Friday, December 29, 2006

Grumpy old teachers

It's not that they're anti-computers. It's not that they are tiresome old stick in the muds, resistant to change, reluctant to embrace the future and let go of the past. It's just they know the foundations on which the future is built.

I am an occasional reader of 2 cents worth, a blog about the use of IT in education, written by self-styled 'education technology pioneer', David Warlick. Much of the discussion orbits around IT professionals and IT teachers who are embracing new technology (especially Web 2.0 etc) and trying to enthuse their colleagues about it. Often, they find that the response from other teachers ranges from the amused to the downright hostile. These 'stick in the muds' are often held up to criticism (not so much by David but by his readers) as being unwilling to learn new things. This kind of criticism always piques me and I have been thinking about it for a while now.

I am sympathetic, up to a point. I have done more than my fair share of advocacy for ILT. When you are an IT teacher, you also get an option on a second job of general muse and enthusiast for the progress of IT within an institution. And I can get angry, restless, judgemental as often as the next person. However, I am finding myself more and more on the side of the cynics and Luddites who bemoan the loss of library space in schools (culled to make way for more computers) and who sniff at their new electronic whiteboards. While we should be looking at the nature of the new curriculum and constantly asking ourselves what our students should really be learning, we must also remember that as 30-something and 40-something teachers, our own ability to deal with and adapt to this new digital era is built upon the rock solid foundation of really good reading, writing, mathematical and reasoning skills. We learned these from a paper-based curriculum. Thus we must fight for our students' right of access to literacy, numeracy and philosophical competency, and their right to be exposed to the painstaking, dogged and long-winded process of learning these skills to a high level.

I've been meaning to post about this for some time; it was M (of musingsonamac, who functions as my official supplier of right wing web content) who sparked me into writing by sending me this link to Boris Johnson on the subject of computer games.

However, lest you skim read this and come to the conclusion that I like Boris and don't like David, I am adding the always challenging and very readable Mr W to my blog roll as he continues to make me think, and is thus obviously a great teacher.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Blog jargon

Was looking up the correct spelling of blogiversary and found this fantastic list of blog jargon.

I can now confess to being a sufferer of hitnosis.

To become mesmerized by constantly reloading a Web browser to see if a blog's hit counter has increased or comments section has expanded. (Coined by Perry de Havilland)

I was also tickled by this definition:

Clog Blog
A blog written in Dutch and/or by someone in Holland

This launched my partner and I into a frenzy of naming and we would like to be the first to coin the following phrases:

Hog Blog
A blog about pigs

Snog Blog
A blog about kissing

Tog Blog
A blog about duvets

Obviously, if any of you wish to add to this you are most welcome.

PS And to think, I was actually supposed to be writing a long, verbose, utterly profound 'what is the point of this blog' type posting... looks like another Christmas miracle, then...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Christmas miracle

Most of the blogs on my RSS feed seem to have dried up slightly over the last few days... and who blames them. But I thought I might lighten your evening (when you creep to the computer to escape the present wrapping, saying that you have to check the weather reports for travel...) and reproduce the following.

As the chimes of midnight rolled over the battlefield, the gunfire fell silent. In the first moments of a frosty Christmas morning, they emerged from their entrenched positions and began to cross the barran no-man's land that was not, on reflection, so wide. The Windows users, weary and fractious from so many needless reboots, held out their hands in cautious friendship to the wary Mac users. The Mac users, bewildered by the unkempt and diverse nature of the enemy, who could not even manage a stylish uniform let alone matching lap top accessories, gradually overcame their fear and engaged the Windows users in conversation, finding after a while that one or two of them actually did know something about web design and new media. After a while, pieces of shareware were brought out and offered to the enemy. A cautious game of Tetris was struck up. Several people began to swap pictures, the Mac users biting their tongues at the delay while the Windows users fretted over their camera drivers. As the sun eventually rose, happy individuals were sat together, blogging and chatting away and remembering how it felt when there were just geeks and non-geeks, back in the day before the wars broke out.

Then, suddenly, a stray blog posting, shot off without thought, suggested that Macs were the lush toys of rich creatives who had never done a real day's work in their lives. Before anyone could add an emoticon, a Mac blogger had returned fire by implying that Windows users were all corporate drones with no souls. In a moment, the battlefield was once more riddled with gunfire and destruction. And the Christmas miracle was forgotten...

Sunday, December 17, 2006


1) Bone-deep weariness, a shortness of temper, an overwhelming depression at how little has been taught and learnt this term, melancholic contemplation of other possible careers

2) A trance-like state caused by heady anticipation of the holidays, leading to stupidly late nights and a general attempt to burn out not fade away

3) The slow but irreversible degeneration of lessons into quizzes, games, videos and other mindless issues. Alternatively, a rarer but more virulent strain causes a rash of tests and mock exams. These lead to terrible bouts of marking, often delayed for many weeks and manifesting themselves when the sufferer believed themselves to be symptom free

Heads of Department, Faculty, School and others will find themselves suffering from Present Allocation Disorder. PAD is caused by desperately trying to work out whom to buy presents for, and how much to spend. Most schools have this nasty condition well-managed by a complex wine cascade, in which senior managers give middle managers bottles of wine from Marks and Spencers, and middle managers give their juniors bottles of wine from ASDA and so on.

Commiserations to all of you suffering with me at this time of the year. Some people hold summer bouts to be the worst, but in my opinion, the Christmas version, with its bacchanalian overtones and endless bags of Haribo, is the nastiest.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A definition of irony

The blogsphere has made me realise that the teaching profession is not alone in its insane slavery to the gods of statistics, targets and league tables. The police and the NHS are similarly burdened.

This post from The Policeman's Blog is great.

Friday, December 08, 2006

We are soap

Let's not be frightened of rumours. If you are even seen walking around with a member of staff of the opposite sex, the kids will speculate that you are in love. We are their entertainment, their soap opera... Here's a tip. Don't deny. Elaborate. Many years ago I would support a young male colleague in his two hours of Friday afternoon hell with the bottom set by drifting into his lesson to 'sort a few bits of paper out' at the back of the classroom every week. After a while the kids started teasing him and he got flustered. Finally, one of them challenged me. 'Are you and Sir going to get married?'
'Yes.' I answered. 'When my divorce from the Head comes through. And when Mr Jones gets custody of his kids from Miss Simpson in Art.'
They shut up.

PS Many years later another colleague was accused of fancying me by a Lower Sixth group. 'No, no' he protested, flushing 'Ms Pepperpot has a boyfriend.'
'And I bet they just sit and make spreadsheets together' came a sarcastic voice from the back of the class...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Contextualised Value Added - coming soon to a Self-Assessment Report near you?

This article was out of the blue.
Colleges have complained that a new government method for measuring "value added" penalises them if their students do too well in their A-levels. In certain cases, the system, which is being developed by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), lowers a college's value added score as more grade As are notched up by A-level students. It also adjusts scores downwards for bigger colleges because their students on average go for more qualifications and notch up more A-level points.

Having just done my annual write-up of my department's statistical data, I was stunned to read about this. We use ALIS (A-level Information System) which gives us a residual (a number around 1) which if it's greater than 1 is a Good Thing, and if it's below 1 is a Bad Thing. There's also an S (if it's statistically significant) and a three year trend. And then we also use the sparkly new ALPS (A-level Performance System) which gives us a single number, a ranking from 1 to 9, which is colour-coded, red being 'hot' (good department! Well done!) and blue being 'cold' (Bad department! Naughty teachers!) I haven't yet come across CVA, unless it's the same as 'distance travelled' which takes the form of a pretty graph.

The basic idea of any VA system is to take a large amount of data and then compare the progress made by students between testing landmarks (SATs, GCSEs, A-levels) with the average for the country in general. This data can be used to help work out if a student is progressing, or to try and indicate if a teacher, department or school are producing grades that are lower or higher than the national average (either to help them discern how effective their teaching is, or to incentivise them, or to provide a label for the general public.) But like any statistic they have a dark side. VA is much, much better than raw results when trying to evaluate education; but because the way these statistics are created is based on specific statistical judgements, the different systems give contradictory results. If you are not careful you are 'working the numbers' just as much as you do when going for exam statistics.

