by UK universities, the national regulator and taken by thousands of schools in the UK and overseas."
Is this what the government mean by widening choice? Roll on May 6th if Michael Gove is as good as his word.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sendak tells parents worried about the film of his book to go to Where the Wild Things Are!

Controversy has flared over the launch of Spike Jonze's adaptation of the Maurice Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are.
Like the book, first published in 1963, the row, or rumpus as the book might have it, has erupted because some parents are worried that the images in the film will frighten the bejesus out of children because they are so unsettling. Sendak, not known for his willingness to suffer fools gladly, has apparently responded by saying that he would tell such parents to 'go to hell'. He went on to criticise Disney for the way it has sanitised Mickey Mouse. According to a recent interview with Newsweek, he remarked that "Mickey did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened was that he became so popular – this is my own theory – they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing. He's too important for products. They want him to be placid and nice and adorable. He turned into a schmaltzer."
In the same interview, he also made the point that "Kids are barbaric. They really have to be. They don't know what it is to be polite or nice. There is a toughness to being a child. Childhood is a very tough time. I always had a deep respect for children and how they solve complex problems by themselves." This is definitely one in the eye for Rousseau's myth of childhood innocence.
The release of Where the Wild Things Are coincides with the opening last week of The Fantastic Mr Fox, another uncompromising film that doesn't shy away from confronting childlike anxieties.
If this is the beginning of a move against all those cloying, mawkish Hollywood kid flicks, bring it on I say.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sounds-Write study on 1607 Key Stage 1 pupils in state primary school across the country.

The Sounds~Write linguistic phonic teaching programme was conceived and written in 2002/3. An essential component of the authors' thinking about literacy tuition is that all teachers of literacy deserve high quality training. This is needed to help dispel the many myths and inaccuracies pervading teaching practices that stem from a variety of sources including: personal educational experiences of schooling from childhood, BEd and Teaching Certificate courses, local authority advisers, Department of Education publications up to and including Letters & Sounds, and Ofsted inspectors. We have been providing precisely this level of high quality training since 2003, during which time we have run more than 300 courses, attended by over 6000 teachers, teaching assistants and other education professionals.

Central to our thinking about literacy tuition is that all education professionals need accurate feedback about the effectiveness of teaching ideas and programmes. We therefore determined from the outset to encourage schools to collect data on the performance of their Sounds~Write taught pupils. Happily, like us, most teachers are concerned about the lack of good evidence to underpin their understanding of what actually works in the classroom. Consequently many schools containing hundreds of individual classroom teachers trained in Sounds~Write have been willing to test their pupils and send their data to us to evaluate the progress of their pupils.

At the beginning of our data collection procedure we had in mind the goal of trying to collect information on a pupil sample equivalent in size to 50 full classes of 30 pupils passing through Key Stage One. The data collected in June 2009 completed this project enabling us to report on the progress of 1607 individual pupils for whom we have spelling test results obtained during May to June at the end of each of their YR, Y1 and Y2 school years.

We hope that you will find the results and discussion of them both interesting and illuminating. It would be interesting to compare the results of this research with similar information about other literacy tuition programmes in use throughout UK schools, but we are not aware that any such data exists. This sadly reflects the fact that most literacy tuition practices in the English speaking world are based on beliefs, rather than any real evidence of their effectiveness.

Overview of main results

This study has produced an enormous amount of data. To avoid the reader drowning in figures we are initially presenting the overall results in the form of a simple visual picture where each pupil in the study is represented by a single dot. Each red dot represents a pupil scoring at or above their own chronological age level, whilst each pink dot represents a pupil scoring below their own chronological age level, but by no more than 6 months. Each dark blue dot represents a pupil scoring more than 6 months below their own chronological age level.
The box on the left shows the expected outcome for 1607 pupils at the end of Year Two based on the norms of the Young's Parallel Spelling Test* used to evaluate their progress. The box on the right shows the actual results of the 1607 pupils in the study taught by staff trained in Sounds~Write.

By the end of Key Stage One 413 pupils (25•7%) who traditionally would have been expected to score below their chronological ages have actually scored above them.

Including the pupils who scored below, but within 6 months of their actual age level (252 pupils), we get to a grand total of 1463 out of the 1607 that will be moving up to Key Stage Two with basic literacy skills at an age appropriate level, or above. This amounts to 91% of the children in the study.

What has happened is an improvement in the literacy functioning ability of the whole cohort: all pupils show improvement when compared with the progress made in the past by those pupils on whom the test was originally standardised. Much research in this area is short term, looking for effects on pupils based upon interventions of less than 6 months. These effects often seem to mysteriously disappear over the following 12 months. Results are also frequently presented as average scores that can mask the fact that the positive effects claimed were achieved solely by the pupils at the upper end of the literacy ability range, leaving those functioning at the lower end no better off, and additionally even further behind those that are doing well. Sounds~Write was written with its main goal being the improvement and acceleration of the development of literacy skills for ALL pupils, and tracking this large sample of children individually through Key Stage One has demonstrated that this goal has largely been achieved.

Gender differences in speed of literacy skills acquisition are a continuing problem for the National Literacy Strategy because of the relatively poor performance of boys. With the linguistic phonic teaching used in this study this has not proved to be the case. For those pupils developmentally ready to engage with formal literacy tuition at the time of school entry, the performance of the boys and girls is very similar with girls pulling ahead over the three years by only about 1•5 months at the end of Year Two (a difference of no pedagogical consequence). It is, however, apparent from the data that about 18.6% of pupils were not really ready to engage intellectually with formal tuition when starting their Reception Year. More of these pupils were boys than girls, as would be predicted from basic knowledge about gender differences in early development, particularly speech and language. The data shows almost twice as many boys as girls were not ready to benefit fully from the formal tuition of literacy in Reception (the actual figures being 195 boys to 104 girls. The boys to girls ratio is therefore close to 1•9: 1•0).

These results will soon be available in very close detail on the Sounds-Write website. Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Education Non-Myths

I was so taken with this posting on Kitchen table Math from Palisadesk that I asked permission to reproduce it in full and disseminate the maxims a little more widely. So here it is:

Education Non-Myths
I couldn't resist sharing these maxims from a new blog :
whose author I know from a previous book he wrote entitled Power Teaching (it's in the list of books I recommended in a post a few months ago:

What follows is from the "Book of Right", the set of assumptions which will produce learning.

