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Chronological Archive • March 30, 2003 - April 05, 2003
April 04, 2003
They're starting to shout

I don't know what this story proves

It is time to get "completely ruthless" and "take out" headteachers who are not up to the job of raising standards in their schools, the education secretary, Charles Clarke, said yesterday.

Far too many comprehensives were not doing as well as they should, he insisted, urging local education authorities and school governors to "take out" incompetent heads as soon as possible.

Mr Clarke spoke not just of schools in urban parts of England, but also of outwardly successful schools that were content to coast along. "I don't think you can say [the problem] is particularly the cities or particularly the areas of poverty, or whatever, I don't think that's true. In fact, I think some of the more pernicious complacencies are in schools which are relatively OK, in areas where they are relatively unchallenged but they don't do well enough for their children," he said.

"You've got this big, big group in the middle of schools who feel they are OK, but I'm not certain that they are driving forward as hard as they need to."

Even though the number the number of seriously incompetent heads was small, Mr Clarke stressed, they could not be allowed to remain in post. "Where the issue is the head's the problem, they must not be allowed just to go along."

... but what I think it proves well, illustrates is that New Labour education policy is starting to become seriously unhinged. Prescottised you might say. It has entered its manic, neurotic phase. Normal, patient, sensible, quiet-voiced policies have all failed, or at any rate have not achieved the miracles promised, and are only making the teachers angry and cynical, and neurotic themselves. So now, out comes the ministerial Big Stick, the Chopper. Mr Clarke will Get Tough, Sort Things Out. He will, that is to say, shout more frequently.

The result will merely be that many schools that are now doing an okay job schools which are now "outwardly successful" will also now start to descend into neuroticism.

Some people, who favour policies that are the opposite of what Mr Clarke wants, will use his latest outburst to excuse the sacking of Head Teachers who are actually doing quite a good job.

It's just the same mess only louder. I can't remember when it was exactly, but not so long ago the Ministry of Education or whatever it's now called Department of (for?) Education and Training? was saying that Head Teachers needed more autonomy, freedom of action, etc. etc. Now they are to have freedom of action except that if Mr Clarke doesn't like them, he might try to have them fired.

But more portentously, it's the atmosphere, the tone of voice, the sense that the educational equivalent of Sir Humphrey is now starting to exchange meaningful looks with his colleagues when the Minister has one of his rants. That's what must be worrying everyone.

It could be that the newspaper stories which I rely on to learn about all these various initiatives (I don't read the original press releases maybe I should, God help me) exaggerate the drama of these things. But I thought these people were supposed to be Masters of Spin. Surely if they wanted a more low-key atmosphere, they could arrange it.

Well, of course, they can't. They have a command-and-control, Prussian model of education policy. Prussianism can't improve education policy any more dramatically than it can improve education itself. When their Prussianism fails, these people are at a loss. Their job is to make things better and the spotlight is still trained on them, but they don't know what to do. It's enough to make anyone shout.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:21 PM
Category: Politics
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Losing the home education debate in France

Julius Blumfeld passes on some grim news about home education in France.

Not quite hot off the press, but the latest edition of the Education Otherwise Newsletter contains an alarming account by Dr Amanda Petrie of the clamp-down on home education in France (and elsewhere in Europe). Apparently the law in France changed in 1999 with the passsing of a draconian new law. Since then, French home-educators have had to comply with specified curriculum requirements, registration is compulsory and a variety of "professionals" (including educational sociologists and psychologists) have a right of entry into the home. This is Dr. Petrie's account of the passage of the new legislation:

One of the French Members of the Assemble during the debate claimed that children who did not attend school were subject to the influence of sects and that the children were at risk of being marginalized and incapable of developing an independent spirit. When he finished his speech, the whole of the parliament erupted in lengthy applause.

This sort of thing sends shivers down my spine. As Britain prepares to sign up to an EU Constitution drafted by the French and the Germans (where home-ed is almost totally illegal), the need for vigilance by British home educators who enjoy relative freedom compared to their continental friends will become even greater.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:45 AM
Category: Home education
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April 03, 2003
Learning how to teach reading

There are some things that you can only learn how to do by doing them, and for me, teaching people to read is one of them. Try as I will, I just can't get the exact detail of what exactly is involved merely by reading things. The last time I witnessed reading and writing being well taught was when I learned to read and write myself. (For I was taught very well. My mother had picked up on this look-and-say nonsense almost as soon as it began, and she carefully chose good teachers for me and my siblings.)

