Thursday, 17 July 2014

Michael Gove Out

So Michael Gove is no longer our Secretary of State for Education. He presided over a time of headlong change in our education system. Some would describe him as a visionary; others, such as the teaching unions, would probably say he attempted too much too quickly, and that would be the polite version.

Nicky Morgan is the new Secretary of State
at the Department for Education.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.

As education secretary, Michael Gove was a deeply controversial figure. He brought in free schools, rewrote the National Curriculum and rapidly increased the number of academies in England, so that now around 50% of schools in England have academy status. For academies and free schools he brought in legislation allowing these institutions to employ unqualified teaching staff. He also presided over the dramatic rise in the maximum level a university can charge in tuition fees from £3000 to £9000.

His supporters would say Michael Gove took on an education system unwilling to change. He brought forward difficult but necessary changes despite fierce opposition. His critics would say that he is a deeply divisive figure, a zealot bent on his own view of what an education system should look like, stuck in the past and out of touch with the modern realities of teaching.

It is true he got himself into many arguments: he fell out with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, with Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw, with his own Conservative colleague, Home Secretary Theresa May over the alleged plot by Islamic extremists to seize control of certain schools in Birmingham.

Did Prime Minister David Cameron think his personal friend Gove was a liability as the general election approaches next year? He has been replaced by Nicky Morgan and time will tell whether her tenure makes for more harmonious relationships with teaching bodies, Ofsted and other interested parties. She takes over at the Department for Education at a time of change, but will not be blamed for the series of reforms that she will have to preside over. We wish her well.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Happy 40th Birthday HP-65

First pocket programmable calculator
First pocket programmable calculator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Two years ago we celebrated the fortieth birthday of the HP-35, the first mass-produced, pocket-sized, scientific calculator.

Today marks the fortieth birthday of its younger sibling, the HP-65, released on 17 January 1974. This was the world's first programmable calculator.

The first programmable calculators were introduced in the mid-1960s by Mathatronics and Casio, but these machines were very heavy and expensive.

So the miniaturisation involved in the HP-65 was a breakthrough. Bill Hewlett is supposed to have insisted that the calculator should fit in his shirt pocket and this was partly achieved with the tapered body.

The HP-65 had a capacity of 100 instructions, and could store and retrieve programs with a built-in magnetic card reader. The magnetic program cards were fed in at the thick end of the calculator under the LED display.

Examples for programs provided with the calculator included algorithms for hundreds of applications, including the solutions of differential equations, stock price estimation and statistical functions.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Pisa Results: UK Could Do Better

test documents for the Programme for Internati...
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test on a school table in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The UK is ranked 26th out of 65 countries in maths, in the results of the 2012 Pisa tests (Programme for International Student Assessment), which were published today.

The tests in maths, English and science were taken by 500,000 15-year old students around the world. The top 7 places are filled by far eastern countries and cities. Shanghai came top of the league table (Chinese cities are entered individually, rather than the country as a whole). The highest place gained by a European country is 8th place, for Lichtenstein. The US came even further down the league table than the UK, coming 36th in maths. Wales was the poorest performing region of the UK.

Many educationalists have criticised the league table. Prof Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham pointed out that in many Asian countries, pupils are coached specifically for these tests.

However, Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers, said the results showed that countries with successful education systems "pay teachers well, respect the profession and encourage collaboration between teachers and schools".

Naturally, Education Secretary Michael Gove blamed the last Labour government for the UK's poor performance. For Labour, Tristram Hunt said that the coalition government's policies were taking the UK towards a poorer education system, not a better one.

What do you think about the results of the Pisa tests? Is the UK lagging behind in these key subject areas? Are the Pisa tests an accurate measure of performance?

You can take the Pisa test here.

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Thursday, 7 November 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace 1823-1913

Wallace argued that the "drab" peahe...
Alfred Russel Wallace
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Alfred Russel Wallace died 100 years ago today, on 7 November, 1913.

Wallace was primarily a naturalist, but he had a curious mind and was drawn to many academic disciplines, especially controversial new ideas. In particular, Wallace was most renowned for formulating, independently of Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Wallace was beset by financial troubles throughout his life. He did not have a wealthy family and he made some unfortunate investment decisions. In addition, he failed to secure any long-lasting salaried position and had to finance himself through the publications he produced.

Wallace's financial difficulties were further compounded by an incident involving a wager, relating to the curvature of the Earth, one of his many forays into the field of mathematics.

John Hampden, a member of the Flat Earth Society, placed an advertisement in a magazine, challenging anybody to prove that there was curvature on the surface of any body of water. He claimed that he would offer a prize of £500 to anybody who could do so. Alfred Russel Wallace, who was short of money at the time, took up the challenge.

