Thursday, March 25, 2010

Campaign for the Book

Here's the latest news on the Campaign for the Book, which is being driven by Alan Gibbons, author of Shadow of the Minotaur.
In his latest campaign newsletter, Alan tells us that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has finally published its review and that 'there is no attempt to dilute the 1964 Libraries Act, which helped thwart Wirral's attempt to close eleven of its libraries'. However, apart from some fine-sounding talk about 'responding to the 24/7 culture', Alan says there is little in the detail and, for him, too much talk about digitization, Starbucks and e-books.
As the report states, 81% of users go to the library to borrow a book. The healthiest area is children’s borrowing, which is rising at a time adult borrowing is struggling. 725,000 children took part in the Reading Challenge with 47,000 becoming new members. Meeting the needs of the core book-reading audience, and more importantly the potential book-reading audience, reaching them through marketing, seems to be a better bet than leaping headlong into a world of Facebook and cappuccinos.
As can be seen from the figures above, the maintenance of the school and public library system is of vital importance, particularly in helping to nurture young readers. You can get involved and support Alan’s campaign by going to the School Library Association (SLA) and signing their petition.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Friends of Classics

Following up on my posting on the teaching of classics, I note that Boris is going to launch a campaign to try and convince more schools to start teaching them.
Graeme Paton in the Telegraph is reporting that the charity 'Friends of Latin' have produced new research in which it has been found that 'pupils taught Latin and ancient Greek gained improved analytical skills and increased awareness of linguistic differences'.
You can read more about classics at the Friends of Classics website:
Nick Collins, also in the Telegraph, reports that the number of pupils gaining three A grades at A-level has doubled under Labour. There is a saying they have in Italy which goes: 'La somma dell'intelligenza sulla terra è costante, la populazione è in aumento', but some people are slightly less sceptical and have an alternative notion: they call it grade inflation.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Boris blasts Balls, or et tu Boris

I don't know what you think about Boris Johnson. Whether you like his politics or not though, you have to admit that he's a fine journalist and that he's very, very funny at times. He's also been for I don't know how long a tireless campaigner for encouraging the teaching of Latin and Greek in schools across the country.
So, it was no surprise to see in the Telegraph that Boris had taken exception to the latest fatuity by Ed Balls, who apparently 'dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils'.
As Boris quite rightly points out, there has been a resurgence in the teaching of Latin and, according to the Cambridge Classics Project in a 2008 study, 'no fewer than 500 secondary schools had started teaching Latin in the past eight years'. And did you know that there are now more state schools teaching the subject than private schools?
As Boris insists, reasons for teaching Latin are many. If you've been taught the subject at school you can probably 'surprise your family and delight your friends by deciphering inscriptions', as my wife and I did for our daughter when visiting the Bayeux tapestry in France last summer.
He goes on to argue that 'the reason we should boost the study of Latin and Greek is that they are the key to a phenomenal and unsurpassed treasury of literature and history and philosophy, and we cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all'.
Furthermore, how right he is to castigate the anti-elitism of 'spheroids', as Boris dubs Balls. For someone who went to private school and was taught Latin, it is disgraceful and 'viciously elitist' that a Labour minister should deny that right to less privileged children.
If you are interested in learning more about the ancient world or want to learn Latin or ancient Greek, by the way, the Open University run some excellent courses in both and no prior knowledge is necessary.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Read my lips, LibLabCon: it's the basics wot count!

