Scaring the C++P out of KS1 teachers….

So it’s July and now we have sight of the new Computing part of the National Curriculum. On taking office, Michael Gove was determined to impose rigour on a curriculum he had argued had become flaccid and unchallenging during the new Labour years and very soon he had his sights

on the ICT curriculum. There was much evidence that work for students, particularly in Key Stage 3 when they went to Secondary school was not challenging, and at worst little more than a continual rehash of Microsoft Office skills. Of course that caricature has power as anecdotal evidence and it was not the case that ICT had become moribund in all schools. But during my time as a researcher going into schools I did see some pretty boring ICT lessons and talked to students who felt they did much more creative things with computing outside the school curriculum. So Gove sucked ICT into the maelstrom of his National Curriculum reforms, and the term ICT was ditched in favour of the more rigorous term ‘computing;. During the planning of the curriculum many bodies (including the British Computer Society and Mirandanet) gave evidence as to what should be in the new curriculum, and a concensus of such emerged that there should be more emphasis on programming and coding. So the conceptual workout provided by figuring out how to write computer programs was to replace endless dicking around with fancy fonts and Word Art. Which is probably no bad thing.

But reading the curriculum today I was struck by how the concept of rigour had rather taken hold of the thing too much, in fact it seems to have created some rather questionable ideas about what can be taught appropriately at certain ages. I reserve my comments here solely to the KS1 curriculum, with a reminder that these are children between the ages of 5 and 7.

Here is the first part of the curriculum

Key stage 1
Pupils should be taught to:

  •  understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions 

actually, let’s just take those first 4 words ‘understand what algorithms are’ and look in a little more detail about what is being asked of young children and their teachers here. If you set off to find a hard and fast definition of what an algorithm is, you will soon realise that a straight forward unequivocal definition is not easy to find.  Computer scientists and mathematicians will argue about exactly what constitutes an algorithm and even a cursory search through literature in the material will soon have you enmeshed deep in the conceptual difficulties of computation, Turing Machines and Hilbert’s ‘decision problem’. At its most basic an Algorithm is a series of steps through which a problem can be solved (in this case by a digital computer). But an algorithm is not necessarily the same as a computer program.

Firstly you can write computer programs which solve nothing and therefore are not algorithms.  Showing my age here, my first computer program (in BASIC) was the 80s classic

10 PRINT “hello world”

20 GOTO 10

This made  a very pretty pattern on the screen and delighted teenage boys, and it is clearly a computer program (when you type RUN it did something). But it’s not an algorithm because it doesn’t solve a problem, and even worse it’s non-terminating, the program will run for ever until you hit the ESC key and saved the computer from its hellish loop. An algorithm has a clear set of steps and a procedure for termination (just like a good drinker, it knows when it’s had enough and stops)  At the other end of the scale from my jejune tinkering with the Commodore PET in 1983, it is the case that more complex computer programs may have thousands of algorithms contained within them. Most often these are nested like Russian dolls with the output of one algorithm feeding into the input of another in myriad patterns of dizzying complexity (to us humans at least). The next time your computer screen freezes, you can be sure that somewhere in the bowels of your computer two or more algorithms have had a falling out and the consequences of this are slowing your game of angry birds to an agonising crawl.

The conceptual complexities of algorithms are fascinating but is it not too much to expect KS1 teachers to grasp these when they have to be generalists, teaching every subject in the curriculum?  This is not meant as patronising towards these teachers, in fact I have nothing but admiration for their skills and I know enough about schools to realise I would probably last about 15 minutes in charge of a KS1 class.  The question remains why the curriculum obsesses about teaching this notion of an algorithm to such young children and what they think will be gained from doing this.  I imagine that this first part of the curriculum will scare the C++P out of many Ks1 teachers who will either ignore it completely (in which case the curriculum is poorly framed  as it is asking something which cannot be done), or they may come up with a notion of what an algorithm which is not correct and therefore risk confusing children unnecessarily.  I searched in vain for any government support documents or extra guidance to help explain this concept of the algorithm to teachers who will be delivering this curriculum from 2014 and could find none. That is perhaps not unsurprising for a DfE which under Gove’s custody has become extremely good at dictating terms to schools, but not so good at supporting them.

