Wednesday 26 June 2013

Police and the Lawrences - joining the dots

I notice that very little of the coverage of the Stephen Lawrence surveillance has joined the dots up.

1. There is a horrific racist murder.
2. The police are clearly unwilling to investigate the case according to their own standards of criminal investigation.
3. It emerges very slowly that there is some kind of collaboration between some local officers and the father of the suspects.
4. The police not only fail to investigate properly and promptly, they start to harass the Lawrence family and Stephen's friends.
5. The case moves from an injustice case to a more political one.
6. Under the smokescreen that this is a matter of concern, the police start to engage in surveillance of the Lawrences and their supporters.

Standby for the way in which the police will try to stage manage this debacle in terms of their 'concerns' for local order that took them into making this 'error' or some such, when in fact, the whole thing kicked off because they were in cahoots with local criminals who also happened to be racist murderers.

Sunday 16 June 2013

The Chronic Screening Pheck - tomorrow.

I've written before about the Phonics Screening Check (which is, as we know, Chronic Screening Pheck). We know now that it fails good readers. We know that it only identifies one possible reason why children might not be reading out loud well. We know that reading involves many different kinds of intelligence so why isolate and prioritise one: ie the one that asks of children to read certain kinds of words phonically and out loud? We know that a 'good result' in the test only tells us that that child reads phonically regular words out loud well. It tells us nothing about whether that child will be able to do better at doing the same when faced with non-regular words. It tells us nothing about whether that child can understand what he or she is reading, nor whether it will help that child later that year, the following year or in a few years time. In other words the test is useless.

However there is one other aspect that hasn't been mentioned as it's sometimes thought of as too theoretical. That is about how the test sits in relation to language. It's sometimes said that we talk in words or that language is made up of words. This is really such an oversimplification it's an untruth. Yes, we talk and write in words but these only have meaning in real situations when they are linked in the sequences we produce for real life purposes. These are sequences of dialogue (conversation), letters, emails, poetry, plays, novels, instructions, debates and almost every other language use you can think of. Linguists have ways of talking about these as 'phrases', 'clauses', 'sentences'. The reason why we produce the sequences in the shape we do, is because of 'grammar' or 'syntax'. As one simple example: I will say, 'the Phonics Screening Check', not 'Phonics Screening Check the' for reasons of how English has developed the 'Noun phrase'.

The Phonics Screening Check presents children with words in a form that they never use: a list of un-linked words, in no sequence that is related to real use, other than that it is a list for a test. It is not meant to communicate anything, it is unrelated to meaning. Those of us in education are of course desperate to help children produce useful and meaningful language - in speech and in writing and yet in their first year we throw at them a high status language event - the test. It's not only high status, it's deemed to be very significant. It is supposed to signify something important about children's use of language - yet it isn't language! It's words.

In some schools, it is handled with the lightest of possible touches, with very little direct preparation. In others, there is Phonics Screening Check preparation, involving reading of word-lists. Time is taken away from children looking at real language in use in order to fulfil the requirements of a useless test.  This is shameful.

