NEWSLETTER

No 66, Winter 2008

 

THE END OF GEOGRAPHY?

    

Little more than a decade after school history was destroyed by a pseudo-subject calling itself 'new history', geography has suffered a similar fate.  

 

Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for geography by Alex Standish charts the replacement of physical geography (whose primary purpose is learning about the physical characteristics of the world) with lessons promoting 'global citizenship'.

 

The author is assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University. Before moving to America, he taught in the UK, so he covers the situation here in some depth.

 

'In England and Wales', he writes, 'the curriculum based on geographical knowledge and skills rapidly began to unravel from the mid-1990s, as a result of three dynamics that  led to the subject's new focus on global citizenship: a shift in government education policy from a defence of subjects to psycho-social objectives exemplified by the new citizenship national curriculum, the growing influence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the production of national curricular documentation and general teaching materials, and geography's self-reinvention as global citizenship education by some prominent geographers. This transition was facilitated by New Labour's rise to power in 1997. Tony Blair's Third Way approach to politics and education led to scepticism towards traditional subjects and calls for a complete re-invention of education with psycho-social objectives, similar to those already in place in the US education system.' 

 

Needless to say, '...geography's re-invention...as global citizenship education suits those with progressive ideals, who are more interested in extraneous political and psychological agendas than teaching [pupils] about the geography of the world.'

 

Professor Standish also criticises project-based teaching: '...It is evident that very different educational objectives were being pursued through enquiry-based projects...The significance of the projects was their focus on the values and attitudes the students hold towards social and political events, rather than the knowledge and skills they need to acquire to become competent geographers.' 

 

Parents and teachers will  understand from this why 'progressive' educationists are so keen to remove traditional subjects from the curriculum – getting rid of  the structure makes it easy to hide the loss of content and knowledge;  and lessons that enable youngsters to develop their cultural identity. The  'progressives' can then increase their politicisation of the curriculum, knowing they have what they describe as 'a captive audience' for their ideology.    

 

Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum costs £21.99 from bookshops. It should be read by everyone with an interest in education, including parents, teachers, trainees and politicians. 

 

STOKING DISRUPTION

 

Stoke-on-Trent is a comparatively small local authority with only 17 secondary schools. Of those, one, St Joseph's College, is a co-educational grammar school which produces excellent results. At least 3 of the others  are performing well, including Trentham High School, a comprehensive where, this year, 57% of pupils achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.

 

However, according to the latest results in the public domain, 5 out of 17 Stoke schools had fewer than 30% of their pupils reaching the 5-plus A*-C benchmark. So these are officially failing schools.

Stoke's education service is managed by Serco, a private company. But a confidential letter from Serco to headteachers clearly shows who is pulling the strings, and in which direction. It says: 'We have been...told very clearly that the original proposals for 17, 16 or even 15 schools would not be acceptable...It is very clear that Minsters and the Office of the Schools Commission expect the proposal to include a significant number of Academies... Whilst Foundation/ Foundation Trust arrangements are welcome in addition to Academies, they would not be accepted instead of Academies.'

 

So instead of concentrating on improving or closing the area's failing schools, Serco took the advice of local, egalitarian headteachers and decided to close every secondary school in Stoke, including the grammar school. Those the authorities wished to retain would be re-opened. 

 

Unfortunately for the 'progressive' establishment,   a massive campaign by parents, governors and the head to save St Joseph's from closure developed.  The school was eventually reprieved by a legal opinion costing several thousand pounds, largely funded by the National Grammar Schools' Association. The legal advice confirmed that because it is officially a grammar school, closing St Joseph's was almost certainly illegal – something ministers and officials probably knew all along.

 

But it hasn't stopped there. Now Trentham High, the successful comprehensive mentioned earlier, is threatened with closure – see Local News, below.   

 

All this disruption, of course, stems from the government's £145bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Refurbishing dilapidated school buildings is a popular move. But that is not BSF's only objective.  Its less obvious intention is to weaken or close good schools and use controlled admissions to force children from aspirant families into under-performing schools. This, presumably, is intended to remove competition and blur the distinction between schools. And, of course, level down, not up. So ideologically driven ministers, self-seeking private-sector 'partners', church leaders, councillors and officials at all levels are disrupting thousands of pupils and their teachers in pursuit of political, not educational objectives. 

