Sunday, 20 November 2011

Relax - Latest Health Scare is Just a Scare

The Sunday Telegraph reported this morning that:
"Stroke victims who are admitted to hospital are far more likely to die if they are treated outside central London, an investigation has found. The NHS statistics show survival rates for stroke victims sent to central London hospitals are 54 per cent higher than for those in some parts of the country."
Fortunately, the 'Health Correspondent' Laura Donnelly has got her statistical knickers in a twist. She goes on to write:
"The death rate within 30 days of admission for stroke is 14.6 per cent in the capital's central sites, according to analysis of the nine years' data ending 2009 - compared with rates of more than 22 per cent in industrial cities and manufacturing towns"
So, in the poor industrial towns the survival rate is 100% - 22% = 78%. If London is 54% better (154% as good) that makes the survival rate in London 0.78 times 1.54 = 123%. Wow! In London, for every 100 stroke victims taken to hospital, 123 of them survive!

It is the death rate of the industrial towns that is 22% divided by 14.6% = 154%, that is 54% worse. But the vast majority of stroke victims survive, so the survival rate difference is not the same number at all.

Actually, of course the survival rate in London is 100% - 14.6% = 85.4%. The difference in rates is then 85.4% divided by 78% = 109.4%. So London survival is better by a whopping 9.4%. 

Not 54%, then.

Never mind, Laura Donnelly, there will be a real scandal along soon if you wish hard enough. Perhaps an introductory high-school statistics text could be put on your Christmas list this year?

Read more!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The BMA's Attack on Smokers with Made-Up 'Evidence'

The British Medical Association, the Physicians' trade union, has called for a ban on smoking in private cars, to add to the 2007 restriction on smoking in enclosed 'public' places. Their reason is that such a ban is a small price to pay to reduce the exposure of minors carried as passengers. Apparently, the level of toxins detectable in a smoker's car is 23 times that found in pre-2007 smoky pubs. The Evening Standard published a piece supporting the proposed ban, deciding that "Demanding that people stop driving in a self-generated cloud of poisonous gas doesn't seem a big ask."

But it does seem a 'big ask'.

For objections to this illiberal proposal, the first has to be the good word of the BMA itself, which campaigned heavily before the 2007 ban. It's representatives sent out to TV and radio stations laughed pompously at the objectors warnings of the slippery slope such a ban would put the UK on: it was only to protect innocent pub-goers, they said, who had no choice in what they breathed in when exerxising their alcohol imbibing rights. Don't they deserve to be protected?

That alcohol was by far the most hazardous part of a Friday night seemed to have been considered unimportant when smoking was coming to be seen as antisocial and presented an easy target of opportunity.

 The law banning smoking in public places also overlooked that most of the affected locations were, in fact, privately owned, and no person was obliged to visit a smoking pub or restaurant.

For the Children

It turns out that the ridiculed 'slippery slope' argiment was spot on, and campaigners are now openly pushing towards an outdoor ban and wispering about the move into homes. Of course, it will be phrased as if a ban was 'for the children', but you can be sure it will be a blanket ban that is demanded, as is the case for the current BMA proposal, for ease of enforcement.

Or just because smoker-persocutors are the new witch-finders and are bolstered by the political momentum to go for the criminalisation of tobacco, openly and without embarrassment.

Although I am, a lifelong non-smoker who has benefitted from smoke-free pubs and offices, I have fundamental objections to the BMA's demand:

First is the liberty one. It is no business of doctors, in my mind, to stop me doing risky things if the risk to others is small. I am not prevented from climbing mountains, paragliding, skating on icy lakes, driving a car at high speeds (with passengers), and drinking alcohol. The BMA has not yet suggested banning these activities, but since they have a habit of sliding down the slippery slope, I am willing to draw the line at banning smoking.

Fake Figures

The second objection is the '23 times more toxic than the smoky pub' figure that is being quoted withoud attribution. The Today program speaker explained that this was the case even when no smoking was actually happening since the 'toxins' soaked the inside of the car. Is this serious? Just what was measured? And did it really equate to 23 times more hazardous than a pub atmosphere? It seems remarkably suspicious, and the BMA today withdrew its claim (See the Factcheck site for a debunking of this media myth, with sources.)

The argument for a wholesale ban on in-car smoking is a practical one: that it will be easier to enforce 'for the children' if everyone was banned.  This will include people without children, and people who will never carry children in their cars. In a spirit of tolerance, only dangerous activities should be prohibited - anything else is just illiberal. Why ban people from smoking in their own car just to make enforcement easier? (Foreign laws against smoking in cars only forbid smoking with a child in the car.) It will clearly result in the bulk of prosecutions being of drivers of cars with no children, since they are the ones who will most disagree with such a law.

Slippery Slope

The final criticism is made with the slippery-slope argument. Usually a poor excuse for logic, the current debate has used the existing ban on smoking in work vehicles and public spaces as justification. One can easily imagine a future when the argument move on to be that the only place a child can breathe smoke is in the home, so that it is a dangerous loophole that should be closed.

Intolerance breeds intolerance by emboldening the nannys that build on victory after victory, incrementally moving us from the traditional character of the country, where a free person can partake of anything not specifically banned, to the continental tradition where you can only do what is specifically prescribed, with everything else forbidden. 