1. Although students come from different backgrounds, and some are much easier to teach than others, what education brings to the student is much more important than what the student brings to education.

2. All subjects are hierarchically arranged by logic and there is a sequence of instruction which must be followed by all but the most exceptional of high-performing students.

3. Reinforcement is a very powerful determinant of student achievement. The main reinforcer in education is the improvement the student sees in his skills. Ill-constructed curricula, the kind found in almost every government school, result in a steady diet of failure for most students.

4. Having a system of education which is not a civil servant bureaucracy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for effective education. You can’t do it with such a bureaucracy, but just because you don’t have a bureaucracy doesn’t mean you can do it.

5. Higher order thinking skills are explicitly taught, not fondly hoped for.

6. Methods of teaching are determined by scientific research, not consensus based on experience and sincere belief.

7. Teachers use a curriculum and lesson plans which have been demonstrated to work best and are not expected to create their own.

8. Psychological assessments are used rarely, but assessment of student progress, which means assessment of the effectiveness of teaching, occurs at least daily.

9. Teachers are taught how to teach in detail rather than being expected to apply vague philosophical maundering.

10. Special education is rarely needed because students are taught well on the first go round.

11. If a student does not learn, the blame is not placed on neurological impairment, but on faulty teaching methods.

12. Self-esteem is not taught because it does not have to be.

13. Students are not given "projects" until component skills have been mastered and rarely thereafter.

14. No attention is paid to individual "learning styles" because these hypothetical entities have no effect on learning.

15. Academic success can be measured by reliable and valid standardized tests, although many of these tests are too simple.

16. Students are expected to perform correctly in spelling, writing, reading, and mathematics and it does not stifle creativity.

17. The precepts of Whole Language are not used to teach reading because these precepts are wrong.

18. Students are not expected to create their own reality because this leads to frustration and slow learning.

19. Students are not expected to learn when it is developmentally appropriate but when they are taught.

20. The concept of multiple intelligences is ignored because it has no positive effect on learning.

21. The teacher is a teacher and not a facilitator.

22. The spiral curriculum is not used because things are taught properly the first time.

23. The customer is the parent and the customer must have the economic power to move his child to another teaching situation when unsatisfied.

24. In private education, the cost of education is known. In public education, the cost can never be known because there is no motivation to tell the truth and every motivation not to.

25. The curriculum must be tested on children and provision must be made for mastery learning. Passage of time or exposure does not guarantee learning.

26. Students are not tortured by "creative problem solving" because this is just another crude IQ test and has no value aside from categorizing students yet again.

I'm not sure I agree that "special education will rarely be needed," because I have observed that students with certain exceptionalities (autism, some LDs, some language impairments) need the same effective instruction but can't benefit from it in an inclusive setting, at least not initially. However, I agree with the general case, that much "special education" is simply ineffective general education, watered down in in a smaller group. As Lloyd Dunne (I think) observed, "It's not special, and it's not education."

All students deserve better.

Hear, hear! And, thanks to Palisadesk for permission to reproduce the above.

Standards in education 'woefully low', says Tesco boss Terry Leahy

The Guardian and The Independent are today both reporting Terry Leahy’s attack on Gordon Brown's 'woefully low' standards in education.
It's the usual complaint – huge amounts of money spent for a very poor return – though for the UK's largest private employer (Tesco) to voice such an outspoken attack is highly significant.
Leahy claims that standards are too low, that government bureaucracy is stifling and that government ministers spend too much time meddling. As a result, employers are 'having to pick up the pieces', he says.
The DCSF, of course, issued its customary denial and claimed that standards have never been higher, etc. etc. (Does anyone believe anything they say any more?), while the director general of the lobby group of the CBI, John Cridland, declared that Leahy's concerns were echoed throughout industry as a whole. So whom do we believe then?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Of nursery rhymes and picture books

I had to confess to some surprise the other day listening to the P.M. programme on Radio 4. The programme included a piece in which people were interviewed and asked to recite 'Jack and Jill' and other, what I thought were well known, nursery rhymes. What did I know? Hardly anyone who was interviewed could!
One woman said that she didn't sing the rhymes to her child because they were short on content. 'I don't see them as particularly educational,' she declared. She preferred to read books to her child - We're Going on a Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo, etc. While I think it's terrific to read books such as these and they may well be, as the woman suggested, the 'new generation of rhymes', it seems such a shame that parents are so fixated on instrumental learning these days.
The current obsession with instrumental learning - there must be a target to reach or an outcome to be got – can smother so much that is pleasurable. What about fun, pure and simple, immersing oneself in the pleasure of oral language? I blame the suffocating effects of the bureaucratic approach to everything educational these days.
Not that I think, as some who contributed to the PM blog, that chanting and singing nursery rhymes contributes directly to teaching children to read. The research evidence does NOT support this view: the teaching of reading needs to be much more systematically presented. Nevertheless, nursery rhymes are valuable for all sorts of less easily quantifiable reasons – enhancing children's vocabulary, introducing a range of different prosodic features of the language, and, as Albert Jack, who wrote Pop Goes the Weasel: the Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes, pointed out on the programme, they contain, at least in part, an oral history of the culture.
A similar point was made recently by Anthony Browne, the new Children's Laureate. He remarked that picture books were becoming increasingly marginalised and wondered whether this wasn't driven by the focus on national tests. He thought that children may be being pushed too soon towards 'more serious books', when they ought to be enjoying favourites such as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
The fundamental truth is that speech precedes literacy and is essential for full human communication. We do not normally speak as we write because when we are writing we are usually trying to communicate with others who are not present with us and therefore cannot see the visual expressions on our face as we talk, nor hear the changing auditory expressions of our voice as we try to explain what we wish to say. The rhythms, rhymes and cadences found in nursery rhymes are all beneficial in terms of teaching children about how to communicate ideas – but they are just as important in terms of adults and children sharing fun situations together. It is in these simple enjoyable interactions with nursery rhymes that much can be done to initiate children's life-long love of theatre, music and literature.

