NEWSLETTER

No 65, Summer 2008

 

NO EXCUSE FOR TESTING FIASCO

 

The fiasco over this year's national tests for 11- and 14-year-olds was, of course, a gift to 'progressive' educationists who hate objective testing and want  to have it stopped.  'Why not trust the teachers?' is the cry – and it all sounds so reasonable. It is not.

 

Parents can trust teachers in independent schools, mainly because heads and staff are directly accountable through the fees parents pay to the school. Accountability in state schools is almost non-existent. Without independent, universal testing in the primary sector, which also creates an element of competition, standards could fall and no-one would know.      

 

Despite opposition from 'progressives',  the testing system has operated reasonably well for more than a decade. Incompetent management at the top of the educational establishment caused this year's problems.  So what should be done?

 

ETS, the American company responsible for running this year's tests, has a well-documented history of incompetence. Yet Ed Balls, the education secretary, and Ken Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) still gave ETS a contract worth £156m.  Sir Anthony Greener, the chairman of the QCA board, congratulated Ken Boston on the 'process' he had used to choose ETS, suggesting it should be a 'case study' in 'best practice' (Sunday Times, 20 July). All these people should resign or be sacked.

 

The system should then be simplified and radically improved.  To safeguard the basics, average results of simple reading tests for 7-year-olds should be published for all primary schools. Publication of test results in English and maths for 11-year-olds should continue as an essential measure of primary school effectiveness. To ease the system, national tests for 14-year-olds could probably be done away with: GCSE results provide a good measure of secondary school performance.

 

Beyond that, leave it all to schools.   

   

IN BAD FAITH

 

In Bad Faith: The new betrayal of faith schools  by Cristina Odone criticises politicians for under-mining faith schools, though they are not averse to using them for their own purposes: 42 of the first 100 academies set up under this government had Christian sponsors. Faith schools of all types are  successful and increasingly popular with parents. Yet because an 'Old Labour' rump is 'committed to secularism and comprehensive education', Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and their allies are undermining some of the best schools in the country. 

 

The author quotes Richard Gold of Stone King Solicitors, whose firm specialises in the education and charity sectors: 'Over the past four or five years, the admissions team of the DCFS (Department for Children, Schools and Families)   have been steadily whittling back the freedom of faith schools...[in] an attempt to shoe-horn the faith schools into a one-size-fits-all admissions policy'. Mr Gold also reveals a 'pecking order for local authorities when it comes to ploughing money into new buildings etc', with faith schools at the bottom. 

 

In Bad Faith costs £7.50 from the Centre for Policy Studies, 57 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL. Or download it free at www.cps.org.uk   

 

THE VALUE OF MATHEMATICS

 

"The UK’s maths economy which powers the financial services sector and wider industry is in danger of atrophy as fewer students study mathematics and attainment falls. At the core of this problem has been the diminution of the O-level/GCSE which has gone from being a key 'staging post' to a 'tick-box test'. Scores of less than 20 per cent on the top paper regularly suffice to gain a grade C, despite a much reduced level of difficulty. Many students are turned off by the narrow teaching which results, and this has led to a generation of  'lost mathematicians'."

 

These are some of the conclusions reached in The Value of Mathematics by Laura Kounine, Professor John Marks and Elizabeth Truss after they had analysed exam papers dating from 1951 to the present day.

 

As political control has been tightened, 'relevance' has replaced rigour and pupils are being 'trained to answer specific shallow questions on a range of topics where marks can be most easily harvested'. As a result, workplaces in the UK lack people with basic mathematics skills and as many as 7 out of 8 posts in financial services are filled by overseas graduates.

 

The Value of Mathematics costs £20.00 from Reform, 45 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3LT. Or download it free at www.reform.co.uk

 

PUPIL GETS MARKS FOR OBSCENITIES

 

It's not just objective testing that is under threat from 'progressives'. So is the exam system. 

 

On 30 June, it emerged that Peter Buckroyd, a chief examiner for the AQA exam board, had awarded 2 marks to a candidate for writing 'f*** off' in answer to a GCSE question: 'Describe the room you are sitting in.' The marks were awarded for accurate spelling and successfully conveying a meaning. Other markers have been advised to do the same and Ofqual, the government's exam regulator, refused to condemn this non-judgmentalism. But if standards are rising, why does the system need to be so forgiving? 

