Thursday, 27 September 2012

Phonic crap hit fan

[My comments are below this article!]

New phonics test failed by four out of 10 pupils

Boy readingBoys did worse than girls in the phonics test

Related Stories

Fewer than six out of 10 pupils, 58%, passed the controversial new national phonics reading test in England, official statistics show.
The test checks six-year-olds' ability to read aloud a mixture of 40 real and made-up words, sounding them out using the phonics system.
Ministers said the check had identified pupils who needed further help in learning to read.
But teaching unions say it risks doing long-term damage to children's reading.
This is because it tests children's ability to decode words using a single method, phonics, rather than their ability to read itself.
'Waste of money'
Some teachers have said bright pupils who use different methods of reading are trying to read the made-up words as real ones and being marked down for it.
The official results show some 62% of girls passed the test compared with 54% of boys.
But only 44% of disadvantaged pupils, those eligible for free school meals, met the required standard of phonic decoding. This was 17 percentage points lower than all other pupils.

Phonics check

  • Sat by all six-year-olds in England's state schools
  • Administered one-to-one by a teacher
  • Contains real and made-up words
  • Aims to check phonic ability not reading ability
  • Pupils need at least 32 out of 40 to pass
The phonics test is now taken by all pupils in Year 1 in English primary schools. The government introduced it to ensure schools were identifying pupils struggling with reading.
Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss said: "The reading check helps teachers identify those pupils who need extra help in learning to read.
"Many thousands of children will now receive the extra support they need to develop a love of reading."
But Mary Bousted, head of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Phonics tests waste time and money telling teachers what they already know about children's reading ability, as our joint survey with the NAHT [National Association of Head Teachers] and NUT [National Union of Teachers] showed.
"If the government persists with phonics checks and its mistaken determination to make synthetic phonics the only method used to teach children to read, it risks doing long-term damage to children's reading."
But the Department for Education (DfE) highlights evidence from an independent evaluation saying 43% of schools were able to identify pupils with reading problems of which they had been unaware.
NUT head Christine Blower said the results reinforced the union's view that the top-down imposition of phonics across the board was the wrong approach.
"Children have different learning styles and develop at different ages and stages, a fact that the phonics check does not recognise.
"Decoding using synthetic phonics can be a useful tool for teachers, but it is nonsense for it to be the basis of a blanket test.
"Teachers need to be trusted and supported to develop a range of strategies for the teaching of reading. The aim is that all children learn to read for pleasure. A mechanistic approach will not guarantee that."
'Three Rs'
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National of Association of Head Teachers, said there was considerable concern among members of the teaching profession about the phonics test.
"The department is well aware that teachers fear this test is not only a waste of time but can be very damaging indeed for young learners. Far from being a 'light touch' form of assessment, the phonics test caused days of disruption in classrooms across England and immense distress to young children labelled failures.
"It would be hard to find a school which does not already use phonics to help Key Stage 1 children learn to read. But they do so as part of a range of strategies designed to encourage and inspire young learners."
The DfE has also published the results of teacher assessments of seven-year-olds in reading, writing, maths and science.
Some 87% achieved the required national standard (Level 2) in reading, and 83% in writing - both up two percentage points on last year.
In maths 91% reached the required level, and in science 89% did so. Both sets of results are up one percentage point on 2011.

My thoughts:

So, here we have it, when 7 year olds did a reading test 87% reached the required level (that's without doing the phonics screening check (PSC)) and prior to this, Nick Gibb was quoted as saying that some 80% of children learn to read using 'mixed methods' ie including phonics rather than using an phonics exclusively and intensively.

Yet this check has found a much higher percentage of failures. Think about it: many children who will learn to read without the check and without exclusive, intensive phonics teaching will learn to read anyway! (Probably some 20% of all children, possibly more.) Yet they have  been identified as failures and according to the semi-literate schools minister will need extra help - but there is absolutely no evidence that the help that  such children need is yet more phonics!  

If you want to have fun, in the above article study the word 'reading'. You'll see that when it suits people it is used to signify 'barking at print' (ie making sounds when seeing squiggles on the page) and at other times it is used to signify what you are doing at this very second as you read what I've written. These are two very distinct activities. Sometimes journalists confuse the two because politicians deliberately do so. Other times it suits politicians to do it because they are trying to kid people that sounding out phonically is 'reading'. 

Finally, please bear with me, but I will say it again: there is no evidence that the exclusive use of an intensive phonics programme in order to teach reading (ie reading for meaning) will produce more or better readers  than a programme using a mix of methods including 'basic' phonics - which almost certainly is how you reading this learned how to read.

The whole 'first, fast and only' apparatus, plus the screening check is a hoax. Ruth Miskin who is one of the prime movers of the introduction of this as an exclusive and intensive scheme is also the editor and writer of one such commercial schemes. It is by far and away the market leader of such schemes. She has also been a government adviser recommending (successfully) that the schools use such schemes. Government approved schemes receive a 50% subsidy from the government to buy approved schemes. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Literature into drama into literature: for you to adapt

Over the last 30 years there has been an erosion of the idea that the best way to improve children's and young people's writing was for them to be taken into the heart of a piece of good writing by an adult writer, and to respond from within it in the the form of poems, alternative fictions, letters, doctors' reports or whatever.

Instead, various people - not usually writers themselves - have conjured up a variety of formulae, methods, processes which, they say, will produce good writing. These lock into the various kinds of government diktats, tests and exams which privilege certain kinds of writing over others. Most teachers are now expert at asking for and getting the kind of writing that is demanded by the exams and tests.

