Monday, March 30, 2009


This is our cat Jess (no prizes for guessing how she got the name). It’s been tough the past two weeks having to wear a collar. Jess got neutered.

She likes –

· Lying in the warm coals on the gas fire and getting covered in soot
· Eating spiders
· Hiding in cupboards
· Scaring rabbits (my daughter’s)
· Getting stuck at the top of fir trees
· Whiskas pouches
· Lying under duvets
· Hiding under parked cars
· Gazing out of the window at birds


Friday, March 27, 2009

Rote Learning?

The Rose Review of Key Stage 2 was reported in ‘The Guardian’. The use of selected papers to leak information has been standard practice under New Labour. Apparently, the education organisations that specialise in certain subject areas were only given three days for consultation on the final draft and the unions were ignored completely.

The primary curriculum is completely cluttered with so many subjects that some are not adequately covered, History only accounts for 4% of teaching time in primary schools.

As for the emphasis on rote learning, yes, it’s true that in some aspects of knowledge you can’t escape it, you just have to memorise French verb tables, German grammar or Chinese characters. There aren’t any short cuts. The old saying that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration is valid in many ways. David Beckham spent hours refining the art of bending the ball around a wall of players at free kicks.

However, I’ve taught children who memorised their times tables. The only problem was that they couldn’t apply them. Ask them 12 x 7, or to use it as an inverse in division and they were stumped. There was the infamous occasion in 1997 when the junior education minister Stephen Byers claimed that schools were falling down in the task of teaching children times tables. He was subsequently door-stepped by a reporter, ‘Minister what is 8 x 7?’, ‘Er… 54?’

Times tables are best taught through strategies 8 x 7? 2 x 7 is 14, double it and double it again.

I’ve got a similar problem with phonics, yes they are one important strategy in the process of learning to read, but our language is not phonetically consistent, you need other skills like reading in context and sight memory. In my experience the poor readers in upper juniors were the ones who could only use phonic strategies. As for whole class teaching, in Year One there are children who can already read fluently, they must be bored to death sitting in phonics lessons. Lastly, what about the joy of reading? Phonics reduces reading to a mechanical de-coding exercise.

Finally it’s good to see the some of the obsessive posters on the TES Forum are beginning to make a few comments that relate to the subject matter. Here are a few tips –

· Try to advance your own ideas rather than just carping and criticising. Keep to the high ground!
· Don’t use personal insults, it’s undignified, shows a total lack of class and you wouldn’t expect it from your pupils.
· Concentrate on quality rather than quantity.
· I’d like to see use of alliteration, metaphor and simile. Most of the writing is, to be frank, dull, repetitive and boring.

Good to see that there is, at last, progress. Some of you have a long, long way to go but keep trying; there are signs of improvement!

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The End of SATs?

There’s a report in today’s newspapers that the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) are both calling for a boycott of Key Stage 2 SATs in 2010. Is the day of liberation coming?

There’s a growing realisation that SATs tests are completely unreliable. The Qualifications and Curriculum authority (QCA) carried out a review of Key Stage 3 marking and found that 44% of grades in English writing were wrong, in reading up to a third were faulty and in science one in six.

The test results are used by Ofsted as an infallible guide to the quality of education in a particular school, Professor John MacBeath found that Ofsted inspection gradings directly correlated with exam results in 98% of primaries and 96% of secondaries.

The key stage 1, 2 and 3 tests cost £50 million in 2008, that’s enough to pay the salaries of 2,500 teachers.

So is it time to hang out the bunting? Both the NUT and the NAHT will come under pressure to retreat from a boycott. If there is a ballot I’m not confident that the NAHT will be able to deliver a majority vote. The NUT ballotted its primary school members in 2003, but whilst 86% supported a SATs boycott the turnout was only 34%. The other teacher ‘unions’ NAS and ATL have already waved the white flag and indicated that they would not join the boycott.

Amongst parents there is however a growing recognition of how useless the tests are, the NAHT carried out a survey of 10,000 parents, 85% thought that the present system of testing should be abolished and 71% wanted to see an end to league tables.

After the marking fiasco with the American company ETS the government were forced into a u-turn and the Key Stage 3 tests were abandoned.

It will be interesting to see how some Year 6 teachers cope, some of them will be like the long term prisoners who after they are released find it difficult to adapt to ‘life outside’. In Wales even though SATs were scrapped a majority of schools still used them for assessment. Doubtless Ofsted will still want to see test results.

Still, let’s dream dreams. If enough schools organised a boycott the national figures and league tables would be worthless and redundant. Hallelujah! A new day will dawn!


