NEWSLETTER

No 57, Winter 2005

WASTED TALENT

 

Parliamentary Questions (PQs) from critics of the 'progressive' establishment have forced ministers and their allies to address huge variations in  results from different types of school. So, presumably hoping to help the government by shaking up ineffective headteachers, Professor David Jesson (no friend of parental choice) spoke about some of his research findings at a recent Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference.

 

Using data supplied by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES),  Professor Jesson has tracked 37,500 pupils whose national test results when they were 11 years-old placed them in the top 5% academically. When these pupils had reached  16, all 7,500 pupils in independent schools had achieved at least five A* or A grade GCSEs. Only two thirds of the 30,000 very bright pupils in state schools reached the same level of achievement.

 

At A-level, the gap widens. Almost all the brightest pupils in independent schools achieve at least three A grade A-levels. Only a third of the very bright  pupils in state schools do so.

 

Also, no matter how much ministers try to play it down, it is now on the record that each year around 16,000 very bright pupils in comprehensive schools fail to achieve the top exam grades they should. Such under-achievement, PQs have shown, is not evenly spread between all types of school: 23% of all candidates from independent schools and 19% of candidates from state grammar schools achieve at least three A grade A-levels. But the proportion is only 5% in comprehensive schools and 8% in FE/sixth form colleges. (This does not mean there are no excellent comprehensive schools – just that too many of them are failing to stretch their brightest pupils.)      

 

WHITE PAPER TOO WEAK TO WORK

 

The government's recent education White Paper (www.dfes.gov.uk/publications) proposes many changes for state schools. Parts of it hold promise, but its contradictions ensure it won't deliver.  

 

Higher Standards, Better Schools for All proposes 'a system of independent, non-fee paying, state schools'.  Ministers acknowledge that 'there is still too little choice and standards are not yet high enough', but then suggest that, because problems over standards have largely been resolved, their reform agenda can now concentrate on structures.

 

As well as offering schools the opportunity to become trust schools, ministers hope to re-energise a failing system and improve choice by persuading all secondary schools to become specialist schools. New city academies will add diversity. But grammar schools, the most effective and sought after type of school in the state system, do not get a mention.

 

The promise of 'independent state schools' is negated by an assurance that all schools will operate within a (centrally controlled) 'system of fair admissions, fair funding and clear accountability'. Good schools will be expected to form 'federations' with under-performing schools.

 

Local Education Authorities (LEAs) will shift their focus towards 'children's services', giving them disturbing responsibilities as pseudo-parents. They will also 'become a powerful champion of parents and pupils', and promote 'choice, diversity and fair access as well as high standards'.  

 

Parents will be offered a voice through new 'parent councils' and 'all parents have the right to regular and high quality information.' Yet there is no proposal to offer what is perhaps the most vital information of all: school-by-school publication of average chronological and reading ages for each year group in each primary school. 

 

Parents may get a choice of primary school, but they may not know which primaries will effectively teach their child to read and write. At secondary level, they may have choice from a 'diversity' of secondary schools, providing they are lucky enough to have decent schools (with places) in the locality. But in many areas, officials and 'federations' of co-operating schools will  allocate secondary places in accordance with 'fair  banding' recommendations – using pupils' marks in national tests at 11, schools  will offer places to equal numbers of pupils from each ability band, including those who are 'hard to place'. The number of pupils in each band in each school may be very small, so what happens when a band is full? And isn't this still academic selection in a politically correct form?  

 

'Fair funding' will mean the DfES and LEAs continue to cream off  billions of pounds that should go directly to schools.

 

And surely, 'clear accountability' should start with honest information from the DfES, including trustworthy school league tables? Why is one vocational qualification counted as equal to four top grades in academic subjects such as maths, chemistry, physics or French?

 

ROSE REVIEW LOOKS PROMISING

 

Jim Rose's interim Review of the Teaching of Early Reading says that 'systematic, direct teaching of phonics should be the first strategy taught to all children learning to read'. (Successful teachers of reading tell us the message should be 'synthetic phonics, first, fast and only.')

 

The full report is at www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/rosereview/interim/ and expert advice is available at the Reading Reform Foundation's website: www.rrf.org.uk

 

Education secretary Ruth Kelly must now accept that the National Literacy Strategy, launched in 1998, and the Primary National Strategy, which she launched last summer, were misguided and wrong. Jim Rose's final report is due next year.

