Sunday, February 01, 2009

"Muslim schools performed best overall" in Britain

I believe it. Why? One word: Discipline

Pupils in England's religious state schools scored significantly better examination results at seven, 11 and 16 than those in community schools, figures show. On average, 85 per cent of children at Anglican, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools left primary school with a decent grasp of the basics - compared to 79 per cent elsewhere. Muslim schools performed best overall, although they constitute only a fraction of the country's 7,000 faith schools.

Critics claim that higher scores are achieved because faith schools use admissions policies to cream off middle-class pupils. Last year, the Catholic Church reported a surge in late baptisms as parents attempted to boost their children's chances of getting into the much sought-after schools. And a recent report by the Runnymede Trust - a multi-cultural think-tank - said they should be stripped of their power to select along religious lines to prevent distortion.

But faith leaders insist schools do well because of their religious ethos and a focus on traditional discipline and teaching methods. Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service, said: "Our success comes from fulfilling our mission, which is so much more than what Ofsted or the Government says a school must do. When I was a teacher, I remembered that I was not just seeing a child, but was seeing God in that child, and that creates expectations in teachers. "We are charged with developing the whole child."

Faith schools currently make up a third of all state-funded schools in England. Some 4,657 are Anglican, 2,053 are Roman Catholic and 82 belong to other Christian denominations. Another 36 schools are Jewish, eight Muslim, two Sikh and one is Hindu. Most use religion - often gauged by attendance at weekly worship or references from local faith leaders - as a tiebreaker when over-subscribed.

An analysis of GCSE results from 2007 reveals pupils in these schools make more progress at every stage of the education system. Some 51 per cent of pupils in Church of England schools and 52 per cent in Catholic schools gained five or more good GCSEs, including the subjects of English and maths. Scores increased to 63 per cent in Muslim schools but soared to 77 per cent in Jewish secondaries. By comparison, only 43 per cent of pupils made the grade in England's non-religious schools last year.

Faith schools also outperformed the rest based on the Government's favoured "value-added" measure, which compares performance at 16 to results when pupils started secondary school at 11. Scores are also weighted to take account of the number of pupils speaking English and second language and those on free meals - ensuring schools with large numbers of middle-class children do not gain unfair advantage. On this measure, Muslim pupils made the most progress, followed by those at Jewish schools, other Christian schools, Catholic schools and Anglican schools. Again they outstripped secular schools.

It suggests that claims faith schools are dominated by children from rich backgrounds may be exaggerated. Last month, a report by the schools adjudicator found that two-thirds of schools controlling their own entrance policies - most of which are faith schools - failed to follow the code on admissions. A large number were found to have asked for extra information from applicants, prompting critics to accuse them of seeking to discover parents' incomes and marital statuses in order to "cream off" middle-class pupils who tend to do better academically.


Late entry to school unwise

Comment from Australia

Every fad has its use-by date, and it seems the middle-class phenomenon of holding children back from starting school may be on the wane. As the latest batch of kindy kids poured through the gates this week, research has been challenging the popular view that delaying entry into school is a recipe for success. The theory was that starting school at an older age would give your child, especially if he is a boy, a leg-up on his peers. The author Steve Biddulph was one of its most effective advocates, claiming in his 1997 bestseller Raising Boys that boys feel "inadequate" if they go to school before the age of six. He sparked a decade-long arms race of age one-upmanship as parents tried to ensure their child was the most co-ordinated, most confident student in the class.

Forget that the cut-off date for school entry in NSW requires a child turn five before July 31. Parents started enrolling their six-year-olds in kindy, even if they had been ready to go to school for a year, with an 18-month-age span in classrooms increasingly common. But the results are in, and it turns out being older is not a panacea for a boy's ills after all. Researchers at the Michigan State University and the University of Illinois have found holding children back is a waste of time. All the parental angst was for nothing.

Any initial advantage older children had over younger classmates in the first few months "declines sharply in subsequent years" and soon disappears, found the study of more than 40,000 American students, to be published this year in the Journal Of Human Resources. "Rather than providing a boost to children's human capital development, delayed entry simply postpones learning and is likely not worth the long-term costs," wrote the authors, Todd Elder and Darren Lubotsky.

In the US, where the practice of holding children back is called "red-shirting", another study of 9000 children, published in the journal Pediatrics, found children who started school later had more behavioural problems than younger students, especially at adolescence.

One of the more ridiculous reasons given for holding a child back in kindergarten is that he will be able to drink legally 12 years later during HSC celebrations. In fact, this may turn out to be a ticking time bomb, as the Biddulph effect moves into high school. More students in year 12 will be 18, of legal drinking age, for longer than ever.

Trying to "cram adults into a schoolchild's routine" is going to be challenge for schools, says a Willoughby mother of three, Janelle. It is the 18-month age gap between children in the same class that can cause problems, all the way through school, she says. So unless parents have a good reason to hold back a child, they should be required to observe the cut-off date. "The school system has created this problem. If the date were set in concrete there would be no problem … I don't think it should be up to the parents. It puts pressure on parents on both sides of the fence to defend their position." She bucked the trend by sending her February-born son to school "early" and never wasted a moment worrying. The now 13-year-old has thrived in every way, but Janelle has endured sceptical questions from other parents. "They don't have any valid reason, apart from saying, 'I don't want him to be the youngest one.' Well, why not? There is nothing to be gained by holding them back, so why do it? Someone has to be the youngest in the class."

Peer pressure among parents is a powerful influence, says Professor Bob Perry, of the Murray School of Education at Charles Sturt University. He knows people who have held children back simply "because they couldn't stand the pressure from other parents". It is primarily a "white, middle-class" phenomenon because many parents can't afford an extra year of child care before school. Perry also has observed that any differences in aptitude at kindergarten due to age differences soon dissipate. "There are plenty of examples of 4½-year-olds who do very well and six-year-olds who don't. Age is not the central issue … It is how they fit into the system - their social and emotional maturity."

Being old for your class can even be a disadvantage. It can shatter a child's confidence when his younger classmates overtake him. "Knowing you're the king pin but that you're only that because you're older can't be all that good for self-esteem."

An age gap may in fact benefit younger students, with the Michigan study finding they score better test results when they have older classmates. Paradoxically, the study also found younger students more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities.

In the end, each parent should make the decision they feel is best for their child, and then they have to make it work, says Perry. But the pressure on parents to make that decision has been so intense for the past decade, the question can haunt them for years. One North Shore mother of two, Nicole, has agonised over her decision to send her now 14-year-old son to school before he turned five. His January birthday was a comfortable six months before the July 31 cut-off date, but every year she worried he would suffer from being younger than his peers. It wasn't until this week, as he entered year 9, a popular, confident adolescent, that she was convinced she had done the right thing.

"I always regretted not holding him back. But you're only unsure of yourself because of the situation other parents have created. We've done the right thing. We've sent our age appropriate child to school but [parents who delay school entry] have made a rod for our back." It took nine years but she has stopped worrying. "Seeing him now with his peers I am much more comfortable … He's happy, so I'm happy."

There is never any shortage of worries for parents, but maybe now we can all move on from the school starting age obsession.


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