Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fixing Sweden’s schools

Swedish pupils have fallen behind their international peers.  Why?  No mention of the main reason:  A big new minority of thick Middle-Easterners pulling down the averages

A NEW study from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) will land on the desks of policymakers around the world next month. It will make sobering reading for political leaders in many countries. In Sweden Jan Bjorklund, the education minister, is prepared for poor marks too.

The triennial study by the OECD, a think-tank, measures the reading, maths and science proficiency of 15-year-olds. In the first study, in 2000, Swedish pupils performed a lot better than those in most other countries. But even as the country’s schools inspired imitators elsewhere, their results have deteriorated. In 2009 Sweden’s overall score fell below the OECD average. Other rankings show a similar trend.

“I assume the results will continue falling. It will take several more years before the positive effects of our policy begin to show in global ratings,” says Mr Bjorklund, referring to an overhaul of Sweden’s education system. Since coming to power in 2006, the centre-right coalition government has introduced reforms such as a new national curriculum. Mr Bjorklund, who heads the Liberal party, is convinced he can reverse the decline. But will voters have the patience to wait? With universities complaining that students arrive unprepared and companies worrying that Sweden will lose out to other countries, a sense of urgency is in the air. Education will be important in next year’s election.

What went wrong? Money is not the problem. Free education from primary school to university has long been a pillar of Sweden’s welfare system, and public spending on education is among the world’s highest, according to the OECD (see chart). Immigration is high, though this according to Skolverket—the National Agency for Education—had only a marginal effect on overall results.

Mr Bjorklund blames the poor results on the period when the Social Democrats were in charge. Others say poorly paid teachers are at fault. The profession, once highly regarded, has seen salaries fall far behind other jobs requiring a higher-education degree. The student demand for teaching programmes is so low that almost anyone applying will be accepted. As many teachers approach retirement, unions warn of a teacher crisis ahead. In hopes of making the job more attractive, a career programme with better pay was launched this year.

A growing gap between schools is another reason, says Skolverket. Sweden is now one of the few countries to show both worse results and more inequality. Free school choice is a contributing factor. The system, introduced 20 years ago, allows parents to choose between municipal schools and independent schools, all financed by tax money. The aim was to increase quality by competition, but it has also led to the best students flocking to the same schools.

Many worry that school inequality will spur segregation. Extra resources for schools with weaker students could be a solution but abolishing independent schools is not on any party’s agenda. Polls show a majority of Swedes want to keep the free-school choice. Still, letting private companies run tax-funded schools is controversial. Critics say profit-seeking puts quality at risk. In the wake of several school companies’ bankruptcies, the government has indicated that private-equity funds will no longer be welcome owners.

The PISA study, due on December 3rd, will make headlines. But educationalists say such rankings don’t give the whole picture. Swedish students are good at social science, history and English. Democratic values and gender-equality permeate the curriculum. Those are important, to be sure, but they are of little solace to exporters in need of engineers.


We're weeding out rich thickos who may have got places in the past, boasts Oxford admissions chief

The head of admissions at Oxford University has declared that he is weeding out ‘thick rich’ applicants who might have been offered places in the past.

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions, said the admissions  process selects students based on their aptitude alone.  Privileged hopefuls who might have been given preferential treatment a generation ago will now struggle to win a place, according to Mr Nicholson.

He said the world-class university is looking for the brightest and the best, irrespective of their backgrounds.

‘I really don’t care whether candidates are poor and bright or rich and bright. I want the bright ones. If they’re thick and rich, they’re the ones I’m hoping our  process can exclude,’ he said.

Mr Nicholson said tougher testing was key to differentiating between deserving students and those who have been schooled to make it through the interview process for the prestigious university.

He said the ‘thing that really links our students together is that they are all selected on their academic merit, they’ve demonstrated that they can cope with the tutorial environment and they’re all really smart’.

