Sunday, 25 September 2016

The media political commentator reflects on a great year attacking Corbyn

The media political commentator has a great year and jots down his record for what he's said and done this year:

"1. Attack Corbyn day and night.
2. Support leadership challenge.
3. Support Owen Smith.
4. Carry on attacking Corbyn
5. Corbyn wins.
6. Say that Smith was never going to win anyway.
7. QED - as a commentator I'm really credible and wise."

Friday, 23 September 2016

Evidence on last year's SATs for whoever wants it

Below is the evidence I sent into the National Association for the Teaching of English when they called for comments on last year's SATs. I notice that the Select Committee on Education is now calling for evidence too.

I offer my testimony below to anyone who wants to use it in any way they like.

(One area I have missed out in the testimony below, is the fact that children who used a comma or semi-colon in the right place and broadly of the right shape, could receive no mark, if the comma was the wrong angle, the semi-colon was too big. I have recorded this in detail in an earlier blog. The effect of these right punctuation but supposedly wrongly positioned or angled punctuation was that borderline passes became fails. This could have the effect of a school being not 'outstanding' or not 'satisfactory' and therefore suitable for forced conversion.

Let us picture the idiocy of that: a school has to be turned into an academy (which will not necessarily make it better) because a child correctly put a comma where it should be but drew it 'wrongly' angled. This is education 2016!)

Below is the evidence I gave to NATE:

I observed at close quarters the way the tests worked as one of our children is 11 and was doing the tests.

1. The booklets that schools use to train the children to do SATs have mistakes in. Some of these arise out of the fact that the terminology used in the GPS test keeps changing and the people who produce the booklets or the schools can't keep up with the speed of change. It is pointless for the authorities to say that they have produced a glossary to clarify things when schools are squeezed for budgets and need the booklets quickly. 

The booklets contain mistakes in how questions are worded. So, for example, I noticed that one of the questions had two possible answers. Close observation of previous years' tests showed that this was the case in the tests themselves. 

2. One of the systems the tests use is multiple choice. The people designing the tests must be aware that this poses the so-called 'plausibility of the distractor' problem. This means that one multiple choice question does not necessarily have the same weight as another. One multiple choice question can have very plausible distractors ie three alternatives all of which could be true, while another mcq could have implausible alternatives. The marking of an exam can't distinguish between these. This applies to the GPS tests and makes them less valid.

3. There are non-grammatical elements in the GPS test, most notably questions about antonyms and synonyms. These have no grammatical content and are simply in the test for historical reasons. 

4. The antonym question this year was for the word 'fierce'. This emphasised the incorrect and pointless use of words ripped from context. There is no antonym for 'fierce' when it is taken from context as exemplified by such variant usages as e.g. a fierce argument, a fierce storm, a fierce speech and - more recently a fierce singer like BeyoncĂ©. 

5. The terminology for types of sentences is one example of how GPS terminology is problematical. So, this kind of grammar classifies sentences into four types. (This in itself is highly questionable). One of these types is called by GPS a 'command'. However, behind this definition is the need for this sentence to include an imperative form of the verb. In the questions on this, the child has to choose which of four is a 'command'. However, at least one of the sentences in last year's test included the modal 'must' which in common usage is of course a 'command'. In other words, 10 and 11 year olds are asked here to reject their common sense of the word 'command' - which is, after all, knowledge about language - in order to select one specific usage as a means of spotting the imperative.

6. Several of the terms that are compulsory for GPS are highly specific terms and it is not clear why they have been included e.g. 'fronted adverbial', 'determiner'. The term 'fronted adverbial' is clearly a 'fuzzy' term as it seems to apply to phrases that are essentially 'adjectival'. It also complicates matters concerning differences between single words (ie adverbs), phrases (ie collections of words that have no verb) and clauses (ie collections of words that include some verb form or another not necessarily finite). 'Determiners' has created a new layer of classification over and above 'articles' which now includes such words as 'every' and 'each' but no one can decide if it includes numbers. In other words a category has been introduced which has no clear boundaries and it is by no means clear how it is useful.

