Does anyone in the education system actually believe Gove knows anything?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Michael Gove's latest attack on teachers and school governors is unprecedented for an Education Secretary. Sure, we've had Secretaries of State who have enjoyed taking pot shots at the unions and at teachers at times, but Michael Gove's aggressive assaults on the profession are unique, not only in their wide-ranging nature, but also in their wrong-headedness. His latest barrage of criticism not only attacks the unions as being full of Trotskyites (this from the man who expresses admiration for Chairman Mao) but also denigrates governors and teachers who are members of professional associations. Throw in his well known, if off-the-record, jibes at civil servants, and you begin to think: is there anyone in the system that he actually approves of? Basically, the only kind of person in education he appears to have any time for are: not members of a teaching union; not members of a professional subject association; not a governor; not a local authority bureaucrat; not a supporter of a local authority school; and not a civil servant. But, of course, it has to be someone who agrees with everything he says.

Er Michael...there aren't many left, are there? I hate to tell you this, but many private and grammar school teachers are members of professional associations like the National Association for the Teaching of English, which you attacked in such an ill-informed fashion in your latest speech for failing to support your catastrophic dictats to teach what you call "grammar" -- although I'm not sure you really know what "grammar" is judging from the complete mess of the your new National Curriculum for primary schools. I attended NATE's conference in York last week, and I'm familiar with the exhaustive research that has gone on within NATE concerning the teaching of "grammar"; the serious examination of what we mean by the word, the search for a meaningful 'meta-language' to describe the processes that happen within language, the careful consideration of how we might best teach the multiple facets of the subject. You said in your speech that the leader of NATE described the teaching of grammar as oppressive; this is a complete mis-representation of his and NATE's perceptions of the matter. If any professional group of people were more concerned about the teaching of grammar, it's NATE! They have resources galore to help teachers with this very tricky curriculum area; their approach is not prescriptive, but it's eminently sensible. NATE researchers and teachers like Helen Lines, who has conducted fruitful research on the teaching of grammar for the government and produced numerous resources for NATE on this area, have shown that "grammar" can be taught well, but teaching it requires training, patience and plenty of critical reflection on the part of teachers. Being a member of NATE myself, I know that the association embraces a wide range of views; that's the whole point of the organisation, it gives a voice to English teachers and their diverse opinions.

Then, there's governors. Your attack on them was not only gratuitous, it was actually very puzzling given the fact that you have encouraged schools to become academies, where it's largely only "local worthies" who are running the show, particularly in the unsponsored academies. Local authority bureaucrats -- actually paid professionals -- have no place on the governing bodies of academies and free schools in the way they are entitled in local authority schools. You appear to be attacking the very people you are expecting to carry out your own "revolution"!

If there are any people in the education system who actually support Michael Gove, could they put up their hands please? (No, not you Toby Young -- you don't count, you're a governor now!)
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Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 06:49

Few things seem more desperate than trying to convince yourself that you are right by trying to suggest that everyone's on your side. Of course, the group you have missed out is parents. You only need to look at the polls where people are asked would they send their kids to a private school if they could to know how little sympathy there is for the LSN's defence of bad schools and worse ideology.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 08:39

In his speech, Gove strongly criticises governors for not evidence basing their views. Of course he also has an ongoing rant that we should be learning from the best education systems in the world.

"Mr Gove made the comments in the same speech in which he said it was time to go back to basics by making sure all children could read fluently by the age of six"

Pasi Sahlberg - director of Finnish education, came to London recently to explain that at the heart of the success of Finnish education is their understanding that some children are not ready for formal education until the age of 7 and that we are creating tremendous unnecessary problems for ourselves in our system because we are putting to much pressure on them to learn too much too young.

He also explicitly advised against the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) culture Gove is so addicted to. In fact he explicitly advised precisely to the contrary of, as far as I can remember, everything Gove is doing. But I'm open to other memories of what he said. Can anyone think of any aspect of Gove's reforms Pasi Sahlberg actually agreed with?

Or does he consider 'evidence basing' as being 'saying something and general member of the public who has never thought about education in any depth might agree with until a more intelligent view is suggested' to be evidence basing as OldAndrew suggests?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 10:32

Rereading my reply to OldAndrew I realise that it's direct relevance to his post was compromised by distractions to my writing at my end so will just try to make amends for that.

"You only need to look at the polls where people are asked would they send their kids to a private school if they could to know how little sympathy there is for the LSN’s defence of bad schools and worse ideology."

Please could you link to any examples of LSN defending bad schools OldAndrew? I'm not aware of any incidences of this happening.

Any ideological views expressed on this site seem to be rapidly kicked into touch by pragmatic posters and it is a credit to the owners of this site that they welcome the posters who do this.

