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.