So, what would YOU do about education? Part 5

There was some grumbling in the café of the (apparently) posh supermarket today about school in-service days. In England, these are taken at the discretion of individual schools, for the in-service education or professional development of teachers. Basically the staff are working while the children have a holiday; it can admittedly be very difficult for parents when children are at different schools. This got Mrs Oblique and I thinking about some radical changes which are long overdue in education.

  1. Why not allow parents to send their children in for INSET days? They could play while the teachers are doing whatever teachers do.
  2. School staff ought to be grateful to have these short breaks; they should feel privileged to have electricity, water, gas, etc. provided for them. In fact, they should pay the school for all these facilities.
  3. On second thoughts, this ridiculous professional development idea ought to stop. If teachers aren’t good enough, they should either get out or learn how to do it properly in their own time.
  4. School holidays are clearly too long. Much, much too long. This is the grumble of all parents. Parents actually have to acquaint themselves with their children, which is clearly not a good idea. Instead, we propose that staff should run free holiday clubs on all holiday days. These could start nice and early in the mornings- say 6 a.m.- and end at around 9 p.m. Regardless of ability, these could make sure that all children achieve good progress. It would enable staff to keep themselves active. They must get bored during the holidays. They could also do the cleaning, which would widen their experience.
  5. In fact, let’s extend this idea to weekends.
  6. In fact, school should run 365 days a year from 6 in the morning to 9 in the evening. Whatever do teachers do all the time?
  7. We get the impression that some parents feel that teachers are being inconsiderate in having any time off at all; and some teachers will argue that they won’t have any time to get home. To allay their fears, we are prepared to allow teachers to camp on the school field overnight. We might even provide tents. In return, they can cut the grass every morning. With school scissors.
  8. We have heard ridiculous tales of parents buying £40 and £50 gift tokens for teachers. Ridiculous.  (Do we repeat ourselves? Tough.) We feel that teachers ought to buy presents for teachers instead. £100 tokens for each child in the class should do it.
  9. While we’re about it, the standards in education are apalling. Penalty clauses for underperformance will fix this. Let’s say… £250 for every child who doesn’t hit their targets.

It sounded much funnier when we were coming up with the ideas. I wonder how many people would agree with at least 50% of it. Happy holidays, staff and students.


A Teaching Moment: The New £1 Coin

I’ve just had a teaching moment. I don’t know if other retired teachers get these, or if they just wake up sweating in the night, convinced they haven’t done the planning, or the marking, or that their students haven’t reached the required level, or that they haven’t prepared for the lesson observation tomorrow, or that OFSTED are coming…… No, it wasn’t one of those. It was a positive moment.

£1 coinI’ve just seen a new £1 coin for the first time. For those of you not in the UK (I am delighted to say that quite a few occasionally read this blog) the coin is 12- sided, slightly larger than the old coin and designed to foil forgers.

All of a sudden, my mind switched into teacher mode. Wouldn’t this be a great maths lesson theme? Imagine the fun able (and not so able) primary children could have with it.

Think of the questions that could be asked. What shape is the outline? (A dodecagon. Roughly, it’s slightly curved.) What 3D shape is it? (A dodecagonal prism. Again, roughly.) What are its width and thickness? How heavy is it? (Dunno….. How could you work it out? It’s too small for conventional scales.) How many of the new ones weigh how many of the old ones? What numbers does it have on it? How many make a kilogram… or how much would a kilogram of £1 coins be worth? How high would £100 in £1 coins be? And on, and on….. Draw it…. without drawing round it. Then there’s research work: how many will be in circulation? When will the old one be withdrawn?

Actually, this would be a great homework. You could pose a few questions and then ask the students to ask more. However, as usual, some parents would prepare a huge dossier without any child input.

Sadly, I got very excited about this, then just a little sad that I couldn’t do it. Only a little sad, mind you. By the way, my teaching nightmares usually involve me not being able to find a coffee mug at breaktime and getting back to the class late. That’s sad.

