75% against

75% is a pretty thumping majority. In a democracy, a win of that size is simply a landslide, and the winning side gets to do pretty much whatever they want.

Unless we’re dealing with the Department for Education.

The Blessed Michael appointed an expert panel of 4 august educationalists to draw up draft proposals for the new Primary curriculum. They were tasked with scouring the finest educational systems the world has to offer, extracting and refining the best of the best, and emerging with an educational system for 5 – 11 year olds that would be the nonpareil of the civilised world. Which is what they did. Only Michael didn’t like it. Unfortunately, the approach they came up with wasn’t at all what he expected, nor indeed what he wanted, and he made it clear that he required a different answer. Whereupon 3 of the 4 left, claiming that it was impossible to work for a minister who put ideology and prejudice before the best interests of children. One of them, Andrew Pollard, even wrote a blog about it.

Unperturbed, our Michael ploughed on regardless. He tasked Tim Oates, chair of the (now very depleted) panel to produce something much more like the ideas he’d had all along. What he really wanted was something akin to the musings of the American educationalist Ed Hirsch who seems to have made a profound impression on both St Michael and his henchman the Minister for Schools Nick Gibb. No matter that 3 out of 4 voted with their feet, as long as the remaining 25% could deliver the goods. Which Tim Oates duly did – although it must have been a lonely experience.

So it’s goodbye “when the child is ready” and hello prescribed year by year content. There are spellings that every child must know (although they only need to know them when they reach the right age, not before), and punctuation that every child must use correctly (by age 11 it’s the semi colon). Biennial tests will ensure that everyone is rigorously assessed with alarming regularity. As yet, we don’t know the penalty for failure, but expect the word “fail” to feature strongly henceforth.

There’s to be consultation, of course. It would be very undemocratic if Joe Public could not express a view. At the moment the tally seems to be 75% against, 25% in favour. So what if, when all the responses are in, 99% or so think the new National Curriculum is, to quote Andrew Pollard, “fatally flawed”? Will it be ditched? Rewritten to fall in line with majority opinion? Stripped of the ideological underpinnings that make it so prescriptive? Alas, no. We must always remember that St Michael is a member of a democratically elected government. He is doing his sovereign duty by serving the people who elected him to do what he thinks best.

Besides which, his friends’ children will go to private schools, where they wouldn’t touch the National Curriculum with a barge pole.

On writing and rote-ing

As we expected. The ground is being prepared by the Department for Education, readying us for the horrors of the updated National Curriculum. By placing a few judicious titbits in the sunday papers the men at the ministry can soften up the opposition by drawing fire for a while.

Micheal Gove wavingSo it’s to be learn poetry by rote and recite it. From Year 1 onwards. In fact, quite a lot of teachers will have no problem with this. Poetry is something of a neglected art form in the Primary curriculum, and the ability to memorise engaging works is not a bad thing in itself. We often marvel at people who can quote chunks of poetry – or indeed prose and plays – so it seems to be a skill that’s worth having, in that it trains the mind and uses something useful to do it with. (Is poetry useful? Discuss.)

More controversial is what’s casually dropped in after this headline grabbing bit of fluff. Apparently, there is to be a greater emphasis on spelling and grammar. No problem. The nation’s children will spell beautifully and produce sentences that are the very models of correct syntax and concord. The only trouble is, the content of these sentences is highly likely to be unoriginal, unengaging, and unrepresentative of what children can do when they’re immersed in the writing process. Why? Because the drilling and skilling for the inevitable grammar and spelling test will mean that there’s no time for the teaching and learning that makes writing worth doing: the enjoyment of making something new, of delighting or surprising a reader, of coming up with a novel combination of words that just works.

By the time enough space has been made for memorising and reciting, honing grammatical knowledge and endless spelling tests, there simply won’t be time for the immersion in creativity that characterises the best teaching of writing.

English GCSE: a spot of bother

There’s been a bit of kerfuffle about the AQA English GCSE papers this year. Specifically, a writing question on the English Language paper required the writing of a radio script and the instructions didn’t make it at all clear whether this was supposed to be some sort of monologue or a chat between two people. Given that this was on the Foundation paper, and, without resorting to stereotype, that it’s fair to say the students sitting it will be more familiar with Radio 1 than Radio 4, they’re very unlikely to be au fait with the sort of script that was perhaps being asked for. Besides which, this particular written genre has never featured in sample papers, past papers on this specification, nor even on the legacy specification.

Teachers will not have prepared their students to face this sort of writing. In one sense, that perhaps makes it fair, since everyone will be in the same boat (i.e. untaught), but there are stories circulating of large numbers of students writing nothing.

