Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The gamekeeper's girl aged nine, her magical century-old exercise book and a humbling lesson for today's schools

Who was Fannie Bryan? All I know for sure is that she was born in 1889 and lived all her life in the tiny hamlet of Tidenham Chase, deep in the Forest of Dean, with views stretching to the River Severn.

I doubt she ever journeyed as far as Bristol, 23 miles away, but still, her education at a tiny village school provided her with skills that stretched her young mind to the full. By the age of nine, Fannie could read, write, spell and do sums at a level which is, to the modern eye, frankly astonishing.

I know this, because I have in front of me her old school book, found among her possessions when she died, an old lady, just yards from the house belonging to the grandfather of my friend Alan Dorrington in the quaintly named Miss Grace’s Lane.

Alan’s father, a forester, gave him the exercise book, together with a charming album of postcards when Fannie’s cottage was cleared, years ago now, and they’ve been languishing in a drawer ever since.

He gave them to me because, like me, when he took them out to examine them, he was astonished at the story their pages told. Not about Fannie’s life, but about the decline in standards that has left so many of today’s schoolchildren intellectually impoverished.

It is a story that deserves a wider audience. For anybody looking at what Fannie achieved in her poor rural backwater is likely to reach the inevitable conclusion that we have let recent generations of children down. Badly.

Fannie was not born into a family of great intellectuals. I’m guessing her father, Jack, was probably a gamekeeper, because her exercises are written out in a hardcover book called The Gamekeeper’s and Game Preserver’s Account Book and Diary. There are a few pencil accounts by Jack: the birth of a couple of calves, the number of eggs laid, and details about the value of dogs and equipment in a kennels.

So did he work for the Big House nearby? Very likely, because the sums involved seem enormous and the area was famed for hunting and game. There’s also a note which tells us that once a week he went ‘to town’ in his cart with his daughter to sell butter and eggs. That would have been Chepstow, just two-and-a-half miles away.

Was little Fannie badgering her father for some paper to write her homework on when he gave her that notebook? Working people wouldn’t waste a thing - and so in 1898 he (or another adult) wrote her name at the front: ‘Fannie Bryan - nine years’, in confident steel pen and ink.

The pages which follow are impressive. The first thing you notice is the handwriting. Every pupil was taught a good cursive (meaning ‘joined-up’) hand, and made to practise letter shapes again and again. Boring? Nobody thought in those terms then. You did it because it got results. So at nine, Fannie was writing beautifully presented sentences which dance across the page.

And don’t think she was unusual. When I turn over the postcards slotted into her album I notice that her cousins wrote in the same way. For example, Wilf, a relatively lowly second steward on a steam ship, displays an elegant penmanship equal to hers.

A modern educationist would probably dismiss Fannie’s careful passages about geography as ‘uncreative’. But when I read her words about Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Vienna, Cape Finisterre, Rotterdam and the rest, I think of how fascinating all the information must have been to the country girl.

And there are interesting insights into her mind, as she asks: ‘Would you not rather live in those airy Viennese palaces than in the midst of town, yet most people like best to live in the crowded city. I believe the reason is they like having a great deal of company.’ How many nine-year-olds could write that fluently today?

And what about this comment, which looks forward to 20th century conflict? ‘Warsaw is the capital of Poland. It is full of soldiers. They are Russians sent by the Emperor to keep the poor Poles in order...’

And the poetry of this: ‘Cracow... is a small city... the kings of Poland used to be crowned there and buried there. On a high rock stands a church. A steep road leads to it. How many kings have gone up that road - first, very much pleased - to be crowned, and then - silent and cold - to be buried!’

A year later, at ten, Fannie is concentrating on her dictation. Older readers will remember this involved your teacher reading you a difficult passage that you had to write down making as few mistakes as possible, getting all the words and punctuation right. In Fannie’s book the dictations are perfect.

But that won’t mean much unless I quote you a typical example: ‘The largest waves are seen there directly the storm has passed away, not while it lasts. No matter how furious the gale might have been, for the rushing wind has a tendency to blow down the waves, so to speak, and prevent them rising to their utmost height, it is when the storm is over that the swell rises; it does not however impress the beholder with its magnitude until it draws near to the rocks and begins to feel the checking influence of the sea.’

‘Incredible,’ do I hear you say? Yes, Fannie had to follow and reproduce extremely complex sentences that would baffle most modern children.

