Not just football. Now we're dropping out of Science as well...

goalpost.jpgThis is an extraordinary story about the decline of British Education. But let me start on the subject of football. Because there are some interesting parallels.

Last week the various UK soccer sides all fell out of Euro 2008. Only 14 teams were able to qualify - and not one of our national sides made the cut. England promptly fired their national coach. Newspapers agonized over the decline and fall. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. This was, by all accounts, a national disaster.

This week the OECD published its Pisa survey. This is a comparative study of academic performance around the world. It publishes every three years and considers reading, maths and science skills. It too points to a national disaster.

The UK did VERY badly. Among 15-year-olds in 57 countries the UK ranked "between 12th and 18th place".

The organisers give a country's position as being ranked between certain positions because it says with a sample of students it is not always possible to state a comparative ranking with 100% accuracy. Instead, OECD calculates, with 95% confidence, a range of ranks that the country falls within.

So we can be 95% certain that UK school science is bad enough to see the national coach sacked.

Only that isn't quite how the BBC reported the story. Read on and be amazed:

UK among school science leaders

The UK is among the better performers in an international league table on school science

This is unbelievable reporting - not just rose-tinted spectacles but a full-blown case of myopia. Nor is this the first time that the BBC have reported an educational disaster as some curious form of triumph.

It obviously occurred to the BBC that people might - just might - check some of the facts. So the report continues with this extraordinary excuse:

In 2000, the UK was 4th, but the organisers say comparing results is not strictly valid because the tests have changed.

Note: not strictly valid. Hmm. I can't help thinking that a fall from 4th to 14th is sufficiently dramatic to be worthy of comparison despite some minor caveat.

The BBC then throws in this curious observation:

The UK as a whole was not included in the last Pisa study.

Well, yes, that's true - but a quick search of the BBC's own pages would reveal that in the last survey of 2003 the UK failed to provide enough data for the analysis of Maths and Science to be statistically valid (there's some deep irony in there somewhere).

So the last time the UK was properly assessed was back in 2000. And everything has been in decline ever since. The BBC reported that millennium survey in euphoric terms - and even managed to employ a footballing metaphor. Sadly the report is now most notable for the unfulfilled optimism of its closing paragraph.

Of course, it isn't only Science and Soccer that are in decline. Only last week it was announced that England had dropped from third place to 19th in the world in an assessment of reading.


The Pisa survey is based on tests carried out in 2006 in 57 countries which together account for 90% of the world's economy. It tested students on how much they knew about science and their ability to use scientific knowledge to address questions in daily life.

Finland come out on top, followed by Hong Kong (China), Canada, Chinese Taipei, Estonia and Japan. Countries that have moved 'sharply upward' include Canada, Germany, Austria and Denmark.

Note that Estonia were part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Next thing you know, we'll be losing football games to Croatia...


The BBC have now changed their article to better reflect the reality of the original Pisa Report. It now reads:

UK schools slip down in science

The UK is above average in a major international league table on school science - but it has slipped compared to its previous top-four ranking.

The whole article remains depressingly apologetic in tone - but it is at least a fairer reflection of the facts.
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Building Intelligence

There seems to be a growing number of scientists addressing the structure and functioning of the brain. I've been reading On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (the entrepreneur who started both Palm and Handspring), which builds a very convincing case for the brain building invariant models which it then uses in a pattern/prediction sequence.

I've also been reading Steve Grand's book "Growing Up with Lucy" - which claims to be 20 steps to building your own android, but is really a discussion about the practical implementation of AI and robotics. And, in turn, this led me to Cordelia Fine's excellent book "A Mind of its Own" - which has to be one of the more unnerving books I've read recently because it presents a very plausible case for the hypothesis that your brain lies to you most of the time - just to keep you cheerful...

I put together some brief notes in MindMeister - which is an OnLine brain storming tool that we've started using at Radley.

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Google Earth will run as a Flight Simulator

GoogleMaps is very cool - and an excellent tool for mash-ups such as WalkJogRun. Of course, just for fun, Google also added imagery for the Moon and for Mars. Which is pretty neat - particularly for those of us who teach. Or pretty much anyone who likes to think.

But GoogleEarth has always been much more impressive. The third dimension, and the software's capability as a layered browser - means that GoogleEarth has the potential to do so much more - perhaps even become the VirtualWorld that everyone is really waiting for.

Recently GoogleEarth acquired the functionality to overlay buildings and other architectural features. Including the ability to overlay historical data - such as Ancient Greece. Or London before the Great Fire of 1666.

More recently still, Google added Google Sky, which lets us look upwards and outwards to the stars.