Friday 14 June 2013

Brilliant analysis of Wilshaw's rubbish

Why Ofsted is wrong about bright children in comprehensives

Ofsted is playing to Michael Gove's agenda by scaremongering about bright children. The facts tell a different story
Examination papers
‘Ofsted's comparison of results at 11 and 16 is an arbitrary one, apparently designed to put comprehensives in the worst possible light.' Photograph: David Cheskin/PA
More than four in 10 (41%) of the most able children who go to grammar schools fail to achieve their full potential. Is that a scandal? It sounds deplorable, since grammar schools are designed to get the best out of the cleverest. They don't have much excuse for failing such children. But it depends on what you mean by "most able", "achieve" and "potential".
The equivalent figure for comprehensive schools, 65%, was highlighted this week by Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, launching an Ofsted report on whether "the most able" pupils are "doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools". In Wilshaw's view, that 65% "failure rate" is certainly a scandal. Comprehensives, he declared, "are failing to nurture scholastic excellence" and this outcome, largely attributable to mixed ability teaching, was "unacceptable in an increasingly competitive world".
Ofsted's definition of "most able" is children who achieve level 5 or above for both reading and maths in Sats tests at age 11. To fulfil "potential", they should get an A* or A in both English and maths at GCSE five years later. Its "unacceptable" 65% is the proportion of those achieving the first who don't achieve the second. It does not tell us what proportion of those who got top results in GCSE had done badly in their Sats at 11. We therefore know how often comprehensives supposedly make sows' ears out of silk purses, but not how often they achieve the reverse.
Ofsted's comparison of children's results at 11 and 16 is an arbitrary one, apparently designed to put comprehensives in the worst possible light. The evidence is simply not robust enough to support Wilshaw's sweeping claims.
First, level 5 and above in Sats is achieved by nearly half of 11-year-olds in reading, and well over a third in maths. These children may be above average, but to describe them all as high flyers is a stretch. Grammar schools usually pick out, from within this group, those with the highest scores. Any comparison between their outcomes and the apparently inferior ones in comprehensives is therefore spurious.
Second, the Sats levels are notoriously unreliable since they depend on a test taken on a particular day, on a limited number of items. A test taken on a different day, covering different items, may well produce a different result. To argue, as Ofsted seems to do, that comprehensives should stream children into ability groups on the basis of Sats, is outrageous. Some experts reckon that as many as one child in three is given the wrong grade. Ofsted claimed to be shocked that some schools couldn't even identify their most able pupils, but if the schools used Sats results to do so they would get it badly wrong.
Third, the GCSE, in its present form, is a quite different test from Sats, and a more sophisticated one. Thanks to reforms of the past 30 years, it uses several methods to grade children, including tests taken at intervals throughout the course, projects, practicals, orals and coursework, as well as the traditional end-of-course written exam. Whatever its shortcomings, it is likely to give a more accurate snapshot of a pupil's attainments at 16 than Sats do of attainments at 11.
Alas, that will no longer be so when Michael Gove's counter-reformation is complete. The new GCSE, which the education secretary announced this week, will rely almost entirely on traditional exams. When the first results emerge in 2017 it may be reasonable to make comparisons between performance in Sats and GCSEs, but not reasonable to assume pupils are being properly educated or, in either case, accurately graded.
Wilshaw has played to Gove's agenda. The education secretary wants children to move along a conveyor belt following a narrow curriculum geared to the academic requirements of elite universities. In his view, schools need to focus on the brightest pupils lest we fail to match other countries in economic success.
But the evidence is mixed. Finland consistently comes at or near the top of international educational performance measures. Most league tables of GDP per head put Finland roughly equal to Britain, even a little higher. Yet it has no grammar schools, no fee-charging schools, no ability grouping until age 16 (by law), no external exams or tests until 18, no talk of failing schools, and none of the constant pressure that makes our teachers' lives such a misery. Before he berates English comprehensives, Wilshaw should raise his own game by looking at more varied and reliable evidence.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Me being interviewed on education

I was asked to sum up my thoughts on education at the moment. Here's the interview in about 11 minutes!!

Education: dictatorship of the Secretariat. Abolish it.

Most 'reforms' in education have two elements that underpin them: 1) they are based on the fairytale of universal 'decline' 2) since 1988 they have been carried out by small clique without the so-called checks and balances of constitutional democracy.

1. This fairytale is a multi-dimensional construct made up of a mixture of : a general despising of children and young people; a sneering view of low-paid public servants generated by people who buy education along with most other services; a distorted view of the strengths and weaknesses of previous eras favouring a nonsense that better order prevailed in the past; a buzz dominated by a protestant/puritan view of work, duty, punishment, the 'fall of man' and original sin and what are seen as the opposites of this ie pleasure, laziness, fun.

2. The Secretary of State for Education has become a job which is one of the least accountable in the whole of constitutional democracy - no matter who holds the post. The extent of this unaccountability is only visible when we compare it to the kind of job it was before 1988. At this time, the various standard 'checks and balances' were in place - institutions and processes which our leaders and historians will still boast about as if they are still in place. So, in the past decisions about education were made as a result of a complex set of processes involving local authorities, the Civil Service, parliament, the professional teachers' associations, university departments of education, the inspectorate (HMI) and on occasions representatives delegated from the teaching unions. Very little of this was 'constitutional'. As with a lot of processes related to government, it had arisen mostly out of custom and practice - which is why the Thatcherite/Blairite/Coalition-ite governments have found it all so easy to sweep to one side in the name of 'reform' - or more particularly in relation to education - in the name of brushing aside the 'education establishment'.

Just to be clear, I'm not lauding the old procedures as ideal. The system reeked of old-boy networks, privilege and a patronizing approach to what is a universal right - education. However, in relation to the power of the Secretary of State, it involved much more of a consensus than is in place at the moment. To take one example, the opening and closing of schools: this could not be carried out by the Secretary of State making that decision entirely on his or her own. Local authorities making what was supposed to be a decision on the basis of the provision they offered across their whole administrative area made a recommendation, which was then approved or disapproved by the Minister in consultation with HMI and the Civil Service. In relation to the curriculum, this was thought to be a highly complex matter requiring active participation from a wide-ranging team of people who were themselves representatives from professional groups with long histories of research, educational experience and evidence collecting. Underlying this was an understanding - perhaps unstated, perhaps assumed - that in order for curriculum changes to take place, the body of the teaching profession needed to be on board. When you look down the list of names on, for example, the Bullock Report or the Plowden Report, you can see that some effort was made to represent the majority of associations and interests involved in that particular endeavour.

