Saturday, October 24, 2009

Layer 210 . . . Education, Equality, Transformation and Alexander

There were two columns in the Guardian yesterday that were worth reading on the subject of education.

Firstly, in the Response column, Warwick Mansell, author of “Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing”, wrote a piece under the heading,

Targets are not the way to make schools accountable
Sats tests cause pupils great harm and the information they provide is often of little use
Peter Preston, in discussing the Cambridge primary review, repeated misconceptions which regularly feature in the debate about whether the current system of holding schools – and other public services – to account is working effectively (In praise of targets, 19 October).
First, he said that "around a fifth of all children moving on to secondary education at 11 remain fundamentally illiterate". In 2009, 20% did indeed fail to reach the government's "expected" level – level 4 – in English tests. But most of those achieved level 3, which has been defined, for reading, by the people who set the tests, as "pupils read a range of texts fluently and accurately". Level 4 was originally set at what the average pupil would achieve.
Second, Preston suggested that parents would be worse off if they "didn't know exactly what was going on" through the Sats tests. But this overlooks whether the information provided by the Sats is actually of much use. A report by Ofsted last year said schools could boost their pupils' performance in the maths tests without building underlying problem-solving ability, partly because the tests do not assess it well.
The English tests have been criticised for a mechanistic mark scheme which can overlook and marginalise imaginative writing. And the science tests were abandoned last year following widespread complaints from scientists that they sidelined practical science work.
More fundamentally, most of the difference between schools' Sats results is the product of pupils' backgrounds, while the artificial quality of the results generated after months of teaching to the test is reflected in many secondary schools' decisions to re-test pupils when they receive them.
Third, he implied that those – such as the authors of the primary review – who criticise this system simply want a return to the past and to do away with accountability. But the review was clear that it was not a question of whether there should be accountability, but of which type.
The targets/league tables/high-stakes testing system is widely disliked by teachers. But it is also letting pupils down. And while the "cerebral leader writers on the Times" may like it, other intelligent, disinterested people – including scientific and mathematical organisations and exam boards – have serious reservations about it: the government's was the only one of 52 submissions to a parliamentary investigation two years ago which backed it.
Read the rest of this piece here -

The quality of some of the comments on CiF after the article is enough to make anyone despair, but thankfully Warwick Mansell came back at them with this:
It's not the fact that children are tested, but the tests-plus-accountability system: the league tables, targets, Ofsted inspections, performance pay system which rests on the tests and says that the be-all-and-end-all for a school is its test scores.
Some schools clearly do resist this pressure, but for others it can and does lead to a narrowing of the curriculum so that non-tested subjects are marginalised, a narrowing of the school experience in the tested subjects towards months of revision/test practice in the run-up to the tests - official survey data suggests the typical school spends 10 hours a week on test preparation in the four month run-up to the KS2 tests - and a reminder to all children that they are being judged only in terms of test performance over a few days.
Here is some evidence on the downsides, taken from my website
I'm not a parent myself, but I would say the best way that people can react to this system is not to obsess about the test levels, and the league table scores.
The evidence below is a set of selected quotations from evidence submissions given by various organisations to the 2007 Children, Schools and Families investigation into testing.
- Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education: The continual testing and practising for tests has resulted in a narrow and impoverished mathematics curriculum, and poor quality teaching of that curriculum.
- Institute of Educational Assessors: We may be churning out individuals who can pass tests and who can achieve good results to a given, known test but who cannot necessarily apply their knowledge and skills to other situations, hence the concern from employers about skill levels among young people.
- The Royal Society: It is clear that aspects of our current assessment system are holding back students and teachers performance and creativity, contributing to a declining popularity in the physical sciences and mathematics and inadequate recruitment and retention of specialist teachers in these subjects.
- Hampshire County Council: The assessment regime has become enormously burdensome for schools. National Curriculum (NC) tests have now expanded out of all proportion to their usefulness. It also calls for a more humane system.
- General Teaching Council: Tests are used for too many purposes and this compromises their reliability and validity. The tests can depress pupils motivation and increase anxiety. They do not adequately serve the interests of parents or pupils and they lead to a narrowed curriculum and encourage ‘teaching to the test.
- Institute of Physics: We believe that current assessment arrangements are promoting too narrow a range of skills and understanding, principally there is too great an emphasis on testing students ability to recall facts. This leads to a situation where there is insufficient teaching for understanding or creativity, with accompanying negative effects on students motivation and enjoyment.
- Association for Achievement and Improvement through Assessment: We believe the current testing system is limited in measurement of childrens performance across the National Curriculum programmes of study.
- Campaign for Science and Engineering: We do not doubt that students appear to work harder at school than those of ten or fifteen years ago, but too much of this extra effort appears to have been devoted to the narrow and unremitting demands of national tests.
- The Wellcome Trust: Primary teachers felt that national tests had a negative effect on childrens enjoyment of science, because of the increasing tendency to ‘teach to the test. An over-emphasis on curriculum content and pressure to prepare for national tests were felt to reduce opportunities for investigative work and lead to science frequently being taught as a collection of facts.
- Institute for Public Policy Research: The current national tests do not provide highly reliable or valid measures at the level of the individual pupil...The current assessment and accountability framework can impact on valuable elements of assessment such as assessment for learning. This can happen through narrow and shallow learning, questions-spotting and risk-averse teaching.
- Association of School and College Leaders: Assessment in Britain requires a radical review. In England, young people take externally set and marked examinations at the ages of 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. The system is at breaking point as more and more examinations have been added to an already over-examined system.
- Mathematical Association: Coaching for the test, now occupying inflated teaching time and effort in almost all schools for which we have information at each Key Stage, is not constructive: short term ‘teaching how to is no substitute for longterm teaching of understanding and relationship within and beyond mathematics part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

