Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Gove-Murdoch Curriculum sell-off scam

I've written about this before and made endless gags about it on twitter but this article - please read it all the way to the end - clearly points to an attempt by Michael Gove to alter the nature of schooling in England. There is a clear intention here to engineer a situation in which schools (Academies, actually) will be primed to buy in large parts of schooling from major corporations. The smokescreen will be 'modernisation' but the motive is profit, provided by the tax-payer. As the article below suggests, the hacking scandal has put Murdoch in the back seat and he must be cursing his luck looking at how his competitors eg Pearson are stealing a march. I suspect that we are due for an announcement from Gove and Cameron on the great techno-revolution that the Tories are going to bring to education and the presence of major corporations will be hyped up as the only way in which this could be made available to schools. This is of course a nonsense. With sufficient investment, government could easily pump up the present 'grids for learning' which are provided free into schools in their localities. Even the tosh that Murdoch et al might claim about the unique resource of News International newspapers overlooks the fact that the London Grid for Learning (provided free into every London school) provides absolutely free the complete archive of the Guardian-Observer going back to the 18th century. With local 'grids' there is the potential for these being run by teachers, ex-teachers and education professionals with no profit-motive dominating matters.  I suspect that in the next few years we will see strenuous efforts being made by major media corporations to smash the local Grids for being 'unfair' competition or some such. 

The schools crusade that links Michael Gove to Rupert Murdoch

The education secretary has close ties to Rupert Murdoch and would be a key figure if he attempts to move into the UK schools market
MIchael Gove
Michael Gove meets Rupert Murdoch frequently and is an enthusiastic backer of the ideas put forward by the head of his education division. Photograph: David Jones/PA
On a freezing November day in 2010, the education secretary, Michael Gove, turned out in east London to inspect a desolate stretch of dockside ground near City airport, where Rupert Murdoch had offered to build an academy school.
The cabinet minister was accompanied by Rebekah Brooks, then News International chief executive, and an entourage of other top Murdoch staff, including James Harding and Will Lewis.
Despite the unprepossessing venue there was no mistaking the company's enthusiasm for the project. Murdoch described himself in a speech as the saviour of British education, thanks to his company's "adoption of new academies here in London".
It was a high-water mark of the love-in between Gove, Murdoch and the Conservative government. Gove, a former Times journalist, had previously gone out of his way to flatter his own proprietor, writing that Murdoch "encourages … free-thinking".
Shortly after the Docklands visit, the phone-hacking scandal disrupted these close relations. News International's proposed academy was quietly abandoned. Newham council says nothing was subsequently done to fulfil Murdoch's promises.
But Gove returned to his pro-Murdoch theme last week, publicly attacking the Leveson inquiry, set up in the wake of News International's misdeeds, as a threat to press freedom. "Whenever anyone sets up a new newspaper – as Rupert Murdoch has with the Sun on Sunday – they should be applauded and not criticised," he said.
It was a reminder of the extraordinarily close links that still exist between publishing tycoon and Tory politician. One of Murdoch's long-term projects is what he calls a "revolutionary and profitable" move by his media companies into online education. Gove would be a key figure in any attempt to penetrate the British schools market.
The education secretary meets Murdoch frequently and is an enthusiastic backer of the ideas of Joel Klein, the head of Murdoch's new education division. Within a week of his promotion in 2010, the minister was at dinner with Murdoch, according to officially released details of meetings.
The atmosphere could only have been warm. Gove once sang Murdoch's praises in a 1999 Times column as "the greatest godfather of mischief in print" who possesses "18th-century pamphleteering vigour". He wrote that Murdoch "encourages … free thinking. His newspapers … are driven by public demand and the creativity of chaotic, cock-snooking, individuals."
Murdoch in turn was kind to his former employee. When Gove first arrived at Westminster in 2005 as a backbench MP, the Times topped up his salary with a £60,000-a-year column. His wife still works for the paper.
Murdoch's publishing arm, HarperCollins, also gave Gove a book advance in 2004, when he was first selected for the safe Conservative seat of Surrey Heath. It was for a history of an obscure 18th-century politician, Viscount Bolingbroke.
Puzzlingly, the book was never delivered. HarperCollins refuses to disclose the size of the advance and its size is not specified in Gove's register of financial interests. Asked if his advance should be returned eight years later, HarperCollins says Gove "is still committed to writing a book on Bolingbroke but obviously his ministerial duties come first for now". Gove will not comment.
At the Gove dinner on 19 May 2010, Murdoch was accompanied by his then right-hand aide in Britain, Rebekah Brooks. Brooks was also with the education secretary at a second dinner three weeks later, on 10 June, for what his department terms "general discussion".
In a subsequent speech to the National College for School Leadership, Gove singled Joel Klein out for praise. Klein was a US lawyer then running the New York school system. But Klein was also Murdoch's own favourite US educator. His clashes with the teachers' unions and his enthusiasm for academy-style "charter schools" had caught the tycoon's interest. Murdoch planned to hire Klein himself.
Gove told his British audience on 16 June that US reformers such as Klein were insisting on "more great charter schools … free from government bureaucracy" because they were "amazing engines of social mobility".
Within 24 hours of that speech, the minister was once more at the lunch table with Murdoch himself, again with Brooks in attendance and, according to the department, other "News International executives and senior editors", for "general discussion".
At the end of summer 2010, Murdoch formally hired Klein for $2m (£1.3m) a year, plus a $1m signing bonus, to launch what he called a "revolutionary, and profitable, education division". Murdoch bought Wireless Generation, a US educational technology firm, for $360m, and gave it to Klein to run. Murdoch's vision was that he would digitise the world's so far unexploited classrooms. He told investors: "We see a $500bn sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs." He envisaged some of News Corporation's large library of media content being beamed to pupils' terminals.
Gove seemed to be an enthusiast. He met Klein on 30 September 2010, before the announcement of his link-up with Murdoch. The Department for Education does not explain the circumstances, other than saying "more than 10 others" were present for a "general discussion".
The following month, Murdoch flew to London again, to deliver the Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies. He called for a revolutionised education system in the UK "that really teaches … In the last decades, I'm afraid, most of the English-speaking world has spent more and more on education with worse and worse results".
He boasted: "That is why so many of my company's donations are devoted to the cause of education – including the adoption of new academies here in London. There is no excuse for the way British children are being failed" .
Gove was with Murdoch for the celebratory dinner afterwards, along with Murdoch's son James and all his editors. And in the new year, Klein flew to England along with Murdoch himself for three days spent at Gove's department. He was "visiting UK as guest of DfE to explain and discuss US education policy and success", say officials. Gove was photographed visiting the King Solomon academy with Klein, who addressed a free schools conference. Gove dined with Murdoch, and with Brooks yet again, at a dinner hosted by businessman Charles Dunstone, an academy sponsor.
On 19 May, Gove breakfasted with Murdoch in London. The tycoon flew on from that meeting to address a Paris conference of internet entrepreneurs. This time, he went into some detail about News Corp's plans for educational technology. He and Klein had been touring educational projects around the world, in South Korea, Sweden and California. Schools were the "last holdout from the digital revolution" he said. "Today's classroom looks almost exactly the same as it did in the Victorian age …The key is the software."
"I'd expect in the next [few] months we'd be making some acquisitions," Klein told the Financial Times. "There's the willingness to put in significant capital."
He cited the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit producer of educational videos through YouTube, as an example of how technology could add value.
On 16 June, Gove addressed the teachers' college in Birmingham on strikingly similar lines, calling for "technical innovation" in the classroom. He cited the "amazing revolution" of iTunes U in publishing lessons online. The same night, he dined with Rupert Murdoch yet again.
Four days later, Gove returned to the theme in another speech, praising News Corp's new hiring, Joel Klein, and urging his audience to read an "excellent article" Klein had written promoting charter schools.
Murdoch himself, returning to London, spoke at a conference of chief executives. The Times recorded: "Mr Murdoch detailed a vision whereby almost all children would be provided with technology such as specially designed tablet computers. He said that through such advances, 'You can get the very, very finest teachers in every course, in every subject, at every grade, and make them available to every child in the school – or if necessary, in some cases – in the world.'
"Mr Murdoch said that News Corporation, parent company of the Times, would help to spearhead this change by growing its business in providing educational material. He said he would be "thrilled" if 10% of News Corporation's business was made up of its education revenues in the next five years."
On 26 June, Gove was at yet another dinner with Murdoch. He followed it up with the most explicit endorsement to date of News Corp's education project in an address to the Royal Society entitled Technology in the Classroom. He even held up for praise Klein's favourite model, the Khan Academy, which was "putting high-quality lessons on the web".
He said: "We need to change curricula, tests and teaching to keep up with technology … Whitehall must enable these innovations but not seek to micromanage them. The new environment of teaching schools will be a fertile ecosystem for experimenting and spreading successful ideas rapidly through the system."
Murdoch's education project now began to falter, however, because of the looming British phone-hacking scandal. In the US, voices began to question the links between Klein and contracts awarded by the New York education department to Wireless Generation, the technology firm acquired by Murdoch. Klein and Murdoch's education division lost a hoped-for new $27m contract with the New York authorities.
Klein himself was catapulted into a central role in the company's attempts to firefight the scandal. He flew over to London to the parliamentary committee hearings in July. While all eyes were on Wendi Deng as she landed a punch on the foam-pie thrower who attacked her 80-year-old husband during the televised session, few noticed the dry legal figure sitting just behind her.
He now plays a key role in controlling the controversial management and standards committee (MSC) that is house-cleaning at News International by handing over journalists' incriminating emails to the police.
Until Murdoch's UK operation has been fully cleansed of its hacking toxicity, the way will not be open for Klein to resume his education projects, and his formerly close political links with Gove. But the end of the process of "draining the swamp", as one MSC source put it, may now be in sight.
Invited to respond to these issues, a Gove spokesman declined to comment.