The BMA took a fake fact about smoking with children in the car and made it into an attack on all smokers. Anyone who values the freedom to choose what risks to take for themselves will be wise to protest this move - if this moves onto the statute book, the nanny campaigners will not stop there in their programme to save us from ourselves.

Read more!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sharp Drop in Uni Applications

UCAS, the body which handles applications for university places, has released 2011 figures. The headline, reported throughout the press, is that applications this year are down by over 12% on last year. The increase in fees, payable after graduation by a form of additional income tax, is being blamed for the drop.

Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns has weighed in, saying that the preliminary data should act as a "harsh wake-up call".

Toni Pearce, of the National Union of Students, blames the government:
"The confusion caused by the government's botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university."
The Guardian misrepresents the data to suggest class differences:
Monday's figures are just too stark to ignore. When the number of applicants from outside the UK is included, the fall is 9% — greater than it has been for at least six years. The figures show this decline in applicants comes from the pool of students most likely to be badly-off.
Everyone, it seems, thinks that university numbers should be on a one-way escalator to steadily greater proportions of our youngsters studying for degrees and that any drop is, by definition, a bad thing.

Everyone, it seems then, is wrong.

The figures, of course, do not indicate a collapse in student confidence. Although 12% seems a large drop, it should be understood in the context of dramatic rises in recent years, not least last year when many students put off a gap year to apply early. This artificially inflated 2010 figures by taking from what would have been this year's applicants. Even with the fall, we are still only just below the 2009 rate, with a smaller pool of applicantants. (There has been a 6% drop in 17-year-olds over the last four years of increasing applications and two more years of falls — expect the same stories next year!)

The Real Issue

What the headline writers have failed to address is whether a growing number of graduates is really a good idea. The advantages are supposed to be that the UK needs more graduates for all the new graduate jobs that are being produced in the economy, and that there will be fewer jobs for lower skilled people.
Does the economy need more highly skilled workers? Yes, naturally. Highly skilled people have always been in demand throughout history. But there is a sleight of hand going on here. The problem is that the term graduate is not now synonymous with skilled, and graduate jobs do not often require high levels of skills. Twenty years ago, if you were an employer looking for a reasonably bright, trainable youngster, you advertised for someone with A-levels or good O-levels. Now that anyone who can hold a pen through sixth-form college is encouraged to start a degree, not having a degree is a serious hindrance.

Not because of the skills you did not pick up, but because employers will wonder why you weren't up to a degree when all and sundry can graduate now.

Reaching Their Limits

When we have students maxing out at GCSE grade C going on to be awarded A-levels and then degrees, you might just wonder what it is they are learning at university. If the top three GCSE grades were beyond them, just what level was the intellectual challenge of the degree? Before you start to panic about the quality of our engineers, doctors and scientists, you can't get on one of the technical degrees without very good grades: C's won't cut the mustard. But having a degree, by itself, is no guarantee of superior skill levels, with many course instructors unable to lift the academic standard to a suitable level without having most of their students failing and dropping out.
For many people, GCSE or A-level is their academic limit. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers are being mislead into thinking that by investing in an expensive three-year course their careers will be appropriately enhanced.

The evidence is against them though, as some school-leavers are starting to realise.

The country does need more skilled workers, but not more low-skilled workers with degree certificates and unrealistic expectations. The solution is not more accessible (read 'easier') degrees, but investment in Primary and Secondary education, with higher technical graduate salaries to persuade those bright enough to tackle the harder subjects,
or else encourage talented people from overseas to boost our ailing manufacturing economy.

This brouhaha will blow over soon, regardless. The hugely increased fees charged by middling universities will not last long, as students will expect value for money. Fees will fall to match the desirability or career benefit of the course and student numbers will drop, returning hard working students to the productive economy where they are needed.

Read more!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Blogging from Linux without a Client

There is no usable blogging client that works across Linux distributions, leaving me to use the Vim editor and the GoogleCL command line interface.

I have been using the Blogger.com web interface to write posts for several years now and I have found it usable, but limiting. The interface works OK, and it has three different views showing the html code, the html as it might be seen on the web and a hybrid composing view. I switched between the html and web views and found it worked reasonably well as long as the internet connection remained.

But since most of free time I have available to write posts involved a note-book computer withou internet I started to look for an offline blogging client. All it had to do was let me edit the text and upload it to the Blogger web-site along with a title. I am not big on images or embedded videos, so I didn't think I was asking much.

Gnome-Blogger
First up was Gnome Blog. Presented as a bare bones client, it was just that. It functioned well though for simple blog entries, with the ability to format text and include images. But it was unable to access Blogger with the Atom 2.0 interface, so it dropped to Atom 1.0. This was a deal breaker, as Atom 1.0 does not seem to support post titles. So, out with Gnome Blog, and 'aptitude install drivel'.

Drivel
Drivel looks good and has more features than Gnome Blog, but was more buggy and less stable. And it, too, could not supply post titles to Blogger, or retrieve posts to edit. It seems to work well with other blog hosting sites, so it seems to be a problem with Blogger, but I am not keen on transferring this blog to another host just yet, so onwards.
Blogilo
Blogilo (previously called Bilbo, but it attracted legal problems) was the most promising, being rated highly in a Linux Format magazine review. It was the most feature complete and polished, with all the bells and whistles you could want.

