Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Layer 353 . . . The Tyranny of Testing, League Tables, Bullshit Reforms, Free Schools, Charter Schools, Faith Schools, A Classroom Experiment and Back to Crap

Border Conflict

Warwick Mansell is the author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing

This is a well-worn topic, but still deserves attention. Mansell wrote a good article for this week's Guardian Education lead story:

Schools focusing attention on middle-ability pupils to boost results

The practice of focusing extra attention on 'C/D borderline' pupils in order to improve a school's GCSE results may be widespread. But at what cost?

The words come easily to the teacher as he describes what happened at the school where he was working last year. "Appalling", "unbelievable" and "ruthless" are among those he chooses to sum up measures the comprehensive, in London, put in place in a bid to raise its GCSE results.

And yet he is merely describing a practice – taken in this case to the extreme – that appears to have been tacitly encouraged in many schools for years.

The practice is for schools – sometimes acting on the advice of government agencies and consultants – to focus extra resources, time and attention on groups of middle-ability pupils whose achievements are most likely to help them rise up the league tables, impress inspectors, hit improvement targets and, in some cases, avoid closure.

In the process, higher- and lower-ability youngsters can receive less support because their results are less likely to affect the school's published scores, it is widely claimed.

This extra emphasis given to middle-ability students who are believed to be on the cusp of achieving five A*-Cs at GCSE, including English and maths – the threshold measure around which league tables centre – has been criticised by all three major parties.

Of course the same can be said of what goes on in Primary schools in order to "raise attainment" - the same sort of appalling, unbelievable and ruthless game-playing.

Anxieties about this appear to be confirmed in emails between staff members.

An email sent by a teacher in October said: "The lower set, difficult behaviour, pupils ... have very little intention of learning independently so they are running riot instead. Today there was a big fight ... I think it needs to be brought to the head's attention that it is not possible to include the [pupils with English as an additional language] in this group. I am sorry to say they are simply frightened."

The teacher says: "These students were provided with individual support and group lessons in order for them to achieve a grade C in English or maths. In English support lessons, the students were being told what to write in their [coursework] essays."

The teacher says: "The situation created an appalling atmosphere within the school. The senior management were not concerned about those who were not on the [intervention] list, and even if they were on the list, they were only targeting a grade C even if that student needed to obtain a grade B for sixth-form college."

Anastasia de Waal, director of family and education at the thinktank Civitas, has investigated results-boosting tactics in other secondary schools.

She says: "How have we got into this crazy situation where school improvement strategies can actually end up damaging students' education? It all becomes a statistical exercise, with the kids' needs becoming utterly redundant in this equation."

DAMAGING students' education? How about completely fucking up the entire education system to the point where hardly any of our pupils' developmental needs are being met and most pupils either hate school or feel completely bored and alienated by it? How about - we've created thousands of factory schools which focus on results and league tables and ignore real education?


Bullshit Reforms

Meanwhile, in the same publication, Mike Baker published a good 'Opinion' column:

UK and American school reforms: who is copying whom?

The US and the UK are copying each other's school reforms, but they focus too heavily on measuring achievement

American schools are changing. And there are fascinating parallels with the reforms taking place in England.

For the US is going through the same navel-gazing crises familiar this side of the Atlantic: concern that the nation's educational performance is falling behind other countries, and growing frustration that successive school reforms have failed to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor.

The trend in US education policy is towards "school choice". This is about increasing school autonomy and injecting market forces into a monolithic system in which schools were run by the states and districts, and almost every child attended their nearest elementary or high school.

There are now more than 5,000 charter schools, serving 1.5 million pupils, which lie outside the traditional school districts.

Charter schools are new schools, initiated by parents, teachers or other groups, funded by the taxpayer, free to pupils, but autonomous from the traditional school authorities.

There have been numerous studies on the impact of charter schools and, to put it simply, they provide no definitive proof that they have raised standards overall. This is not very encouraging for the "free schools" here. Will we, in 20 years' time, still be looking for evidence that they have made a difference?

These reforms have tended to focus on structural reform, or on assessment and monitoring, but not on the core of what happens in the classroom: the curriculum and teaching methods.

Attention is now focused on President Obama's Race to the Top programme. This involves a massive $4.3bn (£2.7bn) fund being distributed to individual states in return for competitive bids to improve educational performance. To get the money, states have to prove their plans will meet four aims: developing tough academic standards or targets for what pupils should achieve, building data systems that measure pupil progress, improving the professional development and evaluation of teachers, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

While the focus on teacher quality is new and encouraging, the emphasis is still very much on setting targets, and measuring achievement, rather than on curriculum innovation. It seems the UK and the US are copying each other's school reforms, each pushing market-based reforms, backed by targets and carrot-and-stick data gathering, but not fundamentally changing what happens in the classroom.

