Thursday, 22 November 2012

The arts and Ebacc: get it, Gove?

This is the text of what I've sent to the NUT as part of their consultation and submission re the proposed Ebacc and the threat to the arts that it poses.

1. We should bear in mind that teachers will do their utmost to teach what will benefit their pupils the most.  However, there is often a clash between what teachers know engages the pupils or leads them into greater personal, social and academic development, and what teachers are required to teach. They do this in particular when they know that their first priority is to enable their pupils score well in key tests and exams. I have been told many times recently that the curriculum has in effect become the GCSE exam. In other words, teachers have indeed 'taught to the test' - something condemned by all major government reports in the recent period. To be clear, I'm not blaming teachers for this. It is a direct outcome of an exam-  and test-led culture which is intent on evaluating pupils purely and solely in terms of their scores.

2. Bearing this in mind, the Ebacc exam will to all intents and purposes be the syllabus. This will have an impact in many areas of the students' lives and study and yet in some respects it is based on a hoax. It is quite clear from statements leaked to the press that each grade will be norm-referenced ie the numbers (in percentage terms) will be fixed prior to the students sitting the exam. This is a cruel and unfair method of assessment.  It means that the improvements (in teaching, pupil work-effort, whole-school culture - much demanded from ministers) will go unrewarded.

3. Another aspect of the impact is in the area of the creative subjects, but I would also want to include in this the creative work that should ideally take place within English courses ie writing. It is known and understood worldwide that students of this age, when given opportunities to express themselves through the arts, demonstrate and enjoy many clear outcomes. One way to express this is to say that it is not obvious to many students that a school is a place where their immediate interests and personalities have a place. Quite simply, the formal subjects in the curriculum have little or no place for students' own voices to be heard; there are not many times in a day when all students will necessarily hear that what they think and do are valuable. Again, this is absolutely not teachers' fault. It is a direct result of an overload of subjects which demand right and wrong answers. Understanding and interpretation of knowledge require a wider response than 'right or wrong'.

4. The arts provide an environment and practice where the students' powers of interpretation are centre stage. This is not in any way less important than more knowledge-based subjects. It is an essential part of maturation and development and with young people comes at precisely the moment when the world appears difficult, puzzling or even unwelcoming. What's more, the arts provide an environment when the relations between adults (teachers) and the students can be on a truly co-operative footing. Again, it is well known that many of the problems that arise in schools occur when the basic trust between the adults and students is under stress or has broken down. I believe that more often than not this arises because students come to feel that they are not believed in; that adults unfairly judge or blame young people. The arts offer an environment when such attitudes can be eroded and new relationships established.

5. Far from this sort of thing being a distraction from the more formal subjects, many teachers can vouch for the fact that the arts offer many students a platform from which they can find routes into the other subjects. Having found themselves respected or 'at home' or achieving something, it enables the students to find belief in themselves to proceed with these other subjects.

6. That said, there is a fundamental principle at the heart of creative arts: that they are ways of investigating the world through making transformations of materials, ideas and texts. This has a radical and profound effect on speech, writing, physical and mental well-being. It offers ways in which people can see that the world is not an unchanging, unchangeable place but is something that you can engage with. Many people talk of how important this is, but if we neglect or exclude the arts, this talk is lip-service only.

7. The arts are not a luxury or a side-show or some kind of soft option. Teachers who teach drama, dance, music and art are amongst some of the most demanding teachers I have ever met, believing in students who are often 'challenging' as the jargon puts it. I have seen many times how such teachers ask of students more and more, asking them to work late, to try again, to analyse what they have done, to produce lengthy reports interpreting what they or others have done. To neglect, marginalise or exclude this will be a major mistake for all the reasons I've outlined. However, there is every likelihood that this neglect or exclusion will have a knock-on effect for many students who find school difficult. I mean by that, that schooling as a process will become that more alienating. Unless it is a hidden objective (ie to further alienate those who are already at risk of being alienated!) then this would be a disastrous outcome.