But it turned out to be a heavily integrated with the KDE desktop. This meant that, since I wasn't running KDE, it pulled in a number of KDE dependencies. This is not normally a problem, since I had plenty of RAM and the extra libraries could be loaded without slowing the system. It required the use of KDEwallet, which is an encryption keyring. I had no need for another keyring, so I disabled that, but then I discovered that KDE had started taking over my system! The fonts, window decorations and icons, file browser and a bunch of defaults were all KDE'd.

I started to de-KDEify one problem at a time, but ended by removing the whole KDE Desktop invading hoard. All the problems went at once, along with Blogilo.

What's Left?

The most reliable way of uploading pre-written posts to Blogger turned out to be the command line GoogleCL. This is a set of tools for the Google Data API, which includes the Google run Blogger.com, so there is no Atom 1.0 / 2.0 shenanigans. I just type in a terminal:

google blogger post --tags "taglist" --title "title" blogpost.html

GoogleCL is aimed, really, at developers who want to integrate Google services with their software, but it is easy to use at the command line. And, seeing that none of the clients I tried correctly handled uploading or paragraph html tags or titles reliably, GoogleCL is a good stopgap until something better turns up. I am using Vim as an editor, so an added bonus, if you can call it that, is that I am forced to learn the simpler HTML tags.

One Thing Well

The Linux philosophy for software is for each program to do one thing well and to link them together to do more complex tasks. You would think that a dedicated blogging client would be able to do that one thing well, but you'd be wrong. But Vim will always be a good HTML editor and GoogleCL will always be able to upload to Blogger. Who needs a blogging client anyway?


Read more!

Friday, 9 September 2011

DRM has Hijacked my DVD Player, Again

The government should be brave and make breaking DRM legal, even if the distribution of copied media remains controlled.

Would YOU steal?

My movie viewing last weekend was interrupted by the antisocial behaviour of the DVD I was trying to watch. I arranged the sofa and TV, poured the wine and sorted some nibbles. The DVD started, but the film didn't.

I had to sit through a series of trailers for films I'd never watch. I pressed fast forward, I pressed skip-on and my player told me that the actions were forbidden. Forbidden! My own player, playing a DVD I had paid for! And the DVD would not let me control the playback. I tried the disk menu button, hoping to get straight to the play options, but the disk skipped back to the start, so I had to watch the trailers again.

Eventually, we got to the main feature. Or would have done if there wasn't a compulsory viewing of the copyright notice. And a jarring and jumpy clip showing a ne'er-do-well breaking into a car and stealing from it, ending with a statement equating copying a DVD to theft. You wouldn't steal, would you? So don't copy stuff it said.

Now, I could be pursuaded that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a good thing that protects the income of poot artists, but after muttering my way through a long series of video clips in my own home that I didn't want to watch and could not avoid, I was rather less sympathetic. Bypassing DRM and copying media is illegal. But it has it's benefits. Say I buy a DVD, but don't want to watch the same trailers and warnings every time I watch the film. Let's say that I bypass the DRM and copy the film to my PC and strip everything except for the main feature, so that I can watch the film the way I want to watch it. That is illegal.

But can it be equated to stealing? Who on Earth has lost in the process? Stealing is a strictly zero-sum game: one person's gain is another's loss. In this case no-one has lost anything, but I gain plenty. DRM which prevents uncontrolled copying is arguably, maybe, a reasonable thing, but it will never work. Copying and free distribution is rampant, and DRM will never prevent that. It will never be more difficult to copy data bits which are being decoded in my player or PC CDROM drive. But DRM does stop me format shifting, cutting out adverts or making backup copies if I wish to comply with the law.

And when DRM is used to make watch adverts in my own home when I am watching a bought DVD on my own equipment, I has gone beyond a joke.

The government is considering making legal the copying of audio CDs for the purposes of format shifting, backing up and giving to relatives. CDs do not have DRM, so these tasks are technically very simple for end users. They should extend their plan to allow DRM breaking for these purposes. Hollywood shouldn't have special protections not available to recording artists.

Read more!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Passive Smoking, Active Disinformation

Much as I enjoy smoke free pubs and restaurants, I always took the view that I had a free choice of where to go of an evening if I wanted to avoid cigarette smoke. Admittedly, there were few locations that banned smoking, but that was a commercial decision of the proprietors.

Key for those who see the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces as a small start towards banning smoking anywhere is any evidence that smoking in private homes and cars impinges on the rights of powerless third parties. So the news that passive smoking increases the risk of still-births by a whopping 13% and that of birth malformations by 23% was reported widely.

The BBC news site quoted the press release freely:
"Fathers-to-be should stop smoking to protect their unborn child from the risk of stillbirth or birth defects, scientists say. They looked at 19 previous studies from around the world.
A UK expert said it was 'vital' women knew the risks of second-hand smoke."
Vital that women knew the risks? So what are the risks? The paper (abstract) was not primary research, but combined data from multiple studies, which sounds good. But most of the studies were either of poor quality or did not address the desired health outcomes. In the end, it came down to 19 studies with four separate outcome measures. Two of them, the risk of miscarriage and the risk of perinatal or neonatal death, came out negative: no increased risk. The other two came out with the 13% (4 studies) and 23% (7 studies) increased risk.