 

NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE

 

Universities UK, the body that represents university vice-chancellors, estimates that at least 18 of its members are now setting their own admission tests, because they can no longer rely on A-levels. Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London has said that grade inflation has 'destroyed' the A-level's ability to discriminate between bright and average students. Even teacher training colleges are introducing literacy tests. Applicants for primary training at St Martin's in Lancaster must take a 20-minute test during their interview. Applicants for the secondary sector must take a 40-minute grammar and writing test (Independent, 17 July 2008).

 

The Institute of Directors has highlighted 'a wide disparity between official statistics on education performance and the perceptions of employers.'  A recent survey of employers by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has found that employers can no longer rely on possession of a 2.1 degree as an accurate measure of ability.    

 

SENSE FROM THE CBI

 

Confidence in the system will not return with the new A* grades for A-levels, or the new diplomas.  A Sunday Telegraph investigation (10 August) has found that some leading universities dare not give preference to applicants with A* grades. As most of the A*s will go to youngsters from independent schools, crediting A*s will conflict with political requirements to admit more state school pupils.       

And as schools prepare to teach the diplomas next term, it has emerged that the requirement for 10 days of work experience need not be in the relevant area of expertise. Students may be awarded a construction diploma without ever visiting a building site. Or they might work in a shop, or do a paper round, as part of an engineering diploma. So vocational diplomas are already devalued.

 

Academic diplomas aren't needed at all and the  CBI has proposed the obvious solution. It has  urged the government to 'think again about its over-ambitious plans for a new wave of academic diplomas, and concentrate on  making  sure GCSEs and A-levels give young people the skills and knowledge to succeed.' 

 

AND NONSENSE FROM 'PROGRESSIVES'

 

At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in March, the union's general secretary,  Dr Mary Bousted, recommended that the school curriculum should concentrate on 'life-skills' such as teamwork and interpreting evidence, rather than  learning facts.    

 

In June, a conference at the London Institute of Education was addressed by one of its former employees, Professor John White. According to Professor White, who advises ministers on changes to the curriculum, traditional subjects are 'middle class'. So instead of subjects, children should be taught skills, such as energy saving, civic responsibility and valuing personal relationships. Subject-based teaching should be replaced by teaching based on themes or projects. If this is the future, exams will measure politically-correct values instead of knowledge. If you aren't frightened, perhaps you should be? 

 

ARE ALL SUBJECTS EQUAL?

 

A new report, commissioned by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society, contradicts the QCA which, earlier this year, claimed that qualifications in all subjects are broadly equal. (But not always – see snippets, below.) Such selective egalitarianism does not, of course, encourage youngsters to choose harder subjects, such as the sciences, over those that are easier. 

 

Led by Dr Robert Coe, researchers at Durham University's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre have analysed data from nearly a million pupils taking GCSEs and A-levels, and reviewed 28 studies of cross subject comparison conducted in the UK since 1970.   

 

On average, they found that at A-level, subjects such as chemistry, physics and biology are a whole grade harder than drama, sociology or media studies, and three-quarters of a grade harder than English, RE or business studies. A student choosing history instead of film studies at A-level could be well over a grade worse off.

 

PROFESSION IN CRISIS, PARENTS IN DESPAIR

 

The number of unfilled teacher vacancies has risen by 23% since this time last year. And research by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Buckingham University's Centre for Education and Employment (The Good Teacher Training Guide 2008) finds that 15% of trainee teachers drop out before the end of their course.

 

Another study suggests that 4 out of 10 new teachers leave the profession within two years of starting work, citing pupils' bad behaviour and too much red tape as the main reasons. 

 

Many parents are fed up too. An Ipsos Mori survey for the Independent Schools Council has found that 57% of parents would like to send their child to an independent school. In 2004, it was 48% (Daily Express, 5 June 2008).

 

EDUCATION AND THE CULTURE

 

Irina Tyk was a keynote speaker at this year's Family and Youth Concern AGM in June. Mrs Tyk is head of Holland House School in Edgeware and author of The Butterfly Book, a well-proven phonics-based reading and writing course.

