Archive for April, 2009

Aren’t you listening, Sir Jim?


Sir Jim Rose publishes his final report on the primary curriculum today. It seems little has changed form the interim report that was published last year. This morning he was interviewed by Jim Naughtie on Radio 4 Today programme about his findings.

Predictably he had nothing of any particular interest to say that wasn’t pure waffle. But I was interested in, and perturbed by, what he pointedly didn’t say or didn’t want to talk about.

For example he chose to ignore Jim Naughties response:

It sounds so obvious in a way, doesn’t it? That the basics, reading and writing, and to some extent numeracy, also depend on the ability to communicate in class. It’s a funny thing when you have to write that down’

And to Jim Naughties reference to the concept of children learning at their own pace he responded that there are:

‘…a lot of things that revolve around all that that need thinking through more carefully.’

He doesn’t want to talk about that I suspect because it would raise the issue of Year 6 SATS which he has been told not to go into in his report.

As ever there is more fiddling around with numeracy and literacy and of course the big idea, talking (and ‘word poverty’).

When asked about teacher’s concerns that the recommendations in the review are just tinkering, reordering, relabeling, adding to the teacher’s burden Sir Jim remarked:

There is no doubt that we have let the curriculum get too fat. And we do need to slim it down and we do need to give teachers far more flexibility and opportunity to be creative. However…..

So no addressing of these real issues yet then!

And his final remark was that the recommendations deliver:

A much better match of the particular learning paths of children.’

This is gobbledygook.

Seems it’s Sir Jim himself who needs to focus on his listening and speaking skills!

April 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm 2 comments

Fast track to nowhere

This morning my daughter will take the first part (the oral) of her French GCSE. She is 14 years old, in Year 9 and this is part of the fast track scheme within her school.

A few weeks ago she, in common with school pupils in Year 9 around the country, was required to select the subjects she will be taking up to GCSE for the rest of her secondary schooling to that level. The process of identifying these subjects (which are in addition to core subjects) was agonising for her, for us, and for the many other parents and young people we know who were going through the same process.

The reason this was so agonising is that the decisions taken at this time require ‘second guessing’ the future academic and professional paths of the youngsters concerned. Yet they are only 14 years old.

This is exacerbated by the fact that a young person can be put off a subject simply because it is not taught well. Because in making their choices for the future there will be a natural and understandable tendency towards those subjects that they ‘enjoy’  (mostly because they are taught well) a subject that might have induced deep interest had it been brought alive by its teaching might be lost to a young person.

Although my daughter is undertaking fast track French, and by all accounts doing well at it, she decided not to continue French to AS level after taking her early GCSE. This decision was partly predicated on the fact that although she is doing well she has felt that she has been struggling with the grammatical structure of the language, and that she does seem to have a somewhat uninspiring teacher (for her) both of which have marred her enjoyment.

Her decision not to continue French is now ‘set in stone’ so inflexible is the system. But last night she dropped a bit of a bombshell. During the intense revision she has been undertaking prior to her oral exam, many of the aspects of the grammar that she felt she had been struggling with have suddenly clicked into place for her. The result of this is that she now regrets her decision not to continue French to AS level as this new level of understanding has reinvoked her enthusiasm for the language.

A recent study published in the journal of Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability on primary schooling has concluded that ‘having a bad teacher in the first year of primary school can damage a pupil’s entire education’.

I would go further. Whilst having great admiration for teachers who struggle against the myriad changes to the system made by meddling politicians I do believe that bad teaching throughout school life (not just at primary level) coupled with an inflexible system that requires too much too soon of young people ‘can damage a pupil’s entire education’.

April 27, 2009 at 11:10 am Leave a comment

SATS – the elephant in the room?

The government’s response to the NUT threat to boycott SATS in 2010, supported by the headmasters union, is to say that this would be illegal. No looking at the issues wondering if they have a point, no concerns that if such a rather wishy washy union as the NUT are proposing action this may reflect some serious concerns.

The basis of the teacher’s discontent is their reality that they spend too much time preparing 10 and 11 year olds for their Year 6 SATS at the expense of a great deal other of the teaching they should be doing.

This isn’t a new criticism of the SATS but I suspect this issue is rather coming to a head (pun unintended) because there is no sign that Ed Balls and his lot have any intention of doing anything about this (aside from saying that the tests are ‘not set in stone’ which has created great excitement amongst many of those who wish to see the SATS scrapped).

The great opportunity to have scrapped the Year 6 SATS at the same time as the Year 9 SATS were scrapped has been missed and only strengthened the view that the overriding reason for scrapping the Year 9 SATS was to take the weight off the massive marking task that has proved so controversial. So all this leaves things kind of in limbo.

In a recent discussion on Radio 4 Today programme about the proposed boycott some interesting things were said which pandered to some myths about the tests. Here are just three of them.

  1. ‘We need tests because we want young people to be able to read and write’. WRONG. You have to have good teaching in order to maintain standards. Tests ain’t teaching.
  1. ‘You have to have SATS in order to have some measure of a child’s progress’. WRONG. There are all sorts of means of assessing a child’s progress. It is often mistakenly believed that to be against SATS is to be against any forms of measuring progress.
  1. Young people need to get used to taking tests for later on when they take their GCSE’s and A levels etc.. WRONG. My view is that all exams should be scrapped, but given that that is unlikely, certainly in the medium term, there are many ways of preparing for later exams that do not have to start 5 years in advance.

