In our round-up of the research and blogs on our radar this week: how colleges help tackle unemployment and why the UK's skills shortage might stall economic recoveryManufacturing institutes are key to revitalizing manufacturing in the US
President Obama has announced that the US government will launch six new institutes of manufacturing as part of a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). The project is co-funded by the government and private sector and will connect industry and universities.
Robert Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, explores why the decision is crucial to improving how the US manufacturing industry competes globally in a blog post on the Ideas Laboratory. He looks at how the initiative will advance technological innovation and his comments offer food for thought on how the UK approaches upskilling its workforce.
You can read the full post on the Ideas Laboratory site.UK skills shortage getting worse
Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show signs of an economic recovery, but researchers are concerned business will be prevented from taking advantage of this because of a skills shortage.
In a survey of 91,000 employers, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found more than one in five job vacancies last year were left unfilled because people didn't have the adequate skills. Shortages were particularly found in manufacturing, construction, plumbing, health and social care.
You can read more on the survey's findings on the BBC.Colleges and the unemployed – something to shout about
A great piece from the Association of College's president Michele Sutton on the work colleges do with the unemployed.
She pulls out some interesting data on the role further education plays in tackling unemployment. In the association's Back to Work survey, virtually every college reported recruiting through Jobcentre Plus and 77% actively recruited unemployed people.
It's a nice piece that celebrates the critical role the further education sector plays in helping people get back into work.
You can read the full post on the Association of College's blog.Major inquiry into adult learning
For the first time in 13 years a parliamentary inquiry is looking exclusively into the state of adult literacy and numeracy, following research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing a dramatic decline in standards among young adults.
In this excellent piece Ian Nash, member of the Policy Consortium, picks apart the headlines on the inquiry and explores why adults lack basic skills.
You can read his full post on the Policy Consortium website.This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Sign up to our FE leadership and management hub for free to get access to expert advice, debate and comment.Holly Welham
Michael Mckeaveney, principal designate of a newly formed university technical college, on blending academic and vocational education
Michael Mckeaveney is principal designate of Sir Charles Kao, a newly formed university technical college in Harlow.What route did you take to headship?
I never thought that my first headship would be one setting up a school. I was deputy head at the Hackney University Technical College, where I looked after curriculum and employer engagement. I focused on assessment and standards, looking at the academic side of the curriculum and matching this up with the type of work students might do in later life. This is the university technical college (UTC) formula: they bring together the technical and the academic structures that make learning a bit more joined up.
I also spent a year with Future Leaders, a charity that helps teachers to develop their leadership skills, and then completed a series of placements in the Harris Federation and the Ark Network. I had a lot of support from the leadership development adviser at Future Leaders, and from the headteachers I was working with in schools.How is running a UTC different to being a headteacher in a school?
We're different from traditional schools and career colleges in that we offer a technical education: we don't offer art, music, dance or drama within the curriculum, although there is an opportunity to do enrichment. We also have a longer school day, so we can play around with timings: we have the flexibility to spend more time looking in-depth at what students are learning through large projects that develop their initiative and teamwork skills.Why did you choose to work in a university technical college?
UTCs are a way of engaging students and raising their expectations. Britain has this tradition of being a great cauldron of invention and industry; I want to reignite that ingenuity and commercial sense.
I feel as if I've come full circle. I was a science teacher at school and my degree was in cell engineering – now I'm leading a school that offers a technical education, specialising in medical technology and smart environments. I'm revisiting what I learned 15 years ago and bringing it up-to-date.What kind of challenges do science teachers face?
It's hard to maintain students' interest when the science is dry. Science is very much a practical subject: as a teacher and senior leader, I've always said teachers should be doing practicals every lesson. Finding the creativity to link lessons to a practical activity is difficult, but what I don't want to hear in a maths or a science lesson is: "When will I ever use this again?". Unfortunately this is something we hear quite a lot in schools.How easy has it been to recruit students?
Recruiting students in year 9 is difficult. I'm liaising with local schools and speaking to teachers there about what we offer, which will hopefully help us to get the message across. But I think the best part of the marketing exercise is talking to parents directly so that they get to hear what a UTC education is like. I'm very honest with the parents about my expectations of students and what we offer. So far the response has been very positive: we're on track to open at full capacity in our first year, where we'll have 250 students in total.What's the hardest thing about setting up a UTC?
At the moment, the biggest challenge is keeping lots of different plates spinning. Being a university technical college means that we're a lot smaller, which is a challenge and a strength. On the one hand, because our team is small, it's very committed. But equally, funding is tighter and we have to look at other UTCs who have been creative with their staffing and curriculum. So, in terms of professional development, part of the opportunities we offer to staff, for example, could be visiting our sponsors and partners.How involved with the running of the UTC are your sponsors?
The arrangement varies between UTCs, but we have a time commitment from each of the sponsors where they'll work with us on industry challenges. We're mapping these out so that there's an overlap in what we do in the UTC and how students will be accredited for this. For example, our first project will look at how we build knee joints. This will involve biology, engineering, chemistry (when looking at bone structure, for example), physics and maths (because there are a lot of mathematical calculations related to how knee joints work). Students will also use some coding to transport this onto a 3D printer and create a prototype model. Then students will create a metal one. Our sponsors will help with the delivery of these projects: during the knee project, Anglia Ruskin will be looking at the data that's been gathered from people who are expected to have knee replacements within the next few years and the students will work on this with the postgraduate students at the university. Pearson, our other sponsor, is helping us to coordinate this with exams.If the UTC's first year open to students runs successfully, what will it look like?
If I could hope for anything it would be cracking attendance: above 98% for key stage four. Obviously, we'll have our own internal tracking systems to monitor attainment and we want all kids to be on track to get their predicted grades – bearing in mind we'll only have had them for the last two years of their five-year secondary education. The real success will be the culture in the school: students will be on task and they'll be able to talk articulately about what they're doing.
• This article was amended on 3 February to state that Michael Mckeaveney hopes for 98% attendance, not 90%.This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Looking for your next role? Take a look at Guardian jobs for schools for thousands of the latest teaching, leadership and support jobs.Rebecca Ratcliffe
With Japanese scientists discovering a way to make stem cells in half an hour, we've rounded up some of the top resources on the subject
A new quick way of making stem cells has been hailed as a major scientific discovery this week. In a series of experiments, Japanese researchers have been able to show that cells plucked from animals can be turned into master cells simply by immersing them in a mildly acidic solution for half an hour.
Haruko Obokata at the Riken lab in Kobe, Japan, said that several dozen mice had been able to grow tissues from these cells. If the process can be repeated in human tissue, it could lead to cheap and simple procedures for making patient-matched stem cells that can repair damaged organs.
If you'd like to teach your students about stem cells and explore some of the issues surrounding the research in class, have a look at our collection of interactives, news articles and teaching resources on the subject.From the Guardian
First hamburger made from lab-grown meat
In August last year the world's first hamburger was grown in a lab. Starting with stem cells extracted from the biopsy of a cow, a team of scientists grew 20,000 muscle fibres over the course of three months. You can find out how they then turned these fibres into a hamburger in this news article, which includes a video on the process.
Scientists use stem cells to grow human livers in mice – video
Last July the first functional organ was generated from stem cells by Japanese scientists. This video shows how it was achieved.
Stem cell research highs and lows – interactive timeline
In 1996 the future of stem cell research looked bright, but since then its development has been fraught with troubles. This interactive timeline picks out the highs and lows.