Meanwhile, bubbling along (or is struggling along) there are groups of teachers, writers, advisers and trainers who have been sticking to their guns. I'm one of them. We believe that the best teacher of literature is literature. I, for one, also believe that if a teacher or a pupil wants or needs to know about a) what is worthwhile about writing, b) some good ideas of how to write c) some good tips on how to maintain an interest in writing, then the best people to ask are writers. We are not unanimous, we do not agree on these things nor do we usually think we need to. So, unlike the people who produce the formulae, we don't usually say (for example) that there is only one reason why writing is worthwhile for all people. We'll usually try to limit the answer to that question to our own personal reasons. Our good ideas and tips will also vary widely.

And usually, we'll think and say this variety is a good thing in itself. It is very good for writing in general that it is diverse across people and diverse across time and space - ie in different places and at different times and for different audiences.

So how does literature teach itself? Well, that's an exaggeration. Literature needs teachers or writers or practitioners to open it up, pause it, and send readers off into explorations and writings of their own. However, the starting point is literature and not a formula or a worksheet. And, we would mostly say that the end point of whatever work comes out is not the exercise book, but stuff on walls, in magazines, in blogs, in school bulletins, in performances, in films, in cartoons, in home-made books and the like.

I've just spent all day in a Shakespeare workshop with John Doona who you can find here:

and here:

We were working at CLPE on The Tempest (Shakespeare). This involved us in all kinds of drama activities eg making a soundscape with our mouths of being in a wooden ship at sea; discovering an island where we had never been before; being a spirit of the wind and so on.
Sometimes are cues for thought, words, sounds and action would be Shakespeare's words, sometimes John Doona's summaries, sometimes my suggestions on what to write.

When it came to writing, we mostly made up poems out of everyone's words or clusters of words, sometimes with a chorus, sometimes by laying down on the floor our respective words (having been written on strips) and then moving these strips of paper around till we got the order we wanted.

Cues for these came from a moment of 'drama' within the general drama of situation or plot offered by the play: eg Miranda doing things on her own, and feeling alone; Antonio tempting Sebastian that he could kill his brother the Alonso, the King of Naples and so seize the crown. We acted these situations sometimes collectively all being the same character and saying out loud what we thought even as we took up stances representing them. And then we produced thoughts when asked and turned these into poems.

This method of working produced work of real power and emotion, the climax of all of it was in response to Prospero telling each of us (being Caliban) how he, Prospero, could cause us great pain with his spells and enchantments. We each were Caliban cursing Prospero, represented in the middle of our circle by a pile of his old books of magic.

Having talked about Caliban's sense of injustice we wished nothing but fullscale destruction of Prospero in all kinds of unpleasant ways. I think John will be putting some of this work up on his website very soon.

The Tempest is a terrific play to do this with because it shows us very easily recognisable relationships and events because it is a kind of fairy tale. Within that there are many open-ended questions about motive and feeling which are ideal starting points for movement, speech and writing arising out of the ways in which we had expressed these in terms of sound and movement.

As a principle, this could be taken into any kind of writing and of course it's particularly fruitful with folk tale and myth. So, let's say we were looking at 'Hansel and Gretel', the place to start (unlike the story itself) might be the forest. This is the key motif of the story as a whole, it's where some of the key episodes happen (the abandonment and the seduction and capture of the children by the witch). So we might want to act out the forest through sounds, movements, a few sparse words. We might want to 'voice' trees or animals and allow them to say what they thought and felt. We could perhaps write a kind of forest chorus, a sound and word picture of the forest.

Then we could go back to the first part of the story and consider hunger. What is hunger like? We might want to mime hunger, do hungry movements, explore what we would do if we were unbearably hungry.

And then off the back of that we might write a hunger lament...or a hungry 'tall tale' along the lines of 'I'm so hungry I could...' or 'I would'...

And then once all this was done, we could tell the first part of the story where the mother and father say that they're going to abandon the children in the forest because there isn't enough food left.

Here there are all kinds of themes - secrets, eavesdropping on parents, and then the real cruncher - abandonment. How to explore such a dangerous thing? Through the eyes and minds of the two children in the story, where it's 'safe'. We can each be Gretel. Then each be Hansel. You're about to be taken to the forest and you believe what you've heard? Have you got excuses for why they're behaving like this? Do you think there's anything you can do to stop them doing it? Are you going to admit that you've heard? What are you going to do about it?

All these could make up for a great 'inner speech' arguments...which could be represented separately on strips of paper which we could lay out on the floor, move around and that it's a kind of soliloquy.

And so on...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

English GCSE Crisis: MEETING

The English Exams Crisis

Are you still angry about this year’s GCSE English exam fiasco?

All English teachers, Heads of English and other concerned colleagues are invited to an extraordinary LATE meeting to share what happened in their schools and to discuss how we can campaign on this issue. PGCE English student teachers will be very welcome.

Friends Meeting House, 173-177 Euston Road, London

6.30 p.m. Monday 1st October 2012

There will be short presentations from the following panel to be followed by open discussion from the floor.

·      Simon Gibbons, Chair NATE (Simon will chair this meeting)
·      John Hodgson, NATE’s Research Officer
·      Jo Rawlings, Head of English
·      John Yandell, Institute of Education
·      Michael Rosen, poet and broadcaster

Please forward this information urgently to friends and colleagues through email, Facebook and Twitter.

Best wishes,
John Wilks
(LATE General Secretary)

Gove and the con of the international tables.

Gove hangs his reforms again and again on international tables of education performance. Newspapers, TV and radio repeat these statements as if a)the tables must be correct b) Gove's conclusions about them are correct and c) Gove linking Britain's place on the tables to Britain's competitiveness is valid.

