Schoolboy error

Settle down at the back, there. Today we’re going to learn basic numeracy.
Do pay attention, Sir Michael Wilshaw (Chief Inspector of Schools, head of Ofsted, the agency that inspects schools…) This will be on the test.
On Breakfast TV this morning, you said that UK schools were failing to keep up with the rest of the world, and that one in 5 ten-year-olds were failing to reach the average.
LOL, LOL again.
Nobody on BBC Breakfast challenged this. The discussion continued as if he had said something both meaningful and scary. (And, of course, nobody said – “Surely this slide down the world’s literacy league tables coincides with the past decade’s massive expansion of school inspection activity?”)
OK, I naturally assumed the “average” word was a slip of the tongue. I told quite a few people because I was amazed that the chief inspector of schools didn’t understand the concept of a mean. But, on the BBC website, some more savvy person (maybe someone who’d studied Maths at the age of 11, as Sir Michael clearly hadn’t) had changed the reported words to refer to expected standards. Maybe I’d dreamt it.
But it turns out that Sir Michael had said the same thing on Newsnight the night before.
As the Guardian reported, a flurry of well-earned Internet derision followed the Newsnight speech. Ofsted press office said it was just a “slip of the tongue”.
Impossible that he and his press office didn’t spot any twittered mirth. But, there he was on BBC Breakfast, this morning, with his tongue still slipping wildly and disgorging the same scare story, using the same silly “average” word.
To misquote Oscar Wilde, to misuse one statistical concept may be a misfortune, to misuse two begins to look a lot like innumeracy.
I’ll be charitable and take it that he “really” meant “expected standard” but was more interested in getting in a soundbite than in communicating meaningfully. (In that case, of course, he’s failed basic literacy requirements instead.)
As the Guardian blog showed, Sir Michael isn’t alone in his innumeracy. The Secretary of State for Education is equally challenged by the statistical concept of averages. This is priceless:

Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.
Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.

This sort of thing would normally inspire pity. He’s obviously not very bright but, in a fair world, he could probably get useful work that didn’t need academic skills. In the real universe, he’s Secretary of State for Education.
In which role, he’s hellbent on promoting the ludicrous Academies. These obviously make perfect sense if you’re a business person who wants to get your hands on public money that’s earmarked for education but make no sense to anyone else.
The process seems to be –

  1. Ofsted “inspects” a school
  2. They declare it to be “failing” and in need of “special measures”
  3. The school has to choose between becoming an Academy or being closed
  4. An Academy is set up, it gets the money that the local authority would have paid to the school
  5. The school becomes Outstanding in the next inspection

But there’s a hiccup. A few awkward schools are refusing.
Heads are rolling resigning or knuckling under. And now, intransigent (locally elected) school governors are being dismissed and replaced by government appointees – who by an amazing coincidence turn out to be very pro-academy. (Downhills Primary, Nightingale Primary):

“We have therefore decided to appoint an interim executive board to give the school the leadership and expertise it needs to improve.
“Those connected with the school will then be consulted on whether the school should convert into a sponsored academy under the leadership of the Harris Federation.”
The hand-picked interim executive board will be chaired by Les Walton, the chairman of the the Young People’s Learning Agency – the academies’ funding body.
Other members include the head of the Harris Federation, Dr Dan Moyniham, and Dame Sylvia Morris.
Dame Sylvia has just retired as head teacher of St Saviour and St Mary Overy Primary School in Southwark. She was made a dame in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for services to education, and mentors new head teachers in four London boroughs….
At a parliamentary committee hearing in January, Mr Gove labelled campaigners against the academy plan for Downhills “Trots”, claiming they were politically motivated and linked to the Socialist Workers Party. (from the BBC)

One can only hope that Mr Gove is himself politically motivated. Otherwise, the whole operation looks a lot like straightforward theft.

Qualified win

“Free” Schools won’t get public money to teach creationism. A rare bit of good news in UK politics, which seems determined to outdo its own Worst News record on a daily basis.