How to clone a mammoth
Although currently unlikely, in the future it may be possible to clone a mammoth. This article looks at the role stem cells could play in this.
Understanding stem cells
This lesson introduces students to the key concepts in stem cell science. It's made up of a set of short modules, mixing group activities with teacher-led discussion.
Role play scenario
This role play is based on a public hearing of a research ethics committee, which needs to decide whether to grant a licence for a clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries.
Activities to spark debate
A collection of activities to help students explore issues surrounding stem cells, including a quiz. The resource also gives information on good websites for students to look at to find out about stem cells.
Issues surrounding stem cell research
This lesson plan from the Wellcome Trust looks at implications of stem cell research and considers how it's likely to develop in the future.
The history of a medical sensation – timeline
This timeline from the New Scientist documents how stem cell research has developed over time. From being identified in mice in 1981 to a trial to see if it can treat age-related blindness this year.
Debating stem cells
The political and scientific arguments surrounding stem cells are considered in this article from Time magazine, which also discusses alternatives to the method.
The stem cell story – video
What are stem cells? Where do they come from? And what do we really know about them? All of these questions are explored in this YouTube video.
There are a whole host of teaching resources on stem cells on the EuroStemCell website, which brings together the research of more than 90 research labs across Europe.
If universities continue to heed the call of corporatisation, the role of the academic – as we know it – will become extinct
As an early-career lecturer in a post-1992 university, I often feel like a rare bird in an ornate cage struggling to maintain its dignity in a discount superstore filled with pets. This bird knows it could have been a proud representative of a noble lineage and chirrups dolefully as it ruffles its plumes, but the song is drowned out by the bustling sale of cheap, plastic imitation bird-objects around it.
The British higher education sector is in full-on crisis mode and those chosen or imposed to oversee this crisis are, in the main, non-academics and are recruited from the private sector. Academic ideals are being crushed by the visions of middle-management bureaucrats who view the progress and survival of higher education as requiring its surrender to private sector ideals. The changes in higher education over the past few years have been dramatic, with £9,000 a year tuition fees only the latest and most public step in what appears to be a wholesale corporatisation of the sector.
Along with this "progress" comes inevitable inequality. The University and Colleges Union (UCU) have recently joined forces with Unison, Unite and EIS to organise a series of strikes by members over unfair pay. According to UCU figures, last year the Universities and College Employers Association offered university staff a paltry 1% pay rise, which actually amounts to a 13% pay cut since 2009.
Were we all in it together, such an offer might be palatable. However, it came as pay for vice-chancellors rose an average of 5% over the last year. According to UCU, over the same period some vice-chancellors received up to 19% pay rises, while some senior managers received a 30% bump. To put this in context, their average salaries are around £320,000 a year; a junior lecturer earns between £31,000 to 36,000. Caterers, cleaners, security staff and estates personnel earn much, much less, and most of them are now employed by private firms.
The arguments for the grotesque inequalities of pay are twofold: the universities cannot afford to offer pay rises "given current conditions", and senior executive salaries must stay competitive to attract the best talent. While the former is simply untrue, the latter justification is devastatingly familiar and illustrates the new mentality pervading higher education.
While senior representatives of universities are pushing through deflated salaries, academics are being asked to undertake more and more administrative tasks. Many of these are in the service of surveys such as the National Student Survey, that sickeningly sibilant acronym guaranteed to send any lecturer into a spasm of despair. Such despair is not because we don't care about students; far from it. We work hard to help students develop strong, critical voices and use their time at university to cultivate a deep involvement in their subject.
It is the overbearing importance afforded to the pursuit of statistics that we resist. Students now supply their opinions on a host of irrelevant issues and are harassed into believing that their satisfaction should maintain a constant 100%. The more students engage in such processes, the more they are encouraged to forget their own responsibilities and commitment to study as well as their own academic aspirations. In such a culture, students are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish their everyday role as a consumer from that of being a student.
Given that a good deal of universities (not mine ... yet) are now forcing academic staff into private sector-style open-plan office environments, I suspect we will see more and more academics treated simply as information providers, selling their products like plastic birds.
With diminishing research hours and dwindling understanding of pure research beyond the scope of manager-led strategy panels, academics are fighting for the time and space in which to undertake scholarship. If universities continue to heed the call of corporatisation, the precious bird of academia will become extinct, leaving only its exotic feathers as relics of rapidly fading ideals.
Would you like to write for academics anonymous? Do you have an idea for a blog post about the trials, tribulations and frustrations of university life? Get in touch: email@example.com
Introduction of new classes in school could help tackle youth unemployment crisis
From September, computer coding will be taught in schools across England to children aged five and over. This trailblazing education policy could spark a skills revolution and help get to grips with on one of the biggest issues facing the developed world.
Youth joblessness is the crisis of our time and a stranglehold on a generation. Being trapped out of work for a year between 16-24 means you might never catch up. Today's young unemployed suffer lower earnings potential, poor physical and mental health and are more likely to be made redundant in future. Youth unemployment breaks the spirit of the individual, hurts families and communities and carries a £10bn annual price-tag. It is an issue for us all.
To turn this juggernaut around, a little over a year ago I launched the Million Jobs Campaign. We act as a union for the young unemployed and put pressure on politicians from all parties to act in their best interests. Twelve months on and we are beginning to see a faint glimmer of hope; the economy is growing, youth unemployment has fallen slightly to 920,000, and in the autumn statement the chancellor committed to a Million Jobs policy exempting the under-21s from employer national insurance.
This is the right sort of action and it is good news for the disillusioned young adults. Yet, we need to dig deeper if we are going to get a handle on youth unemployment once and for all. We must recognise this is a structural problem ingrained in our education and welfare system that will not truly be resolved by the turning of the economic tide.
A recent survey from Lord Adonis found roughly half of employers saw the lack of skills to be a major barrier to growth and a McKinsey report last month noted 27% of European employers leave entry-level jobs unfilled as a result. This is a travesty, when we have a generation of untapped potential and nearly a million people, in Britain alone, sitting on the sidelines. It is essential, therefore, that young people leave schools and universities with 21st century skills, work experience and a work-ready attitude. Our economy has changed but our workforce has not, and unless we join these dots youth unemployment will prevail.
Learning code, the language used to instruct computers, is a crucial skill for the 21st century. It helps us design our own future and bring our ideas to life. Let's take Jermaine: he taught himself to code when he was just eight and he was building websites aged 10. A few years down the line, when Jermaine fell behind at university, he built Revision App to make it easy for his class to share course notes and discuss modules in detail. Revision App now has more than one million users and employs eight people. Jermaine has used code to achieve all of this and he is just 24 years-old.
Jermaine encapsulates the potential of code. It is an essential tool that helps people start or build a business, boost their earnings potential and get a job in any industry, not just the booming scientific and technical sectors. As the leading economist Klaus Schwab said at Davos last week, traditional ways of thinking will not solve global unemployment and workers need to focus on gaining the skills that are most in demand, such as technology and science.
The government has acted early on this and England is setting an example to other countries in the G20 by introducing computer coding to the core schools curriculum in September. However, fears are growing that teachers feel uncertain about taking these new classes.
To help the smooth implementation of this ground-breaking policy and to reboot our education system, on 4 February Million Jobs will join a collective of organisations – large and small – to launch the Year of Code. We want people to get excited about the power of potential of computer science, to start learning code and to begin a 21st century skills drive.
After all, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the world wide web this year and young people across the country will sit down in classrooms to write their first lines of computer code, 2014 really is the Year of Code.
