Sunday, October 31, 2010

The truth behind the 'rise' in the education budget

The widely heralded increase in the schools budget is, it turns out, not what it at first seemed. The Financial Times this weekend (30th/31st October) spelt out the reality behind the rise.
The resource budget, which is used to fund day-to-day running costs will, it appears, rise by 0.4 %. However, the increase in the numbers of pupils means that the 'rise' will turn into a cut of 2.25%. The number of primary school age children is set to rise by 8% over the next four years, while the school population as a whole is predicted to rise by 2.7% overall.
Of the £39 billion allocated to individual schools for day-to-day spending in 2014-2015, £2.5 billion is a 'pupil premium'. The pupil premium is defined by the FT as 'money given to schools for each pupil who is eligible to receive free school meals, a widely-used indicator of poverty'. For a school to avoid losing money it would need to have more than a fifth of its pupils claiming free school meals. As the FT makes clear, at the average primary school only 17% of pupils are eligible. By this reckoning, the FT calculates that '62% of primary school children are in schools that will not meet that bar, and whose budgets will be cut in real terms'.
In the secondary sector, in order to receive the pupil premium, a school would have to have around 25% of its pupils on free school meals to maintain increased funding. At present, the average percentage of pupils receiving free school meals is only 14%, which, the FT suggests, will mean that '84% of secondary pupils are in schools that will experience cuts in real terms'.
In addition, as has been made more transparent, the schools building budget has been cut by 60%.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already confirmed that the FT's analysis accords with its own.
What's the broad message from all this? As the FT puts it:
'Most schools will see cuts in funding per pupil over the next four years, with secondary schools more likely to see cuts than primary schools. Some schools with more deprived pupils could see increases in funding per pupil, depending on how the pupil premium is implemented.’
When I went to see Nick Gibb, the schools minster, at the House of Commons around this time last year, he hinted that were the Conservative Party to win the election, money would be made available in the form of a voucher system for schools to use to train teachers to teach phonics. One of the easiest ways of improving the educational chances of pupils in this country is to teach them to read and spell to a level that will enable them to reach their full potential, whatever that potential might be. There can be no doubt that all pupils can taught to read well enough for them to be able to access the full secondary curriculum. But, to achieve this means investing in training the teachers properly. It cannot be done by sticking a manual or handbook in the post and expecting teachers and teaching assistants to get on with it.
Like I said, it's the training, stupid!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bald on Birbalsingh

I've mentioned before that John Bald's blog on language and literacy is well worth a visit. Like many others, he's been following the story of Katherine Birbalsingh as reported in the (mainly) broadsheet press and on this blog. His latest posting, 'Katharine Birbalsingh - the Guardian Knot', reports an interview with her in the Guardian. If you want to listen to what it was Katharine Birbalsingh said at the Tory Party conference that so upset the governors of her school, it has been posted on YouTube in its entirety. And, if you're a member of the Blob, best to sit down first.

Brogan on the Blob

Trying to effect change within the educational establishment is, as the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead once put it, 'as slippery and hard for reformers to wrestle down as a greased cow in a swamp'. Woodhead (after the US education secretary William Bennett) called the 'tribe' that make up the civil service, the LEAs, the teacher unions and the occupants of ivory towers, the Blob.
The latest instalment in the battle with the Blob is reported on in the Telegraph today, where Benedict Brogan identifies the various organisations responsible for trying to slow down, stymie, or openly obstruct the process of change. Unsurprisingly, the main 'enemy within' turns out to be the civil service in the guise of the education department.
What is so amazing is that the people staffing the DfE who are themselves educated to the highest level would yet deny what they have had to pupils languishing in what even Alastair Campbell described as 'bog standard' comprehensives. Ironically, one of the Anti-Academies Alliance’s principal supporters is Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Deliberate practice and expertise