And now - albeit without any fanfare - they've added a Flight Simulator.

I've put a taster of the Flight Simulator - and an appropriate link - just at the bottom of this text. But what I actually want to write about is the next steps that we may yet see from GoogleEarth.

Because this is very nearly the Universal Explorer that will allow us to ride around the Battle of Waterloo, to float around the Barrier Reef, to reach to the outer edge of the Solar System, to wander the streets of Ancient Rome and to swim around the inside of the human circulation.

This is - so very nearly - Powers of 10 (or, better still, Powers of 10 as re-envisaged by The Simpsons).

And I'm guessing that Google will have a whole heap of Engineers who recognise all those touchstones.


Flight Simulator Keyboard Controls


This document describes the various keyboard combinations that you can use with the flight simulator features of Google Earth. Ensure you have the latest version of GoogleEarth (v4.2 or higher). Click somewhere on the main image of the software. Now press Cmnd-Option-A on a Mac (Ctrl-Alt-A on a PC) to enter the flight simulator mode. Once you have entered flight simulator mode for the first time, you can re-enter the mode by choosing Tools > Enter Flight Simulator.

To leave flight simulator mode, click Exit Flight Simulator in the top right corner or toggle out of the mode by again selecting Cmnd-Option-A on a Mac (Ctrl-Alt-A on a PC).

Link: Flight Simulator Keyboard Controls - Google Earth User Guide.

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ICT: Costs a Lot, Delivers Little. Discuss.

You have to admire the way that everyone is happy to distort the truth if there's a "feel good" story in Education.

This story from the BBC is a nice example. It's headed Computers 'can raise attainment' and it continues:

High levels of computer technology in schools can improve attainment to an extent, a four-year study has found.

The £34m ICT Test Bed project by Becta in three deprived areas of England showed gains in some GCSE and primary school test scores.

The study involved 23 primary schools, five secondaries and three further education colleges.

These were in Barking and Dagenham, Sandwell and Durham - all areas of relative though different social and economic disadvantage.

Which sounds great until you read on:

[The schools] drew up their own plans and were given money - totalling £34m - to spend on "high levels" of hardware, software and training.

Results of the Test Bed schools were compared with similar institutions elsewhere and with national averages, in a study evaluated by Manchester Metropolitan and Nottingham Trent universities:

  • at Key Stage 1 (aged seven): "no significant differences"
  • in Key Stage 2 tests (aged 11), the rate of improvement was higher for Test Bed schools and some even passed the national average for English
  • at Key Stage 3 (14-year-olds): no significant differences
  • at GCSE (aged 16): no difference in overall pass rate, but Test Bed pupils did better than those in comparator schools in getting five good grades including English and maths
  • post-16: little change - Test Bed students scored same points per exam but took fewer A-levels than comparators.

So let's get this clear.

A government agency spent over £1 million per school, across 30 something schools, and the best they can report after four years is that there was some unquantified improvement for the 11 year-olds in the study.

And that no-one else showed any obvious benefit whatsoever.


I can't quite get over that the BBC ran this with such a positive headline.

Read on and you find:

Schools struggled to improve links with pupils' homes and to cater for those without computers or the internet.

Schools had found it "hugely time-consuming", prohibitively costly in software and "fraught with problems".

And how much has all this cost us?

Over the past decade the government has spent almost a quarter of a million pounds per school on ICT - more than £5bn in all.

And has, it appears, very little to show for it...

Of course there is an opportunity cost. In fact £5bn would have paid for some 20,000 teachers across that same timeframe.

According to my calculations that's roughly five teachers for every state secondary school in the UK. [data]

Becta were presumably pretty disappointed with their findings and their press release was just desperate to find some positive spin.

They tried this:

"There has been a shift in the views of teachers, in particular, with initial scepticism and apprehension being gradually replaced by optimism and confidence."

Well, yes. But that optimism and confidence isn't particularly justified. Certainly not in any meaningful sense.

Or, as Becta put it:

"At present the evidence on attainment is somewhat inconsistent, although it does appear that, in some contexts, with some pupils, in some disciplines, attainment has been enhanced."

Should you happen - like me - to be a UK tax payer, then I have very bad news. Because this is how Schools' Minister Jim Knight sees the matter:

"The Test Bed project demonstrates just how ICT has the power to transform young people's learning - both at school and beyond the school gate."

He added: "We will be looking to capitalise on this project and replicate it across the country."

Oh help...

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Bringing Learning into Facebook via Wikipedia

I'm pushing Facebook as a tool for our students. It provides them with pretty much everything they want: connectivity, e-mail, blogging, photos and media linking.