8. One alternative way to view all this is in economic terms. It is by no means clear how the UK is going to fare in the global market over the next twenty years. If we are honest, no one really knows. There are, however, strong reasons to think that the arts (and that includes design) is an area that the UK has offered the world something that the world wants to see, buy and use. To say this, also involves pointing out that the arts need a strong participatory base of practitioners. Yes, there is the romantic notion that 'artists' are special, isolated people who are born with 'imagination' but in fact almost all art forms require a large backlog or repertoire of experience in order that new forms, new products can be made. The place where this backlog or repertoire can be laid down is of course school. To be personal for a moment, it was through my reading of a wide range of texts for the old O-level English Literature course, the space in which to write (thanks to an English teacher who encouraged it, and school publications which circulated it) that I became a writer. Many people from many walks of life can give similar accounts from moments at school when they 'heard their own voice' and discovered that others liked it. This may or may not have led to them doing such things for a career. However, in terms of their own well-being, many tell us that it was at this point that they learned that could paint or sing or dance or act as part of their life, no matter what job they went on to do. After all, it is part of education's job to educate people in such a way that they can live as fulfilled lives as possible. This is not to negate the importance of doing the basics but to say that they are not sufficient. People need to find ways in which to express and re-express aspects of their personality and lives. People who don't or can't,  quite often become withdrawn and depressed. We must not ever be in a position where we find ourselves saying that one of the causes for that is a monolithic curriculum which never gave young people a chance to find out what they could say through the arts.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A petition re the way education policy is produced

I have put up on twitter and facebook the suggestion that we need a petition to state clearly what is wrong with the idea that Michael Gove comes up with policies based on his (or a tiny group of people's) wishes and that education polices are not emerging from comparing research and evidence or coming out of informed discussion from interested parties.

In my view, such a petition should come from one of the professional or union bodies rather than from me. Quite clearly, if it came from me I would be reproducing the very same problem that I'm criticising Gove for ie that policy comes from the whim or bias of one person!

So can I propose from here that NATE or LATE or NAPE or NUT or UKLA or some body come up with a very simple petition that teachers, parents and school students can sign? I offer this as a suggestion: something along the lines of

We, the undersigned wish to register our opposition to the way in which education policy is being devised. We object to the way in which this policy is emerging from the Secretary of State's personal bias and/or the views of a very small group of advisers. We propose instead that policy should be developed from research, evidence and informed discussion between interested parties.

I'm sure more experienced drafters of petitions could come up with something and a means to distribute the petition too...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Newsnight and the BBC

I just posted this series of thoughts on the BBC Newsnight affair, on the Guardian Comment is Free website in response to an article by Tariq Ali.

1. People should be cautious in assuming that they know how the BBC is run. It is a very peculiar organisation with many unwritten rules, some of which prevail in some parts, some which prevail in others.
2. There isn't one BBC. Most people writing here talk as if there is one monolithic organisation with everyone being ruled, or running programmes in the same way. In fact, there are fiefdoms and the fiefdoms build up their own mini-cultures.
3. Talking about the output of 'the BBC' as if it too is one uniform world view is at best an exaggeration, at worst a distortion.
4. The BBC isn't 'free'. We pay for it out of our special TV tax and so the people who administer that revenue have the major say in running it. In an ideal world, I would like to see every institution paid for out or our various kinds of institution controlled more democratically. The only alternative posed in these times is privatisation which involves no democracy over 'production' either by producers or interested parties of any kind.
5. The private media aren't 'free'. They are paid for mostly from advertising. Advertising is a form of private taxation. The ludicrous structure of capitalist society rests on trillions of pounds being spent by capitalists taking money out of useful production into making ads - and paying for them to be seen and heard. Ultimately we pay for that in our wages and the cost of the things we buy. We pay for private media invisibly. It's not free.
6. This Newsnight affair was crap journalism. Basic journalistic ground rules weren't kept to. This is not a matter which is a sign of a sickness all the way across the whole of the BBC in its many different parts. Just to make a point: does this major mistake have anything to do with how the BBC broadcasts the Proms? Or Gardeners' Question Time?
7. I've worked inside the BBC on and off since 1969. I was sacked by the BBC because MI5 had an office in Broadcasting House and recommended that I be sacked. The BBC agreed. While that was going on, in another part of the BBC, those in control were turning a blind eye to how Top of the Pops was being run. As I say, there isn't one BBC.
8. Those of us who work in the BBC cannot understand how and why the Newsnight story got to the screen. We are all bound by two key rules 'compliance' and 'trust'. These were de facto rules but were made highly specific following such events as Hutton and the Queen documentary. In effect, it means that everything we say goes through a set of filters: producer, editor and each programme is 'signed off'. In the areas I work, this means that certain specific criteria about verifiability, honesty about who is speaking (and where from) have to be adhered to. As someone who has been through that mill many times, I have to figure out how and why the Newsnight story got made.
9. There can only be one reason: some people inside that part of the BBC got to be sufficiently powerful for them to be able to waive the rules that the rest of us abide by. This then raises the important question of why and how.
10. I think I know the answer to that question and it is to do with the kind of power that the broadcast 'departments'': 'News' and 'Current Affairs' wields in most broadcast organisations including the BBC.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Exams: testing, testing, testing

