Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


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Teachers – must do better!

pointing_at_chalkboard_text_10562Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is proposing that trainee teachers will only be allowed to take their numeracy and literacy test three times.

At present there is no limit on the number of times the tests can be taken.

In my view the misguided philosophy of endless retakes undermines the whole point of exams and goes some way to explain why exam grades appear to improve year on year, plus team course assessments which are open to all kinds of fiddling.

Looking at the examples of test questions reported in the press, many of them multiple choice, anyone with a modicum of intelligence should pass with flying colours the first time. Rather than wait until the trainees start their courses wouldn’t it be better if they took the tests as a selection filter so if they failed they didn’t waste their time and our money on resits which they might fail? That would save everyone’s time and protect our children from bad teachers.

Gove also proposes that teachers should all have at least a 2:2 degree. Whilst this is more contentious most averagely intelligent graduates obtain this class of degree and if they can’t they don’t deserve to become a teacher. This is a vast improvement on former Ofsted chief  Zenna Atkins who (in)famously said “every school should have a useless teacher….”

Something needs to be done when 20-25% of children leave primary school unable to read or write properly and the last Chief Inspector of Schools admitted that only 4% of schools offered “outstanding teaching”.

And he wants to make it easier to sack bad teachers. There are an estimated 15,000 of these of which less than a dozen have been dismissed since 2008. He probably needs to toughen up some head teachers before that happens as in the past they have had a habit of giving references to poor teachers to move them on or otherwise rewarding poor performance (see “Don’t reward failure”).

One of Gove’s earlier ideas was to follow the US example and recruit and pay ex-soldiers to train as teachers to help improve discipline in schools. Ex-army graduates would receive 6 weeks training and non-graduates would be paid a £9,000 a year bursary to complete a two-year degree. Of course the unions don’t like it but it worked in American where research shows that ex-soldiers were better at dealing with classroom disruptions than regular teachers and also got better exam results.

And there was a great article in The Times magazine this week on Charlie Taylor who runs Willows School; which deals with London’s naughtiest children and which has been rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted. He is also the newly appointed “behaviour czar”. The article describes how he uses a range of positive psychology and behavioural techniques. He also believes that if discipline is carried out consistently the core group of trouble makers can be reduced to a manageable size. He wrote a book called “Divas and door slammers” in which he describes how he won one group over by being civil with them.

He also believes that the ratio of positive to negative feedback needs to be 6:1 (something I have long advocated in performance appraisal schemes). He also believes that teachers get better results from constructive praise. Things might be looking up for the future of our children’s education.

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Where would you have a better life?

If you want to know which country to live in to enjoy life more go to the OECD better life index.

They  have identified 11 key factors such as health, education, earnings, and sense of community.

You can decide how important these are to you. After I’d scored my choices and pushed the buttons it turned out Australia would be my ideal place to live, followed by the Nordic countries, with Turkey at the bottom of my list. The UK came 13th!

Australia is also top of the official OECD list followed by Canada and Sweden with the USA 7th and the UK not in the top 10 so my preferences seem to be shared by many people across the developed world.

Three quarters of Australians say they are satisfied with their lives and over 80% still expect to be satisfied in 5 years time with 85% reporting that they are in good health. They also trust their politicians (doesn’t mention bankers in the survey), 71% of women with school age children are working and relatively few people work extremely long hours. And the gap between low performing and high performing children is extremely small.

In other surveys Finland and Denmark have featured as the best countries to live in for various reasons and France the most miserable.

Denmark has also come out top of countries in the OECD for the best work-life balance (WLB).


Those you have read – top 10 in 2010

When you first sit down to write a blog you hope people are going to want to read it – unless you plan it as a private journal where you can unburden yourself or have a rant at the world (OK so occasionally I have a rant too).

So it’s great for me that so many people have read my blog posts and some of them have even posted comments  – usually in a friendly way although occasionally mischievously.

So which posts had most readers in 2010? In reverse order:

10th most read: Living Together Apart (LTA) on the increase

This was a follow-on from my first ever posting and obviously reflected current trends among couples of all ages

9th most read: Daydream believer

This was an early post which originated in contributions I made to the Daily Mirror and Eve magazine. Perhaps we are all romantics at heart and want to believe in the power of dreams but it was also expanded into a guest business blog for my friends at Smoking Gun PR

8th most read: I’m stressed – gaze into my eyes

Well we all prefer a pretty face don’t we but it turns out that swearing also helps us withstand pain better!

