Friday, 10 June 2022

Developing Writing with Year 8

 You already met my Year 8 French group, with a Ready Steady French lesson that went a bit wrong, but turned out all right in the end because they really got the idea of using your French ingredients to make something good.

I've had a look through their books to see how we have developed their writing over this unit of work.

Of course, there was plenty of speaking too. With activities like Being Ben and Connectives Dice (in the second half of this earlier post).

The Connectives Dice involves throwing dice to get and, especially if, because, so, for example, but... to keep talking ad infinitum, without worrying too much about making sense. Just concentrating on really getting the French flowing. The written equivalent is World Record Sentences.

A world record attempt (unsuccessful)

In World Record Sentences, I ask pupils to write 99 words without a full stop. Instead, whenever they finish an idea, they use a conjunction to carry on. And on. And on. Except without the full stops. Some students love the anarchy of this. They enjoy using their French to write and write. To try out bizarre ideas or humorous contradictions. Other pupils cannot bring themselves to do it. They want to use full stops. They want to make sense. Both these alternatives are great. Because incoherent long sentences are just a first step. Once pupils see that they can write in French, then from now on we work not on the French, but on the quality of the piece of writing.

Coherence, convincing personal detail, variety, logic, and paragraphing. From linking ideas together, we move to taking one idea and developing it.

The next step on this journey is Pimp My French. I give the pupils a piece of simplistic French. Repetitive. Short sentences. Incoherent. And it is their job to transform it. With a budget of exactly (in this case) 55 words.

Pimp My French

Pimp My French

Both of these examples started with the same piece of simplistic writing. And both pupils have done their best to rearrange and re-write it. It is a very powerful process, where they start to work on the quality of the writing. It can be done just by adding conjunctions and removing repetition. For example by replacing j'aime... j'aime... j'aime with "J'aime... parce que je peux... et j'adore..." Or it can involve more sophistication in developing ideas or adding coherence.

We work on model answers on the board. And practise translating model answers in and out of French. We annotate model answers in colour and talk about which one reads the best.

Then we wrote the piece of work from last week's post, just writing "French out of my head". Again to prove that the French isn't the problem. And to make sure everyone has their ingredients ready. Here's a reminder:

French Out of My Head

You can see from the feedback, that we are again moving from focusing on the French, to focusing on the quality of the writing. So this week, the pupils wrote their "Excellent Paragraphs". Trying to take one idea at a time and develop it.

This is the sort of thing we got.

Excellent Paragraphs.

Read their Paragraph!

Add convincing personal detail...

The pupils are now very aware of their own progress. The end of unit Listening and Reading assessments show them how well they know the French they've been learning. And they understand that what happens in their books (and in Speaking) isn't about the French anymore. It's about how well they can use their French. In Speaking, it's increased spontaneity, fluency and self expression. In Writing, it's increased coherence, self expression and detail.

There are so many important things happening here. There is a strong oracy and literacy role that Languages plays in the curriculum. And an important self-efficacy impact, with pupils able to see how to improve their own work and take a pride in what they can do. It is structured and also open ended, for all pupils to move from mechanical and incoherent writing, to something personal, coherent and organised. And in that process, of successive iterations, the language learning happens. Pupils have practised speaking and writing over and over, trying out ideas, improving their work. Until they know it well enough to use accurately and spontaneously.

I can't believe that we are going to have to stop working on how well pupils can use their language. And give all this up, so we can work on testing what they know. These Year 8s will be the last year group to have the Conversation in the GCSE Speaking Exam. The last year group to be assessed on how well they can show off their ability to express themselves, develop answers and use their language.

Looking at their progress this year, or across this unit on Free Time, and how it's boosted their confidence and their grasp of the language, I don't think I can or should stop doing this. Even if we are told that it's not what's wanted anymore.

Friday, 3 June 2022

Pupil Feedback

 In our new KS3 assessments, we always have a section for pupils to reflect on their learning and give us feedback.

So impressed with this pupil's ideas about their own language-learning

It's useful for me to have feedback, but I also want the pupils to feel engaged. The more we can get them thinking about why they are learning a language, how they are learning, and how they are doing, the better they will get at thinking of themselves as language-learners.

Of course, I love it when they pick out as important things like phonics, gender, high frequency words, opinions. Or developing a core repertoire to express themselves. And often I think it is because they recognise the importance. Not just because they've heard me say it so many times and give me the answer they think I want to hear.

Phonics. And "I am a squirrel".

And one thing that hasn't come from me, is how frequently they talk about phrases for basic situations. Saying hello, finding the way, ordering food. It seems entirely natural to them that we should teach them what they need, to be equipped with some sentences ready for common situations if they travel abroad.

In case you are kidnapped. And it makes you look smart.

I think we do have to listen to this. And keep it in mind when balancing our curriculum. Lots of them do comment on the nitty gritty of powerful words, grammar, improving their speaking and writing. But they also think it is a perfectly reasonable expectation that we teach them useful phrases. Our pupils are a useful and sane counterbalance to the Ofsted diktats that language should be about exemplifying forms, not communication.

Then you get comments about pupils' view of themselves as language-learners, which are invaluable in building a shared sense of purpose and positivity:

Cats are French

Pride because he worked for it

Why wouldn't they?

Impress my mum

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Are we allowed to talk about the Speaking Exam yet?

 Are we allowed to talk about the Speaking Exam yet? Even though the speaking window is closed, I think we should be careful about discussing specifics of cards because these will be next year's mocks and also our pupils don't need us dragging this up as they focus on keeping going through their weeks and weeks of exams.

But after 2 years of not doing the Speaking Exam, it would be nice to discuss some general experiences.

I was frightened that in the interim, AQA could have found a new paper-setter with a slightly different style. Specifically, I was worried that the Role Play could have shifted to being more transactional style situations. What I mean is rather than requiring the pupils to say something built out of the Spanish they know, it would be wholesale phrases learned by rote. Edexcel are more prone to this. With things like "My wallet has been stolen" which is grammatically beyond GCSE which but has come up as a phrase pupils are supposed to have learned along with a collection of situational phrases. The AQA exam has a mix of situations and contexts, but I think generally they could still be done by pupils making their own sentences out of their repertoire of Spanish.

I did actually sit in on one Edexcel Speaking Exam for a pupil taking an exam in their own parents' language. For the purposes of anonymity and exam security in this post, let's say it was Italian. (It wasn't.) But what happened in the role play was the prompts were that they were talking to an "Italian" teacher. It wasn't at all clear if this meant a teacher who was English but a teacher of Italian. Or an Italian teacher visiting a school in England. Or if the pupil was visiting a school in Italy. And because the pupil themself was "Italian", were they pretending to be English? And the teacher conducting the exam was an Italian pretending to be Italian. This was OK until the unexpected question, which was about the pupil's experiences so far in "this school". They had no idea which school, and neither did I or the teacher conducting the exam.