Boris Johnson dodges his own flak

 This is how the London Evening Standard (otherwise known as the Evening Boris) reported Boris Johnson's plans for London trains:

"29 June 2012

Boris Johnson today launched his bid to take full control of London's suburban rail services.

In one of the most audacious power-grabs of his mayoralty so far, Mr Johnson wants control over rail franchises so he can lower fares and allow the Oyster scheme to be used on the whole network.

City Hall today said that by taking control of just two franchises, £100 million could be saved over 20 years. The Mayor eventually wants to control all suburban railways and introduce a one-ticket system across Greater London. At present rail services are provided by several private companies under franchise agreements with the Government.

Mr Johnson, who says the existing system is inefficient, has said the “devolution of power” to City Hall would lead to lower fares.

The plan would put him in charge of key commuter routes from outlying areas, allowing him to award the franchises and have a greater say on how lines are operated. "

Can this be the same Boris Johnson who described the BBC as  "statist" and "corporatist" ? Or is that another Boris Johnson? 

Thursday, 28 June 2012

How to carry on stopping them asking questions

From the rest of my reading of the Draft Primary Science Curriculum, I find that the first time anything resembling a real experiment appears is in Year 5. (Perhaps  I missed something. It's hard to stay attentive to every word. The document makes no concessions to the easily-bored reader.)

No matter, as I understand it, according to the wisdom on show in this document, children should not have a chance to create experiments to test their questions and 'what ifs' till they are aged 9 and 10.

I am hoping that the science community, the science education community is going to blow this stuff out the water - or laugh it into touch. Or perhaps they're thinking of ignoring it to death.

Here's the moment when these great sages think that experiments can begin.