Friday, October 09, 2009

English Language Day

David Crystal is proposing that we give every language its ‘special day’. As he reminds us, we already have two: the European Day of Languages on 26th September and the World Mother-Tongue day on 21st February.
Crystal’s posting on his blog has drawn attention to work done by the Winchester English Language Project, which will celebrate 13th October as English Language Day. Why 13th October you ask? Because it was on 13th October 1362 that the Chancellor of England opened parliament with a speech in English for the first time. It was also in the same parliament that a Statute of Pleading decreed that law-suits should be in English, making English an official language of law and law-making, when hitherto this domain had been dominated by French.
According to their website, the English Project has decided to make this year’s theme 'citizenship and the language of the law'.
If you would like to get involved in some of the activities being planned, go to to find out how.
Thanks to the English Language Project for permission to use the picture of its logo.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Lamb's linguistic lament

In a report due to be published next month in the Queen's English Society's journal Quest, professor Bernard Lamb of Imperial College London claims that his British undergraduates made 'three times as many grammatical, punctuation and spelling mistakes' as his overseas students.
The figures Lamb refers to are taken from a class of twenty-eight final-year undergraduates and it ought to be said that the overseas students came from Singapore, China and Indonesia, countries where ambitious students are not known for being inattentive to the kinds of issues thrown up by the study. However, anecdotal evidence of the same kind frequently emerges from other university lecturers when their profile is high enough to get their doubts about the education system in the UK aired in the media.
Professor Lamb lays the blame squarely at the door of the English education system, which, he says, needs 'to raise the very poor standards of English of the home students by more demanding syllabuses and exams, more explicit teaching and examining of English (including grammar, spelling and punctuation) and by consistent correction of errors by teachers of all subjects.'
The article covering this lament is by Richard Garner in the Independent and contains some horrifying examples of the sort I should imagine most university tutors see every day. So, if you don’t want to give yourself nightmares, look away now: examples are 'separate', 'alot', 'theorys', as well as lots of grammar-agreement and punctuation problems.
As a person who has taught both UK and foreign undergraduate students for the past twenty years, I couldn't possibly comment.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Wirral council rescinds library closures

On June 12th I posted on Alan Gibbons' 'Campaign for the Book'. Here's the latest from Alan on attempts to close libraries. Looks like Alan and his fellow campaigners have won a victory … for the time being at least! Well done to them!

Below is a portion of Alan’s campaign email. You can read more on Alan’s blog.

Wirral council rescinds library closures
In a surprise move, Wirral's Labour/Lib Dem council has backtracked on its proposal to close eleven of its libraries, some half its branch network. This is a major victory for local residents, librarians, library users, trade unionists and campaigners. A council which refused to budge from an ill-considered piece of philistinism has been forced to think again.
Many will point to Andy Burnham's decision to invoke the 1964 Libraries Act and call for an inquiry. We should remember that this didn’t come out of the blue. At first Burnham was 'not minded' to intervene. But there were protest meetings attended by hundreds of angry local residents, marches, lobbies and letter-writing campaigns. Quite simply, it was popular pressure that forced the re-think.
Though everyone who has been fighting the Wirral closures is delighted with this development, we should strike a note of caution. The council leadership issued an extremely mealy-mouthed statement regretting the fact that it had been forced to retreat.
This is what council leader Steve Foulkes had to say:
"We firmly believe that our initial decision to invest £20m in the modernisation of our library service and the creation of 13 Neighbourhood centres was the right decision for the future of Wirral."
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport seems disturbed that the council has done a volte face before the publication of Sue Charteris' report on the issue and is reviewing the situation, considering whether the council has acted legally.
In an offensive article in Saturday's Liverpool Echo local Labour MP Frank Field characterized the U-turn as a 'defeat for local residents'. He even dared ask where campaigners would like cuts to fall on other services! I have just written to the Echo reminding Mr Field that local campaigners have often stood united with those fighting cuts in other sectors. His chutzpah is staggering.
Until the Charteris report is published and the cuts finally consigned to the dustbin of history, none of us should be complacent. The pressures on the public purse that led Wirral to take the action in the first place have not gone away. There is talk many of community libraries being under threat nationally. Wirral shows protest can have a profound effect but our resistance has only just begun.

In case you didn't know, Alan is the writer of some fantastic children's books. My favourite is the Shadow of the Minotaur, a gripping read that links modern technology to Greek myth.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Personal beliefs or evidence-based practice?

When I come into contact with practising teachers and teaching assistants on the Sounds-Write literacy training courses, I am constantly coming up against people who think that their personal opinion, based on nothing but their practice and beliefs, has the same validity as research in the field of teaching reading and spelling.
According to Caroline Cox*, there are four principal grounds on which teachers justify their practices. They are: 'tradition (how it has always been done); prejudice (how I like it done); dogma (this is the 'right' way to do it and ideology (as required by the current orthodoxy).'
Unless and until the teacher training institutions educate student teachers in the importance of evidence-based practice, many teachers will continue to base many of our educational practices on mere whimsy.
*Quoted by David Hargreaves in his well known 1996 TTA lecture 'Teaching as a research-based profession: possibilities and prospects'.

The social cost of illiteracy.

If you’re a teacher and you can get past the headline, the article by Harriet Sergeant in the Mail on 22nd September is about as hard hitting as it can get. The message is that illiteracy is a blight on our society and that the price we pay for continuing to allow huge numbers of or children to enter secondary school unable to read and write is appalling.
The trouble is that it needn’t be so. Phonics does work! In collecting data over the past six years, Sounds-Write has proved that the vast majority of children can be taught to read and spell by the time they get to the end of Key Stage 1. This is because it offers training in how to teach and the best way for children to learn – and that isn't through trying to discover things for themselves!
What the DCSF just doesn't get is that if you want teachers to teach effectively, you can't stick a manual in their hands and expect them to get on with it. Teachers need proper training: training in how the English reading and writing system works, training in how to introduce it and teach it from simple to complex, and training in how to know what to do when children make errors. Unless all practitioners are given rigorous training the problem will continue.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