Beneath that exercise, and all through the book, are lists of words she was obviously supposed to memorise. Here are some examples: Londoner, refluent, spectral, embargo, weird, shadowy, listless, engineer, gurgling, dissolve, alert, stealthily, leisure, companion, purify, venture - and so on.

If the average sixth-former today used half of the vocabulary carefully copied out to learn by little Fannie Bryan they would be writing at a very sophisticated level indeed.

As for the pages of mathematics, Fannie’s sums - her pounds, shillings and pence, long division and fractions - look very difficult to me, but then maths was never my strong point. The point is, each calculation is laid out neatly, and (from the teacher’s markings) most of them are correct. And I get a touching sense of Fannie as a real, normal child when, after some sums (these ones less neat, as if she was bored) you find a lovely little doodle in ink — of an ostrich.

Why do I close this book feeling saddened, and even angry? Because it demonstrates what an ordinary child could do, when nobody was assuming she couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be stretched because she was working class.

But was she typical? I pulled from my bookshelf Winifred Foley’s classic autobiography, A Child In The Forest, about her childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean. Fannie was about 25 when Winifred was born some 15 miles away, but their backgrounds would have been very similar.

Winifred Foley, whose family rarely had enough to eat and who wore ‘scruffy’ clothes, writes of being promoted to the top class at the village school when she was nine, like Fannie.

She describes how the teacher ‘took us out of the classroom... with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black Beauty, Lorna Doone, Treasure Island. This wasn’t just “doing the classics” - as she went along, we followed, spellbound. Every day, life became richer. Learning new words was like having the key to free the imprisoned thought I’d been unable to express’.

What modern child of that age would tackle those marvellous books? What teacher would expect them to?

Last week the Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that many primary school pupils were unable to enjoy books such as Harry Potter and the Narnia series because ‘they haven’t learned to read properly’.

He said that about one in six 11-year-olds struggle to read and one in ten boys that age has a reading age of seven or below. In the last nine years England has fallen in the International Reading League Table, from 7th to 25th. Behind the statistic is a tragic story of children who have not been given the ‘key’ that meant so much to Winifred Foley - and no doubt to Fannie Bryan - the key to a mind which could be challenged.

Today, it is hard not to fear that for many who deserve better the key has been lost. Let me emphasise that I am writing this as the author of more than 25 children’s books, who has visited scores of primary schools and received hundreds of letters from children over the years.

Charming as they were (and much appreciated by me) I’m sorry to say that not even the best of them would measure up to Fannie Bryan’s work in terms of an ability to write well at the age of nine or ten.

When did the change happen? Why were writing exercises, tough spelling tests and punctuation thrown out of the window? When did teachers stop expecting children to do well, to be stretched?

When my son, Dan, first went to primary school in 1978 he wasn’t taught how to read or write - not in the sense that I was in the Fifties, or Fannie Bryan was in the 1890s.

In late Seventies Britain, playing in the sandpit was considered an area of expertise. There was little structure to the day and it was fine for children to mess about with their backs to the teacher - because that’s how classrooms were arranged. Remember? Left-wing educationists (who ruled - and I know because I spent a couple of years as an education journalist) spoke of tried-and-tested teaching methods such as ‘sitting in rows’ and ‘learning by rote’ as if they were positively vicious.

It was all about ideology, not children’s needs. And certainly not about raising standards as a means of children escaping their backgrounds.

At Dan’s South London school his teacher looked at me as if I was a dinosaur (as well as a pain in the neck) for suggesting that he wasn’t making progress and some spelling might be useful.

Two years later, in despair at what the state school was doing to him, we reluctantly entered him for a small prep school in Bath. They were seriously worried at how far behind his peers he was - but brought him up to scratch in one term.

How? Not because of class size - because after all, in my own post-war baby-boom inner-city Liverpool primary school, we had 50 per class and astonishing standards. No, by a rigorous application of the 3Rs, which a Victorian (and Edwardian and later) child took for granted.

Looking at Fannie’s book, I can’t help grieving for those common-sense rules of learning - lost amid conflicting political doctrines, educational fads, lies about standards and endless doctrinaire tinkering by those whom Education Secretary Michael Gove has dubbed ‘the enemies of promise’.

Of course, it goes without saying we have thousands of dedicated teachers preparing the lessons they will deliver to happy children who are doing very well in school. But if so many of our teenagers are lagging - in English - behind their peers in Canada, Australia and Shanghai, we have to ask ourselves why.