" In Year 5, pupils should be planning investigations, including recognising and 
controlling variables where appropriate; for example, a fair test of factors
influencing solubility might involve varying mass of sugar and temperature of
water to test how these variables influence time taken for sugar to dissolve.  
They should be taking measurements using a range of scientific equipment,
with accuracy and precision; using stopwatches: seconds (s) and minutes
(min); using a thermometer:  temperature in degrees Celsius (°C); mass in
grams (g); and volume in millilitres (ml).  They should record their data using
e.g. scientific diagrams and labels, tables, bar and pie charts or models, and
report their findings, including written explanation of results, causal
explanation and conclusions.  They should be presenting their reports in
written form or as displays or presentations, and using their results to make
predictions for further tests."

How to stop children asking questions

An insight into the government's thinking on science can be discovered here:

the Draft National Curriculum for science for key stages 1 and 2.

Once again, it's been produced by those tired old government favourites Cabal and Diktat ie an anonymous group of experts, and issued as a directive. Throw out all those nice liberal-sounding statements from Nick Gibb about the end of top-down instructions from government. These documents are more top-down than the lift in the Empire State Building.

Again, I hesitate to be drawn into arguing about the 'what' of the documents because that gives in to the notion that Cabal and Diktat are the ways to deliver ideas about what to teach and how. It's the very process of Cabal and Diktat that is the problem not the exact detail of what's in the document.

That said, one thing caught my eye:

From 'Notes and Guidance' to 'Programme of Study' re 'Plants' for Year 2 children. (6-7 year olds)

" Please note: pupils are not conducting a fair test or predicting what they think will happen; 
tests are purely for gaining knowledge and evidence about conditions for plant growth."

This led me to look back at the processes that are being taught according to the document. They are describing, observing, 'being taught to explain', acquiring 'knowledge', learning names, identifying, 'distinguishing between'. 

I read this as a fairly explicit direction to teachers to say that children under the age of 7 are not capable of learning through questioning, investigating, discovering, predicting and testing hypothesis. In short they must either be told ('taught to explain') or put in front of objects and phenomena and told to describe, observe, identify and name.

What can we say about this?

It supposes a model of the child as someone who should be prevented from doing what children have been doing since they were born: ie to experiment with the environment around them (material, cultural, emotional etc) trying out hypotheses ('what if...'), seeing if they hypothesis works or not and then behaving accordingly. From the first suck to get sustenance to the time they are sitting in this Year 2 classroom, vast amounts of the children's time will have been spend doing this. But curiously and amazingly in the a key part of the curriculum where these means of acquiring knowledge could be put into a more formal set of practices (yes, describing, observing etc) they've been banned!

Many teachers will of course ignore such nonsense and carry on doing experiments with cress seeds, snails, water, sand or whatever and these experiments will be very much to do with asking questions, wondering what might happen, looking at what actually does happen, coming up with explanations of why the 'what I think will happen' does or doesn't match the 'what did happen' and so on.

However, sadly, there will be the people I will label as 'instrumentalists' or 'mechanists' who will indeed obey these government instructions and the children will be the losers - but not all children! Just those children who come from homes where parents don't have the time or the know-how to spend time speculating and testing those speculations whether that's through cooking, growing things, looking at stuff on beaches or whatever.

Yet again, a piece of dull government thinking, applied to education ends up as a means by which the children least pre-prepared for education get the roughest deal, the most meagre of educational fare.

Needless to say this 'National' document isn't 'national', it's for England only. It's not for all schools. It's only for 'maintained' schools. So private schools, academies and free schools will probably ignore this rubbish and get on having a really lovely time wondering what might happen if they put bulbs in cupboards, put cress seeds on flannels with pictures of faces, joining up bits of wires...and of course collecting children's questions about the world around them and seeing if people can figure out ways of answering them.

David Attenborough tells the story of how, as a boy, he used to come home from country walks with bits of bones and stuff and ask his dad, who was a GP, what they were. Instead of answering, his dad would say that he didn't know and then say to young David, I wonder if there is some way in which 'we' can find out. And they would scurry through books and drawings (no internet in those days of course) to see if they could find out.

In that anecdote is a profound educational principle: do we have any questions? how can we find out?

Tell me otherwise, but I couldn't see such a principle at work anywhere in the section for Key Stage 1.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Why universities close down courses: my experience

I have worked in higher education for nearly twenty years, first by teaching a module I co-devised on children's literature in the Education MA at the University of North London, then the same module at the university UNL became - London Metropolitan. I then left London Met and devised a children's literature module on the MA in modern literatures at Birkbeck, University of London. Next step: I co-devised a whole MA in Children's Literature (critical pathway) and the MA in Children's Literature and Writing (critical and creative) for Birkbeck. 

This last course has taken in two cohorts of students. The first cohort will qualify this year, the second next year. And then that's it. There will no longer be the MACL and the MACLW at Birkbeck.

The reason why I left London Met and went to Birbeck was because the authorities at London Met refused to advertise the MA outside of the Education department. At the outset they advertised it across London schools and I had about 35 students. Then they said it could only be advertised within the university. That brought the numbers down to about 12. Then, they said it could only be advertised to those doing an Education MA which brought the numbers down to about 4 or 5. At that point I said thanks but I'm leaving.

I took it to Birkbeck because I have a huge respect for Birkbeck who have presented to thousands of people the opportunity to go to a first rate university at any point in their lives, part-time and after work. I've known people either studying or teaching there for a good deal of my life. 

Because the one-term option that I taught was doing well, I suggested that maybe the English Department could be the home for a full MA in Children's Literature, making it the only one in central London. It took about 18 months hard work to develop and get ratification but we started teaching the first set of students in October 2010.

The course is now being terminated. I will do whatever teaching and supervision and marking is necessary to see these two cohorts through their MAs. I feel personally responsible for having kicked off the idea of this MA in the first place and have put a good deal of myself into the idea that there could be a some kind of centre for the study and research of children's literature in Central London. The students themselves have devoted massive amounts of time and money into it too and it's vital that they have everything they need right the way through to the end. I will do all I can to make sure that happens.