In fact, there are serious criticisms of the validity of the tables as showing valid data, there are serious criticisms of politicians' conclusions from them and I would chip in on c) that matching something as complex and multi-factorial as 'competitiveness' to the achievements and failures of 15 year olds is absurd. More on that in a moment.

a) the data
It's been pointed out that there are problems in:
i) the sampling - ie who was tested, how were they selected, when were they selected. For the tables to be valid, the sampling would have to be identical in social composition, length of time of education prior to the test, gender and so on. According to some, these safeguards were not in place.

ii) statisticians use the phrase 'significant difference'. Some have said that the differences, as expressed by overall positions are not 'significant' especially as the tables themselves involve bringing in new nations and the scores represent averages - a problematic way of expressing a profile of achievement.

b) the conclusions
It's been pointed out that
i) success and failure in education does not rest entirely with the content of education. According to Harvey Goldstein it's worth about 10% of a score in comparison to the 90% caused by social class and family background.

So, if politicians are saying that 'our' education system is letting the children down, this, according to Goldstein is at best a 10% correct statement!

To factor that in to the data, the sampling for the tests would have to be based on social class. I don't think they are. (Please correct me if I misread the information here.)

ii) one of the key variables in some countries is the extent to which the sample buys in private tuition. This is the claim made re the Singapore sample. If correct, this wouldn't show up as 'education' being the cause of Singapore's higher scores.

c) Competitiveness.

This seems to me to be the weakest link in the whole business.

We should ask what percentage of success or failure of the chunks of international capital we call 'a nation's competitiveness' is dependent on its state education system?

What evidence is there for this? 

My thoughts:
i) a 'country's competitiveness' seems to be a statement or measure of its companies to compete in the world market. But the companies of a country like Britain are international both in their use of capital, their employment of managers and their employees. In other words, capital is multinational, management and employees are international. The competitiveness of a company might be because a) it is heavily capitalized from non-UK sources b) it hires non-British managers or c) hires non-British employees (not only through immigration but because a lot of its production takes place outside of the UK).

ii) education has never been the total means by which companies 'tool up' its workforce (including managers). Some degree of a company's competitiveness will be down to its ability to train its workforce well and successfully.

iii) one of the key factors - some would say the most important key - to a company's competitiveness is to do with its ability to buy/rent/hire land, buildings and above all 'labour' cheaply - or, to be precise, more cheaply than a competitor can.

And here we may find the key to what is really going on in education. Even as Gove et al decry 'lack of skills' or poor position in the league tables, he is part of a government that is making the calculation that only by cutting the cost of labour, will the UK attract capital. There are many ways of trying to cut the cost of capital - one of them is to unskill, deskill the workforce. The government reforms to education involve marking out a layer of children and students as failures right from the Phonics Screening Check through to the new 16-plus exam. 

In spite of all that is said about the 'information economy' the 'high skill economy' etc it is clear that modern capitalism hasn't done away with its army of unskilled labour and it would appear (eg from the latest news about John Lewis's cleaners) that there is immense pressure coming from capitalism to spend less and less on this pool of essential, low-skilled labour. To do so, they think presumably would increase their 'competitiveness'. 

iv) another non-educational factor in competitiveness is a company's ability to squeeze money from its 'local' government eg through interest-free loans, infrastructure built in order to 'improve communication' eg road, rail, air links, government contracts and so on. The noises that come from people like Vince Cable are all in this zone and indicate the importance that he, amongst others, places on these matters. Again - nothing to do with education.

v) another non-educational factor is 'geo-political' - eg the availability of raw materials (like oil or uranium, say), the extent to which government can be lobbied to favour this or that industry (see the Murdoch bid for BSkyB for example). These are clear attempts to make this or that business 'competitive' in the sense that it wants to win contracts or chunks of the market. Sometimes these are of international importance, and/or ways of securing national favours over 'foreign' firms. In terms of 'international competitiveness', the more successful a national government is in guaranteeing its own national companies, then the more successful that company has been in competing to win the contract - clearly nothing to do with 'education'.


Conceptually, there is one more problem underlying all this: namely Gove's belief that the particular kind of education he is bringing in (or returning to)will do what he says it will ie make Britain more competitive.

Put it this way: how could it? He is clearly increasing the amount of rote-learning and training for the one-off moment exam, rather than anything more considered. Everyone knows that increasing rote-learning diminishes the amount of critical thinking required to do well. Everyone knows that one-off exams can be 'mugged up' in one intensive short burst in the weeks before the exam and forgotten afterwards. (As I've said before, my exam record is in fact a record of the fact. Whatever I've achieved comes from hours and hours of critical thinking that came from a home obsessed with questioning, debate, argument, reason and creativity.)

So, how precisely will increasing rote-learning and mugging up help British companies become more competitive? Where is the evidence for such a suggestion?

To point out one absurdity on my home turf, English: in order to make English more suitable for one-off exams, you have to increase the amount of right and wrong answers. Step forward, spelling, grammar and punctuation testing. Where is the evidence that higher scores in these would improve competitiveness - especially as the grammar that is taught has never been shown  to improve children's and student's writing and reading?

Monday, 17 September 2012

Clegg O-level to 'raise standards' - NOT.

Yes, there will be a new exam system for 16 year olds. It will be the very old exam system. More or less like the one I sat in 1962: a two-hour pen and paper test. Nick Clegg claims here:

that this will 'raise standards'.

Where is the evidence that two-hour pen and paper tests 'raise standards'?
(Hint: nowhere)
What 'standards' are being raised?
(Hint: the standards required to pass increasingly less useful, less worthwhile exams)

All that is happening is that they are trying to increase the 'reliability' of the test ie making it easier to mark, and easier to come up with consistent grades. This will decrease the 'validity' or worth of the exam.