 

PRIMARY REVIEW IS WRONG

 

Sir Jim Rose's new recommendations for changes to the primary curriculum have been widely   condemned. They include replacing subject-based lessons with six  'areas of learning'. Some recent news items also suggest Sir Jim is mistaken.

 

First, national test results for 11-year-olds showed that almost 50,000 bright children failed to reach the expected standard in English and 30,000 failed to demonstrate a solid grasp of maths.

 

Second, this year's examiners' report from exam board Excel pointed out that 1 in 5 of those who took its science GCSE believed that the Sun orbits the Earth. One in ten did not know that a rechargeable battery could be used more than once. 

 

Third, Ofqual, the quango that is supposed to regulate exam standards, ordered the AQA exam board to reduce the marks required to achieve grade C in its science GCSE. This was to bring AQA into line with the Edexcel exam board, which only requires 20%. 

 

Fourth, research led by professor of psychology Michael Shayer of King's College in London found that the high-level thinking skills of today's 14-year-olds are now on a par with those of 12-year-olds in 1976. Professor Shayer blames too much time spent on computers. Others have noted that many of today's youngsters cannot distinguish between the real world and the virtual world of cyberspace. Sir Jim's solution is increased use of computers in primary schools (to distract from the basics?) and a less structured curriculum. 

 

NATIONAL TESTS MAY NOT BE SO BAD

 

The government's decision to abolish compulsory national testing for 14-year-olds may be sensible. But this must not be a prelude to abolishing tests for 11-year-olds, which must be retained and published to keep primary schools accountable.   

 

What is interesting is that by early December, more than 2,200 state secondary schools out of around 3,000 had voluntarily ordered test papers for 14-year-olds for 2009. This probably means that most schools will continue to do the tests. So what was all the fuss about?

 

Meanwhile, only 12,000 youngsters (not the 50,000 ministers hoped for) have chosen to take the  government's new diplomas instead of GCSEs. Introducing the diplomas has cost taxpayers £65m and ministers have already allocated another £128m. This means that each diploma candidate is costing taxpayers around £16,000 extra, on top of normal costs.            

 

ARE ACADEMIES REALLY SO GOOD?

 

A Specialist Schools and Academies Trust document lists the first 36 academies to be opened, along with the percentage of their pupils who, in 2007, achieved 5 or more GCSE grade A*-Cs  including English and maths. Of the 36 academies listed, 26 are failing – fewer than 30% of their pupils reached the government's 5 or more A*-C benchmark, though 10 of them have been open for at least 5 years.

 

A graph shows the 'rate of improvement', which exceeds the national average. But it's easy to improve from a very low base. And youngsters need individual results, not their school's 'rate of improvement' (or its 'contextual value-added' score) when they leave.

 

Academies offer choice in areas where none previously existed. But most are too big, too expensive and too ideologically 'progressive'. Why do so many politicians support them at the expense of   effective, well-established schools? And why aren't all their results published so people can make honest comparisons between schools?  

 

SEAL IS FOR THE GULLIBLE

 

Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) is considered so important by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it has now been placed 'up-front' on the Department's homepage. Click on the link and you are taken to around 30 papers on the 'subject'.

 

But the naivety of teachers who promote such nonsense was highlighted in October. It was reported that schools and local authorities had wasted £300,000 on a worthless qualification, which was accredited by an internet university based on Vanuata, a small island in the Pacific.

 

The course was taken by hundreds of gullible teachers, some of whom believed it would count towards a master's degree. The Thanet Excellence Cluster of schools in Kent paid around £20,000 for 20 staff. Other victims included the head of Lydden Primary School near Dover and the head of The Churchill School in Folkestone.

 

The courses were administered in the UK by the School of Emotional Literacy, whose principal, Elizabeth Morris, has now dropped the title of doctor, saying she didn't know it wasn't genuine. 

 

LOCAL UPDATE

 

Hackney:  Twenty headteachers from schools in Hackney have been on a trip to Arizona at taxpayers' expense to attend a conference as part of their 'professional development'. It cost £3,000 per person, divided between the schools and the Learning Trust, which manages education locally. Heads from Essex, Lancashire and Southwark went too, some claiming they were funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.   Meanwhile, Hackney City Academy is axing textbooks in favour of sending information to pupils on their mobile phones.  