Lottie Dexter is the founder of the Million Jobs Campaign. The Year of Code launches on 4 February at the RSA, London.
Schools minister David Laws attacks boss after removal of Labour's Sally Morgan as chair of schools inspectorate Ofsted
The coalition government was engulfed in a vitriolic public row over education on Saturday as the Liberal Democrat schools minister accused his boss, Tory education secretary Michael Gove, of a "blatant" attempt to politicise the independent schools inspection body, Ofsted.
The intervention by David Laws, a close ally of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, came after it emerged that Gove had sacked Labour peer Baroness Sally Morgan as chair of the schools inspectorate.
A source close to Laws issued a statement expressing the minister's fury at Gove's move and making clear that the Lib Dems would do all in their power to block actions that they believed would jeopardise Ofsted's independence.
The source said: "David is absolutely furious at the blatant attempts by the Tories to politicise Ofsted. The decision to get rid of Sally Morgan had absolutely nothing to do with her abilities, or even education policy, and everything to do with Michael Gove's desire to get his own people on board.
"David Laws is absolutely determined not to let Michael undermine the independence of this vital part of the education system.
"David's primary concern now is not to let Conservative game-playing destabilise Ofsted and he'll be working closely with them as schools minister to make sure that doesn't happen."
The row follows a broadside last weekend by the chief inspector of schools and Ofsted's leading figure, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who broke cover to accuse education department officials of briefing against his organisation. Gove acted swiftly to patch up the rift, insisting that none of his officials had briefed against Wilshaw and praised him for his "superb" work.
But the decision to oust Morgan, a former close adviser to Tony Blair in Downing Street, has taken the dispute over Ofsted's governance and independence to new levels, opening one of the most public splits in the life of the coalition to date.
Critics of the government believe that Gove is growing increasingly angry at criticism of some free schools by Ofsted, and particularly the way they are allowed to employ unqualified teachers. Last year Nick Clegg tore into Gove for allowing unqualified teachers in free schools, accusing him of pursuing an ideological agenda. On Saturday night Gove revealed his plans for new teacher guidelines that will call for a return to traditional classroom discipline. Writing lines and picking up litter are among the "perfect punishments" for bad behaviour, he told the Mail on Sunday.
Morgan, a supporter of the academies programme that is at the heart of government education reform, also hit out at the decision to remove her, saying it was part of a pattern in which the Tories were packing public bodies, including the Arts Council and Charity Commission, with their own supporters.
"I am the latest of a fairly long list of people now who are non-Conservative supporters who are not being reappointed. I think there is absolutely a pattern. It's extremely worrying," she told the BBC.
Downing Street sources said that, while the prime minister backed the decision to remove Morgan, it was the responsibility of Gove. Morgan called for the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to investigate: "One of the really important things about public appointments is that they are made on the basis of merit and they are seen to be transparently made. I think there is something going on in the centre that's militating against that.
"I think there is an absolutely determined effort from No 10 that Conservative supporters will be appointed to public bodies. I think that is an issue for the cabinet secretary and the Cabinet Office to look at. It has been a quiet, quiet drip. I'm not talking about Labour people being replaced, I'm talking about non-Conservative supporters being replaced by Conservative supporters."
Gove praised Morgan's "tremendous contribution" to the work of Ofsted. "She has brought great knowledge and insight, leading the board strongly through a period of significant change, both managing the smooth transition when there were changes in chief inspector, and leading the reforms to the inspectorate and its work," he said.
On Saturday rumours were sweeping Whitehall that Gove intended to appoint Tory donor Theodore Agnew, an insurance magnate who worked with him before the 2010 election, then joined the board of the Department for Education, as the new chair of Ofsted. Last year Agnew, who is a trustee of the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, a favourite of Gove's, became chairman of the DfE's academies board.
Asked about Morgan's comments, Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps said: "I don't agree. We have to make sure that we have the right people in place to deliver government policy."
Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said: "The secretary of state should have stood up to Downing Street and kept Baroness Morgan in post."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the teachers' union, the NASUWT, said she was not surprised by Morgan's removal and predicted that the education secretary would place more of his supporters in key positions in the runup the general election. She said: " I think we will see more of this. When Michael Gove first came to power he did this removing anyone who had opposed or criticised him and replacing them with Tory supporters. This is just par for the course for this government."
A No 10 spokesman said: "Michael Gove has thanked Sally Morgan for her effective and long service as chair of Ofsted. The decision not to reappoint her was his decision.
"This government appoints people on merit: Sally Morgan was appointed under this government, and the former Labour adviser Simon Stevens is about to take up the post of chief executive of NHS England. We have also asked former Labour cabinet ministers to carry out independent reviews on key public policy issues, including Alan Milburn on social mobility and John Hutton on public service pensions."
A senior Lib Dem source said: "The Lib Dems are not going to stand by and let Michael Gove politicise our schools. Education policy is far more important than rewarding a few Tory cronies. The Lib Dems will not let our children's education be dictated by some Tory donor ideologue."Toby HelmDaniel Boffey
Your guide to the key intellectual texts, thinkers and activistsThe rising parliamentary stars
Former Bank of England economist, now shadow work and pensions secretary, she is a key player in Miliband's modernisation plans, recognising the need for spending restraint.
Catapulted into key job as shadow education secretary in a recent reshuffle. A TV and academic historian prepared to take on Michael Gove over schools reform.
Gloria De Piero
A former TV journalist recently elevated to the shadow cabinet, with responsibility for women and equalities. She is a good communicator, not afraid to push radical ideas.
Smooth on TV and radio, and reliable on complex City issues in his role as shadow business secretary.
Another with experience of life outside Westminster. Set up a lobbying firm in Brussels before entering parliament and is now shadow minister for housing.
Michael E Porter
One of the founders of responsible capitalism and author of a seminal article on "shared-value capitalism" for the Harvard Business Review, looking at business models including Unilever (see below)
Managing director of management consultancy McKinsey
He wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review on the flaws of western "quarterly capitalism", arguing it is too short term and comparing it with Asian, and particularly Japanese, capitalism.
Chief executive of Unilever
Widely recognised as a proponent of responsible capitalism, he scrapped quarterly reporting at Unilever.
Influential Brazilian political and social theorist who argues for a moral and spiritual revival in socialism to escape its current "dictatorship of no alternatives".
The MP for Dagenham, head of the policy review pushing for a radical agenda for a modern, post-crash left.
An influential economics professor who challenges common assumptions among progressives.
Author of The Entrepreneurial State (2013), this Sussex University economist argues for a proactive role for the state in developing new technologies.
IPPR's journal of politics and ideas, whose wide choice of contributors is inspired by the 1980s success of Marxism Today.
Venerable magazine now enjoying a new lease of life as the go-to weekly for Milibandites.
Voice of the One Nation group of Labour activists.
Former Treasury adviser, Oxford don, Gordon Brown aide: instrumental in developing the analysis of shifting ideological moods and structural failings in British capitalism that make radical reform necessary.
Oxford University friend of Ed Miliband's, and now professor at Oxford and Miliband speechwriter. He is more sceptical of the capacity of the state to deliver social change than the more orthodox Labour view.
A key figure in shaping a new business and economic agenda when she worked as Ed Miliband's aide from 2010-12.
A US pollster and former adviser to Bill Clinton, he now does Ed Miliband's polling; influential, especially on how to win from a populist left position. Also served as a polling adviser to vice-president Al Gore, Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair, among many others.