1. It will call upon teachers, parents and students to spend yet more time developing 'exam-technique' ie what I call Knowledge 2 (K2). These are the pointless, useless games of eg
a) second-guessing what questions will be asked in the exam
b) teaching the mark-distribution across the paper so that 'weaker' pupils concentrate on the 'mugging-up' sections in order to earn certain marks. These nearly always require some kind of rote-learning, which can be done without any understanding.
c) exam-taking techniques to do with 'timing  your answers' eg moving on from things  you do know in order to finish the paper
d) rubric-drilling - learning the language of the instructions of exams and learning how to gamble with the instructions in terms of getting the marks. Some people who are quite capable of answering questions find that figuring out the rubric under exam conditions is hard. Some years, the rubric changes without anyone being forewarned. This penalises those who learn rubric off by heart without understanding it. This has nothing to do with the knowledge of the subject (K1).

2. The Knowledge being tested (K1) will become much more based on what is purely testable. That's to say, the subject in question will have to be broken down into reliably and consistently markable units. This will not 'raise standards'. It will if anything lower them as it makes more and more of the tasks being asked become mechanical, and easily learned through rote-learning without understanding.

A good deal of the testing in the exams will therefore involve 'retrieval', 'inference' and 'regurgitation'. There will be much less on 'interpretation' because interpretation is open to interpretation (!)  ie less 'reliably' or 'consistently' marked but of course much more 'valid' or worthwhile in terms of what we want young people to achieve in school and for life afterwards; much more useful knowledge and skills to take into real life.

[glossary: 'retrieval' is what they test when they say, 'Bobby had a blue hat.'  and ask: What colour was his hat?
'inference' is what they test when they then add, 'It was raining.' and ask 'Why was Bobby wearing a hat?'

Note: If you answer: 'He was wearing a blue hat because he supports Chelsea' that is a 'wrong answer' even though you were using 'retrieval' from  your body of knowledge about hats and the colour blue; and 'inference' from your knowledge of who wears blue hats and why.

3. In short, the new O-level style exam will narrow down even further what was a narrow, national test. It will do this by narrowing K2 and increasing the amount of time spent on K1.

4. It will also be a norm-referenced exam. In other words, politicians and their minions at Ofqual (or whatever takes its place) will jiggle the marks the markers give in order to make the overall results' graph look the way they want it to. As John Tomsett points out here:

norm-referencing means that schools end up competing with each other for a place on the graph. This a) demotivates teachers and students who learn that they are not only or simply being tested for what students know, but that there may well be a politically motivated moving of the goal posts which may well move you from the grade that will let you do more education to one that won't; b) will ensure that one school won't help another because ultimately 'your lot' might push 'my lot' down the graph.

This latter point is again pure politics. It says that standards are raised through schools competing for customers and then getting the customers in  your school to compete with the next school.

This replicates the market - winners and losers. But we're not talking about selling sugar and cars here. We're talking about the lives of a generation of students going through a school, the livelihoods and commitment of hundreds of teachers.

All that will happen is that as a school with a large percentage of borderline students who are norm-referenced down the graph (as has happened this year) will bring down upon themselves punitive measures, increased drilling in exam-passing techniques and possible closure, disruption, more lives wrecked.

However, this suits politicians (not pupils and teachers) because they can keep up their narrative of decline crap about bad teachers, bad students which they will (with some other crack-brained reform) change. Yet, this new exam will be the cause of 'failure'.

5. This exam will lower standards. This exam will lower standards. This exam will lower standards.

In the meantime, instead of bringing in even more mind-numbing testing (and the teaching-to-the-test) at 16, they should be raising the age of fulltime education and training to 18 and abolishing most of the 16 plus nationally moderated testing, leaving it to locally devised tests, portfolios and interviews.

6 PS - please note that the above does not challenge the whole notion that the only way to assess worth is to give it a mark! I do challenge that. In classrooms, labs and workshops, it is quite possible to assess worth by other means than marks and grades. We are so inducted into thinking that the 'quality' of a piece of work has to have a number that we forget that in life, for much of the time we assess things on the basis of eg their usefulness in a particular time and place (not for all time); their likeability or how we are 'affected' by it and/or we are capable of taking on board the idea that things are 'patchy' ie some of it better than others.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Royal photos: go away

Is it possible to dislike all Royals' photos,
to dislike the Royal machine which demands that the press take the photos that the Royal machine wants in order to project the 'right' image of the Royals,
to dislike the paps who spend their time looking for 'un-right' pictures of the Royals,
to dislike the pompous crap about how this is in the public interest and is defending free speech?
I dislike all of it.
Every bit of it.
I even dislike the way that people seem to think that we should take sides one way or the other - for or against the photos,
for, or against the Royal machine suing.
No, no, no,
I don't want to take sides either way.
I dislike all of it.
Every bit of it.
Don't count me in on either side.
Go away.

The GCSE fraud - yet clearer

Apologies if I'm repeating myself but...(jump to 15 for the news, and/or if you think you've read it all before!)