7th most read: What sex is your job?

And still on pretty faces it seems you can sometimes be too attractive for your own good.

6th most read: Shoot yourself in the foot – join Facebook

As an avowed non-Facebook person it was pleasing to see that people did want to understand the down-sides of entrusting your personal life to it.

5th most read: Pigeons smarter than people??

Surprisingly popular perhaps but maybe it explains why some people still feed these flying vermin, especially outside high street bakers’ shops.

4th most read: What makes you happy?

And on a more positive note .. don’t we all want to be happy?

3rd most read: So many “friends” yet still lonely

My first post about the perils of Facebook – and yes I admit it was a bit of a rant!

2nd most read: 101 reasons why you can’t live together

The very first thing I ever posted and it obviously struck a chord (and thanks to everyone who contributed both willingly and unknowingly!)

But by an overwhelming number of views – 3 times the second most read – the clear favourite and most read post:

Blushing – do men find it attractive?

This was another early post and originated with a contribution I made to an article in the Daily Express but has continued to appear in my top posts section.

So thank you everyone and all the very best for 2011 when I will do my best to bring you more interesting posts.


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What sex is your job? 

Generally speaking the more attractive you are the more you earn (see “Take me to your leader…“).

This is even true of lecturers and lawyers, professions where you might think expertise was more important, and what’s more people think you are also better at your job – an example of the “halo” effect.

It’s especially true for women who compensate for their lack of what you might call traditional skills to get to the top by utilising their feminine assets, what has been called “erotic capital“. So maybe it’s no surprise that many women believe attractiveness is more important for their self-esteem than job competence or intelligence.

However a recent study at the University of Colorado Business School, widely reported in the press, shows that women can be too attractive for their own good. Pretty women will always have an advantage in secretarial jobs and jobs considered feminine, or where there is face to face contact such as in sales or customer service, but in jobs where attractiveness is unimportant attractive women might as well not bother applying.

In jobs considered masculine such as security, truck driving, prison guard, hardware sales, and even  some management jobs, attractive women were at a disadvantage and discriminated against.

Men will be pleased to learn that being good-looking is always an advantage for them and they are never discriminated against because of it.

It seems that the more politically correct we become the more research demonstrates that human beings aren’t always rational and we make decisions based on emotions more than we might like to think.

Updated 19 August 2010: Women’s salaries increased by 2.8% last year compared to 2.3% for men – according to a survey by the Chartered Management Institute. If women’s pay continues to improve at that rate women will have parity with men by 2067 -almost 100 years after the Equal Pay Act.

The average salary for male managers was £41,337, about £10,000 more than women managers earned (these surveys don’t seem to take into account the sectors where women work which may pay less than the sectors dominated by male managers).

This is also reflected at the bottom of the career hierarchy with junior male executives earning £22,253, just over £1,000 more than their female counterparts. There were bigger gaps in IT and pharmaceuticals at this level, over £3,500.

In the boardroom however it’s a different story. Female directors out-earn men with an average salary of £144,729 compared with £138, 765 for men.


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Every school should have one!

An incompetent teacher! Yes, according to Ofsted chief Zenna Atkins. She says; “every school should have a useless teacher so children can learn how to deal with people in authority who are not up to the job”.

She thinks children are adept at exploiting incompetent teachers and they could learn a valuable skill for “playing authority” later in life. She accepts that in business you would get rid of the 10% of staff who are poor performers but doesn’t think that applies to teaching.

A self-proclaimed social entrepreneur who was illiterate at 11 years of age, expelled from school, failed English 3 times and left with 1 O level (she claims to be dyslexic) she was appointed as the chairman of Ofsted in 2006 to beef it up. She said she wanted to get the basics right and that her mission was to get all children to read.

So far so good you might think given how she overcame her own difficulties at school. So what is she talking about now? The now-disbanded General Teaching Council said there were 17,000 “sub-standard” teachers two years ago and they have only managed to get rid of 18 in the last ten years so there are plenty of bad teachers still around, largely due it seems to gutless head teachers who give them references so they can move on to another school.

Children need good teachers to help them achieve their potential and Ofsted should be setting hight standards not accepting that some teachers are rubbish. Atkins is leaving Ofsted to take over as Chief Executive of Gems, the world’s biggest private education company, which intends to set up state funded “free schools”. I wonder how many incompetent teachers they will be recruiting?