I confess even I, with my reasonably high level of mathematical literacy and freakish obsession with data don't understand the true meaning of the numbers. And now here's another VA system and it conflicts with the ones we use. I see a crisis looming, not least when I have to add another set of statistics to my already bloated SAR...

Friday, December 01, 2006

A-level reform

Sorry I didn't blog about this when it was announced yesterday. Did anyone know it was coming? I'd heard about some aspects of the change but some were out of the blue for me. I've been supervising exams all day so you would have thought I would have used the time to mull over a profound reply; but in fact I spent it honing a useful new acronym which I will reveal in a moment.

So... what have we got?

1) The extended project. Knew about that one - seen the draft proposals too. As far as I can see, everyone at the moment more or less agrees that coursework is becoming meaningless because of a) the Internet and b) the drive to improve results, which means students' work is endlessly remarked and deadlines endlessly extended. So how does throwing a project into the mix improve the situation - surely it'll have the same weaknesses as coursework?

2) The specialised diplomas. Seen some of these too, specifically one to do with computer games, animation and multimedia. Here's the thing. There are many kids who want to be computer games designers or web designers because they like playing computer games and surfing the web. If they are going to be any use to the industry, they need to be mathematically literate and learn hardcore progamming, system design etc. In other words some A-levels, or an established rigourous vocational programming course like BTEC or similar. Does the computer industry really want a load of students who for one reason or another were not able to study hard maths or programming courses and were steered into these new diplomas instead? I can only comment on what I know.

3) The A*. Fine. No problem. Quite happy with that. For all I honestly care, divide the A-level grades into A-J or any other arbitrary number of grades. All I know is that
a) I will carry on teaching as hard as I can and
b) there will be benchmarks and league tables and some grades will be more important to the reputation of an institution than others (currently it's A-B, it used to be A-C, no doubt it will be A*- A before too long) The real issue about standards is tied up with resits and modularisation.

4) The International Baccalaureate. Well, the qualification would seem to be a good thing in itself but we know that we'll end up with a two or three tier system. We couldn't even tolerate having both polytechnics and universities, we had to rename so they were all the same... we're not going to be able to resist the temptation to label the IB as 'better' than A-levels. And unless you live in a megalopolis, the illusion of 'choice' is usually deceptive.

All this is very nice. However, we need to remember that all these reforms will play out in the light of the defining feature of our wonderful UK education system. Which is of course... league tables.

1) The extended project will be delivered in such a way that the results are as high as possible with minimum risk of failure. Colleges and schools will make sure that students choose projects that will safely guarantee good marks. So no risk, no flair. And if they aren't good enough, maybe they will need to be draft marked... and if you don't hand them in on time... we're not going to let you fail your A-levels for that, now, are we...

2) Diplomas. One question. Will they get better grades (using whatever agreed point equivalency they dream up) than A-levels? We're doing them.

3) A-levels just gained an extra grade that only the best of the best should earn? Right now, let's see your action plan for increasing the number of students gaining an A* in your subject.

4) The IB. Yes, it will be offered. And the pass rate will go up and up and up until people are complaining that the standards are dropping. Becuase the teachers will work and work until they find ways of delivering it with maximum exam success; and students who aren't likely to pass it will be steered elsewhere.

Will it solve the problems? Ultimately no.


Because of league tables, stupid

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dog nut spread shit...

...was the title of Jermaine's rather natty spreadsheet today (part of my soon to be published IT scheme of work 'How to teach everything using the Simpsons')

Monday, November 27, 2006

More on baby milk revisionism

Reading the comments on that post on NHS Blog Doctor has led me to News Sniffer which appears to keep archives of evolving news stories. The really interesting edits happen between versions 4 and 6.

The BBC, the baby milk and the indestructible nature of data

This is momentous. NHS Blog doctor reported on Nov 20th that the BBC had been conned by a pressure group called 'Act Against Allergy' into reporting a story about children's allergies to milk that was in fact a thinly veiled attempt to market a hypoallergenic baby milk substitute made by the company SHS international...who run 'Act Against Allergy'.

Two days ago, he started getting e-mails accusing him of not checking his facts.

So he went back and checked the story and discovered.... that the BBC have gone back and changed the original story! But as he says, data is never lost once published on the Internet... so you can read the cached original here, the reworked version here, and NHS Blog doctor's criticism of the original article here.

Today I taught a lesson during which I asked my students to discuss the question 'How can you trust what you read on the Internet?' They all said 'You can't.'

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Stacey Slater the next Stella McCartney?

Sometimes blogging about education feels like floating in a surreal swamp of madness, injustice and really, really stupid ideas. According to this idea from the skills council,
Giving teenage soap characters dead-end jobs and low aspirations risks shattering young viewers' career dreams, TV writers have been warned.
Now I don't watch EastEnders, but apparantly there's this character called Stacey Slater who works on a trading stall.
The LSC says that if she were to put her skills to good use and take a Level 2 diploma in fashion retail, for example, she could progress from Walford market to her own designer fashion boutique.

Please, if you read this blog, and you know this Stacey, is this a realistic aim for her? And please, if you read this blog, and you teach on a Level 2 diploma in fashion retail, is this really the main thing holding her back from starting her own little business?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Teacher, the detention and a case of accidental optimism

The Teacher is (I think) in his second year of teaching IT and his blog today included this great posting, called The Club. It's a sorry tale of heavy sarcasm disrupted by a burst of optimistic creativity. I await updates of this tale with great anticipation!

PS Isn't it shocking how students don't actually get sarcasm these days? One of my favourite rants has completely lost its impact.

'Well, don't worry, I'm sure the exam board won't mind if you don't answer questions on this topic because you overslept. I'll just pop a note on the end of your exam paper and they can give you a few extra marks to make up for it.'

'O cool, Miss, that's alright then, isn't it.'

Written in horror as I listened to Christine Gilbert on the six o'clock news

Great! If you think your school is failing, here is the advice from the Head of Ofsted.
She said parents could be "a major force for change" and should put pressure on weaker schools, such as asking why no homework had been set.

What about this as an idea? Your children go to a 'failing' school? Why not first check that your children arrive at school every day, on time, with a good attitude, well-fed and well-equipped, and with the manners and respect necessary to learn? Most schools I know that no longer set homework have given up because it is either a long drudge or a complete farce getting students to do it, and there is no support from parents if students are then punished for not doing it.
In nearly one in three secondary schools, behaviour was found to be "no better than satisfactory overall, and in these schools there are also instances of disruptive or distracting behaviour from some pupils".
Does this mean that in one in three secondary schools there are terrible teachers who can't control the kids, or could this be an epidemic of awful behaviour which is unchallenged because there is no parental support in changing it?

Oh, Lord preserve us all. And to think I was logging on to post some cheerful stuff.

PS quotes are from the Guardian and the BBC

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Part-time work teaches sixth-formers to manage their time (and hand in work late)

One in 10 sixth-formers who works part-time said their jobs had forced them to hand in school assignments late, a new survey for the Learning Skill Council (LSC) reveals.
Oh dear. Their work is forcing them to hand in their work late. Busy earning megabucks they are compelled to squeeze those old bits of coursework around the shifts at Top Shop.

But wait! Why are they putting themselves through this ordeal?
Young people said the benefits of working while learning included being better at time management and motivating them on their courses and learning programmes, the survey revealed.
Read all about it here!

My experience is that 90% of students work to pay for their mobile upgrades, their designer clothes and their bingey weekend clubbing trips. They would not dream of turning up late for work but they happily stroll in half an hour late the following morning; look dopey when confronted about their missing homework; and offer neither apology nor explanation. Thankfully, some start to realise they are trading short term gain for long term results and drop their hours in the upper six.

The other 10% work to support themselves or sometimes even their families. Those students have my respect and I am happy to give them as many coursework extensions as they need.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Lovely story

They're using fountain pens in Dundee.

What I love about this story is the courage shown in chosing to make students learn something that a) demands patience and b) is not related to instantly improving exam success.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Why would I wanna be anywhere else?"

Friday. Giddy exhaustion tempered by the knowledge that the clock is ticking and I won't have to mark tonight.

I've got a full day ahead, no lunch break, so the thirty five minutes of illicit, caffeine-laced work time first thing in the morning is even more precious than usual. Illicit because we are not supposed to drink coffee in the classrooms... but all my stuff is there and I need to hide...

