No Leap Second for the UK

The Guardian, the Times, the Mail and all the others have got it wrong: when most of the world experiences a leap second on the stroke of the New Year, and all their clocks need adjusting, the UK's clocks can carry on regardless.

Zapperz over in the US at the Physics and Physicists blog has the same story.

A Leap Second At The End of 2008

Don't celebrate too soon for 2009. 2008 is going to be 1 second longer than you expected due to a leap second.
"On New Year’s Eve, the international authorities charged with keeping precise time will add a single second to our lives. It will be the 24th “leap second” since 1972, and the first since 2005." (NY Times)
Or you can kiss someone one second longer at midnight. :)

To give Zapperz some dues, the USA bases its time standard on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), so our friends over the pond will benefit from the extra second.

Sadly, in the UK our kisses must be of the usual length. :(

The leap second applies to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, based on the atomic clock standard), and it is needed to bring UTC into line with Universal Time (specifically UT1), which is based on observed mean solar time at the Greenwich meridian (Greenwich Mean Time) and so the Earth's rotation.

Unfortunately, the UK's time standard is defined in law as GMT (a.k.a. UT1). Similarly, anyone else whose time standard is UT1, such as Ireland, Canada and Belgium - so no leap second for us.

However, even though GMT is the UKs legal time standard, the National Physical Laboratory has one of the world's most accurate clocks and contributes to the International Atomic Time standard. The long wave time signal, broadcast from Anthorn Radio Station in Cumbria, is a UTC signal, while the internet and GPS clocks all depend on the same atomic time standard.

GMT, then, (as an Earth based time) is not used in reality anymore, despite its official designation as the source of British time.

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Jim Knight wants more 'Flash and Bang'

The just released 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has seen England rise to fifth position after the four yearly study looked again at the quality of the science education of fourteen-year-olds around the world (BBC report: England's Pupils in Global Top 10).

English students are beaten only by those from Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, with all of Europe trailing in their wake. Jim Knight is clearly pleased at this validation of Labour policies on the world stage, but he can't bring himself to ease the political pressure off over-burdened schools, even if they have done all he asked of them.

Party Pooper

Knight has looked and looked, and he managed to find some bad news in the report. That's right — science teachers up and down the country can stop partying, under the impression that all was well in their subject and a pat on the back was due.

Children are enjoying science less than they used to! There has been a 21% drop in 'positive attitudes' reported by the pupils, and Jim is not happy.

Teachers, go and sit on the naughty step.

Must Do Better

Being the best in Europe and the industrialised West is not good enough if a few far-eastern nations with fantastically well drilled children are better.

Knight says in the press release:
This shows we are on the way to being world class but as we move towards this goal we need to make sure every child has fun in the classroom as well as achieving good results.

I am determined to make maths and science more exciting subjects to teach and learn, and I want every school to have access to the most innovative and effective teaching methods. I want more action in the classroom and more problem solving and ‘flash and bang’ to enthuse our pupils.
A new OFSTED target, perhaps? Inspectors could report:Your lesson on nuclear power was well taught and the children learned well, but there wasn't enough 'flash and bang' for the lesson to be rated any good.'

Squeezing the Pips

Other countries to suffer from reduced student positivity included Singapore and Hong Kong — both in the top ten alongside England. Jim Knight seems to think that league table rankings and pupil enjoyment are independent of each other, but teachers have complained for years about the curriculum and targets straitjacket that they have to operate in, and the effect on the enjoyment that classes are able to have.

The government has squeezed children hard so that they achieve their potential, but the pips are squeaking now. If he was serious about restoring awe and wonder to school science lessons, then Knight and Balls would be cutting the testing and accountability burden.

Freeing teachers to impart some of their love for their subjects, though, would risk a slip in the rankings. And that would never do, would it?

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Colleges Actively Diminish the Responsibility of Students

In their never-ending quest for OFSTED pacifing statistics, colleges and schools infantilise those who should be preparing to move into adulthood.

The independent and responsible students, that everyone in education claims to want to produce, are self-motivated, either by the learning they gain from hard work or by the promise of qualifications at the end of their courses. They have learnt from failures in the past that hard work pays off. But, with external examinations two or three times a year and the introduction of rewards, for meeting minimum standards instead of genuinely good acts, we make them more dependent on short term and external sources of motivation.

Declining Responsibility

OFSTED, the UK government watchdog for education, despairs that even the oldest students show little independence and responsibility for their learning, while at the same time congratulating schools on their rewards schemes and the efforts they make to stop disaffected students from failing despite themselves. Chocolates, certificates and extra trips are used in the attempt to buy responsible behaviour, in the mistaken attempt that unearned compliments are somehow a more clever way to manipulate children than the old fashioned idea of just deserts. But of course, withholding a promised reward is itself a punishment that worryingly displaces more desirable motivations.

The Withering of Internal Motivations

Even sixth formers seem to require external motivations to get up in the morning, now that reward systems are being extended to the over-sixteens. Is it really necessary to give certificates to everyone who is not misbehaving, just to try and encourage a few young people who would be better off out of education?

