Yiddish spellings, Malorie Blackman, I-levels, new academy data and disappointment in Welsh science

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Dumpling controversy lands spelling-bee champion in the soup - 05 June 2013

In the 1930s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers argued musically over the pronunciation of "potato" and "tomato".

Eighty years on, we are all a bit more multicultural. And so the schoolboy son of Indian immigrants is at the centre of a furore over the Yiddish-derived spelling of a Jewish-European foodstuff.

On one thing, however, everyone is agreed: the winning spelling of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a load of old matzo balls.

Last Thursday, New York schoolboy Arvind Mahankali successfully spelled the word "knaidel" to win the US-based spelling bee.

The 13-year-old - who has never eaten a matzo ball - outlasted 11 other finalists to take home the $30,000 prize money. His triumph was viewed by an international TV audience of millions.

However, the accuracy of his winning spelling is now being challenged in a row that is being played out across the US media. Yiddish linguists at New York's YIVO Institute of Jewish Research insist that the correct spelling of knaidel - a dumpling made of ground matzo and served in chicken soup - is in fact "kneydl".

And, on the menus of New York delis, the dumpling is often rendered "kneidel" or "kneidl". (The disagreement is, however, less musically versatile than the potato-potahto contretemps: all versions are pronounced keh-nayd-l.)

Yiddish is a Germanic language, written using the Hebrew alphabet. But YIVO is widely regarded as the authority on its transliteration.

In fact, YIVO spellings are often controversial. Its official orthography transliterates the festival of Hanukkah as "Khanike". And, in a remarkable demonstration of the meaning of the word "chutzpah", it has rendered it "khutspe".

The Scripps spelling bee, however, relies on Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which contestants use in their revision. And the dictionary insists that the word should be spelled "knaidel".

For Arvind, however, this is all a storm in a chicken-soup cup. He remains the official winner but plans to retire from the spelling-bee circuit to spend the summer focusing on his physics studies.

The seventh-grade pupil finished third in the spelling bee for the two years preceding his victory. Now, however, he is finally discovering what success tastes like: his science teacher has promised to bring matzo balls into school for him to try.

Adi Bloom

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More bad news in Wales points to potential Pisa disappointment - 4th June 2013

Wales's hopes of breaking into the top 20 countries in the 2015 Pisa education rankings were dealt a blow today after a report criticised the quality of science lessons in schools.

Education minister Leighton Andrews set out the 2015 ambition after Wales performed worse than the other UK nations in the 2009 Pisa tests.

The 2015 tests focus on science, an area in which Wales performed well last time and in which its schools are traditionally strong. But that has been thrown into doubt by Estyn's latest findings.

The Welsh schools inspectorate looked at science lessons in primary and secondary schools for students between the ages of 7 and 14, and found a number of weaknesses. In fact, there were shortcomings in teachers' assessment of science in nearly all the primary schools and half of the secondary schools inspectors visited.

What's more, in the majority of lessons, inspectors found that the most able students were not stretched enough and only a few were able to pursue their own scientific interests.

In some primary schools, teachers do not have a "secure understanding" of science, the report says, and pass those misunderstandings on to students.

While secondary schools set aside enough time for science, some primary schools only devote an hour of teaching time a week, which the report says is not enough.

Given the national focus on the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), Estyn inspectors found that only a few secondary schools actually give their students the opportunity to answer Pisa-type questions, which test thinking skills and ability to apply knowledge.

Although a curriculum review is currently underway, the Welsh government knows time is running out to make improvements to science education if it wants to hit its Pisa target.

Darren Evans

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Blackman vows to fight for story time as she takes over as children's laureate - 04 June 2013

Malorie Blackman, the highly acclaimed author of the Noughts and Crosses series, was this morning announced as the eighth children's laureate.

Blackman said it was "a tad daunting" to follow in the footsteps of previous laureates such as Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson.

The laureateship is awarded every two years to acknowledge not only an individual's contribution to children's literature, but also the importance of children's literature to creating lifelong readers.

Speaking to TES earlier this week, Blackman said that one of her priorities will be encouraging and supporting story time - a daily 10 minutes of reading aloud to the class - in primary schools and emphasising the "reading-for-pleasure aspect of reading and hearing stories".

And she is keen to encourage older children to make their own creative responses to books, through writing as well as art, film, drama and music.

Music is likely to be a key element of Blackman's two-year term. She used to play the saxophone and recently took drumming lessons. On her website, she says that she "loves, loves, loves music", citing Muse, Green Day and Stevie Wonder as among her favourites. Rapper Tinie Tempah has even referenced her: "I'm just a writer from the ghetto like Malorie Blackman."