Just to be clear, I think that teaching older children (from KS2 onwards) about algorithms and computer programming is a great idea, but I see little evidence that the new curriculum takes account of what children at KS1 are able to learn (in a way which is genuinely) and what their teachers are able to teach them concerning the complexities of computing science.

I think it would  have been better to have framed the KS1 curriculum to have some programming in (as it does), and omitted the notion of algorithms at this stage to avoid unnecessary complexity (coincidentally a trait of a good programmer is to do this too).  This would be something along the lines of ‘Pupils should be taught to understand that computers run programs which consist of a series of precise instructions’. For me this sounds more realistic, more achievable at KS1 and avoids the unnecessary fetishisation of the concept of the algorithm.

But if you think differently, please go ahead and leave a comment.

Tony Little, the head of Eton, shares his insights into building character and resilience

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 21.29.35According to the Daily Telegraph, Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton is to give advice to state schools on how to build ‘character and resilience’ and share with them insights on how children can make the most of their opportunities. (

Here is a quotation from the article

Eton’s headmaster highlighted a range of methods used at the school to help foster character and resilience amongst children, including:

* A range of school societies where students are charged with booking high-profile speakers.

* Tutorials – including those with pupils of different ages – where students develop speaking and debating skills.

* Developing stronger, more trusting relationships between teachers and students by encouraging staff to do more sport, music and other extra-curricular activities with pupils.

These are of course amazing insights into how to make a supportive school. There is absolutely no way that the feckless idiots who run state schools would ever have thought of running a sport or music club to build confidence. That idea would never have crossed their minds.  Once the 3.15 bell sounds the teachers are hot-footing out of the school gates in their battered Fiat Puntos either to go the pub and drink themselves stupid on cheap lager, or straight to a Communist Party meeting where they can share Trotskyist fantasies of the defenestration of Michael Gove from the second storey of one of his beloved academies.  And who would have thought that a tutorial where a student gets targetted help from a teacher could help build their speaking and debating skills?  Tony Little has shown even in these 3 short bullet points that he has a masterful grasp of education, that his school is genuinely innovative, even revolutionary in its approach. These educational insights are like manna dropped from heaven for the troglodytic state sector; just like the ambassador in the Ferrero Rocher advertisement he is ‘spoiling us’ and  his intervention is surely set to make a major difference to state education, and if he has to wait even a year longer for his knighthood then this is a travesty.

Luckily for those of you benighted lot who work in the state sector, I have managed to get a copy of his keynote at the ‘character and resilience’ building event. The audience is mostly teachers and management from state schools.  Leaking it is clearly, ‘not good form’, but in the interests of the wider public good I have decided to publish some extracts.

Speech beginneth here…

Welcome to Eton School. Founded in 1440 by Henry VI, this school is the best in the world. Many of you in this room probably dreamed of coming here. After having chatted with a few of you over coffee, I can assure you that you would have been really welcome here (as long as your parents were excessively rich and could afford £30,000 fees per annum).

But I am not here to talk about Eton. No I am here to share with you the secrets of how we build our boys into the strongest, most resilient people they can possibly be.  The education secretary (Mr Gove) has shared with me the problem of state education. It appears that none of your students have any backbone, they are feckless, idle, brittle individuals unable to withstand the rigours of life and lacking in even the basic talents to get on. And you teachers in the state sector are clearly unimaginative fuckwits unable to solve even the most basic of educational problems without having them spelled out by rich blokes like me. It reminds me a bit of the British Empire, but that’s material for another lecture….

Our boys are not like your boys (or girls). Our boys are men; even before they are boys, they are men. Let me share with you some of the ways in which we build them into well-rounded resilient individuals, the kind of people to lead this country back to greatness and conquer all on the international stage.  The chief value we instil in our boys (sorry men), is one of complete resilience. Only the other day one of the house masters told me of an incident. He had found a boy sitting on the stairs to his room looking sad. When he asked him why he as sad, the boy held out his phone.  It was an iPhone 4.  This poor boy had a phone which was at least 6 months out of date, and all of his classmates had iPhone 5 (the big ones with the fuck-off 64mb memory), yet fate had dealt him the cruellest of blows and he did not have this latest phone.  But did this boy give up? Did he break down? No, after a bit of a pep talk from the house master he took his iPhone 4 and declared proudly that he was happy to have this phone and he would make the best of his situation whilst he could.  And this is the spirit which makes up the Etonian, the stiff upper lip, the ramrod backbone, the refusal to let personal tragedy get one down.

