Thursday, March 31, 2011

E-portfolios – 10 reasons why I don’t want my life in a shoebox

E-portfolios have taken up more conference time and wasted effort than almost any other learning technology topic I can recall. The idea’s been around since the nineties but isn’t it odd that no one seems to have one? And if they do it's forced upon them by an institution or LMS. Never has so much time been devoted to something with so little real impact. An army of researchers, academics and vendors have been touting the idea that everyone should have a shoebox of ‘stuff’ which they fill up as they go through life as 'reflective' lifelong learners. Politicians and educators of the ‘control freak variety’ love the idea, but like identity cards, the rest of us seem to be completely indifferent. So why have they not taken off and where are they useful?
1. Uninteroperable
E-portfolios are largely confined to education, and some vocational adult learning programmes, but the 40 odd mainstream VLEs preclude any real interoperability. Buy a VLE and you’re stuck with their e-portfolio, a specially designed shoebox in a specially designed boutique shoe shop. This is like buying a safe where you put stuff in but can;t take it out.
2. Institutionalised
Hopelessly utopian, it is the perfect example of something that turns out to be the opposite of what was intended; a shoebox of stuff so attached to institutions that you have to leave it behind. E-portfolios have been institutionalised and therefore rendered useless for students by the very people who are meant to be equipping them for life.
3. Human nature
Human beings do not behave as educationalists would like them to behave. That’s because education has a flawed and simplistic view of human nature (usually behaviourist). People are lazy, procrastinators, messy, change their minds and quite often want to forget what they’ve done. Neither is endless 'reflection' on our learning a natural process. Some reflection yes, but not the overcooked form of e-portfolio reflection, that is often recommended and rarely done. Human nature mitigates against us having our life in a shoebox.
4. People are not learners
People do not see themselves as ‘learners’, let alone ‘lifelong learners’. It’s a conceit, as only educators see people as learners. Imagine asking an employer – how many learners do you have? People are individuals, fathers, mothers, employees, lawyers, bus drivers, whatever….but certainly not learners. That’s why an e-portfolio, tainted with ‘schooling’ will not catch on. By and large, most adults see school as something they leave behind and do not drag along with them into adulthood. And how often are e-portfolios recommended by people who don't have one themselves?
5. Boundary problems
Media are linked on the web and cannot be easily stored in a single entity or within a single entity, so the boundaries of a real e-portfolio are difficult to define, and will change. An e-portfolio would have to cope with my links and social networks but they are proprietary. We want to be part of all sorts of expansive and variously porous networks, not boxed in. Blogs, for example, seem to much more expansive, open and accessible.
6. Plus ca change
The only thing that will not change is the fact that there will be change. So e-portfolios will be no sooner built than redundant. The technology, and culture around technology, will change. And as these changes occur, e-portfolios will be unable to keep up with the changes. In another sense, people sometimes want change, and don’t want their baggage dragged along behind them.
7. Product profusion
The big one is Blackboard, but that locks you in like a prisoner in a dark dungeon, similarly with WebCT. These are largely used because they come with the package. Others such as PebblePad, RAPID, EPET, LUSID were developed by institutions and therefore limited in all sorts of ways. There are many, many more and that is part of the problem. Too many people decided to create too many products, with too much JISC funding, without due attention to the market and sustainability.
8. Easy alternatives
I don;t have an e-portfolio but I do have a blog, which I've been writing for ten years and a history on social media and files I've securely backed up and stored. All of these mitigate against hte e-portfolio idea as they are my trusted sources.
9. Yes in vocational
There is, of course, a strong argument for e-portfolios in vocational learning, where the learners are being asked to create concrete things that can be stored digitally - graphics, design, photography and so on. We don;t want to throw out the portfolio baby with the bathwater.
10. Recruitment myth
I spent a lot of time recruiting people and what I needed wasn’t huge, overflowing e-portfolios, but succinct descriptions and proof of competences. If by e-portfolio you mean and expanded CV with links to your blog and whatever else you have online, fine. But life is too short to consider the portfolios of hundreds of applicants. Less is more.