It's interesting that the coalition is stressing its interest in Scandinavian 'free schools' and downplaying its interest in American 'Charter' schools, even though they're virtually the same concept. Obviously no sane politician these days wants to associate themselves overtly with American and neo-conservative ideas - for very obvious tactical and electoral reasons.


A rather unchristian school admissions policy?

Four years as a governor in a church school converted Sharon Wright into a radical opponent of faith schools

When I learned that almost half of the first 16 free schools given the thumbs-up by the education secretary, Michael Gove, were faith schools, my heart sank. Because, after serving four years as a committed church school governor, I personally couldn't feel more powerfully opposed to faith schools.

It wasn't always like that, obviously. When my church appointed me as a governor of our south-west London Church of England junior school, it had an inclusive admissions policy. Being "paired" with the community infant school next door meant the kids usually just swapped uniform and toddled round into year 3. We had nothing to do with all that "tactical worship" and church selection nonsense, so I never felt touched by it.

Very quickly, I found myself in a tiny faction fighting to bin draft policies that put worshippers in plum position. Battle lines were drawn and, according to the chair, I was on the wrong side – I was "anti-church", in fact.

I was pretty stung. I wasn't anti-church, I was anti church admissions policy that enshrined religious discrimination and encouraged stupid church-attendance games to get into the school. Games that, strangely, middle-class, Sats-loving parents tended to win by finding Jesus at an opportune moment.

In desperation, at one meeting I quoted the view of Jonathan Bartley of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia that giving ourselves admission privileges in the public system was "unchristian". Seldom has a silence been so stony. It seemed raising that whole "love thy neighbour" thing as an obvious pointer just embarrassed everyone and showed me up for not really getting it. "It" being mysterious things such as church school "ethos" and "distinctiveness".

The crunch came, though, not over admissions, but over children with special educational needs. Increasingly, I felt that the attitude of some people at the school towards challenging children was anything but Christian. We were due an Ofsted inspection and I listened to grumbling that "disruptive" behaviour could earn the school an automatic downgrade from inspectors. When, in fact, it was how behaviour (often stemming from SEN) was managed that would be judged, and that was what we should be worried about improving.

I boiled with rage. I felt that some people were concerned with not how we were failing these children, but how they were failing us. When one mum of a misunderstood SEN child said: "I thought it was supposed to be a Christian school?" I could only share her despair.

It shouldn't be unreasonable to expect a Christian school to go the extra mile to help the neediest kids.

Wasn't it blindingly obvious how unfair and socially divisive it was to be allowed to reserve priority places for your own churchgoers? And weren't troubled children the most in need of Christian love?

Now, I think having a system of state-funded faith schools is actually immoral. We should surely object to how it legitimises discrimination, segregates our children, often fails to embrace the vulnerable with compassion and empowers tiny religious quangos to rule over publicly funded education.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain chairs the Accord Coalition, which unites religious and secular groups worried about the social impact of faith schools:

"I have this fear that in 30 years' time, we will have built up a generation that is not at ease with itself and that has been brought up in a very divisive way," he warns. "We will rue the day we divided the children."

So, as communities draw away from each other and our society fragments, we can only fear what endorsing the power of faith schools is really teaching our children.


Dylan Wiliam's The Classroom Experiment is on BBC Two, 27 and 28 Sept at 1900 BST

[Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys started on BBC Two on Thursday 9 Sept, 2100 BST]

Dylan Wiliam and Gareth Malone are two people who care passionately about children, about good teaching, and about generating enthusiasm for learning.

Anything they are involved in is worth paying attention to.

The Big Debate - Where Next for Primary Assessment? -


Back to Crap

Amy Winehouse, a skinny singer who has the worst tatoos in the world, big hair, drug abuse issues and mental health issues, made a name for herself by imitating jazz/soul singers and writing her own songs.

Amy Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson have been "discussing" their individual contributions to her work.

First, Ronson appeared on Later ... with Jools Holland on Friday, and downplayed Winehouse's contributions her own hit album, Back to Black, which he produced: "Amy Winehouse would come to me with just a song and an acoustic guitar, and then kind of you dream up the rhythm arrangement and track around it and you help arrange all sorts of things," Ronson said. Winehouse, who caught wind of Ronson's remarks, then lashed out at the producer on Twitter, writing: "Ronson you're dead to me; one album I write an you take half the credit- make a career out of it? Don't think so BRUV."

Of course what Winehouse should have been complaining about is the thoroughly abysmal production job done on her work by young Ronson. That album is almost unlistenable - in fact it IS unlistenable - on account of the horrible production - nasty, repetitive instrumentation, rhythms, drum machines, loops, etc; tinny sound quality and sheer dullness. Awful computer music. And awful Winehouse vocals. As for the lyrics - couldn't even get that far. They tried to make me listen, but I said no, no, no.

Who gives a damn about these silly, worthless people?

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