The governments now plans to force all under-eighteens to stay in education or formal training. This will, naturally, make things worse. Volunteers will value the education they get more than they would as conscripts, even if they would have volunteered anyway, nibbling away

At the moment, the once fearsome mock exams, used for decades to motivate students mid-course, are now a waste of time. More than ever, the refrain "is it important?" is heard, meaning "do these marks go towards my final grade?". The proliferation of externally set exams means that class tests are seen as unimportant even by bright students, so they lose their power to motivate. Low scores are seen as par for the course, since no preparation was done.

The Result

The govenrment's focus on reducing the embarrasingly large number of NEETs (youths not in employment, education or training) will work against the policy of producing ever more motivated and independent young people. The pressure on schools and colleges to stop teenagers from learning their own lessons from their choices and behaviour, since it risks the school's league table position, is counterproductive.

The best lessons will never come from a government initiative delivered in a classroom.

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Engineering Diplomas Only Partially Accepted by Universities

With both Oxford and Cambridge reporting that they will accept Advanced Engineering Diplomas for students entering their Engineering degree programmes, the top Russell Group Universities now have a unified response to the Government's flagship education policy. But it is not accepted without reservations, as
… it is essential that the diploma sufficiently equips candidates with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish on our courses and we want to be fully assured that they are sufficiently robust and challenging academically. Our member universities are in the process of assessing the academic rigour and general suitability of the diploma as a route to higher education.
In fact, although the Advanced Diploma will be considered worth three A Levels, anyone applying for Engineering degrees at a decent university will need to take A Levels alongside it.

Cambridge University says that "Students wishing to apply with this qualification must also have an A-level in physics", and Bristol University, for example, is equally blunt: while some Faculties will accept Diplomas as full qualification for entry, "Mechanical Engineering [will need an] Engineering Diploma grade A, plus A grades in A level Maths & Physics."

Ed Balls,the UK Schools Secretary, has said the the Diplomas will become "the qualification of choice", and Schools Minister Jim Knight believes that this
&hellip statement recognises that the diploma is a demanding qualification and that students who work hard and achieve highly in their diploma will be able to study at any university they choose.
I don't think A Level Physics will be replaced by the Diploma any time soon.

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'Coasting Schools' Attacked in the Latest Ministerial Balls-Up

The Government is tilting at windmills again with a ministerial attack on imagined weak schools. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has decided it is time to tackle good schools for not being good enough. The press release says
Ministers are taking action after analysis shows that one in seven pupils do not progress a whole attainment level in English between the ages of 11 and 14. Until now ‘coasting’ schools have often missed out on focused attention and have been hard for parents to identify because of apparently satisfactory results.
This is appallingly wrong-headed for two reasons.

The Limits of Testing

First, it is in the nature of the tests that some pupils are awarded the wrong level. If everyone advanced by a whole level in their understanding, then the limited reliability of the tests would mean that a third will get the wrong level (or, about one in six would appear to have stood still for three years.)

A year ago The Primary Review, an independent two-year long enquiry into primary education in England, reported in its research survey Assessment Alternatives for Primary Education that
Regardless of the consistency of individual test items, the fact that a test has to be limited to a small sample of possible items means that the test as a whole is a rather poor measure for any individual pupil. This is because a different selection of items would produce a different result. Wiliam (2001) estimated the difference that this would make for the end of Key Stage tests in England. With a test of overall reliability of 0.80, this source of error would result in 32 per cent of pupils being given the wrong level.
This made a big splash at the time, for example here in the Guardian.

'Value Added' Scores

Second, the coasting schools will be identified if they meet any of a list of criteria given in the same press release, including if
  • The school’s Contextual Value Added (CVA) score is significantly below average;
  • There has been little or no improvement in the school’s progression rates over several years;
So a school that is consistently doing well needs a kicking if pass rates don't go up year on year, or if that school's particular challenges don't feature in the CVA ranking model. OFSTED, England's schools inspectorate, themselves say that categorising schools on the basis of CVA scores is "meaningless", as described by the BBC news item last August:
… in an example OFSTED gives it may appear that a school with a CVA of 1,009 is doing better than another with a CVA of 992.

"However, that would be incorrect," [OFSTED] says in new guidance to schools about the use of data. "In both cases, the range between the upper and lower confidence limits includes 1,000, so both schools are achieving average outcomes; their performance is about as expected."

The guidance adds: "No meaning can be attached to an absolute CVA value, and any ranking of schools by their CVA values is meaningless."

Homework for Ed Balls

Ed Balls needs to visit schools, not to "target" them (a rather aggressive term for what should be a supportive programme), but to study some maths. It is a shame that Mr Balls learned enough arithmetic at school to manipulate figures, but did not make a sufficient study of how to handle anything but the simplest data.

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How to Recruit a Physics Teacher

Plenty could be done to relieve the Physics teacher shortage, but no-one in power really wants to solve the problem.

The Problem

A recent open evening at my college produced plenty of potential students to start Physics A Level next year, but there was a distinctive pattern in their origin: very many of them were currently at two schools on the other side of town and these talked enthusiastically about their current Physics teacher. However, there were hardly any from the very large comprehensive just a few hundred metres up the road (or indeed from several other close schools.)

