Department for Children, Schools and Families

Education stagflation?

A lot of commentary today on the results of Key Stage 2 tests of 11-year-olds' abilities at the "Three Rs" (Reading, Writing, Maths and Science). As a statistical observation, the problem appears to lie particularly with the Writing part of the "Three Rs". 33% of children did not achieve the standards in Writing (and possibly some of the others too). Only 7% seem to have reached the necessary standard in Writing but failed on one or more of the other elements.

I'd be interested to know to what extent language played a part in this, but the much greater success in reading than in writing suggests it is not just a question of language. Dyslexia ought to have impacts on both reading and writing, and is anyway pretty thoroughly detected and allowed-for nowadays. Is it problems of coordination (hand-to-eye)? Or could it be problems with imagination and application? If the latter, are the quick-fix adrenalin-buzz and hypnotic effects of computer games and TV in some way related? Or is this to make the false assumption that things have got worse? In recent years, results indicate that things have been getting better, but we know to be sceptical about grade-inflation - even the Government has admitted it has been occurring.

Or is it about self-motivation and -discipline? Reading, maths and science are all about responding to questions or performing tasks as instructed. Writing requires you to work out what you want to say and the best way to say it. It is (in the ghastly lingo) more proactive and less reactive than the others. Could we be knocking up against a simple constraint in the range of human natures and abilities, that some people prefer to follow than to lead, and that this may mean that some people are irredeemably poor at expressing themselves?

Whatever the causes, critics ought to remember that they can't have their cake and eat it. It is inconsistent to complain about grade-inflation one day and lack of sufficient improvement the next. For myself, I am more concerned about grade-inflation, so in a perverse way, the fact that there has been little overall improvement this year is reassuring. Unless, that is, we have education stagflation, where falling standards and inflating grades result in apparent stasis masking chronic decline.

The slow death of British rationalism

This isn't new or amusing, but it is important. We hear all the time about the lowering of educational standards (JG posted on it only yesterday), but it is rare to find it set out so clearly and chillingly as in an open letter to the AQA exams board and the Department for Education from Wellington Grey, a secondary-school physics teacher. You would have to have little understanding of the importance of scientific rigour to read the examples given of the obfuscation, subjectivization, dumbing-down and politicization of science exam questions and not fear for the future of science and scientific understanding in this country.

The complicity of those institutions, like the Institute of Physics, and quangos, like the QCA, who should be fighting this lowering of standards, is illustrated in the IoP's response to the consultation on the change of the KS4 curriculum that legitimized this sort of pseudo-science in the GCSE curriculum. The IoP agreed or strongly agreed with most of the proposals, disagreeing only with the timing. But then, we know that the scientific academic establishment has been increasingly politicized on pronouncements on issues like Global Warming, so it should be no surprise to find them supporting the education of children in a way that drums these political views into them as accepted science.

Wellington is asking for your help to publicize this terrible trend. Please give him all the support you can.

(Hat-tip to Freebornjohn who spotted Wellington's amusing example of the subjectivization of physics questions.)

Whatever you do, don't get an education

Or your children will suffer. Headline in The Times today: University squeeze on children of graduates. Is there any need to say anything more? Can't get a much more obvious example of government picking losers. It's us. All of us (rich and poor alike).

Let's encourage the "right" people to go to university by telling them that they will then become the "wrong" people. Their children will have less chance of going to university than the children of people who were excluded in this generation. If you want the best for your child's education, make sure you marry someone with as little education as possible. Logic problem? Mixed message? Downright stupidity?

It takes more than sounding good to con us now, Tony.

Education. Education. Education. Remember that? What actually has Tony Blair done though to back up the sound bites? There was the city academies idea - 21 semi-independent schools that are largely funded by the tax payer and cost £25 million to build. And guess what, they are not working. They are actually reporting below average results in national tests for 14 year olds - and these are the government's own figures. 16 of the 21 schools have failed to reach the average for level five (the standard expected for their age).

You can't fool all the people all the time

A quick update on a story I ranted about earlier this week. Apparently none of us are philanthropists – or at least none of us are falling for this new version of the stealth tax. In reports in the Daily Telegraph, there have been no immediate offers to pledge money to Universities from senior executives. Grant Hearn, chief executive of Travelodge said, "There is a growing engagement within the business community to get involved in philanthropy. But in my view contributing time is a much better way than giving money.”

Standardised failure

Almost no one now pretends that Labour has achieved its ambitions for education. Government ministers continue to trot out their stale statistics about how much they have spent and how much the average grades have improved, but very few are fooled into thinking that this statistical trickery equates to a real improvement in educational standards. We are all aware that the huge increase in funding (52%) has largely been wasted, with grade improvements being achieved largely by submitting children into easier subjects, and coaching them to pass their tests rather than giving them a broad education. Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth have administered the last rites to any remaining delusions of political adequacy amongst education ministers, in an excellent article in this week's Spectator.

Their claimed success does not prevent ministers from searching for solutions to their failure. There is no shortage of voices offering to help. Today's Times gives prominence to two suggestions:

  1. Mick Waters, Director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), wants a complete overhaul of how schools structure their lessons, with some being combined (e.g. science and PE, languages and music, or history and geography), some being narrowed to short, repetitive sessions (say ten minutes of a language three times a day, five days a week), and some being broadened into a fully immersive week of tuition (e.g. a week of ICT).
  2. Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust ("the country's largest independent funder of biomedical research"), advises that teaching techniques need to be tested by controlled experiment before being rolled out.

Though both are well-motivated suggestions, they conceal the assumption that is at the real heart of our problems - the idea that someone in a central position of authority has a solution that fits all. This was undoubtedly not the intention of Mr Waters, but the fact that the Director of the CQA saw fit to pronounce on scheduling in its generality revealed the subconscious reluctance to allow headteachers to determine the curriculum and schedule for their school. The implication of central control was less concealed in Mr Walport's suggestion - controlled experiments to establish best techniques imply standardisation once the results are known.

Over budget IT projects

According to the official figures obtained by the Lib Dems, many information technology projects across government have overrun their initial budgets by more than £260 million over the last five years. The Department of the Environment Food and Rural (Defra) was the worst offender with the highest proportional overruns. Defra managed to run over budget by an average of 46 per cent with one scheme costing the department 72 per cent more than anticipated.The Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Education had such poor management systems in place that they could not provide sufficient data. The Treasury itself overran by 7.3 per cent on its own projects.