Task one of the day is to rescue the two Christmas packages (for children in Eastern Europe) from the back of the cupboard and take them to the collection point before any of my tutor group arrive. They were actually created, lovingly, twelve months ago, but I forgot to hand them in before the collection date so I have been hiding them from the girls ever since.

An e-mail - someone else is off ill. I'm already organising cover for one absent member of staff. Off I go to find a victim...loud music is echoing down the stairwell. It's only 8.45 so I shouldn't get annoyed. And it's Lily Allen, 'LDN', which I love, so I stop to complement the kids on the stairs on their taste. It becomes the soundtrack of the day.

First lesson. Olivia's supposed to be tackling an extended coursework project. This consists of her asking for help every five minutes.
'What do I do next?'
'Well, (as I've said before), you need to look at your aims and objectives in turn and work out how to implement them in your database, using the skills I have taught you, and the extensive handouts I have written and fifteen minute verbal recap I have done about six time now.'
'Miss, that's really difficult.'

I start my usual verbal tape recording about how the second year of A-level is difficult and she, as a seventeen year old with an application to university already written, should at least have a go before giving up...
Then I break off, call up the handouts and point to one. 'Do this' I say.

Five minutes later she speaks again. 'Miss, done that, it's really easy! What do I do next?'

Break is a disaster! Lovely Sue, who comes in to make coffee for the staff, is off. After a few minutes of penguin-like flapping, people start to fend for themselves. But there's no milk (Sue brings it in.) Out the back of the staff room in the tiny corridor by the stock cupboard, I bump into Rob the philosophy teacher, who furtively clutches a tiny container of the precious liquid.
'It's Jack's - he doesn't want everyone to know he has it - but you can have some'
'Oh, I couldn't possibly, that's not fair.'
'No, no, have some. It's completely morally justifiable. Think of the kids. Think of how badly you'll teach without coffee.'
I take it, expressing wide-eyed horror at the expediency of his ethics, and decline to mention I was only out there because I know about the secret fridge where they keep the milk for the SMT meetings.

Second lesson, same group. I turn on the projector, fire up IE and type in In less than a second, the Whitehouse website is on the screen. 'Right, in groups, explain how that happened.' Ten minutes later they are drawing on the board, one from each group.

One group has drawn something that looks like this.

Two other groups have variations on this: When you type into the computer, a beam goes up to a satellite and then goes down to the Whitehouse and then comes back.

After much questioning, we arrive a something better; we have recalled WANs (which I taught in October), we have remembered what a server is and we know what an ISP is. I am drawing madly, whiteboard marker everywhere, comments and questions flowing thick and fast. It's great. Then Kelly, a really, really nice young woman, says unexpectedly and in a voice thick with adolescent disdain 'You really get off on this, don't you Miss?' Splutter at her angrily for quite some time. Reflect all day on the fact that although children say they want enthusiastic teachers they don't respect us for it.

Tutorial; six students want my comments now on their UCAS applications, which they have been writing (apparently) since June. They are quite charming about it, though, especially as they know I will rip them to shreds if I find a spelling mistake. Every one says they have a passion for their subject. Every one lists 'socialising with friends' as their chief interest outside college. Apart from Sarah's, which is about the joy she feels when reading nineteenth century women's novels and how it helps her to make sense of life; this brings tears to my eyes when I read it.

Into my Foundation class, which you can think of as a small case study in the reasons some children fail to flourish in education. Bob, Carl and Anton have various learning differences on the autistic spectrum and are delightful. They love college, love the work, and have already finished the assignment. The difficulty is trying to get them to slow down and consider how they could improve it beyond their first attempts. 'But I've done it, Miss!' Of the others, for the first time in eight weeks, everyone is on time. Serendipitously I have a bag of sweets on me - the ones from last year's Christmas packages that will now go out of date before they reach their destination. Anderson, who has only been in the country six months, and is still getting used to computers (along with being teased, which appears to be a whole new experience for him) is researching day trips for youth clubs. We have quite a profitable discussion about why Puerto Rico is not an ideal choice, despite the fact it came up first when he typed 'Trip' into Google.

Out of Foundation and straight to a disciplinary meeting. It's lunchtime, so I eat my sandwich on the way. David has missed thirty percent of his lessons for me, done no work, and greets every admonishment with a cheeky grin that presses all my buttons. It turns out, though, that I have been quite blessed: he has not attended geography since September, and owes his sociology teacher six essays. He cannot explain any of this, our comments bouncing off him. Letters home are drafted, conditions set, and threats uttered. He's a bright boy, he could pass anyway, but we don't leave with any further understanding of why he's not attending. (Post-sixteen education; our motto, 'So much easier because they all want to be there')

Out of the disciplinary meeting and a quick tour; things to sign, e-mails to send, handouts to photocopy, coffee to source and consume. I meet a sad looking Bob. He's just overheard some students being cruel about him while he was in the loo. He has no idea who they were as he did not see them, but he is devastated. His Asperger's syndrome means he just can't handle this at all. He wants to know what he can do about it. The answer is nothing. I tell him he could think about how those people are wrong and how he is a good person and lots of people like him and are glad he is at college.
He's not fishing for compliments. 'I like you Bob, I think you are a great person, and I know that Miss Carter and Mrs Brown like you too.' He looks a bit happier.

The bell goes for the last double period and I have a lower sixth group. Twenty-four eager faces waiting to study the Data Protection Act ('Look at me when I'm talking please. Alan, please don't talk when I'm talking. Headphones out of your ears, please. Alan, please sit properly in your chair. Bob, Keith, Surita, Dhalia, you're late. Again.') David gives me a beautifully folded origami flower that he has been making. I start to be grumpy that he has wasted both his time and our paper, but he protests that the paper was his, and of course we haven't done any work yet because we are all still faffing around ('Yes, we are doing some work, yes, get your folders out, you need paper and a pen, yes, you do need to bring a pen') I accept the flower with grace.

A colleague from maths walks in to tell me he cannot work the SMART board next door. I am not charming, I tell him I am teaching. He looks forlorn, so I return to the class room with him and do SMART board 101 in under a minute. My status as benevolent Head of IT, who always has time for a colleague struggling to use ILT, is threatened. Remind myself that maths teachers are like guided missiles and once pointed at their goal have little time for subtlety.

The wonderful Richard Thomas, who I adore for his uncompromising stance on all things privacy related, lets me down badly. The exercise I have planned using the ICO website crashes and burns as their server is down - this is unprecedented. Instead we do an off-the-cuff lesson on sound in PowerPoint. I show them PartnersinRhyme where they can download sounds legally. We revist the subject of copyright from last lesson. Again, we go round the block. Demitri brings the argument to decisive halt 'I download lots of music Miss, I'm not going to pay 99p per track - I can't afford it!' Most students mumble their agreement. Of course we should get things for free if we want them! How stupid you are, Miss! Juan tries the 'But everyone breaks the law, Miss' line. He does not believe me when I tell him I try not to break the speed limit. Eventually, I say, a bit too loudly, that he shouldn't assume that everyone else breaks the law and is immoral and criminal just because he is. Everyone laughs.

I tell them that for once, they can turn up the loudspeakers on their computer. Slowly, quietly the different sound effects start as they explore the site. They start to riff off each other. The first person find the war section and lets off a grenade. For five minutes the lads fire at each other across the room. Then the battle of the 80's TV themes starts. It's genuinely hilarious, they are really enjoying it. Meanwhile the girls are 'Mwahing' at each other, having found all the kissing noises. Periodically I remind them they actually have to embed these sounds in their presentations.

The bell goes.

Sun in the sky, oh why, oh why, would I wanna be anywhere else?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Education news update

Trying to summon some enthusiasm here for an update of all that's new in UK education news!

Most blatantly obvious discovery of the week! If children can't read, and then they get lots of one-to-one help from skilled teachers, they learn to read better, and quite quickly too! (here) This is obviously quite a startling piece of news because we all know that class size does not matter.

Confusing policy announcement of the week! Alan Johnson is actually discussing the role of parents in education (satire aside, this is a very good development) He says parents should spend more time playing with and talking to their children. However, in order to facilitate this...he is going to make sure schools stay open longer in the evening. Don't get it.

I give up. I've just watched two episodes of Spooks and I think I'll become a spy instead. Buy some jeans and white t-shirts and a black leather jacket and just stride around shooting people like Hermione Norris.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Faith schools

It depends on the faith, you see.

