Thursday, December 20, 2012

British schools plan overhaul of 11-plus to beat 'middle-class tutor factor' that sees some children coached from the age of five

Clueless.  This will just advantage the children of well-connected parents even more.  Make the system even more obscure and whom do you think will suss it out?

Grammar school entrance tests will be made ‘tutor-proof’ amid evidence that coaching for middle-class children begins as young as five.

Kent, Britain’s biggest education authority, today unveiled plans to revamp the 11-plus within two years to ease the ‘pressures’ of coaching on children.

Tuition typically begins months before the testing date, with some parents hiring coaches from the early years of primary school.

Under plans to introduce tests  ‘as resistant to coaching as possible’, parents and tutors will no longer be able to buy past papers or practice tests.

To test understanding rather than exam technique, questions will be made tougher and less formulaic.

They are likely to focus more on material covered at primary school, instead of requiring pupils to work through endless ‘reasoning’ multiple choice options.

Pupils may also face a new test of reading comprehension and more assessment of their writing skills.

The review was launched amid fears from grammar  school heads that bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds are overlooked because they miss out on coaching which helps youngsters reach the  highest marks.

Robert Masters, head of the ‘super-selective’ grammar The Judd School in Tonbridge, Kent, criticised a ‘culture of coaching’ that may lead to bright children from poorer homes being ‘leap-frogged’.

Kent’s 11-plus currently comprises tests of maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning.  There is also a writing task, which is taken into account in the case of borderline candidates.

Councillor Mike Whiting, Kent’s cabinet member for education, is leading moves ‘to design a new approach to assess ability more appropriately – and in a way that is less coachable’.

Changes are expected to be introduced in time for testing in 2014, for entry in September 2015.

The initiative in Kent, which has 33 of the country’s 164 remaining grammars, is likely to be watched closely by other areas where selective schools still exist.


‘Scrooge Academy’: Parents’ fury as Christian primary school bans Christmas nativity play from the timetable

Parents have renamed a Christian primary school the 'Scrooge Academy' after it banned Christmas from the timetable.

Oasis Academy has decided there will be no nativity play for its pupils because of its poor academic performance.

The school in Nunsthorpe, near Grimsby, whose students are aged four to 11, says the festivities would interrupt pupil learning as it strives to improve achievements in maths and  English.

Parents believe the children are being deliberately punished because the move came just days after the school, prior to its academy conversion, was ranked last out of 44 in North East Lincolnshire in Department of Education Key Stage 2 rankings in Department of Education Key Stage 2 rankings.

Amanda Markey, whose child attends the school, said: 'They have stolen Christmas from the children.It should be called the Scrooge Academy. Where is the fun?

'They can take children out of class for assemblies but they can't find the time to organise a play? To say they cannot have Christmas until their grades improve is really unfair.

'Surely getting the students to learn a script for a festive play would aid learning, and the performance would build confidence. How can that not be of benefit to their education? The children are really disappointed; it has really affected them.

'Why can't they have a bit of fun on the last days of school?'

Helen Merriman-Sellars, 38, whose daughter Bethanie, 6, attends the school, said Christmas could have been incorporated into the children's lessons.

She said: 'While I agree that the school needs to focus on education, with a bit of planning they could easily have incorporated things like a nativity into lessons. It's educational for the children to learn about things like that and it's also an important part of their childhood.

'They are not at secondary school level, they are just primary school children.  There's also been a lot of bad feeling because the school left it so late in the day to tell us. If they were going to do this, they should have communicated it earlier to save as much upset.'

A spokesperson from Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe said: 'The academy realises that some parents are disappointed that we're not putting on a Christmas play this year.

'This is because such plays take many weeks of rehearsal time and, given the current context at Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe with very low standards of attainment , the academy needs to prioritise and focus rigorously on raising standards in English and maths for all our students.

'To do this, our students need to focus on their school work throughout the term. However, this far from means that we're not having any other Christmas activities and celebrations at the academy and these include a visiting theatre company, special Christmas assemblies, a Christmas fair, carols around the tree and a Christmas dinner for students and their parents to attend.