A short while ago I was upbraided for daring to suggest that individuals we commonly refer to as geniuses are not born with abilities beyond the scope of ordinary individuals. My thinking was heavily influenced by the publication in 2006 of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, where two approaches to the expertise of exceptional individuals are examined: the first suggests that some people have greater minds or that their 'greatness or creativity arises from some chance and unique innate talent' (p.22); the second approach is more relative and assumes that 'expertise is a level of proficiency that novices can achieve' (p.22).
It is impossible to try and present or summarise even a tiny part of this book, so wide is the range of areas it covers, but since its publication it has spawned a huge amount of interest. The Cambridge Handbook has generated a host of popularised versions of the academic arguments it has put forward: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and Matthew Syed’s Book Bounce. All pay homage to The Cambridge Handbook. [As an aside, Robert Morris provides a useful overview of Coyle's book on the Amazon site.]
What they all broadly agree on is that talent, in whatever area, be it chess, playing the violin, learning maths, or playing golf, depends less on innate talent and more on two fundamental factors: deliberate practice and expert tuition. But these two requisites need to be teased out a bit. In the case of deliberate practice, one needs to know what to practise: what does any particular skilled knowledge and ability entail and how can it be broken down into sub-components that can be taught and practised? In regard to expert tuition, a teacher may not need to be the most brilliant exponent of the learning target, but they do need to know how it should be taught, what the stages are and the order in which they should be introduced and mastered before moving on to the next level or stage.
If this is done well, there is no reason why just about anyone can't pretty much accomplish anything to a high level of skill, which is why teachers need proper training in whatever it is they teach.
However, to become a Rebecca Adlington, an Anamika Veeramani, or indeed a Stephen Hawking, you also need true grit, the willingness to practise every day for hour after hour, always in the knowledge that even that mightn't be enough to get you to the top.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ms Birbalsingh departs

The Telegraph (yesterday) and the Sunday Times today are both running stories on Ms Birbalsingh's departure (sacking) from St Michael and All Angels Academy after she had spoken out against 'low standards and expecting the very least from the poor and disadvantaged' at the Conservative Party conference a few weeks ago.
Despite being given permission to speak at the conference by her head teacher, the board of governors at St Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy, where she worked, didn't like what Ms Birbalsingh had to say about the education system. In her speech, she had described it as 'broken' and as being 'so dumbed down even the children know it'. The claim made by the governors that her remarks were potentially damaging to the reputation of the school, or, as the governors statement put it, 'the position of the academy has been misrepresented', was clearly absurd, as she had only been at the school for a few weeks and was talking about the education system in general.
Neither she nor the school are prepared to comment on the details of her leaving but Mrs Birbalsingh was reported in the Telegraph to have said 'that she had resigned after being asked to comply with conditions she did not feel able to comply with'. In other words, it's quite likely that the school tried to gag her and she refused the gag.
As Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education says, 'It sends a shocking warning to others in the teaching profession - they must not say anything which may expose the truth about the system, or they may lose their livelihood'. The Telegraph View today is even more forthright, likening 'bureaucrats in charge of the state education system today' to Stalinists.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Ooops! I almost forgot the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, held in the United States on June 5th.
This year's winner was Anamika Veeramani, from Ohio, who spelled the word 'stromuhr' correctly to win the competition. According to npr, a 'stromuhr' is a medical instrument 'that measures the amount and speed and flow of blood through an artery', which is just as well since Anamika wants to go to Harvard and train to become a cardiovascular surgeon!

Goodbye to Michelle Rhee, children’s champion

My guess is that unless you keep abreast of US politics, you probably won't have heard of Michelle Rhee. She was, until very recently, children's chancellor to Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, DC, until he was defeated in the Democratic primary on September 14th.
Over her three years in tenure Rhee turned education in Washington schools around and, as The New Republic, put it, 'imposed competence on Washington's shambolic schools'. She achieved this by closing failing schools and sacking incompetent teachers. In so doing, she caused the percentages of secondary students passing competency tests to shoot up by 14 points in reading and 17 points in maths; she rationalised the procurement of text books, devised new mechanisms for measuring the performance of teachers, and supported children with special needs; and, she stabilised enrolment in the state school system. To accomplish this, Michelle Rhee did what many mayors and governors throughout the United States would like to do: she took on the teachers' union, 'the base of the base' of the Democratic Party, as Steven Brill in tnr calls it.
When it came to priorities, Rhee was in no doubt where hers lay. In a recent interview on National Public Radio (npr), she said:
"… for me, I think it's very clear that the focus and main priority of the school district has to be educating its children well, and that jobs have to take a backseat to that. And we can't forsake what's happening to schoolchildren every single day in the classroom in the name of maintaining jobs for adults, because I think in many school districts - not just in Washington, D.C. - that has been the case, and that protecting jobs was more important than children achieving. And that's what's led to the incredibly poor academic outcomes in this nation."
Sadly, when Fenty lost the primary and Vincent Gray, the candidate backed by the American Federation of Teachers and a hardline critic of Rhee won, Rhee's position became untenable and she resigned. This is a significant setback for Obama, whose 'Race to the Top' programme has stimulated a raft of legislation throughout the states intended to hold teachers accountable for their performance. It is also a setback for the much needed reform of state schooling in the USA.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Desmond Morris on books v TV for toddlers