Every time a new exam is invented (eg Ebacc, SPAG) or an exam scandal (last summer's GCSE fiasco), the exam junkies appear. These are people who really believe in exams and testing and who love the apparatus and supposed science of them. They appear at meetings and in the media throwing around the jargon of the testing system as if the jargon itself was evidence of how worthwhile the whole thing is.

My thoughts:

1). We should never lose sight of the fact that exams are a system for sorting, selecting and segregating. This means that we have to ask ourselves, why? For what purpose? Are they really (as the test junkies claim) a means of creating a true meritocracy, where only the most able and most qualified rise to the top?

The problem with this scenario is that it ignores the fact that we live in a society that is already rigged to ensure that those in power and with wealth stay in power and keep their wealth, but also pass their power and wealth on to their offspring. This is what this society calls freedom.

The consequence of this freedom is that the powerful and the wealthy create a school system and an exam system that ensures that they either succeed in it; if they fail in it, they have the wealth to pay for more and more education until they succeed; or in the event of none of that working out, there are other routes to keeping that power and wealth - through relations and friends.

Taking the first of these: how can an exam system that seems fair, ensure that certain kinds of people succeed? It's about language and culture. In a previous blog, I gave the example of the sample of the spelling, punctuation and grammar test that is up on the DfE website. You could try an experiment, take two children - one who has a wide, deep reading habit, the other who can read but hardly ever does. Check that neither child has had any formal grammar teaching - or if they have, it's about the same. Now sit down with them and go through the sample grammar questions.

These questions as they stand at the moment, have a form which states the question, gives an illustration of a correct answer and then asks the candidate to do several on their own. What happens to the child who has the reading experience behind her/him, is that she/he can look at the given, correct answer, derive a principle and apply it to the questions. This is made easier by the fact that the shape of the sentences or phrases follows the shape of the sentence or phrase in the given correct answer. The reason why the examiners do that is because they know that children of this age don't really understand the grammar being asked of them. They learn how to spot patterns, similarities and cues and apply them - rather as I do maths, routines that I don't understand.

The reason why the child with the reading experience can do these questions is for language-and-culture reasons. By spending several hours a week reading, they have not only engaged with the feelings and ideas in the books, they have engaged with the 'vehicle' that conveys them - language. That's to say, without noticing, they have in their heads the structures, grammar, techniques, processes that formal standard English uses. So, seeing and hearing sentences shown as, say, 'active' and 'passive' might throw them for a moment if they don't know those terms, but the moment they see the examples, they can recognise them - even though most of the examples given in these tests are ludicrous sentences that no one ever says. In other words, the reading child has a kind of 'shadow sense' of the structures that lie behind the sentences given.

The non-reading child (the one who can read but doesn't) finds this very difficult. He or she doesn't have the experience of text, doesn't have that 'shadow sense' to help them spot the pattern laid down in the given correct answer.

Now, take that forward to a point, let's say, a year later, after the kind of exercises and drills that will be coming into schools, all being done in the name of fairness and ultimately that mythic meritocracy. We will tell ourselves that doing the drills and exercises will enable everyone to do the test; they will all  have had the same amount of grammar teaching.

Quite clearly, they have started that grammar teaching from a different linguistic and cultural base.

