Success is Failure in British Education

For the first time ever, a grammar school has failed an inspection. For those unfamiliar with British education, grammar schools are selective schools. Prospective pupils have to pass an entrance exam known as the 11-plus. Where they use to be commonplace, there are now only 168 remaining in England. In most places in the state sector there are only non-selective comprehensive schools.

So how did Stretford Grammar School fail inspection? Was it the location in a highly disadvantaged area? The 30% of pupils for whom English is a second language? After all, if the national average of good GCSE grades  (A*- C) when English and maths are included is 47%, how poorly must Stretford Grammar have been doing to have failed and threatened with closure unless the turn things around? I’ll tell you how poorly: 92% at grades A*-C. Nearly twice the national average.

So what did Ofsted find wrong with Stretford Grammar?

“These include the good personal development and well-being of pupils, the positive attitudes found among students, good attendance and behaviour, the feeling of safety and security in the school, positive pupil/teacher relationships, high staff morale and the good teaching and learning in the sixth form.” Oh, wait, sorry. Those were more of the good points.

So what was wrong with Stretford Grammar?

Lacklustre teaching. The inspectors didn’t like the teaching styles. They couldn’t tick the right boxes concerning what makes a good lesson. Oh, and girls weren’t making enough progress. This is surprising, because everywhere else the problem is that boys are underachieving. In other words, Stretford managed what other schools don’t.

So in case you were wondering, this is what a failing school looks like.

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Busy Work

Year 11 reports are finally done. I thought the exam marking and report writing would never end.

I would say normal service will resume, but there are books and folders to mark that have backed up while the exams and reports have been done.

I am not deluded into believing there is any intrinsic value in any of this. Most of the parents will not care one bit about my report as they value my subject about the same as their children. The books and folders will never be looked at again by pupils after the end of the year – they are hardly looked at now. The paper is only there to prove to other people that some sort of learning has been going on in my lessons.

Sacrificing Education to be a Good School

In English primary schools, children sit Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) in May of Year 2 and Year 6. Children in those years (the age equivalent of 1st and 5th grade in the US) spend much of the year preparing for them. This is not because they benefit the child in any way. The tests are one of the Government’s way of judging whether a school is doing well.

Academic accomplishment these days is assessed with the use of imaginary levels. This is not just in primary school, but through most of secondary school as well. In each subject, the Government tells us what skills are required for attaining which levels. The SATs assess these levels in English, Maths and Science. The expected level for 7-year-olds is Level 2.

At a recent parents’ evening we discussed the Older Child’s upcoming SATs. The school wants him to do well… but not too well. This is because schools at all are judges very heavily on what’s called “value added”. They have to demonstrate how much better pupils are performing from one test to the next. As long as Older Child gets a Level 2, he can get a Level 4 at age 11 and the school will still look good. If he were to get a Level 3, a Level 5 at age 11 is only average progress. If he only gets a Level 2 now, a Level 5 at age 11 will look that much better.

Government policy fails to take into account that children develop mentally at different times. It can only deal with uniformity. Everyone must progress at an accepted pace. The Government needs to create league tables, ranking schools from good to bad. Ofsted inspectors need data, especially since the new inspection regime is based much more on paperwork and spreadsheets than ever before.

If Little Johnny (or Older Child) is not the right number of pedagogically indefensible socialist all-must-have-prizes imaginary levels above the last assessment than the school has failed. Is it any wonder that schools and teachers are pressured to get children perform in such as way that benefits the school over the education?

The Swinging Vicar

I’m a bit surprised the Church of England has been so harsh on Teresa Davies.

Sure, there was the problem of showing up so drunk for services that she visibly swayed from side to side.

And then there were the swinging holidays in the south of France. She and her husband advertise on swinging websites. She admitted to the tribunal that she and her husband meet strangers for sex. She had previously denied she had sex outside of her marriage.

As a result a church tribunal has banned her from serving as a priestess for 12 years. I’m sure they will hear from the swinging lobby within the C of E on this one. After all there seem to be strong lobby groups for others who openly have sexual relationships outside of marriage. If anything, this seems to be a case of heterosexual discrimination. Maybe it will even go to an employment tribunal.

Within the team ministry in Daventry, she was given special responsibility for children’s work. She won’t have to give that up entirely. She’s now training to be a Religious Education teacher in schools. She can bring her values into that values vacuum that is British education.

If that doesn’t work out, after a few years she can always go back to being an Anglican priestess.

Ninety Years

At eleven o’clock this morning, the class I was teaching paused for two minutes of silence. Actually, it was a couple of minutes after eleven, because it took a couple of minutes to achieve silence. Thus while we were being silent, there was noise around us. There was no bell to indicate the time so that everyone was in synch.

Even though Year 9s cover the Great War in history, it is not until the summer term. The Year 9s I was teaching didn’t even have the benefit of knowledge to help them grasp the significance that we were observing the moment that exactly ninety years before has seen the end of the most devastating war up to that time.

