Thursday, August 07, 2008

What the F?

Annoyed by constantly having to correct students' spelling, Dr Ken Smith, the senior lecturer in criminology at Buckinghamshire New University, is proposing that "University teachers should simply accept as variant spellings those words our students most commonly misspell.''

Yes, it must be a pain having to correct some of the most frequent mistakes such as 'ignor', 'thier', 'speach' and 'truely'. Especially when you're teaching a subject whose graduates are going to be lucky if the nearest they come to using their hard won knowledge is handing out parking tickets. I kind of lose him, though, when he goes on, "there is no reason many commonly misspelt (sic) words are configured the way they are. The word 'twelfth', for example, would make more sense as 'twelth'. How on earth did that "f " get in there? You would not dream of spelling the words "stealth" or "wealth" with a "f" (as in 'stealfth' or "wealfth") so why insist on putting the "f" in twelfth?''. No Ken, and I wouldn't dream of having to read misspelled words based on every conceivable mispronunkciation neiver.

I should think it's fair to assume that most of his students come from the 60odd% of those who were actually deemed to have an acceptable level of English in their SATS tests. This year's intake will come from some of those kids we'll soon be seeing whooping and hugging as they hear of their record-breakingly excellent A-level results - renewed proof that the £millions of extra money being poured into education is delivering new heights of success.

Yet they still can't spell and are going into careers that, a few years ago, would have needed just a couple of moderate O-levels. If that.

This issue sums up the problem of government policies in a nutshell. An assumption has been made, and is being put into practice, that a certain percentage of the population should be of degree level. Who knows.. maybe this can be demonstrated as desirable and perhaps it is. But what's clearly not happening, is that the graduates that are being produced are fit for the requirements of the labour market - neither in the quality of their education, nor in their type of qualification.

So now we merely have a 'policy' of a universal right to full education. In its name, we're churning out generations of semi-literate adults with the scantiest knowledge of their chosen subjects and conniving with the deceit that putting off work for a few years benefits all of us. What's happened, as is so typical as to be inevitable when the State is in charge, is that the reason for the policy has been lost and disregarded as the quest to fulfil its target has been implemented. Again and again we see this with Government and its agencies... it's because the implementers aren't held responsible for the outcomes of their actions. And their bosses in Cabinet never dare admit a failure.

Prof. AllShookUp's Patent Remedy.

First identify your desired aim. Then tackle it by:

Step one: Fire Dr Smith and his ilk.

Step two: Return Buckinghamshire New University and its ilk to being technical colleges.

Step three: Use the money saved to ding a basic education into primary school kids and keep them there till they've got it.

Easy peasy.


Selena Dreamy said...

I can’t comment on this specifically, but speaking generally, if there is a link between poverty and educational underattainment, it seems that the relevant authorities have decided to solve the problem by facilitating spurious and inflationary results - a process in which targeting degree levels plays a significant part...

All Shook Up said...

One can only hope that standards within subjects that actually demand full knowledge and understanding, such as medicine and the sciences, are being maintained. I wonder...

Glamourpuss said...

As an ex-English teacher, this is a subject close to my heart. I'll try not to rant for too long...

The trouble in this country is that since the 80's (possibly earlier but I can't remember), Education has been a political issue. This is not true elsewhere in Europe, where what children learn in school is not used to score pathetic political points. Long before New Labour (many of whose measures, such as the Literacy and Numeracy hours I applaud), the Tories were fucking around with GCSE's and saying ALL kids had to study a Shakespeare play (worth less than 2% of their actual grade, so impossible to deliver because you either teach the play properly at the expense of the rest of the syllabus, or you skim it thus turning them off Shakespeare forever).

However, you can fuck about with Education as much as you like but it doesn't actually address the real problem, the one that no politician wants to articulate; teachers have very little influence on kids compared to their parents and many, many children coming into education are essentially unteachable. Yes, teachers need to develop methods to reach kids, but the failure of parents to instil any curiosity, respect, courtesy or social skills into their offspring makes it difficult to see what can be done with these children in a classroom environment. Trouble is, it's easy to blame the teachers, but start blaming parents and you're criticising potential voters.

