Nanny Knows Best

Nanny Knows Best
Dedicated to exposing, and resisting, the all pervasive nanny state that is corroding the way of life and the freedom of the people of Britain.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


EducashunI recently came across this open letter written by a physics teacher, Wellington Grey, and posted on his website.

He decries the failures of Nanny's physics exam system, and questions the relevance of the questions asked on the subject.

I suspect there are teachers, of other subjects, throughout the country who could write equally damning letters about Nanny's failing educashun system.

For once, I will shut up and let someone else do the talking.

Here is Wellington Grey's letter in full:

"I am a physics teacher. Or, at least I used to be. My subject is still called physics. My pupils will sit an exam and earn a GCSE in physics, but that exam doesn’t cover anything I recognize as physics. Over the past year the UK Department for Education and the AQA board changed the subject. They took the physics out of physics and replaced it with… something else, something nebulous and ill defined. I worry about this change. I worry about my pupils, I worry about the state of science education in this country, and I worry about the future physics teachers — if there will be any.

I graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in physics and pursued a lucrative career in economics which I eventually abandoned to teach. Economics and business, though vastly easier than my subject, and more financially rewarding, bored me. I went into teaching to return to the world of science and to, in what extent I could, convey to pupils why one would love a subject so difficult.

For a time I did. For a time, I was happy.

But this past academic year things changed. The Department for Education and the AQA board brought in a new syllabus for the sciences. One which greatly increased the teaching of `how science works.’ While my colleagues expressed scepticism, I was hopeful. After all, most pupils will not follow science at a higher level, so we should at least impart them with a sense of what it can tell us about our universe.

That did not happen

The result is a fiasco that will destroy physics in England.

The thing that attracts pupils to physics is its precision. Here, at last, is a discipline that gives real answers that apply to the physical world. But that precision is now gone. Calculations — the very soul of physics — are absent from the new GCSE. Physics is a subject unpolluted by a torrent of malleable words, but now everything must be described in words.

In this course, pupils debate topics like global warming and nuclear power. Debate drives science, but pupils do not learn meaningful information about the topics they debate. Scientific argument is based on quantifiable evidence. The person with the better evidence, not the better rhetoric or talking points, wins. But my pupils now discuss the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power plants, without any real understanding of how they work or what radiation is.

I want to teach my subject, to pass on my love of physics to those few who would appreciate it. But I can’t. There is nothing to love in the new course. I see no reason that anyone taking this new GCSE would want to pursue the subject. This is the death of physics.

Specific Complaints:
My complaints about the new syllabus fall into four categories: the vague, the stupid, the political, and the non-science.

The Vague:
The specification provided by the AQA (available at their website) is vaguely worded. Every section starts with either the phrase ‘to evaluate the possible hazards and uses of…’ or ‘to compare the advantages and disadvantages of…’ without listing exactly what hazards, uses, advantages or disadvantages the board actually requires pupils to learn. The amount of knowledge on any given topic, such as the electromagnetic spectrum, could fill an entire year at the university level. But no guidance is given to teachers and, as a result, the exam blindsides pupils with questions like:

Suggest why he [a dark skinned person] can sunbathe with less risk of getting skin cancer than a fair skinned person.

To get the mark, pupils must answer:

More UV absorbed by dark skin (more melanin)
Less UV penetrates deep to damage living cells / tissue
Nowhere does the specification mention the words sunscreen or melanin. It doesn’t say pupils need to know the difference between surface dead skin and deeper living tissue. There is no reason any physics teacher would cover such material, or why any pupil should expect to be tested on it.

The Stupid:
On topics that are covered by the specification, the exam board has answers that indicate a lack of knowledge on the writer’s part. One question asks `why would radio stations broadcast digital signals rather than analogue signals?’ An acceptable answer is:

Can be processed by computer / ipod [sic]
Aside from the stupidity of the answer, (iPods, at the time of this writing, don’t have radio tuners and computers can process analogue signals) writing the mark scheme in this way is thoughtless, as teachers can only give marks that exactly match its language. So does the pupil get the mark if they mention any other mp3 player? Technically, no. Wikipedia currently lists 63 different players. Is it safe to assume that the examiner will be familiar with all of them? Doubtful.