This ‘make do’ attitude is prevalent right across the school.  As you some of you may be aware, we only have a 9 hole golf course at the school, whereas nearby Wellington has an 18 hole course.  For any other school this dent to the pride would be terminal, it would be a situation never to be recovered from, but somehow here at Eton we can rise above the physical assets of the school (limited though they are), and look to a higher spirit guiding us.  I imagine many of you …. “colleagues”  also teach in schools where your golf courses only have 9 rather than 18 holes. Some of you will be saddled with swimming pools which are not Olympic size, so your boys will struggle, like ours do, in a purpose built, heated, all year round 25M pool. And what I say to you is this, dig deep and build the character of your students with lots of one-to-one time exploring the life of the mind and intellectual pursuits.  You should spend, as our tutors do, at least 2 hours with each boy per week, over a cup of warming cocoa and a buttered slice, getting to know them and tailoring a curriculum exactly to their needs. You will find this approach brings real dividends.

Thank you very much for visiting Eton to see how we do things here. Now if you could all leave quickly by this back door here, we would be very grateful. We’re not trying to get rid of you or anything,  tt’s just we have some prospective parents coming round in an hour or so and the place smells, erm, smells a bit of ‘chav’.  We obviously would like to get the servants in to give the place a good airing. Don’t get me wrong, I like the common people as much as the next fellow, it’s just I’d rather not have my school reeking of them.

Speech endeth, and hapless state school educators declare themselves amazed by the results produced at Eton with such meagre resources. They vow to return to their schools and start music and sports clubs forthwith. 

Upon returning to their schools they realise this is a really stupid bloody plan, as Gove has already sold off their playing fields and any musical based nonsense is not included in the eBacc, and if they don’t make the grade with that then Gove will have them converted to an academy quicker than they can say ‘enemies of promise’.

The Classroom of the Past

Rumours abound that the Department for Education are going to be exhibiting at BETT.  After Michael Gove’s appearance last year, he has had a team working around the clock to develop his ‘classroom of the past’ concept space.  He strongly believes this space will settle once and for all the nonsense some vendors insist on peddling at the show when they come up with ‘Classroom of the Future’ type exhibits. Set to take the BETT show by storm, the ‘classroom of the past’ has many revolutionary design features not seen in classrooms since at least, erm , 1952.

Security is tight ahead of its launch, but this copy of the brochure was leaked via a Hotmail account earlier today.

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 20.23.52

Exams are like Markets . . Confidence is key

The big education story of today is the fall in the number of A* to C grades in the GCSE results.  The drop was just 0.4% which is hardly evidence of an education apocalypse, but against a background where results have been rising since 1988, this fall made big news. Compounding the issue was the larger drop in English Literature grades which fell by more than 1% and Science where the fall was 2.2%.  This chart from the BBC sums up the overall picture quite well.

The trouble with the examination system is that it has become very politicised, and charges that Michael Gove had put pressure on exam boards to raise the thresholds for grades (effectively dishing out more Ds than Cs than they would have one year ago) have been rife.  Today Gove has played the innocent, denying political interference, although this is disingenuous in the extreme as he has spoken frequently of the ‘dumbed down nature’ of the GCSE and its lack of rigour.  He was doing some serious damage to the reputation of the qualification just a few months ago when he leaked plans to replace the GCSE with a new two tier exam system similar to the O level and CSE regime in place before 1988 ( Gove’s insistence that he has not brought political pressure to bear is remarkable in its audacity but laughable if he thinks anyone will believe it.