In English Literature, something worse may have happened. There’s a strong suspicion that the Foundation and Higher questions on the Poetry Anthology section somehow got switched over before the papers went to print. Whilst the same skills are tested in both papers, the Foundation questions are generally a little wider in scope, tend to focus on the easier poems in the set selection and often feature bullet pointed suggestions of what to write about to support students in framing a relevant answer. In both questions on the Relationshipssection, the wider question appeared on the Higher paper and the narrower one on Foundation, viz:

Foundation: …present a close relationship

Higher: …present relationships

and

Foundation: …feelings for a woman

Higher: …feelings about another person

Coupled with that, the named poems in the Foundation questions were more demanding in terms of their complexity and length, whilst those named in the Higher questions were shorter, contemporary and perceived by teachers as much more straightforward.

And to make matters even worse, the Unseen poem on the Foundation paper was on the theme of “being thick”. This has widely been seen as adding insult to injury.

Conspiracy theorists will be quick to jump in here. AQA enjoys the lion’s share of the English GCSE market, so results with this board will significantly affect the overall percentage pass this year. It’s an open secret that the more right wing elements in the coalition are fed up with results in GCSE going up and up year after year, and have demanded a sterner test of the nation’s youth. Hence the abandonment, from next year, of modular examinations. As far as the Department for Education is concerned, it’s terminal examinations, or nothing. Which probably means that it will indeed be terminal for raising achievement.

As yet there’s been no response from AQA. They probably needn’t worry: there’s nothing in the rules that says they have to make the Foundation questions more accessible, nor a rule that says they can’t set any form of writing they want to in the Writing section of English Language. And they’ll almost certainly have the support of St Michael, so they’re laughing all the way to results day in August.

An improving market?

The market is efficient. The market will decide. It isn’t surprising, I suppose, that the current government is a great fan of market forces. The mantra seems to be – in more or less any sphere – leave it to the market.

We can argue that the financial markets spectacularly failed in 2008, and that we’ve been living with the consequences ever since, but that doesn’t seem to count against them. Certain institutions were simply deemed too big to fail and everyone carried on as though nothing had happened. Perhaps that should be the wealthy carried on as though nothing had happened. Recent figures show that since the “crash” of 2008 the divide between rich and poor has just kept on getting wider. The mass of statistics available to show that the markets can only be deemed efficient if efficient means the weakest go to the wall is staggering, yet that doesn’t stop even education being subject to market economics.

The latest facet of the educational landscape to fall into the clutches of current economic theory is school improvement.

Under the previous administration, there was a simple, if not popular, top down model that aimed to raise achievement by setting an agenda (Every Child Matters), providing resources and training to suit whatever aspect of the agenda was deemed to be most pressing, and employing an army of consultants to spread the word and monitor the effect. A vast array of materials was produced to steer and support the process of school improvement. Not all of it was remarkable, by any means, but some of it changed practice for the better. There was a relentless and entirely novel focus on teaching and learning, and a demand that potential be recognised and realised in all. The main measure was moving in the direction of progress, not thresholds (not “what grades did you get?” but “how much progress have you made?”)

All that has gone. There is still a moral imperative for schools to improve, of course, but the means of improvement are seen as something of a vacuum, which the market must swiftly move into and fill. The new thinking effectively says that it doesn’t matter who provides or brings about improvement, because the market will determine what is good and what is not, and the less good will wane and die because it will not be bought by cash-strapped schools who will of course spend wisely because of the need to ensure value for money.

Three examples are given by the Department for Education of how improvement may be brought about. First there is the school to school model. Currently, there is a drive to put in place “teaching schools”. It could fairly be argued that teaching is what all schools do, but this use of the name is in the same bracket as teaching hospitals, where world class expertise is made available to others in order to secure higher standards for all. These teaching schools will form alliances with lesser establishments and will nurture them towards excellence. There’s money in it, of course. Up ’til now, schools in the same locality have been competitive, striving to attract numbers and foster a reputation for excellence that will raise house prices in their catchment areas. The idea of giving away your best teachers and resources and ideas was anathema, but now you can be paid to do it in the form of a considerably bigger budget share for your school.

The second example is academies. Apparently, by joining forces and throwing off the constraints of the local authority and the national curriculum, academies will bring about a “levelling up” of the playing field.

And finally, there are the private and/or local authority outfits that will offer improvement services to schools (much the same services that they used to get for free), although now they will need to operate purely on a traded services model, offering packages, cut price deals and premium training to entice schools to part with the tiny part of their budgets that can be spared for staff development.

In all of these examples, of course, the market will decide who prospers and who goes bust.

And if standards don’t rise? Well, it can’t be the fault of the market, can it? As we know, the market is efficient.

W(h)ither writing?

I’m in a lot of Primary schools at the moment looking at the writing done in Year 6. One of the many things that strikes me is the loving care that pupils devote to presentation of the finished product. A piece of writing may take a week or more to develop, with various teaching strategies used along the way to draw attention to different aspects of composition and technical accuracy , but there might be another week in getting the piece to the standard required for inclusion in a “Theme” or “Topic” book. Often this will include the selection of paper that looks right for a particular effect, and a typeface will be chosen to enhance the look. Various images might be placed around the central text, and a whole panoply of pockets, fold out charts and arrows added to assist the reader.