What conclusions might we draw from this?

a). Rather than spending more and more time doing less and less (ie more drills, more exercises) we should be doing everything we can to even up that linguistic and cultural base - ie getting every child reading for several hours a week.

b). We should recognise that such tests in the present set-up are largely a means of confirming a specific set of linguistic and cultural experiences. They are not about 'ability' or 'intelligence'.

c). I have focused on one kind of test, and one kind of question. This is only one tiny fraction of what goes on between class, home and school. If we look at the whole curriculum, the whole test and exam apparatus, we can look to see how the kinds of class/home experience slot into (or do not slot  into)the school experience and how this is reinforced and cemented in by the exam system - no matter how the test junkies justify it.

Another example: a few years ago in the Key stage 2 SATs paper, the main passage for comprehension was an article from the Sunday Times on caving. I'm of the view that all tests show a linguistic and cultural bias of some kind - even if it's sometimes hard to spot - but this was so blatant as to be laughable. On the one hand, there were children doing that test whose parents read the Sunday Times, and/or have the time and money and experience to do 'outdoor pursuits', and/or know people who do either or both of these things - and spend time talking and reading about such things (brochures, planning etc), and on the other, those who would have no idea what was going on, who've never been anywhere near a cave, or that kind of outdoor pursuit.

There wasn't even the pretence that what was being tested was equal or fair for everyone. It was just a piece of blatant class and culture politics enacted through the exam system. The exam system does the job that ultimately the wealthy and powerful want: ie that the population is segregated out for them into the different layers whilst ensuring that their own position (and that of their offspring) is maintained.

2). If all this sounds too much like a conspiracy, try this: consider what kinds of activities (which might include testing) would favour the unpowerful, the unwealthy? What experiences do the children of the unpowerful and unwealthy have which could in some way be part of a day's activity and which the wealthy and powerful would find as difficult as the unpowerful would have found that SAT paper on caving?

Let's start with the bilingual children. Imagine, if I waved my wand and said that bilingualism was one of the most important skills/capabilities that anyone could have and so the school system must reward this. (This would only be a version of what ministers say when they talk about, say, 'spelling' be an essential skill or some such. Again, if you think 'bilingualism' is an odd thing to choose, consider the case of Singapore (much vaunted by Gove et al), most people in Singapore are bilingual. One of the reasons for their success in the international league tables might just be that the population is bilingual! There are good reasons for thinking that might be the case based on what kinds of linguistic and cultural work are required to be bilingual...
I digress!)

Back with my magic wand scenario: I would hire the kind of docile hack who sits in the DfE doing what the minister bids them to devise bilingualism 'benchmarks' and tests. These might be, say, a standardised test or role play where a health practitioner explains in English to a bilingual child that the child's parent who is monolingual in a non-English language that the parent must come into hospital...or some such. I'm sure you could think of a better one or variants of it to suit the variety of linguistic experiences that children have.

So, the only children who would be able to do some kind of bilingual test in England (Wales is a different case altogether!) would be children who are themselves migrants or who have at least one migrant parent or carer, or some specific religious or cultural reason for having additional languages eg Jewish children being able to read ancient Hebrew, Muslim children (migrant or not) being able to read Arabic.

(Consider the situation in the US where children with Spanish is part of their linguistic range. Does the education system reward that kind of dual language facility right from the start? Or only when it becomes a matter of high order literacy at, say 15 or 16?)

So back with my scenario in England. The effect of rewarding bilingualism in English schools - let's say, adding it into SATs scores or some such, would completely alter what 'success' is in the schools. The profile of 'abilities' or 'achievement' or 'attainment' or  'success' (or whatever it's called this week) would be completely different.

Now, this scenario ain't gonna happen. Bilingualism isn't rated in this country even though it is becoming increasingly clear that there are many jobs going to people who are and even though there are strong pyscho-linguistic reasons for thinking that bilingualism - when given space to thrive - has repercussions on learning and thinking way beyond whether you can ask the way to the shops in two languages or not!

But - and this is crucial - the reasons why it isn't going to happen are cultural and political. They are nothing to do with education and nothing to do with 'attainment'. The supposed objectivity of 'assessment' gets locked into the political decisions as to what is assessed and why.

