Why I’m voting for Mickey…

Will the proposed half-GCSE Vocational Qualifications become known as Minnie-Mouse courses?


As usual the Daily Mail can be relied upon to trivialise any story about education. Although the recommendations of the recent Wolf report are clear, it is thin on explanation and exemplification of what is unsatisfactory with current vocational education courses. Simply saying some are excellent and others aren’t is not terribly helpful. And seeking the views of employers and moving towards more external assessment is something we’ve heard many times before. Reducing the number of GCSE equivalents for each course might be seen as having some merit, but mainly for reducing the validity of vocational courses within academically-based school league tables, rather than putting the needs of students first – some of whom might actually have had a better chance of finding employment at the age of 16. Now all they will end up with is a string of F and G GCSE grades which are less likely to impress potential employers than evidence of real, on-the-job experience.

And while it is true that some courses have become little more than an exercise in completing politically-correct tick-boxes, what the Daily Mail article actually reveals that much of the course content is highly relevant to working life. For example, here is a proposed list of 50 things everyone should know how to do – precious few of which are covered in the eBacc.

Meanwhile I can’t help wondering why poor old Mickey Mouse is continually associated with vocational courses? Mickey was created by Disney in 1928 as a ‘pleasant, cheerful character always trying to do the best he could’, which  sounds to me a most positive attitude towards education.  The more negative association probably started when entering the name ‘Mickey Mouse’ on a ballot paper became a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the available election candidates, i.e. that Mickey Mouse could do a better job. Around the same time the phrase ‘Taking the Mickey’ – meaning to mock or ridicule – came into usage, and although not a reference to Mickey Mouse, the two seem to have become associated.

As a result ‘Mickey Mouse’ has over time come to mean ‘small-time’ or ‘trivial’, which is curious really, because in reality Mickey Mouse is an iconic, multi-million dollar, best-selling trademark – and as such exactly the sort of approach to business we should all be striving for if we are to revive the nation’s economy. So yet again it seems to be another example of the politicians and media perpetuating the old-school myth that only high-brow academic studies are of any value, and anything vocationally or commercially orientated, or relating to popular culture, is entirely worthless.

And finally…. for those readers still without a Twitter account:  Man goes to the doctors: “Doctor I’m addicted to twitter and I don’t know what to do”….Doctor: “Sorry I don’t follow you”…

Now where did I leave my Google?

Is this the fatally-flawed new iPad 3 tablet?

‘Too much internet use can damage teenagers’ brains‘ screams a headline in the Daily Mail.
How Googling can harm your memory’ announces the Daily Telegraph above a further, and entirely un-related, article headlined: ‘Fatal tablet dispensed in error‘, which as it happens, was nothing to do with accidently issuing a schoolchild with a faulty iPad, but just for a moment it made me wonder.

The Telegraph report is on some rather limited research data that suggests that the way we remember things may be starting to change. It’s interesting that they interpret ‘change’ as ‘damage’ and ‘harm’. What the researchers actually discovered was that people are making less effort to remember facts and more to recall where they will be able to find particular items of information when they actually need  them. We are thus apparently developing our ‘transactive’ brain abilities. And the researchers go on to suggest that as a result educators need to become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorisation.


Meanwhile the ever-dependable Mail goes a step further and provides a test to discover if you are already addicted to the web, with the sub-head ‘A terrible shame – It’s a wake-up call’. Apparently excessive internet use may be causing parts of teenagers’  brains to waste away, based on a study of 19 year-old students who spend between 8 to 13 hours a day, six days a week playing games online.


There’s no question that we do need to do more research to discover the ways in which the internet is disrupting the way we think and behave, and as a consequence changing the way we learn. There are some facts we do need to memorise, and it would be crazy to spend all day, every day living in a virtual world, but we have yet to work out which are the essential facts to remember, and when it’s best to be online or in the real world.

But to promote the idea that using computers is damaging our brains  makes it more difficult for teachers and parents to swallow the pill and accept that IT and learning are a positive development. Until then, we are just going to need to keep taking the tablets ourselves.