 

Kent:  Pupils in schools across Kent are being disrupted by the actions of  politicians and their officials, who have been seduced by millions of pounds from central government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF)   programme. On the Isle of Sheppey, there are plans to close 3 schools and replace them with a split-site £48m academy for 2,450 pupils. Parents are not pleased and the Sheppey Parents Action Group (SPAG) is worried about transport between the two sites among other things. There has even been a debate about this in Parliament. But the politicians have their plans and seem to care little for the people directly involved.

 

Lincolnshire:  Parental opposition to the 'hard' federation between Boston (Boys') Grammar School and Boston (Girls') High School has opened a can of worms stretching across the whole county. Lincolnshire County Council's 'school improvement partner' is CfBT, the educational charity. In their search for honest information, the parents and others have submitted numerous Freedom of Information requests. But instead of giving honest answers, the authorities have done everything possible to obscure the truth.  It will come out in the end.         

 

Richmond-upon-Thames: Claire Brown, whose daughter attends Christ's Church of England (secondary) School in Richmond, is campaigning for honest subjects, instead of the school's project-based,  integrated curriculum. The change to the curriculum is part of an experiment led by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). The RSA programme is called 'Opening Minds', but at Christ's School, it goes under the name of 'Personalised Alternative Curriculum Experience' (PACE). Lesson timetables show 11 periods of 'Performing Arts' each week (a misprint – even staff didn't know what PACE stood for), but only 3 periods of maths and 2 of science. Geography, history and religious education (RE) are not on the timetable at all. Failure to identify RE may be illegal, because parents have a statutory right to withdraw their child from RE and daily worship, if they wish to do so. Richmond is considered one of the better local authorities, so this shift towards 'progressive' ideology seems weird in a school where, last year, 54% of pupils achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. A formal complaint has been made to the governors, who will decide by 14 January.    

 

Slough:  Merge a selective grammar school with a non-selective school and you are left with a comprehensive. This is what is proposed for St Bernard's Grammar School and St Joseph's High School in Slough.  The plan to turn the two schools into a 1,500 pupil academy may, in fact, be against the law. Nevertheless, it is backed by both headteachers, the Catholic Church (as potential sponsor), Lord Adonis and, of course, local authority officials.  An active parents' group, Faith and Choice Together (FaCT), led by Tony O'Shea, is fighting the proposals and seeks support at  www.savestbernards.co.uk. A petition has also been set up on the No 10 website which you may like to sign: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/stbernards 

 

Stoke-on-Trent:  Trentham High School's parents, led by Daniel Jordan, are incensed that their local authority and Serco, the private company running education locally, want to close the school and merge it with an under-performing school to form a 1,500-pupil academy. This year, 57% of Trentham's pupils achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. The parents have surrounded the school grounds with eye-catching 'Not for sale' signs. And they have a website: www.savetrenthamhigh.co.uk.  Stoke was also in the news when Richard Mercer, the head of  Edensor Technology College, arranged to close the school for 2 days  and take 80 staff  on a 4-day trip to Marbella for in-service training. This greatly angered parents, not least because the costs could be up to £40,000.  However, when the teachers arrived at school with suitcases packed for the trip, they were told it had been cancelled as a result of the publicity. The training was eventually done locally, but late cancellation of the overseas trip meant that the original costs could not be refunded. 

 

Suffolk: Regular readers will remember that Conservative-controlled Suffolk County Council (SCC) wants to close  Clare Middle School and compel 11-year-olds to make a 20-mile round trip each day to less successful secondary schools in Haverhill or Sudbury. The parents' campaign to keep Clare Middle School open and turn it into an 11-16 secondary school by adding a few classrooms for older pupils gained massive  support. Backed by their MP, Tim Yeo, the group recently visited schools minister Jim Knight, hoping he would decide in their favour. But the minister refused to make a decision and passed responsibility back to SCC. Within days, the Council informed the parents it would not support their more sensible, less costly plans. Politicians, it seems, only like parent power when it suits them. Meanwhile, the Clare group fights on. They have an excellent website at  www.our-community-our-school.co.uk. SCC is also disrupting schools in other parts of the county. A letter from the governors of Saxmundham Primary School says:  'Children in our primary school may have to endure almost continuous change through the whole of their education as a result of [SCC] policy. We believe that SCC needs to review the impact of ...BSF funding for our area.'     