If the question is not poorly worded, or not covered in the specification, it will be insultingly easy. The first question on a sample paper started:

A newspaper article has the heading: ‘Are mobiles putting our children at risk?’ A recent report said that children under the age of nine should not use mobile phones…

The first question on the paper was:

Below which age is it recommended that children use a mobile phone in emergencies only?

This is the kind of reading comprehension question I would expect in a primary school English lesson, not a secondary school GCSE.

The Political:
The number of questions that relate to global warming is appalling. I do not deny that pupils should know about the topic, nor do I deny its importance. However, it should not be the main focus of every topic. The pupils (and their teachers) are growing apathetic from overexposure.

A paper question asked: `Why must we develop renewable energy sources?’ This is a political question. Worse yet, a political statement. I’m not saying I disagree with it, just that it has no place on a physics GCSE paper.

Pupils are taught to poke holes in scientific experiments, to constantly find what is wrong. However, never are the pupils given ways to determine when an experiment is reliable, to know when an experiment yields information about the world that we can trust. This encourages the belief that all quantitative data is unreliable and untrustworthy. Some of my pupils, after a year of the course, have gone from scientifically minded individuals to thinking, “It’s not possible to know anything, so why bother?” Combining distrust of scientific evidence with debates won on style and presentation alone is an unnerving trend that will lead society astray.

The Non-scientific:
Lastly, I present the final question on the January physics exam in its entirety:

Electricity can also be generated using renewable energy sources. Look at this information from a newspaper report.

The energy from burning bio-fuels, such as woodchip and straw, can be used to generate electricity.
Plants for bio-fuels use up carbon dioxide as they grow.
Farmers get grants to grow plants for bio-fuels.
Electricity generated from bio-fuels can be sold at a higher price than electricity generated from burning fossil fuels.
Growing plants for bio-fuels offers new opportunities for rural communities.
Suggest why, apart from the declining reserves of fossil fuels, power companies should use more bio-fuels and less fossil fuels to generate electricity.

The only marks that a pupil can get are for saying:

Overall add no carbon dioxide to the environment
Power companies make more profit
Opportunity to grew new type of crop (growing plants in swamps)
More Jobs
None of this material is in the specification, nor can a pupil reliably deduce the answers from the given information. Physics isn’t a pedestrian subject about power companies and increasing their profits, or jobs in a rural community, it’s is about far grander and broader ideas.

My pupils complained that the exam did not test the material they were given to study, and they are largely correct. The information tested was not in the specification given to the teachers, nor in the approved resources suggested by the AQA board. When I asked AQA about the issues with their exam they told me to write a letter of complaint, and this I have done. But, rather than mail it to AQA to sit ignored on a desk, I am making it public in the hope that more attention can be brought to this problem.

There is a teacher shortage in this country, but if a physicist asked my advice on becoming a teacher, I would have to say: don’t. Don’t unless you want to watch a subject you love dismantled.

I am a young and once-enthusiastic physics teacher. I despair at what I am forced to teach. I have potentially thirty years of lessons to give, but I didn’t sign up for this — and the business world still calls. There I won’t have to endure the pain of trying to animate a crippled subject. The rigors of physics have been torn down and replaced with impotent science media studies.

I beg of the government and the AQA board, please, give me back my subject and let me do my job.


Wellington Grey"


  1. pete2hogs10:42 AM

    Similar things are happening to all practical subjects. What doesn't seem to have ocurred to the loonies in Government, is that, by replacing the teaching of how things work with political indoctrination, in 20-30 years time there will be no-one left who knows how to fix anything. If other influences have not by then caused our civilisation to collapse, this surely will do.

  2. Anonymous11:52 AM

    >in 20-30 years time there will be no-one left who knows how to fix anything

    Except for the Poles it would seem...