7. Some of the punctuation that is considered right or wrong is clearly not right or wrong. The Oxford or 'serial' comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. This was a question on this year's paper. The commas re distinguishing between defining or non-defining relative clauses have become redundant in many accepted places. 

8. The requirement that 'exclamations' must begin with 'How' or 'what' and include a finite verb is clearly an absurd use of the word 'exclamation'. 

9. The GPS test continues to use language ripped out of context, artiificially constructed sentences, which creates a curriculum spent looking at language that children do not read, write, hear or speak. This is a major problem. Language belongs to all of us, not to the people who devise such sentences and such usages. The sub-text to this seems to be concerned in prescribing such sentences as 'ideal'. However, written language is much more diverse than this, as expressed through poetry, adverts, brochures, notices, bulletins, emails, texting, song lyrics and much more besides. If the purpose of these tests is to reveal the grammar of written English, it fails on that count alone as it does not reveal the variation in grammar of the varieties of written English. There are text books on this. I referred to them in my talk at NATE two years ago. 

10. All language is in context. There is always a context for all language. The context for the language of the GPS is the fact that it was not introduced because of the intrinsic properties of grammar, or grammar-teaching. It was introduced for the sole reason that a tests in grammar supposedly produces right or wrong answers. This is stated quite clearly in the Bew Report (2011) which is the sole justification for introducing this test. This point was an add-on to the Bew Report after the April interim report and was added on without a single academic reference piece of evidence. The test was solely designed to test teachers not children as it came under a brief to report on 'accountability'. The idea is that teachers' are tested on their ability (or not) to teach GPS. This is the true context for this particular use of language. In other words, the grammar is twisted into absolute alternatives in order to fit the requirement to be right or wrong. This is precisely where Nick Gibb fell down in the famous Martha Kearney interview. To all intents and purposes he wasn't wrong, it was the test that was wrong. Gibb 'wobbled' over whether 'after' was a preposition of subordinate conjunction when this is a matter of dispute between linguists themselves, as evidenced by Geoff Pullum's comments on the matter. There is no reason other than the test's requirement to produce right/wrong answers for this to be an absolute matter of being a subordinate conjunction or preposition. 

11. There is a further problem concerning the sole use of this kind of grammar as a way of describing language. Essentially, it's a system to describe language that is derived from meaning and structure. However, at least as important a determinant is what might be called 'social function' or 'use in context'.  The reason why the terminology changes or varies is because ultimately this kind of grammar is self-referential. It can only keep referring to itself in out of context situations. This is why ultimately there is no resolution to the subordinate conjunction OR preposition argument. Again, when terms like 'command' or 'exclamation' are used, these are words that refer to social function and yet the 'grammar' requires specific grammatical structures for these terms to be valid. This is a confusion and trivialisation of language use. There is a serious and useful discussion to be had with children about 'ways of commanding' or 'ways of exclaiming' and examining the differences in tone and meaning in these. Reducing it to tick-boxing particular forms of the verb or sentence is virtually useless in terms of language-use. 

12. Talking of language-use, the most pernicious aspect of all this is the effect it is having on children's writing. In the exemplification required for e.g. 'working at the required level' many of these GPS features have to be obeyed. The consequence for all this is that we are arriving at 'writing by numbers' - teachers teaching writing according to the number of these grammatical features being included. Meaning, purpose and function have become sidelined. This is writing in order to fit an idealised picture of correctness rather than concentrating on how to interest, excite, persuade and convince. The core basis of what in fact was the classical education (!) ie 'rhetoric' has been dropped. Ironically, in the rush for 'core knowledge' (in this case, 'grammar') another aspect of traditional core knowledge (rhetoric) has been dropped. 

