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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

New year

It’s a new year, and I hope it’s a good one for you. The Tory-led coalition’s cuts are starting to bite now. Thousands of jobs are going in local councils, and soon we’ll be noticing the services going. In our local area the visiting music teachers are being cut from schools. If these aren’t front line cuts, I don’t know what is. What services do you know of that have been cut?

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Science funding is being threatened on an unprecedented scale. It’s so bad, scientists are leaving their benches and laboratories, and campaigning against the cuts. The Science is Vital campaign is encouraging everyone who cares about science to contact their MP, sign their petition, attend the demo, or lobby parliament.

Therefore, on 15th September I duly sent this brief email to Julian Sturdy MP, my constituency MP.

Dear Julian,

I hope you will sign EDM 707. Many of your constituents (myself included) work in science both in Universities in Yorkshire, and in related scientific industries. Please assure me of your commitment to science funding in the UK by signing this EDM.

Here is the reply I received from him. Disappointingly, he made no mention of the EDM I had asked him to sign. It was a boiler-plate response, incredibly similar to the speech made a few days earlier by Vince Cable.

Here is the reply I sent last week – I’m still awaiting a response.

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your reply dated 20 September 2010, regarding science funding. I’m pleased that you acknowledge the value that science makes to the economy, and that scientific research has its own merit.

I disagree with you about the need for the sector to do more, with less however. Scientific funding in the UK already gets less funding than many other OECD countries, and yet ‘punches above its weight’ with 10% of the best publications coming from the UK. The sector is deeply financially constrained, with funding levels at the same as they were, in real terms, in 1986. You argue that the output measure is what matters, not the input measure – but without that input, that investment from government, scientists will leave the UK, and internationally excellent scientists will not chose to come to the UK. The output measure depends on having excellent scientists carrying out excellent research, and without the appropriate input that will not happen. The reputation of the UK as a place to do science, will be immeasurably damaged by cuts that are out of step with the international consensus.

Research in the UK is already rationed by excellence. Speak to any member of a grant committee in any research council, and they will tell you that much excellent research is not funded. I suggest you investigate how many top rated grants were not funded in the last couple of years. In the RAE2008, 90% of the research submitted was rated as internationally recognized.

Finally, I would like to challenge you on the assertion that ‘there is no justification for public money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding’. What does this mean? It is not always clear in advance how research will come to be commercially useful. For example, research in pure maths concerning prime numbers could never have been anticipated to be as useful as it is – but without that research, we would have no secure transactions on the internet. If it is obvious that work will be commercially useful, shouldn’t it be funded by industry, rather than by the taxpayer? It also impossible to determine in advance if research will have an impact on theory – theory may be wrong, or the experiment may fail – how can you anticipate what will be theoretically outstanding?

Please engage with the scientific community within your constituency, and at Westminster, to form your own opinion on the importance of science. Please support the science is vital campaign (http://www.scienceisvital.com), and attend the lobby of parliament on 12th October. Please sign EDM 707 and EDM 767.

Thank you for your time,

Will he engage? Will he make his own enquiries, and form his own opinions, rather than simply supporting the party line? I’ll let you know when he replies!

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Michael Gove makes me want to cry.

I know I am always banging on about education, but I am so dreadfully afraid about what will happen to our schools post-general election, whoever ends up getting in. Maybe it comes from being a newly qualified teacher, a friend and seasoned teacher of 15yrs tells me not to worry, as ‘it all comes around and goes around’. I think that’s what I am worried about.

Gove, the Shadow Children’s Secretary says he is ‘unashamedly traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum’ which apparently means a return to teaching discrete subjects (maths, english and history) and

children sitting in rows, learning the Kings and Queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.’

This old school approach runs counter to the more flexible current educational thinking which encourages cross-curricular ‘joined up learning’ via topic or theme-based teaching, as espoused in the thorough Rose Review of primary education published last year.

Writing in the TES last month, John White claims that Gove sees progressives such as Rose as ‘his enemies’ who have denied children the advantages of a traditional education. Gove seems to be one of those narrow minded types who think that because they thrived under a particular system of education then it is appropriate for everyone. What he fails to realise (or maybe he doesn’t care?) is that that same system failed a great many people, and has been soundly rejected for good reason. As White points out, ‘It’s a pity that the schooling on which Mr Gove so dotes did not free him from the fetters of black-and-white thinking.’ Modern education should be developing children’s thinking skills, encouraging them to achieve deep learning by discovering things for themselves rather than to be spoon fed facts to rote learn. Group learning, interacting with peers and managing relationships is vital, not sitting still and staring at a teacher. What good is learning a poem by heart, other than to be able to recite it as a dinner party trick 30 years later?