 

Meanwhile, this year's national test results for primary schools show huge variations between schools and between LEAs. And many of the worst schools have received glowing reports from Ofsted inspectors! All credit, then, to Barbara Jones, who heads the best-performing primary in the country, Combe C of E Primary School in Oxfordshire. She ignores advice from the DfES and uses teaching methods she knows are effective.   

     

INQUIRY INTO COURSEWORK

 

Ruth Kelly has ordered a review of coursework in GCSE and A-level exams. This follows a 2-year inquiry by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), during which two-thirds of maths teachers said that coursework is 'problematic'. In some subjects, coursework makes up to 60% of the total marks, so that many youngsters are well on their way to a top grade before they enter the exam room. 

 

Coursework disadvantages youngsters without a computer at home and those with less well-educated parents. It invites cheating; and with numerous websites offering model essays and answers to almost every imaginable question, coursework is impossible to police.

 

Dr Ken Boston, who heads the QCA, thinks the solution lies in computer programmes that detect plagiarism. We suggest that most employers, parents, teachers and pupils would like to see coursework abolished. Or the marks it carries should be reduced to a maximum of 5% or 10% of the total required to gain a qualification.    

 

GROWING WORRIES ABOUT STANDARDS

 

Below is a small selection from acres of newsprint expressing concerns about standards and subjects:

 

John Thompson, regional director of the Institute of Directors, was quoted in the Yorkshire Post (19 August): ‘There has been a perceptable shift away from young people studying languages and sciences at A-level.’ Dr Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the long term consequences would be a ‘disaster’. ‘At government level, they don’t really seem to want to grasp the problem.’

 

After comparing this year’s Edexcel ‘higher tier’ biology GCSE paper with a 1987 O-level paper, biologist Mary Brett noted that: 'Many of [this year's]  questions required no biological knowledge and the answers can be gained from common sense or guessing' (Daily Mail,  24 August). 

 

On 3 September, The Daily Telegraph quoted Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council: ‘We continue to have concerns about the usefulness of some coursework and the GCSE's capacity to stretch pupils at all levels of ability.’

 

On 20 September, The Times reported a speech made by David Hempsall, head of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn: ‘I don’t care how many politicians say something to the contrary. Rigour has gone out of the window. Results are massaged so that they appear better than they are. Ministers...imply that standards over time have been maintained, which is absolute nonsense.’

 

A few says later, the TES (7 October) reported another bleak warning from Jonathan Shephard: 'Britain is fast becoming a Third World country because of a failure to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers'. Countries such as India and China are producing tens of thousands of engineering graduates and mathematicians every year, while numbers on these courses in the UK have plummeted, he said. 'The decline in maths, sciences, engineering and foreign languages is insupportable and has to be reversed.'  

 

REAL CHOICE WILL RAISE STANDARDS

 

A new pamphlet, The Truth About Grammar Schools by Fred Naylor and Roger Peach, is packed with evidence showing why state-school parents should be able to choose between selective and comprehensive secondary schools. Those who would deny that choice ignore evidence and base their hostility purely on ideology.

 

It is not only grammar schools that do well for their pupils. Figures given in answer to a Parliamentary Question show there is little difference between comprehensive schools and secondary moderns in respect of the percentages of their pupils gaining 5 or more  A*-C grade GCSEs (51.4% and 42.3% respectively).

 

More shocking, and nationally disastrous, is the comparison of the total number of pupils in grammars and in comprehensives gaining higher A-level grades in academic subjects (including maths, physics and chemistry). Pupils in only 164 grammar schools gain roughly half the total number of top grade A-levels obtained by pupils in around 2,500 comprehensive schools.

 

The 1998 Human Rights Act gives parents the right to have their child educated 'in conformity with their own religious or philosophical convictions'. It is usually ignored and parents need to fight for it. If standards are to rise, more grammar schools are needed, especially in areas where they don't currently exist.

 

The Truth about Grammar Schools costs £5 including postage. Cheques, please, to the National Grammar Schools Association, c/o Specialist Business Services Ltd, 91 High Street, Brackley, Northamptonshire, NN13 7BW. 

 

THE MAD WORLD OF EDUCATION

 

Recent news reports, many so weird they were repeated by news outlets across the world, show how bizarre our state system has become.

 

Our summer newsletter noted that Norfolk LEA had banned terms such as Old Testament (too old- fashioned) and Holy Ghost (too spooky) from Religious Education lessons. It was noted, too, that 95 headteachers in Kent decided that if they took an expenses paid trip to America in term-time, it would benefit their pupils.  

