Rationalising Christmas and New Year

What exactly are we all celebrating? We stay up later than normal, flipping between lots of TV channels with little to watch (Jools' Annual Hootananny is not my thing), and drink several times what our Nanny Government says is a sensible limit. But only because one of the numbers in our Gregorian church calendar system goes up by one.

Now, years are natural units, based on measurements of the seasons or the stars, but the start of the calendar year is arbitrary, and depends on political and scriptural judgements in Rome over the last couple of millennia.

I agree that midwinter festival is good to have, to mark the passing of the darkest days, but we in the north already have one in Christmas, and it is midsummer for our upside-down friends in the southern hemisphere. So what are we celebrating on New Year's Eve, if not an even more wanton and self-centred version of Christmas, but with the present giving replaced by excessive drinking?

And having Christmas and New Year so close together also takes a whole week (or two) out of the economy and causes office discord in the annual rush for the key leave dates.

Moving Christmas to the Spring Equinox would solve a lot. It would give an excuse for the non-Christians to join in, and could be argued on Biblical grounds even if it would interfere with the dates of Easter — shepherds watch their flocks all night during lambing season, don't they? But I don't see the major Christian denominations agreeing to such a big change, even if it would leave New Year as the single centre of the midwinter festivities.

If the Spring Equinox Christmas is out, how about the Winter Solstice? It was origin of the current date of Christmas since the pagan celebration of Yule-Tide was held on the 25th December, the date of the Solstice in the old Julian Calendar. Looking around at the fashion for lighting up the outsides of houses with glowing Santas and moving, lit-up reindeer, most of the celebrations around this time of year are strictly secular already, so reuniting Yule and Christmas on the same day on the Solstice would fit the multicultural, inclusive theme of the last decade of insipid politics.

What to do with New Year, now that we have sorted Christmas? I'd move it to the Spring Equinox, when the weather is warm enough for me to want to go out in it. But I go out for a drink on the Equinox anyway, so why would I need a calendar justification? Let's just leave the New Year booze up when it is, so all the young partying types can go out by themselves and get cold and drunk, without expecting me to join in.

So I'll be sitting at home in front of the TV, flicking channels while the fireworks go off all evening, drinking some wine, looking forward to the longer and warmer days to come.


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Tories to Ease Physics Teacher Shortage, while TDA Says All is Rosy

Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove has said that a Conservative government will exempt good physics (and science and maths) graduates from student loan repayments if they go into teaching. The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), meanwhile, has muddied the waters by claiming to have exceeded its targets to recruit and train teachers for all main shortage specialisms.

The teacher training quango has managed to massage the teacher recruitment figures to disguise the shortage of physics teachers in schools, by failing to set a target for their recruitment. The TDA reported that “for the first time ever” recruitment to all main specialisms has exceeded their targets and that “a healthy supply of well-trained teachers is entering our classrooms.”

The total number of mainstream registrations of Science teachers did indeed rise, by 1%, from 3655 last year to 3701, although to claim that the target of just 3405 was exceeded “by as much as 9%” seems to be over-egging the results a little.

The key omission, though, is that there is no target for physics teachers at all! Their numbers declined from 584 last year to an estimated 571. Bang goes the government target of having physicists making up a quarter of all science teachers by 2012. With a quarter of current physics teachers already over 50 and keen to retire, this target looks as far away as ever.

(See here and here for my previous comments on physics teacher shortages and the solutions, and on Gordon Brown's pontifications here.)

The Conservatives, though, look like they at least recognise the seriousness of the problem.

In a speech to the Sir John Cass Foundation, Michael Gove said
“We will make a new offer to people - similar to something President Obama wants to do. If after leaving school someone decides to do a maths or science degree at a designated university, achieves a 2:1 or First, and decides to go into teaching, the taxpayer will cover their student loan repayments for as long as they remain in teaching (until the loan is fully paid).”
This could be worth £40k to a teacher whose pay cannot otherwise be increased beyond that offered to other, less scarce, specialisms.

The Institute of Physics has welcomed the initiative, noting that that
“Children in approximately 500 secondary schools across the country have no teachers with experience of physics beyond school.

“This means too many students being taught physics by teachers who may not even have taken the subject at A-level. How can students be inspired by teachers who themselves have no solid grasp of the subject?

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At Least I'm Not Bored!

I am up to my neck in coursework, annual appraisals, parents' evenings and open days, in one of those months that make up for the long lazy holidays. So it is nice to know that teachers are the least bored workers in the country, according to a three year old survey I just found (note to the TDA - your press releases are not getting much attention!).

While researchers are in sixth place in the boredom stakes and engineers only marginally better in eighth, teachers report the lowest amounts of boredom of all graduate professions.

The full list from the Training & Development Agency for Schools' Boredom Index:
  1. Administrative/secretarial (10 out of 10)
  2. Manufacturing
  3. Sales
  4. Marketing/advertising
  5. IT/telecommunications
  6. Science research/development
  7. Media
  8. Law
  9. Engineering
  10. Banking/finance
  11. Human resources
  12. Accountancy
  13. Hospitality/travel
  14. Healthcare
  15. Teaching (4 out of 10)
The press release adds:
When asked why they find their job interesting, 81 per cent of teachers questioned said it is the challenge of the role, 81 per cent because no two days are the same, and 86 per cent said they enjoy the interaction with people. Sixty-four per cent also rate the opportunity to use their creativity.

Employees surveyed say they are mainly bored because of the lack of challenge in their jobs (61 per cent), whilst not using their skills or their knowledge makes life tedious for 60 per cent. And boredom through doing the same things every day (50 per cent) is also to blame.
You might ask yourself how I found myself browsing through three year old press releases when I'm so busy …

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Two Cultures in New Science Map

Students can find it hard to know what areas of science are actively researched, especially since much of what is taught is so ancient and established (But Physics A Level now has a token Quantum Physics section, and that's less than a hundred years old!). A new study may help.

The PLoS ONE online journal has a paper presenting a map constructed from over a billion user interactions logged by journals' web portals (so-called clickstream data). The result is a beautiful whirlpool shaped image, showing the links between different research areas throughout the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

click to go to a large versionClick to go to the larger version.

There is a worryingly large gap between the sciences and the humanities; Snow's Two Cultures are alive and well worldwide, and not just in Britain, since the data used is global. The Royal Institution is holding a lecture this week entitled CP Snow's 'Two cultures': 50 years of debate. Bath psychologist Professor Helen Hast will “explore the paradoxes of "value freedom" within such a highly morally-charged perception of both the pursuit and purposes of science - and some resistances to it.”

The RI page for the talk says that the is good availability for tickets. Quite so.

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Claims of HIV Vaccine Success are Premature

HIV vaccine
The excitement is palpable — the vaccine that nobody thought would work “appeared to lower the rate of HIV infection by 31.2 percent compared to placebo ”, according to the press release, although printing all three significant figures sets my inner sceptic on edge.

The BBC story improved things marginally, reporting a rounded percentage:
“Scientists announced last month that a combination of vaccines gave a 31% level of protection in trials among 16,000 heterosexuals aged 18-30.
Doubts had been raised about whether the finding was significant.
But new data published at a conference in Paris indicates that, while small scale, the findings are robust and statistically significant.”
Exciting, but while statistically significant sounds very scientific and reliable (the results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) no less), the journalists should have read the report itself. The figures reveal a little sleight of hand.

The study randomised over 16 000 people to either the vaccine program or a placebo, with none of the participants knowing what they had (a double blind trial — the best sort). The randomisation here is key, as the study was rather underpowered and was only likely to produce a marginal result at best, and any deviation from this randomisation may have introduced biases that were hard to spot.

