03 Nov 2012
Not Me Guv!
You will recall the ghastly fracas over the disparities in English GCSE results this summer. Ofqual’s final report http://www.ofqual.gov.uk/news/poor-design-gcse-english-exam-grade-variations/ on the sorry mess makes depressing reading. It seems to say that, on the one hand the English GCSE system is a good system but it does have flaws and also that teachers only marked up their pupils because they felt that schools nearby would do so. It is an exercise in ‘not me, guv’-ism and buck passing.
Anyone who has attempted to teach the English GCSE syllabuses will, by now, have given up any hope of finding a rationale behind them.
It can’t be justifiable to blame teachers for marking their pupils higher than, perhaps, they should have done. If grade boundaries are so flexible – despite the mind-numbing ‘assessment objectives’ – and if moderators can mark up or down on a whim or a rumour, then no absolute standards are expected or demanded and, in the end, if an exam board, an examiner or a teacher decides that writing your name correctly is enough to gain you a grade C GCSE then who’s got the right to complain?
This so-called ‘assessment’ is in terminal disrepute. Far more importantly, it has nothing to do with education. GCSE English candidates should be reading, discussing, speaking out, discriminating, debating, listening, analysing and thinking. It is time to agree ways to facilitate that rather than concentrating so much time and effort on meaningless assessment.
29 Oct 2012
Are we allowed to brag?
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29 Oct 2012
Those Who Can, Do; Those who Can’t, Tinker
The hyperactive Michael Gove is introducing new tests in English, maths and reasoning to be taken by those who wish to train as teachers. This 11+ for teachers has to be, in many ways, a good thing although it may well not raise the bar high enough to exclude those who are plain ignorant. (We wept last week over a nine-year-old whose teacher had told him that the ‘AD’ in 32AD stood for ‘After Death’.)
On its own, though, it can’t achieve much. If – like the 11+ to which it is so similar – it enables the successful candidate to enter an elite – in this case the teaching profession – then it needs to be accompanied by those things an elite has a right to expect. These include, above all, respect and an acknowledgement from government that able, dedicated, and energetic teachers understand better than anyone what is needed in schools – and what is not.
Up the calibre of teachers – yes – but then please, Mr Gove or whoever else is in charge – let them run their own show for a while and stop the endless destructive ideological tinkering.
22 Oct 2012
Damned lies and statistics
“Oxbridge admits more Etonians each year,” snorts The Independent on Sunday (21st October 2012) “than applicants from the whole country who qualify for free school meals.”
Wow! I’m glad to know that! Amazing! Changes my life.
What, in the end, do statistics like that tell us? That privilege is entrenched in our education system? Hardly news. That top public schools are better – via centuries of experience – at preparing their alumni for entrance to top universities and, yes, even at pulling the odd gold-threaded strings? Really? That, as the old adage has it, “To those who have, it shall be given”?
The danger with daft and mildly huff-puff-inducing stats like this is that they induce faux outrage about Etonians while deflecting attention from the life-chances of those on free school meals. Children on free school meals have only that in common – a lack of funds. They won’t be at public schools – save, possibly, for a small number of those very few on 100% bursaries. Most, probably, are at schools when only a minority get a decent number of GCSEs because, largely, aspirations and expectations are so low.
Isn’t that the key? The parents of Etonians expect their children to achieve and will be waving cheque books in fury if they don’t. The parents of those at the bottom of the pile, however devoted and assiduous they may be, are often devoid of opportunities, aspirations and, crucially, information about the very real life chances their children could have.
If the culture in a school or a community dictates hopelessness, how does an individual crawl out? Over and again, our comprehensives invite parents in for information and careers events and a handful turns up. Perhaps we should be looking at these being mandatory – like the obligation on parents to ensure their children attend school.
Parents of Etonians understand the system. Let’s start educating the parents of the rest.
20 Oct 2012
Who Do We Think We Are?
The poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20005342 has criticised what is taught as history in our schools. “The reality is,” he said this week, ” for young black kids in school, the majority of them know that when it comes to history, especially the history that includes the Caribbean and Asia, we have only got half the story. That’s why all over Britain in our communities we have classes in people’s front rooms and community centres teaching us the real black history.”
Who Do You Think I Am?
He raises an interesting question. We all have history. A country as diverse as ours can probably, if we traced back the personal history of all our citizens, encompass the entire history of the human race. For those of us who avidly watch Who Do You Think You Are on the TV, it is wonderfully clear that everyone of us has history and it is all fascinating.
Sadly, we can’t teach it all. So how do we decide what comprises the history every rounded adult in the UK should know? Most children are brought up on a diet of The Tudors, Queen Victoria (how often they confuse her with Queen Elizabeth I!) and the two World Wars. But, given that we have to select from a vast history of us all and the world, is this the best we can offer them?
So What Is History For?
What, perhaps is the question, is history for? I offer two ideas: one it is to excite our curiosity and to make us want to know more history. It should therefore, be exciting, full of stories and healthily addictive. In that sense, it doesn’t matter too much what the subject matter is though I would suggest that a history of world exploration is a fruitful subject to explore. Second, it should, it must, teach us more about ourselves. Not ourselves as black or enslaved or persecuted or patrician or as colonisers but as human beings – impoverished, suffering, exploited, resourceful, brilliant and triumphant. I offer up the Industrial Revolution. What would you suggest?
14 Oct 2012
Why Chinese? Why Not?
Economist Martin Jacques is currently very publicly making the case for a renewed look at modern-day China. He claims that we in the West have never ‘got’ China and persist in seeing it through western eyes and from a Western perspective. He, persuasively, makes the claim that a country of more than 1.3bn people ie one-fifth of the human race merits our careful attention and considered efforts at understanding its fundamental differences.
Do As I Do, Not as I Say
An aspect of the efforts he feels we should make – and his own 14 year-old son is making – is to learn Mandarin Chinese.
The task, he writes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19929620) , is formidable: you have to learn thousands of characters and a host of entirely unfamiliar sounds. It is estimated that it takes at least twice as long to learn as a European language. The language is a metaphor for China. Understanding the unfamiliar requires a different mentality: rather than superiority, hubris and presumption, which have I think been the dominant Western attitudes towards China, we’ll need respect, humility and modesty. Will we respond to the challenge? The stakes could not be higher.
The challenge is not one to which we in the UK are accustomed. English has been the globally dominant language for centuries. Before then, if you knew French and Latin you could probably travel the known world and get by. This is not to suggest that English will decline as Chinese advances. But is Jacques right? Is this about language or this is, at least as much, about the need for us to encompass the differences somehow enshrined in a language more ancient than ours and deriving from a more ancient and multi-layered civilisation?
Modern Day Passport?
The study of modern languages – whatever Mr Gove, his predecessors or successors do – continues to decline steadily in the UK. As science grows in popularity – seen as a more productive passport to knowledge and employment – so languages dwindle. English will take you anywhere in Europe. Mandarin has been introduced here and there but, when it ceases to be compulsory, take-up is not enthusiastic. Should we now ditch the trad French/German/ Spanish model and bolt Mandarin onto the curriculum?
If not, why not?
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