 

Now the DfES has recommended that children should be allowed to skip homework in return for regular attendance at school. The Weavers School in Northamptonshire has made news for allowing pupils to swear 5 times in each lesson before they are disciplined.

 

On 16 November, The Daily Telegraph reported on some sex education materials used in Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons for 12-year-olds. Covering 'anal, oral and digital sex', the details are too graphic to repeat here. The following week, it was explained that the materials had come from King's Manor School in West Sussex, that the use of such explicit materials is widespread, that parents are not told, and that they have little chance of finding out.

 

Then the Daily Mail reported that teachers were being told not to punish bullies, because it was not their fault. Instead bullies should discuss their behaviour in support groups. This strategy had been adopted in Birmingham, Bristol, Kent, Hertfordshire, and Worcestershire. Then the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister asked the DfES to fund lessons in setting an alarm clock – to help youngsters get out of bed. Lessons will also include tuition in 'anger management' to improve communication skills (24 and 25 November).

 

On 27 November, The Sunday Telegraph reported that hundreds of pages of guidance on teaching 'emotional literacy' have been sent to schools by the DfES. The guidance lists more than 100 'feeling words' to be 'taught', such as angry, hurt, jealous, terrified, threatened, along with classroom activities. In the 'toolkit' supplied for teachers, it is suggested that a teacher who shouts at a misbehaving girl to 'get into your group or you'll be sorry' is to blame for the pupil's bad behaviour. 

 

UNDER-PERFORMERS ARE BOOSTED

 

Ministers never miss an opportunity to promote their flagship city academies which are, indeed, popular with parents. But the answer to a recent Parliamentary Question shows that only 35% of pupils in city academies achieve 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs.  If English and maths are included in the 5 subjects, the average drops to 15%.  

 

By contrast, 84% of youngsters in city technology colleges, which have similar intakes, achieve 5 or more grade A*-Cs. With English and maths included, it is 66%. The national averages for all schools are 56% and 44% respectively.

 ...AND THE BEST ARE UNDERMINED

 

Exam results in Northern Ireland, where most schools are selective, are at least 10% better than in England. But ignoring the wishes of most parents, the government seems determined to undermine  Northern Ireland's 70-plus grammar schools by changing their admission arrangements. A leading article in the Belfast Telegraph (14 November) fears a 'one size fits all system' that may cause Northern Ireland to 'be saddled with a hybrid education system that threatens to push down standards all round'.

 

Angela Smith MP, the minister in charge, has tried to deceive the media and the public by misquoting a letter from the national statistician. The establishment is in trouble over the manipulation of evidence. There are rumours that abolishing the  grammar schools was part of a secret bargain struck by Tony Blair with former IRA leader Martin McGuiness as part of the peace process.

 

Stephen Elliott and his allies in the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education (NI) have spent many months in pursuit of the truth. Whatever happened to the idea that politicians and their officials are servants of the public, not its masters?

 

CHALLENGE TEAM UK IS LAUNCHED

 

Challenge Team UK sends teams of young people to schools to give presentations encouraging the avoidance of early sexual activity. Details from Susie Blundell, Tel. 01323 721047 or email  info@challengeteamuk.org  

 

LOCAL NEWS

 

Bristol:  What is Bristol LEA doing? The Truth About Grammar Schools (mentioned earlier) reveals that Bristol  has 18 secondary schools, all comprehensive. In 2001, only 31.8% of their pupils achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs and in 2004, it was 35.1%.  This is below the average achieved by all England's remaining secondary modern schools (32.8% in 1999 and 42.3% in 2004), though by definition the secondary moderns are unlikely to have many pupils who demonstrated they were academic high-fliers when they were 11. 

 

Knowsley:  A booklet for parents produced by  Whiston Willis Community Primary School advises how to help your child with reading.  It says: 'Encourage your child to sound out new words, think about the rest of the sentence, look at the pictures and make a sensible guess at what the new word might say.'  This  is consistent with the National Literacy Strategy, but it is wrong.  Beginning readers should look at the letters and concentrate on the sounds they represent.  Using different stategies, such as thinking about the context, looking at the pictures or making a guess, confuses and distracts small children. When he was shown this booklet at a meeting in London, chief inspector David Bell refused to condemn it. But if the chief inspector doesn't understand the obvious nonsense in the National Literacy Strategy, what hope is there for teachers?