 

MINISTER PROMOTES TERRORISM

 

Catriona Ruane, the Sinn Fein/IRA minister in charge of education in Northern Ireland, may be charged under the Terrorism Act for praising hunger striker Bobby Sands at a primary school speech day. On the wider front, she is now proposing selection when children are 14-years-old, which would fit in with mainland Labour's 14-19 agenda. But absent any costings, or consideration of the physical implications of changing schools at 14 (bar banning 11-plus testing for grammar schools) the minister has created educational chaos in what was, up to now, a very successful system. Is disruption part of her plan?   

 

TOP UNIVERSITY LEADERS SPEAK OUT

 

Full credit to Professor Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge, for publicly stating that top universities are primarily places of learning. It is not their job, she said, to 'fix problems of social mobility'.

 

Credit, too, to Lord (Chris) Patten, the chancellor of Oxford, who accused 'social engineers' of trying to force universities to make up for the failings of comprehensive schools. He said that while Oxford strives to be socially inclusive, favouring 'second best' youngsters from state schools over better qualified applicants from independent schools would be 'suicidal' (Daily Mail, 30 September).

 

PUBLICATIONS/NOTICE

 

The Butterfly Grammar: A Course for Better English by Irina Tyk is a new accompaniment to her succesful  Butterfly Book for teaching reading. The Butterfly Grammar is suitable for children as soon as they are accustomed to reading and writing independently. It provides them with a set of fixed rules that can be used consistently. £9.50 from Civitas, 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ or at www.civitas.org.uk

 

The mobile economy by Andrew Holdenby, Helen Rainbow, Laurie Thraves and Elizabeth Truss  highlights 'a culture of misinformation' as a result of  the government's conflicting interests as both producer and regulator of  education. Attempts to create parity of esteem between qualifications are also damaging and misleading.  £20 from Reform, 45 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3LT. Or download it free at www.reform.co.uk

 

The House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into Initial Teacher Training (ITT) and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers. Written submissions are invited by 2 February 2009. Full details at www.parliament.uk

 

SNIPPETS

 

For social need, we will now use the Tax Credit Indicator (TCI) rating for the school. This responds to several comments that the previous proxy, eligibility for Free School Meals, often does not, for local and cultural reasons, fully reflect social deprivation. (As we said all along. Ed.) Guidance for Local Authorities on Revising and Resubmitting Expressions of Interest in Building Schools for the Future, DCSF, September 2008.    

Almost £3 million of taxpayers' money is being spent on consultants by two councils as part of a plan to improve local schools. Poole and Bournemouth councils in Dorset will each spend an annual £469,000 over three years managing the Building Schools for the Future scheme, which will see £120 million of central government money spent on education projects [in the area]. The bill for 'external support services' is almost as much as the original administrative budget for the project. Sunday Telegraph, 26 October 2008

The language of all this is terrible important. The modern parties of the Left make use of the most attractive words, such as 'fair' and 'progressive', in which to package their attacks on personal freedom and private responsibility. Janet Daley, Daily Telegraph, 1 December 2008. 

[The national curriculum] is structured around subject requirements, but this has never been  a  prescription for how it must be delivered. Schools have always had the flexibility to present the curriculum in a way that best meets the needs of their pupils.   Mick Waters, director of curriculum, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Times Educational Supplement, 5 December 2008.  

The gulf between the public and private sectors gets wider and wider. Sir Jim [Rose] is in danger of pulling up the drawbridge. Alice Miles, The Times, 10 December 2008. 

It is a particular disappointment that [Sir Jim Rose's] interim version of the biggest review of British primary education in decades nudges the country a little further down its path towards factfree education... The report suggests that  everything be mashed into six 'learning areas'... Maths looks safe; and reading and writing reasonably so... But other hard fact-filled subjects – history, geography and so on – will be compressed to make room for the sloppy, politically correct mush. The Economist, 11 December 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