Let’s get real
Lifelong learning in a shoebox? Not really, most are institutional affectations that end up as relics. Justifying e-portfolios on the basis of lifelong learning won’t wash. It’s too ambitious. So let’s get real. I can see their use in limited domains, such as courses and apprenticeships, but not in general use, like identity cards.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Flip the classroom - every teacher should do this

Salman Khan was a hedge-fund manager but there’s not a teacher on the planet who wouldn’t benefit from his views on learning. Khan has recorded 2200 educational videos and over million are viewed a month. How did he get started? By tutoring his cousins in maths. Eventually, they told hm that they preferred his YouTube lectures to him in person. From their point of view it makes sense – they can stop and review things when they want, do things at their own pace, do it when it's convenient. More importantly, the very first time you try to understand something, the last thing you need is a hovering human presence or teacher. You need time to reflect, ponder, get to grips with the ideas. I have had exactly the same experience in tutoring in maths. I started in person, migrated to Skype and now favour this more distanced approach, where the actual tutoring is the application, not exposition of the knowledge.

Flip the classroom

Khan’s trick, is something I’ve believed in for years. Don’t use technology in the classroom, use it before and after, outside of the classtoom. Classrooms were never designed for technology, apart, perhaps, for Whiteboards. But the danger with whiteboards is that they reinforce talking at students and ‘lecturing’. Flip the classroom. Assign the short talks for homework, THEN use the classroom for the application of the concepts. The net result is that you humanise the classroom. It becomes a place primarily for learning, not teaching. Simple, but like most great ideas - brilliant.

Flip assessment

He uses another flip technique I’ve always recommended. He takes some of the magic dust from games and apply it to learning. You do short ‘ten in a row’ automated assessments. Get ten in a row right; move on. This simple game pedagogy, along with badges for progress, within a structured knowledge map, allows the students to understand where they are in the learning journey. It also has motivational punch.

For Khan, overall summative assessment is all wrong. It’s too little too late. Individual formative assessment is the true driver in education. Traditional assessment penalises failure and doesn’t expect complete mastery. It fails both failing and successful students.

To this end his whole system relies on detailed formative data for teachers, data that is both detailed and personal. It’s not classroom guesses or waiting until a final test is completed to see how your students are doing. Every student is tracked and the teacher intervenes appropriately. Note that you can only track every student if the system gathers the data online. So learning and assessment have to be done online. Technology is brilliant at tracking progress as teachers are too busy. Free up their time so that the teacher can teach and assign the strong kids to tutor kids who are struggling. Arms teachers with data and they can focus on the progress of all.

The flip has one other major advantage. Flip homework, so that it is done in the classroom and you free teachers from the dreaded marking. They can then focus on the targeted application of knowledge. Traditional classroom teaching becomes homework and homework, classroom activity.


Khan gets it. He understands the difference between learning and teaching, between classrooms and self-paced environments between formative and summative assessment, between scalable and non-scalable components in education,. Most of all he is not encumbered with traditional methods and thoughts about whet education needs to be.

He also sees the global implications of this scalable solution. The flip creates a global classroom and gives access to education for the poor. Watch this and if you're not convinced tell me why.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Leaning tower of PISA – 7 serious skews