The AQA cards, of course, are not immune to this kind of confusion. Having the prompts in the target language was imposed on the exam boards. They are the experts in exams, and they knew it wouldn't work. The prompts couldn't gift the pupils the words they needed. But without using those words, it's impossible to convey what you are asking them to say. It is one of the paradigms of a good exam, that you don't have to take time out of teaching the subject, in order to teach the exam technique. This would be easy to fix if they just did what everyone wanted and put the prompts in English. 

One thing I have to work on: Pupils asking questions. Not because they couldn't ask questions. But because they couldn't ask the question prompted by the card. There's a question mark and a single word. And they have to ask a question about that. They didn't. They asked questions of their own invention. They just couldn't read the examiner's mind and guess what question they were supposed to be asking.

This is why I tell the pupils the Speaking Exam is like a football match. After the Role Play you will probably be 3 - 1 down. Your job is to come out in the second half and score 10 goals in the Conversation so you win 11 - 3.

The Photocard. There was one card that stood out as a bizarre image. On a topic that is in the specification. But which was just mind boggling. I'm not going to give any more away, but if you did the AQA Spanish exam you will know which one I meant. It fell to a near native speaker. Who just shook their head and we moved on to the other questions on the card. I don't actually remember much about the photocard part of the exam. I just read my script and did the timing. And worked out what Conversation topics were coming next. It's all a bit of a blur, to be honest.

The Conversation. Pupils answered the questions. Giving opinions, reasons and examples in past and future. I asked obvious questions to get started. And followed up with and... so... Why..? for example..? And asked questions that flowed logically from the answers they were giving. Some were better than others. None were as good as the very best I've seen when it's not an assessment. They responded well to the interaction. But could maybe have done better at dropping in some set piece language for things like what was happening or what could have happened. That's fine. They can save that for the Writing exam. Maybe they were confident in their ability to develop answers on the spot. But I wish they had maybe done a little more preparation to have a balance of spontaneous answers alongside something up their sleeve to show off if the opportunity arose.

There was one pupil who had diligently done preparation, memorising possible answers. Delivering these word by word, they were nervous and making mistakes. As soon as I interjected and moved them away, they were much more comfortable making up answers from their repertoire of Spanish.

One big thing. And I remember it from previous years too. The Speaking Exam highlights neurodiversity. In particular allowing pupils to choose the first Theme of the Conversation. Specific pupils then have this very much in the forefront of their mind. To the exclusion of everything else. They are focused on this one Theme, the possible questions they might expect, and also a question they might ask the examiner. Coming in to the exam with this in mind, makes the Role Play (already cryptic and confusing), a huge stumbling block. Often they blurt out things they are expecting for the Conversation as their answer to the Role Play. And then having said them in the Role Play, when they realise they should be saying them again when it comes to the Conversation, it all confuses them further.

The exam, with its separate parts, confusing stimuli and different success criteria, is a marathon through a mine field. Pupils have to be agile, quick and clear thinking, resilient and responsive. Pupils who focus best on one thing find it incredibly confusing.

In terms of conducting the exam, it's worth remembering that after 2018, AQA made it clear that it is malpractice to tell the pupils that the Themes will be cut down to certain topics. So my pupils all knew that they had to be able to answer on the full breadth of the Theme. And anyway, the photocard can include any of the topics. In conducting the exam, my priorities were to give pupils the opportunity to demonstrate they could give opinions and justify them, talk about past and future, narrate events, and respond to further prompting. Some topics are better suited to this, so I started with topics like House, Region Family, Free Time, Travel, School, Careers (as dictated by the Theme). And I found that by the time pupils had developed their answers, and I had followed up with questions that logically picked up on their answers, the time went very quickly and I didn't ask a lot of questions on Social Issues and the Environment or Festivals in Spain. I hope it's clear to the examiner that precisely what I was doing was not allowing pupils to give rote-learned answers to a pre-agreed list of questions!

The Conversation, as in 2018 and 2019, continues to be the best part of the whole GCSE. Where pupils can show off what they can DO with their language. Speaking spontaneously, developing answers, interacting with the examiner. And it's central to their language-learning. It's when that core repertoire starts to gel, that other structures start to stick. It is heartbreaking that the new GCSE (in the name of ending the rote learning that was happening back in 2016) is going to stamp out this part of the exam and this aspect of learning.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

What will the new GCSE change?

 We are starting to think about what we will need to change with the introduction of the new GCSE. The pupils starting Year 8 in September 2022 will be the first to take the new exam. So we should be starting to think about what they are learning and how we are teaching.

The new GCSE is part of a drive to make us change the way we teach. Together with Ofsted's "Research Review" and with the support of NCELP, we are supposed to be focusing on phonics, high frequency vocabulary, and grammatical knowledge. The hardline view of this set out in the Ofsted webinars on curriculum design, is that we should concentrate on boiling down our teaching to the essentials of language knowledge, avoiding complex or rich contexts.

But if we look just at the implications of the GCSE, perhaps we can minimise the changes needed.

I am sure the exam boards will want to keep as much continuity as possible. For them, the exam isn't about setting the curriculum. It's about creating an instrument which consistently, year on year, discriminates between pupils of different grades. I think that the look and the feel of many of the questions on the Listening and Reading paper will be very similar to what we are used to.

This is reassuring on the one hand. But not great on the other. Because the Listening and Reading papers are widely criticised. And while the new GCSE proposals seemed to be promising to offer an improvement, I think that actually, what they are offering is more of the same.

Their big offer was a restricted vocabulary list, based on the most high frequency words. In fact, looking at the current exams, this does not represent a big change. The texts are largely constructed out of non topic words. As I showed in this earlier post, there is a preponderance of non topic words. And the scattering of topic words are familiar ones or cognates. Also the words which unlock the correct answers are the non topic words. As I discussed in this post, it's words like, too, started to, was going to, never, so much... which make the difference between what AQA accept and reject.

The issue with the current Reading and Listening is that this focus on directly translating all the little words means that what masquerades as a comprehension question, is anything but. In this earlier post, we saw that a correct answer to the question, "What impressed her about the school?" (They grew fruit and veg on the school field), is not accepted. Pupils had to write "They grew fruit and veg on PART of the school field." This is clearly not a comprehension question. What impressed her was indeed the fact that they grew fruit and veg on the field. What AQA want is an answer, not that answers a question with comprehension of the text, but an answer that shows knowledge of the non topic words. 