Without being able to talk to those non-attenders, I cannot be sure, but one likely reason stands out. There is no Physics teacher at the school, and there hasn't been one for years.

Now, this is by no means uncommon. A major report on the supply and retention of Physics teachers published in the summer by The Centre for Education and Employment Research said
it was possible to predict with 84% accuracy whether a school would have any physics specialists, essentially from whether it had a sixth form, its region, whether it had specialist status in science, engineering or technology, and the ability of its pupils as indicated by GCSE results.

Few schools with high ability children, low eligibility for free school meals and low special needs were without a physics specialist, but this was true of over half those with poor GCSE results and a high intake with special needs. Of the school types, grammars, voluntary controlled and faith schools tended to come off best, and small schools worst.
My area has secondary schools up to age 16, with a sixth form college for the 16-18 age group. One school with a sixth form in a town close by has a full complement of Physics teachers, as does my sixth form college, though I think that each of the local 11-16 schools has few or none. I say 'I think', because it is difficult to find out without contacts in the schools: they don't exactly advertise the fact on their websites, especially now most of them offer 'separate sciences', including GCSE Physics. It would be embarrassing. What they do claim, however, is that they have no science teacher vacancies. I am suspicious of this practice, though, since the secondaries with sixth forms elsewhere in the county are content to publish a staff list complete with their specialisms (Biology, Chemistry or Physics) instead of the generic Science Teacher label. See my previous post on this problem: Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics.


Physics teachers, naturally, can make good use or their rarity. As most schools in the country are in want of a Physics teacher, they can pick and choose their school. A large proportion of Physics teachers want the intellectual stimulus of some A Level teaching and a good working environment, leaving 11-16 schools, especially in large urban areas where behaviour can be a problem, in a difficult position. The same report adds that
…turnover and moves to other schools were somewhat higher for physics specialists than for teachers in the other core subjects. The main driver of wastage in physics is retirement, which contributes a quarter of the total turnover and half the wastage. Nearly three times as many physics leavers as biology leavers were aged over 50. Some of the retirements were normal age, but most were premature, often stemming from a sense of dissatisfaction. About half the physics teachers were resigning to go to other state schools. The main reasons were promotion, re-location and wanting to get away from their present school.
This picking and choosing means that school are in a stiff competition for these people. But they often do not compete, so their pupils lose out.


In many other industries the shortage would be eased but matching the rewards to the importance and difficulty of recruitment, but as national pay bargaining with the unions rules out differential pay, schools must be imaginative:

  • Create 'Physics and Maths' posts and the associated training courses, to allow teachers to avoid having to teach the other sciences. Biology teaching is not very popular with Physics graduates - a quarter of Physics qualified trainees abandon physics to teach Maths.

  • Offer posts with responsibility. These come with extra money, and can be tailored to keep the burden low.

  • Make more use of the discretionary payments that are already allowed for recruitment and retention purposes, but which are rarely used.

  • Bite the bullet, and advertise higher salaries for Physics teachers willing to teach in schools that cannot otherwise attract applicants. This should encourage the small number of teachers spread out more evenly and according to demand.

  • Lastly, encourage more Physics graduates into teaching by moving to a fully differential pay structure.

Why are the first three points not used more often to ease shortages?

I suspect head teachers are keen to believe that all science teachers should be able to teach all the sciences. This is obviously untrue, but is a popular conceit (I have only come across one non-Physics colleague who could understand Newton's First Law of Motion, for example, despite that topic being an integral part of the balanced science curriculum taught by non-specialists to all 11-year-olds).

The final two points provide the only reliable medium to long term solution for the the crisis. However, the educational establishment, such as it is, has followed the tradition of being politically rather left of centre, and there is a strong feeling that all teachers should be treated equally. The leftist teaching unions, which have a strong interest in solving the problem of chronic specialist teacher shortages, reject the dilution of their power in national pay bargaining negotiations, are the main stumbling block on the way to ending the crisis in state schools, even the new City Academies which have flexibility in their pay awards.

Independent schools can already compete financially for teachers - how many of these schools are short of a Physics master - so extending the market in teachers to state comprehensive could reverse the long decline in specialist Physics teacher recruitment.

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Metric Tomatoes, Luddites and Lord Kelvin.

Modern students, even those who have chosen to study advanced physics, cannot understand the full imperial system, and certainly are not able to calculate using them. This is occasionally demonstrated in class when a student complains that they can't relate to the metric SI units, and goes on to immediately demonstrate that they have no idea of how many ounces there are to the pound, or stones to the ton, or inches to the yard, or yards to the mile. They are certainly unaware of the coherent imperial unit of mass, the slug or the meaning of the fathom, acre or gallon, the chain, troy-ounce or nautical mile.

I strongly suspect that this is also the case with metric martyr Janet Devers, in the papers again for heroicly refusing to display metric units alongside the imperial ones, and bravely weighing out vegetables with pound only scales. Janet is launching an appeal against her conviction, which resulted in a £5000 fine and a conditional discharge. The Magistrate said
"We note that you said you were doing this in the interests of your customers, although you ought to have known you were breaking the law in doing so."
Indeed. Janet complained that a criminal record meant she would not be able to travel to the United States to see family. Poor thing.