Like the real Leaning Tower of PISA, the OECD PISA results are built on flimsy foundations and are seriously skewed. Nevertheless, they have become a major international attraction for educators, and have sparked off an annual educational ‘international arms’ race’
In the UK, Gove’s and now Morgan's education policy is rooted and firmly targeted at the PISA results. The English Baccalaureate has PISA written all over it. PISA is also used as a political football by d-list celebrities and wannabes, like Toby Young and Katherine Birbalsingh to beat the state system over the head. They stare at the learning tower and swear blind that it’s straight.
Both left and right now use the ‘sputnik’ myth, translated into the ‘Chinese competitiveness’ myth, to chase their own agendas – more state funding or more privatisation. This is a shame, as the last thing we need is yet another dysfunctional , deficit debate in education. Nations have different approaches to education, different demographic and social mixes and different agendas.
The problems in the data are extreme as PISA compares apples and oranges. In fact it compares huge watermelons with tiny seeds. PISA is seriously flawed because of the huge differences in demographics, socio-economic ranges and linguistic diversity within the tested nations. Here’s seven skews as a starter:
Size skew
Shanghai topped the table this year but why was one city from an entire nation singled out? Could it be that Shanghai is China’s flagship city? To compare a set of students from the richest city in China (on average 3 times the national income), that has attracted a high proportion of high-achievers, with a similar sample from across the whole of the US is odd. It smacks of political manipulation by the Chinese. There was also evidence, presented in the New York Times, of student priming. Imagine if the cohort was drawn from rural China? This comparative method will fail as there will be lots of outliers in the data. It is not surprising that small homogeneous cities and states pop up at both the top and bottom of the table.
Tuition skew
One huge variable that is NOT accounted for is external tuition. This is rife in some of the high perfrominh countries, especially China, Singapore and Hong Kong. Many would argue that this one variable alone kills of the statistical significance.
Immigrant skew
Different tested cohorts have different immigrant ratios. The difficulties that immigrants have with language, social adjustment, school and poverty, is a serious pollutant to the data. . As one would expect, Finland and Shanghai have very small numbers of immigrants in their tested cohorts. It is bonkers to compare cohorts with radically different numbers of immigrant children.
Selective immigration skew
There is another odd skew associated with immigration, namely that for some countries, immigration is controlled, so that only wealthy or smart kids get through. So, for example, there’s only one country in the PISA results where the immigrant students outscore the natives and that’s Australia, where immigration is highly selective. There’s a huge difference between refugee immigration and cherry-picked immigration.
English skew
Associated with immigration, is a curious linguistic skew – the tendency for smart immigrants to migrate towards English speaking nations. This could mean that English speaking nations benefit in the long term from such immigration but show poor short-term results due to high first generation immigration with associated language problems at school.
Linguistic skews
On reading, languages with regular structures are likely to do better than languages which are more irregular. The tests may favour languages with simplified spelling structures such as Finnish. Reading data may also be skewed by reading habits as PISA doesn’t recognise reading on screens. It’s big on books.
Subjects skew
PISA measures academic subjects only, namely maths, reading and science. To be fair PISA have recognised this flaw and are now embarking on a correction process. But is it right to judge education in these subjects only? One need only focus the curriculum heavily on these subjects to do well, which is exactly what many counties do. Dump sport, music, the arts and humanities and you can produce stellar results.
Subject focus skew
Simple differences in taught curricula can also affect the results. In maths, for example, if you have taught ‘series’ theory you will do well in the 2009 results, as a major set of questions focused on extrapolating series in the test. If this is not part of your curriculum, you will score badly.
OFQUAL's concerms
I’m not alone with these concerns. OFQUAL published a Progress Report (International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment ) in February 2011 making similar points.

They listed several major criticisms:
  1. differences between countries’ performance are not that large…usually statistically insignificant
  2. whether or not a country has moved up or down the league tables is not that meaningful partly because the absolute differences in scores between countries are not that great
  3. the constituent group of comparators changes from study to study and from year to year
They point to three major but dangerous assumptions that:
  1. items tested for are somehow an objective measure of what is best
  2. learners undertaking the study are a balanced representation of all learners at that stage of education
  3. learners sampled in each country are equally motivated to perform well in the tests
Additionally, these snapshot studies do not isolate variables and may well be skewed by “factors in the past that no longer apply”, such as “learner performance in an examination may be the result of curriculum developments undertaken” or “investment in education infrastructure some time in the past”. In other words, using the data to praise or blame the current system is unwise.

