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Chronological Archive • September 2003
September 30, 2003
Alison Wolf on how job success causes job training rather than vice versa

That wealth causes education (because wealthy people can afford it) rather than education causing wealth is a familiar notion to regular readers of this blog. Now here is some writing (from Alison Wolf's Does Education Matter?) about how job success might also cause job training. The ususal nothing being that job training causes job success (pp. 149-150 of my Penguin edition).

What little we know about training practices suggests another scenario as well. Training is more frequent for those higher up the hierarchy; but perhaps much of it follows from success at work, rather than causing it. It may not be about adding skills with a general economic pay-off but rather something that comes with certain jobs. For example, some research I have been doing recently shows that interviewing skills are a very common topic of in-company training for managers. Companies take these courses very seriously, partly because they want managers to make effective hiring decisions, but mostly because they are terrified of ending up before an employment tribunal. Attending such courses is part and parcel of promotion, and so is very likely to be associated with success and higher pay; but it is training that tags along with a successful career, rather than training that leads to one.

If a significant amount of training follows from, rather than causes, people's career success, this would certainly explain some puzzling findings. Remember that a major reason to expect systematic under-spending on training is fear of poaching. Employers supposedly train less for fear that trained employees will be snapped up (for higher wages) by other companies which didn't incur the training costs. Yet in practice individuals who receive training are less likely to move than those who do not, and the pay-off to training appears, on the whole, to be higher when you stay with the employer who provided it.

Which means that just spraying job training all over the people who are not now getting it, or who are thought not now to be getting enough of it, is unlikely to make any difference other than to spread confusion, waste and cynicism.

Note also the point about how some (lots of?) training is about legal requirements rather than about the work itself. Regulation regulation regulation brings forth education education education, in self defence. Which might account for why so many educated people - by which I mean schooled people - are so fond of regulation.

Wolf's book is one of the best I've ever read for getting a broad sense of the various educational policies our government has pursued over the years and decades, and of what expensive and counter-productive flops they've mostly been.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:06 PM
Category: Economics of education
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Better than the rest

Friedrich Blowhard links to, quotes from and comments on a New York Times story very much like the bits of this story that I linked to last week.

Says Friedrich of another of those exceptional educational leaders who do better than the rest by being nice plus old fashioned:

Corporal punishment, while permitted by the school’s by-laws, has apparently never been necessary, possibly because of Principal Whitfield’s previous line of work as a professional football player. This former New York public school teacher also takes the time to greet every student from pre-school to 8th grade with either a hug or a formal handshake.

It kind of makes you wonder if America’s schools aren’t failing for lack of well-socialized children, but for lack of leaders who are willing to be – well, you know, adults.

Individual success stories like this are worth celebrating, but not if the implication is that nationalised education can be rescued simply by everyone just, you know, doing better. And if the government reads these stories, boils down what it reads into a set of national instructions (hire only professional sportsmen, all heads must greet, with hug or handshake, all pupils every morning, and must behave in an adult manner at all times …) then forget about it. It will just be another way to mess up the system.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:02 AM
Category: How to teach
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September 29, 2003

Jonathan Wilde here explains the difference between a real free market in education, and a business merely managing government schools on behalf of the government.


Edison Schools has nothing whatsoever to do with the free market.

It's a point I often make, but I think "nothing whatsoever" is putting it a bit too strongly. Only a bit mind.

The basic point is sound, and one I make here regularly. But by running education as a business, even if governments are the only customers of it so far, Edison at least helps to establish the principle that regular education for regular people can indeed be a business. And by supplying an alternative to what I believe they call over there The Blob, Edison may at least help to break the power of that grim entity.

But I guess Jonathan's reply would be that Edison will soon become just another bit of The Blob.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:54 PM
Category: Economics of education
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Eamonn Butler on the Government's latest skills strategy

I am now trying to get my head around the decades long saga of failure that is the attempt by the British Government to devise a workable "skills strategy", by reading Alison Wolf's outstanding book, Does Education Matter?

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler gives his opinion of the latest effort along these lines, over at the Adam Smith Institute Weblog:

All garbage. It's just an attempt to correct, in the workplace, what our rotten state education system hasn't done at school. If instead of a failing state monopoly, we had diversity and competition in schools, then maybe educators would give kids what they really need to get on in life – and enthuse them in the process.

And why do we need new government-run vocational qualifications when independent agencies already provide them? We should let employers decide what they need in the market, not force them into something they might regard as no good.

And joining up the agencies is a laugh. England has 9 Regional Development Agencies, 47 Learning and Skills Councils, government departments for skills, education, work, who knows what, plus a zillion other work and training quangos. You couldn't even get them all in the Albert Hall, never mind getting them to agree anything.

No, in this case, government is the problem, not the answer. …

Which sounds very like the opinion I'm eventually going to arrive at. But check out the comments – two so far, against and for what Butler says.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:12 PM
Category: Skills
[0] [2]
September 26, 2003
Educational selection – why I don't like the "hypocrisy" argument in favour of it

Stephen Pollard has a piece up at his blog called Should Schools Select?, originally in the September issue of Fabian Review. He says yes, as do I if they want to. I choose the company I keep. Why shouldn't schools?

After trashing the notion that there is any meaningful difference between selecting by aptitude and selecting by ability, he goes on to denounce those who favour non-selection, but who then buy educational advancements for their own children:

The real basis of opposition to selection is, of course, social engineering: the belief that only by forcing all children, irrespective of their individual abilities – aptitudes, if we must – to be educated together can we build a truly equal society. As Crosland put it in 1956: education should be seen "as a serious alternative to nationalisation in promoting a more just and efficient society."

It hasn’t worked. And we all know it. The difference is that some are prepared to say so, whilst others come up with specious arguments to deflect criticism of their own personal response to this failure. 'You know how much we believe in comprehensives, but there’s no way we’re sending little Jonny to that dump round the corner'; in other words, 'It’s fine for the rest of the riff-raff, but not for our kids'. Or 'Amanda is such a clever child but she just isn’t stretched at the moment, so we’re paying her to have extra tuition'; in other words, 'We've got money, and we’re going to spend it how we like, thank you very much'.

We have selection now. But it is based on the cheque book: if you can afford to send your child to a private school, to pay for extra lessons, or to move into the catchment area of a decent state school, then you are fine. If however you are one of the majority, you take what you are given.

It's a familiar argument. Hypocrisy. They preach one thing, but they practise another.

As I say, I agree with Pollard about selection being a fine thing, for all of us. But I've never liked this particular way of arguing for it. After all, I oppose the entire principle of nationalised industries, but I do not hesitate to make use of their services, often heavily subsidised, if it suits me. Was I a hypocrite when I bought a ticket on the old nationalised British Rail? From time to time the BBC pays me to appear on one of their talking head shows on the radio. I cash whatever cheque they send me, if they do, every time. Inconsistent? A proof that I really believe in nationalised broadcasting?

No. Just proof that the world is not as I would like it to be. I have my opinions about how the world ought to be, which I will happily tell you about, on whatever platform the world as it is offers me that is congenial.

So, going back to those educational egalitarians who also pay for Amanda's extra tuition, they believe in a certain sort of educationally equal world. But they don't have the world they want, and instead must do their best for their children in the educational world as it is. In their ideal equal-land, there'd be no nonsense about catchment areas and private schools to allow the rich to escape from the regular system, and all school would be equally splendid. In that world, they'll play by the egalitarian book and let Amanda take her chances with all the other, equally lucky children.

My quarrel with all that is not that they do their best for Amanda. It is that their plan for educational equality is a giant articulated lorry-load of evil smelling cow dung. If all their instructions were followed education wouldn't at all be equally good for everyone, it would unequally dreadful, as is the case with all real world attempts to do equality, in any way. There is no utopia of equal excellence. It's impossible. The real world choice is between a free market, which is unequally excellent, and an unfree system which is unequally ghastly, and that's it. That's my disagreement with these people, not the fact that they do their best for their children.