I’d be delighted to find that somebody has already thought of this, but even more delighted to find that somebody else has used it. Or perhaps it doesn’t fit whatever the latest curriculum might be.

(The image attached is labelled for non-commercial re-use; I know this can be a tricky area where currency is concerned. However, I don’t think this one will help forgers very much. It’s probably courtesy the Royal Mint.)

So, what would YOU do about education? Part 4

Just a few questions for discussion…..

If you have been following this thread (and, just for once, boys and girls, you are completely forgiven if you have not been following it,) you will know that I am drawn towards giving children more choice in their education (see So, what would YOU do about education? Part 2 .)

I acknowledge that there are huge issues about motivation and commitment. Do children, given total freedom to learn, really want to learn?  (To quote the eldest Miss Oblique, she who at one point claimed to be on ‘Planet Anti-Maths’: “You learn your maths… and the reaction from kids is, ‘Why are we learning this? We’re never going to use it.'”


However, when we are short of mathematicians, physicists and engineers, should we not encourage mathematics and physics? Should we go further and push every child to higher standards, even if they are not ultimately using these skills, to ensure that the overall level of achievement is even higher?

But then….. What is education for anyway? To ensure economic growth? Economic growth must eventually end, unless we colonise other planets, and I can’t see us getting our act together to do that.

As I said: just a few questions.

So, what would YOU do about education? Part 3: The Shanghai Method

Ooh! OOOHH!! The Shanghai Method. Sounds exciting. Sounds…. Like an 80s electropop band. Like a sexual perversion. Like…. a mathematics teaching method? Surely not. (Surely some mistake? Ed.)


Well, it’s inevitable that I should at first be cautious about this, given my despair at the stupidly rapid rate of change in education. (See The only constant in education is change.) The Shanghai method looks to my increasingly out of touch and uninformed eye like yet another new initiative, which will transform mathematics education, raise standards, make the tea, solve global warming…. and so on.

Apparently everybody succeeds; the class does not move on until all have grasped the skill/ concept/ whatever. For my youngest daughter, who at the age of 13 still cannot add two single digit numbers, I am sure this will work wonders, as it will for the 9 year olds I taught last year who could use index notation confidently.

This is probably all curmudgeonish grumbling, but I also wonder what standards we are talking about raising here. Clearly I don’t know the full picture.

I have taken my first tentative stabs at setting out discussion points for the future of education. (See  So, what would YOU do about education? Part 2.) In it I mentioned the late Terry Pratchett’s view that children should be taught enough maths to “know when a pocket calculator is lying”.)

Allow me a digression here. At one point, I intended to write a post on mathematical illiteracy. No, I don’t mean innumeracy. To me that implies a lack of understanding of numbers and their basic manipulation. I mean a lack of understanding of the use of mathematics- the application of mathematics.

I think that this is incredibly important. Indeed, I increasingly feel that, for most students, functional mathematics should be taught far more.

DSCF0655You only have to look around to see examples of mathematical illiteracy. This picture is of a price tag. Mathematically, it’s wrong. Is it 4.5 of a pound or 4.5 of a penny? (Substitute euros and cents if you like.) Obviously the first (£4.50) is intended.You may very well argue that this is mathematical pedantry, but it does obstruct children forming clear concepts. This to me is akin to the ‘bigger half’ error. Halves are equal; one cannot be bigger than the other. We all know what is meant, but it’s not correct and again muddles children (and adults).

We could go on to the opinion poll fallacy. “33% of the population prefer dark chocolate.” No they don’t. A third of the (three) people I surveyed prefer dark chocolate. It’s even worse if the proportions are scaled up: “2o million British people prefer dark chocolate.” There are examples daily.