So, the news reports could have started with headlines of "Passive Smoking Does Not Cause Miscarriage" or "New Study Produces Contradictory Results", or even "We're Trying Really Hard But We Still Can't Prove Passive Smoking is Particularly Dangerous". Although I can't imagine researchers from the UK Tobacco Control research Network policy advocacy group pushing that last one!

Statistical Significance

When researchers attribute risks to particular behaviours, they calculate not only the best estimate of the increased risk (eg an odds ratio of 1.13, or an increase of 13%), but also the high and low limits within which they are confident that the 'true' risk lies. Any measurement will have uncertainties, and to be confident that a risk is real it must be repeatable: that is, doing the whole study again will produce the same result.

Obviously, you can't wait until the next study before you publish, so you use the mathematics of chance to see the results might have been if thing had gone slightly differently during the study. The outcome, then, is not a 'best' figure, but a 'confidence interval' which the 'true' result would be within 95% of the time. (or outside the range 5% of the time).

Confidence Tricks

The study found that two of the outcomes had confidence intervals that started below an odds ratio of 1. That is, there is a real chance that there was no risk at all, even though the 'best' figure was higher. So the results are dismissed as not significant.

What of the other two? Stillbirth came out as 1.01 - 1.26 (middle value 1.13), with malformations as 1.09 - 1.38 (middle value 1.23). So, even without a further look, stillbirths could be increased by perhaps 1%, or as much as 26%. We can't tell which, but we can tell that presenting 13% as the figure is misleading.

But it is worse that that. The researchers looked at many outcomes and picked out to publicise the ones which had the wanted results, which makes it far more likely that you will find significance in your results. As an example, let's say that you roll four dice. The chance that any one of them will come up a six is 1/6 (or 17%), but the chance that at least one of the four will come up a six much greater at 48%.

For the researchers to be confident that their overall result of, say, 'passive smoking causes harm to unborm babies', an allowance must be made (eg the Bonferroni correction) for each of these multiple comparisons to get the overall confidence back up to 95%. For four tests as here, the intervals should be increased by the factor of around 1.27, so they become:

Still birth relative risk: 0.98 - 1.30
Congnital malformation relative risk: 0.91 - 1.40

Note that both now include the relative risk (ie no risk) in the range. On this test, none of the outcomes is significant.

Two Bites at the Cherry

The upshot is this. If you use statistical arguments to judge outcomes, you should know that the more measurements you make the more likely you are to come up with spurious results, so you should make allowances for it.

The headline should have been, at best, "Our Research Was Too Underpowered to be Sure of Anything, but it is Worth Asking for More Funding".

Unlikely to be reported in the papers, but honest.

Read more!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Double Standards of Professional Contrarians

I normally avoid leaving comments on online newspaper articles as I don't enjoy the anonymous behaviour of participants: rudeness, ignorance and unwillingness to engage in proper debate. But I did get stuck in to one of James Delingpole's Telegraph Blog entries. (My spell-checker wants to replace 'Delingpole' with 'Delinquent'. I'm tempted.)

Delingpole seriously embarrassed himself in the BBC's Horizon programme Science Under Attack when he debated climate change with Nurse, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Specifically, Delingpole described his climate change 'journalism' as interpreting interpretation: he didn't read scientific papers, not even the abstracts.

More specifically, he has found a few people who share his biases and then uses their writings as evidence for his own opinions, as they use his to buttress theirs. 'Science' is a word used often, but the scientific method seems to be unknown to them as they resort to rhetoric instead. It seems that winning an ill-natured argument is far more important to them than actually being right. (They fervently believe they are right, of course, though they make no effort to develop secure lines of reasoning, relying on the whole list of pseudo-science techniques described here.)

The comments on the blog entries are even less nuanced, as they don't even try to use rhetorical tricks and deceptions. If you have ever had so little going on in your life that you feel able to interact with the low-lifes that inhabit these sites, then you may skip to the end.

But this is the nature of argument from those that worship the self-important journalists such as Delingpole. Insults are the order of the day: anonymous posters are just rude. If you come up with a good argument, data that disproves a statement or even just try to act as a moderating influence, then expect to get flamed.

Ignore reasoned arguments

Tell the poster that their sort of person makes you sick and you can't believe how much they wriggle and squirm in a proper debate. Tell them how thin skinned they are. If you are lucky, they will be distracted by your bilge and not notice that you had no answer to their line of argument.

Consensus Plays No Part in Science

If anyone has the front to point out that the specialists in the field are virtually unanimous in their judgements, so you are likely to be mistaken, bang on about the 'fact' that consensus plays no part in science. This is a great move, since you can act as an expert in your own right at the same time as denying real experts know anything about the reality of the science. It is, of course, nonsense. Science does not have authorities that pass judgement on theories when there is disagreement. The only way for tentative theories to enter the canon of accepted principles is for them to be debated back and forth along with the data in journals and at conferences, until everyone has had their objections answered and consensus is reached. Far from 'consensus plays no part in science', a lack of consensus is fatal to the progression of a scientific theory. Consensus is the only way in science.