“Free” schools are a rubbish idea for so many reasons that adding creationism into the mix was almost superfluous. But, nevertheless, it was in there:

Several creationist groups have expressed an interest in opening schools in towns and cities across England, including Bedford, Barnsley, Sheffield and Nottingham. Critics say they seek to promote creationism, or the doctrine of “intelligent design”, as a scientific theory rather than as a myth or metaphor.(from the Guardian)

I’m not too sure about the wording of the exclusion, though:

Under the new agreement, funding will be withdrawn for any free school that teaches what it claims are “evidence-based views or theories” that run “contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanations”.

This seems to spread the banned-ideas disturbingly wider than stopping science lessons becoming an outpost of bible study. It implies that “non-evidence-based” religious nonsense is fine – but, as “non-evidence-based” pretty well defines creationism, surely it will be allowed.

Maybe I’m being too bloody literal, assuming that words are supposed to have a meaning. Charitably, maybe it’s just that officials at the DofE aren’t allowed to release any document that doesn’t have the words “evidence-based” in it, even if they have only the vaguest idea what it means.

I’ll err on the side of optimism and assume that it won’t mean that schools can’t debate ideas that challenge “established” ideas about history and science, as, surely, that process would define a real education….

Making up numbers for fun and profit

Why buy ads when you can blag respected media organizations into publicising your company for free, as long as you can raise some public controversy (622 comments on this)?

An online entrepreneur says that poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for internet businesses. Charles Duncombe says an analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half.(from the BBC website)

Whereas achieving a gratuitous link on the BBC site can presumably double them….

The Confederation of British Industry weighed in with this ludicrous claim, based on a survey they did.

James Fothergill, the CBI’s head of education and skills, said: “Our recent research shows that 42% of employers are not satisfied with the basic reading and writing skills of school and college leavers and almost half have had to invest in remedial training to get their staff’s skills up to scratch.(from the BBC)

The first part (42%) may be accurate. Complaining about young people’s spelling is like complaining about the weather. Everyone over 25 does it and probably always has. But I am intrigued by the claim that “almost half” have paid for remedial English classes. That implies that 2% of bosses who don’t have a problem with young workers’ literacy have been paying for extra lessons.

To address these weaknesses, 44 per cent of employers have had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.(from HR_Inform report on the CBI survey)

Bosses are “investing” so money must be changing hands. ( This suggests that there must be a massive Remedial English industry. Intriguing. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a private training company advertising these courses.

Avid googling throws up a few remedial English courses but these all turn out to be courses in teaching Remedial English. Or they are courses in Remedial English for non-English speakers.

Education cuts have probably made it impossible to find a free public sector course. So, teachers of basic English and Maths – who’ve found themselves out of a job as our adult education colleges disappear – should set themselves up as Remedial English and Maths trainers and offer their services to the CBI. Who apparently know where there is a massive hidden cache of employers who are happy to pay for their skills…

Threatening teachers

Lord Hill (the Schools Minister, do keep up at the back there) has written to the heads of schools wanting to become academies to threaten them that they can’t become academies if they reach agreement with the NAS/UWT union.

Lord Hill has threatened headteachers that their bid for academy status is in jeopardy if they enter into any agreement with the NASUWT to maintain national pay and conditions of service.(from the NAS/UWT site)

Here’s the offending document. I can’t work out how to link to it so I’ve copied and pasted it here, with apologies to the NAS.UWT.
LORD HILL LETTER TO ACADEMIES JAN 2011.pdf

Lord Hill says in his first paragraph that “We consider the freedom to set the pay and conditions of staff to be one of the key freedoms of Academy status.”

If the reader is under any illusion that these “key freedoms” include “paying staff over the national rate”, he threatens that any school that reaches an agreement to keep to the national rate will not get Academy status.