Also, it requires an answer based on parsing the whole sentence word-by-word. Of course, when listening to a foreign language, we don't understand by a one way street of understanding every word to arrive at meaning. We keep in constant review what we think the word is and what the overall sense is. Especially in French, where you can't even decide if the word you hear was porc or port until you've started to put together more of the context. But the exam board, wanting to test knowledge of items of language, not ability to construct meaning, often use slightly off-beat contexts, in order to throw pupils back on word-by-word parsing. I'll say that again. The exam boards deliberately pick contexts to bamboozle the pupils. This leads to a mixture of hilarity and concern amongst teachers on twitter. At once amused and outraged by texts on unicycling mountaineers (yes, really). But this idea of being tested on word by word (unnaturally slow) sentences is key to the new proposals. So yes, the exams will be very similar. Because they are intent on keeping their worst features.

In fact, with a reduced defined vocabulary list, the exam will still have to discriminate in the same way, with the same number of candidates getting questions wrong. So it is likely to be even more based on tricks and traps and tying pupils in word knots than the current exam.

It is true that there is a huge vocabulary list for the current GCSE. But this is a bit of a red herring. (Or red hake in the case of the 2020 Spanish exam.) Every year there is a question that comes up with words teachers have never heard of. But which turn out to be on the list. This hits the headlines, but it's not central to how the exams are constructed. And it demonstrates that we are NOT building our curriculum around the list of words in the specification. Teachers weren't even aware the words were there. We are mainly getting on with teaching pupils the language they need for the Speaking and Writing.

The current situation is that there is a discrepancy between the language we teach pupils in order to speak and write, and the language they need for the Listening and Reading exams. For the Speaking and Writing, we teach the most powerful language for giving opinions, justifying them, talking about past and future. For the Listening and Reading they need non topic language like so much, too, a bit, not very, started to, part of, never, until. I think a genuine attempt to solve the discrepancy would have been to make the Listening and Reading more similar to the language we teach for the Speaking and Writing. But they've decided to do it the other way round!

There will be some differences in the Listening exam. The biggest of these will be the dictation. This is supposedly to test phonics. But as we saw with porc and porc, you can't transcribe the word without grappling with meaning. Or in the case of porc and porcs grappling with the grammar. The earlier we all get started with practising dictation, the better. It's not a simple phonics test. Pupils' brains will naturally try to make sense of what they hear. And then maybe write words they know, rather than transcribe the sounds. And as part of a GCSE, the dictation has to grade the pupils. So it won't be a friendly check of the sound spelling link. It will need to be a test where a grade 5 pupil on the higher tier gets half of it wrong. There may be some help with the idea of untangling listening for meaning and transcribing the words, if the exam boards use a text which has been previously used in the same exam as a comprehension question. I'm not quite sure how this is going to work with the stipulation that the comprehension questions are made of known words, but the phonics dictation should contain some unknown words. My money is on names of people and places.

The Speaking exam will look largely familiar. With Role Plays and a Picture based task. These will require short answers. Whether these will be phrasebook style, or built out of the pupils' knowledge of grammar, I don't know. The thrust of the reforms is that they should test accuracy and recall, but we shall see. All we know is that the responses are to be short. Which brings us to the biggest thing about this exam. And which will have the biggest impact on our teaching. There is no conversation. No scope for pupils to show what they can do with their language to express themselves, develop answers, interact.

I think the new GCSE is reacting to the horrendous situation under the old Controlled Assessment GCSE, where pupils learned and delivered fancy scripts by rote. The proposals are based on a review of languages from 2016 by something called "The Teaching Schools Council". And they don't want to go back to long rote-learned answers. Unfortunately, because their research is from 6 years ago, they are replicating what the Controlled Assessment GCSE did: stamping out teaching which develops pupils' ability to use their language, extending answers spontaneously.

If like me, that's what you spend KS3 and KS4 doing, then just like in 2011 (remember the longest ever TES forum thread when we realised?) you will have to abandon teaching pupils to use a growing core repertoire and how to get good at deploying it. Unless... Unless you believe this is fundamental to language-learning and make the foolhardy decision to persist with it.

In the Speaking exam, as with the Listening exam, there is a new Phonics test. This time it is a reading aloud test. I am a big fan of phonics and I think reading aloud is important. Thinking of it as part of an assessment is going to take a lot of working out. Again, it will have to be a GCSE test which discriminates between pupils of different grades, with most pupils getting a lot of it wrong. As with the dictation, I am worried about how pupils do when simultaneously focusing on meaning and the sound-spelling link in an exam situation. This is compounded by the fact that pupils will also have to respond to comprehension of the meaning of the text, with questions on it (or on the topic?) after they have read aloud. Again, if this means there's a clash between texts for comprehension being made of known words and texts for phonics containing unknown words, 

I wonder if the solution is names of people and places? If it's names of Paris metro stations, then it would panic me personally! How do you say Barbès–Rochechouart? Or MĂ©nilmontant? Wagram? Or perhaps they could use cognates, so that the words are comprehensible but still a test of phonics. This would set alarm bells ringing because when the pupils see a cognate, it takes a huge wrench to tear themselves away from pronouncing it the English way.

I don't know about the Writing exam. Is this because less is known? Or have I not been paying attention because I'm focused on the removal of developing spontaneous answers in the Speaking exam? My money is on more translation, so the exam can focus on knowledge of specified language features. And on accuracy.

I don't know how much difference all this will make to your teaching. Start trying out dictation and reading aloud. Make sure you've got phonics sorted. Work out how you can increase your focus on grammatical accuracy. Reduce the amount of time you spend getting pupils to express themselves, improve their answers and think up things they can say with a repertoire of language. Instead focus on their recall of specific language you want to test them on. Decide whether to keep and tweak your curriculum, or whether to throw it out and use the NCELP scheme of work and resources. Or if it makes sense to mix and match - although unless I am mistaken, the strength of the NCELP resources is their meticulous sequencing and revisiting, so dipping in and out might not work. And decide what to do with the pupils already starting Year 8 in September 2022.

It's all a bit of a conundrum. And I still don't know what to do after a year of reflecting on it.

Saturday, 28 May 2022


 The new GCSE proposals, NCELP, and the Ofsted "Research Review" (and accompanying webinars) want to bring in a new dawn for modern languages. Where teaching based on a meticulously sequenced curriculum of incremental knowledge puts an end to pupils' frustration and confusion. Implicitly (or even explicitly) this is labelling the current teaching of languages as "failing". And putting the blame on the values and practices of teachers.