It pleases me to bring Fannie and her beautiful writing into the light. She may never have left the hamlet where she was born, but that little drawn ostrich alone is proof that she was encouraged to travel as far as she could, within her imagination.

Is it too much to hope that we can all learn something from her homework?


Expect fewer top exam passes, parents warned: Price worth paying to curb grade inflation, insists British education boss

Parents should be prepared to accept a fall in the number of pupils getting top GCSE and A-level grades, Michael Gove warned yesterday. The Government’s crackdown on grade inflation will mean fewer As and A*s being handed out in an attempt to return to realistic results, the Education Secretary said.

Mr Gove argued that this was a price worth paying for an exam system that commands respect among universities and parents.

In an interview yesterday, he said grade inflation ‘discredits the integrity of our education system’ and GCSEs, A-levels and degrees must get ‘tougher’. ‘If that means fewer passes, then that’s something we’ll have to accept, but I want to ensure that as well as exams being tougher, schools work harder,’ he said. ‘What I hope we will see is our exams are once again trusted across the globe and our children are among the best in the world.’

Mr Gove said he would not emulate his Labour predecessors and pat himself on the back if exam results were to go up each year.

He said: ‘Unfortunately, the real achievements of children on the ground became debased and devalued because Labour education secretaries sounded like Soviet commissars praising the tractor production figures when we know that those exams were not the rock-solid measures of achievement that children deserve.’

Mr Gove added: ‘You’ve got to tell the truth about these things. When people see that pass rates have improved at this level, they know that while schools have improved, they haven’t improved at that rate. ‘It discredits the integrity of our education system.’

Mr Gove also said that improving the UK’s place in international school league tables would take ten years to achieve. In 2009, England slipped to 25th for reading, 25th for maths and 16th for science.

Mr Gove spoke out as he prepared to outline new plans to improve discipline. Head teachers will no longer need to give 24 hours’ written notice for detentions outside school hours from today.

Schools will get new powers to keep unruly pupils behind after lessons as part of a drive to restore order in the classroom. These ‘no notice’ detentions are one of the key elements of the Education Act 2011, which aims to help teachers maintain discipline in the classroom.

Other changes will follow in the coming months, including extended powers for teachers to search pupils for items ‘that are going to be used to cause harm or break the law’.

Teachers will also be granted anonymity when accused by pupils, and independent appeals panels for exclusions are being overhauled so that they will no longer be able to reinstate pupils who have committed serious offences.

The Coalition has also laid down regulations which, subject to Parliamentary approval, will mean that teachers will be able to search pupils for tobacco and cigarette papers, pornographic images and fireworks, without their consent.

Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on school behaviour, said yesterday: ‘Without good behaviour, teachers can’t teach and pupils can’t learn. Teachers need to have the right powers at their disposal to use if they wish.’


In praise of homeschools

The most admirable group of entrepreneurs is perhaps the least appreciated. Homeschool parents, or parentrepreneurs, are not waiting for politicians and technocrats to fix broken systems of education. Rather, they are eschewing the status quo and finding innovative ways to advance the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth of their children. Unlike their counterparts in the public sector, parentrepreneurs have achieved astounding results with humble budgets.

Curiously, parentrepreneurs are seldom the object of praise. They are instead showered with ridicule and demands for intrusive regulations that erode their effectiveness as educators. Self-interested unionists are often at the forefront of this mudslinging. A National Education Association resolution is exemplary of such demagoguery:

"The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state curricular requirements, including the taking and passing of assessments to ensure adequate academic progress."

Clearly, the NEA perpetuates the myth that parents are too ignorant to be educators. Even worse, they obnoxiously imply that government schools, in fact, provide a comprehensive education experience for all students. Of course, the NEA is hardly a beacon of objectivity. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of homeschooled students increased almost twofold, from 850,000 to 1,500,000 — a trend that threatens its wealth and political clout.Download PDF

Unfortunately, the homeschool-opponents movement is ubiquitous and is backed by more than just power-hungry unionists. Left-liberal elites, statists, and antireligion bigots are also motivated to infringe on the liberties of parents. However, an objective look at four key performance indicators illuminates the truth and leads to an obvious conclusion: homeschooling parents should be praised for their noble work.