Updated 25 November 2010: It seems Zenna Atkins’ new job as Chief Executive of Gems – UK, Europe, and Africa wing, didn’t work out too well. She left after just 7 weeks. She wouldn’t say why she had left or if it was a mutual decision just that she had “quickly realised that the company wasn’t for her” and had not taken any severance pay by choice.

Perhaps they weren’t amused by her ideas about recruiting useless teachers or maybe they realised she was a bit lacking in the formal qualifications department. Anyway she went to work for a new company called Zail aiming to deliver public services using private sector investment in the UK and sub-Saharan Africa. (Not much about Zail on the www apart from her own blogs. Perhaps it stands for Zenna Atkins in limbo?).

Anyway the good news is that the coalition government is getting tough on Ofsted, teacher training, endless re-sits of exams guaranteeing high grades, and, at last, making it easier to get rid of incompetent teachers. Research in the USA suggests that an excellent teacher gets through a year and a half of material in a year compared with poor teachers who only get through 1/2 a year’s worth. In the UK pupils taught by the worst teachers attain GCSE grades at least one grade lower than other pupils.

Updated 21 February 2011: Despite promises it doesn’t seem that much has changed. In the Sunday Times this weekend it was reported that in the last three years only 28 of the 4448,000 working teachers have been subject to hearings. Since January 2008 there have been 78 cases of incompetence reported but there were only 28 full hearings. 8 were struck off, 6 were suspended, 5 were kept on the register and 8 were cleared.

As I posted last July gutless head teachers are giving bad teachers references so that they can be recycled in the system. The article also suggested that local authorities are failing in their legal duty to refer teachers who are dismissed or resign because of incompetence to the General Teaching Council for England (GTC).

The chairman of the GTC, Gail Mortimer, told its governing council; “we know that recycling of teachers below the threshold of competence remains a part of employment practice, even if it has diminished”. Naturally the teachers’ unions weren’t happy about this criticism but looking at the statistics you wonder if they have their heads in the sand.

A number of teachers were named in the article: Maulhalaxmi Weerasinghe appeared before the GTC and was suspended for two years but is now on a government funded scheme to help her get back into teaching; Susan Preston was barred from teaching in secondary school after being found incompetent by the GTC but is now teaching in primary schools; David Foster escaped with a reprimand despite the GTC finding him seriously incompetent and failing to provide leadership as head of department; Bhavin Toprani was suspended for only a year despite being found seriously incompetent.

Education experts have estimated that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 incompetent teachers. One said he thought there were between 5 and 10% totally incompetent and another 20-25% who didn’t care. He also said that unions were expert at dragging proceedings out for up to a year and that teachers being challenged about their competence would go off on sick leave claiming stress or backache.

So no change so far. Incompetent teachers, ineffective regulation, councils failing in their legal responsibility, and gutless head teachers combine to continue to blight children’s futures.

A survey by the TES found that more than 3,000 teachers were subject to formal proceedings but fewer than 10% were sacked or accepted severance payments. And only 10% of that number get reported to the GTC.

Updated 2 May 2011: More on incompetent teachers and badly run schools in the Times Opinion last Week. A reminder about Zenna Atkins stupid comment, and the impact of a US documentary; “Waiting for Superman” which focussed attention in America back on teaching and showed that if you have the right teachers you can stop worrying about classroom sizes and the curriculum.

Malcolm Gladwell, who found that children were better off with a good teacher in a bad school than vice versa, believes that teaching ability is a gift and; ” teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree”. Research at Bristol University confirms this but the government thinks all teachers should have at least a 2:2 degree to apply for training.

And then we come back to those teachers who try to be friends to their pupils or are scared of them. Or, my hobby horse, weak head teachers who fail to show any real leadership, fail to support their staff and undermine their authority – leading to a recent strike by teachers at one school in Lancashire where the head sat ensconced in her office and local councillors came out with a load of PR speak not worth repeating.

The head teacher, Hilary Torpey, has since been suspended by Blackburn with Darwen Council pending a full investigation and an interim head is being appointed. The move was welcomed by the union and the news story generated several blog postings from people who said they knew her in a previous headship role in Skelmersdale and suggesting she was a bully.

BBC News reported (6/9/2011) that Hilary Torpey has resigned to continue her career “elsewhere in education” Given this country’s track record with bad teachers she will probably land on her feet somewhere else.

And the article mentions the unbelievable example of one head teacher, Belinda Langley-Bliss, who boasted about the size and firmness of her breasts on Facebook just after introducing a new disciplinary regime at Wilmington Enterprise College in Kent. As a result teachers in Kent were sent a letter asking them to close down Facebook and similar social networking accounts as individuals have no control over information once posted.

