Wednesday, January 07, 2009


The field of education is vast and I can cover only a small corner of it. So someone with a conservative or libertarian perspective who has views about education -- probably a person with some teaching background -- might like to consider blogging here. This blog gets about 120 hits a day, which may not seem much, but which is still in the top 99% of all blogs. Building up to that from scratch might take some time. And there is no doubt that this site could be developed much further with a bit more effort.

So if you would like to blog here, email me on

Home schooling grows in the USA

The ranks of America's home-schooled children have continued a steady climb over the past five years, and new research suggests broader reasons for the appeal. The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007, up 74% from when the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003. The percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007. "There's no reason to believe it would not keep going up," says Gail Mulligan, a statistician at the center.

Traditionally, the biggest motivations for parents to teach their children at home have been moral or religious reasons, and that remains a top pick when parents are asked to explain their choice. The 2003 survey gave parents six reasons to pick as their motivation. (They could choose more than one.) The 2007 survey added a seventh: an interest in a "non-traditional approach," a reference to parents dubbed "unschoolers," who regard standard curriculum methods and standardized testing as counterproductive to a quality education.

"We wanted to identify the parents who are part of the 'unschooling' movement," Mulligan says. The "unschooling" group is viewed by educators as a subset of home-schoolers, who generally follow standard curriculum and grading systems. "Unschoolers" create their own systems.

The category of "other reasons" rose to 32% in 2007 from 20% in 2003 and included family time and finances. That suggests the demographics are expanding beyond conservative Christian groups, says Robert Kunzman, an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Education. Anecdotal evidence indicates many parents want their kids to learn at their own pace, he says.

Fewer home-schoolers were enrolled part time in traditional schools to study subjects their parents lack knowledge to teach. Eighteen percent were enrolled part time in 1999 and 2003, compared with 16% in 2007. Kunzman says this might be because of the availability of online instruction.

The 2007 estimates are based on data from the Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey of the National Household Education Surveys. Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, says the estimates are low because home-schooling parents "are significantly less likely to answer government-sponsored surveys."


A day in the life of an ordinary British school: drugs, violence and intimidation

Documents released to the Sunday Telegraph paint a disturbing picture of the challenges facing Britain's teachers. It is 9am, the start of the school day, and already an English teacher has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from a 15-year-old boy. Outside on the playing field, the PE teacher has stopped a lesson to deal with teenage pupils who are swearing and not doing as they are told. Later that afternoon, three more members of staff will report being verbally abused by their charges, and the day will end with a pupil vandalising the library.

This is just another typical day at Northfields Technology College in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. It is not a particularly extreme example of the unruliness that many state schools have to deal with on a regular basis, but it is a snapshot that will horrify parents as they prepare their children for the new term.

Records of classroom and playground incidents, known as behaviour logs, from five schools on the National Challenge list (those in which fewer than 30 per cent of pupils leave with five "good" GCSEs, with grades A* to C), reveal for the first time the struggle to maintain order in our secondary schools. The logs, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph under freedom of information legislation, and taken from April and October 2008, show some secondaries recording up to 30 incidents a day. Children storming out of class and refusing to work is now commonplace. More worrying, however, are the serious offences contained in the logs. During one week, which was chosen at random, a pupil at Tong School, Bradford, was stabbed in the thigh by a student and had to be taken to hospital.

"The age of deference is dead," says Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "As these documents show, in some schools, keeping behaviour under control is a massive challenge. Schools may well be coping, but it shows the level of indiscipline that teachers have to deal with every working day."

The picture painted by the logs comes as no surprise to Colin Adams, 50, a former IT teacher who was awarded 250,000 pounds compensation in an out-of-court settlement last month after an assault by a pupil ended his career. Adams joined the teaching profession after working as an engineer. He loved his job and was head of department at Kingsford Community School in east London. In 2004, a 12-year-old pupil strangled him to the point of unconsciousness. Colleagues who witnessed the attack were at first too afraid to pull off the boy in case they were accused of assaulting him.

According to Adams, deteriorating behaviour in schools is a reflection of society. "I have seen children coming in high because they have smoked their fourth joint on their way to school," he says. "I have also had students who have brought knives in to school because they are worried about what will happen to them on their way home. Society, if it is not broken, has a lot of problems and these are mimicked by children."

The boy who attacked him fits an all too familiar profile - he came from a broken home, with a father who lived 100 miles away. Within a few months of joining the school, the pupil had chalked up 27 serious incidents, nine for violence. Adams was on the receiving end of the tenth. "The day he assaulted me, he had already punched two other pupils, but was still in school. I had not been made aware of what had been going on," says Mr Adams. "He came from behind and ran at me, knocked me down and when I was on the floor, he strangled me. The teacher who eventually intervened had to prise his thumbs off my neck." Months earlier, the boy was involved in a fight which led to staff requesting his permanent exclusion from the school. Their concerns were not acted upon.

However, the former teacher's experience, and the incidents revealed by the Sunday Telegraph's investigation of school behaviour logs, are not recognised by the Government as significant. Ministers insist that behaviour in schools is improving, and that head teachers have more powers than ever to deal with unruly behaviour. Last week, they dismissed figures which revealed that thousands of pupils were escaping expulsion, despite violent and sexual offences which the Government's own guidelines class as serious enough to deserve permanent exclusion.