Quite to the contrary. To me there is nothing personally creepy about edu-egalitarians who buy advantages for their own kids. (I just think they're flat wrong about edu-egalitarianism.) But there is something seriously creepy about parents who are not only edu-egalitarian, but who insist on sacrificing their children on the altar of their own opinions, against those children's best interests. If they have the money, and son Tarquin has no aptitude for survival at the local comprehensive and would plainly do better at a posher sort of place which is happy to take him at a specially reduced price because Tarquin is so clever, and where Tarquin would fit in very well and which he is eager to attend … if all that, who but total shit parents would turn their backs on what would clearly be best for their own child, just because of their damn fool political opinions? That really would be creepy.

There are many worse things in the world than hypocrisy, but these edu-egalitarians whom Pollard lays into aren't even hypocrites. They are just refraining from being knowingly ghastly to their own children merely because they are unknowingly recommending ghastliness for the rest of us. Their crime is stupidity and cruelty, to us. Don't ask them to add the crime of abusing their own children to the rap sheet.

If they are knowingly recommending ghastliness to the rest of us, just so that Tarquin can get ahead and lord it over us, then that's different. But to prove that charge you'd need a quite different sort of evidence to merely them looking out for Tarquin.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 AM
Category: Selection
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September 25, 2003
The answer to high prices is … lower prices!

And I also missed (see below) this piece from last Monday:

A chain of independent schools is to be set up to bridge the gap between the state sector and top independent schools by charging "affordable'' fees.

The plans by Global Education Management Systems (Gems), a company based in Dubai, is likely to encourage more parents to avoid the state sector and put pressure on other independent schools to cut fees. The Office of Fair Trading is investigating allegations of fee-fixing by independent schools including Eton and Winchester.

The company has taken over two private schools in Britain and is looking for more. It also plans to build schools on greenfield sites within easy reach of city centres.

Most educational initiatives are just another ton of forms for teachers to fill in, but that one sounds like it just might work.

Is the price of private education getting too high? The government investigates. The free market gets to work.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:20 PM
Category: The private sector
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Bullying and how to stop it

I've only just read this piece about bullying from the Telegraph of last Monday by Katie Jarvis. The twist is, it was her son doing it.

Katie Jarvis and her son are almost as much the victims of compulsory education as were and are the children her son was bullying.

In the adult world, bullying as nasty as routinely happens in schools is quite rare. This is because adults who hate their place of work for any reason are entitled, even expected, to think about moving elsewhere. This may not be easy, but the option is there, and is a respected and regular part of the culture. Party conversation: Like your job? No it's crap actually? Are you thinking of moving? Trying to, any suggestions? It's not that adults are any nicer than children, far from it. It is simply that the rules governing childrens' lives are now so nasty. Most of them are in prison. Prisons automatically contain bullying. It cannot be otherwise.

The idea of children deciding for themselves that they can't stand the school they are at and simply deciding that they are going to go elsewhere, or nowhere, ought to be as much a routine of childhood life as similar arrangements are for adults. Not that common, but plainly thinkable if a school becomes ghastly, for whatever reason. If that were the case, children like Katie Jarvis' son would simply not be able to become bullies, because they would run out of victims. A couple of the victims would threaten to take their business (vouchers, money, government spending triggers, whatever) elsewhere, and if the school was lucky they'd say why, and Jarvis fils would either stop or be chucked out himself, and he'd almost certainly stop. All that non-judgemental persuasion that Mother Jarvis subjected him to (what happened to the victims during all that palaver I don't know) would be beside the point.

Ultimately, I don't believe that compulsory schooling will be ended by mere laws. I think it will be ripped to bits by young teenagers (and in many cases in alliance with their parents) who ain't fuckin' (my French is necessary to make my point and I do not ask your pardon for it) gonna take it any more. Pre-school-leaving teenagers already have the power to make life a misery for each other and for their minders, and they constantly do. All that is required is for them to become more politically conscious, and they can simply unscrew the lid of the tin and climb out, whenever they like. Here's what we want: we want out. That's reasonable. If you don't let us out here's what we'll do. That kind of thing.

If the motives of some escapees for wanting to escape are criminal, then that's a police matter and a criminal law matter, not an "education" matter, and let the law take its course. If a thirteen year old leaves school to commit crimes and she does, send her to what we all agree is a prison. If their motives and subsequent behaviour are not criminal, then just what is the problem?

If this blog were somehow to become a small part of that process, I would be very happy.

And to say it again: I'm in favour of good (and varied) schools run in accordance with good (and varied) rules. Tight ships. Pink fluffy bunny ships. Whatever people want to sail in and don't have to be press-ganged into. I don't see any conflict there.

I don't see any problem with discussing what good teaching is all about, and how maths is best taught and how reading and writing are best taught, just so long as the victims of it are allowed to leave if they can't stand it or switch to something they consider better.

Class dismissed. That's if you are still here. You can leave this blog any time you like, without explanation. I didn't make that rule, and I don't always like it, but that is the rule. Actually, I do like it. I don't want unhappy readers of this badmouthing it everywhere else they go. I practise what I'm preaching here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:25 PM
Category: BullyingCompulsion
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September 24, 2003
An unexpected return

The blogger formerly known as the Home Educating House Dad is, after a pause that got all sorts of people emailing one another asking if he'd perhaps been run over by a bus, back in business at a stylish new site called Unexpected Liberation, and has a whole new week's worth of good stuff up there.

Here's a good recent post:

Home Education Highlights

When the next door neighbour's kids tell their mum thay want to be home educated too.

Watching the parents squirm ... Priceless!

I only heard about HEHD's new home because he put a couple of comments here. He says oooh very posh about the new look here, and in connection with the great James Lileks bad dad or what? debate, has this to say at his own site. Snippet:

The amazing thing is that this guy obviously thinks that this behaviour is so normal that he can happily write about it and not expect anyone to take umbrage.

"Lileks – NO!"

This latter, for the benefit of anyone who doesn't know but does care, is – unless it's coincidence – a reference to a character invented and performed by British comedian Harry Enfield. However, the Enfield character prefaces his denunciations of prominent persons by saying if they did a whole lot of bad things which they actually haven't done, or said a whole lot of bad things which they actually haven't said, then he, the Enfield character would say: "Blair – NO!", "Beckham – NO!" "Travolta – NO!", etc. Always the surname. But HEHD denounces Lileks on the basis of what Lileks himself actually put. Which is different. So there you go.

Anyway, I'm delighted to be back in touch with HEHD, whom I missed, and whom I had actually been a bit worried about. More to the point he was a great blogger, and the blogosphere would have been permanently damaged by his permanent absence. I'll bet I'm not the only one saying: Welcome back mate.

If Samizdata.net hasn't already heard this good news, I'll shortly be putting it there too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:07 AM
Category: BloggingHome education
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September 23, 2003
"… lay that baggage aside …"

You can't just stroll into Prospect magazine. You have to register. In fact if I understand the situation correction, you have to pay. But if someone else (like Arts & Letters Daily today – an invaluable source – thank you Lileks today, "I jest because I care", for the reminder) gives you the link, you're in, right?

Anyway, this piece by James McLeod on violence in the classroom is an excellent read.

Pamela Coward, head of Middleton technology school in Manchester, (who became a Dame of the British Empire in the June honours list for services to education) expresses the problem tersely: "The challenge really is to eradicate street values from the school." Bob Carstairs, of the Secondary Heads Association, stresses home environment as the biggest problem: "There is a significant increase in the number of children not supervised by family adults." This, he said, means that many children do not know how to behave. Public money to tackle poor behaviour was welcome, but the basic problem, he said, is "cultural."

This attitude is understandable but depressing. It makes the situation appear impossible to tackle. Fortunately there are several examples of teachers who took on a school filled with children from the worst social and emotional backgrounds and succeeded. Ex-headmistress Marie Stubbs, for example, was encouraged out of retirement to tackle the problems of St George's school in west London. Since an earlier head, Philip Lawrence, had been fatally stabbed outside its gates in 1995, the school had deteriorated. In early 2000, just before Stubbs joined, the local authority closed it for a week. They felt unable to ensure the safety of either staff or pupils.

Stubbs has written a book, Ahead of the Class, about her 15 months as head of the school, after which time the school received a glowing Ofsted report. She describes her central principle thus: "A child may come to a school of mine with baggage, but at 9am they should be able to lay that baggage aside and be their best selves for the rest of the day. None of us can control what happens to them outside school, but inside it they should have the best experience they can."