  3. pete2hogs makes a good point or two (as does Wellington Grey).

    But since people will perceive that the the economy is treating them well (for now) by losing industry (good for reaching Kyoto targets) and becoming the centre for 'services' (relying on the banks and financial institutions to create the cash flow for taxation) they will not see the point of going back to the old ways.

    After all one can always employ someone to do that sort of work can't one?

    China and India come to mind in the medium term. The USA can subsidise the UK with knowledge until they abandon it as well or ship it the developing countries.

    Meanwhile immigration from the part of europe that still have an education system can fill the short term needs.

    The ecologists will love this of course since setting society back a few hundred years will make survival difficult and a reduced human footprint would, they believe, be good for the planet. So who needs physics anyway?

    Personally I'm hoping for a day when travel is impossible and nobody remembers how to make cameras any more so that I will never see any more stupid adverts using penguins and polar bears to pitch spurious messages about alleged human eco-stupidity.

    Of course when we are finally forced into poverty and hunting for food anything that moves will be fair game. If the Inuit have preserved some of their hunting skills they could prove to be amongst the most successful survivors - plenty of seals and polar bears to keep them well supplied and few other humans likely to invade their territory.

    I wonder how good their physics knowledge is?

  4. grumpy2:08 PM

    Wellington Grey exhibits at least two of the qualities this government seems determined to stamp out: knowledge and enthusiasm. Add to this the fact that his is a 'difficult' subject that few bureaucrats are likely to understand and are, therefore, unable to offer educational guidance in. This is a situation - as pete2hogs so rightly says - that is happening to all practical subjects. Unfortunately it is also true in the Humanities [I was forbidden to ask students to read from Joseph Conrad's classic, 'The Nigger of the Narcissus', ostensibly because it was considered to be 'too difficult'!]

    Physics, because it is difficult, is also an easy subject to fail at 'A' level, pointing to the politically horrific possibility that it might affect the statistics which (as we all know) are compiled in order to show how wonderful is our education system.

    Some of us, determined not to bend to the implicit demand that we 'dumb-down' and politicise everything, and equally determined that someone should benefit from our learning and experience, shipped out.
    You may recall the 'Brain Drain' that took place under Wilson's Labour government. Sadly, it looks as though history is repeating itself and that the only way for people of principle to share their knowledge is to leave the country and its lunatic educational system behind.
    The Turks would be delighted to welcome you into their (as yet) unspoiled system.

  5. I am truly at a loss for words to describe how anyone can use the fabulous education given to them, and use it to deny future generations the same knowledge.

    As in Soviet Russia, this country will stagnate, living off past memories, with the inability to invent or move forward.

    This unfortunately is where we, and the rest of Europe is going. To slowly degenerate in thought, innovation and practicalities.

  6. beetzart8:41 PM

    I remember when I took science at GCSE in the early nineties. I especially enjoyed pyhsics and used to borrow books from the library all the time about quantum mechanics, Einstein etc, not that I understood it all but it just fascinated me. I was in the top set in school and used to go to after school science lessons; after one of these lessons I approached the teacher to ask him about relativity etc and instead of him being pleased that I was showing a personal interest he just swiped me aside and said I should leave that stuff alone.

    I wasn't professing to be an expert in it, but just showing an interest. Why do they feel they have to kick kids down just because they are interested in something outside the curriculum?

    Needless to say I went on to get a Double A in science which I found very easy and in no way prepared me for A'Level Physics which I flunked. This was due to my waning in enthusiasm at such a lacklustre teacher, plus I found it too hard!!!

    My point is that if science was quite easy in early 90's GCSEs I dread to think how easy it must be now. At least we had some math in it then. It seems that children are not allowed to express any opinion in what they learn but just have to memorise what the government want them to think and repeat it in an exam.

    How I would love to go back to then and know what I know now!

  7. Anonymous11:38 PM

    Public education as social engineering.Another reason to grieve for the next generation.

  8. Gawd 'elp us all, guvnor.