The researchers actually carried out three statistical tests on the data from the trial: intention to treat (ITT), per-protocol and modified intention to treat (mITT) analyses. The first two look at those participants who were enrolled (ITT) or completed the treatments (per-protocol), and so preserve the randomisation of patients. These both failed to show a statistically significant benefit from the vaccine.

The mITT process removed several people from the analysis, both breaking the randomisation and producing a statistically significant result. This might have been useful if the vaccine had a clear benefit, but the published benefit was not 31.2% exactly. Rather the confidence interval for the benefit (the range in which the researchers were confident that the true benefit figure lay) was 1%-52%, with the lower bound only staying positive because of the arbitrary choice of 95% confidence intervals chosen by statisticians over the years.

With the two tests that avoided the possibility of bias getting ignored by the press (since they didn't make the press release), and the remaining result showing that the vaccine could have had no actual benefit, the publicity seems a little unjustified.

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Has Teacher Pay Really Improved Under Labour?

With the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, signalling a public sector pay squeeze, and the ever more political and activist head of the Audit Commission quango, Steve Bundred, recommending a pay freeze as “a pain-free way of cutting public spending, it is worth looking at the figures to see how much teachers have really benefited from government largess during the boom years.

The answer, in case you don't want to read to the bottom to see the graph, is not at all!

Bundred wrote in the Observer last Sunday:
“let's dismiss the notion that spending on health and education will be protected. There are good reasons why they won't and shouldn't. One is that, at a time when inflation is likely to be between 2% and 3%, a pain-free way of cutting public spending would be to freeze public sector pay, or at least impose severe pay restraint. This is especially true if real wages in the private sector are still falling.”
adding a political stance with:
“Health and education will not be immune from pay restraint, partly for reasons of fairness to others, … and also because ministers will correctly assume that as public sector workers have done well over the past decade, they will tolerate some modest real reduction in earnings.”
This is misleading in two ways.

Wages Are Not Falling

First, although pay growth has slowed, wages are not falling. As Ken Mulkearn of Incomes Data Services wrote in the Guardian, the reported negative private sector pay awards are skewed largely by the loss of bonuses in banking:
“The data for April 2009, using figures not seasonally adjusted and excluding bonuses, shows earnings growth of 2.5% in the private sector and 3.3% in the public sector, consistent with IDS research on pay settlements. In the private sector, the official figures show manufacturing (where most freezes are) at 1% and private services at 2.9%.”

Teachers Have Not Seen Pay Rise

Second, teachers have not done well out of the last decade, despite repeated claims from ministers and the uncritical acceptance of this factoid in the media. The graph shows an index of how (sixth form) teacher pay, which has been largely pegged to school teacher rates, has increased compared to the All Items Retail Prices Index. I start at 2001 as that is the earliest data I can find from the teacher union websites.Clearly, our pay moved ahead of inflation for the first couple of years, but since 2004 there has been steady slide. Not bad, but we've hardly “done well over the past decade”

What? Ministers are Being Deceitful?

Now, I don't mind joining in on a general belt-tightening, but at least I would like my pain to be recognised — I can't bear to have the millionaire ministers looking down their patrician noses at me, feeding me lies about my own pay and telling me that I should be grateful to have had it so good.

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How to Choose a School

Once upon a time, secondary schools had catchment areas and feeder primary and middle schools. The parents' role was simply to aid the transition and buy a new uniform and pencil set. Life was simple. But not now.

There is a bewildering range of information available about schools, from the percentage of GCSE A* to C to the school's Index of Multiple Deprivation and Free School Meals, as well as the Open Day visits. However, the complexity of the data masks the main truth that the story it tells is simple and not so hard to judge.

It boils down to this: will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?

League Tables

First, the league table figures you see in the broadsheet newspapers are easy for schools to massage, and they rarely tell you anything you didn't know any way.

Everything from entering pupils into easy online IT course and vocational BTEC subjects, officially worth several grade C GCSEs each but with a much reduced challenge, through to picking out a couple of dozen lazy grade D boys and squeezing them until the pips squeak and they get a clutch of grade Cs. Coursework regulations, intended to ensure that only a pupil's own work is submitted, are routinely ignored, with substandard work repeatedly marked and returned until it is good enough. Schools will even switch exam boards to chase those examiners that 'grade high', often following the appointment of a new head teacher looking to quickly make their mark.

These dodgy practices are sometimes apparent in the figures as a series of sudden jumps in the A* to C rates, as each new trick comes online, when even brilliant changes should take some time to feed through as new pupils move up the school with a new system.

A Social Measure

The league tables do, however, tell you much about the economic background of the families whose children make up a school's population. If you compare the league table with the ranking according to the government's Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), you find they measure substantially the same thing. A school high in one list will be low in the other. (For those interested, the rank correlation is around -0.75, at least in my county). The IMD accounts for around half of all the differences between schools in the tables, which makes it a more important measure than any other single factor.

So league table position, GCSE A* to Cs, and all that complex data tell you little more than you could find out from parking near the school and watching the children as they pile out at the end of the day. Posh or rough? And if you are applying to local schools, then you already know their social make-up.

Ignore the Flashy Talk

Ignore the head teachers' Powerpoint presentations, where they tell you that the school is more than just a few numbers but here they are anyway, and go on a tour around the school. (However, a really poor presentation can tell you something about their attention to details.) Talk to the tour guide and talk to pupils you find in the corridor. Peer into any classroom with the door closed, and see what the children are doing when they think they're not being watched. Talk to the teachers, but not about the school, since they will be on their best behaviour and supporting their employer — ask them about themselves and their job. Teachers spend their days talking, so get them talking about their days and experiences and be interested in them. Are they at home and comfortable in their jobs, do they travel for to be here, and do their own children attend the same school?


The league table position tells you how the school did with the mix of children they had, but it tells you little about how your child will do. So the real question is: can you see your own child fitting in with the children you have seen there?

It is not the prefects who showed you round you should be watching, who really ought to be smart, but the surly ones who've found their way to the corner on the back row of the class. There will always be some, but if there is more that a few in each room the teachers' jobs become much harder and the easy children get less of the teachers' attention.

The task of choosing a secondary school has become very complex if all the school gate discussions are to be believed. But, in reality, the judgement to be be made can be made without reference to all that conflicting and compromised data $mdash; just try to picture your child in amongst those who you see in the classrooms and corridors.

Will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?

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On Keeping Gimmicks Out of the Classroom

David Griffiths, Reed PhysicistHaving resisted all manner of education gimmicks and fashions that have been thrust at me by well meaning college managers, it was refreshing to read the latest piece written by renowned undergraduate textbook writer and educator, David Griffiths. Published in the IoP magazine Physics World, Griffiths reminds us that Physics sells itself to students if presented honestly:
“Physics teachers are fortunate (I am among friends, so I can speak frankly): ours is a subject the relevance and importance of which are beyond question, and which is intrinsically fascinating to anyone whose mind has not been corrupted by bad teaching or poisoned by dogma and superstition. I have never felt the need to "sell" physics, and efforts to do so under the banner "physics is fun" seem to me demeaning. Lay out our wares attractively in the marketplace of ideas and eager buyers will flock to us.
“What we have on offer is nothing less than an explanation of how matter behaves on the most fundamental level. It is a story that is magnificent (by good fortune or divine benevolence), coherent (at least that is the goal), plausible (though far from obvious) and true (that is the most remarkable thing about it). It is imperfect and unfinished (of course), but always improving. It is, moreover, amazingly powerful and extraordinarily useful. Our job is to tell this story – even, if we are lucky, to add a sentence or a paragraph to it. And why not tell it with style and grace?”
He goes on to criticise the gimmickry that is supposed to gain better attention from students. He has this to say about the advent of flash cards and electronic clickers:
“They can be powerfully effective in the hands of an inspired expert like Mazur, but I have seen them reduced to distracting gimmicks by less-capable instructors. What concerns me, however, is the unspoken message reliance on such devices may convey: (1) this stuff is boring; and (2) I cannot rely on you to pay attention. Now, point (2) may be valid, but point (1) is so utterly and perniciously false that one should, in my view, avoid anything that is even remotely open to such an interpretation.”
The point is made that any new approach to teaching will produce measurable improvements, but only because of the enthusiasm of the practitioner. Infectious enthusiasm is most likely the key, and not all teachers have that, so maybe the gadgets help these classes. But I'm not convinced.