Many will dislike the self-righteous missionary attitude of all this. But if you really are stuck in the heart of darkness …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:45 AM
Category: Violence
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September 22, 2003
A new look

I know what you're thinking. You had no warning of this. But yes, this is same old Brian's Education Blog, but revamped, twenty-first century-ised, blah blah blah. I hope you like it.

I didn't design it myself. That was done by this guy, heckled by me. There will probably be further changes here in the next few days, and the stuff to the right still needs to be looked at, updated, and rearranged. But the basic structure is now fixed. Vent at will in the comments, but it is unlikely to change much.

The reason I gave you no warning of this transformation is that if I had flagged it up beforehand, and if it had then been delayed, but if I had then kept on saying it's coming it's coming, that would have been undignified. There would have been jeers from the back of the class. Better, I thought, to let the change come in its own sweet time, and then say yes, it has changed hasn't it?, well spotted.

If you want my further thoughts on blog design, stay tuned to my Culture Blog, where I'll no doubt have things to say about this, and which is likewise going to get a makeover Real Soon Now.

As for the importance of design to the educational process, I think that if you have to choose between good teachers in a badly designed school and bad teachers and a well designed school, go with the good teachers. The blog equivalent is that there is no substitute for good stuff. Although, it is an interesting question how much effect good design in a school might have on getting good teachers for it, and in allowing them to teach better than they otherwise might. Discuss, if you feel inclined.

That's it for now. I just wanted you all to know that the universe is still in the same place as it was, despite any appearances here to the contrary.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:11 AM
Category: This Blog
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September 19, 2003
Is Gnat being raised correctly? And is it anyone else's business?

Here's an interesting exchange of views, about parenting. Here's an email (which turned into an open letter) from Alice Bachini to James Lileks. (The email turned into an open letter because Alice couldn't work the Lileks email system. If you can help her with that, please go and do so.)

This is the particular Bleat that Alice is referring to.

When discipline is required, Daddy is enlisted. Why? I have the deep voice, and I have the will. I am careful to explain why she is being naughty; I always express my understanding of her position, but I am firm: this will not stand. Comply, or at the count of three you’re locked in your room.

Is it proper etiquette to write open letters to parents about how they raise their children? Well, as Alice says:

You will probably not be interested in this point I'm going to make, but I had to make it. Some people might consider it too personal and therefore rude, but as you write about this subject where people can read it, I hope you don't mind.

I have wondered for some time what Gnat will make in the years to come of the fact that her life has been a Public Issue from the day of her birth. I don't suppose she'll mind. Nevertheless, it must be a bit like being a member of the Royal Family, what with all these total strangers discussing your every little bit of alleged progress or alleged lack of it.

I may do a bit on White Rose some time soon about the notion that discussing individual children's lives must seem to some like a violation of privacy. Personally I just think it's life.

Lileks and Alice agree about the war on terror, which means that Alice's opposition to violence against or forceful restraint of children is not based on pacifism or anything like that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:16 PM
Category: Parents and children
[11] [0]
Work Experience, Real Life, etc.

For me there's no question that the best current article about the realities of education, self-advancement etc., is this one in the latest Spectator. I've not read all the other recent education articles doing the rounds, but if any of them are nearly as good as this one I'd be amazed. And I only got to this piece because Jonathan Pearce linked to another piece in the same issue about the BBC.

Rather than doing the lazy thing and just copying, pasting, commenting, and leaving it at that, let me try to show a bit of initiative.

What the piece says is that now that exam results have becomes so uniformly good, and hence meaningless, the new bit of the juvenile CV which can maybe make a real difference is now "work experience". But not just any old work experience. It has to be posh work experience, with some grand city business or publishing firm that future employers may actually have heard of. Merely working, at Sainsbury's won't get you ahead of the pack when that first real job interview comes along.

Time for just a little copying and pasting:

'In the past six months I’ve had a letter a week requesting work experience, and I usually try to interview about a third of them,' sighed Miss Dawnay. 'So I’ll call them up and ask them to come in on, say, Thursday at 11 a.m. And then they will drawl, 'Fine ... what’s your address?' I always want to scream, 'Do you have any idea how much it will cost me in lost time to read it out?'

Maybe that's what Miss Dawnay should have done. If she had, that would really have been work experience. It would have taken just as long, but she might have enjoyed it more, and the snot might actually have learned something. Well, probably better to break these things to them gently.

I was one of these under-experienced O- and A-level laden little annoyances once. And the one time when I got a realistic sense of exactly how much use I was in that office I infested as a teenager was when one of those work-at-sixteen evening-classes didn't-have-your-advantages blokes in a suit with a mortgage actually lost his temper and told me. No bloody use at all. I'm only putting up with you because my bloody boss, whom your bloody parents nobbled, told me to.

I don't really know what is the answer to all this, although I'm doing lots of good reading about such matters and may be able to tell you all in a year or two.

Meanwhile … you're never going to stop parents trying to wangle unfair advantages for their children, and why would you really want to?

If you keep teenagers away from Real Life, on the grounds that Real Life finds them too annoying, then the teenagers remain ignorant of it until they emerge from University, and the facts of Real Life hit them all in a rush. They have to learn sooner or later, and someone has to put up with them while they do.

My preferred answer is the whole radical TCS-type agenda, which lets children take charge of their own lives just as soon as they are inclined, choose their own work, school (if they want a school), and in general their lives, from the available alternatives. That way, they get their first non-parental bollocking for being too annoying and self-centred (if they have been) at about the age of five from some guy selling hot-dogs, and they learn continuously about Real Life (which really just means other people) by not ever being seriously separated from it (them). The teenagers I've know who have best combined having plenty of self-confidence with hardly being annoying and self-centred in a bad way at all, giving off a sense that your time and efforts might be as valuable to you as their time and efforts are valuable to them, are those who've been raised this way.

As it is, you either get teenagers who still have a bit of spirit, but no Real World knowledge, or teenagers with bags of Real World knowledge, but who only have it because that's all they have. They've had all the spirit kicked out of them by people only losing their tempers with them and telling them they're useless, and nothing else.

As for the fact that people now spend longer and longer accumulating CV stuff instead of actually doing real Real Life things, well, stay tuned about that also.

(If and when TCS-like ideas become the orthodoxy, will they then, in a bungled form, merely become a new arena of parental concern? "Live your own life! Be free! Do interesting things that employers will be impressed by! Don't just sit at home studying! Don't wait for us to tell you what to do!" Oh well. No doubt the TCS people have thought that syndrome through.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsParents and childrenRelevance
[4] [1]
September 18, 2003
The importance of faraway theories

Physical events provoke virtual connections, there's no doubt about it. As a result of attending this physical event, I went here, and then found my way to this article about science teaching. Here, it seems to me, is the key idea of the piece:

This preference for the concrete reality of everyday life over theory and abstraction dominates educational practice. Yet science is based on a set of abstract ideas. It has to be, in order to deal with the counterintuitive behaviour of the natural world. You cannot explain electricity without introducing the idea of charge and charge carriers – but try explaining what charge is. Electric charge is an abstract model used to explain electricity. In order to understand electricity a pupil needs to know, not only that charge exists, but also that it is a model.

Once a pupil makes that leap of imagination, a whole new world of ideas opens up. When we move from understanding everyday life to grappling with an abstract system of ideas, we can really appreciate the power of science. If we avoid dealing with the problem of moving pupils towards a more powerful way of thinking about the world, we avoid teaching them science. Many teachers try to use analogies that relate the flow of electricity to water in a pipe, or a model train on a track – but the more you try to make an abstract idea concrete, the more you stop children appreciating the difference. In the end, you have little choice but to demonstrate to them how powerful the ideas are.

Teaching should not only be incremental additions to the mental territory that the pupil is already familiar with. It should also be news of faraway places, of wonders and magical beasts and faraway lands, of the earth, of the stars, and of the mind. It should include parachute drops into enemy territory (the land of the unknown), not just safe little pushes launched from existing fronts. And among those faraway places should be those occupied by the theoretical sciences, theoretical because our mere senses give us no intuitive understanding of what scientists have nevertheless learned to be true.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
Category: Science
[2] [0]
Smaller schools

Here's an article about how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping schools in the USA to get smaller:

National data on small schools shows that they tend to be quieter and safer, with fewer dropouts and higher graduation rates. This trend held true last year in poor areas of the Bronx, where ordinary high schools, some with enrollments of 3,000 or more, had lower success rates on state exams – and drastically higher dropout rates – than the New Visions schools, which have enrollments ranging from roughly 75 to 150 students.