Updated 24 December 2012: And yet another teacher falls foul of Facebook. This time DebbieJohnson, a primary school head in Hull, has quit her job along with another teacher Nyanza Roberts after posting comments about her pupils on her Facebook page saying “no wonder  everyone is thick … inbreeding must damage brain development”. There might be an element of truth in what she says but hardly the kind of comment to foster good school-parent relationships.


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Gloom for graduates – but especially if you are male

As if things aren’t bad enough for men in the marriage stakes, unless you are Mr Right, male graduates are suffering in the job market too.

Average reductions in graduate vacancies of 9% and 7% in consecutive years mask larger reductions of up to 45% in retail, IT, and telecommunications.

And the recession (or mancession) coupled with the cutbacks in graduate jobs over the last 2 years, mean that this year’s graduates are having to compete with those from 2008 and 2009 who have had the chance to get some work experience.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) says that for the first time the average graduate starting salary has been frozen at £25,000, there are an average of 70 applicants for every job and up to 200 for some jobs.

This year almost 4/5 of employers (up from 2/3 in 2009) – led by organisations such as Sainsbury’s, GSK, BAE Systems, and the Civil Service – are demanding 2.1 degrees as the minimum.

So male students who adopt a “just do enough” policy when it comes to studying may have to rethink their strategy.

Both the Sunday Times and The Observer (4 July 2010) reported on the fact that women are outstripping men in the job market. Men are also less likely to go to University in the first place and more likely to drop out early according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

The AGR says that many male UK graduates have; “a degree of complacency” and HEPI talks about; “the general hopelessness of young men”. Recruiters agree that women graduates seem more mature, focussed and better prepared for interviews and assessments. And my colleagues in careers guidance and coaching tell me the same.

While men are often more self-confident  – cocky even – they don’t necessarily have a lot of self-awareness and many don’t respond to feedback as positively as women do either. Not many men suffer from “imposter syndrome” like women yet male underachievement is an increasing phenomenon, and not just amongst undergraduates.

An affluent society and slacker lifestyles have been blamed but psychologists point out that typically men have a wider range of performance with extremes – either brilliant or lazy, whereas women’s performance tends to be more in the mid-range with the result that they are often more sensible and industrious.

The only good news amongst this for men is that those male graduates who can get jobs will be getting an an average of £2,000 more than female graduates.

So lads get a grip! Sort yourselves out or you’ll be left even further behind

Updated 14 July 2010: BBC News reported that Jaguar had 3,700 applications for 80 graduate jobs, and that JCB had doubled the number of graduate vacancies from 6 to 12!

Many students said that they were continuing with their education because they couldn’t get jobs. More debt?



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Shoot yourself in the foot – join Facebook 

Actually any social networking site will do it according to an article in The Times (2/7/2010).

The American Academy of Divorce Lawyers says 80% of its members have used or been faced with evidence from social networking sites.

The biggest source is Facebook (66%), then MySpace (15%) and Twitter (5%).

From pot-smoking denials to claims of being childless whilst fighting for child custody, members seem to forget the information is out there forever. And in the UK a DIY Divorce site says 20% of its cases mention Facebook.

But it’s not just divorce lawyers or jilted partners who are using these sites. A survey of British employers found that 20% checked Facebook, MySpace and Bebo – and a quarter of them had rejected candidates because of what they had found. In the USA a Microsoft survey found that 78% of recruiters searched the internet to check applicant’s backgrounds.

So in addition to the potentially negative social and emotional aspects of Facebook you now run the risk of jeopardising your marriage and your job prospects. With 40% of the UK population having a Facebook account there’s plenty of dirt to dig.

Updated 17 January 2011: Social networking sites are being cited with increasing frequency in the UK, particularly in the post-Xmas divorces, according to another article in the Times (15/1/2011). Facebook is the main culprit but Second Life, Illicit Encounters and Friends Re-united are also in the frame. Suspicious spouses are searching these for evidence of flirting and affairs.

Some lawyers report 10 times as many divorces in the weeks immediately after Xmas and a 20% rise overall. One said; “Facebook is the divorce lawyer’s jewel in the crown”. Facebook pages, along with sexy tests and chats are now being used as evidence of “unreasonable behaviour”.

People are also resorting to Facebook to get back at former partners by slagging them off or posting pictures of their new lovers. In fact Facebook already has a divorce page where people can describe what it was like going through their divorce.