By which I DON'T mean that certain faiths are inherently good and therefore allowed to prosletyse, while other faiths are inherently bad and should be prevented from doing so.

No. I think we should examine what the faith (or the denomination or the specific branch/founder/order of the faith) has to say about education and simply judge on that.

Because the actual ethos of a faith school can very widely.

'We are followers of the faith of Pong. We believe that everyone is special and that Pong loves everyone. Our deity Pong is especially concerned to see children grow up into happy, fulfilled adults who can be a force for good in the world. As followers of Pong, we respect the followers of other faiths and seek to learn from them. We believe Pong loves everyone, no matter what they believe and we believe we are especially required by our faith to serve the poor and the needy.'

'We are followers of the faith of Ping. We believe that those who believe in Ping are special and should be given preferential treatment. Our deity Ping is most concerned to see children grow up into followers of Ping. As followers of Ping, we think all other faiths are at best misguided and at worse the worship of anti-Ping, and will treat them accordingly. We believe that we are here to serve the followers of Ping and those who aspire to join them.'

I reckon the school founded by Pongites might seek to be a caring school, willing to go out on a limb for disadvantaged kids, and would probably be a place where followers of all faiths would feel respected.

I reckon the school founded by Pingites might actually be quite a scary school, in danger of promoting their own faith at the expense of others and would probably be a place where intolerance lurked in the corners.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Not about teaching II

Book review number 2 - Wasting Police Time' by PC David Copperfield is another good blog-based read. It is slightly more acerbic than 'Blood, Sweat and Tea' and it has a much more specific argument - that modern policing is in a mess because of government policy. Specifically, the damage is caused by bureaucracy (such as the five separate pieces of paper work that David has to fill out after he triggers a speed camera on the way to an emergency) and the need to keep the statistics favorable. If you read this blog regularly you will know that I believe that league tables are the root of all evil, so I was both smug and shocked to read about how statistics have twisted the way the Police Service (sic) is run. I won't attempt to explain it, but believe me, the 'Administrative Detection' is responsible not just for some misleading statistics, but also for a skewing of how people like PC Copperfield prioritise their time. (Here's a review which explains the issue in part.) Read the book.

But like Tom Reynolds in BS&T, David obviously enjoys aspects of his job as well, and you can feel the humanity and warmth in his writing - the kind of copper you'd like to encounter in a dire situation.

Both these two books have been a delight to get lost in. I haven't managed to get as enthused about Frank Chalk's 'It's your time your wasting.' It's extremely well written but whereas the other two allowed me to escape into the fascinating world of a different job, this book simply reminds me of things I already know. I've picked it up and put it down four or five times. Sorry, Frank, no offence... Maybe policemen love it...

For interest, here are some other books which take you into a different world...
'Kitchen Confidential' by Anthony Bourdain - about the life of a chef
'Hotel Babylon' and 'Air Babylon' by Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous
about a day in the life of a hotel manager and airline manager respectively.

If anyone knows of any others please let me know - I love them.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Not about teaching

The last few days of the half term were spent relaxing and trying to achieve at least one night's sleep uninterrupted by sudden night terrors about the number of lessons left until January modules.

I also received a big parcel of books from the lovely people at Amazon including three blogger-written tomes. The first one I read was 'Blood, Sweat and Tea' by Tom Reynolds. His blog 'Random Acts of Reality' is now firmly on my RSS list and will be on my blogroll when I can find some time to update my template.

It's an account of life as a London EMT (=paramedic, although there is a difference) I adore books which draw you into the world of a workplace or institution and this is a really, really good one. It's a well balanced mix of tragic stories, anedotes and fascinating nuggets, told with wit and huge compassion. There's also lots of toe-curling accounts of the impact of government targets, so it's great fodder for my continual howl against the corrosive effects on British life of league tables and the like.

The most extraordinary thing for me was the extent of Tom's enthusiasm, professionalism and sheer goodwill. He regularly characterises himself as hating everyone, but in fact he seems to be an outstandingly decent bloke who is remarkably optimistic in the face of the almost criminal stupidity of many people (such as people who lie about having heart attacks, which results in ambulance drivers hurtling across London at dangerous speeds, only to find that the patient has a bit of a cough which they've had for a few weeks now and won't go away...)

It has honestly made me stop and think. Sure, I have a tough job but hey, I've not had any HIV positive patients' blood in my mouth recently.

Didn't stop me being grumpy as hell today, though.

PS If you want to buy the book, I suggest you go to Tom's blog via the link above and scroll down, then click on the link on the right. But you know that. Sorry.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Other delightful things to make you glad you live in the era of the Internet

Onesentence - a web site devoted to telling true stories in a single sentence... it's riveting.

Amazing videos - a knife bursting a water balloon and a cigarette lighter igniting, both in slow motion.

Handy Latin phrases - ventis secundis, tene cursum

Unbelievable wind powered robots

An exquisite piece of science inspired animation

And finally the totally weird (spelled correctly) and slightly spooky Whitney Chromatic.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Let out your inner artist!

Some web sites to help you express yourself:

Start with a visit to; this should get you in the mood. (You can see some genuine Pollocks here.)

Slightly less abstract is the wonderful Mr Picasso Head complete with Picasson style signature.

Art Pad is a clever Paint-style application which allows you to regress to childhood and enjoy slapping paint onto paper, albeit in a virtual manner.

And finally, go here and download the freeware version of Art Rage2, a truly fabulous painting program which allows you to work with paint that behaves and looks remarkably realistic. The longer you drag the mouse without releasing it, the less paint remains on the brush. Painting one colour over another results in satifsying (or annoying) smudging between the different colours. I am just about to upgrade to the full version which promises glitter, metallic paints and other goodies!

Release you inner child, create and express yourself, and no-one will tell you to wash the paint pots afterwards!

This posting released under the terms and conditions of my half-term pledge. Normal service will be resumed on 30th October.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Half-term wanderings in the web

I am a geek and therefore delight in spending the first day of any school holiday in my pyjamas messing around on the computer.

If you are a PC user with a broadband internet connection, have a look at this excerpt from 'Brilliant Ignorance.' It lists dozens of freeware applications you can download for your PC. I especially recommend Mozilla Firefox (web browser - once you try, you'll never go back) and ATnotes, which allow you to litter your desktop with fully customisable transaprent post-it notes in various colours.

A few months ago I found a web application that dramatically reduced the amount of dull and useless TV I watched in my spare time. StumbleUpon lets you download a toolbar which sits at the top of your browser with a button cheerfully marked Stumble! You choose topics that interest you, and when you hit the button, it gives you a random page from those catagories. StumbleUpon has built up a vast, user-recommended database of websites and allows you to visit your favourites via a web page at any time. I now spend literally hours online, simply pressing the button and have come across dozens of fabulous web sites as a result. One of my colleagues has had to remove the toolbar in order to get his life back...

If you are still too tired and grumpy to think about doing anything purposeful, a visit to The Pipecleaner Dance might restore your soul. You can play it with mouse or keyboard. Making a small pipecleaner man dance like John Travolta to 'Staying Alive' is just huge, huge fun and guaranteed to put a childish smile on your face. David Bessler is a hero.

This posting is part of my half-term pledge. Normal service will be resumed on 30th October

Friday, October 20, 2006

A half-term announcement

It's now officially half term! And in a bold move that I will regret when sober, I am pledging to give up my depressing trawl through UK education news for nine days and instead prove that inside this weary and jaded husk there is still a creative and optimistic core.

To start with, if you are not feeling sufficiently chilled out yet, may I commend OK Go's 'Here It Goes Again.' I know it's been around for a while now, but if you haven't seen it, watch it at once. It always cheers me up.

Vive les vacances!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Would you teach in a school with compulsory hijab?

I've been thinking through the issue of the Madani High School's proposed dress code, which includes hijab for all girls, including non-Muslims. (There's a nicely emotive headline here - the schoolgirls will be forced to wear headscarves which sounds like a St Trinian-esque sub-dom scenario with a misguided sartorial twist.)

I haven't got a daughter so I couldn't get my head round the question of whether I'd send her to a good school where she had to wear a headscarf... So instead I have been asking myself whether I would take a job in a school which required me to cover my head. It wouldn't offend me as Christian to adopt an Islamic practice per se. On the other hand, I dislike the theological and philosophical basis of headcovering and what it says about women and men... but I am usually quite pragmatic about matters like this (for pragmatic read cowardly.)