Many years ago I enjoyed very much watching Desmond Morris’, at the time, utterly captivating TV programme 'Zoo Time', where he would get up to, amongst other things, all sorts of antics with a number of favourite chimpanzees. His books, The Naked Ape and Manwatching, were also great fun, if a little speculative in places. Last week, he published his latest book, Child, in which he claims, according to an interview in the Guardian, that favouring book reading to children over watching television is 'cultural snobbery'.
Already criticised for encroaching onto biologists' territory for his previous work, Baby, one must question the evidence on which he bases his claims. There are undoubted benefits to watching some television and Morris is surely right in saying that even quite young children can watch a film with total concentration. Many television programmes are enriching in all sorts of ways and many are just, well, plain fun! And what busy parent hasn't just plonked their young child down in front of the TV so that they could attend to something else, like making dinner?
However, it's easy and a bit facile to make statements like 'films can be better than books'. Unless Morris specifies exactly what he means by 'films' (What kinds of films? And which films is he talking about?) and 'better', the statement he makes is meaningless.
Stanovich, one of my favourite researchers in the field of reading, produces a considerable weight of evidence to contradict some at least of what Morris is arguing. Quoting from the work of Hayes and Ahrens (1988, CUP), Stanovich states how relatively lexically impoverished most human speech is, as compared with the written word. Stanovich argues that 'opportunities to acquire new words occur when an individual is exposed to a word in written or oral language that is outside their current vocabulary'. Furthermore, 'this will happen vastly more often while reading [or being read to] than while talking or watching television' and he goes on to point out that children's books contain '50% more rare words in them than does prime time television and the conversation of college graduates'.
According to Stanovich, 'an oral culture plus visual images (increasingly the environment of children) is no substitute for print'*.
* Quoted from Stanovich, K.E., (2000), 'Measuring Print Exposure', in Progress in Understanding Reading, London, The Guilford Press.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The New Scientist on neuroscience and education

This week's New Scientist (October 2nd 2010) is carrying an interesting piece entitled 'Supercharge Your Brain' but it's also the introductory editorial 'From neuromyth to reality' that has much to commend it.
Firstly, I can't resist including the remark once made by John Maynard Keynes quoted at the beginning of the editorial. He is recorded as saying that education is 'inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent', an encapsulation that will give many of us working in the field of education much food for thought.
However, on a more serious note, the question is raised about whether the gap between neuroscience, cognitive science and education can be bridged. Although neuroscientists have brought home to the teaching profession the importance of sensory motor learning and the active involvement of learners in their own learning, as well as dispelling 'half-baked' neuromyths such as the value of 'brain training', 'left-brained/right-brained' nonsense, and the like, as the article makes clear, 'even today, a grand theory of learning that can exert a direct influence on education looks a distant prospect'.
That said, what we do know about what works is still not finding its way into classrooms. A pupil I know well told me the other day about being introduced to simultaneous equations at school for the first time. The teacher 'explained' the elimination method for ten minutes and the class were then given a homework in which they had to solve an assortment of these equations. Next lesson, the pupils have been told, they will be learning the substitution method. In contrast, in Singaporean math, the pupils are first given an explanation of why simultaneous equations are useful in solving certain problems – the reason for knowing how to do them. The next step is to offer worked examples, beginning with the most simple and moving towards the more complex. After that, the pupils practise, not with ten example questions but with fifty! During this practice, the pupils are also practising the skills and knowledge they have previous learnt: basic algebraic manipulation - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of algebraic terms -, linear equations, and so on.
This kind of apprenticeship model of learning is precisely the one employed in Sounds-Write's methodology: the teacher models what it is they want the pupils to learn; next, they invite the pupils to take part in guided participation; finally, after plenty of rehearsal and consolidation – i.e. practice – the pupils gain independence before moving on to the next stage. Which is why, as an approach to the teaching of reading and spelling, it is so successful.
It's not just the training; it's the practice, stupid!