Community organiser. Loved by Miliband as an avuncular American progressive, he provides a comfort blanket of "new politics". The importance of this to Milibandism should never be underestimated.
IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research)
Run by Nick Pearce (former policy unit head at No 10), it devises policy in terms of what might work in an era of no money.
Its director, Gavin Kelly (former deputy chief of staff to Gordon Brown), is the man with the PowerPoint slides that tell the whole squeezed-middle story.
Consumer charity whose head, Richard Lloyd, a former No 10 adviser, has a backstage pass to the offices of Eds Miliband and Balls.
Varieties of Capitalism (2001)
by Peter A Hall (ed) David Soskice
Concludes that there is more than one path to economic success. Nations need not converge to a single Anglo-American model.
The Great Transformation (1944)
by Karl Polanyi
Dealing with the huge changes ushered in by the emerging market economy, and said to be Ed Miliband's favourite book.
Winner-Take-All Politics (2010)
by Jacob S Hacker and Paul Pierson
Identifies the real culprit behind one of the great economic crimes of our time – the growing inequality of incomes between the vast majority of Americans and the richest of the rich.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014)
by Thomas Piketty
Paris professor argues that the main driver of inequality – the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth – threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values.
Progressive Capitalism (2013)
by David Sainsbury
The former Labour minister argues for a "new" capitalism with its sharper teeth blunted, avarice expunged, fairness and social justice imprinted on its soul – and innovation and entrepreneurship providing the rocket fuel.
The Spirit Level (2010)
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Why do we mistrust people more in the UK than in Japan? Why do Americans have higher rates of teenage pregnancy than the French? What makes the Swedish thinner than the Australians? The answer: inequality, say the authors.
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2013)
by Michael Sandel
A rage against the commodification of everyday life.
The Bully Pulpit (2013)
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Biography of Teddy Roosevelt. The book Miliband gave to his senior aides for Christmas. Roosevelt was not against capitalism. He was a Republican, after all. His ambition was to fix capitalism to make it better serve more Americans.
The education secretary is trying to keep schools in a 1950s time warp
A science-fiction film released in 1958 depicts how the "Blob", a giant shapeless amoeba-like alien, takes over a small American town and defies every attempt to destroy it. The Blob is what the erudite Michael Gove, education secretary, calls the educational establishment – or, more precisely, anyone who opposes his determination to recreate the 1950s classroom.
Gove's opposition is a dirty business. Last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, brought in by Gove in 2011 to drive up standards, said he was "spitting blood" because he believed that the minister's department had orchestrated criticism of Ofsted, via two thinktanks, undermining its authority.
Sir Michael has expressed his disapproval of grammar schools and his inspectors have failed several free schools and academies, presumably enough, in Gove's copybook, to push Wilshaw to the door marked "Exit". If he is no longer the favoured man, why is the education secretary so underhand in his disapproval?
On Friday, in spite of Gove's assertions of support for Wilshaw, the assault on Ofsted was resumed when its chief, Baroness Morgan, a Labour loyalist but also a strong supporter of free schools, was told her three-year contract would not be extended. Mr Gove has decided he wants a fresh face at the watchdog, presumably more in his own likeness. Partisanship and "yes men" are not a healthy way to run a department, let alone influence the values and methods that are remodelling teaching and fashioning our children's futures.
What amounts to the sacking of Lady Morgan has infuriated the Liberal Democrats, including education minister David Laws. Nick Clegg is believed to have complained to Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, to stop the Conservatives making "party political" appointments to public bodies. "It is wholly wrong that the Conservatives are now purging anybody who's not a Conservative," Lady Morgan told BBC's Radio 4.
The way Gove conducts his business is all the more regrettable because his vision of the "right" education system is so inflexibly out of step with a great deal of international evidence. He favours classical traditional learning that is more "chalk and talk", directed at pupils who learn by rote. Research says that a good teacher will coax the best out of children, regardless of the particular system adopted, but more interaction between teachers and pupils and time for children to reflect and experiential activity achieve more for the majority, not just the brightest. Gove damns this as the Blob's "progressive" folly. That is a dismissive and arrogant response to the many professionals with a deep and committed sense of vocation who are trying to construct an education system fit for the 21st century.
So, it is surely time for Mr Gove to open his mind, engage with his opposition and behave better. Columnist Matthew Parris, a friend of Gove, warned in the Times last week that the minister appears to have "a secret feral side", aided and abetted by "a bellicose claque of advisers, the education secretary's virtual motorcade". However civilised and charming Mr Gove seems, his achilles heel is now fully on display – and it is not a pleasant sight.Observer editorial
Jon Butterworth: A new class of processes is observed while sifting the data from the 2010-2012 running of the CERN Large Hadron Collider, while theorists try to predict them better with the Standard Model and CMS publishes on the fermion decays of the Higgs. And what did Stephen Hawking really say about black holes?
In Northamptonshire police officers learn Polish, the ancient art of whistling lives on in Turkey and Disney is accused of ignoring African languagesApplications for degrees in modern languages drop
Despite Ucas figures showing a record high in the number of students applying to university, the number of applications for language courses fell by 5% this year. Nigel Vincent, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Manchester, explains why this is a worrying statistic.
Read more: the GuardianWhat's the relationship between what goes on in your head and the words you use?
In a longread, a researcher from New York University unpacks what linguistic relativity can tell us about our perceptions of reality and the relationship between language and the way we think.
Read more: the GuardianOn the Turkish coast, an ancient whistling language lives on
An Australian filmmaker is making a documentary about the historic practice of whistling as a means of communicating on the Turkish coast.
Read more: Brisbane TimesBobbies in Northamptonshire are learning Polish
Northamptonshire police will be learning basic phrases in Polish and other eastern European languages in a bid to forge better relationships within their local communities.
Read more: Northampton Chronicle and EchoNo room for African languages in Disney
Patrick Cox's The World in Words podcast questions why African languages didn't feature in a multilingual Disney song released in conjunction with its latest film, Frozen.
Listen: Public Radio InternationalAnna Codrea-Rado
Andrew Martin grew up in York, upped sticks to London and never moved back north. This week he swam against the tide of migration to the south-east, and went home
When I read the news this week about the migration of talented young people from "the regions" to London and the south-east, where four out of every five new private-sector jobs were created between 2010 and 2012, my first thought was: "That's scandalous." My second thought was: "That's exactly what I did."
I grew up in York. After university, I moved to London to study law, and I never moved back north. I drifted into media work, and my southern wife (in the same profession) said, "You need a London phone number to get the work" – a statement possibly invalidated now by the universality of mobile phone use. I set up shop in a small way as a professional northerner, for which living in the south actually seemed a pre-requisite, whether one thinks of JB Priestley, Keith Waterhouse or Victoria Wood. I mean, anybody can be a northerner in the north.
My speciality was springing to the defence of the north. When people attacked Blackpool, as they often did, I would write a piece enthusing that you could see the Illuminations from outer space. "Not strictly true," a Blackpudlian wrote to say. It's a good job those articles pre-dated the slag-off-the-author-online "comments" facility, because they might have come over as patronising.
My assignments often began on a train from King's Cross, and I went there on Wednesday for this one. I know the Cross intimately. As a young man, I regarded it as a sort of embassy of the north. It was built by the Great Northern Railway. The street immediately east of it is called York Way, and I associated the station with that very northern product: coal. When I was born, in 1962, hundreds of tons of coal were coming into King's Cross from the north every day. These trains rolled like an endless black river, convenient for the dumping of bodies in The Ladykillers (1955). Today, no coal comes from the north to King's Cross nor, I believe, to anywhere in London, and the Victorian coal drops of the Cross are about to become "boutique retail". So the reciprocity has gone: the gritty north no longer fuels the effete activities of London.