In Britain smaller schools might be better, if only to stop this, also mentioned yesterday.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:01 PM
Category: This and that
[0] [0]
September 17, 2003
Alice says school's out

Alice Bachini has some educational commentary today, about the latest teacher recruitment adverts. She also points to this story as further proof that you shouldn't send your kids to school at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
[0] [0]
The new Adam Smith Institute blog on education

I've little time now, and may not have any more time for education blogging today. So you may have to make do with this link, which is to all the education stuff at the new Adam Smith Institute blog.

There are three pieces so far, about the private educational habits of US politicians, the idea of "a tax on education" (which is not about what you'd think – it's actually about the idea of the government fining Britain's universities for price collusion), and (the first posting of all) about ... education vouchers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:29 PM
Category: Free market reforms
[0] [0]
September 16, 2003
Natalie Solent on rebellious prisoners

There's an excellent posting by Natalie Solent about the nuances of just how direct is the relationship between time spent at school, education, individual economic success, and collective economic success. And never let it be forgotten that economic success is supposed to be about people being happy, which is why this concluding paragraph is so especially good:

Joanne Jacobs posts a link to a study that describes another reason why increased staying-on rates do not always add to the sum of human happiness. Her story refers to the US, but does anyone doubt the same could be said here? One of the nicer things about being a grown up is that for most of us the chances of being pushed around and insulted on a daily basis go down drastically once you leave school. I noticed an improvement in my quality of life once I hit the Lower Sixth and one or two of the more disaffected pupils had left - and I went to a fairly orderly girls' grammar. The improvement was nothing to do with academic selection (I really missed some friends who left to work in shops or have babies) and everything to do with all those who remained being volunteers. There's a spectrum between a student who is fully committed to education and an utterly rebellious prisoner. Government targets to "improve" staying-on rates do not increase the number of prisoners (we are talking about 16+ year olds, after all, who could leave if they chose) but they do shift the spectrum in the prisoner direction. More young people are in school who would rather be elsewhere, and they tend to horse around.

Lower the school leaving age to zero, I say.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:32 PM
Category: Economics of education
[0] [0]
English Rose Madonna has written a children's book

Madonna has written a children's book, called The English Roses. Yesterday's Times T2 Magazine had some quite complimentary reactions from various celebrity mums. (There is now a link for this, but links to timesonline are often a problem after a few days for non-UK people, so just take my word for this.) Their children liked the book very much, even though (because?) a lot of them have now never heard of Madonna.

From the sound of the various reactions, the story is a re-hash of the poor little rich girl story, only this time it's a poor little beautiful girl. Beauty is now wealth, I guess. And the moral is, don't be nasty to poor little beautiful girls.

Written from the heart, I think we can say. (Don't write mean reviews saying that some poor little beautiful girl is utter garbage in her latest movie, just because she is utter garbage …?)

But isn't that what good art does, whether "popular" or high. It takes real experience and rejigs it and universalises it. The idea that you can just slosh out "popular" art with one hand, emotionally speaking tied behind your back, is very, very wrong. You have to mean it.

This could obviously be a culture posting, but I have the feeling that all culture vultures who care already know about this Madonna book, while there may be educationalistical readers (all complaints about academic standards but no interest in the Zeitgeist) who missed this event completely. And a children's book that children like a lot is an educational as well as a cultural event.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:46 PM
Category: Books
[2] [0]
Take your pick: sovietisation or five star hotels

The Sovietisation meme is getting around:

Sports centres don't matter. Teachers do. A school is made or unmade by its teachers, and good teachers value the spirit in which they can teach more than sumptuous facilities. Part of the point of being an independent-minded teacher is that you can follow your own genius, if you have any, instead of being treated, as seems the fate of many teachers in state schools, like a Soviet coal miner whose only goal is to fulfil the latest five-year plan.

That's from a telegraph piece by Andrew Gimson on the independent sector price fixing row. There's more to education, he says, than getting and spending lots of money. Earlier paragraph:

… great schools do not depend only upon money. Many were the creation of one outstanding head teacher, who either set up a new school or else revived an old foundation. These teachers did not succeed because they had pots of money, or because they could accommodate their pupils in buildings that are scarcely distinguishable from a five-star hotel and country club. They usually succeeded in straitened circumstances, in makeshift premises, because parents and pupils realised that they understood something about education. We need many more such men and women today.

James Tooley would agree with that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:12 PM
Category: Economics of education Sovietisation
[0] [1]

Jnanoe Jobcas lnkis to tihs, but I want the link to the "elgnsih unviesitry sutdy", or at least to know more about its oingirs.

Something tells me that this might not work with "Micklethwait".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:54 PM
Category: Literacy
[0] [0]
September 15, 2003
Independent pricing

A posh cartel?

Independent schools today strongly denied that they had engaged in price-fixing to increase fees at the country's most prestigious institutions.

Stephen Pollard says it's just envious statists trying to hobble the private sector, and Natalie Solent, as a nod to the new Pollard website, picks out this quote:

You read that right: Sweden. The most egalitarian people on Earth understand what British opponents of school choice do not: choice benefits, above all, the poor. Swedish councils are obliged to give a voucher representing 75 per cent of the average cost per student in municipal schools to any parent who wants one.

I've long suspected that Sweden is a more capitalist place than it likes to let on. There's a lot more to that place than Volvo, SAAB and Social Services.

As for the price fixing accusation, I guess Pollard is right: whether the independents collude or not, the market is still in charge. There are alternatives to these independent schools. But if the independents are putting their prices up, what does that say about the quality of their state rivals?

The independents don't have an educational monopoly. The statist critics of the independents, on the other hand, do want a monopoly. For the state.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: The private sector
[3] [0]
Same marks – different grades

More bad press for GCSEs:

Pupils scoring the same marks in the GCSE maths exam have been awarded different grades under a new marking method, teachers have found.

Sue Fishburn, headteacher of the independent Leeds Girls' High School, where the anomaly was discovered, said that it was "patently ridiculous".

Perhaps the examiners ought to take an exam in exam-setting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:29 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [1]
Stephen Pollard on education

I've just done what I hope was a big plug over at Samizdata for the new Stephen Pollard blog, and while digging around there, I realised that it is now as easy to read Stephen Pollard back catalogue, and link to selected items, as it used to be difficult.

For the purpose of this blog, then, you go here, and start at the top. Go down a bit and you find that on August 11th, Pollard had a education piece in the Evening Standard:

… Money may be going into the "education budget", but most of it is not – and rarely ever has been – going to schools themselves. It goes instead to Local Education Authorities, who then pass it on – in theory – to schools. And that is the nub of the problem.

When you go to a supermarket, you go directly to the checkout. You don't wander outside, find a middle man, give him your money and wait while he buys on your behalf. But that is precisely what happens to the education budget. When LEAs get hold of the money they then, to use the supermarket analogy, say not only that they have discovered a far better product than the one you asked for, but that they need to take a proportion of it themselves to pay for the administration of this essential service.

There is only one sensible way of spending the money: abolishing the wasted bureaucracy and political point scoring of LEAs, and instead handing it over to the people who are in the best position to decide what they need and how they should allocate their money – schools themselves.

Forceful, opinionated, and better informed than most of the stuff you'll read here by me, but no agonisings about whether compulsoriness is, or is any longer, a good thing to unleash upon generation after generation of children. For Pollard, the only question is how to improve the unleashing of it. Nevertheless, well worth a trawl back.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 AM
Category: Economics of education
[1] [0]
September 14, 2003
"Forced to lower the pass mark"

Why am I not surprised?

GCSE results were "fixed" to mask the poorest performance by mathematics students in almost a decade, a senior examiner revealed last night.

David Kent, a chairman of the Edexcel exam board for nine years, claimed that he was forced to lower the pass mark by about eight percentage points to ensure that thousands of students managed to pass the exam.

His allegations, reported in today's Sunday Times, will add considerable fuel to the long-running controversy about whether exam pass rates have been artificially manipulated. Those who maintain that easier exams and more generous marking have concealed falling standards are likely to seize on Mr Kent's statements.