 

The emphasis on children learning to live without making judgements and the promotion of cultural relativism are turning the classroom into a judgement-free space, Mrs Tyk told her audience. It is difficult to teach children how to think and develop their rational facilities in a culture that is overtly irrational, anti-intellectual and amoral. We need a return to traditional methods, with teaching about right and wrong, and how to think rationally and logically. Teachers should 'impart an objective body of knowledge', along with an appreciation of beauty and the aesthetic dimension. Families, too, must play their part. A full report of this perceptive talk is in the FYC Family Bulletin, Summer 2008. Or at www.famyouth.org.uk 

 

PER-PUPIL FUNDING

 

Many thanks to everyone who offered to help with this project. The figures published by the DCSF and local authorities are incredibly difficult to make sense of. And we are still tracking down some of the hidden costs such as Private Finance Initiatives. Even so, the overall cost per pupil in 2007-08 is likely to be considerably more than the £5,350 shown in the DCSF's Departmental Report 2008. If you have any information on this that may help, please do let us know.   

 

MONA McNEE IS HONOURED

 

We are delighted to report that Mona McNee received an MBE for voluntary services to education in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours. Mrs McNee's primary interest has always been 'phonics-first', the most effective method of teaching children to read. Her Step by Step guide to teaching reading was recently updated and re-published by Galore Park (www.galorepark.co.uk). Meanwhile, the original black and white publication can still be obtained for £5.00 including postage from 2 Keats Avenue, Whiston, Prescot, Merseyside L35 2XR. We also recommend The Great Reading Disaster (Imprint Academic, 2007) by Mona McNee and Professor Alice Coleman.

 

Earlier this year, Mrs McNee obtained figures from the DCSF showing the Department has so far spent £2.46m of taxpayers' money on its Letters and Sounds programme which, she argues, could and should have been simpler and much less expensive.

 

CHAOS IN NORTHERN IRELAND

 

Having legislated to halt academic selection tests for places in Northern Ireland's 69 grammar schools, politicians are now unable to decide which method of selection, if any, should be used. Some grammars have threatened to run their own tests, but political incompetence may yet destroy many fine schools. It could also undermine Northern Ireland's high level of social mobility, which far exceeds levels in the rest of the UK.  As time goes by, parental anger is increasing – see, for example, comments at http://paceni.wordpress.com

 

LOCAL NEWS

 

Birmingham: When ministers recently published their list of 638 failing secondary schools (those where fewer than 30% of pupils achieve 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths), 27 of them were in Birmingham.  Nevertheless, Birmingham is believed to be the first local authority in the country to give happiness 'priority outcome status' in its children's development plan. All the city's schools are to offer 'emotional barometer' sessions, during which pupils will be encouraged to talk about their feelings. This follows the government's drive to persuade schools to use SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning). And it ignores an analysis by a Scottish charity of 20 international studies, which warned that placing too much emphasis on co-operation and avoiding the occasional necessity to hurt other peoples' feelings could undermine competitive and entrepreneurial instincts (Daily Mail, 19 March 2008).    

 

Lincolnshire: Parents in Boston, led by Phillip Bosworth, Charles Campion and Debbie Evans, continue to  campaign against ill-considered plans to strengthen the 'hard' federation between Boston Grammar School (BGS) for boys and Boston High School (BHS) for girls. One of the most disturbing aspects of this strange affair is that, in a single year, the authorities have reduced the number of children allowed places in the two grammar schools by 53. Unless such disturbing activities are halted, reduced admissions to grammar schools  will become permanent and irreversible. Many documents, which would normally have remained secret, have been obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. The parents have also produced two indexed dossiers, which include a summary of events linked by tabs to the official documents. These clearly show that the parents' earlier complaints of skulduggery were fully justified. As a result, they have had some excellent media coverage especially on BBC Radio Lincolnshire. 

 

Suffolk:  Parents living around the small town of Clare are well organised and united in their campaign to prevent the closure of their excellent middle school for 8 to 13 year-olds. Unhappy about the prospect of their children travelling up to 20 miles each day to and from schools in Haverhill or Sudbury, the parents are now almost ready to present detailed plans to the secretary of state in September. The proposal is for Clare Middle School to become a new 11 to 16 school, Stour Valley Community College. If the plans are approved, the new school will be one of the first in the country to be set up and run by local parents.    

