The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘education’

The SATs Lie

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 4, 2010 @ 12:29

Let's get rid of this absurdity, and let kids be kids for once...

Year after year exam results increase, no matter who takes them. Secondary school pupils, college students, university students… and primary school children are no different.

Whether these results are down to children/young adults actually getting smarter, the tests getting easier, the test not keeping up with smarter children, the modular nature of exams, the continual resitting of exams, or whatever other prejudice you like, there is something particular about the primary school SATs which makes them worthy of extra special derision.

Year after year the teachers say they’ll boycott the tests. It actually happened this year, but many headteachers wimped out at the last minute. The reason why they say is because they’re distorting the curriculum, making everyone focus on the all important league tables, and have turned primary schools into a pressure cooker towards the crunch points of Years 2 and 6. All valid arguments.

But they are undermined a little by what usually happens when children do indeed take the SATs.

Where I’m from, from experience, from memory, and from appropriate well placed sources, the SAT system is widely abused. Teachers regularly “monitor” the exams when they’re in progress, and point out to children where they have made mistakes. I remember it clear as day myself, aged 10, writing an answer to a maths question while the teacher was watching over my shoulder and saying, “Check that”.

The SAT system has no integrity. Secondary schools routinely re-test Year 7 pupils on entry because they have absolutely no confidence in the results from the SATs from the primary school, and they need a much more consistent benchmark to compare progress against in their own school. Teachers regularly quip that children arrive apparently with Level 5s in English, Maths and Science, when they are almost certainly at Level 4 in one or more of them. If secondary schools do not do this, they can actually face accusations that children have regressed in their schools, because of their inflated entry SAT score.

A crazy system, no?

I don’t actually blame primary school teachers for doing what they do. The pressure comes from the top, from government, through the headteachers, to secure better and better scores, year after year, or face being shut down.

There is no reason to keep the SAT system. We are told that parents “like” them. Well, who wouldn’t, when you’re told that Little Johnny is a shining model pupil getting outstanding scores in everything. Yeah, him and everyone else. It achieves nothing but feed you a lie because it’s exactly what you want to hear.

SATs are a crude, ineffective, inefficient, and, worse, deeply untrustworthy system. They distort school and teacher priorities, and they create a totally meaningless sense of competition in a sector that simply has no need for it.

Sadly, they aren’t going anywhere. Unless it’s all an evil plot by teachers to undermine them by ensuring that, eventually, all children get 100%. Now that would be good…


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Cambridge To The Rescue

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 23, 2010 @ 10:00

We need to see less of this...

A lone piece of good news today comes from an unlikely source. Cambridge University…

Cambridge University has criticised the government’s plan to scrap the current system of A-levels in a letter to Michael Gove, the education secretary.

As I pointed out recently, Michael Gove is a liability. This latest bad PR day comes from the fact that a week or so ago he told everyone, without the merest hint of consultation or evidence that his plan had any merit, that the old two-year A-Level would be returning.

A-Levels were changed – split into a modular system – in 2000 as part of the Labour government’s Curriculum 2000 reform. It was, broadly speaking, a good change. Modular exams are now the norm across all qualifications and institutions in society, providing a much more thorough examination of the subject.

Indeed, contrary to what Michael Gove thinks, I would argue that the new A-Levels, which invariably require the student to sit five or six exams over two years, plus one or two resits, are much more demanding and stressful on a student than the previous unfair “how’s your luck today?” old system whereby a student would stand or fall based on a couple of exams at the end of two years.

The AS-Level, which students usually do in Year 12,  has had an added bonus. It’s given universities the chance to have actual exam results to base their admissions decisions on, something they never had in the past. Getting rid of them is what has got Cambridge, and doubtless many other universities, rather flustered. They know they can no longer rely on the goodwill and honesty of Sixth Form tutors for predicted grades – the old system – precisely because competition is so fierce, and a little white lie here and there makes the whole thing so difficult to be certain about…

The hilarity of it all is that in the original plan for reform, just 19 days ago, we were told that

Universities fear that the current “bite-sized” system in which courses are broken up into units with their own exams fails to prepare students for the demands of a degree.

… which is truly remarkable, since it brazenly fails to tell the reader that almost every university degree is “broken up into units”. Modular is the already here, it is well established, it is still the way forward, and it should be here to stay.

Furthermore, his plan was to get the likes of Cambridge to write the syllabus for his new “deep thought” A-Levels. Sounds like they’re not too keen after all.

Please, Mr Gove, stop tinkering for the sake of your ego. The education system is fed up with perpetual revolution. Admit you have spectacularly misjudged this one.