Apply Different Standards of Evidence to Opponents

Appear to carefully pick apart statistical inferences with which you disagree, then slip in a non-sequitur based on an absence of evidence. For instance, challenge the last fifty years of warming by selecting your data from one of the regularly occurring decades where the warming slows or stops for a few years, say that there is no statistically significant warming. If there is warming, pick a new start year that is especially warm and try again to fit a negative gradient. Ignore the fact that the correlation is very weak (r=0.1) and insignificant. Try the line that since warming is not proven, so cooling must be happening. And add an insult as a diversion so no-one notices the sleight of hand.

Libel the Experts

Repeatedly point out that some of the experts are actually computer modellers, chemists or physicists, not 'climate experts', and make claims that they are in the pay of large governmental and NGO conspiracies. Refer to your own sources as 'renowned climate experts', even if they are retired engineers or computer modellers. ('Renowned' is the give-away term, as no reputable scientists refer to anyone as renowned.)

Quote Your Own Consensus

Quote a big, long list of scientists who signed up to an online statement supporting your view, but don't worry if none of them are actually working in a related field of study. As long as they give academic titles and put PhD after their name, they are scientists, right? And don't call it a consensus, as you have already claimed that consensus is not part of science.

Hide Contrary Views

To force recent posts that challenged your statements off the bottom of the first page, find a contrarian web site and cut and paste large chunks of it into your posts. This has the bonus of not requiring any thought whatsoever on your part. When the offending posts have disappeared, you can repeat what you wrote before, secure in the knowledge that new readers will not see that there are good reasons not to trust what you say.

The Lesson

This was the first time I tried to sustain interest in a blog comments section for a couple of days, and there were over a thousand posts in that time (some commenters seemed to post continually day and night - didn't their mothers tell them to come up out of the basement and go to bed?)

I tried to direct arguments towards a discussion of evidence, towards an understanding of the statistical limits of certainty, towards the problematical bias of picking an opinion and searching out individuals who support that idea instead of dispassionately assessing opinions and evidence in the round. But it was for naught.

Delingpole told Paul Nurse in the Horizon programme that he didn't read proper research papers, because peer-to-peer review (clever, huh!) was an improvement on peer-review because it allowed journalists and anyone with an interest to get stuck in.

And he said it with a straight face!

Read more!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Foul Claimed on New School League Tables

Headteachers are demeaning themselves in their rush to criticise the new English Baccalaureat figures included for the first time in this year's league tables, and thereby excuse their own schools' poor rankings.

The English Bac, or EBac, is awarded if a student gains GCSE grade C or above in each of English, Maths, Double Science, a humanities subject and a language.

Complaints have grouped into three main lines:

1. No time to properly game the system.

The main complaint is that the figures are retrospective, with the rules of the game only published after the exam results were out. 'How can we be expected to do well without the time to change our curriculum policies?' chant the headteachers.

This exposes the key moral weakness of modern schools, which is that directly manipulating the key indicators to make the school look good is preferred to actually improving the pupils' education.

Gaming the system, then, is the main occupation of school managers.

2. The EBacc is a return to Academic Snobbery.

Why not allow vocational courses as well?

Schools has a choice to make. Enter children on to the course with the best educational aims (say, French or Science GCSEs) when many will achieve grades D to G passes and so not count in the laegue tables. Or, enter them for vocational courses such as the Btec, that guarantee the 'equivalent' of four GCSE grade Cs to any pupil still conscious at the end of the course.

The choice is really this stark, and sadly most schools go for option B with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those under the cosh from Ofsted especially realise this is the only way out or 'special measures'. Look at the tables and you can spot such schools: they will have improved their 5 A to C figures at improbably fast rates, have high CVA (value added) scores from the additional 'equivalent' courses and LOW EBacc rates.

The 'most improved' school in the country, Perry Beaches in Birmingham, has moved its 5 A to C figures from 21% to 74% in four years. CVA is also high, but only 3% got the EBacc. Since it takes four or five years to progress through the school as a pupil, the changes must have been instantaneous to have fed through this quickly.

Certificates of GCSE equivalent passes shouldn't count if everyone passes them. It misleads prospective parents into thinking the school is academic and improving, when it is only the figures that are going up. The quality of the education may actually be declining in these schools as they move from GCSE to Btec and other similar courses.

3. Independent schools are unfairly penalised.

Independent schools are not restricted to only offer courses approved by the politically directed Qualification Curriculum Authority which only approved courses with sufficient levels of coursework in their assessment schemes.

Independent schools don't approve of coursework, so many offer alternative courses, such as Classical Civilisation, which don't count towards the EBacc, damaging their figures.

Now, this is a fair complaint. But Independent schools are not compelled to enter the League Tables manipulation game, or even publish figures at all. They are free to create their own tables if they wish so they can compete on their own manicured level playing fields with their own rules.

Unfair, perhaps, but they can take their ball and play elsewhere if they don't like it.

Less Gaming, Please.

The arrival of the EBacc has embarrassed lots of schools. They complain of the pressures of league tables and the focus on A to C grade passes which excludes the varying efforts of anyone not near the grade boundaries. But they should welcome anything that makes gaming harder and so less attractive. Less gaming should herald a move back towards professional judgements in schools instead of political ones, where the children come first.

