First draft: my South Sydney Herald NAPLAN story.

Check the toilets and staff rooms

Novelist and teacher John Marsden has a simple formula for testing the quality of your local school. In The Sydney Morning Herald recently he wrote: “The quality of the lavatory facilities is the single best indicator of the respect in which children are held in a school; far better than any number of glossy brochures stuffed with photos carefully staged to show what the school believes will be most attractive to the customers they want to enrol. If you are able to talk your way into the staff room, make sure your nostrils are quivering and your senses on full alert. A drab staff room populated by dispirited teachers is a red alert.”

Now I haven’t carried out that test in our area, but I have been talking to some schools and people connected with schools in our area and beyond. Some would talk to me, some wouldn’t or couldn’t. I have also been delving into the My School Website and trying to understand exactly what it does offer, and what it does not.

One thing I can say for sure: reducing NAPLAN/My School to a league table is as silly as it gets. Dr Kim Jaggar, Principal of Sydney Boys High, told me last week that he hadn’t bothered to look at My School yet and only saw the league table because he happened to read the Herald on the day it was published. He agreed it was quite misleading, but on the other hand does find the socio-economic information based on student home addresses (schools can access this information anyway) quite interesting. This information is very much a work in progress, however. More is to be added to it.

It yields a magic number: “The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) is a special measure that enables meaningful and fair comparisons to be made across schools. The variables that make up ICSEA include socio-economic characteristics of the small areas where students live (in this case an ABS census collection district), as well as whether a school is in a regional or remote area, and the proportion of Indigenous students enrolled at the school. It has been developed specifically for the My School website for the purpose of identifying schools serving similar student populations. The average ICSEA value is 1000. Most schools have an ICSEA score between 900 and 1100. ICSEA should be interpreted with the assistance of the About ICSEA Fact Sheet, ICSEA Technical Paper and relevant FAQs.”

Did you get that? Some have noticed some rather odd things when that magic number is used in My School to find “statistically similar schools”. Cleveland Street Intensive English High School, for example, is set against “similar schools” not one of which has a profile remotely like Cleveland Street’s. Cleveland Street has, according to DET sources, 238 students of whom 130 are international full fee paying students with a certain minimum English language as tested by IELTS, the world’s leading test of English for education. The remainder may arrive with no English at all, sometimes from quite traumatic refugee backgrounds. It so happens that Cleveland Street gets remarkably respectable English literacy scores on NAPLAN, given its clientele, but they look “bad” in comparison with the “statistically similar schools.” Since in this case ICSEA really has done little more than process the students’ home addresses against census data on socioeconomic factors, one does wonder what sense of “similar” is at work here. The fact is Cleveland Street is an excellent school, but you wouldn’t think so after reading My School or, even worse, looking at its place in the “league table”.

A source in another Intensive English Centre confirmed that from his point of view the NAPLAN/My School information was quite useless. Comparisons between Year 7 and Year 9, for example, don’t mean much in an environment where students are only in the centre for one to three terms, most of them “just off the boat” from places like Sudan or Somalia in the case of this other IEC.

Then take those NAPLAN tests. All they give is a snapshot of certain skills on a certain day. It could be argued that the Year 7 results reflect the previous years in primary school rather than what has been happening in Year 7 –NAPLAN tests will be held from Tuesday 11 May to Thursday 13 May 2010. Note too there is little point in comparing the same school’s Year 7 and Year 9 results as these are two different cohorts. You will have to wait for the present Year 7 to reach Year 9 before you tentatively draw conclusions about “value adding”.

The test results also show hair’s breadth gradations. For a school to rank “100th” rather than “first” does not tell you anything about what the difference between first and 100th really means. It may well be very little. At SBHS Dr Jaggar also noted that the NAPLAN results – of course his school rates very well – and the results of the International Competitions and Assessments for Schools (which many local schools participate in) produce quite different “bests” in terms of individual students – a case of no single measure able to capture achievement in an utterly reliable way. NAPLAN does not include all that it really could in attempting to capture “literacy” and “numeracy”.

Looking at another local school, Darlington Public School, it is again apparent that the NAPLAN/My School information does not do the school justice.

Yes, there are useful things to do with NAPLAN, ICSEA and My School. There is the potential there for locating problem areas, which could provide a more reliable measure for allocating resources to disadvantaged schools. Certainly much of the information can help teachers shape programs to suit their students’ needs and community circumstances. But a tool for parents to use to choose a school, or to remove a child from a school? Only with great caution, and with much else taken into account. As for league tables? Utterly useless.

Former Rosebery resident Jim Belshaw draws in his blog on his years high up in the Australian public service at the level of policy and administration. Jim notes: “One major sub-text in the My School debate is the old question of performance measurement and the linked question of key performance indicators. I have been banging away at this one for a number of years in both my public policy and management writing. Indicators are not bad in themselves, but they can become quite pernicious when they become the central objective, crowding out other things.”

How true!

Neil Whitfield was an English and English as a Second Language teacher at Sydney Boys High School. His website has further discussion of some of these matters. Jim Belshaw’s blog is . Maralyn Parker has had several interesting columns on these matters in The Daily Telegraph: for example John Marsden’s article:

Piers Akerman channels Sir John Houghton

In left-wing plot circles a clincher lately has been this Machiavellian utterance by former IPCC head Sir John Houghton.

