E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
October 31, 2003
"Indefensible" Abbott could have defended herself better

More on the Diane Abbott story, in the Guardian today:

The veteran campaigner for state school education Diane Abbott yesterday admitted that her decision to send her son to an independent school was "indefensible".

Commenting for the first time on her decision to send her 12-year-old son to the City of London school at the cost of 10,000 a year, the MP for Hackney north and Stoke Newington said she would not, and could not, defend the decision.

"At the end of the day, when I'm on my deathbed, would I regret having been skewered on this show at 12 o'clock at night or doing the right thing by my son?," she told the BBC's This Week programme last night.
"In my position everything you say just sounds self-serving and hypocritical, and there is no point in defending the indefensible. I know it's an indefensible position and I have spent five days not defending it what more can I do?"

In the past, Ms Abbott has been critical of decisions made by her Labour colleagues - including the prime minister to send their children to fee-paying schools.

Last night she said: "In Hackney schools, only 9% of black boys get five decent GCSEs against a national average of 50%. I really wasn't prepared to put my son through that system.

"I have campaigned for nearly 10 years on what happens to black children in British schools, but at the end of the day I had to put my reputation as a politician against my son, and I chose my son."

Commenting on my previous reference to this story, Paul Coulam said this, with which I agree:

The point about Diane Abbott's hypocrisy here is not so much that she sent her child to private school while arguing for state education but that she denounced both Tony Blair and Harriet Harman for not sending their children to the local comp and then went on to do precisely the same thing herself.

If I denounced you for cashing cheques from the BBC and then went and did it myself then I would certainly be a hypocrite.

But better to be this kind of hypocrite, than the kind of monster politician who sends her own child to a lousy school just to avoid admitting it. (See my first piece concerning this regularly recurring argument.)

However, before Paul Coulam says it again, she is still not getting it right. And nor is the Guardian for saying that she "admitted" that her decision was indefensible, because that implies that it was.

But Diane Abbott, in sending her child to the best school she can, is now doing the right thing, and apologising for that. Instead, she should be apologising to Tony Blair and to Harriet Harman, for having said the wrong thing about them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
Category: Politics

Though (as I've remarked elsewhere) I rather like Abbott, I don't like her apologetics as quoted here. Why is she affecting a racial determinism? The schools of Hackney may be bad, and I've no doubt any child would do better at the City of London School, but she seems to be suggesting that he's somehow more vulnerable to awful schooling because he's black, and only therefore must she send him elsewhere.

In fact one suspects he might perform better than average even in Hackney. The relevant performance-predicting characteristics are the education and occupation of parents and the culture and support given in the child's home. This would put him among the elite, since his mother is an exceptionally articulate Cambridge-educated media star with a varied and stimulating collection friends and colleagues.

Individual ability matters less where schools aren't interested in it. Good schools may sometimes compensate able children for a disadvantageous background. Pseudo-egalitarianism punishes them for it by throwing them back on the resources of the home. Black boys do disproportionately badly in Hackney because they are disproportionatley born into a concentration there of an impoverished culture.

The schools don't help. But implying that somehow the schools are a racist agent in this process is discreditable.

Comment by: Guy Herbert on November 1, 2003 01:20 PM

As usual, I find myself in agreement with much of Guy's comment. But as usual, he misses the crucial question of heritable IQ (presumeably because this is, albeit it to a limited and debatable extent, racially deterministic and he really doesn't like that). However, it is simply not realistic to explain black educational failure purely in terms of poverty, failing schools and low expectations in the home. We don't have to pretend we are Boasian environmentalists. We can face the fact of human difference.

But beyond this and all the hopeless attempts to raise the academic performance of black males there is the question of whether this torture is actually what they want. Do they see a more amenable and, for them, relevant route through life elsewhere? I think it is unquestionably so. The "street" is a much more positive choice than we give it credit for. It is not merely a turning away from the academic bias of the white world. It is a turning toward an obstinately proud and virile means of cultural expression, however threatening and undesirable that expression may seem to others. It is a crucible in which a black men can manufacture a black world with black values in the midst of white society. That it is productive of crime is true enough. But, again, the high propensity for crime among blacks is not merely a sociological phenomenon. It, too, has its roots in human difference.