I won't be holding my breath though. Heads have been manipulating their table positions for a long time, and will be looking for ways to continue the game. It is all many of them know.

Read more!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Orwellian Threat to Political Freedom

Gove's plan to remove BNP members from schools is an ominous restriction of political freedom.

Michael Gove, the Coalition Education Minister, has allowed his political instincts to take second place to following the vocal crowd, and has promised that schools will be allowed to sack BNP members from their staff. The rationale, if you can call it that, is that BNP membership is incompatible with the ethos of schools, and that clearing these outcasts from schools will be an unalloyed good.

But why stop at the BNP? Which other groups have politically incorrect views that the famously tolerant British should not tolerate?

How about UKIP with their dodgy views about foreigners? Or islamist affiliations who want a European caliphate? Sinn Fein or Plaid Cymru members who want to break up the Union? Tories? A teacher who doesn't want to sign up to the school's statement of 'shared values and beliefs'?

Don't laugh at this last one, though. This has already happened! I have been told during a 'training' session that anyone who voiced an opinion in the staff room that a Sixth Form College should focus more on A Levels, and less on vocational courses, would not be tolerated. The suggestion was that such a teacher should be 'encouraged' to leave unless they buttoned up and signed up.

If the aim of this new policy is to allow heads to sack teachers who use their position to proselytise their political views, then Gove would be pleased to know that this behaviour would already be in breach of contract. I am certain that most teachers with odious views are not actually members of a political party, and also that many members of the BNP are not as unlikeable as their simpleton leader. I am also pretty sure that an hour a week with a maths teacher who holds radical views is more likely to be educational than dangerous for children. They will benefit from seeing a range of political views from the staff instead of the current, uniform Guardianista viewpoints.

OK, I know slippery slope arguments are often spurious, but in this case the motivation behind the policy seems to be a response to pressure groups to keep 'keep them away from our children'. A success here will encourage an extension to teachers who openly support the BNP but have not joined as members, or have resigned. After that, then, which other 'opinions' would become adopted as thought crimes, punishable by summary dismissal?

While I would not mourn the departure of some staff, dismissal for supporting a legally established and state funded political party seems a bit too Orwellian for comfort.

If you don't speak up for others' political freedoms now, who will speak up for yours when they come for you?

Read more!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Sound of Science

A great reworking of Paul Simon's 'The Sounds of Silence', now featuring Darwin and the scientific method …

The Sound of Science, courtesy of Youtube.


Read more!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

'Unfunded' Pensions for Teachers

Lord Hutton has triggered a furious response from the unions in recommending the end of the final salary* pension schemes enjoyed by public sector workers. (* Also known as unfunded gold-plated pensions)

The pejorative term 'unfunded' when applied to public sector pensions suggests that the taxpayer picks up the entire bill, when in fact it just means that the pension contributions are spent by the government as a cheap loan, instead on being invested in a pension fund. Of course, when the employee eventually retires there is no pot of money, so the treasury must spend from government funds.

Teacher pensions were reformed some years ago, and do not need to be radically reworked in the current final salary pension witch-hunt. Teachers contribute 6.1% of salary, with employers putting in a further 14.4%, making a total of 20.5%. For a main scale teacher paying in for 40 years, this could produce a pension pot of £500 000 to £600 000, if it was invested and averaged returns of 3% above inflation, as the FTSE has managed routinely. A half million quid could easily buy an index linked annuity paying half the final salary - without needing a penny of taxpayer money to subsidise.

The problem comes from the higher earners - the senior management and others who get significant promotions near the ends of their careers. Since these people earn much more than their career average, each pound they pay in to a pension scheme pays out more that a pound from a classroom teacher whose salary is stable for the final 25 years of their career.

In the light of this, Lord Hutton's report, calling for pensions to be based on career average earnings and for the investment risk to be moved from taxpayers to the individuals, seems reasonable. The unions will make a great deal of fuss, but for most teachers, there is nothing to fear from a move away from an 'unfunded' or even 'final salary' pension model.

Read more!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

'My RSS reader is a Journalist'

The BBC's reporting is going backwards. For years it was my go-to news site as it always sidebar links to all the websites of the source material for a news story. Even if the reporting was poor, I could always read the original papers or quotes. But a recent revamp of their site has dropped all the external links! Was it too hard for the journalists to a keep a track of where they got their material?

OK, I'm being a little unfair, since their main source has been press releases for some years - it is amazing the similarity of the wording when you can read the original press releases on AlphaGalileo. They have been republishing company and university press officer propaganda with barely a change for years.

Don't just take my word for it: if you want a pithy and knowledgeable statement of all that is wrong with science journalism, you can't do much better than read this, by The Lay Scientist blog at the Guardian. 



That post is a great parody of most of the British media's science output, fitting all research into a bland identikit structure that neither educates the masses nor informs those who already know something about the subject. The masses do not benefit from the patronisingly shallow overview that is so simplistic that even the basic principles are left out as potentially too confusing. The educated do not benefit as there is not even a useful link to the research abstract , the researcher's homepage or even the organisation involved.



And all the “important” words are put in “scare” quotes, so the “journalist” does not even have to take responsibility for the words they have “written”. 