This accusation of obdurate failure of an entrenched educational "blob" goes back to Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. They wanted to "move fast and break things" and have said that they were surprised at how far they were able to go without meeting resistance. It is a favourite of politicians who want to be seen to be doing something, or with an idea to push.

So how true is this picture of failure?

If it is based on the level of language that pupils achieve, it's worth pointing out how this has progressed. In the 2000s, for a top grade at GCSE, pupils needed to write short pieces of coursework on familiar topics, including opinions, reasons and reference to past and future. They could do this using all their resources and previous pieces of work. There were marks for presentation. It is what we routinely teach in Year 8 and Year 9 now. At GCSE in 2022, pupils have to write extended pieces in exam conditions, on unprepared questions.

If it is based on the 2016 curriculum review by something called "The Teaching Schools Council", then this was during the disastrous period of the Controlled Assessment GCSE. The exam favoured rote-learning of fancy long scripts. Teachers who tried to teach pupils to speak and write spontaneously using a growing repertoire of language found they could not compete with schools whose pupils just memorised answers. It was the zenith of competition between schools and punitive pressure to succeed. It was the period of targets and the imperative of getting pupils "the grade they deserve". Ironically the Controlled Assessment approach, brought in after the Dearing Report found the speaking exam was "intimidating", turned it into an unpalatable chore. And put a stop to successful language teaching for a decade. I am not confident that we aren't going to return to something similar. 

If it is based on GCSE grades, then these have been set in advance, and are nothing to do with teachers' or pupils' levels of performance. Before the first pupils even started studying for the new GCSE in 2016, it was already set in advance that they would typically get lower grades than in their other subjects. Because this is how the grades are given out. Ofqual know that it is a problem. As I wrote in an earlier post, Ofqual know that grades in MFL at GCSE and A Level are not aligned with other subjects. But it's not their brief to make sure they are. It's Ofqual's brief to make sure standards in each subject stay the same year on year. Within this brief, they have tried to do what they can to move MFL results more into line with other subjects. They looked at the fact that for an elite subject with a high number of A grades, A Level languages had a dearth of A*s. They looked at the effect of native speakers on A Level grades. At GCSE they looked at how levels matched up with European pupils, in a desperate attempt to find something in their legal brief (international comparability of standards) that would allow them to intervene.

And of course because the outcomes are set to be lower in languages, the targets pupils are given are lower than in their other subjects. Giving them a clear (and correct) message that they are likely to achieve a lower grade in languages. What isn't always made clear to them, is that this isn't any reflection of their individual ability in the subject. Or their teachers' performance. Or the difficulty of the content. It is just the way grades in languages are allocated.

If it is based on the number of pupils choosing languages, then how is this judged? The government wants 90% of pupils to be entered for GCSE languages by 2027. Again, we are being set up for "failure". If the government wanted, they could make languages compulsory again, give it back the status of a core subject, have a national strategy and a plan for recruitment and staffing. Instead, they use the cowardly and phoney "ebacc". Which masquerades as something pupils can gain, when in fact as a qualification it is utterly spurious. If languages are one subject in an option block of 5 or 6 subjects, and all perfectly good subjects, like history, geography, computer science, drama, technology... then why is it a "failure" for languages if pupils pick those other subjects. And in many schools the number of GCSEs pupils pick has been reduced, without noticing a particular further squeeze in how many are opting for languages.

In our school, surveys show that the majority of pupils in Year 9 are positively considering taking a language. Even when they don't end up opting for a language. The surveys also show that even before we ask pupils to start thinking about options, our pupils have a career in mind and have ideas as to whether or not a language is important for this. And we know from a recent Cambridge University study, that the parental attitude to languages is twice as powerful as anything that happens in school, when it comes to picking (or not picking) a language at GCSE. 

We mustn't be bullied into thinking we are "failing" because of ridiculous targets.

Then there's the whole caricatured narrative around how we teach. Ofsted seem to think that we have never considered the balance required between a focus on communication and a focus on grammar. Or considered that in the reality of the classroom, the two may not be opposites at all. We don't refuse to teach pupils the sound-spelling link. We don't bamboozle pupils by talking at them in the target language until it alienates them. We don't teach phrases wholesale without pupils knowing what the words mean. We don't have a curriculum driven by ticking off things pupils can say, without thinking about the development of their grammatical conceptualisation. We don't teach lists of nouns without enabling pupils to use them. We don't teach topic content and then abandon it when we start a new topic.

The whole narrative is a political fiction. It's us, the teachers, who are making the whole system work, in the face of the externally imposed nonsense of targets, grading, performance measures, assessments. We'll be the ones making the new GCSE work too.

It turned out all right in the end

 One problem with tweets and blogs is you only see the shiny successful fancy stuff. Never the lesson that went wrong. Probably less because people don't want to talk about it or won't admit that it happens. More because we're wary of portraying our schools and our pupils in a negative light.

Anyway, we all know it happens. Here's what happened to me last week with a lesson that just flopped and how it turned out alright in the end, because it's not about one activity, one lesson. It's about progress and moving forward together.

I was planning on doing Ready Steady French with my Year 8 middle set. I know Ready Steady Cook is from before they were born, although it has been revived recently. So I briefly explained that it was a cooking programme where people brought along ingredients and had to make something tasty out of them.

The metaphor of "ingredients" is particularly powerful. Through this lesson, I wanted to get across the idea that you use the French ingredients you have. To make something tasty. And it's not about learning more and more French. It's about getting better at using the ingredients you have. And using them in the right proportions. Lots of cake, a bit of icing, and a couple of smarties. And not sitting there making nothing because you've decided to make something that requires ingredients you don't have. 

And for the Ready Steady French format, the distinction between store cupboard ingredients and the specific ingredients you've brought in or been given.

I had borrowed the Red Tomatoes, Green Peppers logo to shine on the board and I'd set up three rounds. Round One was an individual round, working with one ingredient plus our store cupboard ingredients. How many things can you make out of "nager"? Making single sentences and exploring all the things in our store cupboard we can always use. Things like opinions, verb + infinitive, conjunctions, people and places.

Round Two was going to be a pairs round about combining ingredients. So with "nager", "jouer", "faire les magasins" and "aller", could you use the store cupboard ingredients to make a mini paragraph along the lines of "I love to swim in the pool but if I go to the beach I don't like to swim because I prefer to play football on the beach..."

Round Three was going to involve them making a bag of "ingredients" picked from the unit vocabulary list to give to another pair to make something nice out of in French. This did not happen.