In my mind there is no doubt that the SATS should be scrapped forthwith. One of the things that is holding things up, though, is the fact that this would send out an extremely significant signal that real change is afoot, that the old obsession with testing and league tables is coming to an end.

For politicians who generally can only see 5 minutes ahead and who fuel such obsessions in the mistaken belief that this addresses accountability, taking an action that in fact points the way towards a new world that may exist the day after tomorrow is extremely uncomfortable.

Yet, there is a growing feeling of inevitability in this. How long can Ed Balls and his colleagues ignore the elephant?

April 22, 2009 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

SATS make you stupid!

Here’s another interesting angle on the debate about SATS. According to an article in the Economist I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told research at Pennsylvania University and Cornell University has shown that children of poor families learn less well than children of middle class families because their working memories, critical in learning, have smaller capacities.

This is not put down to poverty per se, but to stress, presumably induced by being poor. I know some high achieving children who come from poor families. I also know some children of well off families who undoubtedly undergo a great deal of stress, nor because they are poor but for a whole variety of other reasons.

So if stress is the issue as is suggested then one would imagine that this would permeate the whole spectrum of wealth.

And if stress is the issue this would be a very strong argument for ridding our kids of the stress of sitting SATS tests, which, if the research is correct, can only get in the way of their learning.

April 14, 2009 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

The ‘lottery’ is here to stay

Not the Camelot one, the Brighton and Hove admissions one.

Following my previous post on March 4th about a potential review of the so called school admissions ‘lottery’ system I am pleased that last week it was announced that in Brighton and Hove the system will stay as it currently is at least for the next 3 years, until 2012, when it will be reviewed.

This is exoneration for the two years hard graft and emotional cost by those like me who spent so much of their lives trying to get the best possible (admittedly not perfect) system.

Bearing in mind that at the time of the initial implementation of the current system the conservatives did their very best to ensure that it was not accepted the fact that it is Vanessa Brown, conservative deputy leader of the council, who now extols the virtues of the system is good but somewhat exasperating.

The arguments she now uses for the ‘lottery’ system are the very arguments those of us who developed and supported the system extolled during the review process and the very arguments which her fellow conservatives rejected out of hand.

Unfortunately there is little common sense in this, and a lot of politicking.

I doubt that anything will change in the next three years to render the ‘lottery’ system anything other than the best fit for Brighton and Hove. I can’t see all Brighton schools magically relocated (location being a large part of the original admissions difficulties) in this time.

But given that a change of government is likely before the review date, who would not bet that a battle to retain the system beyond 2012 will have to be fought. Given, also, that the comprehensive two year review that has taken place did look at all feasible alternatives, any system other than the current one will almost certainly be a backwards step for the city.

I am generally an optimist and not particularly prone to doom mongering, but in this instance I feel bad things in my water. I do hope I am wrong.

April 6, 2009 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

The book is dead!

Last night I gave a talk and was on a panel at an event organised by the Children’s Books Circle on the subject of ‘the future of children’s publishing in a digital world’ held at Penguin books offices in London.

This, of course, is a hot topic these days with publishers, authors and others worried about the demise of the book when there are so many other digital offerings available.

I have been involved in the world of digital technology since 1984 and in the 25 years since then this has been a constant concern. However, the book is still very much alive even in this 21st century digital age, and in my view will remain so.

What has happened, though, is that in today’s digital world the book sits in a different context. Sales of children’s book actually are pretty healthy but one significant change is that these sales are invested in fewer authors. This suggests to me that whilst there is still a place for the book it has to fight for position and consumers are ever more discerning.

If this means that it is just the good books that survive then that’s probably a good thing. The danger, however, is that publishers, not renown for their adventurousness may become even less willing to take a risk on new authors.

As well as standing on its own the book, of course, has a life in conjunction with other digital offerings which are either counterparts or conjoined. The Lemony Snicket ‘Series of unfortunate events’ is a popular series of books and now has a film and video games associated with it. Similarly with the Harry Potter books which also have films and games and other merchandising materials related.

In other conjoined relationships books and digital media are interdependent. Scholastics 39 clues, for example, where in order to find clues and solve problems online users have to read the books. Currently the existing elements of this are books, clue cards and web based activities. However one feels that films and other merchandising opportunities are looming.

Whilst the Scholastic line is that with the 39 clues they are encouraging young people it is hard not to think that such laudable ideals are secondary to other more commercial motives.

In the purely digital world there are exciting things happening in the world of children’s storytelling. Inanimatealice, for example, is a purely digital story told in a series of multimedia episodes that grow in duration, in complexity and in interactivity as the story unfolds.

The really neat thing about this is that it has an associated authoring facility that users can utilise (although they do have to buy it separately) to create their own stories, or better still weave their stories into the story of Alice. Fantastic.

And who knows what the creative writing world will make of the opportunities offered  by the potential of, for example, creating flexible, personalised stories made up purely of 140 character Tweets.

But as for the book it’s pretty clear, I think.

The book is dead. Long live the book!

April 3, 2009 at 5:55 pm Leave a comment

Mick Landmann on education, digital technology, and the 21st century

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