Gove’s skew
The great danger is that the world skews its curriculum to fit the PISA expectations, just as PISA draw away from their own curriculum tested areas. This has already happened in the UK with Gove’s Ebac.
Gove has specified A*-C passes in five subject areas: English; maths; two sciences; ancient or modern history or geography; and a modern or ancient language. It has all the hallmarks of a PISA-led curriculum.
First it’s far too academic and restrictive. Second, it excludes too many sensible options. But his greatest crime is to have moved the goalposts after goals have been scored. If you change the goalposts so dramatically and quickly, you simply condemn 85% of students as failures (only 15% currently meet the Ebac standard). What’s worse, Gove is applying the measure retrospectively. This is like moving the goalposts at the end of the game and disallowing goals scored. It’s madness. You can have schools with high achievement in Maths and English plummet down the new league tables from near the top to near the bottom, as they haven’t focused on humanities or languages. The consequences of this error could be disastrous as the staff pressures will also be enormous, with thousands of teachers in vocational subjects being rendered useless in favour of history, geography and language teachers. One weird consequence is that a student who does Latin and Ancient History will be judged above those who do Business Studies, Engineering, psychology, a third science and lots of other subjects. It’s worse than bad , it’s perverse. I’m glad my kids are leaving secondary education, as it descends into this backward looking nonsense.
Devil’s in the detail
Politicians and activists distort PISA to meet their own ends. They cherry pick results and recommendations, ignoring the detail. Finland is famously quoted by the right as a high performing PISA country. Yet, it is a small, homogeneous country with no streaming, high levels of vocational education, no substantial class divisions and no private schools. Facts curiously ignored by PISA supporters.
One could quibble with the details of my analysis, but I’m convinced the PISA comparisons are riddled with skews and errors, many more than indicated above. The great danger, and it is already happening, is that people read causality into the data. It’s crap schools, crap teachers, money spent doesn’t matter etc. The scope for false causality is enormous and exploited by politicians for their own ends.
"In the last 10 years we've plummeted in the PISA rankings" heard this before from Michael Gove - he lied. UK results were excluded in 2000 (low response rate) and 2003 as data was dodgy. Only gathered in 2006 and 2009. PISA tests not that important but National tests have gone up - what's happening?
Late news: Is PISA data fatally flawed?
Sven de Kreiner Danish statistician says PISA is not reliable at all. In the reading tests 28 questions were supposed to be equally difficult in every country. PISA has failed here as differential item functioning - items with different degrees of difficulty in different countries - are common. In fact he couldn't find any that worked without bias. Items are more difficult in some countries. He used his analysis to show that the UK moves up to 8 or down to 36. PISA assumes that DIF has been eliminated but not one single item is the same across the 56 countries.

OECD does not compare over the 10 years. Performance has not fallen, if anything it's flat.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Middle East: revolutions without revolutionaries