There, that digression has spared you a separate mathematical illiteracy blogpost.To return to Mr Pratchett (well done if you’re still with me), I increasingly feel that much mathematical education is wasted on most children. When did you ever use the mathematics you were taught at school? Alright, teachers, be quiet at the back there. Engineers…. Physicists…. Any others? Yes, me…. but usually only for fun, or when I need to get to sleep. Really.

There are  no doubt arguments against restricting mathematics teaching to functional mathematics, or to what the child chooses to learn. How do you know what mathematics a child will need in later life, or what aptitudes they will show later? When we are short of mathematicians and physicists, should we not encourage mathematics and physics? Should we in fact push every child to higher standards, to ensure that the ‘base’ level of achievement rises and thus the best get better.

So, as usual, I come up with no firm conclusions. After pondering over this I am still drawn towards functional mathematics for all and further adventures for the able and willing. I am aware this is a feeling, not a closely argued case. And hey, I’m not secretary of state for education. And at the back of my mind is the cry: “Stop messing teachers about and let them get on with it.”


Things Teachers Said

Very short and not at all serious…….


My teachers (at a boys’ grammar school) were an interesting lot. Some of them were bored (and/or boring), some of them were inspired. I am grateful to many of them for forming me. I apologise if any are still alive and read this….

Mr P. (physics): “There was a dirty great big hole dug for you there and you fell right into it, didn’t you?”

Mr T. (chemistry): (In reply to the question ‘Do we have to do that, Sir?’) “You don’t have to do anything in this world.”

Unknown (mathematics): “Antilogarithms are a snare and a delusion.” (Does anybody else but me still understand this?)

So, on to college:

Teaching Practice Supervisor: “When I first met you I thought you were slow-moving and slow-thinking. I still think you are slow-moving and slow-thinking.”

We continue to the modern age:

Year 6 teacher:  “Why do you have to go right when everybody else goes left?”

“Am I talking to myself?” (Every teacher ever has thought this, even if they have not said it out aloud.)

Basil Fawlty is not a teacher, but he speaks for us all when he says: “Please try to understand before one of us dies.”

Searching for the Ancestors

We have been on the road and on the internet, looking for traces of our ancestors. It’s hardly ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ but it’s an entertaining and sometimes rather moving occupation.

I am highly pleased to tell you that one of my great-great-grandfathers was a pig dealer. I am a little less certain about telling you that his first wife  was so young that it embarasses me too much to give her age here. Presumably the marriage was legal at the time. When he died, my great-great-grandmother, his second wife, married a gentleman 18 years younger than herself.

On our list of places we have visited, or plan to visit, are Bognor Regis, Brighton, Wolverhampton, Bournemouth, Richmond, Mortlake and little villages in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire. We have discovered agricultural labourers (lots of them on my side), servants, ironmasters, teachers, stokers, photographers, caretakers, ploughmen, coachmen, tobacconists and ‘gentlemen’. We have investigated divorces, emigration and have been left with more and more mysteries.

I have written before about my great-grandfather  , Isaac. We have been to Nottingamshire, where he was born and lived his early life. Magically, the school where he must have been educated is still standing, though now a derelict (but just purchased) house.

It was donated and endowed for the poor children of the parish. I speculate, rather idealistically, that the basic education he received here was the first step on the road that led to his daughter becoming a teacher, my father gaining professional qualifications in insurance and computing, through his own hard work in his own time, and to my teaching career and M.A.

I frequently wonder what our ancestors would have thought of us. So many lived their lives all in one place, in the same place as generations of their forebears. In the rural areas, I think they would not have found so much changed. There are still fields, trees, hedgerows and little villages. What would they have made of me, sitting tapping this on a machine which would have appeared magical, for a medium which is virtually virtual…? I suppose much of it would be beyond their comprehension. Sometimes I fancifully imagine myself in a line, with my father next to me, his father (who I never met) next to him, Isaac next to him, and so on. Or with my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother the pig dealer’s wife….  All people, all the same, with all the hopes, joys and fears we have ourselves.