For gifted intellects like Diane Abbott, of course, the street and street crime represent a dread and shameful outcome. But she is a socialist and, despite her proper care for her son in matters of schooling, will not depart from egalitarian goals. She cannot accept her own people on their own terms and that, not political hypocrisy, is the meaning of this event.

Comment by: Guessedworker on November 3, 2003 10:27 AM

I don't know that Guessedworker's point amounts to racial determinism in the same way Abbott's does. She says Hackney schools are bad for black boys because they are black. He claims to be saying that skin colour and weaker intellect are statistically related, which would be racial correlationism, unless at bottom he has does believe that conventional phenotypic classifications of "race" represent meaningful biological entities. I'm more racially deterministic than that, in that I do accept that how we appear to others can affect our social lives, and thus our character-development and lives tout court.

Assuming IQ is important to school success except at the tails of the distribution is absurd, however. (I'm unconvinced that it is essential to any kind of success outside academia, and not even sufficient there. I know smart millionaires, and astonishingly thick ones; I'm clever, but I'm not rich.)

Allowing that it might be for the sake of argument, IQ determinists have to explain not only how the 2-3% statistical difference produces such a vast effect at the intellectually undemanding--intellectual demands for a pass almost undetectable--level of GCSE. They also have to explain the sex difference between black boys and black girls, which might be the right way round, but would require the distributional differences between the sexes to be somehow much greater in black people than white, which isn't supported by the data.

Comment by: Guy Herbert on November 6, 2003 06:38 AM

To be perfectly accurate, Guy, skin colour is not the issue. Human bio-diversity is the issue. Average IQ difference by race is only a part, though a significant one, of that. I shall cover "meaningful biological entities" and current research on population genetics at the close of this comment. First, though, I want to deal with the problem of denial.

The bare facts of IQ difference, proven again and again across more than seventy years of every type of testing, are well known. But plainly stating the obvious conclusions do not convince many who inhabit the political centre and none at all on the left. There are two patterns of denial. The first is a burn-out operation. It works by casting endlessly inventive doubt on testing mechanisms (as per Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man) and much less inventive aspersions on the testers. Indeed, only in the last two or three years have sociobiologists re-emerged from the shock of Phillipe Rushton's public mauling and attempted hate prosecution.

The second form of denial accepts the test results but seeks to avoid the ghastly racist conclusion! So in the U.S. we get the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reporting this year that the latest 14-year gap study has dispelled early hopes that blacks' average score was catching whites', Flynn-style (though I know James Flynn rejects that simplistic usage of his model). Even so, the JBHE fingers racism in society and in education as the mitigating factors. I think this is the greater part of your position, Guy.

I'm not sure where you picked up the statistical difference of 2 or 3%. The reported test differences in average IQ score between Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Americans on the one hand and white Americans and Europeans on the other is very stable at one standard deviation (about 15 points). As is well known, Ashkenazic Jews - I'm not one - average a further standard deviation ahead. I have never heard an environmental explanation for that, though. With IQ testing of girls and boys, the girls tend to do well til university age by which point the difference has been negated. This is true of all races, I think.

On the subject of income, IQ And The Wealth Of Nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen demonstrates the remarkable correlation between average national test scores and per capita GDP. You and I cannot, of course, look ruefully to our regrettable personal circumstances in this regard! Averages have no application to individuals.

Now, all this controversial stuff will be swept away over the next three to five years, and possibly sooner, by population genetics. The next big step in this is the Hapmap. Recent studies into linkage disequilibrium in the human genome have revealed seemingly quite regular blocks, each bordered by recombinative data. Debate is hotting up about the extent and meaning of this. But it is already known that different populations (not individuals) vary in specific block identities. Human bio-diversity is here. Once it is scientifically demonstrated that will be the beginning of the end for the marxist-egalitarian argument over race. Personally, I can't wait.

Comment by: Guessedworker on November 6, 2003 05:03 PM


I just published a research paper on the educational results of integration. Thought you might be interested.


Jonathan Strong

Comment by: Jonathan Strong on December 29, 2003 01:12 AM
Post a comment