Gove’s determined traditionalism and wish to return to the restrictive National Curriculum of the late 80s (which in itself harked back to the curriculum set out for new state secondary schools in 1904) also completely ignores how the world has moved on in the past few decades. We now have access to facts at the tap of the keyboard; if we want to know the order of the Kings and Queens of England we can just Google it. A ‘knowledge-led fact based curriculum’ is totally missing the point of the modern age. Children will be better equipped by learning to think for themselves, not the least to navigate through the myriad of (mis)information they receive from advertising, TV and newspapers. They need
to discover and celebrate their true selves to help them to find their place in the world as productive and happy adults. Gove despises these “airy-fairy” goals but then again he believes that children should learn about the ‘glory’ days of the British Empire and that “Guilt about Britain’s colonial past is misplaced.”, a view so outdated it is laughable.

Except that I am not laughing.

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I have always been pretty indifferent to Carol Vorderman. I liked the number bits on Countdown better than the letter bits as I was better at it, and it was fun to wonder if she had a sneaky calculator back there or whether she really did have an abnormal aptitude for mental arithmetic. It was annoying that even though she was ‘brainy’ she also had to be a ‘dolly bird’ whereas Richard Whitely didn’t have to be either, but this was the 80’s and daytime TV wasn’t very enlightened.

But nothing much changes, eh? Our Carol is now advising Cameron on maths teaching. And spouting Tory talking points on Question Time, apparently channelling Sarah Palin in the process [check it out on iplayer; its both a joy and a horror to watch].

I can’t believe for a minute that there aren’t more qualified people (even women!) out there for both these jobs. People who not only know about arithmetic, but mathematics. People who not only know about mathematics, but about how to actually teach it. People who can not only appear as ‘The Daily Mail in human form’ (kudos to someone on twitter) on Question Time but can actually articulate rational and informed argument.

But the Tories instead have chosen to go the populist route and it appears that, as Gaby Hinsliff writes in the Observer today, ‘anything in a skirt will do’. Is Carol Vorderman really the best person they could get to advise on maths education? Or is she just the ‘acceptable’ face of intelligent women/people, with all those less attractive brains doing the work behind the scenes? The whole thing makes me quite agitated I must say. Pretty much the same reaction I had to seeing Rachel Riley, Carol’s replacement on Countdown, on the recent Channel 4 documentary ‘Kids Don’t Count’ as she breezed into a struggling primary school to sort out their failing maths scores. Just because you are good at sums doesn’t mean you know anything about teaching maths!!

Aaand…..breathe.

[As an aside, Cameron says all prospective teachers must have at least a 2:2 and as such Ms Vorderman wouldn’t qualify. Just saying.]

And just because you have a pretty face, an engineering degree and a career in television doesn’t mean you have what it takes to help shape education policy. Just so you are aware though, there are rumours that Carol Vorderman will be offered a peerage and offered a position as a schools minister. I really hope they are not true.

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World Book Day

Are you kids dressing up for World Book Day today? Was it a case of picking a costume and shoehorning some kind of literary reference in somehow? Are you strict about it, or do you think a Toy Story Colouring Book is enough justification for a Buzz Lightyear costume?

My daughter’s school seems to have tried to get round the whole Disney/Ben10/Spiderman issue by stipulating that children must come dressed ‘as a character from their favourite poem’. Yep, thats right. Like many 7-11 year olds even have favourite poems. Cue a stressful weekend trawling library books and websites to find a poem that could then become a ‘favourite’. My daughter, not keen on dressing up (‘its so embarrassing!’) was searching for a poem about a girl in jeans and tshirt. I offered to write one for her which she could then claim as her favourite, but she isnt rebellious enough for that (yet). In the end she choose this, and didnt wear green:

My birthday's on St. Patrick's day.
I wore no green at all,
and got a pinch from every kid
who passed me in the hall.
You get "a pinch to grow an inch"
whenever birthdays fall.
I guess they must have worked
because I'm thirty-nine feet tall.

–Kenn Nesbitt from http://www.poetry4kids.com

I kind of admire her ingenuity. And at least she was exposed to some poetry.

What did your child dress up as today?

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I read the harrowing case of Khyra Ishaq just before I cuddled my own daughter (3) to sleep last night.  As I wrestled my arms out from under her, I held my face next to her podgy cheek.  My thoughts turned to Khyra and, inevitably, food.  My daughter loves breakfast.  In the morning she takes herself off to the sofa and snuggles under a blanket while I make it for her.  She usually has two slices of buttered toast or porridge and a bowl of fruit.  Today she had mango and strawberries (sorry environmentalists) as a treat because it’s Saturday.  If she’s still hungry she’ll ask for a yogurt or maybe an extra slice of toast.