Yes they are. I link to the Indy version of this because Times links don't last.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:02 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[4] [0]
The limits of school protection



Your kind of thing, I think – LINK.


The Philosophical Cowboy (nom de blog)

Yes it is. Many thanks.

The Cowboy's starting point is this Guardian story about bullying from last week. His summary:

Essentially, staying over at a friend, Emma's, the protagonist, Vicky, had been the subject of an attempted sexual assault by the friend's father. The police seemed convinced by her story, but the school did little to protect her from the consequences of her reporting the incident …

And she then got all hell broken loose all over her, by Emma's older sister and all her friends at the school they all shared. Eventually Vicky was rescued by her parents going private with her.

The Cowboy says that this is the kind of story that makes people say that all parents should have the chance to make a choice like that, not just the ones who can afford it. Amen.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 PM
Category: BullyingParents and children
[0] [1]
What kind of wonderful will Cecilia be?

In one of my favourite movies, Some Kind of Wonderful, there are some memorable scenes between the central protagonist, played by a young Eric Stolz, and his dad. The Stolz character wants to be an artist, and go on to some kind of art school. The dad's attitude, as he tells the (I think) school principal is: "I don't think that's going to happen."

Dad: "You have the chance to be the first member of our family who doesn't have to wash his hands when he gets home from work." But the son blues the savings he got from car mending, which his dad thinks he should spend on a "good" college doing a sensible course, on expensive ear-rings for his girl-friend. His big problem is not deciding on a college; it's deciding which girl is his girl-friend.

Meanwhile the younger daughter, all unnoticed by dad, is an obvious future academic star, and an obvious shoe-in to a good college.

Here's a Washington Post book review that talks of families split by the art-versus-good-education thing, only this time for the realest of real, and about families who are absolutely not ignoring the higher education potention of their daughters:

… Whitney is the top-rated public high school in California, arguably in the nation.

Its students are formidable. Take Cecilia, who regards herself as "really pretty stupid." At Whitney this doesn't mean a C- grade point average. As a guidance counselor reminds the senior, "You're a commended National Merit Scholar. A California Governor's Scholar. An AP Scholar. Your SAT scores are a combined 1450. You took three AP tests and got a perfect five on each. Your GPA is 3.8. You volunteer at a nursing home, you're in a Model United Nations, you were part of the design team that won the NASA Space Set award last year for Whitney. You write fantasy and science fiction. And you are in advanced art this year. Where do you get this drive?"

Cecilia answers by insisting she's nothing special. "I'm really pretty average. I actually have to study for my grades, unlike some of my friends, who seem to do all this effortlessly. I have to pull all nighters." Cecilia admits that she's "okay" at art. In reality, the young woman draws "incredible anime and pointillist pictures."

You would think parents would be proud of such a child. Yes and no. In fact, Cecilia's mother and father want her to go to Harvard, Stanford or U.C. Berkeley. When she spoke to them about becoming an artist, they threw her portfolio into the street, then made her wait half an hour while cars ran over an entire year's work before they allowed her to retrieve the drawings and paintings. Similarly, when one of her classmates, Angela, asked for a sewing machine to work on an art project, her parents subjected the sensitive girl to ridicule, then reminded her that they hadn't sacrificed so that she could become a "seamstress."

There are several dozen "morals" to stories like that. One is that people are now competing not just with all the people in their town or all the people in their class, but with all the people in the world. This is an effect of our old friend/enemy "modern communications", which shove the brilliance of all of mankind on your bedroom desk every night while you are doing your homework.

As for Cecilia being "okay", I remember a sociology lecture at Essex U a thousand years ago, in which it was revealed that everyone thought they were middle class, from middle-ranking dukes (which was what all dukes thought they were) to middle-ranking dustmen (ditto).

You get the feeling that Cecilia thinks that "art" is a refuge from this world of endless struggle, which for many it is. But not if you try to do it for a living, Cecilia. On the other hand, Cecilia's parents could be quite wrong about how much money Cecilia might earn as an artist. But, they are right in that the key word there is "might". It's too chancy. They can't entrust their DNA to a mere artist. Get yourself a trade girl. Be a doctor or lawyer or accountant or, at worst, a "manager" of some kind. Hey ho.

I got the link to this by going to Crooked Timber, and then to Calpundit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:13 PM
Category: Parents and children
[0] [0]
September 13, 2003
Manly virtue

Interesting New York Times article about how to breed and educate leaders, focusing on the Deans and the Bushes:

… If you look at Bush and Dean, even more than prep school boys like John Kerry (St. Paul's and Harvard), Al Gore (St. Alban's and Harvard) and Bill Frist (Montgomery Bell Academy and Princeton), you detect certain common traits.

The first is self-assurance. Both Bush and Dean have amazing faith in their gut instincts. Both have self-esteem that is impregnable because it derives not from what they are accomplishing but from who they ineffably are. Both appear unplagued by the sensation, which destroyed Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, that there is some group in society higher than themselves.

Both are bold. Bush is an ambitious war leader, and Dean has set himself off from all the cautious, poll-molded campaigns of his rivals.

Both were inculcated with something else, a sense of chivalry. Unlike today's top schools, which are often factories for producing Résumé Gods, the WASP prep schools were built to take the sons of privilege and toughen them into paragons of manly virtue. Rich boys were sent away from their families and shoved into a harsh environment that put tremendous emphasis on athletic competition, social competition and character building.

As Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell write in "Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools," students in traditional schools "had to be made tough, loyal to each other, and ready to take command without self-doubt. Boarding schools were not founded to produce Hamlets, but Dukes of Wellington who could stand above the carnage with a clear head and an unflinching will to win."

As anyone who has read George Orwell knows, this had ruinous effects on some boys, but those who thrived, as John F. Kennedy did, believed that life was a knightly quest to perform service and achieve greatness, through virility, courage, self-discipline and toughness.

Manly virtue, greatness, virility, courage, self-discipline. Usually such words are used nowadays with more of an ironic sneer than you see here. Interesting. The 9/11 effect on educational thinking?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:31 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
[5] [0]
September 12, 2003
MIT gives it away

Nancy Lebowitz has just commented on the posting immediately below, and included a link to the MIT OCW (that's Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare) site. It's a long time since I've been so impressed by an educational website, of any sort.

Welcome to MIT OpenCourseWare a free, open, publication of MIT Course Materials. We invite you to view all the courses available at this time.

I went to the FAQ page.

1. What is MIT OpenCourseWare?

The idea behind MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is to make MIT course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world. MIT OCW will advance technology-enhanced education at MIT, and will serve as a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age. This venture continues the tradition at MIT, and in American higher education, of open dissemination of educational materials, philosophy, and modes of thought, and will help lead to fundamental changes in the way colleges and universities utilize the Web as a vehicle for education.

Free of charge. That was the bit that got my attention. That's what Nancy had said, but there it was in black and white, with them saying it. That means, among a million other good things, that blogs can link there way right into the middle of this stuff.

Well, I assume they can. And I do that because the whole site just oozes the feeling that these people know exactly what they are doing, and, equally important, what they are not doing. They are dishing out course materials. They are not going to tell anyone on your behalf that you have paid any attention to them, nor, in general, do they offer to preside over your education.

If you want to have an email correspondence with your preferred MIT faculty member, forget it.

2. How do I contact a specific member of the MIT Faculty?

MIT OCW is intended as a publication of MIT course materials on the Web, and not as an interactive experience with MIT faculty. It provides the content of, but is not a substitute for, an MIT education. The most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at MIT is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom, and among students themselves on campus. MIT OCW does not offer visitors to the Web site the opportunity for direct contact with MIT faculty. Inquiries related to specific course materials will be forwarded to the MIT faculty member associated with that course for their consideration. However, due to the tremendous volume of email inquiries received, it is unlikely he or she will answer all emails.

I've heard about this in a vague way, but have never even properly scratched the surface of the website before. I am extremely impressed. I'll be back. In fact I left a comment there saying this.

In general, I think that we can expect many more major institutions with world-wide reputations (and not just educational institutions) to just give stuff away. The BBC, for instance, has recently said that it may be about to do this.

Meanwhile the educational impact of this particular MIT give-away can only be guessed at.