Everyone under the age of 45 years has studied metric units exclusively in school, since the UK went metric in 1972, sixty-eight years after Lord Kelvin collected eight million signatures calling for the adoption of metric measures. That was a fifth of the population at that time.

Hansard records Lord Belhaven and Stenton, moving the second reading of the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Bill in 1904 as saying:
The metric system has been taught in the elementary schools under the Educational Code of 1900, but it is to be regretted that though the teachers give much time and trouble to teaching this new subject, in many cases the examiners have not asked any questions in that section of arithmetic. Therefore school teachers are very much disheartened when they find that inspectors seem to look upon it in a half-hearted way and they get no credit for the time they devote to the teaching of it. If this Bill passes it will be the means of infusing a great deal more energy into this particular subject.
and continues with
The second objection to our present system is the waste of time in teaching it to children. It is not alone the teaching of the tables which I have just referred to—it is the whole system of compound addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and the system of computation called "Practice."

It is estimated, on high educational authority, that every child wastes one year of its arithmetical school time in learning these subjects and that in many cases the time lost is much greater. Last year inquiries were made of headmasters of schools on this subject, and 197 sent replies, of which 161 said that saving of time in teaching the metric system would be one year, thirty said it would be two years, and six that it would be three years. This gives a French or German child a great advantage over an English child, as the time saved can be applied to some more useful subject.

I should like to quote from one of the many letters received. The senior mathematical master of Edinburgh High School wrote— An average scholar would save at least a year and a half, probably two. This saving is great in itself, but if it be considered how much he saves by not being subjected to a wearisome process of acquiring the knowledge, say, to convert ordinary yards to poles and vice versâ, or square yards to perches and give a rational remainder, and the wearing out of his nervous system—not to speak of the teachers'—I conceive it to be not only a saving of time but an economy of mental effort which is incalculable. The objection does not lie only in the time which is wasted. The child is wearied and disheartened by the difficulties of the subject; and, in the case of boys at our public schools, many get such a distaste for arithmetic that they lose all desire to study mathematics afterwards, and I think this has much to do with the low standard of mathematical knowledge in this country.
Modern students, even those who have chosen to study advanced physics, cannot understand the full imperial system, and certainly are not able to calculate using them.

The Physicist, Mathematician and Engineer Lord Kelvin supported the Bill in 1904, noting in passing that the Metric system was a English invention:
While we are grateful to France for having given us the metric system, while we see France, Germany, Italy, and Austria rejoicing in the use of it, and benefiting every day by the use of it, it is somewhat interesting to know that, after all, the decimal system, worked out by the French philosophers, originated in England In a letter dated 14th November, 1783, James Watt laid down a plan which was in all respects the system adopted by the French philosophers seven years later, which the French Government suggested to the King of England as a system that might be adopted by international agreement. James Watt's objects were to secure uniformity and to establish a mode of division which should be convenient as long as decimal arithmetic lasted.
A hundred years ago, elementary schools in England started to teach metric units, while the Germans changed over completely in two weeks without obvious difficulty.

A century later, the Luddites seem to be winning.

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SATs for 14-Year-Olds Scrapped

Ed Balls has finally bowed to the inevitable, accepting that the English examination system is far too bloated and there are not enough markers to process national exams for all 7, 11, 14, 15, 16-year-olds in the country. The disastrous management of last year's Key Stage 3 National Curriculum Tests (the age 14 SATs) has forced Balls to cancel them permanently. It is a shame that he did not do this for educational reasons (for example, see this previous post), but the move will still be welcomed by parents and teachers.

The main problem, though, of these national tests has always been their narrowness. They only test a predictable subset of the National Curriculum, with a question style that does not vary, making them susceptible to coaching, or teaching to the test.

However, the huge pressure on teachers to teach to the test, bleated about routinely by the unions and criticised in report after report, could be eased by two simple measures:

  • First, the General Teaching Councils could declare that teaching to the test was unprofessional. Teachers will then be free to do the right thing and stop pressurising the pupils.

  • Secondly, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should both take control of the copyright of the past test questions, banning their unauthorised reproduction and use in classrooms, and change the style of questions each year.

Without an obvious test to teach to, and no reliable past questions, the pressure will be on to teach the whole curriculum - exactly what was originally intended when the National Curriculum was introduced.

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Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics

Essential, foundational ideas of physics are being presented to children by teachers who know nothing about them themselves. Able children are being undermined by the belief that there is nothing in the compulsory science curriculum that cannot be taught by any science teacher and that physics teachers, bringing only enthusiasm to an inherently dull subject, are therefore not required for physics lessons.

Having just finished a unit on forces and motion with 16- and 17-year-olds, we started on work and energy. After some introductory discussions and activities, the students were given a task to research and describe how wind turbines worked, in preparation for a study of the work done by the wind. Prompted to describe how the wind makes the generator turn, each student wrote that the wind's energy did it. When pressed, one offered that the wind's kinetic energy spun the blades and the blades' kinetic energy was turned into electricity. How does kinetic energy do that then? Well, the generator turns kinetic into electricity, they said, something to do with magnets.