To be really honest, though, at the end of an eight week half term, on my last legs after two Open Evenings and a bout of food poisoning...I would love to be able to wear a scarf and not have to worry about how terrible my hair is looking at the moment. Yep, I am that shallow.

Tribunal rules on Aisha Azmi

An industrial tribunal has ruled that Aisha Azmi was not the victim of religious discrimination, but was nevertheless victimized. (BBC) Turns out she has been suspended since February last year! Obviously the whole affair was only spotlighted as a convenient way for the press to keep the Jack Straw debate going.

Let's not forget that Tony himself waded in on this one.

Me, I'm more convinced than ever that it's untenable to have teachers wearing face veils. I am moved by Azmi's words when she asks us to remember that Muslim women who wear the veil are "not aliens", and am sympathetic to the fact she clearly feels put upon, and who blames her? She's absolutely right when she says that politicians should watch what they say as the impact on individuals can be profound and damaging.

However, she is wrong to labour the point that she can teach 'perfectly' while veiled and to make, again, the spurious comparison to teaching blind children. (Couldn't find a web link but she was interviewed on the Radio 4 news.) That's a stupid comparison. If her child went to school and needed extra support with listening skills, and that support was given by someone who could not speak, instead communicating only through sign language, would she be happy with this? Would the comment that 'hearing impaired children learn brilliantly so why are you so prejudiced?' be acceptable to her? I think we are all capable of recognising the excellence of teachers (and students) with various learning differences, without resorting to specious comparisons and idiotic logic.

Sorry, a bit angry there.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"You have a blog... tell them how you feel"

This made me so defeated. It's an article about Internet plagiarism in universities. Most of it's fairly dull, but this bit jumped off the screen and slapped me round the face...
Some institutions may share some of the blame because they "go around insisting everyone is using PowerPoint and gives out hand-outs", according to Baroness Deech.

She said: "If people were given books, there might be more chance they would digest what they are reading."
We spoonfeed them handouts and PowerPoint presentations because it gets us better results. Do you want young people to be given the chance to think, to try to read proper books and extract the key points for their essays, to attempt their own research and do things for themselves? Fine, but more of them will fail. And we are supposed to be avoiding failure at all costs.

Which do you want? You decide, and when you decide, tell us teachers which you want. AND THEN SHUT UP. Sorry, Ruth Deech. You've kicked the last spark out of my already exhausting day.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Breaking news - hijab to be compulsory

At voluntary-aided Madani High School in Leicester, hijab (modest dress, i.e. covering of the hair) will be compulsory even for non-Muslim girls. This is breaking news reported by the TES here at 13:00 today, Sunday 15th Oct. Let's see how soon it hits the news bulletins.

Can't even begin to think through a cogent response to this one.

Calls for Aisha Azmi to be sacked.

Phil Woolas says that Aisha Azmi should be sacked. The BBC report it here and Mr Woolas's discussion with the Mirror is here .

The most interesting thing is the video of the interview with Ms Azmi. She admits after much blustering that she was interviewed with her face uncovered by a male governor; and although she is quite cagey, it seems to me that she did not make it clear at her interview that she would be unwilling to work unveiled at the school. Throughout the TV clip she insists she is perfectly able to communicate but the footage clearly disproves that - we are unable to see whether she is genuinely confused by the TV interviewer (Peter Sissons?), intimidated, or completely aware that this admission is about to hole her case below the waterline. Deprived of her facial expressions, her voice sounds strident and unpersuasive, which is a pity.

It's very interesting that Sissons takes the line that Azmi should have made certain assumptions because it was a Church of England school. Azmi then takes the line that she made other assumptions because it was a 'mainly Muslim school'. Surely neither of these factors are at all relevant if this is an argument about whether she could do her job or not. So what if the kids are used to seeing veiled women? The issue is their needs in the classroom. If they are receiving bilingual support they are already at a disadvantage in our school system and they deserve the best help they can get. However, it's also arguable that a bilingual support worker from one's own community is the best possible resource in this situation, so this advantage outweighs any disadvantage such as the hindrance of the veil.

The other thing that is starting to worry me is how impossible it would be to run a school where some of the staff are effectively refusing to work with some others. Whoever line manages Ms Azmi will have to deploy other staff so that any male teachers in the school don't come into contact with her while she is working unveiled. In most small schools there just isn't that much flexibility.

So I think, overall, I am becoming fixed in my views, and less and less sympathetic to the case... which is slightly worrying. Because behind all this remains a nagging worry that the press is happily exploiting the more strident voices within Islam; because it is a very juicy story - dissent in the classroom, alienation within a primary school, radical Islam, children, the mystery of the veil.... Should we be pleased or distressed watching a woman in a veil getting a public drubbing by a pompous middle aged white guy?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Aishah Azmi defends herself - the niqab debate continued

The plot thickens. Both the mystery of what actually went on in Headfield Church of England Junior School; and the question of whether the school and Ms Azmi herself are being used to keep the Jack Straw story on the boil. I woke to the Radio 4 news this morning and her version (of the events that I blogged yesterday) was first item in the news bulletin. However, the BBC News website's reporting of the updated story mingles it - unhelpfully - with London Mayor Ken Livingstone's thoughts on the matter, along with a generic picture of a mysterious looking woman wearing a niqab.

The only other report I can find is in the The Mirror , who report that she was promised by the school that she would only have to work unveiled with women; they also report her as having said that
"It's not true that there had been complaints. The kids are mostly Muslim anyway and most of their mothers wear the veil anyway so they would never, ever have a problem."
and that she felt
"...I was under a lot of pressure to take it off or resign. No alternative was offered. I was told disciplinary action was inevitable."

Friday, October 13, 2006

The niqab debate reaches education

In Dewsbury today, a primary school teaching assistant was suspended because she insisted on covering her face with a veil while working with kids and they could not understand her. Wierd timing. Or is it the case that this kind of workplace disagreement is only headline news when it fuels an ongoing head-line grabbing debate involving religion, gender, sex, power and politics?

I think that the school was right to ask her to remove the veil while she worked with the kids, and if she felt she could not do this, she should have not been given the job in the first place. The school appears to support her wearing the veil outside the classroom, only asking her to remove it when working one to one with the children.

I am personally quite torn on the issue of the niqab, and indeed on the hijab. I teach many young Muslim women from different ethnic backgrounds, and practice varies widely. In my younger days I took very seriously certain religious imperatives of my own faith and can understand young people seeking to make a stand on their beliefs as they grown into adulthood. On the other hand, I am completely unimpressed by what I understand to be the theological basis of the requirement for women to cover their hair and bodies.

So I am stuck. I respect their personal faith and their commitment, I respect Islam, but I don't respect the specific tenets of the faith that require this particular obedience from them. In a similar way I reject certain actions carried out in the name of my own faith while understanding my co-religionists' desire to seek God and to serve him faithfully in the world.

Ah me.

Radio 4 radio clip on the theological basis of hijab - only available until 16th October

The science curriculum debate III

And here's a very radical article from Simon Jenkins. Wouldn't go this far myself but he makes some very good points.

BTW, it's not that I only read the Guardian, but the Independent does not have an RSS feed...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The science curriculum debate

When I was training as a science teacher, the National Curriculum was billed as the solution to the shortage of scientists and engineers in the UK. By making 'Double Science' (i.e. two GCSE's worth of combined science) compulsory for all kids at GCSE, the government hoped more students would fall in love with science and go on to study it at University.

Instead, schools wrestled with the reality of teaching all students - all students - huge great wodges of science. Hell has fewer miseries more grim than a set five science group you see for 20% of their timetabled time. As other options emerged (downgrading to single science - 1 GCSE of combined science - switching to GNVQ or similar) schools with a high proportion of this type of student grabbed them.

At the other end of the spectrum, many students found that their options to study science in the future were severely limited. Potential future scientists were frustrated, as schools could not easily offer them the 'three sciences' option alongside the compulsory Double Award. By insisting that everyone did some science, less and less students were able to prepare for the rigours of A-level. Students who were somewhere between the extremes - unable, at the tender age of 14, to know if they would blossom into academic success or leave school early, were usually shifted into whichever solution offered the best 'headline results'. This was all the more galling, because this was why we got rid of grammar schools - to allow students longer to grow into academic success, keeping their options open, most especially those who did not have parents acting as pro-education cheerleaders on the sidelines.