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Will Schools Be Free Or Not?

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 21, 2010 @ 21:24

He works in the Roman Catholic church down the road

We are told that the goal of some of the education reforms will be to free schools of burdensome regulation regarding the National Curriculum. This seems like a noble goal. After all, we want to trust teachers. They know best. Free them to unleash the spark of creativity that the rigid system often doesn’t allow them to do.

When this subject crops up, it’s often the idea that teachers should be free to use whatever inspiration they need to do the task in hand. And so they should. They are the professionals, right? They’re going to know the best way to motivate their classes, engage them in their subject. Not whinging parents, right?


In the past few years, when I harboured ambitions of being a teacher (note the past tense), I met some truly inspiring ones. They could take almost any subject and fit their unique way of thinking around it. Even with a prescriptive curriculum, there was always flexibility in the method of delivery. You want to teach the facts of something in a song? Well, go for it. Poetry? ICT, with whizzy flashes and zooming thingys? A game? You got it.

Teachers like that, while still frustrated by how bureaucratic teaching has become, still found ways around it. That’s, of course, because they’re Good Teachers.

The problem is that in our new age of parent power, and schools having to fight tooth and nail for pupils, schools have to listen to what everyone has got to say. Even if they’re idiots and don’t understand what teaching is all about. Not what they think teaching is all about. I assure you, it is not what it was even 10 years ago, let alone when most of the moaning parents in the news article featured above were in school.

In the future, if the present government enacts what it says it believes in, we may well see more stories like this. If more schools are freed to pursue curricula and qualification specifications in much looser ways, more teachers will be persuaded to put their own spin on what they’re being asked to do. And more freedom will inevitably mean more disparity. More disparity means even more of a postcode lottery than now.

Parents need to decide. Do they want schools to be free to run their own affairs, responding to the needs of “local” people, with all the good and all the bad that may bring, or do they want centralised, rigorously controlled institutions, which may not be very creative, but might at least have a better network of bureaucratic support and minimum standards?

Do we trust teachers to do their job? Because if we do, “Simpsons lessons” be only the beginning.

Your call, electorate.

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What’s A Good Headteacher Worth?

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 13, 2010 @ 10:12

The head teacher in question. All right, it was the only relevant photo I could find...

There is much hand-wringing in the media this morning about the primary school head who earned £276,000 last year. The unions are, naturally, up in arms.

As always, the issue is not as simple as it first appears. The pay packet appears to include a large sum from the previous year, backdated. And, considering the rating of the school, and the difficult circumstances of its context, there has to be a certain element of pay for success.

Headteaching is probably one of the toughest jobs in this country. All the flak when there is failure, and rightly so. All the credit when there is success, and rightly so. Considering the variable nature of the education sector in this country, the pressures of the job to perform, the risks of failure, and the lack of suitable candidates, it’s no real surprise that there is an inexorable rise in salaries.

I have no real objection to the people doing such a difficult job getting adequately rewarded off the back of the public purse. Maybe there is a little investigation needed to be done in this very specific case, but in general school governors need to be given the flexibility to pitch the salary of their head teacher’s position in accordance with the schools demands and its context.

Nothing really controversial there.

The bit that irritates me is that, somehow, the situation is better in the private sector.

Pay is notoriously difficult for capitalists. There is little benefit to a private business in revealing publicly what it pays its employees. Yet, capitalism works best when the consumer, in this case the employer, has full information of all competition and of the product/service being offered.

Perfect markets don’t exist in capitalism, but for the consumer they are the ideal. The problem is that the market for pay is as far from it as is possible. That means the benefits of competing for resources simply don’t exist, and much of it is guesswork, a large chunk of human error, and sentiment from the employer.

The public sector perhaps could do better. Perhaps by being far more open about public sector salaries, we will enable public sector bosses to be more efficient with pay, able to compare competencies from one department to another and seeing what the balance of reward should be.

What I don’t approve of is this notion that somehow pay above the level of the Prime Minister should be frowned upon. Arguably, the PM should be being paid way more than his current salary, and its artificial lowness creates a ludicrously small level at which we compare these salaries.

If we have to put it in numbers, a good headteacher, running a difficult school well, really is worth upwards of £150,000. I don’t think the public mind if they know they were doing a good job, and by consequence educating children to an excellent standard. And if he happens to be earning more than the stupidly low level of pay the PM gets, who really cares?

Now, where’s that civil service application form…

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Who Wants To Be An Academyanaire?

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 26, 2010 @ 15:44

There is a cartoon character that looks a bit like Michael Gove. But I can't think of his name...