Well, that's just dandy, as it is really no more than a plausible sounding 'just so' story. Without the technical terms the explanation is empty. "The wind turbine has something about it that makes electricity from wind" has nothing of substance and only a patina of education. The answers are routinely consistent with the idea that energy is a sort of fluid with some physical reality, akin to the caloric whose existence was disproved when Joule showed that heat was a method of energy transfer.

So how do bright pupils routinely get through secondary school physics lessons without a working understanding of the relationship between work and energy?

The short answer is: biology teachers.

Well, not their existence per se, but their willingness to teach physics topics about which they know nothing. That, and the connivance of school managers and government ministers who pretend that every biologist, chemist, environmental scientist, biochemist, physicist, engineer, geologist, metallurgist and zoologist can be treated as a generic science teacher, and should be able to teach any science specialism to any class up to age sixteen.

Of course, that is a self-serving cynical delusion. Cynical, because having that belief allows a head teacher to claim that their school has no vacancies, even when, as is the case with at least one school that feeds to my sixth form, they have had no physics teacher for several years. That school even takes the brightest pupils and teaches them more than the minimalist physics in the 'double science' GCSE, dragging them through separate biology, chemistry and physics courses without even bothering to employ a specialist physics teacher.

But does it matter? Can't a graduate scientist teach any of the simple topics that appear in the secondary curriculum, as long as they refrain from teaching A levels?

The response must be a clear 'no'. It should be shouted from the rooftops and at all education ministers, head teachers and science department heads. Specialist science teachers are not interchangeable. Biologists, especially, do not understand physics. They are often required to teach Newton’s Laws of Motion and Energy to the younger secondary pupils, but I have yet to meet a biology teacher who understands them even in the shallowest terms.

Asked about his willingness to teach from a position of ignorance, a biologist Head of Science shrugged it off with a “Well, that’s physics”, while more recently qualified teachers say they think that they teach physics better than the specialists as their difficulties with it themselves puts them closer to the children’s’ experiences. Honestly! I have heard both comments several times.

Secondary schools in inner-city areas, schools without sixth-forms and those whose managers insist on making physics teachers teach biology and the biology teachers physics, will continue to lose physics teachers, and pupils will fail to see the wonder and coherence of physics.

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Patten versus Denham

Universities Minister John Denham has heaped criticism on Chris Patten after his speech at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference last week, for suggesting that universities could not “make up for the deficiencies of secondary education”:
It is my belief that there is now widespread acceptance across our universities that the current system does not yet capture all the talent that exists in young people across the country, which is why it is all the more disappointing to hear the comments of critics like Chris Patten who have an outmoded view of the central issues in widening participation.
For Denham, "widening participation" seems to be the sole function of elite institutions. He cannot, being a good Marxist, bear the idea that Oxford will not admit the badly educated. Chris Patten, one-time Education Minister and current Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, had complained that:
However hard we try to widen participation at Oxbridge, and I am sure you could say the same at many other universities, there is no chance whatsoever of meeting the socio-economic targets set by agents of government so long as the proportion of students getting A grades in traditional academic A-level subjects at private and maintained schools stays the same. It is as simple as that.
It is as simple as that.

As I wrote in a previous post, poorly qualified students do not do well at university. Trying to identify some degree of intrinsic worth or talent in a student at school and then transplanting them to a Russel Group university will not work: an undeveloped talent is not a sufficient preparation for advanced study. A clutch of grade As at A level is not a guarantee either, but like it or not, if a student cannot get high grades at school, for whatever reason, they will start university a long way behind their classmates.

Can universities be expected to make up in three or four years the educational scars left by thirteen years in an inner-city sink school? Denham thinks so, saying that "Education is the most powerful tool we have in achieving social justice." If he means that accepting weak candidates onto challenging courses is an indicator that social justice has been achieved, then he is seriously deluded. It is not just to set up these poor people for such a fall, as fall they will.

Social justice should not be treated as simply another high-stakes key target that can be improved by crudely manipulating the indicator variable (percentage of sink estate kids at Oxford) directly by coercing universities. The indicator is only useful if it improves indirectly, as a result of better schooling, and that will need a whole slew of 'indicators' to be manipulated: financial poverty of families; poverty of ambition in much of the working-class culture; the flight of good teachers to 'good' schools; the lack of specialist teachers; and many others.

Of course, this is a difficult task. So difficult that no country has ever solved the problem. Bashing 'posh' universities in the press is much easier.

To give the government some credit, though, Denham was making his comments about Lord Patten at a conference for the AimHigher project, which is a major scheme to tackle poverty of ambition by supporting and encouraging children who come from families with no history of Higher Education to consider university and professional careers. My own college has received money to pay for such a scheme from this project and is currently identifying and briefing suitable students and their parents.

I know this, not because of the high quality of internal staff communication, but because several students disappeared from my classroom suddenly, missing two hours of their physics lesson. Apparently, they had been instructed to skip their lessons to attend the compulsory AimHigher meeting.