For those tiresome oldsters who see social media as nothing more than the decadence of youth or a meaningless pastime, recent events in the Middle East should have been a slap round the head. A rack of nations, led by a new post-TV generation who partake in genuine dialogue with each other, really have changed the world, irrevocably.
But what do we mean by a media revolution? It was not, I believe, a revolution caused by social media but a revolution that took place in the age of social media. To put it another way, social media was a necessary condition for the revolution but not sufficient. This is, therefore, not a new media revolution, but it is a revolution without revolutionaries, just the sheer force of mass participation, first in new media, then on the streets. It is, of course, more complex than this, so how did the different social media build into a tsunami of discontent and action?
Stage 1: Blogs (despots despised)
Social media gave young people in the Middle East access to the downside of dictatorships– the nepotism, cronyism and corruption of specific ruling families. These revolutions were first fuelled by bloggers who exposed the excesses of the autocrats, along with their wives, sons and relatives. In Tunisia, Ben Ali’s wife and even her nephews were targeted by bloggers and became figures of hate. The Mubarak’s, Gadaffis, Khalifas, House of Saud and others have been exposed in a similar manner. Even the King of Jordan’s wife Rania is under pressure due to her political interference. It is the dynastic nature of these families that are so resented, with father setting up son for power and significant portions of their nations’ wealth being given to friends and relatives. There is nowhere to hide as wikileaks, foreign publications and outside revolutions leak into their countries.
I also don’t believe that this was a Facebook or Twitter revolution. Social media in this type of politics has a certain causality. First the bloggers, who are real activists, with real voices, reporting excesses and explaining in some depth over a long period, the underbelly of the society in which they work and live. They are often the first to be harassed, detained even imprisoned. They act as the unofficial press as the official press are under state control or operate under fear. At this stage Facebook links back to blogs, spreading the word about who’s hot, what’s hot and channels traffic back to bloggers and blog posts.
Stage 2: Facebook (groups emerge)
It’s only much later, when enough heat has been generated, that Facebook is used as an organisational device. It’s a medium in which protest Facebook ‘groups’ grow around causes, martyrs and events. The role of a martyr kicks in, where the images and reports of a suicide (Mohammed Bouazizi) become triggers for groups. At this point the date of a demonstration, for example, is amplified by Facebook, but another medium takes over.
Stage 3 Twitter (street mob)
Dates for demonstrations become twitter triggers, as in the#Jan25 hashtag for the Egyptian demos. Then, as real events on the street unfold, Twitter kicks in with its real-time feed of events; the violence, deaths, more dates for demonstrations. This is when others outside of the country watch, learn and contribute through internationally known hashtags.
So it’s a cascade effect; blogs are individuals, Facebook groups and Twitter the mob.
Stage 4: Denial and shurtdown (Old minds & media)
The ‘media-gap’ between the rulers and the young they rule is immense. The telephone was a novelty when these despots were young and you can’t imagine that they’ve ever used email, never mind social media. In media terms they are archers in the age of gunpowder. Before television Radio in the Middle East was widely used both to unite and disparage others across the Arab world. But it was within an older oral tradition. Halim Barakat describes this expressive style as rhetorical, aggressive and mocking. We saw this on the TV speeches delivered by Mubarak, Suleiman and Ghadaffi . They were patronising and part of an old media model of broadcasting in an ‘adult to child’ fashion. But the world has moved on and this language seemed patronising and out of touch. Young people saw right through it all, as they have grown up with a different, straight speaking model, that is more dialogue than monologue.
The pro-Mubaraks used state television, physically guarding it night and day to put their case. When they saw that they were failing they moved from defence to attack, arresting journalists and closing down Al Jazeera and Nilesat for a full 11 days. (There is no love lost between Mubarak and Qatar.) This attack closed down the internet and mobile networks but the web is like water, it just flows round these obstacles, with alternative routes from tech savvy youngsters defying the ban. Twitter activists even invented speech to text technology for Tweets to get round the Twitter ban. In the end Al Jazeera had to use the web to stream live images. This was as much a media battle as a street revolution.
Stage 4: Action (Youtube)
This is when media start to take a back seat and real people take real action to effect change. It has a different dynamic in different countries. Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly with relatively little bloodshed. Libya is already a civil war and a bloodbath. Bahrain is taking longer. Iran literally living on the edge of revolt. Saudi oppressing everyone as usual, but being forced to make reforms, for the moment in terms of bribes. Jordan has already made changes. They are ALL under pressure to change.
At this point YouTube and the distribution of video, and photographs through the whole media landscape come into their own. Even TV depends, at this stage, on activist journalism, to show what’s happening on the ground, as the state can simply control TV channels. However, at this stage, new media is no longer the prime mover, it is in reporting mode.
Libya - Wikipedia revolution
It’s been fashionable for some, like Malcolm Gladwell, Chomsky, and George Siemens to dismiss the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Well, I place the testimony of those young Arabs over these scoffing, North American writers and academics, who are somewhat distanced from these events. I’ve written about the role of social media in the Arab Spring before but only recently spoken to Libyans who explained how it was somewhat different there.
Al Jazeera had already played a significant role in Tunisia and Egypt, and it was the Al Jazeera Live blog that fuelled initial interest in the early events in Libya. Although this was often 8-10 hours out of date, it was something. The whole revolution had kicked of quite suddenly, so everyone, the media included were taken by surprise. Eventually other sites became the main source of live news, in particular people turned to the Libyan Youth Movement and Libya Feb 17th sites for blogs that were both credible and up to date. These sites aggregated news from lots of different media and social media sites.
Twitter bypasses Facebook
In this case, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook was bypassed by Twitter. There were immediate uprisings in a number of locations as it turned into an armed conflict, so less need for specific groups around a cause or demonstration. What the country needed was lots of immediate and specific information from the front line. Before long they were literally asking people of they knew how to drive captured tanks. Twitter links to video were a detailed source of events as they unfolded on several fronts. Eventually, as Gaddaffi troops were captured or killed, they found that their phones showed atrocities, which in turn were shown through Twitter links and Youtube. Interestingly Gaddafi’s name proved useless as a tag as it has so many different spellings. Twitter was even used as a source of information and co-ordinates for NATO, direct from the frontline, leading to more accurate bombing.
Wikipedia – what a surprise
Now here was the real surprise, good old Wikipedia became a focal point as a map showing towns and villages updated from green (Gaddaffi) to grey (contact), blue (fighting), zigzag (urban fighting) brown (taken). In addition, the countries that supported the new regime were coloured in on a world map, as they came on board. Who would have thought – Wikipedia contributing to a revolution.
Sky and Al Jazeera were the real heroes as they got to the frontline and stayed there with some hardcore reporting, even shoving microphones into Gaddaffi’s face. The BBC started well as they moved along the north coast from Benghazi, but they soon faded making the wrong calls on location (going south) and getting holed up in Tripoli. CNN was just hopeless.
Media and mediums are the message