I’ve moaned in the past about the useless concepts of academies and free schools.

And with today’s announcement that Michael Gove wants all schools to be one or the other (no idea what the difference is though), I expect I’m gonna have a lot more moaning to do.

Academy schools are the brainchild of New Labour. The concept: a classic public-private partnership, where the private sector gets a lot of influence for only a little capital. Throw ooodles of government cash at it, maybe with a brand new building, and some new swanky titles like Executive Headteacher, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Some academies have worked. Some haven’t. That disparity suggests there’s nothing magical going on here. We’re merely polluting the educational pathway with a deluge of modern managerialism, and worse, combining it with the opportunity for the private sector to stick their oar in where it’s not wanted.

Labour spent 13 years obsessing over what type of school a community should have. The Lib-Con coalition now looks set to do exactly the same.

It is a mistake.

Disconnecting schools from local authority control means that local authorities are going to be doing even less. As if councils could be more emasculated, more impotent, bang will go another reason for their increasingly pointless existence.

But our new “free” schools will not exist in glorious isolation. No sir. They will, of course, be accountable for their standards directly to the Secretary of State. In Whitehall.

This is not a power devolution exercise. Just as Lord Adonis was intimately involved with the school academy programme, so too will Michael Gove. These schools may be free on a day-to-day basis, but overall they will have to respond to the direction of central government. And does central government really know what is appropriate for a local community?

I have no principled objection to giving schools more freedom. I have seen the bureaucracy they exist under first hand. But the answer is not to open up a system, removing all strategic planning from the local people who know best what’s appropriate for their area, and putting it all either in the hands of a clique of middle-class parents with too much time on their hands, a strange collection of “social enterprises” (read: The Vardy Foundation) or civil servants in Whitehall who will no doubt have their own pet schools to look after.

Most ordinary parents couldn’t care less whether their school is free to pursue its own curriculum and manage its own budgets, or has every second of its existence regulated down to the last turkey twizzler. They just want to know that the school has a strong ethos, is a safe environment and is going to deliver rigorous, excellent teaching and learning.

Structures make at best 20% of that. And that’s me being generous.

Teachers, leaders… and most of all, the headteacher, provide the rest.

Here’s to freedom.

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MOTs For Teachers

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 26, 2010 @ 21:17

Was bloody hard to find an image for this post. And even this is a cop out!

Where Scotland leads…

Keith Brown [Scotland’s Schools Minister] has told the profession’s regulator, the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), to introduce a system of “re-accreditation” to ensure all staff are performing competently.

This is a very long overdue piece of news, and we can only hope it teaches England a thing to two.

Teaching is not like any other profession. It requires the teacher to be absolutely at the top of their game throughout their entire career. At least, if we’re talking about good teachers.

Good teachers are an extraordinary blend of a lot of qualities. But part of the mix is, naturally, being right up to date with both the subject you’re teaching, and the ways in which to teach it.

Teachers do all this now, of course. INSET days, the bane of all teachers’ existence, and the love of students worldwide, are all about keeping teachers up to date. A lot of them are rubbish. An INSET day about the latest piece of government tat, healthy eating,  social care databases… but some of them are indeed worthwhile.

The difficulty though is that we need to be aiming higher. I don’t like to denigrate the teaching profession, because they do a wonderful job, but they are carrying a lot of passengers. There are more new teachers than ever coming through the system, and not enough places for them. We need to use this opportunity get rid of the dross, pension them off, whatever, and start to improve the quality.

We need to settle for no less than “good” teachers everywhere. Turning those into “great” teachers should be a priority.

Teachers owe it to their profession to stay sharp through their career. And if they can’t do it any more (or maybe have never been able to) they either need to be more honest and quit going through the motions for an easy pay cheque, or be removed.

Teachers carry out professional development throughout their career, and rightly so.

Let’s not miss this opportunity to ensure that the nation’s teachers are the absolute best for our children. And in return, let’s cut a bit of the form filling out of the job…

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Societal Failure Starts Early. Very Early.

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 15, 2010 @ 09:53

Hilariously, the top three Google Images results for "feral youths" all came from the nation's favourite right-wing newspaper...

Yet another report this morning highlights just how important the early years for children are

Children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils in language skills by the time they start school, research suggests.

Labour’s immediate defence (not yet though) will be to say that it proves their SureStart programme is the right idea, and that the Tories want to scrap it, etc. etc: a message that is somewhat unclear, because some reports say the Tories won’t scrap it, while others say they will cut money from its budget.