Hasn't anyone learned?

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Science Exams Don't Test Science

SATs exams are routinely used by many schools as standardised questions for class use and homework. After setting the school mandated homeworks for 13-year-olds, containing nothing but past exam questions, for their science homework, I have often been disappointed with the supplied marking schemes. The questions themselves are intended as summative test items to sample pupils' knowledge based on the 3-year long curriculum. What I needed for proper teaching was formative tasks based on what I had intended them to learn.

But issue the homeworks I did. And then the marking became a problem, not because is was onerous (there are few tasks that need less thought than marking test questions to a detailed mark scheme) but because the required answers were often incorrect or incomplete. Questions are written to correspond to specific curriculum learning targets, not in itself a problem, but when those targets are simplistic or read naively by the exam authors then science can go out of the window. Weak pupils gain credit for wrong answers because the question was not specific enough, and bright pupils lose marks because their perceptive answers went beyond the curriculum statements. The examiners often mistake a list of examples in the statements as being the limit of possible answers: for example, contributions to global warming may include the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning (obviously), but not the energy released from the same processes (a smaller, but real, contribution).

Similar problems have been caused by the current fashion for schools to purchase the exam boards' authorised textbooks, even though they are written to the test and encourage surface learning without depth. The worst problem by far for these texts, though, is the large number of errors in them and subsequent teacher responses. The errors are understandable given the short timescale for major changes imposed on the boards by the controlling authority, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). However, most colleagues I have discussed this with are unconcerned, with the majority seemingly happy to go with the flow. I have even been told by one head of department that we ought to teach what was in the book even if it was wrong. The reasons? Whatever was in the book will be marked as correct in any exam since the book was authorised by the exam board, and it is better to avoid causing confusion in the pupils!

The whole rationale for education has been subverted by the focus on exam marks. Exam marks are more important to students than knowledge. Subjects and exam boards are chosen on the basis of how lax their marking is to improve the students' chances and any attempt at rigour is seen as undermining the school's purpose.

The Sunday Telegraph has obtained documents from the QCA under the Freedom of Information Act:

Internal documents show that concerns raised by experts about accepting wrong answers in the test, taken by thousands of 14-year-olds in May, were overruled by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

In a question which asked what organs a riding hat protects, the answer "skull" was accepted as correct - even though the skull is not an organ. Examiners were also told to award a mark to "ears" despite a graphic which accompanied the question clearly showing the riders ears outside the hat.

In another question, which asks pupils to describe how chalk changes when shaken in a container with granite, the word "weathered" was accepted as correct, against the advice of experts who told QCA that is was "completely incorrect".

QCA has known of the problems, but thought that correcting its exams would reduce the grade statistics for that year. Instead, teachers can continue to teach to the test , safe in the knowledge that a real examination of their charges' understanding will not be made until they get to university.

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Ofsted: Maths Exam Progress Is Not Evidence for Better Education

In their report, Mathematics: Understanding the score, Ofsted bemoans the amount of teaching to the test that goes on. It seems that, after many years of squeezing ever increasing exam grades out of children, they have finally seen some of the damage they have caused.

Their press release says that many schools...
...are not teaching mathematics well enough because they place too much emphasis on routine exercises and on ‘teaching to the test’. While this style of teaching prepares pupils to pass examinations, and gain necessary qualifications, it is less effective in promoting the required understanding to apply mathematics to new situations, solve problems and communicate solutions.
So, after years of forcing school results to climb improbably, under the threat that the satisfactory is not good enough mantra will blight their reports, are Ofsted going to back off from damning teachers who are devoted enough to their charges to ignore the unprofessional pressure from managers and HM Inspectors?

Like hell they will!

Managers will still be sweating over a tenth of a percentage point drop in the A* to C figure and Heads of Department will still be coercing teachers to keep marking and returning the coursework until it is right. Pupils revealed as just below the threshold grade D or level 5 from the relentless practising past-paper will still be enrolled on Ofsted endorsed Booster Sessions whether they need this additional support or not while needy students in lower grade bands are left to flounder.

Leopards don't so easily change their spots. This report will be, however, another excuse for inspectors and politicians to lean on teachers all the more.

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Open Oxford to Low Achievers, Says NUS

Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students President, says in The Guardian education blog of universities that:
There is still a demographic gulf between the richest and poorest institutions; until access to Britain's "top" institutions becomes a reality, a market can only act as a counter to the pursuit of social justice. A sector that should be an engine room for greater equality instead acts to reinforce inequality of opportunity and outcome.
but he has missed one of the main social effects of mass education.
Educated populations reduce inequality by being able to hold governments and bureaucracies to account, as despots around the world know well. Inequality is not served by coercing universities to recruit poorly educated students who have been let down by their families, communities or schools, or by their own unwillingness to take the opportunities on offer to them.
Students who have been unsuccessful at school are likely to be unsuccessful in university degree courses. The most liberal university entry requirements produce institutions with the highest drop-out rates, wasting a year or two of a young person's critical career-forming years: the best of intentions can not easily overcome the lack of academic preparation.
Inequality in the country as a whole will be helped by having a critical mass of the population having a sufficient level of education to challenge the status quo. The most disadvantaged will themselves benefit from the best students being educated to the greatest level. We all need an elite in this country: who wants everything important run by the mediocre?

