Tuesday, October 20, 2009

UK Education?

Today the BBC news wrote that truancy in UK schools was at a record high, 1.03% of school sessions being missed without permission.

"Missing school for no good reason is totally unacceptable," Schools Minister Vernon Coaker commented.

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesperson commented "The rise in unauthorised absence is not what we want to see, but as schools are cracking down on absence it's inevitable that they will be stricter about authorising it - meaning that unauthorised absence will rise,".

Who are they trying to kid? These children are absent from school because they don't like the courses which have been forced upon them! Parents too often fail to see the point of a child following a particular course.

The trouble is that those in parliament and government don't live in the real world. Their social circle does not include those of average or below average ability and by definition that makes up 50% of the population. As someone who was at the sharp end of education for 35 years I was constantly frustrated by governments who decided they knew best and would 'improve' education.

First as a chemistry teacher I was dismayed when the then government said 'We're not producing enough scientists - solution - make all children take a GCE (now GCSE) in science. Unfortunately they failed to realise that 'Scientists' are bred from the top 5-10% of the ability range and no amount of science courses will ever produce more 'scientists' from the remaining 90%. In the past most of the bottom 50% dropped science courses allowing the remaining 50% to have more time and money spent on them. That bottom 50% broke most of the equipment too!

By all means provide the lower ability groups with a science course. Give them a general awareness course which should be fun and interesting but not too demanding and not requiring pupils to learn about things totally beyond them. Let me ask Mps this:
"How many of you understand why relativity says you can't travel beyond the speed of light? How many of you understand about adenosine triphosphate's role in providing energy? Can you explain why the outer electron shell makes the chemistry of sodium similar to the chemistry of potassium?"
If you don't know the answers then you have no right to expect the majority of the population to know it either!

For years too, all pupils must follow a 'religious education' course in UK schools and each school must have a regular collective Christian worship. I always found 80% of pupils hated this as a total waste of time. Now I can see why it's still in the curriculum. Our MPs are afraid that saying they don't personally believe it has relevance in today's society will cost them votes. I found it interesting that, when MPs were recently asked if they believed in 'God', each paused awkwardly before saying 'yes'.

PHSE (Personal, Social and Health Education) This was a course introduced a few years ago. In some schools it's taught by a specialist teacher but in the majority it's taught, often poorly, by non-specialists. In schools where PSHE is taught by non-specialists on a particular day the absence rate is higher on that day. Now I can see the point of having this subject but if schools want it to be taken seriously then get a specialist teacher to teach it properly and concentrate the maths, science and other specialists on teaching the subject they know best. I would suggest merging it with the RE program too.

OFSTED - Few people know that this stands for 'Office for Standards in Education'. Its function seems to be to terrorise teachers and make them jump through hoops. Does it really do anything useful? How much does it cost?

SATs (Subject Attainment Tests) A great idea in theory - or are they? Do we really need to make our children jump through hoops several times in the course of their education? Remember the 11+ examination which regularly sent 40% of pupils to the wrong school? Do SATs allow us to tell which schools are best? Does knowing that 'information' help or does it mean that everyone tries to get into 'the best' school and the majority then arrive at a lesser school already disaffected because they didn't get into the oversubscribed school of their choice. Do the SATs results tell the teachers anything they don't already know?

So if I were the Schools Minister what would I do?

  • Scrap the SATs - a waste of time and money.

  • Scrap OFSTED - I can find a better use for £200 million and getting rid of it will reduce stress absence in schools which costs even more.

  • Forget compulsory science GCSEs. Instead introduce a science appreciation course for those who don't opt to follow sciences at GCSE level. Let's face it an average GCSE grade in science is a grade F which as far as employers are concerned is a certificate proving the person is incompetent at science. Certainly steer that top ability group towards the sciences though and concentrate the expensive resources on those with the ability to use them.

  • Merge the RE and PHSE courses. Make them non-examinable (although with the option of opting for a GCSE RE subject for those who want it) and have it taught by specialist teachers. Do away with the dictate that each school should have a compulsory Christian collective worship. Keep assemblies though.

  • See my job as being to provide schools with the funding they need to maintain and create new buildings, purchase resources, reduce class sizes and NOT to interfere.

Original cartoon Matt of the Daily Telegraph

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Choosing Genealogy Software

For the past few months I've been trying out genealogy software to see how they compare against each other.

According to some sources tracing your family history is now the third most popular hobby in the US. Something you've possibly noticed if you count the number of magazines devoted to the subject. I got bitten by the genealogy bug back in my early 20s (a long time ago) and if anything, my interest has increased.

In the past I've kept records:
  • on separate cards - which constantly get out of order

  • in loose leaf folders - a disaster once you drop it once

  • in hard backed notebooks - which drop to bits over time and need re-transcribing

...but then along came computers and Internet offering a much easier (and possibly safer) method of storing information.

For a while I experimented with creating my own database program but it quickly became apparent to me that I was attempting to re-invent the wheel. There are lots of pre-made genealogy programs out there, some of which, e.g.Personal Ancestral File. are excellent and FREE!

I used Personal Ancestral File (PAF) for years but began to wonder if I was perhaps missing out on something. Could it be that there were much better programs available which might suit me better - even if I did have to pay for them?

Of course if you read the reviews of software you'll get as many different 'best buy's as there are reviews. Family history magazines tend to promote the one they offer for sale or are supported by and computer magazines tend not to be written by genealogists (Computer Shopper has reviewed genealogy programs twice in the last 8 years and made glaring omissions). There was only one thing for it. I got hold of each of the programs and tried them out myself.

The full results can be seen on my Genlinks website but here's a short summary of what I found:

  • The most expensive programs are NOT the best programs

  • All of them are rubbish at producing websites

  • The use of information from Internet has increased the number of errors in family trees. Lots of software packages allow you to make errors such as a 69 year old woman having children two years after her death

  • You'll need to read manuals to get the best out of most of the software and sometimes there's an extra charge for that. Something I find objectionable - (Legacy please note!)

  • None of the programs integrate with e-mail clients - a surprising omission since much information will come via that route

  • Few of the programs allow you to add clickable web page links. Presumably the software publishers will say 'Web pages may disappear' (obviously never having heard of the Internet Archive)

  • A surprising number of the programs offer few facilities for keeping contact information

  • Adding map information is a great idea but few software programs do it well and none of them offer old maps

  • DNA information has left most of the programs far behind

  • Some programs are excellent if you want to write a book about your family. Others are useless at this because you can't edit the result

  • Most of the programs will run with Windows 7 but some may have slight problems if text and icons are set at 125% or more scale on a large high resolution display. One expensive program does not use standard file windows.

So which one would I choose?
  • I'm going to keep PAF because despite being the oldest and free program it's the best at providing the text for my website.

  • I'm going to buy RootsMagic 4 because with a score of 158 points it's the outright winner. It's just a shame that it's so rubbish at making web pages and warning you about errors.

  • I'm probably going to buy Legacy 7 since I like it's warnings and can read and interpret manuals. I may eventually understand it's awful merge individuals feature. I look forward to Legacy 8

So I'll be using not one but three programs - and that will be a real pain!