'Literacy Standards in the UK – A Reality Check' by David Philpot

Since the UN started large scale surveys of adult literacy in the developed world in the mid 90's, politicians in all those countries that have English as their mother tongue have been at a loss to explain their appalling results.
In English speaking countries around half of all adults are not sufficiently literate to cope with basic reading and writing tasks, yet data collected on pupils leaving schools gives much more optimistic information about their literacy standards than later proves to be the reality.
Why is this? The fundamental problem is an erroneous belief. The belief is that reading tests are a good measure of literacy – they are not! Why are they not? Reading tests do not generally distinguish between words that are read using knowledge of how they are phonetically represented by the letters used to spell them and simple sight-memorisation of the whole word (i.e. taking a visual snapshot of the whole word without understanding the relationship of the individual letters to the actual word as spoken.) If you test pupils on a word reading test and subsequently set all the words 'read' correctly as a spelling test you will discover that, for many pupils, between 15% and 65% of those words that were read correctly are subsequently spelled wrongly! Reading Ages are therefore not only a very poor guide to actual reading ability, but bear hardly any relationship to spelling ability and therefore to writing ability.
For most of the 50% of English speaking pupils who subsequently end up as illiterate adults, if they are tested at any age beyond Key Stage One (infants) we find that they usually understand single-letter phonic decoding of the initial alphabet sounds and also cope with the common consonant two-letter spellings (ch sh th ck ng bb dd ss, etc.). Sometimes they also know what the two-letter vowel spellings ee and oo represent. Beyond this, the complexity of the English sound-spelling system has defeated them and they tend to approach it (very often fearfully) using a variety of irrational and spontaneous behaviours, which are often underpinned by such anti-phonic notions as 'silent' letters, to take one example.
The UK National Curriculum is, in part, built around a core of key words. As pupils with serious phonic difficulties grow older, they naturally adopt a strategy of attempting to memorise visually as many of the core key words of the curriculum as they can to help them cope in the classroom. Ability to succeed with this sort of memorisation is very varied, but by the age of eight, two to three hundred words have been memorised by many of these pupils, increasing to perhaps four to six hundred words by age eleven and getting on for a thousand by the school leaving age of sixteen.
Not surprisingly, many of these key words also appear in standardised reading tests. So the reading ages of these pupils appear to improve slowly throughout primary education rising towards 8½ or 9½ by the time of secondary transfer. The test results on these pupils are completely misunderstood by many educators and administrators, who believe that they are achieving relatively poor, but nonetheless lifelong, basic literacy skills. However, having struggled throughout their schooling, once that schooling is over and they are no longer faced with practising the words they have sight-memorised on a daily basis, what happens? They rapidly forget many of them and, on testing later as adults, end up with more accurately representative reading ages in the range 6½ to 7½.
The published data tends to corroborate the above hypothesis: How many children fail to get a good GCSE in English? In the 1997 OECD study, how many adults in all English speaking countries were found to be poorly literate or illiterate? How many adults did the Moser Report as being poorly literate? Every time the figures converge towards between 40% and 50 %.
Q: How can this parlous state of affairs be changed? A: Only by: (a) adopting an effective teaching system and then; (b) giving all teachers high quality training in how to implement it in the classroom; and, (c) developing accurate ways of measuring the process to ensure that all pupils make steady progress towards life-long literacy skills throughout the whole of their primary education (All pupils may be an over optimistic goal, but at the very minimum at least 96% should achieve proper adult levels of literacy).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Umberto echoes my fondness for the fountain pen.

What I remember Umberto Eco best for, and my goodness I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, is a long-forgotten piece he wrote on the Bond novels. On reading said piece, I was amazed to see that, apart from The Spy Who Loved Me, all the others conformed to a strict structural pattern. I'd wager that Eco picked up his method from Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale but, at the time, I was delighted to gain insight into an alternative way of analysing fiction.
He is still of course a prolific author and reader – he used to claim that he had solved the problem of trying to read in the shower so that he didn't waste any time not reading! Well, his latest musings are on the art of handwriting. There is, as you would expect, the classical allusion, an affectionate remembrance of his parents' handwriting, along with some schoolboy reminiscing - what makes his writing so good is that he always draws the reader into a more intimate relationship with the subject.
In yesterday’s Guardian (originally it was in The New York Times) Eco recommends a return to handwriting, not as opposed to using the computer or the mobile phone, but as an addition: to encourage children to slow down and think before they commit to paper, to improve hand to eye coordination, and for aesthetic pleasure, one of Eco's greatest loves.
Having only on Saturday bought my youngest daughter her first decent fountain pen, – Fie on the ballpoint, which they are NOT allowed to use at her school –, I think I know what he means.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The end of SATs?

Polly Curtis reported in Friday’s Guardian that 10,000 people have signed a petition to scrap SATs.
Independent and objective testing is an appropriate way of seeking to find out if pupils are successfully remembering and understanding what society wants them to be taught. Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Government's SATs papers actually do this and there is much evidence that pupils can be trained to give correct answers to questions on these papers despite them having limited literacy skills.
Just ask any local high school whether the English SAT scores achieved by their new pupil intake each year bears much resemblance to the independent academic work they can carry out in the classroom. Almost all schools will report numbers of pupils achieving the Level 4 standard expected by the end of Key Stage Two, but whose classroom performance is only at Level 2 or 3 (i.e., between 2 to 4 years lower than Level 4). One of the grounds on which many teachers, parents and pundits want to see SATs done away with is because they encourage teaching to the test. But who can blame teachers for doing this when these unreliable and poorly validated tests are used to construct league tables purporting to have some relevance to their school's academic standing in the community?
However, people have very short memories. The reason why the testing regime was put in place was because there were plenty of schools around in the seventies and eighties in which children were NOT getting a decent education in English, maths or science. I know because it happened to two of my own children. One of the reasons this occurred was because, whether you like the 11+ or not, teachers had a standard to teach to and when they were abolished in most counties of England that standard disappeared.
It is all very well for Michael Rosen to go around telling everyone how SATs should be abolished because they 'drive children, teachers and parents nuts', as was reported in the Guardian piece, but Michael Rosen's parents were both senior and committed academics, who, no doubt, ensured that Michael got an excellent education when he was a lad. Who is going to ensure that everyone's children get a sound enough education to ensure that they leave primary school capable of reading, spelling and performing basic arithmetic to a high enough standard to enable them to cope satisfactorily with their high school studies and their future adult lives?
I certainly do want to see these SATs abandoned - not because I think children and the education system shouldn't be scrutinised, but because they are bad tests being manipulated by government for political ends. What parents and society definitely need to know is that, by the end of the primary phase of education, their children are literate and numerate. If SATs are to be abandoned, they need to be replaced with more accurate and independently verifiable forms of assessment.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vital statistics? The 'sexy job' of the future, says Google's chief statistician.