They just were not buying it. I don't know if they were thrown by the format? Or didn't take it seriously. Or if I was too focused on the activity and not enough on taking them with me. Or if one of them was confused by the metaphor and thought we were really cooking. Or if the set changes made by the head of year had changed the group dynamic and they'd already had a bad lesson in history. Or if the fact we were working on paper instead of exercise books changed their attitude. I thought the paper was so they could try things out and have a go. Did they think it was a test? Anyway, we struggled through Round One. And then did Round Two together rather than as a challenge.

Then I abandoned Round Three. Instead I gave them a "recipe" on the board to follow and made them do a bit of writing following it. Basically the recipe was:

positive opinion        because I can...        especially if...

but     negative opinion    because I have to...    I prefer...

I also did list the ingredients on the board so they had everything they needed.

It kept to the ingredients/cooking metaphor but got rid of the format. And they did it very well. It could be that the TV show format had unsettled them. And they worked better just being told to work in silence on their piece of paper. Or it could be that this class often have ups and downs, not necessarily linked to what I am asking them to do. I know their history teacher says the same thing.

So what happened next? The next lesson I told them I still wanted to see how good they were at using their ingredients. I stressed it wasn't a test. And that I was going to give them a series of opportunities with different levels of support. But that first I wanted to see what they could do just with the French they carry around in their head.

This is the sort of thing that I got. Or this:

Confident writing, from the store cupboard ingredients they use for all topics. Plus topic specific vocabulary for Free Time which is what we are working on. All unprepared and written with French they know.

My comments on their work aren't about the French at all. They are all about what we can do in our next piece of work to make it a better piece of writing. Better organised, more personal, less repetitive. And that's what we will do after half term. I told them this was just me looking at what they could do and that they would have the chance to improve it. We'll see what they come up with!

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Talking about Statistics (sort of) Part Three

 We all know that barely understood statistics based on KS2 English and Maths results are used to tell pupils that they will probably achieve lower grades in languages than in their other subjects. Because the grades given out are set up in order to make this come true. On average. And we may or may not understand that while this is set in stone for the whole cohort, it doesn't mean that the "target" grade has any validity at all for the individual pupil.

The pupils' target grades for languages are lower, not because they personally are worse at languages, but because nationally the grades given out for languages are lower than for other subjects. Knowing that can help get rid of the misconception that the target grade is a reflection of the pupil's ability in the subject. But it doesn't help with the perception that the grades are harder to get in languages, because it is an accurate perception. 

Not because the subject matter is harder. But because even before the current GCSE had been examined, it was set by "comparable outcomes" that it would preserve the numbers of pupils getting each grade. With the old A-G grades it was half a grade harder. With the way the new 9-1 grades match up, it is a whole grade harder.

In this post I am going to look at another aspect that got tangled up with this. National Curriculum Levels. The old National Curriculum had levels from 1 to 8. They applied to the years where languages were compulsory or an "entitlement". So KS3 and KS4. They were designed mainly for reporting levels at the end of Year 9. These were assessed by teachers using their own assessments and reported nationally each year.

The problem was, rather than being used for summative assessment, they became seen as some kind of progression model. A purpose for which they were not designed. And where teachers stuck to this flawed (failed) progression model, it did harm the evolution of the successful teaching of languages.

Schools thought that progress was made by pupils starting at Level 1. And working their way up to Level 2. And maybe making it to Level 3. This was reinforced by the totally fictitious invention of "sublevels": 1a, 1b, 1c. It wasn't even clear if you started at a, then worked towards b. Or if "a" meant you were at the top of the level, b in the middle, c at the bottom. Because they were based on nothing. But further gave the impression of a gradation of progression to be worked through. In Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. Separately.

And there were schools which thought that this progression model was mandated for every unit. So every time you started a new topic your pupils would start at Level 1 and slowly work their way towards Level 2. Unfortunately, Level 1 meant learning single words. Level 2 was phrases. Level 3 was sentences. Level 4 was paragraphs. Levels 5 upwards involved tenses. And because the National Curriculum applied to KS3 and KS4, it seemed reasonable to expect that KS3 would be Levels 1 to 4. And GCSE would be Levels 5 to 8.

So you could end up with a situation where teachers were carefully working their way through a "progression" model that took pupils in Year 9 to a level where the highest they aimed for was to be thinking about moving from sentences to short paragraphs. And maybe using I'm going to... in order to claim they were using tenses.

Of course, the best way to get pupils to extend their answers and write paragraphs, isn't to spend most of the curriculum time working on learning single words or set phrases one topic at a time.

The best way to get pupils good at extending answers and writing paragraphs, is to spend most of the time working on developing their answers. Teaching speaking, writing, reading and listening together, to develop a core repertoire of language pupils can use across topics.

You can see what the proponents of the new GCSE are reacting to, when they say we need to move away from lists of topic based nouns.

Except of course we already reacted. We already moved away. In 2002 the Open University filmed me teaching a lesson in which pupils were using a core of language to speak spontaneously and develop their own answers creatively in speaking and writing. In the video we talk about Levels 5 and 6 with the Year 8 group. Because the way to get to "Level 6" is to go straight to Level 6 stuff and spend time getting good at it.

In 2005 I published this article in the Language Learning Journal about the grammar needed for GCSE.

It makes the case for going directly to the Level you want to achieve. Equipping the pupils with a "kit" of grammar that they can deploy. And then spending the time getting good at using it.

A grammar which is generative, not censoring. A grammar which pupils can consciously or unconsciously use to create meaning. Grammar defined as the building blocks which allow them to put the language together to create meaning.

Only this first page of the article is accessible. The rest is behind the paywall. The "kit" it goes on to describe is what I used to call the pupils' "Emergency Sheet". The structures for giving and justifying opinions, talking about past and future, which they could use for any topic.

Interestingly, this "kit" is what we now routinely teach in Year 8.

And it serves two purposes. It equips pupils with the language they need for immediate use. To work on developing and extending their answers. But secondly, by giving them that repertoire, that core of language, it means that more and more grammar and grammatical understanding sticks to that core. But the ability to use the language is key. The pupils who go on to A Level and to tackle more and more grammar, often quote me back to myself, saying their moment of realisation was the idea that it's not about learning more language. It's about learning to use the language that you have. And once you start doing that, more and more language and conceptualisation of the language will stick.

Whereas the new GCSE/NCELP/Ofsted new orthodoxy is the opposite. For them, conceptualisation of the language has to come first. And use of the language may or may not follow. Because of the political doctrine that "knowledge" has to come before "skills". Which we can see de-skilling our pupils across the curriculum.