I agree with you many parents would like to send their children to private schools but do not understand what point you are trying to make by saying this. You seem to be setting this discussion up as being that if people are concerned that Michael Gove's policies they must therefore be in favour of some particular set of views you see as being the 'vies of the LSN', which is a very strange structure for discussion to try to create.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 11:24

One of the things Gove has said is that state schools should be more like private schools in some ways. Children need to be stretched to achieve certain standards in intellect and skills. This is why so many people would want their children to go to a private school even when they can't afford it. Their local state school does not offer this.

Set this against the context of what LSN calls fair admissions and comprehensive education, which I paraphrase as "you will go to school where the LEA tells you and we will decide where schools are and what they are like". This is how you end up defending bad schools and an inability to change.

This chairman at NATE sounds out of his depth when his says he doesn't want to test an 11 year old for such a relatively simple ability as indentifying adverbs in a sentence. Could the evidence for how this will prescribe teaching please be presented? I was learning to do this about age seven in an LEA primary school over 30 years ago. We also did the fun things like creative writing. Why can't this still be done today, right now?
A 'test that teaches' like this would even be a standard option for doing adverbs in an EFL/ESL lesson. None of this stops other school time for being used for contextual use, which should culminate in some sort of authentic use by the child, along with the sense of achievement and ability to be creative that the child gains.

He also doesn’t want standard English to be taught!

Meanwhile back in the private schools they teach standard English including grammar, punctuation and spelling. Guess what these children are the ones heading for the most power over their own lives and the best jobs and so forth.

You carry on with your particular offer of education, but please don’t oblige anyone who doesn’t want it to take it, rather than something different which might be like WLFS or the Michaela school or A.N.Other school. Please don't call this inability to choose which you dictate as social justice, equity, fairness or whatever other mistaken term you wish to use.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 12:21

Ben said,

"One of the things Gove has said is that state schools should be more like private schools in some ways. Children need to be stretched to achieve certain standards in intellect and skills. This is why so many people would want their children to go to a private school even when they can’t afford it. Their local state school does not offer this."

The children who are at private school have parents who can afford to send them there. Children aspire to be like their parents. The second most powerful force which moulds students aspiration is their cohort.

Therefore if you are from a low income background but you want your children to be wealthy, one way you might try to achieve this is to implant your children into a cohort of children with wealthy parents. I've seen it happen many times. This is all very clear and logical and obvious. What's not so clear is whether the children who are removed from their communities and implanted into others really do benefit. I know plenty of cases where they haven't in the long term and tremendous family effort and expense has gone into pursuing the dream of a parent which was never the wisest thing for their child. That parent could instead have put their energy into their local community with real beneficial effect and could have spent the money invested in their child on other things for them.

I have also seen many instances where children from less favourable backgrounds have been inspired to achieve great things by their peers with very high aspirations. However these have generally been in comprehensive schools.

An exception to this would have been grammar schools long ago - when the majority of children were written off and those who actually got into grammar schools made the best of their opportunities. But this situation depends on there being schools where children are written off.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 10:32

Gove likes to attack - it makes him sound uncompromising and tough. He panders to tabloid (and Telegraph) prejudices about state education and bawls out anyone who disagrees with him - they are bigots defending bad schools and peddling a "bankrupt" ideology. It doesn't matter that this oppostition is so often backed up with extensive research or international evidence - if Gove shouts that the opposition are "Trots" and "enemies of promise" then he will be cheered on by hangers-on hoping to gain by being in his slip-stream.

In his interminable speech to the Spectator Conference on Education (surely an oxymoron?) he used his familiar mode of oratory: pour flattery on those who support him; insert a homily; link genuine concerns with spurious analysis underpinned by misrepresentation, inaccuracies and lies; imply that all right-thinking people support him and then reach a "conclusion" that it is only his policies which will mend what he claims is England's broken education system.

Anyone who disagrees is a heretic - and heretics must be burned.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 16:28

One of the most striking things about Gove's attack on governors is that with at least 200,000 governors in state schools they must be one of the largest volunteer groups in the country. A

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 16:34

In his latest speech Mr Gove quoted Editorial criticisms in TES about unions. Perhaps he should be reminded that criticisms of Gove published in TES far outweigh criticisms of unions. Just type Gove into the TES search facility and readers will find plenty of examples. But here’s just a flavour:

Editorial accuses Gove of “shocking illiberality”

Editorial: Slow down Gove:

Editorial: FE bursaries are unfair:

Gove accused of meddling:

Gove accused of turning the clock back:

Gove placed on the “naughty step” for being out-of-touch more than usual by proposing that the Queen have a new yacht for the Jubilee:

Gove placed on the “naughty step” for ignoring Education Select Committee’s concerns about EBacc – can’t find it on line.