I did a posting on Samizdata yesterday, based on the nonsense words in Ruth Miskin's Nonsense Word Test which is to be found in the latest issue, Number 50, of the Reading Reform Foundation's newsletter.

I played it for laughs, listing all the nonsense words themselves. My idea was to bring "synthetic phonics" to the attention of readers who otherwise might not bother with such stuff. And it happened. Many of the comments were about silly words in science fiction, rather than just comments about phonics, so that was definitely mission accomplished. I mean, that's why I put the posting on Samizdata rather than putting it here, where only education enthusiasts assemble.

Nevertheless, in the course of all the joking around, I attempted a description of what "synthetic phonics" actually is. This was me:

This means warning: I may get this somewhat wrong first learning what sounds are made by which letters and letter combinations, and then spelling out the entire word by spelling out each letter or letter combination. Something like that.

According to commenter Kevin Marks I did get it wrong. Answering another commenter who, like me, doesn't find it easy to learn from the RRF website itself what exactly "synthetic phonics" is, and who is wisely dubious of my sketch of the matter, Kevin said this:

There's a clear summary of the idea on the Phono-Graphix website.

Brian has it wrong. Words consist of sounds, and letters (or letter groups) are pictures of these sounds.

The first thing to learn is to break the words you speak into sounds, and then learn what symbols represent these sounds. English is hard because not only do we have multiple symbols for the same sound, but we also have overlap, where the same symbol can represent several different sounds.

Careful ordering of the teaching of these symbols can help children cope with the ambiguity, but you have to understand that the sounds are primary and the symbols secondary, not vice versa.

Yeah, okay, I did say "first", but all I meant was that you spell out words letter by letter before you do what I now do, which is recognise most of them straight away without having to spell them out. First of those two things. I was assuming you'd already done your phonic analysis of the spoken language. My understanding of the very first, first thing you do is simply get the kids in groups and make them chant the noises "eeeee!" "aye!" "oh!" "duh!", "chuh!", and so on. And no doubt that is somewhat wrong also, and if it is, then with luck someone (maybe Kevin again) will correct me, and Brian's Education will be pushed along some more.

But as I say, I want to learn how you actually do all this, and I don't think it will be something you can learn in forty five brisk minutes listening to a Powerpoint Presentation, although here is one matter where I suspect that a Powerpoint Presentation might be of some real help, what with the order in which you do things being so important.

At the very least I'd like to watch it being done by someone who I believe is doing it properly. Because of course the only reason this is such a fraught topic is that all over the world, "teachers" who regard themselves as experts at the teaching of reading and writing, ain't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:52 PM
Category: Literacy
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April 02, 2003
What kind of control?

There was an email last weekend from a certain Simon Austin.

I notice that you run an education blog.


Is this because you work in that sector?

No but I'd quite like to. My plan is to use this blog to learn lots about education, and thus get a better job than if I just trained and applied, and then got hurled into a room full of juvenile delinquents, which I think is a silly way to start, and a pretty silly thing to be doing at any time..

I am in the wonderful businesses of TV, music and media. Rights ownership to be precise.

I was wondering whether you could comment on the following since I would really love to get your opinion and ideas on this tricky subject:

1 How to attract better people into teaching in the first place, especially Maths, Technical & Science teachers.

2 How to attract people back into teaching once they have left.

3 How to attract professionals who wish to make a radical lifestyle change into

4 How to positively change people's perceptions & pre-judgements (usually negative) about the profession.

5 How to improve the media's reporting of the sector to show it in a better light.

The reason that I ask these questions is because I am to make two TV series about these issues over the next two years in addition to all my other light entertainment and factual stuff. I wish to redress the teaching and education knocking that has taken place over he last three years by offering real solutions to these very real problems.

The difficulty that I have is that a lot of the knocking is quite well deserved.

I hope that you will have a few suggestions for me.

Well, not very many, and very few that I haven't done half to death here on several occasions. Here's part of the problem, from an education.guardian.co.uk story today.