Ultimately exams are like markets. Not the markets where you buy fruit and veg, but markets such stocks and shares, bonds and guilts, commodities and even houses.  All markets are largely built upon trust, or rather a collective decision to believe in the net worth of assets being traded.  Once you move beyond the simple barter system (I give you a box of tomatoes in exchange for a sack of corn), the assets of the market are codified in abstract form and become an artefact of social agreement.  When the system is working, both buyers and sellers believe in the value of the assets. They will haggle to get the best price of course, but under the market is a belief in its veracity. When confidence in markets collapses, this evaporates, as we saw with the large crashes which happened during the financial crisis which started in 2008 and has continued to this day. A loss of faith causes violent spikes  in both buying and selling (some will buy because they think the assets have become underpriced, and therefore a bargain).

Exam regimes are very similar.  There is no tangible physical entity expressed in an A at GCSE. It is a social judgement made on a student’s performance and anyone with any experience of the sharp end of examining will tell you that the system is far from perfect in its judgements (although most judgements are probably in line with each other). When confidence in an entire qualification is eroded, the result is a little like the crash in the market. People are confused and look around at what to do next. For instance, employers complain that GCSEs don’t tell them whether young people they are going to employ are literate or numerate.

Gove has welcomed this confusion as it furthers two of his political ends. The first is that it allows him to further criticise the education system and point to low aspiration and poor quality teaching which needs urgent attention. And just as the person who has only a hammer begins to see everything as a nail, he will see a change to academy status as the only solution for schools which are under-performing.  Converting community schools to academies is Gove’s big plan.  Academies become directly accountable to him upon conversion and he can control them in ways which no Secretary of State could do when the Local Authority was in an intermediary position between Whitehall and the school.  Aggregating academies into chains is another link (excuse the pun), in the plan. Silently the assets of the school are transferred to the academy chain and Gove’s dream of allowing profit from state education edges ever closer.  Convincing the public that state education can be run for private profit will be much easier when large academy chains control as many as a hundred schools.  The argument will be made that the profit made from widespread economies of scale can be ploughed back into investment.  The argument behind this will be that shareholders and a board of directors will be risking capital investing in the chain and therefore it is only right that they share in some of that profit.  Gove may well be stopped before this comes to pass, but I am convinced that it his ultimate end game for the academy programme.

Secondly the confusion around disquiet around GCSEs brings his plan for the return to the O level one step closer. The lib dems came out to oppose this plan when it was leaked and even David Cameron expressed surprise, but Gove is wily and plays the long game. Any damage to the GCSE system adds weight to his call for a return to a two tier system.

This is definitely a day to reflect on the fact that education, and the future chances of young people are far too important to be left in the hands of politicians.

Forever Young . .

Today Toby Young published a piece in The Spectator. The majority of it lives behind a paywall, but the first two paragraphs caused a bit of a stir amongst the good folk of twitter as the founder of the West London Free School eased into his usual combative style to defend Michael Gove’s championing of a two tier exam system at age 16.

The concept of inclusion seems to have particularly got Toby Young’s dander up as he rails against this ‘ghastly, politically correct’ word.  According to Young, inclusion has created conditions of quite unbearable egregiousness in the British education system, through, for instance, its insistence that wheelchair ramps are installed for disabled students.

I’ll wait for a few moments whilst you go back and read the end of that last paragraph again.    You back?   Good, now you have seen (and probably clicked the link to the Spectator original to check I was telling the truth) that indeed Toby Young is intensely annoyed that schools have to install wheelchair ramps so children using wheelchairs can get into the school. And his ire does not die away quickly, he soon turns to a berate a mythical ‘special needs department’ where students with dyslexia and mentally ill parents are pandered to.  For his encore, and definitely warming to his theme of how dysfunctional humanity and the halt, the lame and the blind will be the downfall of any right thinking society, he opines that laws on equality will prevent any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six”.

No doubt Young sees these evils as an inevitable consequence of the unnacceptable meddling in education of the state and big government.  This is after all the man who celebrated the sentiments of Grover Norquist who wanted to shrink the government, drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the battub (

This is fine Tory fare; grandstanding to a stale smelling legion of Bufton-Tuftons sat swilling gin in country clubs and wanting a return to a 1950s pedagogy pickled in aspic and the certainties of a class system  where children were sorted into sheep and goats at age 11 and nothing challenged this status quo for the rest of their lives.