1. National exams and tests are invented for purposes invented by national authorities. They are not invented for the purposes and uses of learners and teachers.
2. The main central purpose for national exams and tests is so that they can grade the population. They want to grade the population ultimately for the sake of authorities outside of schools - universities and employers.
3. The consequence of this is that children's and young people's learning is locked into the needs of universities and employers. This may or may not have very much to do with eg the best ways for children and young people to learn.
4. There may be a capitalists' argument for why schools should jump to their demands of what should be learned in schools and how, but that isn't an argument based on reason, intellectual thought or evidence. It's based purely on financial considerations.
5. That's to say, employers (and now universities, which have become education supermarkets) work by measuring the economic value (not the true worth) of taking on individual workers, managers etc, and employing them. That is their sole consideration.
6. Education and teachers have traditionally always tried to value children and young people according to such nostrums as 'the whole child', 'the full potential of the individual'. This is not the same as the 'economic value' of someone. And yet we have been forced to allow employers (and their mouthpieces in government) to determine what goes on in schools via the lockdown enforced by national testing and exams.
7. This year's GCSE scandal has exposed how the exam system is unfair, fraudulent and oppressive, creating victims and proving to be unable to solve problems thrown up by its own failings.
8. To be clear: national exams are an expression of two requirements a) that they are 'valid' and b) that they are 'reliable'.
a) For an exam to be 'valid' requires it to say something important about a candidate's abilities and skills. We could all devise ways of checking and testing for such things eg - asking 16 years old to talk about something that they say they are interested in; asking 16 year olds to demonstrate a skill that they say that they possess; course work looked at by teachers and moderators; essays written with reference books available; and so on.
b) However, such loose checks on worth are supposedly 'unreliable' because they can't be standardised (which is what national testing demands for national reasons - not local ones). So, instead of such face-to-face encounters and open-ended projects, exam designers try to create 'objective' testing for which there are narrow right and wrong answers. So, what happens is that as these become narrower and narrower, they become more and more reliable but less and less able to show candidates' real strengths. So, multiple choice questions are very reliable statistically but their value is limited because they are in fact tests of whether you are distracted by the wrong answers, and whether you know that it's worth belting through them as fast as you can rather than spend too much time thinking about them.
9. Most people enter the exam room in the same mind-set as those of us who did the driving-test ie once I didn't know how to drive, then I learned how to drive (at least I think so), an examiner is going to see if I can drive...oh no, I've failed on some of these things, I will  have to do more studying and practice to make sure I pass. This is the core idea of 'criterion-referenced testing' ie it's to test what you know.
10. However, all national tests do this and something else - by and large we  as adults don't tell children and students about this. We lie to them. This 'something else' is 'norm-referencing' and may go on in several different ways. Essentially, the idea behind it is that the final arbiters or moderators create a graph of what the  candidates marks should look like. This may be for each grade, may be for the whole picture of all the grades. Or both. The shape may be drawn up before the candidates sit the exam, may be re-drawn after the marks come in.
11. So what determines the shape they draw up? Aha - this may be by reference to such concepts as 'the bell curve' - the supposed 'true' reflection of the shape of the whole population's ability to do anything ie with a low percentage who are very good, a low percentage who are not good and a nice rounded curve in  between. Or it might be by reference to 'last year's cohort' ie those candidates who sat the test/exam the previous year.
12. But what determines these determinants? Ultimately, it's politics. It's the politics of how those in authority view us, whether that's over a hundred years, two years or just this year. It's an assessment of our abilities, skills, yes our ability to do the criterion-referenced testing. This is clear now, as we are hearing regularly about a) 'grade inflation' and b) a popular sense of sneering and decrying young people's abilities and language; plus the fact that governments make political decisions about 'gatekeeping' ie who should or or should not be allowed to go forward to the next level of education. Thus, the last Labour government wanted to encourage more and more 16 year olds to go forward to do 16-18 education and more 18 year olds to go forward to do 'tertiary' education of some kind. This government has already succeeded in preventing this increase and has now brought about a decline in the number of 18 year olds moving forward. This has been 'achieved' by raising university fees and through tougher 'norm-referencing' of marks.
13. To pass an exam, you have to show some kind of knowledge. Let's leave to one side how  you acquired that knowledge and whether it's ever a knowledge that is any use or will last you beyond a few weeks after the exam. However, exams are expressed in a special exam-ese kind of language. This language has to be learned. It is itself a specialised form of knowledge. So we are talking here about Knowledge 1 and Knowledge 2 (K1 and K2). The lie most often told about exams is that they are a test of K1. In fact, if you haven't got K2 sorted or if the particular test you do has screwed up its K2 (as happened to me when I did A-level English Literature) then candidates lose marks, etc. Experienced wily teachers are teachers who are expert in the wrinkles and ruses of K2 and know how to pass these on to students. What's more, publishers have now created books and booklets available from WHSmith etc which are extremely good at teaching K2 and breaking K1 down into the tiny little gobbets of information required by the increasingly 'reliable', decreasingly 'valid' tests. (note: Gove wants to increase the 'reliability' of GCSEs, whilst inevitably reducing their 'validity'.)
14. The nitty-gritty of this year's GCSEs are as follows:
a) yes, they norm-referenced the marks mid-course with the result that there is less consistency than they themselves would the 'reliability' of the test has been undermined.
b)the main, but not only, victims seem to be the C/D borderlines.
c) to be clear- these are of course not the high-flyers and not those who found the exam extremely hard if not impossible to do.
d) anecdotally, this group (the C/D) is populated by many students who are reaching this level of exam for the first time, who do not have massive amounts of help from home, who do not have home tutors.

15. Teachers have met Ofqual. What have they been told?
a) Ofqual made clear that they know that this group of candidates help themselves get through exams by reading and swotting up the publishers' 'How to' guides and - incredibly, amazingly - lamented this fact, and - incredibly, amazingly - determined to punish the C/D borderlines for having succeeded to pass on that basis!!!
b) whereupon, they made clear to the teachers that they norm-referenced the marks...on what basis? On the basis of their SATs results! This is incredible, fatuous and utterly unacceptable. The whole pressure put upon secondary teachers is that they 'add value' to the pupils who come into their schools. Indeed, if they do not, (as assessed on the basis of these test and exam scores first at 11 and then at 16) then the school is said to be failing. But now we have evidence that the examiners are preventing the value from being added!!! The GCSE candidates have been treated as nothing more than meat for their mincemeat machines, simply making the statistics work according to their wishes. 