Returning to my previous posting, a poll commissioned by the Newsnight programme was shocking in a number of ways. According to Newsnight, despite current spending reaching £86 billion a year – a 72% increase since 1977 -, two thirds of people 'don't think the government has invested our money on education in the most effective way'. The statistics taken from the international rankings would seem to support this: we have now slipped to seventeenth in the international tables in reading and to twenty-fourth in maths. This, as Professor Dylan Wiliam from the Institute of Education makes clear, is bad news because, as he says, 'there's an extraordinarily strong link between economic prosperity and educational achievement'.
And yet, half the schools inspected by Ofsted are not 'providing up to a good standard'. This week's Economist declares that '10% of the 2,140 schools it assessed in the four months to the end of December were inadequate, a category that might more accurately be termed "dire" '. At the same time, Lucy Neville Rolfe, director of corporate and legal affairs at TESCO, has also weighed into the debate about education by criticising 'the standards of many school-leavers'. In an article in the Daily Mail, she claims that 'growing numbers of British school-leavers have "attitude problems" and believe the world "owes them a living" '. This is exemplified by the fact that she says too many young people turn up late for work or for interviews, fail to dress appropriately for the occasion and are unable to work in teams. All this, as well as the fact that many can't read and write or do basic maths.
With four hundred 'no qualification' jobs disappearing every day, the inability to raise achievement for the fifty percent of children leaving school each year with inadequate educational qualifications is a disgrace.
That said, you'd think the opposition parties would be knocking Labour into a cocked hat on the whole question of education. You'd be wrong! Since last year the Conservatives have slipped ten percentage points in polls asking people which party has the better educational policies, while Labour has increased from 25% to 27%. So, why, if Labour has been such a disaster have they now taken a slight lead over the Conservatives?
Andrew Hawkins, one of the pollsters, summarised it in stark terms. He said
"To talk about Swedish style free schools, it’s a mouthful. People don’t understand the concepts and the problem that … the Conservatives have got are that they’re in danger of complicating the issue. They need one or two high profile policies that are easy to communicate to people who are worried about their children’s education. And, it may be a great model to look at but it’s not been communicated that well to the public."
A classic example of understatement!
All the focus at the moment seems to be on secondary schools and there is, it's true, a huge problem with indiscipline and with fewer than fifty percent of children achieving five good GCSEs including maths and English. The fact is that unless whoever governs the country after the next election sorts out the underachievement at primary level, which is being masked by the ridiculous and discredited SATs tests, problems at secondary level will continue unabated.
Read my lips: Boost the benchmark in the three Rs!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Balls' Commons gaffe forces apology

The TimesOnline was two days ago reporting the recent spat between Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, and Ed Balls, the education secretary, at Education Questions in the House of Commons.
The point at issue was why, according to Michael Gove, in a year, only forty-five out of a possible eighty thousand pupils eligible for free school meals had gone on to study at Oxford or Cambridge. 'Why,' demanded Gove, 'were so many poor children being failed by Labour?'
Ed Balls was having none of it and retorted that the shadow secretary was utterly wrong and needed to do his homework better. After that, it didn't get any better.
Who was right? Well, as was conceded on yesterday's Radio 4 Today programme and, as reported by some of the blogs today (See Guy Fawkes' blog posting 'Making the Most of a Rare Treat'), Balls had to take a very large helping of a free slice of humble pie and admit that he was wrong. Gove had already given him an F and hoped he'd go and stand in the corner.
The tragedy is that while these two and their proxies fiddle to their parliamentary parties, huge numbers of poor children are being failed. The execrable Balls drones on about the 'progress' his government have made in raising educational standards since 1997, much of which is highly dubious and, where it has been true, has not in the least been cost effective.
Meanwhile, the Tory party seems unable to take advantage of the fact. According to a Newsnight programme on BBC 2, the 'free schools' Swedish model of schooling the Conservatives want to adopt is not understood by the public.
The truth is that, at primary level at least, people want a local school that teaches their children to read, write and perform basic maths. Sadly, none of the three major parties seem to understand this, still less try to make sure it happens.

Friday, March 05, 2010

'We are lying to our kids,' says Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch, a giant within the education establishment in the USA and former Assistant Education Secretary to George Walker Bush, has just announced a change of heart on the USA's 'No Child Left Behind' programme.
Why the change of heart? Because of standardised testing. Testing has become 'a strategy for measuring and punishing,' she is reported as saying to npr. So much emphasis is placed on test results that schools are ‘gaming’ the system. 'Gaming' is a euphemism for cheating by dumbing down or changing the scores so that more children pass.
She contends that, according to individual states, between 80% and 90% of children are credited as being proficient readers and as having 'maths proficiency'; whereas 'in the same states, only 25% to 30% of the children test at a proficient level on national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress'.
Furthermore, she echoes what Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has been saying: 'We are lying to our kids.'
One message from Ravitch that may have some resonance here is that schools should not be competing with each other. The testing regime has pushed some schools into a 'survival of the fittest' kind of struggle with other neighbourhood schools so that instead of collaborating with one another and sharing what works they are hiding their 'trade secrets'.
Diane Ravitch's book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education has just been published and there's a somewhat Foucauldian sounding excerpt from 'Chapter 6 NCLB: Measure and Punish' on the npr website.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Rudd steers Aussie boat back to basics