What's the future going to be in terms of preparing oneself for a worthwhile job? Is it the law, economics, politics? Not according to Hal Varian, Google's chief statistician. For Hal, the sexy job to be doing in the next ten years is going to be statistics!
In an interview with Tim Harford on Radio 4’s More or Less, he explained why stats is the 'career of the future'.
"There's data everywhere," he says, "and so being able to analyse that data and being able to make sense of that data, being able to apply it to solve problems - that's a very critical skill in today's world. I don’t want to indicate that it's simply statistics narrowly defined but there's a whole set of skills surrounding statistics and data analysis: being able to access the data, being able to organise the data, being able to visualise the data. All of those are critical skills."
So, how would the data give someone a competitive edge? Hal believes that data "can be immensely valuable in improving the performance of [a] business." His advice: "I think it is important to study mathematics ... My view is that you should find something you're really passionate about. Maybe it's economics, maybe it's oceanography, maybe it's law, whatever. But within that field there will be opportunity and maybe a necessity to analyse data, so acquiring the skills that enable you to do that is going to be important to your success in any field."
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with literacy. Well, at Sounds-Write, David Philpot, a man who is passionate about improving children's literacy (and who can do maths!), has been collecting data from schools using the Sounds-Write programme for the past six years. The data has proved vital in proving how effective the programme has been in raising literacy standards.
He tells me that data collected on 1500+ pupils who were taught using Sounds-Write throughout Key Stage One (i.e. from age 4 until 7) showed that just over three quarters (75•4%) of them were able to move up to Key Stage Two with literacy skills (reading AND spelling) equal to or above their actual age level. The AVERAGE Spelling Age for these 1500+ pupils was 8 years 3 months.
This is over a year ahead of their actual ages. And, in case you're thinking that these children were privately educated, they were all drawn from local authority state primary schools and taught in whole classes. Of the remaining pupils, 22% scored within 12 months of their actual age and only 2.6% scored more than 12 months below.
Today, it isn't enough for teachers to say how much they like this programme or that programme, or for them to say that they believe that this programme or that programme works. Head teachers and their staff are increasingly demanding evidence before they will consider adopting new approaches.
The full statistical story of these latest figures will be published on the Sounds-Write website before very long. But in the meantime you will already find a report based on five years of whole class usage on the site.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Naughty names - a nadir in newsreporting.

You can tell we’re still becalmed in the silly season when the Indie reports a poll taken in New Zealand ranking 'naughty' kids by name!
Top of the list was Callum for boys and Chelsea for girls! Not very encouraging for the Clintons then! With not a naughty Nick in sight, Chardonnay came in at number three – you'd have to be under the influence, wouldn't you? Casey came in at number five on the girls' list. When I was a kid, Casey was the name of the very masculine driver/engineer of the Cannonball Express in a US TV series. You don't believe me? Take a listen to Johnny Cash. Johnny? Now there’s a good name for a boy, unless you'd rather Sue? Anything but Brooklyn!
Thanks to TV for the picture of the Cannonball Express.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Them as can do. And then they teach!

The Telegraph is asking today if teaching assistants should be allowed to teach. This is a follow-up to the previous day’s piece entitled "School pupils 'taught by untrained staff", in which it was revealed that 'assistants were used as temporary cover in more than 80 per cent of schools'. The blow hards claim everything from TAs being used as cheap labour (which in many cases they are), to them filling in for teachers snowed under by the rising tide of bureaucracy, to them being unqualified to do the job.
We all know that TAs teach groups of children and individuals all the time, as well as filling in for teachers who are undertaking other duties. It happens. In lots of ways, it's a good thing we have TAs. In my old school, when a master was otherwise engaged (anything from meeting the head to nipping out to place a bet on a horse or dropping into the local pub for a swift one – I kid you not!), we were left to our own devices.
The quality of TAs often depends very much on the area in which the school is situated. When recruitment is difficult, heads often take what they can get and this might mean, as I have seen myself, taking on staff who are semi-literate and using them to teach literacy. Very often the newly employed TAs have previously been employed in occupations totally unrelated to teaching - and so what? It is not uncommon to see parents who are very highly educated – in some cases very much more so than the average teacher and who have previously been holding down high powered jobs - who decide to take on a TA role while their children are at school. At the other end of the spectrum, a parent could have been stacking shelves in a well known supermarket.
The truth is that, as in any line of work, you get good and bad. As far as TAs go, the good far outweighs the bad. The important thing is for senior management in schools to make sure that TAs are not asked to do jobs they are not qualified for because, when they are, children’s education can suffer and TAs can lose confidence through being unable to cope with the demands placed on them.
So, Graeme, what is the point in asking the question? Each situation needs to be judged on its merits or is, as one of my masters of the drinking kind would have said, sui generis.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

No crock of gold at the end of Reading Rainbow.

As is so often the case, npr (USA’s national public radio station) has been reporting an item of major interest to everyone interested in how we should be teaching our children to read.
They got the ball rolling by reporting that, after twenty-six years of broadcasting and over two dozen Emmys, the much loved TV programme Reading Rainbow is finally being shelved through lack of funding.
PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), with its 356 member stations offering a broad array of programmes on a huge variety of educational topics, has decided that the show has had its day. Linda Simensky, vice president of PBS, says that 'when Reading Rainbow was developed in the early 1980s, it was an era when the question was: "How do we get kids to read books?"'
Since that time, and in the light of new research, that emphasis has changed towards the mechanics of teaching reading – phonics and 'reading fundamentals'. This is the network's new priority. Nevertheless, she calls the end of the programme a 'bitter/sweet' moment.
I'm completely in favour of programmes that teach parents and teachers (and children!) the mechanics of reading and spelling but I can't help feeling that there should also be a place for programmes that encourage and enthuse children to want to read too – and that’s just exactly what many people say Reading Rainbow did.
Want to see a short clip from the series? Try 'Hail to the Mail' at


The latest row (see Saturday's Telegraph) to erupt over testing is over the request by some state schools to be allowed to allow their pupils to sit IGCSEs.
IGCSEs are generally regarded as being more rigorous, which is why many private schools have now opted for them. In March of this year, Manchester Grammar school also elected to switch.
The problem is that the Labour government has refused to recognise them – this despite the fact that, according to Cambridge International Exams, IGCSEs are offered in over one hundred countries throughout the world.
If the Tories get in, they say they will allow them to be introduced. So far, ever true to its imperious and illiberal instincts, Labour is resisting.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lib Dems predict rise in number of school leavers failing to get five good GCSEs

The Independent reports that the Lib Dems are predicting the number of pupils leaving school without five good GCSEs since Labour came to power will top three million when the results are announced later this week.
The figure that really shocks me is that last year 230,140 teenagers went out of the school gates without getting these grades. This amounts to just over 35%, or more than a third.
The figure for those children gaining a grade D or below in English or maths is even worse. The Prince's Trust thinks the figure is likely to be near 50% this year. (It was 47% last year.)
It's more party political point scoring of course but the Lib Dems are dead right about one thing: unless you get the basics right early on, this is where it leads.