Piers Akerman:

This alarmist approach reeked of stupidity, snake oil, and misguided gospel preaching but was in line with a formula adopted by the first chairman of the IPCC, Sir John Houghton, who… wrote in his book Global Warming, The Complete Briefing, in 1994: "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen.”

— The Sunday Telegraph, 5th November, 2006

In The Observer, Sunday 14 February 2010, Sir John Houghton writes:

Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, writing about my work as the chair of the first IPCC Scientific Assessment , quotes me as saying: "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen," thereby attributing to me and the IPCC an attitude of hype and exaggeration. That quote from me is without foundation. I have never said it or written it.

Although it has spread on the internet, I do not know its origin. In fact I have frequently argued the opposite, namely that those who make such statements are not only wrong but counterproductive. This quote is doing damage not only to me as a responsible scientist but also to the IPCC which in its main conclusions has always worked to avoid exaggeration. I demand from Dr Peiser an apology that he failed to check his sources and a public retraction of the use he made of the fabricated quotation.

Sir John Houghton

Last night the origin of Sir John Houghton’s statement was revealed: according to Media Watch it is none other than Piers Akerman. It appears the "quote" originated in Akerman’s 2006 op-ed piece.

Honest as…

See my 2007 post Miranda asks a question or two on climate change for more from Sir John.

…That is in Miranda’s damp squib defence of “The Great Global Warming Swindle, a science-backed [sic] rebuttal of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.” I’ll let notoriously non-Marxist Christian Sir John Houghton, a top meteorologist and former Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Oxford University, reply…

Sir John Houghton: briefing on climate change (PDF) 2007 — opens in same window — 3 meg. Read the real Sir John and decide for yourself if the travesty being quoted by skeptics is at all likely.

But of course the real Sir John is a left-wing liar…: (irony, folks)

I noticed today (17 Feb) that I had been linked to:

… Today, everyone seems to agree that it is immoral to lie about disasters. So Sir John Houghton vehemently denies that he has ever said anything like this. In fact, he claims that he has always warned against exaggerations. The Independent writes:

In fact, his view on the matter of generating scare stories to publicise climate change is quite the opposite. "There are those who will say ‘unless we announce disasters, no one will listen’, but I’m not one of them," Sir John told The Independent.

"It’s not the sort of thing I would ever say. It’s quite the opposite of what I think and it pains me to see this quote being used repeatedly in this way. I would never say we should hype up the risk of climate disasters in order to get noticed," he said.

This proclamation has been parroted by dozens of left-wing blogs such as Deltoid, Island of Doubt, Climate Emergency News, She Wonk, Neil’s Second Decade,, Exile on Moan Street, Mark Pack, The Legend of Pine Ridge, and many others. Oh, he’s so honest, isn’t he? All of these blogs fabricate incredible conspiracy theories "explaining" which skeptics have actually created the story and associated it with the "innocent" Sir John Houghton.

The writer goes on to "prove" Houghton is lying because he did say on September 10th, 1995: "If we want a good environmental policy in the future, we’ll have to have a disaster."

OK, accepted, but is it really the same? I would not disagree with Sir John on this one, I’m afraid, but any fair reading of that quote, even devoid of context and fifteen years old as it is, can see it isn’t the same as conspiring to talk up disasters in order to sex up climate science. Perhaps what he really meant at the time is that no-one really wanted to know about this stuff and they’d have to be covered in lava before they would admit the volcano might be dangerous. I can understand that.

I’m afraid "lumo", the blogger who thinks I am some kind of socialist, is reading into Sir John’s 1995 statement what he wished Sir John had said. Sadly, it isn’t what Sir John meant — or at least I am 90% sure that’s not what Sir John meant. 90% sure is pretty impressive usually, but not to everyone of course…

My field of expertise is English language. From that perspective morphing "If we want a good environmental policy in the future, we’ll have to have a disaster" into "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen" is quite a clear distortion.

Take a small grammar lesson on conditionals. Sir John’s original statement could be rephrased “If we had a disaster – Tuvalu finally disappearing beneath the waves at every high tide for example – then policy makers would more likely than not take notice and implement better policy.”  In both the change depends on something actually happening in the natural world. While Sir John’s sentence has the form of what some grammarians call the First Conditional it is actually a hypothetical conditional like the last example in the following table.


True in the Present
If clause Independent clause
True as habit or fact
If + subject + present tense subject + present tense
If Judita works hard, she gets good grades.
True as one-time future event
If + subject + present tense subject + future tense
If Judita hands in her paper early tomorrow, she’ll probably get an A.
Possibly true in the future
If + subject + present tense subject + modal + base form
If Judita hands in her paper early tomorrow, she may/might/could/should get an A.

In the distorted version used by Piers Akerman and others  — "Unless we announce disasters no one will listen" — the condition leading to an effect has been rendered negative (“unless” = “if…not”) and the linkage is not hypothetical. Further, the condition, quite unlike Sir John’s sentence, is related to propaganda activity by the IPCC not to real world events. This is a total distortion.

Not to mention that the whole line of argument from skeptics on this one is ad hominem and quite irrelevant to the scientific merit of what Sir John Houghton or the IPCC have to offer.