But in this case, I’m not interested in the partisan hackery. We’ve had enough of that over the past few days regarding the issue of care for the elderly.

This time, the point is simple. Study after study is showing that the biggest “damage” is done to a child’s prospects before they even enter school. Indeed, the sceptics might argue that all school does is merely nurture a child’s abilities as they get older and turn them into what has essentially already been pre-determined for them by the facts of their early childhood.

A very depressing argument, but there has to be some element of truth to it. After all, why is it that bad schools tend to be in “bad” areas, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and general deprivation? And that this just never seems to change, decade in, decade out?

Time and again, the evidence shows that early intervention is the only way we can tackle the long-term nature of the underachievement from the difficult estates of Britain.

Such a platitude is very easy to say, however, without defining what we mean by “intervention”. And that’s where it begins to get tricky.

Parenting classes are the solution offered by The Sutton Trust, the ones who sponsored this research. Only problem is that you’re broadly dealing with people who, let’s just say, aren’t the sharpest tools in the box in the first place. How much will they be able to absorb and actually put into practice?

More money spent on the right things might help, but in our short-termist mentality it’s just not doable, even though it would probably pay itself back in the long run.

So are we talking then about very aggressive intervention? Social workers and health visitors keeping a very close eye on the development of children? It doesn’t sound very liberal, does it? Where do we stop after that: will people be required to take an IQ test before they’re allowed to reproduce?

Nobody ever said democracy was easy.

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When Your Views Are Challenged

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 27, 2009 @ 09:55

What could this possibly be?

A few weeks ago, I wrote:

When the facts change… we need our politicians to be flexible enough to respond

The event that caused me to get all hot under the collar was the sacking of Professor David Nutt, because of his excitable views on the dangers of cannabis relative to its classification.

It turned into a rant about how we ignore evidence in policy-making at our peril.

Well, today, there is news that made me squirm a little…

Faith schools ‘strong on community cohesion’

screams the BBC News headline for this article, which claims that a study shows secondary faith schools have better marks from OFSTED on community cohesion. (Have I told you lately how much I hate OFSTED?)

Worrying. Very worrying.

People like me have railed against faith schools for years for the very opposite reason. I strongly believe that dividing educational policy and learning into schools based on faith is utterly absurd, on both moral and practical grounds. Morally, because it is wrong to label children as members of a faith when they have no choice in the matter; and also because of the dubious nature of such professed faith in the parents seeking to put children into a faith school; and practically, because of the needless duplication of resources to maintain such a system.

But now, it seems us anti-theists should just shut up. We were wrong all along.

Except, maybe there are chinks of light. Maybe evidence-based policy isn’t so clear cut.

The study found no difference at the primary school level.

The study was funded by the Church of England. Perhaps they got the result they wanted. I have no idea about the motivations of the Professor who led the research, but it would be wrong to accuse him of bias.

The careful selection of criteria is essential to getting a result. It seems OFSTED’s ridiculous school inspections now give them a grade based on “community cohesion”. Well. That is remarkable. A team of inspectors (often working in the private sector with a profit motive) drop in for a few days to a school. Suddenly, they become experts not just on the school but on the entire local community.

They must be pretty smart people.

Oh, and they base a great deal of their results on the school’s own “self assessment”.

Gosh, I wish when I’d done my examinations I could give myself a grade when I’d finished the paper. A*s all round, I think. To hell with grade inflation!

No, something’s not quite right about this story. The entire conclusion is based upon a small comparison of a couple of data points which themselves are remarkably silly. How on Earth can OFTSED possibly grade a school’s “community cohesion”?

This whole thing is typical of the nonsensical society we now live in, where everything is measurable and reduced to crude numbers, no matter how impossible the task. Even happiness.

Science has its limits. And when you step into the realms of pseudo-science, masquerading as an objective way of determining a desired outcome, we have to tread very carefully.

Maybe I’m living in denial. Maybe I’m a hypocrite.

But I won’t be convinced that easily.

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The Love/Hate Lord: Andrew Adonis

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 18, 2009 @ 09:28

The man in action...

If there’s one member of Brown’s Cabinet who has really impressed me, it’s the Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew, Lord Adonis.

This has come as something as a surprise to me, largely because in his previous incarnation as a minister of state at Education, he was the man almost wholly responsible for the kind of problems in the education system I’ve moaned about before, including yesterday; Adonis was the key architect behind the academy school system.

But even then, there was something I had to respect about the man. I’ve read a few articles in my time about him, and all of them have said the same thing. His energy is limitless, his passion is boundless and his commitment to the cause is unquestionable.