Lastly, there’s no social media without a ‘medium’ and in all this talk about Facebook and Twitter, the simple fact that the internet, computers, laptops and especially mobiles, are the real lifeblood of the revolution. The growth of mobiles on the back of cheap tariffs has been phenomenal in these markets. The mobile phone is powerful, portable and personal. It records images and video and can be used to report from the scene itself. Remember that twitter during the Egyptian uprising could only operate once voice to text was available.
The process described above does not apply when social media is shut down, as in Libya. In this case YouTube and mobile recorded video leaked to TV plays a bigger role. We have seen this in Libya and Syria with the astonishing scenes of people being gunned down in Deraa and Sanamayn, where the shooting is seen and heard, then the dead clearly and deliberately shown to mobile cameras. This resulted in even more protests in Homs, Tafa, and astonishingly, as it is near the birthplace of Assad, Latakia. Interestingly, free access to social media has become a negotiating point with Assad in Syria, as it has become one of the key demands of the protesters.
Role of Arabic
Another important feature of the Arab world is it's common language - Arabic. Information needs no translation across the region. News spreads fast, very fast indeed. These countries also have large numbers of nationals from other Arab countries living and working within their borders. In the Gulf states this is acute, with some countries having more foreign nationals than locals. This leads to greater cross-pollination.
I’ve travelled a fair bit in the Middle East over the last ten years, especially in the last year, and what I’ve always loved about the region is the people. Now that those people have been given a voice, through social media, we need to listen, understand and give them all the support they need.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

I'm a Celebrity let me fix your education system!