I'm not 100% sure about exactly why the course is coming to an end and, to tell the truth, I'm not sure that the precise reason matters very much. The general one is what counts and that's economic. Either the university or the English department or both are strapped for cash. The Children's Literature course needs staff. The English department cannot provide teachers of children's literature  from within its existing staff, nor can it afford to take on new staff. Obviously, I can't teach it all myself (I don't mean physically, I mean it wouldn't be ratified even if I could!). 

I'm no expert on the financing of higher education. I suspect what has happened here is only a microcosm and/or another species of what is going on everywhere: financial constraints are causing courses to close. As it happens, this MA was 'profitable' partly because I'm not a full time member of staff with years of increments to my name. What's important here, though, is that was not a good enough reason to keep the course going. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The new Gove-levels: segregation is back

The Daily Mail has a scoop: it looks as if Michael Gove is planning on bringing back O-levels - a set of exams I sat in 1962.

Here's the story:

The rationale seems to be that if you set harder exams you raise standards. Is there any evidence for this? The key small print to look out for here is the fact that the intention is to create a two-track system. O-levels for those who are deemed O-level material and a CSE type exam for the rest.

And this is what it's all about really: even more segregation, an even more rigid way of building selection into education. Michael Gove knows that he cannot universally re-introduce the 11-plus exam that I sat in1957. He knows that research would blast him out of the water for it being such an unreliable predictor of the ability to access the school curriculum. So he brings it in by the back door. Any school admitting students who might not succeed in sitting a difficult O-level exam, would have to start streaming the students by 12 years old at the latest. In effect, this would re-introduce the 11-plus type exam - and its effects - within schools. And this wouldn't just be the 'setting' that occurs now. It would create what would be in effect two schools under the same roof.

Is there evidence that this 'raises standards'? Or does the evidence say that it just helps the bureaucracy of education attach labels and numbers to students?

But of course we also know that the earlier we label students, the more fixed and self-fulfilling these labels become. Children and students assume that being labelled failures is a matter of being told the truth about them as if they're saying to themselves:  'I've been told by an infallible system that I'm a failure, so I must be a failure.'

We should ask the Campaign for State Education and Professor Harvey Goldstein in particular to make a very loud noise about what the stats tell us on all this. I'm pretty sure that they won't confirm the idea that if you a) make exams harder you raise standards for the whole cohort; b) that creating segregation earlier than at present raises standards for the whole cohort.

Boris plays with the Education toy now.

I couldn't have predicted it better. Yesterday I posted here that education is treated by politicians and bureaucrats as their toy and today the news is that Boris Johnson, London Mayor, has pitched to Central Government, the idea that his office should have control over London's schools.

I sometimes think that politicians only survive because enough people have short memories and enough people are young enough to not know recent history. With stunning ruthlessness, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Hesletine abolished a legal,democratic entity, the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) against the wishes expressed through the ballot box and/or by opinion poll. The ILEA wasn't perfect - what authority, what institution ever is? But the great advantage of it from a parent's point of view was that it offered us a regional way of running schools. It's worth bearing in mind here that big cities with good transport links offer a very wide choice of schools to parents. The ILEA was committed to comprehensive education and did a great deal trying to support a massive change in the nature of London's schoolchildren.

When it was abolished, everyone in education and plenty of people in local government said it was crazy, it would increase costs massively by replicating services from one borough to the next, some boroughs would find it very difficult to run a whole education service, and that education would not be well served by the change. And guess what? It happened. In the London Borough where I lived, the borough was found to be too incompetent and corrupt to run education so it was put under the auspices of a trust, who quickly built a great set of facilities very near to other boroughs' great facilities. Some of these are now fast turning into white elephants (or is it the Marie Celeste?) because local authority education officers and staff are being fired by the score. Meanwhile, over this period several of the boroughs first abolished sixth forms inside schools, created sixth form colleges and are now reversing this, putting back the sixth forms which will presumably empty out the sixth form colleges.

And now up steps Boris Johnson with a plan that his office should take over education. Of course there are strategic reasons for this - which we all pointed out when the ILEA was abolished, but it should be remembered that this authority isn't as democratic as the ILEA whose members we chose at the London ballot box. There is at present no trained staff, no offices but then presumably that can all be changed by decanting borough staff to the centre (along with sacking even more).

Either way, it's easy to see that yet again education is a toy for politicians to bat around. And each time they do a bit of batting, there are enormous costs and we all - children, parents, teachers and non-teaching staff have to accommodate the politicians' grand schemes. There's something Napoleonic about it all. One thing that Napoleonism has got going for it though - it hasn't changed for 200 years!

Education is their toy

Here is a perfect example of how the problem with education is not so much in the 'what' but in its structure:

This is the story that there is a strong possibility that schools will return to the old 2-year A-levels system rather than the AS (for the first year) and A2 or A-level for the second.

There's a pattern here: ministers get into secretive huddle with hired trusties. Working with faceless, nameless bureaucrats they work up a new policy. They put it out to 'consultation' for a short period and then foist it onto schools. Many people argue about whether this or that element in the new policy is good or not; the policy stays in place for just about a generation of pupils and then the whole process starts again. No one takes the rap for either imposing this flawed policy in the first place, a layer of advisers and policy-writers make quite a nice living out of it all but are in no way accountable. It is ruling without any responsibility. Another layer at the local level rush round 'delivering' the policy having had virtually no input. Teachers then pick up the documents and try to make them work.

At the heart of this is a major flaw: the structure. Because the policy hasn't emerged as part of how teachers and researchers work, education in this model is  a political toy.  So, under Blair-Blunkett, we had a regime that figured out that if they behaved like Tories but more so, then they were Teflon-coated. No one could reproach them for being 'liberal' or 'egalitarian'. So their era of playing with the toy was to spend millions on things like the National Literacy Strategy. This had a profound effect on a generation of teachers and children, changing both what was taught and how. Gangs of advisers helped write the stuff and it dominated schools for a generation of pupils. What happened to it? At the end of Labour's regime, the toy-makers said, 'Er...actually, it's been abolished.'