My deepest thanks to Nancy, and particularly for the URL.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:42 PM
Category: The Internet
[1] [3]
September 11, 2003
Global Virtual Classroom

I know nothing about this at all, other than the email I got about it today:

The Global Virtual Classroom project opened for business this week.

It's a collaborative cross-border experience for primary and secondary schools, allowing them to develop both web and global communication skills so necessary today.

A mention in your blog would be greatly appreciated for this non-profit endeavor that is still searching for sponsors.

Frank Patrick
Project Manager
Global Virtual Classroom Project
Give Something Back International

Comments anyone?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
Category: The Internet
[4] [4]
A done deal that can't be done

The regulations and the initiatives pile up. Teachers have to do bureaucracy. The teachers protest. So a "deal" is done that says the teachers can just teach. But the schools have to pay other people to do bureaucracy. The schools may have a bit more money, but that was supposed to be for teaching, not bureaucracy, and in any case to get the extra money, you have to do bureaucracy. So, the schools can't make the deal work.

It has been hailed as the magic bullet, the deal that will slay the beast of bureaucracy and put an end to years of complaints from teachers that their work is choked by endless administration. The first stage of the three-year workload agreement was introduced last week, with the start of new school year.

But already it looks to be unravelling, with hundreds of schools claiming they cannot afford to employ the extra staff they need to make it work. Classroom unions have threatened industrial action unless head teachers stick to the new contractual limits imposed by the deal, but, with schools gripped in financial crisis, thousands of teachers have found themselves agreeing to do just as much cutting, pasting, typing and photocopying as ever before.

Plus, once they do employ all those bureaucrats, there'll be an interest group in place to keep the idiot bureaucratic regulations and bizarre initiatives in place for ever and ever. Education will then become "inherently" more expensive.

Don't read the national press about anything. It will only depress you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[1] [0]
September 10, 2003
Homeschooling in the USA

Any of my readers who missed this article should … unmiss it? Lots of homeschooling blogs have already referenced it, and really that's my point. There's no doubt that homeschooling in the USA is on the up-and-up.

Teach your children well — at home

Home schooling grows in popularity and credibility

Quite so. The article makes the point, though, that having only one parent at work is usually a precondition.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:03 PM
Category: Home education
[0] [0]
September 09, 2003
Cheating on Samizdata

I just did a posting here on Internet cheating, and then I thought it made more sense for it to go on Samizdata, so I put it there, and deleted it here (in case anyone observed this and was wondering).

I say I did a posting. Actually I stole it all. From the New York Times. Hah.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
Category: The Internet
[0] [0]

The trouble with encouraging teachers to teach rather than become bureaucrats is that they then teach instead of becoming bureaucrats:

Heads believe one reason for the reluctance to take top jobs is the Government's attempt to persuade good teachers to stay in the classroom by offering them higher pay. A head of department may only earn £1,000 a year more than a teacher who refuses to take on extra responsibilities. Another is the high workload and increasingly bureaucratic nature of senior teaching posts.

Next: they'll encourage teachers to become bureaucrats, and then worry about the fact that they are becoming bureaucrats instead of teachers.

The word is Sovietisation. Under advanced Sovietisation (late Sovietisation?) there are so many objectives that in the end the teachers just say to hell with it, and reach for the vodka. The way to get purposelessness is to pile up the purposes until each separate purpose no longer matters. You can then play them all off against each other and do nothing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
September 08, 2003
Starbucks schooling

David Sucher writes:

Amid world-wide concern that Seattle may not have enough espresso to stay awake and keep up its side of conversation, coffee buffs rallied today in mass demonstration to support espresso and oppose taxes.

What's our alternative to this well-meaning but ill-advised legislation to tax espresso in order to fund pre-school activities? Let a thousand espresso bars offer day care! After all, they are already doing it for the middle-aged.

Yes. But they must also serve ice cream.

See what I mean about how we don't want the government deciding what a school is. Great bloggers think alike.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:35 PM
Category: The private sector
[0] [0]
Schwartz versus Clarke - grammar versus comprehensive

Here's news of another punch exchanged in the endless battle about selective versus comprehensive education:

A plan to set up the first state-funded grammar school in England for more than 50 years was announced yesterday by Brunel University.

It is the brainchild of Prof Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor, who has been asked by the Government to recommend ways of opening up good universities to bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

His solution will acutely embarrass Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, who is a fierce opponent of selective education.

Exploiting Government legislation that encourages private backers to set up state-funded city academies, Prof Schwartz is proposing to build a school for 300 "gifted and talented" pupils aged 14 to 19 on Brunel's campus at Runnymede, Windsor.

Just down the hill from where I spent the first two decades of my home life, in other words.

I suppose the key to this ruckus it is who exactly you think the "underprivileged" are. Are they the poor? Or are they the poor and stupid? (I don't know how to phrase that politely. I did give it some thought. Maybe not enough) Egalitarians have to have an answer, so that they can then set about helping the losers.

From where Clarke sits, Schwartz is wanting to dish out further help to people who are clever already, and who ought to be able to make it in regular schools. From where Schwartz sits, Clarke is ruthlessly cutting down the ladder for the very children most capable of climbing it and thus most in need of it.

This argument is not going to go away.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:00 PM
Category: Selection
[1] [0]
September 07, 2003

This is the sort of headline of which people say: "They don't write headlines like this any more." Except that they just did. It's further evidence that the nationalised education system of Britain is coming to resemble the old USSR.

So, next: Russian teachers, in England, out of their skulls on vodka, driven crazy by quotas.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:29 PM
Category: SovietisationThe reality of teaching
[0] [0]
The Russians are coming

Russian teachers, that is. It seems that being part of the EU isn't necessary.

The Independent's subheading says a lot in a few words, both about the pay, and about the work:

Highly qualified, they earn huge sums compared to pay back home. But there is the culture shock ...

That's going to be a fun story to track. Another part for Arnold Schwarzenneger maybe, if that Californian job doesn't work out. Red Heat meets Kindergarten Cop.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:37 PM
Category: Economics of education
[0] [0]
Educational globalisation takes another step

I've written here about the possibility of Brits sending their kids to Eastern Europe in the years to come. (Friends have reacted by suggesting that a more likely development is lots of Eastern European private tutors setting up shop here.) Now here's evidence of Americans who are already sending their children abroad for their education, in this case African Americans, sending their children across the Atlantic for their education, for all the usual reasons that I'm sure you can imagine. That's African African Americans – Americans who used quite recently to be Africans – sending their children back to African schools.

My thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the link, who also comments on the story, linking to someone who speculates that white people might start getting interested too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:58 PM
Category: The private sector
[0] [0]
The American voucher campaign

In Britain I have tended to be scornful of the campaign that has sputtered on for years in favour of Education Vouchers. I have felt that these campaigners should have concentrated more on putting the broad case for free market education, and should then maybe mention vouchers at the end of their screeds, with the caveat that vouchers are a half-measure, because they still mean the government deciding what "Education" means. After all, you can't be allowed to spend your "Education" Vouchers at the Ice Cream Parlour, can you? That's not a "school", is it? But what if it is, sort of? What if they have books there, and internet connections, and things get learned? See what I mean? Personally I prefer to emphasise the benefits of people getting education for their children using freedom's own vouchers, money.

However, the vouchers picture may start to change here if things in the USA continue to develop there as they are developing over there. There vouchers are spreading fast, and if that leads to a definite gap in quality between the voucher schools and the regular schools, and if that gap is big enough to get noticed over here, then the argument here might shift.

Here is a piece by the Heritage Foundation's Krista Kafer about the growth of school choice, and here is evidence that they are willing to make the campaign politically forceful by making the political personal, the personal bit being about the school choices made by the politicians whom they are targetting.

To me, the big story is how the Americans are not just handing out vouchers to the poor. They are creating circumstances in which even poor people can use some of their own money to make a difference. This is the significance of the tax credit meme. You don't get your good education for free. But good education is brought within your financial range, if you are willing to make a sacrifice for it. That means that the parents who go for it will be the best ones, and that means that the product they buy will stay good, as it expands. A social and cultural change will be set in motion.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 PM
Category: Free market reforms
[0] [2]
September 05, 2003
"The public needs to be educated" - search

I've been busy today doing other things, and have little time for this blog now. So just a short posting on the word itself: "education".