I give bilingualism as one obvious example. But there are many others.

Our leaders make decisions all the time about the relative ratings they give to skills, achievements and capabilities across the range of human activity. Sometimes this relates directly to what is generally accepted as useful and sometimes not. In the last couple of weeks it's been revealed that there is only one trained scientist in the House of Commons! This tells  you all you need to know about how the political elite is trained. Small wonder then, when the little cabals concerned with education get in their huddles or shouting at party conferences they end up talking about Shakespeare and not homeostasis. Small wonder that the word 'engineering' hardly ever passes their lips...and yet the world that we live in, the world that has been made before we got here, and is being made even as I write this, relies on science and engineering.

Primary schools remain biased towards such things as spelling, good words, times tables - a massive amount of surface correctness. Consider the possibility that science and engineering are based on problem solving, actual and theoretical. Consider the idea that a classroom could be a place where at least half the time and space was taken up with problem-solving, actual and theoretical. The school-building and site are themselves  a site of many problems, some already solved, some not. Many of the parents are engaged in problem-solving every day. Imagine the possibility that a whole chunk of schooling was about finding and trying to solve problems (I don't mean psychological!) that arise in the everyday life of the school and the every day life of the parents. Imagine if part of the job of a school would be to draw the parents (and friends/relations etc) into the school to share these.

Suddenly, what constitutes 'knowledge' or 'skills' would alter. It would have to be clear that a 'problem' could be anything from very small everyday tasks like moving furniture, mending leaks, poaching an egg to bigger ones that crop up at work in, say, the building trade, or the health service, or the post office or to even bigger ones like building bridges, digging tunnels, processing waste and so on.

People who face these problems and frequently have to solve them wouldn't necessarily be the same people whose lives, work and cultural background are favoured by the kind of curriculum we  have in schools, the kind of curriculum which is assessed by tests which mostly just confirm that kind of cultural background.

Suddenly, people who cook, clean, build, dig, measure and the like would be those with something to say to the curriculum.

I say this as an indication of how the exam system just works with the cultural and political bias of the curriculum which is a matter mostly of socially matching the make-up of the elite in society.

3,) Further thoughts in next blogs on exam stuff:
a)the bias of favouring individualism over social thinking and doing
b)the jargon of reliability and validity needs unpicking
c) exams as ways of reducing people for the convenience of bureaucrats
d) the knowledge of how to do the exams is as important if not more important than the knowledge or skills being tested
e) exams as the police system of schooling
f) the teaching to test blame game
g) the exam-league table hoax g)the norm-reference/criterion reference lie
h) 'levering up standards' - what are better ways than exams for doing this?
i) what would constitute a useful form of testing?

Friday, 2 November 2012


With the new spelling, punctuation and grammar test coming in, there is a lot of confusion and misrepresentation going on in relation to grammar. What follows is offered as a positive contribution.

1. All languages, dialects, slangs, ways of speaking have 'grammar'. Grammar is first and foremost a word to describe the fact that languages have systems for hanging sounds, signs and words together. This  idea of grammar tells us that it is grammar that gives those sounds, signs and words their meaning.

2. The only means we have of describing grammar is by using words. This means that there is a secondary meaning to the word 'grammar' which is in effect, 'this set of words or terms that I'm using to describe grammar'. Most of the time, people use the word grammar in this secondary sense. When they say, 'grammar', they mean that 'system that was described in the way that I learned'.

3. This becomes a problem when people think that there is only one way to describe the language and it was the one they learned. What follows from this is that the word 'grammar' is used as if describing language is without problems, disagreements or, if you like, a work in progress, or indeed an imprecise process in which there are several possibilities. Why should it not be? Language is a human activity and like all human activities  it involves, (or is part of) the mind, social interaction and behaviour. We know from, say, the world of psychology there is no universally agreed system that satisfies all psychologists - and no reason why there should be.

4. Grammar is a very abstract way of thinking about words. Most of the time we use words to mean things. We talk about expression, communication, understanding, instruction, direction and the like. These are all words which suggest that we use language for purpose and meaning.  Talking about grammar of language is often  firstly concerned with whether words, sentences, paragraphs and the like can be categorised, ie  given group headings like 'noun', 'verb' etc. This is not what we usually do when we use language. I'm going to call that way of thinking 'abstract'.