I took part in a debate on ‘What should be taught in our schools?’ in London last night - a strange affair. As one tweeter noted “Good split on the panel but audience skewed 80/20 to Eton/Tory/Oxbridge axis”. You could tell at a glance the Toby Young/Katherine Birbalsingh acolytes. Fair enough, it was her book launch.
I was last to speak and was pretty annoyed by Toby and Katherine’s torrent of anecdotes and the usual right wing obsessions with Latin and Shakespeare. But what annoyed me most of all was the assault, by both, on vocational training. You could actually hear the posh voices braying ‘Hear hear’ whenever they launched their petty attacks on kids who were learning how to be hairdressers or work in hospitality.
My response
In any case, this was my response. First, something odd has happened to the education debate. It’s become cool for Oxbridge types to bellow out their superiority (they always mention repeatedly that they went to Oxford or Cambridge) and to see the state system as largely dysfunctional. They start with a deficit model that caricatures students as feral, teachers as feckless and head teachers as foolish liberals. They parrot this pathological view of the state system which is clearly an echo of the ‘broken Britain’ Conservative campaign.
Why does this happen? Because the education debate has a habit of descending into late night middle-class, dinner-party talk; all anecdotes and bitching. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate with the direct assault on the state system by Gove and Gibbs, the debate has been further hijacked by d-list celebrities, wannabes, actresses and a TV chef. The d-list celeb (sorry Toby you’re maybe a C), wannabe (Katherine Birbalsingh), actress (Joanna Lumley) and TV chef (Jamie Oliver), who in turn has rolled in a bunch of minor TV celebs to show us how it should be done. We have nothing to learn from these people, absolutely nothing. Why? Because they are devoid of ideas. It’s all criticism, platitudes and anecdotes. The plural of anecdote is not data.
Toby Young is obsessed with Latin. Once again, he trotted out a set of ridiculous claims and anecdotes about why Latin should be compulsory in schools. But as I’ve posted enough on this subject, with a full set of evidence against these claims, let’s put that to one side. His only other real claim was that Marc Zuckenburg was a classicist and that, apparently, was why he was one of the richest men in the world. Really! Brin and Page of Google and Besoz of Amazon, all went to Montessori schools, do my three entrpreneurs trump yours Toby? This is just crap causality. I repeat, the plural of anecdote is not data.
TV Chef thinks education is a risotto
I also had a go at the the Jamie Oliver nonsense, a TV chef, putting a curriculum together as if it were a recipe for a risotto. (I’ve submitted a brilliant idea to Channel 4; Rick Stein, now he can fillet a good fish, why not have him head up surgery for the NHS?) Was there anything more dispiriting than watching the pompous David Starkey start his lesson by saying to his class, “You are all here because you failed.” Then without the lad saying anything, Starkey pointed to Conor and said, “Come on you’re so fat you couldn’t move… With Jamie’s food there’ll be lots of dieting opportunities”. I would have applauded Conor if he had simply marched up and decked him. “You think it’s funny making jokes about me” replied Conor, rightly seething with resentment. As it was, Conor simply gave as good as he got and after the class was lucid and reasonable. “He didn’t even know my name”. Two girls after the class, got it spot on about Starkey, “He’s a bit rude.” He is more than rude, he’s a pompous, old snob who then had the cheek to write a stinging article about these young people and the state system in the Telegraph, showing his true colour. He had no remorse, because he’s a megalomaniac who can’t teach, “I have nothing but contempt for the new-style head teachers…gives you a sense of why things have gone so wrong in state education”. Typical of Starkey, everyone’s to blame but himself.
Simon Callow gets irony bypass

Simon Callow then threw Shakespeare at them, or rather some confusing and ambiguous questions, that got predictably confusing answers. When he asked them who they’d like to be in life, he didn’t like it when they mentioned Bill Gates and Katy Price. Then, suffering from a serious loss of irony, blamed ‘celebrity culture’ for the downfall in education! He can hold the attention of a paying audience, but not a roomful of kids. He was, well, hopeless. I loved the feisty girl’s final comment, “He can’t help the way he talks”. At the debate last night the headmaster from Winchester was similarly obsessed by Shakespeare. Then in rolls Rolf Harris. Good start but was too busy doing his own thing and didn’t spend enough time with the kids. He just looked lost. Robert Winston took a chainsaw to a dead pig (budget no object in this schools), but the kids saw right through his theatrical antics. Ellen McCarthur, had the advantage of a 30 foot yacht. Now how many state schools have or have access to a yacht? And next week we have Mary Beard, teaching, you’ve guessed it – Latin. This whole idea is way out of hand and nothing to do with the real world .

