Saturday, August 26, 2006

British government stumped by illiteracy and innumeracy

Labour's record on improving standards of literacy and numeracy came under attack last night after the publication of results for GCSE examinations and primary school tests. Pass rates at GCSE rose for the eighteenth successive year but achievement in English and mathematics at primary school level has stalled well below the Government’s targets. Almost half of 16-year-olds failed to achieve at least a C grade in GCSE maths and four out of ten were below this standard in English. Employers said that the education system was “failing to deliver”.

The proportion of GCSEs awarded grades A* to C rose by 1.2 percentage points to 62.4 per cent this year. But English increased by only 0.7 points to 61.6 per cent and maths by 0.9 to 54.3 per cent. At age 11, the proportion reaching level 4 in the national curriculum English test was unchanged at 79 per cent. It rose one percentage point in maths and science to 76 per cent and 87 per cent respectively.

The results left primary schools far off the Government’s target of 85 per cent for both English and maths by this year and still trailing its 2002 target of 80 per cent in English. The proportions achieving the expected standard at age 7 in reading, writing and maths also fell across the board this year. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, defended the Government’s record. “The attainment of young people at the end of their primary years has vastly improved on what it was in 1997 and is higher than ever before for those reaching the end of compulsory education,” he said.

But David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that the primary school results showed that the Government’s strategy had “run out of steam”. He added: “If you go back to 1997 and what Tony Blair said about the importance of education, it is clear that missing the targets on literacy and numeracy is a big thing. “Forty per cent of pupils are still leaving primary school without having mastered the basic skills in the three Rs. This is letting down the nation’s children, who then spend their lives playing catch-up.”

Richard Lambert, the CBI’s Director-General, said: “We must not lose sight of the severe problems which exist. Ministers must step up their efforts — they have made the right noises, but will be judged on delivery.”

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that the pass rate in maths was lower than for all other major subjects. He said that standards in many schools would be exposed by changes to performance tables this year, which will rank them for the first time by the percentage of pupils passing five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Professor David Jesson, of York University, said that the primary school results showed that “the concept of continually improving performance for ever has to be questioned”. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Education Secretary, said: “There are holes appearing all over the Government’s strategy for secondary education, illustrated by the drop in teens studying languages and the shocking number quitting school altogether after GCSEs. “Too many young pupils are leaving primary school without the basic skills they need to successfully tackle the secondary curriculum.”


Science education in Australia

Some works of literature have titles so powerful that it seems unnecessary to read the work itself. E.M. Forster's Two Cheers for Democracy is like that for me. Democracy may be a poor system of government, but it is the best we've got. It is always struggling and its results are not always inspiring. One of the deeper purposes of education in a democratic country must be to help merit the third cheer. A democracy has millions of decision-makers, some wise and well informed, many who think they are, and some who don't even try, but all vote. One of the outcomes of education is that children are indoctrinated in their social and political heritage.

Anyone who knows schools knows this indoctrination will happen by default; it is better if it is controlled. It should be intentional, purposeful, and should develop Forster's two cheers: critical minds and a variety of thinking. Sound education can also earn democracy my third cheer: for good decision-making, the sine qua non of a strong and ethical government.

This was a big week in Canberra for education and good decision-making. First, speaking as the Minister for Science, Julie Bishop, who is also Minister for Education, made the important statement that intelligent design should not be taught in science classes. Pointing out that ID does not belong in the science curriculum at all, she has taken a firm stand and given leadership that will strengthen our science teaching.

On Monday and Tuesday, the Australian Council for Educational Research held its 11th national research conference, this year focusing on science teaching and learning. On Thursday was the history summit, attended by the Education Minister, former "history premier" Bob Carr and an impressive list of historians and history teachers. The two conferences were tied together by themes: Science for Citizenship in one and History for Citizenship in the other. I see the two coming together in a wonderfully productive symbiotic relationship.

Science for Citizenship is a research focus of Jonathan Osborne, a professor at King's College, London, who gave the first keynote address. He sees the early specialisation of science teaching to cater for potential career scientists as deadening to the majority, who have needs as future citizens but will not study science after secondary school.

What plagues democracy is that pesky tradition of involving everyone in decision-making. As Osborne told the science conference: "Society is confronted with a dilemma that the majority of people lack the knowledge to make an informed choice."

Having strongly suggested that science is the greatest cultural achievement of Western society, he argues that science must attempt to communicate "not only what is worth knowing, but also how such knowledge relates to other events, why it is important, and how this particular view of the world came to be".

It does not take much science to understand the water cycle and that H2O is H2O, yet the good people of Toowoomba recently decided they could not drink purified used water. It is worth knowing what water is and the role it played for millennia before it came into our brief lives. This is just one example of how good science teaching can make people better voters and citizens.

It is important to understand science that explains the case as it is, not as we might prefer it to be. Gravity is inconvenient to a child falling out of a tree, just as global warming is to all of us today. Scientific research and political decision-making share the need for rational, evidence-based argument. The science classroom is one place where these higher-order thinking skills can - indeed, must - be effectively taught to young citizens of our democracy. To be effective, we must start with the young. Our primary schools, almost without exception, miss the boat completely.

Science might be in the primary curriculum, but what is taught is usually warm, fuzzy and concentrates more on what is cute than on developing disciplined thought. This is not surprising as almost no Australian primary teachers have studied science as part of their university degree and not many have been interested enough to have studied it in the last two years of secondary school. They are monumentally unprepared to teach facts (or understand what a fact is in science - think of phlogiston (more later) - and even less prepared to help young minds develop sound scientific thinking. A survey of how many primary teachers go to a homoeopath or care what their star sign is gives a quick indication of the parlous state of science teaching in our primary schools.

Yet young children observe the world very closely and ask questions. They poke and probe and experiment: scientific behaviour that is often mistaken for naughtiness. They love to count and take surveys. They are young scientists. As they see patterns emerging in the world around them, they discover where they fit. Science makes sense. We urgently need full-time specialist science teachers who are given time, rooms and resources to teach our children from kindergarten to Year 6. After such an introduction, science might be able to compete in high school with "fun" courses such as design and technology or drama, which are fun because they teach children how to explore aspects of life hands-on, just as science does.

Back to phlogiston. Joseph Priestley, one of the best late 18th-century scientists, discovered phlogiston and knew that it assisted combustion and respiration better than air. Dephlogisticated air, known to us as carbon dioxide, suffocates fire. The phlogiston theory was the best theory going until Lavoisier offered oxygen and started a battle with Priestley and a revolution in chemistry. Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, whereby Lavoisier ended up on the guillotine, what story could offer more: excitement, science, revolution in chemistry and politics, and impact on our lives today?

The phlogiston story is one among many that demonstrate how science searches for evidence-based explanations and can change its mind when evidence is compelling. The competition for glory, the sharing of ideas, the influence of one person's work on another, the impact of events outside the science laboratory: all are common themes in the history of ideas that shaped our world.

Is the phlogiston story science or is it history? Of course it is both, but open to study through the prism of each discipline in a somewhat different mode. History and science are not so far from each other; both require a chronological framework, knowledge of facts and development of skills for their full power to be appreciated and the importance to our lives to be convincing. Recent television programs on the history of science, for example on Darwin's The Origin of Species, penicillin or the introduction of sewers in London, show vividly the human drama that accompanies great developments in science. Knowing such stories, the science behind them and its impact on our daily lives leads to citizens better prepared to use their judgment.

Osborne called for "the study of the history of ideas and the evidence on which they are founded" to be the core of the curriculum. In such a curriculum we develop critical thinking and evidence-based decision-making. We can earn the third cheer for democracy.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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