5. Secondarily, a lot of grammar is about process. That's to say, it takes words like 'noun' and tries to find out what the nouns 'are doing'. In fact, they don't 'do' anything. We do the doing! Human beings make choices about what to do with nouns. However, a good deal of grammar (and I may do it here) uses a short hand to suggest that it does stuff for its own internal reasons, without human beings being involved. I would suggest that that is impossible.

6. These processes are very hard to describe and are much disputed. So what grammarians do is take a word like 'noun' and say that in a given 'utterance' (which can mean something spoken or written) the noun is acting as a 'subject'. This is a category of what nouns might 'do'. So, the 'subject' of a sentence is in grammatical terms in a relation with a 'verb'. So now we are into a secondary level of abstraction. We've taken the abstract word 'noun' and created a category for what it's doing: 'being a subject'. It is this kind of double abstraction which makes it hard for  young children to get hold of. They can learn it parrot fashion, they might be able to spot what's going on if you give them an illustration and very similar examples, but trying to deduce what the subject of a sentence is in, say, a passage of a Shakespeare sonnet, where the subject can come after the verb or very detached from the verb is very hard and requires an understanding of the process at a very abstract level.

7. In the test that is coming up for Year 6's it looks as if the following kinds of grammatical description are going to be tested:

subject-verb agreement
use of prepositions
word classes
grammatical function of words
different types of sentences
grammar of complex sentences

8. If you look at the sample test paper on the DfE website you can see the kinds of questions that are going to be asked.

9. Your school will decide on the best way to teach this. By and large, the only way that this country has known how to teach grammar is through 'exercises'. That's to say, sentences are given to the pupils and they are told what's in the sentence. There is no reason why this should be the main way or the only way for grammar to be taught. There is at least one other way: this is to treat language as something that the children can investigate.

10 Investigating language: for a start you can set up the problem of a) how to find categories for different kinds of words and b)how to describe how sentences work.

What happens if you ask children to 'sort' words just as you might ask them to sort buttons, or fruit, or numbers?

What categories do they come up with?
How useful are they?
How could such categories be used?

What happens if you now introduce the idea of 'noun' after this?

Now let's see if we can spot nouns and if there are different kinds of nouns?

Why is it difficult? why do we not agree?

One of the reasons for that is that the central problem of grammar is that you can only say what something IS, if you can also say what it DOES!

One example: when nouns are in use, they are only nouns because they are doing a 'noun thing'. 'Noun' is not a label that you can attach to a word because it is of itself a 'noun'. So, to take an obvious example that irritated some people during the Olympics: 'medal' can act as a noun in 'I won the gold medal' or as a verb in 'I hope to medal in this race'. It's the function that makes it a noun, not anything else.

So nouns are not 'naming words'. They are those words that are acting in a certain way in sentences and speech (which is mostly not 'in sentences'!)

So, can we ask children to see if there are any patterns in the sentences that they are reading.
They may come up with a noun-verb-noun pattern. Maybe, maybe not.
What patterns do they come up with?
Why do we disagree?

Now introduce the noun-verb pattern....

And so on.

11. re: the list of possible subjects coming up in the test. They are in some ways quite problematic.
Subject-verb agreement.
We don't always agree about this! And the situation is changing even amongst so-called educated people and has done in my own lifetime.

The formal shape of European languages is that the word which is the 'subject' will have a particular bit of the  verb matching it.

In standard English 'I was'. In some other dialects: 'I were...'
In standard English 'We were'. In some other dialects 'We was.'
In standard English 'The boy comes in..' In some other dialects: 'The boy come in...'

This grammar test want you to teach the standard English form and say that the dialect form is either 'wrong' or 'not appropriate' for a particular kind of writing.
That's fine, so long as we understand why for some children this is very hard to get right. Not impossible. Just hard. They might hear every day and all day, equivalents of: 'The boy come in...' So when they're asked to get the right answer for the test, this is a harder job for them than for the child who hears and only hears 'The boy comes in' etc.