If you google "education", you get a lot of the things you'd expect like the US Department of Education, and the Hawaii Department of Education, and no doubt somewhere in among it all I might have found the Campaign for Real Education, although I didn't. There's a link to that on the right.

But in among all this you get things like Pesticide Education Resources. Education to mean propaganda, education to mean utterly inappropriate additions to the school curriculum.

But mostly, when you google "education", you get: education.

Then I tried googling "The public needs to be educated". How many hits for that?

One thousand four hundred and seventy.

Try it. Then look down all the hits. In every case the word "educated" is mis-used to mean "persuaded", or just plain "told".

Google tells that the public needs to be educated about:

Potatoes. Grizzly bears. White cane laws. The dangers of driving while using the phone. Gang tendencies. The alternatives available for pain management. Basic human rights. Water. Chiropracty. The importance of spaying. Alcoholism. The general, substantive issues that make up the national question. Wrought iron gates. The potential of cloning. The true costs and benefits associated with the use of pharmacologic agents. The potential dangers involved with riding MPWCs and of the necessity for a boating licence. The benefit of street trees. The moth. Ways to be active and healthy and forget about body image. What piracy is and how it affects the artist and the industry. The negative effects of corruption and what they can do against it. Linux. Not to buy stolen goods. Good land use practices. How the presidential fund checkoff works. Calcium's importance in health and how best to improve calcium nutriture by making appropriate food choices. Genetic screening. The threat created by Apple Snails. The Sign Code. So that their expectations of police response time is more realistic. What 'intrusion' is. Inguinal hernias. The importance of harm reduction strategies in relation to all drug use. That during the F&I period, the RedCoats were the good guys. The high quality of re-refined oils. What greenspace is. That a bicycle is a legal vehicle on public roads. To view forest fires as a threat to the national economy. Both what deposit insurance can and cannot accomplish. The difference between decay and cavity. The value of tourism to the local economy. The widespread condition of women who suffer from domestic violence.

Well I'm on about page forty of the hits, copying and pasting away, and I have yet to encounter any claim to the effect that the public ought to be educated, as in: the public ought to be educated. Full stop. In every use of this phrase without exception, educated really means sold, told, persuaded, bullied, but not educated.

I can think of all kinds of further comments I might make about this. But deadline looms. Have a nice weekend.

(The public needs to be educated about the importance of nice weekends.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
Category: This and that
[2] [1]
September 04, 2003
Woe is me

Apparently it's Back To School day in the USA, around now.

School's been out for the summer but now it's:

Woe is me, all summer long I was happy and free.
Save my soul, the board of education took away my parole.
I gotta go back, back, back to school again.

That second line (of verse two) scans particularly sweetly ("the BOARD of ED-u-CA-tion TOOK a-WAY my pa-ROLE").

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:33 PM
Category: This and that
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Too few too big

Every problem in education is an excuse for a new central initiative. And this one is really going to spread happiness everywhere.

Headteachers are being urged to stagger the start and end of lessons to reduce traffic congestion created by the school run.

The move will be part of a government offensive against parents who cause jams during the rush hour when they ferry their children to and from school.

The proposal could have pupils starting and finishing school up to an hour earlier or later than they do now.

But, the plan is likely to be unpopular with parents who have arranged their work schedules around their childen's existing timetables. Some could be forced to make several journeys every day if they have children at different schools.

Other measures will aim at persuading parents to abandon the school run by improving pedestrian crossings, cycle lanes and bus services.

I believe that the central folly here is one that was perpetrated a long, long time ago and which is going to be the devil of a job to unscramble. Basically, there are far too few schools. They are far too big. And the typical home is far too far away from the nearest one. (See also: cottage hospitals. Now also mostly closed down.)

Number two hundred and sixty three of the seven hundred and forty eight and climbing fast reasons why I believe in a totally free market in education is that I believe that a free market in education would have supplied schools for small children – especially small children – which are but an easy walk away from home, for just about everyone. I think there would have been a smooth path trodden historically, from the old Victorian Dame Schools, which were primary schools for one classroom of kids taught by one Old Biddy, to Tescho Primary, Safeteach, or whatever they would be called, which would be competing nationally franchised chains of educational excellence, for quite small sums of money, with very flexible hours, masses of terrific centrally supplied technology for teachers and children to choose from, and just would generally be fabulous compared to anything dreamed of now.

I was on the radio yesterday trashing the public sector, and it got me thinking, again, that one of the very worst things about a seriously nationalised industry, such as education now is, is that people stop even imagining how much better things might be if competing tradesman and charity workers and parents were running the show instead of state teachers harrassed into daily near insanity experiences by maniacally fusspot London bureaucrats, such as the geniuses who are presiding over this staggered school hours initiative.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:46 PM
Category: HistoryThe private sector
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September 03, 2003
More bullying

From today's Guardian:

Local education authorities are to have their own anti-bullying "tsars" under government plans announced today.

I feel another Micklethwait's Law coming on: Whenever they appoint a "tsar" for anything, it means they don't know what the $%$@!!! to do. And a "tsar" to stop bullying? Listen to yourselves.

Specialist behaviour consultants are to be installed in all 150 LEAs in England and Wales at the cost of £75m.

Consultants. First, it will end up costing far more than that. Second, there'll still be bullying going on after the money has all been spent.

A new national anti-bullying charter will also be sent to all schools in an effort to highlight the problem.

To replace the previous anti-bullying charter?

Schools are already required to have anti-bullying policies, but the deaths over the summer of three children who had all been badly bullied prompted calls for fresh action.

Whatever you did last time that achieved nothing, do more of it.

Police are still investigating the deaths of 16-year-old Karl Peart and 15-year-old Gemma Dimmick, both pupils at Hirst high school in Ashington, Northumberland, who died in June.

Enough. I'm too depressed.

Answer to bullying. First, make it so schools get paid according to how many children go there. Second: let anyone who wants to leave a school leave it. That would make bullying bad for business. Meanwhile: don't know.

If you personally are being bullied at some horrible dump of a school, and they (your parents, teachers, etc.) won't let you even talk about going somewhere else instead, make them an offer. They let you go somewhere else, and in exchange you don't torch the damn place. There was a boy at my posh school who, rumour had it, got to go sports car racing every Wednesday afternoon by this method. In general, the secret is to combine extreme reasonableness with the threat of extreme violence if reason gets no response. Neither sweet reason not violence on their own are sufficient to solve such problems.

When children do this kind of thing to adults, they are called troublemakers. When adults do it to each other they are called diplomats.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
Category: Bullying
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September 02, 2003
Separating teaching from tyranny

The article by Jennifer Chew about phonics which I scanned in here last Wednesday is now up at the Telegraph website.

A homeschooling commenter denounced it thus:

More dogma and propaganda from those who have been indoctrinated to think they know who to raise my child better than I do.

I have a recent post on a topic related to this on my blog.


I'm not quite sure which particular "this" the posting on her blog refers to. Is it the phonics, the presumption of teaching superiority, or the "infant school" thing? Not sure.

I don't know if what follows works as any sort of answer to Joanne Davidson's objections, but maybe it does.

It seems to me that two things constantly get lumped together, both by those who favour both, and by those who oppose both, namely very structured and disciplined teaching, and the claim that children should be forced to submit to such teaching against their will.

I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Chew is a more or less unquestioning believer in the necessity of compulsory education, particularly for small children. In this I disagree with her, as does commenter Joanne. But when it comes to the teaching of literacy, I believe that I have a lot to learn from such persons as Jennifer Chew.

Put it this way. Supposing someone asked me which was better for a child: Being "taught" to read and write by those disastrously confusing "look and say" (i.e. look and guess) methods, in purely consenting circumstances, year after year? Or: Being forced to pay attention to someone like Jennifer Chew for a few early months of life? Well, I just hope no one asks. All I can say is I'd try like hell to persuade the "voluntary" teacher to change his or her ways, and if I failed … I'd not be a happy person. At present, most of the damage done by "look and say" is compulsorily inflicted by idiot state teachers, so that question, put to me, has never arisen.