And talking of the “naughty step”, the person sent in disgrace to the corner this week is Toby Young who is told that “branding less able pupils as troglodytes is not what is expected of someone given large amounts of state cash to set up their own state school.”

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 16:35

One of the most striking things about Gove's attack on governors is that they are all unpaid volunteers And who is is that has made the encouragement of volunteering a cornerstone of his government's poltical philosophy?

So Gove goes out and deliberately insults what must be one of the largest volunteer forces in the country.

I suspect the whole speech had little to do with the governance of schools and a great deal about theTory right undermining Cameron.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 16:38

Sorry about the earlier abortive attempt to post. I wasn't responsible, the laptop did it.

Alison Doig's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 17:07

Let's think of some of the things Michael Gove could have said about governors. For example : ' I am really grateful for all the hard work you put in supporting our schools, and the many hours of your own time you spend trying to do your best for the children in your community. Some of you haven't yet got it right in terms of challenging the management of your schools and we have some suggestions to help you do that'. Or 'We do appreciate how far most governing bodies have come over the past few years in terms of challenging and supporting schools. You are actually a great example of the Big Society at work. Some of you haven't got there yet, and here's how we would like to help you'. But no. It is much easier just to run down and belittle the work governors are doing thereby undermining morale and making it even more difficult to recruit. I havebeen a governor for 24 years at both primary and secondary level and have seen governing bodies improve vastly over that time. There are always things that can be done better, but you don't get people to help you with that if you tell them they are rubbish.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 07:59

Alison - you're correct. Gove could have criticised the small minority of inept governors without tarring all governors with the same brush. Unfortunately, that's not his style. He prefers to misrepresent any failings as being syptomatic of the entire sector (except those in his favoured groups eg certain academies or academy chains who are described as "ground-breaking", "innovative", "promoting excellence" blah, blah as if non-academies can't be so described).

John Bald's picture
Sat, 07/07/2012 - 17:24

Always keen to see if I've missed something, I checked the link to Helen Lines' "fruitful research" on the teaching of grammar, and find this in the first paragraph:

"There was very little robust research in complex expression in writing at the secondary phase identified by the review"

We might ask ourselves why this is the case. If the research evidence is not robust, the authors are right to say so at the outset, but it's hard to describe the results of a research survey as fruitful if they don't come up with hard evidence.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 08:07

John - the researchers followed the sentence you quoted with an explanation about how they compiled their evidence: having found "little robust research" they had to find their own. This is described thus:

"Consequently, an inclusive approach was adopted. The conclusions presented in this research brief are based on available empirical evidence, supplemented by themes and arguments judged to be of medium or high weight drawn from the theoretical literature on complex expression, and from practitioner journals."

In other words, the researchers first looked for existing evidence. They found there was little so they researched the topic themselves using methods described above.

John Bald's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 09:48

Apologies if this reply appears twice.

This was a literature search, and the first sentence shows that the researchers did not find "robust" research directly in point. The inclusive approach then moves them to other work that might cast some light on the subject, but this really is second best, and you can't by definition conduct your own direct research on a brief to search literature. This is no criticism of the researchers, but it is wrong to overstate what they actually found.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 10:28

John - at the back of the report are several pages listing the evidence consulted. Each piece of evidence was weighted and those judged medium or high were considered. This allowed the researchers to list teaching strategies suggested by the review. Again, these go over several pages and most suggestions contain citations.

Compare this with Mr Gove's attack on the "National Assocation for Teaching English" (sic). Gove's remark was a misrepresentation of NATE's position of grammar which is far more sophisticated than Gove's idea that grammar is merely knowing the grammatical functions of words and that testing children by asking them to identify, say, an adverb will improve their writing.

But Gove's rhetoric plays well with newspapers anxious to have their own prejudices about state education upheld. No need for pages of evidence, weighted or otherwise. Just think of a sound-bite that will be reproduced gleefully in the media.

John Bald's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 11:26

Once again, I'm not criticising these researchers in any way - I just want clear and direct evidence on the point they set out to address, and attempts to weigh up other evidence are second best. Whether I would ever have commissioned this brief in this form is another question. To put it more plainly, I would not, and neither, I suspect would anyone outside a bureaucracy.

I will also be open about my view that NATE's overall strategy since its inception has been misconceived, and that Simon Gibbons' attack on the NC lacks balance and misrepresents its contents.