13. Historically speaking, it is quite clear that other ways of examining language have been trialled and these tests represent a rejection of these. So in the early 1970s, the Schools Council, representing hundreds, if not thousands of teachers, teacher-researchers and academics, working with M.A.K. Halliday, produced 'Language in Use' an extensive programme of 110 units involving school students of all ages investigating language in use. A teacher's booklet produced by Peter Doughty accompanied the units. This was and still is a model for how such work can be produced and then modified through practice. It is important to remember that GPS came from a completely different process: it was imposed through one stroke of the pen - a comment made in the Bew Report of 2011 and 'accepted' by Michael Gove. There is no evidence of teacher input and no evidence of knowledge of pedagogy involved. The knowledge of language that is embodied in the test is of one specific kind only. There is no evidence offered as to whether most children of this age really understand the terms being used, no evidence that it helps children write for a purpose. 

14. We urgently need to open up the discussion again as to what kinds of 'knowledge about language' are age-appropriate and useful in primary schools. 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Momentum for children is the only political event for children around? Oh please!

I've just posted this on the thread following Suzanne Moore's article about Momentum organising creches and events for children.

In the 1950s we sang Stephen Foster songs - many of which were actual or derived from 'N-word' minstrel shows and traditions see 'O Susanna...' which gave us the image of the idiot African American, along with 'Darkies [sic] Sunday School' and others.

One of my favourite books was called 'The Meeting Pool' and it was only when I picked up a book in Singapore on images of South East Asia in children's books, that I discovered that the representation of Chinese people in the book were entirely along the lines of all Chinese people being deceitful, sly and dirty. Coral Island is almost unreadable, Thackeray's poem about 'the Chinaman' (which I was supposed to learn off by heart) is absurdly nasty. One of my favourite poets, Edward Lear, relies a great deal on the idea that foreign words and names are of themselves necessarily absurd, odd, or just intrinsically funny. Spike Milligan - someone else I adored - assumed that all people in India or Pakistan were absurd and/or funny just because of the way they talked and that he was entitled to take the mick because he was born in India. I won't even start on the representation of disabled people, Jews and of course the whole of womankind largely restricted to domestic roles, or waiting for lovers to turn up.

When such things were raised in the early 1970s, we were inundated with a torrent of mockery and abuse about such things being 'politically correct' but truth to tell, between 1700 until quite recently, it's clear that children's books "contributed to" an 'ordering' of society into hierarchies in relation to men and women, upper class, middle class, working class and vagrants, white and black, British versus the rest, and so on. Of course, not all people accepted that ordering and plenty of us had parents who would point out such things even as we read them...or put alternatives in front of us.

Books we regard as 'classics' like 'Children of the New Forest' - in its full version is a highly political examination of the two main strands of Protestantism in and following the Civil War and how they might or should unite rather than fight each other but of course also has to deal with the legitimacy or otherwise of the monarchy. Is there any important reason why you get the blind spot from a blind, lame person and the great existential threat to Peter Pan comes from someone who's got a 'hook'? Long edited out is the Blyton version of the doll story where the black doll desperately wants to be white. Dahl was wise enough to modify the Oompah Loompahs from their original form as 'pygmies', prior to 1939, there was hardly a children's book which simply showed working class people living their lives without being beset with drunkeness, thieving or violence. A look at the boys' magazines 1880-1920 is an unrelenting tale of British might and right, over 'fuzzy-wuzzies'.

Back in the classroom in the 1950s, it was the height of the Churchill cult, my local authority primary school had a 'Churchill House' along with Fleming, Bannister and one other, as if Churchill was a non-political figure!

If you want to know how 'political' children's TV is, then remember when 'Playschool' (which I worked on in 1971) had black presenters like Floella Benjamin, they were inundated with foul racist abuse. The initiative to have Flo was itself political - one that I would agree with - and people who opposed it saw it that way too and hated us for it. Of course it was a conscious move to say, 'this is who we are', even as Enoch Powell and others were saying 'hell will break out because this is who we are'.