Disruptive pupils, league tables, a lack of opportunities to renew their knowledge and budgetary "game playing" are preventing science teachers from fulfilling their capabilities, claims Save British Science, a pressure group aiming to improve the scientific health of the UK.

The organisation has been briefing MPs on the concerns of teachers ahead of a members' debate tomorrow into the state of science education in secondary schools.

The organisation claims that teachers cannot give full attention to their main role of educating and inspiring young people about science, engineering and mathematics, because they are wrapped up in layers of bureaucracy.

But if you believe that "bureaucracy should be got rid of", what control, if any, should there be on the activities of maths and science teachers?

One of the reasons why free market ideologists like me think as we do is that the market not only provides an arena of freedom, but also one of control. It supplies the alternative that is necessary if bureaucracy is to be done away with. In the market, maths teachers with their own ideas about how to do things can offer what they believe in, but if they get no takers, they'll have to change their ways or else stop. No forms need be filled in. No tyrant from London need impose "best practice" with a blizzard of questionaires. The teacher can just get on with teaching. All steps away from bureaucracy towards a free market in education are, other things being equal, to be welcomed.

But if the government is simply expected to hand over money to maths and science teachers without having any control whatsoever over how that money is being used or whether any good teaching is actually occurring, well, you can expect all you want, but it can't happen. The present horror, of bureaucrats out of all control, will merely be replaced by another horror: teachers out of all control.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am an admirer of the Kumon maths system. (I know less about Kumon English but am prejudiced in its favour based on what I've seen of the maths.) Kumon makes use not of brilliant teachers, but of a brilliant system, embodied in a mass of documents and procedures. In its way, Kumon is just as "bureaucratic" as the state system, in the sense that you either do it their way or they won't let you do it at all. The difference is that it works.

Maybe others can do better.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:42 PM
Category: Free market reforms
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April 01, 2003
The 800-year-old university model

One of the creepiest meetings I have ever attended was a university management meeting concerning I can't for the life of me remember what, and nor for the life of me can I remember what I was doing there. What shook me was the appalling extent to which the ghastly prose of management-speak had taken over from the plainer and clearer English sort, such as I had always imagined Universities to favour. In the corner of politics that I inhabit, it is widely assumed that structuralism and post-modernism are now all the rage, and that it is that sort of decline that Universities are now suffering from. I suspect that managerialese may be a bigger problem.

In today's education.guardian.co.uk there's an article about the Open University, and about the changes unleashed upon it recently when they called in the management consultants.

The consultants were summoned because Geoff Peters, the pro-vice-chancellor in charge of strategy and planning, wanted to be sure that the OU's advertising and promotions were giving value for money. He chose a firm called Cognosis, run by former marketing executives from the drinks giant Diageo, partly because it had no experience of universities and could apply the perspective of the commercial world.

Michael Laird, who led the Cognosis team, says Peters and his colleagues were "standing on a burning deck" and weren't really aware of the flames.

The diagnosis from Cognosis was, essentially, that the OU was still behaving in the same old way while all around it was raging the higher education revolution of the 1990s. The OU was still taking a fortnight to respond to brochure inquiries and telling applicants for more popular courses to come back next year. In the outside world, burgeoning new universities were becoming more seductive and flexible and the government was pushing for half the population to go into higher education.

"The OU brand was still very much about lonely and dull distance learning," says Laird. "It was about hard work and worthiness and watching TV programmes at two in the morning which involved a bearded man in a kipper tie talking in a dull way about physics. And meanwhile there were new competitors - other universities doing distance learning and local part-time study.

I don't feel so uncomfortable about this article as you might suppose, given the first paragraph of this posting. I think that's because real management consultants aren't trying to destroy university education with barbarous verbiage; they are at least trying to help it along, with smart thinking. And anyway, the Open University is not anything like a regular university, and improving its "managerial logic" is no fundamental threat to its nature.

Even so, I was a bit startled by this:

The response to the Cognosis report has been a series of changes which Peters says has dramatically changed the culture of the OU. The supplier-driven, take-it-or-leave-it model which most universities have followed for 800 years is being replaced to use the language of consultancy by a focus on the customer in a competitive market.

To me the interesting thing is what all this says about traditional universities. They are dumping their 800 year old model, it would seem. I can hear the likes of Kenneth Minogue and Roger Scruton grinding their teeth.