Griffiths was known as a great lecturer and scorned such fashions. You can hear one of his lectures here, audio only, though, without the luxury of visuals.

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Boys' Results Improve Now Maths Coursework is Scrapped

When GCSEs were introduced two decades ago, one of the aims was to help girls catch up with boys in exams. The plan was a classic case of unintended consequences: the requirement for GCSEs to be graded with at least a quarter of the points from coursework has resulted in girls being awarded higher grades across the board.

Although boys and their lack of conformity in the classroom attracted the blame for their deteriorating grades by the feminised teaching profession, the truth is out: boys can doing better than girls. In Mathematics boys are now outperforming girls in all the higher grades.

So what has driven up their scores? Extra relevance of lessons? Better teacher training and school discipline structures? Lessons moved to inner city football clubs or fishing trips for malcontents?

The solution has been obvious for ten years, but has only been implemented because it has become obviouse that work completed at home was open to widespread plagiarism. It has worked for Mathematics GCSE as well as all the International Baccalaureat courses. What is holding the government up from rolling this great innovation to all subjects?

Or the QCA could allow schools to offer the IB and let market forces choose.

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A Level Results will bring Clearing Heartache

Results day is nearly on us, but those unfortunate students who miss their offer grades will have fewer options than usual this year. There is more competition, and even the standard fallback, clearing, will not have many course places to offer.

For a quick assessment of the regular effects of this silliest part of the silly season on teachers check last year's post on the matter (the newspapers will just roll out the same stories anyway). This post will focus instead on the students.

This Year is Different

This year is different for anyone biting their nails waiting for Thursday's results, because of the combined effects of three government policies:
  • One is the often discussed grade inflation, which leads ever larger proportions of the school population to feel they have what it takes to succeed at university, and allows the government to claim standards are improving.
  • The second is the lack of funding to cover the extra costs to institutions of teaching the increasing numbers of undergraduates.
  • And the third is that, for the first time in fifteen years, universities will be financially penalised if they over-recruit.

Traditionally, students' applications to universities are based on the school predicted grades, which are inflated to improve the chance of an offer. It is not as risky as it sounds, since universities routinely allow students who only miss their offer by one grade to still keep their place. And everyone does it, making it fair, at least. And if they missed out, then last year 44 000 applied for course during Clearing, filling up the remaining university places.

Fewer Places

But now, with 40 000 extra applications and only 3 000 extra places, Clearing will only have around 16 000 places on offer, leaving 65 000 hopeful students without a place. And with a demographic peak reaching college in the next year or two, taking a year out and applying again next year is now looking to be a silly strategy.

One could hope that the main effect of all this is that only those students with poor grades applying to weaker institutions will suffer, but many students are unrealistic when it comes to selecting competitive courses at prestigious universities.


Admissions officers are saying they will not allow any 'softening' of offers, so missing one A level subject by one grade will lead to a rejection. Even our local ex-teacher-training college-now-university will not soften requirements or offer places for clearing on any but the two most frivolous courses.

The next couple of weeks look likely to deliver heartache on a large scale.

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NASA's LRO Spots Apollo Landing Sites

Wow, what a set of images! Come on Moon Hoax types, put this in your pipe and smoke it. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken some great images of the Moon's surface during its commissioning phase. Resolution will improve in the near future as the orbit is lowered to its mapping altitude and the Sun rises higher to improve the signal, but even so you can see the landers, instruments left behind and tracks in the dust.

It won't persuade the dyed-in-the-wool deniers, but will be useful in turning students away from the dark side, having been left hanging by a naïve treatment in history lessons.
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Pay Offer to be Staged

I've just seen the new pay deal offered by sixth form colleges, and it wasn't what I expected. The pattern for the last few years is to match school teachers, who have been offered a 2.3% rise in September. The deal for college teachers is 1% in September rising to 2.3% in April.

This will be tricky for the unions in the current climate. With many in the private sector having pay cuts or job cuts and the government briefing the press that the public sector has done well in recent years, few teachers will have the stomach for a fight. But teacher pay has risen below inflation for a while now and has fallen 10% compared with other service sector employees in the last five years.

College funding is rising this year faster than student numbers, and there is money in the coffers to pay the award in full, so expect the unions to make plenty of noise over the next few weeks. Last year's increase was delayed until the new year due to wrangles between the staff side and the employers — looks like we'll be waiting a long time for a resolution again.

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Why Are Lying Parents Socially Acceptable?

Listening to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 this week, I was surprised by the panellists' response to a question from the audience about parents who lie on school application forms. It followed the case of Mrinal Patel, who was accused by her council of fraudulently filling in an application for an over-subscribed primary school.

The panel, comic Will Self, columnist Rod Liddle and a couple of historians, all seemed to approve of parents who are economical with the truth because any good parent will do anything for the kids. Since when has the responsibility to push your offspring further and higher trumped any objection to being a deceitful two-faced liar?

Desirable school places are a limited resource - it is a zero sum game. What one parents gains from underhand behaviour, another will lose from following the rules, and this is an objectionable and immoral position to take. Claiming to be doing it for your child is a cop out - next we'll hear the great and the good on the wireless smugly claiming that they jump the queues at Tesco and Disneyland rides for the kids.

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AQA GCSE: Physics Without Physics

Last week England's largest exam board issued a Physics GCSE paper, aimed at our brightest youngsters, that required no mathematical calculations. Last year's GCSE Physics papers prompted the Qualifications and Curricculum Authority (QCA) to rule that Physics papers were not sufficiently challenging, but AQA has sunk to a new low.

The paper was the P3 Higher Tier one, so a series of conceptual deductions, calculations, simple algebra and graph interpretation would have been expected, but thousands of pupils were surprised by the disappearance from the exam of the bulk of what they had struggled to learn.

The anonymous quote about the three levels of Physics has finally become complete, officially:
There are three levels of Physics courses: Physics with calculus, Physics without calculus and Physics without Physics.
A paper made up from simplistic sequencing and qualitative statement questions is not suitable for bright or even average students, who were disappointed that they were not to be properly tested after all their rigorous preparation.

We need a new generation of scientists and engineers, but they will not be challenged or tempted by the new and 'accessable' Physics Without Physics GCSE courses on offer.

Who are these courses now aimed at? The maths-phobic or the future core of a technological society?
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NUS Now Favours a Graduate Tax

The National Union of Students (NUS) has long campaigned for a university education completely funded by the state and for a return of the system of grants to cover living expenses, so the announcement of their future funding proposals comes as a bit of a shock.

Wes Streeting, the NUS president, had been under pressure to suggest an alternative to the current system of loans to pay for the fees, which start to be paid back when a graduate passes an earning threshold. He describes the proposals an 'not a simple graduate tax', and he is right - it is not simple.