That said, northernness was immediately asserted on the train. The guard, a Geordie, touched my arm when reassuring me that my ticket was valid. Later, on the bus from York station to my dad's house, a sign said: "Have a safe and comfy journey." I don't think there would be any question of having a "comfy" journey on a London bus. The north is different; just not as radically different as it used to be, so much of the industry having gone, and with it, perhaps, the magnetism. Then again, the young northern heroes of fiction from the late 1950 and early 60s, when the north was briefly "hot" – Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving – rebelled against the industrial monolith. They didn't actually leave their home towns, but Billy comes close, boarding the train to London before chickening out. I have a northern friend who rather bitterly says, "It's a longer journey from London to Edinburgh than it is the other way", meaning Londoners need a very good reason to go north. In the early 60s, the opposite was perhaps true, the bonds of family and work being strong in northern towns.
In the salubrious, light-filled offices of York council, the head of economic development, Kate Stewart, told me of all the city's recent successes. York is doing well; unemployment is just 2%; it has a good skills base because of the university. Is there a brain drain of young people? "Not as much as in other cities, perhaps." York council is particularly pleased that the insurance firm, Hiscox, is building an office that will provide 500 jobs. It annoyed me, but not Stewart, that Hiscox will run the York office in tandem with their London office, where 600 people are employed.
The press release about Hiscox states: "The firm were swayed by York's unique combination of … " and the next line was too faint to read, but I could easily fill in the gap. York is beautiful. It already has a high-speed rail link to London in the east coast main line; and today it has 300 restaurants, as against about three when I was a boy. This is what York calls its "offer" to the companies it hopes to attract, and it annoys me that London doesn't need to trouble about "an offer".
Perhaps Stewart is inwardly seething that in 2012-13 Arts Council England (ACE) spent £69 per head of population in London, compared with £4.60 per head elsewhere. ACE's argument is that London is bound to require more funding, since the major public arts institutions are in the capital. Public spending on transport runs at £545 per head in London as against £236 in the Midlands and the north. It is said that two-thirds of the materials for London's £16bn Crossrail project are supplied by British companies outside the capital, which is like London saying: "Look at all the crumbs falling off our table for you." These arguments are circular. The more investment London gets, the more it is apparently justified in receiving.
It's true that there are big transport investments in the north, but Stephen Joseph, of Campaign for Better Transport, would like to see "a sustained programme of investment in new and better trains for the north". There'd be no guarantee that British firms would get the contracts, though, because our governments do not defend our manufacturing as fiercely against EC competition rules as those of France and Germany – perhaps because manufacturing is in the north of a country run from the south. Joseph is "on the fence" about HS2, as are most railway specialists I know. Why spend £42bn on a project that runs any risk of helping the south more than the north?
But the cities that will be connected to the proposed route are very keen to receive it, such as Leeds. If I had returned to the north, it would have been to live in Leeds. So I took a train there, luxuriating in the Yorkshire accents around me. I do not like cockney accents, which is why I am allergic to EastEnders. Perhaps the impending gentrification of Albert Square will draw me in, but every character in EastEnders reminds me of Cockney Wanker in Viz. "Wankah", as he is known to his friends, is a vicious taxi driver in tinted glasses. He epitomises the loud-mouthed sole trader, a species rare in the north, where industry created a communitarian life. Boris Johnson would have us believe that London owes its success to the inherent dynamism of Londoners, but he sits atop an empire created by socialistic economic policies. London owes its present vast form to a scheme for the alleviation of unemployment during the Depression of the 1920s and 30s. London Underground, and the Southern Railway, were given financial incentives to extend their lines in the knowledge that the house builders would follow. If London can be boosted artificially, then so can the north.
Leeds is south of York, but more northern, by which I mean, less prim. Whole buildings, perilously close to the centre of town, are left to fall down. In Leeds, as in York, the departure of young people is "a challenge", but the city is rallying well from recession. On the train, I received a text from Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds city council: "Make sure you visit Trinity, our excellent new shopping centre. 18 million visitors in 9 months!"
Trinity Leeds is the biggest shopping centre in Europe. It looks like … a shopping centre, albeit an upmarket one. The first thing I saw was the Apple shop, with that usual half-creepy, half-impressive symposium going on above the gadgets between staff and young customers. Trinity's high glass roof is said to put it into the Leeds tradition of arcades, and I walked from it to an earlier example of one of these: Kirkgate Market. This always strikes me as an epicentre of northernness: you can buy "cinder toffee", which I never see in London; liquorice is called "Spanish"; you can have a "beaker" of tea, or cheese and chips in a sandwich.
Whether the availability of a cheese-and-chip sandwich would keep people in the north or drive them away is, I suppose, moot. I called Riordan and asked whether it bothered him that there was nothing northern about Trinity Leeds. "It's global brands. That's the economy and that's the market." On the matter of northerness, he notes that Leeds remains the third-largest manufacturing centre outside London, a fact often forgotten amid the real story of modern Leeds: the huge growth of "financial and professional services" occupying high-rise offices that were not there in my day. Adjacent to these is Victorian Park Square, where, in 1989, I was offered a tenancy in a barristers' chambers. The head of the chambers, who looked and indeed spoke like the bald, incredibly tough Yorkshire cricketer Brian Close, said: "Now, this is a 25-year touch. I'm not 'avin yer buggerin' off back to London at the first opportunity." He was also a Crown Court judge, and it was like being sentenced to 25 years. So I declined the offer.
Sitting in Park Square, with its Audis and Range Rovers, its branches of Bonhams and Coutts, I reflected on that choice. By now I would probably be living in a converted barn in nearby Wetherby with a border collie and a Land Rover. I would be experiencing all the vaunted "quality of life" the north offers … and that so many young people relinquish for the daily hell that is a London commute.
Britain today is constructed on a slope, with much of the money and talent rolling towards Boris Johnson. That can't be right. Tom Riordan in Leeds wants "some form" of greater devolution for the regions. Only the regions can help themselves. "In job creation, the blanket approach is not the best," he adds.
Professor Paul Salveson says much the same. He has founded the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (named after a northern suffragette) to campaign for "an England of the regions … not unelected combined authorities like Greater Manchester, but elected assemblies". Ten years ago, the north-east rejected by ballot a plan for a local assembly. I speak, admittedly, as a Londoner, but that decision looks to me like a mistake.
Skiing in the Alps for £1,000, sports in Malaysia for £2,000, and a biology expedition to South Africa for £3,000 … is it time to cap the cost of school trips?
Have you been asked to pay more than £1,000 for your child to go on a school trip? More than one in five parents has received requests from their child's school for a trip costing that much or more, and many feel pestered into paying for an expedition they can ill-afford – and often feel is overpriced.
Guardian Money spoke to families across Britain about the pressure to send their children on trips which, they claim, are often of dubious educational value. Many felt they were paying four-star prices for stays in youth hostels, and were made to feel like "rubbish parents" if they refused to allow their child to go. We found wealthy families for whom £2,000 school trips to Washington DC were barely a drop in their annual holiday spending budget. But we also found others asked to pay more than their entire family could spend on a holiday in a year, and who felt the cost of trips should be capped. We also found private schools where trips cost £4,500 a head.
We polled 1,000 families about the cost of trips. One in five had been asked by their child's school to pay more than £1,000 for a trip. Seven in 10 said they thought it unacceptable for schools to even ask for such sums – but 47% said that the pressure and guilt were such that they ended up paying. The poll was carried out for Guardian Money by Hogan's Irish Cottages, a budget family holiday company.
We obtained our case studies by appealing on social media to families that have been asked to pay more than £1,000 for a school trip to get in touch. Interestingly, nearly all the replies came from relatively well-off parts of the UK. This probably suggests that the pricier expeditions reflect the income profile of the area – with state schools in Surrey and Buckinghamshire organising £1,000-plus trips, but schools in low income areas steering clear of such deals in the knowledge that most parents would not be able to stump up the cash. We asked schools to justify the cost of the trips (see box below), and all of them told us that they offered invaluable, exciting experiences linked to pupils' studies, that staff volunteered their time, and that many schools have hardship funds so no student misses out.
Here eight families tell their story, seven with children at state schools and one at a private school.South Africa, biology trip £3,000
"I was gobsmacked when I heard the price of the trip"
Louise, from Weybridge, Surrey, works in PR and overseas property, and has a household income in the 40% tax bracket. Her son, aged 14, was invited on a two-week biology trip to South Africa by Heathside School, a local state school.
"I was gobsmacked when I heard it was going to cost £3,000. I want to give my children the best possible chance in life and I've paid for £650 school trips in the past, but I think £3,000 is hugely expensive and puts too much pressure on parents.
"The first week was going to be spent working with elephants and the second half was deep sea diving. I don't regret saying no because we made a similar trip as a family last year, which was our trip of a lifetime, not an annual event.
"I think there should be a common-sense limit of say £1,000 on school trips or things get out of hand. I don't believe it is acceptable for a state school to ask parents for such a large sum for a school trip.
"Although the children are meant to be fundraising to help, in effect parents underwrite the trip and could still end up paying the whole amount."Washington and New York, politics and history trip £1,800
"We spend £30,000 to £40,000 on holidays each year so it wasn't an issue"
Rebecca, 50, a GP, has a household income of over £300,000 and lives in Marlow. Her son, aged 18, was invited by Sir William Borlase's Grammar School, a selective state-funded academy school in Buckinghamshire, on a week-long politics trip to Washington DC and New York for £1,800.
"The trip seemed very worthwhile and we spend £30,000 to £40,000 on holidays each year so a £1,800 school trip wasn't an issue for us at all. We said yes. It's a grammar school in a very affluent area, and it didn't surprise me that most – if not all – the students on his politics and history course also went.
The children did stay in four-star hotels but they flew economy, so it wasn't a lavish thing. Unfortunately, after their first day in Washington a massive hurricane hit the east coast and instead of going to New York, they sat in the basement of the hotel watching movies. He didn't enjoy it in the end.
Even though I can easily afford to pay more, I wouldn't be against a £500 cap on state school trips. I think it would be fairer to other families. And I could just take him wherever he wants to go myself."New York, orchestra tour £980
"There was absolutely no way we could afford to pay £980 for a school trip."
Sarah, 48, an administrator from north London, has a household income of £47,000. Her daughter, aged 17, was invited by her state school to go on a four-day orchestra tour to New York. The price was £980, plus lunches.
"There is an assumption of wealth if you live in north London, even by schools, but there was absolutely no way we could afford to pay £980 for a school trip. That made me feel like a rubbish parent.
The school made the trip sound so exciting, and it annoyed and surprised me that a state school would dangle a carrot like that in front of my daughter. I think it was divisive and she would have got the same experience touring five music venues in the UK. She didn't need to go to New York.
I'm holding my breath because I think the question is going to come up again for my son, who is 15 and at the same school. I'm dreading him coming home and asking to go. I think state schools should limit trips to £500 and allow you to pay over a year."Zambia, charity and safari £1,700
"My daughter paid £1,400 towards the trip all by herself"
Philippa is a shopkeeper, from Esher, Surrey. At the age of 15, her daughter was invited by Esher Church of England High School, a state school, to spend two weeks working at charity schools in Zambia for £1,700.
"The school has asked her on £900 ski trips in the past and we've always said no. But this trip was different. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity. At £1,700 it was an expensive trip, but I also thought it was a fair price.
We agreed to it, but told her she'd have to raise half the money herself, and not through sponsorship – by babysitting, cat-sitting, hosting supper parties and working at my shop. At the end of the trip she was going on a three-day safari and staying in a hotel with a pool, so it wasn't just working at the charity schools.
The school set up a fundraising group, and all the parents helped by holding quiz nights, car boot sales etc. We collectively raised enough to contribute £300 per student. I'm proud to say she paid the remaining balance of £1,400 all by herself.
She spent the first week in the capital, Lusaka, teaching dance and tag rugby to the local children, organising sports tournaments and painting the school walls. And although she enjoyed the safari at the end, she felt that first week was life-changing. It opened her eyes about the world. I think working to pay for the trip also boosted her confidence and she made new friends at school. It was absolutely worth every penny."Austria, skiing £1,000
"If she'd wanted to go, I would have had to borrow the money"
Olivia, 35, runs a training company in Bristol and has a household income of £50,000 to £60,000. Her daughter, 11, was invited by her state school to go on a five-day £895 ski trip in Europe.
"My first thought was: 'bloody hell, I could take the entire family on holiday for that.' In my view, skiing is not a useful life skill and the trip was going to be a lot less educational than, say, visiting a capital city.
If she'd been absolutely gutted when I said no, I would have felt guilty. And I wouldn't have wanted her to feel left out if all her friends were going. I would have had to borrow the money and it would have cost us more than £1,000 including her kit. Fortunately, she wasn't desperately upset.
In total, the school has asked us for more than £1,350 in school trips this year. I think it's ridiculous. I can't ask my daughter to contribute – she's only 11. What am I supposed to say: 'Give me your pocket money for the next five years? Cut the grass every day?' It puts a lot of pressure on parents."Australia, hockey and netball tour £4,500
"I prefer to spend my money on a holiday with with my kids, not sending them away"
Viv, 47, works for a PR company in Fetcham, Surrey. Her daughter 16, was invited by her private school, Epsom College, to go on a £4,500 hockey and netball tour of Australia.
"An email came round saying there was an opportunity for her to do three trips, each over £3,000. My ex-husband, who is wealthy and lives in the Philippines, said he would pay for the hockey trip in full if she wanted to go.
In the end, not enough parents signed up. I think it was because it wasn't seen as good value. Despite the price, the kids would mostly have been staying with families at the schools they were visiting. The teachers, however, would have been staying in hotels.
So instead of that trip, they're going on a £1,500 hockey-only tour of Europe, in a coach.
Personally, I wouldn't have paid for either trip. But I don't have much money. The money I do have, I prefer to spend on a holiday with my kids, not sending them away.
On the other hand, their father has plenty of spare money and sees these trips differently. He thinks they live in a very global world and it gives them a better perspective. He didn't hesitate."Austria, skiing £1,500
"Skiing is an expensive hobby and I accept that"
Sharon, 43, owns a design and marketing company in Thelwall, and has a household income of £100,000. Her 14-year-old daughter was invited on a £1,000 week-long ski trip to Austria while she was attending Lymm High School, a state school in Cheshire. The price was £1,000.
"We said yes, but we felt the trip was expensive for what she was getting. She was travelling by coach and staying in youth hostels. At £1,500 (including her meals, kit and spending money), it wasn't great value.