Maybe my English Comprehension skills just aren’t up to the appropriate standard but this threat seems pretty clear. I never studied Fundamentals of English/European Law but the legality of this seems at least doubtful.

The NAS/UWT seem to be of the same opinion:

The letter also offers advice on academy conversion that, if followed, would place schools in breach of their statutory obligations, leaving them vulnerable to legal action.
Chris Keates, NASUWT General Secretary,said:
“Quite frankly, I am astonished that a Minister would commit to writing such threats and deeply flawed advice.
“For a peer and a Minister to encourage the flouting of the law is, I believe, unprecedented.

“Academies” aren’t exactly covered in glory, as it is, even before they are entered in an unseemly rush for the cheapest teachers.

On 12 January Sky News reported that

Around a quarter of the worst performing secondary schools in England are academies, according to the latest set of league tables.”

Quite how bad are these academies going to be when they only employ teachers on lower pay and conditions?

Scienz teeching

This monumentally silly page on the CIF belief bit of the Guardian website was probably just there to stir up knee-jerk responses. (There are, naturally, thousands of comments.) But, hey, my reflexes are in pretty good shape. So, here goes.

Alistair Noble wrote that “Intelligent design should not be excluded from the study of origins”

As a former science teacher and schools inspector, I am disturbed that proposals for science education are based on near-complete ignorance of intelligent design. I also think the views of “most British people” in this matter should not be so readily set aside.

Even if it were true that “most British people” believed in ID, this doesn’t make it a valid scientific theory nor imply that “most British people” are qualified to decide what pseudo -science is taught in schools.

The fact is that that “most British people” (hmm, me included) don’t know enough about biology to get a GCSE in it. Choosing a theory of life is not like casting a vote on XFactor.

He argues that ID is nothing to do with religion; life is complex and beautiful; it seems designed so it must have been….

It is easily overlooked that the origin of life, the integrated complexity of biological systems and the vast information content of DNA have not been adequately explained by purely materialistic or neo-Darwinian processes. Indeed it is hard to see how they ever will.

But hey, this is not about religion….

It is an all too common error to confuse intelligent design with religious belief.

The intellectual dishonesty of this claim – that it’s not religiously based – is quite telling. What specific “science” did he teach?

If Intelligent design constitutes a good scientific theory, why draw the line at using it in biology? What about physics? What about cosmology?
“A magic man did it” applies even more aptly to these subjects, surely?

It’s certainly possible that our models of “evolution” will be proven to be false by some new and better explanation of biological processes. That’s science. ….. It is well nigh inconceivable that science will ever decide that the magic man is an explanation for anything.

Alistair’s Guardian profile says

Dr Alastair Noble is an educational consultant and lay preacher, and a former teacher and research chemist

Research chemistry? Why bother? Surely, the magic man made all the chemicals and chemical transformations. Why not just read Genesis instead of messing about getting research results?

Lay preacher? He argued that ID is real science, and can’t be confused with religion (see above) So his being a lay preacher is just a coincidence. Indeed a coincidence so uncanny that it can only have been designed by a superior being.

A few links, chosen randomly by my own intelligent design, to other blogs discussing this nonsense better than I have, and indeed, having done so in a rather more timely fashion.
evilburnee.co.uk
Wonderful life
Richard Dawkins, net

Community cohesion

What exactly is “community cohesion”? I’m way too stupid to understand what “community” means in any thing other than general terms. So, it’s lucky that OFSTED inspectors seem to have a robust enough working definition to allow them to rate schools for it

(Lucky for Oftsed, anyway, as they now seem to be legally obliged to do it).

It also seems to be lucky – for the CofE- that a CofE-funded study – doing some statistical analysis of OFSTED’s application of its community cohesion standard – concluded that faith schools are better at promoting it.

I’m not going down the cynical “Well, you get what you pay for” route, here. I am just wondering what “community cohesion” might mean. If “faith” schools are magically better than bog-standard schools at mixing together the communities they are sited in, then someone should have sent the message to Northern Ireland, where the people trying to end decades of internal war are trying to get kids taught together, whatever their family religion…….