I think what's happening here is that whereas our culture used to be one of a relatively small minority of educated people supervising a majority of toilers with the 3 Rs and little else by way of education, now we live in a world where, in a country like Britain, an actual majority has to learn how to think logically, and how to present and communicate logically coherent notions to others, and to the new workforce, which is computers and robots as well as the remaining few human robots. It is this reality that both the old universities and the new Open University are all responding to, as best they can. As with all big social changes there's grief and dirt as well as happiness and enlightenment, and much of grief is in the form of the pain to persons like Scruton and Minogue that comes from apparent grotesqueries like drink marketers telling university departments what is what.

And what's what is that if these New Workers are expected to do nothing but arse about in old-fashioned universities until they are nearly thirty, in addition to spending the best part of forty years being "retired" (that won't happen either, kids) we can kiss the British economy goodbye. I say, chuck most of the kids out of school as soon as the hormones kick in and they can't be doing with teachers and want to earn some money. And then, when the serious partying is calming down and they want to settle down again and make some career progress, entice them with TV ads for working smart as well as hard and doing something like an Open University degree or a distance learning programme run by some ex-normal university (which has now become mostly just another "open university").

While the universities slowly morph towards being internet-based factories for churning out New Workers able to give Powerpoint presentations, or to learn how to analyse a medical sample without disaster, where does that "supplier-driven take-it-or-leave-it" attitude go? What happens to institutions concerned more about the truth of the truth than about the number of student-customers they can sign up to study whatever the student-customer wants to study and damn the knowledge? What happens to that 800-year-old model?

The truth is that Truth was always, and will always remain, a minority enthusiasm. It won't expand vastly, but nor will it ever die. One of the sillier ideas behind "university" expansion has been that with it there should be a vast expansion in "scholarship", and in "research". This can't happen, and if you mean by research good research, it is not happening, not very much. Instead the uncompromising quest for truth and intellectual righteousness has for some decades now been quietly migrating towards industrial R&D departments and Think Tanks and to various other Post Grad Temples of Excellence, like the famed Centre for Advanced Studies at Princeton. The traditional universities are still deeply involved in all this, but they're now doing a lot else besides. And good luck to them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:28 PM
Category: Higher education
[1] [0]
March 31, 2003
Julian Simon on cheating

Julian Simon throws light on the dishonesties of the education world with this recollection:

One of the findings of modern psychology is that people tend not to be consistent about whether they are "honest" or "dishonest". An experience of mine illustrates the principle. After I got out of the Navy I took a summer course in organic chemistry to complete my qualifications for entering medical school in the fall; most of the other 200 students also were pre-meds. There were two hours of classes and six hours of laboratory work every day forty hours a week, with lots of homework. The instructor put tough competitive pressure on the students to obtain high yields on their lab experiments. The tension in the laboratory rose so palpably that it became obvious that students would begin to cheat. I passed on that observation to a lab assistant, but nothing was changed. Two-thirds of the way through the course the cheating began, and then the system broke down completely. The wholesale cheating was not due mainly to the characters of the students, but rather to the structure of the system.

My thanks to Chris Cooper for these links to Simon's stuff.

This is the world British education is heading towards. The extreme recent case is of that headmaster who simply rewrote his pupils' exam papers afterwards to improve them. In a different world with different incentives he wouldn't have behaved like this.

The throw-good-foreigners-at-it solution will be no solution at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:18 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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March 30, 2003
Highly Effective Blogging?

I've always liked success books. That was what got me into career counselling. A friend said: "So how does all that stuff apply to me?", and off I went. If I ever manage to wangle my way into the kind of teaching life that I now want, having read all these books will then also be revealed as having made me a better teacher.

One of the more admired of these books is Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and blogger Mike Saunders has made the ideas in this book the basis of a number of posts about how to be a Highly Effective Blogger. Because let's face it, most of the people who read this are bloggers or blog readers, not Education Ministers. They may also be teachers, or concerned parents, but blogging is what we most of us here, now, have in common. So I'm going to read Mike's stuff on all this, starting here.

I've started. It's good, and I will continue.

Just to say now, I think that ideas like those of Covey apply just as strongly to quite small children as they do to adults. It's never too soon to start learning to be Highly Effective.

My thanks to Instapundit for the connection.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:58 PM
Category: Blogging
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