But skiing is an expensive hobby and I accept that. I think it's a good thing she gets the opportunity to do it on a school trip. It makes her more independent. Plus I don't enjoy skiing, so it's not a holiday I'd want to take her on myself.
We used it as a bargaining tool with her for good behaviour and paid in instalments over four months. She had a great time and made friends with people she wouldn't normally socialise with. I think it was worth it."Singapore/Malaysia, sports tour £2,050
"Anyone can manage to raise £2,000 if they put their minds to it."
Pamela, 44, works in local government in Uttlesford, Essex, and has a household income of £90,000. Her son, 14, has been invited by his state school to go on a £2,050 12-night sports tournaments trip to Singapore and Malaysia in August 2014.
"We have seven kids so although our household income is high, it has to go far. We've been saving for this trip ever since they told us about it two years ago. We think it is a fantastic opportunity for our son to see that part of the world, and we could never afford to go as a family.
He has a paper round so has been contributing £30 a month towards the trip for 18 months. He's also training for the tournaments after school.
He loves his sport and is very good at it. I wouldn't have been able to say no – I would have gone to great lengths to make sure he could go. I think with two years to pay for it, anyone could manage to raise £2,000 if they put their minds to it."
Thanks to Hogan's Irish Cottages, Mumsnet and MoneySavingExpert.com for help with this story. Some names have been changed.What the schools say
We asked all the schools named in these case studies to respond. In summary, they said:
• The trips offer students invaluable, exciting experiences linked to their studies outside the classroom.
• Staff volunteer their time to keep costs down and trips are not compulsory nor part of the curriculum.
• Not all trips could realistically be taken by parents and the point of some trips is that students are exposed to situations without their parents along.
• Many school trips cost less than £1,000.
• All the schools named help parents to fund or fundraise for the trips, and encourage students to self-fund where possible, as a valuable life lesson. Many have hardship funds, so that no student misses out due to financial need.
For example, Tarun Kapur, CBE, executive principal of Lymm High School said: "At Lymm High School we are proud to say that we offer trips for all abilities and pockets, including subsidised trips for those in most need."
Mrs A L Cullum, principal at Heathside School said: "The school operates a hardship fund to support students on trips linked to the curriculum; this expedition is not part of the curriculum nor takes place in term time and parents are not expected to cover the cost – rather students are expected to meet the cost through organising fundraising activities."
Simon Morris, Headteacher at Esher Church of England School said: "We are incredibly proud as a school to be able to offer a wide range of experiences through trips to our students, and this particular trip is part of a six-year school community project helping children from poorer communities to access education. This is the only trip of around 70 annual trips in the school that has a cost above £1,000".
Dr Peter Holding at Sir William Borlase's Grammar School said: "Our goal is that no child should miss out on an opportunity owing to lack of finance and we try to help parents find funding for such trips, which we think provide our students with invaluable experiences linked to their studies."Donna Ferguson
'I have nothing but respect for those who don't find teaching a toxic environment.' After just four terms as an NQT, this week's Secret Teacher explains why they've left the profession
• More from The Secret Teacher
You would think that the PGCE year, complete with 24 weeks of teaching practice, would be a good time to realise that you hate being a teacher. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case for me. By the end of my second newly-qualified teacher (NQT) term, I had gone from being filled with pride at my job title and key stage 3 form to searching for a job – any job – that would get me out of education. After just four terms, I became part of the statistic which sees nearly 50% of all new teachers leave in their first five years.
Like anyone who leaves a position, I have many reasons. But, aside from the odd person I was relieved to see the back of, none of them were specific to the school where I worked. I left because I could no longer cope with the demands and pressures of the teaching sector itself. There were three key factors that contributed to my departure:Workload
Some teachers manage to get all of their work done by 5pm and spend every weekend and holiday blissfully divorced from school life. I don't know how they manage it, but I expect it involves a tardis. I prided myself on working smart – my colleague and I (the only two in the department with responsibilities for more than one subject) worked with each other to prevent duplicating efforts and my assessments were tightly defined to make marking as fast as possible.
But despite this, I rarely had an evening to myself, let alone a holiday without work. I know some people think that teaching is a job that will fill every moment if you allow it to, but I wasn't doing anything more that was necessary to prepare properly and I streamlined things as much as possible. An unsustainable work-life balance is a normalised and accepted as part of the job, but it shouldn't be.Assessment
This could fill a book, but I'll keep it simple. There is a never-ending cycle of assessment in today's schools that is deeply unhelpful, especially in lower years. I was expected to do an assessment at the end of each half term, which isn't unusual, but what's the point when the progress averages out at less than a sub-level per term? All it creates is a culture where kids (and their parents) focus on the result of a test and teachers focus on how to jump through hoops, rather than encouraging a deep engagement with the subject for the sake of its content. We taught our students to pass tests instead of teaching them about the subject and we couldn't break away for fear of looking like the children weren't progressing (they would do, just not in a way that's easily conveyed by a number or a letter).
Teachers also have their own cycle of assessment, with little hope of constructive feedback. Ofsted judgements vary from year to year and inspector to inspector, with the goalposts constantly moving. Outside consultants are drafted in to test staff – much the same way we give out mock exams – and this isn't always helpful. These assessments end with a judgement, but discussion or room for mutual reflection isn't the focus.Politics
I met a lot of teachers through my family when I was growing up, and I had wanted to be a teacher since I was a child (apart from a brief spell when I was determined to be the Archbishop of Canterbury). Even during my first term I felt a huge amount of pride in what I was doing – thrilled that no two days would ever be the same, assured that I would make a difference.
This was derailed quite spectacularly by the realisation that education was dictated by privately-educated politicians who hadn't set foot in a classroom since they were 18. We were told that satisfactory was no longer good enough; that you didn't have to be qualified to be called a teacher; that vocational subjects weren't as worthy as academic ones; that music and religious education were less challenging than history or French. We were told that poor behaviour was the fault of the teacher for not being entertaining enough and that 11 year-olds should have a say in the selection of new staff. League tables continue to make us concentrate our efforts on changing Ds to Cs at the expense of both weaker and stronger students, focusing on one small group to raise precious percentage points in a battle to attract the "right kind" of future student.
Of course, there are some things I miss. I will always wonder how some of my students (the brightest, the keenest, the most apathetic and those who tried their hardest) will get on. I will always look back fondly on the enthusiasm of my first 6th form class and I will always be proud of my most creative schemes of work. But I can't pretend that they aren't vastly outnumbered by everything else that teachers contend with. I have nothing but respect for those who don't find it a toxic environment to work in and manage to maintain their enthusiasm – they must be far more resilient than me. The problem is that we shouldn't feel like that about a job that is so incredibly important for the future of our society. Most of all I miss the feeling that being a teacher meant something.
Secret Teacher worked at a secondary school in the home counties.This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Looking for your next role? Take a look at Guardian jobs for schools for thousands of the latest teaching, leadership and support jobs.The Secret Teacher
Four and five-year-olds to face basic literacy and reasoning tests within weeks of starting school
Compulsory national testing for four- and five-year-olds in England from 2016 is to be introduced as part of sweeping changes being proposed to early years and primary education.
The tests will take place in the first weeks of reception class, when most children will be aged four, and will be designed to give teachers and schools a clearer idea of each child's abilities at the start of their formal schooling.
The tests are to be carefully crafted to estimate a child's "baseline" abilities in very basic literacy, reasoning and cognition, rather than testing their knowledge as in a traditional examination.