So the powers-that-be put their heads together once more, to try and work out a solution which gives all students what they need to survive in a technological society, while at the same time inspiring and equipping future scientists. The result was the science reforms that have been rolled out this Autumn, including 'Science for the 21st century', a GSCE which aims to provide scientific literacy. [A briefing from the Association for Science Education here]

In a telling quote from the BBC
...pupils who take up 21st Century science are unlikely to be those who plan to take science at A-level and then university.
Today, Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College and member of the Institute of Ideas, has criticised the new GCSE science qualification because they will lock students out of future university courses.

I am in such anguish. I have not taught GCSE science for many years, but I have long thought that the UK education system needs something like a 'science for life' course. Forcing all 15 year olds to study physics is just wrong. And I love physics. I really enjoyed teaching science and think that everyone needs to be scientifically literate in order for society to survive.

At the same time, I also know that students who do not have a good GCSE foundation struggle hopelessly at A-level. They need to have had strong teaching, traditional-style courses and the curriculum time to study all three sciences, or at least two to sufficient depth.

So, I'm with OCR, who summed it up thus,
"GCSE qualifications in the sciences are required to meet two quite different needs: firstly, to prepare all students for life in the 21st century, in which science is a part of everyday experience, and secondly to prepare future scientists for their studies at A-level and beyond."
Why can't we do both? Why can't there be flexibility, options, choice, risk? I'll tell you why not. League tables.

Children lose out when they are not given the option to take courses that they are less likely to pass. Schools can't afford the risk of entering students for challenging subjects. Far better to put them in for the courses that will maximise their 'success'. Because the bottom line is the league table pass rate. At all costs we must service the pass rate. So the question becomes 'What science options can we afford to offer in our school? Which will guarantee a better bottom line statistic? Which is safest?' In this context, schools will continue to offer whatever courses best service the pass rate.

The 21st century science course is for 'students unlikely to take science at University'. How many schools will take that decision for all their pupils at the age of 14 simply because it is too costly for them, in terms of the league tables, to do otherwise?

I've been feeling sick about this all day. I have arrived at the desperately depressing conclusion that there is no reform in current education that can ever work while schools are held up to public judgement and competition using highly simplified statistics alone. The forces acting on schools today distort and corrupt the education of children. They are evil.

More information from the BBC here, and see the Guardian here, and all about the Insitute of Ideas here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Warning! Facts may appear even more true when animated on a Mac

How's this for a fantastic Newsnight-style video version of the facts about hardness?

With huge thanks to M.

It's now official. Physics is hard.

Here is the pictorial proof. In the manner of all contemporary educational statistics I have taken fleeting whimsy and turned it into FACT.

I assumed people would rank the subjects they found easiest as objectively the easiest. This may be a false assumption. I know M has been honest in saying that programming is easy (look at his blog and guess his profession) but for all we know, some of you others could be physicists who enjoy the cachet...

Maybe we need to consider what standards we expect of people. There are dozens of rubbish drivers, rubbish actors and (according to my psychology colleagues) rubbish psychologists (most, apparently, writing for women's magazines or presenting reality TV shows.) However, we don't find ourselves whinging about the generally poor quality of historians or physicists in Britain today. Only the good get on, and mostly they keep themselves to themselves and only bother us to present Channel 4 series. However, one commentator argues conversely that rubbish physicists are still pretty useful, which is one of the ways we know it's hard, in comparison with rubbish actors, who are good for nothing...

Is physics objectively hard? Is acting objectively easy? Or do more people find physics hard and more people find acting easy?

My own personal experience is this.

Easiest of all is physics. (Although I did wimp out of physics after my first year at university.) Conceptually, theoretical physics is simply maths in action, and I find maths straightforward, given time and a clear head.

Then I would say programming. Only done a bit. But given time and resources, programming is a logical pseudo-mathematic process. Can't claim to be able to program with a haunting elegance, but I can usually get there in the end.

Next psychology and history, tied. I haven't studied psychology, but I have studied the sociology of the life sciences, and history of science. Harder than physics and programming because there's no end point, no answer, just an endless quest for meanings and connections. Also, a lot of language based understanding. But I find reading as easy as maths so that's OK.

The second hardest thing I've ever done is learn to drive. Took me four different instructors and 17 years.

And the hardest thing I have ever done is learn improvisational drama with a bunch of professional drama teachers. It's the only time I have ever considered physically running away from a learning situation. That's a whole other story.

PS If you have followed my blog for a while and remember my post on Jan Srameck, please check out his reply below.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A reply from Jan Srameck

Amazingly, I've just received a comment on an earlier post about Jan Srameck, the young man who got A grades in 10 A-levels this summer, now studying economics at Cambridge. I reprint the reply, which I assume is from Jan himself, in full below

Having been alerted to this by a friend of mine, I think that I need to correct a few things which have been said, and to provide some explanations.

1) "Then we add economics, business studies and 'economics and business studies combined' - surely a blatant case of sitting exams for the sake of it? The amount of overlapping content must have been laughable."

not that you could have known this, but my school only taught E&B combined and that's the course I studied for the full 2 years..sitting the additional Economics/Business as separate A-levels was, in fact, partially a bet with several friends, partially a preparation for the AEA papers (formerly S-levels) in Economics and Business, which, being separate papers, would probably be even more difficult having studied the joint course only.

therefore, your argument is in fact wrong, as doing those 2 enabled me to do the more advanced stuff, in favour of which you argued later on

2) "ICT is a huge amount of work, but maybe not a significant challenge for him, especially if Jan is a hobbiest computer fan - which he may well be, with his strong flair for maths."

yes, it's a huge amount of work. there is no A-level which would be a significant challenge for a student with a broad range of talents, with the possible exception of art/music for those who don't have a particular flair for them..I hated my ICT A-level, but it's been a very good exercise in motivation to keep it, do the appalling coursework and learn for those pointless exams - and that's why I the time I found out that it wasn't a very good course, the only other option would have been to drop it - and I hate loosing.

3) "Then German - he's from the Czech Republic - can we assume a head start?"

any linguist will tell you that English and German are much closer than Czech and German, being from a completely different language families..if you assumed that I'd speak German because of geographical location, I can assure you that my family lives in the opposite part of the country, close to Slovakia/Poland rather than Germany.

in fact, prior to my AS-level course I had studied it for less than 2 years for 3 lessons a week, and my German was, honestly, the worst in my class when we started..coupled with the fact that my English was far from fluent when I arrived (not a surprise given that I had not even visited an English speaking country before then), being taught German in English in such circumstances was..a wonderful experience (my German teachers: you rock)

4) The school had nothing to do with this. Yes, my teachers were great in supporting me, but they were very far from pushing me to do this - in fact, the opposite was occasionally the case. History, as well as Politics, at A-level are equally difficult or academically stretching as most of the other A-levels. Jumping through the loops all the way, reading one or two mark schemes the day before the exam, and if you have a flair for the subject, high UMS shouldn't be a problem.

5) On a final point, I came to the UK knowing very little about the system and at the time decided to do Maths, Physics, German, E&B, ICT. Since everyone does GS, so did I. In Y13, I picked up FM as an obvious choice and that seemed to be the final combination. Doing AFM was purely because of my interest in Mathematics and this decision was actually made sometime in March/April, i.e. 2 months before those exams. The decision to take Economics and Business separately was made even later, partially because of my curiosity about stretching myself in terms of exams, partially as a preparation for the AEA papers.

I'm not sure whether I'd make the same choices if I were to re-live that year again, and I'm not sure whether it was the best use of my time either. It was, however, definitely worth it and a very valuable experience indeed; more and above, with 100% certainly, I used my time more wisely than a great majority of other students. It's fair to express your opinion, but belittling what I've done without knowing anything about me and other like-minded people who've done similar things in the past, is very far from being fair play.


Jan's results are an interesting case study in the A-level debate. When I posted, I was not out to get at him personally. To start at the end, I am really sorry Jan feels belittled by my post. I hoped in my posts around A-level results time to raise some questions but did not mean to ridicule, so I apologise to Jan if he feels my comments were unfair to him.