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Assessing Teachers Needs Research

Now the summer exam results circus is over &mdash and the usual suspects have made their usual criticisms of the examination system &mdash I would like to suggest to OFSTED (and school managers) what they should be looking at when they assess teaching.

Currently, most schools operate formal lesson observations where a manager sits in on a lesson and fills in a proforma. This sheet has key observations to make and a four level grading system, based on OFSTED's procedures so that the school can defend it when inspectors arrive. (The grades range from 1 = very good to 4 = poor, with 3 = satisfactory, the new poor). Teachers are, of course, carefully trained in the system, so that formally observed lessons fill one tick-box after another.

Particularly important to the watched are those lesson features deemed good practice. They can be set as hurdles, limiting the grades otherwise good lessons if the box is not ticked. For example, 'are the lesson aims written on the board?' Not 'do the students understand what they are learning?' or 'were the students swept along?'. Another example: 'was ICT used in the lesson?', even if that use was no better that the non-computer alternative, since there is a government target on ICT use in the classroom.

So what would be better? I suggest that there is plenty of research evidence as to what techniques work in classrooms. Rather than writing off a teacher on their annual observation because they did not use ICT that lesson and the class exam average was below the 'benchmark', or because the teacher was idiosyncratic, the observers should be checking to see if the teacher was doing what objectively works.

Most educational interventions have some positive effect on students achievements, so what is needed is a list of the most effective interventions, since we all have only limited time and energy. There are several literature reviews summarising the evidence for interventions. For example here, and here.

Effect sizes can show quickly which interventions are worth expending time and effort on and which can safely be given lower priority. A list from the first link shows these effect sizes:
Feedback / 1.13
Prior Ability / 1.04
Instructional Quality / 1.00
Direct instruction / 0.82
Remediation feedback / 0.65
Student disposition / 0.61
Class environment (culture) / 0.56
Challenge/goals / 0.52
Peer tutoring / 0.50
Mastery learning / 0.50
Team teaching / 0.06
Behavioural objectives / 0.12
Finances/money / 0.12
Individualisation / 0.14
Audio visual aids / 0.16
Ability grouping / 0.18
Effect sizes do not tell you what is good, but they do indicate what actually improves student outcomes. An effect size of 1.0 is well worth achieving, and is approx. equivalent to one year of advancement. 0.5 is well worth a try. Requiring your teachers to include interventions with lower effect sizes may be counter-productive, indeed some of your better teachers may start to quietly rebel.

Lesson observations have the power to force teachers to do what the Principle or Head Teacher wants them to do. It is essential that these demands are informed by the best educational research, and not by political or bureaucratic considerations.

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And Another Thing...

Why do the top A Level stories in the newspapers, especially front page photo ones, always exclude successful boys. Or, for that matter, any but the most pretty girls? Or black students?

Yes, I do know the answer, but it hardly matches the equality rhetoric of their editorials.
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Defensive Statistics

The results are in, so now is the time for all conscientious Physics teachers to analyse their A Level results.

The newspapers are always first off the mark with ranked tables of gross percentages, showing what proportion of each grammar or independent school gained A or B grades. The tables are then dissected and the top schools pronounced. That they are always selective, either academically or socially, will not be dwelt upon.

Within schools, the Physics teachers will have a couple of weeks to analyse the results of their own students. There are two pressing reasons: to properly assess you own performance, and to have a ready defence against naive assessments by managers.

There will be decisions made using unjustified or unreliable comparisons between very different subjects and with small sample problems. (Why on Earth do class stats get reported to three significant figures?) There will be a need to explain that Johnny did not necessarily underperform in Physics just because he got higher grades in Computing and English.

I have had a cross Head of Sixth Form who presented data showing that half the Physics class had Physics as their worst grade at AS Level. Was I really suggesting that Physics was harder than other subjects? - he asked me. Well, er, yes.

It would be funny if important decisions weren't being made based on these amateur stats and analysis.
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A Level Results Up, Again

It's time for the annual hoo-ha over the remorseless rise in A Level passes. Hooray! Students starting the first year of their courses next month will be the first to have the chance of A* grades if they get a grade A in the first year and 90%+ in the second year units. This is the best that can be done with the erosion of grade As as the identifiers of top flight students, now awarded at a rate of nearly 30%.

And how long before grade inflation renders the A* insufficiently discriminating, requiring A**? With a one fifth increase in A grades in the last five years, it won't be long.

None of this affects this years' students, though, but surely stabilising standards in the long run will be essential.

Unless the government is happy to see A Levels wither away.
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Sats Results - Not a Good Test

The Press Association manages to make much of a one percent change in Key Stage 3 figures:
Teachers' leaders have warned that too much importance is placed on national school tests as figures revealed a drop in reading standards.