I have two key points on this, one of which relates to your earlier posting:

1. All pupils should be taught to use the full range of English, including the forms of spoken and written English that are referred to as "standard". Public life, this forum included, is conducted in standard English, and all should have access to it. I do not believe we have a fully effective way of ensuring this, but don't believe that the personal growth theory is the way to do it. I have written a note on how grammar teaching might be reformed here

2. We do need to improve all schools. We can't afford to have one poor school, for the sake of the children in it. But what I don't understand about the school I think you refer to as the one whose Chair of Governors was attacked by Michael Gove, is why they let the headteacher resign, rather than standing by him.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 09:19

One particularly unpleasant feature of Mr Gove's rhetoric is his flattery of favourites - those teachers or journalists who publicly support his ideas. So anyone who makes a video for the DfE website extolling academy conversion; or who proposes a free school, or runs an academy chain (especially if s/he donates to the Tories) is named in one of Gove's interminable speeches or can expect a heavily-publicised visit from Messrs Gove, Gibb or Lord Hill.

At the same time he makes a spiteful attack on a school whose chair of governors opposes his ideas.

And, of course, any school that doesn't "embrace autonomy early" is portrayed as foot-dragging and being against driving standards up.

As Secretary of State his position requires impartiality. There are over 20,000 schools in England - it is unacceptable that a Secretary of State should promote and praise only a few.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 12:51

John - reply to first half of your comment 11.26 (no reply button). Thanks for the link. I'm reading David Crystal's "The Stories of English" but if we started discussing that fascinating subject we'd veer seriously off-thread. I'm afraid my attempts to sing a Spanish verb to the tune of "Ten Green Bottles" have failed.

I agree with you that pupils need to be able to use the full range of English. However, I think we can get hung up on the names of different types of words although they certainly help when discussing language and literature (as do technical terms like alliteration, simile and so on). Too much emphasis on naming the parts risks downgrading the power of good writing. I'm old enough to remember the type of grammar teaching which required pupils to dissect sentences by putting bits in columns (eg noun - adjunct, verb - adjunct; or clause, phrase and so on). It did nothing to engender a love of English. Being able to pick out an adverb in a sentence doesn't mean that a child can use them effectively.

Taken to extremes, it reminds me of Bitzer in "Hard Times" - he knew all the facts about a horse but he didn't know how to ride or care for one.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 13:05

John - reply to second half of your 11.26 comment.

(a) this site was set up to campaign for a good, local school for all children which implies improving poor ones. But Mr Gove's idea of what makes a poor school is not necessarily correct - he judges schools by their raw exam results. The OECD has warned against the excessive emphasis on test results in England - it carries risks which actually militate against higher standards. The Education Endowment Foundation last year found that many below-floor schools were doing a good job in difficult circumstances.

(b) I was not referring to Downhills - the head resigned because of ill-health brought on no doubt by Gove's bullying. In Autumn 2011 Ofsted had praised the school's strong leadership and the help given by the local authority - results had risen above the benchmark. But still Gove said the school was "failing".

I was referring to the snide remark made by Gove at the Spectator conference about the school where Fiona is the chair of governors. It is particularly spiteful to use a school and its pupils as ammunition to attack someone who opposes Gove's policies. It is not behaviour expected from someone who holds a powerful position in Government. If anything, it demonstrates Gove's pettiness.

John Bald's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 13:42

Thanks, Janet. Did not know about Spectator conference. To sing a Spanish verb to Ten Green Bottles, you omit the pronouns, as the Spanish usually do. So Ser becomes

Soy, eres es, Ten Green Bottles
Somos, soís son Hanging onthe wall

Slight stretch only on es. Runs through four times per verse, which helps practice.

By the way, I offer free help to people with reading difficulties, and tend to specialise in hard cases.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 13:57

The link to Gove's Spectator speech is in the thread below where I discuss Gove's homily about Maasai warriors.

Thanks for explaining how to make "Ser" fit Ten Green Bottles. I'd been trying to fit the tune to "Hablar" without success. The hand gestures you suggested are useful.

John Bald's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 17:27

Nothing's perfect, but hablo will fit with a slight squash. The important bit is that the gestures over time reinforce understanding of the endings. Do this from five or six and the huge problems people have in starting Spanish verbs at 11 are cut down to size.

I've been thinking hard about NATE and the tussles I've had with them over the years, and wonder if the issue may eventually be resolved by basing work on brain research, as I try to do with my languages work and work with people with serious reading difficulties. This is very contentious in itself, however. Please keep in mind my offer of free help to people with serious reading difficulties if you ever feel you can use it.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 08/07/2012 - 22:18

"Therefore if you are from a low income background but you want your children to be wealthy, one way you might try to achieve this is to implant your children into a cohort of children with wealthy parents."

Largely irrelevant to the poor people who want to send their children to private schools but who can't, they just want their children to go to better schools.