 

RECOMMENDED PUBLICATIONS

 

Swedish Lessons: How schools With More Freedom Can Deliver Better Education by Nick Cowen tells how state schools in Sweden offer the acclaimed International GCSE science qualifications that are denied to British state school pupils by the government. £8.50 inc. p&p from Civitas, 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ.

 

Fifty Years of Examining: The Joint Matriculation Board 1903-1953 by James A. Petch was first published in 1953.  It contains much information which is no longer readily available, such as a detailed account of mark standardisation.  In 1994, it was reprinted by Dr Michael Robinson, who still has copies available.  £11.95 inc. p&p from 38 Broad Road, Sale, Cheshire M33 2BN.  

 

SNIPPETS

 

Fourteen-year-olds need to have answered only one in five questions correctly in a national maths test this summer to meet the correct level for their age. In one of the papers for key stage 3 pupils, teenagers need to score only 21 per cent to get level 5, which is the Government target for their age group...The threshold for a level 5 in KS3 English this year was 31 per cent.  Times Educational Supplement, 27 June 2008.

 

As a school, we are judged on exam results and our position in league tables. Last week, as a department, we were encouraged to look for short courses which year 9 could do to boost our GCSE A*-C grades.  We were shown a number of accredited courses, including a certificate in animation and a certificate in music technology, which were both equivalent to four A*-C grade GCSEs and required only four weeks' study.  How ridiculous is this? Question to Chris Woodhead,  The Sunday Times, 15 June 2008.

 

If you want to know how [diplomas] will operate, it is all there on the DCSF website...You will find details of half a dozen experimental 'lines of learning'. These vary from 'Hospitality' to 'Environment and Land-Based Studies'. Let's take the Diploma in Hair and Beauty Studies – 'the qualification will give young people a taste of this hard-working, fashion-conscious industry and opens doors to an exciting world...Top practitioners can command large salaries and rub shoulders with celebrities, TV and film producers, magazine editors and fashion designers.'  Jim White, The Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2008.

 

My 13-year-old daughter will be sitting her [French] GCSE next year (in other words two years early)...Do I have the right to refuse permission for her to be entered for the exam next year? [Chris Woodhead replies:] Jack Rabinowicz, an education lawyer, tells me that your consent as a parent is necessary. There is no point in entering students for exams early if they do not stand a very good chance of getting a top grade. The Sunday Times, 29 June 2008.

 

One secondary school governor wrote: 'Within the teaching profession there is a rapidly increasing number of ambitious people, less than inspired professionally, who espouse the new management speak as a pathway to promotion. As these people become heads or heads of departments – as they will – the vicious circle becomes more intense with calamitous impact upon what education should be all about.' Melanie Reid, The Times, 27 June 2008.  

 

It is true that in faith schools fewer children take up FSM (Free School Meals) compared with their catchment area...But the National Audit Office warns that FSM do not necessarily serve as the best proxy for poor income.  Its reservations were corroborated by research last year for the Centre for the Economics of Education [G. Hobbs et al, Is  Free School Meals a Valid Proxy for Socio Economic Status?].  One reason to question FSM... is that signing up for FSM is seen as a loss of face in tight-knit faith communities...Moreover, some parents would hate the intrusion into their privacy – where do they work... how much do they earn? – entailed in filling out application forms for FSM.  In Bad Faith, op cit. 

 

Imposing one type of school, one class and one syllabus on everyone has been tragically wrong...The result has been a school system that suits almost nobody and public exams that mean almost nothing...Quality has been sacrificed to the pursuit of equality. It is shameful.  Minette  Marrin, The Sunday Times, 8 June 2008. 

 

After extensive research, [The Sutton Trust] concludes 60,000 bright comprehensive pupils are missing out on degree course places each year because they are let down by poor education in their schools, not bias against them by top universities. Daily Mail leader, 13 June 2008. 

 

It's hard to believe that the Department for Children Schools and Families was only created a year ago. So much has already been achieved  in such a short space of time. Letter sent out by Ed Balls to establishment colleagues,  June 2008.

 

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