On April 1st the BBC published its top ten list of ‘stories that look like pranks but aren’t’. At the same time NUT members were gathering for their annual conference in Liverpool and the government was defending changes to the welfare system. A day later the headline was ‘schools can measure themselves against Pisa tests’ and I began to think that the BBC had forgotten a leap year somewhere down the line and got their days mixed up.
I cannot help wondering why the PISA organisation would think that schools would want to take additional PISA tests in order to see how they fare compared with other schools and nations around the world. Or perhaps I have missed something? Surely the point of the PISA tests is that they give an average value for the performance of children within a nation, and putting aside whether the tests are themselves a fair assessment of educational achievement, at least you can compare like with like: but individual schools compared with countries?
A high proportion of schools in the UK are in some way selective, whether openly so in the case of the remaining grammar schools, or more subtly in the case of those comprehensives that can select a proportion of their students according to various aptitudes, including general academic ability, the arts, languages or science. With this in mind I can see the advantage suddenly of a grammar school taking the additional tests and comparing their results with, say, Finland or China. Who would bet against them coming out higher than the average performance of Chinese or Finnish children? This sounds like a win, win to me, but what’s the point?
Looking more closely at the list of ‘stories that look like pranks but aren’t’ I can just about convince myself that Ant and Dec topping the charts with Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble could be true (sales no doubt enhanced by multiple downloads from the PISA administrators) but NASA using a giant bag to capture an asteroid and tow it to the Moon? You don’t have to be a genius to realise that the scale of such a bag is almost incomprehensible, especially if it is going to slow down a million tonne rock travelling at hundreds of miles per hour. Certainly the proposed $100M budget for 2014 is not going to go very far and might be better spent supporting the Bradford woman who claims that she was raised by a group of capuchin monkeys in Colombia. Or feeding Ralph the Rabbit who has regained his title as the world’s largest, weighing in at a massive 23kg. Yes, two more stories that look like pranks but aren’t, apparently!
As for the NUT conference it looks like they got their dates wrong too with their opposition to “Gove’s pub quiz curriculum” on 31st March. Was this another one for the BBC list that came too soon? Thank heavens for Quentin Deakin, also from Bradford, but not claiming any connection with capuchin monkeys, who brought some sense to the debate with his observation that pupils would be left “rudderless without some chronology”. The NUT proposer’s implication that learning will be reduced simply to a list of “capes, bays, rivers and mountain ranges” surely misses the point; the same point that suggests that pub quizzes have never been more popular! Like it or not we do quite like ‘knowing things’ and without knowledge we shall have little to apply to our problem solving. The suggestion that children can ‘get it from the internet’ is similarly rather simplistic. Discerning accurate, well supported knowledge from inaccurate, opinionated drivel is a key skill that children (and adults) need to learn and this cannot be done in a vacuum of ‘knowledgelessness’. We all need to know something, don’t we?
But it was April 1st after all and no one was quite sure whether the stories were true or not. Come the start of the summer term the silly season will be over and we can concentrate on the important matters in education once again like exam reform, planned industrial action, pensions, inspection, youth unemployment and a new National Curriculum, to name but a few. Yes, April 1st has passed and sadly the serious stuff starts again, but for a few days at least over Easter there was a lightness to the education agenda and it almost felt like spring had come at last!
By Ian Power, Membership Secretary, HMC