Meanwhile, on the Leaders page (Comment & Debate), Lynsey Hanley, author of “Estates: An Intimate  History”, wrote this piece -

Equality, not education, is the key to individual transformation

Political parties fail to understand or address the root causes of the country's failing education system
Reading the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on the "extraordinarily anxious and in many ways oppressive climate in education at every level" that has been created in the 20 years or so since the imposition of the national curriculum, made me wonder yet again about the wisdom of the competing parties' plans for education: whether Labour's lowering of the starting age and expansion of the academies programme, or Tory proposals for parents to open their own state-funded "free schools". Politicians on both sides talk of education as the key to individual and social transformation – as Michael Gove put in his conference speech, "the opportunity to choose [one's] own destiny" – but none properly address the link between education and social segregation.
It comes down to economics: what you're worth, in other words. Those who are valued the least think the least of themselves and others. Those who are valued the most think well of themselves and award themselves, as they are rewarded, with education and mobility to attractive, affluent areas largely untroubled by the difficulties experienced by people in poorer ones.
This week, figures released by the University and College Union have shown the extent to which Britain is polarised by access to education, money, safe surroundings or their lack. Dividing the data available on qualifications by parliamentary constituency allows you to see the vast discrepancies between areas. In Bootle, for instance, you're far more likely to have no GCSEs than to have a degree, whereas in much of the south-east the opposite holds true. Areas are becoming less like each other, and less easily averaged out, over time.
Schools without banding and lotteries for places – though these practices are becoming more common – become microcosms of the area in which they operate. Successful schools are those where staff and students feel as though they can take charge of the raw materials of life and shape something good out of it; the less successful are those which struggle to find evidence that such a thing is possible. As an adult, the difference between being seen and unseen often comes down to how well you're able to articulate what the matter is.
The affluent and highly educated concentrate themselves in areas such as Sheffield Hallam and Richmond, gathering so much power that they can afford to pretend that power is irrelevant; poor and low-educated communities are so stymied by the imbalance that they come to believe they have no power.

Attempts made by the mainstream British political parties to interpret the needs of the "white working class" – and, as is the government's current strategy, to throw money at the symptoms of malaise rather than to address the causes – is a classic example of how social stratification leads to the warping and splitting of common values. A deep lack of entitlement and confidence felt by working-class people, structured in large part by a combination of powerlessness, poverty and snobbery directed towards them by those who are better off, ought not to be confused with the entitlement to "Britishness" that's often invoked by the same individuals.