Instead of a flat rate, the NUS plan has a sliding scale of tax, ranging from 0.3% to 3% depending on earnings. Wes says that this is needed to ensure that those who benefit most from their education pay back most.
There is also a system to encourage companies to pay some of the debt for employees.

I think that he has missed the meaning of 'percent', in that a single flat rate ensures that those earning more pay more. The sliding scale is a nakedly redistributive tax measure. In the NUS's words, though, it is 'progressive'.

The main motivation for the NUS funding suggestions is the pressure from the top research universities to raise the maximum fees charge from 3000 to at least 5000 pounds per year. These universities offer more of the expensive laboratory based courses than the newer institutions and are struggling to fund them. One solution is to recruit even more foreign students, who pay a much larger market rate for their studies, but local students are missing out on places.

Wes Streeting does not want an education market, but with more demand for top courses than places, something has to be done. But why should someone with two Es at A Level, studying an endemanding course at a undistinguished local college pay the same as someone studying Engineering at Cambridge?

A well educated and motivated graduate will benefit from their education, although it is their character and abilities as much as their qualifications that determines their level of career success. With the existing income tax system the Treasure already shares in the success of the best and most employable graduates. If you earn more then you pay more tax.

What is the reason for a punitive graduate tax that seeks to milk those deemed to have a privileged education, who will already be paying a higher rate of tax than others?

Coming from student political hacks, one might suggest it is just the standard class envy of the jealous young socialist. A detail from the NUS proposals that supports this guess is the limit on paying for the cost of your education if you can afford it. Wealthy families who would be happy to completely fund a course will be prevented from paying more than a small percentage, since it is these graduates who will be paying way over the odds for twenty years and funding those on lightweight courses who will never be taxed enough to cover the cost of their education.

It is nice to see the NUS abandoning one of its cherished policies, but this proposal offers more light on the proposers than on future university funding structures.

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Ofsted to Control Home Educators

The government intends to extend its close control of day-to-day activities of schools to include inspecting the education provided by home educating parents.

As wth much of government policy, the pretext given is reasonable - to make sure that children not going to school are given the same protection due from the Every Child Matters agenda. Some ministers seem to suspect that home education can be a cover for child abuse or forced marriage, even there is little evidence this is the case, and the main abuse story right now is the conviction of a worker at an Ofsted inspected nursery school.

But does this fear require an Ofsted inspection, with all the political encumberances and demands? School inspections long ago changed from a supportive overview from education experts to a dogma ridden tool of control.

Parents are entitled to educate their children however they wish, without state interference. They even have the right to make a complete hash of it, as many do from my experience of trying to teach their offspring when they have outgrown their home studies.

Ofsted will pressurise and threaten parents as they do with schools, and the role will inevitable evolve to demand specific activities and curricula. Several European countries have already banned home schooling, and inspections would be the first step to declaring that the rights of children to a decent education are being violated.

Councils are already responsible for ensuring that children taken out of schools are receiving an education - the switch to using Ofsted will be the beginning of the end of the right for parents to educate their children as they see fit.

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College Building Programme Saga Continues

The LSC, the government funding body for Sixth Form Colleges, has written to college principles this week to admit that they have messed up again.

In April this year, they wrote to say that the few successful projects from the mishandled multi-billion pound college rebuilding programme would be selected and announced on June 3rd (today). The main criterion they had hoped to use was a readiness to start building within weeks, assuming that most projects would fail to jump this hurdle. Now the LSC admits that they had seriously underestimated the numbers that would succeed, and will not be able to make a decision this month:
“Many more colleges have put forward a case for their projects to be considered as 'shovel ready' than expected, and so unfortunately we are not in a position to ask the Council on 3 June to approve individual projects.”
Most of these project have started to build already or could do so by September, so this is already cutting it a bit fine for instructing the contractors.

So, to further cull projects, the suggestion is now to pressurise colleges to cut corners on their plans:
“The challenge for colleges will therefore be to radically reduce the cost and the scope and sourcing of the funding of their projects. Revisions to the scope of projects could include rethinking or deferring whole projects, or components of projects, in favour of a contribution to costs incurred to date and/or funds for refurbishment. We will only consider funding complete re-builds where they are absolutely necessary, which should be in only a few cases.”
And although not wanting to rush anyone into any rash changes:
“We will expect all colleges on the short list to come back with revised bids and plans by the end of the month …”
The other selection criteria suggested will favour urban regeneration and poor inner-city areas, so there seems little chance for my college's project to get the nod. It is a complete rebuild in a provincial Sussex town, and although we currently squeeze 1500 students into what was, half a century ago, built as a 600 pupil boys' high school, I don't see us getting very far up the list.

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Who Gets Education in the Cabinet Reshuffle?

With the Labour Party likely to get massacred in Thursday's European and county elections, the Prime Minister is expected to radically overhaul his cabinet.

The good news seems to be that the Ministry for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) will be rid of Ed Balls, who as Secretary of State has presided over the college funding debacle and its 2.5 billion pound black hole. The bad news is that it sounds like this financial genius is heading for the Treasury as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Another worry is that we will get our seventh Labour minister in charge of education in twelve years (test yourself, can you name them all?) It could be argued that Balls, and the others failed to get to grips with such a large department's activities, not just because he was only ever interested in promotion, but because no-one stays in post for long enough to understand the job.

And looking around at the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is hard to see who could do the job, hasn't done it already before moving quickly on and has avoided making injudicious expenses claims.

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Diplomas: Heading for the Vocational Course Graveyard

Vocational education in this country has always been rather undervalued, but this is not due to a lack of public interest. Less academic pupils have flocked initially to each new course, encouraged by schools who find them hard to manage in the more traditional subjects. But each has failed in its turn due to political interference and the support of left leaning staff in university education departments.

The new Diplomas will go the same way unless the lessons of history are learned by the government very soon.

First Up — the GCSE

The first big attempt at gaining the parity of esteem for those who were directed towards the less challenging CSEs was abolishing them along with the respected O Level courses and replacing them with the GCSE. These courses removed the stigma of CSEs, which had less emphasis on knowledge, but introduced the worthless F and G pass grades. The last twenty years has seen some improvements in teaching standards, but there has been much sliding in examination standards to produce an endless increase in the average grades awarded to allow weaker and weaker pupils to be gifted the prize of 'good' C grades.

But of course, the big failure of GCSEs was to abandon the skills base of CSEs. The academic content of O Levels was extended to all pupils, regardless of ability, in a vain attempt to prove that all could match what had been restricted to the brightest children. The weakness of this socialist fallacy, that differences between people are imposed from without and weak pupils are weak due to schools' low expectations of poor working class children, is that there is no one course that is suitable for all children.

This has always been accepted in the fields of sports and music, where talented children are taken and trained separately, but has been rejected for History and Mathematics. I'm not suggesting that maths whizzes are given one-to-one lessons away from their peers, just that it is not outrageous to suggest that schooling should recognise differing levels of talent by offering more tailored courses.

Next — GNVQs

More recently, the General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) was introduced to allow an option for pupils to follow a skills based course that was (another bugbear!) more focussed on life and job skills. All well and good, the English education sector had been calling out for such an approach for those teenagers who did not benefit awfully well from the academic O-Levels and GCSEs.

However, the politicians got to them first, requiring the exam boards to design into them a knowledge component comparable to existing courses, to avoid the press frenzy of "dumbing down" headlines. And with the facts and theories to learn there came the inevitable formal assessment of that knowledge in exams.

The poor children never stood a chance, since those that schools directed onto these courses had always failed exams. The only solution for the exam boards was to water down the rigor of the exams - dumbing down happened anyway, but the courses became less and less popular with students. Schools loved them, because GNVQs were so easy to pass those schools who enrolled most onto the courses did best in the exam 'league tables'.