I was under the impression that there was a UK map (on the BBC or somewhere) showing that the poorest and most deprived areas were the most socially “cohesive” – people had lots of contact with relatives, lived close to where they were born, shared values, helped each other out, etc.

Strong community ties can serve as a survival strategy for the poor, but there are many complicated good and bad implications. (I believe the East End community was considered quite cohesive in the Kray era, for instance.)

Hence, I googled “community cohesion map”. I haven’t found the map I was looking for, yet. Most of the top results are policy documents related to education or housing. They are pretty close to unreadable (without getting the urge to rip the language area out of your own skull, anyway) but it’s obviously a big current policy topic. So, you’d assume there must be a useful definition in there somewhere.
Here’s the Experian Community Cohesion Factsheet. Factsheet, see. Doesn’t that mean it has the facts?

Hmm, it certainly has sciencey-looking maps, showing you can plot measures of community cohesiveness on a map.

Well, yes, you can plot anything to a map. A map doesn’t care whether you actually define the things you are mapping.

Cohesive and harmonious communities are the bedrock of a civilised and stable society. Enhancing cohesion is fundamental to reducing disorder, increasing public confidence and improving everyone’s quality of life. It is therefore important to understand the factors that underpin cohesion to consider the best ways to deliver services and engage with residents to accomplish longterm sustainable improvements.

Bedrock of a civilised society… Now why does that sound familiar? How many bedrocks does a civilised society need?

The Experian measures seem to be disturbingly related to ethic origin of respondents. It’s not as if this sort of information could ever be misused, is it? (Rhetorical question.)

Monkeys and wordprocessors

A Civitas* survey of teachers claims that they believe trained monkeys could pass A Level exams, according to the Metro. And the Press Association.

One director of A-levels, based in the North West, told researchers: “You could train a monkey to do the questions today.”
Another head of sixth-form from the East Midlands said: “This is Mickey Mouse stuff – what they learn at A-level today is not sufficient for GCSE. The system is an absolute shambles. The standard of the candidates is very low – it’s a national disgrace.” (from the Press Association)

(How bad at teaching must these surveyed teachers be, then, if their human pupils fail? )

I, for one, welcome our new simian overlords.

So – in the interests of helping monkeys to achieve University entrance qualifications – I’ve drafted an A Level paper that monkeys (or at least the orangutan, in Terry Pratchett’s novels, who says “Ook”) could have a fair shot at passing.
——————————————————-
Paper II English Written, Advanced Level, June 2009

Answer ALL questions. Write on both sides of the paper. Points will be deducted for bad spelling.

Time: 100 years

1 You are provided with a typewriter. Type out the complete works of Shakespeare.

===============================================
Paper II English Oral, Advanced Level, June 2009

1. Complete the following sentences by saying the missing syllables:

A “War and Peace” is a b…
B “A thief” is another word for a cr…
C The castle chess piece is also known as a r…

2. Express your response to the following statements through appropriate gestures:

A When I read about mock surveys carried out by spurious “think tanks”, I feel like doing this.
B When I can’t find any mention of said “survey” of “teachers” on the thinktank’s website, I feel like doing this.
C This survey is a load of ….
(Extra credit may be earned by baboons here)

==============================================

Supplementary Notes
* Civitas is a “thinktank” which is also a registered charity. That means it gets tax relief on donations. Which seems quite amazing, given that it seems to have no purpose but to spread right-wing propaganda.
No wait, it also funds an education establishment, which luckily brings it under the remit of the Charity Commission’s qualifications.
To quote Sarah Hall writing in the Guardian in 2004.

Rightwing thinktank’s school aims to teach traditional culture
A rightwing thinktank which promotes pamphlets opposing immigration and asylum is writing to supporters urging them to help fund a school because it fears “our culture is in serious decline – one might say meltdown”….