Starting school at four, or attending a spanking new academy with no social mix, won't alter this relationship between perception and experience because neither proposal has equality, the healer of divisions both real and imagined, as its driving motivation.
Read the rest of it here:

I'd be interested to know what readers think of the comments on CiF about these two articles. Forget about MoveAnyMountain though – it's understood that MAM is a raving long-winded neanderthal.


In today's paper have a look at this -

Ed Balls accused of 'lashing out wildly' at primary school review findings
• Head of review says Labour does not listen
• Growing anger among teachers at response

It's by Polly Curtis, the education editor.
The man behind a major inquiry into primary education today accuses Ed Balls and his ministers of "lashing out wildly" and dismissing his review findings without properly reading it.
Robin Alexander, head of the Cambridge review of primary schools, said the Labour government refused to "listen, engage and learn" from independent advice in its "micro-managed" system.
Writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free website, he sets out how the government's response to the review betrayed the fact that ministers had not properly read it, setting out inaccuracies in how both they and their Conservative shadows described it.
Alexander's intervention comes amid growing anger in schools and teacher groups about the government's dismissal of the review. It also comes after a tumultuous week in which Balls was accused of being a "bit of a bully" by Barry Sheerman, the chair of the Commons committee for children, schools and families, after he appointed Maggie Atkinson to the role of children's commissioner. He also faced heavy criticism at the national children and adult services conference in Harrogate.
The Cambridge review, the biggest inquiry into primary education in 40 years, was published last week after a three-year process which produced 31 interim reports, 28 surveys and thousands of submissions.
In a 600-word document it concluded that schools are in "good heart … highly valued by children and parents and in general doing a good job," but condemned the centralisation of the system under Labour and how the curriculum had shrunk to a narrow focus on the 3Rs.
t suggested schools should replace formal teaching with play-based learning until a child turns six and that national curriculum tests – Sats – should be replaced with improved end-of-primary tests.
The Cambridge review received support from every teaching union, agency and school support group but the government – led by the schools minister, Vernon Coaker – accused the review of being "out of date" and failing to acknowledge programmes that were under way to review testing, special educational needs and maths teaching.
Today, Alexander writes that after the government "instantly dismissed" the inquiry, "the review's email in-boxes [were] overflowing with messages not just about the findings that the press focused on – starting age, testing, centralisation – but with expressions of spluttering outrage shading into quiet despair at last week's statement."
"Nobody expects ministers to have the time to read every massive report that lands on their desks, not overnight anyway," he concludes. "But serious questions must now be asked about the advice on which the government's response was based, the advisers who provided the minister with such a hopeless script, and the wisdom of approaching a general election as the government which refuses to listen, engage and learn."
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said it had received a letter from Alexander about the issues raised in the article and would respond in due course.

Robin Alexander's piece is here:
The government's instant dismissal of the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review has become as a big a story as the report itself. The review's email inboxes are overflowing with messages not just about the findings that the press focused on – starting age, testing, centralisation – but also with expressions of spluttering outrage shading into quiet despair at last week's statement from schools minister Vernon Coaker.

Coaker said that by virtue of having started three years ago, the report was out-of-date. What a strange and desperate ploy. One would have thought that this testifies to its depth and thoroughness, especially as when pressed this week by the select committee to explain, Ed Balls wrongly claimed that the report had ignored the Williams maths inquiry (mentioned on pages 38, 46, 49, 433 and 436), the "expert group" on assessment (seven mentions) and the Lamb special educational needs review (the report argues for an SEN review with a broader and different remit).
That was not all the minister got wrong. Like many others, he (and, in this matter, the Conservatives) misrepresented as a bid to raise the school starting age our proposal that the government's early years foundation stage should be extended to age six, thus confusing curriculum (which is what the EYFS is about) with organisational structure. Although we said that, in light of international evidence, the starting age needs to be discussed, that was as far as we went. Get the early years curriculum right, we argued, and school starting age is no longer an issue.
Hopefully this will be another nail in the coffin of the sinister Ed Balls and the execrable New Labour hierarchy.

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