His experiment took place along the Old Bedford River in England and it involved setting up two objects at the same height above the surface of the water. At a third point he set up a telescope. The view of the river through the telescope confirmed that the level of the water appeared to dip the further the object was from the telescope, thus confirming the curvature of the Earth.

The referee for the wager judged that Wallace had won, but Hampden refused to accept the fact. He accused Wallace of cheating, published defamatory articles and sued Wallace for return of the money. The legal cases cost Wallace a great deal of money and a huge amount of time and effort.

When he died, aged 90, The New York Times described him as "the last of the giants belonging to that wonderful group of intellectuals that included, among others, Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Lyell, and Owen, whose daring investigations revolutionised and evolutionised the thought of the century."

Saturday, 2 November 2013

GCSEs Set For 2015 Revamp

Glenys Stacey from Ofqual
(Image from TES)
This week Ofqual have released more details about the new curricula for maths and English, when the GCSEs are revamped for first teaching in the year 2015 at the insistence of Education Secretary Michael Gove. Other subjects will be given the same treatment the following year. These will be the biggest changes to GCSE since their inception in the late 1980s. Pupils now in their second year will be the first to take the new GCSE.

Glenys Stacey from Ofqual pointed out that the most important changes in the new GCSE will be the new content in each subject. In addition to this:

- There will be only one exam, which will take place at the end of the two years of study;
- Grades will be awarded from 1 to 9 (with 9 the highest). With one more grade available than in the current system, this allows for more differentiation at the top end.
- There will be less coursework in most subjects (and probably none in maths);
- There will be a complete end to modular GCSEs.

Stacey says that the new GCSE will allow pupils to gain a real confidence and competence in each subject. She also expressed confidence that these would be the last big changes to the GCSE for a significant number of years, giving more certainty and stability to the exam system for both schools and pupils.

In the maths GCSE, pupils will be expected to memorise many more formulae, such as the quadratic formula, the sine and cosine rules. Until now, these have been provided on the formula sheet.

These changes only apply to the set of GCSEs offered by the English exam boards. The exam boards in Wales and Northern Ireland are not obliged to follow suit. If the GCSE in these parts of the UK remain as they stand, the divergence from England will become significant, with the qualifications having little in common but the name.

Are you a teacher or a pupil? What do you think of the proposed changes to the maths GCSE? Let us know by email or comment on this post.

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Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Clegg Attacks Free Schools

Nick Clegg says that free schools
should work to the national curriculum
and hire only qualified teachers.
The debate over free schools has resurfaced with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg now voicing his disapproval of the precise freedoms that they have. In particular, Clegg argues that they should not be allowed to recruit teaching staff who do not have a recognised teaching qualification. Additionally, he feels that these schools should be obliged to follow the national curriculum.

His comments come shortly after several controversial incidents at free schools. These include the now infamous Al-Madinah school in Derby, whose lessons were often failing to meet the requirements, according to a recent Ofsted report.

The Conservative part of the coalition government disagrees. It maintains that free schools have been outperforming schools in the mainstream state sector, and will continue to, simply because of the new freedoms they have been given. Education minister Liz Truss says that in the private school sector, appointments of non-qualified teachers has been the norm for "hundreds of years".

It is still early days for free schools. Some critics have gone further than Nick Clegg and suggested that academies and free schools are both stepping stones on the road to privatising education. Teaching unions have also voiced scepticism, suggesting that the government is trying to water down the status of professional teachers and discredit the teaching qualification.

Clearly it is possible for a school to use any freedoms in a positive and constructive way. On the other hand, without good leadership, a school that does not have the structure imposed by a national curriculum and the requirement to employ only qualified teachers, could find itself floundering, as has been shown.

What do you think about free schools? Let us know with your emails or comments.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Post-16 Education Revolution Begins Here

Teenagers in England will have to stay at school or in training longer from today. The "participation age" has risen from 16 to 17, although in the rest of the UK, it will remain at 16. From 2015 this rises again to 18.

However, unlike previous increases in the school leaving age, it does not mean that teenagers will have to remain in school. As an alternative, they could enter some form of work that includes an element of training, such as an apprenticeship.

This change has been introduced on the same day that pupils who do not get a grade C or higher in GCSE maths will be required to continue studying the subject during their subsequent schooling.

Schools and teaching unions are already talking about the increased pressure on already-stretched teaching staff and/or the need to employ more staff.

The government says that employers are complaining about a lack of basic numeracy and literacy skills among those applying for their first jobs and this has motivated both changes. However, there will not be sanctions imposed on any teenagers who fail to get some kind of training. The government says that the changes are aimed at increasing educational standards, not about introducing penalties. In reality, the new law would be difficult to enforce: how do you prove whether or not an employer is providing adequate training for a young employee.

Let us know what you think about these two changes. Will they provide valuable skills to those who have missed out in previous years? Or is this just another unnecessary change brought in by a tinkering education secretary?