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April 26, 2004
Do good pupils lift up bad schools?

Madsen Pirie writes about the belief that a bad school benefits from the presence in its midst of children from more motivated families.

The idea that academically gifted children, if they attended sub-standard state schools, would somehow inspire and motivate the others, is strange. It seems to belong to the fairy tales which social engineers tell each other round the camp-fires. In the real world such children are often bullied and demotivated, and scorned because study lacks any street-cred. Educated with others of their kind, however, they can become high achievers.

I'm not sure if I agree with that, in fact I'm pretty sure that I don't. Surely both sets of children are liable to influence each other, to the benefit of the bad ones and to the detriment of the better ones, assuming bad and good are what they are. It need not necessarily be an either/or thing. Madsen could be right about the damage done to the good pupils, but still ignoring the improving effect they nevertheless might have.

Not that this means that motivated families should be forbidden to educate their children as they see fit, just because said children radiate positive educational externalities, so to speak. Even assuming they do.

As it happens, there was a documentary on BBC4 TV (which I am watching a lot these days) last night, about a school in Stoke struggling to improve itself. The staff there certainly thought that having their best pupils enticed away by a neighbouring school, as had apparently been happening, was highly damaging to them. But was this because the remaining pupils then suffered, or merely because it lowered the overall exam success rate? They seemed to believe that the pupils left behind did suffer from the example of their betters being now denied to them, and it makes sense to me that this might be so.

My recollection of my own education is rather the opposite, though. I did best when I was near the top of the class. High status caused the juices to flow. As I proceeded to bigger and "better" educational establishments, I got demoralised at how much better than me the best of my numerous rivals were, and I got dispirited. Lower status lowered my energy rate. But did I actually do worse? Or was I merely not so happy? Maybe I would have been happier at less grand places, but have done worse.

As with so many educational questions: complicated.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:20 PM
Category: Peer pressure


You raise some interesting points here.

My own experience sounds similar to your own. I was noticeably brighter than other pupils in my school and this was a huge motivational factor for me. My classmates did bully me but in a perverse sort of way I got quite a kick out of it (literally in some cases)! I got quite a sense of superiority from being "top of the heap" so to speak. The trouble was that (with hindsight) "top of the heap", within the bounds of what that school could give me, was not a fulfilment of my potential, so I don't see how I "gained" a whole lot educationally from this arrangement. It was very much a case of "I've done well enough to get this far - what do I do now?" the school didn't have anything extra to give me.

In the same way, the thought that I could have been a motivation to my peers seemed laughable then and it still seems largely laughable now. At the time I was a hate figure among my peers and any success on my part was seen as a kick in the teeth for them (these facts were "explained" to me on a number of occasions so I do not speculate idly). The only benefit seemed to be an increase in kudos for the school. I do concede that in the school group dynamic there is often an averaging of influences and there can be a lifting effect on lesser able pupils and a lowering effect on the more able pupils. The extent of this averaging factor has to do with class-size, teacher motivation, social background etc.

My ideal situation would be an individual educational programme for each child such as could be provided at home. It is true to say that I am an advocate of home education, but I'm not going to get into home education evangelising right here. Schools are a necessity for children who simply will not get an education by any other means but I would hypothesise that the "best" schools are the ones that provide an atmosphere where each individual pupil values their own achievement and potential and is not looking at the league table rating of the school, chasing the achievements of their peers or looking over their shoulder at the peers below them. This doesn't mean individual tuition for every child (if only it could) but some critical rethink of why school children fail.

I do not have the answers. Given the choice - and luckily in this country, at the moment, I do - I choose not to put my child through the school system. This does not mean that I don't see a need for schools or that I don't care for them to be better. One thing is for sure; I haven't made the system worse by opting out of it before anyone "helpfully" points this out to me.

Comment by: Simon Bone on April 26, 2004 11:18 PM

I have to agree with Madsen Pirie. In my experience, placing bright children among morons:
- does nothing for the morons
- demotivates the bright children (often dramatically)
without exception (seriously, absolulely 100% always).

(Excuse the epithet "moron", it comes from being the unlucky bright child so placed. A certain amount of bitterness tends to accumulate.)

Comment by: Noah Yetter on April 27, 2004 06:47 PM

What would happen if you put a really talented salesman in a branch with a bunch of mediocrities? I feel pretty sure that the performance of just about everyone in the branch would improve.

Does the same principle apply to the school situation. Almost certainly not. The difference is that in the sales example, the people are incentivized to do as well as possible (via their paychecks), and hence will attempt to learn from the behavior of the top guy. No such incentive exists in most schools: indeed, in poorly-performing schools, kids are incentivized to *not* act "too smart" less they be mocked and beaten up.

So, adding a few academically-good kids to the mix will help only if it is part of a more comprehensive program to modify behavior.

"Social engineers" should attempt to learn something from real engineers..you can't build systems without considering how all the parts work together. Too often, they (the social engineers) want to put in an engine but forget the driveshaft, or vice versa...

Comment by: David Foster on April 27, 2004 11:12 PM


All good points of course, but I rather think that the teachers in the TV documentary I saw the other night were following your recipe, or at any rate trying to. Luring back bright kids from the school that was poaching them was only one of a number of things they were doing to improve matters. And as part of such a broad strategy, their attitude did make sense to me.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on April 28, 2004 01:51 AM
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