By the time children get to school, the foundations should have already been laid. And when they are at school, parental input is imperative. The number of times parents would ask me what needed to be done to improve Little Johnny's chances at GCSE and who then screwed their noses up when I told them - sit down with him and go through homework/key skills etc - was tragic.

The school I taught in had a cap on class sizes - max. 25 - and for GCSE I saw them for five 35 min. lessons a week, setting two 40min homeworks. Sounds a lot, but in that time, I had to teach them three exam texts, three coursework texts, produce five pieces of written coursework (and teach the skills for them to do so), three pieces of oral coursework and equip them to sit three exam papers with three questions each. Everyone goes on about how easy exams are these days, but the workload is heavy and to do well, they have to work.

Of course, in a modular system where students can re-take elements, results are going to improve. But on top of that, the four exam boards that operate in this country are private companies - so, in a culture where schools are continually measured on their results, where we have a choice which exam boards we register with, it's in the interest of those exam boards to make sure our pupils get the grades they need.

Oh, and incidentally, out of the nine exam questions pupils must answer to achieve GCSE English Language and Literature, only ONE is marked for SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar).

I'll shut up now. Sorry.


All Shook Up said...

Given that English would be the first language for most, if not all, of your pupils - 5 x 35 mins a week for what you had to teach them doesn't sound bad at all. Especially since they get 5 whole years at sec. school to build up their knowledge. If they find those tests difficult, Gawd knows how they ever learn a foreign language.

"out of the nine exam questions pupils must answer to achieve GCSE English Language and Literature, only ONE is marked for SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar)." Says it all really.

Whatever the problem, the answer should never be simply to lower the bar just to give the impression that more people can jump higher - which is what's happened in education.

Glamourpuss said...

"Whatever the problem, the answer should never be simply to lower the bar just to give the impression that more people can jump higher - which is what's happened in education."

No, I don't think it's that simple - the tests are different. Before, you took one exam at the end of two years study and either passed or failed your A Levels. Now, with coursework and modules, there is the chance for those who work to achieve. Some people do better in exams than others and that isn't necessarily a measure of intelligence. The problem has come with abuse of the system - parents doing coursework, kids downloading stuff off the internet and submitting it, and a system of marking that is not measured against an independent base level. Most people don't know this, but exam boards have quotas of grades and candidates are marked against each other. This means that a set percentage will achieve each grade, and that one year, 60 marks can get you a B, and the next, it can get you an A depending on how everyone else does.

Again, it is in the boards interests for people to pass their qualifications, outside of what QCA or the Government want...


All Shook Up said...

I do understand this is a controversial subject which is complicated by changes to the marking system. However, it's not only A level grade inflation at secondary level* that's the problem. The recent acceleration in soft subjects at the expense of subjects like Maths, Physics and Languages has also led universities take on barely qualified undergraduates for courses whose values are questionable, at best.

It must be frustrating for hard working teachers such as yourself, and for bright pupils who would have scored well under any measurement regime.... but, still, I'm convinced that standards overall are lower.

*"Robert Coe of Durham University’s CEM used the International Test of Developed Abilities to compare the actual attainment of pupils from year to year with their paper qualifications. Taking an average of 40 A-level subjects, he found that those scoring 50% on the ITDA test in 1997 would tend to achieve low C grades, but by 2005 were achieving low B grades. Essentially a post- Blair A-level is worth a whole grade less than a pre-Blair A-level." ( )

Glamourpuss said...

Don't get me started on 'soft' subjects; as a former Head of Media Studies who taught A Level Media and A Level English, I can tell you that these subjects are just a rigorous. Most of the universities haven't got a clue about A Level content and 'soft' subjects are an easy target. My students genuinely enjoyed my subject and as a result, worked bloody hard at it. I had to teach theory at AS Level that I learned as an Undergrad - nothing in Engllish came close to that, but still I endured endless digs from colleagues. Sigh.