We should never forget that it's hard, even as we may try our damnedest to help the child who doesn't hear the standard form very often. It is also just possible that this test will simply confirm that those children who use the non-standard forms will not do so well as those who use the standard forms.

So firstly, with any noun that seems to contain lots of items within it a 'collective' noun you can often read things like 'the government is...' or 'the government are...'.

Then I've noticed that more and more often, all sorts of people like MPs, journalists, commentators have started using phrases that come before the noun as if they are in inverted commas or the subject they're talking about  or a title of something. This then entitles them to take something that is plural (more than one) and use it with a 'singular' form of the verb.

So, here's where that happens when it's a title: "'The Borrowers' is a good read.'" (not 'The Borrowers' are a good read.')

But I hear things like 'Too many cards in my wallet makes me worry.'
In standard English that would be 'Too many cards in my wallet make me worry.'

It's as if 'too many cards in my wallet' is a topic that makes the speaker worry.

You listen out for it. I think it may have come about because so many people in quite formal situations (speeches, presentations, articles) are working to headings. So people are turning things in their speech into informal headings which then become singular.

So, to finish this for today (!), the very things that we are testing the children on are 'unstable' or changing. Some people would like to pretend that they are not. Or that you can't tell children that they're changing or they'll get confused.

I disagree. By telling children they are not changing they become confused when they hear or read examples that don't fit the exact shape or 'rule' that we tell them that they should produce.

The books they read will vary between them in usage. Particularly, when it comes to deciding what is a sentence. As with that last one. And that one. And that one.

How Gove wangled the grammar test in.

What follows is a summary of a) how the 'SPAG' test came in and b) how I think it was fiddled. c) why I think this is educationally wrong and a scandal.

Can I urge anyone involved in the politics of this to raise these matters.

1. We have a spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary test coming up in May 2013 - possibly with handwriting thrown in.

2.. How did this bit of education policy come into being? Where does it come from?

3. Gove introduced it on the 'recommendation' he says of the Bew independent review.

4. This review was indeed very thorough and when you read the 'Progress Report' its tone and method is fair and the section on assessment and accountability is backed up by massive amounts of data and research.

5. There are sections on Writing and Reading which are really just statements of belief. There is no data, no research to back up any of it. It really is quite inadequate.

6. Three months later, Bew produced a Final Report. In this report there is a recommendation that there be spelling, punctuation, grammar test. No evidence given, no data to back it up.

7. A few months later, Gove 'accepted the recommendations'.

There is clearly something very fishy going on here.

I suspect that what happened is the following:

1. Ruth Miskin was on the Bew committee. She is going to benefit financially from the SPAG test. Her Read, Write, inc., 'Comprehension' materials are being marketed as containing 'grammar' work. I think that she would have argued strongly within the committee that there should be a SPAG test. She argued for the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check.

2. Bew gave very good arguments as to why there should be no Writing test for Year 6 and that it should be teacher assessed. I think the SPAG test is a deal ie you can have your teacher-assessment for Writing so we can have the SPAG test.

3. Some time between the Progress Report and the Final Report, I think that Gove intervened either directly or through Ruth Miskin or through a civil servant. There is no trail that tells us why or how this SPAG test was created by Bew. No indication where it came from. There is no argument for it or proof that it's necessary. For me, that smells of jiggery-pokery. It has been introduced as a piece of political prejudice. Not educational theory.

4 The rhetoric about Gove 'accepting the recommendations' of the Bew report is, I believe, a hoax. Of course he accepted the recommendations. He, I believe, is the one who did the recommending!

The main reason why this is a scandal is that it will affect Year 6 (and Year 5, I suspect) education fundamentally. Back will come months of exercises and drills in 'grammar' for which there is absolutely no evidence that it helps with writing or reading - or indeed that most Year 6 pupils actually understand it.

(Just to recap from a previous blog on this: the explaining or describing of grammar is a highly abstract activity. The moment you talk about nouns or verbs you are looking at language not as words that refer to things and actions but to what kind of words they are. Then if you start talking about 'subject' or 'agreement' (as recommended) you are in effect talking about a second layer of abstraction ie  you're taking 'noun' and 'verb' and saying 'what does this 'noun' do? or how should this 'noun' behave' and you start having rules or descriptions based on this second level of abstraction. Very few 10 and 11 year olds can understand this kind of abstraction. They can do exercises where they follow the pattern laid out in an illustration or example - particularly if they are children who have read and written an enormous amount of stuff. But real understanding of abstraction and double abstraction is immensely difficult for that age of child. We don't teach them calculus for the same reason. Really. That's not a joke.)