Blackman, who attended primary school in Beckenham and secondary school in Peckham, South London, now lives in Kent with her husband Neil and daughter Lizzie.

She dreamed of becoming an English teacher but fell into a career as a computer programmer. In 1990, aged 28, her first book was published and she decided to see if she could make it as a full-time writer.

"I thought I would give up my job for a year - if it didn't work out I could go back to computing," she says. "Twenty-three years later." She has now written more than 60 books, including Pig-Heart Boy and Hacker, and even episodes of children's television show Byker Grove. She was appointed OBE in 2008.

Blackman visited the TES offices a few months ago for a webchat, where she talked about inspiration, libraries, instilling a love of stories and demonstrated her famous laugh.

And in case you were wondering about using the news as a lesson, here are some ideas:

- Design a book cover for one of Malorie Blackman's novels with this creative activity.

- Get your pupils immersed in the fictional worlds of Malorie Blackman with this resource.

See this week's TES magazine for Blackman's interview as children's laureate.

Helen Ward

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New name, new grading system, more u-turns? Making sense of this morning's leaks - 04 June 2013

Waking up to a newspaper heralding another leaked set of "sweeping" GCSE reforms has recently become almost as much a ritual as the exams themselves.

This morning's batch, reported by The Times, involves yet another name change - to "I levels" - and a numerical grading system that, for the first time, offers a quantifiable idea of just how tough the new qualifications will be.

Much of the thrust of today's report, apparently gleaned from a consultation paper prepared by exams regulator Ofqual, was already known. But there are also important fresh details. They relate to the first of the new exams - in English, maths, the sciences, history and geography - that schools will begin teaching from September 2015.

Education secretary Michael Gove has already made it clear that he wants coursework reduced to a minimum. The leaked proposals suggest it will disappear completely in all these "core" subjects except the science qualifications, where 10 per cent of marks will be allocated to practical experiments.

The plans also confirm that the education secretary has lost his battle for reformed exams to be single-tier qualifications. Maths and science will, it is reported, retain their foundation and higher level structures.

We also knew that Mr Gove was considering some sort of numerical grading system. Now Ofqual is about to consult on grading the exams between 1 and 8. The top grade would be 8, leaving scope for higher numbers to be added to allow even more differentiation between the brightest students, if required.

But an 8 would already be much tougher than the existing top grades, with many students currently awarded A* or A expected to achieve grades 7 or 6, due to harder content.

As expected, resit opportunities will be drastically reduced, with virtually all exams taken in the summer. Other than English and maths resits in November, all candidates will have to wait a full year to have another attempt.

The "I level" title is, as has already been said, the most "eye-catching" of the proposals. And if true - the name reportedly does not appear in the Ofqual consultation - it poses a tricky issue for Mr Gove.

Aside from its dreadful pun-like quality (and the fact that it may remind readers of a certain age of the jaunty theme to a TV detective series based in the Netherlands), the new name makes a lot of sense.

The I or "Intermediate" level would represent a clean break from the damaged GCSE brand, which has come in for a lot criticism recently, not least from Mr Gove himself.

And with legacy GCSEs in some subjects continuing to exist in parallel for at least a year after the first of their replacements are introduced, it could make the situation slightly less confusing for employers.

Rather than having to deal with new and old GCSEs, with differing grading systems, they would instead have two clearly defined and completely separate qualifications.

But the central reason for suggesting the new title appears to be the need to distinguish the reformed qualifications in England from existing GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland that will not be receiving Mr Gove's radical makeover.

The education secretary acknowledged the problem in a letter to Leighton Andrews, education minister in the Welsh government, and John O'Dowd, education minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, leaked last month. He said then that the three nations needed to go their separate ways on exam regulation and that it would be wrong for "markedly different qualifications to use the same title".

The I-level proposal is a logical conclusion, although it risks handing victory to Mr Gove's increasingly bitter foes in Wales, who always said they would keep the GCSE name.

With a similar tussle over post-16 exams on the cards, a longer game may be being played. Ofqual is reportedly insistent that England will retain the A-level brand.

Politically, though, yet another name change could be damaging. Mr Gove has already conducted a very high profile U-turn on key elements of his original reform plans and shifted from the English Baccalaureate Certificates title back to GCSEs. A second change of mind in less than four months may not look good.

William Stewart

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New Ofsted data on sponsored academies highlights awkward questions- 03 June 2013

While sponsored academies are, by definition, schools that have replaced struggling predecessors, the government has been quick to portray them as the cure for all the UK's educational ills.

Indeed, last month education secretary Michael Gove claimed that "amazing things have been, and are being, achieved by the academies movement".

But the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union has uncovered some statistics that, it says, could well disprove this.

New figures released by Ofsted in response to a Parliamentary Question show that, of the sponsored academy inspections that have taken place between 2008 and 2012, 12 per cent received an inadequate verdict - four times higher, ATL says, than the comparable figure for local authority maintained schools in the same period.

Furthermore, a further 39 per cent of sponsored academies were rated in the "requires improvement" (or its predecessor, "satisfactory") category, implying that 51 per cent - over half - of these schools were not up to scratch. In comparison, the figure for maintained schools was just 27 per cent.

ATL says the data raises huge questions about the claim that converting schools into academies drives up standards. Martin Freedman, the union's head of pay, conditions and pensions, said: "I know the government will say these schools are making lots of progress, but that's what they are supposed to do. The fact that so many are inadequate compared with state schools is a real concern. It seems that what the government is saying about the success of academies is not true."

Not surprisingly, the Department for Education has questioned ATL's analysis. The union's comparison, it insists, is flawed: while the figures take into account all inspections of sponsored academies in this period (including repeat inspections at struggling academies), the figure for maintained schools only looks at the latest inspections, a spokeswoman told TES.

This, the Department says, means that the bias towards lower performing academies that get inspected more frequently means the overall figures for academies have been skewed.

"Academy sponsors take over schools that often have a long history of underperformance which can take time to reverse," the DfE said in a statement. "Even so, by the end of last year over half of secondary sponsored academies were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Overall, results in sponsored academies are improving far faster than other state-funded schools. Their rate of improvement has exceeded that of other secondaries year-on-year for a decade."

Looking purely at academies' most recent inspections, a lower total of 8 per cent received an inadequate rating.

While this may not look as embarrassing as first thought, particularly bearing in mind the historical problems experienced by predecessor schools before they became academies, the gulf between the performance of sponsored academies and maintained schools is still pretty stark.

Perhaps no wonder, then, that the official figures took more than two months before they were finally released on the quiet.

Stephen Exley

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Swedish free-school operator JB Education forced to close. Lessons for England? - 31 May 2013

This will cause shivers in the Department for Education. One of Sweden's largest free-school operators has been forced to close after its private equity group owner decided to withdraw its backing.

JB Education yesterday announced that it would be shutting down its primary and secondary operations after Axcel, its Danish investor, pulled out of the partnership owing to a drop in student numbers.

The news comes as a stark warning to England, which has partially based its own free-school model on the Swedish version.

Free schools in Sweden can be run for profit, which has led to most of the country's major operators such as Kunskapsskolan and Internationella Engelska Skolan, as well as JB Education, being bought up by private equity firms.

Both Kunskapsskolan and Internationella Engelska Skolan have already moved into the English schools market, and it is widely believed that should the Conservatives win the next general election with an overall majority they could open the door for schools to be run for profit

Education secretary Michael Gove is said to be "open-minded" about the idea, and right-wing thinktanks have put the case for profit-making in schools.

According to Anders Hultin, who is chief executive of JB Education and who ran Kunskapsskolan's operation in the UK, the company has found new owners for 19 out of 23 upper secondary schools; the remaining four will be closed.

Speaking to TT, a Scandinavian news agency, Mr Hultin said: "When we discovered the applicant figures for the next academic year looked as they did, I realised that the scenario we had been working toward was not sustainable. That changed the game plan.

"On the one hand, I am devastated that the company I have managed for a short time will not survive. It is extremely regrettable that it will affect the students. On the other hand, I am relieved that so many upper secondary schools will get a new start with new owners who can continue to develop them."

But Ibrahim Baylan, an education spokesman for Sweden's opposition Social Democrat party, said the closures should act as a warning.

"I hope that this situation, which becomes crystal clear in light of JB shutting down or selling schools, shows that the system of what in practice amounts to the free establishment of schools, is unsustainable," he told TT.

Richard Vaughan

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The TES weekly podcast has landed, you lucky people - 30 May 2013

The team discusses tomorrow's issue of the TES, which includes a story about how schools must play a key role in combating extremism according to experts, how slang and text speak can help with foreign languages and why we asked a group of teachers to write to their younger selves.

Get it here.

And why not tell the podcast's editor Richard Vaughan what you think too.

Does it really matter if we can tell the difference between "there", "their" and "they're"? - 30 May 2013

It is the punctuation pedant's equivalent of that famous moment in Manchester in 1966, when Bob Dylan shocked his folk-purist audience by plugging in an electric guitar.

No one actually yelled out "Judas!" when Simon Horobin gave his talk. But this proves nothing more than that punctuation pedants are better-mannered than folk-music purists.

During a talk at the Hay Festival this week, Horobin, a professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, suggested that the spellings of "they're", "there" and "their" could be standardised. Heaping heresy upon heresy, he then asked: "Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?"

To audible - if doubtlessly grammatical - gasps of dismay, he added that "spelling is not a reliable indication of intelligence".

Horobin, who is the author of a book entitled Does Spelling Matter?, insisted that standardised spellings were a relatively new phenomenon. In the Middle Ages, he pointed out, one could spell a word such as "through" however one liked.

"People like to artificially constrain language change," he said, blithely scattering split infinitives in his wake. "I am not saying we should just spell freely. But sometimes we have to accept spellings change."

Those who are possibly less accepting of this fact include the education secretary, Michael Gove. Doubtless among the frontline of metaphorical Judas-callers, Gove has developed a new English curriculum that lists a range of grammatical points that every primary-school student should learn to master.

These include the passive voice and the subjunctive, as well as the apostrophe. By the end of Year 2, students are expected to know the difference between "their", "they're" and "there".

The word "redundant" does not appear once in the 52-page document. Not even among the list of 162 words that all 11-year-olds should be able to spell.

The internet, unsurprisingly, has come into its idiosyncratic own in response to Horobin's pronouncements. But, rather than labelling the professor's disdain for spelling as "gr8", or even "coolz", one commentator declared that his beliefs rendered him "a pretencious douche". Horobin can rest his case.

Adi Bloom

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Step forward @68ron, winner of our #goverhythmics competition - 29 May 2013

A few weeks ago, we blogged about Michael Gove's apparent habit of paraphrasing 1980s pop songs in his speeches, including lyrics by Prince, Eurythmics and the Pet Shop Boys.

We asked teaching's Twittersphere to suggest other musical numbers from that era that England's education secretary might like to work into his next speech. Today, we can announce the results. Here are the finalists:

@Hodders129: [Adam and the Ants'] Stand and Deliver = Gove's ideal teaching style?

@68ron: Duran Duran: Hungry like the Wolf Report.

@AbiFB: Spandau Ballet: You are Gove! (Gove!)

All that is left is for us to announce the winner. After extensive consultation across England's educational landscape (mainly the TES newsroom), we have plumped for Hungry like the Wolf Report.

For sheer inventiveness, @68ron - also known as Ronnie - wins a bottle of bubbly.

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

From Gangnam to hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, student essays give insight into student psyche - 29 May 2013

As any primary teacher will tell you, children's creative writing can provide a fascinating insight into popular culture and language development.

Oxford University Press has today released an analysis of more than 90,000 short stories written by children aged 13 and under, revealing the ever-changing obsessions and interests of young people.

Here are some highlights from the report, which analysed 40 million words from entries to the annual 500 Words short-story competition on Radio 2's Chris Evans breakfast show.

1. The most popular new words this year are "Gangnam", which appears 287 times, and "onesie", which is used 121 times.

2. The most popular celebrities are the band One Direction with 566 mentions, singer Tulisa with 339 appearances, and teen star Justin Bieber with 170 mentions.

3. The words "Olympic" and "Olympics" are used 1,823 times this year, compared with 1,506 times in 2012.

4. The word "Mum" is the children's top noun, with 115,000 occurrences. ("Dad" appears in the top 20, with about half the number of uses.)

5. The most popular tech words for boys are "PS3", "Xbox" and "download"; for girls they are "email", "iPod" and "text".

6. The longest story titles are "John the world famous, internationally most wanted, ham sandwich stealing Platypus" and "Jeff the Hippie and Mighty Mollusc; The Ancient Banana Blasters of Vindaloo".

7. Jack and Lucy are the most popular names in the stories. Lucy is used 14,420 times and Jack 19,900 times.

8. Boys and girls use the names of boys in their stories, but girl names are used mainly by girl authors.

9. Among the longest words used by the young authors are "floccinaucinihilipilification" (the habit of estimating something as worthless) and "hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia" (the fear of long words).

10: Chocolate is the most-mentioned food or drink, with 9,954 uses.

We hope you enjoyed these intriguing insights into the minds of modern schoolchildren. What are the obsessions of budding writers in your classes? Do you teach Twilight-obsessed goths or Britain's Got Talent addicts? What is the longest word they've ever used?

We'd love to know.

Irena Barker

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

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