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Chronological Archive • August 2003
August 31, 2003
Nations ranked according to how educated they are

From here, I went to here, and then to here.

Very interesting. The UK only just misses out on a medal. But I think the interesting thing is what an incredibly close race it is. This suggests to me that something else is involved here besides government policy, which, if it mattered a lot, you would expect to cause things to vary much more according to mad political whims, or maybe differing national psychology or political development. (See for instance the top end of the murder rate page.)

Could it be that people stay at school as long as they can afford to, and as long as they want to, and that the government merely hovers around the outside of it all, fussing? Surely not.

And a great site in general.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:05 PM
Category: This and that
[0] [0]
Higher education is not always a very good idea (revised version)

Commenting on this, Charles Copeland links to this webpage (with no apparent connection to anything else I could find anywhere) about Media Studies, which offers an alternative view of the benefits of higher education.

For some reason the original posting saying the above is misbehaving, so I've done it again and will delete the first one, if I can.

The comments at the Samizdata posting are piling up.

Yes, the old posting is now gone. I wanted to add the bit about comments piling up, and couldn't get into it, but I seem to be able to revise this posting. I don't know what caused this, but it seems now to have stopped.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:42 PM
Category: Higher educationThis Blog
[1] [0]

This, the top story (about anything) at the Telegraph site today, is interesting:

Children are starting school less well prepared than ever because parents are failing to raise their youngsters properly, according to the Government's Chief Inspector of Schools.

In an interview with The Telegraph, David Bell, the head of Ofsted, said that too many children were receiving a "disrupted and dishevelled" upbringing. As a result the verbal and behavioural skills of the nation's five-year-olds were at an all-time low, causing severe difficulties for schools.

Mr Bell said that one of the key causes was the failure of parents to impose proper discipline at home, which led to poor behaviour in class.

Another serious concern was the tendency to sit children in front of the television, rather than talking and playing with them. This meant that many were unable to speak properly when they started school.
"It is difficult to get hard statistical evidence on what is happening across the country," said Mr Bell, "but if you talk to a lot of primary head teachers, as I do, they will say that youngsters appear less well prepared for school than they have ever been before.

"For many young people school is the most stable part of what can be quite disrupted and dishevelled lives. This should worry us because if children don't all start at broadly the same point, we should not be surprised if the gap widens as they go through the education system."

I have the feeling that the word "dishevelled" is going to get quoted a lot.

One of the things I'm learning about blogging is: if all you have to say about an article is that it is interesting, then leave it at that. Don't comment just for the sake of it, or you're liable to end up with a rather unwieldy posting consisting of something else stitched onto the original quote, which not many will want to plough through.

So: that (the quote above, before the irrelevant essay bit) is interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:00 PM
Category: BloggingParents and children
[0] [0]
August 30, 2003
From here to there

I just did a long piece for here, and then realised it would also do for Samizdata. And since Samizdata is Clapham Junction to this place's Piddlebury Halt, I stuck it there, and then found myself adding a rant about how the government should get right out of higher education, the way you do. The top two thirds is about a rather interesting out-of-the-usual-boxes article by Mo Mowlam in yesterday's Independent.

Something similar happened with that stuff about that poor schoolboy who committed suicide. Only that time, I'd done the piece here before realising that Samizdata should be told about the story too.

The specialist blog feeds the generalist blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:08 PM
Category: BloggingHigher education
[1] [0]
August 29, 2003
Who says schools don't encourage sport?

I did a posting about the interface between transport and sport (bear with me), provoked by Patrick Crozier giving a talk about Formula One motor racing earlier this evening, at my home.

And a commenter linked to this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:09 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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The teachers were teaching to the test but they guessed wrong

This story from the New York Daily News illustrates the dilemmas of the worldwide debate about exam standards very nicely:

An independent panel appointed to look into why an alarming number of high school kids bombed out on the June Math A Regents Exam has found the statewide test was too hard.

So the scores will be bumped up so that many of those who failed will get passing grades.

"In short, students in June 2003 were held to a higher standard than their counterparts a year earlier," the commission of math experts said in its report.

But the panel, appointed by state Education Commissioner Richard Mills, also found that teachers messed up by trying to anticipate subject matter.

"The teachers were teaching to the test," said Assemblyman Steve Sanders (D-Manhattan), chairman of the Education Committee. "The problem was, they guessed wrong."

The panel found that teachers, believing the test would be heavy on trigonometry, drilled students on their sines and cosines. But the test didn't have a single trig problem, the report said.

I'm starting to have heretical thoughts about exams, which can be summarised by me saying that I think this "panel" may well have done the right thing.

After all, the purpose of exams is to arrange people in order of merit. It must make distinctions. If they all get A*, which is apparently what is happening with children in England doing their A levels just now, the result is that the Universities don't know who's the best, so they interview them all, and go by how eloquently they talk or how politely they suck up to the interviewers. (I read that point made better by someone else recently, but I've lost the link. Sorry.) And if they all get F– you get the same kind of effect. So the logical thing might very well be to do what these people have in effect done, which is: first mark all the papers, and then decide which numbers get you into which grade.

The obvious objection to this procedure is that it fails to make any distinction between this year and last year and next year, or this decade and last decade and next decade. If the standards lurch around from year to year, who is to say whether this fifteen year old is any brighter than that seventeen year old?

Okay, cards on the table, I don't know the answer any more (I suggest) than you do. I don't see how you can have an exam system which separates the smartness of the examinees from the skill with which they were prepared for their exams by the teachers. After all, presumably, some teachers guessed right about what was going to be in these particular exams, and as a result, their pupils will presumably get a higher grade than they "deserve". Or, more simply, some pupils were relatively lucky in having teachers who did not "teach to the test" (to quote Assemblyman Sanders' words). They too presumably did rather better than rivals who actually "deserved" to do as well as they did.

On the other hand, pupils who have been better taught, are pupils you'd rather have at your university, regardless of how much worse they might have done with worse teaching, or how much better other pupils might have done with better teaching.

Okay I give up. I've failed. Micklethwait: F–.

UPDATE: According to the bit at the end of this I think it must have been GCSEs rather than A Levels where they got all those A*s. F––.

FURTHER UPDATE: ... and what is being said about A levels is that too many people are getting A, so could they please introduce A*s for those also. See this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
August 28, 2003
"… utterly and conveniently useless …"

Catherine Maskell writes in the latest Spectator about cleaning up after Warwick University students. It is not nice. Concluding paragraph:

Having two brothers, and an ex-boyfriend whose sick I was more familiar with than he was himself, I must admit that it wasn’t a complete surprise to see how utterly and conveniently useless the average British male under 25 is. The posh and privately educated ones are just exaggerated, more offensive versions of their lower-class counterparts. What they want, more than anything else, is a mother-servant. Someone they can whinge to even as they clear up after them. And nobody, not even his mother, knows this better than the average British cleaner.

I'm sure I was exactly this terrible. Although I don't remember combining being a Marxist with maltreating any cleaners, the way some of Ms. Maskell's tormentors do, apparently.

The Labour government is right. The least they could do is pay for some of this coddling. And the Conservatives are wrong. That's because it's their children and the children of their voters who ought to be doing the paying.

The foreigners, who do pay, behave far better, she says.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
Category: Higher education
[0] [0]
August 27, 2003
Jennifer Chew on the need for true Phonics

The following article (headline: "Children of few words") appeared in today's Daily Telegraph, but only in paper form. Its author, Jennifer Chew, is a leading contributor to the work of the Reading Reform Foundation and a vigorous promoter of the Synthetic Phonics method for teaching literacy. I have simply scanned in this article, which is quite short, in its entirety. I hope no one objects.

The results of this year's reading test for seven-year-olds should be of interest to anyone concerned, about education.

Reading is the foundation for all later educational attainment, and a good start in infant school is vital. Reading attainment at seven has been shown to be one of the best predictors of GCSE performance.

Unfortunately, the results are not published in a form that makes their significance easy to grasp. The "expected level" is Level 2, subdivided into 2A, 2B and 2C.

This year, 84 per cent of seven-year-olds reached Level 2C or above – not bad, one might think. What is often not realised, however, is that only Level 2B and above represents an adequate standard. Those who reach only Level 2C have little chance of reaching Level 4 – the expected level – at 11 years old, or of performing adequately at GCSE.

This year, only 69 per cent reached Level 2B or above, which means that nearly a third of seven-year-olds – almost 200,000 children – will probably not read well enough at 11 to cope with the secondary- school curriculum.

The reading test is a comprehension test based on fiction and non-fiction. passages. Children must read each piece of text and answer questions about it.

About half of the 30 questions are multiple choice and the rest require an answer in the form of a word, phrase or sentence. Comprehension involves reading the words accurately and making sense of them. So we need to know whether the problem is with word-reading or making sense of them or both.

However, the test does not make this distinction and so does not tell us what teachers should focus on to get more children to Level 2B. Other tests, though, show that it is often word-reading that is weak in Level 2C children. Their comprehension is poor because they cannot read enough of the words accurately.

If these children were genuinely incapable of better word-reading, we would be stuck with the current stagnant standards. But there is a type of teaching – true Phonics – that can greatly improve word-reading and so remove this barrier to comprehension.

With this method, some infant schools are already getting 88 per cent or more of their children to Level 2B. The children are not super-intelligent, but are taught letter-sound correspondences at a much faster pace than is prescribed by the national literacy strategy.

They are taught to use this knowledge to read all words, apart from a few less regular ones that are explicitly taught.

In spite of claims to the contrary, the national literacy strategy does not present letter-sound knowledge as the first strategy children should be taught to use in word-reading. Rather, letter-sound knowledge comes into play after words have been identified: the teacher identifies words and the children then break them down and build them up again, or the children attempt to identify words by sight or from contextual and pictorial clues and then check a letter or two (usually not all letters) to see if they are right. Research and common sense suggest that this is less effective than true phonics.

In one school, the first children to be started off with true phonics, six years ago, have just taken the tests for 11-year-olds. Eighty-nine per cent of them reached the expected Level 4 in English as against the national figure of 74 per cent.

Most worrying of all is the 18 per cent of seven-year-olds who fail to reach even Level 2C. After nearly three years in school, these children are virtually unable to read, making up the "long tail of underachievement" that is a. recurring feature of British performance in international comparisons.

In schools that teach true phonics, the proportion failing to reach 2C is seldom more than three per cent. If all infant schools used this approach, the "long tail" would all but disappear. So, too, would the underachievement of boys, which currently causes concern: boys perform at least as well as girls when using true phonics.

Better infant-school teaching could largely solve literacy problems – and many wider education problems – throughout the school system. The evidence has been repeatedly presented to the policy-makers, but little changes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
Category: Literacy
[4] [0]
August 26, 2003
A thirty-five year old midget goes from school hell to school heaven

And, as if to make my point for me, again, about how some schools are, for some children, an absolute joy, here's another Samizdata commenter, "Monsyne Dragon":

From my experiences as a kid, I know EXACTLY how this poor kid felt. I also was very mature for my age, from day one. My parents called me the "35-year old midget" . (U.S.) Public school was hell. Utter hell. I ALSO had the good fortune of going to a private school for two years. It was a school specifically for very talented and/or very high IQ kids. About 80% of the students there were "over-mature" There were NO troubles with socialization there. The kids weren't isolated, and there was none of the unending harassment of the public schools. The kids there weren't trying to be over-adult in compensation for anything, they were just being themselves, and when put together with others of the same level of maturity, they were FINE. Kids who had been doing HORRIBLY grade-wise (including me) got top grades. Some of the kids there had been getting violent out of frustration at public school previously. There was none of that at the private school.

The public schools' political agenda simply won't let them recognize several basic facts:

1) People mature at different rates, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

2) For kids, being in a large group consisting of exclusively the same physical age as themselves is UNNATURAL, and not very good for their development (my private school divided kids into groups by broad age-ranges. kids 4-5 years apart were in the same group)

"Modern" public schools foster a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere that does harm to many and may lead some to violence, either against themselves, as in this case, or against others.

Every now and again, when you ramble on about education, you say something or talk about something which yanks the argument away from the arid vacuities of national statistics to the inescapable truths of individual experience. This Guardian piece, and my various links and reactions to it, have had this effect, although mostly at Samizdata rather than here.

I really recommend these Samizdata comments. Monsyne Dragon isn't the only one showing a few of his educational wounds to illustrate more general things. There are others, all with important points to make that are worth attending to, including the point that I probably (at Samizdata) went way over the top in blaming the wretched mother as much as I did. It's hard not to blame somebody in situations like this. But, as "Eric Blair" says (I'm guessing that inverted commas are once again in order):

I'm not sure I'd blame the mother too much. I know what it was like to be bullied, and the 'rents were the last ones I would have told.

I do blame the teachers. They knew I was being bullied, and did nothing about it. Worse, they tried to tell me I was the problem. Stupid shits. I can't believe how angry this is making me thinking about it after 30 years.

God, what an ugly thing it is.

Amelia asked this:

Where was the Dad during all this?

Indeed. It all rather reminds me of this movie, in which Hugh Grant filled in for Dad.

I'm guessing Monsyne Dragon had a Dad paying attention to his circumstances, if only to pay for the nice school. Yes, it would seem so. He says "my parents".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:48 PM
Category: Bullying
[1] [0]
Paul Graham on how schools are really prisons

After doing the piece below on the Thomas Thompson case, I rehashed it for Samizdata, because I thought it deserved … to be rehashed for Samizdata. The comments are now beginning to accumulate there, one of them from Rob Fisher, who says:

I'm reminded of an essay by Paul Graham about school society. It's ostensibly about why smarter than average kids are unpopular at school, but it touches upon some deeper truths about what school is really like. I hope I'm not quoting too much, but it seems relevant.

It does indeed. Below I reproduce the bits that Rob picked out:

They know, in the abstract, that kids are monstrously cruel to one another, just as we know in the abstract that people get tortured in poorer countries. But, like us, they don't like to dwell on this depressing fact, and they don't see evidence of specific abuses unless they go looking for it.

Notice that Graham doesn't say that "in the abstract people in poorer countries are monstrously cruel to one another". He merely notes that cruelty happens, without claiming that the people being cruel are cruel by their inherent nature. Yet he makes that exact claim about children. I think he's flat wrong, and that children, like adults, are nice or nasty depending on the pressures they face. A few are truly evil, even in a nice world. A few are saints, even in a nasty world. Most children, like most adults, go either way, depending.

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

That's certainly true. But then comes this:

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

I bloody well do have a "problem with this". I think that prisons are inherently savage places. I think the way to handle the disasters of kids "running around loose" would be to deal with each disaster case by case, as adult "disasters" are dealt with, rather than by imprisoning all children, even if they can quite see the point of not being allowed to run around loose. Besides which: what happens during the school holidays. Some adults have their work cut out, but not all.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.

But if you tell children quite clearly that they are in prison, some of them are going to be all the keener to escape, and if you stop them, then where does that leave any plan for a kinder, gentler prison?

It seems to me that any curriculum, no matter what combination of activities it contains, will be meaningless and stultifying to many children. The idea that you can solve the problem of a compulsory curriculum by having a different compulsory curriculum is to concentrate on tinkering with the wrong half of that phrase. (The trouble with "progressive" education is that it grants the child every freedom imaginable, except the freedom to go somewhere else if the child thinks it's horrible or a waste of time. Freedom must include the freedom to leave.)

To make a more general point, many regular readers of this blog may be puzzled by the way I oscillate between arguing for children's liberation, as in this post, and quite polite discussions of this or that school or teaching method, often of a highly disciplined and "structured" sort, for example as done in the British Army, or as might be involved in them being sent away to a school in Romania. The reason is simple. I believe in freedom for children. And I believe in good teaching, which can most definitely involve highly structured teaching. Freedom means you can leave. It doesn't mean that you can tyrannise your teacher in his classroom. Some kids sent to Romania might be imprisoned there, if they want out but aren't allowed out. But the lucky ones would only go, and then go back, back if they liked it and felt they were getting good things from it, despite the inevitable downsides of one sort or another.

Practically any half-decent teacher is welcomed by some children, and is simultaneously experienced as a tyrant by other children who are forced to submit to that teacher against their will. In other words, there is actually, now, quite a lot of freedom for many children. Many children are living pretty much the life they want, given the choices they now have, which explains why quite a lot of officially compulsory schools are actually quite nice places, instead of being run by the nastiest psychos in them. (In particular, many children would surely be horrified if obliged to stay at home and be mucked about by their parents. Freedom and home schooling are absolutely not the same thing, however large the overlap may often be.) Hence (a) my unswerving belief in freedom for children, combined with (b) my eagerness to discuss sympathetically the work of many apparently "compulsory" teachers and teaching systems now. It may seem a contradiction, but from where I sit, it's not.

Graham, it seems to me, is honest enough to see what many schools really are and what many schools really do, but he draws back from the conclusion that, it seems to me, ought to follow. They are (for many children) prisons. And they ought not to be (for any children).

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:39 PM
Category: BullyingHome education
[0] [0]
August 25, 2003
An overdose of school

This is a fascinating and thoroughly depressing article, about a boy who killed himself because he was so dreadfully unhappy at school.

Sandra Thompson was used to her son's weekend rhythm - the immediate relaxation and laughter of Friday afternoons, the dark mood that descended every Sunday as another week loomed. "With the first mention of school, Thomas must have had the same thoughts - are they going to be at the bus stop, are they going to get me today, do I have enough money on me to cover what they take?

Simply, he should have got out of that place at once, and pursued his very definite interests in living a more adult life, and done it in the adult way to which he was clearly suited.

There were reasons for that singling out, numerous and at the same time insufficient. Thomas was a highly articulate child, well-spoken, and without the usual local slur. He was overweight. He was easier with adults than children, and more confident around girls than lads. He preferred the Human League to Eminem. And because of this he was bullied, relentlessly. And because of that, on the afternoon of July 2, he took an overdose of painkillers and died later that day. He was 11 years old.

It's seldom you come across a story where the contrast between what a child was doing and what that child ought to have been doing is so screamingly obvious.

I would like to think that this article reflects a deeper disenchantment with the whole demented idea of compulsory education itself, among the Guardian-article-writing classes.

Please go and read the whole thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
Category: Bullying
[1] [0]
The lowdown on Britain's universities

Rootling around at the education section of the Telegraph, I came across this, which is a database of facts, experiences, opinions, and I dare say, also fictions about Britain's universities.

I went to Aberdeen, because it is top of the list, then went to comments, because that sounded like it might actually tell us something, and then chose this comment, because it sounded juicy, submitted by that prolific fellow "anonymous":

my brother did psychology at aberdeen (starting in 2001) and hated it so much he left after a year. tho ppl were great and he made some great friends the course was v bad. he's quite a good student but no nerd at all and loves going out but he was really complaining about lack of work and assignments and lack of quality. his girlfriend started psychology at marburg uni (in Germany) at the same time, and what she did was way ahead of his course. i guess if u like the town, can cope with weather and the weird accent and dont happen to have applied for psychology u should go there. apart from that ...

I wonder if anonymous's brother learned about capital letters during his year at Aberdeen? Maybe he also had a (psychological?) problem with them?

Anyway, my point is, if you're choosing a university, or helping someone else to choose one, and if you are the sort who likes biased gossip to get the feel of a place (I definitely am), as well as broader and more statistical and respectable stuff, this looks like a very useful resource.

I wish I'd been able to wander around something like this when I was at school.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:51 PM
Category: Higher education
[2] [0]
True and false privatisation

Here is a story which illustrates the difference.

The first private company to take over the running of an entire education authority is to be fined yet again for failing to meet its targets for improving GCSE and national test results.

CEA@Islington will lose half of the £908,480 fee that it was due to receive for overseeing Islington Council's schools this year, despite achieving its best ever GCSE grades.

Provisional GCSE results released by the north London borough yesterday show that 37.5 per cent of its pupils achieved at least five top A* to C grades, compared to 32.9 per cent last year. However, it failed to reach the target of 39 per cent, the figure agreed when the company won the Islington contract three years ago. The figures compare with a national average of 51.6 per cent last summer. The latest fine means that the company has been penalised three years running.

Both the council and CEA@Islington welcomed the rise in results, but recognised that more needed to be done.

CEA@Islington may in some sense be a private sector enterprise, but it is not operating in the private sector. It has one customer: the local authority. And it would appear that it has only one definition of results, namely exam success. In the private sector it would have lots of customers, and they would decided, individually, in accordance with their many and various ideas of what educational quality consisted of, whether they thought CEA@Islington was doing a good job for them. The aggregate of those decisions would determine CEA@Islingon's income.

This, on the other hand, is just an operation in churning the public sector up, and getting the people who work in it to accept payment by "results", instead of just salaries for showing up, which may be a good idea, but which may not (see above). In this story shows, the process of arguing that the contract between CEA@Islington and Islington Council should not be stuck to in the future has already begun. ("… despite achieving its best ever GCSE grades"). When the time comes for contract renewal, there will be a lapse back to public sector business as usual. Potential rivals will be wary of plunging into such a difficult and hazardous "market". This time the "contractor" will have a far better idea of what it can expect to achieve, and thus what to demand in its wage negotiations. Because wage negotiations is what it will be, with the company's management merely replacing the union as the negotiator. Very soon the company will become a mere part of the problem it was originally hired to solve.

When an apparently dramatic change is made in the public sector, the initial results as often quite good, but then they lapse back towards mediocrity again, when the underlying interests of the parties involved assert themselves.

In contrast, a move towards a genuinely free market often starts with chaos, only gradually followed by real and continuing improvement.

Which is just one more reason why privatising things, for real, can be so very difficult. After all, chaos can erupt in the public sector for all kinds of reasons, and how do you know that this chaos is good chaos, chaos with a future, or just chaos chaos?

Have a nice week.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:58 PM
Category: Free market reforms
[0] [0]
August 23, 2003
Rising standards?

I am utterly confused about whether standards (whatever exactly they are) in British schools are going down, or whether improved primary school teaching has actually improved matters somewhat in recent years. So I smiled quite a lot at this letter in yesterday's Guardian, from Catherine Wykes:

After years of falling exam standards, shouldn't we be celebrating this year's rise in standards as evidenced by the drop in GCSE passes?

Maybe so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
August 22, 2003
An exam with a difference

More examination angst.

Six Brazilians have been turned away by immigration officials at Heathrow Airport after failing a quiz about the Beatles.

The group said they were on their way to Liverpool's Mathew Street Festival this weekend, which celebrates the lives of the Fab Four.

Reports say immigration officials refused to let them into the UK when they failed to answer basic questions about the band.

They apparently did not know who Yoko Ono was and thought Ringo Starr was dead.

Organiser of this weekend's festival Bill Heckle, from Cavern City Tours, told the Daily Post: "Portuguese-speaking immigration officials asked them simple questions about the Beatles, such as how many of them are still alive and what songs could they name?"

Well, okay. The Home Office attitude is that these bloody foreigners will try anything to weedle their way in Britain, and its their job to frustrate their dastardly tricks with dastardly tricks of their own.

But a related question is more serious. Would it make sense, as I believe David Blunkett has suggested recently, that would be new British citizens should have to pass exams, in such subjects as English, British politics, British history? And what kinds of entrance exams do they have in other countries?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:34 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
Educationalists get another homeschooling surprise

Success for a home boy:

Arran Fernandez surprised educationalists two years ago by passing a GCSE aged five. Yesterday, he was celebrating again after becoming the youngest person to get an A* grade in the exam.

The Surrey schoolboy was seven when he took the higher-tier GCSE maths paper and topped this GCSE roll-call of young achievers after scoring the highest possible grade.

Like 12-year-old Jonathan Prior, who last week became the youngest person to pass an A-level this year, Arran, now eight, does not attend school but is taught at home by his father, Neil Fernandez.

Arran said: "I'm very proud of myself and so are my family and friends."

But he added that he planned to take a break from exams and would not move straight on to A-levels in 2004. "I study English and French and also I'm studying geography and astronomy," he said. "Daddy doesn't think I should go to school. We've done topics that aren't in the syllabus, such as complex numbers and groups."

Sounds like Daddy, who sounds like an interesting guy, has a point. And note the telling little detail "and friends". Home schooled children are often accused of not being able to make those.

Incidentally, school is not the only arena to display ranking slippage. Do you think that, like US generals, A grades at GCSE will eventually come in five different versions above the basic A, in the form of one to five star A grades?

David Carr of Samizdata also comments on this story, but he apparently got in a muddle about the difference between A (which anyone with two brain cells to rub together can get in their sleep) and A* (which requires over a dozen brain cells and full wakefulness). But, as is usual at Samizdata, there are some interesting comments.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:15 PM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
August 21, 2003
Karl Popper and the defeat of boredom

Keeping up with Alice, who is now back from her camping trip, took me here, and to this article by Sarah Fitz-Claridge, entitled The Education of Karl Popper.

In about 1917, Popper came to a clear realisation about school: "... we were wasting our time shockingly, even though our teachers were well-educated and tried hard to make the schools the best in the world. That much of their teaching was boring in the extreme – hours and hours of hopeless torture – was not new to me. (They immunised me: never since have I suffered from boredom. In school one was liable to be found out if one thought of something unconnected with the lesson: one was compelled to attend. Later on, when a lecturer was boring, one could entertain oneself with one's own thoughts.)" On returning to school after an illness of over two months Popper was shocked to find that his class had hardly made any progress, so, at the age of sixteen, he decided to leave school. He enrolled at the University of Vienna, where the cost of enrolling was nominal and every student could attend any lecture course. "Few of us thought seriously of careers – there were none ... We studied not for a career but for the sake of studying. We studied; and we discussed politics."

At university Popper initially attended lectures in many different subjects, but he soon dropped all subjects other than maths and theoretical physics. He thought that in mathematics he would learn something about standards of truth. He had no ambition to become a mathematician, and says: "If I thought of a future, I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations."

I think that one of the best ways to write about education is to write about the educational experiences and opinions of people who are deservedly famous, or for that matter deservedly infamous.

I've had a pre-occupying day, so I've let Sarah Fitz-Claridge do most of my thinking and writing along these lines today. It's a formula I expect to use again many times in the future, and not necessarily with writings already available on the internet in their entirety. Linking to aready internetted stuff is useful, but it is also faintly parasitical. All I've really said here is: have a read of this. But that is something.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:35 PM
Category: Education theoryHigher educationMaths
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August 20, 2003
Australian boys won't be boys (official)

More Australian sadness:

Children in Melbourne have been banned from dressing up as Batman, Superman and the Incredible Hulk because schools say the action hero costumes encourage aggressive behaviour.

This means that in twenty years time, our cricketers have a chance. David Carr of Samizdata spotted this story, and has a laugh about it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:09 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
[0] [0]
Australian schools in stage musical copyright fees schock horror outrage difficulty

This is rather sad:

SCHOOL students are being deprived of the chance to perform popular musicals and plays because of sky-rocketing performance copyright fees being commanded by licensing corporations.

Performance copyright laws in Australia make few allowances for schools, forcing them to pay up to $10,000 in fees for performances they seldom profit from.

As a result, many schools are being forced to cancel plans to stage popular musical productions.
Critics claim the exorbitant copyright fees are placing the creative development of students who are striving for careers in the performing arts at risk.

Roseville College music director John Barnes said the school no longer staged big musicals. A performance to farewell a principal was nearly ruined because the school couldn't afford to pay thousands to stage a section of My Fair Lady.

Yes, well, I don't know what that signifies exactly or what if anything ought to be done about it all, but it makes a change from the usual fare here, of homeschooling and school schooling of the more usual sort. Maybe there's some kind of gay angle? Anyway, if you want to read all of it, all of it is here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:45 PM
Category: Economics of education
[1] [0]
More on Connexions

I put a piece about "Connections Direct" here, and I put a piece about it at White Rose. And at White Rose, Stephen Hodgson commented thus:

Brian, I am unfortunate to have had first hand experience dealing with "Connexions" because my school (a combined secondary school and sixth form college of around 1,400 students aged between 11 and 18) handed over my personal details to this organisation without my consent: They passed on my name, date of birth, home address, telephone number and goodness knows what other information they held on me to Connexions in exchange for £1. (Connexions have subsequently sent me a vast amount of junk mail including a small booklet which explained that, "Connexions are here to offer you advice on important life-changing decisions - like starting an apprenticeship, getting a job or having a makeover" and I also received a phonecall from an idiotic bureaucrat who insisted that I hand over my personal information for the sake of allowing them to "monitor the quality of service" or some such rubbish.)

At White Rose I described this most peculiar enterprise as "creepy", and it was certainly a creepy for Stephen. But I think that in order to set up something like this, the people who set it in motion had to be the sort who wouldn't understand such language to describe all the help they are providing.and all those "connexions" they are making.

I remember watching the New Labour project assemble itself in the late eighties and the early nineties, and these people were immensely impressed by capitalism, by all the fun you could have shopping, and by such things as credit cards and those supermarket cards, then in their early stages. My guess is that the sort of people who are involved with an outfit called Demos, or at any rate people in the general Demos milieu, had a hand in this "Connexions" nonsense, and that they imagined that what they were doing was not pestering people and making creeps and jackasses of themselves, but rather "reinventing government" and "learning from the retail revolution" blah blah blah.

But somehow, I didn't expect to be writing about nonsense like this here. Nonsense yes, in abundance. But not this particular nonsense.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:45 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
August 19, 2003
And a mastery of differential calculus will turn you into Hitler

Follow the rumour from her, to him, to this:

I'm sick of all this whining following good A-level results about what second-rate subjects students choose. What did the older generation learn with their supposedly breathtaking mastery of long division etc? They learnt to attack and exploit the poor all over the world, abandon the vulnerable of their own society, and generally not give a damn about anything apart from the statistics of "progress".

Maybe with our more humanities-based curriculum, with its emphasis on finding something for everyone, we might learn that numbers are to serve people, and not the other way around.

Says Peter Briffa:

There's one for the root causes brigade: long division turns you into a rampaging capitalist.

If only it were that easy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:20 PM
Category: Education theory
[5] [0]
Homeschooling in Taiwan

Thank you to the Chris Tame and the Libertarian Alliance Forum for the link to this HLSDA article about homeschooling in Taiwan:

Homeschool Freedom Grows in Taiwan

Dr. Shou-kong Fan, President of Mu-Jen Chinese Christian Home Educators Association (skfan@seed.net.tw), recently reported to HSLDA that homeschoolers in Taiwan continue to enjoy freedom in educating their children. He feels that the Taiwanese government has been favorable toward homeschooling families because of the commitment of the homeschool movement to work with the government in a peaceable and respectful fashion. He also reports that the media has given homeschooling positive coverage, both because of the academic and social success of the children, as well as the additional time homeschooling parents are able to spend with their children.

A father was recently denied his right to homeschool because of his lack of higher education. Fortunately, this denial was reversed after the Chinese Christian Home Educators Association sent a prayer alert throughout the island. Taiwanese homeschoolers have expressed thanks to the pioneer homeschooling families in the United States who have successfully homeschooled their children. Statistics from the U.S. have enabled the Taiwan homeschoolers to deal with the government and convince officials of the value of homeschooling.

One of the greatest needs facing homeschoolers in Taiwan is the need for higher education opportunities. Because the homeschool movement in Taiwan is relatively young, few homeschool graduates have sought admission to Taiwan's colleges. As a result, most higher education institutions have not developed policies that are favorable to homeschoolers. Most homeschool graduates are then forced to seek admission to a college in the U.S. or some other country that is more favorable to homeschoolers.