From Utopia to dystopia: new books on Ransome and Golding and a new course on Children's lit. from the Open University

Children's literature has been a fast growing area of academic interest in the past ten to fifteen years. Much of this has been further fuelled by an explosion of enthralling stories by writers such as Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, J.K. Rowling and so on. In case it takes your fancy, the Open University is inviting people to sign up for its new Level 3 course Children's literature, which starts in October and runs until June. the reading list includes writers as disparate as Beatrix Potter, Beverley Naidoo, and Stevenson, not to mention the aforesaid Pullman and Rowling.
Coincidentally, during the past couple of weeks the press have been reviewing two new books: Roland Chambers' The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, published by Faber and Faber and John Carey's William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, also published by Faber and Faber.
This week's Sunday Times Culture supplement has included a large extract from the latter last Sunday, which revealed that had it not been for Charles Montieth, who was later to become chairman of Faber and Faber and who brought to the publishing house authors as celebrated as Beckett, Larkin, Stoppard, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, Lord of the Flies would probably never have seen the light of day. It's definitely worth a read if you haven't yet thrown out the Sundays. And if you have, you can read it online at
Coming soon - my daughter is threatening to compile a list of favourite reads for young teens. Watch this space!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Walden ponder.

Thanks once more to Susan Godsland for bringing George Walden's recent piece for the Telegraph to my attention. In truth, I almost wish I hadn't seen it, as it makes such deeply depressing reading.
No-one comes off well under Walden's scathing reflection: he quotes a friend as saying that 'reforming education was like trying to disperse a fog with a hand grenade', which puts me in mind of Chris Woodhead’s book Class War in which he quotes Robert Holland as declaring the project to be 'as slippery and hard for reformers to wrestle down as a greased cow in a swamp' (Class War, p.3).
The downgrading of the value of educational qualifications, the hypocrisy of educational pundits and Labour and Conservative politicians, the pernicious effects of having a two-tier system in which the lower tier is condemned to a second class education: all come within the purview of Walden's withering appraisal.
For all that, he insists he isn't cynical. There are solutions and he points to Germany as offering more modern forms of selection. Not that he's holding his breath. As the economist and social philosopher Thorstein Veblen said, 'Invention is the mother of necessity'; and it won't be until UK plc comes under unremitting pressure from the Chinese and Indian economies that the collective mind will be concentrated to the degree required to force the change we need so desperately.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back home in search of the lost apostrophe.

I'm back! Did I miss anything? I thought not.
Anyway, there's an amusing piece in the Telegraph from a couple of days ago on 'Stefan Gatward's mission to correct our wayward grammar.'
Apparently, Mr Gatward added an apostrophe to the street sign where he lives. The new sign reads St Johns Close, whereas, of course, it should have read St John's Close.
I think what is most amusing about the article is that the Telegraph's columnist, Patrick Sawyer (or was it the sub-editor?), made the mistake of putting in an apostrophe where none was required:
"This served to confirm a pet theory of Mr Gatward's that the Catholic Church is rather more rigorous in these matters than the liberal Church of England, given it's (sic) adherence to scriptural doctrine rather than individual interpretation."
Gatward's apostrophe lasted three days before being scratched out, by the way.
Nuff said.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time off for bad behaviour!

John has given up on the weather and gone in search of some sunshine.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Woodhead alternative.

As I was trawling through The Economist audio archive, I came across a rather fascinating interview with Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of School, presumably to mark the publication of his new book A Desolation of Learning. The lion - it's the luxuriant curls! - may have lost a few teeth but he can still bite.
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Chris Woodhead’s views on education that he describes the government's directives about 'being healthy, being safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, achieving economic well-being' as its 'vacuous children’s plan'.
He claims that this government has no respect for 'traditional learning', which he believes should be about knowing something about the history and literature of this country, maths and science, and he goes on to describe Ofsted these days as 'an irrelevance'.
None of this is particularly new, a re-rehearsal of the old 'traditional' versus 'progressive' arguments about the way we educate children, you might think. However, what is particularly interesting in this interview is his criticism of Michael Gove and the Conservative Party's position, which he regards as being ambivalent - code for can't quite decide if nailing their colours to the mast is going to lose them votes. While Woodhead readily agrees with the interviewer that he is supportive of some of the Tory policies, such as, for example, introducing synthetic phonics into schools, he insists that the statist solution – imposition from the top – is the wrong way to go.
What he says is that 'You either plump for market driven solutions… or you plump for the state telling schools what to do… I don't believe that the machinery of state control should be used to impose ways of teaching and learning even when I personally approve of those particular ways of teaching and learning (my emphasis).'
On the basis of his experiences of local and national government, he further develops this theme by, talking about his increasing scepticism 'about how state machinery works'. He believes it 'crushes the spirit out of independent-minded teachers'.
Part of his answer to the problem lies in the introduction of vouchers for every parent, – weighted for children with particular educational disadvantages –, which they can cash in at a state school or go towards payment or part-payment for private school fees. This, he thinks, will drive up standards and push down prices much more efficiently that the top-down solutions pursued by New Labour.
I wouldn't have bought his book but I felt that the interview took such an engaging turn I went out and got hold of a copy, which I am currently reading. Whatever you think about Chris Woodhead, and the truth is that most people have never actually listened to or read what he's got to say, the interview is worth a spin. And, if you decide to buy the book, you can get it at Amazon.
Thanks to The Telegraph for the photograph of Chris Woodhead.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

You may now turn over your papers.