What? A regime announced itself to be non-functional? That its whole rationale was invalid? So who was accountable here? Who had to present themselves in front of any kind of democratic group to be asked, 'What was all that about then?' or 'Why did you tell us that was all so essential but now it's not essential?'

Absolutely nothing. The main architects of it were not even known to teachers and they've slipped away into consultancies.

How ironic that in a trade (education) which prides itself on accuracy, getting things right and proper, sticking to the rules, with high-minded stuff about what education does for you, their central policy-making process is run by cabal and diktat and when it suits those in power to change something, the old policy is disappeared and new one turns up.

There's nothing the policy-makers and those who are powerful in this system like more than for us to pore over the details and argue that this or that element is nearly right, or a little bit wrong, or could be tweaked. It plays perfectly into their hands because implicitly it cedes power to this useless structure. Without meaning to, it means that we end up acknowledging that this system has the right to do these things.

I suggest not. Even within the terms of this present society, it is a non-democratic anomaly. Because education is such a sensitive institution involving what politicians are certain is the micro-tuning of the next generation's imaginations, attitudes, 'skills-base' and 'knowledge-base' and because they think that what they say and do about education is so 'vote-sensitive' (get it right, win a million votes), they take control of the institution and play with it. 'Look at me, I play with it better than you. I've stuck this little twurzel on it, and now it's better.' And then along comes someone else who says, 'Look at me, I've taken the twurzel off and put on a tweezle.'

Then they hand it to us telling us that this is the way it's got to be.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

It's the testing regime that kills

This afternoon on twitter someone called (I think) 'blackadder' tweeted this quote from Einstein:

 "Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts."

I had a thought that every time you time you or I might criticise one test (SATs, or the Phonics Screening Check) you find yourself having to mount an argument purely and simply against that one test. In a way this misses the point. What has happened is that we've moved to a 'testing regime' and it isn't so much the faults of that single test that is the problem - though that test may be plenty problematic - it's the dominating presence of a testing regime. As I thought about it, I started tweeting. Here they are, collected together:

On the grounds that it's good to assess some things, they're trying to make education into something where you assess all things.

The fib about wall-to-wall testing is that it helps education find out what the learner needs. In fact its job is to produce failures.

The most powerful tool the testing regime has is that those being tested can't question whether it's OK to be tested.

The testing regime needs failures like the police need criminals. Finding failures is the power that the tester has to ensure compliance.

With the cyclical collapse in the jobs market, you'd think assessment would lose its rationale. No,it just means that even successes fail.

In the testing regime, success is bought from the failures just as the gambler wins from the losers' bets.

If you oppose the testing regime,you will be cast as someone who opposes all testing even if you insist you're not.

In testing regime, only the testable is tested.The untestable - like co-operation, compassion, courage in face of adversity are worthless.

The testing regime always denies that the permanent state of test-shaped learning is caused by the testing regime.

The testing regime weighs least on those who are in institutions which the state has designated as a corridor to power.

Capitalism can no longer guarantee that the successes in the testing regime will be given the same jobs that successes had in a previous era

Because there are no longer any guarantees in the testing regime anymore it's vital to blame this on those teaching and those being tested

In the testing regime, failure must be seen to be the fault of the individual and never the inevitable outcome of the testing regime.

Hidden from view in the testing regime are those who have a sense that the testing regime belongs to them.It exists for them.

Explanations for success outside of the testing regime are always held as mysterious: a special knack or magical ability.

Even when the success outside the testing regime has been based on the ability to exploit people's weaknesses,it's still held out as heroic.

In the testing regime, it is vital that the testers should be distant,mysterious,invisible, god-like, even tho teachers know otherwise.

Why they are making poor people poorer.

Debt crisis, debt crisis, debt crisis...but what is a debt crisis? Is it an inability to pay back the debt, inability to pay the interest on the debt, or is it an inability to make enough money to pay either or both?

1. Debt is never a problem to the creditor so long as you can 'service' it,. ie pay the interest. In fact, just the opposite. Interest payers are the perfect customers. The creditors' money 'works' (a nonsense but we just say it all the same ) and this earns the debtor his or her some income. Bigger the debt, the more interest, yum yum.

2. The moment a creditor isn't getting his interest from the debtor, he worries ('loss of confidence') or the moment he suspects he won't, he worries and starts to ask for 'guarantees' , tries to raise the interest rate or demands that the debtor go and find extra cash, eg by borrowing some more..and so on.

3. But why couldn't the debtor pay the interest? What was the problem? The problem was that his income wasn't sufficient.

That is the crisis.

So a bank's debt is caused by people not making enough profits and/or earning enough money to pay back loans. A country's debt is ultimately caused by a government not receiving enough in taxation to service the debt. The taxation comes from people being in work and capitalists' paying their taxes - an enormous amount of which they  avoid or dodge (tax havens etc)

4. The idea that there is a solution to this by making poor people poorer or taking away the basic minimum services that people need  (hospitals, schools, social services) (note: but not atomic and nuclear weaponry) is  either a lie or an illusion. In capitalist terms, all it does is restrict 'demand' ie make people less able to buy stuff that capitalists want to sell. However, there is a strategy that lies behind it: make 'costs' to capitalists so low, that they might start to consider making and distributing things again.

5. So a crisis in capitalism (ie now) is caused by capitalists not able to make sufficiently big profits to pay back the loans. In order to start making profits again, they have to make poor people poorer. This means disaster for millions. That's how business, the economy, capitalism works. It's in its structure, in its workings.

6. We have to decide if that's OK and should just accept that...or fight back where and how we can? And that 'we' isn't just where we live. It's all over the Europe, all over the world: Greece, Spain, Italy, wherever. We shouldn't be paying for the crisis the worldwide super-rich made.

Great idea for writing: "sequel problems"

At the recent conference of Reading for Pleasure at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE)

Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University did a presentation on 'Engagement' in reading backed by some fascinating research from all over the world, especially from John Guthrie at the University of Maryland.