Friday, 13 May 2022

The Secret of GCSE Reading Exams

 Please don't tell my Year 11. Because they think that I carefully planned their lesson this week. And I didn't. I just understand how the Reading Exam seems to work.

With their Speaking Exam done, and all their books and resources at home, lessons now are a mishmash of vocabulary revision, exam technique, past paper Listening and Reading questions, core repertoire for the writing exam, and keeping relaxed and positive.

In the AQA spec, there is a very long list of vocabulary for each topic. Which I don't think I have looked at since 2016 when the spec was rushed out. We start Spanish in Year 9 and we don't have time to learn all the recondite words for "hake" or "freckles". We used to have Quizlet sets that contained all the vocabulary from the list that had made it into the Viva textbook. But as it was just random lists of words that didn't fit with the core repertoire pupils are developing, it didn't work. Our new Quizlet sets develop the repertoire for giving opinions, justifying them, talking about the past and future, narrating stories, hope, conflict, disappointment. And some topic vocabulary that fits with these structures and sticks to the pupils' growing snowball of language. The previous sets gave a nice even covering of Spanish which just melted away.

So if "hake" and "freckles" are in the exam, then our pupils are particularly exposed to danger. Because they won't know it. And "hake", which I had always used as an example of why you don't need to frighten pupils with the indigestible list in the spec, DID come up in 2020. Even so, when you look at the exams, unless this year there is a new exam setter with a new approach, it's not the topic words which are most important. (Fingers crossed.)

I haven't shown my pupils the pages and pages of topic vocabulary in the spec. But I have printed off as a booklet pages 24-40 (AQA Spanish spec) of General Vocabulary. They think this is quite enough! These are words that have more "function" within the language than "meaning" relating to the external world.

So, this week, we spent the first part of the lesson repeatedly testing each other on random words from this General Vocabulary section. And making up sentences to put them in context or to see them in context and make them memorable. Then I opened a past paper and picked a random question. This was where my class thought I had deliberately planned the words that we had seen. The entire text was made up of the words we had been testing. And it's not a lucky coincidence.

I don't want to show you the text because it's behind the AQA security to keep it safe for mocks. But here's a break-down of the words it contains.

You can see there is a preponderance of non topic words. And that's without accounting for the fact that the words in column 1 were repeated while the words in column 3 appeared only once. The first sentence of the text was 17 words long. And only one word was a "topic" word. The "topic" words are also not particularly abstruse (no hake here) or are easily recognised cognates. (A cognate does NOT have to be identical. It means "twin" words which are born together. And twins can be identical or non identical.)

We have seen from the Listening Papers, that the non topic words aren't just important in how the examiners build the texts, but also in what they accept as the answer. Most famously in the "What most impressed her was the school grew fruit and vegetables on PART of the school field" example. A perfectly good answer to "What impressed her?" (They grew fruit and veg on the school field) was not acceptable without the words "part of".

So maybe actually we should tell my Year 11. It wasn't a tightly planned lesson. And it wasn't lucky chance either. These are the words that matter in the exam.

And someone should tell the new GCSE panel (if it still exists) too. They sold us the new GCSE on the grounds that a limited list of vocabulary, based on high frequency words (no hake here) would solve the issues of the hated Reading and Listening exams.

But it turns out that the hated Reading and Listening exams are already based on these non topic words. The problem is that the exams are not about testing comprehension. The texts are often slightly bizarre to stop pupils deducing the language from the context. Because they want to test "knowledge" of items of language, not ability to make sense of the passage. The markscheme insists on pupils showing word by word parsing (PART of the field) even when it's irrelevant to the actual question.

So the new GCSE is promising even more of the same when it comes to the Listening and Reading exams. If you responded happily to the "consultation" thinking they were going to end the tricks and traps and nitpicky questions, then they have sold you a cat not a hare (as they say in Spanish).

And that is only the half of it. My pupils spend most of their time working on their repertoire for Speaking and Writing. Being able to develop their answers spontaneously, express themselves, speak more and more fluently. This is what they love about Spanish and what I love about teaching it. But even if you don't care about that and want to focus on "knowledge", then it's having that growing core repertoire that means the vocabulary has something to stick to. Creating a new GCSE which doesn't reward spontaneous developed answers where pupils can extend their answers in response to further questioning or prompting, is going to ruin language learning in this country, the same way the Controlled Assessment GCSE destroyed it for a generation.

The current GCSE is not great for Reading and Listening. It's OK for Speaking and Writing, especially compared to what we had before. The new GCSE proposes to "improve" the Reading and Listening but in fact will keep them very much the same. And under the cover of these bogus promises of "improvement", it will completely destroy Speaking and Writing. It is going to get rid of assessing how well pupils can use their language, and replace it with testing how much "knowledge" they can recall. And they are shooting themselves in the foot. Because it's taking ownership of the language, using it to express meaning, and getting better at using it, that gives pupils the core of language that everything else sticks to.

If I seem to be casting nasturtiums in this post, it may just be that coming from a week where pupils did an oral exam by speaking spontaneously, extending their answers in response to prompts for more information, and interacting with the examiner, I am angry at the idea of this being snatched away again by people who claim to want to improve on the situation in 2016, but actually in effect want to return us to it.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Je voudrais or Je ne voudrais pas?

 Teaching Year 7 to order food in a French restaurant. Would seem a fairly mainstream thing to do. The one thing that parents command their children to do when they take them on holiday to France. But a bit like teaching "Je m'appelle...", it turns out to be mildly controversial in the current climate with its feverish debate over whether we are teaching pupils to communicate or whether we are teaching them grammar patterns. (Spoiler: We are capable of doing both.)

So if a pupil in a dialogue says, "La soupe", is this better or worse than saying, "Je voudrais la soupe"?

We've all gone back and insisted they say, "I would like". I suppose because we have a literacy/oracy push where full sentences are expected. Or maybe because we are getting ready for its role in, "Le week-end prochain je voudrais aller en ville mais je dois faire mes devoirs" in Year 8. But basically it's a crystal clear indicator that even when we are teaching "useful" communicative language, we still have our eye firmly on the structures of the language.

And there's plenty of grammar to unpack on the topic of food. Swapping between un - le - du / une - la - de la. Including the definite article when giving an opinon - j'aime le chocolat. Introducing tu / vous. Question forms. Phonics.

In fact, I find myself wondering if I shouldn't be doing less grammar and more on the practical communicative functional situational language. Is it OK to teach, "Je voudrais un steak" without equiping them to say how they would like it done? Or ask if there's a gluten free vegan option? Or is this the plethora of fluff we should be avoiding because it puts hurdles in the way of pupils who need to meet only language that exemplifies the grammar patterns?