When I was growing up in the States, we didn’t think much about that war. But then the US lost a mere 116,708 soldiers with 205,690 wounded. That may sound like a lot, until you realise that the UK with half the population at the time lost 994,138 with 1,663,435 wounded, it puts it into perspective. That’s why there is a war memorial in every village in the UK. They were engraved with the names of local boys lost in First World War with most of them amended with a smaller list from the Second.

Though my pupils sat through a Remembrance Day assembly a couple of hours before, it focused on those who served in all wars since 1918. Ninety years is a long time, after all. Most of my students don’t know who their great-grandparents (or reaching back to WWI, often great-great-grandparents) were, not to mention whether they took the King’s Shilling in the Great War. I doubt that even one of them remembered somebody during that 120 seconds at eleven o’clock who served in the War to End All Wars. It might as well have been the Wars of the Roses – history with no connection to the present. History only for the historians.

May enough people continue to care so their memory might be eternal.

Keeping History in Context

At the same time as the election of Barak Obama, in GCSE history we are covering race relations in the United States 1929-90. I’ve never taught this in an American school, but imagine the approach of the syllabus would be roughly the same. We look at the KKK, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, the effect of the Depression on blacks, segregation in the Second World War, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Ole Miss, Rosa Parks, MLK, and the key events of the Civil Rights Movement. The key idea is that white people, especially but exclusively Southern white people, hated black people (though we aren’t authorised to cover that they were only called “black” for a brief moment in time in the shifting language from Colored to Negro to black to Africa-American). Whites were mean and evil to them, but somehow the black people passively resisted all the white people and eventually Barak Obama was elected.  That last bit falls outside the time period, but it is too good to not mention.

I was commenting on another blog about the relationship between Obama and the legacy of slavery, an institution which the blog owner referred to as an atrocity, saying the same thing I told my students when introducing the background of slavery in the US: we have to be careful in imposing the values of the present day upon the past. People in the mid-19th century lived within a completely different frame of reference. It is very possible that people living 130 years from now will be tempted to condemn aspects of the present day which we cannot imagine would be any other way.

C.S. Lewis says as much in his well-known introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

Thus I think about my cousin Melba. Melba was my dad’s first cousin, born in Kentucky in 1915. I got to know her before she died and I don’t think there was an unkind bone in her body. I don’t think I ever heard her speak an unkind word.

Melba and her husband were tobacco farmers. Her husband had died not long before I met her as an adult (we had visited in their home when I was a very young child) and she was winding down the farming. Being the family genealogist that I am, you can imagine that I took in every story I could about living through the 20th century as a tobacco farming family. Tobacco farming is very labour-intensive. Melba spoke with affection about the niggers that worked for them, especially one man who worked for them for many years.

My late 20th century ears were a bit shocked at first. After all, this was a word for which I received corporal punishment from the school principal when I was in the second grade back in 1972. (In my defense, even then, I didn’t habour any ill feelings for the black pupil. I was only saying it because my friend Scott was saying it, but it was a offense of strict liability.) Then she referred frequently to a nigger woman that had been her domestic help until recently.

I don’t for a minute think that she thought of any of these people as equals. But neither did she habour any ill will. It was just the society in which she was raised. She probably supported segregation as long as it lasted in the Bluegrass State. I don’t remember her speaking about it in any negative way. That was just the way it was. On the other hand, I never heard her complain about integration. Maybe she did at the time, but by the time we talked, that was just the way it was.

At the same time we can be glad that everyone in the United States has the same civil rights and participation in the political process, and appreciate that common attitudes have changed, we need to be careful how we characterise the nature of those developments and the broad strokes with which we tend to paint history.

Forcing Sex Education on Five-Year-Olds

I ignored this story when I first saw it in the Daily Mail, but it is all over the news now. The Government plans to teach compulsory sex education in England from the age of 5. Ministers may not even allow for parents to withdraw their children. In other words, unless parents can afford a private school or opt to homeschool, their very young children will be subjected to a combination of the National Curriculum requirements and the bias of their particular school teacher.

Schools Minister Jim Knight thinks sex and relationships education from age five is needed to combat the ‘earlier sexualisation’ of youngsters. It is the usual sex education policy of fighting fire with fire. So if small children are going to see sexual imagery in every exposre to the media, the best thing is to explain it all to them. Even at Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7) teachers will be told not to duck discussions about ‘explicit sexual matters’ if they are raised by pupils. They don’t actually have to teach about sexual intercourse until Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11).

State schools that are faith-based will be allowed to include their own guidance and values in the curriculum. For Catholic schools, that is rather clearly defined. I’m not sure what it means for Church of England schools, since the C of E’s own values about sexuality seem in quite a state of flux. But in nondenominational non-faith state schools, there will only be guidance from the government. As Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, was quoted in The Independent, this is a Government that wants to see “a whole generation fornicating”, something I’ve been saying for a long time.

The other guidance will be form the lifestyles of the teachers themselves. I can’t see how fornicating teachers will be teaching about sex as appropriate only with the context of marriage. If they were to do so, their hypocrisy would undermine what they are saying. As much as teachers may try to keep their private lives private, pupils eventually know whether a teacher is married or living with a “partner”.  Children observing and under the influence of hedonistic teachers can hardly be expected to follow a different path.