Teachers' unions complain that head teachers - under pressure from local authorities, which have a duty to provide alternative education for expelled pupils - are avoiding the ultimate sanction. Heads are also finding their decisions increasingly overturned by appeal tribunals or even their own governors, who are afraid of legal challenges.

Even the National Union of Teachers, which argues that schools are still one of the safest places for many children, has concerns. "While teachers have the powers to deal with bad behaviour, it has become a serious matter for wider society that the behaviour of a minority of pupils and, in some cases, their parents, has seriously worsened in recent years," says Christine Blower, the NUT's acting general secretary.

Even if schools are dealing swiftly and efficiently with the challenging behaviour they encounter, at the very least other children are having their education ruined on a daily, even hourly, basis. At Cheshire Oaks School in Ellesmere Port, the behaviour log for one week shows 73 cases of pupils talking, shouting and disturbing lessons, 61 refusing to obey the teacher, including more than 20 incidents of children simply walking out of the lesson, 65 incidents of poor behaviour, 32 refusing to work when asked, 39 cases of rudeness, 20 cases of verbal aggression towards staff, 10 incidents of children wandering around the classroom or using mobile phones, 14 incidents of lateness, 15 cases of pupils throwing things in lessons and four physical assaults.

And during one week at John Bunyan School in Bedford, pupils were reprimanded for smoking, verbal abuse, aggressive behaviour, drugs, dangerous behaviour and physical assault. Hayling Manor High, in Croydon, averaged between 20 and 30 incidents of bad behaviour a day.

None of the schools which provided records for the Sunday Telegraph study are thought to be failing in the eyes of officialdom. Indeed, inspectors say many are improving, and have "clear and consistent" policies for dealing with threatening behaviour from pupils. However, all of the schools studied are operating in difficult circumstances. Each has a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals. Ofsted inspections have found that many children entered these secondary schools, at the age of 11, still unable to read and write properly.

According to Adams, despite the big increases in spending in the last 10 years, staff do not have the training and resources to deal with the increasing number of pupils who display problems. "It is true that some head teachers and local authorities do not take behaviour seriously enough and support teachers," he says. "But there is also not enough money to deal with these children. I had one class where eight of the 19 pupils had behavioural and emotional difficulties. When you're spending your time trying to separate them and keeping them in their seats, the level of teaching plummets."

The Conservatives have promised greater powers to exclude pupils who otherwise "fester" in the mainstream, as well as better provision for those who are kicked out. Labour's answer is the 5 billion academy programme, which is supposed to transform education in deprived areas. However, recent problems at academies in Southampton and Carlisle have revealed that these "independent" secondaries are not immune from the behaviour issues that plague other schools. As revealed last month in the Sunday Telegraph, an emergency Ofsted inspection was triggered at the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, when complaints were made about gang fights and bullying. The head of the Oasis Academy in Southampton resigned in November after a riot at the school led to five pupils being expelled and 25 suspended.

"The public has no idea about what goes on in schools," says Adams. "At the three I worked in, there were examples of children involved in prostitution, the selling of drugs, gangs, intimidation. Teachers do their best to police it and keep these things external, but they are still getting in to our schools."


Playing outdoors protects young eyes from myopia

The differences reported below do seem to be quite stark and well controlled so the "safety" freaks who try to stop almost all outdoors childhood play may be damaging the vision of those children

The hours spent in front of the PlayStation or at the computer play no role in ruining a child's sight, with Australian researchers finding that being cooped up indoors is what gives children glasses. Children should spend two to three hours a day outside to prevent them becoming short-sighted, says a study by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Vision Science. A comparison of children of Chinese origin in Australia and Singapore, which has the highest rate of myopia in the world, found the only significant difference was the time spent outdoors.

The study, conducted on the centre's behalf by Australian National University and Sydney University researchers, challenges the prevailing assumption that near work, such as watching television, reading a book or playing computer games, ruins vision. Ian Morgan from the ARC Vision Centre yesterday said exposure to daylight appeared to play a critical role in limiting the growth of the eyeball, which is responsible for myopia or short-sightedness.

Professor Morgan said it had been apparent for a couple of hundred years that more educated people were short-sighted, but the research suggested spending some hours a day outdoors could counteract the myopic effects of study. "Video games are as ineffective as reading on vision," he said. "Computers are pretty neutral, watching television doesn't seem to affect vision. The only difference we could find is the amount of time spent outdoors. "As you are involved in intensive education through to studying at university, you ought to be conscious of this well into your mid-20s."

The research says about 30 per cent of six-year-olds in Singapore are short-sighted enough to need glasses, compared with only 3 per cent of Chinese-Australians. Both groups spend the same amount of time studying, playing video games, watching television and reading books. But Singapore children spend an average 30 minutes a day outdoors compared with two hours in Australia.

Professor Morgan said similar trends were seen in India, with 5per cent of rural-dwelling Indians being short-sighted compared with 10 per cent of their urban cousins and 65 per cent of those living in Singapore.

Myopia is increasing in urban areas around the world, and is described as an epidemic in parts of east Asia, with Singapore the world capital. Australia has a level of myopia more commonly found in the Third World, with only 0.8 per cent of six-year-olds of European origin being short-sighted. They spend on average three hours a day outdoors.


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