The parody is great, and the writer has now followed that up with an inside, in-depth analysis of why the mainstream media, the BBC included, sadly, has allowed itself to abandon the honourable traditions of scientific journalism.



Depressingly, a lack of money to do the job properly is not on the hit list, but the journalists themselves are. A picture is painted of aimless journos wandering around conferences being distracted by all the unpublished PhD poster work in foyer, and not understanding a word of what they are told.

A great comment from the piece repeats and comment from Ed Yong sums it up:
“If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you're not effectively 'taking a side', then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that's your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.”
Thanks to Toby Marshan for drawing my attention to this blog.

Edit 2010-10-10: The BBC has just updated its online linking policy to repair some of the damage mentioned above, described in this Guardian blog post.

Read more!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cable's Barmy Plan

Much of the current focus in the education press is on the threat to funding for Universities, with the Telegraph reporting a plan to allow badly run universities to go bust and close, and the LibDem Minister Vince Cable announcing that his department will in the future only fund the highest quality university research.

Cable's plan is especially barmy, even if he does have a crystal ball to sort the research wheat from the chaff (who saw the value of lasers, developed solely to test a subtle prediction of Einstein's, or knew that the quantum physics of the 1920s would lead to the digital revolution?)

If only the top research centres survive, where will the career progression for freshly qualified post-docs be? Where will Ph.D. students find posts to cut their teeth on and develop their skills? Why would the most talented students in schools be attracted to research instead of banking?

Britain's research base is still world class, which is a near miracle given how much is done with so few resources. But the structure of our research base is lean already. If Vince Cable seems intent on reducing it back further, he will find that it is not the fat he is cutting away. Real and irreversible damage to the country will be done. It will not be easily reversed by cash injections in a few years time when the damage becomes apparent.

Read more!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Gove's Cunning Plan to Recruit Better Teachers

The ongoing crisis in school Physics teaching was not improved much by the last government, leaving most lessons taught by biologists or chemists. Most English teachers have first class degrees, but a quarter of new Physics teachers have third class degrees, more than any other subject. This is for two main reasons.

First, physicists are drawn to the abstract and the impersonal, and so not many are cut out for the intense social experience that is teaching. This leaves teacher training colleges accepting almost anyone who applies.

Second, few qualified physicists and engineers are willing to work for the kind of salary that is intended to be attractive to people with English or History degrees. Industry pays what is needed to attract those with shortage skills.

The Education Minister, though, has a cunning plan: bar those with a third class degree from funded teacher training places. This will, apparently, make teaching more attractive to the better educated and improve the quality and standing of teaching as a profession. And, to give Gove some credit, there is some logic in this.

Courses Desirable

Modern students deciding on their career choices do see the most difficult to enter professions as the most desirable, so the elite students gravitate to Medicine, with its history of insufficient training places to train all the physicians we need. The restricted entry leads to high levels of salary and a social standing out of all proportion to the skills actually needed to work as a GP.

So Gove's solution is to raise the entry bar for prospective teachers, without a corresponding pay rise for those with shortage skills. Pay has not risen above inflation for the last decade, and it is still impossible for many schools to fill their Maths and Physics posts with specialists as a result.

The problem Gove has, though, is that teaching is a profession accepts anyone with a non-honours pass degree from a university which may only ask for two grade E's at A Level. Rejecting third class honours wholesale says that a Third in Physics from Oxford or in Engineering from Imperial College is not as desirable as a Lower Second Class degree in Textiles:Knit from the University of Westminster.

Shortage Skills

An engineering company short of skills or experience would offer a rewards package to attract the best people to apply, and then employ the best amongst the applicants.

Teaching will not become a desirable career for the best qualified and most able people until the salaries reflect the level of ability needed for each post. It takes more money to employ a good mathematician or physicist than it does to get high quality English teachers.

Does Gove have the courage to introduce differential pay in the face of the unions? The current funding squeeze is the perfect cover with the unions weakened, and will be the only chance for a generation. I won't be holding my breath.

Related posts:
How to Recruit a Physics Teacher
Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics
Modular Physics Courses harm Learning

Read more!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Will Big Donation Cost Blair a Penny?

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, starter of four wars and one national debt crisis, has sought to ease his conscience and improve his reputation as home. He has rushed out his memoirs ahead of his successor as PM, Gordon Brown, and now promises the profits from its sale will go to armed forces charity The British Legion.
But such is his history of using a rather flexible interpretation of the truth, more is learned from what he hasn't said than from what he has.
Is he donating just the profits, that is, payments less expenses? Is it the royalties without the 4 million pound advance he has already received? Is he paying tax on the donations or is he Gift Aiding it so that much of the charity's gain will be at the expense of taxpayers?
And most importantly, will the donation be routed through one of his several companies and so be entirely written off against corporate tax?
Blair's donation may cost us more than him, but since at least one of his companies does not file accounts, we may never know if this is a genuine act of altruism.
Read more!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Write to Your MP

MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion to raise awareness of the importance of the shortage of Physics teachers. I've written before about the chronic and worsening shortage of Physics teachers (here, here and here), and the attempts by the TDA to hide the decline in which they claimed that all specialist teacher recruitment targets had been met, and it is worth while keeping the issue alive.