Now Diplomas

Now we have the latest incarnation of the vocational option. Will it fare any better that the earlier attempts?

If they are to succeed they must be properly designed, with time allowed to review and redesign them. But the timetable has political significance, and the full roll-out must follow immediately from the trials, with final materials in teachers hands before they are actually completed. Government ministers should allow the course designers to make the detailed content design decisions without anyone looking over their shoulders.

And critically, must not try to reach too diverse a group of pupils, although the Advanced Science Diploma already seems to be aimed at all from future laboratory assistants to future Nobel Prize winners. There is a very good argument for having a separate course for those anticipating going on to science-based degrees. Having one course with multiple routes through will cause confusion and damage the qualification's credibility.

The introductory version of the Science Diploma does not have a clear target group either — is it aimed at being a taster for those who might like to enter science based industries, or should it be a first step up the ladder for those who are capable of higher level study? It can't do both.

Parity of Esteem Cannot be Mandated

The government has already delayed the introduction of the Advanced Science Diploma by a year, citing development difficulties, but the problems are likely to be intractable if they insist on one science course for all. If they don't pay heed to the science community the Diplomas will follow the CSE, GCSE and GNVQ to a long drawn out death.

Parity of esteem can only be gained for academic and vocational routes through having high quality courses. Mandating parity by blurring the distinctions is bound to fail.

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Budget Helps Ease College Funding Crisis

Ed Balls has had the Treasury go over his head and reallocate money to ease the Sixth Form funding disaster.

In two separate incidents, the quango LSC which funds Colleges managed to press the wrong button on its calculator (see College Building Program Halted and College Funding Balls Up pt 2.), but while the responsible minister, Balls, was unable to plug the gap, the Chancellor announced in yesterday's Budget that £650 million extra was going towards funding student places. A small amount of money is also to be found to allow a few of the most urgent college rebuilding programs to go ahead.

This cash is to come from £650 million of efficiency savings in the 2010/11 DCSF budget, apparently, despite the government's lamentable record on reducing budgets during previous bouts of saving.
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NUT SATs Ballot

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has voted to scupper the SAT exams for eleven-year-olds this year, but it won't produce the renaissance in teaching they expect.

It is the teaching union silly season, and time for their AGMs. There is normally a flurry of embarrassing quotes from representatives that are quickly ignored, but this week a substantial motion has been passed by the largest union, the NUT. They have decided to ballot members for industrial action to disrupt the national assessment of seven- and eleven-year-olds (Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs), taking advantage of the recent collapse of the Key Stage 3 assessments and the dithering of the government minister Ed Balls.

Teachers generally dislike these assessments as they are unreliable and used for annual teacher appraisals, and now seems like the best chance in years to force a weak government to abandon them.

The massive expansion of national exams over the last decade or so, fed by the movement to modular exams that can be retaken an unlimited number of times at GCSE and A Level, along with the SATs (the National Curriculum Tests at ages 7, 11 and 14), has overloaded the exam boards' marking systems. There are simply not enough markers in the country to process all the papers. This caused the collapse of the Key Stage 3 exams last year, and has caused this year's results to be posted later than ever before, and appeals are expected to flood in shortly afterwards due to quality control problems, especially for the English assessments.

I have posted before that these tests have become too ‘high stakes’ to be useful and national standards should be assessed in other ways, but the NUT is not keen on developing a decent assessment system. They just want to be rid of the SATs.


Their real problem, so they say, is that the pressure placed on pupils in the run-up to the tests is too great. Primary school children spend much of Year 6 preparing, practising the tests and taking test questions away to do for homework. Every child is given targets couched in the assessment language ('I'm now at level 3B for Writing, and I am aiming for a level 4C' the pupils will repeat) and the school inspectors check that pupils are aware of them.

True, the pressures are ridiculously high, and teaching to the test is so endemic that to suggest anything different to any teacher younger than 40 will get you a confused look. It is also true that the government has set up the system to be like this, despite their protestations of innocence, but the Union is picking on the wrong target deliberately, hoping that no-one will question their members' complicity in the whole affair.

Act Professionally

The teachers have a great deal of freedom in how they manage their classrooms day-to-day. If they do not want to pressure their charges then they should stop talking up the exams all the time. They should stop teaching to the tests and setting questions from previous years' papers, and they should certainly stop running the government funded 'Booster Sessions' - additional revision work for those poor souls deemed to be close enough to the pass level that they can be artificially pushed over the line with some special attention and pressure.

Instead of declaring the tests 'harmful' to pupils, the NUT ought to just tell their members to stop squeezing the last drop of exam performance from their classes simply to gain better pass figures for their annual appraisals and a higher league table position for their school. If the teaching unions want teaching to be treated as a profession, then professional behaviour must be encouraged. All the while teachers put ratings ahead of education their motives will be suspect.

Teaching Renaissance,

If teaching to the test stopped, whether by scrapping the tests or by teachers taking control of their classrooms, then, the unions say, the curriculum will become broader and children will have a better experience. But they are mistaken. Even if the test went, the skills of teachers to plan their own programmes of study have so withered that most teachers would not know what to do with the extra term of teaching. What would they do with no exam to prepare for? How would they know what skills to develop and knowledge to learn if it is not written down in great detail by the government?

'It's not in the test!'

When the SATs were first introduced, teachers had some idea of what schooling was for, some philosophy of education. But over the years those teachers have retired and the younger ones have only known teaching for national assessments. Those few who dare to go beyond the minimum entitlement laid down in the National Curriculum, following their pupil interest or their own enthusiasms, have been slapped down by managers with the immortal lines:
'What are you teaching that for - it's not in the test!'
The English teaching 'profession' has become so de-skilled that if the tests disappeared nothing would really change. If the prison doors were flung open tomorrow, most teachers would be too frightened of the freedom to go out into the daylight, doomed to pace around the same familiar cell.

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College Funding Balls Up, part 2

The college building programme, a desperately needed 2.7 billion pound project to replace crumbling and cramped buildings country-wide, has actually only got 110 million pounds to spend, according to the Prime Minister when questioned by a Member of Parliament. The whole national programme, then, could just afford to pay for the two Worthing rebuilds when there are 136 projects around the country on hold.

The Learning Support Council (LSC) funding story has descended into farce since I posted about the first problem a few weeks ago.

Many colleges have already spent up to 2 million pounds on the detailed planning provisions and face going bust if the projects cannot go ahead in the autumn as planned.

And then the LSC writes to every college in the country to confirm next year's budgets, allowing the recruitment to increase student numbers, only to decide later that they meant to say that these were provisional budgets, which will have to be reduced by 100 million pounds. With some colleges losing up to 250 thousand pounds from next year's accounts, redundancies look likely. Having built up expectations for college buildings that are fit to learn in (my college has 1600 students in what used to be a 600 boy middle-school), and emphasising the need for an expansion of education in a recession, the minister Ed Balls has messed up again. The head of the LSC has resigned, but Balls remains Teflon coated.

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Physics Exams Too Easy, Says Ofqual

Ofqual, the newly formed watchdog for exam standards, has assessed a variety of GCSE and A Level course assessments, and Physics has been found wanting. The grades awarded have been too high for the understanding demonstrated in the exams and there are now students on A Level courses who have an inflated expectation of grades in the summer. Some are in reality so poor they are unlikely to pass.