Key Performance Indicator #1: Academics

To Murray Rothbard, the merits of individual instruction are unequivocal. Only this type of education, he asserted, can develop human potential to its greatest degree. It was therefore obvious to him that formal schools were vastly inferior.

"Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing, or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity."

Government schools cannot differentiate instruction as homeschools do. At best, a highly effective teacher might have the capacity to place students in small groups based on achievement level, disregarding their interests altogether. It is therefore evident that even an average parent is likely more effective than a great teacher; she does not have to worry about classroom management, arbitrary timelines, and restrictive curricula — her energy is focused on what's best for an individual child. Still, this advantage is perhaps secondary to homeschooling parents. As John Holt explains, what truly separates homeschools from traditional schools is that they aren't actually schools:

"What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children's growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn't school at all. It is not an artificial place, set up to make "learning" happen and in which nothing except "learning" ever happens. It is a natural, organic, central, fundamental human institution, one might easily and rightly say the foundation of all other human institutions."

This is not to say that all homeschools espouse the unschooling philosophy of Holt. In actuality, they are quite diverse in their approaches to education. Some homeschools purchase curricula from publishers while others opt to enroll their children in correspondence programs. Libraries, tutors, and local support groups might also be used by homeschools. Just as in business, there is more than one way to run a profitable organization — and the results support this idea.

In a study conducted by Dr. Brian D. Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute homeschoolers scored an average of 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests (1, 2). Government regulations, including whether or not homeschooling parents were teacher-certified, had no impact on these scores. In fact, students whose parents did not have a college degree scored at the 83rd percentile. In terms of college admissions, homeschoolers typically score higher than average on the SAT.

Despite these outstanding outcomes, homeschools weren't even legal in all 50 states until 1993 and many states have enacted burdensome regulations. California and New York, for instance, have intrusive laws that regulate curricula, testing, and teacher credentials. Using compulsory attendance laws, government officials enforce these regulations and can prosecute parents who fail to comply. In essence, parentrepreneurs are punished for being exceptional parents, just as successful entrepreneurs are taxed and condemned for their profits.

Key Performance Indicator #2: Socialization

A common criticism levied by homeschool opponents is that government schools are more adept at developing social skills. While this masquerades as a legitimate assertion, it fails to survive even the most rudimentary scrutiny. Not only have studies shown that homeschooled students grow to be aptly socialized adults but the roots of public schools are deeply entrenched in a mixture of assimilation and obedience — fertile grounds for repressing human ingenuity and producing dependent citizens.
"Homeschoolers scored an average of 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests."

A primary impetus for government schooling in the United States was to impose discipline on immigrant children and integrate them into the American way of life. The forefathers of public education, including Horace Mann, drew inspiration from the despotic state of Prussia and emulated many of their practices including compulsory attendance and collective instruction. John Stuart Mill warned of the dangers of government-controlled education:

"A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government."

Oddly, the vehicle that is commonly thought to be most effective at socializing American children was essentially designed to numb minds and sterilize spirits. This might explain why an astounding 2.7 million youths are medicated for ADHD — without drugs, these "unruly" children would be unable to sit through manila lessons and behave subserviently. Of course, this is only to speak of the type of socialization that occurs at good schools. Minorities are often not as fortunate — they're forced into virtual prisons, fully equipped with metal detectors, security officers, and chaotic classrooms.

Is this the socialization that homeschool opponents espouse? To say their criticism is hypocritical would be far too polite.

To opponents, homeschoolers are held captive from society and insulated from the life experiences needed to socialize them. This view is pure bigotry. Homeschooling families live the belief that the "world is a classroom." According to Ray's study, the average homeschooler is involved in 5.2 activities outside the home such as scouts, volunteering, and sports. Other studiesDownload PDF have shown that, as adults, homeschoolers are more likely than the general population to go to college, vote, and participate in community service. One Canadian adult reflects on her social life as a homeschooled child:

"In my experience [my siblings and I] had ample opportunity for socialization with other children. Between homeschooling group activities (such as art lessons, soccer, swimming lessons), piano and voice lessons, choir, guitar, cello and violin lessons and activities in the parish, we had a great deal of socialization."

The socialization myth should be exposed for what it is: a narrow-minded fear that homeschoolers will grow to be socially awkward adults. With the current state of government education, is this really what homeschool opponents should be worried about? Just imagine a society where cocktail goers have more to discuss than weather, shopping, and reality television! (On second thought, this is precisely what the establishment should fear.)

Much more HERE

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