The Tory plans to publish past exam papers has obviously ruffled the feathers of the government, who, in their ever greater desire for transparency, have so far refused to offer them for public scrutiny.
According to this morning's BBC report, Michael Gove says: "Now the government treats exam papers like state secrets and refuses to publish them.
"This is wrong and a Conservative government will create a free online library of all exam papers and scripts so there is full transparency and academic scrutiny of our exam system."
Implementing Gove's proposals would be an excellent step forward, though to make sense of comparisons we would need to have more information, such as where grade boundaries lie and how they are decided and how marking schemes are arrived at. Looking at a broad sample of students’ answers would also need to be incorporated into such a plan.
Bring it on!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Them as can, do!

Picking up on the Politeia Report, this week's Economist magazine gets in on the act of reporting on the quality of the teachers in education.
The organization Teach First is busy this summer training five hundred graduates to teach in some of the most challenging school environments. Named as the Education and Training Charity of the Year in 2009, Teach First has modelled itself on Teach for America, which now trains around 4,000 teachers a year.
Having been vetted for their leadership qualities and their communication skills, those recruits that manage to succeed agree to teach for two years in schools where 'more than 30%' of the pupils are on free school meals and in which staff turnover has been a particularly serious problem.
On a starting salary of just £15,000, the incentives are hardly financial. So how does Teach First attract good candidates? The appeal seems to be the offer of a difficult challenge and, since it started in 2003, it is reported that 60% of those surviving the first two years decide to stay on.
Will the programme be able to present itself as a serious rival to the 40,000 teachers recruited by the government each year? Finding enough highly motivated individuals to do this seems pretty unrealistic. However, Teach First aim instead to change the culture in teaching by raising the bar and making teaching more attractive to ambitious well qualified people. A spokesperson for the group is quoted in the Economist article 'Those who can' as saying that 'educational inequality is a solvable problem and that the way to solve it is to get the best people teaching in the most challenging schools'.
Although there's a lot about this initiative to admire, the research on the magnitude of differences in the cumulative experience of children from 'welfare' families and those from professional classes is already so great by the age of three, it is going to take a lot more than this to redress the balance.
Teach First already has its first head teacher, Max Haimendorf, and if you would like to listen to him talk about the philosophy by which he is going to be guiding the school, King Solomon Academy (Secondary) school in London, which is to open in September, go to the Economist's webpage and click on the audio 'Smaller Schools'.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Reading Wars - again.

It's the silly season and there's precious little to report. There was a posting on the Reading Reform Foundation from Jim Curran, who flagged up a piece by one of Australia's leading proponents of phonics, Kerry Hempenstall. In his article 'The Whole Language-Phonics Controversy: A Historical Perspective', he outlines, as the title suggests, the history of the 'debate'.
If you've never read anything on the subject before, some of it is very interesting and he quotes from work by some of the major names in the field, my favourite being M.J.Adams's Beginning To Read.
However,there are some untidy errors: he describes writing systems as 'evolving', a notion that would surprise Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, authors of the highly authoritative The World's Writing Systems. In addition, Hempenstall tells us on one page that 'English has 1,120 ways of writing 40 sounds', and on the next, quoting Pollack and Pickartz (1963), that there are 'about 45 phonemes that can be spelled in at least 350 ways'!
Aside from that, he's right: teaching reading and spelling is right at the top of the agenda and there is, since Flesch published Why Johnny can't read in 1955, a degree of public accountability that didn't exist previously.
For all that, if you've got the time and the inclination, you can't beat Diane McGuiness's Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading. It's a cracker!

Friday, July 24, 2009

John is off to the beach for a few days.

Thanks to Microsoft for the pic.

SATs scores spun, science sidelined.

The BBC reports of the last two days highlight in stark terms what a bunch of interfering busybodies government ministers are. If proof were wanted to bear out everything the Policy Exchange report of a few months ago stated, it’s all here.
As the BBC news channel reported yesterday morning, far from being blameless for last year's SATs debacle, the Commons schools select committee said the DCSF had 'involved itself too much in the detail of the testing'. It is also significant that Barry Sheerman, the chair of the committee, felt that he had to say: "We are not saying Ed Balls and Jim Knight were manipulating everything...they weren't doing that, but at the same time their fingerprints are on part of this." Read into that what you may! Poor old Barry! The last time he stepped out of line and called for a ballot on the leadership, they had him up in front of his constituency committee the following morning for a dressing down.
It's the same old story with everything they lay their hands on: diktats from the centre, control freakery gone mad. The sort of thing that stifles innovation and ignores anything government ministers decide to turn its face against. This approach doesn't sit well with the second report from the BBC later in the day telling us that the government is also 'keeping scientists at "arm’s length"' and, it says, 'treating science as "a peripheral concern."'
We know very well what the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee group of MPs mean when they tell us that 'knowledge from experts is not being properly used to make informed policy decisions'. The fact that Gordon Brown and Ed Balls should personally decide that Reading Recovery should be rolled out in schools is the kind of madness that flies in the face of properly conducted scientific evidence into what works in terms of teaching children to read and spell.
OK, I’m spinning it! But, if the government had genuinely allowed schools to choose whatever phonics programmes they wanted and without the interference of an army of local authority advisors on whom 85% of the annual budget for the National Strategies has been spent, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now in.
And, just to remind you exactly what that mess is: from the Policy Exchange document (p.26)
'Primary performance statistics:
1) Performance in English, maths and science has barely improved in the last two years, if at all
2) Children’s reading has scarcely improved since 2000
3) The performance of high achieving pupils is starting to fall by as much as 5% a year
4) Over 40% of the boys and almost 30% of the girls (around 200,000 children in total) who left primary school in 2008 cannot read and write properly
5) Only 56% of the boys and 66% of the girls who left primary school in 2008 can read, write and count to the minimum standard
6) Since the National Strategies began in 1998, over 1.6 million children have left primary school without achieving basic literacy, over 1.8 million have left without mastering basic numeracy and over a million have left not understanding basic science.'

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Auntie gets in on the act!

It was nice to get one in before the Beeb yesterday! They managed to catch up this morning by reporting the 'Teachers "are scared of numeracy"' story.
Of course, the report has been rubbished by the DCSF, who spun it by claiming that the degree is a 'well-respected three year education degree' and by talking about how teachers' pay has improved 'over the past twelve years' - don't they realise how people are sick to the back teeth of this kind of cheap party political point scoring?.
What they can't challenge, however, is the report's claim that trainees can get onto the degree course with only a C grade at GCSE in maths and English.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Standards required to teach.