But certain uneasy questions remain. The first is why, if Young is so anti-state and anti-government, that he chose to found his free school with tax payer money. The last time I checked DfE funding is raised by general taxation, and the setting up of the West London Free School was therefore paid by the very same state which Toby Young would like to murder, leaving only a neo-liberal paradise of private provision in its wake.  The true costs of the WLFS are not yet known, as Gove’s department has been less than transparent with figures, but if Toby Young went beyond the facile flashiness of his puerile political beliefs he would have to confront the gaping paradox of why he didn’t found the West London Free School using private capital and make it fee-paying. Or will it be the case that he’ll not drown government in the bath-tub, just subject it to a protracted period of water-boarding.

The second question to remain is Young’s simultaneous commitment to a genuinely comprehensive system  (no selection) and the offensive and divisive comments we read in The Spectator piece.  Put simply Young cannot have his cake and eat it.  He has a perfect right to argue that some children are illiterate savages with no hope of redemption, or they come saddled with physical or mental disabilities which will drag education down to a hopeless pool of mediocrity.  But arguing that his school can be genuinely comprehensive and non-selective whilst holding these opinions is simply not tenable.

Which is why, when I asked him on twitter, what the West London Free School would do when troglodytes, dyslexics and wheelchair users applied to the West London Free School, he blocked me rather than supply a credible answer to a reasonable question.


Update: the full text of the Spectator article is now on Toby Young’s Blog (  The remainder of his argument is that a two tier exam system will not ruin the life chances of those not selected for the upper tier (O level) exams and that 14 year olds are robust enough to cope with this.  As evidence for this argument he cites a case study, namely himself who was initially in a mixture of O level and CSE classes but then returned to study to gain A levels and a place at Oxford.  If only Young could find one other person who struggled with CSEs and then became a success he’d have TWO case studies, and of course as the plural of anecdote is data, he’d have a rock solid research-based educational argument.

There is also an addendum where Young explains his comments about the troglodyte and takes special care to show he is talking about a ‘dumbed down curriculum’ rather than children with SEN.  So it turns out that a ‘troglodyte’ in Young’s bestiary is not a child with SEN, merely a child of very low intelligence, and by the same logic a wheelchair ramp in a school is not part of the school’s commitment to inclusion, it is merely a symptom of the dumbing down of the curriculum.  And if you find this logic hard to follow, and his explanation for his comments convoluted, then feel free to join me in the CSE group at the back of the class.

‘I can politic’ scheme to give all politicians a sound basic education

 An initiative which seeks to tackle the chronic problem of low levels of education amongst politicians and their seeming lack of grasp of reality has been launched.  Titled ‘Can Politic’ it combines a friendly and targeted approach to ensure that all politicians, regardless of party, are familiar with some of the basics, such as maths, english, basic health and safety, and some rudimentary sociology.

The president of the scheme Dr Ed Nobles said: “We hope this scheme will make politicians who have to attend basic education classes as normal and pleasant as going to cookery or line-dancing classes.  They will get a voucher worth £100 which they can take into their local branch of Boots and cash in for training courses at their local academy or free school.  In many cases politicians seem to be wilfully ignorant of the basics, so urgent remedial work on maths and understanding basic economic concepts is needed.  Sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of quite easy to grasp principles which can hold these politicians back such as thinking that negative growth is a  sign that economic policy is working.”

Other learning needs are more specialist, such as ‘storing petrol at home safely’, and ‘knowing what day of the week it is’; and the organisers believe that these courses we be useful for politicians who have shown confusion about these issues in the recent past.

Bad politics is blamed for everything, from obesity to last year’s riots to the complete and utter shambles that the country is in. This massive state intervention to improve the quality of politicians may seem a huge waste of money in the midst of the biggest recession since the 1930s, but few of us want to see a continuation of what have been dubbed ‘Yes Minister’ relationships, where one generation of feckless, simple-minded and devious politicians produces the next.  We must break the cycle of politicians breeding more politicians and living inside a Westminster bubble where nothing makes any sense unless you are also inside that bubble.

Dr Noble continues: “Obviously for the scheme to be successful we need to reach the right politicians. Some have proved to be very difficult to educate, and continue to hold reckless and factually wrong attitudes despite mountains of empirical evidence and research to the contrary.  One high level politician believes that social mobility can be improved without tackling income inequality and appears to be wholly ignorant of decades of social research and evidence which suggest the two are very strongly linked.