 

RECOMMENDED PUBLICATIONS

 

Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall was first published in 1905. An excellent history of Britain, it has always been  hugely popular with children and adults of any age. Now re-published jointly by Civitas and Galore Park, it is available from good bookshops for £19.99 or cheaper from www.amazon.co.uk  

 

Education Next, Fall 2005  contains an article by Professor James Tooley about how parents in some of the world's worst slums scrape and save to send their children to private schools, rather than to schools provided by the state.  A film on DVD is also available. For copies, Tel. 0191 222 3503 or email: j.stansfield@ncl.ac.uk

 

Newsacademic is a new international newspaper for young readers edited by Susan Elkin. Published every 2 weeks, a year's subscription costs £36 (or £20 for 6 months). Further information/sample copies at www.newsacademic.com or from Susan Elkin, Tel. 017895 423708 or Stephen Bradly, Tel. 07989 345685.

 

Physics in Schools and Colleges: Teacher Deployment and Student Outcomes by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson, and other useful publications, are  free at www.buckingham.ac.uk/education/research/ceer

 

SNIPPETS

 

Sure Start as a whole has failed to improve children's development, language and behaviour. And children born to teenage mothers actually did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere. The Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2005.

 

A £37m expansion programme that was begun in 2003 resulted in just seven popular schools adding extra classes. The Times, 15 August 2005.

 

[The DfES-funded School Council Handbook] offers suggestions on how primary school children can take more control of how they are taught...They would have the power to call for changes to lessons and even which teachers they have. Daily Express, 8 December 2005

 

The ex-adviser pinned much of the blame for failed reforms on the monolithic 1,400-strong Schools Directorate within the DfES, which is headed by Peter Housden, and is 'packed with ex-teachers and people who used to work for local education authorities.' 'Send them a policy proposal which would make a real difference and they will send back a list of 20 reasons why it can't be done', the ex-adviser said. Sunday Telegraph, 23 October 2005.

 

[Sir Andrew Foster's report on Further Education] criticised the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council for inflicting 'too many initiatives without intellectual clarity and coherence' and commissioning 'a galaxy of oversight, inspection and accreditation bodies'. Education Guardian, 22 November 2005.

 

Sir  – The claim made by the Reform think-tank that exam standards have fallen has been investigated and refuted many times by independent researchers. The Independent Committee on Examination Standards concluded that no international examination system at school or any other level is so tightly or carefully managed as our own. (Lord) Andrew  Adonis, Daily Telegraph letters, August 2005.

 

The Confederation of British Industry, among other organisations, has long protested that employers are being presented with young people who hold respectable pass grades in English and maths yet who are ignorant of elementary grammar and spelling or to whom multiplication and long division are alien concepts. The Times leader, 23 August 2005.

 

No matter how much gloss the Government puts on the statistics, it is obvious the system is failing our children. Even Sir David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, has said that staff working for him often lack adequate standards in English and maths. Sunday Express leader, 16 October 2005

 

Headteachers have broken ranks to highlight the way in which vocational qualifications are used to distort schools' achievements. They claim that vocational qualifications in subjects such as media  studies and leisure and tourism are being given too much weight – because a single pass is worth four GCSE passes in traditional subjects such as maths, history, French and English.  Evening Standard, 24 August 2005.

 

A university whistleblower has secretly filmed meetings with senior academics at which she was put under pressure to pass first-year students whom she believed should have been thrown off their degree courses. Lecturers at Southampton Solent University, unaware of a hidden camera, told the whistleblower that on occasions they found the marking policy 'absolute rubbish'. The Sunday Times, 10 October 2005.

 

Concepts such as success, failure, risk-taking and competition, the dangerous thinking goes, devastate young people if they are exposed to them. Nobody must be allowed to fail an examination or set the bar of their ambition at a height that could risk disappointment even if, in practice, pupils do not grasp the fundamentals of a subject or, frankly, cannot read or write properly. Sir Digby Jones, Financial Times, 25 August 2005.

 

Selection by faith, ability, interview and/or headteacher reference should be firmly in the list of 'unacceptable and inappropriate' admissions criteria. And the whole system should be mandatory and overseen by an independent local authority, not individual schools. Fiona Millar, Education Guardian, 20 September 2005. 

 

/Campaign for Real Education, December 2005

 

Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 01435 830109 or 07757 715145.  Email: mcgovernchris@hotmail.com
Vice Chairmen: Jennifer Chew OBE, Jacqui Davies, Katie Ivens
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman, Ashgate, Halland, East Sussex, BN8 6PW.  Tel: 01825 840831.  Email: anthony831freeman@gmail.com
Secretary: Priya Dutta, 75 Truro Road, London N22 8DH.  Tel: 07701 088720.  Email: priyadutta@hotmail.com