What happens to this impressive approach to writing when little Johnny moves up the road to the local Secondary? The evidence suggests that he’ll get an English exercise book which might be used for anything and everything from rough notes to scribbled drawing to full length stories. Presentation will be very low down on the list of priorities, if there at all, and the opportunity to produce something via a computer is usually limited to those who have the time and the inclination to do something with their final version at home.

Does this matter? If Johnny’s writing improves, isn’t the presentation aspect merely decorative? Well, to some extent yes. But – and it’s a big but – the art of presentation makes up a goodly chunk of the way writing is perceived in the modern world. Since the vast majority of writing now requires a keyboard rather than a pen, the look of the piece becomes all important. It’s why people spend ages poring over the most appropriate theme for their blog, or tinker endlessly with the look of their web pages. The content is, presumably, enhanced by the look. If your first reaction to a piece on your screen is, “Ugh, that’s hideous!”, you’re presumably less likely to be influenced by the words of wisdom contained within the offending design.

So w(h)ither writing? Do we just have to accept that “they do things differently in big school”, or that interest in the look of something inevitably fades, along with interest in writing at all as puberty kicks in? If the proportion of time and energy devoted to presentation in early secondary school could match that in primary, would progress in writing slow down? Somehow, I doubt it.

Marking time

It’s that time of year again. The annual ritual of marking Key Stage 2 tests has begun, with the inevitable practice session on the Online Marking System. The system doesn’t really change year on year, except for a few minor tweaks, but we’re all forced to go through a little rehearsal to test our competence in checking attendance registers and entering marks, just so we show that we can do it – exactly as we did last year.

The principal difference this year is that most of us are only marking the Reading paper. For some reason best known to himself, St Michael of the Gove decided that teachers could be trusted to come up with levels for Writing themselves. Except of course that they couldn’t. The Local Authority has to sample 20% of its schools, with fully trained moderators turning up to verify that the poor Year 6 teachers haven’t cheated and given their entire class Level 4 or better. (Funny how LAs come in so handy sometimes, isn’t it? Most of the time they’re lambasted for being an inefficient and bureaucratic burden on the schools.) So out go the mind-numbing spelling test and the Shorter and Longer Writing Tasks – or perhaps that should be outsourced – and we’re left with 35 questions to mark, most of which are either right or wrong, much like Maths questions. That we’re allowed to mark them speaks volumes for the fact that it’s difficult to get the marking wrong, so schools are unlikely to complain about their Reading marks and levels (though no doubt some still will).

So … London calling, and the prospect of a long morning holed up in a windowless hotel room with a Team Leader’s voice exhorting us to be fair and accurate in all our work. Oh yes, and definitely to meet our deadlines.

Passnotes: a Wendy Cope poem

Wendy Cope: Lonely Hearts

Form

The poem is a villanelle. This is traditionally a form used for love poetry when the poet is yearning for love, but unable to find it. In terms of structure, it’s a poem of 19 lines, featuring 5 x 3 line verses (known as tercets) followed by a 4 line verse (a quatrain). The villanelle also only allows 2 rhyming sounds. The 1st and 3rd lines of the first verse rhyme, and these lines then form a refrain or chorus which is repeated alternately as the third line of each verse, and then come together again as a couplet (a pair of lines that rhyme) at the very end.

It’s a very, very complicated structure. There’s an irony in that the speaker asks for a “simple wish” in an extremely complicated way.

The speaker

The poem is probably spoken by a woman (it works if it’s a man, but it is a little strained). She’s scanning the “Lonely Hearts” column of a newspaper in search of someone to form a relationship with. All we know about the speaker is that she’s “successful, straight and solvent” and that she probably lives in North London, since she would like her prospective lover to be from that area, too.

The “story” of the poem

Each verse contains one or two of the adverts that the speaker is reading. Each of the characters who’s placed an advert has tried to sum up their qualities very briefly, and sometimes also say what they’re looking for in a partner. There’s quite a range of types, and we could argue that the speaker is becoming increasingly desperate as she scans each ad and moves on. She seems prepared to consider almost anyone provided they live in North London, and asks herself about each one: “Is it you?”. You could argue that this is funny, and chuckle about this woman poring over the adverts, or equally that it’s sad as she seems quite desperate for a partner.

How form and content combine

We’ve already noted the contrast between the “simple wish” and the highly complicated form. It’s also worth reflecting on the fact that the ending of the poem leaves matters unresolved. There’s no definite choice made, so we might imagine the speaker continuing to scan lonely hearts columns as she searches for something to take her out of her current situation.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the form of the poem is very restraining – there are rules about how it must be written and a poet can’t break them once the villanelle form has been chosen. This might suggest that the speaker is very restrained and rule-bound. If this is the case, then the fact that she’s looking at ads from a “gay vegetarian” or a “male biker” becomes quite amusing. Perhaps she’s desperate to break out of her conventional, rule governed existence?