Please pray for Taiwan homeschoolers as they continue to expand public and legal recognition of homeschooling.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:23 PM
Category: Home education
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When people ask Brian's Education Blog: "Brian's Education Blog, where can we get cut-your-own snowflakes on the Internet?", I tell them …

I don't know if it's education, but it's fun. The site calls it snowflakes, but I think they mostly look more like paper table mats. This is a kind of internetted version of what people complain about children doing in primary schools instead of having the three Rs pounded into them.

Where would the world be without Professor Dave Barry?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:49 PM
Category: Learning by doingPrimary schoolsThe Internet
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August 18, 2003
Education otherwhere

On the ITV news this evening there was an item about an Indian family in Britain who, disgusted by the educational options offered to them in London, were sending their child to a school back in India.

I believe that in the years to come, many more British children will be educated overseas, especially in Eastern Europe.

A friend of mine, born and educated in Eastern Europe and now living in France, even toyed with the idea of starting just such a school, in her native Romania. She herself was actually in no position to run such a school, and in any case probably lacked the temperament for such a job, but there was nothing wrong with the basic idea. Life in Romania is cheap, compared to life in Britain, as are teachers, but the teachers are very good. Schooling in Romania is only now beginning its descent into the age of television, computer games and violence against teachers. It could have worked. In other hands, I think it will.

The catalyst for all this will be the arrival in Britain of large numbers of legal, well educated immigrants from Eastern Europe, courtesy of the EU. Many of these will be recruited to work in Britain as teachers. But they will have a nasty shock at how difficult teaching in Britain has now become. However, the idea that they might be able to contribute to the education of British children will now be firmly in their minds, as will the low level of education here. Eastern Europeans are frequently shocked at the low quality of individual people in the west, in such sharp contrast to the high quality of so much of the mere stuff that is made here. So they mostly don't now see this opportunity. But once they get here, they will. So, some of them will go back home again and get it organised, while others remain here to do the selling job.

Well, we'll see. I'm not the entrepeneurial type myself, so this could be nonsense. But as of now, I can't imagine why.

No links because I thought of this myself. But if anyone can suggest any ...

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:50 PM
Category: The private sector
[3] [0]
Not the triviasphere

I recommend that you read The Ratchet by Natalie Solent. All of it. It's about the many subtle ways in which anti-discrimination laws harm those they are intended to help.

There is a lot about education in the piece, and it once again illustrates that how well people do in their education, and how the world of education in general conducts itself, is profoundly influenced by forces at work in the wider society, in this case legal forces, which in their turn give rise to subtler social forces.

Let's start off with the observation that black school leavers are less qualified than their white counterparts. (It does not affect my argument whether this is through the racism of their teachers or their own bad behaviour.) By insisting that they will not be openly penalised for this in the job market, the anti-discrimination laws ensure there is less of an incentive to study. The problem never gets solved. It just gets papered over. Although the rising generation may never explicitly make the calculation "I don't have to work so hard because I'm black," that is the message that will filter down through the millions of little allusions, jokes, observations and examples that make up each individual life experience.

And of course, many of them do explicitly make that calculation. They don't work and mock their classmates who do. It has its inevitable result: blacks really are, on average, less well educated than whites. Prejudices come true.

As I say, you really should read the whole thing.

I have friends who fear that the blogosphere is inevitably the triviasphere. This kind of piece is proof that it need not be so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 PM
Category: Politics
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August 15, 2003
"… here to listen to your relationship problems …"

I just caught a TV advert for something called Connexions Direct. I went to the website the advert was plugging and explored.

Connexions Direct can help you with information and advice on issues relating to health, housing, relationships with family and friends, your career and learning options, money, as well as letting you know about activities you can get involved in.

I dug further.

Finding someone to talk to.

Connexions Direct Advisers are here to listen to your relationship problems and can also help you to find support in your area. You can contact us via email, text, phone or webchat or pop into your local office. Look in the Connexions Service section for details of where your local office is.

My immediate reaction is that anything with a website that ends with .gov.uk has no damn business arranging relationship counselling. (I've picked out the creepiest bit for the title of this posting.)

My next reaction is that, what with the .gov.uk thing at the end of it, it will cost a lot and achieve very little.

And my next is that insofar as it is a good idea, the effect of anything ending in .gov.uk, with its potentially vast budget no matter how little return it may be getting, is liable to crowd out any voluntary initiatives offering similar stuff.

And my final reaction is that maybe White Rose, the website that deals with government snooping and suchlike, might also be interested. You can see how the email list of such an operation might be quite appealing to a snoopy sort of government. Maybe the advice will, as promised, be confidential, but the fact that it was solicited might not be quite so, so to speak. And what are we to make of this, from their Privacy Policy?

If you register to receive updates your information will be held on a secure server and the data will not be shared with any organisations outside Government.

Whereas organisations inside Government can fish at will?

It will be used only to provide you with e-mail updates on the topics you have requested or postal information if you request that service. If you respond online to a consultation exercise your data will only be used to facilitate the analysis of responses.


Does anyone out there know anything about this operation?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Politics
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"You learn what you want to learn and what you need to learn"

Here's a story about the progress of homeschooling in the USA:

Cassandra Stevenson isn't old enough to drive or vote, but she's already a college graduate. Five years ago Cassandra, now 15, entered her freshman year at Danbury's Western Connecticut State University before most of her contemporaries had hit middle school.

She and her older sister, Samantha, who at 19 has a master's degree in astrophysics from Wesleyan University in Middletown, never went to high school -- or elementary school for that matter. Like a small but growing number of Connecticut youngsters, they were homeschooled.

Masters degree in astrophysics. Propaganda that potent just can't be bought. No wonder homeschooling is spreading.

Cassandra attributes her academic achievements to the home instruction her mother, Deborah Stevenson, provided around the family dining room table.

"Homeschooling is more like college than a public or a private school is," said Cassandra, who lives with her mother in Southbury. "You learn what you want to learn and what you need to learn. The curriculum is fitted to you."

Yes that seems such a simple idea. I'm surprised more people don't learn things that way.

While off-the-charts success stories like Cassandra and Samantha's are relatively rare, a National Home Education Research Institute study showed that the majority of home-educated children score at or above the 80th percentile on statewide standardized tests.

Such statistics may account for why the number of home-educated children in Connecticut has increased six-fold since 1990. Despite such gains, only about 2,100 of the state's about 630,000 school-age children are being educated at home, according to data provided by the state Department of Education. About 250 Fairfield County youngsters are homeschooled, the state Department of Education's Student Census Report shows.

I like it when someone else can do educational numbers for me.

The statewide increase is part of a larger national trend, said William Lloyd, a researcher for the home education institute who estimates that last year about 2.1 million children were homeschooled – up from 500,000 in 1990.

"It used to be homeschoolers were thought to be earth mothers in California or Oregon," Lloyd said. "Now it's seen as a mainstream thing."

That's the key line in this story for me. A "mainstream thing".

What all of the above means is that in the short run, homeschooling is going to grow and grow, to the point where homeschoolers will exist in such numbers that their abolition, or even their excessive harrassment, will become a political impossibility. And if there are comments saying I'm wrong about that, it will be because this point has already been reached.

But then another question will kick in. For as long as homeschooling is done by mums like the mum of Cassandra and Samantha, it's pretty much bound to do really well. That at any rate will the retrospective put-down from the critics. But what if Mrs Typical Homeschooler starts to be Joanne Schmo rather than Alberta Einstein? How well will it work then?

I'll place my bet now. I think homeschooling will continue to outperform the state and even private school alternatives by any measures you care to dream up, provided the comparisons they make are half way fair.

After all, being well educated means learning how to find out about things that your teachers have no idea about. I reckon Joanne Scho might still crank out a few astrophysicists.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:20 PM
Category: Home education
[1] [0]
August 14, 2003
Combining soccer with education – people are already thinking about it

Of all the education news stories of the last day or two, this one struck me as the most interesting:

It is a shadow that hangs over the thousands of young men who aspire to earning a living from their favourite pursuit, playing football: What if they fail to make the grade?