The real challenge is to then bring learning and creative endeavour into Facebook.

So I read with interest this suggestion from Nicholas Carr:

Facebook should capitalize on Wikipedia's open license and create an in-network edition of the encyclopedia.

It would be a cinch: Suck in Wikipedia's contents, incorporate a Wikipedia search engine into Facebook (Wikipedia's own search engine stinks, so it should be easy to build a better one), serve up Wikipedia's pages in a new, better-designed Facebook format, and, yes, incorporate some advertising.

There may also be some social-networking tools that could be added for blending Wikipedia content with Facebook content.

Watch that space...

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Hard Science

Mother Nature is extraordinary.

She used 3 Billion years of evolution to endow Homo Sapiens with the smartest mind in the known universe, and then added a streak of idleness which means that we would prefer not to think unless it is absolutely necessary.

Thus it is that people run their lives on "hunches", "suspicions" and "gut feelings". Herein lies the success of slimming pills and conspiracy theorists. Even when the Truth is Out There the vast majority of people would rather sit in by the fire and read a good novel. They might even write a brief review of the book - an opinion - a critique, if you will. Something for the Arts programme.

Now there are those who will tell you that the Arts are simply Sciences waiting to happen. That all subjects move from the Arts to the Science if only you are prepared to hang around long enough. Indeed a significant number of subjects have travelled this road already: Biology has moved from Nature drawing to metabolic pathways; Geography has moved from coloured maps to Geomorphology; even something as unlikely as Cooking has transformed itself first into Food Science and, more recently, into Molecular Gastronomy - which isn't quite full-blown Chemistry, but does at least allow you to use a bunsen burner when making Creme Brulee.

In practice, almost any area of academic endeavour can subject itself to the Scientific Method if its protagonists are prepared to work hard enough; an art is just a science with too many unknowns. Thus it is that one of the most successful History books of recent times - Guns, Germs and Steel - was written by Jared Diamond, whose Cambridge-based PhD is rooted in membrane biophysics.

But most people don't enjoying juggling such a plethora of variables. Because Science is hard. Particularly if you are stupid. Anyone can hold a view on Shakespeare, however ill-judged or ill-informed. But it's rather harder to calculate the residual stress in polymer-bonded carbon fibre, because it isn't obvious how to construct the question - let alone answer it.

And we know that Science is hard because some kind academics at Durham University have proved as much. They've shown that the average candidate will clock lower grades at Physics or Chemistry than at any other A Level subject of their choosing.

Note carefully, I said "the average candidate"; because it turns out that the "smart candidate" will almost certainly do better at these subjects, for the very reason that they do understand the questions and they can do the maths and, well, it isn't very hard really and, honestly, you can scream through prep in 20 mins flat and then play football. Smart people do Science precisely because it isn't that hard to them. Indeed, smart scientists are often extraordinarily lazy: Einstein is a good example; Tim Berners-Lee (who invented the World Wide Web) is another; I could go on (but I'm not sure I can be bothered).

OK. So let me summarise our findings so far: most people find science hard.

There, that wasn't too painful.

So, for the many, many people out there who think that weight and mass are pretty much the same thing and that Ohm's law is really, really hard - well, Global Warming is going to be a tough one.

Because Global Warming has LOTS of variables. Just tonnes of them. Honestly.

And so given the choice of either: reading a hefty academic tome, signed off by some 2000 leading scientists, and endorsed by the UN - or: watching a Channel 4 expose and then chatting to a mate at the pub; you can be pretty damn certain that the average citizen will plump for option 2, and then head home in a gas-guzzling SUV whilst muttering about the curious nature of hosepipe bans.

Which would be fine by me were it not for the curious nature of democracy. "Curious" because no-one seriously thinks that we should take popular opinion into account when it comes to doing sums; no-one punches numbers into their calculator and then argues about the result. But those same people who shrink at the thought of data analysis will happily offer their view on Global Warming - and expect me to care about their opinion.

Amazing. Quite amazing.

And don't even get me started on organic foods.

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Unbelievable Offer at Amazon...

This has appeared on some pages at*.

Save £0.02 when you spend £100,000.00 or more on Qualifying Items offered by Enter code M7575XH9 at checkout. (restrictions apply)

It seems a few days too early for an April fool?

I particularly love the idea that "restrictions apply"

* I'm seeing it here for example - 29 Mar 2007, 13:35

** UPDATE: 29 Mar 2007, 17:15 - Gone a few hours later ... Anyone care to comment on whether this an April Fool that got loose a couple of days early. I'm tempted to try the checkout code just see what happens - and to see if it checks for a spend in excess of £100,000.00

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