Again, a criticism can be made that it was hierarchical and patronizing but in comparison to what we have now, it was markedly different in intent and quality.

By making the minutiae of what is taught and how it is taught a matter of the Secretary of State's policy and directives, there has been a shift away from schools, local authorities and indeed parliament as the final arbiters of what goes on in classrooms. The counter to this might be to cite the case of Academies, where surely there is much more autonomy? Well, it's a bogus autonomy. The Academies are locked into competition for 'customers' with the league tables acting as a policing system preventing co-operation between teachers and schools. Norm-referenced exams guarantee the number of pupil failures so 'my academy' must do better than 'your academy' or we'll be closed and re-opened. What's more each Academy is directly responsible to....the Secretary of State and not to parliament or the local authority. All decisions concerning an Academy's fate are in his or her hands.

In my 'Dear Mr Gove' letter coming out this coming Tuesday in the Guardian I have gone into more detail about his, most of which inspired by an article by Sir Peter Newsam written a couple of years ago. I will link to it here after it comes out.

In the meantime, any of us who are interested in education as a place where teachers and pupils are engaged in learning through co-operation, invention, investigation and discovery might think how we can deal with this shift in power. I am totally in favour of engaging with the nitty-gritty of what is right or wrong about structures in education, ideology of 'reforms', the testing regime, the actual policies of this or that curriculum change - while at the same time maintaining that the real problem is how education is run - no matter who is in charge.

A truly reforming Labour administration would reform this top-down, totalitarian approach to education before engaging in the detail. Our notion of reform in education should start with ideas about what an Education department could look like after the dictatorship of the Secretariat has been abolished.

Friday 7 June 2013

Jazz, science, sounds, poems: I'm fairly buzzin

I've been away from here for a while for two main reasons: I'm writing a book (for adults) about the alphabet. It's called 'Alphabetical' and it'll be out in November. The other reason is that I've been rehearsing a show called 'Centrally Heated Knickers' based on my book of that name published and in print with Puffin.

The poems in the book were a commission from the Design Council and they were each triggered off by a science theme. As a project it was overseen by the Association for Science Education at (let me recommend them highly) and they produced a book called "star* Science, Technology and Reading" which is available at their site.

This comes from more enlightened days when teachers, researchers and advisers were thinking together about how to inspire children's sense of enquiry and imagination in all field but in particular from the perspective of science. As this is something that I believe in, I was more than happy to take part. I see no conflict or opposition between the kind of enquiry that poetry goes in for and the kind of enquiry that science goes in for. Of course, in our separate professional fields we work to different routines but along the way we share the ideas of inventiveness, planning, daydreaming, speculating in order to arrive at our respective endpoints.

After the show I did with the Homemade Orchestra based on my nonsense poems in 'Michael Rosen's Book of Nonsense' and 'Even More Nonsense', Tim Whitehead and Colin Riley from the Homemade Orchestra approached me about putting together another show. We lighted on 'Centrally Heated Knickers' - they are both scientific and artistic musicians, after all.

Over the following two years, they have created a musical show based on about 25 of the poems from the book. I've added some material from other books or written new stuff. Tony Graham (ex-artistic director of the Unicorn) has been working with us for the last 6 months directing and devising the show, turning it into a theatrical event. Maisie Whitehead mimes and dances. Dave Preston features on guitar, Jim Hart on drums and vibes. Tim plays sax and bass clarinet. I do most of the poems. The Homemade Orchestra also sing, play teapots, saucepans, bicycle wheels and anything to hand.

The end result is musical, poetical...with loads of jazz, rock, digital sounds, audience participation and even a scientific display of the inner ear!

It's something that I am very proud to be part of. I think we are breaking new ground in combining the arts with science within a show that anyone can get hold of, from quite young to adult. The title of the show is obviously frivolous but at each point in the show there are layers of ideas, feelings and science going on, hooked together with music and poetry. I feel  - now we've done two shows and getting into the groove - that it's one of the most inventive things I've been part of. I don't think that anyone coming to see it would have ever seen anything quite like it.

The tour is up on my website under 'Events' at The show has its own website and a tweet address on @HeatedKnickers

If you are a teacher or parent reading this, can I say that if you want to get the most out of the show with your children, do think about using the two books I mention at the beginning of this blog. You could read some of the poems to the children  before or after coming to the show. The "*star" book has many wonderful suggestions about work you can do with the children. And our website has already got some fun stuff to do but a lot more will go up soon.

Hope to see you there.

Link to the "*star" book here:

The show is supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Arts Council.