I’m not the perfect mother.  I shout, I tell her ‘in a minute’ too much, sometimes she has beans on toast more than once a week – I am positive that one day I’ll forget to pick her up from nursery.  But my daughter’s life could not be further removed from the life of Khyra who had to share a bowl of food with six siblings and would be caned if she ate too much.  I find the idea of not feeding a child in the western world totally unfathomable.  In fact it’s so unusual that experts had to look back to records of concentration camp victims to get a proper idea of what had happened to her.

Poor Khyra was taken out of school when staff there got concerned about her welfare.  Her parents said that they were home schooling her and both Social Services and the Local Education Authority were happy with the arrangements for her education at the time they visited.  In fact, Khyra was dead within 12 weeks.

While I think anything, anything, should be done to prevent this happening to even one more child, I am so sick of knee jerk reactions (and subsequent legislation) coming out of extreme cases.  Baby P – calls to sack ALL social workers in Haringey (because there are SO many waiting to take their place), Soham murders – calls to CRB check everyone who has to look at a child ever, MPs taking the mickey with their expenses – put them on bread and gruel.  Khyra’s legacy seems to be to make all parents who chose to educate their own children at home come under the spotlight.  What’s wrong with a considered approach, eh?

Just as most people who send their children to school are not abusing them, most people who are educating their children at home are not abusing them. From what I can gather, the existing legislation for parents of home educated children was not followed through.  Should two education welfare officers have accepted that they couldn’t see Khyra when they visited – especially bearing in mind that the Deputy Head of her previous school had expressed grave concerns for her welfare?  Similarly, should a social worker carry out an assessment of a child’s welfare on the doorstep of their home?

In the judge’s words: “On the evidence before the court I can only conclude that in all probability, had there been an adequate initial assessment and proper adherence by the educational welfare services to its guidance, Khyra would not have died.”  That doesn’t sound to me like we need new legislation, it sounds like we need the existing legislation to be implemented properly.  Instead of spending time and money on new legislation, attract good social workers and education welfare officers to the professions, make their case loads manageable so that children and vulnerable adults don’t slip through the net like this and then see what tweaks or overhauls need to be made.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all about the Khyra Ishaq case is the fact that the police investigation identified at least 30 witnesses who could have intervened on Khyra’s behalf.  Many people living in her community had concerns for her, but didn’t share them with agencies who were there to protect her.  None of us want to live in a nanny state, so why don’t we look out for each other, and especially for the children living in our communities?  We all know, really, don’t we, when we see children who are happy and well looked after and when we see ones that aren’t being cared for?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I lived in a downstairs flat years ago and above us lived a couple with a baby.  Did I hear the baby screaming for hours at the same time as his mother begged her partner not to hit her?  Yes.  Did I notice that after these episodes there were always piles of empty cans of extra strong cider next to the communal bin?  Yes. Did I worry about it?  Yes.  Did I do anything about it?  No.  Why?  I didn’t want to put extra stress on the poor mother.  Do I worry about how that baby is now?  Yes.

Part of the problem of the individualistic culture that we find ourselves living in now, is that we end up with more state interference and become over-reliant on statutory agencies to do the things we should be doing ourselves.  If we’re not keeping an eye on our own communities, then the state will have to do it for us and they tend to do this by rushing out legislation to cover all eventualities.

Please, let’s try and learn from this case, because how many more can there be before someone spots the bleeding obvious and sorts out morale and workloads for those paid to protect our children?  We need existing legislation to be implemented properly by people who have the time to do their jobs properly and we need (yes, that’s you and me) to keep our eyes open and take some responsibility for the well being of the children around us before it’s too late.

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We had announcements on labours education policy this week, their big idea being parental ability to sack heads. We’ve heard lots about the Tories plans for swedish schools. But what are the big ideas of the lib dems? Although they’re less effective at dominating the headlines, there are actually some really interesting ideas in the lib dems policy. And they’re easy to find from their website, which is always a bonus.
One of the key ideas is a pupil premium. Children on free school lunches, with SEN, in local authority care, or with english as a second language will attract extra funding – up to £1,000 per pupil. this will act as incentive to schools to take these children, and allow the targetting of resources specifically where they are needed. Importantly, schools will be at liberty to spend the money as they will – the pupil premium will not be ringfenced. This money will come from cuts to the tax credit system – which may not be popular with the lower end of middle income families.
The lib dems are the only party talking about increasing funding for schools. Some of this will come from slashing the Department for schools, children & families – they’re going to halve this government department. And they’re going to pass law forbidding government from meddling in the detail of teaching.
Another key element is the abolition of the national curriculum – instead there will be a minumum curriculum.
Overall, the lib dem policy is about reducing educational disadvantage by targetting resources effectively. Its about more freedom for schools, and removing inherant unfairnesses in the current system (why do FE colleges get less funding than school 6th forms?).
There was very little in the policy I didn’t like – its just a shame they’re not doing a better job of shouting about it!

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