Rose Review, 'I see no testing'

Freeing up the primary curriculum? The Rose Review prescribes more rote learning, chanting times tables, dates from history and phonics. The spin doctors were dusting their magic over the plans because to give it a good media spin they included using Twitter, Wikipedia and spellcheckers.

The main problem in primary schools is the inordinate amount of time spent drilling children in English, Maths and Science. Why? Because that’s what children will be tested in, the results of which will be recorded in league tables, the place the school occupies will then decide if it fails its Ofsted inspection and in turn the career prospects of the headteacher.

The terms of reference of the Rose Review of the curriculum specifically excluded the testing culture and that fatal emphasis on ‘the basics’. Sir Jim had to ignore the elephant in the living room, the dinosaur blocking the dining room, the Komodo Dragons cluttering the kitchen or more accurately that enormous Blue Whale wedged in the bathroom blocking every ray of sunlight. So he failed to take into account testing, league tables and the grim Ofsted inspections; their baleful influence has all but stripped any element of creativity, imagination or joy from the primary curriculum.

The Rose Review is the Hutton Enquiry Mark II – limit the terms of reference and install a ‘safe pair of hands’ who won’t ask any awkward questions. Me thinks the bold Sir Jim has laboured and brought forth a veritable mouse.


Monday, March 23, 2009

BSF – the best thing since sliced bread?

I’ve received a comment posted by C. Ellams from Liverpool about BSF -

Could your attitude be anymore negative about one of the most exciting projects in this country? I am sick of people looking down, moaning about taxpayers money being used up, this is education for God's sake not nuclear defence so why do you oppose worthy use of the taxpayers money? It is expensive but history tells us the best does not come cheap, all great additions need large finical backing, the London metropolitan sewers, motorways and regeneration of Manchester to name a few.

Teaching is outdated in the UK, sat behind desks in classes of 30 originated as a regimental approach from the Victorian era. The new school designed by Aedas Architects in Kirby is one of the best in the country and there is no need for parents to worry about their children not running off without doing any work as this method of teaching has been tried and tested all over Western Europe, beyond this prior to opening this school had a truancy rate of 48% and since opening attendance is at 88% so something is right. How do I know this? As I am currently writing a dissertation on the BSF programme and have made extensive research into the BSF and I am aware of the negative attitude from the media but none more full of rubbish than this article.

Most schools will close but not until new improved schools are opened. As for the comments about Knowsley being abandoned by teachers, universities are producing a huge amount of teachers aware of 21st century learning techniques and not stuck to their chalk and blackboard.

Finally schools being turned into learning centres, Oh Dear what a disaster! As I type with sarcasm, this is to supply facilities to the community at all hours and our children's education will not be affected. New schools will offer fantastic facilities state of the art laboratories, ICT, teaching zones, local libraries and sports facilities. It would be senseless to deprive Kirby of these facilities that they significantly lack and could teach the unemployed skills that they so drastically require to work. BSF is a good thing it just needs time.

Well, good luck with the dissertation C. Ellams it sounds as though you’ve been talking to some of the Knowsley ‘consultants’, I wonder if you have spent any time with teachers?

You start with the usual consultant-speak, which is to employ that well-known debating tactic – reduce your opponent’s arguments to absurdity. So am I really opposed to spending millions of pounds on new school facilities? Amazing as it may sound, I’m not, the devil is of course in the detail.

That other default mode that the consultants always employ is that any one opposed to BSF is a Luddite and technophobe. This tactic was constantly used at the ‘consultation’ meetings with teachers.

Of course it is true that some people are resistant to change. On the other side you do need to try and take people with you and motivate them. At the start of BSF in Knowsley it was spelt out that poor results = crap teachers. Let’s just say that moral didn’t improve when all teachers were informed they would all get a P45 and have to reapply for jobs in the new ‘Learning Centres’.

Despite extensive national advertising only 8 people applied for 5 posts as ‘Leaning Centre Manager’ (a.k.a. ‘Headteacher’). One school recently advertised for a Head of English and got zero applicants. Knowsley’s attitude to teachers being made redundant was ‘Good Riddance!’ but now they’ve been forced to introduce a ‘bumped’ redundancy policy where teachers can retire early and the post will go to a Knowsley teacher.

So shiny new buildings, state of the art computers, what else do you need? Er, yes, teachers. Social class, ethnic origin, gender, parental help, they all impact on children’s learning but the most significant factor is the quality of the teacher at the front of the class.

And just how good are the shiny new BSF buildings? Has C. Ellams managed to find the report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment? They reviewed 40 designs and found that 80% were either ‘mediocre’ or ‘not yet good enough’.

