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BALD John square

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.

Will Bickford Smith’s Conservative Teachers website has led to a revival of the Conservative Education Society.  This is open to any Party member with an interest in education, whether as governor, parent, councillor, teacher, member of a related profession, or indeed, none of the above.

Nick Gibb set the tone at a well-attended relaunch meeting at the Commons last month, greeting every member personally, making sure that everyone had a chance to contribute, and answering questions frankly and honestly.

There will be more such meetings throughout the coming year, with speakers to include Nicky Morgan, Sir Anthony Seldon, Tom Sherrington and Katharine Birbalsingh. We will have a fringe event at the Party Conference on 2 October (first Sunday evening) at the Hyatt hotel, which is outside the secure zone, so you do not need to attend the full conference if you wish to take part. We are confident that our panel will include a minister and trade union representation, alongside some of the young talent that has driven this revival.

This includes a brilliant light jazz pianist and comedian, Ed Clarke, who writes textbooks on Latin and Greek. I was pleased to be co-opted to the committee, and will act as a point of contact for anyone wishing to know more (johnbald@talktalk.net).

One of the Society’s functions is to act as a source of advice for ministers, for which recent events have shown the need. Fallout from the primary tests continued last week with David Crystal, doyen of linguistics, questioning the grammar test for eleven year olds on the matter of punctuation. The issue was lists. Professor Crystal maintained that, “…tall, dark and handsome…”; and “…tall, dark, and handsome…” were equally correct. The underlying issue is the “Oxford comma” which is inserted wherever the writer chooses in order to help with the phrasing of a sentence. Professor Crystal is correct, but, like many other critics, he has not chosen an example from the test itself which is, overall, less obscure than our critics were expecting.

The big problem with the tests came where it was least expected, in reading. We have decades of experience in designing reading tests, much of it reflecting Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” The mistake on this occasion was to design a test from a grid containing a wide range of aspects of reading, without taking account of the equally wide range of pupils who were to take it. This means putting some easier questions at the beginning, so that everyone who has made an effort can feel they have got something right, and the more difficult questions in the middle and later stages, so that everyone is challenged. Instead, the reading test threw everyone in at the deep end, with the predictable consequence that too many sank.

Similar errors were repeated in the other tests – algebra, for example, had two questions of very similar difficulty, which should have been preceded by a simple question along the lines of “find x if X+3= 5″ to see if children had grasped the initial point of finding an unknown quantity from information that we do know. Running the test past experienced, expert teachers – not the usual suspects – would have avoided a good deal of bad press, much of which was fully justified.

Finally, a long-promised note on Dr Adam Perkins’ book,The Welfare Trait – How State Benefits Affect Personality.  Dr Perkins, who spent several years as an unskilled labourer, and at times claimed benefits, puts forward the familiar theory that over-generous welfare payments contribute to employment-resistant personality characteristics. What is new is his collation of evidence in support of it. Professor Philip Corr of City University, suggests that this is “sure to spark high voltage debate”, but the good professor has reckoned without the intolerant and ignorant student Left. An invitation to Dr Perkins, a lecturer in neurobiology at King’s College, to speak at LSE, was withdrawn earlier this year following threats of disruption by students concerned at the invasion of their “safe zone” by inconvenient truth. Dr Perkins’ last word, to The Telegraph, was that “the validity of a scientific idea is determined by the test of time, not the opinions of a bunch of baggy-jumpered trustafairian nitwits.” Quite right.

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