Some news in from Australia: Kevin Rudd seems to have done a John Major in promulgating a 'back to basics' approach to education.
It all sounds very laudable. The aim has partly been to get the different states to agree a national curriculum, partly so that pupils moving between states will still be following the same curriculum. At the moment it's at the draft stage and has been released for consultation.
Nonetheless, there appears to be some confusion already with Rudd saying that it's back to basics and the guy responsible for drawing it up, Professor Barry McGaw, saying it isn't! Anyway, whatever the case, according to The Age, in Australia, it shouldn't be difficult to read – it's only one page long.
The emphasis is going to be on the three Ls: literacy, language and literature. And particular attention is going to be paid to the teaching of phonics. As far as I can see from the draft English curriculum, the phonics element is mixed up with a dog's breakfast of other irrelevant nonsense that betrays the usual lack of understanding of how a writing system works*. For example, they are going to teach the children their 'sounds'. The problem is that the children already know their 'sounds', otherwise they wouldn't be able to talk or to understand what is being said when someone speaks to them.
What they probably mean is that they are going to teach pupils explicitly that words are comprised of individual sounds that can be represented in writing (the sound-spelling correspondences), but who knows. This kind of loose language is a sure sign of compromise or ignorance. When you put together a bunch of 'experts', some of whom probably haven't been near a kindergarten class in their lives, you’re bound to come up with a low common denominator. After all, that's what happened with the National Strategies in England.
However, that's not the whole of the problem. The real problem is that blanket imposition will create a bureaucracy of the sort we have here, stifle innovation and de-motivate teachers. If a new maths or literacy programme is going to be introduced, it needs to be evidence-based and trialled and teachers need to be persuaded that it works.
Still, you never know. Perhaps some of the UK's literacy consultants and advisors will apply for jobs policing the new system.
* I notice that the Australian is reporting this as a letters and sounds/onset and rime approach. Aaaaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhh!

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Write Path

Something I missed way back in December but which might be of some small interest to readers comes from the Indie (Dec. 09) and was sent me by a well-wisher.
It’s entitled somewhat hopefully 'Don't knock blogging – it's the answer to our literacy problems' and claims that blogging is at least one of the answers to getting boys to write. Writing is much more fun if it has a purpose and yes, if you’re wondering, I did get that GCSE so much admired by John Cleese in stating the bleeding obvious!
But seriously, Bev Humphrey from Woolwich Polytechnic, a boys' school in Thamesmead, south-east London, has been running a writing project (The Write Path) to get boys writing. Schools have finally begun moving on from pen pal mode to harnessing a range of the new technologies and, as an example, Humphrey's online project has grown to involve forty-four schools as far afield as China, Brazil, Australia and the USA. She has also managed to gain the collaboration of writers such as my old friend Alan Gibbons, who as well as being a children’s author runs the Campaign for the Book, Theresa Breslin, Melvin Burgess and Robert Muchamore.
Humphrey's initiative is endorsed by research from the National Literacy Trust, which found that half of our schoolchildren think writing is boring. According to the Trust, whose research questioned 3,000 children In England and Scotland,
'61 per cent of those who keep a blog and 56 per cent of those who are on social network sites feel they are good or very good at writing, compared with only 47 per cent of those who don't engage with text online. Pupils who are active online also tend to write more in traditional forms such as short stories, letters, diaries or song lyrics.'
I'm all for it. Giving children a real purpose for writing is absolutely key to encouraging them to put finger to keyboard – doesn't quite have the ring, does it? However, this does leave out one crucial factor: before children can read from eBooks, write short stories and so on, they need to have basic literacy skills in place. I'm not saying that teaching children to read and spell, either as catch up or from the start of Reception, is incompatible with introducing the new technologies. Taught well, the two can and should go hand in hand. It just seems a pity that children should have to wait to reach secondary school and an inspired and inspiring teacher like Bev Humphrey to be motivated to want to write.
As I've consistently argued: if children are taught to read and write from the start of their schooling, by the end of Key Stage 1 (seven years of age), they should already be confident readers and writers.