This test (for the reasons in the section in brackets above this) will penalise children who are inexperienced readers. It will take up months of anxious classroom and homework drilling. Teachers will be forced to teach to the test, even though Bew and Ofsted have warned against it. And it will be pointless. It will take children and teachers away from important and significant work with language eg talking about language in use, language practice in books, and with people that the children know and can hear. It will take them away from reading books and printed stuff that they have chosen, an activity which is known to massively improve achievement and attainment at all activities in schools, particularly those connected with the written language.

So, I think we have a scandal on our hands. At the very least, there is a question of accountability. I can find no explanation on the DfE site as to why or how this recommendation for the test came in, or why or how this recommendation became policy. Everything else I've written above is of course what I think went on. I suspect we'll never know. Certainly there are no MPs asking questions about it in the House, are there?!

I have written a 'Dear Mr Gove' letter about it for next Tuesday's Guardian but it doesn't lay all this out in quite the same way because there wasn't space and some of the stuff to do with old 'reviews' and 'reports' is, I admit (!),  quite hard to follow.

However, if you are reading this and you are anything to do with someone who can raise these matters politically, please do so. I think I'm on to something here!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Spill the beans if you know about this

I know that this may seem like re-heating old toast but please bear with me. Coming up in May are the tests for Year 6 pupils in spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and probably, handwriting. I think these are seriously misguided and that there is absolutely no evidence to justify bringing them in. That's to say, there is no evidence that doing the tests or teaching what's required by the tests will improve children's writing. There is however, reams and reams of evidence from all over the world to show that sustained reading for pleasure,  involving children choosing what they want to read, does in fact improve writing. I've cited some of it on this blog. (I also have some interesting anecdotal evidence from a casual 'test' that I did with my daughter, which I will write up soon.)

So, how does a major educational innovation like this happen? Where does it come from?

I've been doing some digging on the Department for Education website and as far as I can make out, it seems to arise more as an outburst than a sustained piece of reasoning and it's to be found at the heart of a report that wasn't set up to think about these things in the first place!

Lord Bew's Review was primarily supposed to be looking at the question of assessment and accountability for Year 6 pupils (though I see in the small print at the bottom in its terms of reference it could also consider matters related to the curriculum. You can check all this out on the DfE website.) The commission set up to review course content was the Curriculum Review with Mary James, Andrew Pollard, Dylan Wiliam and Nick Oates. As we know, that broke up in disarray when Pollard and James resigned. However, prior to all that, Lord Bew had pronounced: first in a 'Progress Report' (April 2011) and then in a 'Final Report' (June 2011).

In the Progress Report, Bew et al spend most of the time talking about assessment and accountability, presenting reams of research and evidence. Then towards the end they made a pronouncement about writing, given with absolutely no evidence. At this stage in April, they make no mention of a test in spelling, punctuation, grammar etc. Then the Final Report came out three months later and there they recommend exactly this test.

My question is - and I have no answer - where did the idea for this test come from? How come Lord Bew et al made it? Why wasn't it in the Progress Report? How come they could make this recommendation without the same kind of evidence that he furnishes re assessment and accountability? And, mea culpa, why or how didn't I notice any of this before?

Someone reading this - I'm sure you did spot it, you do know how it arose, you could tell me, but you're worried about losing your job etc etc.

However, if  you want to spill the beans, and want to do so anonymously, you can write to me at under any pseudonym you like.

Of course, Lord Bew and the rest of the committee must know, including none other than Ruth Miskin - she who has benefited financially from being government adviser on education whilst being the writer of one of the initial reading schemes that receives direct government funding. But surely the SPAG test couldn't have come directly from her? And surely she can't have devised some materials which will exactly fit the SPAG test and which schools will be buying in their thousands? Surely not. That's cleared that up, then.