None of the above is an argument for censorship or banning. I'm not going there in this post. It is simply to say that the argument that Momentum for children is somehow some uniquely political initiative is a nonsense.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

More news from the land of purges in the Labour Party

This is NOT my story. It's by someone who put this post up on Facebook.

"So I've been given the boot from the Labour Party for 'inappropriate comments' on social media. People employed by Labour have been through my Facebook and Twitter and cite one tweet over 18 months ago (before I was a member) where I call Tristram Hunt a "f**king tw*t" during the Andrew Marr show. The tweet received no likes or retweets so I am essentially being expelled for shouting at the TV.
Meanwhile Labour MPs are allowed to openly attack Corbyn and us supporters calling us all sorts - bullies (Angela Eagle), anti-Semites and Nazi apologists (John Mann), in need of heart transplants (Blair) and Jess Phillips wants to stab Jeremy Corbyn in the front. I could go on.

On Thursday social media was full of Labour MPs cheering on Tory MP Ann Soubry calling John McDonnell 'a nasty piece of work'.
Then there's Owen Smith ally and former Blair spin doctor, John McTernan who, after being asked to tidy his desk at work, threatened a junior member of staff saying "C*nt, you will be c*nted" in a reply-all email to the office.

Tristram Hunt, is amongst other things, the man who told Oxbridge students that 'the top 1 per cent' must take back the leadership of Labour.
He and his like have spent the last year not politically engaging but plotting, scheming and using every lever they still have a hand on in the party and the media to character assassinate Corbyn and his supporters. They have hired PR companies to bad mouth him, they have banned branch meeting of the membership who overwhelmingly support him.

Yet in a hangover haze I say, in simple accessible language, what millions think to no one on social media and I get kicked out.

I probably shouldn't have chosen the expletives I did to describe Tristram Hunt, but I don't see them purging the right for the same thing.

Here's another example of who Labour is purging

"My daughter Rachel has just been expelled from the Labour Party. She can't apply to rejoin for five years. She is a full member of the Labour Party. She has never been a member of any other party.
She retweeted two tweets from the Green Party:
*one saying the Greens supported the striking teachers in the recent NUT strike. Rachel was on strike.
*the other was the funny video with the kids acting as Tory ministers.

This purge is beyond ridiculous."

from Alan Gibbons, writer, campaigner (also purged).

Friday, 16 September 2016

We weren't 'taught' to despise those who failed, we imbibed it through hint, gesture and rumour

Every day at primary school we were told who would pass and fail, we were 'placed' in class according to our positions in the tests, 
we were told that the 'other' class would all fail, 
we developed a sub-culture that feared local famous kids we knew as 'dangerous' (on no basis whatsoever), 
we knew that many families had a reward/no reward system (usually a bike) for kids who passed/failed, 
and a hundred other signs and gestures and attitudes and rumours. 

All I have to ask myself is how those of us who passed would typify those who would fail, and a put-on cockney voice comes to mind, and a supposedly 'thick' or 'dumb' way of thinking. 

Ironically for me, at precisely that moment (1957) my dad was teaching dockers' children in Walworth Comprehensive saying how brilliant they were at performing 'Antony and Cleopatra'!!!

I was 'taught' to despise or fear those who fail - education the grammar school way.

Those of us who went to grammar school were taught (even if we didn't necessarily accept it) to fear or despise those who failed. This also had an effect of despising or fearing the part of yourself that failed or might fail. These feelings and thoughts can last for the whole of your life. They are what Raymond Williams called 'structures of feeling' and can be as much part of what we usually call politics or history as The 1832 Reform Bill. 

There were no mechanisms within the system that I went through to pay even token respect to the idea that the human race is made up of people with different kinds of abilities, or even that, every person has a range of abilities and capabilities, or that these can change over time. 

It was all very binary - 
heads people/hands people; 
All very handy for the system. 
Not good for people.