Almost one in three 14-year-olds are failing to reach the reading level expected of their age group, according to Government figures.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "The Key Stage 3 tests are an irrelevance. No-one will be interested in the results when young people apply for a job."
Plummet? Physics teachers train their students to assess the level of uncertainty in presenting data, but the government press release makes much of a 1% drop in one measure. The sample size is huge, for sure, but the tests are different and there is an element of judgment in deciding the grade boundaries. Is Ed Balls really saying that these tests are so precise, year on year? Is he aware of the reliability of the tests? Can he tell us what they actually measure for that matter?

At least the ATL has called it right. An irrelevence, except that their side effects are not. This, from the Guardian puts the issue well:
For all age cohorts, the system of assessment is now the major inhibitor of much-needed curriculum innovation.
But Sats are also suffering from a more general public policy problem. Even if they were ever a reliable indicator of performance, over time they've tended to become merely a guide to schools' willingness and ability to teach to the test.

This is a classic example of Goodhart's law - that a measure of performance is no longer a reliable indicator once it becomes a target.
Why does everyone but ministers and managers know this?
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Are Fewer Pupil Bunking Off, Really?

The DCSF has released school pupil absence data "presented as emerging findings (based on provisional data)" that seem to show slightly reduced unauthorised absence rates during the recent Spring Term, down to 1.00% from 1.06%. The reasons given for publishing emerging findings are "to help planning, to study trends and to monitor outcomes of initiatives and interventions on pupil attendance."

The data as presented, naturally, do not even remotely meet this worthy aim as they are collected together under a few broad headings. There is no attempt to report on any controlled tests of any of these initiatives, so no judgements can be made for them. But, surely, a drop in the gross absence figures should be welcomed?

No. Since the data is reported publicly on a school by school basis and included in the league tables, the collection of this data is contaminated. The data collectors, the schools themselves, benefit from improvements in the data, so small reported drops are just that. Reported. In a previous position I have myself been instructed by the headteacher to change absences marked in my form's register from unauthorised (i.e. skiving) to authorised, to make the school figures look better.

It is high time that government stopped measuring the education by measuring every student all the time. Any sensible industry would be making random samples for overall judgements: cheaper, reliable and immune to fiddling by schools.
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An Oil Bubble?

Politicians and commentators have been putting the rapid oil price rise of recent months down to supply limitation and increased demand from China, producing this from the Guardian two months ago:
Number 10 rejected the view that the huge oil price rise was due to speculation, saying that on the contrary the speculation was a function of signals by Opec, and the lack of balance between supply and demand.
and from the Telegraph :
Crude prices were pushed lower as the dollar strengthened and signs emerged that US fuel consumption is dropping. The debate on whether oil prices are likely to stay high permanently has heated up in recent weeks after the crude price broke the $135-a-barrel level for the first time.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs have forecast that the price could rise to $200 in coming years.
It's nice to know, then, that physicsists (especially econophysicists) have got a handle on the situation. Sornett et al reveal something different in an academic research paper lodged with the arXiv e-print archive a few days later, and discussed in the physics arXiv blog:
We present an analysis of oil prices in US$ and in other major currencies that diagnoses unsustainable faster-than-exponential behavior. This supports the hypothesis that the recent oil price run-up has been amplified by speculative behavior of the type found during a bubble-like expansion.
A rather striking graph is given which neatly predicts the recent sharp drop in oil prices. Not predicted by our own prime-ministerial economics expert, Gordan Brown.
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"A-level exams should start at Easter"

The Independent newspaper reported yesterday:
Bringing exams forward to Easter would restore the credibility of A-levels by allowing the brightest pupils to be selected for university places, according to Cambridge University's head of admissions.

Geoff Parks said A-levels should be completed by the end of the Easter term to allow all youngsters to get their results before they apply to university, rather than force admissions officers to rely on predicted grades.
Parks goes on to say that Universities cannot move their own term date back to make time for the post-results admission process, so schools must make the time for the marking and applications process.

The ATL has chipped in on the BBC with:
Four years ago an official report found that it would be fairer for pupils to have their A-level and other results before making university applications.

"Predicted exam grades are notoriously unreliable," said the ATL education union general secretary, Mary Bousted.
I can see the value of applying on the basis of final grades, but how will shortening A-Level courses in schools help students prepare for university? With much of January already lost to Unit exams and their associated preparation, the second year of A-Levels would have to be taught in little over half a year. This may not be a problem for independent schools that already have short terms and more resources, but state Sixth Forms will struggle.
One solution would be to increase the number of markers to speed up the whole process. Scrapping the Key Stage 3 SATs at age 14, or reducing them to smaller scale random sampling, will release lots of secondary school teachers to mark the time critical A-Level papers.

On the ATL comments, predicted grades, notoriously, do not correspond exactly to the final grades, but the exam grades are not very precise themselves, with a typical error margin of plus or minus a full grade. I see little evidence that grade predictions in themselves are less reliable as a measure of ability. Certainly, the fact that the two grades are not identical proves little about their relative merits.
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This weblog will explore my thoughts about the English education system, including curriculum, political and pedagogical issues, particularly around sixth-form teaching and especially Physics.
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