We used to run a French Staff Restaurant every year to make this a real communicative experience for the pupils. The teachers had to order their food in French from the Year 7 pupils. Dealing with the real situation meant they had to communicate for real, drawing on all the French they had been learning, coping with situations that arose and teachers who didn't follow the "script." It put the emphasis on French for real communication, with the teachers also put on the spot. Nowadays, would this be treated with scorn as distracting from the real learning?

Another thing we do in lessons is start with scripted dialogues, then let pupils adapt them. Giving them scenarios to act out: The customer has a small dog hidden in their bag... The waiter is trying to hide from their old geography teacher sitting on the next table... Or is this just distracting fluff?

We have definitely boosted the part of the unit around giving opinions about different foods. Using the core structures to say things like, j'aime la glace avec des guimauves mais je n'aime pas les gateaux avec de la moutarde. Where does this fall? Is it sufficiently shifting the focus from the list of foods onto the powerful verbs? Or is it too much based on chunks of language and pupils recombining them to say fun things? For us it's all about the pupils' snowball of language, with more and more French sticking to it and not melting when you move from one topic to the next.

Or maybe this unit, instead of focusing on "Je voudrais" should be all about the food. French culture. And the culture of other French-speaking countries. Looking at foods and the culture and values around food. When we do this topic with Year 9 Spanish beginners, we concentrate on being able to have a conversation about the menu. What type of dish is it? What does it contain? How is it served? And we look at food websites to be able to ask and answer those questions, looking beyond the name of a dish. The "difficulty" of finding the information in the authentic materials, mimics and rehearses the communicative situation of needing to ask and decide what to order.

In French, we look at table manners. Pupils enjoy taking about what you can and shouldn't do in different circumstances. And guess what? It practises using the core structures of on peut, on doit, on ne doit pas

What a delicious unit of work with all these things on the menu. It's almost as if we have always carefully monitored the balance between the focus on the structures of the language, the cultural aspects and the communication.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Talking about Statistics. Part Two.

 In Part One we found that "on average" is not the same as saying, "generally". So you can't say, "Generally girls are better at languages and boys are better at maths."

My natural aptitude didn't stretch to labelling the axes correctly.

If you take two populations, it's unlikely they will be exactly the same. So there will be a difference in the average. But it doesn't mean that "generally" one group is different to the other. Generally almost everybody is in the overlap.

In fact, tiny differences, carelessly exaggerated, can have a huge effect on young people and the direction they take. We see it in school with siblings where one gets labelled "the sporty one" or "the clever one" because of some insignificant early success. A small distinction that gets fixed and ends up determining their destiny.

For the Social Mobility Tsar and society in general to peddle supposed differences between boys and girls as being "natural" does have consequences for pupils' image, choices, ambitions and lives. Of course it does. And it's our job to liberate young people from these pressures and limitations.

And it's not just in gender aspirations that the misuse of statistics reaches into our profession and damages pupils' lives.

Here's the same curve, back in the 80s, showing grading in O Level and CSE Languages. As you can see, a very few people got As and Bs at O Level. The "average pupil" was barely catered for. And a large number of pupils were not catered for at all.

Today, GCSE grades are pegged to a curve. The number of grades on offer is determined in advance to ensure standards are maintained year on year. If a year group's KS2 SATs are higher or lower than normal, then the number of each grade can be tweaked. But it's still determined in advance.

Pupils are given predicted grades based on their KS2 English and Maths results. Schools can choose whether to use predicted grades that would put them in the top, say, 25% of schools. And in some ambitious schools these are labeled as "minimum target grades." Whereas if it's a top 25% target grade, it would seem more realistic to tell pupils they have a one in four chance of getting that grade! Of course, the correlation between predicted grades and actual grades for the whole cohort matches up. Because that's how they determine how many grades to give out! But for any one individual pupil, it is not statistically valid to say that their "target" means anything at all.

Pupils are confused by the grades because their teachers can't really tell them what they mean. Especially when pupils learn that their GCSE drama target grade is based on their English and Maths exam 5 years previously. If you believe in "ability" then the KS2 SATs could be taken as a proxy for that. Or if you believe in step by step measurable progress, then you can take the KS2 SATs as a baseline for that. But really there's no justifiable link at the level of the individual pupil. This is where the system starts to bring itself into disrepute.

This came to a head in the 2020 algorithm scandal to determine GCSE and A Level grades. Teachers handed in grades based on their knowledge and assessment of pupils, along with a rank order. Then Ofqual manipulated those grades using an algorithm. Ofqual's statisticians know their stuff. And they have oodles of data on schools and pupils. They could have done a brilliant job.

I imagined something, at the very least, like the following: I hand in my Spanish Centre Assessed Grades. Ofqual look at my school's Spanish pupils for the last few years. Ofqual look at the KS2 baseline of my pupils over the last few years, and see how much progress pupils from different starting points tend to make in Spanish. Ofqual then look at the KS2 profile of the current (2020) cohort, and see if my assessed grades are consistent with the progress you would expect such pupils to make in my school in my subject. This at the very least, if not something more sophisticated and beyond what I could come up with.

They did not. What they did was look at the previous year's grades and my rank order. Then they ignored my assessment of the pupils. And more or less issued them last year's pupils' grades. I could see this with my own pupils. And there was the famous case of the school who had previously entered the whole cohort for a science exam, with pupils scoring grades from 9 to 1. But in 2020 they only entered a small number of pupils for Foundation Tier. Ofqual duly awarded them the previous year's grades, spreading the grades from 9 to 1, even though Foundation candidates couldn't have got higher than a 5.

This was not an accident. I said the statisticians at Ofqual know their stuff. And they do. They modelled the algorithm and knew that it meant one in three grades was wrong. So at A Level one grade per student: wrong. And at GCSE 3 grades per pupil: wrong. On average. So if one pupil got all the correct grades, that meant someone else was getting 6 incorrect grades. But they did it. Why? Because Ofqual produce the results they are instructed to produce. And the priority they were given was to avoid "grade inflation." And by issuing the 2019 grades to the 2020 pupils they made absolutely sure they met this brief. The government's priority was to give out the right number of grades. But not necessarily to the right pupils.

This brings us to the heart of the destructive role of statistics in exams. Their role in "accountability" for teachers and for schools.

Why could Centre Assessed Grades not be trusted? Because we have a high-stakes system where teachers and schools are judged and ranked by results. A system where teachers are pressured and pass that pressure on to pupils. So that schools can be ranked for messianic saviour politicians to criticise and rescue with their heroic initiatives. In fact, Centre Assessed Grades would be expected to be slightly inflated. Not because each individual pupil would be given grades they didn't deserve, but because the pupils who could have a disaster in an exam (and by dropping to a U would have a disproportionate effect on the class's statistics) would be more likely under teacher assessment to get a grade that reflected their level.