Tom Rank's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 10:27

On the grammar issue, there's a very informative, detailed and referenced article on this, posted yesterday by Geoff Barton, a headteacher who (as you'll see) has not shied away from teaching and writing about grammar. He begins: 'Let’s be clear from the outset: being against grammar tests doesn’t mean being against grammar.'

Tom Rank's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 10:28

Sorry - I forgot to provide the link to Geoff Barton's article!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 11:43

Thanks, Tom, for the link to Geoff Barton's article which supports my view that being able to pick out, say, an adverb, doesn't necessarily make pupils better writers. Niether does it make them appreciate good English. Grammar drilling actually does the opposite. Barton mentions "Smudge and Chewpen", a book containing grammar exercises. I remember a pile of these gathering dust at the back of a cupboard. Seriously, does anyone think that presenting teenagers with a book entitled "Smudge and Chewpen" would enhance their English skills? The ones I taught would have snorted in derision.

Unfortunately, grammar teaching has been highjacked by politicians pandering to tabloid prejudices about state education. Most education editors are ill-informed and do little more than churn Gove's latest pronouncements or regurgitate the same misleading stats (usually based on the flawed 2000 UK PISA results). Any article which promotes a negative view of English state education will result in more website traffic than one which highlights the positive (no mention of UK being above-average in Science in the 2009 PISA tests for example, or top of the European league in TIMSS 2007).

This is made worse by ill-informed comments made by some free school proposers about what kind of education would be offered. For an example of this, complete with grammatical errors, see the wordy consultation documents for the Beccles and Saxmundham free schools. They sniffily say the schools will offer no vocational qualifications and those pupils deemed not able to pass GCSE C English will be offered "functional skills". It is to be hoped that these skills will be of a higher standard than those seen in the consultation.

Beccles and Saxmundham Free Schools have been given the go-ahead. It would appear that grammatical errors in free school consultations will be overlooked - after all, these schools are Cameron's storm-troopers who will smash through complacency.

John Bald's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 12:30

I'm so old I can actually remember using Smudge and Chewpen when it came out in 1976. The children actually quite liked it, but it did not do them much good, and I don't know anyone who would use it now.

My latest case involving grammar was of a seventeen-year-old, completing an A level in sports science, who complained that his writing was always too long and that he got low grades for it. One lesson, explaining the principles of sentence construction in the context of his own work, brought about an immediate improvement and gave him the means to solve the problem. I taught him to identify verb (including verbs that don't do things) and subject, and to use changes or repetition of subject to decide where to insert link words and punctuation. What we really need to know about grammar is simple, and can be explained in terms everyone can understand. It is also essential if we are to be in control of what we do.

John Bald's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 10:47

An interesting article, and I will read Geoff Barton's work further, probably later today. However, he is saying what in his view a grammar test will produce, rather than what he knows it will produce. To me, it depends on how good and clear the test is. For example, I'm fairly relaxed about adverbs, but think it essential that children should understand verbs and sentences - and subject, which is the key, in my view, to enabling them to decide where to start a new sentence or add a linking work. I am quite sure from my extended family that what is happening at the moment is not equipping children with the writing skills he discusses, and that we have an unsolved problem. I have had success with the approach outlined in my Scottish CILT article, above, with GCSE students and with children coming up to Y6 SATs. I have limited evidence outside this - not none, not negative, just limited to one or two cases and to foreign languages with younger children.

Tom Rank's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 12:20

John, the DfE’s planned Key Stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test materials for 2013 are now online here (see the bottom of the page for link to the PDF):

Geoff Barton,mentioned above, was moved to comment: ‘Look at question 12 and imagine how children will be taught. Read, then weep.’ (I've put a screenshot of this question on my blog, at the end of a hasty response as a governor to the slight on 'local worthies':

Meanwhile, Dr Simon Gibbons, Chair of NATE, has written to the Daily Telegraph in response to Michael Gove's attack on NATE's supposed hostility to grammar. It's here: You may find some of online the comments interesting - or just downright bizarre.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 14:15

Here is a flavour of some of the comments under Dr Gibbons’ letter in the DT.

“Dr Simon Gibbons --- please rewrite in simple, non-pompous English” (The writer seems to think that the use of a couple of technical words in what was a lucid letter was enough to ask Dr Gibbons to write in words of no more than two syllables.)

“I wonder if anybody such as Dr gibbons who uses the word 'decontextualised' is qualified to advise on the use of the English language.” (Another poster who felt threatened by a word comprising many syllables - anyone who understands English grammar can work out what ‘decontextualised’ means by applying knowledge of prefixes. S/he also doesn’t know when to use capital letters.)