Standing in the shadows

I wonder how many teachers know what the Burnham Scale is, and when it dates from? For those readers who don’t, it was a national pay scale for teachers and lecturers devised in 1919 by a committee led by Lord Burnham. Essentially it regularised pay across learning institutions and identified relative differences in pay between the different sectors and in comparison to civil service officers. Back in 1919:

“A man teacher on this scale who was teaching in a junior or a senior school and began his teaching at 21 years of age would by 30 years of  age be receiving a net salary of about £262. He would reach his maximum, £366 gross and £348 net, by the time he was 38 years of age. If such a teacher had spent four years instead of two years over his training and had thus taken a university degree as well as completed an approved course of training he would nevertheless be on the same scale.”

In 1994, a single national scale was agreed, and is still known as the Burnham Agreement.

All of which of course, at first sight at least, has absolutely nothing to do with Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary who is calling for schools to provide a ‘pathway to employment’ for the ‘forgotten half’ less suited to going to university.


It makes refreshing, optimistic reading, particularly when he says things like:

“Government is in danger of preparing young people for a world that no longer exists, by prioritising Latin over engineering and not listening to what employers want.”

Clearly he ‘gets it’. Or does he?  I’m a bit confused when he suggests: “The [Labour] party wants to ensure that as many teachers as possible have MA qualifications”. Surely the last thing we want is more university-trained teachers with an even higher level of academic qualifications? What’s really needed are suitably trained and qualified inspirational teachers who have had a real experience of work outside an educational institution.

Perhaps it is time the Burnham Scale was reviewed again in order to encourage such people into the profession?


UPDATE, 13/7/11

Here’s a link to the text of Andy Burnham’s full speech:


Amongst all the good stuff though, he says the ‘brightest’ 30% of children could do Latin. So everyone else, who is by implication ‘dim’, will be prepared for the world of work?  Maybe he should have said the ‘most academically able 30%’…?

Gove ups his game

How the story wasn’t reported in the Daily Mail

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that this is nice Mr Gove’s proposal for a new immigration policy, but you’d be wrong… The even more alarming truth though is that the press has been alive today with reports of nice Mr Gove surprising us all by finally admitting that computer games can be good for you:

“When children need to solve equations in order to get more ammo to shoot the aliens, it is amazing how quickly they can learn. I am sure that this field of educational games has huge potential for maths and science teaching and Marcus (Du Sautoy) himself has been thinking about how he might be able to create games to introduce advanced concepts, such as non-Euclidean geometry, to children at a much earlier stage than normal in schools.”

Now the first question this raises is who on earth is Marcus Sautoy, how long has he been working in the Computer Games industry, and will he be able to create the highly sophisticated levels of immersive interactivity that will persuade virtual street-wise kids to spend their time learning about non-Euclidean geometry? OK, well that turned out to be three questions, but who’s counting?

So the answer to Question 1, with acknowledgements to Wikipedia, is:

Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy OBE (born in London, 26 August 1965)[3] is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, and Wadham College, he is now a Fellow of New College. He is currently an EPSRC Senior Media Fellow and was previously a Royal Society University Research Fellow. His academic work concerns mainly group theory and number theory. In October 2008, he was appointed to the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science, succeeding the inaugural holder Richard Dawkins.[4] His surname is pronounced “doo’sohtoy” (stressing the second syllable).

Moving on to Question 2 – How long has he been working in the computer games industry:
Seemingly not very long at all, especially if his website is anything to go by:


He doesn’t seem to have much experience of inner-city classroom teaching either.

And finally, Question 3 – will be succeed:
Extremely unlikely, and even less so if Mr Gove eventually succeeds on banning mobile phones in the classroom, in which case students will presumably only be able to access these stunning new games on their yellowing, retro stand-alone-in-the-IT-suite PCs.

Meanwhile, one day I wonder if there will be a series of games that Mr Gove has decided to officially endorse? If so they might become known as ‘Gove Games‘? As students probably would end up doing, I did a search for Gove Games, and it took me to a site for a game called ‘Governor of Poker’ – now there’s a game that really might get kids learning.

Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering but didn’t like to ask, Non-Euclidean geometry is the study of shapes and constructions that do not map directly to any n-dimensional Euclidean system, characterized by a non-vanishing Riemann curvature tensor. Examples of non-Euclidean geometries include the hyperbolic and elliptic geometry, which are contrasted with a Euclidean geometry.

Some links discussing this subject further: