Not such duffers, after all

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
"LADIES and gentlemen of the jury, what is your verdict?"

"Not guilty."

"I hereby sentence the accused to 10 more years of hard labour and regular beatings."

Does that sound strange: not guilty, but sentenced for a crime you never committed? Isn't that what happened to Franz Kafka's main character in The Trial, when he was found guilty of some unexplained offence of which he was innocent, but could never obtain justice or a proper hearing?

British teachers have been accused of producing generations of children who are the "dunces of Europe". Headline after headline has hammered home this very point.

Apparently, the Germans beat us handsomely. I have seen excellent teaching in German schools, and there is much we can learn from each other, but the real truth about standards has often been concealed.

Now Margaret Brown, professor of education at King's College, has contributed to a book, entitled Comparing Standards Internationally, which shows that we are not such duffers after all. Her conclusions can be read in the February 4 issue of The TES (page 27).

International comparisons require carefully matched samples, otherwise the findings are invalid. In some countries, for example, children are kept back for a year if they do not pass the annual assessment. This means that a class might contain none of the slower children, as they are in the year below, but include some of the lower-achieving pupils who are a year older and are thus doing the course for a second time.

In the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), a major international project looking at 13-year-olds, the German sample excluded 27 per cent of the lowest achievers, while up to 17 per cent of Dutch children were omitted from such surveys because they attend special schools.

Leave out a similar percentage of our pupils and we beat some of the countries who are supposed to be our superiors (4-2 after extra time, the 2 are both own goals).

Furthermore, the TIMSS test was drawn up to mirror theAmerican syllabus, so only just over half of it actually matched our national curriculum, and Japanese 13-year-olds have spent twice as much time on maths as ours. Newspaper accounts often omit these vital facts, just as they fail to point out that we came sixth in the world in science.

Instead, there is a stream of ill-informed and hostile rubbish, such as the rantings of one columnist, in a poorly written piece, who confidently stated that children perform badly in English because most of their teachers cannot write: "Alarmingly, few of them (teachers) seem to have any ability with language because they do it so little."

Really? I must remember to "do" language more often. It's surely what one's mouth is for. No wonder I've always found it hard to teach when I do so little language.

Since massacring verbs is in order, I may also "eat" some music, "kick" a bit of science and "somersault" a few quadratic equations.

Poor old British teachers come under the cosh because we put the whole of the age group in for international tests. That's us, the supreme includers. I wouldn't want it any other way, even if we end up skewered. It does make you think, however, how history might have changed if people had only put in the right samples.

Suppose, for example, that the Russians had omitted a few soldiers at the Battle of Balaclava, then the 673 charging cavalry of the Light Brigade might have won, or at least drawn.

At the Battle of Little Bighorn, if only General Custer, with his 200 soldiers, had said to Chief Sitting Bull, with his 6,000, "Do you fancy a five-a-side?", all could have been different.

Perhaps Julius Caesar should have welcomed his unexpected visitors with, "Nice to see you, Brutus. I'll just pop out and invite a few mates in. Then you and Cassius and your chums can play bridge against me and my seven-foot, 18-stone pals who also happen to own very big swords."

You've just got to get the samples right. I must go. I'm off to do a bit more language, as we say.

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