'In the future, when education standards have been notably raised at the academy, there will be an opportunity to re-introduce termly music and drama productions without compromising the students' entitlement to success and progress in key areas such and reading, writing and maths.'

And a spokesperson from the Oasis group, which runs the academy, said: 'There is a certain irony to the situation, in that people would think a Christian organisation would try to cancel Christmas.

'Christmas has not been cancelled and there have been other festive events put on instead of a nativity play.We understand that might upset some parents but we are trying to do what is best for the students.'


A dumbed down debate, but those tests still hold some lessons

Alan Reid (Professor Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia) comments on recent international rankings, in which some say Australian students did badly

The release of the international TIMSS (maths and science at years 4 and 8) and PIRLS (reading at year 4) test scores last week unleashed a wave of commentary bemoaning the state of Australian education.

Unfortunately, much of it was hyperbole and misinformation that distorted the results as well as the subsequent public discussion.

Once again we have missed the opportunity to use comparative information garnered from the tests to assist our thinking about teaching and learning. When commentators misuse the data by removing many of its subtleties and complexities and by making simplistic and superficial claims, education debate is dumbed down. This has happened in several ways.

First, using results from just two year levels in only three areas of the curriculum, claims are made about the quality of Australian education. The fact is that although reading, maths and science are important, they tell us nothing about outcomes in other crucial curriculum areas such as the arts, history, civics, health and PE. Nor do we get any sense of how students are faring in such critical domains as problem-solving, inquiry, creativity and inter-cultural understanding. At best, the results present a narrow picture of student progress. The information is too limited to legitimise the kinds of sweeping judgments about the quality of education in Australia that have been made recently.

Second, the commentators took the test results at face value, without questioning the nature of the tests themselves. There are several issues associated with the construction of the tests, not the least of which is how a curriculum-based test can assume that students from every test country at year 4, for example, have covered the same material to the same depth and in the same sequence.

This would be hard enough to engineer across Australia let alone across the 50 countries that participated in the tests.

More than this, given what we know about how students read texts, the question of how test material can present as culturally neutral is another important consideration.

Unless students are taking the same test under the same set of circumstances and with the same preparation, its results must be treated with caution.

Third, the commentators invariably read the test results in isolation. In maths at year 4, Australia's mean score was significantly higher than 27 countries and below 17 countries; but by year 8 the mean score was below just six countries. Similarly in science at year 4, Australia's mean score was significantly higher than 23 countries and below 18 countries; however by year 8 we were below just nine countries.

Now, there could be any number of reasons for the improvement from year 4 to year 8, including that the foundations for study are being well laid in the primary years. But commentators can't cherry pick results to make their point. Taken together, and adding results from PISA (an international test of 15-year-old students in maths, science and reading), the international tests regularly place Australian outcomes in reading, maths and science in the top 10 countries. This does mean there is room for improvement, but it is hardly the stuff of which educational crises are made.

Finally, commentators have tended to accept the test outcomes as presenting a problem and immediately advocate strategies to address it. A favourite tactic is to propose following the policies of those countries that are in the top five of the league table.

There are problems with such an approach, including the differences in contexts between countries. In Singapore, for example, there is a concern that although students are successful in tests, their creativity is being stifled. Clearly it is useful to share information between countries, but importing policies and practices from other countries is fraught with danger.

Another tactic is to use the ''problem'' as a springboard for advocating a predetermined position. In the past week, various commentators have proposed such disparate strategies as greater school autonomy, revamped teacher education programs and voucher systems to enable school choice - all as means to improve Australia's standing in international tests.

The problem with these approaches is that they jump from an apparent problem to solution without some important intermediate steps, such as gathering and assessing the evidence, clarifying the problem, and explaining causes.

The test results should not be dismissed - and I am not suggesting Australian education can't improve - but I believe superficial readings of international test data are more likely to impede than advance the quality of education in this country.

Rather than misinterpreting the data, we would be better served by focusing on some of the issues the test results do highlight. These include the unacceptable differences in educational outcomes between students from affluent backgrounds and those who suffer educational disadvantage.

Progress in education can only be made if we respect evidence, recognise complexity, and are willing to inquire and investigate, rather than manufacture crises. A quality education system can only be achieved in the presence of quality public debates about education.


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