In some cases we have politicians whose basic maths is so poor that they believe that 62% and 142% are the same number, and are comfortable stating in public that the UK and Greek levels of debt are the same as a result of this misunderstanding. This obviously makes them look foolish, and by association the country too, so ‘Can Politic’ is a targeted initiative designed to tackle ignorant politicians and stop them talking rubbish every single time they open their mouths.

(you may find this link helpful if not all of that made sense)

The Myriad Confusions of the Godly Mr Gove

Not the kind of books which Mr Gove has in mind for deep study

Michael Gove continues to bemuse and exasperate in equal measure. This week his madcap plan to send a King James Bible to every school in England has made the headlines and he has annoyed both those who campaign to keep schools secular and those who are against wasting money in times of austerity in equal measure.

When not bowling for immortality as the man who outdid the Gideons’ hotel-based stunt and instead put a bible in the desk drawer of every headteacher in the land, this week Mr Gove has been addressing Cambridge University on the question of elitism in education (  When Gove was in opposition he made grand gestures about not telling teachers what or how to teach and trusting the profession to raise standards. The reality once he has power is very different as he makes regular speeches setting out what should be taught and how it should be taught. He also makes great play of criticising the current curriculum, particularly in English Literature and History which he believes had been dumbed down by New Labour in order to keep exam results artificially high.   Gove mentioned many works of literature and history in his Cambridge speech, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Pericles, Pythagoras, Balzac, Pinker with the clear message that he wanted to see works like these taught in schools, in order that young people, in the words of his hero Matthew Arnold, should have access to ‘the best that had been thought and written’.  The more cynical part of me, on reading this roll call of the great and good felt that Gove’s speech has more to do with his intellectual insecurities than any real attempt to shape policy for the better. Put bluntly, faced with an audience of dons, he just tried way too hard to prove he was well read and cultured and any serious links the speech could have with what actually happens in schools were severed by his ridiculous pseudo-intellectual posturing and bluster.  And to return to the central point here, I can still see no explanation of why a minister who is obsessed with granting some schools freedom from the national curriculum, and believes all schools should take responsibility for what they teach, would spend such a long time talking about what should be taught. Gove talks of elitism unashamedly but seems unwilling to face the fact that an elite system can only function if people are excluded from it. Elites need a lumpen-proletariat of excluded in order to exist, yet in the wacky world of Gove, he can call for a return to elitism without having to address this uncomfortable truth.

I studied English Literature at university and took it very seriously indeed, I have read most of the works Gove mentions in this and other speeches, and one of his favourites Middlemarch happens to be one of my favourite novels too and I have read it more than once (quite a feat as it is not an easy read by any means as narrative is often subsumed by the exploration of ideas). I taught English too and well remember the dawning realisation that teaching people to love literature, even a short accessible poem by Philip Larkin is a very hard task indeed. But in the light of our current economic situation, and with the crisis in youth employment, I find it just plain embarrassing that the Secretary of State for Education can have missed the point of his job by such a huge mark. Loving Middlemarch or appreciating the unresolved tension in the Tristan Chord really will have to bloody wait when over 1 million young people are unemployed and there seems to be no credible economic or political policy to find them jobs.

Gove rarely talks of skills which can be used in the modern economy, he does not mention collaboration and teamwork, communication skills and the ability to use a range of technologies to get a job done. He does not talk of creativity and entrepreneurship, of engaging with the information society and introducing young people to the rigours of engineering or computer programming. Presumably as his own education did not cover these elements, and Jane Austen wrote very little in JavaScript, these disciplines have not entered his purview.

So one of two things is going on here. Either Gove is so out of touch with the economic reality of modern Britain that he seriously believes that young people can be forced to work at Poundland for nothing yet can console themselves afterwards by reading passages from Balzac and marvelling at the elegance of Newton’s laws. Or he is taking the piss out of all us – an education secretary faced with the real and pressing challenge of how to run an education system which needs pushing into the 21st century if the nation is to have any hope of survival, but who can only offer rehashed ideas on the curriculum from the 1950s and waste his time on speeches proving how well read he is.

Image is Creative Commons from Remy Sharp, available at ,