A Whitehall source said: "This has been mooted for some time and is a logical step. It will help teachers identify where each child starts from, and which children are likely to need the most help.
"It will also give schools a clearer idea of how much progress their pupils are making, because they will know better where they have started from."
To counter the likely criticism from parents, unions and academics concerned at the additional stress for pupils and teachers, the Department for Education is likely to abolish the current key stage one tests that take place at the end of year two, when most pupils are aged seven.
The timing of the "phonics check", a test of reading progression that currently takes place at the end of year one, is also being reconsidered.
The decision to introduce tests at the start of the first year of schooling comes after a DfE consultation exercise last year, which first included suggestions of a brief baseline test.
The government is expected to shortly announce the results of the consultation and officially reveal the new reception class test, which was first reported in The Times.
In response, a spokeswoman for the DfE said: "We have consulted on our proposed primary school assessment and accountability measures and we are considering our response."
In addition, national tests for 11-year-olds are to be reformed to bring them better into line with the new national curriculum, with levels replaced by a new grading system. Plans to tell parents their child's ranking have been quietly shelved after opposition.
The tests in reception and for 11-year-olds will allow the DfE to more accurately chart the progress from start to finish made by classes of pupils within each primary school.
But testing children at such a young age is fraught with difficulty and likely to be time consuming, given that the tests often need to take place on a one-to-one basis.
The timing of the tests will be difficult for children born in summer, given that they may start reception only a few weeks or even days after their fourth birthday – and so may struggle compared with children who may be nearly a year older.
Russell Hobby, head of the National Association of Head Teachers, which represents many primary school leaders, said he saw no problems with reception tests, providing they were carefully managed.
"The notion of testing four-year-olds in exam hall conditions is clearly ludicrous. A properly designed teacher assessment is the model here," Hobby said.
"The government needs to recognise that this is a step into the unknown. Although all primaries assess young children, these are not currently used for accountability, which changes everything. We call upon the government to pilot and evaluate any assessment before making any final commitments."
News of the tests is likely to spark further controversy over the amount of testing that children face in England's state schools.
The coming week is expected to see a series of announcements around education and early years coming from the DfE and No 10.
Separately, Sally Morgan, the chair of schools inspectorate Ofsted, is said to be stepping down in September, having received a brief extension to her term of office which was to have expired next month.Richard Adams
Six-year-old boy's parents called to a meeting after bag of Mini Cheddars was discovered in packed lunch
A six-year-old boy has been excluded from his primary school for four days amid a stand-off between his parents and the school authorities over its healthy eating policy.
Riley Pearson's parents were called to a meeting at Colnbrook Church of England primary school after a bag of Mini Cheddars, an oven-baked snack, was discovered in his packed lunch following the introduction of the new policy which stipulated that packed lunches should be a "healthy and balanced meal".
The child's parents, Nicola Mardle and Tom Pearson, were told in a letter that he was being excluded for four days, while a permanent exclusion was considered. It said that a continued lack of parental support for school policy had "led to Riley being put in a situation where he is continuously breaking school rules regarding healthy eating".
However, his parents were angry at the stance of the school, in Colnbrook, near Slough, Berks. Mardle said: "We just do not see how they have the right to tell us what we can feed our son.
"If anything, Riley is underweight and could do with putting on a few pounds.
"Having a balanced diet also includes eating some carbohydrates, sugars and fats.
"It is not about excluding some foods it is about getting the mix right," she added.
Headteacher Jeremy Meek said the school had one family who "do not agree with the policy."
"We have had a wonderful response and the parents and children are on board and pleased with the way the policy has been impacted on our pupils.
"We cannot talk about individual circumstances but there is one family who are not prepared to support the policy.
"We are in discussions with them about how we move it forward. We have excluded (the pupil) for four days due to lack of support for the policy.
"It is to avoid putting the children in a difficult situation. If the policy is not being abided by then that potentially harms that pupil."Ben Quinn
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (Comment, 28 January) is absolutely right about the need for real sex education in schools. Unfortunately most schools aren't up to delivering it. I have taught at a number of schools and recently retired from a boys comp, where I taught science. Part of my remit was to teach reproduction, but not sex education, to year 7 pupils and it was obvious that many boys had been watching porn by the questions they asked. Though I was confident about delivering this topic, I feel I would struggle to deliver effective lessons covering pornography with all its ramifications. Some of the older science teachers struggled to teach even reproduction effectively. What is needed is an outside agency that employs teachers, actors or other suitable persons who can come into schools and deliver, in the right language, theatre or talks that engage pupils and encourage discussion about a topic that is damaging their ability to judge what are normal relationships.
Test-obsessed schools are producing women who are getting an A* for compliance but are unprepared for their lives ahead
More girls are applying to university this year; 62,000 more of them to be exact. To anyone who has followed the steady rise in girls' educational achievements over the past few decades, this should come as no surprise. While boys may be gaining ground in recent years (notching up more top A-level marks), overall girls now "outperform" boys from the early years through to postgraduate qualifications.
No surprise either, the headlines about boys being disadvantaged and "left behind". But could the new gender gap in university admissions point to how our secondary schools are failing girls as well as boys, albeit in more subtle ways?
No one would decry the rise in girls' achievements, or take pleasure in the relative failure of boys. Exam success lays down a first and important marker of, and template for, intellectual development throughout life. It confirms the importance of effort and celebrates the productive mastery of difficulty.
However, exam success is not so good at developing the equally important skills of experimentation, challenge and risk-taking. It is hard to convey to those without children of exam age just how fact-choked and test-obsessed schools have become. For some boys, the resulting boredom and frustration provokes them to make the "wrong" sort of challenge to the school's authority. But many girls, faced with the same pressures, respond by becoming too compliant.
In Tough Young Teachers, the riveting new TV series on Teach First graduates, we witness the tensions between Charles, a slightly stolid RE teacher, and the articulate Caleb who just won't jump through the hoops. Dragged into the head's office, reduced to tears, Caleb just won't play the game – even for a B. And in another often chaotic classroom, who walks across the desks? Boys. I don't recall a single girl sashaying along the tops of the tables. Pretty much all of them had their heads down.
There are successful and not-so-successful versions of the heads-down scenario, and it's the least successful we should really worry about. But conducting interviews for my recent book, it was striking the number of parents who worried about the side effects of their daughters' exam efficiency.
The following example is typical: "She methodically went through every syllabus for every course, discovered what the 'assessment objectives' for every relevant unit were … and exactly how they would be marked." Those same parents also report that it is still often boys who dominate classroom discussions, if and when those conversations happen.
What many parents of high-achieving girls worry about is the wholesale caution, a kind of female compliance that feels horribly familiar and that too easily leads teenage girls to crush and suppress their own questions, uncertainties, furies, hunches and passions. In short, all the things that make individuals interesting.
Mothers, in particular, know that too much obedience won't serve our daughters well later in life. Talented, hard-working women often flounder in work because they haven't been taught to think or fight for themselves, psychologically, professionally or financially. Even the Girls Day School Trust, a chain of independent schools, has instigated "failure weeks" in some of its schools because they think girls have become too risk-averse, obedient or unhelpfully modest.
Who knows? It could turn out that some of those 18-year-old young men who have decided not to continue into the rather depressing world of modern higher education could be making a bold decision to get going in the jobs market. Let the good girls sit in overcrowded lecture halls – with their heads down.
Melissa Benn is the author of What Should We Tell Our Daughters?Melissa Benn