His comments come in the wake of a high-profile example of a man trying to beat the system to win a place at Oxford. He placed an advert offering £122,300 for a private tutor to help him become an  eligible candidate.

The unnamed Arab businessman’s advert in the Times Education Supplement said he needed an understanding of jazz piano, major works of opera and Shakespeare in order to apply.

Mr Nicholson suggested applicants from the 70s and 80s were more likely to have been accepted based on social status.  He said: ‘Of those people who were admitted 20, 30, 40 years ago, it would be interesting to see how many of them would be admitted now.’ He told an  international higher education conference run by the Sutton Trust charity: ‘We’re supposed to be identifying  students with real potential for success, irrespective of social background.’

Oxford invests £8million in bursaries to help students from low-income backgrounds pay for their degrees. More than £3million is spent each year on outreach work that aims to encourage applicants from a variety of backgrounds.


Midlands primary school bans pupils from using Black Country dialect

The Black Country is more or less in the middle of England.  I rather hope Black Country speech is preserved.  It is a sort of linguistic museum.  It contains expressions and pronunciations  that go back as much as 600 years, expressions that are no longer heard in modern English.  Thee, Thy and Thou are still in use -- JR

A Midlands primary school has been accused of snobbery after banning pupils from talking or writing in their "damaging" Black Country dialect

Staff have drawn up a list of ten offending phrases after introducing the "zero tolerance" policy against the use of local words.

The controversial ruling was announced in a letter to parents claiming the harsh crackdown would "get children out of the habit" of speaking the way their parents do.

But parents and local residents have criticised the move by Colley Lane Primary School, in Halesowen, West Mids, as "snobbish".

The ban comes two months after a study was published claiming that accents from the Birmingham area make people seem less intelligent and untrustworthy.

Outlawed phrases now include "I cor do that" instead of "I can't do that" and "It wor me" instead of "it wasn't me."

The letter, which was posted to parents last Thursday, said: "Recently we asked each class teacher to write a list of the top ten most damaging phrases used by children in the classroom.

"We are introducing a 'zero tolerance' in the classroom to get children out of the habit of using the phrases on the list.

"We want the children in our school to have the best start possible: Understanding when it is and is not acceptable to use slang and colloquial language.

"We value the local dialect but are encouraging children to learn the skill of turning it on and off in different situations."

Parent reacted angrily, claiming that the Black Country ban was "insulting."

Alana Willetts, 30, an engineer whose nine-year-old son George attends the school, said: "I do not agree with this zero tolerance policy and am not the only one.

"The teachers should be teaching the children about the Black Country and our dialect.

"There are a lot of children who have no idea about local history. It's a very multicultural school, there are quite a few kids who don't speak English as a first language and know nothing of our history, they should be concentrating on that.

"Some of my friends have gone on to be doctors and lawyers, I'm an engineer it doesn't affect you as a person.  "I got a double A in my English GCSE and I have a Black Country accent.  "I think it is patronising and insulting to say that people with a Black Country accent are disadvantaged.

"All the parents are outraged, English is a living language, we can't all talk the same, we don't all speak in ye olde English and new words are being added to the dictionary every day."

The Black Country includes the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall and the southern parts of the city of Wolverhampton, but does not include Birmingham.

It's most famous sons include Lenny Henry, who has recently been given the Freedom of his hometown of Dudley, and Noddy Holder.

But Zheyan Kareem, 31, who has a seven-year-old boy at the school and moved to the UK eight years ago, supported the language ban.  She said: "English is my second language so for me, as a parent, it is good if my child speaks English in the house and not slang picked up at school.  "I believe it is good for their education.”

Yesterday the school, which caters for 592 pupils aged 4-11, defended outlawing local dialect saying Black Country words and phrases contributed to a "decline in standards."

Headteacher John White said: "If they can't say it, it is likely they can't read it, and even less likely they can write it.

"We value the dialect but we want to encourage children to learn when to use and when not, like for a job interview. It is, of course, fine to use in other situations and we would celebrate that.”


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