Here’s one that will shock everyone… I think. It is reported in the Guardian today that primary teachers in England are 'among the worst qualified in Europe'. Politeia, a right-wing think tank, claims that all primary teachers should have passed A-level maths and English, as a minimum, before being unleashed on eight- to eleven- year-olds.
At the moment, a primary teacher need only pass GCSE at grade C to be admitted onto a teacher-training course. Elsewhere in Europe, trainee primary teachers need to have studied maths and their L1 language (mother tongue) before being allowed to start primary education courses.
In addition, there’s the problem of wastage. You don’t have to be a right-wing think-tank to worry about the fact that between thirty and fifty percent of primary and secondary school teachers in England leave within five years of starting teaching. In many countries in Europe, the figure is between three and six percent, according to the OECD.
What’s the solution? Two proposals are suggested: pay teachers more to start with and raise academic standards?
Do we really want a situation in which, according to David Burghes, a professor of maths at the University of Plymouth, '[o]ne of the issues that bedevils our teaching profession, and particularly my subject of mathematics, is that of the inadequate subject knowledge of teachers'. Burghes goes on to say of primary school teachers who had only GCSE maths that they often had 'little knowledge beyond basic numeracy' and that, in some cases, 'even basic numeracy scares them'. He also added that the situation was the same for English and science.
By the way, before you scramble for Wikipedia, the definition they give for 'politeia' is 'the conditions and rights of the citizen, or citizenship', which is the equivalent of the Latin 'polis', or the somewhat better known 'constitution'.

Friday, July 17, 2009

T's cross about not dotting 'i' row!

Here's a thing from the Indie yesterday. You really couldn't make it up, could you?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

David Crystal - a diamond geezer!

Anyone familiar with the work of David Crystal will already know what a prolific author on all questions to do with the English language he is. If a single year doesn't bring at least two new publications, I begin to wonder if he is at last beginning to slow down. So, it was with particular pleasure that I received from my brother-in-law a copy of Crystal's latest - Just a Phrase I'm Going Through: My Life in Language. It is, as the title suggests, an autobiography, a life in which he describes himself as being 'surrounded by an ever playing linguistic orchestra'.
As a writer, Crystal has it all: erudite, witty, humorous and wry - at one point in his book there is a photo of him in 1968 with the caption 'Looking after the data - sorry, children'!
His books span the development of the English language from the arrival of the Germanic tribes fifteen hundred years ago to the multiverse directions the language is taking today.
If you've never read a book by Crystal, you can do no better than to begin with his The Stories of English.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Torchwood gives boost to government figures.

A friend of mine and regular Torchwood watcher has emailed about last week’s showing. Apparently, and to cut a longer story short, a bunch of aliens had landed and was demanding 10% of the world's children. The UK government (who were not portrayed in a very sympathetic light) quickly decided this was reasonable enough, and had a discussion about how to pick the 10%. They concluded that it wouldn't make sense to get rid of the best kids, so they'd take all of the UK's 10% from schools that were at the bottom of the league tables. At some point one of the ministers made a comment along the lines of, 'what would be the point of having the tables, if we weren't going to do something like this'.
Perish the thought, but such a manoeuvre would boost the success stats at a stroke, wouldn’t it? Would this be the 10% for whom one-to-one tuition is supposed to be offered in Key Stages 2 and 3 classes from next year, thus saving the Ed Balls lots of money? Of course, to make any significant impact, the percentages would have to be the 44% of boys and the 34% of girls ‘who left primary school in 2008’ unable to ‘read, write and count to the current minimum standard’ (Policy Exchange document, p.11).
Look out for reports from government minsters that aliens have landed and that negotiations are afoot.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blowing the whistle on the stats

Every year teachers working in secondary schools screen the new Year 7 intake to see who needs help in reading and spelling. Two years ago, one such secondary school in the north-west told us that 72.6 percent of their Year 7 had scored below their chronological ages on entry!
Since then, on trainings, many other practitioners have said that these figures are very similar to the ones they find. In many cases, neither do the figures produced by these tests seem to bear any relation to the SATs scores.
If you are involved in testing and would like to share your findings with me, I'll blog the information - anonymously, of course.
An excellent spelling test is the Young's Parallel Spelling test. It's very easy to administer to a whole class at a time.
Thanks to for the picture of the whistle.

Private Eye gets in on the act of questioning education policy

I veritably LOLed when I opened the latest issue of the Eye (10th July, 2009). 'Prime Ministerial Decree No 48' announces the sweeping away of 'the hated Milburnite-Blairite targetology' and its replacement with 'universal human rightism'. The second of the rights is 'The right of every child to be given a place in the best school in the country (subject to availability).'
Pip, pip, as they say!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

More evidence of the fall in standards in maths and literacy.

A new report in the Sunday Express this morning claims that more and more teachers are struggling with basic spelling and numeracy. The article reports that 'Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, pledged that a future Conservative government would raise teaching standards'.
The real question needing to be addressed is: how do we improve standards in literacy and spelling? The answer does not lie in ploughing money into secondary schools. The task needs to be undertaken in the primary phase. The evidence lies behind statistics like those published each year by Sounds-Write. Year after year dozens of teachers all over the UK and using the Sounds-Write programme test the children they are teaching in spelling and the results are simply incontrovertible. Children can be taught to read and spell to a very high level, in most cases far exceeding their chronological age.
Instead of spending money on setting up bodies to deal with parents’ complaints, the government should be making sure that the training institutions are equipping teachers to deal with the national scandal that leaves so many children leaving school without basic competency in these areas.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What to do about maths

On trainings I run for practitioners teaching literacy I am increasingly being asked about maths teaching. I recommend two materials' sites. The first, for young children, is the Schofield and Sims website and their Mental Maths series. My youngest daughter benefited hugely from doing three or four of these exercises every week throughout the primary phase, so much so that she was streets ahead of most other children by the end of Year 6. The second is the Ichthus Resources site, which sells Singapore Maths books. The Singapore Maths books are amazingly comprehensive and teach fundamental concepts and facts, as well as providing loads of practice.

Picture thanks to