However, he must be aware that his unusual experience raises questions. Is this all we can offer the brightest and the best of our sixteen and seventeen year olds - racking up a large number of related A-levels? My main perspective in writing the original post was to question the approach of the education system in dealing with exceptionally bright teenagers, and his reply really does contribute to this. For him, the challenge of A-levels seems to be one of burdensome work for work's sake, rather than an intellectually stimulating experience (apart from his German lessons!) In addition, he believes that most exams can be done by jumping through the loops all the way, reading one or two mark schemes the day before the exam. This is a very telling statement. In the current climate of criticism of the A-level system, it is up to teachers to think seriously about the guidance we give the gifted student.

A few specific points raised in his post:
- Obviously I was completely wrong in my assumption that Jan already spoke German.
- I know all about the demands of ICT A-level - and I am not surprised he hated sweating through 'the appalling coursework', and found himself having to exercise steely self-discipline in order to complete something onerous and not very exciting. To anyone else in a similar situation, I suggest you study Computing instead. You will find this more conceptually challenging and certainly more invigorating. (Oh, and why not drop ICT, or indeed any subject that turns out to be a mistake, after completing the AS? That's not an admission of defeat!)
- The triple combination of Economics, Business Studies, and Combined Economics and Business Studies is an official forbidden combination, sorry. I suppose this does not really matter to Jan as he did the extra two subjects simply as a bet and had plenty of other subjects under his belt. I can see that Jan was limited in his choices by the curriculum of the school, and that if he was sitting the AEAs in Economics and Business, it would be necessary to cover the extra content, so he might as well sit the A-level papers. In fact, doing the AEAs in Economics and Business seems a very worthwhile achievement and one that did not come out in the newspapers.
- However, I am not sure what Jan's argument against History and Politics is. I honestly think that there's more to it than read[ing] through one or two mark schemes before the exam. Even the very bright need to read in depth to score the highest UMS marks in History. I stand by my suggestion that to tackle either of these subjects (or indeed English Literature) is good advice for any student hoping to study at a Russell Group University.

In general, gifted students are always limited by the curriculum offered by their particular school. However, if the school is not able to stretch them, there are other options available. One is to study with the Open University while still at school. The OU now offers a wide variety of modules to sixth formers, who can be funded and supported through the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme.

I am very appreciative that Jan took the time to reply to my blog. My conviction that he is both brilliant and hardworking remain unchanged. I really do wish him well, congratulate him on his success, and I am quite sure his teachers at Bootham do, too. I know he will find Cambridge both a challenge and a delight, and a very different experience to A-levels.

But I will return to the main point of my original post. How do we advise exceptional students in the current A-level system? Do as many A-levels as you can?

After considering Jan's post, if I had a similarly motivated and talented young person in front of me, I would advise them thus. Do 'less, but better'; seek out challenging and appropriate subjects; look for extra-curricular opportunities that enhance your skills and allow you to diversify, and take the time to read widely both within and around your subject.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

OK, now they get to do coursework supervised

Maths coursework is to be axed. And all other coursework will be done in supervised conditions. I suppose I should be happy. As an educationalist, I'm reasonably happy. But as a human being with a partner and a life, I am just washed with a tremendous sense of weariness and dread. The exam results will not be allowed to dip - the great statistical God will demand that we find ways of keeping the grades just as high when the stays are tightened on coursework. It will be us who have to work harder, devise more and more ingenious ways of ensuring our students succeed.

I know I haven't commented on the survey... I'm building up to it. And waiting for a few more of you to comment. Although I'm in education, so I should probably take the small smattering of data and turn it into a league table.

PS Blogger's spell checker suggests corkscrews for coursework. The Internet is positively urging me to have a glass of wine...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Vote now - what is the most difficult thing to do?

On a blog as tiny as this, two negative comments on one posting counts as a storm of protest. In addition, I've been getting it in the neck from him indoors for saying that Drama A-level isn't good preparation for English at Cambridge.

As a result, I've been forced to think some more about the issues raised in Boris Johnson's 'Physics not Media Studies' article, and realised that my writing and thinking were rather sloppy. (See below for links to the original posts)

There are three different issues involved in the 'crunchy A-level' debate (and none is actually the real issue.)
1) Are some subjects inherently harder?
2) Are some A-levels inherently harder (by virtue of amount of content covered, style of assessment etc.)?
3) Are some subjects better preparation for a degree at Cambridge University, or better discriminators of a particular aptitude?

My casual adoption of Boris Johnson's label 'crunchy' has not helped at all - I wanted it to mean 3) as distinct from 1), while skipping neatly over the issue of 2). However, I don't think I've even managed to be consistent on that.

As I muse further on these issues, it occurs to me I could do a poll among my huge readership. So...

Please rank these six 'subjects' in order of difficulty . Note, this refers to the subject itself, not the A-level, GCSE or similar. Go on, vote. You can dicker about the terms of the debate at the end if you want...

Which is most difficult?
1) Theoretical physics
2) Acting
3) History
4) Psychology
5) Driving a car
6) Programming a computer

Crunchy posts so far:
The crunchy and the smooth
Crunchier and crunchier

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Please skip on over to Mr Chalk and read his version of Rudyard Kipling's 'If'

My literacy diagnostic assessment

I had to do a literacy test yesterday to practice using the software for my new tutor group next week. The only real way to prepare to deliver something using software is to pretend you are a student and try it out; however, becoming childishly obsessed with getting all the answers right is optional. After working my way pendantically through a level 2 literacy test, I was horrified to find that had not scored full marks (even after I cheated by asking the Head of Modern Languages what a passive verb was.) Apparantly, I 'need to work on use of appropriate language'.

F***ing stupid computer program.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What every school really needs ....biometrics

London School to fingerprint students

Is this to save time, because getting 32 children to press a fingerprint scanner is quicker than calling out their names? Or is it to stamp out the wide practice of register fraud, when children pretend to be each other? When the technology instantly notifies a harrassed head of year or secretary that Johnny has gone AWOL in the corridor between French and Maths, will that member of staff be able to leap instantly to her feet to track him down? Or is it another case of measuring something ever more accurately in an attempt to hide the fact that you have no actual sanctions to deal with it?

And apparantly schools can fingerprint children without parental consent Children can give informed consent. Teaching the Data Protection Act, traditionally the low point in any ICT class, has never been more important.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Gay computers

Went wandering on the Interweb last night and found a new teacher's blog for your consideration; Tales from the Chalkface. Vinni had a link to this flurry about the use of the term gay from back in June (about the time I lost the third member of my department to ill-health and gave up sleeping as well as blogging.) His writing on the subject is very amusing.

Personally, I am in a time of transition on this issue. Much as my tolerance for pimp chic is sadly growing by the year, I regrettably no longer pursue the 'gay computer' issue with as much passion... which is sad because I think it's completely obvious that the word 'gay' (as in the sentence 'Miss, this computer is gay') means 'crap' only because there are people in our society who think that gay people are crap. It's disingenuous to say 'the word has changed it's meaning'.

If kids took to saying 'This computer's really Muslim' we wouldn't be having any of it. It's grim to note, however, how both genders play fast and loose with each other's genitals when insulting people; that battle is lost forever. (Er, please read that sentence carefully.)

As with all these things, it comes back to the effort required to take a 'zero tolerance' approach to things like this. Teachers have to pick their fights and save their precious ammunition.

Not to be confused with...

...the more famous blogger Mr Chalk, who yesterday saw his book 'It's your time you're wasting' hit the shelves. I've not linked to Amazon as I'm sure he'd much rather you clicked on the above link and bought it via him.

I'm hoping I can glean some new readers accidently by people Googling the book name wrongly, and finding me instead...

Good luck, Mr C and congratulations!

Arrange the desks in a U shape! and other great ideas

Two links sent to me that juxtapose rather nicely and could make the basis for quite a nice discussion on 'the benefits and limitations of ICT in education' (A-level ICT teachers out there, don't say I don't look after you)

'Technology spices up learning for Net generation'from Mac News World.

'Saying No to School Laptops'
from the Wall Street Times

I don't really agree with the logic that says, Hey! Kids like iPods! Let's give them educational podcasts, that will make them interested in learning! Hey! Kids like TV, but that doesn't mean they choose documentaries over soaps. Lots also like books, but that doesn't mean they choose Lett's Revise Science over Harry Potter. And kids love the Internet, but as I am tired of explaining to aspiring ICT students, 'It's not an A-level in soft porn and gaming, you know.'

