Thursday, December 08, 2016

Muslim schools in Britain are a bad idea

A new report on social integration exposes how religious education perpetuates division and prejudice

Theresa May is the latest in a long line of politicians who have promised to lead a “One Nation” government, yet according to Dame Louise Casey’s report on integration, published yesterday, Britain is more divided than ever. After the Brexit vote revealed a country split from top to bottom by class, age and education, her inquiry found a shocking rise in communities segregated along ethnic or religious lines. Parts of Blackburn, Birmingham, Burnley and Bradford are now between 70 per cent and 85 per cent Muslim. More than half of black and Asian students are in schools with a majority of ethnic minority pupils as people increasingly live parallel lives.

Government attempts to boost integration have amounted to little more than “saris, samosas and steel drums for the well-intentioned”, Dame Louise concludes. Too many public institutions have gone so far to accommodate diversity that they have “ignored or even condoned regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices for fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic”. In some communities, women are suffering appalling misogyny and abuse that goes unnoticed by the authorities. There is, the report warns, a downward spiral of “segregation, deprivation and social exclusion” that is being exploited by extremists – both Islamists and those on the far right. This is not just about social solidarity, it is also about national security.

Ministers yesterday welcomed the Casey review and promised to consider its recommendations. Yet the government is committed to policies that will only entrench segregation in the bit of the public sector that should do most to promote integration – the education system. The prime minister has said that she wants to increase the number of faith schools and “confidently promote them”. In order to boost their role, she has promised to remove the 50 per cent cap on the proportion of pupils that new religious free schools can recruit on the basis of faith. The aim is to encourage diversity of provision, but the change will surely also deepen divisions at a time when religion is the source of so much tension and concern.

Nobody would ever support hospitals, or trains, run on religious grounds so it seems bizarre to promote sectarianism in schools
According to the Casey report, 55 per cent of people in this country believe there is a “fundamental clash” between Islam and UK values, and 46 per cent of Muslims feel that their faith makes it difficult for them to be accepted. The Government should be doing everything it can to encourage children from different backgrounds to mix rather than creating faith-based ghettos. Pupils will learn far more about tolerance and respect by meeting those of other colours and creeds in the playground than through any number of Britishness lessons.

Mrs May wants to give choice to parents, and argues that faith schools are more likely than other schools to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. David Cameron, Tony Blair and Michael Gove are among the politicians who have sent their children to high-achieving Christian schools. But the truth is that most parents like these schools for their results rather than their religion and their academic success is based more on covert social selection than faith.

According to a recent report from the independent Education Policy Institute, faith schools take a lower proportion of the poorest children than other schools – 12.1 per cent of their pupils are on free school meals, a measure of deprivation, compared with 18 per cent in secular schools. After adjusting for social selection the pupils in faith schools do “little or no better than in non-faith schools”, the research found. As with grammar schools, Mrs May, the vicar’s daughter, seems to be basing policy on her own experience and preconceptions rather than the evidence – with potentially dire consequences for integration. If she wants to improve standards she should focus on encouraging better teaching and discipline in schools rather than allowing more religious institutions. Although the Casey review concludes that it would be “disproportionate” to abolish all faith schools – which provide a third of state education in this country – it is a mistake to expand them at a time of growing cultural divides.

Despite repeated warnings, the Government has also failed to clamp down on unregistered faith schools, where pupils are taught in often squalid and dangerous conditions with no checks on their safety or education. Ofsted is investigating more than 150 potentially illegal schools, which it regards as the “tip of the iceberg” and there are fears that these underground institutions are being used to radicalise Muslim children.

Nobody knows how many pupils are falling through gaps in the system – a 2014 study put the number of registered home education children in England at 27,292 but the Casey report says the unregistered number is “thought to be several multiples of this”. Councils have a duty to ensure the safety of all children – whether they are in state schools or being privately educated – so it is shocking that potentially thousands of pupils appear to be disappearing into an educational black hole. Although the Department for Education is consulting on what to do about children who drop out of school, it has no plan to deal with those who never register in the first place. The Casey review found worrying signs of a shadow society growing up in some areas with people living in a parallel universe of community-run health care, policing and education and so invisible to the state.

Dame Louise argues that the law that allows parents to educate their children at home has failed to keep up with the realities of a modern world in which youngsters are being siphoned out of the mainstream system. According to the 1996 Education Act, parents are responsible for providing an “efficient” and “suitable” education for their children – but there is no legal definition of “suitable”. Instead, the Department for Education guidance, based on a 1985 judicial review case, defines “suitable” as an education that “primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole”. As Dame Louise points out this is completely “contrary to efforts on integration and building cohesive communities which are based on shared values”.

As Britain becomes more secular, it is time to separate education and faith. Nobody would ever support hospitals, or trains, run on religious grounds so it seems bizarre to promote sectarianism in schools. In 2010, Peter Robinson, the then first minister of Northern Ireland described the segregation between Protestants and Catholics as a “benign form of apartheid”. The danger is that a similarly divided education system is developing in some parts of England now. There is nothing One Nation about faith schools.


U.S. now ranks near the bottom among 35 industrialized nations in math

The math achievement of American high school students in 2015 fell for the second time in a row on a major international benchmark, pushing the United States down to the bottom half of 72 nations and regions around the world who participate in the international test, known as the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA.  Among the 35 industrialized nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. now ranks 31st.