She also presented some work by children from Glasgow writing letters to Cinderella. The scenario was this: Cinderella has got married and the Ugly Sisters write to her saying that they would like to come and stay with  her. Cinderella is going to write back. But what should she say? Should she let them? Or should she tell them  no? How should she write to them? Politely? Kindly? Or how? Saying what?

I've often done workshops where children or adults have written 'prequels' or sequels to poems, stories, plays, films - or indeed 'spin-offs' from moments within stories eg what do Hansel and Gretel think at that moment when they realise they have been abandoned and have no way of getting home? (I usually ask supplementary questions about what can they see, hear? what do they hope? what do they fear? what do they feel like? what do things around them look like?) Or what is the boy in the film White Mane (Crin-Blanc) thinking, feeling, wondering, feel like, see, hear, dream, imagine as he is being dragged along by the white horse that he wants so much?

But the work Sue Ellis showed was very special because it was problem/dilemma based. It posed a problem for the children to deal with, and they had to respond usefully and meaningfully to that problem but from within the logic, feeling, ideas and motives of the story. This involved precisely what Sue Ellis was talking about: 'engagement'.

So, this seems to me a very fruitful line to pursue. Perhaps you've done this many times. Apologies if you have.

Yesterday, in the workshop with secondary teachers at the English and Media Centre:

the teachers started to chew on the ideas around what happens after the end of 'Romeo and Juliet'? Maybe Juliet has a sister we didn't know about. And guess what? She's only gone and fallen in love with a Montagu. She tells  her mother, father and the Nurse. What do they each say to her? Perhaps in a letter? Or a speech?

I'm sure anyone reading this could pose similar problems which could or would generate interesting, 'engaged' and powerful writing, generated by the power of the original story, informed by its motives, characters, actions and feelings, giving the writers/students a platform to use for their own thoughts.

Best of luck with that. If you get interesting outcomes, do write to me, and I could post it up here on this blog.

Poetry workshop ideas: for your use

Yesterday, was an all-day poetry workshop with secondary teachers at the English and Media Centre

a fantastic centre for teacher-based practice and research that has produced booklets, courses, films, magazines, lectures since the 1970s.

In the workshop we looked at ways of reading and writing poetry.

Beginning with 'Overheard on a Saltmarsh' by Harold Monro, we used the strategies of asking questions that don't have right and wrong answers:
Is there anything about the poem that reminds you of anything that has happened to you in your life, or you know of happening in anyone else's life? Why? How?
Is there anything about the poem that reminds you of anything that you've ever read, or see on TV, in a film, at a theatre, in a painting or with any other art form. Why? How?
Are there any questions you'd like to ask of anyone or anything in the poem? Or the poet?
Can you answer those questions?
If there are some questions we can't answer, are there ways of finding answers to them? Or do they sit where they are as 'puzzles'? Why?

Poetry is a special way of stringing words and sounds together ('cohesion'). The strings are invisible. If we pretend to be 'poetry detectives' what strings can we find? Can we draw those on the poem itself?
They can be based on anything but might pan out to be based on eg sound (rhythm, repetition etc) or theme (eg through image) or 'meaning'.
'Strings' can be about items that are the same, similar or perhaps opposite in a binary way as opposites reflect each other.

All this was carried in the room in open discussion in pairs and in the group as a whole. There was no issue of anyone being right or wrong and we moved to and fro from personal experience to the poem and back again, approaching it from different angles simultaneously. No one's views were discounted. By the end, every word of the poem was examined.

Then we wrote poems based on the idea of writing from the point of view of someone or something in the poem. We could do this without waiting for any cues from me, or in the way of cues we could take a set of questions, the answers of which could serve as poem 'notes' to be turned into a poem

The questions were directed to the person or thing in the poem:
what can  you see?
what can  you see going on?
what can you hear?
what are you thinking?
what are you dreaming about?
what are you imagining?
what is it like being you?
what is it like being where you are?

You could perhaps add things like:
what do you hope for?
what do you fear?
what do you most want?

The answers to these questions can be played with:

Add more answers
Cut answers, cut parts of the answers if they have come out as too much like prose sentences.
Repeat elements in order to get rhythms and effects:
echo, framing (beginning and ending the poem), creating a refrain or chorus and so on.

After we had written poems we did a performance of 'Overheard on a Saltmarsh' and we chose when in the poem, we could read out, the new poems. So it became a montage of the original poem with all these new poems slotted in.

This proved to be another way of getting inside the original poem, exploring in particular point of view.

We then did a piece of quick associative writing (writing without the questions - first things that come into your head - based on either how the poem is written or what's in the poem. The poem I brought was a surrealist poem by Benjamin PĂ©ret 'Nevermore shall...'

This produced a set of poems that were very free, contemplative, mixing nonsense, absurdity with reflection.

Later we discussed:
what is poetry?
what's it for?
what does it do?
how does it do it?

Thanks to all the teachers who came and were so committed and professional. Thanks to the English and Media Centre for holding the workshop and continuing its fantastic work. If you teach in a secondary school, Sixth Form or upper primary, please, please use this Centre.