16. This is beyond scandal. This is an atrocity. It's an outrage. Students and their families are being shoved into the machine that is the national testing system and mashed up for the purposes of the national testing system and not for the learners, their families and the schools.
17. As it happens, one crack in the system is the 'nation' itself. The UK is of course a strange anomaly, neither a federation or union of provinces. It's constituent parts are not of equal status, each part having its own system of government (or in England's case, none). This has resulted in one authority for 'England and Wales' which is itself divided according to its constituent parts England, Wales. This strange beast, created out of compromise and attempts to hold the union together has risen up and bitten England on the bum . Wales has not only dared to query the crude, lying, fraudulent manipulation of the results. It is even going to reverse them.
18. This will mean that candidates who sat the same exam, got the same marks (when marked) will end up with different grades. And there is nothing that has so far been mentioned in the press (ie before the lawyers start earning their fees) which can prevent Wales from doing this. Clearly, this has already enraged Michael Gove. He seems to work on the basis that he has absolute power, which he uses with no attention to the wishes of teachers, parents and pupils. But not over Wales.
19. Ultimately, my view is that the GCSE system deserves this chaos. It is increasingly becoming a worthless exam, forcing teachers and students through ever more and more 'invalid' courses, sacrificing them all on the altar of 'reliability', forcing them to mug up K1 and K2 using exam manuals - which they do! which enables them to succeed - for which they are then punished by the Ofqual moderators!
20. Within a decade, I predict that there will be full-time compulsory education and/or training till 18. The vast raft of GCSEs will become more redundant for all except grade-hungry bureaucrats in Whitehall. At most there need only be a criterion-referenced English Language and Maths testing system. For the rest, locally worked out testing could help create wonderful courses, helping 14-16 year olds and teachers create courses, inventions, make investigations, discoveries that would liberate education from these worthless constraints. Let us never forget, teachers want the best of their pupils. It's only examiners and the politicians who stand behind them who want failures, who want to prove that some people are no good (in their terms).
That's why teachers, teacher-researchers and their advisers could be trusted to produce fantastic courses for 14-16 year olds if they were not limited by these norm-referenced 'reliable' but mostly 'invalid' exams.
21. In the meantime, we must all defend the rights of all candidates who were norm-referenced by Ofqual in whatever ways, students, parents and teachers demand.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

New poem,just written for LoveMusicHateRacism today

What is racism?

It's a clockmender who left his country
to get a better living
and all is fine
until things start changing
there's an invasion
he and his wife run to another town
and the people who are supposed to keep law and order
decide to put him and his wife on a list
and then they decide that they will make them wear a special badge
marking them out as different
and then they decide that they will take all their money away from them
and the clockmender and his wife have nothing much more they can do
but sell old clothes in the market
where they must put a special badge on their stall marking them out
as different
and they send letters to America for help from their relatives
and they hear stories about how people like them are being shot
and transported to places where they never come back from]
so they run again
and they hear rumours of a place where they'll be safe
and they get there somehow
and then someone from the army that invaded
arrives and he hates people like the clockmender
and his wife and he has lists
and with the help of the people
who are supposed to keep law and order
he gets hold of the clockmender and his wife
and he puts them on a train to a housing estate
which has been converted into a kind of prison
and from there they are shipped to a big station
and from there they are shipped out of the country
to a special place where people will work till they die
where people are tortured
where people starve to death
where people fall ill and have no means of being cured
where people are shot
where people are gassed to death
and the clockmender and his wife
are never seen again..

No one in their family knows what happened to them
for years and years
until one of the letters that the clockmender sent to America
turns up
and bit by bit one of the people in the family
finds the books that have the lists of the people
who like the clockmender were rounded up and shipped out
and bit by bit he puts the story together
he doesn't fully know why he's doing this
other than that he doesn't want it to be
that no one knows
he doesn't want it to be that people specialise
in saying that such things didn't happen
so he finds out more and more about the clockmender and his wife
and the clockmender is called Oscar, known as Jeschie
and his wife is Rachel
and Oscar is Oscar Rosen who was my father's uncle
and now you know
what I found out
now you know what I wanted you to know
and now I know
that this isn't something that
no one knows.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Sloshy melon poem for early years children

Don't sit on your melon

Melon squashy
Melon sloshy
Melon yummy
Melon scrummy
Melon smellin' lovely jubbly
Now I'm tellin' my friend Helen:

"Eat your melon
slurp, slurp, slurp.
Gobble your melon
burp, burp, burp.
Do what you want;
do what you do.
I don't mind.
It's up to you.
But -
don't-don't; don't-don't;
don't! don't! don't!
Don't SIT on your melon,

Michael Rosen

(copyright 2012)
[not in any book yet]
[first appeared in 'Rhyme Rocket' BBC Cbeebies]

True story

He said, I can't stand it any more, it's doing me head in.
This place used to be like a village.
- What's the matter with it? I said.
- It's full of foreigners, he said, I love
   Walthamstow, he said, but I can't stay here.
    I'm going.
I wondered where but I said nothing. He didn't say
anything else, so I said, Where to?
-  Spain, he said.

[From Fighters for Life, Selected Poems Bookmarks Publications 2007
available from Bookmarks Bookshop    ]

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Prose poem for BBC Bush House

There were times when I was on my own
in the studio late at night. Through the
glass the producer and the studio manager
talking to each other with no sound reaching
me. They told me I was recording for the
world. Reading words from inside a silent
room that could be heard anywhere. Someone
once told me that there used to be a swimming
pool in here and behind a curtain there was
a grand piano. Upstairs and outside, the buses
curved round the Aldwych or streamed up
Kingsway; theatres gobbled up queues. I was
talking about books. The two women behind
the glass moved like surgeons from console to
tape to deck. Great writers fell out of my
mouth. I coughed. Go back. Redo that para.
Centuries pass. Tom Paine. Amy Tan, that
sort of thing. And then nothing. I go into the
operating theatre. The surgeons look up and
nod. I back out. Don't want to breathe on the
tape. Coming out. I hope Security don't notice.
Oh no, they have. 'One moment, sir. Why have
you been in there?' 'I don't know.' Outside,
the buses are racing. The drivers know where
they're going. The 4 from Waterloo to Finsbury

[from 'Selected Poems' Michael Rosen (Penguin 2007)

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Programming films re urban living/planning?