The other implication is that use of computers and ICT in and of itself will improve children’s education. A book I’ve quoted many times is Larry Cuban’s ‘Oversold and Underused’. Effect use of computers depends on high levels of maintenance and excellent training for teachers. In Knowsley RM have been given the contract for ‘maintenance’. I have to smile. We have had a set of lap tops, for eighteen months, one of them has never worked, during that time RM and Knowsley have passed the buck between them – ‘not us try RM’ and ‘no, it’s Knowsley’. Wonderful.

In the original BSF material Knowsley extensively quoted the example of Bishop’s Park in Essex who had changed children’s learning experience by introducing a topic based curriculum and vocational courses. Look now and you won’t find it. Why? Because although Bishop’s Park serves a disadvantaged area test results were poor, they failed their Ofsted inspection, went into special measures and are now facing closure. How long will the Knowsley experiment last? Knowsley is already bottom of the GCSE table, poor results and we will be back to rote learning and testing. The Government are constantly threatening to sack the local authority and install a private contractor.

So, school or learning centre? No problem with either, it’s just that the other Knowsley mantra is ‘no change is not an option’. Interesting that, twenty years ago the old mutual building societies were told that they would have to convert to banks, ‘no change is not an option’. Just lending money for people to build houses was old fashioned. What’s happened since? They’ve had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

So, BSF? Demoralise the teachers, shoddy buildings and over reliance on computers. Yeah, ‘no change is not an option’.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

The rot of targets

We’re all familiar in education with the way that targets have completely distorted children’s learning, particularly during the testing years. Children lose all individuality and are converted into a ‘safe level 4’ or ‘borderline’. A marking review of SATs papers for 14 year olds by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) found that 44% of grades awarded in English writing tests were wrong. In reading up to a third and in science one in six.

Confirmation that the rot of targets has infected all public services was confirmed with the Stafford hospital scandal. In the pursuit of foundation status the hospital ignored patient care. One of the main targets they tried to achieve was patients moved out of Accident and Emergency within four hours. Patients were transported to a ghost ward, purely to massage the figures. It’s estimated that hundreds of patients died due to lack of care.

What is worrying is that no one within the hospital blew the whistle, it was only when an unofficial patients’ group began to protest that an inquiry was launched. Hospitals used to be checked by Community Health Councils, they were abolished and replaced by completely toothless and ineffectual patients’ groups.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the horrendous crimes of rapist John Worboys led to a wider examination of how the police assess rape. In some London boroughs inexperienced police constables were given the job of reviewing cases. In many instances it wasn’t reported as a crime but as an ‘incident’. More experienced officers were working on massaging the car crime figures. Why? Because that was the most important target.

The furore over the Baby P case highlighted how social workers rather than spending time working with vulnerable children are hunched over a computer inputting data to satisfy the culture of targets.

Targets are a symptom of the way that New Labour want to micro manage everything, as though a minister in Whitehall can pull a lever and everyone will move to order. It doesn’t work.

In the wake of the Stafford scandal the government reassured everyone that most hospitals were putting patient care first. How do they know this? Er… because they are reaching their targets.


Sunday, March 15, 2009


A few weeks ago I went to a market research focus group, we were all primary teachers. The facilitator started by asking us to describe our best day or lesson. It really was quite inspiring to listen to all the examples. Sometimes the collective noun is said to be a ‘moan of teachers’, well, it wouldn’t have applied at the beginning.

As the evening progressed it moved on to hours, workload and ‘initiatives’. Interesting to observe that every teacher was working long hours and had no time for the latest government ‘initiatives’. The latest one is to try and get Newly Qualified Teachers to take a Master of Arts course. It is being run as a trial in National Challenge schools in the North West.

The first point is whether a highly academic course that takes hours of study is the best training for NQTs, bearing in mind that between a third and a half leave teaching within the first five years. Workload and behaviour are always cited as the main reasons for leaving.

It isn’t clear if there will funding for cover, but potential MA NQT students could have 10% of time to study, that’s in addition to 10% preparation time and 10% for being an NQT. The expectation is that experienced teachers will act as mentors, unpaid, but they may be able to gain credits towards their own MA.

Another previous ‘initiative’ was the Fast Track scheme which was meant to identify young teachers with potential to become head teachers, started in 2001 it cost £89 million and managed to get 176 recruits into management positions.

Training for NQTs varies widely between different councils, but in most cases the usual ‘inspirational’ Mr or Mrs Motivator trainers have replaced the colleges and universities who used to deliver it.

The government seem to only promote the ‘super-teacher’ model or join in the hunt for ‘failing’ teachers. What about the ordinary teachers who aren’t interested in promotion and don’t want to become head teachers?


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