Inner-city London skews
Toby and Katherine are the poster boy and poster girl for these attacks on the state of state education. Note that all of them, bar none, live and work in London. The only common denominator is this ‘inner-London angst’ that every middle-class Londoner has about schools. But there’s a problem here. Inner London is not representative of the state sector as a whole.
Public and faith schools
First we have the richer kids creamed off into the public schools, second, you have the faith schools, set up to educate the poor, but largely taken over as the sharp elbows of the middle class get to work, even lying about their faith, to get in. So, as the evidence shows, from the LSE and Institute of Education, they achieve what they achieve through selection. Around 65% of Westminster’s secondary schools are faith based but the national average is only 17% and it’s less than 5% in many other areas of England. The net result is extreme social sorting. These are inner London skews.
Editorial class
On top of this we have an editorial class who also live in inner London and have exactly the same concerns. Toby and Katherine have no trouble in getting on radio and TV or into print, because the TV folk and journalists all live in London, and have the same worries about their kids, You can read it between the lines, the barely disguised fear of young black kids and a barely disguised fear of working class culture. In an interesting faux pas, Mary Beard revealed that neither she nor Jamie Oliver had suggested Latin, it was a member of the production team who was an Oxbridge classicist.
We’ve even had Joanna Lumley, only two days ago on the BBC, telling us how to run our schools, her only educational credentials; the Lucie Clayton Charm Academy, a finishing school and ’modelling’ agency for girls. At least it was vocational. This isn’t some ab fab, celebrity author, TV chef debate. It’s a serious business with serious outcomes and needs. And don’t think it’s not having an effect.
Bad news
We end up robbing the Building Schools for the Future budget, launched in 2004, to pay for Toby’s schools of the past. A decision now judged to have been an ‘abuse of power’.
We end up recommending Latin as a compulsory subject in our schools despite the fact that the evidence points to it NOT doing what many claim it does. It doesn’t help you learn other languages, it’s a hindrance.
We end up with a class-based attack on vocational learning, long the great apartheid fracture in the English system, Rather than listen to Tomlinson we relegated vocational subjects to Diplomas and the whole thing collapsed – again. Toby and Katherine regret the fact that we teach vocational subjects in schools. In one disgusting incident Toby had a go at BTECs in hospitality and hairdressing, and oh how the coiffured, restaurant-fed ,well-to-do ladies in the front row laughed and shouted, ‘hear, hear’. It was unabashed snobbery at its worst.
Education policy should NOT be skewed by a self-selecting group of inner London types who have their own idiosyncratic concerns, backed up by an editorial class that has the same concerns. In my lifetime, we’ve seen the creation of the abolition of the 11+, that most brutal of segregation policies, the raising of the school leaving age to 16 (remember this only happened in 1972), the rise in University participation from 12% when I went to University to 45% in just this year, higher staying on rates in schools. We’ve had the Open University, Learndirect’s 2.8 million learners, both offering ‘second chances’. This is real progress. It’s not perfect but it’s progress.
PS To Miss with Love
This was Katherine’s book launch and at the end she read out a strange passage from the book that was a long rambling exchange between her and a pupil, who for some weird reason called ‘Munchkin’. Katherine has a habit of demonising the children she has taught by giving them names like ‘Gruesome’. Those at the LWF conference heard her rant against this particular student for a full half hour. As Stephen Heppell said when he took the stage “I was beginning to feel quite sorry for poor Gruesome”. And that’s her problem. For all her claims to love teaching and the state system, she is, at heart, someone who does a lot of talking and not much listening.
The whole book is written in a faux-novella style, a confusion of fact and fiction (She even makes up a husband in the book, who doesn’t exist in real life.). And maybe this is the problem. Journalists have not warmed to her because she’s so dogmatic and seems to rely on nothing more than autobiographical anecdotes. Like David Starkey, she blames everyone (Fiona Miller got a booting in her speech) and everything but herself for the problems. It wasn’t her fault that the school she taught at imploded, as prospective parents fled the scene after her Conservative Party Speech. The main problem is her outrageous claims that the state system has collapsed, with largely feral children running amok in almost every classroom, urged on by liberal teachers and hapless headmasters. This is so extreme, as to be laughable. But it was a view held by many of the people in the room last night. To be honest, I’m not sure that she’s cut out for teaching. She has this bi-polar tendency to proclaim love in one sentence then follow it up with downright bile and hatred in the next.

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