In 2008, I was commissioned to write a play for the Write to Ignite Festival in Hackney. I was given the preliminary title 'Hackney Streets' and it set me thinking about my own connections with Hackney in contrast to the plans that the borough had for 'regeneration'.

I had known Hackney since I was a child because it was where my grandparents lived and I had lived there since 1978. So my link to the place dated from the 1940s, when the area around Dalston had been settled mostly by a Jewish population who had moved out of Whitechapel and Stepney a generation before. Now that I was living in Dalston it had diversified hugely with communities originally from the Caribbean, Turkey, Vietnam, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the countries from the region of the Congo and indeed from almost everywhere in the world.

While all this settlement was going on, Hackney followed the convulsions and pressures all inner city boroughs experienced with various kinds of instructions and directives from central government about 'maximising assets', planning, development and the most recent nostrums about 'regeneration'. In Hackney, as with many other parts of the UK and all over the world, you could see very easily how these ideas impacted on the place. For many years, there were roads and corners which had belonged to some public body or another - the rail authorities, the council etc - which were derelict. In some cases these were squatted, in others people were on short-term leases trying to make a living doing a combination of retail, arts, or 'community action' of some kind. Under pressure from government, the council was trying to push the council-run estates into the hands of housing associations. Various ambitious but nebulous plans circulated about major road and/or rail and/or shopping centres. Under New Labour, there was much talk of  'partnerships' which boasted of arrangements between public and private, between council planning and big private developers which would 'benefit the area'.

In the midst of all this, as with all urban areas, there were sites of great historical interest, whether that was in the buildings themselves or held as history by the people who had lived in the flats and terraces for decades.

So, I wrote what was in effect a kind of radio play - a mixture of monologues, poems,songs and pieces of documentary, weaving in and out with voices telling stories about their lives and something of these plans for regeneration. The kinds of thing that were in my head as I wrote were Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood, Ewan MacColl's Radio Ballads, David Hare's documentary plays and Edgar Lee Masters' 'Spoon River' collection of free verse poems set in one town.

I have to say here that what was happening in Hackney as I wrote was making me (and plenty of other people) very angry. 'Regeneration' was emerging out of the Blair years as not much more than an illusion and a con. The illusion was what they were calling 'retail-led' regeneration - the idea that a whole area could get better on the basis of stuffing it full of multi-national chain stores. The con was the idea that such a regeneration - if it happened would address the desperate housing needs of most inner-city areas. What was becoming clear was that the dwellings such projects created were mostly flats and houses which were too expensive for the people facing the most need. Indeed, more often than not around the country, such people would be moved out of the development area in order to make space for the flats and houses which would make the project profitable.

Clearly, this was marking the end of the idea that it was the job of local authorities to provide quality social housing for people with need - an idea that had informed the Labour movement and social democracy since the late nineteenth century. It remains one of the great scandals of the Labour years of Blair and Brown that they completely failed to address the question of housing. Instead, they bought into private-public regeneration - another matter altogether.

Sometimes in some parts of Britain this meant riding roughshod over very old communities who were told that their housing was sub-standard and that they had to be decanted into new estates. In others (like Hackney) it meant telling people from newer and diverse communities that the streets where they had come to make a living -  more often than not centred on tiny shops which reproduced their special cultural needs - were redundant. And when communities asked for the right to develop these old buildings themselves, they were being told they couldn't because 'there were plans' - that is, some kind of major development project, a profit-led, top-down plan.

So I wrote this:

Write to Ignite, being run by Chris Preston and Nathan Penlington had programmed the play to be performed by sixth formers at BSix College, in Lower Clapton in Hackney. Chris directed them and it was put on in the Lower Clapton, Round Chapel. He staged it in such a way as the cast was broken up into groups around the outside of the audience. We stood in the middle and the voices of the performers criss-crossed over and through it.

He felt that it was worth another airing, so he collected together some professional actors and put it on as professional show in the Rosemary Branch - a pub theatre on the borders of Islington and Hackney for a short run. I was over the moon with both productions, each had their strengths and I was particularly pleased by the way in which the solo and chorus pieces worked together. But that was just my view.

Both times, Emma-Louise Williams, a radio producer I had worked with on 'Word of Mouth' came to see it and then said that she thought the piece would make a film. So, then over the next two years, she recorded the actors and musicians, filmed in Hackney, researched archives for film and stills and put the  whole thing together ready for the East End Film Festival where it premiered as "Under the Cranes" at the Rio Cinema, Dalston in April 2011.  Since then, the film has been finding audiences at film festivals, independent cinemas, university conferences on Urbanism, poetry and book festivals, pop-up events, curated site-specific events, Left events, local history groups, National Trust and gallery spaces etc.  Emma-Louise and I have taken part in Q & A sessions at all these screenings.

Emma has made a blogspot for it here:

and if you scroll down through the pages, you can see where it's been on and the reviews it's collected.

I think it's wonderful, but I'm biased. I think it's become something quite different from what I wrote. In effect, it's now a double montage - one on film, one in sound (not just 'voices') and these two montages seem to rotate alongside each other, sometimes in sync, sometimes in contrast to each other. It seems to me that this creates a way of space for the viewer to see and hear film in ways that are different from the dominant aesthetics of our time: the one being a kind of realist or naturalist fiction and the other a narrated TV documentary which tells a story with the authority of that TV company or journalist. Instead, this montage method (which of course has a long history going back at least as far as people like Vertov and Eisenstein) offers the viewer an active space in which to make connections between voices, sounds and images. Sometimes these might be the same or similar to the ones in my or the director's head but at other times not. There would be no narrator's or leading protagonist's voice directing you to do so.