As the multi-millionaire players of the country's best teams prepare to kick off another lucrative season, the pain of coming to terms with the dashing of dreams can be especially hard for those forced to give up the game through injury or because they have been released by their clubs.

Today, instead of finalising their pre-season training, up to 80 would-be players will be visiting a jobs fair at Keele University, the first of its kind organised by the FA Premier League to prove that there is life after football.

The more I ruminate upon it, the more I believe the growth areas in education to be everywhere except in "schools". The way to sort out a lot of the problems in education is to denationalise, and to allow individual pupil choice. But how do you do that? It has to be done gradually, and it has to be sneaked past the special interests, and if they do see it coming, it has to be too popular and to make too much sense to be opposable. In general, the way that education is going to develop in the future is for adult institutions to diversify down the age range.

In particular, I believe that the big sports clubs are going, logically, to be drawn towards teaching more and more indoor stuff as well. If the big soccer clubs of Britain were to open up schools, not just for the boys they considered possible future stars, but for boys who were merely keen to learn about life with a soccer slant to it, starting with boys of, say, twelve, no one would stop them, provided they did it half reasonably. Their big problem would, on the contrary, be the government being so keen to help.

The basic problem for most teenagers is that they aren't going to be able to do what they would most like to do, and this applies with special ferocity to aspiring soccer stars. Most of them really aren't going to make it. They are liable to be very disappointed.

This story is only about the soccer people taking some of the bump out of the otherwise very hard landing that soccer boys get now if the soccer clubs decide they've no more use for them, which is what it decides for most of them, of course. And what I think it shows is that thought is going into the education of the "others", the ones who don't make it, the ones who if only they can be offered the right alternatives, could do fine, or not, depending.

In short, the world of soccer is thinking hard about education.

Four out of five players who signed on with Premier League clubs in their teens would be released by the time they reached 21, he added. Some of those eligible to attend today's fair will have been with their clubs since the age of eight.

Did I say twelve?

To help them, the league has assembled an all-star line-up of university admissions staff and employers to try to help them develop a new career.

Kate Coleman, education and child-protection manager at the FA Premier League, said: "The league takes the education of young people very seriously and we have worked very hard in conjunction with our academies [established at individual clubs] to encourage scholars to realise the importance of gaining academic qualifications. Unfortunately, not every player who joins a Premier League Academy will sign a professional contract with their club and get a career out of the game. The event at Keele will be a useful opportunity for those players who have been released by clubs to assess what options they have for the future."

Universities including Loughborough – famous for its sports science degree – Cardiff and Leeds Metropolitan will be attending the event. A wide range of employers at the fair will include the armed services, the fire brigade and the John Lewis Partnership.

I guess all I'm really saying is: interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: Boys will be boysFree market reforms
[0] [0]
August 13, 2003
Alison Wolf on the Sovietisation of education

I've already mentioned here Alison Wolf's book Does Education Matter?, and have also quoted from it in a Samizdata posting. Here's another chunk, from the concluding chapter. And for this I already have a category classification nice and ready.

The last twenty-five years have been the heyday of education policy directed purposefully towards economic ends. One result has been a fixation on quantitative targets which allow governments to monitor progress and pronounce success. These necessarily emphasize what can be easily counted and easily measured; so we have policies intended, above all, to increase numbers, whether these be of qualifications gained or of students enrolled. The most extreme manifestations of this trend – such as outcome-related funding which paid people for NVQs delivered, or franchising schemes which offered backpackers free scuba-diving courses – have foundered because they so visibly undermined quality and invited abuse. But the basic principle of targets has not vanished. How could it? For this is the quintessential approach of any centrally run and directed system which measures success by quantity. If you believe that more education equals more growth, and that government can and should deliver one through the other, then, like a compass needle to the pole, you will be drawn towards quantitative targets, whether they are the NVQs of the early 1990s or the 50 per cent enrolment in higher education that currently enthuses our political classes.

This approach is precisely analogous to the way in which Soviet planners ran their economy, and it has precisely the same drawbacks. Numerical targets have to be concerned with things that can be counted easily (like tractors or examination grades), not with more complex attributes which require judgement and are open to debate (such as whether those tractors work at all well, or the quality of different curricula). In a centrally funded, target-driven, top-down organization, the main and inevitable concern of lower-level functionaries is the satisfaction of their paymasters. If the things they are being asked to produce are genuinely simple to define and inspect, then the system may indeed produce them – albeit not very efficiently. But if they are complex and difficult to measure, like the quality of a university degree, then the effects of such systems tend to be pernicious.

This is especially true when one marries centralized, target-driven controls with financial pressures. That, of course, is exactly the situation that modern education systems find themselves in. As we saw in Chapters 6 and 7, the huge expansion of university education has been accompanied by a constant downward pressure on costs and on real levels of spending. These pressures are not specific to any particular political party or any particular country: they are inherent in any large-scale expansion of state-funded post-compulsory education. They are most obvious in higher education, because that is where change has been so recent and rapid. But the repercussions are not confined to this level.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:50 PM
Category: Higher educationSovietisation
[0] [0]
August 12, 2003
Carry on schooling

I only started watching That'll Teach 'Em (Channel 4 – Aug 12 – 9 pm) because of still needing something to put here after another drainingly hot London day, spent basically doing other things, but oh boy, it's hilarious. The entire show is poised at the edge of a cliff and threatening to plummet towards pure Monty Python insanity.

It's like a brothel, but without the sex. Not very good actors stride about picking arguments with the boys and girls, and the usual procedure would then be for the customers - which is what he would be - to have an orgasm. But this is a serious, or as serious as it is possible to be about such things, to recreate a "nineteen fifties" public school education.

The programme brings out all the snobbery in me, that is to say of a boy who went to a truly posh school, or who thinks he did. Mine was called Marlborough, pronounced Morl-brur. And I remember Marlborough as being a more relaxed, more decadent sort of place. We all assumed that it was only the "minor" public schools (public means the opposite for these purposes – sorry America) who took all this stuff truly seriously.

The teachers at this TV place are, frankly, not as posh as the ones I remember. They have no irony, no humour. Only the tremendously exciting English mistress seems to have the real Posh Stuff. The teachers here do have their virtues, but they remind me of NCOs, rather than officers. They are mostly deadly serious sergeant majors who shout about everything they see that is wrong rather than languid colonels and brigadiers who see much, much more than they can be bothered to complain about.

But we never had anyone like that English mistress.

If you're interested, the best explication on film of sort Iof place I went to is not this programme, but Lindsay Anderson's If, which is outstanding. The weirdest thing of all about these places was the way that they sprayed Christianity all over the Caesarian savagery. They're doing that as well at this TV place. But Lindsay Anderson does that outstandingly. Who could forget the priest who is kept by the Headmaster in his drawer. (You have to see it.)

Still, this is a great show and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

As always when it comes to adapting, the girls are adapting to it all far better than the boys. The girls are enjoying it. They are becoming fifties stereotypes – Stepford schoolgirls. They are knitting scarves for their brothers back home.

The boys - and good for them – are just waiting for it to end. But even they are starting to come round.

Even for them it will have been a learning experience. They will have experienced a very different way of doing things. There's nothing like a shared ordeal lived through. Some of them will be friends for life.

The best thing about this show is that it so very clearly illustrates that such a place would now be unrunnable for real. Interestingly, and extremely importantly, they are not using very much physical violence at this place. But you can't run this kind of old-fashioned totalitarian regime without extremely serious physical violence. Without the ultimate sanction of the cane, or at least some kind of comparably severe torture, these places don't function properly. After all the humour and irony had been exhausted, if I didn't do what those bastards at Marlborough told me to do, then I was physically assaulted. And if that didn't work I would have been expelled, an option which I wish I had explored more thoroughly than I did at the time. (Put it this way. I am often able to startle the ex-victims of Communism with my grasp of the finer points of Communism, what it was and how it worked. How the hell did you know that? – they say, of some weird communist nuance. Easy I say, I went to a British public school.)

