Monthly Archives: June 2012

Chris Cook

The Daily Mail has published a rather startling story: from 2016, children will sit something akin to the old O-levels. Some parts of the story are relatively uncontroversial: the idea that there should be one exam board in each subject has many friends.

The newspaper also discusses abolishing the National Curriculum for secondary schools. However, if you have a single GCSE available in each subject, that sets a national curriculum in all but name. So these are less interesting than the sum of their parts.

But, if the Mail is correct, there is one proposal which stands out: splitting the GCSE. According to the report, under this new scheme some children would get the new O-level, and the bottom 25 per cent would take “CSEs”. This strikes me as a high-risk policy.

The GCSE’s strength is that it is a full-spectrum exam, measuring low to high ability. It includes questions designed to distinguish candidates that should get a G from candidates than deserve an F, as well as questions to filter A* candidates from those getting an A.

This is also its greatest PR weakness: it gets attacked by people citing the low-level questions. The Mail approvingly notes “questions like ‘Would you look at the Moon with a microscope or a telescope?’ from science GCSEs will be a thing of the past.”

The benefit of this system is that you get comparable qualifications, and there is no need for schools to attempt to sift children, guessing who will finish up with less than a C. The GCSE exams themselves do that work for them. But, according to the Mail:

Mr Gove believes those teenagers have been encouraged to think that a D, E, F or G grade at GCSE is a ‘pass’ when the real world treats those grades as a ‘fail’.

I confess that I do not see how it logically follows that the lower end of the GCSE should therefore be replaced with a CSE. The government would replace a D at GCSE with a certificate where the top grade is capped at a D. Maybe something got lost in the briefing.

The change would, however, have significant practical effects. Read more >>

Chris Cook

There’s an interesting development in Croydon, my scenic home town. The south London borough is fully comprehensive: it has no academically selective state schools (“grammar schools“). Since 1998, it has also been forbidden for new grammars to be opened anywhere in the country, except as replacements for closing ones. But Croydon council has an interesting idea.

Tim Pollard, the councillor in charge of schools, has written about a new school site that the borough is opening. The council want an existing school to run the site, in Norwood, as an annex. If the “parent” school were a grammar, the new half-a-school could be too.

…we took the decision yesterday to open up the competition to run this school to all types of secondary school, not just community-style comprehensive schools. The criteria the new provider needs to meet are that it should be a Good or Outstanding school in its OFSTED rating, that it should have well above average GCSE and A-level results and that it must be able to demonstrate that it can apply its admissions criteria appropriately and be in a position to receive funding from the Government as it expands.

So does that mean it could be a Grammar School? Yes, it could.

In Croydon we converted our last grammar schools into comprehensives many decades ago, in line with what was then government thinking. Our neighbours in Sutton, Bromley and Kent, on the other hand, resisted the intense pressure then put on education authorities to follow suit and kept their selective schools. Those schools, including Wallington Boys & Girls, Wilsons and Newstead Woods, are now amongst the most popular choices for Croydon parents who seek the best standard of education for their children. They are heavily oversubscribed, with many more children passing the exams than can possibly be accommodated.

It will be worth watching this unfold. “Satellite” schools and “annex” sites may be a loophole for establishing new grammar schools. Kent council, which is fully selective, will open a grammar school annex in Sevenoaks. But selection is firmly embedded there.

A Croydon grammar annex would be a bigger step – it would both mean a grammar crossing a borough border and introducing selectivity into a new area. This is all early on, but if Croydon gets this through, it could open up grammars once again as a national issue.

Here is why.


The advent of big data is forcing visualisation on companies big and small

Some prodigiously talented individuals – such as the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, for example – have always able to extract meaning from vast arrays of data. Everyone else needs pictures.

Stephen Few, whose book Show me the Numbers* is the bible for visualisation specialists, puts it like this: “It’s almost impossible to spot and make sense of patterns without pictures. Patterns that remain hidden in a table of numbers are made visible by the right visualisation. Most models of abstract information work best with simple 2D visualisations that can be viewed and manipulated on a computer.”

The advent of big data as the product of modern business intelligence systems is forcing visualisation on companies big and small.


By Jason Abbruzzese

Who will you (or would you) vote for in the 2012 presidential election? Now let’s say you have $10 to bet on a winner of the election. Is the answer the same?

Maybe, maybe not. What matters is that those are two different questions, and the results from the answers give us two very different sets of data. Polling has long been used as an implicit indicator of the likelihood of a certain outcome.

(AP) President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman" on Nov. 4, 1948.

So polling is not perfect, but what’s the alternative? For people looking to hedge positions against the likelihood of one president over another, the wisdom of the market could be one answer.

The University of Iowa’s predictive markets, specifically the Iowa Electronic Markets 2012 Presidential Election Winner Take All contracts, (IEM) is one attempt to measure it.

The IEM is a futures market in which people can take positions based on certain outcomes. In this blog series we’ll be comparing the Real Clear Politics poll and the IEM Winner Take All to see how they deviate – or converge. Read more >>

Chris Cook

Since January, schools have been subject to a new inspection regime. Ofsted, the inspectorate, has changed its criteria. Data released today mean there is one question we can consider: is the new inspection regime any tougher or easier than its predecessor?

This is not a straightforward question: weaker schools get inspected more regularly, so the sample is not randomly selected. What we can do, however, is see whether schools are more likely to be promoted or relegated than in previous years.

This, too, is not simple. The Department for Education changed schools’ ID numbers when they became academies, so I cannot match every new report to the same school’s previous ones so it is a faff to match records, which has taken a bit of tinkering. We have matches for 1,711 schools – both primary and secondary.

Here are the results:

[table id=9 /]

Emily Cadman

An unusually snappily named academic paper – “Death has a preference for birthdays” – takes a new look at the question of social milestones and death.

The idea that some deaths can be postponed for key events (like birthdays or major festivals) first caught currency in the 1970s, and has been argued about every since. It is an idea that appeals. This statistical paper, set to be published in the Annals of Epidemiology, adds to that literature. Read more >>