Monday, April 30, 2012

Wacky British school inspectors

Teachers claim they have been reprimanded by Ofsted inspectors for having pupils who are ‘too well behaved and polite’ and for marking work with ‘back to front’ left-handed ticks.

A list of bizarre complaints has been revealed, including one about a teacher who was eight months pregnant but told she was being downgraded because she ‘didn’t move around the room enough’.

The Times Educational Supplement yesterday reported that hundreds of teachers are flooding its online forum to share scathing accounts of the inspectors employed to judge them. Some inspectors are accused of falling asleep on the job.

One PE teacher was reportedly told that their lesson was ‘unsatisfactory’ as there were ‘children doing nothing at some points in the lesson’. The decision was overturned after it was pointed out that the pupils were fielding in a cricket match.

Another teacher described how a group of eight-year-olds were building models to demonstrate the Roman central heating system. The inspector declared it ‘the best design and technology lesson I’ve seen this year’.

One teacher was told: ‘That was a good lesson, but I’m going to mark it down as satisfactory because you talked too much.’

A food and technology teacher was told that the way to improve their lesson from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ was to ‘put all the pupils in chef’s whites instead of aprons’.

And one teacher said an inspector observed her lesson and complained: ‘Your children are rather too well behaved and polite.’

Ofsted’s desire to ensure that all minority groups achieve highly also led to confusion. One teacher was told that the 25 per cent ‘success rate’ for male Bengali sixth-formers was a ‘serious issue’ that could lead to a downgrading. In fact, out of only four such pupils, one was being treated for cancer, another had died in a road accident and a third was in a young offenders’ institution.

An Ofsted spokesman said: ‘It is difficult to respond to rumour and anecdote.  'It is worth keeping in mind that out of thousands of inspections each year, Ofsted receives complaints about less than 3 per cent.’


The Federal government's college money pit

by Jeff Jacoby

IF INSANITY is doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different outcome, then the federal government's strategy for keeping higher education affordable is crazier than Norman Bates.

For decades, American politicians have waxed passionate on the need to put college within every family's reach. To ensure that anyone who wants to go to college will be able to foot the bill, Washington has showered hundreds of billions of dollars into student aid of all kinds -- grants and loans, subsidized work-study jobs, tax credits and deductions. Today, that shower has become a monsoon. As Neal McCluskey points out in a Cato Institute white paper, government outlays intended to hold down the price of a college degree have ballooned, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $29.6 billion in 1985 to $139.7 billion in 2010: an increase of 372 percent since Ronald Reagan's day.

Most of that prodigious growth is very recent. The College Board, which tracks each type of financial assistance in a comprehensive annual report, shows total federal aid soaring by more than $100 billion in the space of a single decade -- from $64 billion in 2000 to $169 billion in 2010. (The College Board's data, unlike Cato's, includes higher-education tax credits and deductions.)

And what have we gotten for this vast investment in college affordability? Colleges that are more unaffordable than ever.

Year in, year out, Washington bestows tuition aid on students and their families. Year in, year out, the cost of tuition surges, galloping well ahead of inflation. And year in, year out, politicians vie to outdo each other in promising still more public subsidies that will keep higher education within reach of all. Does it never occur to them that there might be a cause-and-effect relationship between the skyrocketing aid and the skyrocketing price of a college education? That all those grants and loans and tax credits aren't containing the fire, but fanning it?

Apparently not.  "We've got to make college more affordable for more young people," President Obama declaimed during campaign appearances at the universities of Iowa, North Carolina, and Colorado last week. "We can't price the middle class out of a college education." Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Obama argued for keeping the aid spigot open. He hit all the usual notes ("extend the tuition tax credit … cap student loan payments … make sure the Pell grants are there"), and for good measure used the federal student-loan interest rate -- which will double in July unless Congress acts -- to paint Republicans as clueless Grinches. Yet Mitt Romney also wants to extend the current rate. The myth that government can control the price of higher education by driving up the demand for it commands broad and bipartisan belief.

"It's not enough just to increase student aid. We've also got to stop subsidizing skyrocketing tuition," Obama said to applause in Iowa City. He might as well have declared that it's not enough to keep flooring the accelerator; we've also got to stop the car from going faster. Reality doesn't work that way. Rising government aid underwrites rising demand for higher education, and when demand is forced up, prices follow suit. (See under: Crisis, subprime mortgage.)

Federal financial aid is a major source of revenue for colleges and universities, and aid packages are generally based on the gap between what a family can afford to pay to send a student to a given college, and the tuition and fees charged by that college. That gives schools every incentive to keep their tuition unaffordable. Why would they reduce their sticker price to a level more families could afford, when doing so would mean kissing millions of government dollars goodbye?

Directly or indirectly, government loans and grants have led to massive tuition inflation. That has been a boon for colleges and universities, where budgets, payrolls, and amenities have grown amazingly lavish. And it has been a boon for politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, who are happy to exploit anxiety over tuition to win votes.