In this programme they have contrived a few pretend tortures, basically endurance tortures. But the hardcore stuff? - that they have shrunk from imposing on these children. You simply can't do this kind of thing now.

Which means that the entire pyramid of power crumbles. Everything has to be done differently. The boys on this show are waiting for it all to end. And after all, it's only a TV reality show, not reality. But if there was no end in sight, and if this was for real, they might well have rebelled by now.

And equally important, there simply aren't the teachers any more to run this kind of show. Simply, we don't believe in this kind of regime any more. We look at it, and we can't help bursting into giggles.

Carry on schooling? Like they did in the nineteen fifties? It can't be done.

If we are going to deny ourselves the ultimate sanction, namely torture - and that is precisely what we are now doing – then the entire way that the lives of children are governed is going to have to be painfully re-invented. This is one of the central beliefs of this blog. This process has hardly begun. But at least it has begun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:49 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryThe private sectorViolence
[1] [0]
August 11, 2003
Tories fail exam test

In a rush. Quota posting. Guardian report of Tories proposing new national committee to sort out mess caused by previous national committees. They are dumb.

The Conservative party today set out how they would reform the exam system - including plans to give the exams watchdog full independence from the government - to restore confidence after last year's grading fiasco.

The shadow education secretary, Damian Green, said that the exam system needed simplifying, AS-levels should be scrapped and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) should be given more independence.

And if the QCA did something they didn't like, or created another mess? What then? Another committee?

Damien, go and stand in the corner, and think about what you've said.

When nationalisation is a mess, the answer is less of it, not more.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
August 08, 2003
I'm too busy so here are some links to other people

I confess that I have lost track of the various blogs called variants of "TCS". That's TCS as in "Taking Children Seriously" rather than Tech Central Station, to cut the complications down just a little.

But whichever TCS blog this one is, I recommend, for whatever that may be worth, this article about how to treat and raise toddlers by Alice Bachini. It's obvious that Alice has personal experience of all this stuff. She doesn't like using her individual children as characters in the dramas she writes about, Lileks style, but I don't think I'm giving away any big secrets if I say that I have from time to time watched her do the kind of thing she write about in this piece, and that I was impressed.

I'll leave it at that, because my day is stacking up, and I have about twelve blogs to attend to. Well, not nearly that many, but on days like today it can seem so. Don't be surprised if nothing else materialises here, but if not, I'll probably try to put up more over the weekend, which I don't routinely promise to do.

Although, there is time to mention that in another bit of the other TCS empire, I also found this. It's about starting a school. Alice would not approve.

Have a good weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:06 PM
Category: Free market reformsParents and children
[0] [0]
August 07, 2003
Hypocrisy is better than abandoning your children

Lileks is back, and I think the pause may have caused him to contrive a bleat in his head over a period of days which has a more than usually penetrating sound to it.

I don't get all the American local stuff. I don't know who Adriana Lima is, what is so special about a '57 BelAir Convertible, the exact point of driving to Rio, or where Rio is. But I agree with the following. He's talking about the Gay Bishop they've just chosen over there, amidst great fanfare. Apparently before moving in with Another Man, the Bishop had already got himself a wife and kids.

This story has irritated me from the start, and it has nothing to do with Rev. Robinson’s sexual orientation. The guy left his wife and kids to go do the hokey-pokey with someone else: that’s what it’s all about, at least for me. Marriages founder for a variety of reasons, and ofttimes they’re valid reasons, sad and inescapable. But “I want to have sex with other people” is not a valid reason for depriving two little girls of a daddy who lives with them, gets up at night when they're sick, kisses them in the morning when they wake. There's a word for people who leave their children because they don't want to have sex with Mommy anymore: selfish. I'm not a praying man, but I cannot possibly imagine asking God if that would be okay. Send them another Dad, okay? Until you do I'll keep my cellphone on 24/7, I promise.

Who are you to judge? is the standard response, and I quote Captain James T. Kirk when asked the same question by Kodos the Executioner: who do I have to be? I’ll tell you this: my nightmare is losing my daughter. The idea of leaving her on purpose is inconceivable, and I don’t care if Adriana Lima drove up the driveway in a '57 BelAir convertible, tossed me the keys and asked me to drive her to Rio, it ain’t gonna happen. I made a promise when I married my wife, and I made another when we had our daughter. It's made me rather cranky on the subject of men who don't stick around. They're letting down the side. They're reverting to type. They're talking from their trousers.

I know, I know, his daughters love him & support him now. So what. Hitler’s dog went to his funeral. (No, that doesn’t make sense, but it’s my favorite wrench to throw in conversations this week.) If he’d cast off his family to cavort with a woman from the choir, I’m not sure he’d be elevated to the level of moral avatar – but by some peculiar twist the fact that he left mom for a man insulates him from criticism. It’s as if he had to do it. To stay in the marriage would have been (crack of thunder, horses neighing) living a lie, and nowadays we’re told that’s the worst thing anyone can do. Better to bedevil other lives with the truth than inconvenience your own with a lie. Right? If others are harmed in the short run, eventually they will be happy because you’re happier. Right?

I don’t think it works that way with little children. I don’t think they understand why Dads leave – and so they make up their own reasons and spend years looking for evidence in other people.

As I'm fond of saying in all kinds of contexts, hypocrisy is an under-rated vice. (See my comment, which says that a sportsman who used to be naughty but is now saying: be nice!, is better than a sportsman who was naughty and still says: be naughty!)

It is commonly said that children are impossible to deceive, and that therefore if you are unhappy they will realise it and want you to rearrange things and be happy. They will want you to abandon them. Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. Children are extremely easy to deceive, and the deception typically lasts, as Lileks explains, even if the attempt to sustain it is abandoned (along with the children), and long after it has been abandoned. Children absolutely do not want to be abandoned.

Maybe the fact that I agree so strongly that one should not abandon children for man/trouser reasons is why I don't yet have any children and I suppose may never. What if your child isn't a Gnat child, but instead some terrible sticky, whiny, unlovable, unloving, resentful, IQ damaged, medically mucked-up and hence financially ruinous, un-Gnatal mess? I'm too frightened of the permanence of the change, of the limitlessness of the responsibility, the way I suppose some men who do get children only realise when it actually happens. Or don't even then.

A friend of mine recently told me that he was coming out (again) as straight, as both, that is to say. Fair enough, in fact fine. He's young, with no children. He's getting all that stuff sorted first. Quite right.

Make bed. Maybe the bed is right immediately. If not, remake bed until it is right. Then have children. If that means three gay guys adopting or contracting out the pregnancy, fine, whatever. But then: lie in bed. Do not have children and then remake bed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:06 AM
Category: Parents and children
[17] [0]
August 06, 2003
Who is Santiago Calatrava? – a culture blogger on the educational power of the internet

The other day my super-intelligent friend Alice, whose judge of a good blog is infallible, I've always thought, recommended a particularly fine culture blog , and while rootling around at it I found this, on the educational power of the internet:

For now I just want to give the Internet a pat on the back. The Internet, I think, is very good, which I did not think of first, but which I am now thinking with particular thoughtfulness.

I was once a failing architecture student, and as regulars here now know, I remain a (st)architecture fan. But until recently, I despaired at the cost of keeping up with it all. Keeping up means you had to have pictures, and pictures on paper are just too expensive, and too bulky to share a flat with if you get at all serious.

Until today, I had no idea who Santiago Calatrava was, or about that beautiful footbridge in Bilbao. I am, in short, thanks to the Internet, catching up.

I dined with Michael Jennings last night, and he was likewise raving about how much sheer stuff the average bright fifteen-year-old now has at his finger tips, compared to the time when he was a bright fifteen-year-old, searching through inadequate libraries for dumbed down books about whatever it was, that as likely as not weren't there at all.

And who, pray, is Santiago Calatrava? That's no the point, apparently.

… the real point of this posting here is not Hurrah For Calatrava. It is hurrah that I was able to learn about the guy, and so amazingly quickly.