I'm not for one moment going to make a case for saying that this is superior in any way - just different. And if you create artistic experiences that are different from what people usually see, this in itself is sometimes an experience that gives you a bit of a jolt or surprise. One ambition behind the film, after all, is that people watching the film, ask questions of the buildings and streets they live in. What kinds of voices and experiences live (or have lived) there? What kinds of plans do people in town halls and developers' offices have for these buildings and streets? Whose space is it? This double montage method seems to me one way to get these questions asked..

Anyway, the film is available for hire. If you're anything to do with an art centre, local cinema, college or university, some kind of community action or a forum, political group, looking at local development, or something to do with local history and change, then please do think of booking the film, perhaps putting it on with other films.

The quickest way to get in touch is to write to:


and we can go from there.

PS: A review of the film from the poet, Paul Farley:

‘Under the Cranes’ is a wonderfully life-affirming film-poem of place, full of lost time and effacements, reefs of street markets and shop fronts, painted in stock-brick yellows, steel shutter greys and silvery monochromes; and full of people, always people, the voices who have passed this way and called this home. As a collage of the city at its most quick, it has the ache and tug of what has been and gone; as a moving study of resourcefulness, resistance and resilience, it collapses time and returns each story to its street.

Paul Farley, Professor of Poetry, Lancaster University

The Gove Walrus and the Glenys Carpenter

Now that we have both Gove and Glenys Stacey saying that they feel very sorry for the school students they have sacrificed, they are clearly hoping to play the parts of the Walrus and the Carpenter in a dramatisation of Lewis Carroll's poem of the same name.

Just in case people don't know it, it's a fine evocation of two tearful hypocrites:

[and come to think of it, the verse about the seven maids and seven mops is the kind of mathematical gobbledegook that the examiners are gabbling about now too.]

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

The National Exam and Test Cult

Probably best to think of national exams and tests as a kind of government sponsored cult, with its yearly rituals of examination, invigilation, marking, moderation and stage-managed press outrage. It has its priests, and sextons, its own court of enforcement and at the top of the hierarchy the high priests and seers who claim to be able to do the great interpretations - which, like any state religion's claim to be infallible - are merely responses to the politics of the powerful.

Though this cult pretends that it can discern difference between people and makes judgements on their worth, this has little relation to real people's real worth in the real world, where all kinds of other capabilities are needed which the cult can't and doesn't test eg ability to contribute to and learn from others in the process of performing a task; being flexible when confronted by the unexpected; knowing what to do and how to do it if required to research, investigate or enquire - particularly if the enquiry is going to involve more than one person; being able to motivate oneself (or a group of people) without an outside authority demanding that you do so...

All these ways of going on are ideal for operating in the real world but are a threat to the cult which justifies its existence on the basis of a different set of tasks. These are K1 - the knowledge of stuff; and K2 the knowledge how to do the cult's rituals. K2 is much more important than K1 because without K2 you can't prove K1. On the other hand you can have loads of K1 but if you haven't got K2, you're buggered.

Long live the Test Cult! Long live its priests!

Politics of exams (cont'd).

Further contributions to the politics of exams from the Guardian Comment is Free thread here

1. Even Gove now makes quite clear that the old O-levels (which I sat) were for a minority only. People seem to have forgotten that in the 1950s, most students left school at 14 or 15 with no qualifications to their name. The O-level was an exam devised by universities in order to select from those people already selected by the 11 plus, a cohort who would be probably OK for university, medical school, training college and some high-level technical training.

For better or worse, GCSEs were devised as a test for all. The reason why some of them have up until now incorporated course work was because teachers, examiners and society deemed it that this was one way for students to show something that they could do over a period of time ie resembling real life conditions outside. In truth, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this as a process. The problem arises when you try to make this kind of 'valid' work, fit into having a statistically 'reliable' outcome. The Gove interpretation is to say that because it's not 'reliable' , it's not 'valid'. That's upside down thinking. It's indeed very valid because it encourages all kinds of worthwhile work from teachers and students. When 16-plus national exams are abolished, we can start thinking again about making work 'valid' and worrying less about whether they fit these pre-designated norms, so beloved of the exam cultists.

2.  Even the 'objective' 11-plus varied from region to region, locality to locality on the basis of how many grammar school places that particular locality provided! There was no national standard called 'passing your 11-plus'. And then it has emerged over the last period that most areas decided that 50% of girls and 50% of boys would pass. However, girls were better at doing the 11plus than boys, .they fiddled the results, ie marked down the borderline girls and marked up the borderline boys.

So, here were three kinds of test - an IQ, a maths and an English test, carefully and lovingly designed by the exam cultists to be reliable, and then the sociology of the testing made it unreliable. Pathetic.

3. The real absurdity of norm referencing emerges when you relate it to real life. In all learning, we are aware of things we don't know (sorry, but Rumsfeld was right!), and then, if we work at it, we become aware that we have learned something. So, we can all give accounts in our life of change, of learning something.

Every story told from every national testing system will tell you that this day-to-day 'common sense' notion of learning is defied and contradicted by the exam system. The exam system ultimately only exists as a justification for itself, for its claim to be 'reliable'. We are hearing hours and hours of complete crap about whether Ofqual tweaked it in the right or wrong direction at this or that juncture. The whole point is that it was in search of a spurious and useless objective ie that it would produce a reliable result.

In fact, the whole point is that their 'reliable' was the prejudicially determined 'reliable'. What people are saying is that either Gove was introducing this prejudice or it was the political climate, or both.

How can there be any doubt that it was at the very least the political climate at work? There is no 'objective' reliability for exams. It's just a bunch of bureaucrats manipulating young people's lives - ultimately for no other purpose than to earn a decent whack as being on an exam board.

How do I know? Because my dad was one and explained the racket to me many times.