One particular article I read noted that Adonis keeps in frequent contact with all the academies across the country. He leaves his number with the headteachers, and encourages them to call him if there is anything he can do to help. They often do, and they’re all on first-name terms, such is the nature of their working relationships. This was a time when Blair was Prime Minister, and Adonis was one of his number one confidants. How fortunate for these establishments to essentially have a direct line into the PM’s ear.

But that was then. When Brown became PM in 2007, it was almost a given that Brown would sack Adonis. It was long thought that the two despised each other. In yet another example of the Labour left pinning all their wildest hopes and dreams on Brown, they all thought he didn’t approve of academy schools. Of course, it was yet another case of the blind love of Labour MPs, failing to understand that Brown and Blair were, in George Galloway’s immortal turn of phrase, “two cheeks of the same backside”.

Brown kept Adonis in the education job, and the policy remained unchanged.

Then, apparently securing his legacy with the backing of Ed Balls, Adonis made a rather shock move into the Department of Transport as a junior minister. A year later, Brown promoted Adonis to Secretary of State. A sign, perhaps, of the paucity of talent in the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

But, to give the man his due, he has turned his attention to his new task with impressive resolve. He has nationalised the East Coast Main Line. He has ensured that the train companies didn’t wriggle out of their obligation to reduce fares due to negative inflation on the RPI. He has strongly defended the progress made in improving the railways. He looks likely to announce a major investment in a new high speed rail line.

What has made me so intrigued about him though is his approach to media and messaging. He hasn’t been afraid to get out from behind his desk in Whitehall and experience the effects of the legislation and regulation his department presides over: including his five day rail trip across the country, and yesterday’s jaunt to the “10 worst stations” in England. It’s almost like, now he’s the boss of his own department, he has been freed to emerge from the shadows.

He is clearly a talented and capable minister, unlike great swathes of the Cabinet. In truth, the nation should really expect no less. Ministers should either be competent at their job, or be sacked.

Sadly, the fag-end of this Labour government has taught us to have extraordinarily low expectations about the Cabinet.

It’s little wonder then that Adonis shines out as a a beacon of excellence within a den of ineptitude.

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Who Wants To Be A Headteacher?

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 17, 2009 @ 09:52

Apparently this makes sense to the educational organistion that own this logo...

One of the “most radical” reforms that the Tories are planning for government is the idea that any “suitably qualified organisation” will be able to set up a school. Any kind of school. Infant, junior, primary, a middle school, a secondary, or one of those rare beasts, all of the above.

Not my words, those of David Cameron in today’s Times.

What makes these reforms so radical is hard to ascertain. For starters, one generally probably shouldn’t save one’s most radical reform for the eighth paragraph.

Secondly, thanks to Labour’s appalling school academy system, almost any organisation with the cash can already found an educational establishment. And, in a classic case of Labour’s principles being available to the highest bidder, this gives them the right to influence the curriculum. Hence the “creationist academies” founded by Sir Peter Vardy. Perhaps Cameron’s reform will allow even more such insitutions to arise. I can hardly wait. But since it’s happening already, again, it can’t possibly be “radical”.

And thirdly, the whole plan is very big on vision but short on detail. All we ever hear is that it will copy “the Scandinavian model”. We are also supposed to be reassured that such an apparent oasis of lefty-liberalism engages in such decentralised, individualism, with a large dose of healthy competition inspired by the free market. And yes, we’ll just forget that they tax and spend a lot more on schools per capita than we do. That’s not important…

But finally – and here’s what makes me sceptical – where are these great hordes of people across the land that are waiting to be freed by the state into launching their own schools? Cameron and Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove frequently frame the debate in terms of giving parents the power to set up their own schools. But do these people actually exist?

Are there that many parents out there that are so horrified at their child’s education that they would grab a bunch of like minded people and jump through the necessary hoops to get an alternative school up and running? And what about the fact that the time it takes to do would probably be too long for their own child to benefit anyway?

Furthermore, what kind of people are they? Are they middle-class pushy parents with time to kill? And are these not the people favoured by the current education system anyway?

The answers to these hypotheticals are obvious. The middle class already know how to work the system. They already know how to feign a faith in order to get into the nice Catholic school. They already know where to buy houses to land in the catchment area for the good schools.

As usual, the people who will not benefit are those who greatly need it. Try as you might, it’s hard to imagine the council estates rising in revolt against their local comprehensive to start their own alternative, providing a meticulously designed curriculum to teach the children to rise up, aspire to something better and escape the poverty and squalor of their current existence…

Sorry, Dave. This is just one of your “policies” that isn’t based in the real world.

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