About fifteen minutes ago, I knew nothing of him. Then, the daily New York Times email, and I'm straight to the op-ed piece linked to above. Google search: "Santiago Calatrava". Bingo. Now I've done about half an essay on him. Education or what? I am myself back to being a bright fifteen-year-old.

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: The Internet
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Alright everyone - back to work

Yes, alright, alright. Settle down. All the Infrastructure Problems here at Brian High have now been sorted out, so everybody sit down, pay attention, and stop mucking about. You over there, stop that at once.

My thanks to the two members of staff who worked so hard to solve our recent problems, Mr de Havilland and Mr Singleton.

Sometimes I wonder if you people appreciate just how much work is involved in educating you all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:43 PM
Category: This Blog
[0] [0]
August 03, 2003
Possible service glitch

It is not likely, but it is possible that there will be some kind of service interruption here, nowabouts. I am switching from one host to another, whatever that means exactly. But I am being helped by these clever friends of mine, so all should be well.

But if there is trouble, I may be prevented by it from telling you about it, that it's not you it's me, and that you are a wonderful person and that you'll find another education blog ... So I'm telling you this now just in case.

PS: Whether or not I do vanish, have a read of this. When I next get a string of free moments I'm going to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:13 PM
Category: This Blog
[1] [0]
An advertisement

I've just caught these people advertising themselves on the television. Are they any good?

That's "Computeach", IT teachers since 1964. I'm never convinced when people claim to have been doing something "since" whenever. All it tells me is that they want you to think they're experienced, but not that they necessarily are. After all, was it the exact same people? And if it were, would that be good?

Here are two ways of seeing this.

One: the British economy is on the up and up, and more and more people want to get with the new economy.

Two: the British economy is on the down and down, and more and more people are now unable to get real jobs doing this stuff and so are desperate to teach it instead, and will take very poor money to do it, so it's all got a lot cheaper to learn, so come and get it. Please. Oh all right then.

Still, TV adverts cost, and this advert at least suggests that someone thinks this will make money rather than just chuck it away. You don't very often see education adverts on British telly. And if the economy is on the down and down, teaching and learning this stuff is no bad way to react.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:04 PM
Category: Technology
[3] [0]
August 02, 2003
Why Janet Daley is glad she worked her way through college

One of the better tree consuming enterprises in Britain is a thing called The Week, which is a summary of the output of the rest of the print media. This week's The Week came out today. There's some best articles page, which features some of the best chunks of commentary they can find, and this week's number two British chunk is this, from Janey Daley, in the Telegraph:

When I was a student at Berkeley, says Janet Daley, I spent my evenings in a San Francisco cinema ushering people to their seats. I was not alone. Working your way through college is what most American undergraduates do - even the rich ones. It's not just a way to pay for your studies; it's regarded as a social good in itself. To Americans, economic self-sufficiency is a virtue. Imagine my shock then, when I came to Britain for postgraduate work and was told that my college would be most unlikely to permit me to work. In Britain, I soon realised, having to take a job while at college is regarded as an affront: consider how shocked we were all meant to be this week at the news that one in five Oxford students now find it necessary to do so. Underlying this attitude is an ingrained haughtiness: you don't go to university in Britain just to be educated but to become a certain sort of person. And that person does not wait tables. Small wonder relations between the classes are so much more relaxed in America than they are here: in America, the man who brings you-coffee "may be a future professor of history".

Quite so. That point about how you never know who you might be insulting is one of my favourite arguments in favour of rampant capitalism, USA-style.

Certainly some of the best education I've had has been on the job, and the nastier the job was the more educational it tended to be. I once had a month and a half stuffing plastic bottles two at a time under a machine that spewed photographic chemicals. One mistake, and you spend the rest of the day with your genitals soaked in the stuff.

I never got it wrong, so I was spared the worst of it. Good hands, I guess. Not clumsy. All that keeping wicket at school.

But imagine doing something like that for your whole working life. I had plenty of imagining to do when I was doing it, and that was definitely one of the things I imagined. (Not necessarily ghastly, was my conclusion, if you were really good at it and not good for anything more complicated or difficult.) Maybe I was only pretending to be a worker type worker during the vacation, but the experience surely made me a better person, and a better educated person. A different "certain sort of person", you might say.

Here's the whole piece.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:07 PM
Category: Economics of education Learning by doing
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Historic battle in Russia

I missed this the first time around but found it today, via Chris Bertram. It's a Guardian report on arguments about the history syllabus in Russia. A fraught matter as you can surely guess. The people who lost the Cold War were never de-commified, so even if they lost the big one, they can still win little – actually not so little of course – battles like this one:

A row has broken out between the Russian government and a group of the country's top writers over removing literary classics about the repression of the Soviet era from the school syllabus.

Thirteen distinguished writers have sent an open letter to the Minister for Education protesting at plans for several seminal Russian works, including Boris Pasternak's classic Dr Zhivago, to be dropped from the essential reading lists for 12- to 18-year-olds.

The protesters allege that bureaucrats are trying to keep literature dealing with the purges of the Soviet era away from schoolchildren, presenting an anodyne version of the nation's former imperial glory. The books will instead become "recommended reading", taught at the teacher's discretion, on a new list due to come into effect in 2005.

The row goes right to the quick of Russia's struggle to come to terms with the brutalities of its past. While during the Yeltsin era the Kremlin kept the media brimmed with reminders of the horror and hard graft of life under Communism, the Putin administration's focus on nationalistic pride often results in a warm nostalgia for the glories of the Soviet era.

You probably all know what I think about school syllabuses. Let the schools decide them. But I doubt that's going to happen any time soon in Russia.

It's not going to happen any time soon in Britain, either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:02 PM
Category: The curriculum
[2] [0]
August 01, 2003
More on happy homeschooling and happy socialising

This from Happy Homeschooler Joanne Davidson, is good:

The issue I really want to focus on, though, is the level of acceptance that bullying, teasing and related behaviors that demonstrate poor character are 1) expected 2) normal and 3) demand early and repeated exposure to by our youngest citizens.

Public schools are in a unique situation. They provide an ever increasing program of diversity training while at the same time tolerating a high level of teasing and bullying. IMO and IME, institutional learning enviornments breed and foster the kind of climate that diversity training rallies to combat. At the same time, talk to almost any educator or parent who has (or has been) a child of the system, and you will hear version after version of "kids will be kids". The transalation is "You can't stop all teasing, you need to accept that it's going to happen." The fact that teasing and bullying happens at schools is given as an argument that our children *should* attend.

So … to sum up my poorly communicated incredulity: teasing and bullying happens. We have diversity training to protect certain politicalized special interests. But we will honor our children's needs to behave as they do in under-supervised packs. And not only is this a good thing, you need to throw your children into the mix at an early age.

And now beside that, from the USA, put this from the UK:

Children as young as 10 are being robbed of their childhood by pressure to copy scantily clad pop stars such as Kylie Minogue, the leader of a teaching union said yesterday.

Jim O'Neill, chairman of the Professional Association of Teachers, argued that primary school pupils were losing their innocence because they were bombarded with lewd images and exposed to inappropriate storylines and bad language on television programmes before the 9pm watershed.

So I guess children oughtn't really to live at home at all. All that mind rotting television. They should all be packed off to boarding schools at seven, there to be protected from the menace of Kylie.

But what if all that pressure to emulate Kylie comes not so much from Kylie herself as from those "under-supervised packs" that Joanne Davidson talks about?

One of the pleasures of doing this blog is that I am starting to meet quite a few homeschooled, home-edded, home-raised children, and to pay attention when I do meet them. And I can tell you that the home-thinged children whom I've been getting to know (a) get "pressure" from their parents that is much less frantic and antagonistic, to the point where it hardly seems like pressure at all, because the matter is settled between the children and the parents, day in day out, without third parties piling in with other agendas for six hours every day, and (b) they don't get pressure from feral-gang peer groups. They do, however, (c) go out and make friends as and when they feel the need. The idea that home-schooled children don't know how to socialise is, in my experience of socialising with them and on the basis of what they say about their lives, tosh.

The difference is that the very lives of these children are not ruled by the aggregate of their friends' opinions.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: Home education
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