Most of us have good memories of teachers who were (a) tyrants and (b) great teachers. Conflating their justified confidence that they knew how to teach something with a belief that this entitled them to force it down their pupils' throats (the key Bad Idea here) they duly did so. But, we have happy memories of this because to us what counted most was the good teaching, rather than the tyranny, which was irksome but (given the alternatives which probably involved just as much tyranny but less in the way of good teaching) bearable.

Yet good teaching and learning on the one hand, and compulsory teaching and learning on the other hand, are two absolutely different and distinct things. Good teaching may involve orders and obedience and abuse and prodding and poking and generally bossing the pupil around, but it absolutely doesn't have to involve the pupil having no right to switch this process off.

Some of the best teaching I've ever done has started with me saying: "Look, you can stop this at any moment, without explanation. Literally, whenever you want out, you can get out. No problem. But while you stay, you have to at least try to do what I say, or I'll get frustrated and I'll want to stop. Okay? Deal? Yes? Off we go then." And then followed a burst of high pressure teaching that to the naked eye would have been indistinguishable from tyranny. But it was not tyranny. Consent ruled throughout. The right to leave makes all the difference to the pupil's experience, to the pupil's attitude, to pupil morale. It means that despite all appearances to the contrary, the pupil stays in control. (A similar principle is embodied in the idea of an assembly line worker having next to him at all times a button which he can personally push to stop dead the entire assembly line.)

Boys in particular often love this sort of bare knuckle learning ordeal, which at the time is scary, but which afterwards they can feel genuinely proud of having lived through and learned from.

And one of the absolute worst ways to separate teaching from tyranny is to remove all orders, criticism, holding to a standard, attention demanding, prodding or poking, mental or physical, EXCEPT the tyranny of forbidding the victims of this vacuous anarchy from getting the hell out of there. Boys, in particular, will despise such "teaching", and if you attempt it on a gang of them, they will give you the exact punishment you deserve. They will make your life a living hell. That is a one-paragraph summary of all that is wrong with state education in Britain today, and I'll bet also in a hell of a lot of other countries.

I know what you're thinking. How do you persuade children to learn something like reading and writing if they don't want to. The answer is right there in the question. You persuade them. (I call it "selling the culture".) You tell them why you really, really think they ought to learn to read and write, why you are so, so pleased you learned to read and write as early as you did, and then hope that they agree with you. And then you, or someone, teaches them. If they don't agree with you, increase your advertising budget. Spend more time on the persuading. (And before anyone says the opposite, advertising and compulsion are also absolutely different things.)

If you can't think of any good reason why kids should bother with reading and writing and are just taking it on trust from your social superiors, and "selling" reading and writing to your kids on a because-I-say-so basis, then there's your problem right there. You don't actually see the point of it yourself. So why be surprised if your kids don't either? That's the message you've sold them, very persuasively.

So anyway, my question to Joanne is: were you objecting to the compulsion? – in which case I'm with you. Or to the phonics? – in which case I think you are turning your back on some very good stuff, the best stuff on the teaching of literacy that I personally know about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
Category: Boys will be boysBrian's brilliant teaching careerHow to teachLiteracy
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Black parents taking charge

There have been a big debates for years about the rights and wrongs of education for black people, especially black boys, and not just (e.g.) here (to name the nearest spot of the blogosphere to me thus exercised lately). Is it racist? Do teachers expect too little? In general: who's damn fault is it?

But if you are a black parent, what do you do? Not surprisingly, a lot of black parents are now moving to home schooling. Although the "home" bit is not quite the central point. The central point is, they're doing it themselves..) And because home schooling is a much bigger thing in the USA than it is here, yet, black home schooling is becoming very big there.

Venus and Serena Williams are perhaps the most famous among those who call home their alma mater. The tennis stars were educated at home after their father withdrew the pair from middle school to teach them himself.

The Williams family has become a visible part of a phenomenon that can be seen across the nation – an increase in the number of black families who are choosing to homeschool.

Homeschooling has come a long way since it first came on the scene more than 30 years ago. In fact, homeschooling has become a viable education option for families across the country and has seen a 4,000 percent increase in 20 years.

The fastest growing demographic of homeschoolers is the number of families, where black children are five times more likely to be homeschooled than they were five years ago.

“There’s really a shift in the African-American community,” said Jennifer James, a homeschooling mother in Chapel Hill, N.C., who founded the National African American Homeschoolers Alliance in January. "Parents are taking hold of their child’s education. They’re saying 'I’ve got to do it because nobody else is going to do it.'"

Link added. Thanks to the Libertarian Alliance Forum for the news.

As I say, the real story here is surely black do-it-yourself education rather than merely black home education. Black-managed independent schools are surely part of the same trend, as is the increasingly vocal preference among US blacks for education vouchers, in defiance of Democratic Party orthodoxy. One way or another, the parents are taking back control of their children's education from the wider culture, which has been failing them both so badly, for so long.

Let's home that in a couple of decades time the question will be at least, and at last, moving towards: Who should get the credit for black education in the USA? - and that similar trends will make themselves felt more strongly in the UK.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: Free market reformsHome educationParents and children
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September 01, 2003
Order versus anarchy in education - and the nastiness of sports jocks

This piece by Arnold Kling, which basically says that the longer you spend in the real world the less of a socialist you get to be, while if you spend your whole time mired in the unreal world of education you are liable to remain a socialist all your life, reminded me of an earlier essay by Robert Nozick, which I believe deserves to be remembered for a very long time. I'm referring to his Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?

Kling's piece is about what changes. Nozick's is about what doesn't change.

Says Nozick:

The intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large, to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well appreciated. By incorporating standards of reward that are different from the wider society, the schools guarantee that some will experience downward mobility later. Those at the top of the school's hierarchy will feel entitled to a top position, not only in that micro-society but in the wider one, a society whose system they will resent when it fails to treat them according to their self-prescribed wants and entitlements. The school system thereby produces anti-capitalist feeling among intellectuals. Rather, it produces anti-capitalist feeling among verbal intellectuals. Why do the numbersmiths not develop the same attitudes as these wordsmiths? I conjecture that these quantitatively bright children, although they get good grades on the relevant examinations, do not receive the same face-to-face attention and approval from the teachers as do the verbally bright children. It is the verbal skills that bring these personal rewards from the teacher, and apparently it is these rewards that especially shape the sense of entitlement

But I found the next bit, under the heading "Central Planning in the Classroom", especially interesting.

There is a further point to be added. The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the "anarchy and chaos" of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway.

However, for evidence that things can sometimes fail to conform to theory, however enticing, you need only look to this Aug 18th posting by Andrew Ian Dodge, and to the comments that are attached to it. Here the intellectual is a libertarian, and he hates the non-intellectuals – specifically the sports jocks – for being bullies. Here the vital factor is not central planning; it is force. The geek hates the schoolyard, because the schoolyard is the arena of unapologetic force. (In the classroom, the force is apologetic.) And the geek is a libertarian for the same reason. The market may be anarchic, but at least it never beats you up.

As far as sports building character in young adults, all I have to say is: bollocks. It turns young adults into obnoxious bullies who think they are better than everyone else. It also helps to fuel the "it's not cool to show you are smart" attitude that pervades much of secondary education.

I'm now lurching way away from my original point, which was about whether schooling encourages socialism. Nevertheless, this is an interesting comment, about the differences between the USA and the UK, and I include it here anyway:

The British have a much healthier system for all of this. You are much less likely to be messed about with by jocks at British universities or schools than you are in the US. Of course, in the UK, they value intellectual capacity far more than in the US. It is not "uncool" to be intelligent. Jocks are a major blight on the education system in the US, and something needs to be done about it.

I fear this may be somewhat romantic. Besides which, the fact that sport counts for less and less in Britain's schools these days doesn't mean that the people who would have been doing sport necessarily behave any less nastily towards the geek tendency.

But my original point is that although in general the observations of Kling and Nozick may be right, there will always be people who won't fit into the boxes. Andrew Ian Dodge was a geek, but is no socialist. I was a geek, and I'm no socialist either. But what Dodge and I both have in common is that we both indulge in intellectual complaint about that "real world". It isn't socialist complaint, but it is still complaint. And although I can't speak for him on that, although I personally believe in capitalism, I'm pretty damn bad at actually doing it.

(And to complicate things still further, unlike Dodge, I like love to watch sport, even though, like him, I'm no good at it.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
Category: Peer pressure
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