Despite repeated ministerial assurances that standard have not slipped, it seem that there is less demand in the 2007 Physics GCSE papers than in 2002. Even the head of Ofqual, Ms Tattersall, said in the autumn that she was confident that there had been no dumbing down, but she did what politicians never seem to do — she commissioned research to check. And the first research was published on Friday.

The Findings

It turns out that at the key grades of A and B candidates do not need to perform as well now as they did in the past. The level of challenge is less because the questions require lower order thinking skills, and in many cases can be answered without any Physics knowledge. There is also a greater reliance on objective type (multiple choice) questions.

Of course, this is no surprise to anyone who has been following the constant flow of independent research on the issue, especially from Prof Smithers and co at Buckingham University. Jim Knight, who has consistently ignored this research, claiming that inflating grades were solely due to the fact that the nations students and teachers were the best we've ever had, will find it harder to ignore the Ofqual findings. He had a letter on Thursday warning him what had been found, and he has kept his head down since.

Solutions and Problems

The exam boards have been instructed to change the exams to make them more challenging for this summer, stop awarding marks to incorrect answers and retrain their exam writers, but it is quite short notice.

In any case, they can't change much because there can't be allowed a sudden change in pass rates. So the easy questions get made more challenging, but the pass marks get lowered to compensate. Ofqual gets a rosy glow of self congratulation. The government takes the credit for a system well managed. And the more things change the more they stay the same.

Especially for the students.

Unrealistic Targets

A Level Physics has been largely consistent in its challenge, so the problem moves onto the Sixth Forms. The difficulty is that entry onto A Levels depends on GCSE grades, for Physics that means GCSE Physics and Maths. If the requirement is a grade C in Physics (or Science, which uses the same Physics papers that were assessed in the report) then we are allowing weaker students onto the course than in the past if those grades are less of a challenge.

And those students are given target grades based on what previous students with the same grades achieved in the past, and if standards are not consistent then those targets will become progressively less achievable. Targets must be reasonable if they are to serve any proper purpose, such as for motivating the students into some action after exams, or for assessing the performance of the teachers.

Already the system is being subverted in colleges. If a student meets the minimum GCSE requirements for a course (in the case of Physics at my college, it is five grade Cs or better, including a B in Maths and C in Science or Physics) then they are enrolled. A grade prediction is generated based on the mean GCSE grade, and a bit is added for encouragement. However, some students would get a prediction of a grade U (a fail), so these are changed to grade E+. It wouldn't do to let the student know that 90% of students entering with the same GCSE grade failed the course, would it?

The students of course, ignorant of the amount of effort needed just to pass, carry on in the time honoured way of just attending the lessons and doing no study. Until the day the first exam results arrive, they blunder on hoping that the class tests were wrong. When the 'fail' slip arrives, there is disbelief. They were let on the course, so they must be clever —how could they fail?

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The Doomed War on Fatties

The government's War on Fatties is doomed to failure because it is focused on the wrong issues.

People have poor diets for all sorts of psychological, social and financial reasons, but I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that inactivity and a diet of chocolate bars, crisps and chips is actually good for your health. Yet the government insists that re-education is the solution, and all would be thin if only the fatties would listen to them.

Especially the children — if only the government could get to them before their parents taught them bad habits.

So it becomes another job for schools.

Schools — The Universal Solution

So now children come home from primary school full of the official dogma, pointing out bad foods on their dinner plates, and waving a letter offering detail of the next fitness challenge. Sports days have lost any element of fun and competition, to be replaced by anodyne keep fit activities. Teachers even police lunch boxes to confiscate contraband. Everything in their young lives revolves, now, around their body image and health.

When our TV screens are full of anorexic presenters, and chubby politicians admit to being bulimic, shouldn't we be trying to steer youngsters away from an obsession with healthy living, and towards living their lives?

It Won't Work

Apart from the fitness freaks, people will do what they enjoy and eat what they like. If they enjoy eating good food and can cook it, then a better diet will be the likely outcome. If boys learn to enjoy competetive sports, and are allowed to win and lose, then the will develop character and fitness. And girls should be encouraged to dance, sing, ride if they don't like school team sports. Not for the shallow health benefit and being seen to meet a policy activity target, but because it is good to develop interests beyond the National Curriculum.

Teach children cookery instead of menu planning in Food Technology lessons. Make sports days competetive, teach children how to win and lose gracefully, show them the value of delayed gratification and the value of persistance and extended effort and teamwork.

We are sacrificing all those childhood opportunities, for building resilient and confident characters, on the altar of healthy living.

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Problems Communicating With: Students

Students and I very often have different conceptions of what Sixth Form study is about.

In my mind it is about getting to grips with a subject at a conceptual level, understanding the links and implications, and learning enough facts and skills to be able to be able to demonstrate that understanding.

The bulk of my students naturally see the lessons and exams as tasks to complete with as little effort as possible. I say naturally, because that is how they have been trained for years to see their education: bite-sized chunks to reproduce in modularised exams since primary school, ideas that are so simple that a bright pupil can learn without any effort and a less bright one by rote memorisation. These students who have made it onto my Physics course have been successful in that environment, and it is often hard for them to adapt to the holistic demands of A level that are more suited to their abilities as clever sixteen-year-olds.

The Paradox of Hard Work

The biggest problem I find with students is not that, under pressure for the first time, they don't work, but that they don't make the effort to learn. I get asked by parents why their child is not getting the grade As in A level that they got at GCSE the year or two before. Their child, they tell me, is spending hours working at home to improve their performance, downloading past papers from the exam board and doing more and more exam practice.

The reason, perhaps, is that they have been spoiled. All their teachers for the previous three years were working under the Damocles Sword of national exams, the results of which are naively used to rank schools, and to judge whether teachers deserve their annual pay rise. Many (but by no means all — a topic for a future post) know that teaching the subject is the best way to produce deep learning. But everyone ends up teaching to the test, with weeks to months every year taken up with exam practice and mock exams. There are exam papers for homework and past exam questions for revision exercises and class tests.

Eat, drink and breathe the exams. Technique is everything.

So of course, in my classes, the first time a topic gets difficult, students resort to one of three actions: conscientious study; blinkers or extreme hope.

Conscientious Study

The recommended route to success. It involves a full commitment to learning what is taught and thinking about it in a structured way, supported by a revision schedule and a small amount of exam preparation work. Rarely attempted.


The second action is worrying, since this represents a large group of rather well motivated students who expect to be successful. Mathematically strong students, finding grades slipping as the course progresses, decide that what is needed, and what worked last year, is to practise answering exam questions. Again and again and again. After an initial boost to test scores, improvements stall and further efforts produce diminishing returns and the pressure to `work harder'. Problem solving skills (really, just learning a few standard techniques) are shallow and can not remove the need for deep conceptual understanding.

Extreme Hope

The most common action by far is to do nothing and hope that everything will sink in eventually. Students are discomfited by the nagging feeling that they ought to be doing something, but prefer to do something else out of class. This has ever been so with students, and there is little to be done short of compulsion. My own College is caught between an official policy, of encouraging students to be responsible for their own learning, and the need to hold teachers accountable for every student's under-performance. We tell them to take responsibility, then deny them their just deserts and their chance to learn a life lesson.

The more they fail, the harder they hope.

But we can't let them fail, can we?

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College Building Programme Halted

The LSC, the government funding body for Sixth Form Colleges, has announced that they will continue to fund just eight of the pending College building project to completion. This leaves 79 Colleges, including my own, that have previously been approved, with a further 65 advanced proposals in limbo, as almost the entire national rebuilding project is put on the back burner. The press release ends with:
We will consult urgently, and as quickly as possible, with the AoC (Association of Colleges) and other key sector organisations on proposals and a strategy for prioritisation for future projects. These proposals and the future management of the programme will also reflect the conclusion of Sir Andrew Foster’s current review.
The government's response to a funding shortfall, then, is order a second inquiry before the first one is fully over, simply to sort a possible future strategy and, I expect, to keep it all going until everyone forgets what the worry was about.

