A novel approach

Planner or pantster? It’s a very important question, both for professional writers and for those learning the trade (which probably means anyone from about the age of 9 upwards: anyone, that is, who’s reached the point where mastery of the physical act of making marks on paper is taken for granted and the emphasis shifts to composition and effect.)

Novice writers are always exhorted to make a plan. Some teachers go so far as to specify the type of plan that should be used – spidergram, bulleted list, mindmap, flowchart and so on – whilst others resort to a plaintive, “I don’t mind how you plan as long as you actually have one!” The basic idea seems to be that any young writer who hasn’t organised content in advance of writing full sentences is doomed to failure.

Does this hold up in the real world (insofar as the world inhabited by professional writers can be said to be real)? Up to a point. Some successful writers plan methodically, even obsessively. David Baboulene’s The Story Book refuses even to entertain the idea of beginning a draft of a novel until a “step outline” has been written – and this outline can be nearly as long as the book itself. Other writers simply jot down an idea of how to get a bunch of characters to face a major problem and then they’re away: for them, part of the appeal of writing is the joy of discovery along the way. They’ll probably end up doing a lot more rewriting to correct faulty plot lines or meandering byways that the story unhelpfully took them along, but that goes with the territory. (For an example of this approach, try David Hewson’s Writing: a user manual)

Writing in the GCSE English examination means writing non fiction. It’s generally writing to argue, persuade, describe or inform and the topics tend to be fairly uninspiring, since they have to be socially, politically and ethnically neutral as well as touching on areas that 16 year olds might know something about. In the AQA version of the exam, there are two writing tasks, known as the “shorter” and the “longer”. The “shorter” is aptly named: the recommended time for it is 25 minutes. Nevertheless, students are generally expected to plan: “5 minutes’ planning, 5 minutes’ checking. That leaves you 15 minutes to produce 3 or 4 quality paragraphs!” (The more astute amongst my readers will have noticed that this is paragraph 4 of this piece. So far it has taken me half an hour.)

Is there any research showing that planned answers score more highly than unplanned ones in English examinations? Probably not – and even if there was, it would doubtless be inconclusive.

But here’s a thought: it’s actually impossible for the human mind to write any sort of extended piece without doing some sort of categorising and sorting. It’s just the way our brains work, making connections between ideas and putting them into some sort of logical order. In fact, it would be harder for most students to write a completely disjointed piece in 25 minutes than simply to let one idea lead on naturally to the next. So perhaps we should give up insisting that all young writers must be planners by default, and encourage the “seat of the pants approach” as more likely to produce high quality results.

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No news is bad news

Still no word on the Secondary National Curriculum. The screams of anguish emanating from the Department for Education are probably those of the expert advisers who are once again, no doubt, being told, “Fetch me a better answer” – even though they’ve been sent to the Oracle of best educational practice and come back with divinely inspired words telling of what happens in the finest jurisdictions.

So, in the absence of any hard facts, here are some predictions of what the new National Curriculum will contain.

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Yes, that’s right – nothing.

I’m willing to bet that the national curriculum, as a concept, will be scrapped. At present, Academies don’t have to follow it anyway, and since the plan is to convert just about every school into an academy, why bother with handed down programmes of study? It would make much more sense to abandon any sort of central control and fall back to the well known position that Headteachers know their schools best and can decide for themselves what curriculum their pupils will follow. No doubt some sort of measurement will remain – probably the Ebacc to make sure that academic standards are kept up in “better” schools (and we don’t have to worry about pupils who aren’t academic, do we? They’re not the movers and shakers of the future and there’ll probably be some sort of vocational course that they can occupy their time with until they reach the statutory leaving age).

Today’s carefully placed leaks, paving the way for a return to a two-tier exam system and a single exam board to run the only acceptable academic qualifications, is one more step on the road to a “sheep and goats” (or “wheat and chaff”, if you prefer) education system. Of course, this is the re-introduction of grammar schools by other means and will set back the educational clock by 40 years, but not to worry: at least there’ll be rigour in the system.

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.

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.