Another pointless consultation

The DfE are apparently ‘seeking views on draft performance descriptors for determining pupil attainment at the end of key stages 1 and 2’.

They have previously ‘sought views’ on the draft national curriculum and the assessment policy, which they acknowledged and then proceeded to largely ignore. I should imagine this will be no different. Needless to say, I still responded, as I did with the others, if only for the opportunity to point out how vague and meaningless their descriptors are.

My response in brief:

It is really important that you remove all vague terminology, such as ‘increasing’, or ‘wider’. In removing levels, you acknowledged the unreliability of the system and difficulty faced by teachers in agreeing levels. This document falls into the same trap. It would be far better to provide examples of what was expected at each key stage (and in each year), than these vague descriptions, some of which could apply to any level of study (Reception to post-doctoral). Many teachers have worked for years on helping colleagues to understand exactly what was required to show a pupil’s attainment, and in one fell swoop, the new curriculum has demolished all that work without replacing it with anything effective. Give us a standardised set of concrete examples and explanations (not exemplars of pupils’ work), along the lines of those provided by Kangaroo Maths (when we were grappling with what the levels represented in the old curriculum). Give us some e-assessment software that will allow us to quickly determine and collate this information.

I did want also to say, ‘Give us some mid 20th Century text books, since that’s obviously the source of your ‘new’ curriculum.’ In actual fact this isn’t just a just a bitter jibe. A text book would at least guide us through the current morass. We could really do with some clarity and consistency. I suggest a state of the art information source written by actual experts rather than the range of opportunistic publications which will be cobbled together by commercial companies who are ill-prepared to jump on this latest bandwagon.

Oh look, I’m right again

Being in any profession for more than 20 years (yes, me) means you may have had to watch the same old stuff go round again and again. Sometimes something is brought back having been thrown out because it didn’t work the first time and nobody else is old enough to know that it isn’t new and wonderful. Sometimes it’s something that was abandoned against your best protestations, only to make a reappearance some years later as a good idea. Often, we just throw away good old stuff and replace it with tat – but that’s a different story!

I’m currently feeling the need to vent spleen over the reintroduction of a weekly ‘singing assembly’. That’s all very well – perhaps we could cope with the sudden change in our timetables (having already spent many hours trying to get everything to fit), since it could be generally argued that collective singing in a primary school is a ‘good thing’. However, we used to have a singing assembly. I ran it. I didn’t want to – particularly as it always needed to have overtones of collective worship – but I put that aside and concentrated on getting the best out of the whole of Key Stage 2 and a bunch of disparate, pupil volunteer musicians. We did pretty well – there were 3-part harmonies and instrumental accompaniments. I mainly plundered the gospel repertoire for its sheer musicality. Then one day, without explanation, I was unceremoniously ‘thanked’ for everything I’d done and informed that it was not going to happen any longer. I did object, in spite of not really wanting to have to run the damned thing in the first place, on the grounds of there being no more collective singing, and possibly very little singing at all. Now, some 5 years later, we’re told that the lack of collective singing is an issue and so we’ll be having singing assemblies once a week, led by a paid outsider. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the courtesy to say I was right.

Yes this is rather petulant but only one example in many of just how little value is placed on experience and expertise. It’s all about rank – as it has ever been – and in education those are very different things.

Science and the ‘S’ word

Science and spirituality?

All schools in England are required to show how well their pupils develop in SMSC – Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural aspects. I can easily see how moral, social and cultural aspects are an integral part of science education, but ‘spiritual’?

I recently had my science action plan returned to me, annotated by the head with the suggestion that I mention how it will encompass SMSC requirements.

In OFSTED’s terms the spiritual aspect is defined as follows:

Pupils’ spiritual development is shown by their:

  • ability to be reflective about their own beliefs, religious or otherwise, that inform their perspective on life and their interest in and respect for different people’s faiths, feelings and values
  • sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others and the world around them
  • use of imagination and creativity in their learning
  • willingness to reflect on their experiences.

I have two problems with this. Firstly, only the first of those seems to relate to what would normally be considered ‘spiritual’, and secondly, I’m at odds already with the idea of anything ‘spiritual’ in science, as science is about critical thinking and evidenced-based practice. ‘Spiritual’ refers to a ‘spirit’, I presume. Something which is not based on evidence of any kind. What role has the spiritual to play in science education? Are we not undermining the nature of science even by including it as an aspect, however woolly the definitions above?

Lest we be burnt at the stake…

Unacceptable goings on and subterfuge in British schools, real or imagined, have been very much in the media, recently. But we are all guilty of it in our own way are we not? I suspect any teacher who has passed the 5 year service mark, has felt the pressure of the dictat when trying to teach. You might remember secretly giving your pupils spellings to learn during the ‘children learn to spell by magic’ era. Or perhaps you continue to try to teach your pupils to read by a combination of methods not reliant on phonics alone. Mathematical methods have always been subject to cultural and political censure. How dare you show the pupils how to do a short division method before they’ve spent a lifetime learning a range of ‘approved’ steps which they will have to abandon as they learn the next one? How ironic that the current regime insists on a return to classic methods (presumably of Gove’s own childhood) of calculation and states that pupils could be penalised in tests for not using these. In the same breath, we are to abandon the calculator, in spite of its introduction to the world of education in the middle of the last century. We could transport our pupils back to the Victorian era and they would hardly experience the culture shock.

The extract below is from the Local Schools Network, on the same subject:

We go through cycles of being approved or feeling like heretics only allowed to practise our dark arts in secret. I tend to agree with Patrick Hadley, particularly with regard to the use of long division, where my last pencil and paper calculation was probably in the late 70s. These days, I have a mobile phone with a calculator – and yes, I may end up on a desert island with only a couple of palm fronds and a burnt stick, but I suspect long division may not be the most pressing concern. I have carried out multiplication calculations, but my preferred method is now the ‘lattice’ which I was shown during my PGCE a long time ago. At risk of being executed as a witch, I show the pupils this method, after I have taught the formerly approved grid (admittedly a powerful and useful method), but warn them never to use it openly. Sadly it is the fastest and most accessible method for all abilities, that I have come across. And to answer the maths fundamentalist police, I CAN explain to the pupils how it makes mathematical sense too!
It is really time to remove the overt political or religious influences from education, true. But it is also time to open up the process to the understanding that things are not always what someone else insists they should be. Education is a process which should invite critical thought and evidential practice, but it isn’t like that in England. Teachers are frightened to criticise each successive hegemony or to to question the current dominant culture, even though they know empirically that these are constantly changing or being overturned. Is it that they are fulfilling their function of providing the required example for the next generation? Defer to the establishment. Do not question authority.