The Association of Colleges has issued a brief initial response, here, but they are unlikely to be able to influence government delays. Many of the plans involved the colleges raising millions of pounds each from bank loans and selling off land for house-building — both sources that have dried up considerably in the recession.

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For Those Who Can't Find Anything Better - Teach

Gordan Brown
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has declared that the UK
… will educate the next generation of world class scientists; and that to do so we will work towards all pupils having access to single subject science teaching - with a guarantee that 90 per cent of all state schools will offer this within the next five years.
But, isn't there a national shortage of Physics teachers? I know it is hard to tell since the government stopped recording Physics teacher shortages a few years ago (they do report a 0.9% vacancy rate in science posts, since schools top up with Biology specialists), but the Centre for Education and Employment Research says in this report that a quarter of secondary schools don't have even one Physics teacher.

But, Gordy has a plan! As our industrial base implodes in the recession, all those engineers will be approached, "guaranteed", to train them as Physics and Maths teachers. "Come here my lovelies, teaching is better than the dole!"

After a decade of promising that all the education problems will be solved (remember "education, education, education"?), nearly all school physics departments, where they exist, are still hugely understaffed, more Physics teachers are still leaving than joining schools each year and perhaps 30% are due to retire in the next decade.

Recruiting a few down at heel industrial workers will not even work as a short term fix for the existing problems. There are better ways to tempt Physics qualified people into teaching than simply waiting for companies to go bust (see How to Recruit a Physics Teacher), but the government and unions will never take the necessary step of letting schools compete freely in the jobs market and offer attractive packages for people with shortage skills.

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Problems Communicating With: Maths Teachers

Now, you might think that there is nothing closer in colleges than Maths and Physics teachers, especially since at A Level they often both teach Mechanics to the same students at the same time. I support the Institute of Physics's suggestion that the shortage of Physics teachers could be eased if trainee teachers could train as joint Physics/Maths teachers, since many physicists are put off teaching by the requirement that they teach Biology as a general science teacher in schools. However, there are problems of incompatible approaches to be overcome, as I have discovered myself, since the Physics department in my college is part of the Maths department (moved from Science to even up team sizes).

Culture Difference

There is a problem of culture that has grown over the years and is transmitted to each new generation of teachers in the training colleges. Physics and Maths teaching have become isolated from each other, with no cross-fertilisation. New styles have been habituated in each subject specialism and they have now become radically different breeds. "Oh, we don't have time for applications!" said one Maths teacher, when questioned.

How can they be so different?

Physics teachers are trained and employed in a science context, with a focus on conceptual understanding, measurement, modelling and context. Mathematics teachers have become divorced from applications and have turned inwards. This is not necessarily undesirable, but many of their students (most, if you look at the Maths-Mechanics classes) study Physics and intend to enter Physics related degree courses. The Maths Departments' focus on narrowly defined problems leading to routine processing for a solution encourages students to rely on learnt techniques. This works fine for standard problems, but it is a distraction when dealing with unfamiliar problem types, which require a grasp of fundamental principles.

Student Coping Mechanism

Many students cope well with the differences, but a few always respond to difficulties badly: home study consists of learning the problem solving technique recipes and cramming for tests. When the unlearned concepts become a cause for declining scores, the response is to do more of the same. The next step is to request extra past papers to hone their technique, but this can lead to frustration as scores fail to improve and hour after hour are consumed chasing the wrong target. It is regular chore telling parents during meetings that their offspring are working terribly hard, but at the wrong things.

Now this is by no means the sole fault of Maths teachers, since this style of learning works well for GCSE Physics, but it is unfortunate that it also works well for A Level Maths. Many have never needed to get to grips with Physics concepts.

Incoherent Mathematics

The strangest difference I have come upon is that algebra is carried out using a bastardised version of quantity calculus. Quantity calculus, or quantity algebra, is the coherent system for dealing with physical quantities mathematically, as specified in the SI. Unit symbols are treated as mathematical entities, and the inclusion of units in workings is invaluable for helping students appreciate the physical basis of calculation, as well as helping them to spot errors when unexpected units appear with the solution.

My Maths teacher colleagues follow the exam board guidance, and claim to use SI units, but the units are all they use. A maths problem will specify, for example, that 'v = velocity in m/s', so the formula presented is unit specific, while in Physics the equations are valid for any coherent set of units, i.e. 'v = velocity'. The weight of a 300 kg mass is labelled as '300g' in a Maths problem, but with g defined as an acceleration, this makes the weight a simple multiple of an acceleration, not a force.

In Physics lessons, I expect my students to write '300 kg x g' to preserve the unit dimension. My colleagues told me that units were omitted because they caused confusion, with grams mixed up with the gravitational g, etc. Of course, there is no actual indication that such mix-ups actually happen. An additional inconsistency, Maths teachers are happy to write '1 mi = 1.6 km', without accepting that this means 'mi/km = 1.6', as this would give the units meaning outside the narrow unit specifications of variables.

Separated By A Shared Language

Maths and Physics teachers, although ostensibly sharing a love of the quantitative, speak different languages. Physics requires an understanding of principles and the importance of physical quantities, while mathematics allows the flourishing of technique over understanding, and introduces a hodge-podge of half-correct ideas that do not even give lip service to the needs of future scientists and engineers to use standard, coherent notation and techniques.

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School Does Anything for Cash

Our local primary school has taken a big loan to fund a new staffroom without knowing where the money was going to come from, and it is now struggling to make ends meet.

As a Voluntary Aided school the governors are responsible for paying ten percent of any capital expense, but decided to apply for a grant from the local authority first. The loan to cover the remainder needs servicing, and parents are being squeezed.

Prospective parents are invited to fill in direct debit forms along with the applications. Existing parents are charged for lessons for which, at most, voluntary contributions could be asked. Entry to see the Christmas plays was by bought ticket only. Children were even told, illegally, that they would be withdrawn from swimming lessons if parents didn't ante up.

As the headteacher told me in a private communication, the shool was concerned that if parents knew that payments were entirely voluntary, many wouldn't pay up.

Most tastelessly, though, the poorest families have had five pound vouchers dangled in front of them, theirs if they apply for free school meals. The free meals don't have to be eaten, the newsletter goes on, just claimed. The school can then claim an extra 70 pounds from the government's 'School Standards Grant (Personalisation)', which normally pays just five pounds per child at the school.

So the school knows there are some families on social security who haven't registered for whatever reason. But to try to bribe such people, with just five pounds when they have been asked to pay for a free state eduuation, is crass.

The school must think parents can be bought cheaply. I know running a school is costly, but the schools are there as a service to parents and children. Families should not be seen simply as funding units.

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New Tory Education Policies

Michael Gove, Conservative Party education policy wonk, has an alternative to the government's feeble response to the specialist teacher shortage.

Over the last decade, Labour has solved the Physics teacher shortage by making Biology teachers teach Physics, then declaring that there isn't a science teacher recruitment problem. (see Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics) The acute shortage of maths trained teachers in primary schools is magically reversed by paying the more numerate teachers to attend a two or three week course in their summer break, returning to their schools as 'maths qualified'. Brilliant, but at the same time pathetic.