‘And he also tried to disguise the fact of not teaching grammar by asserting that it is learned automatically by reading and writing.’ (The writer misrepresents Dr Gibbons’ position just as Mr Gove did. Dr Gibbons was not advocating not teaching grammar – he was advocating that it be learnt* in context. Pedants might object to beginning the sentence with ‘And’ but Fowler writes, “That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with ‘and ‘ is a faintly lingering SUPERSTITION [his caps]. The OED gives examples ranging from the 10th to the 19th c; the Bible is full of them.”)

*”learned” and “learnt” are both acceptable – Fowler says so.

Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 21:33

The test reproduced here;

would not be out of place in a beginner or intermediate english language lesson. You can find this sort of thing in modern student textbooks for foreign adult learners of English, such as the Global English course by Macmillan.

So 11 year olds are not exactly equivalent but surely this is an easy test. You can use this to teach - get children to discuss why the answers are as they are: the presence or absence of a question mark; the absence of the second person singular or plural personal pronoun you in the imperative. Of course children might not use the meta-language of conventional grammar in such an exercise, but they will often find the ideas using other language. That could be well covered in a one hour lesson.

So what is prescriptive about this test? It does not stop other kinds of teaching. I think this has something to do with certain kinds of teachers who can't or don't want to teach.

English teachers also need to understand that teaching even beginner level in foreign languages is difficult without an understanding of your first language grammar. How can you learn the imperative when you don't know it at all in English? You can do it, but then you won't be able to use references and see conjugation, but the grammar can help and is not very difficult. You are stuck in modes such as rote which has its place, but let's use the shortcuts too.

John Bald's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 13:20

This is not a test I either designed or had anything to do with, but I'm not going to pick out one question and weep. I was opposed to the phonics test initially, on the grounds that I don't like nonsense, but now think it is telling us something about whether children are using the information contained in letters, or guessing. So, I'll wait and see what the effect is.

NATE, from its inception, has maintained that personal growth and the language children bring from home,, rather than standard English, should be the basis of English teaching. Michael Gibbons' comments to the BBC are in this tradition, and NATE has done great damage to education through this approach. A pamphlet produced in response to the Dearing Review in the mid-nineties, Made Tonge-tied by Authority sums up the policy. In the seventies, I thought NATE and I might have something in common - we were concerned with children failing in school, largely the same groups of children, and wanted to do something about it. NATE, I fear, chose a path that has kept them where they were rather than tackling the problem.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 14:29

John - that is not my perception of NATE's position. It does not advocate basing English teaching only on the language a child brings from home. It's a question of register - being able to use a variety of language for different purposes.

There's a time for standard English, and there's a time for informality, and there's a time for dialect and accent (the Wiltshire accent is, apparently, the one that is nearest to the sounds of Shakespeare). All this would make fruitful investigation in English lessons - in context and even in poetry:

"Received Pronunciation - RIP"

John Bald's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 05:41

A few quick points. First, as someone who is largely on the other side of the argument, I'm grateful for the courteous tone of theses comments.

Second, while received pronunciation is not connected with standard English, which can be spoken with any accent, I would not like to see the end of it, and certainly prefer it to affected glottal stops. I'm from Glasgow, and have nothing against the glottal stop, but it sounds ridiculous in people who've been to Oxford and are clearly forcing themselves into an unnatural mode of speech.

Third, I note that Dr. Gibbons' new doctorate is in the early history of LATE/NATE, which does seem a little incestuous.

And finally, I agree that we should not have any poor schools at all. As a teacher, I was happy to work in them because of my vocation (hate the word, but it's true) for teaching people to read, but they do great damage. Some members of my extended family are currently suffering from poor schools in the North-East. In one forensic science course, the teacher gives out powerpoints with pre-loaded links, the students click on the links, download whatever they find, and present it as their coursework. English work is not marked, beyond an occasional encouraging comment, even when fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds do not use full stops and capital letters consistently, and do not write in sentences. My relatives are faced with sending some younger children to the same school. There is no remedy, and the school's ofsted report is outstanding. What are they supposed to do? It's a genuine question, and I don't know the answer.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 08:31

John - the bad practices you highlight are what the OECD warned about in its Economic Survey of the UK in 2011. It said the excessive emphasis on raw exam results led to, among other things, teaching to the test. Universities have said they believe "spoon-feeding" for exams contributing to undergraduates' lack of preparedness (see links below for further information). Training pupils to pass tests is not education.

OECD also warned about the danger in having a lighter-touch inspection for outstanding schools - this could lead to schools becoming complacent. One way round this is for unhappy parents to complain to Ofsted's Parent View:

In theory, if enough parents complain then it could trigger an inspection. The danger is, of course, that parents with an axe to grind could make unsubstantiated accusations so Parent View needs to be approached responsibly.

