Saturday, January 16, 2010

Head of high-performing British school calls for tougher exams

The head teacher of England's top-ranked school has called for the introduction of tougher exams and said GCSEs failed to stretch the brightest pupils. Invicta Grammar, an all-girls school in Maidstone, Kent, rose from third place last year to top the league table. All of its 162 pupils achieved five A*-C grades including English and Maths, with an average total point score of 764.5. Every entrant also scored two or more science GCSEs at grade C or higher.

Kirstin Cardus, the Head of School, said that GCSEs no longer challenged her pupils. She said rather than make them take ever more GCSEs like some schools, Invicta allowed its girls to sit eight or nine “core” subjects as quickly as they liked. This then freed them to study AS-levels at 16, a year earlier than normal, or even spend time teaching in local primary schools.

“The students take their examinations when they’re ready and not due to their age,” Ms Cardus said. “They take a core eight or nine subjects at the end of year 10 or 11, or a combination of these. “Then they can look at doing one or two AS-Levels in year 11. “Most choose to take GCSEs early and are very competitive. It’s about them getting As and A*s first time round. It’s not about a resit culture, trying them many times.

Ms Cardus also called on the Government to start recognising international GCSEs, which are seen as more rigorous but do not precisely follow the National Curriculum. “Some of our students take international GCSEs in mathematics just for fun, because they can,” she said. “We’re very interested in them and will be looking to implement more in the future.”

Invicta was one of seven selective girls’ schools in the top 10 this year, as female pupils continued to outperform their male counterparts. The other three comprised two mixed grammar schools and a mixed private school, meaning there were no all-boy institutions among the very best. However the tables showed that in general the gender performance gap narrowed slightly. The total proportion of girls scoring five A*-Cs was 7.3 per cent higher than the proportion of boys. In 2008 the figure stood at eight per cent.


Don’t burden homeschoolers with regulations

The recent situation with the two mothers in New Haven, “Moms’ pleas highlight home-school dilemma” (Dec. 30), has prompted discussion about home schooling, and a recent editorial, “Indiana needs standards for home schooling” (Jan. 5), focused on increasing regulation of this private educational alternative. Unfortunately, this ignores the real concern, which is why did the public school system fail these children in the first place?

Many important facts about this case are unknown to the general public, but one fact is clear: At some point, these women stopped sending their children to the local public school. Why? Why did they choose to leave? What went wrong? Does anyone really think it’s as simple as saying that some parents are so irresponsible that they don’t want their children to be educated? If true, that points even more directly to our education system’s failure because such a parent was likely educated by our public schools.

Proposing increased regulation on Indiana home-schoolers as a solution to the concern of irresponsible parents assumes that regulation is a factor in educating a child. We already know it’s not, because if it were, our highly regulated and tested public schools would be having no problems at all.

Regulation and testing assume we can define and measure learning in one single way that works for everyone. To see how misguided this is, just ask 10 people to define a “good” education. You’ll probably get 11 answers. When we try to make education exactly the same for everyone, we end up with regulations that lack clarity, cohesiveness and even common sense.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn about education is that it cannot be defined, let alone measured and regulated. Yet measure we do. We pretend that loads of data can inform us about the connections made inside individual minds. So we test. We regulate. It makes us feel better. It makes it easier for officials to create the illusion of turning an abstract concept into something tangible.

But we know from our own experience this just isn’t true. When you passed a test, did you really celebrate because you experienced the innate joy of learning? Or did you wipe the nervous sweat off your brow and immediately move on to the next hoop placed in front of you?

We say we value individuality, yet we refuse to acknowledge this in education. Even worse, we have loads of evidence demonstrating that it’s often the misfits, the bad test-takers, the restless, etc., who often end up making valuable contributions to the world. Yet we have faith in regulations even when they stifle these individuals.

Home schooling in Indiana is an alternative that frees families from this over-regulation and creates the flexibility needed for individuals to truly learn. This is why home schooling works, so it’s completely illogical to propose that families need to preserve the right to home school by taking away the very essence of its effectiveness. In addition, imposing the same restrictions, regulations and testing on home-schoolers that are hampering the public school system will do nothing to improve our public schools.

Their problems remain, and we would only be interfering with one alternative out there for families who desperately need more flexibility.

It’s interesting that the editorial brought up the possibility of paying more in taxes to take care of adults who need public assistance because they were ineffectively home-schooled. Yet every year, schools send ineffectively educated children out into the world who cannot read, comprehend, think critically, write persuasively or manage finances. How many of them need our public aid, and why aren’t the regulations preventing this? If it’s purely a numbers game based on the possibility of having to support ill-prepared adults, then it’s obvious where we should focus our energy.

We need to figure out how to deal with the over-regulation that is causing the public school system to fail rather than trying to put the same burden on home-schoolers who aren’t even spending our tax money.


Catholic schools surging ahead in Australia

CATHOLIC schools have increased their share of the highest HSC awards, almost doubling the number of their top all-rounders. A Herald analysis of official government figures for the past five years has found that the number of HSC students in the Catholic diocesan system who achieved more than 90 per cent in each of their subjects has almost doubled.

While the Catholic sector claimed credit for setting exemplary performance targets, public school advocates have told the Herald that the improvement had come from a relatively low base compared with public and independent schools. The socio-economic status of Catholic schools had also improved over the years, as had their share of Commonwealth funding relative to schools in other sectors.

Dan White, the executive director of Catholic schools in the Sydney archdiocese, attributed the long-term improvement in results to investment in the professional development of teachers and measurable literacy and numeracy targets that helped to identify areas of need. "Our focus has been on continual improvement of teacher quality," Dr White said. "Our highest priority has been to put in place targeted intervention strategies where a clear need has been identified. Put simply, we have tried to respond quickly where the need is greatest."

In 2005, 45 students from Catholic secondary schools, not including the higher-fee independent schools, achieved the State Government's all-rounder award, figures from the Board of Studies NSW show; last year 80 achieved the award. As a proportion of the increasing number of students from all school sectors in the list, the percentage from Catholic systemic schools rose from 4.9 per cent in 2005 to 6.6 per cent last year.

Catholic and independent schools account for about a quarter of all HSC students. A Herald analysis found 38 Catholic schools in the list of top all-rounders last year, compared with 33 in 2008 and 30 in 2007.

Last year, 122 students on the list came from 59 comprehensive public high schools. The year before, 149 students came from 65 comprehensive high schools. As a proportion of all students in all school sectors, the percentage on the list from comprehensive public schools fell from 12.5 per cent in 2008 to 10 per cent last year.

Dr White said Catholic schools in the Sydney archdiocese achieved results above the state mean in 67 per cent of courses last year, up from 61 per cent the year before. A quarter of the archdiocesan schools achieved results above the state mean in more than 90 per cent of courses last year.

The president of the Secondary Principals Council, Jim McAlpine, said the top all-rounders list was a limited measure that did not capture all students who achieved a ranking of 99 or above since it did not take into account students who specialised in the sciences or the humanities - and so did not score above 90 per cent in every subject. "There is a greater opportunity for Catholic schools to select students from higher SES [socio-economic status] profiles now," Mr McAlpine said. "Students in low SES schools and communities require a greater level of funding in order to lift their academic performance, and that can only happen if the Federal Government bites the bullet to create a fairer funding regime for all students."

A spokeswoman for the Board of Studies said the all-rounders list represented "a very small percentage of the overall candidature [less than 2 per cent] and is just one measure of success".


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