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9% of 11-year old boys can’t read! So what?

December 17, 2010 1 comment

You can tell that news is sparse on the ground – unlike the snow. The newspapers have already done a blanket coverage on the snow and how the UK again skidded to a halt, so they can’t do that one again. Instead, the press is trumpeting on about how terrible it is that 9% of boys can’t read properly when they leave primary school.

Apparently BBC Radio 4 asked the Department of Education for the number of children who failed to reach level 2 reading age, the standard expected for seven-year olds, and found out that around 18000 boys aged 11 had a reading age of seven or less. This was in contrast to other statistics that have shown a steady rise in standards – with children achieving the expected minimum level 4 having gone up from 49% of children to 81% in the last 15 years.

Seemingly, even worse, in some areas – for example Nottingham – 15% of boys failed to get past the level 2 reading level.

The problem with all this isn’t the statistic but the lack of context. When reporting information (whether for competitive intelligence, general business or marketing research, or whatever) it is essential to include the context. A figure on its own is meaningless. In fact, those figures for Nottingham could be brilliant – if five years ago, 30% of boys had failed to get past the level 2 reading level. It would mean that the numbers of children failing had halved. Conversely if the number had gone up from 5% then this would be a massive indictment against the teaching profession who were failing to motivate and educate their pupils.

In fact, the original story from the BBC does give some context.

In 1995, the proportion of 11-year-olds getting Level 2 or below in English – the standard expected of a seven-year-old – was 7%. In 2010, it had fallen only to 5%.

The figures show the problem is worse for boys. Overall in England, 9% of them – about 18,000 – achieved a maximum of level 2 in reading.

This shows that in fact, performance has improved overall, with underachievers falling from 7% in 1995 to 5% of all children now. However without a longer-term trend it is impossible to put much value into the statistics – especially as other research reported by the BBC looking at seven year olds showed that children with special educational needs, and from deprived homes (meaning that they were entitled to free school meals), were the worst performers. A third (33.6%) of seven years olds on free school meals failed to reach the requisite level 2 in writing and 29.3% failed to reach this level for reading. In contrast, the children who did not receive free school meals did much better – only 12.1% failed to reach the required level for reading, and 15.5% for writing.

I’m actually surprised that some mathematically-challenged journalist hasn’t picked up on these figures and claimed that providing free school meals results in children under-performing at school. In reality, all the figures show is that such children have barriers to learning that schools have to try to overcome. This may be because the children are under-stimulated at home (and so start at a lower level than their peers), come from homes where English is not spoken by the parents or are of lower intelligence overall. (In fact, intelligence tends to fall on a normal curve. If 10% of children outperform – and have a reading age 3 years ahead of the norm, you can expect that a further 10% will have a reading age 3 years less than the norm).

The lesson from such statistics and reporting is simple: before publishing statistics in the press or in a business report provide a context.

This context can be temporal – looking at how figures change over time. In the case of the school statistics, they appear to have improved over the years for both the low and average achievers – a testament to the teaching profession. Context can also be seen when comparisons are made – as in the comparison between children on free school meals versus those not entitled to this benefit.

Strategic decisions based on figures should only be made when context is included. Without it, the figures mean nothing, and should be left to melt away, like snow.

More thoughts on Asia & Sarah Palin on North Korea!

November 25, 2010 4 comments

I didn’t really want to discuss the recent spat between North and South Korea. I know too little about it. However I do know that there is likely to be a leadership change shortly, when Kim Jong-Un takes over from his father Kim Jong-Il and that North Korea is the only remaining Stalinist Communist state. I also know that South Korea is currently an ally of the United States.

That may all change in 2012, if Sarah Palin gets elected, based on a recent radio interview in the USA, where Palin described the North Koreans as US allies. Of course it could have been a slip of the tongue. However it won’t be the first slip of the tongue where Palin has shown ignorance of the world outside Alaska.

Listen to the Sarah Palin radio interview:

The problem is that too many Americans wouldn’t know the difference between North and South Korea – and many would love to go back to the isolationist days of 60+ years ago. They fail to realise how interconnected the world now is – and that any President, or potential President, has to have an acute awareness of America’s place in the world and global geo-politics.

I’m sure that some people will say that this is the role of the President’s advisors. If that is the case then elect the advisors – as it’s the President who signs the policy and agrees to it, and not the advisors. A President who has insufficient knowledge to be able to assess the advice given is not going to be effective or even safe. Instead of a slip of the tongue, the world will be at the risk of the slip of a button on the nuclear trigger if an unelected advisor has their own political agenda. That is a real danger with Sarah Palin, should she get elected. Palin believes that all that is needed is “common sense” and she puts down high-level (Ivy League) education. This is a problem for the USA and the Western World. In today’s world, lack of education means failure and avoiding this is a key reason why education is so important for the emerging super-powers, India and China, where there is an emphasis on self-improvement and knowledge.

Ironically, before hearing the news about Palin’s latest gaffe, I’d been reading Jon Lowder’s Blog post about an anti-elitism that’s sweeping America, and symbolised by Palin. It’s not wealth that’s seen as evil, but knowledge. Lowder quotes from a column by Frank Rich in the New York Times, discussing whether Palin could become President.

It’s anti-elitism that most defines angry populism in this moment, and, as David Frum, another Bush alumnus (and Palin critic), has pointed out, populist rage on the right is aimed at the educated, not the wealthy.

This disdain for knowledge and education is the way back to a new dark age – or perhaps, a new future, where America renames itself as Gilead (and Margaret Atwood‘s dystopian vision in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale becomes reality).

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