Phonics screening check: what we learned (1)

The phonics screening check told us:

1. Some children who are good readers will fail.
2. Some teachers were stressed by it.Some weren't.
3. Some children were stressed by the test.Some weren't.
4. Some schools prepared for the test by doing mock tests. Some didn't.
5. Some children were stressed by that. Some weren't.
6. Most teachers I heard from said that the test pretty well told them what they knew already.
7. Statistically, they are complete nonsense: to repeat - if 67/68% failed the pilot but about 80% of children learn to read, this test is a lousy predictor of which children will learn to read.
8. All centralised testing regimes end up being the means by which central government controls the curriculum. If you think that this control is benign, fine. If  you think that it has rarely been benign and in this time it is far from benign, then we're in trouble.
9. Millions of pounds have been spent on delivering phonics education and testing. This is based on research which shows that phonics delivers most children reading phonically (ie 'decoding'). However, phonics does not deliver children who read for meaning, or children who read for pleasure. There is no research to show that phonics delivers a higher score for reading for meaning at year 6 than using mixed methods. It's a scandal that phonics first, fast and only, policed by this test, has been rolled out for everyone on the basis of NOT achieving better scores for reading for meaning than the mixed method.
10. Why won't the government spend money on reading for meaning?
11. Why did Nick Gibb refuse to implement Ofted's recommendation that all schools should produce policies on reading for enjoyment? (His rationale was that central government doesn't like to ask schools to produce policies anymore! No, central government is just carrying on ruling by cabal and diktat, producing polices that must be obeyed (see Draft Primary English Curriculum) and the forced taking over of schools and turning them into academies (see Save Downhills).
12. Libraries are closing. There is no legal  requirement for schools to have libraries.

That's the environment of how schools relate to the printed word as of tonight.

The next phase will be when we hear the results and how these are interpreted.

Monday, 18 June 2012

My last replies to Tim Oates's letter

Tim Oates's reply
My final responses.

re my point 5 asking for evidence for:

. the idea that SSP applied 'first, fast and only' achieves higher levels of 'reading for meaning' by Years 5 and 6 than methods  using phonics  in conjunction with other methods. According to Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University, the SSP first, fast and only children are coming through achieving lower results for 'reading with meaning'.

What is crucial here is that I asked for evidence for 'first, fast and only' administering of phonics teaching. This is the process by which the only texts in class at this point are 'decodable ones, ones that are on one of the approved schemes, the bestselling one of which is Ruth Miskin's 'Read, Write Inc.' Ruth Miskin is also an adviser to the government on literacy. 

I don't see any answer to this point in Tim Oates's letter. 

That's to say there is plenty on the need for phonemic awareness. However, that's not the question I asked. I asked for evidence for 'first, fast and only' application of phonics. As far as I know there is no evidence to show that produces better results for 'reading for meaning' by the time the children get to Key Stage 2 (years 3-6, ie aged 7-11). 

No matter what the preamble says - which Tim Oates reminds us does talk about reading for enjoyment -  the hard sell is for phonics, and clearly makes no mention of children looking at books by themselves in Year 1. Ruth Miskin's courses in phonics make a point of not including non-decodable texts while children are doing 'first, fast and only'. 

Any management team looking at ReadWriteInc, and the Draft Curriculum could only reasonably conclude that this means eliminating ordinary picture books from Reception and Year 1 classes other than the ones that the teacher reads from TO the children.

Tim Oates has not answered this criticism in any way.

Finally my point 2 was as follows:

I asked for evidence for:
 the idea that primary children doing this kind of grammar helps them with writing or indeed any evidence that they understand it.

Once again, Tim Oates gives none. The key issue here is 'primary children'. I'm 100% in favour of teaching grammar in secondary schools. I insist there is no evidence that this helps children write. I believe that it's a reasonable and interesting subject to teach because language is one of the most important parts of human behaviour and grammar underpins how that behaviour is patterned.

I repeat there is no evidence that teaching grammar to primary age children either helps with writing or is understood by more than a handful of children. There is a very good reason for this as I've explained in earlier blogs: it's essentially a highly abstract set of concepts, full of exceptions most of which have no logical explanation. Children are immersed in language as a system that appears to 'refer'. Grammar considers language as a system at least in part separate from this referring function. That's what's difficult about it. 


All in all, I don't think Tim Oates has defended the curriculum very satisfactorily at all. He hasn't provided evidence for the real matters I asked for evidence for and he has misunderstood how this Curriculum will be enacted. 

I believe the issue of authorship of the Curriculum is a scandal. It seems to me to be outrageous that a document claiming to offer authority and wisdom on behalf of children, to be delivered by the country's teachers is veiled in secrecy and obscurity.

I guess some people reading this will wonder if I have some kind of secret info on who was in the various teams who cooked up this mess. No, I have no idea. Others might wonder (as I do) if Michael Gove intervened directly and inserted anything of his own. Once again, I have no idea. Not a clue. I'm sorry that I don't. I believe that parents, teachers, advisers and inspectors are entitled to know. This is a matter of public concern. I believe that some people have applied through the FOI Act to find out. I hope so. 

So, it's all very well for Tim Oates in his letter jumping down Andrew Pollard's throat to correct him over Andrew's suspicion that Tim could be one of the authors, but the fact remains: we don't know, we should know, and in the meantime, Tim and others will just have to put up with our suspicions. 

What's failing? The test or the children?

I'm not great at numbers, but if most children failed the pilot phonics screening check yet most children learn to read, that ought to tell us that the problem is the test and not the children. 

The problem could be how the test is designed, it could be what is being tested, it could be what is being taught which is then tested - or all three.

But it can't be the children because we can predict that whatever methods teachers use, most of the children will or would learn to read.

Sir Jim Rose takes Rosen to task on phonics + my reply

Sir Jim Rose criticises children's authors in phonics row

Award-winning children’s writers have clashed with a government adviser over efforts to strengthen the teaching of reading in schools.