Saturday, September 02, 2006

My name is Pepperpot and I am not a spammer

Oh, the humiliation.

It must be pretty obvious to you all that M (author of Musings on a Mac) and I converse pretty frequently. It was he who led me to the notorious Boris 'crunchy' Johnson article, and who encouraged me to post to Boris's website while we were online chatting to each other. I had to be persuaded to do this, being a shy flower, and didn't realise that in the course of our conversation he, too, had posted to the site. Result - two consecutive links to my post. Anyway, we have been accused of spamming and I am so humiliated I cannot look my monitor in the face.

All I can say to Raincoaster and the other readers is I am very sorry and it was a genuine mistake. Raincoaster, please accept my offering of Google juice as an act of contrition.

Crunchier and crunchier

The story so far...
New Cambridge University A-level subject guidelines have been published, including a list of A-level subjects that it says 'provide a less effective preparation for our courses.' I first heard about it on Tuesday, which was the day I returned to work to start enrolling new students onto advanced courses for next year. M's comment on a provious post of mine led me to Boris Johnson's thoughts on the matter (I would not normally have wandered there myself) and the bewitching monicker 'crunchy' for the subjects that Cambridge refers to as traditional academic subjects.

By Friday this week I had taken part in many conversations about crunchy subjects as we carried out the usual painstaking task of helping students choose their next step. As usual, there are the students who have completely unrealistic goals; their schools may have encouraged them to aim for the top - and I don't blame them - but it's heart-breaking to have to say to a 16 year old with 5 C grades and 4 D grades, the result of much hard work, that their chances of studying medicine are slim to none. On the other hand, there is the equally difficult task of advising very bright young people, who have come from families with no knowledge or experience of higher education; while they might not be open to the idea now, in twelve months time we might be encouraging them to apply for Cambridge. (It takes that long to grow their faith in themselves and to work through the many stereotypes that they - and their parents - might hold.) We have always advised students in this position to make sure that they include some traditional, essay based subjects, even if they want a more practical or creative focus. So the Cambridge list is nothing new.

This article in the Guardian by historian Francis Beckett made me think further. I am inclined to agree with this:
Parks claims that, far from being elitist, this is an effort towards getting students from poorer backgrounds and tough inner-city schools to Cambridge. "It's not academic snobbery at all," he says. "We want those who might wish to come here to avoid ruling themselves out by taking inappropriate subjects at A-level." Much better to spell it out on the website, where anyone can see it, than keep it as a bit of insider knowledge, known and understood at St Posh's Academy for the Gentry, but never heard about at East Grunge comprehensive.

Far better to be blunt about it, rather than rely on whatever process Oxford claims to use.
Oxford seems also to have given up on the idea that A-levels can be the fine-tuning mechanism that will infallibly select the brainiest of every generation. "We have developed our own ways of discriminating," says the spokeswoman.

I disagree, however, with some of the specific criticisms in the website:
The English department insists, understandably, on English literature, recommends languages and history, and has encouraging words to say about maths and science. And then it adds: "Although drama or theatre studies may possibly be accepted as a third A-level subject, colleges tend to prefer applicants to show more range in their skills and interests." Drama and theatre studies are, of course, among the discouraged A-levels. Parks's explanation is that a performance-based A-level is not good preparation for a Cambridge literature degree.

What's wrong with that? Studying English literature at one of the oldest Universities in Britain is a million miles from Drama A-level. And I'm not denigrating Drama A-level at all; it's very rigorous and extraordinarily hard work. However, I would cautiously suggest that drama and English literature are very different areas of academic study. More significantly, to say that Drama A-level is not an effective preparation for English at Cambridge tells us much about the nature of the English department there, the scopeand limitations of the course, and the emphases and approaches that define the discipline there. Just because Oxford and Cambridge have such high status it does not make them the best choice for every gifted student.

Accountancy is another subject on the list; Beckett questions this, too. 'So a mathematician does not use the skills learned in accountancy?'
Er, no. I wouldn't say that accountancy did teach you any specific mathematical skills you wouldn't gain from Maths and Further Maths A-levels. It will teach you lots about applying mathematical methods to the world of money. Accountants use mathematical skills, not the other way around.

I'm glad that the list is controversial. A-levels should be constantly scrutinised and we should expect to wrestle with how we can offer new disciplines alongside old-fashioned favourites.

And anything that uncloaks the mystery of applying to Oxbridge is a good thing, especially when such myths abound. (A fifty-something NQT I once worked with had to be taken to task for telling the students 'not to bother applying to Cambridge unless you have a family member who went there' - and this was in a school with a steady flow of successful applicants!) It's really good to think that a student in a school with no tradition of helping their students to apply for Oxbridge can get access to solid advice; we will just have to grit out teach if it makes us feel a bit squeamish. I desperately want more students from the state system to go to Cambridge Therefore it's vitally important that the university figures out ways of picking out the students who genuinely have the greatest talents in those traditional academic subjects in which the University specialises. It's so hard to distinguish this type of student in a field where every institution is grimly focused on exam sucess above all else, producing phalanxes of students groomed to within an inch of their lives in exam technique and the complex tactics needed to suceed in the modern A-level. By being honest, I think Cambridge have been very brave, and should be commended.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The crunchy and the smooth

I'm sure there's a specific blogging way to do this, but I don't know it. This post has come about because of a site posted in M's comment on my previous post... The link is Boris Johnson on Physics A-level. Boris, who according to They Work for You , asks most of his questions in Parliament about Capita, Capita Group, Community Hospitals, Swill Feeding and Swill studied at Eton and Oxford and to my great surprise seems to have been quite a scholar. (It obviously takes a lot of brains to play the fool.) He writes here about this list of subjects , published by Cambridge University (towards the bottom, under course requirements.) Cambridge Admissions Tutors will only give offers to students who have two A-levels in subjects not on this list. They must, instead, be what Boris calls 'crunchy' subjects.

Two things to note...

Firstly, Psychology and Sociology - all derided from time to time by commentators - are crunchy!

Secondly, the majority of the 'smooth' subjects (i.e. on the Not Suitable For Cambridge list) have practical elements which require significant skill; just not skills that are relevant for the range of traditional courses offered at Cambridge. For example, Media Studies, which includes film-making, Drama which includes acting, Dance and Photography... These are not 'easier' per se, they are different.

Personally, the hardest learning experience of my life was participating in a Drama workshop as an adult. Drama A-level would be a huge struggle for me. I doubt I could get one of those 'easy' A's. (I have a full measure of pre Curriculum 2000 crunchy A-levels; and I live with a Drama teacher so I know what the subject entails) The lowest exam mark I ever got was for Art, in which I was examined for the first (and last) time aged fourteen. It was an utterly humiliating experience for me - I was a straight A student up till then.

Sure, physics ain't a pushover. And we definitely need more physicists and chemists applying to university - that's a whole different issue. But as I say to students when they say 'which A-levels are easiest?' - it depends on what you find easy.

Actually, I think Cambridge have phrased it rather well.
The list below details the A level subjects that provide a less effective preparation for our courses. To be a realistic applicant, a student will normally need to be offering two traditional academic subjects

They are reflecting the fact that they offer only traditional, academic courses at a world class standard delivered in a conventional way. In order to realistically study those courses, a particular set of gifts is needed, evidenced by a particular set of results. That's not a scandal.

The scandal, as Boris has identified, is that 'we live in a mad world of league tables' and this culture has distorted schools' advice to students and the curriculum options made available.

There's nothing wrong with saying that subjects are different. But as I commented in my post on Jan Sramek, we all have subjects we find easier and subjects that present a significant challenge (in Jan's case, why did he accumulate 10 A-levels rather than stretching himself by taking fewer and including some literary or essay subjects instead?) Let's not fall into the easy labeling of 'hard' and 'easy', 'crunchy' and 'smooth' and join in the eternal denigration of some subjects.

I interviewed a young woman today for admission to a post-sixteen course who had low grades in some crunchy subjects at GCSE, but an A* in Textiles and another in Art. She is obviously very talented indeed in ways I can't imagine. I hope we can put her onto a course where she will flourish, be challenged, and be able to access the top universities or institutions in her field. Which will not be Oxford or Cambridge. But that's fine because she wants to be a fashion designer. Not a journalist and Tory politician...