But for students and their families, let alone for taxpayers who don't go to college, it has been a disaster. The more government has done to make higher education affordable, the more unaffordable it has become. Doing more of the same won't yield a different outcome. By now, even Norman Bates would have figured that out.


Loneliness among university students:  Is it worse in Australia?

I think Adele Horin has a point below.  My undergraduate years were in the '60s and I had an exceptionally good time in campus politics at that time.  Being one of the few outspoken conservatives on campus in the Vietnam era was immensely entertaining.  But what I enjoyed most was my time in one of the university's army units.  So I was the complete counterformist.  Donning an army uniform when most of the campus was scared stiff of being drafted into the army was real defiance.  And I could tell of other adventures ....

Rather to my regret, however, my own son in his undergraduate years was rather like those Adele Horin describes below: Sticking to his studies and his old school friends.  Fortunately, however, he has now moved interstate to do his Ph.D. and he seems to be having there the sort of fun I would wish for him.  In his undergraduate years I kept telling him that your time at university is a time for having fun so I am glad he has finally realized it

Having just read the latest American literary sensation, The Art of Fielding, about college baseball, I am struck once again at the deep emotional connection young Americans feel towards their university; for the American college student the years between 18 and 22 are seminal when new friendships are forged and campus experiences can be life-changing.

It could not be more different from the narrow, often lonely and alienating experience of going to university in Australia.

This week, new figures showed record numbers of students from migrant, indigenous and otherwise hard-up backgrounds are going to university.

But I could not help wonder how these students will fare without a pack - or a pair - of high school mates as a ballast against loneliness.

Some parents once feared university might corrupt their darlings by bringing them into contact with strange and subversive elements. But nowadays parents are more inclined to worry that university is not the broadening and enlivening experience it once was.

The old school tie is more important than ever. Many young people cling to their high school friends for dear life as they progress through the university years, barely making a new acquaintance.

So big and inhospitable are campuses, so large are the numbers in tutorials, so depleted are university clubs, and so pervasive are the changes in life outside the campus that the university experience has become less vital, interesting and social for many students.

A few years ago the mother of a gorgeous and vivacious young woman from Sydney's north shore - now a journalist - revealed how friendless her daughter found university. The only sources of welcome and cheer were the campus Christian clubs that unsurprisingly had gained a huge following. If this young woman with bountiful social skills found university a bit lonely what hope do the shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged have?

My assertions are based on observations over the past five years of a group of young people still making their way through university and backed by three research reports since 2005 charting the engagement - and disengagement - experience of thousands of students.

To give credit where it is due, the universities are keenly aware that student disengagement is a major issue that needs to be addressed. But a lot of the forces causing the alienation are outside the universities' control.

The First Year Experiences in Australian Universities report, which traced changes from 1994 to 2009, found only half the students in 2009 felt a sense of belonging to their university and one-quarter had not made a friend - a significant worsening from previous years. As well, there had been a significant decline in the proportion that felt confident that at least one teacher knew their name.

Decreasing proportions participated through university sports, clubs or societies, and, of course, students spent less time on campus than in the past, and the less time they spent, the less they felt they belonged.

The report also points to improvements in student satisfaction with the quality of teaching, and enjoyment of courses. Academically, life is better.

If university is a less exciting and social place than it used to be for many, it is partly because students are holding down jobs, on average 13 hours a week, and not just to pay for ski trips. Another report, "Studying and Working", which looked at student finances and engagement, found many were in financial hardship and 14 per cent sometimes could not afford to eat.

The decline in shared houses due to soaring rents is another reason for the diminution of university experience. Thinking back, it was the network of shared houses that linked students into a constant party in the long-ago 1970s that made the era so vivid. Living with mum and dad will not be so memorable.

And then there's Facebook. Stephen Marche, writing in The Atlantic, posed the question "Is Facebook making us lonely?" If you use it to make arrangements to meet friends it is an asset. But when Facebook - and online interactive games - become a substitute for meeting people then it robs students of the richness and complexity of real relationships.

That is what makes Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding so fascinating. It is a novel, at heart, about the deep and complex relationships forged at university, with the central character being a shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged young man.

The American system is entirely different from ours, propelling students across the continent to reside at college. It is enormously wasteful. Students and parents rack up huge debts to pay for tuition and board when often perfectly good institutions of higher learning are in their home town.

But it does have the advantage of expanding student horizons and friendship networks, and of imparting a thrilling edge to the university experience, and a deep attachment to the institution.

For the 40,203 students from low socio-economic postcodes who started university this year, the opportunity is priceless. Previous research shows such students have more clarity of purpose, study more consistently and skip fewer classes. But they are also less likely to make friends or like being a university student.

Young people are lucky in so many ways with a world of connection and information at their finger tips. But the university experience seems less special and more impersonal than it used to be, and that's a pity.


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