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'.