Of course it all went wrong. When the wrong pupils were obviously being given the grades, the government had to U-turn. Which meant grades were inflated. Bringing the system into very public disrepute.

The whole argument for ranking schools is morally bankrupt. The argument is that competition between schools drives up standards. And yet, while standards are supposedly being driven upwards, GCSE results have to be held down to avoid grade "inflation." If the narrative of high stakes accountability and competition is that standards are going up, then holding grades down is a form of real terms grade deflation. Devaluing pupils' achievement. Except it's not really about the pupils.

Everyone knows that KS2 SATs are not a qualification for the pupil. They are a school performance measure. But schools, parents, pupils are all made to feel the pressure of their individual performance. It's dishonest and harmful. Some parents think the "ebacc" is a qualification. And ask for their certificate. It's a manipulative school accountability measure. But it's sold to pupils and parents as something they can gain. It's fraudulent. The thing is, GCSEs are not much different. They are really much more for politicians posturing over school "accountability" than they are for the pupils. But the pupils aren't supposed to know this.

I will return to this in the context of 2022, after a slight diversion into grades in MFL.

Ofqual know that grades in MFL at GCSE and A Level are not aligned with other subjects. But it's not their brief to make sure they are. It's Ofqual's brief to make sure standards in each subject stay the same year on year. Within this brief, they have tried to do what they can to move MFL results more into line with other subjects. They looked at the fact that for an elite subject with a high number of A grades, A Level languages had a dearth of A*s. They looked at the effect of native speakers on A Level grades. At GCSE they looked at how levels matched up with European pupils, in a desperate attempt to find something in their legal brief (international comparability of standards) that would allow them to intervene. In the end they were allowed a small tweak to French and German on the grounds that the grading was causing a crisis. Spanish was deemed not to be in crisis, so although it shares the severe grading, it wasn't changed. The evidence and the statistics take second place to politics and the posturing of standards.

Now to 2022 and GCSEs. Pupils are going to take exams. But something is happening. There are pupils who are quietly and without confrontation just losing the will to do well. There are several reasons we can find for this. Firstly, the current Year 11 were half way through Year 9 and now find themselves taking exams. Exams many pupils may well feel they are not prepared for. Secondly, they have been doing "contingency assessments." These are not like mocks. When pupils do mocks, everyone knows that they haven't finished the course, that they will continue to make progress. Contingency assessments are not like this. When you give a pupil a contingency assessment in February, they know that the grade could end up being their GCSE grade. So that means that a pupil who wants to do well, has to revise all their subjects for a crucial GCSE four months early. When they haven't finished the course. All teachers can do is tell pupils not to worry, "It doesn't matter." We are telling our pupils it doesn't matter. We are telling our pupils not to revise. We are setting our pupils exams they can't be ready for. We are breaking our pupils. Or breaking their belief in what we are asking them to do.

The thing is this always happens. With some pupils. They can see the impossibility or can see clearly that they will be amongst the pupils predestined by the system to fail. But this year it is happening to many more pupils, and pupils across the grade range.

At best, they are saying, "It's OK. I'll just get a grade 5. Why should I work for a 9 anyway?" At worst they are giving up completely. Or are broken by aiming for something they can't achieve. Or something that has been revealed as a fraud, a fiddle, a confidence trick. Political shenanigans, statistical manipulation, high-stakes target culture. All passed on to the pupils, for something that had an illusion of value, which has been shattered by the government's desperate attempts to keep us all fooled.

We need to talk about statistics. Part 1.

 We need to talk about statistics. And I'm not going to start by saying, "I'm no expert" because statistics have found their way into the heart of our job and basic statistical literacy is part of being a professional. And they should be used honestly and usefully. But it's also our job to spot when they are being used dishonestly or destructively.

To start with, if someone says to you, "On average" then alarm bells should ring. In a country where some people are stinking rich and others on the breadline, it doesn't help to say that "on average" everyone is nicely off. And that's before you ask them if they meant mean, mode or median.

Here's an example of how averages can be misrepresented.

My naturally non systematic brain has labelled the axes the wrong way round.
Did anyone notice? Or were you being empathetic?

This is for illustrative purposes only. I have NOT found a way of measuring how much emotional aptitude red people and blue people have for hard maths. You can see that the distribution falls into a familiar curve. With not a lot of people who are very emotionally inept, and not a lot of people who are extremely emotionally apt. Most red people are pretty average. And most blue people are pretty average.

But there is a difference. On average on this hypothetical exemplar graph, red people are more emotionally apt than the blue people. How we explain this, is a different matter. Wouldn't it actually be more surprising if they were exactly the same? Just like people are amazed that one foot is bigger than the other. Wouldn't it be more surprising if they were EXACTLY the same size?

In fact, even with this difference in average, almost everybody is in the part where the curves overlap. So even where red people "on average" were more emotionally apt for hard maths, it would be wrong to state that, "In general red people are more emotionally apt for hard maths, with some exceptions of course." That is the exact opposite of what the graph shows. The graph shows that in general there isn't a difference between most red people and blue people.

In fact a whopping number of blue people are above the average red person. And a huge number of red people are below the average blue person.

If a social mobility tsar were to be pushing the idea that generally on average red people are more emotionally apt for hard maths than blue people, then they are either misusing statistics. Or they are making policy based on the tiny number of exceptions outside the purple area on the graph.

Which would seem to be the opposite of their brief.

But of course it isn't. Look carefully. They are not the tsar for equality or social justice. They are the tsar for social mobility. This is closely related to the current political orthodoxy of The Knowledge Curriculum. (Not to be confused with the Cognitive Science which it is using as a Trojan horse.) This political project claims to give pupils the knowledge they need in order to be inserted into the status quo. It is very careful to maintain society as it is, with its elitist structures. It is about offering well-prepared pupils to be selected by the gatekeepers of the status quo. It favours conformity over creativity. It pushes the works and voices of "the best". It wants to fill pupils with "knowledge" rather than letting them think or express themselves. It is not interested in pupils being able to make of themselves what they want. And it certainly doesn't want to entertain the idea that pupils could remake society.

When the mask slips, it is not about knowledge or evidence or social justice. It is about power, hegemony and orthodoxy.

I do have more to say about statistics, specifically in relation to GCSEs and what we are doing to our young people. But Mrs E is convinced that they will come for me and my job after this post, so we'll see...