Both reading and science scores were steady, with U.S. students scoring near the international average in both subjects.

“We really are doing a lot worse in math than we are in science and reading,” said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, who had early access to the PISA results, which were released to the public on Tuesday.

Carr emphasized that the 2015 PISA results showed that students across the board, from bottom to middle to top performers, were doing worse in math. It wasn’t just one segment of students who brought the national average down.

“We need to take a strong look at ourselves in mathematics, particularly since we’re beginning to see a downward trend across assessments,” Carr said.

Related: Everyone aspires to be Finland, but this country beats them in two out of three subjects

The weak math performance echoed the results of a second national exam, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), on which 4th and 8th graders also posted lower math scores on the 2015 test.

The PISA test is administered every three years around the world to measure what 15-year-old students know in math, reading and science before the end of compulsory schooling. In the United States, it’s primarily taken by 10th graders. The U.S. has never been a strong performer globally, but has generally scored near the average since the test began in 2000.  In 2012 math scores deteriorated a few points. Now, with the 2015 results in, it’s a clear downward trend.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, which administers the PISA exam, said that math has always been the most difficult subject for American students. Even students in Massachusetts, one of the top performing states in the nation, do no better than average globally, Schleicher noted.

In an online briefing for journalists, he said that higher performing nations structure their math curriculum differently, teaching fewer topics, but in greater depth. They also teach math topics in a sequential order, Schleicher explained, asking students to master one topic at a time, rather than cycling back to the same concept year after year.

“Students are often good at answering the first layer of a problem in the United States, but as soon as students have to go deeper and answer the more complex parts of a problem, they have difficulties,” he said.

The timing of these results comes just a few years after the Common Core standards were adopted in most U.S. states. But Schleicher, who is a proponent of the new standards, said that it’s still “too early to judge” if they’re working. He pointed out that implementation had only just begun in 2015 and that many years of Common Core-aligned instruction will need to pass before it reaches 15-year-olds.

Related: Is universal preschool the answer? Britain says ‘yes’

“What I would says is that the Common Core concept is quite well aligned with what we see in many high performing education systems,” said Schleicher. “Of the things that the United States has recently done, probably that [Common Core] has one of the greatest promise, in my judgment, but we can’t prove it.”

Schleicher pointed to two silver linings for the United States. In science, the achievement gap between rich and poor is closing, albeit not by enough yet to raise the overall score of the whole nation. And second, even though only a small portion of U.S. students hit the most advanced level on the science test, the country is large enough that it still produces 300,000 high-performing 15-year olds in the subject. Among the four regions in China that currently participate in the PISA test (Shanghai, Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong), a higher percentage of test-takers hit the advanced level, but that still produces fewer top science students — roughly 180,000.

The U.S. actually improved its rankings in reading and science, because other nations did worse and slipped in status. Among the 60 nations and regions that took the PISA test in both 2012 and 2015, the U.S. ranked 15th in reading and 18th in science, up three notches in each subject, despite the fact that U.S. achievement didn’t improve.

One of the nations that slipped considerably was Finland, which had been a beacon to education reformers for its strong results in previous years.


Australian high school students are two years behind the world's best performing countries - and have got worse at maths, science and reading

Australian high school students are two years behind their top international counterparts, a report shows.

Students aged 15 in Australia have not just slipped compared to their international peers, but have actually gotten worse at maths, science and reading, the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed.

When compared to teenagers in Singapore, local students were found to be about one-and-a-half years behind in science, one year behind in reading, and two-and-a-third years behind in maths.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham acknowledged Australia's performance was slipping in the three-yearly report, released on Tuesday night.

'Given the wealth of our nation and scale of our investment, we should expect to be a clear education leader, not risk becoming a laggard,' Senator Birmingham said.

'We must leave the politicking at the door and have a genuine conversation that is based on evidence about what we do from here.'

Australia is above the OECD average, but sits equal 10th in science, equal 12th in reading and equal 20th in maths out of 72 countries, according to analysis by the Australian Council for Educational Research, which reports on the study.

'The PISA results are showing that we are getting worse at preparing our students for the everyday challenges of adult life in the 21st century,' the council's Sue Thomson told AAP.

Dr Thomson says there is an issue with the teaching of maths and science in Australia. 'TIMSS has shown that and now PISA has shown it again,' she said.

'Other countries are getting better than we are and we're not even just standing still in this one, we're falling behind as well.'

More than half-a-million 15-year-olds complete the test worldwide, aimed at measuring how well they use their knowledge to meet real-life challenges, with more than 14,000 Australian students taking part.

The 2015 test, which focused on science, asked students about issues such as migratory bird patterns, running in hot weather and sustainable fish farming.

The PISA results come on the back of last week's Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showing Australian students still middle of the pack after 20 years of testing.

After sitting behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Slovenia in the TIMSS, Australia was outperformed by Finland in all three PISA areas, Vietnam in Science and Slovenia, again, in maths.

Singapore was the highest performer across the board.

'I don't think there is any good news stories out of it because all of the gaps that we measure have continued to have just stayed,' Dr Thomson said.

A more detailed national report will be released early next year.


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