The long term answer, or course, is to allow some freedom in the market, and pay more for the teacher who has the shortage skills. Gove suggests that head teachers should be allowed to do just that, although the unions have a strong interest in preventing any local pay agreements - national pay bargaining is their most valued power. Opening more schools that can independently set pay rates could work, and Gove seems to be suggesting that, but the new City Academies have been free of council control for years, and I don't see evidence that pay is varied to ease recruitment difficulties.

It will be hard encouraging Heads to make use of such a power though, as many don't see specialisms as important. Why would a primary head teacher, of a school with respectable maths test results, want to spend more to recruit a maths specialist? Specialists have never been part of the primary scene, and it would be seen as an insult to the existing generalist teachers, especially if paid differently.

Independent schools, however, do take specialist skills seriously, and many vary pay rates — if government really wants to close the education gap between independent and state schools, then they must bite the pay bullet.

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Vorderman to Lead Inquiry into Maths Teaching

Carol Vorderman has been appointed by Conservative Party leader David Cameron to lead an inquiry into the state of Mathematics teaching. Yup, that's right, the TV presenter with a knack for mental arithmetic is going to be passing judgment on how children do maths in school and on examination standards in England.

Why does Dave think Vorderman is qualified for the job? She famously only managed a third class degree in engineering, she has shown her disdain for independent research by publicly joining the anti-MMR lobby and is a fully paid-up snake oil salesman flogging worthless detox diets and and dodgy financial products.

She said:
Maths is critically important to the future of this country but Britain is falling behind the best performing countries.
But the TIMMS study has England high up the international league table and climbing. Given her history, though, we can expect Vorderman to have a disdain for the normal rules for evidence.

Quite what influence her report will have when it is finally published, who can tell. But, if Jamie Oliver's foray into education is anything to go by, one can only hope it will be quietly put on the back burner.

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Government "to bust myth of 'elitist' science"

Government to  bust myth of 'elitist' science
The Government's science awareness campaign is a pointless waste of money for everyone, except for the government itself, which will claim it is doing something to secure our technological future. The UK's Science Minister, Lord Drayson, has decided that too few students are taking up science or engineering careers because they think that science is too hard and elitist:
"Continued success in science is vital to our future - and yet there is still the perception among many of our people that science is too clever for them or elitist in some way.

"We must challenge myths like these if we are to build a prosperous, science-literate society, able to tackle the difficult issues that modern science presents and work them through to create the jobs and growth of the future.
So, his solution is to tell young people that science isn't hard or elitist! So there, job done.

Strangely, the press release announcing the Science [So What? So Everything] campaign links to the 2008 Public Attitudes to Science survey, which showed that awareness of, and attitudes, to science was high and increasing. So why the expensive awareness campaign?

The real issue of course, is that, in spite of the fact that young people are aware of the importance of science in their lives, fewer are choosing is as a career.

Let me suggest what the government ought to be doing to encourage the uptake of science careers:
  • Keep science lessons difficult (for politicians, read 'challenging'.) Talented students are attracted by elite, high status careers, such as medicine. They will not be tempted by science if it is made too accessible. I want scientists and engineers to be clever — they should be seen as an elite.

  • The government should properly fund blue sky science, rather than focus on research with short term medical or environmental benefits. The stingy approach to astronomy and particle physics funding over recent months was very off-putting.

  • OFSTED should be reigned in and retrained: the education watchdog's penchant for fashionable trends, such as interactive whiteboards, computers and 'learning styles' has diverted attention from the skills teacher should be developing, i.e the one research has shown to work.

  • Encourage talented, able scientists to become teachers by making teaching high status (and, yes, elitist). The UK's science education is already one of the best in the world, as I posted on before, but most Physics teachers will retire in the next decade.

An awareness campaign just allows the government to claim it is doing something, without having to actually tackle the serious problems that are stopping the country from attracting the best student into science and engineering careers.

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Chief Scientific Officer Criticised by Committee

UK government's Chief Scientific Officer, John Beddington, questioned by the DIUS committee about evidence and science in decision makingWith Barak Obama championing the role of science in government in his inaugural speech, it is disappointing to see our very own Chief Scientific Advisor falling short of expectations.

Prof. John Beddington, has been criticised by the House of Commons Committee responsible for Science, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. As the government's most visible scientific expert, Beddington has a responsibility to champion science- and evidence-based decision making.

The committee, which oversees DIUS, found Beddington to be more equivocal than his predecessor, Prof. David King regarding the public funding of homeopathy, the reclassification of cannabis, and the role of evidence in government:
We are concerned that on homeopathy Professor Beddington did not take the opportunity to restate the importance of the scientific process and to state that what was important was the balance of scientific evidence, [and that he] has not chosen to challenge departments where no evidence was produced.

[he] is the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and we are surprised that rather than champion evidence-based science within government he appears to see his role as defending government policy or, in the case of homeopathy, explaining why there is no clear government policy.
King was known for dismissing silly ideas, so it is worrying that Beddington does not feel the need to put scientific truths ahead of political ones.

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Modular Physics Courses Harm Deep Learning

The change of A Level assessment from terminal exams to modules, examined every term or so, has increased exam success for students, but at the expense of a deep understanding of Physics.

The Curriculum 2000 program introduced Advanced Supplementary (AS) courses in the UK at teh beginning of the decade, to help give breadth to the A Level choices that students made at the end of compulsory schooling. Since they were only committing themselves to nine months, many people who had an interest in Physics, but were uncertain about its reputation for difficulty, felt they could take a chance. The effect on enrollment on to college Physics courses was immediate, with class sizes swelling considerably.

So why is it that Physics and Engineering degree courses have continued their decline in popularity?

Unintended Consequences

Class Size

Larger class sizes affect the time teachers can spend supporting individual students in the first year of the course, and the amount of preparation they can do, due to the increased quantity marking and reporting needed. Many students drop out after one year, but since large class sizes have become the norm, classes are cut to keep the student-staff ratio up. With the old two year courses, the classes shrank for the more challenging second year, allowing students to get one-to-one support more often and teachers to get a better understanding of each student's learning.

Dropping Courses

Weaker students, facing the prospect of failure after two years on a course, could find the motivation within themselves to work harder as the final exams drew nearer.

Being able to drop one of their three AS courses at the end of the first year encourages students to stick with the easiest courses in the attempt to maximise their haul of grades. This is no bad thing, and has contributed to the higher grades awarded in recent years, but there are serious side-effects.
For example, soon after their introduction I had a potential Oxbridge student, close to the end of the first year, excuse his recent lack of completed homework by saying he was thinking of dropping Physics (expecting grade A or B). Instead, he was considering continuing with Religious Studies (guaranteed, apparently, a grade A) as he wanted the status of a complete sweep of grade As, awarded to 26,000 students in 2008.

Schools are also tempted to encourage students to enroll onto easier subject, limiting science course uptake, but maximising the school's league table position.


The modular structure itself, though, is the biggest problem. Instead of a two year coherent course, designed to build concepts and skills progressively, students work towards six, largely independent, work units, called modules. Although the change was supposed to motivate students by keeping up the flow of high stakes examination, most of the effects have been negative and dangerous:
  • Most importantly, modules, with their regular schedule of bite-sized exams, encourage cramming and surface learning from the students and teaching to the test by teachers.
  • Mock exams, as a safe opportunity to test your progress, have lost their power to motivate.
  • The module structure of the exams discourages exam boards from using broad synoptic style questions in the module exams, with deep questioning left until the last summer paper. But of course, the patterns of thought have been set by then, and students often fail to grasp the interconnectedness of the subject.

Drop the Modules

Modular courses act as a disincentive for students to thoroughly learn and understand their chosen subjects. The January exams, at least, should be abandoned by colleges, and the time gained put to goo use teaching the students to understand and love their subjects.

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