Although EDMs don't often get debated on the floor of the Commons, they do get picked up by the media, and perhaps ministers, if they are well supported, so use the link here to contact your MPs and ask them to sign this one.

The full text is below:
Physics Teachers (no. 467)

“That this House expresses its concern at the lack of specialist physics teachers and the consequent drastic drop in the number of entrants to physics A-level; recognises the threat this poses to UK physics and engineering and therefore to the UK economy; and calls for greater incentives to attract physics graduates into teaching in order to create access to high-quality physics teaching for every child.”


Read more!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Flying the Flag, Costing the Earth?

England flag flying from a car, World Cup 2010, South AfricaOK, so I object to anyone flying our national flag who feels the need for the word England to be printed across the middle. But is there a better reason for banning the flags flown from car doors?

Flags are not very aerodynamic, and cause drag, making the car burn more petrol than normal. One to two percent more than normal, so over the couple of months before and during the World Cup in South Africa, each car with a pair of small flags will use an extra five litres (or a gallon) of petrol.

If a million cars in England (almost typed the UK there — but no-one in Scotland will be flying the Cross of St George!) had two flags each, that amounts to five million litres of petrol spent dragging flags around the country's roads.

Banning these silly little flags would have the same environmental effect as shutting down a large power station for five days, and save British motorists over five million pounds of expense. It is enough petrol to fill two Olympic sized swimming pools,

So what is holding the government back in these days of austerity?

Read more!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

General Teaching Council 1998-2010 RIP

Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, has announced that the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) is to be abolished in the autumn, and not a moment too soon.

It has cost a small fortune to run and was never going to be a rallying point for teacher professionalism, and has failed even to act as a guarantor of teacher quality by disciplining us.

When the GTCE was created in 1998, it had so few teachers paying their subscriptions, even under the threat of de-registration, that it had to arrange for salary deductions to cover its expenses. I, like many other teachers, saw no benefit in the extra layer of bureaucracy. All teachers were already registered with the government Department for Education (and its heirs and successors), many were also members of unions and teacher subject groupings (such as the ASE) and felt we were already quite well represented and regulated.

For my own part, I did not pay any subs until salary deductions started, I responded to no letters, and was pleased that when I moved to a Sixth Form college which didn't require my registration, the GTCE was unable to take any further money. I had a letter saying that I would be de-registered (struck off) if I didn't pay up, so I was surprised that two years later they wrote again to say I owed them two years' payments. They couldn't even get that right.

The GTCE is, and always has been, a complete irrelevance to teachers. When it finally goes, few will notice and none will care.

So what did the GTCE say on hearing the good news? Did they respond by apologising for wasting everyone's time and money? Promise to do better? No, they said that they were "seeking legal advice on (their) position".

Parliament will surely vote to abolish the GTCE later in the year, and it can be finally buried, unloved and unmissed, in the graveyard of the Quangos.

Read more!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Lazy Teachers

Teachers have to be wary if they want to contribute to education discussions, and they have to tread especially carefully in discussions about children taking holidays in term time. Exchanges have a habit of turning towards the long school holidays, and how teachers dare complain about families taking pupils out for term time holidays. Or about workload. Or pay. Or, indeed, about anything. But it always comes back to the holidays.

And since teachers get 11 weeks holiday (plus the bank holidays), it is difficult to challenge the view that it is a valuable perk.

So why does it bug me when we are attacked for our lazyness? Because of the belief that worth can be measured in hours and the explicit assumption that long holidays equates with less work than other workers. And, generally, this is not true.

Government workload research regularly finds teacher hours around 50 hours per week term-time, which amounts to around 2000 hours per year, not including work done during the holidays (and this is verified by independent studies, such as from PWC). This compares to the figure for 'all professionals' of 39 hours which, taking 44 weeks worked (6 weeks holiday plus public holidays), comes to 1700 hours. Or, to put it another way, the average prefessional would need to work for 50 weeks of 39 hours to match the 39 weeks of 50 hours for the average teacher.

So, as they say, do the math.

Edited 19 May 2010


Read more!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

MaST Programme Not Good Enough

In 2006, only two hundred out of ten thousand trainee primary teachers had technical, numerate (STEM) degrees, and this number was half the figure from 2004. It is clear that teacher subject knowledge is a key factor in the success of pupils (e.g. here), but it is also plain that specialists are very rare: out over a hundred Initial Teacher Training courses, nearly half offer an emphasis on a modern foreign language, one offers mathematics and none science.

The Williams Review into primary school Maths teaching recommended in 2008 that much of the current malaise in maths education could be solved if every primary school had at least one teacher with a 'deep understanding' of mathematics, so we ought be pleased that the government has announced a program to provide maths 'specialists'.

But, as with many government solutions, the Maths Specialist Teachers Programme (MaST) is more about appearances than solving the shortage of expertise. In service teachers are to be given three autumn-term days of training at a university, two weekend residential and twelve half-days of in-school support over two years, after which they will be described as Maths Specialist teachers.

I don't know how long it would take to turn a primary school teacher, with perhaps a Fine Arts or English Literature degree, into an expert Maths teacher, but I'm sure it's more than the ten days offered in the MaST program.

Read more!