Award-winning children’s writers have clashed with a government adviser over efforts to strengthen the teaching of reading in schools.
The row comes as 600,000 six-year-olds this week sit the Government's controversial new phonics screening check for the first time Photo: PA
Authors including Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman have criticised the exclusive use of the phonics method of teaching, in which words are broken down into individual sounds, claiming it risks undermining children’s love of books.
However, they came under fire last night from Sir Jim Rose, author of a landmark review of literacy teaching which led to the renewed focus on phonics, first under Labour and then by the Coalition.
Sir Jim accused critics of trying to “destroy” phonics programmes, causing damage to children’s education.
Opponents support a mix of techniques to teach reading, including the “whole word approach” in which children are taught to recognise entire words.
The row comes as 600,000 six-year-olds this week sit the Government’s controversial new phonics screening check for the first time.
Pupils will read a list of 40 words aloud to the teacher. Half of them are non-words, or “nonsense words”, such as “vap” and “jound”, created to check that pupils can sound out letters and are not just memorising words.
Sir Jim said systematic synthetic phonics was the best starting point when teaching young children to read. He said the views put forward by many opponents created “fake polarities” between the use of phonics and reading for pleasure.
“I’m quite surprise really that even very, very good children’s authors who have made massive contributions to putting good literature in to children’s lives, still can’t accept that you need to put a balanced structure in place which includes phonics,” he said.
“I’ve spent so many hours reading Michael Rosen’s books with my grandchildren, doing dramatised stories.
"I have no problem with what he is doing in terms of producing good literature, or for that matter Morpurgo or Pullman, who have all one way or another had a bit of a go at phonics.
“My argument is that you don’t have to destroy phonics in order to promote your views about good literature - the two things are entirely complementary.
"So many confusions arise in thinking that one is at odds with another. The losers will be the kids.”
Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, is an outspoken critic of the Government’s “obsession” with teaching synthetic phonics.
He has said that such strategies presented children with books containing words lists and letters, rather than inspiring literature.
“Is it any wonder that children are leaving school unable to read,” he said. “Synthetic phonics is being presented as the cure-all but it will never be enough to teach kids to read. Let’s stop pretending that phonics will solve everything, and develop a book-loving culture.”
Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse and also a former Children’s Laureate, has said he is concerned about the “one size fits all” belief in synthetic phonics.
“My reservation about all this is that in education anything that is a solution for everyone is almost always wrong because people are different,” he said.
The author of the award winning children’s trilogy His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, has also expressed concerns.
“If you are reversing a car, you look over your shoulder, you use your rear view mirror, your side mirror, you use what is available,” he said. “Well to learn to read, you use everything that is there, use all the things that are available. One of which is certainly phonics, the other is certainly real books.”
Mr Rosen has also criticised the phonics screening check for potentially labelling thousands of children as failures at the age of six, a fear shared by many teacher and parents.
In the Government’s pilot, only a third of pupils met the minimum standards - set at 34 correct words out of 40.
Teachers’ unions said that children who could already read well would be marked down because they would recognise that the fake words were not correct and try to substitute real words. For instance in the pilot, the non-word “osk” was read by some children as “ask”.
But Sir Jim said the comments misrepresented how systematic synthetic phonics was being used in schools.
“They take the view that what we are saying is that phonics is the only way to make children highly competent readers,” he said.
“But all of us who favour this approach say phonics is essential but not sufficient. You still have to make sure that children develop language comprehension but you can’t do any of that unless children can decode the text.
“You still need a really good quality phonics programme, and synthetic phonics is as good as anything else.”
He said the phonics screening check would give leverage to parents and help them get help if their children were below the minimum standard.
“It is not about pass or fail, it is a progress check,” he said. “If I was a head or a classroom teacher, I would be hungry for the sort of information that the test can provide.”

My reply:
Jim Rose said:
"I’m quite surprised really that even very, very good children’s authors who have made massive contributions to putting good literature in to children’s lives, still can’t accept that you need to put a balanced structure in place which includes phonics,”
No, Jim, I and others are in favour of 'balance'. We doubt the value of spending so much time at the outset being exclusive about phonics, banning non-decodable texts (ie 'books') from initial reading. If there's any lack of balance going on is the idea that 'literacy' for Year 1 children consists of government-approved phonics schemes. 

Jim Rose says:
 "You still have to make sure that children develop language comprehension but you can’t do any of that unless children can decode the text."

Hold it there, Jim. I think if you thought that one through, you wouldn't want to stick with that. You know as well as any parent or grandparent or teacher that of course children can move forwards on several fronts at the same time - doing a mix of decoding without understanding, understanding things without decoding them (ie predicting correctly, picking up cues from other sources etc). 

Jim said:
the phonics screening check would give leverage to parents and help them get help if their children were below the minimum standard. It is not about pass or fail, it is a progress check

There we have it Jim: the idea that a child learning to read is already dubbed 'below the minimum standard' (ie not decoding 32 out of 40 words  - that was a two-thirds of all children in the pilot test, I think). You say it's not about pass or fail, but you in  your mind are already dubbing a third of children 'below the minimum standard' and in the DfE documents it states quite clearly that parents and carers must be informed if their child fails. That's failure, Jim. That's what it's called. It's very hard for parents and children to think of it any other 'failing' one's driving test. 

Jim said:
"If I was a head or a classroom teacher, I would be hungry for the sort of information that the test can provide.”

They are hungry for information, Jim. That's why they monitor the children's progress every day, every week, every month, every year. This is a monitoring of the monitoring with the child as the guinea pig. 

Do you remember, Jim, how you invited me in to the DfE to talk to you during the time I was Children's Laureate? This is how I remember it.I walked into a room and you had a copy of 'Bear Hunt' in front of you. You said to me, 'I've put the alphabetic principle in place, but how do you make books come alive?' I told you how I act out 'Bear Hunt'. You seemed to think that that was a good idea and mentioned the idea that this was the sort of thing that we needed to happen everywhere...making books come alive. You were so keen on it, that you said we had to talk some more about it. I said, fine, and I left.

Needless to say,  you never did talk to me again about it. But that's how it is. All the money and action is with synthetic phonics, to the tune of many millions of government money, and virtually nothing for the bit about making books come alive. How come? 

And yet, as you and Nick Gibb and others are discovering, synthetic phonics doesn't turn children into readers. It turns them into decoders, many of whom will of course become is what we had before. But we also get children who 'can read but don't understand' - or as I would put it, 'decoders who can't read for meaning'. 

Meanwhile, this week we're going to get plenty of children who 'can read but will fail'. Yes, many of those scary middle class parents who have taught their children to read a bit may well be getting a little bit cross that their kids are failing the phonics screening test. They're bit too 'meaning aware' and not 'phonics aware'. 

We shall see.