John Bald's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 08:45

I'm sorry, Janet, but this is not teaching at all. In my view, the forensic science is downright fraud, and I reported the practice to the examining board, though I could not identify the school as it might have jeopardised someone's job. The English is not teaching to the test either, but well-intentioned negligence.

I agree about Ofsted, though. I was a lead inspector until 2006. Until 2005, inspections were thorough, with big teams that could really find out about a school. Post 2005, the touch was far too light, and inspectors were regularly sold a pup - for example, by being shown rehearsed lessons.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 15:48

Are these complete sentences?

“As well as managing their own in-year admissions.”
“People like all of you in this room.”
“Abolished the rule requiring teachers to give 24 hours’ notice of detention.”

No – they are not, but they, and similar examples, all appear in the FASNA speech of Mr Gove – that defender of all things grammatical.

I appreciate that it is a speech and someone reading from a speech would want plenty of white space between sections to make reading easier. But when the speech appears in print it should flow – it should be in paragraphs not short gobbets, often without verbs, spat over the page. Compare one of Gove’s speeches with those of Churchill and Gove’s look as if they’ve been churned out by a machine programmed to a set formula of flattery, fabrication and fighting talk.

Now that would make a good English lesson – compare an extract of Gove’s “How are the children?” with Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream.”

Adrian Elliott's picture
Mon, 09/07/2012 - 18:48

According to this article in the Guardian ( today the whole free school thing is turning into a very negative issue for the government as parents realise how much money is being spent on vanity projects.

The Suffolk head is brave to go so public on this .How long before he is being derided by Gove and the Daily Telegraph as a Trotskyite while the Mail is sending someone to root through his dustbins.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 10:19

It's obvious that Squealer has left Animal Farm and is now at the DfE: "Every stage of the process of approving, or otherwise, a free school is entirely open and transparent, and the process is clearly set out," a spokesman said.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 09:12

John - reply to your 8.45 comment (no reply button). I agree with you, "teaching-to-the-test" isn't teaching - it's training pupils to jump through hoops in order to make it look as if they've learned something. The danger with high-stakes tests (as SATs and GCSEs are) is that teachers could cheat. Such cheating is widespread in the States where teachers' jobs are on the line if "results" aren't high.

The public education director of Fair Test told TES last year that he had confirmed cases of cheating in 27 states and the District of Columbia. The largest scandal was in Atlanta where teachers held cheating “parties” where answers were corrected before being submitted for marking. One child who sat under the table throughout a test still managed to pass.

You are also right about Ofsted - too many inspections and too few properly-qualified inspectors. Out-sourcing has reduced the quality of inspections and Radio 4's File on 4 recently highlighted problems with inspections. The programme is still available on Listen Again by following the link in this post:

Rehearsing lessons to show to inspectors is nothing new, I'm afraid. When HMI visited my girls' technical school he saw us take part in a lively lesson which had been thoroughly rehearsed. That was c1960.

John Bald's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 09:34

Last two comments very interesting, and thanks for them. I'm not sure we are in full agreement on the first. I don't see these activities as teaching to the test - in the first, the pupils are not being taught anything other than clicking and pasting. They are discouraged from using their own words for anything, and are not expected even to read what they download. It is an outright scandal, and if I had not seen the original evidence I wouldn't have believed it. I might add that the person whose job I did not wish to jeopardise had nothing to do with the teaching.

Similarly the English - not marking books is not marking books, whether or not there is any test. It is well-intentioned, as the teacher does not want to discourage the pupils by pointing out errors, but it is not doing them any good.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 10:10

John - "teaching to the test" is a euphemism for doing stuff which has nothing to do with education and everything to do with getting pupils through exams eg by producing coursework which is accepted as valid even though it is nothing but cutting-and-pasting. It's a sham and you're correct - it isn't teaching and it isn't education.

Not marking books is lazy. Errors can be used as a teaching and learning opportunity.

John Bald's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 16:49

Following these interesting conversations, I thought I'd put my approach to teaching initial grammar into a new posting. The link is below, and I'd welcome any views

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 10/07/2012 - 17:03

Well we had Nick Gibb at ACME conference today.
Let's just say he clearly deeply believes in himself.
Couldn't see anyone else looking anthing short of incredulous and/or gobsmacked at his ignorance but I think we could all see why people who didn't know much about statistics and/or maths education might think him credible.

He spoke with great passion about giving teachers professional freedom.

But the devil, as ever, is in the detail. By professional freedom he means that we should be allowed to decide whether or not to put the optional zero in the long division algorith. Meanwhile me must, of course, teach huge content by rote to KS1 children in direct contradiction of all the evidence as to what will improve education. It's like offering someone a plaster while dropping a nuclear bomb on them and spouting with conviction about how much you care about their health.

Even more disturbingly he seems to think that telling us how long he has spent discussing and deliberating on his views (clearly without managing to achieve any insight at all) is a wise thing to do.........

John Bald's picture
Wed, 11/07/2012 - 08:10

Rebecca -

The article Nick Gibb relied on is recent, and I found this link to it. There is also strong support for the standard algorithms as the most efficient means of calcluating in the latest HMI survey,

I don't know what you mean by "all the evidence", as I can find very little research evidence on real patterns of progress in maths. I'll be grateful for any references.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 11/07/2012 - 12:52

Rebecca - I'm not a maths teacher, that's why I'm now referring to a book called "Maths for Mums and Dads" by Rob Eastaway and Mike Askew. They summarise the changes in maths teaching over the years as moving from learning "how" to understanding "why". The emphasis is on helping children to develop "insight into mathematics" and liken it to developing "mathematical maps rather than remember[ing] lists of directions."

I suppose the question is (from my non-mathematician's point-of-view) whether being able to recite tables leads to a deeper understanding of maths or not. I'm not denying that being able to recall tables can be useful but does being able to give the answer to, say, 7x6 (errr....*) immediately mean that the pupil understands that multiplication is actually repeated addition (ie 7+7+7+7+7+7) or that 7x6 = 7x3 + 7x3 (which is how I work out 7x6 because I am a dunce at recalling tables) or that 7x6 = 6x7. Would the child be able to apply the knowledge to a problem written in words or even know when the problem requires multiplication (eg how much will Liz pay the shopkeeper if she wants seven packets of sweets costing 60p each?)?

Do you think a Nick Gibb would find a copy of "Maths for Mums and Dads" useful?

*It's 42, isn't it?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 11/07/2012 - 16:35

Or maybe you could puzzle out that 5x7 is 35 because 10x7 is 70 and then add 42....
Here's one of the brightest mathematicians of the upcoming generation stumbling at 6x7 (just after 1 minute)

Does it matter? Provided you have the understanding to reasonably rapidly reconstruct the result who cares? As you grow up your brain rewires many times and you forget the things you learned without understanding.

Yes - that sounds like a good book and is clearly one Nick Gibb hasn't read. Or maybe he has and has just written it off as being ignorant as he has all the people who have actually successfully worked in and specialised in maths education.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 15:42

Hi John,

If you measured students ability with the long division algorithm at the age of 11 and their maths score at the age of 15, wouldn't you expect there to be a strong correlation? It's not exactly surprising it is? (I'm not sure if that's the exact conclusion of the study but it's something like that).

But when I teach my year 9 students about correlation I also make sure we discuss that the occurrence of correlation doesn't allow us to conclude causation. Wouldn't you want to check that there are not co-causal factors? For example students having already established a confident mindset in mathematics due to strong lower school teaching which worked for them? Or the children who do better at both having a parent who is good at maths?

Nick Gibb was clearly in a mental space where he concluded long ago that if we force students to learn the long division algorithm in year 6 they will all do brilliantly at maths whether or not they actually understand it and that it's that simple and anyone who thinks there is anything else involved is just stupid. I've heard this before about him from other but I didn't realise what it'd be like in the flesh - he had this look on his face like a born again believer who was taking pity on all the ignorant experienced experts in maths education who had not yet seen the light. It was deeply surreal. Every member of the audience could see the co-causality issue and he simply couldn't and believed we were all stupid.

John maths is a big topic - could you be a little more specific as to what it is you'd like to know? In the meantime one of my students has agreed to me publishing an account of the work I did with her to sort out the problems she'd developed through having been forced to learn maths without understanding. It may not be quite what you're looking for but it's true and its recent and you're welcome to ask me about it directly.
Something tells me that forcing her to learn the long division algorithm would not really have had quite the same effect.

John Bald's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 16:06

Your work with Erica is one of the most brilliant pieces of teaching I've ever seen, and very similar to the way I tend to work with people with severe reading problems. Find one point of certainty - it does not matter much what the point is, and letting the child choose can be a good starting point - and build out from it. Annie Sullivan's work with Helen Keller had a similar starting point. Congratulations.The hearing issue is also v interesting, as this can have ramifications long after the issue appears to have been dealt with.

I do, though, agree with much of what Nick Gibb said, having read the ACME copy of his speech, and think he put out a good balance between method and understanding. I've not seen the full version of the Carnegie Mellon research yet, and will drop you a note when I do.

But Erica - well, that's the kind of work that makes it worth getting up in the morning. I hope you don't mind if I put a link to it on my blog.


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